Improv duo transcends

On Wednesday, Sep. 18, Lecturer of Music and pianist Bill Carrothers gave a faculty recital along with Instructor of Music and Improvisational Group of Lawrence University (IGLU) director Matt Turner on cello. The recital had no program, but pieces were announced from the stage to a packed house of students and community members. The stage of Harper Hall was set as an intimate performance space with a single lamp on the floor in otherwise pitch blackness, barely illuminating the musicians. Their first few pieces were improvisations on jazz standards, such as “All the Things You Are” composed by Jerome Kerns. The pair switched between fast paced, rambling lines and melodic, soft, slow moving phrases. 

Much of the evening, however, Carrothers and Turner performed compositions they had collaborated on when approached about writing a soundtrack for a recently written graphic novel. The novel is based on the life of a Frenchman who enlisted in the French army and fought for his country, which Carrothers described to the audience in somewhat vague terms. The compositions that followed said more than his words could, painting the life of a young boy growing up in a changing world, traveling to America and returning to his home in France to become a soldier. 

“Black Dragon,” the third piece of the evening, was inspired by the sounds of steam locomotives, one method of transportation the young man used. In this version, Carrothers used sets of blocked ascending chords, creating an air of mystery and the eerie sense of something coming. The piano mimicked the sounds of wheels on tracks, using cyclical patterns, while the cello became the steam rising from the smokestack as well as the train’s whistle. Carrothers explained that the pieces were partially improvised in recording sessions and therefore every time they are played, the compositions vary slightly. The experience of hearing original music taking shape before them kept the audience rapt throughout the performance. 

The fourth piece painted an image of a bombed-out cathedral from the Frenchman’s life story. As Turner began this one on the cello, I was shocked to identify a classical sonata-like form begin after the more jazz genre improv experiments we had been hearing. The piece presented a dream-like liminal space, one where music could be anything and truly take any shape. Carrothers’ habit of singing along to his improvisations added to the free aura, making it unlike any performance space I’ve been in. 

The last two pieces, my personal favorites, depicted a family Thanksgiving Day feast in America and a transcendent ending composition that descended on us audience members as a blanket of nostalgia. The first, called “Twice Around the Block,” tells the story of a visit to the young man’s American family. After stuffing themselves, the older cousins ran off their meals around the block only to return and fill their plates once again. The piece illustrates the awe with which the boy watches his older role models as he tries to catch up with them. Carrothers truly proved himself with  the “kind of improv” in this piece. The music seems to start inside of him and is simply transmitted out through his fingers. The circular patterns around the piano made me think of an old movie or flipping the pages of a memory book. 

However, it was the last piece that moved me the most. With no introduction, Turner began what reminded me of a Spanish love song theme, the electric cello invoking an even more melancholy tone. A truly deep hush fell over the audience and the sense of connection and attention was palpable in the theatre. In the moment, I believed that piece to be one of the most beautiful and haunting things I had ever heard, and I can barely attempt to describe it with words. The pair were rightfully met with a standing ovation.