wild Up | of Ascension
By: Craig Byrd
Everyone has that one record that becomes an obsession. The grooves get worn out from repeated playing. For wild Up Artistic Director Christopher Rountree, one of those albums was John Coltrane’s 1966 recording, Ascension. That album, considered to be one of the finest of the jazz saxophonist’s career and a landmark artistic accomplishment, awoke in Rountree a passion that continues to this day.
“When I heard this album I thought about it as having this pulsing energy,” says Rountree. “It has this beautiful architecture, but is totally free. I heard it as a young man and thought, ‘I want to make something like this.”
Coltrane was a fearless musician. He constantly combined his exploration of sounds and innovative music with a deeply held spirituality. As he once said, “My music is the spiritual expression of what I am – my faith, my knowledge, my being…When you begin to see the possibilities of music, you desire to do something really good for people, to help humanity free itself from its hang-ups…I want to speak to their souls.”
Rountree along with several key composers and his experimental classical ensemble wild Up, have now created a work that takes its inspiration from Coltrane’s album. of Ascension is not an attempt to recreate Coltrane’s work, but rather to inspire and elevate an audience as Coltrane described by combining a wide range of musical genres together to create wholly unique and mesmerizing experience. Just as Coltrane did 52 years ago. As Rountree says, “The idea of music that lifts us up so much it sends us into the heavens.”
To create of Ascension, Rountree functioned like the most innovative and thoughtful deejay. He mixes styles and genres and samples music you might not think of putting next to each other, but when done right it seems as if they have always belonged together.
“Certainly classical music is part of it,” Rountree reveals, “although I wouldn’t say that’s the main part of it. Jazz is part of it. Sound art and performance art is part of it. We have ancient spiritual music that is tonal and gorgeous. We’re doing old church music. We have free jazz next to new complexity and they sound similar. And if you put them next to each other they have this similar energy, but something really special happens for all of those things. They all change and there is this energy of like lifting off the grounds.”
One contributor to of Ascension whose own music and familiarity with Coltrane’s album is crucial is composer Ted Hearne. He was recently a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his composition Sound from the Bench. It was a conversation Rountree and Hearne had a few years ago that lead to the creation of this work.
“We were talking about Coltrane’s album and Ted said, ‘I teach this album as a study of form in my classes.’ I thought that was totally fascinating. Ted’s the big question asker. He’s the provocateur-in-chief. Sampling is part of what Ted’s work is and it’s part of the show. With Ted’s help what of Ascension has become, it’s not the thing after the thing, but it’s certainly a thing inspired by the thing. The central idea is of the feeling of the music.”
While that might sound as a puzzle within a puzzle, Rountree is certain that of Ascension absolutely lives up to what wild Up is known for and what its audiences expect to see and hear.
“So much of what we do is not the normal mode of performing. It’s about the experience and it’s about the ensemble. This does all the things that we want to be doing. It allows us to explore ideas we are interested in. It allows us to be soloists. And the person who is comfortable with totally notated music and those who are not are doing things they aren’t comfortable with. It’s central to what we are doing – putting separate pieces together and showing they are all valuable. It’s like doing a piece of theatre in the home of classical music, but it’s actually a jazz piece.”
wild Up’s innovative approach to music reaches new heights here by adding a theatrical presentation involving movement of the musicians and the use of video. But perhaps the most important “added component” is the role the audience will play. When of Ascension has its premiere in November at The Soraya in Northridge, wild Up will be surrounded on three sides by the audience on stage.
“With an audience that will be as close as we want them to feel and, in fact, will be, they are in charge of the energy in the room as well. Music is at the core of the performance but it is not about observing beauty, but being part of a ritual where sound is at the center. Playing this certainly brings people who love all these different genres of music together to hear music who would never otherwise sit together.”
Different genres of music living next to each other is precisely the point for Rountree as it was for Coltrane those many decades ago. With of Ascension Rountree is exploring the possibilities of music his way. Which ultimately makes sense for the young man who grew up to appreciate equally Beethoven, jazz, Philip Glass and Kendrick Lamar. And who dreamed of some day creating something as inspirational for today’s audiences as Coltrane’s album was for him. Now he has.