Scott Fields’ penchant for overlaying antithetical forms of instrumental action — typically involving cross-pollinations of improvised sections and more composed structures — finds one of its peak expressions in Frail Lumber, a project carried on with the aid of a string ensemble featuring cellists Daniel Levin and Scott Roller, violists Jessica Pavone and Vincent Royer, violinists Alex Lindner and Mary Oliver plus Elliott Sharp on guitar as well as the leader. The group’s partitioning in four twos of equal instruments is obvious, but this does not imply separation between the parts or disorganized and fragmented music. The five chapters — a total of about 67 minutes — appear in fact as mutating aggregates of harmonic question marks where, in turn, beauty of timbre, displacement of pulse and a general disinclination to follow pre-set strides acquire importance depending on the participants’ instinctive gestures and choices.
Speaking of which, Fields did give instructions to the performers while setting their decisions and respective sensibilities within a looping fabric where — by wordlessly nodding at certain points — everyone can “invite” other members to join the circumstantial happenings with on-the-spot phrases and movements that help the agglomerative flow to remain complex in relative stability. The composer calls this procedure a “fancy cueing system”, but the lightness of the definition is inversely proportional to the gravity of the resulting music. We remain affected by the awesome electro/acoustic chromaticity, by alternating relative quietness and gradually mounting nervousness, and especially by how effectively a procedure that might potentially lead to untidy scenarios consolidates instead the musicians’ diverse voices and personalities into a cohesive unit. The wealth of involuntarily synchronic sketches even permits the camouflaging of melodic snippets amidst shifting accumulations of tension, as evidenced by the opening moments of “Paulownia” (all titles refer to types of woods and/or trees).
Make no mistake: this is not an album for enticing an unsuspecting partner during a candlelight dinner. But it’s definitely one of the Cologne-based Chicagoan’s finest ever releases.