Archive for the “Improv” Category

 

Active Music Festival posterThe San Francisco Bay Area has long been a friendly and nurturing environment for musicians “without a home” – operating between and outside of genres.  For those shut out of the concert halls and jazz clubs, it’s been a haven where non-traditional musicians build non-traditional alliances, and run non-traditional music venues and concert series where they can take risks and create uncompromising work.  Over decades of community-building and creative ferment, this lack of formal boundaries has defined the sound and feel of the scene, interweaving free improvisation with elements of noise, minimalism, rock, jazz, drone, chamber music, electronica, and other more slippery sounds which resist categorization.

The scene’s relentless DIY approach has led to the establishment of numerous artist-run concert series and festivals, of which the Outsound New Music Summit, the Tom’s Place house concert series in Berkeley, the SIMM Series at the Musicians’ Union Hall, the Wednesday and Sunday series at the Berkeley Arts Festival Space, and the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival are just a few examples.  This month they’ll be joined by a brand-new one, the Active Music Festival, covering February 20-22 in downtown Oakland. Read the rest of this entry »

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Duo00Ted Byrnes, Nicholas Deyoe and John Wiese joined forces on Tuesday, December 17, 2013 for an evening of improvisational music featuring percussion with guitar and electronics in a concert titled 2 Duos of Varying Volumes But Similar Intensities. About 25 people, a near-capacity crowd for the renovated loft space that is the Wulf, heard three different offerings in two duo configurations that included a wide variety of extended techniques.

Ted Byrnes is a drummer/percussionist living in Los Angeles via the Berklee College of Music in Boston and who is working now primarily in free improvisation, electro-acoustic music and noise. Nicholas Deyoe is a composer and has also conducted the La Jolla Symphony as well as Red Fish Blue Fish. John Wiese is a Los Angeles-based freelance musician and has toured extensively in Europe and Australia.

The first piece – Duo 2 – had Ted Byrnes stationed behind a more-or-less familiar drum kit, but with a number of unusual found objects within arm’s reach. Nicholas Deyoe accompanied on an acoustical guitar and began the piece with a loud shout. This was followed quickly by the application of palm fronds on the tom-tom and this produced a soft, pleasantly organic sound. Guitar chords joined in as well as a variety of slaps, plinks and more exotic sounds that were conjured by an animated Nicholas Deyoe.

As the piece progressed Ted worked through a series of objects directly on the drum head – pot lids, sheet metal plates, a hollow metal cymbal stand – these were struck with drum sticks, brushes, and even the performer’s knuckles. A cymbal was removed and placed on the snare drum head and played with brushes, producing a wonderfully complex sound. Dice were heard knocking within cupped hands. Even with all the movement that was required to sustain the sound, you could see the precision with which each object was obtained, incorporated in the percussive mix and then returned, with the flow of energy never lessening.  The result of all this was a sort of rolling sea that came in waves of varying dynamics and intensity. Less a rhythm than a wash of percussive sounds, some familiar and some almost industrial in character, but all suffused with great energy even in the quieter moments.

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The second piece – Duo 1 – combined Ted Byrnes with John Wiese on electronics. John was equipped with a sound board that allowed him to mix about a dozen different sounds that originated from a laptop computer. An amplifier and a series of speakers completed this set up. The electronic sounds added a solid foundation against which the sharp sounds of the percussion could offer some interesting contrast. Long booming sounds, screeches and squeals provided a continuous electronic texture while the ever-energetic Ted provided a varied mix of rapid percussion. To my ear the drumming seemed just a bit more conventional and offered a point of reference to the sometimes alien sounds coming from the speakers. But overall the balance with the electronics seemed just right and very effective. At times this piece was full of roar and commotion, but never seemed stressed or distorted.  Duo 1 concluded nicely with disarmingly warm tones from the electronics that faded to silence.

The third piece of the evening had Nicholas Deyoe on guitar rejoining Ted Byrnes in a final duo. There were some amazingly high sounds produced from a single guitar string combined with the usual activity in the percussion that at times seemed an virtual avalanche of sound. The drumming again sounded a bit more traditional and the dynamics in this piece were more noticeable. Although similar in texture to the first piece, this last duo surged in and out a bit more regularly – like watching the whitecaps on a choppy sea.

The percussion techniques used in this performance are interesting because all the extra found objects could have just as easily been hung separately to be struck individually, but Ted Byrnes has chosen to make them integral to the drum kit and applied them together. This produces many unusual sounds to be sure, but also mixes the familiar and the unfamiliar in a more calculated and artistic way. These pieces pushed the limits of rhythm, texture and density in new directions and invite the listener to rethink previously implicit musical boundaries.

wulf1The Wulf will present another  concert of duo improvisational music on January 29, 2014 at 8:00 PM that will feature Bonnie Jones and Andrea Neumann, whose work ” is a rich contradiction of textures and timbres with each artist committed to both defining and expanding the definitions of their music through long-term collaboration.”

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The Imani Winds: Jeff Scott, Toyin Spellman-Diaz, Valerie Coleman, Monica Ellis, and Mariam Adam.

Imani Winds: Jeff Scott, Toyin Spellman-Diaz, Valerie Coleman, Monica Ellis, and Mariam Adam. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

(Houston, TX) Since the group’s inception in 1997, the Imani Winds have continued to expand the relatively small-sized repertoire for wind quintet by commissioning several works by such forward-thinking composers as Alvin Singleton, Roberto Sierra, Stefon Harris, Daniel Perez, Mohammed Fairouz, and Houston’s own Jason Moran. Moran’s four-movement work Cane, Moran’s first composition for wind quintet, appears on the Imani Winds’ 2010 album Terra Incognita, along with pieces by two other jazz masters, Paquito D’Rivera and Wayne Shorter. (The Imani Winds appear on Shorter’s critically acclaimed 2013 live quartet album Without A Net in a scorching performance of his 23-minute through-composed work Pegasus.) Imani Winds members Valerie Coleman (flute) and Jeff Scott (horn) also compose and arrange for the quintet. In concert, the Imani Winds present traditional classical fare alongside new works that explore African, Latin American, and the Middle Eastern musical idioms and performance techniques.

On Tuesday, October 15, 2013, the Imani Winds make their Houston Friends Of Chamber Music debut at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music, performing arrangements of classic works by Ravel and Mendelssohn, Jonathan Russell’s powerful wind quintet arrangement of Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring, and Scott’s arrangement of Palestinian-American oud and violin virtuoso Simon Shaheen’s composition Dance Mediterranea, a piece that requires the quintet to play and improvise with Arabic scales or maqamat.

I spoke with Jeff Scott about the challenges of arranging Shaheen’s piece for the quintet as well as what it means to be a chamber wind ensemble in the 21st century.

Chris Becker: What are some challenges you faced in arranging Simon Shaheen’s music for the Imani Winds?

Jeff Scott: I listened to Shaheen’s piece over and over and over again so I could learn what I could do in the different section to offset it. We are an ensemble with five completely different sounding instruments that can create many different colors. So I listened to each section and thought, “Who could play the bass here? Who would sound great playing the solo line here? Who could really do something percussive on their instrument there to make it sound like an authentic version of the song?”

CB: There’s improvisation in your arrangement? Is that correct?

JS: Absolutely.

CB: Can you talk a little bit about the improvisation in the piece? Are you and your fellow winds improvising with scales? Are you improvising over some kind of harmony? Or is it even freer than that?

JS: It’s definitely structured. In that part of the world, the scale is called a maqam. This piece deals with three different maqamat. So for the solo sections, I only wrote out a rhythmic figure for whoever is playing the bass and the scale itself for whoever is playing the solo. The stuff in the middle is fleshed out completely and gives the top and bottom players guidelines they can follow.

In preparation for this piece, we had workshop rehearsals for learning the different maqamat and how to play inflect on our respective instruments the quarter tones and semitones that exist in those scales, so we wouldn’t just be playing a diatonic scale with two half steps and then calling that a maqam. That’s not it at all. The challenge was getting that g half flat just so! (laughs)

What separates people who play with those different scales and people who play Western music and diatonic scales, is that our ears are adjusted. We know when someone is playing a flat seventh, you know? But to be able to play it as part of a scale and know whether or not you’re just flat enough? (laughs) That’s a different thing! We played these scales in workshops for Shaheen almost like we were auditioning for him. We’d play, and he would say, “No, no, no…” and then play the scale with us and show us exactly where they fit. It’s a thing you just constantly have to work on because it’s not a part of our pedagogue. It’s not part of our training.

Before playing this piece, we’ll have our set of rehearsals the week before, and we’ll go through the shed of practicing those scales and testing one another.

CB: Is improvisation a part of your background? Or is it something new that you and the other members of the Imani Winds have explored since coming together as an ensemble?

JS: I’d say for the most part it’s new. Improvising wasn’t a part of our formal training. We all went to either the Manhattan School of Music or Juilliard. And it just wasn’t asked of you, it just wasn’t. Now, post-school? Yeah. You realize that in the 21st century commercial world, if you’re going to survive, regardless of what your training is, you have to be flexible enough to improvise. It was definitely harder for us coming into it, but more schools are requiring it these days. I think that’s really wonderful. The language of music from other countries is now filtering its way into the Western chronicles and as a musician, you have to be able to speak the different dialects. We have embraced it and really went out there and grabbed every possible challenge we could.

CB: What you say about conservatories in the U.S., that more programs are including improvisation and music from around the globe, is something I’m hearing about more and more in my interviews with younger musicians.

JS: It used to be shunned. When I was at the Manhattan School of Music, back in the 80s, I wrote this piece for horn and percussion that I wanted to play on one of my recitals. I remember playing the piece for my teacher and him not wanting me to do it because most of my part wasn’t written down and he couldn’t work with me on it. It wasn’t because the it sounded “bad” or “good,” he just didn’t know how to work with me on it as an improvised piece of music. And that said a whole lot about the institution and my training in general! (laughs) It speaks volumes!

CB: Tell me about the Imani Winds’ collaboration with saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter.

JS: We were asked to come and perform with him at the Hollywood Bowl on his 80th birthday along with Esperanza Spaulding, Herbie Hancock, Dave Douglas and all of these incredible musicians. We performed a piece that Shorter composed and arranged called Pegasus. It’s a symphony! The piece is written for his and wind quintet. It’s a symphony! It’s a mammoth, epic journey with improvisation from everyone involved, a through-composed piece with many different moods.

The whole thing started when the La Jolla Music Society in California commissioned Shorter to compose a piece for us, which he titled Terra Incognita. It was just for wind quintet, and it was the first piece he’d composed that didn’t involve him as a performer. He’d never written something for someone else that he didn’t intend to perform.

So he wrote this wind quintet and it was way out (laughs) with just as much room to improvise as you could possibly want. We didn’t know what the heck to do with it. So we learned everything note by note, and then played it for him. And he smiled and said, “That’s great. But promise me you’ll never play it like that again. I want you play it different every time. I want you to start from the end. I want you to leave out some parts. You can start in the middle. Just use the piece as a point of departure.”

CB: That’s so great.

JS: It says a whole lot about him. But it also says a whole lot about where I think classical music in general is going when it comes to chamber music and accepting improvisation, jazz and all of the world’s music, and having musicians who are flexible enough and open enough to at least experiment. It’s the only way we’re going to get the patrons of chamber music societies to have that openness and expectation when it comes to who they decide to put on their series. I mean, if we don’t start doing it, they’re going to continually only want the Haydn cycles. (laughs)

So we have to not only accept it, we have to become nimble at it. You have to be able to deliver a good product so the patrons say, “You know what? I want more of that!”

And besides, as a wind quintet, we don’t have the Haydn cycles! (laughs) They just don’t exist. We occasionally play the old stalwarts of the wind quintet, but that stuff runs out in about two weeks. You’ve got to play new stuff and push the envelope a bit, and improvisation is just a normal step along the way for expanding the repertoire for the wind quintet.

Houston Friends of Chamber Music present the Imani Winds, Tuesday, October 15, 7:30 p.m. at Stude Concert Hall, Shepherd School of Music, Rice University, performing works by Valerie Coleman, Mendelssohn, Ravel, Simon Shaheen, and Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring arranged by Jonathan Russell.

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(Houston, TX) If Houston is becoming, as one young Houston-based composer puts it, a “hub for contemporary music,” credit must be given to more than a few local ensembles, organizations, and venues that operate without institutional support and on shoestring budgets. Contemporary music ensembles made up of university professors and their students performing contemporary music in universities for other professors and students are nothing new. But composers who not only write, perform, and creatively program contemporary music and present it outside of academia in venues typically dedicated to performance art, experimental rock and underground noise? That’s a little more interesting, and certainly more conducive to expanding audiences for 21st century composition.

Composer Paul Connolly (Photo by Lynn Lane)

Composer Paul Connolly (Photo by Lynn Lane)

Houston-based composer Paul Connolly understands this. As the curator and producer of Brave New Waves, which was born out of electronic and video artist Jonathan Jindra’s Binarium Sound Series and is currently Houston’s only concert series dedicated solely to electronic music, Connolly has worked hard to bring seemingly disparate artists and audiences together to share and experience new sounds. On October 2,3, and 5, as part of the sixth annual Houston Fringe Festival, Connolly shifts roles from producer to composer to premier The Quiet Persistence Of Memory, an original electro-acoustic composition that, not surprisingly, will be performed by a wildly diverse collection of Houston musicians and improvisers.

The Quiet Persistence Of Memory is scored for bass, tenor, and soprano voices, viola, harp, contrabass, percussion, and analog modular sound tools. The ensemble Connolly has gathered to perform this work includes Aaron Bielish (viola), Kathy Fay (harp), Thomas Helton (double bass), Luke Hubley (percussion), John Pitale (percussion), Ben Lind (narration), Misha Penton (soprano), Matthew Robinson (tenor), and SPIKE the percussionist (percussion, electronics). Each of the three scheduled performances of The Quiet Persistence Of Memory will feature a slightly different configuration of the performers. The score, which Connolly describes as “a time-based grid that allows the performers to both see their part as well as existing parts of others that have been prerecorded,” is augmented by live improvisation and accompanying visuals.

“When I first began conceptualizing the piece,” says Connolly, “it probably had an equal balance between acoustic instruments and electronic material. However, the piece has evolved to where it has become very much a totally acoustic instrument work, with live electronics that are used almost like Foley in film. Very subtle, and simply providing a background that’s not necessarily noticeable.”

The title of the piece, aside from its nod to the surrealist painter Salvador Dali, refers to “the process by which information (i.e. memory) is encoded, stored and retrieved.” Connolly’s compositional process, which included recording studio performances by many of the participating musicians and incorporating those recordings into the piece for the same musicians to “remember” and react to in the live performances, speaks to the subject of how memory is utilized, disrupted, and (de)valued “in a hyper-information rich society.”

No two of the three performances of the piece will be alike, and kudos must go to the folks behind the Houston Fringe Festival for scheduling multiple opportunities for audiences to hear and experience Connolly’s music.

Paul Connolly presents The Quiet Persistence Of Memory October 2, 5, 9:30 PM and October 3, 8:00 PM at Super Happy Fun Land, 3801 Polk Street, Houston, TX. Part of the sixth annual Houston Fringe Festival.

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The Core Trio (photo by Jonathan Jindra)

The Core Trio (photo by Jonathan Jindra)

(Houston, TX) The music of the Houston ensemble The Core Trio, featuring Richard Cholakian on drums, Thomas Helton on upright bass, and Seth Paynter on saxophones, is an utterly convincing amalgamation of jazz, free improvisation, heavy metal, electronic sounds, and music from across the Asian continent. Their repertoire includes compositions by Helton and Paynter, as well as arrangements of songs by Ozzy Osbourne and Ronnie James Dio. They often invite guest musicians to join them in performance, including trumpet players Kris Tiner and Tim Hagans, myself on laptop, and pianist Robert Boston. This Friday, Boston, saxophonists Warren Sneed and Martin Langford, and former Houston Symphony clarinetist Richard Nunemaker will perform with The Core Trio at their CD release party at Houston’s the long-standing jazz venue Cezanne’s.

The Core Trio’s new self-titled CD is welcome document of the high level of musicianship and inventive interplay that defines their sound. The album consists of two extended and completely improvised performances, skillfully captured by engineer Ryan Edwards. Boston, a former Houston musician now based in New York City, joins the trio on the new CD.

On both pieces, the classically-trained Boston casts the music into a further relief. His presence opens up the ensemble sound creating the space each player needs to be heard and to play with conviction.

“When I freely improvise with players on this level, something special happens,” says Boston. “No one feels any pressure to play in any particular style. Everyone is listening and responding to what is happening in the moment. When it’s good, the thoughts don’t get in the way, but there is a logic present that follows its own momentum.”

Richard Cholokian_photo by Veronica Triplett

“It’s very similar to a speaking conversation with someone,” says Cholakian of his experience playing with The Core Trio. “If they (Boston, Helton, Paynter) choose a topic, I will converse with them on that topic. If they don’t, I will converse with them on a topic I choose, the bottom line being, what is my point and will it be heard?”

Cholakian is one of the most creative and dynamic drummers I’ve ever heard. He’s always listening, contrasting or complimenting the contributions of his band mates, and often steering the music into unexpected and unpredictable territory. Eleven or so minutes into the new CD’s second track, where the trio plus Boston explore a textural, musique concrète-like approach to ensemble playing, Cholakian brings the music to a crescendo with an almost primal-sounding drum solo that stops suddenly and startlingly at one point for six seconds of dead silence before returning to its bruising ritual.

Paynter possesses a truly original and honest voice on his instruments, which includes soprano and tenor saxophone, EWI, and lots of gongs. The technique and versatility that makes a great jazz and improvising musician is all there but somehow, his playing never strays into what Helton calls “the trappings of licks or patterns.”

“By learning to play with a defined structure, one can then learn how to venture away to new ones,” says Paynter when describing playing a tune verses freely improvising. “Everything has structure no matter how abstract.”

“As soon as I play a sound, that is the foundation for what comes next regardless if I’m playing a tune or not. Its basic function is structural. I can vary it slightly by subtly changing a rhythm or drastically with a timbre or emotional change. And those are just a couple examples of the variables one can employ.”

Helton concurs that being able to play in a traditional manner will allow a musician to be more musical in their free playing. But “tradition” doesn’t necessarily have to mean “jazz.”

“I get something different out of all the different styles I play,” says Helton, who also plays in the Houston metal band Echo Temple. “Whether it is jazz, classical, metal, country, funk, or whatever, there is some payoff personally, spiritually or musically.”

“With The Core Trio,” says Helton, “I get the most satisfaction, since there is a lot of passion, thought, aggression, finesse, communication. It is sort of the sum of all the things I love in music.”

The Core Trio with special guest Robert Boston perform Friday, February 8, 9 p.m. at Cezanne’s, 4100 Montrose Blvd. $10 cover.

The Core Trio’s self-titled CD is available for purchase Febraury 8 from Thomas Helton’s website, CD Baby, and iTunes.

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Houston-based flutist, composer, and improviser Michelle Yom

Houston-based flutist, composer, and improviser Michelle Yom

(Houston, TX) This Sunday, Houston-based flutist, composer, and improviser Michelle Yom presents FALKOR, an interactive music and dance composition featuring Yom on flute and four dancers, Kriten Frankiewicz, Erin Reck, Leslie Scates, and Sophia Torres. FALKOR utilizes video motion tracking and a wireless system triggering audio samples based on the colors of the costumes worn by the dancers as well as their movements. FALKOR takes place at Studio 101 as part of the ongoing electronic music series Brave New Waves.

Fantasy film fans (not to mention fans of 1980s pop music) will no doubt recognize the name Falkor (i.e. Falkor the Luck Dragon) from the film Neverending Story, which tells the story of a young boy who, through reading a magical book, enters into another world called Fantasia, a world sustained by human imagination. Yom uses the names of different characters and creatures from the film, each of whom represent some facet of humanity, as “venture points” to explore “the relationships between emotions, noise, sound, silence, and nothingness.”

Says Yom, “Falkor is luck and joy, Swamps of Sadness is sadness, Engywook is intellect, and Morla is cynicism. I use these characters as general ground to inspire the improvised music and dance. It seems linear, but I hope to show other sides of seemingly one-sided notions of emotion. For example, we treat sadness as a negative feeling, but it actually springs from hope in the first place, and when destroyed, begins something new.”

As a frequent participant in concerts of freely improvised music presented by the Houston organization Nameless Sound, improvisation is a crucial component to Yom’s compositional vision. Each of the four dancers in FALKOR are experienced improvisers as well. The wireless system triggering audio in response to their movement and costume colors will scramble the audience’s perception of what has been composed and what is being improvised, as well as time itself.

“I’ve been exploring silence,” explains Yom. “Different types of silence with factors like physical movement and the inevitably strong role it plays in our perception of time in a concert. I’d like to push the length of silence in a musical piece without losing the audience.”

Sunday, January 27, Brave New Waves presents Michelle Yom’s FALKOR at Studio 101 at Spring Street Studios, 1824 Spring Street, Houston, Texas, Houston, Texas 77007. Doors open at 7:45 p.m. the performance begins at 8:05 p.m. $10 cover.

Tune in to KTRU Saturday at 6:00 p.m. CT for an interview with Michelle Yom.

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Violinist Mari Kimura has built a career fearlessly taking the violin to places still little-explored. from her work with sub-harmonics (using precise but difficult bowing techniques to obtain notes up to an octave below the normal violin range), to the integration of all manner of digital and electronic interweavings, to playing everything from from the ferociously difficult to the frenzied soaring to the freely improvised, Mari has made her violin sing like few others in our generation.

Likewise for Elliott Sharp and his exploration of the guitar in all its many shape-shifting forms. Elliott has become such a New York institution as to give the Statue of Liberty a run for her money (though to be fair, Lady Liberty doesn’t do too many new-music concerts). Edgy and restless, Sharp’s work attacks a lot of our notions of what a guitar is supposed to do, while always still reminding us of the roots it and we come out of.

These two wonderfully complex performers and creators will be found together on the same bill this Friday, Nov. 16 at 8pm, at Glenn Cornett’s intimate Spectrum concert space on Manhattan’s Lower East Side (121 Ludlow, 2nd Floor, tickets $15 suggested donation).

Mari Kimura will present her recent works using Augmented Violin, IRCAM’s bowing motion sensor technology. Kimura’s Meteo-Hahn is a new work in collaboration with data visualization specialist Bruce Hahn, and is an interactive audio/visual work using weather patterns and data. Her other premiere is Poly-Monologue, a work-in-progress version of her large-scale multimedia project “ONE” which will tour in 2013. In Poly-Monologue Kimura collaborates with singer Kyoko Kitamura; the trilingual (English, French, Japanese) texts and Kitamura’s vocalization interact with Kimura’s Augmented Violin. Kimura will also perform works by François Sarhan, an intriguing European composer/theater director/encyclopedist: Un Chevalier (2007) and Oublée (Forgotten, 2012) for solo violin. The works are based on the text by Russian poet Daniil Harms (1905-1942), expressing the pressure on intellectualism during Stalinism.

Elliott Sharp will present Octal, a collection of pieces for the Koll 8-string guitar-bass built exclusively for Sharp. These pieces function somewhere between etudes and jumping-off points for improvised explorations. Not academic, these performances are filled with free-jazz energy and burning bluesy extemporizations using Sharp’s signature extended techniques.

Extra bonus — Kimura and Sharp will also improvise together during the concert. There’s going to be a lot of magic on this bill, and Spectrum is a wonderfully homey and intimate place to catch a concert. So if at all possible head on over and treat yourself to some musical bliss.

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John Shiurba is a composer and guitarist based in Oakland, California whose artistry embraces improvisation, art-rock, composition and noise.  In his composer capacity, he’s headlining the second night of the 11th Annual Outsound New Music Summit, an evening entitled The Composer’s Muse.  The concert will take place on Thursday, July 19th at 8:00 p.m. at the San Francisco Community Music Center, 544 Capp Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at the door, or online through Brown Paper Tickets.

Shiurba’s world premiere work for large ensemble, 9:9, is a suite of nine pieces written to be interpreted by nine players with a conductor.  (Any reader who is familiar with his work will recall his affinity for numbered concepts, in past works such as Triplicate and 5 x 5.)  The score will explore the demise of the print medium through nine different types of notation, all of which are derived from newspapers. The nine players will be called upon to interpret standard music notation along with graphic, textual and pictorial notation, allowing the ensemble some creative input in the interpretation. The form of the suite will be open, allowing the conductor and the players to spontaneously shape the way the music develops in real time.  Shiurba will serve as conductor of his own piece next Thursday night.  He was also kind enough to take time out to answer some of my questions.

S21:  Sequenza21 readers have read about you before in your role as a guitarist in SF Bay Area improvising ensembles.  How does your guitar playing inform (or not inform) your compositions?

JS:  My experience as an improvising guitarist perhaps affects my compositions mostly by way of contrast. When I seek to interject something composed into an improvising ensemble, I tend toward something that the ensemble wouldn’t otherwise do. So usually I choose pitched tight rhythmic phrases that contrast wildly with the mostly arhythmic timbral material that typifies my improvising. Whether or not my approach to the guitar actually affects the music that I write probably depends largely on what music I’m writing. In the case of one of my more rock oriented projects, where I’m writing actual guitar music, undoubtedly my own guitar language (and my limitations) will factor significantly in what I write. When I’m writing for other instruments, then probably not so much. I’m not much interested in creating ways of notating the things that I (and others) do in an improvised situation– I’m happy to just let that happen as it will, and write something to contrast it.

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The San Francisco Bay Area’s underground music scene will come together this coming July in an annual celebration of its tremendous range of styles, its love of improvisation, and its collective obsession with new and unusual timbres and techniques.  It’s the 11th Annual Outsound New Music Summit!  All events will take place at the San Francisco Community Music Center at 544 Capp Street near 20th Street in the Mission District, and tickets can be ordered online from Brown Paper Tickets or purchased at the door.

The ever-popular Touch the Gear Expo kicks off the Summit on Sunday July 15, 7-10 pm.  It’s designed especially for anyone who’s longed for a closer look at an experimental musician’s gear on stage, and for the opportunity to mess with it.  25-30 sound artists will be there to demonstrate everything from oscillators to planks of wood with strings attached and answer questions.  Visitors of all ages have free rein to make sound and experience how these set-ups work, and best of all, it’s free.

The second Summit night is also free, and this time the composers take over.  In the Tuesday night Composers’ Symposium (July 17, 7-10 pm), John Shiurba, Christina Stanley, Benjamin Ethan Tinker, and Matthew Goodheart will all discuss how they navigate modern compositional techniques, while combining them with improvisation and their own individual forms of experimentation. The public is invited to talk freely with the composers and ask them questions.

Performances begin at 8:00 pm on Wednesday, July 18th with the first of four themed concerts – Sonic Poetry.  This night is curated by Outsound Board members Amar Chaudhary and Robert Anbian, who’ve recruited three leading poets to collaborate with Bay Area improvising musicians to create new word and sound compositions.  Words are by Ronald Sauer, rAmu Aki, and Carla Harryman, with music by Jacob Felix Heule, Jordan Glenn, Karl Evangelista, Jon Raskin, and Gino Robair.

The Tuesday night Composers’ Symposium prepares everyone for the second performance evening on Thursday, July 19th – The Composer’s Muse.  Christina Stanley, Matthew Goodheart, and John Shiurba will all premiere new works running the gamut from graphic scores for string quartet, to prepared piano with sonified metal percussion, to a major work for large ensemble celebrating the newspaper.

Thwack, Bome, Chime on Friday night, July 20th, curated by Outsound Board member Pete Martin, will feature the world of percussion in all its coloristic and dynamic glory.  David Douglas will combine percussion instruments with custom-built delays, loopers, samplers, and other effects to create The Walls Are White With Flame, a series of highly spatialized sound sculptures.  In Seems An Eternity, Benjamin Ethan Tinker will assemble three percussion trios of metal and skin percussion to explore the same musical material in canon.  And finally the San Francisco percussion ensemble Falkortet will show off its versatility combining traditional percussion, hand drums, and electronics with influences from Indonesian music, Brazilian music, Jazz, minimalism, and rock.

The final day of the Outsound Summit, July 21st, will be a big one starting with a 2-4 pm Harmolodics workshop led by Dave Bryant.  Dave will share material from his years of Harmolodic Theory performance and study with Ornette Coleman, plus his own compositional and improvisational techniques developed on his own and with his ensembles.  The 8 pm final concert, Fire and Energy, curated by Outsound founder Rent Romus, will feature Dave Bryant with his Trio, along with Jack Wright, the Vinny Golia Sextet, and Tony Passarell’s Thin Air Orchestra.

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San Francisco Community Music Center, July 20 – 23, 2011 

The first sound of the festival’s Wednesday night show was, perhaps appropriately, nothing. Theresa Wong started offstage, down front, with just a microphone. She circled it in front of her face, no sound coming out of her pursed lips. Fluid looping gestures, but no vocal to be heard for perhaps two minutes. Then, a “Woo.” Silence, the mic passing back and forth. “Hoo,” silence, then another and another. Hoots and cuckoos, then a low-flutter “Wo – wo – wo – wo” for thirty seconds, then putting the mic to ear and droning (can throat sounds pass out the ear canal?), long high tones splintering off whistling multiphonics, static noise, razzes, gulps, and hums, more microphone manipulation for Doppler effects, then an episode of something close to song-singing, ending on a slow tremolo submerging into underwater warbles.

Theresa Wong stands at a deeply resonating node where a number of Bay Area new music waves converge, and is thus an emblematic artist for the Outsound Summit.  Wednesday night’s all-vocal concert was titled “Face Music,” and the audience was faced with four singular solo approaches to the first instrument. Wong’s approach comes from a deep human connection to music and a direct, unaffected performance mode. When she took up her ‘cello for the second piece, even the most “abstract” sound worlds somehow evoked song-based territories. The instrument itself, when bowed, seemed to sound directly as her voice.

Aurora Josephson went even deeper during a short, ritualistic reading of John Cage’s Experiences No. 2. All in black, kneeling among candles on the floor in front of the stage, she conjured a dark and mournful atmosphere. She allowed herself long pauses between phrases, giving the listener time to savor her exquisitely precise enunciation and powerful delivery which, unamplified, rocked the room.

Joseph Rosenzweig, whose set closed the first half, delivered a choppy, harsh live sample-driven piece, a Hiss Concerto as it were, all glitchy and jarringly loud much of the time, causing the audience to jump in their seats when he’d suddenly pop a scream. His digital manipulations would seek out the hidden harmonic artifacts within his scratchy drones and, at one point, he pulled out the always useful “reverse glottal fry.”

Raising “Face Music” to its multimedia apex for the evening, bran(…)pos, aka Jake Rodriguez, erected a makeshift projection screen out of an umbrella and some diaphanous cloth, and placed it between his rig and the audience, Wizard of Oz-like.  All paid attention to this Man Behind The Curtain, for his face filled the screen while wet vocal pops and kisses danced around the room from loudspeaker to loudspeaker. Cheap electronics are one of his main soundwells, and, even though the materials and visuals suggest mass violence, escalation, and propaganda, it’s all somehow delivered in a cheerfully demented style that comes off as no more threatening than a swarm of angry pixies. Eventually, after a well-crafted arc of electronic disaster movie re-enactments, bran(…)pos’s face melted from the screen (replaced by a butterfly), and Jake stepped out from behind to take his bows.

On Friday night, local composer/performer Polly Moller curated “The Art of Composition,” featuring works by Krystina Bobrowski, Andrew Raffo Dewar, Kanoko Nishi, and Gino Robair. Showcasing the huge range and robustly idiosyncratic heuristics of the Bay Area new music scene is not an easy job, but Moller’s selection cut a deep slice, if not the widest possible range (although the latter could fairly be claimed for the festival as a whole).

Mr. Robair demonstrated his centrality to many of the sub-scenes that populate the worldwide out-sound landscape, being on stage for three of the four groups and performing diverse roles with nonchalant virtuosity throughout. First, he assisted composer and instrument inventor Krystina Bobrowski in “Lift, Loft and Lull,” which employed amplified balloons as resonators for thick steel plates and long tubular bells. The first part was a slow underwater procession, with the composer blowing a mournful kelp horn while Robair did the balloonatics; the second part, with the pair playing the long tubes, gradually expanded its phrasing and language into a kaleidoscope of bongs, scrapes, rubs and singing gong-like tones. The second piece had Bobrowski moving to the Gliss Glass and Robair applying his wet fingers to a set of wine glasses.

The Gliss Glass is Bobrowski’s most complex and compelling instrument: three open-topped vessels partly filled with water, suspended on height-adjustable tripods and connected with valved tubing. Using the principle of water seeking its own level, the glasses can be struck or finger-bowed then moved up or down, causing the tones to change as the water travels among the different vessels. The resulting sounds are guaranteed to haunt the ears for days afterward, and the set provided a bang-up opening to the night.

Andrew Raffo Dewar, formerly a Bay Area stalwart (now based at the University of Alabama), is a saxophonist and composer whose Interactions Quartet has performed in San Francisco before. Robair, again on percussion, was joined by Dewar on soprano saxophone, Kyle Bruckmann on oboe and English horn, and John Shiurba on nylon-string guitar. Typically for Dewar, every new composition for the group is miles away from its predecessors in sound and form. “Strata” sounded as if impressions of Dewar’s recent jaunt to far-off Ghana had rubbed off, the slow opening moments hovering between pointillism and hocketing, all in simple pentatonic harmonies. As it gathered speed, dissonance and density — settling into a sort of pulse for the middle section (Robair and Shiurba stomping feet, ankles wrapped in bell shakers), then moving beyond a simple pulse into polymetric, panchromatic complexity — the piece stayed suspended, timeless, as if one were swimming in adjacent dimensions of streaming gossamers.

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Gino Robair led his own Ensemble Aguascalientes to finish the Friday concert through a suite “based on the politically charged engravings of … Jose Guadalupe Posada.” As with many of his compositions, Robair’s conducting [see the video above, from Robair's I, Norton workshop and concert footage @ the CAID (Detroit) and The Heaven Gallery (Chicago)] using hand cues and relying on the players’ spontaneous responses to the cues and the score, ensures that no two performances sound as kin. Shiurba was back on guitar, along with Scott Walton on bass, Joel Davel and Jim Kassis percussion, and Ms. Moller on bass flute, flute headjoint, and two sizes of ocarina. The choice of ocarina is a pivotal one in realizing Robair’s conception. “I definitely want to get away from standard tuning in this piece,” he says. “It’s all a bit unstable, pitch-wise. Which I happen to like.” The ocarina’s fragile tone and nomadic pitch —negatives in the European tradition — might be said to represent a “village” or even “revolutionary” approach (in the anti-imperialist sense), to music-making. If improvisation posits a direct-democracy alternative to the imperial composer/conductor/ensemble hierarchy, then the ocarina fires a sonic shot across the equal-temperament bow. Forgive the tortured analogies — such are the deep thoughts that Outsound concerts regularly evoke. (Besides, it’s Bulwer Lytton season.)

Kanonko Nishi’s piece (some explanation of her aims and methods may be found here), a graphic score realized by bassist Tony Dryer and guitarist IOIOI, seemed to be all about punishment of the ears, aided and abetted by a sound engineer who blasted the audience not once but four times with feedback before the thing even got started, then pegged the levels of Dryer’s droning bass-feedback section at stadium-rock levels — maybe fifteen minutes’ worth, although it went by like hours. IOIOI followed Dryer, dropping stuff on her electric guitar and banging on it occasionally, which was a little softer but more piercing and unpredictable. At least their racket drowned out the party carrying on next door. Somebody must’ve liked it — from my bunker I heard applause after it was over.

Saturday night of the Outsound Summit was dedicated to instrument makers. Co-curated by Outsound founder/quarterback Rent Romus and Edward Shocker, of the Thingamajigs group, the evening proved the maxim that the inventor is not always the most winning exponent of his or her invention. (Another point, demo’d by Walter Funk: It may not be the best idea to put a lasagna pan full of water onto a stage bustling with electric wires, computers and effects boxes, etc.) Among the presenters were new-instrument stalwarts Bart Hopkin and Terry Berlier (Her instruments are often quite beautiful sculptures). David Michalak played them in place of Ms. Berlier; unfortunately, the most impressive-looking one, a wooden dodecahedron riddled with sound-tubes and slapped with spatulas, was a sonic dud), Tom Nunn with Michalak and Stephen Baker, Brenda Hutchinson and Bob Marsh, Sasha Leitman and Walter Funk, and Sung Kim with Dan Ake. Ms. Hutchinson manipulated and sang into her long tube, enhanced by electronics and field recordings while Mr. Marsh, having donned a full-body suit covered in sliced-up water bottles, performed a pantomime to Ms. Hutchinson’s sounds that suggested Godzilla waking up to find he’s been genetically spliced with a jellyfish. It worked.

The highlight performance of the evening belonged to Tom Nunn, supported by Michalak and Baker. Mr. Nunn has been doing what he does for a very long time; he may be fairly said to be one of the granddaddies on the sonic sculpture family tree. His instruments are always a treat to look at and a delight to the ear. He favors nonharmonic, complex resonances such as are generated by metal rods and plates. His Skatchboxes generate insect and electronic sounds from mundane materials like combs, screws, and washers. Nunn debuted a new instrument on this night, a 3’ by 3’ stainless steel plate suspended by balloons in buckets and vibrated by cardboard tubes. Somehow the varying lengths of the tubes make different tones possible when rubbed along the steel. Mr. Nunn’s performing style is deeply rooted in his long, lanky body, never showing any doubt that he knows exactly what sound he wants and how to get it. The groaning sounds coming from the plate plunged the room under a mile-deep glacier, where blue echoes lightly glanced off the icy, inching walls.

Outsound.org’s New Music Summit has been around ten years, and granters like SF Friends of Chamber Music and The Zellerbach Family Foundation are just now beginning to pay attention. The programming that Outsound practices is vital in supplying fresh ideas and energy into the Bay Area’s music culture. Emerging and difficult-to-classify artists are given a forum. The value of these services cannot be overstated. Here’s to ten more years of Outsound.

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