August 25, 2022
Variations on No Particular Theme 2 - Mat Maneri, Tanya Kalmanovitch, Tomo Jacobson & Kresten Osgood
Label: Gotta Let it Out Records: website & Bandcamp
Catalog #: GLIO50LP
Location: Copenhagen, Denmark
Release Date: October 21, 2021
Media: lp or digital download
The quartet of Mat Maneri, Tanya Kalmanovitch, Tomo Jacobson & Kresten Osgood presents an uncommon selection of instruments. Describing it as a duo of violas with a rhythm section accurately captures the instrumentation and to some extent the roles of the four musicians. If we compare to a jazz quartet, the two violists are featured in the foreground like reed and horn, while Jacobson on bass and Osgood on drums provide a background of continuity. Certainly, it is true that the pieces are not conventionally rhythmic and that the presence of a steady beat or bass line is absent. Roles are blurred in this ensemble, with all four musicians responding to each other and the choice of destination shared collectively.
We are enamored with the title, Variations on No Particular Theme. (We did not know that we had missed part 1 until we learned of part 2, or if we did know, we had forgotten by the time the sequel was released—also a possibility.) Of course, No Particular Theme is the universal anthem of non-idiomatic improvisation. All practitioners of such open improvisational exercises, be they heavy hitters or novices, have tried their hand at this theme and there are innumerable albums by musicians across the spectrum that could retroactively be titled Variations on No Particular Theme. That this quartet settled on such a pithy and sweeping title imbues the music with both a philosophical as well as light-hearted tone.
There remain stubborn individuals, stuck in their ways and slow to adjust to changing customs, who continue to regard the viola as an instrument limited to the highly constrained province of Western classical music. In those settings, the musicians, technically gifted to be sure, faithfully execute the vision of someone else, a composer often long dead, more often than not a white male. Across the world, much adulation has been given to this kind of music. Thankfully, it takes all kinds of people to make the world go round; fans of free improvisation are not required to embrace classical string quartets any more than aficianados of classical music are obliged to adore free improvisation. A few individuals with super ears may find pleasure in both, though reports of such creatures are rare and largely unsubstantiated. The staff of the Poison Pie Publishing House have mucked around this notion before, such as in the review earlier this year of Aeriform by the Crush String Collective. This is all a way of expressing our pleasure in the radical and dare we say deviant repurposing of two violas by Mat Maneri and Tanya Kalmanovitch. Variations on No Particular Theme demonstrates that any musical instrument, or combination thereof, can be employed as a tool to express the freedom and egalitarian ideals of collective improvisation.
A listener can have an infinite number of responses to this music. Two reactions that come to mind are as follows. One can hear in the violas the unmistakable timbre of those instruments that harken to a classical tradition and thus be put off. Alternatively, as the bass and drums escort the violas into a different realm, one can interpret in their presence a defiant rejection of traditional norms and roles. Variations on No Particular Theme provides the opportunity to open the listener's mind to to an appreciation of the viola as an instrument unfettered by restrictive habits of the past. Where the listener's train of thought moves from this starting point depends, of course, upon their individual disposition. To make such a statement explicitly is both redundant and unnecessary, neither of which diminishes its truth.