Spectrum Ensemble: Philly duo Archer Spade on experimenting around town this month - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart
Archer Spade | Photo by Katie Rey | katiereyphotography.com | courtesy of the artist

Archer Spade is the name of an acclaimed experimental music concert series set in and around West Philly and organized by guitarist Nick Millevoi and trombonist Dan Blacksberg. But it’s also the two Philadelphia musicians’ collaborative duo. This month, Millevoi and Blacksberg are launching into 2016 with their Spectrum Ensemble, staging weekly collaborative concerts all around the city with anywhere from a half dozen to 24 other musicians.

Some of the performances are more structured, rehearsed events, while others are strongly improvisatory, and after a preview performance on WKDU late last month (which you can stream below), Archer Spade kicks off the series tomorrow at The Rotunda before traversing the city through South Philly, Germantown and Fishtown. To get a sense what’s in store, I swapped emails with Millevoi and Blacksberg; read our conversation below.

The Key: You normally work as a duo. What sorts of possibilities does it open when you augment that with up to 22 other musicians? 

Dan Blacksberg: Augmenting our duo with all these great musicians does more than just expand the sonic palette with many more instruments, it also expands the music because of the different individual voices of the musicians playing those instruments. For me personally, each person we add brings out a slightly different facet of my playing, which makes more directions the music can take on a sound level, and an idea level. I feel that our musical relationship (sounds, ideas, processes) as a duo is the main anchor for the group, but there are many other strong relationships between other folks in the group as well, and that means there are more of these anchors we can draw on.

Nick Millevoi: Collaborating with this large a group of musicians is a dream come true that we’ve been looking toward for quite some time. Both Dan and I have dabbled in projects that are inclusive of large groups of people: in the past decade we’ve done projects together where we’ve learned John Zorn’s “Cobra” with a large number of improvisers, I had a series of improv schematic scores for up to 15 people that I used to call “Shredfest,” and we’ve arranged the Grateful Dead’s Blues For Allah for a band plus choir of 21 people. To get to have “our own” ensemble this size lets us draw on all of the ideas we’ve explored with these different projects. The possibilities at this point are pretty extreme considering all of those things!

DB: In short: with lots of musicians, we go from few possible combinations of instruments to basically infinite combinations, more and different instruments give us more directions we can go in ourselves, and having lots of strong sub-group relationships means we get to have developed musical anchor points outside of our own that we can draw upon.

TK: How did you choose your various collaborators? 

NM: Our collaborators have been chosen from a group of Philadelphia musicians who are excited about improvising and are looking to work toward building a collective vibe. These folks include some of our closest friends, some of our students, and some people whose music we just admire. This includes people from a lot of different scenes: jazz musicians, rock musicians, noise musicians, classical musicians, freaks, etc. We’ve specifically tried to consider drawing on a wide range of experience/age/expertise in order to keep things exciting. We’re constantly considering new people to add and want to reach out to anyone who is truly interested and can get down with what we’re doing.

DB: Back before the summer, when we planned the first Spectrum Festival at the Whole Shebang, we took a look at all the people we knew from different scenes who were making music in which improvisation and experimental music was a major part. Some of these folks are people we’ve known and played with for a long time, some were people who we knew but hadn’t had the chance to play much with yet, and some we’re people we thought were awesome and wanted to get to know. We ended up with a pretty big list and invited a ton of people. The first group of folks were the people who could make it to the three days in July, and it turned out everyone was so well matched and connected immediately on musical and personal levels. It was a really strong start.

Since then, the group has expanded to include people who couldn’t make it to the July events, as well as some new people. For everyone, we’re looking for people who play awesome music, and are down with going wherever the music takes us. And when we’re surrounded by people who are so willing to try something new and go for it all the way, it empowers us to take more risks and kick the music up to even cooler levels.

TK: With each program, how much will be structured and how much will be improvised?

DB: Each program has different relationship of previously agreed upon structure and in-the-moment improvisation. Almost all the sounds for the entire run of shows are improvised, but often within agreed-upon constraints. A lot of the music is made in the moment, but we put a lot of thought into how to put together the shows to make them varied and dynamic, which to me, creates a very strong structure for all the shows.

NM: As far as composition is concerned, it’s only in the service of improvisation. The most structured concert will be on January 3 when we perform with our 18-piece large ensemble.

DB: It has the most structure because all the pieces for the large ensembles have specific ideas and rules behind them. These pieces give forms which people improvise inside of.

Jan. 10th will be a mix of of these large group pieces, plus small completely improvised ensembles. For the small groups, the structure comes from our curating who plays in which group. That has a big effect on the music and the whole shape of the concert.

Jan 17th is already existing groups with their own musical identities, so even if most of that music is improvised in the moment, the sonic identity for these groups are already established, so that provides a lot of structure we can draw on to program the concert.

Jan 24th is all small groups, and so probably the free-est of the concerts, but again, who makes up each group is not improvised.

TK: I like the way each show is at a different site in a  different neighborhood. It’s like you’re taking the project on tour but staying within Philly. Why’d you choose this approach rather than, say, setting up residency at The Rotunda?

NM: Totally! Philly tour! We’re both lifelong Philadelphians and constantly looking for creative ways to present what we’re doing as well as get us moving around the city. We thought playing in four corners of the city would be a really interesting challenge to work with and could help us reach different groups of audience.

DB: I’d say my number one reason is that I thought it was a cool and creative way to put together a bunch of shows and was a nice contrast to the first festival, which was two nights in one place. We definitely love The Rotunda, but doing shows in different places gives us the chance to connect us, and all the musicians in the group to a wider range of spaces and the people who run them. And I hope it’ll also draw out different audiences in the different neighborhoods and get us heard and seen by a larger group of people.

NM: Also, putting together the ideas for these concerts forced us to consider how to best use each space and work with those constraints as well. Each of the rooms is very different, from the Rotunda’s large performance space to House Gallery 1816’s living room vibe, the range of experience for musicians and the audience will be much larger than working in one place.

TK: Will you be recording or otherwise documenting the shows for posterity?

NM: Yes –  our set on WKDU from December 30 is streaming online and that can be considered as the overture to the series. The Rotunda concert is being filmed and that will be released on YouTube once the series concludes. The other concerts will all be recorded and we’re going to make sure as much of it gets out there as possible. This music is about community, from a communal way to work together to reaching people with our sounds, so we’re going to be making sure as much of it gets out there in the best way possible.

Archer Spade’s Spectrum Ensemble Sunday concert series takes place January 3rd at The Rotunda, January 10th at The Whole Shebang, January 17th at Retro City Studios and January 24th at House Gallery 1816. All shows begin at 3 p.m. and are $10 at the door; more information can be found at Facebook and the Archer Spade Website, with descriptions of each performance below.

Jan 3 – The Rotunda – West Philly – This free concert will kick off the series with music by an 18-piece large ensemble playing compositions by Archer Spade.

Jan 10 – The Whole Shebang – South Philly: Returning to the scene of our July 2015 festival, we’ll be featuring large and small groups culled from our 24 members.

Jan 17 – Retro City – Germantown: For this concert, we collected all the pre-existing bands that exist within the membership of our group, which includes Archer Spade + Kud (Dan Blacksberg, Nick Millevoi, and Jesse Kudler), Van Sutra (Julius Masri and George Draguns), Sirius JuJu, Bender / Stein / Tini, and Press / Przybyszewski / Gottlieb-Hollis.

Jan 24 – House Gallery – Fishtown: Closing out our series, we’ll feature improvised small ensembles at this intimate concert.

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