Page of Madness: Suite for Improvisers

Sound Lounge, February 11


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Phillip Johnston. Photo: Rachel Knepfer.

If a sense of surprise courses from the heart of much good music, then Phillip Johnston sliced open an artery to flood this work with the stuff. Composition and improvisation have shared a bed since music was born, but often the former has constrained the latter or the latter has rendered the former redundant. The Holy Grail has been to find a way to create contexts and structures within which improvisers may be given their heads, so the piece is completely different with each iteration, yet remains recognisable.

Johnston takes a 50-minute swig from that Grail with Page of Madness: Suite for Improvisers. Originally conceived as the soundtrack for a Teinosuke Kinugasa 1926 silent movie, it has grown into a concert work for 12 improvisers. Johnston plays composer in the conventional sense of strewing enchanting themes through the work, and in the less conventional sense of calling for free improvisations of specified durations and instrument combinations. While playing soprano saxophone he also conducted, controlling dynamics, density, intensity and entry and exit points for individuals.

His sophisticated conception demanded these individuals be exceptional, and Peter Farrar, Sandy Evans and Andrew Robson (saxophones), Jason Noble and Paul Cutlan (clarinets), James Greening and Alex Silver (trombones), Daryl Pratt (vibraphone), Matt McMahon (piano), Lloyd Swanton (bass) and Hamish Stuart (drums) nailed it. It was a rendition that bounced between highlights as happily as a child in a toyshop. Among them were Farrar’s alto saxophone exploding with look-mum-no-hands daring and thrilling improbability, Robson tearing the music’s surface apart with his baritone, McMahon summoning up a churning ocean of sound, and a Swanton solo of understated sorrow that was a good as anything I’ve heard the bassist do in 37 years of hearing him.

Perhaps in moving the work away from its filmic roots Johnston could have massaged some of the “jump-cuts” into transitions, but otherwise this was heroic. The stage for it was set by exquisite duets between Cutlan (bass clarinet) and Gary Daley (piano and accordion).