The shift from music as a way of showing off the wealth and splendour of royalty, aristocracy, or principality to music as a way of generating private profit brought with it a corresponding downsizing of the typical ensemble. Today, a few large, 100-piece orchestras still retain a precarious existence as museum acts; meanwhile, the vast majority of new music is composed and performed by individuals or small groups, with fewer ways to cut the profit pie meaning bigger slices all round (and, for many musicians, the difference between being able to eat or not). No doubt technology has played a role in this too — it’s now possible for a single individual with access to a computer to compose, record, and master a piece of music as grand in scale as anything by Mahler. Plus, isn’t it just easier to get things done when there’s only yourself to organise?
Into this context step the Insub Meta Orchestra, a 50-piece ensemble with members from Switzerland, France, Belgium and Germany that operates in the fertile space between formal composition and improvisation. 32 musicians contributed to their new album “13 and 27”, and for the piece ‘13 unissons’ were split into 13 subgroups, each of which plays just one note in unison, repeated as often as they like. Most of the tones are long in duration, and the various unisons often create faint beating, resonance, or haze around a tone. Silence is used to separate out the playing into distinct moments, resulting in several sustained chords with various configurations of pitches. It’s pleasant enough, but not necessarily groundbreaking; maybe I’ve just heard too many pieces of a similar ilk.
‘27 times’ is a more complex piece. Each musician was asked to choose his or her ‘most unique, personal sound’, which they then repeated 27 times across roughly half an hour. Many of the chosen sounds turn out to be faint, dissonant, and/or quite rough in timbre, with the low volume and tentative pacing keeping things tense and muted rather than aggressive or harsh. The effect is like walking through a deserted city at night, one form morphing into another in the dark-obscured unfolding of urban topology. The repetition here is even stronger than in ‘13 unissons’, in the sense that form, pitch and duration are more closely matched between repetitions, but paradoxically this serves to underscore subtle differences in timbre, pitch, and resonance. This is certainly the more engaging and evocative piece of the pair for me.
The logistical (not to mention financial) challenges of convening and organising such a large group of musicians would be enough to put many people off, but as Insub instigators Cyril Bondi and d’incise and their collaborators have discovered, it prompts new ways of thinking about how to make music together with others. From a listener’s point of view, it widens and diversifies our musical world still further.