Last Friday, a large portion of the Bay Area new-music community gathered at Berkeley Arts in an evening of large-ensemble improvisation and to raise money to help fellow local musician Jay Korber. Korber had been seriously injured recently when he was struck by a street sweeper truck in San Francisco, and this concert was a benefit to raise funds and support his recovery.
The first half of the concert featured a specially convened Moe!kestra conducted by Moe! Staiano. The ensemble consisted of woodwind, percussion and electric-guitar sections. I managed to incorporate myself into the “guitar” section with an iPad and amplifier. Moe!’s conducting consisted of a series of simple gestures aimed at individuals or groups of performers that led to both an expressive and varied performance and entertaining conducting.
In the above photo, Moe! is actually giving a “V” sign to some of the guitarists, and not giving them “the finger”, although that gesture was used by both conductors during the course of the evening. You can hear our first piece from the performance here (recording courtesy of friend and fellow participant Neal Trembath):
The second half of the concert featured an ensemble conducted by Gino Robair:
This group was heavier on horns, and overall had a jazzier feel to it. While the majority of the set consisted of large-scale free-jazz improvisation with dynamic runs, hits, and responses, the final piece was based on a Miles Davis riff that was initially repeated and then deconstructed. It was a bit of a musical in-joke, but I for one like having familiar idioms alongside experimentation.
In all, it was a fun night of music and fellowship, and the event raised quite a bit of money for Jay Korber. We wish him a full and speedy recovery.
The main included a performance of Cage’s Score Without Parts on SFMOMA’s rooftop terrace, conducted by Gino Robair with texts by Tom Djll. The performance was in conjunction with the opening of the museum’s intriguing minimalist design exhibition Field Conditions. There were even hors d’oeuvres served on tiles from one of the pieces in the exhibit. Unfortunately, because of another commitment I only arrived at the tail end of the performance, so I did not hear enough to reasonably review it.
The main concert opened with members of sfSoundGroup performing Cartridge Music. This is the same piece that concluded the Music of Changes: Variation VIII concert a few weeks earlier, and featured the same personnel: Matthew Goodheart, Kyle Bruckmann, Matt Ingalls, and Tom Dambly. However, I felt that this was a stronger performance. Some of this may have been the staging and the sound support, but it also seemed that the cues for various elements were crisper and tighter, and the selection of sounds to use with the contact mics (i.e,, “catridges”) was more focused and suited to the structure of the piece. As in all music, practice and review from earlier performances helps.
This was followed by a performance of Cage’s most famous work, 4’33″. Normally, the piece is for a single pianist, but this particular performance featured a laptop ensemble. After all, it is a festival of electronic music.
The performers (mostly members of SFEMF’s steering committee) sat in silence, as required by the score of the piece, with a few motions here and there. The audience mostly listened respectfully as well, I only noticed a few deliberate comments at soft volume. Thus, it was a successfully executed performance of the piece. I hope none of the laptops crashed.
The score for Fontana Mix, which is itself a work of art with curving lines and randomly distributed points, is actually a tool for generating other pieces. Aria is one such piece that Cage himself generated. For this performance, Fontana Mix with electronic sounds and Aria for voice were layered on top of one another, with Daniel Steffey and Christina Stanley performing the layers on electronics and voice, respectively.
My least favorite performance of a Cage composition was a boring and long version of Fontana Mix, so I had a little bit of trepidation. But this realization by Steffey and Stanley was vibrant and dynamic. Stanley’s vocals moved between numerous styles of singing (e.g., classical, popular, cabaret) and languages, punctuated by percussive strikes on found objects. Steffey’s foundation of electronic timbres was strong as well, with a lot of variation that left room for the vocals. Using these elements, they were able to realize genuine musical phrases and structure with a sense of narrative from the abstract scores.
The final performance of the evening was a realization of Variations II by Guillermo Galindo that featured a mariachi band. A mariachi band performing John Cage is certainly unusual, but in truth no different from any other interpretation of his scores with open instrumentation. For this performance, a four-piece group Mariachi Nueva Generación with traditional costumes and instrumentation, including violin, trumpet, the distinctive large guitarrón mexicano, and guitar.
Like Fontana Mix, Variations II is based on graphical elements that are combined to form instances of the composition. Specifically in this case, the interpreter combines lines and dots that represent musical elements that can then be notated for the performers. The result in this instance was a very sparse texture. The musicians would often play a single or pair of disjoint notes surrounded by periods of silence. There were only a few moments where multiple members of the ensemble played at the same time. The texture is a familiar one from realizations of Cage’s indeterminate pieces, but the overall experience with the band was a novel one.
The musical performance was preceded by a video with documentation and commentary produced by Jen Cohen. The video had some fun moments, with befuddled Mills professors reacting to the idea of a mariachi band performing Cage, and allusions to the graphical elements of the Variations II score. It didn’t feel like it was necessary to the experience of the performance. Nonetheless, Galindo considered it an “inseparable part of the piece and one doesn’t exist without the other.”
Overall, it was a strong opening concert for the festival, and it was quite well attended.
The Outsound Music Summit continued with The Composers Muse, a night of new compositions by three noted Bay Area composers. They were participants in the Composers’ Forum that I moderated earlier in the week, where they gave tantalizing descriptions of their work. On this evening, we finally got to hear what they were talking about.
The concert opened with the Skadi Quartet performing compositions by Christina Stanley, who also is the first violist for the quartet. Her compositions were based on large abstract oil paintings that were placed center stage, with members of ensemble arrayed to either side.
As someone interested in visual art as well as music, I was quite intrigued by this piece, and how the composer wanted the performers to interpret the visual work. Stanley had very specific instructions for performers in each piece for how to perform the score. In the first piece, Put it On, performers were to move visually from the focal point just to the lower right of center and move outwards, with different shapes corresponding to very specific sounds and modes of playing. You can see a close-up of the score at Stanley’s website. Within this structure, the music began with short notes and then moved to longer bow strokes, jaggedly moving up and down in pitch. My visual and aural senses focused on the straight-line character of both the score and the music. At one point, the performers diverged into different textures, with staccato notes against longer lines and glissandi that then melted into a single harmony. There were also elements of noise and percussive scraping, harmonics, and quite a bit of empty space in the sound. The piece concluded with a large and more traditional flourish.
The second piece was a duo of Stanley and cellist Crystal Pascucci. The score for this piece was more sparse with curving lines, and these qualities were reflected in the music as well. It started with harmonics and other high, airy tones. Overall, it was more melodic, but with some pizzicato tones as well. Gradually, the cello became lower and filled out the harmony, which seemed almost folk-music-like at times. There other elements such as sliding harmonics, but overall it still fit with the visual imagery of the score.
The next set featured a solo piece written and performed by Matthew Goodheart for piano and metal percussion. Gongs and cymbals were placed at various spots around the hall, including in the balcony. A small transducer was attached to each of the instruments so that it could be excited by electronically generated sounds.
The sounds used to excite the metal percussion were created by analyzing the partials and spectra of such instruments, a process that was part of his research involving “recursive physical object electro-acoustics” at the Center for New Music and Audio Technologies (CNMAT). The acoustic and spectral properties of these sounds also informed Goodheart’s live piano performance during the piece.
The music that resulted was unusual and exceptionally beautiful. It began with high ethereal harmonics coming from the cymbals and gong spreading across the hall, and then high notes from the piano to match. The piano and some of the harmonics featured in the metal percussion gave the music an air of anxiety even while it was calming. As the harmonics grew thicker, the timbre grew more metallic and at moments took on the quality of water pouring. The music became more active, deeper harmonics and a few tones that sounded like flutes and clarinets alongside the metallic resonances. Again, Goodheat’s piano matched the changes in timbre as he moved into lower registers. Some of the sounds from the cymbals became more disjointed, sounding like tops, and after a loud gong hit the texture of the music grew thicker and more inharmonic. Then all at once it stopped leaving a single resonance. It looked like Goodheart was playing inside the piano as well with various objects, though it was hard to tell from where I was sitting. There were various percussive sounds and something that reminded me of my cat scratching, and then piano became more harmonic and tonal again with rather plaintive chords. There were more high frequencies and electronic swells broadcast through the cymbals, and a finale with a single repeated note on the piano. Overall, the performance was one of the most memorable experiences of the summit.
The concert concluded with John Shiurba’s large-scale composition 9:9. The number 9 permeated the structure and concept of the piece. There were nine performers and nine movements; and the piece employed a nine-note scale and nine different styles of notation all derived in one way or another from newspapers – there was standard notation along with text and graphics, some of which were taken directly from newspaper clips. Shiurba described his use of newspaper elements as a “celebration and/or elegy for the old-fashioned print medium.”
The movements were bounded by vocal interpretations of cryptograms from the New York times. The encrypted text was sung by Polly Moller, who had to work through challenging clusters of consonants. The decrypted solutions, which often featured corny or trite phrases, were sung by Hadley McCarroll in a more melodic style. Within this structure, each movement began with a solo by one of the nine performers, with a couple of other instruments gradually joining in, and finally the entire ensemble. Each of the solo sections had a very different character, representing both the performer and his or her instrument. Ava Mendoza’s strong articulation on acoustic guitar stood out, and Polly Moller’s solo on bass flute sounded quite familiar from Reconnaissance Fly pieces. The piano solo by Hadley McCarroll was quite aggressive, as was the bass clarinet solo by Matt Ingalls. There were interesting moments in the ensemble playing as well, such as a big minor chord and a section that more jazz or cabaret-like. Other sections were extremely quiet. The final movement featured a percussion solo by Gino Robair on a variety of instruments and implements, which mirrored the introduction to the piece. Other members of the ensemble included Philip Greenlief on clarinet, Monica Scott on cello, Scott Walton on bass, and Sarah Wilner on violin.
This was a very successful concert for the Outsound Music Summit, and not only musically. We had a full house at the Community Music Center, and I am pretty sure we set a record for paid attendance. There was certainly a lot of Outsound, curator Polly Moller, the composers and performers to be proud of.
The concert series of the Outsound Music Summit began this Wednesday with Sonic Poetry, a night combining poetry and live improvised music. This was a first for the summit, with three leading Bay Area poets collaborating with local improvising musicians. Each of the sets featured a different style of poetry, which was reflected in the music and performances.
The first set featured Ronald Sauer, a leading figure in the North Beach poetry scene. His poetry was infused with social satire and provocative imagery, and his reading style had that driving tumbling-forward energy reminiscent of earlier poets of that scene. In this performance he was joined by percussionists Jacob Felix Huele and Jordan Glenn.
The music began with deep ambient sounds and resonances as Heule rubbed a cymbal on a bass drum and Glenn struck metal bowls atop a set drum. Sauer then launched in a humorous poem whose lines poked fun at different poet stereotypes. The music moved into rich textures with mallets, stick hits, vocal sounds and buzzing – the latter occurred as the words alluded to mosquitoes. The next poem, a gentler piece about garnering, was accompanied by soft rattling sounds and resonant metallic rods. Tuned percussion and inharmonic timbres supported Sauer’s “romantic” poem that was featured rather intense sexual language and imagery – and which prompted the evening’s lead curator Robert Anbian to exclaim “Now Ron, don’t hold back!” One of final poems of the set featured the memorable line “The life of an artist is an elegant suicide.”
The next set was a duo featuring poet and performer rAmu Aki with musician Karl Evangelista on guitar and electronics. rAmu Aki’s poetry is deeply rooted in the landscape and culture of San Francisco’s Tenderloin (“TL”) neighborhood where he lives, and by his own declaration was inspired “by the voices inside his head.” He also wore an impressive blue feathered headdress.
Alongside Aki’s fast rhythmic words, Evangelista began with an anxious chromatic guitar line. Phrases like “City of Light” and “English Harassment” were followed by sounds with distortion and other effects, and looping to produce contrapuntal textures. The poetry was full of references to the Tenderloin, some of which like the street names, were familiar, others less so. There were light chords against angrier words, surf tone and more distorted guitar moaning. During a break, there was a rather pretty guitar solo on top of which followed a gentler and prettier poem. A jazzier and more rhythmic section of music accompanied the poem “Grove and Laguna Sunset.” Overall, the duo has a strong musical rapport, with rhythmically tight starts and stops to phrases, and pauses that allowed the music to come through clearly.
The final set featured poet Carla Haryman and musician John Raskin on saxophone and other instruments, joined by Gino Robair on percussion and prepared piano. Unlike the other collaborations in this concert, Haryman and Raskin have worked together for a while, and I was quite looking forward to hearing their performance.
The music began with the sound of bowed metal followed by soft staccato tones on the saxophone. Haryman’s words were also quite staccato and worked well with the sparse percussive texture of the music. Indeed, I was quite drawn to her more abstract poetry, and I found myself listening to individual words as if they were percussion instruments mixed in with the other parts of the music. There were more metal ringing sounds against a longer and more melodious saxophone line, and some electronic sounds that reminded me of old video games. Raskin also recited words at various times, either independently or in sync with Haryman. Gino Robair’s Blippo Box provided its usual liquidy percussive sounds that blended with the saxophone and words. One particular line that stuck with me, and stuck together as a full phrase, was “why is it that some afternoons turn into Miles Davis events?”
The next piece was from a larger work in which the text of a lecture by musicologist and critic Theodor Adorno was processed into a new poetic form and recited by Haryman while Robair performed on prepared piano. Raskin also participated in reciting the text, helping turn parts in a dialogue that included the lament that we “cling to the term new music” unlike visual art which doesn’t hold on to an equivalent overarching term (though one could argue that “modern art” is an equivalent). The overall effect was quite humorous, especially in an audience steeped in experiencing and talking about new music. The piece entitled “Orgasm” was more frenetic, with electronic noises and Raskin employing electronic and electromechanical devices inside a large brass-instrument mute. The final piece featured Raskin playing a squeeze box and Haryman reciting phrases that felt more narrative than the individual words of the earlier pieces, and visual imagery such as “waking hours shiver under glass.”
My experience with poetry is that it tends to be far denser than standard language. As such, it can be a challenge to listen to in sets that are 30 minutes long or more. The rhythmic musicality and phrasing employed by rAmu Aki and the sparse abstract texture of Carla Haryman’s poetry made them work particularly well in the longer setting of a musical performance.
The evening was well attended, with many unfamiliar faces who followed the work of the featured poets but may have been experiencing new-music concerts for the first time. Overall, it was a very strong and dynamic opening concert for the Summit.
The first Thursday of this month featured an impressive performance by Andrea Centazzo together with Gino Robair at the Luggage Store Gallery in San Francisco. I had missed an earlier performance of theirs at another Bay Area venue earlier the week, but glad I was able to make this one.
The evening opened with solo sets by Trevor Dunn on upright bass and Travis Laplante on saxophone. Dunn’s set unfolded as a single piece, which had just started when I arrived. It was a combination of long bowed notes that are part of traditional bass practice along with timbral effects and more percussive extended techniques. The low tones filled the room nicely and provided a more meditative start to the evening.
Laplante’s solo saxophone set was quite a contrast in terms of energy and dynamics. It was nearly all extended technique with fast runs of notes. And it was quite loud. Given the acoustically active nature of the Luggage Store Gallery, this made for some interesting effects. I think the combination of the two sets worked well. Dunn and Laplante were touring the west coast of the United States and Canada together, so I suspect their contrasting styles played into their other performances as well.
Afterwards, the audience shifted 90 degrees towards the front of the gallery, where two tables festooned with a variety of percussion and electronic gear awaited the start of the second set. Andrea Centazzo’s table was dominated by the MalletKAT, a marimba-like electronic controller.
He also had a variety of small acoustic percussion, as well as this toy that he said was from a previous visit to San Francisco in the 1980s.
Gino Robair had his usual assortment of percussion, noisemakers and electronics, including the Blippo Box and his signature broken cymbals.
The set began in either a dramatic fashion, nor in an especially subtle way. It was well timed and well balanced and drew one quickly into the music. As I have said on previous occasions, a masterly improvisation performance will balance rhythm, dynamics and timbres into a cohesive whole, and this performance was no exception. Even with the “noisy” source instrumentation, I felt like the interaction of the performers created a harmonic structure of sorts to go along with the rhythms. And the electronic and acoustic elements blended well in this context. You can hear a short excerpt in this video:
Overall, this was a great performance, and I sat quietly and intently in full absorption of the music, foregoing the note-taking I sometimes do during experimental-music concerts. And it was a perfect conclusion to what had been a long day of not only experimental music but art-gallery openings. But that is another story.
The Outsound Music Summit continued last Friday with “The Art of Composition”, performances of new works by Krystyna Bobrowski, Gino Robair, Andrew Raffo Dewar and Kanoko Nishi. I had heard these four composers discuss their work at the panel session a few days earlier. Now it was time to hear their music.
There was an impressive array of equipment on the stage. Much of it was for Krys Bobrowski’s two pieces.
Balloons have definitely been a big theme of this year’s summit. (Tom Djll featured a balloon in the previous night’s concert, and Tom Nunn featured them in his instrument the following night) In this case, the balloon was used as a resonator in Bobrowski’s Lift, Loft and Lull. Gino Robair struck the “gong”, the large metal rectangle, and brought the balloon close to it. The combination of the balloon’s acoustics and the connected microphone produced a unique resonance effect (and a clever use of acoustic and electronic effects). Against this, Bobrowski played a wildly curved orange horn-like instrument made from kelp that brought to mind a shofar.
The second movement brought the duo together on a single instrument, a large metallic xylophone-like instrument where long tubes were resting on…balloons(!). At first, they played the instrument in a standard way, producing percussive melodies with mallets. But over time, they began to explore different sounds of the instrument, such as rubbing the tubes, and also producing a sound that suggested a motorized device. They also placed different preparations on the instrument to invoke different effects and articulations.
You can see an excerpt of the performance in this video:
Bobrowski and Robair also performed a piece featuring the composer’s glass glass instrument in a duet with wine glasses. I had last heard Bobrowski play gliss glass at the benefit dinner. It was interesting to hear the instrument contrasted with the wine glasses.
Robair played them traditionally, rubbing the rims to produce strong resonances, but also used tapping and splashing in the water as percussion. The gliss glass vessels, by contrast, can be drained and filled while they are played, resulting in pitch-bend effects that were put to strong use in the piece. There was lots of complex phrasing as well as eerie harmonies and unexpected sound effects. At times, the harmonies were more anxious and expectant, while at other moments they approached romantic tonality.
Andrew Raffo Dewar’s Interactions Quartet presented Dewar’s new piece Strata, which was inspired by a series of paintings by Argentine artist Eduardo Serón. You can see examples of Serón’s work in this video. His abstract paintings – which I, too, found musically inspiring – feature simple shapes and colors in tight compositions. These simple but powerful visual elements were reflected the clean acoustic notes and sounds of the music. It started out very sparsely, with individual disconnected notes on each instrument. Individual notes became short phrases, and eventually slightly longer lines that intertwined in an undulating counterpoint. The music was quite meditative, with the modal quality and contrapuntal texture, but also had a strong emotional undercurrent. One interesting moment featured the saxophone (Dewar), oboe (Kyle Bruckman) and marimba (Gino Robair) converging into a single pitch range and timbre. Eventually, the complex rhythms coalesced into a single triple meter with a strong driving rhythm anchored by John Shiurba’s percussive guitar and metric beating of ankle bells by Robair. Above the metric foundation one could hear playful descending lines. After staying together rhythmically for a while, the different lines and instruments went their own ways, with various shakers, harmonics on guitar and english horn, and an impressive passage of multiphonics by Dewar on soprano sax – all still remaining within a strong sense of counterpoint.
Kanoko Nishi presented her original graphic scores as interpreted Tony Dryer on contrabass and Italian guitarist and visual artist IOIOI. It would have been interesting to see Nishi’s graphical scores, but the darkened room and minimal setting left ample opportunity for imagination. We did get a taste of what we were in for as Tony Dryer was setting up and soundchecking his equipment, and we were treated to several ear splitting bursts of loud feedback. The performance itself, however, began quite subtly with Dryer bowing very quietly on the bass. Every so often, there would be a louder scraping sound on the bass before returning to minimal levels. Then, all at once, there was a loud hit followed by a long LOUD sustain and feedback. These deliberate and had a great tone, but it was still very loud. When it finally cut out, it was like shutting off a very loud engine – there was even the rumbling slowing to a series of clicks. This was followed by a loop of low-frequency bass notes at a modest volume, which settled into a bit of a groove with noisier sounds layered on top. Eventually, higher electrical noises and squeaks overtook the sounds of the bass. Dryer concluded by playing the stand of the bass (now resting horizontally) with what appeared to be an instrument string.
The performance then transitioned seemlessly to IOIOI, who was also set up in front of the stage with minimal lighting. She began with long sustained notes in a tonality that sounded Middle Eastern, both in terms of the scale and the use of microtones and pitch bends. Things quickly grew louder, with high screeching tones and loud sustained tones that obscured the otherwise beautiful detailed guitar technique. As things quieted down a bit, I was able to focus more on the fine details, such as bends metallic resonances. IOIOI employed preparations in her guitar at times, such as chopsticks, that gave the instrument a more raspy, percussive sound. She also used bowing that yielded a vigorous passage of scratching tones. Overall, a virtuosic display.
Gino Robair returned for his third appearance of the evening, this time to present his Ensemble Aguacalientes, featuring Polly Moller on flutes and ocarinas, John Shiurba on guitar, Loren Mach on marimba, Jim Kassis on percussion and Scott Walton on bass. Aguacalientes is “a musical suite based on scenes captured by Jose Guadalupe Posada in his politically charged engravings of late19th -and early 20th-century life in Mexico”, many of which feature skulls and skeletons, or calaveras. In keeping with this source, the instrumentation of the ensemble reflects Mexican folk and popular music, including the ocarinas and percussion. The piece began with a very sparse texture, where short melodic lines on the flute headjoint were punctuated by percussion hits. Soon an array of other percussion, including a guiro, and the guitar and bass joined in, with numerous rhythmic lines set oddly against one another. The ocarina lines were longer and more traditionally melodic, but with the instrument’s distinctive sound. There were interesting timbral moments, such as a sinister interplay between harmonics on the bass and guitar, and a more gentle combination of string-bass and bass-flute harmonics. I did find myself listening to the polyrhythms that emerged at various points during the piece, and for the more idiomatic moments that channeled the Mexican subject matter.
Overall, it was a strong concert, and seemed well received by the large audience. I was also left thinking about the often boisterous debate in the Bay Area new-music community between composition and improvisation. Having heard the improvisation-centric and composition-centric nights of the summit back-to-back, I am struck by how much similarity there was – one could have interleaved pieces from both nights into a single concert and ended up with a result that was musically consistent.
The Outsound Music Summit continued on Thursday night with a concert titled “The Freedom of Sound”. It is a rather lofty title that can mean many things – in this case it describes ensembles that have explored and perfected musical improvisation through many years of playing together. The emphasis on experience and discipline is a reminder that “freedom” is a double-edge sword, in music, in politics or any area of life. During the artist Q&A before the concert, Tom Djll of Grosse Abfahrt lamented that bad improvised music can just be “mush” – and any of us who have been immersed in improvisation for an extended period have experienced the mush. But the examples of free musical expression on display this night were very articulate, structured, with musicality and narrative.
Tri-Cornered Tent Show opened the evening with an “operatic improvisational song cycle.” In the Q&A, composer Philip Everett talked about the influence of the Vietnam War and legacy leading up to the seeming perpetual war of today in his piece. The subject was hard to miss as guest vocalist Dina Emerson sang the lines “After war came the barking of dogs” and “After the war came another” among others, allusions to the unending series of wars we have found ourselves in over the past few decades. Behind Emerson’s singing, regular group members Philip Everett, Ray Schaeffer and Anthony Flores provided a foundation of static noise, explosive synthesizer and drum phases and free improvisation that moved between disparate rhythms and lines to a single unified tone. In listening to performance, I was reminded of the traditional oratorio, with the theatrical operatic vocal performance with the dramatics and emotion but without the staging and costumes.
There were particular moments that I liked, such as the emergence of a funky bass-driven riff with percussion and harmonic support that went on for some time, while some of the electronics remained asynchronous. And then there was the movement of the piece where Emerson’s voice was front and center channeling the sound of a Southern blues or spiritual singer with minimal instrumental sounds, mostly strings and delay effects, and later metallic resonances.
Next up was Positive Knowledge, the duo of Oluyemi Thomas and Ijeoma Thomas. opened with free improvisation with bass clarinet and voice. They were able to make their disparate instruments sound quite a like a times, and if I wasn’t watching the performance I could have mistaken them for a saxophone duo. The unity diverged a bit as Ijeoma Thomas moved from free vocals to poetry. In the gaps between lines of the text, the clarinet provided squeaks, growls and other noisy sounds.
The instrumentation shifted throughout the performance, with recorder and whistle, expressive pentatonic humming, a walking gong, and poetry set against metallic percussion. The shifts in timbre and texture and movement between words and abstract sounds gave the sense of a story unfolding.
The final performance of the evening, featured Grosse Abfahrt. Regular ensemble members were joined by guest artist Kyle Bruckman. It began with a large balloon, which Tom Djll inflated and then placed over the mouthpiece of a trumpet. The resulting squeaky but steady sound served as a basis for the first part of the performance, and given the size of the balloon continued for quite a while. Kyle Bruckman on oboe matched the pitch of the balloon and trumpet quite closely, but with enough imprecision to leave interesting beating and timbral effects. The other performers entered into the mix, complementing the tone of the balloon and filling in the void when it finally expired. Tom Djll provided a number of creative noisy tones on the trumpet as well as other custom one instruments: a purple hose that could be played like a brass instrument but also spun around like a whirly. He also had a pair of long orange pipes that looked like didgeridoos and were played both trumpet-like and with air canister that is usually used for cleaning keyboards. Gino Robair continued percussion sounds such his signature oddly-shaped bowed cymbal and chaotic electronic sounds from the blippo box. Tim Perkis’ electronic sounds had a delightful liquidy quality that added a lot of fullness to the ensemble. John Shiurba’s guitar and effects pedals rounded things out with a harder sound closer to Djll’s trumpet than to the other electronics.
After all the performers joined in, the music gradually built into a thick noisy metallic texture – mostly a drone but with different shorter sounds in front. Then things shifted to softer, staccato sounds. I liked the empty space in which I could hear details like the distinctive timbre of the blippo box. There were other moments of soft, uniform tones among all the performers, register movement between high and low, wind noises and scratches, tiny sounds and loud drones. It was a powerful, energetic performance that went by rather quickly.
In total, it was a strong show, with three very different ensembles and styles that nonetheless fit together musically beyond simply the theme of free improvisation.
The Outsound Music Summit began this Sunday with the annual Touch the Gear Expo. Visitors have a chance to see and try out the equipment used by musicians and sound artists. We had a a diverse group of participants this year, and this short video gives a good overview of some of the sound and visuals that one would have encountered:
We had a decently sized turnout for the event, and the evening went by quickly. While not at my own station, I did my best to see others work, but did not get to everyone. For those who followed my live tweets from the event, the remainder of article might seem redundant, but I do provide more detail.
I brought a small rig that reflects my recent solo work, with an iPad as both a synthesizer and controller for software on the laptop, a monome, the Wicks Looper and a Korg Mini-Kaoss Pad.
The iPad was primarily running TouchOSC, controlling a version of my piece Charmer:Firmament running in Open Sound World on the laptop, as well as a few popular instruments like the Smule Magic Fiddle and Bebot. The monome was controlling sample loops, and the Wicks Looper was feeding into the Kaoss Pad.
Next me, Matt Davignon presented a turntable and effects pedals that was quite popular with visitors. There is still something compelling about a tactile and intuitive interface such as a turntable that compels people to want to play it. In contrast, the monome in particularly seemed to intimidate people.
There were many non-electronic offerings as well, including the quartz cantabile by Todd Larew. Who needs electronics when you have fire as your primarily technology!
Bob Marsh wandered the hall in a suit covered in plastic water bottles, some containing mechanical sound generating elements, and was quite a presence throughout the evening.
He also brought several other articles of sonic clothing for people to try on and play.
Tim Thompson brought his space palette, a large wall-sized controller in which one controls sound and visuals by moving in the various spaces in the panel.
I had seen him perform with the space palette before, but this my first opportunity to try it out myself.
Another original instrument, the Ernestophone, featured one main string and several sympathetic strings, and a very rich sonic palette of overtones.
Phogmasheen presented an instrument made from pick heads and cake pans.
One strikes the metal elements with mallets or sticks, and then pickups process the output electronically.
This is not the first time I have seen a classic 1950′s HP oscillator at Touch the Gear, but it’s the first time I have seen one paired with a Peerless transistor radio, for a very retro noise experience.
Noise rigs are a common theme, particularly chains of effects pedals and mixers that operate solely on the noise inherent in electronic circuits but then amplify and shape it through non-linear processes of the effects change into rich and chaotic sound palettes. One example is this colorful rig from CJ Borosque. I was able to get subtle an expressive control of the sound by focusing on only a couple of knobs.
Other participants included Tom Nunn presenting one of his sonic inventions, Rick Walker demonstrating high virtuosic use of live-looping hardware and Laurie Amat getting rather humorous results from the sound of the crowd in the hall processed through a classic green Line6 delay pedal.
The panel discussion on Monday night, entitled “Elements of non-idiomatic compositional strategies” was quite a contrast to Touch the Gear Night. Four composers, Kanoko Nishi, Andrew Raffo Dewar, Krystyna Bobrowski, and Gino Robair engaged in a discussion moderated by Polly Moller about their music, influences and views on composition in front of an intimate audience with plentiful wine, cheese and dark chocolate.
One of the interesting questions was whether each of the composers began their ideas with sound, or a focus on sound. Not surprisingly, the answer was no – although sound was the medium of creativity, the source ideas can come from anywhere. In speaking about his piece for the Friday concert at the summit, he described how the work was influenced very directly by paintings by the Argentine artist Eduardo Serón. Gino Robair similar painted a very visual and conceptual influence for his suite based on the engravings of Jose Guadalupe Posada of late19th -and early 20th-century life in Mexico, and the skeletons and skulls in particular. Kanoko Nishi referred “music completely devoid of symbols”; and Krystyna Bobrowski described her work with her created instruments as a “sonic bloom of resonance”, perhaps my favorite phrase of the evening.
Other topics discussed included composing for instruments or sounds versus composing for particular musicians, i.e., “instead of preparing the piano, prepare the pianist” (as I pianist, I am not sure how I feel about being prepared), and questions about the rewards of composing experimental music – because it was accepted by panelists and audience alike that their are neither financial nor sexual riches to be gained by this pursuit. Perhaps the response that rang most true to me was that composing music is an obsessive-compulsive activity that some of us just have to do whether we like it or not.
For those who not familiar with the terms, think of idiomatic music as music that falls into recognizable patterns and genres that one can readily identify, so non-idiomatic music is music that attempts to defy such categorization. However, I often find the dichotomy not particularly useful. I sympathize with the composers’ desire to two work that transcends past categorization, and I often strive to do the same thing – but we can’t help but be influenced by the music and sounds around us, and shouldn’t necessarily fear the appearance of these influences in music that we call “new”. It was also interesting how much all four panelists distanced themselves from mathematics, even while acknowledging the deep and longstanding interconnection with music.
Two Sundays ago, I attended a performance at Artist Television Access featuring electro-acoustic audio-visual improvisations with John Butcher, Bill Hsu and Gino Robair. Bill Hsu provided the visual elements of the performance using the visualization environment Processing. (I have been interested in Processing for a while, and used it in the abstract graphics in my video piece featuring Luna.) Gino Robair had an array of electronic devices, including a Blippo Box and an Alesis effects unit, and acoustic percussion for a variety of sounds. John Butcher provided the low-tech counterpoint on saxophone.
I arrived late to an already pitch-black room as the first piece was concluding. (I was late because I was looking for a parking spot, which in the Mission is usually an ordeal. and I rarely drive there, but I had to on this night because of other obligations.) The next piece began in darkness, with small colored dots and a very sparse musical texture. The sound primarily consisted of electronic drones and long saxophone tones. As the the dots began to expand, so did the music. It became more active and featured more percussive sounds from Robair. As the graphics grew more complex, with swells and streaks, the music veered from discrete sounds to outright skronking with long runs of fast notes from both performers.
The next piece featured graphics that reminded me a bit of finite-element simulations with large numbers of particles forming in and out of patters. At first the particles seemed to form glyphs or characters of a written language, but then dissolved into smoke. This was set against sparse music, featuring bowed metal. (It was too dark to see, but I am pretty sure this was Gino Robair’s signature cracked cymbal.) The graphics shifted gradually over time, sometimes it seemed more like water, sometimes more like sand. Towards the end, the music (both saxophones and percussion) moved towards rather piercing high tones.
After a brief intermission, the performance resumed with the now familiar sound of the Blippo Box. It is interesting how despite having chaotic processes, this instrument has a very distinctive set of timbres and contours that are quickly recognizable. I did find out after the performance that the Blippo Box was being used in conjunction with an Alesis effects unit, which added more dimensions to the sound without changing its inherent character. Butcher attempted to match the sound on his saxophone, coming into unisons on the steady-state pitches, but then moving in chaotic runs of fast notes are growling timbres during the more turbulent output from synthesizer. The graphics during this piece focused on two closed elements, one yellow and one purple. They were mostly round shapes that curved in on themselves, but they occasionally coalesced into representational objects, such as a complex cross shape with sub-bars on the end (a bit like an Eastern Orthodox crucifix), and vague outlines of human figures.
The next piece was a sharp contrast musically, with drum samples and live percussion set against percussive saxophone effects, such as key clicks and tonguing. The graphics featured a red star with a roiling plasma surface that expanded over time.
The graphics in the final piece connected most strongly with my own visual aesthetics. It featured patterns of vertical bars overlaid periodically with large dots. The patterns started out simple, focusing on just a few elements on colors, but got more complex and richly colored over time. The music set against these visuals again featured the Blippo Box and its constantly changing but distinctive sound palette. But rather than attempting to match it, Butcher’s saxophone provided a counterpoint. He wove together active lines and melodies that on occasion were distinctively jazz-like, and then moving back and forth between long runs and series of loud inharmonic tones.
Today we look back at a concert of works by Polly Moller at Trinity Chapel in Berkeley, CA that I attended back in December. This concert was a large undertaking, not only with a full night of music by a single composer, but a large cast of characters from the Bay Area new-music scene, as one might see at an event like the Skronkathon, but in this case all working towards a single purpose and vision. There were several pieces I was already familiar with from previous performances, including two that I have performed myself. Three others were being premiered. Mythology and narrative seemed to permeate all of the pieces, whether drawn from specific mythological stories or unfolding through rituals and rule-based processes.
(As with several of the larger performances and events I attended last year, I was live tweeting @catsynth, and have included a few choice tweets in this larger review.)
The concert opened with a performance of The Flip Quartet. I had first seen it performed at Hypnogogia at the Climate Theater in 2009, and then had the opportunity to participate in a performance myself later the same year. This performance brought back the original lineup of Karl Evangelista, Jason Hoopes, Thomas Scandura and Bill Wolter. Four stations were set up, representing the four cardinal directions and the traditional elements of air, water, fire and earth. At each station was an array of instruments and other objects that in some way represented that element (e.g., wind instruments at the air station, electrical instruments at the fire station, etc.). Each performer starts at a station and improvises using the objects for two minutes before advancing to the next and repeating the process. Musically, this can really go in many any number of directions (no pun intended) based on the particular objects available and the sensibilities of the performers involved. Often the sounds happen coincidentally, but every so often the four performers come together and produce that is musically integrated (@catsynth Lots of nice gurgling and drumming and whistling. Strong musical moment.) This was the first time I had seen the piece performed on a traditional proscenium. The previous performances were done in the round with the audience in the center and the stations surrounding them. While it was easier to see all the performers at once this way, there was something fun about the round format, the connection to the elemental and directional aspects and the ability to see the instruments close up.
Next was the premier of Duo No. 1 featuring Gino Robair on a variety of instruments and Krystyna Bobrowski playing a “sliding speaker instrument.” The piece has a dual identity as a narrative following the life cycle of a moth and an excuse to make Gino Robair “play really, really quietly.” And indeed, it was relatively quiet and subtle, but still with a lot of dynamic energy. Robair played a variety of percussion instruments, including the signature broken cymbal that I often see him play. Robair’s sounds are fed into the speaker in Bobrowski’s instrument and excite the tube, which she can then vary in length to change the timbre of the sound.
Bobrowski was able to get quite a variety of interesting timbres from her “acoustic signal processor”, which then informed how the improvisational duet unfolded within the context of the overall graphical score.
The next piece, Penelope, was perhaps the most traditional of the evening, as it was through composed for a single performer on piccolo with supporting vocal and foot-stomping parts. It was commissioned for and performed by Amy Likar.
The piece based on the final chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses (which is of course itself inspired by Greek mythology), and the extended piccolo techniques, combined with the irregular foot-stomp rhythms and repeated breathy voicing of the word “yes” are intended to “evoke Molly Bloom’s sensual stream of consciousness.” I found myself mostly focused on the combination of the foot stomps, trying to find syncopated patterns whether or not they were there, and the surprisingly powerful sounds from the extended instrumental techniques. (@catsynth Who knew the piccolo could be such an angry instrument?)
After a brief intermission, the concert resumed with a performance of the Three of Swords. I had first seen Polly perform this piece for Pamela Z’s ROOM series at the Royce Gallery in San Francisco. This version was performed by Sara Elena Palmer using vocals and electronics.
The narrative structure is a bit more abstract in this piece, but it is nonetheless present through the highly ritualized nature. The program notes describe it as a “sound-art divination ritual for solo performer and tarot cards.” It unfolds with the setting of a 20-minute hourglass and lighting a series of candles. For each candle, the performer draws a card from the tarot deck arrayed out in front of her, and interprets the card musically. (@catsynth http://yfrog.com/hsv2tzj pick a card any card.) At the end of each section, the corresponding candle is extinguished. Sara Elena Palmer’s bright red costume and head covering (which she removed during the recitation concerning the heart) seemed to be an integral part of her interpretation of the ritual. Among the more interesting musical elements she employed was a radio used to generate analog noise sounds.
The next piece, Alcyone is based on the Greek legend of Alcyone, the Kingfisher Queen, who calms the ocean for seven days before and after the winter solstice so she can incubate her eggs in a nest on the waves. (Appropriately, this concert took place three days before the winter solstice.) Musically, the piece opens with an energetic instrumental quartet featuring Philip Greenlief on clarinet, Cory Wright on bass clarinet, Lisa Mezzacappa on contrabass and Suki O’Kane on percussion. After a stretch of time, mezzo-soprano Laura Malouf-Renning entered the stage regally costumed with a black cape and crown and carrying a nest with Christmas ornaments (@catsynth A festive birds nest). She silenced the instrumentalists one by one with a tap on the shoulder, and began an expressive monologue.
The final piece of the evening was Genesis for 12 performers. I had first seen this piece at its premier at the Quickening Moon Concert last year, and then had the opportunity to perform it myself with Cardew Choir last summer. This version followed closely the personnel and interpretation of the original performance, featuring Polly as the conductor and Matt Davignon in the role of the new universe. The piece combines “Western magical tradition” with the concept of the 11-dimensional universe from string theory. The performers represent each of the dimensions, with special roles for the conductor, the timekeeper who represents the time axis, and three performers representing the conventional spatial dimensions. The final performer represents the new universe that is born from the multi-dimensional processes.
The performers are arranged in a very specific spiral formation with the new universe (Davignon) at the center. The conductor (Moller) carries chimes and walks the spiral, tapping each performer to enter or exit. The sound starts out slowly and gradually, but then builds into a loud crescendo as the new universe is born. At this point, Davignon took over with a solo on live electronics. Like many of his other electronic performances, he achieves a very organic sound with lots of textural details, sometimes liquidy or like a series of objects being shaken or dropped. After the new universe solo, the spiral reverses as the other dimensions re-enter, but gradually get softer before a final statement by the new universe.
(@catsynth #pollymoller concert concludes. Good night!)