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Music of Webern Arrenged for Jazz Quartet by Spooky Actions

This is the debut album of a New York ensemble, named Spooky Actions, that features the work of Anton Webern, an early twentieth century composer of serialist, or atonal, music. Webern’s work became prevailing and influential for its classical compositions in the 1950s and 1960s with his brief, evanescent works. Linked to Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg, Webern was the most radical of this modernist Viennese school of composers in that he strove for utmost purity and economy in the articulation of musical thought. Accordingly, Webern’s music requires strict discipline to play its angular and difficult pieces. This also means that it is an intense, intellectual experience for the listener.

Spooky Actions comes from the phrase "spooky actions at a distance," a phrase that Einstein used to describe the phenomenon of two seemingly unconnected, disparate objects that nonetheless exert a powerful influence on one another. This is perhaps an apt name for this ensemble that instead of a string quartet employs an unlikely (at least in the mind of the composer) combination of guitar, reeds, bass and drums. This produces a very interesting effect in bringing life to an otherwise seemingly austere piece of music. Mind you, the music does not exactly swing, but Spooky Actions makes this music accessible because of the jazz instruments. In particular, John Gunther’s saxophone, clarinet and flute tend to soften Webern’s sharper edges of a string quartet. This is evident in the third movement of the Five Movements composition. After each movement, there is an improvisation that is as roughly as long as the set piece. Here, the music becomes more ‘spooky’ as it starts to hint of avant-garde Japanese music, particularly how the flute is used.

This is a diverting and interesting experiment and one wonders where this ensemble is going on its next venture. Bartok? Villa-Lobos? Berg? One can also guess how Spooky Action might interpret these or other composers. It is a very intriguing beginning.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Spooky Actions
  • CD Title: Music of Webern Arrenged for Jazz Quartet
  • Genre: Other
  • Year Released: 2003
  • Record Label: Muse Eek Recordings
  • Tracks: Five Movements for String Quartet, op. 5, Five Canons, op. 16
  • Musicians: Bruce Arnold (processed electric guitar), John Gunther (saxophone, clarinet, flute), Peter Herbert (acoustic bass), Tony Moreno (drums and percussion)
  • Rating: Three Stars
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