Fred Lonberg-Holm’s Lightbox Orchestra

at the Note, November 30

By Peter Margasak

In classical music the roles are pretty clearly defined: the composer writes the music and the musicians perform it as accurately as possible. Even the conductor’s art lies in tweaking, not twisting, the composer’s intent. Still, there’s a place for improvisation, albeit a rigidly prescribed one: the cadenza, a flourish inserted into the final cadence of an aria or solo instrumental movement, is supposed to be invented on the spot by the performer. Yet since the early 1800s many composers have been unable to resist the temptation to write out even the cadenzas, and to this day their scripts are either followed to the letter or replaced with those written by other composers.

Classical musicians who enjoy some leeway nowadays can probably thank John Cage for it. While some of Cage’s long, feather-ruffling career was devoted to making sure his work was reproduced with no variance whatsoever–as in his string quartets–at other times he looked for ways to ensure that a piece would sound different each time it was played. One extreme manifestation of this experiment is his 1952 solo piano piece 4«33ÿFD. In fact, what the musician “plays”–four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence–remains the same from performance to performance. But the pages of the score being turned, the chairs squeaking, the coughing, the breathing, and other ambient sounds are guaranteed never to repeat themselves.

Cage drew on Eastern philosophy in his use of what’s called “indeterminacy”; he believed in embracing chance, and yet more accurately what he was doing was incorporating it into controlled situations. As early as his Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano (1946-’48) he enlisted the performer as participant, asking him to insert various objects into the strings according to instructions that, though specific, required him to make some independent decisions. Cage disciples like Earle Brown and Morton Feldman often used graphic scores that musicians were meant to interpret for themselves. Yet in almost every case the musicians would make their choices prior to actually performing the work.

In the 70s and 80s John Zorn and Lawrence D. “Butch” Morris approached this conundrum from the other side: as free improvisers who wanted to apply structures to the sounds in their heads without committing them to posterity. They sought to apply their broad vocabulary to a compositional end–although Zorn wouldn’t use notated music to do it and Morris would only occasionally.

One of Zorn’s most enduring experiments is his “Cobra” project, a “game piece” that’s been played in New York performance spaces since the late 80s and monthly at the Knitting Factory since 1992. Each time a different organizer brings a dozen of his or her peers to play, and under the guidance of a “prompter”–not necessarily Zorn himself–the musicians use cards, hand signals, and headbands to direct their improvisations. On Cobra Live at the Knitting Factory (Knitting Factory Works), there are performances by an all-vocal ensemble, an all-sampler ensemble, and a guitar-dominated group, among others.

Morris, a gifted, sensitive jazz cornetist, has spent most of the last two decades on a concept he calls “conduction,” in which he acts as conductor, composer, and improviser all rolled into one, standing before a group of musicians and directing them according to a set of 18 codified cues. On the ten CD set Testament: A Conduction Collection (New World), which documents 15 concerts on three continents, he applies the system to Turkish and Japanese folk musicians as well as the usual downtown improvisers.

While both Zorn and Morris have made great leaps in the name of improvisers, their systems don’t always create the optimal environment for improvisation. The rigid rules and built-in theatricality of “Cobra” put the improvisation second to the general circuslike atmosphere. The musicians not only have to heed the mad gesticulations of the prompter but must also relay commands to one another, and while their own flailing, jumping, and pointing is pretty entertaining, it probably doesn’t foster careful listening. Morris’s work has a different problem: his conducting is so specific it tends to overwhelm the improvisational impulses of the individual participants; there’s no exciting ambiguity about who’s in charge.

Chicago-based cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm has connections to both Zorn and Morris. He moved here in 1995 from New York, where he took part in numerous “Cobra” sessions and helped the New World label compile Testament. Earlier this year he began presenting his own take on large-scale conducted improvisation under the name Lightbox Orchestra. I saw three of these performances–including the last one of 1998, at the Note on November 30–and the differences between what he does and what Zorn and Morris do in some ways reflect the nature of improvisation in Chicago, where the pace is more deliberate and the ensembles are more egalitarian. Lonberg-Holm is a talented, pedigreed composer; trained at the Manhattan School of Music, he studied composition formally with Bunita Marcus and informally with Morton Feldman. But he has the work ethic of a midwesterner.

The Lightbox Orchestra is an eight-to-ten-chair revolving-door ensemble that has so far pulled in about 40 local players from all over the creative-music spectrum–free-jazz stalwarts like Ken Vandermark, contemporary classical players like Robbie Hunsinger, experimentalists like Jim O’Rourke, weirdo rockers like Bobby Conn, and out-of-town guests like Axel Dšrner, Jack Wright, and Wilbert de Joode. It takes its name from a contraption Lonberg-Holm designed to cue the musicians, a crude wooden box with a string of colored Christmas lights tacked to the front. The various hues are assigned to particular musicians; when he turns on a color, using a set of standard light switches installed on top of the box, those musicians play in accordance with hand-scrawled cue cards that Lonberg-Holm props up in front of his face.

This system is far less elaborate than Zorn’s, but it allows the musicians to focus more on improvisation and less on rules. Lonberg-Holm uses simple but broad instructions like “softer,” “louder,” “high,” “low,” “pulse,” “ostinato,” and “relentless.” Sometimes he throws in graphic notations, musical Rorschach tests like a set of squiggly lines or a crude sketch of a sinister-looking eyeball; sometimes he issues commands that instruct performers to remember a particular passage so they can reprise it later, or to imitate someone else’s sound. Sometimes he devises new cues in the middle of a performance. By far the most frequent instruction he gives is no instruction at all, merely choosing who should play when and letting that choice in itself stand as a suggestion.

Although the results exhibit compositional logic–shifting colors, building and releasing tension, and establishing patterns as they move along–the basic tenets of free improvisation, including careful listening and interaction and avoidance of cliches, are key to their formation. The experiment works best when strong personalities are present: On November 30 it was fascinating to hear reedists Vandermark, Michael Colligan, and Guillermo Gregorio braiding Braxton-esque postbop lines, piercing snake-charmer trills, and reserved west-coast cool. On November 23, by contrast, a group of less-experienced players performed timidly and went nowhere excruciatingly slow. But that, too, is part of the design–the music is contingent on the chance that a random assemblage of musicians will find common ground. And that prospect, even with minimal visual gimmickry, is exciting enough to warrant sitting through the failed attempts.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos by Nathan Mandell.