Archive for the “Improv” Category
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.
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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Posted by Polly Moller in Bass, Chamber Music, Composers, Concerts, Contemporary Classical, Experimental Music, Festivals, Improv, Interviews, Piano, Premieres, San Francisco, Women composers
San Francisco Bay Area composer/performer Kanoko Nishi wraps up our series of interviews with composers who are premiering new works at the 10th Annual Outsound New Music Summit in San Francisco on Friday, July 22nd. The Friday night concert, entitled The Art of Composition, starts at 8 pm at the Community Music Center, 544 Capp Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available online from Brown Paper Tickets, and you can also buy them at the door. Listeners who don’t want to wait that long can get up close and personal with the composers, and learn about their creative process, at a free Monday night panel discussion at 7 pm on July 18th.
Kanoko is classically trained on piano and received a BA in music performance from Mills College in 2006. Her recent interest has primarily been in performing 20th century and contemporary music on piano and koto, and free improvisation in a variety of contexts. SF Bay Area contrabassist Tony Dryer and guitarist IOIOI, visiting from Italy, will perform Kanoko’s graphic scores as a duo.
S21: How has your classical piano training prepared you – or not prepared you – for improvisation and composition?
I think that one very important element that is particular to musical improvisation as opposed to improvisation in other fields is the role of the musical instruments one performs and interacts with, and classical training for me was just a very deep way of building a relationship with my instruments. What has been helpful is not so much the technique, vocabulary or repertoire, but the time, energy and thoughts spent in the process of acquiring these more concrete skills and knowledge. For me, every improvisation I do is like a battle with the instrument I’m playing, in my case, either the piano or koto, and though I cannot really practice improvising by its definition, it’s only by practicing regularly that I feel I can enrich myself as a person, build my stamina and confidence enough to be a suitable match for my instrument to bring out its full potential. Read the rest of this entry »
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Posted by Polly Moller in Chamber Music, Composers, Concerts, Contemporary Classical, Electro-Acoustic, Experimental Music, Festivals, Improv, Interviews, Premieres, San Francisco, Sound Art, Women composers
Krys Bobrowski is up next in our series of interviews with composers who are premiering new works at the 10th Annual Outsound New Music Summit in San Francisco on Friday, July 22nd. The Friday night concert, entitled The Art of Composition, starts at 8 pm at the Community Music Center, 544 Capp Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available online from Brown Paper Tickets, and you can also buy them at the door. Listeners who don’t want to wait that long can get up close and personal with the composers, and learn about their creative process, at a free Monday night panel discussion at 7 pm on July 18th.
Krys is a sound artist, composer and musician living in Oakland, California. In addition to French horn she plays acoustic and electronic instruments of her own design. Her collection of original instruments includes prepared amplified rocking chairs, bull kelp horns, Leaf Speakers, Gliss Glass (pictured at left) and the Harmonic Slide. Krys received her M.F.A. in Electronic Music and Recording Media from Mills College and her B.A. in Computers and Music from Dartmouth College. In addition to performing her own work, Bobrowski plays with the Bay Area-based improvisation ensemble Vorticella.
Her new work, Lift, Loft, Lull, is a series of short pieces exploring the sonic properties of metal pipes and plates and the use of balloons as resonators, performed by the composer and Gino Robair. The compositions have their origins in Bobrowski’s recent instrument prototyping work for the Exploratorium.
S21: Do your pipes, metal plates, and balloons come with any sound-generating history? Is there any “tradition” behind their use in music?
During my artist residency at the Exploratorium, I began experimenting with alternative resonators for musical instruments. I wanted to create an experience that would allow the listener to hear the ‘sonic bloom,’ the moment a resonator comes in tune and couples to a vibrating object.
As part of this project I started researching resonators in traditional and experimental instruments. I came across an interesting photo from the 1950s of someone playing an instrument made of glass rods attached to a series of inflated plastic cushions. The cushions were acting as the resonators for the glass. Later, I learned that the Baschet brothers, Francois and Bernard Baschet, invented this instrument along with dozens of other beautiful sound sculptures, including an inflatable guitar!
This started my exploration of using balloons as resonators, mostly for instruments made out of various kinds of metal: plates, pipes, bars, odd-shaped scraps. I also came across references to Tom Nunn’s and Prent Rodgers’ work with balloons and balloon resonators in a book by Bart Hopkin, ‘Musical Instrument Design.’ This led me to make a version of the ‘balloon gong’ instrument shown in the book.
The results of my sonic explorations and the ‘balloon gong’ will be featured in my composition, Lift Loft Lull. Read the rest of this entry »
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Posted by Polly Moller in Chamber Music, Composers, Concerts, Contemporary Classical, Electro-Acoustic, Festivals, Improv, Interviews, Premieres, San Francisco, Saxophone
Here’s the first in a series of interviews with composers who are premiering new works at the 10th Annual Outsound New Music Summit in San Francisco on Friday, July 22nd. The Friday night concert, entitled The Art of Composition, starts at 8 pm at the Community Music Center, 544 Capp Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available online from Brown Paper Tickets, and you can also buy them at the door. Listeners who don’t want to wait that long can get up close and personal with the composers, and learn about their creative process, at a free Monday night panel discussion at 7 pm on July 18th.
Andrew Raffo Dewar (b.1975 Rosario, Argentina) is an Assistant Professor in New College at the University of Alabama. He’s a composer, improviser, soprano saxophonist and ethnomusicologist. He’s studied and/or performed with Steve Lacy, Anthony Braxton, Bill Dixon, Alvin Lucier, and Milo Fine. He has also had a long involvement with Indonesian traditional and experimental music. His work has been performed by the Flux Quartet, the Koto Phase ensemble and Sekar Anu. As an improviser and performer Andrew has shared the stage with a plethora of musicians worldwide, both the celebrated and the little-known.
As a member of his own Interactions Quartet, Andrew will premiere “Strata” (2011), dedicated to Eduardo Serón and inspired by the Argentine artist’s 2008 series of paintings, “La Libertad Es Redonda” (“Freedom is Round”). His description tells us that “Through a combination of improvisation and notation, performers negotiate several “layers” of written material, mixing and matching components that are eventually assembled into nested counterpoint.”
S21: You’re traveling quite a distance to premiere your piece at the Outsound Summit but it’s certainly not the first time you’ve been here. How did you become associated with the San Francisco Bay Area new music community?
I lived in Oakland for roughly two years (2000-2002) before heading off to graduate school at Wesleyan University in Connecticut to study with people like Anthony Braxton and Alvin Lucier. My first exposure to the Bay Area community was, if I remember correctly, a two-day workshop with legendary bassist/composer Alan Silva organized by Damon Smith at pianist Scott Looney’s performance space in West Oakland in 2000, which was an excellent experience. After that, I worked regularly — I think it was weekly — in a “guided improvisation” workshop ensemble at Looney’s organized by clarinetist Jacob Lindsay and guitarist Ernesto Diaz-Infante, and separate improvisation sessions with violist/composer Jorge Boehringer, which were both situations where I had the opportunity to play with many great Bay Area folks, like trumpeter Liz Albee and many others, which was wonderful. Around that time I was walking by guitarist/composer John Shiurba’s house with my horn, and he happened to be outside watering his garden. He asked me what kind of music I played, and I think the combination of the perplexed look on my face and my inability to answer his question easily is why we connected that day — he invited me in to chat, and when I saw a framed photo of Anthony Braxton on his mantle (whose work I’ve appreciated since my late teens, and who I’ve had the great opportunity to study and perform with) I knew I was “home.” Read the rest of this entry »
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Posted by Polly Moller in Chamber Music, Composers, Concerts, Electro-Acoustic, Events, Experimental Music, Festivals, Improv, Music Events, News, Premieres, San Francisco, Sound Art, Women composers
Once upon a time in 2000, there was a brand-new underground music collective in the San Francisco Bay Area, presenting a monthly concert series named “Static Illusion/Methodical Madness”. The SIMM series is still going strong today, and its parent organization, Outsound Presents, now additionally puts on the weekly Luggage Store Gallery concert series and the Outsound New Music Summit.
Outsound acquired a Board of Directors and incorporated its bad self in 2009. Now with a 501(c)(3) IRS determination in hand, it’s a stalwart provider of experimental music, sound art, found sounds, improvisation, noise, musique concrete, minimalism, and any other kind of sound that is too weird for a mainstream gig in the Bay Area.
The upcoming 2011 Outsound New Music Summit is the 10th annual, running from July 17-23, 2011. All events will take place at the San Francisco Community Music Center, 344 Capp Street, San Francisco. Eager listeners can purchase advance tickets online.
Sunday July 17: Touch the Gear Exposition
Outsound’s free opening event allows the public to roam among the Summit’s musicians and sound artists and their sonic inventions, asking questions, making noise and learning how these darn things work.
Monday July 18: Discussion Panel: Elements of non-idiomatic compositional strategies
Another free public event in which composers Krys Bobrowski, Andrew Raffo Dewar, Kanoko Nishi and Gino Robair will discuss the joys and pains of creating new works some of which to be premiered in The Art of Composition. The public is invited to participate in a Q&A session.
Wednesday July 20: FACE MUSIC
This concert is devoted to the voice, the world’s oldest instrument, and artists who expand its horizons: Theresa Wong, Joseph Rosenzweig, Aurora Josephson, and Bran…(POS).
Thursday July 21: The Freedom of Sound
A night of operatic free expression, and power of spontaneous sound from Tri-Cornered Tent Show featuring guest vocalist Dina Emerson, Oluyemi and Ijeoma Thomas’ Positive Knowledge, and Tom Djll’s “lowercase big band”, Grosse Abfahrt with special guest Alfred Harth (A23H).
Friday July 22: The Art of Composition
Gino Robair premieres his Aguascalientes suite based on scenes captured by Jose Guadalupe Posada, Andrew Raffo Dewar’s Interactions Quartet performs Strata (2011) dedicated to Eduardo Serón, Kanoko Nishi premieres her graphic scores along with bassist Tony Dryer, and Krys Bobrowski offers Lift, Loft and Lull, a series of short pieces exploring the sonic properties of metal pipes and plates and the use of balloons as resonators.
Saturday July 23: Sonic Foundry Too!
In a sequel to the first Sonic Foundry performance in 2006, 10 musical instrument inventors are paired up in 5 collaborations: Tom Nunn, Steven Baker, Bob Marsh, Dan Ake, Sung Kim, Walter Funk, Brenda Hutchinson, Sasha Leitman, Bart Hopkins, and Terry Berlier.
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The San Francisco Bay Area is home to a sizable community of sound artists, instrument inventors, and intonation innovators who spend all their time developing original and never-before-heard ways of relating to music and sound. The local scene got a big national nod in 2008 when Walter Kitundu got the mysterious and exhilarating phone call and windfall that is the MacArthur Fellowship.
With such a lively local pool of talent, it’s natural that it has its own festival — Music for People and Thingamajigs — celebrating its 14th year from September 22nd to 25th, 2011. Edward Schocker and Dylan Bolles started it at Mills College in 1997, and it’s grown up to include a non-profit parent organization, Thingamajigs, and a profusion of programs including performances and arts education.
The festival Call for Proposals just went out this week. Artists and composers working with invented instruments and/or alternate tuning systems, and performing ensembles featuring either one or both, are invited to submit proposals. The deadline is June 15, 2011, although proposals which come in on or before May 15, 2011 will be included in festival grant proposals “and will have a greater chance of receiving outside funding,” says founder Schocker.
Proposals should include a bio of the artist/performer/composer(s), a specific description of the work or performance to be considered, and documentation of the submitted work (CD or link to a website). Thingamajigs prefers electronically submitted proposals, sent to email@example.com, but will accept hard copies at Thingamajigs.org, 5000 MarcArthur Blvd PMB 9826, Oakland, CA, 94613, USA.
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[The latest iteration of the always-stellar Other Minds festival is now done and in the books. We asked our equally-stellar Bay Area musician friend Tom Djll if he’d like to cover a bit of it for us, and he happily sent along his impressions of the second and third concert evenings.]
Other Minds 16
Jewish Community Center, San Francisco
Concert Two, Friday, March 4, 2011
There’s a shard of spotlight on my shoulder. A music stand hovers off the sphere of peripheral vision; under it, the shadow of fingers curl like the violin scroll toward which they crawl, spiderish. The fingers belong to a violinist of the Del Sol String Quartet; on both sides of the audience the quartet and the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble are arrayed up the steps toward the back of the hall. In forward vision is percussionist Andrew Schloss, standing behind a computer and percussion-controller on a table. Over these hover his wired drumsticks, sometimes striking the controller yet often just floating, stirring the atoms above it, sending flocks of musical messages to various slave percussives onstage, offstage, and hung from the ceiling above. The composer is David A. Jaffe, protegé of Henry Brant; the percussion-controller builder, German-born, Seattle-based Trimpin, master of MIDI and commander of solenoid soldiers.
The Space Between Us might be called a “cubistic” composition. The subject is suggested by the title, or “what can be communicated and what remains unsaid,” in the composer’s words, as, with sticks held aloft in a gentle but dramatic gesture, percussionist-conductor Schloss signals yet another beginning, another foray into the problem of separation and identity. Somewhat reminiscent of Ives’ The Unanswered Question, each new attempt answers nothing but only brings more questions to the surface, adding facets to the cubist puzzle in the hearer’s mind. Strings quiver in mournful, canonic dirges in one phase; other times they signal impatience in brusque, un-pretty gestures. Later on, massed plucking is attempted, to better match the percussive chatter. Desperate glissandi from the computer-driven piano onstage are gobbled and hurled back by cello and viola, all to no avail. The space remains and separation seems unbridgeable, yet the sonic discussion has pushed the gloom back for at least a few moments of transcendent, clouds-clearing beauty. The conversation is aptly dedicated to Henry Brant, an Other Minds spiritual father.
Next up was I Wayan Balawan, guitarist/composer of Bali. OM 16 marked the first appearance in the West of this gifted young man of Olympian technique and globe-trotting musical mind. He also possesses an awareness of stagecraft and audience engagement, reflected not only in his pleasing hybrid music but also humorous asides which broke the performer-audience barrier, and a precise approach to costuming. Onstage with him were, from left, Balinese compatriots I Nyoman Suwida and I Nyman Suarsana on gamelan instruments. They were clothed in traditional Balinese musician dress: Nehru-ish jackets, beaked fezzes, sari-like sashes and bare feet. Balawan himself kept the hat but otherwise he and the added rhythm section (Scott Amendola and Dylan Johnson on drums and bass) decked themselves casually. Sort of a stylistic continuum, with Balawan as the mid-point.
All the brilliance of Balinese music was in evidence as the trio launched into the first of three numbers (Amendola and Johnson laid out at first), with Balawan leading on double-neck electric guitar and voice, and xylophone doubling and drum accompanying. Balawan has all the chops and effects of any guitar god you can name, and his lightning-fast melodies were as often hammered out on the fretboards with one or both hands as they were plucked traditionally. Another electric guitar stood ready on a stand; both instruments were routed through various samplers and synths and footpedals. The tunes shone the happy sunlit sound of dissonance-free scales and world-pop beats. Balawan opened the final number with a demonstration of the hocketing melody as laid out by the Balinese players on each side of a metallophone; part by part, slowly, then briskly together, then doubling with guitar at warp speed in the tune’s performance, and the audience slurped it up like Singapore noodles. This kid is going places.
Agata Zubel of Poland opened night two’s second set with Parlando, voice + electronics in a rigorous yet easy-to-digest demonstration of vocal/computer self-accompaniment of the non-looping kind. One might have expected more integration of the hairier side of contemporary vocal extension (Diamanda Galas, Phil Minton, Shelley Hirsch), but Zubel’s range of techniques was focused, precise, and mostly omitted noises in favor of dramatic gestures. The sounds and ambiences immediately brought to mind Cathy Berberian (more on her, later), but then an outbreak of avant-beatboxing shocked one back to this century. Then, after just eight minutes, it was over. (Zubel was given more of a presence on Thursday night.)
Friday night’s ultimate act was the duo of Han Bennink (drums, Holland) and Fred Frith (guitar, devices, Oakland, by way of England). About esteemed Dutch drummer, improviser, and provocateur Han Bennink’s stage presence, one’s first impression is of a pair of malformed albino salami – wait, those are his legs? – revealed via Bennink’s now-patented stage getup of beachcomber’s shorts, teeshirt and headband. All that was missing was the metal detector, although had there been one available there’s no doubt Bennink would have beat some music out of it. As it was, everything within the man-child’s reach was fair game. That reach extended beyond the stage at times – backstage, an unguarded piano was hijacked for a short joyride; then he turned his back to us and set his bum on the drum and wailed away on the wooden stool; later, Bennink took to rattling his sticks on the railings flanking the audience, giving a fair approximation of gamelan, no doubt an intentional nod to the Balinese set that came before. And for a long while, Bennink simply sat spread-legged on the floor and ecstatically pounded it with his palms, generating an insistent beat in nearly every performing permutation. He also had a snare drum onstage for a few demonstrations of his peerless brush technique.
Bennink is one of the few improvisers around who can make Fred Frith look like the conservative guy onstage. Frith surely knew what he was in for, and kept his part well under control and always gorgeously musical. He even drew some laughs of his own, strumming the strings of his lap-held guitar with paint brushes. I’ve seen him drop rice grains on his strings a few times before, and this time the stunt made its beautiful, random plinks fit Bennink’s manic-percussive thrash just right, somehow. These two together, who can turn practically any liminal sound-construction into compelling music without ever suggesting a tune or idiom, could lay claim to being the world’s greatest bad buskers.
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Music is as much of a time art as reading or looking at pictures because its subject, as John Ashbery once said about poetry, is always somehow about time. And composers, like writers, whether consciously or not, are always playing a game with time. A long piece can sound short, and a short one, long. Time can seem heavy, as in Dostoevksy, or Wagner, or light as in Proust, or Earle Brown. The four pieces on sfsound‘s most recent concert at The San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s elegant hall managed to be about all these things at once.
Anton Webern‘s pointillistic approach has often been remarked on, but this performance of his Quartet Op. 22 (1930) revealed other things besides his ultra precise and often very soft sound gestures. It’s characteristically brief, and clocked in at 8 minutes here (“the sweet succinct,” as Frank O’Hara once wrote–but also surprising, with scattered long tones in clarinet (Matt Ingalls) and tenor sax (John Ingle), and witty, almost whimsical. Hardly what you’d expect from the earnest, heavy breathing New Vienna School. Time seemed magnified, collapsed, the sound picture ably completed by violinist Graeme Jennings and pianist Christopher Jones.
Would that Jones’ Liquid Refrains (2011), commissioned by sfSound and the Koussevitzky Foundation, had the take it or leave it sense of style of the Webern. But the piece, conducted by the composer and performed by 12 members of sfSound said a lot less in its 13 minutes than the Webern. You always hope to hear a personal voice in painted, written, or musical art but you didn’t get much of one here, especially in the first part’s busy for no apparent reason, standard-issue modernist gestures. The second part, with its transparent writing and brief clockwork episodes–time standing still or at least examined up close–seemed to sketch a semblance of who this composer might actually be.
Improvisations usually have a way of speeding up our sense of time, and those by clarinetist Matt Ingalls, saxophonist John Ingle, and percussionist Kjell Nordeson sounded fresh and spontaneous, with Nordeson’s drum kit and assorted percussion making a joyful noise and providing lots of rhythmic and timbral interest.
Morton Feldman was famous – some would say infamous – for pieces of very long duration. His six hour String Quartet # 2 (1982), and For John Cage (1982), (which lasted 78 minutes when Jennings and Jones played it in San Francisco in ’08), atomize our perception of time, as does Clarinet and String Quartet (1983), which sfSound played for 45 minutes here. It certainly toyed with our expectations of what music should be, and bore not the slightest resemblance to the Mozart and Brahms Clarinet Quintets, which are from a tradition that Feldman was apparently hostile to, though his devotion to the passing moment makes him a kind of romantic, pursuing memory on his own very individual terms. Wisps–his term–of melody, through cells and figures varied and combined–is a more accurate description, with texture, and color always getting the upper hand. But does this make it unaccountably deep? Well yes–and no. I nodded off and on–the lack of rhythmic energy–is it going anywhere interesting –was both calming and aggravating. “Erased De Kooning”– well, not exactly, but perhaps this piece is a song that we can just barely hear, much less remember, which Matt Ingalls, clarinet, Jennings and Erik Ulman, violin, Ellen Ruth Rose, viola, and Monica Scott, cello, made present, but not quite near, with some wonderful invocations–the string harmonics from Lalo Schifrin’s 1979 score for The Amityville Horror near the beginning–adding a much needed theatrical juice.
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Posted by Chris Becker in Books, Composers, Contemporary Classical, Houston, Improv, jazz, tags: chance, improvisation, John Cage, Leo Brouwer, New Wave, punk
Shh! We’re improvising! The Lepers of Melancholy, Houston TX (photo by Jonathan Jindra)
While reading Conversing With Cage at a bus stop today, I stumbled across this funny yet in the end profound exchange (circa 1980) between John Cage and John Robert with Silvey Panet Raymond:
How do you consider new popular music – punk, New Wave?
What is the New Wave? I don’t really know what it is. If you could point it out to me, I might have some reaction.
It’s very simple, three – , four-chord stuff, aggressive, fast.
There’s a good deal of dancing on the part of the performers?
Usually jumping up and down
I’ve seen something like that. It was entertaining to see but not very engaging.
But they use very dissonant sounds; I wonder how you felt about that?
I have no objection to dissonance.
I know you have no objections, but I wanted to know whether you felt any pleasure that things were coming round to your way of thinking.
But this isn’t it, is it? Isn’t it a regular beat?
Not all the time.
I think it’s part of show business.
In a marginal way?
No. I’m much more a part of music as a means of changing the mind. Perhaps if you want to say that, I wouldn’t myself.
Opening up the mind.
A means of converting the mind, turning it around, so that it moves away from itself out to the rest of the world, or as Ramakrishna said, “as a means of rapid transportation.”
So your music in itself is not that important.
The use of it is what is important.
The use rather than the result.
That’s what Wittgenstein said about anything. He said the meaning of something was in its use.
As exasperated as I get by quotes attributed to John Cage regarding jazz improvisation, so-called popular music, and well, composing in general, I have been and will continue to be educated, provoked and inspired by his writings and music. My most recent work-in-progress for five electric guitars and electric bass is in part a homage to Cage’s Imaginary Landscape No. 1 (1939) that utilizes notation borrowed from Leo Brouwer’s wonderful guitar quartet Cuban Landscape With Rain (1984) to realize various aleatoric events. How my new piece (or for that matter Brouwer’s) would sit with Cage and his desire that music realized via chance operations covert the mind of its performers and listeners is – since he’s no longer with us – open to debate.
Maybe including “…for John Cage…” in the title of my piece isn’t appropriate?
Cage also readily admitted he was “close minded…” about many things.
Does Cage present to you a similar grab bag of ideas – some valuable, some exasperating? Has your attitude and appreciation of Cage changed over time?
P.S. Have a safe and relaxing holiday!
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If contemporary classical music had “supergroups”, the 8-year-old ensemble Ne(x)tworks would definitely be one of them. With the likes of Joan La Barbara (voice), Kenji Bunch (viola), Shelley Burgon (harp & electronics), Yves Dharamraj (cello), Cornelius Dufallo (violin, Director), Miguel Frasconi (glass instruments & electronics), Stephen Gosling (piano), Ariana Kim (violin), and Christopher McIntyre (trombone), their roster is led by major movers long on the NYC new-music scene. Working with both classical and improvisational roots, their repertoire encompasses the open scores of the New York School composers of the ’50s, the experiments of the AACM, and the SoHo scene and Downtown composers of the ’70s and ’80s. It’s a wonderful and vitally important thing, to have an ensemble active in keeping earlier experimental works not only remembered, but truly alive.
Ne(x)tworks just released their latest CD through CD Baby, documenting a 2007 performance at the Stone in NYC, and they’re also beginning a year-long residency at the Greenwich House Music School. As kick-off to both, they’re giving a concert at GHMS this Thursday, November 18 at 8 pm, as part of the 25th anniversary season of North River Music (Renee Weiler Concert Hall, 46 Barrow Street, NYC / $15).
On the bill, Edgard Varèse‘s little-known Untitled Graphic Score (ca. 1957). Varèse created the score while attending Earl Brown’s workshop on graphic notation, and the piece — conceived for an ensemble of jazz and classical musicians — reflects the kind of scores the composer was writing in real time on a chalkboard during that period.
The program will also feature two works from Ne(x)tworks’ latest CD. Creating a form that moves beyond the “jazz” and “classical” labels, Leroy Jenkins‘ Space MInds: New Worlds, Survival of America (1979) offers a platform for an active dialog between the performers and the composition itself, with extensive improvised passages. Arthur Russell‘s Singing Tractors (pages 1 & 2) (ca. 1987) is an open-ended work that merges influences from Post-Cagean randomness to free jazz to rock and pop music to classical elements to African beat and dance music.
Also included are a sneak preview of ensemble member Christopher McIntyre’s Smithson Project (2010), scored for mixed ensemble and computers and drawing its inspiration from the work of renowned earthwork artist Robert Smithson (1939-73) — as well as Jon Gibson‘s Multiples (1972) for open instrumentation, a classic example of early minimalism from this stalwart member of New York’s experimental music community.
As a bit of concert preview, we managed to get a few words from Ne(x)tworks members Joan La Barbara, Miguel Frasconi, and Christopher McIntyre themselves, on aspects of the ensemble and the upcoming performance:
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