From a certain perspective, “studio improvisation” is an oxymoron on par with “jumbo shrimp”–since improvising is about registering an instantaneous and irrevocable response to the unforeseen and the studio allows sonic explorers to return to material, reconsider it, multitrack themselves, remix, and otherwise revel in second thoughts. But Jeff Abell and Barbara Steg, who call their new CD, Natural Acts, a collection of studio improvisations, clearly treat the studio (specifically Chicago’s unique Experimental Sound Studio, where they collaborated intermittently over the course of a year) as an instrument in free play, a place in which to blur the lines between freewheeling and reworking. Though Abell studied ethnomusicology and composition (he met Steg through her late husband, who was one of his composition teachers), he’s best known as a performance artist, and indeed the disc has conceptual and comedic overtones that link it to that milieu. “Sea Saw,” for instance, mixes sounds of the Indian Ocean with a singing saw, while “What’s the Rush?” features a text about time (and lack thereof) read by Abell over a polymetrical bed of ticking watches and metronomes and “Requiem for the Rainforest” builds a faux exotic soundscape out of birdcalls and noisemakers. Even the non-Western influences are treated with humor rather than romance: the forced pun of “Didja Re-Do It?” alludes to the track’s ersatz aboriginal music, played on a PVC-tube didgeridoo, and “Gambuh,” played on vacuum-cleaner tubes, refers to Balinese dance. All of which is amply interesting–but of course, the improvisational road test will be how Steg and Abell turn these concoctions into live performances, which they’ll attempt at this CD-release event. Next Sunday, January 4, 3 PM, Link’s Hall, 3435 N. Sheffield; 773-348-8014. JOHN CORBETT

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Jeanette May.