Sunday, February 12, 2017

Mini Reviews: Four Recordings from SIMF

I picked up these four recordings featuring Seattle-area (and other) artists during the “merch-mart” last weekend at the Seattle Improvised Music Festival.

Seattle Phonographers Union: Building 27 WNP-5

The Seattle Phonographers Union improvises ambient music entirely with unprocessed field recordings. On this vinyl album, they join the ranks of Stuart Dempster and Pauline Oliveros (“Deep Listening”), Etsuko Ichikawa (“Echo at Satsop”), and Paul Horn (the seminal “Inside the Taj Mahal”) exploring the acoustics of “natural” (i.e. not electronic) echo chambers with striking beauty and subtlety.

There are two long tracks. The first was recorded in “Building 27”, a decommissioned aircraft hangar, the other in WNP-5, an unfinished (and unused) nuclear cooling tower (the same place where Ms. Ichikawa made her recording). Both produce massive, though slightly different, echoes. The pieces themselves feature ocean sounds, birdsong, hollow didgeridoo effects, machine noises, crows and human speech transformed into huge walls of sound (a startling, even frightening, effect).

My major question is the choice to release this on vinyl. Vinyl reproduction of sound is premium, particularly for the deepest bass notes; but due to the nature of this music, any surface pops or clicks stand out sharply and distractingly. Other than that, I would recommend this album to anyone interested in stretching the boundaries of what music can be, and to anyone interested in fascinating excursions into pure sound.

Lori Goldston (cello), Konako Pooknyw (drums), Karl Blau (bass) and Dave Abramson (percussion): Talking Helps

A 7” single that includes two untitled tracks (and no “A” or “B” side), this is an exploration of slow, improvised rock. One of these is melodic, the other more of a wall of sound in which Lori’s electric cello recalls Hendrix’s guitar but with dark "heavy metal” deep bass distortion. The other instruments are understated; the percussion, as opposed to the drums, is barely audible. Both tracks (or sides) are short ("pop" length, under four minutes) and I’d like to hear more.

C. Spencer Yeh (violin) and Paul Flaherty (sax), with Greg Kelley (trumpet): New York Nuts and Boston Baked Beans

Any record of free improvisation featuring a saxophone is expected to have at least one wild rip-snortin’ screech-and-honk fracas. It’s almost a stereotype of the genre, and it’s somewhat ironic that a style that is supposed to supersede all styles has produced this recognizable style. And, guess what, this entire album is one giant shrieking, snarling, squealing, squawking, caterwauling commotion. But as you listen, you realize that this is not by any means a bad thing. Within that rather narrow confine, the artists produce a surprising amount of variety. There are deep drones. There are vocal sounds against silence, then against a harmonica. There are impossibly dense clouds of noise. There are snippets of jazz standards and pop tunes. There are scintillating high violin tremolos, some possibly played in the manner of the Chinese pipa. There are unexpected hints of the blues. There are shimmering microtones. There are are the two women on the front of the CD (and one on the CD itself) who apparently don’t exist, unless they are C. Spencer and Paul in drag (there are drawings of three men in circus costumes on the back cover; they are not the musicians who are playing either.) Unexpected, unexplained, and yet somehow exactly expected. Fun.

Masashi Harada Condanction Ensemble: Enterprising Mass of Cilia

Conducted large-ensemble improvisation has been around since Bernstein led the NY Phil for a set on the 1965 LP “Music of Our Time” (and again in 1972 for “Pluto, the Unpredictable” on a Young Persons’ Concert TV show). This Masashi Harada CD continues the tradition, though the ensemble is decidedly non-classical. Basically the CD is an exploration of instrumental textures, ranging from nearly silent skitterings to massive waves of chaos. Any performer is permitted to, at any time, break with what is being conducted and interpose their “own” material; this results in some startling juxtapositions (for example, a series of repeated notes that begin on a violin but take over more instruments and soon declare war against the atonal jumbles that are still occurring). Most of the CD is a lot of fun, though I would have preferred to have a few more solo passages here and there, or a break from the emphasis on texture to include something more “compositional” or even melodic – this is possible to do when improvising.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Third Day of the Seattle Improvised Music Festival 2/4/2016

The Workshop

"Improvising Together: A Listening and Playing Workshop for Dancers and Musicians led by dancer Sheri Cohen and musician David Knott. We’ll use listening practices and interactive scores to illuminate the material shared between musicians and dancers and make our improvisations clearer and richer." from the Wayward Music Seattle Website

The “scores” were verbal instructions, ranging from simple yoga-ish awareness exercises (“…now listen to the sounds furthest from you…”) through small ensemble pieces to two long full-ensemble free jams. Once of the more interesting sets was for small ensembles: “five people participate: each make one gesture – sound or movement – and pass it to the person across from you; then, at some point, all agree (without saying so) to let the score ‘decay’ and all do what you think needs to be done at that moment.” There was some discussion whether this was to let the score “decay” or to make it “ripen”. I would argue for the latter.

Commentary heard during the workshop (not exact quotes!):

“This is the first workshop of this type where I’ve seen babies allowed. It gives it a whole different, and beautiful, atmosphere. (That particular little one there) is really getting involved, though he’s getting a really distorted picture of what it is to be a grown-up.”

“Lots of little stories emerged (during the group improvisation). I liked the part where one dancer on the floor grabbed the left foot of another dancer on the floor, and held on. It was like a struggle.”

“I found that, with the music, I could listen to what was happening and then I had three choices: play something similar, play something different, or play nothing.”

“There’s a concept in Tibetan Buddhism that expands on those ideas: after observing what is happening, one has the choice to do the same, do something different, do nothing, do something supportive, or do something destructive.”

“...At a certain point, the piece didn’t need me. So I withdrew. Then I was thinking about going back in, but was hesitant – am I really needed at this point? – but then one of the musicians came up behind me with some loud, strident notes and then I knew that it was time to start again.”

“There was a long point in the middle where the music all came together. It was serene and beautiful. It was in B-flat for quite a while.”

“It was in B-flat and nice and pretty and new-agey, so I decided to kick it up a notch and add some dissonance.”

“For the record, I never played in B-flat.”

“What does all this discussion of B-flat mean to the dancers? There’s nothing in the repertoire of dance movements that corresponds to something like B-flat, just as there’s nothing in the world of music that corresponds to this.” (moves arm)

“I beg to disagree. There are languages that both dancers and musicians share. If I were to play this,” (plays a swinging jazz riff) “the dancers would dance in a certain way.” (They did).

“One of the interesting things about a workshop for improvised dance and music together is that it gives permission: I’m seeing musicians do things with movement, and dancers making sounds.”

“Improvisations involving more than one person grow more complex as one learns. For example, two dancers may improvise in unison by both doing the same movement,” (sitting, two dancers move feet in the same way) “but then make gestures that are related but not the same.” (The same two move their feet in slightly different ways).

“Some things were going on that only one or two people could see. I liked it when I saw you, dancing by yourself, over there by the ramp.”

“There is a continuum between improvising and composing. I have a long piece that I’ve been working on for years, playing individual notes on the piano for long stretches of time. Sometimes it seems like it’s completely composed, since I’ve put severe limitations on what I can actually play. Other times, it’s completely improvised second by second.”

"There was a little tension - a thickened plot - made by the fact that there were three pianists and only one piano."

“Dancers and musicians have something like a clock in their head. There are twenty minutes left; I think we’ll all know exactly when that twenty minutes is done.”

The Concert

Evan Woodle (drums) & Mike Gamble (electric guitar; Portland)
Modal/atmospheric sounds on guitar; athletic playing twisting knobs on amplifiers and signal processors as much as on the guitar itself; delicately clink-chiming cymbals and metallic percussion with occasional more forceful drum rumbles.
Favorite moment: sudden quiet. Evan played miscellaneous metal pieces that are sitting on a towel (a subtle clatter); build-up with guitar gradually fading back in.

Steve Barsotti (home-mades/field recordings), James Falzone (clarinet), Arrington de Dionyso (woodwinds)
A much longer set beginning with raucous screech-honks, settling into extended developmental arcs of sound. James’ clarinet sometimes suggested klezmer, providing a momentary resolve to the harmonic language.
Favorite moment: theatricality. Twice during the performance, Arrington picked up a homemade instrument made from plumbing (a single mouthpiece but two sounding pipes; something of a mutant, bagless bagpipe) and then proceeded to NOT play it. Suspense – we all wanted to hear it – in this case, suspense with no payoff. A dream deferred is a dream lost – a tragedy of denied expectation played out on stage.

Heather Bentley (viola/violin), Catherine Lee (oboe; Portland), Lisa Cay Miller (piano; Vancouver BC), Bonnie Whiting (percussion)
My favorite set of the evening because of the piano, percussion, and extreme contrasts. Fast, clattery ricochets of small gongs and metal shards accompanied longer melodies and drones from the string and wind instruments, and there was a bizarre high-pitched screech sliding upwards from the inside of the piano. I asked Lisa later how she’d done it – apparently the clear part of a cassette tape case can be dragged across the middle piano strings to set them vibrating lengthwise in the manner of Ellen Fullman’s Long String Instrument.
Favorite moment: simplicity. The piece came to a false end, and all the effects were left behind. Lisa started playing lush post-impressionist chords, while Heather played a viola melody that slowly simplified itself until there were just three notes left.

Douglas Ewart (woodwinds; Minneapolis) w/ Steve Barsotti (home-mades/field recordings), Heather Bentley (viola/violin), Lori Goldston (cello)
Several distinct movements, fading into one another. Douglas played drones and slow melodies on home-made wind instruments (including a slide didgeridoo or “slydgeridoo” as I called it), interacting with Steve’s percussive and electric-bass-ish electronics and more drones from Heather and Lori. Faster melodies emerged from this. Lisa appeared on the stage from out of the audience, and tossed a stainless-steel bowl into the piano. Chaos. Then Quieter. Then Douglas made a sudden transition to racous music again by blowing a claxon on the soprano sax. Full-on decibel-stretching screech-honk AEC madness; Lori’s and Heather’s quieter instruments were effectively drowned out but continued to provide background texturing. Gradual fade-out, but this stereotypical ending was not to be: Douglas brought back the loudness, but this time with a lyrical subtone and a recitation of a poem about John Coltrane. Steve’s electronics ended.
Favorite moment: all of it.
At the end, Douglas unexpectedly released two “percussion instruments” that had been sitting on the table next to his home-made winds. They were actually tops that spun around on the floor with a quiet rumble, gradually slowing and growing louder. One fell (I thought it would trip the other, though it didn't), then the other fell, and the hall became silent. Then raucous applause. “There was no other way to end this festival” was a motto that appeared at that point, passed from person to person. Maybe a tradition has started and similar tops will announce the end of next year’s as well.

A Final Note

To the guy at the "merch mart" who bought two of my CD's and then disappeared while I was getting your change, contact me. I owe you six bucks.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Concert Review in Poetry, Art, and an "Optigon": Seattle Phonographers Union 1-19-2017

Lights dim, sounds dim
Songle distantce foghorn
Emergence of electronic dronenotes, not electronic, microtones shift inside grains of watersound
Yellowhite trumpet
Chimes begin, bigbells, churchbells, splintersounds of smallbells in wind
Then LOUD horn in fog, trombone’s dark grey didgeridoo
Answered by aviary, left side
Answered by people speaking, right side
Answered by clangclunks, middle side
Answered by didgeridrone fade, no side
Answered by high halfstep semichord, upward
Trum(crows)pet horns drumming toward chaos, downward
Blue French horn mourns end of ambience

Waves filter through cement pipes
Nocturne - cricketsong
Cold shootingstars in darkness

Now sounds get strange:
Trombone belches, French horn farts, trumpet squeeeeeeeels

Eww! Ewww! Ewwww! cries a strange bird
(While they sing in church)
Waves cresssssst, trumpet says Oooooowup!

Quieter gray water
River of yellow bells
Tributary of tawny trumpet-tones
Volume increases, violence begins
Car horns blare red
Answered by bass bells
Answered by wailing French horn
Answered by an announcement: crackling voice, language unclear
Lake of allcolored bellsound
All sounds dwindle except one ghostly whooshwail complicated hum

Jet passes by overhead
Thundroar in night sky
Adds silence as music ends.

"Seattle Phonographers Union – a collective of artists improvising with unprocessed field recordings – perform one of their infrequent “ambient” sets, with group members dispersed around the space and playing through an array of individual sound systems. Even more unusual, tonight they break one of their own rules and are joined by instrumentalists Greg Kelley (trumpet) and Tom Varner (French horn)." From the Seattle Phonographers Union Website.

This is my visual impression of the concert. Each line is one note or sound.

Often during the Phonog Union concerts, several false endings make it obvious that the music is improvised. This concert, a longer set (and with added soloists) seemed to be a single extended composition in three movements. The brass players added another dimension that bound the various sounds together in a musical whole. (This was neither better nor worse than the more obviously unplanned performances, merely a different experience for the listener.)

Now - I mentioned a trombone. This was actually an incident so bizarre that it spawned a neologism. Here's what I wrote about it on a social media site:

New word:

Optigon (n. variant of "optigone"; portmanteau of "optical" and "gone", perhaps influenced by "octagon" and similar words): Something which you see or observe, but when you look it up later or go to show someone else, is no longer there. A type of optical illusion. For example, "The trombone player at the Seattle Phonographers' Union concert last Thursday was not actually there; he was only an optigon created by the lighting and acoustics in the room."

No, I can't explain it. The concert of sounds was beautiful, however, and I recommend that anyone around the Seattle area go hear their next one, phantom brass players or not.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

A seasonal Digression: “Experimental” Christmas Music

This is an expanded version of something I posted (on my previous music blog) in 2010.

First: Messiaen's “20 Aspects of the Baby Jesus”; this is indeed “different” from the standard piano playing of Christmas standards (i.e. in hotel lobbies during this season). I’d like to hear this instead, sometime! There also exists a “Little Suite for Christmas” by George Crumb, in the same vein, but darker and using a number of Crumb’s inside-piano techniques (I’ll concede that Christmas music probably shouldn’t be dark). It has a rendition of the “Coventry Carol” in the middle, mostly monophonic and plucked.

Another one is the interlude, “For the Birth of Christ”, from the African Sanctus by David Fanshawe. Predating music with digital samples, this uses Fanshawe’s own recordings of traditional African music but is mostly a large “classical” work for chorus, piano, and rock band. Some of it sounds oddly dated now (like a 1960’s rock opera that never quite got going) but this interlude is worth listening to. Both relaxing and tense, the piano adds an atonal accompaniment to a love song from Sudan. In the original vinyl release, the love song was panned too far to one direction and the piano too far to the other, and they switched sides in the middle (an unnecessary and unnerving special effect); but that was fixed on the CD reissue.

Some “pop” oddities: There’s a full-orchestral Christmas tune by Japanese folk-pop-rocker Reimy (on her self-titled album from 1990; her barely-controlled childlike voice stands out in stark, weird contrast to that grand accompaniment), and Bob Dylan did a Christmas CD.

I checked out the latter from the library, asking the question: What happens when everybody’s favorite non-singer and arguably the last of the beatnik poets decides to take on Christmas carols? Answer: not much. It just sounds like anybody’s cantankerous but loveable great-granddad wheezing Christmas songs in a karaoke bar. Charming in its way, but definitely not classic Dylan. (Maybe he meant it to be ironic; but ironically, the irony is lost.)

Another "pop" suggestion is not really all that "alternative" or experimental in any way, though it may be off of some people's radar. Nicole C. Mullen, Gospel and CCM singer with an amazing voice (in complete contrast to Reimy's and Dylan's quasi-singing) has a CD called "Christmas in Black and White". This puts the political counterpoint back in the Christmas message, and is more relevant in today's "trumped" world than it was when it came out in 2002.

Last, and probably least, there's my own piece "Angelconcert" on my CD "PianoSphere" (my name is listed as S. Eric Scribner, if you want to look it up).

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Worst Music, Revisited

I thought I’d revisit an old meme (now gone) that’s been annoying me for years. Though I’m glad that it’s gone, my question is really how it got started in the first place. I started a Facebook discussion about it. Not huge numbers of people wrote back (several just “liked” the postings), but those that did had some interesting insights. The names (and initials) have been changed except for my own.

Me: Here's an open question about music. I might include the answers in a blog (but I won't post any names).

Middle school and high school kids today no longer mistake classical music for "elevator music" or muzak. But back in the 1970's, as a classical music listener (and a teenager), I ran into that misconception all the time. Here's the question, or series of questions: How did that misunderstanding get started? Did you think it was true (if you were a kid then)? When did you realize it wasn't true? How or why? Why do you think it isn't a "thing" anymore? Are there actually any similarities between those two genres? (I consider them to be complete opposites.)

I have some theories. I'll post them as this discussion gets going.

BX: Classical more often than not tends to be several minutes if not nearly an hour or so long. Most "pop" music is typically 2.5-7min and that's for the shortest to longest, again..typically. Elevator music to me has always clipped the crescendos and other climaxes...or whatever. I presumed this to allow for the only rise and fall to be left at the physical approach. As if the music were the only bearings one could grasp, in case they feared lifts. Nothing too one way or the other, yet better than Muzak. I honestly can't readily point out Muzak, it's not "music." Whatever that’s supposed to mean. Lol

Me: "Elevator music" and Muzak (same thing - "Muzak" is a brand name) do clip all the climaxes, etc. They're purposely banal, because their purpose is to be ignored. The individual "cuts" are about three minutes long, because they're based on the same music as other "pop". At least that's what I think; like everybody else, I mostly ignore them.

TQ: I blame Mantovani and stuff like this:
(Classic 1970s commercial for the mail-order album "120 Music Masterpieces" featuring actor John Williams. This one aired on WTBS on July 12, 1980 but dates back to 1970 or 71. - YouTube commentary.)

Me: Makes sense (that was one of my theories, that attempts to "popularize" orchestral music actually had a completely different effect). He pronounced title of the Borodin piece "Polyvetzian" Dances!? At least the orchestral bits still have a little dynamic range, even though they're chopped up.

TQ: There was this pretty entrenched middlebrow/suburban aesthetic that managed to smooth all the edges off of classical music - 101 Strings, Kostelanetz, etc. Mantovani: "Perhaps 25% of the people like the classics and about 25% like the Beatles. I aim to please the 50% in the middle." Bingo.

SN: I was not exposed to much classical music growing up, except for what was used occasionally in pop culture and TV commercials. And I didn't pay much attention to elevator music, unless it was a tune I happened to recognized (which wasn't often).

OJ: As far as I can hear, most ambient music these days consists of playlists of pop songs. In really mellow environments you hear New Agey or instrumental folky stuff. And in other places you'll actually hear bona fide classical playlists. I very very rarely hear the old school string orchestra Muzak, and when I do it really jumps out at me--feels like time travel. So I think that's your answer: ambient music used to be orchestral, hence easily mistaken for orchestral classical music, but now you rarely hear that kind of muzak.

Me: One of my theories was that the older muzak used string sections, but then, so did a lot of top 40 (Heart "Dreamboat Annie"), jazz, and even the dance craze of the time: disco. And to me, “ambient” doesn’t mean “background music” but refers to a specific genre of semi-experimental electronica: Brian Eno, et al. Maybe I’m being too rigid there, because the word “ambient” of course means part of the background.

TQ: Ballard Goodwill has the best Muzak - last time I was there I heard the Jam, Buzzcocks, XTC, Lene Lovich, Dave Edmunds, Costello; in past I've heard the Slits, Banshees, Kate Bush, etc.

OJ: Even Fred Meyer in Lake City makes me do a double take with some frequency: Ramones, Replacements, Costello et al.

BJ: Music is a type of thought. Some thoughts are subtle and complicated, and are meant to be paid attention to. Some thoughts are not, or do not reward close attention.

BD: I lived in Florida as a child, in a small town, so elevators did not exist for me. I always associated classical with orchestras back then. In today's world, kids SEE classical musicians daily in YouTube along with the genre title. The internet has clarified much past musical genre confusion in general through sight.....not sound. A label in today’s world carries more distinction.

Me: About "seeing" classical musicians: I have a DVD of videos of Xenakis chamber music. I've occasionally shown it in a class where I'm teaching. The pieces for string quartet "look like" classical, so kids have actually asked me if they're by Beethoven or Mozart. But there's a piece for piano and trombones, and here they (the kids) don't know what to make of it, despite the fact that much of this piece "sounds" more "classical" that the string quartets.

QB: Myself I am grateful that I was forbidden access to mainstream culture, and so among my childhood favorites was Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, and remains so to this day (how we managed to have records, not to mention the means to listen to them, amazes me even now). I remember how my father explained to me that this work concerned itself with death, he having barely survived tuberculosis and blacklisted along with my mother as a communist, though they were to find that their beliefs and aspirations were the sort of thing that were sure to deliver you post-haste to the Gulags or even a bullet in the back of the neck in the "worker's fatherland". My response to the closing pages of the sixth movement (Der Abschied) was that if this is death (I must have been somewhere in the neighborhood of five or six years old) I was more than ready for the quiet ecstasy of that moment in the music when all desire and torment is resolved into bliss. And thus I was immunized from the start against all forms of mass culture, from "The 60's" to post-modernism, never mind Muzak and am eternally grateful (I have always thought that it would be interesting to sabotage elevator music systems and let fly with the opening of the Mahler 8th, good for the souls of those aboard).

Me: I often sabotage background music in a class by playing something that actually "works" as (pseudo)Muzak - baroque and jazz work well - and then slipping in some Messiaen or George Crumb.

WM: I had parents who actively listened to classical music and disdained "easy listening" muzak. So I was taught never to confuse the genres.

Me: Me too, and it never even crossed my mind that someone might consider them similar, which is why I was so surprised and insulted when other kids at my school insisted that "bay-TOE-vin" (that's how they said it) was "that annoying and depressing music on KSEA" (an easy-listening station). I thought that one or two kids were kidding, until a whole 7th-grade class threatened to "pound that 'elevator-Mozart' out of me". (A similar phrase had been used against me in 5th grade for telling another student to stop insulting a film about avant-garde music that a guest music teacher had shown.) I actually did almost get beat up once for playing a piece in the style of Stravinsky at a school talent show, though in that case it was because the bullies said that I had embarrassed them by “just pounding on the piano” and that I “needed to be punched once for every note in the song”.

WM: Good grief!

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Album Reviews, Old and New: ELP, Seawind, Steven Michael Miller, and Yoko Kanno

These four reviews were originally published on Sit Down Listen, in slightly different versions.

Emerson, Lake, and Palmer: Do the "Works" Still Work?

This was in my vinyl collection, and after digging it out of storage, I promptly ignored it for several months. Back in the early 1980’s, I’d rocked out to it. But now, all I could remember about it was huge, blown-up ostentation, grand sonic spectacle based on… not very much. Not that the concept was bad, of course: a solo project by each of Keith Emerson, Greg Lake, and Carl Palmer, then the three of them together for a finale. But, “crossover” has never worked for me (though that may be a relic of being a kid who listened to classical in an era when the “hip” kids subscribed to the meme that classical and Muzak were synonymous); so I was bothered by the idea of a major rock album being backed-up by a large (and sometimes seemingly unrehearsed) symphony orchestra. Then I listened to Symphonic Zeppelin again, and thought, well, a rock orchestra works well there, so maybe I could give this ELP LP another try.

Side One presents Keith Emerson’s “Piano Concerto no. 1”. Very classical concept, including the three movements. But, as a classical composition, it is deeply flawed. (Two obvious examples: in the first movement, the atonal intro and the jazzy cadenza have nothing to do either with each other or the rest of the piece; and the development section doesn’t really go anywhere, it just presents a second theme and then noodles around with its rhythms.) Yet I sat there listening to every detail, transfixed. Why? Answer: it isn’t classical at all, and I subconsciously wasn’t listening to it as classical. It’s an extended piece of progressive rock. Its interest and excitement are not derived from the composer’s personal rendering of classical formal structure, but from interplays of odd meters, alternation of solos and ensemble playing, and a building-up of high-energy riffs. The fact that only the keyboard remains unaltered (and the guitar, bass, and drums have been replaced by an orchestra) doesn’t really change anything: under that symphonic exterior, this is something that Tull, Yes, Floyd, Rush, or Kansas could have done during their most “prog” periods. And yes, it’s a lot of fun.

Not so with Side Two, five songs by Greg Lake. These are mostly forgettable power-ballads, with a voice like Neil Diamond over-singing, awful lyrics with forced rhymes, and runaway overdubbing. One song is recorded at about half the volume of the others, though it’s supposed to be a louder, rock number. Another features harmonica and elevator-guitar amplified above a string section, for an unnatural, forced sound. Despite all that, it’s not a total wasteland. “Lend Your Love to Me Tonight” has some interesting key-changes. “C’est La Vie” uses some memorable French folk instrumentation. Both are minor earworms; just ignore the words. “Closer to Believing” provides the “slow movement” for the entire double album, with shimmering strings that sometimes venture into atonality and even suggested mircotonality, and a contrapuntal passage near the end that is “classical” in the way that Emerson’s “Concerto” was not. The lyrics, to this song at least, aren’t all that bad either.

There are three actual classical “works” included in the Works. The first of these has a heavy metal title, and begins side three, Carl Palmer’s solo project: Sergei Prokofiev’s “The Enemy God Dances with the Black Spirits” from the “Scythian Suite”. This “barbaric” music (under the heavy influence of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”) is more or less played straight, though the addition of Palmer’s continuous, flailing drum soloing turns it into a hectic, scary big band number (with strings). The rest of the side consists of more instrumentals, some great, some forgettable, all but one with manic drumming. There are two named after cities: “L.A. Nights” is a run-of-the-mill rocker with guitar solos, while “New Orleans” is an amazing bit of funk featuring wah-wahs. “Bach Two-Part Invention in D-minor” is the second classical piece; in this arrangement of the keyboard piece, Palmer plays mallets instruments rather than drums – but the string section is off-key and ruins the whole mood. “Food for Your Soul” isn’t really, though it includes an actual drum solo (no other instruments) and a nod to Ian Anderson’s flute. Finally, “Tank” is an arrangement of an instrumental from ELP’s first album. Oddly, Emerson’s keyboard improvisations in the middle section are transcribed note for note for violins, and again, they play off-key. Ugh! They should have left it alone – and, in the third section, they do – the three of them play what sounds like the original (with a slightly different keyboard solo) and add blasting brass chords behind them. Exciting, but in the end it’s merely an arrangement of the first version. And for some reason, it leaves out the drum solo.

Side 4 begins with the last of the three actual “classical” pieces, and the one that is the most transformed: Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man”. Very symphonic at first (though with some added – and unnecessary – reverb), but ELP’s masterstroke was to turn this into a rockin’ blues number. The blues-rock emerges slowly, but eventually the Copland comes to an end and we’re left with a keyboard solo over a driving beat, sounding like nothing so much as an electric organ version of Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks”. The music adds more and more blue notes, finally going completely, gloriously, insanely, Hendrix-y, atonal. Riffs from the Copland reemerge, and then the Fanfare is back, though the beat (and electric organ) are still there. The two styles duke it out until the end. This is my favorite part of the Works, though I don’t know if it’s worth buying the whole double album for this one track.

The last and longest song is “Pirates”, which attempts to be a grand finale by summing up all that’s come before. There are long orchestral passages (careful listeners will notice fragments from Emerson’s “Concerto”), synthesizer solos, sea chanties, Renaissance music, and odd meters, all leading to a rockin’ climax. Lake’s overwrought vocals finally find vindication as the thoroughly unsavory character of the pirate captain, though perhaps more suitable for the Broadway stage than a rock album.

So in the end, do these Works still work? Yes. No. Pick and choose between them: some are brilliant, some are fossils from an age of forced gigantism, most are in between. The concept and the orchestrations are interesting at times, banal at others, and the whole album has a consistent problem with volume balance. Now that I’ve listened to it again a couple of times, I’ve enjoyed it – but I might be embarrassed to recommend it heartily to others. On the other hand, it is a lot of fun, and maybe that’s all it needs to be.

A (Not So) Hidden Message from Funky Winds from the Sea

I first came across this record in college: Seawind, the album, by Seawind, the band. My friend introduced me to it. Though not one of those all-time masterpiece records, it is still unfortunate that it subsequently has been lost to time and obscurity. This is a cool 1970’/80’s funky music, akin to Earth Wind and Fire, with intricate rhythmic interplay and smokin’ horn solos.

The first track, “We Got a Way” starts up the funk immediately, though perhaps a little dated because of the “disco” beat. Like most album openers, this is intended as a hook, and thus (as if often the case) it’s catchy but less interesting than what follows.

In “You Gotta Be Willin’ to Loose (Part II)”, Pauline Wilson shows her vocal pyrotechnics in a (far too short) series of one-note glottal sound effects mixed with the words; the effect is almost pre-rap. I’ve also heard the same sound in Afropop, such as Toure Kunda Live. There’s no “Part I” to this song on the record, though it does sound slightly unfinished (or rather, un-begun) and may actually be a “jamming” coda to one that was not included.

The next two songs introduce the “theme” and message of the album (which, once one realizes it, was already present in the first two songs anyway). This is actually “Christian music”. It is not an example of bait-and-switch, though – the band was not trying to draw in unsuspecting listeners with “groovy” music and then hit them with an unexpected "religious" message. They were trying to do the exact opposite – put the musicianship back into the such music, where it had sorely been missed.

I had previously thought that no genre of music was so dull, so mind-numbingly banal, so badly written and performed (and consequently so ineffective at communicating its own message) as 1970’s/80’s “Contemporary Christian Music”. I once proclaimed to an acquaintance (and a big fan of the music) that it was neither contemporary, nor Christian, nor music; and I refused to listen to it because I am a Christian. Since then, of course, “Christian music” itself has improved to the levels of composition and musicianship of “regular” – whatever that means – mainstream pop and rock; but Seawind is both and an album and a band from back then in the dark ages.

To be fair, there were of course, even then, a few other bright lights among the many feeble flickers in the genre. John Michael Talbot, at least in his early albums such as "Come to the Quiet", was playing a kind of Renaissance-influenced folk music that was both interesting and magical. With his brother, Terry Talbot, he also recorded at least one interesting acoustic “prog” rock album, "The Painter", though it was a little heavy on the falsetto. Resurrection Band’s "Colors" was blistering hard rock / early metal; it sounded mostly like AC/DC with an occasional odd meter. Phil Keaggy was a master guitarist comparable to Dire Straights’ Mark Knopfler (though his lyrics tended to be as awkward as those of Little River Band). Kerry Livgren (of the band Kansas) made one good prog-rock album ("Seeds of Change") and one good R&B/rock album ("Timeline") before the record producers apparently told him to get more commercial.

…And then there was this record. Its Christian message was there, but never (unlike a lot of others in the same genre) “tacked on” to the music. The music and the lyrics, and therefore the message – no song with lyrics can avoid having a message – were melded into a seamless whole.

…End of disclaimer, and back to the songs. The third, “He Loves You” is a little more subdued that the previous two. The funk gives way to a gentler, slightly Brazilian feel, while Ms. Wilson shows the soulful side of her singing. There are moments where she sounds like Nina Simone.

“The Devil is a Liar” is a sermon to avoid worldly delights (which will leave you empty). Musically it is a combination of the styles of the previous two songs, with both a funky and lyrical side.

In “Love Song / Seawind”, the album takes a turn and things start to get really interesting. Unfortunately it begins with the unpromising vocals of Bud Nuanez over acoustic guitar – he attempts to sound like Jim Croce but doesn’t really. Then “Seawind” (the song) fades in, and we’re in a different world. Soprano sax, played by Kim Hutchcroft, over open fourths and fifths on acoustic guitar, recalls nothing so much as Paul Winter’s “Icarus”. Later there are hints of prog-rock synthesizers and off-beat drum accents. Fade out. With this, side A ends refreshed.

“Make Up Your Mind” is a throwback to Side A. The funk is back in force, now with Maynard Ferguson-style trumpet on top. The song suffers from disco vocal interjections (“get down!”) and thus, as sometimes happens, sounded “groovy” at the time it was recorded, but now, forty years on, just elicits a snicker.

The remainder of Side B is two long songs, both instrumental. “Praise (Part I)” (there’s that “part of a song” thing again) begins with blues piano and a sax tune, leading through several jazzy solos. There is a brief spate of scat singing (Ms. Wilson again), and the trumpet parts recall Miles Davis’ later work, such as "Tutu".

Then comes the epic. “Roadways (Parts I and II)” (finally, a song with both parts!) drops all pretense of being a “popular” number and is instead a full-fledged jazz composition. Enigmantic, slightly rock-ish sax and drums begin, leading to quietly dissonant electric piano chords, played by Larry Williams. An angular melody on the soprano sax winds along, sometimes doubled by flute. The soprano sax solos, with some “extended” techniques. Gradual crescendo, and a brief encounter with Chick Corea’s “The Brain” before repetitive-minimalist synthesizer begins the second part. There is a loud but measured full-ensemble outburst, then the music relaxes and the melody of the first part returns, now on trumpet doubled by electric organ. Soprano sax ends, with tranquil rhythms underneath.

If all of this analysis sounds dry, the music is most assuredly not. It’s not really a masterpiece, though it’s certainly a surprise for anyone who thinks that music from its time and genre had to be insipid and clichéd. It’s also a good addition to anyone’s collection of funk and even jazz from the same period.

Steven Michael Miller Between Noise and Silence

I ran across this memorial retrospective set of CDs at a concert of artists who’d worked with Steven Michael Miller. Since I had not heard of Mr. Miller at the time, I asked about the music. In the ensuing conversation, I was convinced to buy the CD set. I wasn’t disappointed.

There are eight CDs in this set, titled "Between Noise and Silence". The first CD is a collection of pieces called “Subterranea.” These are all very much twigs on the same branch. Majestic synthesizer chords and drones mingle with atmospheric, heavily echoed samples of various “outside” sounds: wind in trees, rivers, animals, traffic. Occasionally there is a serpentine melody on the Balinese flute. Overall these pieces remind me of nothing so much as the ambient music of Brian Eno (such as "On Land" or Side A of "Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks"). Perhaps there is also a little Ingram Marshall, who, it turns out, worked with Miller.

CDs 2 and 3 are a collection of improvisations, mostly collaborative. These are more avant-garde in style than the music on CD 1. In a way, though, they continue the same aesthetic. They are mostly hazy, half-audible extemporizations in space-time, with a lot of (real and suggested) silence. There are a few louder moments, such as in "Duo I" with David Dunn (electronics) and "Duet 2" with Steve Peters (electronics and field recordings); but generally these walk a tightrope between ambience and experimentalism. It is a world previously navigated by Cage and Feldman (though in a very different style).

CD 4 is a single long work, the installation titled “Glass Piece,” the audio part of an installation dedicated to Annea Lockwood (legendary electro-acoustic composer). This piece is the sounds of glass, certainly; to me it is the reverberations of great crystalline gongs and bells, each as large as a house, tapped and rubbed very gently.

CD 5 is a set of pieces with a much harder aesthetic, also purely electronic. “Slow Fire” is edge-of-your-seat tension created from samples of Ligeti’s string quartets and piano music, greatly slowed and amplified. At first listen, this is a drone piece – tones seem locked in hypersleep, barely moving – but careful listening reveals complicated interactions (as in both Ligeti and in drone music). “Three Pieces for Chris Mann” is its antithesis: musique concrète sounds come and go so quickly as to be unidentifiable. “In the Absence of the Sacred” is another high-tension study in found sound; here is some of the same prerecorded material as on CD 1 but treated as a harrowing lament for lost cultures.

One of the most fascinating pieces on the set is the short “Pulse Canon.” Tiny blips gather in an accelerating, cosmic polyrhythm, and become a relentless storm. More description would ruin the idea. It’s easy to hear what’s going on, but it has to be heard to be heard...

“The Flow of Time” is somewhat more ambient, but on this recording it seems to be merely a prelude to the next piece. “Pohon Bergunga” is from the sound-world of Xenakis’ “Voyage absolu des Unari vers Andromede” (on "Perspectives of New Music" vol. 28): a mad, wobbly cluster of siren-like computer-generated fractal glissandi that sometimes slow down to reveal that they are made of other (faster) glissandi, which in turn are made of still faster glissandi. “Twin Canon” is essentially the same piece made from stable drones rather than unstable slides. Overtones fade in to reveal that they are made of still higher, more microtonal, overtones, which in turn… Both pieces are fascinating as concepts, but to me at least, they are (like that one Xenakis piece) so mechanical and high-tension that they are nearly unlistenable.

CD 6, probably my favorite in the set, presents some pieces that are midway between the ambience of CD 1 and the nail-biting of CD 5. They may be quite different to different listeners. “Recirculations” seems at first merely a reiteration of “Twin Canon” – but one is struck immediately by its slower (!), more laid-back mood and straining to produce consonant harmonies from its dense microtonal overtones. (I have used similar resonances as the idée-fixe “mystic chord” in my day-long “StormSound Cycle” – in my case, they were made from partials from the deep bass sound, under the white noise, of waves crashing against a shore.) Eventually the sound collapses into a world of giant gongs heard from somewhere far away in an endless dimly-lit hallway, then builds back up to its opening material. “Points of Origin” is a piece of musique concrète in the style of Annea Lockwood (to whom it was dedicated); sounds are combined in interesting ways and unexpected juxtapositions, but are not processed. “Recirculations II” is a fantasy of CG reverberations that sometimes seem oddly akin to human speech, though altered and scattered into sonic nebulae that are somehow both ecstatic and sinister. Lastly, “Motors” is a drone piece made from unaltered recordings of electric, well, motors. This would seem to be completely non-musical (or even anti-musical) material, yet Miller manages to draw out a rich array of harmonies and microtones. This is a fascinating composition made from the most unpromising of material.

Taken all together, these form either a single day-long “album” with each separate CD a lengthy “song,” or a set of regular-length albums. In either case, the various pieces seem to comment on and extend each other. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts, as it should be in any great album.

There are two more discs in the set. One is a DVD of videos featuring Miller’s music, and the other is a collection of pieces by other composers, in tribute to Miller (which forms an “album” in its own right). I will review one or both of those at a future date.

Yoko Kanno: A Shape-Changing Ghost (in the Shell)

I found this CD in the same case as the DVD of the TV show. I’d checked it out from the library. I didn’t like the show that much, but the CD was a bonus, and later I got my own copy. Most of the music was composed by Yoko Kanno, with whom I was familiar from the soundtrack to Cowboy Bebop. She is a well-known film composer in Japan.

A note before I continue: the title of the album (and the show) is Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. Although this some of the quasi-English that’s popular in Japan (i.e. “Walkman” and “Pokari Sweat”), it isn’t nonsense. Meaning can be teased out of those two brand names by someone familiar with Japanese: a Walkman is probably something that goes with you while you walk, and “Pokari Sweat” is roughly like “Sweatbuster”. Likewise, "Ghost in the Shell" is probably better translated as “Spirit inside the Shell (of the Machine)”, and refers to the possibility of artificial intelligence being smart and complex enough to have a soul. (This is a cyberpunk world of artificial hackers and martial-arts wielding cyborgs.) “Stand Alone” refers to several episodes of the show that stand by themselves, not related to a larger story arc in the series. “Complex” is COM-plex, the noun form; an amalgamation of such “stand alone” episodes.

Back to the CD. An interesting thing about Ms. Kanno’s music is that we aren’t quite sure what we are listening to. It shapeshifts continuously. It’s mainstream “popular” music, certainly, but it defies all attempts to stick it in one of those boxes that the music industry provides for us. On the surface it’s mostly electronica, though more haunting in mood (however, hardcore Aphex Twin and Moby fans may dispute that it’s really “electronica”, and since when did electronica acquire that style of singing?) It’s reminiscent of 80’s post-punk bands like the Cocteau Twins and the Eurhythmics, but “world music” fans will notice a definite Balkan flavor. Some tracks are pure hard rock, others are funk, some are J-Pop (but with those strange vocals again); some are hybrids. Part of this ambiguity is created by the fact that, though Ms. Kanno composed most of the music, it’s being played by more than one “band”. There are different instruments and different singers – and sometimes the individual musicians move from one band to another. And yet somehow it all ties together. Ms. Kanno has a distinctive style which manifests itself mostly in a couple of unusual compositional techniques that affect how the music flows in time (more on those later) – and the overall shape of the album is that of a single, large-scale composition.

The lyrics, where they appear, are sung in amalgams of English, Japanese, and Russian.

The first track, “Run Rabbit Junk” (one of those quasi-English titles again, though I can’t explain this one) is played by Hideyuki Takahashi, and gets the music off to a loud punk/metal start with a driving beat. About halfway through, the listener is treated to one of Ms. Kanno’s compositional techniques: everything suddenly seems to stop but the rhythm and momentum are still there subliminally, and (after a few dreamlike seconds) they burst into the foreground again. Following this, the vocalists exclaim their ownership of a number of three-letter cyberpunk abbreviations – though I don’t know where this leads in the show.

ヤキトリ (“Yakitori”) is mostly 70’s – 80’s guitar solos. At times it sounds like the solo at the end of Kansas’ “Carry On Wayward Son”, with its stumbling off-meters; other times it reminds one of Van Halen, with lots of notes that don’t really coalesce; mostly it could be music for a monster truck rally. Fun, but grating after a while, and too over the top for my taste. (Yakitori is, of course, Japanese chicken kabobs.)

Ms. Kanno’s signature style begins with スタミナ・ローズ (“Stamina Rose”), though not very promisingly at first. Technobeat-driven synthesized African marimbas underscore Balkan harmonies sung by Ms. Kanno herself (under the name of Gabriela Robin).

“Surf” continues in somewhat the same mood, though relaxed and with a flute. Another of Mr. Kanno’s compositional techniques is in evidence: this is a slower piece, definitely, but there’s still that nervously quick (though understated) electronica beat underneath. It’s as if there are two pieces running along at the same time, diametrically opposed yet producing a harmonious whole.

“Where does this ocean go?” almost continues the same song, though now with heartfelt vocals by Ilaria Graziano. The lyrics, a little “slice of life” in English, seem a tad awkward at times (particularly the line about the man with a head like a melon), though the song expresses the classic longing for adventure. Björk’s “Hyperballad” has a similar tune (as noted on several websites), though Ms. Kanno’s piece isn’t really a cover and is more appealing musically.

“Train Search” is another guitar solo like “Yakitori”, though shorter and more composed. It is obviously background music to an action scene and doesn’t really do anything for the album. To me, it actually interrupts the flow of the music – and when I put this album on a playlist, I moved it next to “Yakitori”.

シベリアン・ドール・ハウス (“Siberian Dollhouse”) is a mysterious slow movement, at first with blues riffs on guitar, then with Ms. “Robin’s” half-audible vocals under dark synth ambience, and finally with a rising horror-glissando (leading unexpectedly to a major chord) and recalling The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life”.

“Velveteen” picks up where “Siberian Dollhouse” left off, though relaxed. The rising horror has become a mere police siren. The beat starts up, and the rest of it is essentially a “pop” number – though in a minor key and with samples of traditional pow-wow songs under the instrumental parts.

“Lithium Flower” returns to the rock world, and brings back the male vocals, this time by Scott Matthew. This could have been a hit by any 70’s or 80’s rock group; English lyrics about an idealized woman are sung in a slightly gravelly voice over modal guitar cycles. Retro. Reminds me of early Foreigner.

“Home Stay” is an instrumental that is again retro – this time it’s classic funk. There is a trick in the bass line: it is actually one beat longer than the rest of the tune, so that every time it returns it’s on a different accent. I notice things like that.

“Inner Universe” is something of a recap of what has gone before. Electronica again, very fast beat under rather slow music again, Balkan voices again, with tight harmony. Again, as in the opening number, everything stops (but doesn’t) and then it builds back up. Several repeats of the refrain are harmonized differently, building to an ecstatic climax. It’s beautiful to hear, but if this is electronica, it’s from another world.

“Fish – Silent Cruise” is the longest song (except for “Yakitori”), and the climax of the album. Basically it’s all one long crescendo, accumulating from quiet, reflective wordless singing to techo/symphonic overload. Again, slow music with a fast beat. Some of the ambience is created by a real symphony orchestra, not synthesizers.

“Some Other Time” is a slow bubblegum pop number, here a bright-colored relaxation after the tension of “Fish – Silent Cruise”.

“Beauty is Within You” follows, and forget it. There isn’t much beauty within this overdone pop ballad, which, interestingly, wasn’t composed by Ms. Kanno...

“We’re the Great” is a very slow number for guitars and male vocals; it serves as an introduction to the final piece, モノクローム (“Monochrome”). This is something both truly unusual and completely familiar at the same time: electronica/pop over random synthesizer beeps. Though completely different stylistically, this is somewhat akin to some of the experiments by Pink Floyd (remember the random synth notes in “On the Run” on Dark Side of the Moon?). It brings the CD to a refreshed conclusion.

There are two more cuts, brief excerpts from loud, up-tempo songs found in the series (and on later volumes of a CD set). Those are better in their full versions, so I won’t talk about them here. I removed them on my iTunes playlist.

In the end, this is just a soundtrack album – but it’s more than that. The songs are (mostly) interesting, and there is a wide variety of moods, tempi, and instrumentation. They tie together, in large part because of that recurrent “slow music over a fast beat” and because of related modes and harmonies. Ms. Kanno was composing individual “pop” numbers in various styles, but with an ear to how they would sound together (both on the CD and as a soundworld for the show). The result is well worth a listen or two, especially without the anime to which they belong.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Just for Fun: Renamed Instruments

A friend sent me some of these, and I made up some more. My apologies to anyone who plays any of these instruments; actually I like all of them.

The "catpipe" and "duckpipe" were of course used as such by Sergei Prokofiev, and the bassoon could also sound like (with a nod to C. S. Lewis) a "toadpipe". ...And, come to think of it, there are a couple of other types of Twang Tables: the koto and its relatives come to mind.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Concert Review: Steve Peters’ “Canções Profundas (Deep Songs)” at Good Shepherd Center 9/25/15

“Canções Profundas (Deep Songs)” is a new evening-length work by Seattle composer Steve Peters. Inspired by research into his family history in the Azores, this evocative sonic poem explores themes of migration, diaspora, memory, identity and emotional/cultural ties to place.

A chain of nine volcanic islands in the mid-Atlantic, the Azores are an isolated region of Portugal and the western-most edge of Europe. American whaling ships began arriving in the 18th century, taking on Azorean men as crew; this began a long pattern of emigration and the establishment of Portuguese enclaves in New England, California, Hawaii, and Canada in which Azorean cultural traditions and contact with the archipelago have persisted."
- From Wayward Music Seattle

The Music:
Field Recordings and Ambient Sounds from the Azores, recorded by Steve Peters; instrumental music composed by Steve Peters

The Band:
Lesli Dalaba, trumpet
Beth Fleenor, clarinets
Paul Kikuchi, percussion
Naomi Siegel, trombone
Greg Sinibaldi, saxophone
Joshua Parmenter, additional electronic processing
Rafael Carvalho, viola da terra (Azorean guitar), recorded.

The music was played in the dark.

The beginning was an enigma of sound: percolating lava pits gurgled and led into a crescendo of sea-sounds. Saxophone and trombone blatted from behind and to the side, not really imitating the ocean noises and not really contrasting with them either; merely providing a man-made commentary. This in turn led to an uncanny soundscape of squeals and chirrups and nasal “ewww-ewww-ewwwws” like strangled wind instruments. I assumed this to be a birdcall, though it was more alien than avian and as bizarre as the Japanese kijibato pigeon, which I call the “repeater” and mentioned in a previous post. (After the performance, Steve Peters answered another audience member’s inquiry about it, that it was the call of the Cory’s shearwater, common in the Azores. He said the first time he heard it, at night, it scared the #:@!! out of him.)

Crickets and barnyard animal sounds provided a brief, overlapped interlude, leading to a sudden quiet and then the tolling of a bell. Now the music entered the world of human sounds; at first chanting and bells in church, then an electronic fantasy of modulating bell-tones and – eventually – recognizable brass bands. The latter met and mingled in an Ivesian cross-jumble, though the music they were playing was clearly from a European tradition. During this, an aspect of the performance came to fore: in the dark, we could see shadows of the players moving, but not exactly what they are doing or what sounds were linked with their movements. Paul Kikuchi was on the stage with percussion – a large gong hung behind him like a dim sun in space, and a shadowy bass drum sat to his right – he moved around and between them and appeared to be playing, but it was far from obvious exactly what parts of the ambience came from him (except for a loud gong roll during the most abstract section). This added a definite sense of mystery…

The marching bands receded into mysterious clicking. These were the songs of sperm whales, which the Azoreans (and Americans) used to hunt in their whaling ships, not the more familiar melodies of humpbacks. The band added quasi-melodic sputters that seemed to emerge from the sea-sounds behind the whales.

With the abrupt appearance of modal melodic material from the band, the piece entered its last section – or last three sections. Mr. Peters said that he intended this part to represent the people (and music) of one place in the world migrating to another place in the world: hence, melodies for clarinet, sax and trombone with ambient accompaniment from a processed Azorean guitar (as always, Ms. Fleenor’s clarinet was perfect here); then more sea-sounds leading to a chaos of (talking) voices, half-heard mechanical sounds, and squawks from the band; then a recap of the same melodies, slower and with birdsongs and bells in the background. Ambient processed guitar: fade to black. End. My reaction to this was that, once I knew what the “program” was, it was completely fitting with the story. However, when hearing it the first time, I thought that the piece could have ended after the first section of melodies, and that there was one too many movements. This could probably be a mental holdover from my earlier experience with Seattle Phonographers’ Union concerts (of which Mr. Peters is a member) – these are unplanned performances (improvisations, really) with sampled sound, and often they have more than one false ending. In that case, it adds to the fun and spontaneity; in this “composed” piece, however, I found it a little overdone. This is my one and only (and very slightly) negative comment; otherwise, “Canções Profundas (Deep Songs)” is a masterpiece by one of Seattle’s musical luminaries.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Concert Review: John Luther Adams’ “Inuksuit” in the Park, Seattle, 9/19/2015

“Inuksuit” is an Inuit word for the roughly anthropomorphic piles of stones formerly left to direct travelers in that northern part of the world. This work by John Luther Adams was an attempt to make auditory inuksuit, an “evidence of human presence”; a pile of sounds upon an outdoor landscape.

We arrived on time at Seward Park, Seattle, for this outdoor event, and found that it wasn’t really ready yet. There were percussion stations scattered around the lawn behind the amphitheater; some were collections of drums, others racks of cymbals and gongs, still others random assemblages of glockenspiels, Tibetan singing bowls, and bright plastic vuvuzelas. Some were attended by percussionists dressed in black (MIB and WIB), but others seemed to have no one nearby.

We took a seat in the amphitheater, and waited. There were only a few people about, but gradually others gathered. At some point I realized that most of the percussionists had congregated by a small temporary stick sculpture about thirty feet away, and were beginning to blow through “megaphones” made of paper – producing the tiniest whisper of a sound. The piece was actually beginning, though at first it was indistinguishable from the sounds of the breeze.

Gradually they moved to their percussion stations, as the music became louder and more strident – sirens, honks and trombone-like howls began to sound from all directions. The first drum beat happened behind me, signaling a definite change to the next section. As more and more drums permeated the soundspace, we began to walk around and listen from different angles (as many, though not all, of the by now sizeable audience was doing). At one point nature synchronized itself to the music: as a particularly dramatic gong rang, a bald eagle appeared in the sky, seemed to survey the scene, and then (as the next gong rang) soared to elsewhere. The music progressed through thundering gongs and cymbals into delicate ringing reverberations, mostly from the glockenspiels – a myriad of wind-chimes all playing (if you listened closely) the same melodies, but scattered through time. By the quiet end, something of a sonic fade to white, many of the players had gathered again by the stick sculpture.

The effect of hearing this outdoors is one not easily forgotten. As opposed to in the concert hall, where music of this type is usually heard (whether “conventional” classical or “experimental”, like this), the sound was thinner, more scattered, yet more ambient. It seemed to be coming from all directions or perhaps out of the sky or the earth – undoubtedly Mr. Adam’s idea (he has commented that he wanted to make music that would awaken an environmental consciousness). The score consists of blocks of time, with each musician moving at his/her own pace, playing each part, but not necessarily synchronizing with the others. The result is a scattering of tones from all directions, with each part recalling others but recurring as part of an unpredictable continuum and development – rather like listening to sounds of nature.

John Luther Adams is a composer whose music is often inspired by nature in Alaska, where he lived from 1978 to 2014. Another one of his pieces, “Become Ocean”, has a connection with Seattle: commissioned by the Seattle Symphony, it won the Pulitzer Prize in 2014. It, however, is intended to be performed indoors in a standard concert hall setting.

*Another contemporary use of the ancient inuksuk sculptures: in Kim Stanley Robinson's sci-fi novel "2312", inuksuit (plural) have become a form of artistic expression on the planet Mercury as it is being colonized by humans – along with "goldsworthies" (from Andy Goldsworthy).

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

A Disaster? (Maybe Not...)

Last Friday night (8/28/15), Keith Eisenbrey (composer, pianist, percussionist) and I (ditto) played a concert consisting of two relatively long pieces: Keith’s “Etudes d'execution imminent” (piano solo) and my “garbage symphony” called “Sounds, Found” (prerecorded sounds with found objects used as percussion).

What was startling about the concert wasn’t the music, though of course it was avant-garde. Keith’s piece in particular was very beautiful, with its spare, minimalist (not repetitive-minimalist) aesthetic and tendrils of melodies derived from mathematics.

What was startling about the concert wasn’t that few people showed up to listen: this is standard for the Wayward Music Series Concerts, which tend to be woefully under-attended.

What was startling was that, of the few people who came, there were far fewer by the end. So, as I commented to Keith, “Well, we are now officially avant-garde musicians. We have played a concert that cleared the hall.” (I did manage to clear a hall once before, at an open mike in California. I played as part of an unrehearsed folk music band that sang – or screeched – too loud and jarringly off-key. I guess we should have practiced a little first. Other than that, I have to go clear back to my days in Junior High School to remember a performance that tanked this badly.*)

When this occurs, it always leaves a question. Did they leave because the music was awful, like that folk band I just mentioned? (Hey, gimme a break! It was subtitled “a garbage symphony”!) Or, did they leave because the music was too innovative and too interesting, as happened famously to Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Phillip Glass? Or, did they leave because the music was somehow both awful and too interesting, a sort of negative fusion of punk rock and classical/jazz? Since I composed the longer of the two pieces (and the one that seemed to cause most of the problem), I can’t really comment. I would hope that it was “too interesting” (I once had a radio DJ tell me that) and that a repeat performance would bring in more people who’d been frightened off the first time.

There is of course a third option: simply that the audience left because the music wasn’t quite what they wanted to hear, rather like expecting to hear Beethoven and getting The Pogues or vice-versa. Or that time I took a couple of the white cubes at the salad bar in a vegetarian restaurant, expecting tofu, and got feta cheese.

The music itself: Keith’s piece consisted of eight movements of various lengths, all fairly quiet and sparse. Background sound filtered in from outside, which he’d stated before that he didn’t mind – it adds to the ambience. In my opinion, the music wasn’t quite “ambient” enough for this; I tried to concentrate on the intellectual basis of the music but found myself distracted. However, I thought the composition itself was quite beautiful (and not really derivative of anything else I’d heard) and I’d like to hear it again. That description is a little vague, but I can’t really make more comments, having not really grasped the intent of the piece. At any rate, his part was definitely not the part of the concert that tanked...!

For my “garbage symphony”, Keith and I played (or more accurately, made noise with) our collections of pots and pans, plastic and glass bottles, CD storage racks, sticks (no stones), metal pipes, cardboard boxes and seashells – as well as a bunch of semi-instruments like a zoob-toob, a toy koto with the bridges removed, a broken Lao harp, and my “slab gong”. (The latter is a precarious contraption that always gets destroyed in performance – or at least ever since Neal Kosaly-Meyer accidentally wrecked one during a Seattle Composers Salon and I followed by deliberately smashing the other one. In this concert, the single slab gong was taken apart twice: the first time on accident [I put it back together during a later movement] and the second time on purpose.) Anyway, we improvised our parts, though there were instructions that I’d written as a “road map” to make sure we got to the end of each section at roughly the same time. Each section, as in a lot of my music, was delineated by a prerecorded track played over the house loudspeakers: recordings of skateboards, industrial air-conditioning units, wandering through a street fair, road construction, slapping wooden railings, airplanes, a performance of “Much Ado About Nothing”, street musicians, and a collection of other miscellaneous noise and music. That was the idea, of course, to “explore” the continuum from noise to sound to music.

Well, partially. Maybe mostly it was just to have a lot of fun bashing and whacking things.

And that was that. From a performer’s viewpoint there were moments of beauty in it, though its overall concept was perhaps a little dada/nihilist. There were quiet moments, of course, and, after I moved to the piano for the last two sections, it was supposed to end serenely. Not many stayed around to hear that part.

Maybe we’ll have to repeat the performance again and see what happens. If anything.

*About that junior high school performance (1970's):

It’s rather amusing when I tell it now… I had written a modernist-classical piano sonata that I entered in a state-wide composition contest, and I won. I thought that since my piece had won the contest, the kids at the school would like to hear it, so I played it in the talent show. After I finished, another boy asked me if I’d written that “song”. I answered that I had, and his response was to intone sarcastically, "…it figures." I was about to ask him what that was supposed to mean when I suddenly found myself surrounded by the two school bullies and their thugs, proclaiming that I should be punched in the face once for every note in the song. A teacher came over and broke this up before anything happened, but the teacher warned me that “I shouldn’t play such experimental music in the talent show”. Then, after school, one of my friends came over to my house and told me that I’d really messed up by playing something so “abstract” in the talent show, and all the other kids would hate me for it. Most of the other kids scoffed at the idea that it had won a contest when I told them... For the record, the piece was neither "experimental" nor “abstract” – it was simple folk-like melody, played exactly the same way five times, with a different accompaniment each time. Oh well – there’s no accounting for peoples’ perceptions.

Addendum 9/8/2015: A Listener's Reaction to the "Garbage Symphony":

From a Facebook message: "By now I presume you've read Keith's blog. I concur and feel most of what he says there, and was planning to write you after I read your Soundscroll, which seemed to express doubt and frustration over the event. I don't think either are warranted. It's hard to get people out for challenging stuff, and it's hard to get most people to stick around for work that requires stamina or re-adjustment. “Sounds, Found” is a tough and honest piece. Hearing it involves hearing that doesn't seek climaxes, high points or low points, and it involves having a high tolerance for disorderly mess. … [It] was a complete and full evening of music on its own. Though only about an hour, it was definitely a concentrated hour... I'm glad I was there. Your music is not like ANYBODY else's and it takes us places nobody else does. I absolutely look forward to hearing what you do next, and if you ever decide to program this piece again, I'll definitely be back for seconds." N

(He stayed for the whole performance.)

Monday, August 3, 2015

Review: Improvised Benefit Concert for Paul Hoskin, 7/31/2015

“Veteran Seattle improviser, contrabass clarinetist and concert organizer Paul Hoskin is currently in the hospital with very serious ailments. He had planned to play a duo concert tonight with Arrington De Dionyso, so instead Nonsequitur is organizing a benefit concert to help him out, with many members of Seattle’s improvised music community participating. All artist fees and audience admissions will be donated to assist Paul in his recovery.” – Wayward Music Website

What I’ve decided is that we’ll go basically in alphabetical order except for a few people who have to leave early, who will start. Every five minutes, a new person will come up. When the new person comes up, the person who’d been playing the previous five minutes can either stop and let them solo, or can decide to keep doing a duet with them. Likewise, when the next person comes up, the first person could still keep playing if they want or they can take a break and come back and play with someone else later. There will be no intermissions, it will be non-stop continuous hit music.” – Steve Peters, organizer of the concert (not an exact quote). [Applause]

Impressions of the Music

Wally Shoup (alto sax): Bluesy with spaces and variations.

Neil Welch (tenor sax and electronics): Beautiful atmospheric ambience; saxsamples with echoplex.

Christian Pinnock (trombone): Subterranean grunts and wails from the depths of the subconscious.

Arrington De Dionyso (contrabass clarinet): Heavy metal overtone growl-screeches against a backdrop of stark silence (and at first, Mr. Pinnock’s trombone). This was somewhat in the manner of Mr. Hoskin’s sonic explorations.

Stuart Dempster (bass trombone): Apocalyptic sounds, though quieter and more resigned than those of Mr. De Dionyso.

Beth Fleenor (clarinet): Continuing Mr. Dempster’s sound-world, though gradually evolving into the lyrical. Hints of Balkan music, though slowed. None of Ms. Fleenor’s signature vocal pyrotechnics since the “heavy metal” part of the concert had been earlier.

Sue Ann Harkey (guitar): All sounds derived from open strings; the guitar on the floor and played in the manner of the Chinese guqin (and later, hammer dulcimer). The hall was filled with peaceful reverberation.

Greg Kelley and Jim Knodle (trumpets): The “second movement” began with two solos, both of extreme silence punctuated by the quietest sounds possible on the trumpet – ordinarily a loud instrument of course, but here almost inaudible, whispered, wind-like.

Susie Kozawa (home-mades and objects): half-heard, half-forgotten lamentations from a lost civilization; then metallic echoes from a spring-gong that released a rainbow of harmonics when tipped away from the floor; then plastic percussion frog-croaks to accompany:

Carol Levin (harp): electric, with rhythmic delay and pentatonic suggestions of both Celtic and Chinese music (and a wah-wah pedal). Resurrected the tranquility of Ms. Harkey’s guitar.

At this point, several musicians came up in quick sequence. There were four on stage at one point. David Milford’s violin, played in the Indian (rather than more familiar European) manner continued the “world music” mood of Ms. Levin’s harp. A second harp, this one acoustic, was added by Monica Schley, in glissandi and guitar-like strumming. China Star brought in the soprano sax; avant-garde plunks and stutters added punctuation to what was already happening.

Slowly everyone cleared, leaving John Teske (string bass). Very quiet overtones led to double-bowing (with two bows).

Jenny Zeifel (clarinet): quasi-melodic fragments across all registers of the instrument brought the music to what at first seemed like a tranquil coda. But then, strange vibrations began to filter in from elsewhere. Several of the other wind instrument players (and Ms. Kozawa’s percussion) were joining in. They progressed slowly, trancelike, to the stage, and ended the concert in a flourish of noise and shifting chords.

The concert was recorded so that Mr. Hoskin can hear it. Latest news is that he is recovering, and I think he will like the recording.