The Subterranean Arthouse in Berkeley shows little sign of slowing its prodigious musical output these days. On this occasion we are treated to a reed-popping sax adventure with the Rova Sax Quartet, followed by wonderfully deviant and frankly outstanding pseudo-orchestral outfit the Oakland Active Orchestra. Rova kicked the walls down of this place from the outset, with some cavernous and startling timbral explorations in the atonal vein. There was, of course, the requisite honking, unison stabbing and multiphonic rasping that one would expect from players of this caliber, but this is a group that hasn’t just been thrown together because they have the chops and que sera sera. These boys have been around the block (actually, they’ve also been around the Bloc, having been the first new music ensemble to tour the Soviet Union back in 1983). Their chemistry and intuition just blazed across the room – from buzzing bees to duck calls, the animal kingdom was well represented here in the sheer versatility of vocalization that poured fourth from these brassy instruments. There was just enough of the post-jazz groove to keep the interest without it becoming predictable, and some of the slower numbers were reminiscent of the ethereal scapes of Messaien or Duteilleux. The only issue with a quartet of this magnitude is whether the space can hold them – indeed, sometime the resonant frequencies were a litle much for the ears – but, as they say, no pain no gain. Gain there was here, and not just in volume.
After wringing out the ringing ears a little, they were primed for some warm, mellow tunes, minimalist and spare. Which is not what they got. Enter the Oakland Active Orchestra – a dozen or so players, many large instruments (including TWO drum kits) and a very clear mission to make some choice noise. You know that if the group starts out with a number called “Brain World Number One”, they’re not messing around. And so it begins, with a cacophonic wall of chaos held together by a mentally unbalanced stomping bass, slowly dripping into a wonderfully amorphous mass of atemporality. There were some great timbral balances coming across between the winds and brass, and the guitar washed into the strings with a nice mix of intensity and care. The music was as tightly woven together as the players standing in the space, and it was impressive that all sections held their own and seemed to have a real respect for each other despite the cramped conditions and risk of sonic overload. Although the acoustic properties of the Subterranean Arthouse may not have been an ideal fit for this ensemble, this took nothing away from the fact that here is a seriously talented group of people with an envelope-pushing sound.