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Spooky Actions: Music of Webern

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Whether you’ll like Spooky Actions’ Music of Webern depends greatly on whether you like Webern, so let’s start there. Even before he converted to the serialism of his teacher Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern had taken eagerly to atonal composition. Webern wrote compressed pieces in which single notes stand out from thin textures and achieve great intensity, helped by an exacting approach to timbre. Webern never supplies an obvious logic to connect those single notes; listeners feel the gaps and build their own bridges. Listening to Webern is something like reading surrealist poetry: suggestive, enigmatic and often fascinating.

Spooky Actions–John Gunther on flute, saxophone and clarinet; Bruce Arnold on “processed electric guitar”; Peter Herbert on bass; and Tony Moreno on drums–has transcribed Webern’s early-period five movements for string quartet and five canons and supplied its own improvisations on these brief pieces for Music of Webern. But these men aren’t trying to make this most abstract of composers into a swingin’ jazz cat; they address Webern’s music on its own terms and shed new light on its strange beauty.

In the transcriptions, Gunther and Arnold both play their sustained, quiet notes with the concentration and ardor that Webern demands, while Herbert and Moreno occasionally perk up the texture with rhythms alien to Webern, but they’re just as comfortable providing subtle but devastating accents. All four players make their timbres work with Webern while preserving their distinctiveness, for renditions that sound both fresh and idiomatic. The improvisations are just as compressed and arresting as the transcriptions; it takes close attention to hear when they pile in more notes or hit the rhythm harder than ol’ Anton would have, but that only makes the differences more affecting.

Webern will probably always be an acquired taste, but Spooky Actions has given jazz fans a great way to enter his world.