With Marker, Ken Vandermark Synthesizes Sounds to Manipulate Memory/Memory Man
By Patrick Wall, “Columbia Free Times,” Feb 1, 2018
Ken Vandermark estimates that he’s seen Sans Soleil, the 1982 nonlinear essay film by elusive avant-garde filmmaker Chris Marker eight times. And every time he’s seen it, he says, it’s a different film.
“And that seems almost impossible,” the Chicago-based reedist expresses to Free Times. “The film is fixed. But every time I see it, there’s a section I almost don’t remember occurring. Or maybe it pops out with more weight than it had before. I can’t remember sometimes the sequence of events. I’ll go back and think about the film and I’ll remember, ‘OK, there’s this part that goes like this, and then it goes into this,’ and I’m wrong! I remember it incorrectly, and I’ve seen it eight times. And for him to create a fixed work that remains unfixed in my memory — to the point where I can see the film again and again and it’s new each time — he’s done something genius-level for the things that I’m concerned about and curious about.”
The French director’s influence on Vandermark partially explains the name of his newest ensemble, Marker. (The group’s name, Vandermark says, has no explicit connection to the old Vandermark 5 tune “Second Marker”; in fact, he’d forgotten the song existed.) Comprising Vandermark, guitarists Andrew Clinkman and Steve Marquette, keyboardist and violinist Macie Stewart, and drummer Phil Sudderberg, Marker expands the conventional orchestration for an improvising quintet. Its variegated membership — Vandermark, at 54, is 24 years older than Marquette, the group’s second-oldest member — brings to the ensemble a wealth of reference points. Marker is deeply inspired by free jazz and Bernie Worrell’s keyboard work with Parliament Funkadelic and Talking Heads, but also contemporary classical music, the guitar work of post-punk groups like Wire and The Ex, and groove methodologies from Brazil, Afro-Beat and funk.
“I’m working with people half my age for the first time, and the thing that I responded to — and part of it was their musicality — was their curiosity, primarily, because they’re all in different kinds of projects,” Vandermark says. “They’re in rock groups or new music groups or soul bands. They’re doing all these different kinds of things, and they want to do everything. They don’t see division lines; they see music as a broad way of expression and they pull whatever they want from whatever kind of aesthetic. Which is perfect for Marker, because that’s exactly what that band is driving at — exploring different kinds of music and using improvisation as a tool to make stuff spontaneous and deal with that material.”
At Marker’s core lies the same thing as many of the films of the group’s namesake: the role of memory and how it alters and informs reality. Vandermark, a Macarthur Fellow and one the most prominent international exponents of the Windy City’s legendary avant-jazz and improvisation scene, has long toyed with the idea of memory in music, well before he got acquainted with the director’s work. But in each of his myriad and eclectic ensembles — like his relatively conventional free jazz outfit Vandermark 5 or headier groove-oriented groups like Bridge 61 and Powerhouse Sound or his boundary-pushing electro-acoustic ensembles Made to Break and Shelter — he’s always run up against the same problem in dealing with it: time.
“It’s like gravity in architecture,” Vandermark says. “You can make a building, but you gotta deal with gravity. You can’t ignore that. And that problem is really interesting to me. In most cases, it’s self-evident; people write music, and it goes in chronological time. Most music is like that, and a lot of it’s fantastic. But for some reason, it’s something I’m curious about — what’s possible to do to mess with chronological time and not overcome it, because you can’t, but to disrupt it in ways that confuse the forward motion. And part of that is the use of memory.”
Marker’s goal, Vandermark says, is to superimpose pieces in a fluid way to explore and to challenge listeners’ memory, to bring elements back like an echo or to foreshadow what will happen later in the set. The challenge for the musicians is to keep track of what is being done while playing or improvising.
“For me, improvisation is a problem-solving methodology,” Vandermark says. “And with the Vandermark 5, part of why I stopped working with that group is that I figured out how to write narrative pieces to the point where I wasn’t learning more about it. And I also found that as soon as the band figured out how to get from point A to point B to point C to point D, even though those things were totally open-ended, human nature meant that once we solved that problem, that was the solution every time. That’s just the way people work; you have a problem, you fix it, and then you use that solution.”
Devising the methodology for those solutions, though, took time. It took almost two years for Vandermark to shape Marker: The musicians began working together in September 2016, workshopping a series of compositional experiments until they were able to create a unique method of spontaneous organization, and during the first six months of rehearsal, Vandermark did little more than rewrite the material, threshing wheat from chaff. As he did with Made to Break and Shelter, the saxophonist devised a performance system that employs variable order through collage.
But with Marker, he’s added superimposition to the structuring of material to create another layer of possibility for the organization of the sets. The group’s material is separated into three specific types that can be played individually or in any combination; before each performance, Vandermark devises how each suite is going to be constructed and sequenced. The way Vandermark figures it, if Marker, the filmmaker, can toy with memory using the fixed methodology of film, then Marker, the band, should be able to do with using its unfixed methodology.
“It can be very cinematic, in terms of the way that they’re organized, in terms of cross-cutting and editing the pieces,” Vandermark says. “These tunes can be cut up and resequenced or cut apart in ways … so every time we play, it’s completely different, even though we know the material. And part of what that allows, by superimposing certain thematic aspects of the pieces, is this play on memory that’s not set in stone. I can come up with a different way to introduce thematic material so even for the band it’s completely fresh. In a symphony, when you hear the piece, that’s the piece; you know it now, you remember it now. Whereas with Marker, ideally, people will be able to hear the band many times and understand implicitly that their memory is constantly changing and what you think you heard before could be in a completely different place now. And that completely changes the nature of the compositions and also the experience of the compositions.”
Given the nature of their creative process, the suites on Marker’s Wired for Sound, released in December by Vandermark’s Catalytic Sound imprint, possess an innate polymorphism. The music is by turns loud and quiet, full and desolate, pointillist and expansive, and the musicians’ use of linear and episodic perspective is inherently and intentionally disorienting, fragments of themes recurring at varying intervals only to fade as quickly as they’ve re-entered. Circular drones and furious extended grooves collapse into radical bursts of free-improv noise, then give way to gurgling chamber music ostinatos and skewed, abstract blues. The compositions make extensive use of repetitive riffs and vamps before making room for solos; weird noises, separate sounds and unusual timbres combine to create gorgeous and colorful musical backgrounds.
If what Vandermark’s been searching for is a way find solutions toward spontaneous composition, then the compositional processes that he deploys with Marker are, after a fashion, about gumming up the works.
“It’s definitely a way for me to create challenges for myself as a composer, but also for the players,” Vandermark says. “If I get the feeling that in a certain kind of situation that Macie is going to approach a kind of funk groove one way on a keyboard, what I’ll end up doing is trying to throw a wrench into that and see what Macie’s going to do once that groove comes apart underneath her. So I’m throwing a problem at her to see what comes out of that.”
But the byproduct of throwing out roadblocks is that players find new ways around them, using such unique musical dares as a means to find new solutions and to facilitate new paths to creativity.
“It’s infinite in terms of the things that you can construct,” Vandermark says. “So there’s no way there’s a road map that’s always the same. There’s no way to solve the problem the same way again because there’s no way the problem can come up the same way again. And once you get used to thinking that way, even if you do two pieces back to back that have happened before, you’re looking at it like a new problem again.
“Every problem can’t be solved the same way twice, and that is really exciting to me.”
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