At this point you might be wondering," the laconic Ben Goldberg said at the front of a nine-piece ensemble at the Blue Whale Monday night. What is an Orphic Machine?"
The question hung in the air before the standing-room-only crowd for a few long, quiet moments before Goldberg turned back to his ensemble and led them through another knotted and occasionally spooky composition marked by dazzling interplay. Initially led by Carla Kihlstedt's gently plucked violin and a thicket of chiming percussion from vibraphonist Kenny Wollesen and drummer Ches Smith, who worked a variety of small gongs and noisemakers, the piece transformed into a bent sort of torch song behind Kihlstedt's delicate vocals and a muted trumpet solo by Ron Miles that gave way to a smoky turn on piano by Myra Melford.
Needless to say, it was a fair question.
First, the facts: A Berkeley-based clarinetist-composer, Goldberg assembled an all-star lineup to present a piece called Orphic Machine," which was inspired by a book of speculative poetics" from writer Allen Grossman and commissioned by Chamber Music America. The program had its premiere in Berkeley the previous evening and Monday's performance in L.A. was recorded live. Built from Grossman's words and Goldberg's music, the piece's thoughtful, sprawling compositions course through such a variety of styles and open-ended impulses that it would be tempting to dub this a new kind of world music were it not so uniquely colored by the diverse sounds of the West Coast.
Touching on the piece's themes of creation, opener Immortality" began with a vocal from Kihlstedt, who previously collaborated with Goldberg in the rustic, Gypsy-steeped ensemble Tin Hat Trio (later shorted to Tin Hat). The function of poetry is to obtain for everybody one kind of success," she sang, her voice whisper-thin but arresting, leading the band into a bluesy sort of funeral march keyed by Miles' wheezing trumpet. As Ches Smith cracked a beat across his kit that cut into a dance between Kihlstedt's violin and Goldberg's clarinet, the song carried a sort of slow-burning, woozy melancholy that could've fallen out of the Radiohead songbook.
A Line of Less Than Ten" rode a Latin-infused groove from Smith and bassist Greg Cohen, which was punctuated by a tapped-out clave rhythm from Wollesen's mallets and a nimble accordion-like turn on melodica by Melford. With Chicago guitarist Jeff Parker leaning into chunky, flattened chords, the song took a turn into a sort of manic klezmer as Goldberg joined before melting back to center behind saxophonist Rob Sudduth and Kihlstedt's sultry repetition of the song's title.
A piece in the second set mined a nimble big band swing while The Inferencial Poem" traced a line toward Gypsy music as each musician navigated through a maze of guitar, percussion and woodwinds. After Read In" shifted from Miles' buoyant trumpet into a raucous yet elegant tilt toward Americana, another piece toward the end of the night even dipped into head-bobbing reggae-funk atop Goldberg's chugging bass clarinet and Parker's wah-distorted guitar.
Now we know what an Orphic Machine is," Goldberg said as the song closed, repeating the evening's key passages to further unravel the mystery. Nothing else needed to be said, but we still wanted more.