Late into the last of three fascinating, untitled improvisations last night at Mecca, a distant crackle surfaced in the music of the Norwegian/Chicago quartet VC/DC. One hesitated to call it a glitch in the sound mix, as there was no sound mix. But given that two of the four group members used modest amplification, it was easy to chalk up the meager disturbance to an unsettled monitor and speaker. But, no, the crackle was one of the very purposeful vocal accents utilized by Stine Janvin Motland, a stylist who carried enough cunning and creative phrasing to blend in expertly with such improvisational greats as clarinetist Frode Gjerstad and cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm (VC/DC’s lone American).
Throughout an all-too-brief 45 minute set (the latest installment in the Outside the Spotlight Series), Motland used myriad vocal sounds to match the music’s spontaneous creation and execution. Quite often, what came out of her mouth didn’t approximate a human voice at all. Sometimes it sounded like Morse code. Sometimes it sounded like a gust of wind. And there several instances where the tone of Motland’s voice, whether intentionally or not, mimicked Lonberg-Holm’s electronically enhanced cello lines so closely that it was tough to tell what sound was emanating from which player.
I have to admit to approaching this program with some trepidation. I found Motland’s decidedly abstract vocal work to be intrusive on VC/DC’s 2011 debut album. Based on that recording, it was easy to think she was going to go totally Yoko Ono on the music at Mecca. But a strong group sound has developed since that first record. You heard it somewhat on the band’s sophomore album Insult. It was far more in evidence last night.
What was immediately striking was that no one soloed throughout the set. There were several passages where players would drop out, but never was one artist left to go it alone. It was also clear that Gjerstad – whose preference for fiercely intense playing but leisurely paced ensemble excursions, a combination also adopted by VC/DC – was the band’s guiding force.
Sometimes there would enough symmetry for a groove, especially within the snare percussion offered late in the set by drummer Stale Liavik Solberg. In other instances, Gjerstad would slice through the solace of the more contemplative passages with blasts on bass clarinet that could shatter glass. And, as with the best OTS shows, silence became a welcome ally, creating codas that lasted only a beat or two but operated like punctuation at the end of an oratory. It was a device, equally spontaneous in nature, that made the music preceding it sound all the more astounding.