The last time I felt fully present in the moment was during a recent tattooing session. Each skin prick made me distinctly aware of where I was and what I was doing - I felt rooted. Living in the moment becomes increasingly challenging with our ever-expanding social networks and plans. There's always a phone to look at, or a Netflix series to watch, or a Facebook posting to respond to. It's become necessary to purposely seek out experiences that will ground you in the present, be it through intense physical experiences or the arts.
For Kurva Choir cellist Molly McDermott and bassist C.J. Boyd, every live show consists of this sort of intensely focused experience. The duo creates soundscapes of a wholly unexpected variety. If you listen to anything off the band's debut album understory, you might find yourself describing the music with words like meditative, meandering, haunting or evocative. The brilliant part of Kurva Choir is the music is all of those things, but it's also so much more - an aural expression of the philosophy around which members McDermott and Boyd base their music.
"[Our music] is actually all improvised. We don't write. Every performance is new and different every single time," says McDermott.
This statement is Kurva Choir in a nutshell.
The self-described "experimental chamber orchestra" grew out of a bigger project that McDermott and Boyd both participated in. "Molly and I started playing together [in a project] called Kirtan Choir," says Boyd. The two connected musically and eventually decided to form Kurva as part of their artistic partnership.
Improvising entire shows is a constant balancing act of giving and taking, and it takes utter trust in the other person sharing the stage, something McDermott and Boyd clearly understand. "We do sometimes give ourselves time limits or constraints, but it's usually pretty minimal," McDermott says. "We're careful about how much space we're taking up and how we're responding to each other when we're playing. We have this understanding and this musical chemistry, really."
And unlike some improvisational music, like the type of solos you encounter in jazz, Boyd and McDermott aim to break from structure entirely during performances. Although jazz allows for some freedom, there is usually some form of inherent regulation. Boyd, who was first drawn to improv via jazz, explains it best. "A lot of jazz music - now, especially - there's really not the same need to listen to each other. If you know the changes you can just play the changes," says Boyd. "Part of the issue for us is to set up a situation where we have to listen to each other; we're compelled to, because at any moment things could change direction. We don't want to go to the left if our partner went to the right."
For McDermott, this sort of reactionary musical discussion is key to creating a positive experience, both for herself as well as the audience. "I'm really interested in making a sum of something, and not just one person backing the other person up," McDermott says. "For me, every show is a little bit terrifying, but it's nice also because that intensity of being in front of people really hyper-focuses me in the moment and keeps me in tune with what we're doing and what's coming out of that."
Although every live show is different, understory, released in February 2013, is a great introduction to the musical understanding between McDermott and Boyd. Joined by violist Dominique Hamilton, the four-track album is captivating and sensual. All improvised in one evening, tracks continually fall in and out of discordance and harmony, leaving valleys of space to breathe in between.
Like any music, listening to Kurva Choir evokes emotion, especially because it breaks from traditional framework. The duo says that they often elicit varied reactions from audience members, ranging from visions to confusion to excitement. "House shows in particular, they tend to be more listening focused audience. That's the best kind of situation," McDermott says. "It's really more intimate. You're there from the beginning to the end there are some people who feel really strongly about it and you can tell that it's changed something for them about the way they think about music." Boyd notes that the music is nothing more than a vessel to bring emotions to the surface - the music isn't necessarily created with any particular intention. "It's my place to just let them say what they want to say. The music is just a vehicle to get them thinking and feeling whatever they think and feel," says Boyd. "If it's something neat that's great but it's not like that what's the music is about."
In addition to the current tour in Alaska, McDermott and Boyd are also involved in several cause-related projects, including an album supporting library funding in Swaziland and a compilation of Kate Bush covers supporting pro-choice reproductive rights. The fact that the band supports socially-minded causes isn't surprising, as Boyd and McDermott are clearly committed to creating and fostering something bigger than themselves. "I think that where there's greater risk - and I think this just doesn't go for improvisation, be it filmmaking or writing - the greater the risk, the greater the chance for a really exceptional experience for the audience," says Boyd. McDermott echoes those sentiments: "It's nice to be able to contribute something in the age of recorded music and say, 'We gave you a night of a music that only you heard.'"
Friday, December 6 at 8 p.m.
Anchorage Community Works
Suggested donation of $5 - $10 at door