Last night at Old First Church the Mobius Trio of guitarists Robert Nance, Mason Fish, and Matthew Holmes-Linder made a return to the Old First Concerts recital series. They decided to begin each half of their program with what they called an “Improvisation Game.” Both of these pieces involved some relatively simple set of rules, expressed strictly in the English language, which governed how a piece would start, continue, and conclude.
To encourage a bit of audience participation, they took two approaches to letting the audience know about these rules. For the very opening selection of the evening, the rules were not revealed until the performance concluded. In contrast the “Improvisation Game” performed immediately after the intermission was preceded by an explanation of the rules. From a listener’s point of view, it turned out that this did not make very much difference. The experience of listening to a group improvisation tends to be much more about following the give and take among the improvisers. This is very much in the spirit of the sorts of exchanges one might encounter in a string quartet by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; but the flesh, so to speak, is entirely different.
Thus, what mattered most in the two “Improvisation Game” pieces was the chemistry among the three performers that provided an infrastructure for those exchanges. One might almost say that what was being exchanged was more important than how exchange took place (i.e. the “rules of exchange”). In that respect the “what” involved many familiar guitar tropes, many (most?) of which were probably products of the education at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) that all three performers shared. Within the relatively brief scope of each of the “Improvisation Game” pieces, the attentive listener could pick up on those tropes as the “media of exchange;” and the resulting improvisations emerged as an engaging way to pass the time.
The remainder of the compositions on the program tended also to work in relatively short scales of duration. The audience was reminded, through remarks from the stage, that all of these pieces were written in response to requests from Mobius. In one case the composer was actually Nance writing something for the whole group. “Plexus” was inspired by a screen saver based on a colored worm-like object that could “weave” a variety of complex patterns. The result was a fascinatingly thick web of counterpoint through which different threads would come and go through the balancing of the three members of the trio.
A similar approach to the interplay of figure and ground could be found in Belinda Reynolds’ “Edges.” Mobius gave the world premiere of this piece in February of 2014 at the Center for New Music, and since then it has become a firmly established selection in their repertoire. In this case the ground is provided by interleaving arpeggio patterns, while the “figures” amount to “voices” that emerge from the ground, often constructed through hocket effects that cross the individual instruments. This is one of the more abstract pieces that Mobius performs regularly, but it is one that holds up well to repeated listening experiences.
An even earlier work on the program was Anthony Porter’s “needle-play,” composed in 2010 when Mobius Trio was first forming. This amounts to a tone poem describing the composer’s experience of an acupuncture treatment. The description is abetted by witty titles for each of the piece’s six brief sections. (The most fascinating of these is probably “Waking up Next to Ben Franklin.”) Whether or not one can actually follow the program, however, seems less significant than Porter’s capacity to establish a few different “senses of place” through his approach to guitar scoring.
Last night’s program also included a personal favorite, an arrangement, rather than a composition, that was written for Mobius. This was Winton White’s reworking of the second movement of Maurice Ravel’s only string quartet. Mobius now knows this piece so well that they played it from memory last night. In many respects the arrangement makes considerable sense, since the outer sections of the movement were scored heavily for pizzicato strings. Thus, in many respects, the spirit of the music thrives just as well among three guitars as it does in the string quartet; and that spirit, which is not quite jazzy but definitely not rigidly formal, fits the Mobius style like a well-tailored glove.
The evening concluded with Sérgio Assad’s “Kindergarten.” Assad taught all three of the Mobius guitarists at SFCM. As might be guessed, not all teacher-student exchanges went smoothly. “Kindergarten” is basically a satirical examination of what happens when the teacher-student relationship has a bad day; and Mobius performs it with just the right level of self-mockery combined with a bit of awkward embarrassment.