New York’s Wet Ink Ensemble gave its only currently announced live performance, and its first concert since having to cancel its 2020-21 season, on 20th August in an evening of surprises and delights at the Time:Spans festival. And while it would be rash and premature to make assumptions about the future of the composer/performer collective based on a single program, it was hard not to notice a divergence from the past in the evening of world premieres.

Wet Ink Ensemble
© Thomas Fichter

Even the presence of a trumpeter onstage with the ensemble was unusual (if not altogether unprecedented). Ben LaMar Gay, visiting from Chicago, fit into the ensemble’s work ethic well, playing on two of the four pieces and bringing his own composition – Known Better, Still Lit – into the mix. Gay has connections with Chicago’s venerable and longstanding Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a model of composer/performer support and self-sufficiency within the jazz avant garde, and those dispositions were present in his piece for Wet Ink. Gay’s score structured fantastically rich orchestrations for the octet, with quick themes stated and abandoned that recalled past AACM masters, notably co-founder Muhal Richard Abrams. 

Gay also played on electronicist Sam Pluta’s Systems of Interaction I, a dense piece that afforded him two solos and challenged the lines between composition and improvisation. The piece also managed a striking level of suspense within stasis, like a charting of molecular activity becoming more distinct with magnification. Momentum mounted slowly, as if weighed down by the static and sputters from Pluta’s laptop. Pluta has worked in abstract improvisation in the past (notably with British saxophonist Evan Parker), but here it was hard to escape how tightly controlled the ensemble was. 

Cellist Mariel Roberts, a recent addition to the Wet Ink core lineup, presented her first composition for the ensemble. Or we don’t need light began with a staggeringly tight pair of lines for violin and cello. The nervous energy of the strings was soon countered by a bold and fairly beautiful duo for pianist Eric Wubbels and Ian Antonio on vibraphone. By the time saxophonist Alex Mincek and flutist Erin Lesser entered with soft, prolonged tones, even the act of listening felt a bit like spinning plates. The piece plateaued within an electronic wash and an opportunity to luxuriate in their playing; they are all, besides composers, fine musicians. 

Those three pieces all dealt in hazy structures and nebulous forms, very much in opposition to the tight rhythms of Mincek’s So Many Ways, which closed the concert. It was the most exciting piece on a challenging program of abstraction and ethereal forms, which hasn't always been a hallmark of Wet Ink’s work. The absence of soprano Kate Soper contributed to the evening’s diversions; while she was listed on the program, it was announced before the concert that the “artistic decision” had been made to not include her in the concert. Such changes can seem significant with a composer collective. Kronos Quartet can go from Berg to Bollywood and they’re just different projects. But with an ensemble like Wet Ink, the shift can feel tidal. They may not prove to be so, of course, and in any event, an ensemble as vibrant as Wet Ink needs new surprises to maintain the delight.