Dusted Reviews

Lightbox Orchestra - First Contact!

today features
reviews charts
labels writers
info donate

Search by Artist

Sign up here to receive weekly updates from Dusted

email address

Recent Reviews

Dusted Reviews

Artist: Lightbox Orchestra

Album: First Contact!

Label: Locust

Review date: Nov. 14, 2002

Lonberg-Holm Leads Conduction Experiments

First Contact! consists of live recordings of four pieces by four large Chicago ensembles who all arrive at the gig with no knowledge of what they're going to play. These groups are all led by Fred Lonberg-Holm, who tells players when to start and stop by flipping switches in a lightbox. Lonberg-Holm also directs his ensembles by holding up cue cards that prescribe one of a variety of possible approaches, such as, for example, whether a musician should play quietly or loudly.

Despite the Lightbox Orchestra's amazing roster of talent (at various points, the Orchestra includes pioneering avant-garde saxophonist Guillermo Gregorio, Vandermark 5 trombonist Jeb Bishop and free jazz percussionist Michael Zerang, as well as to Lonberg-Holm himself), First Contact falls flat, and the main reason why stems from Lonberg-Holm's approach.

All four pieces here are, to a large degree, improvised: Lonberg-Holm might give vague cue card instructions to the players, but the players still have a large amount of control over what pitches and rhythms they play. Still, no individual musician has much control over where their playing actually goes, since, at any point, Lonberg-Holm might tell her to stop, or give her a cue that forces her playing down a path drastically different from the one she thought she was taking. Some listeners might enjoy the unpredictability of the results, but to my ears they seem tentative: the musicians sound like they want to step out, to make a bold statement, but they don't because they know they can be cut off at any time. And when a musician does make a bold statement, Lonberg-Holm tends to turn away from it rather than letting it develop. For example, twelve minutes into "#4 (Bottle)," Julie Pommerleau plays a lovely, flowing, richly embellished violin line. But less than a minute later, Lonberg-Holm (presumably) cues several musicians to play choppy, accented phrases, and - poof! - it's like Pommerleau's slow, elegant lyricism never happened. The rest of First Contact suffers from the same sort of schizophrenia: it's as if a piece can't end until Lonberg-Holm has used every single cue card. And, unfortunately, the album isn't schizophrenic enough to work as a John Zorn-esque wild mood swing experiment.

The type of conducting Lonberg-Holm attempts here, in which the conductor controls the larger musical gestures in real time, while the players control the smaller gestures in real time, is very difficult to pull off. It requires a conductor who's able to be extremely sensitive to small changes in the musicians' playing, or one who's willing to ignore them completely in order to jump rapidly and dramatically from mood to mood. Unfortunately, Lonberg-Holm falls between the two categories. The album does have its share of inspired moments: for example, Gregorio and fellow saxophonist Michael Colligan sound great when Lonberg-Holm gives them room to move, and the first several minutes of "#4 (Bottle)" are delicate and well-timed. But often, First Contact! is only an awkward experiment.

By Charlie Wilmoth

Read More

View all articles by Charlie Wilmoth

Find out more about Locust

©2002-2011 Dusted Magazine. All Rights Reserved.