On May 25, 2023, reed virtuoso and composer Sha graced the suburbs of Greater Boston with a private house concert, his last performance of a six-month residency in the States. As the focal point of an eclectic crowd bound by trust and camaraderie, he embodied a sense of belonging rarely felt in a musical setting since the pandemic siloed musicians from their listeners. I was deeply grateful to have witnessed this unfolding, working its regeneration through a series of themes connected by tissue grown moment by precious moment. In the company of such warmth, mutual admiration, and creative seeking, along with a sprightly pug named Zoe (more on her below), we had only affirmation to share in the resonant chamber Sha created for those gathered.
Best known for his work with Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin, the Swiss outfit in which he adds critical exhalations to wood and wire, Sha had never considered himself a “solo” artist until he was asked to play in that capacity for a music festival in Tehran. The suggestion of that experience led to his first unaccompanied album, Monbijou, a 35-minute suite of three pieces originally recorded in the hollows beneath the box girder bridge it was named for. Listening in such intimate quarters, however, it was clear that in his approach, the artist is never alone. Rather, we were invited by default into a sense of community teetering between mortality and charity.
The title composition began as if from afar, activating the bass clarinet like a fog horn calling out to the souls of the recently departed. Thus, it welcomed variations of color and monochrome with minimal embellishment. On the latter note, despite a modest yet potent array of foot pedals, Sha kept his technological interventions tasteful and sincere, using them not to mask the sounds but cultivate them. (Even his liberal use of circular breathing felt like a necessary apparatus.) Whether adding reverb to mimic the music’s cavernous origins or making use of loops to consummate the palette at hand, he never once let the artifice of his accoutrements hinder appreciation of what was otherwise being rendered before us in real time.
A magical hiccup occurred when, at one point, the above-mentioned Zoe barked in the background. Sha happened to catch her instinctive utterance in a loop, recycling it like a wordless mantra between rasps of intercession for some minutes. Through the insight of repetition, the canine voice became a haunting textural element, a sense of home lost amid the waves of a future calm.
Sha’s uniquely percussive approach to his instruments called forth a fresh aura of expression in primordial terms, reminding us that rhythm is necessarily collective. From this tunnel emerged a train loaded with melodic freight, placing us at the windows, where we could watch as if listening (and vice versa). The scenery flowed by on repeat until changes suggested a forward progression into territories yet to be rendered.
For the second piece, “MM,” Sha horizontalized the bass clarinet to make way for an alto saxophone, in the bell of which he sharpened an array of motivic pencils to mark the paper of our regard. With a requiem’s solemnity, he cast a shadow across the room, made all the more bittersweet for making me acutely aware of the cars going by outside the window. Knowing they would never hear or share these moments with us, I felt honored to be privy to them. As in the brief “Intro,” ironically closing the set by way of encore, its hints of dance turned every pause into a portal of understanding for the wider world, quieting into the rustle of clothing as we prepared to applaud what we had just been given.
Just as the sun’s corona cannot be seen without covering its source, Sha’s music reveals its spirit through obfuscation. This was especially apparent when the digital cloak fell, leaving lungs and bass clarinet to converse with the space’s signature frequency, fading like a technology whispering its final will and testament.
(All pre-concert photos by Tyran Grillo, except for Zoe, who appears courtesy of her gracious human family.)