Jiří STIVÍN: “Zvěrokruh” ******

Recorded 1976



The decade of 1970s was replete with various fusion styles.  Jazz was illegally married with rock.  Rock flirted with symphonies and suites.  And analog electronics pervaded all styles of music.  Much of the surge in creativity actually reflected the ferment of the 1960s, and by 1974 the thrill was gone.


But there are exceptions.  Prague flutist Jiří Stivín made rare inroads into syncretic forms virtually untested elsewhere.  His cogent approach to classical, experimental and free jazz music facilitated his exposure to London’s improvised scene, including Scratch Orchestra and Cornelius Cardew. 


In an era when many Czech and Slovak jazz musicians faced significant obstruction by the Communist regime, Stivín’s cross-border activity may be surprising, but the results were nonetheless spectacular.  His Jazz Q quartet recorded a trailblazing session with Radim Hladik’s Blue Effect.  Later collaboration with guitarist Rudolf Dašek also gained notoriety on the continent.


By mid-1970s, Stivín achieved a remarkable level of synthesis between electric jazz and baroque music.  He used his versatility to create a poetic idiom of the highest standard.  For many, such shameful heterodoxy would amount to little more than an artistic cul de sac.  Yet Stivín’s luxurious arrangements are not only cosmopolitan and multifarious, but often entirely counterintuitive.  It is therefore not surprising that in later years Stivín specialized in Vivaldi’s and Telemann’s repertoire. 




The first four sections are iconophonic illustrations of the four elements.  Beginning with “Fire”, after a brief anaphora from the chorus (Kühnův Smíšený Sbor), the saxophone flirts with a swift upward run.  The mixed gender chorus part is enunciatory and lofty.  Against this non-formulaic, befuddling introduction, Slovakian pianist Gabriel Jonàš’s entry is comfortably jazzy – recurrent bass figure serving right hand improvisation.  Stivín occupies himself with cymbals and delivers elegant, discrete drumwork.  Then he picks up his alto sax, turning the concept into a virtual trio of modal, very European (Namysłowski?) character.  The tonal organization of the chorus owes a lot to George Russell’s achievements, with a strong emphasis on modern chromatic harmonies placed in a quasi-medieval context.  The tenors keep repeating the original phrase, while the sopranos enjoy more freedom.  A gong overtone and sopranos stringendo close this first eavesdrop into Stivín’s vision.



Water – “acqua, fluves, fluvia”, or so echoes the sprightly dialogue between male and female members of the Kühn chorus.  Gabriel Jonàš’s piano emerges from this celebratory atmosphere in a more Jarrettian mode (in particular his pedal work).  The chorus vanishes slowly, leaving the pianist to twirl solo, but soon resuming its haunting, watery line.  The multifunctionality of the pianistic contribution is remarkable.  Jonàš provides a repetitive figure for Stivín’s flute, and then, brighter and blither, his keyboard prances around, occasionally inviting the chorus to return with its acquatic message.  The flute’s solo is smooth, classical, well-rounded and never overly florid.  Whenever the chorus’s call and response reappears, Jonàš confines himself to courteously hand out a reliable bass line.  Stivín’s circular blowing ends on a high note, not unlike in Corea’s Andalusian themes.



“Air” commences with breathy, melismatic vocal.  Cosmic panpipes (actually a syrinx) and mixed male/female Sprechgesang unfold in a multi-layered, jaunty argument.  The panpipes are used here in a neo-classic, rather than folksy (Andean or Carpathian) mode, but the overall mood is bacchanal, even zestful.  Stivín exploits velvety, mushy melismas to warble and tweet on his piccolo.  The simple two-chord configuration suffices to make the composition swing like a school break see-saw on a windy day.  It imparts a sense of mirth, despite, or rather because of the meticulous scoring for strained voices, guttural and plosive effects, scat, clicks and water bottles.  Some of these effects express relief, others – ecstasy.  The looped syrinx recurs with the regularity of a suburban maneige.  We leave the composer, his piccolo soloing and his gasping on alto flute.



“Earth” deceives.  From a madrigal-like polyphonic carol exuding declamatory pathos there snakes out Stivín’s alto flute.  Unexpectedly, hand drums and a very mechanical sounding drum crop up (one could almost believe it is a rhythm machine, but is this possible in Czechoslovakia barely 4 years after Kingdom Come’s LP “Journey”?).  The piano part is conservatively syncopated, with the accents perfectly positioned for the rushing flute solo.  By now the chorus is long gone – and “Earth” becomes a mere ‘fusion’ trio of flute, piano and fast motion (Stivín is actually quite impressive on the bongos).  An enigmatic piano window shuts all too soon and “Earth” wins hands down as the most mundane of the four elements.  The final choral rentrée does not alter this impression.



The second quadruple set of compositions features a String quartet (Talichovo Kvarteto).  The cellist intones a romantic line, only sparsely actualized by the partners.  Jonàš’s electric piano is a living testimony to the most commonly usurped sound of the decade.  The strings’ phrasing is beguiling, but entirely predictable, allowing Jonàš to fill in all the available space.  Deservedly or not, an avant-garde jazz rock combo set against a neo-classical string quartet will forever bring back the memories of Quoatuor Margand on Yochk’o Seffer’s trilogy ‘Neffesh Music’. 



This is a busier, nervy track staged for a duet between jolly piano and nonchalant piccolo, piqued against a stately (albeit brief) string quartet intro.  Its plucked meter suggests a ragtime substructure, but one with inbuilt classical commentaries by the Talich Quartet.  Stivín’s piccolo frolics with apelike agility, even though it sends us back 60 years in the history of jazz. 



Imagine a deeply melancholic flute, misanthropic electric piano and pastoral strings – bundled together, all this sounds, looks, tastes and smells like a 1970s’ soundtrack.  The key ingredients are all present: the track is downtempo, decorated with an interminable legato and a lonely, mellow melodic line hung loosely above it.  To be fair, there are actually two flute lines multitracked by Stivín, but this is only made apparent when the prolonged complaint forlornly laid out by the romantic strings eventually perishes.  How come Lelouch or Chabrol never made use of such highly lachrymatory commercial potential?



In a stunning aboutface, the Talich Quartet sprouts like Soldier String Quartet in Elliott Sharp’s strident hands.  Realism descends only when Stivín’s reeds and Jonàš’s arpeggiated cembalo begin to coruscate like Pierrot Lunaire’s classic masterpiece.  Undisturbed, the quartet keeps sawing as if obeying marching orders.  This groundbreaking experiment would be entirely satisfactory even without the multilayered saxophone finish.



This longer track crowns the proceedings.  This is also the only occasion to hear simultaneously the chorus and the string quartet.  The ever lyrical violins rise, immediately doubled up by the chorus.  Once again, Stivín exposes his predilection for seeking out unique tone colors – here on marimba juxtaposed with cembalo tremolos.  The chromospheric flute governs the melodic content; the harmony emanates from the acoustic piano.  With tense string backdrop, tenors and sopranos alternate, pronouncing the Latin names of the zodiac.  This is much more effective than the spoken word on Cosmic Sounds’ LP “Zodiac” (1967) and it is doubtful whether Stivín was familiar with that record.  A rather domesticated saxophone returns in a solo, dragging back the piano from obscurity.   The obsessive tremolo on clavicembalo, in and out of auralscape, never tires.  If there is anything remotely ‘jazzy’ on this unclassifiable piece, then it stems from the piano part and will still fall short of purists’ expectations.  The two players swap roles whenever Stivín’s marimba infuses just enough harmonic support for a pianistic solo.  When the watershed moment finally comes, the entire “band” is at the ready – the flutes, the saxophone, vocal snippets, piano, cembalo, marimba and the strings – peaking in ecstasy redolent of Keith Tippett’s large ensembles.  For a moment, Stivín’s saxophone turns torrid, his phrasing gets shorter.  The apotheosis ends when the Andean piccolo flutters away in complete solitude.  Spectacular. 






BLUE EFFECT & JAZZ Q: “Coniunctio” (1970)


Jiří STIVÍN – Rudolf DAŠEK: “Our System Tandem” (1974)

Jiří STIVÍN – Rudolf DAŠEK: “System Tandem” (1975)

SYSTEM TANDEM: “Koncert v Lublani” (1976)

Jiří STIVÍN: “Zvěrokruh” (1976)


Jiri Stivín’s discography is much more extensive.  Note, however, that he does not feature on any of the Jazz Q records that followed the revolutionary “Coniunctio”.  Although “Coniunctio” and “Zvěrokruh” are in a class of their own, the remaining recordings listed above are also of interest for those who have developed a taste for European borderline avant-jazz of the 1970s.  His later sessions with Pierre Favre were reputedly of equally high quality.


Published in: on August 11, 2008 at 9:50 pm  Leave a Comment  
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