A Look Through the Keyhole at John Shiurba’s 5 X 5

Author: Phillip Greenlief
Description: A Look Through the Keyhole at John Shiurba’s 5 X 5

One of John Shiurba’s recent releases, 5 X 5 (5 ex 5, not 5 by 5), presents music with stark contrasts – music that is composed and music that is improvised.

The co-existence of these two styles in the same sound environment is not a new practice. Theme and variation have played out over the long course of western music since the Renaissance. More recently, jazz musicians used melodies or tunes that serve as a springboard for improvisation along with chord progressions the improviser must follow to assure that spontaneity exists within predetermined form. This musical practice is not only found in jazz, but also in the blues, rock, and other folk forms.

In post-bop improvising (free jazz), Ornette Coleman gave permission to improvise with only the melody dancing in your head as a guide. More recently, composers have combined these elements and stirred in a variety of compositional forms where an array of notation practices and improvisational games can exist side by side or within the framework of a large-scale work (i.e., works by Braxton and others from the AACM community and beyond).

Shiurba’s practice on 5 X 5, however, is to present composed material but not to allow it to inform the improvised sections of the work. Shiurba noted in conversation that this idea was contrary to jazz. I should mention that it is contrary to most forms of western music where theme and variation is present. Is this idea a new one? How, if at all, does the composed music influence the improvised music? If it’s not there to influence the improvisation, what is its purpose?

I like to have questions that accompany a listening experience, so I started with, why present material and not develop it? It’s an interesting exercise, but the music on 5 X 5 rings as anything but music for the sake of exercise. The quintet features guitarist/composer/conductor Shiurba, clarinetist Matt Ingalls, Dan Plonsey on reeds and violin, bassist Matthew Sperry (to whom the music on this disc is dedicated), and Gino Robair on percussion; a small legion of improvisers well equipped to explore the sound potential of their instruments without predetermined material or strategies.

An image came to me while I was listening to 5 X 5 that helped to conceptualize the work. I visualized construction sites in those old silent movies (ala Buster Keaton), with pedestrians lined along fences looking through empty knotholes to witness the construction of a skyscraper. In the 5 X 5 music, it’s as if the ensemble is walking through a deconstruction zone of improvised music (where the players tangle with melody, rhythm, harmony, phrasing, or to develop language elements of their instrument), stopping occasionally to peer through the keyhole at construction sites (where bursts of composed activity occur). The composer may have used written material to hold it up against improvisation in order to achieve stark sound shifts.

During the performance of 5 X 5, Shiurba cued the written material at his discretion. It sounds as if the performance was created as a whole, and track numbers were later assigned to notate composed entries.

I asked if there were other instructions for the musicians besides, “improvise until I cue the next composed element”. Shiurba revealed that there were no other specific directions on how the improvisations would unfold. In contrast, Robair mentioned that some improvised sections were assigned to specific players, and that player would lead the improvisation – other musicians in the group would support that person’s improvised journey. Sometimes, he went on, the section had no instructions at all (no specified leader), and that to his mind, it seems hard today to tell which sections had instructions and which sections did not.

If you’re counting, the CD has six tracks, (not five). The first track serves as an improvised introduction to the first composed entry. Most of the composed parts reveal simple melodies – (in contrast to other composed works by Shiurba). The composed bits have an almost goofy quality – a bit of humor is present in them – on one occasion serenity finds its way to the writing. Some improvisations are driven by sound exploration, some have melodic clarity and thematic development consistent only with localized passages. The improvised music is often more dense than the clear motives that occur in composed sections.

Overall, the composition and the intuitive composing by the musicians in the spontaneous sections cover a vast range of expression, and yet there is a thematic unity that holds throughout. Both composer and musician have shaped this overall unity – the members of the group have a significant shared history that adds a depth to the music that could have otherwise gone unstated.