The opening track of The Hands Free’s self-titled debut, “Yes/No,” starts with an explosion of instrumental sound, pulling in every direction at once. It almost sounds like a folk festival band warming up — the group’s instrumentation of violin, accordion, banjo/guitar and double bass is usually employed for things much more twangy and down-home — until it’s repeated, and spins out into a frenetic phrase that collapses almost as soon as it gets going. The rest of the track is no less of an onslaught, at times coalescing into fragments of melody before dissolving into the joyous chaos of the opening. After the aggression of “Yes/No,” the second track, “Kellam’s Reel/Rusty Gully,” is a comforting relief. A jaunty melody is passed from the accordion to the guitar, the other instruments sometimes joining in on regular accompaniment and sometimes just smearing chords around the edges of the ensemble. The effect is breezy and nostalgic.
The Hands Free, whose members have backgrounds in classical music composition, chamber music and musical theater, are a group that focuses on structured improvisation. In the liner notes to their debut, they write that they “incorporate elements of improvisation, making every performance unique.” The performers are able to draw on their extensive knowledge and experience of performing music to re-interpret what they have inherited in an open-ended, playful way, in the moment. The album is in dialogue with several intersecting musical traditions, but it splits them open and rummages around for useful material, adding the performer’s unique sensibilities. In particular, the composer and violinist Caroline Shaw contributes the sense of suspension she’s known for, with the hovering harmonics and finely-sketched melodies she contributes forming a sort of ceiling for the group. The guitarist James Moore contributes at times a quasi-minimalist flow and at times a pointillistic stream of consciousness, which also characterizes his work with the electric guitar quartet Dither.
More than anything, what one gets out of this album is a sense of several personalities colliding, a conversation between friends about a familiar topic with natural ebb and flow. The group references the “late-night folk jams” that formed the group, and one gets the sense that the group’s backbone is somewhere between their respective classical backgrounds and bluegrass and folk music. There’s a dialogue between sense and nonsense, structure and freedom, aggression and suspension. One gets the sense that were all of this to be written down, a lot of the spontaneity that makes this album so stunning would be lost — trailing off and trailing between is baked into even the most structured music that the group plays. There’s a recombinant sensibility to this music, like a collection of half-remembered songs.
Mary Halvorson and Robbie Lee’s album Seed Triangular is much more open-ended than The Hands Free’s debut. There are much fewer reference points, and the music seems to be instead built from the sounds of their instruments themselves: Halvorson’s 18-string (!) harp guitar and Lee’s collection of unusual woodwind instruments, including several from the Renaissance and the Baroque. Halvorson and Lee seem intent on playing their instruments in strange, extreme ways. The guitar snaps and buzzes and at times makes thunderous sounds, Lee bends pitch and overblows, producing all kinds of noisy, out-of-tune sounds that he uses for striking expressive effect. At times it’s hard to tell how the two musicians are relating their material to each other and the listener is left with a nervous composite.
As daunting as Seed Triangular is for people not accustomed to freely-improvised music, it’s also a remarkably organic and instinctive album. It’s the chaos of an overgrown lot in the middle of summer, dusty and wide open. Their music can accumulate astonishing amounts of tension before emptying out into a few languid plucks and long bending notes. As avant-garde as the music sounds, Halvorson’s guitar can be almost folk-ish at times, and Lee’s old instruments, played in markedly unconventional ways, combine to give the album a distinctly ancient feeling. It feels like stumbling on an abandoned house being reclaimed by nature, wiry plants forcing their way through the brick.
The avant-garde is so frequently about trying to make music take on abstract shapes and structures. What improvisation allows for these two albums is instead a kind of exploration of musical space: Both in the sense of the instruments used and what they’re capable of producing in the hands of a skilled player, but also an exploration of material, of tradition as interpreted in every direction at once.