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Robert Dick At ABC No Rio
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Matthew Paris

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Post Thu Jan 29, 2004 2:54 pm - Robert Dick At ABC No Rio
On November 16th I attended a concert of Robert Dick, possibly the most intriguing flautist in the world presently. Afterwards I played with him as a guitarist and pianist. It is one of the option one has an ABC No Rio to join with the feature soloists in improvisational jams; it one of the reasons why I have been dropping into this Lower East Side musical spa in my neighborhood nearly every week for about two years.
ABC No Rio is legendary for a number of reason as an ad hoc sonic collegium for serious musicians, poets and visual artists. It is easily the most funky and beat up looking sitae on the Lower East Side; it always has been for the past three decades of its existence. The heat rarely or never works; creative people go there in their coats in the winter. Thereís no ventilation either; one sweats in the summer as uncomfortably a one had been in the cold weather.
At one point a rat crossed the performing area every week I went there. Nobody knew exactly what note or word had provoked this rodent with selective musical standards to scurry across the floor or how if one wanted to one could bring him or her back again. Not to be outdone by the rest of the place, even the chairs are notable uncomfortable. I tore my pants on one.
Another chair had a jagged plastic extrusion that tilted my body vertiginously when I sat in it once. Itís almost laughable how discomforting it is to get to ABC NO Rio, not really near the subway; to listen to anybody there or to perform there. It is not for the lovers of ease to a point where it stands outside and bypasses all standards of what is acceptable in a hall for creative people to get together.
ABC No Rio has always had an anarchist tinge. I think the place has been run by anarchistic for nearly a quarter of a century when the Lower Est Side didnít stretch anywhere south of Houston Street. One commonly if one performs there seems a changing parade of visual arts on the walls of some kind of social protest. On the night Robert Dick played there one could see a display of handkerchief and envelope drawings and paintings of American prisoners.
Robert Dick is in his early 50s I would guess, has thick curly brown hair ,a very magisterial quality though he has no airs, a severe yet animated approach to making music, a ruddy face and very intense dark eyes beneath rich and shaggy eyebrows. I think he has a kind of dignity that produces an ambivalence within him about his talent and calling.
He is at once one who lives to emote totally as if he were a flayed naked dancer on a music hall stage and one who organizes sound in complex intellectual patterns as if he were an adept mathematician. It gives him at times, brilliant and clever as he is a strain of perplexity and confusing crossing in his countenance. He has gone as far as one can go in New Music.
He teaches, has private pupils ,goes gigs, is a constantly working musician. Itís not a field in which one can make big money, hardly an arena either where one can directly make a living by performing; one can be both world famous and broke in this world. One can think at times of doing weddings and bar mitsvahs and working in tope forty or retro cover bands to pay the bills as well.
Social Security has turned out to be a life or death wager between unself and the government that at its best nurtures the old and not notably affluent whose good qualities or lack of them are irrelevant to the Job-like bet with Washington; it also makes life a little easier for more mature American Artists.
Dickís music is totally improvisational; he makes up his pieces from scratch, so to speak, with his different flutes and skills at crating polyphony on monophonic instruments. He is thus not only an instrumentalist but a composer. I said to him afterwards: ĎYou sound as if thereís no hedge between yourself and the audience; one hardly notices that you play an instrument.Ď He answered: ĒThatís the way it ought to be.Ē he has very strong ideas about how things should be done.
When I played the piano with him afterwards in an improvisational piece he had Blaise Siwula, the producer and theoretician of the ABC No Rio series turn the piano around so I could have optimal visual clues of everyone. It has stayed that way in subsequent sessions at ABC No Rio ever since.
I was grateful he had said that; Iím the only one at ABC NO Rio who has wanted that kind of visual aid but Iíve never pushed it. If one is improvising in an ensemble, one needs all the cues of what other are doing one can get.
Especially when one is playing in ensemble even with scores and written notes in front of everybody it really helps to see by how somebody breathes into an instrument or with what emotion others wields a bow when they are going to come in. Otherwise one has to guess and hope. The more guessing, the less ensemble logic.
Dick plays in a variety of styles on many kinds of flutes. He has a regular flute, a large y-curved bass flute, a slide flute that has a mouthpiece allowing him to use the wind technique like a trombone. Besides that he gets two notes or more simultaneously through circular breathing and sometimes sounds like a couple of 70s synthesizers at once, combining strange sounds he gets from his instrument with simultaneous vocalizations. One never gets the impression of a bare of brilliant ingenuity in his options; they are all in the service of an impeccable expressivity.
Most impressive beyond this virtuosity and bending engines of sound to an utterly idiomatic language is his musicality. One doesn't hear too often such talent for making music nor the kind of detailed focus he puts into how to render his just born compositions. Nobody sounds like him because he has technical abilities nobody else has; thatís not as spectacular as the intense linear logic of his compositional fantasies.
Dick looked very tired as a Gypsy medium might at the end of his concert as one might expect when one is not milroy playing but composing everything n front of an audience of not ordinary people but musicians of the skilled kind of that frequent ABC No Rio.
An artist like this can't play too much or he will have some kind of a breakdown. Iíve always felt that any kind of performer shouldnít work anymore than three or four times a week, probably less if possible. At this level of ectoplasmic execution, where competence is never enough and even a reliable excellence is slightly boring, one needs time doing nothing to recover from the prior expense of afflatus if one is going to be any good at all on stage.
Given the way performers who are working continually are pushed they have to fake and cheat like those uncanny Gypsies to give the audience what they want when they donít have to it give; They have to seem predictably and identifiably inspired at a perpetual party when they are really fatigued and empty. Thatís why some musicians drink and others push at their talent with drugs. Besides that the tedious and alienating hotel and travel routines when one is on tour donít make one feel very inspired. Each of Dickís five pieces in this concert was different; one suspects if he had played twice as much we would have heard ten different styles of approaching music. Some of his melodies were straightforward and sounded not unlike luscious tunes by Debussy or steely ones by Varese. He had in other idioms a very soulful conventional sound. Other works had growling sounds like running water or static from a radio on no particular station. I gauss some people provide their own static.
A third resembled the kinds of synthesized timbres one get from tape machines during the 50s through the 70s. At the time this music, mostly by Milton Babbitt, Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachefsky at the Columbia-Princeton Laboratories was promoted as the next step in expanding the range of musical language after the meditations of Busoni on microtones. After they became affordable and in private use in the late 70s they were used as coloristic devices somewhat like classical tools of percussion.
In this performance Dick imitated them on the flute and voice, all punctuated with the now classical New Music use of pressing keys without blowing into wind instruments, producing a turned drum-like effect. It was pretty sensational even if one had heard some of the devices before; Dick made them all impeccably musical. There was nothing merely ingenious about his performance even for a moment. One felt one was in touch with some inner part of him.
Dick is evidently a great mimic of pure sound as well as a great flautist. His standards for himself are very high as they must be given what he has set out to do; they are as elevated for others. If he doesnít like what is going on in an improvised ensemble and doesnít feel the music is going anywhere he wonít play. Heís very civil about it.
Since improvised on ensemble music is by its nature almost always what we call in fantasy form, that is a subjective shift of integral cloud formations drifting from idea to idea with no clear structure, what one regards as going somewhere is even in a different context and judged with a standard more casual than if one were composing or hearing a fugue.
In fact playing a fugue or a variations on a theme is a way of giving an external design to fantasy; the musical choices note to note are fewer. Dickís own musical language is impeccable and quintessentially personal; I suspect it might be more of a stretch for him to play extempore with others.
Like most musicians who play what are normally single melody instruments he thinks first about linear melody as a formal vessel, not harmony.. Music in the mind of such musicians moves forward very centrally to the propulsion and extension of ideas into the future. It isnít and canít be about how one can garland a exalted line or even material with changing vertical supports; thatís not the genius of wind instruments. Dick never seems at a loss for a melodic idea.
Even the trombone-like swoops of his slide flute give him a kind of personal way of ascending into a melodic phrase. Everything he does that would normally be sensational all by itself in another musicians is subsumed to his expression of his spirit.
Going to a concert like this one really escapes the idea completely of music as museum art. Creation itself is occurring before one. One hears almost nothing else but primal genesis. Most of the composers one hears at a classical concert are either dead or write as if they are nowhere on Earth but some refuge on an asteroid.
Some offerings called jazz are even more circumscribed in its animate quality than classical music these days. At last jazz can be said to have a living realm that foaled its models in the New World. If Al Capone didnít like what he heard on the bandstand he was not one partial to accepting less than his standard of the best in musical amusement in silence.
Though some jazz musicians from the 50s and 60s have lived into their old age and are still playing there hasnít been any new jazz ideas redefining its nature, since about 1774 and the last days of Fusion. Iím sure Dick falls back on old materials and isnít always playing what he had never played before. Yet in a retro and eclectic world he really donít sound like anybody else.
Every improvisor does a certain amount of cheating to cover the erratic quality of anybodyís inspiration except a very few musicians who like Haydn or Charley Parker who even while playing cards or sleeping allay seemed to have the juice. This sort of playing brings one back to the primal roots of music: a momentary effusion in the middle of a great abyss on all sides of one in a great sea of ether someplace in infinity.
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