REVIEW: Creative Arts Orchestra

Creative Arts Orchestra is an experimental modern music group at the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theater, and Dance, directed by Marcus Elliot. It’s specific to the jazz department, but there are a range of participating players among the music school’s student body. This is one of the most unique ensembles at the University, emphasizing improvisation and feel over Western structure and harmony of music. They often invite interaction with other performance fields such as dance, theatre, and music technology.

The ensemble features 9 students, with a few of the players doubling on 2 or 3 instruments. The orchestra includes double bass, flute, clarinet, tenor sax, baritone sax, alto sax, and trumpet. At least 3-4 saxes were playing at a time due to the instrumentation, so the sound came off particularly bright. The double bass carried the darker, grounding sound in the music and was necessary texture-wise. The group has a truly unique way of blending, demonstrating the high level of musicianship present. 

As for the performance, the music sounded atonal and arhythmic. There wasn’t a specifically defined structure of what notes to play, but each piece was still quite different. Marcus Elliot, the conductor, chose certain moments to cue everyone in for a tutti line or harmony, but he was not overly controlling of the ensemble. I did not get to see what the player’s scores looked like but I assume they are somewhat free with little actual notation based on how the music sounded. 

I noticed if I tuned out of the moment, this ensemble sounded like noise. It reminded me how humans cling to structure in every aspect of life, including something as ambiguous as music. We anticipate “A” sections and a bridge that leads us back into a repeated “A” section, along with harmonies that are comfortable to our ears. This ensemble takes a hard right turn on that construct and plays into the emotion of a moment while creating an atmosphere for the listener with the various timbres of instruments. I respected the hyper-focused nature of the ensemble regarding this. They prioritized settling into the moment of the music and the group’s sound. 

The set featured compositions by members of the ensemble including Noah Pujol, MM Clarinet 23’, Houston Patton BFA, Jazz 23’, and Marlena Boedigheimer, MM Jazz 24’. Often their selections started with a theme and transitioned seamlessly into group improvisation. It felt like a portrait of a moment and the instrumentation that was present within the sound. 

Half-way through the concert, they featured Canadian pianist, Kris Davis. She is a Vancouver-born jazz-pianist and composer with a variety of discography available. I appreciated how much the sound was expanded once a pianist entered into the space. I enjoyed the complexity added to the music by Davis. There are more options with the instrument which allows for lower notes to be added into the music.

There’s a certain meditativeness to the music, and a smaller audience reinforces the intimate experience of the concert.  This ensemble is something to be perceived in real time, to properly absorb the spur-of-the-moment cultivation of the atmosphere. Most of all, this was an experience of collective sound along with talented musicians presently existing alongside one another. If you are interested in experiencing this, the next Creative Arts Orchestra will be on March 14th, at 8 pm in Hankinson Rehearsal Hall in the Moore building on North Campus. They will be playing with SMTD alum Mat Endahl! 




Image by Caitlyn Bogart.

Review: The Ulysses Project

Kirsten Carey, free jazz guitarist and composer studying at the Michigan School of Music, has been in the throes of writing, recording, and releasing The Ulysses Project for two years, while most of us pea-brained undergrads hardly have the attention span to finish a semester long course. Samuel Beckett 101? No, really, no, no thank you. Saturday night, behind the charming façade of the Victorian Kerrytown Concert House, Kirsten’s album release for this scandalizing musical suite began to unravel the modernist masterpiece, Ulysses, casting it in a new, yet equally visceral light. She gave James Joyce’s characters the opportunity to croon about their sad, awkward, and mostly hilarious grappling with life in the underbelly of Dublin, and us an exercise in commiseration, empathy, and laughing at the expense of others.

It was a concert meets theater piece meets story-time hybrid whose effect was intense, vulnerable, and intimate to an extent that, if we were less human, could have been uncomfortable. So many moments of the performance evoked the embarrassing aunt in every family who is never afraid to blubber about her dirty laundry over the Christmas ham– the very reason you love her more than everyone else. In the stream and scream of consciousness tone of James Joyce, Kirsten and her costumed band [featuring Ben Willis (bass), Jonathan Taylor (drums), Derek Worthington (trumpet), Pat Booth (saxophone)] and minimalist theatrical troop of two, [Corey Smith (narration), and Glenn Healy] took you on a manic journey of eerie beauty and melody (oh yeah, shout out to Dedalus), toe-tappin and shoulder twitching jams (wooo baby, Musksweat, an earworm waiting to wiggle its way into your canal), and unbridled fits of god knows what (alright, Beware of Gerryowen, this one’s for you, you attention craving chorus of the insane asylum.)

Let me digress for a minute. Eric Schweizer’s guest appearance solo on baritone sax in Gerryowen startled me, and my ears are conditioned by the likes of John Zorn and Gogol Bordello. This tune should have come with a warning for people over the age of sixty and under the age of four who are not fully in control of their… facilities. The first note of his solo was deafening with all the timbral qualities of the loudest foghorn you have ever heard. It was like tectonic plates shifting, or the creaking of the Titanic as its sinking, or, with all respect to Joyce at his own tribute party, Melville’s Moby Dick pissed as hell as he is harpooned for the last time. Though Gerryowen was unique in the likelihood of it catalyzing PTSD, intense moments like these were omnipresent.

From Corey’s kooky and desperate, tentatively romantic and frantically erotic, (in all the wrong ways,) reading of a love letter to “Mr. Flower” which sent the audience into rolling fits of giggles, to Kirsten’s mesmerizing singing in “O” that closed the suite, it was an enchanting balls to the wall performance throughout. Kirsten’s voice is beautiful, and has all the inflections of a homespun lullaby and raw straining emotion that pulls at the heart strings in the unairbrushed ways that a bel canto style cannot. I think my takeaway from this memorable show (I will admit to tearing up at the end of “O”, excuse my lack of professionalism) can best be summed up by a rogue audience member who, after the applause, offered from the back of the room “you know, you really know how to make people feel things.” Kirsten, I hope you read this someday and let these words hug you, because well, I want to thank you for bringing The Ulysses Project into the world, and my iTunes library.

If you are a Joyce nut that happens to also be a free jazz connoisseur, or like great music (and people almost always fall into one of the two categories) I must recommend you checking out her website and investing an album ($10) for yourself.