Paul Cutlan String Project

Blue Mountains Theatre, November 25


smiling with soprano sax
Paul Cutlan. Photo supplied.

Too often in music where improvisation plays a central role a string section is merely used perfunctorily, providing sweetening, padding or wallpaper. Paul Cutlan’s writing for string quartet is infinitely more sophisticated. In place of either blandness or shock-tactics it pursues the nuanced development of each idea amid vivid harmonic colours, with a keen instinct for transparency, so the individual sounds never cancel each other out. His scores are as catalysing for a soloist as an effervescent rhythm section, and he builds the strings into the actual improvising, rather than leaving them as a soft rock around which the creativity eddies.

The latter, of course, depends of having improvising string players, and here was blessed with the core of his quartet being the NOISE: Veronique Serret and Liisa Pallandi (violins), guest violist Inge Courtney-Haentjes and cellist Oliver Miller, plus bassist Holly Downes.

The centrepiece was Cutlan’s Across the Top Suite in three parts preceded by the stately charm and obscure familiarity of Times Past, which was akin to experiencing a dream set in the eighteenth century. The suite began with Cutlan’s bass clarinet conjuring the night sounds of the desert, and the second movement saw the group joined by Peter Kennard on frame drum as a series of two-way dialogues unfolded. Downes, a last-minute stand-in doing an exceptional job, began the final part with a solo of Indian-flavoured bowed glissandi, and later the two violins entwined like two lovers’ limbs.

Cutlan’s bass clarinet and Gary Daley’s piano duetted on Charlie Haden’s First Song, their rapport having moments of flaring convergence, and the piece showcasing the richness of Cutlan’s tone across the instrument’s range, it never becoming thin at the top or muddy at the bottom. He provided ingenious string arrangements for Jann Rutherford’s Thanks for the Expresso, Daley’s In the Middle of the Moment and John Coltrane’s After the Rain, the latter’s theme recast in candlelight when passed from bass clarinet to cello.