Thursday, December 22, 2011

Phil Kline's "Unsilent Night" in Seattle, 12/21/11

In my older blog, I mentioned the possibility of “experimental” Christmas music. As shown on the video (probably taken by Steve Peters), this would be an example…! Along Seattle’s 45th Street, a procession of miscellaneous people: old, young, and in-between, in warm winter coats and sweatshirts; all carrying boom-boxes or MP3 players with speakers; all walking to the slightly uncertain rhythms of the same music…

Well, not exactly the same. Phil Kline’s composition, “Unsilent Night”, is four electronic parts that are downloaded and then played, in unison, by as many people as want to participate, on as many stereos as available, as they amble down the street. Of course the music can’t really be synchronized exactly; that’s part of the fun of it (earlier incarnations of the piece were often played on cassette recorders, which all play at slightly different speeds, so it would get quite “out of synch” by the end). So, ambient chords drift around, echoing from unexpected places; rhythms and “beats” double and triple themselves, resulting in complex overlays. And as everyone moves, these sound-drifts shift around, producing the always-unexpected juxtapositions.

I’d heard of this several years before (I think NPR’s “Studio 360” covered it) – and then, when given the chance, decided to participate (this version was sponsored by the Seattle Composers' Salon, among others). The part that I was supposed to play was to be downloaded but for some reason my computer didn’t like it. No problem; another participant had a computer and could download it to my iPod. Later, during the actual “performance”, the batteries on my stereo conked out. So, I guess I was just supposed to listen this time…

The “procession” went down 45th Street, a street lined with businesses and restaurants. Noticing a quizzical look from a shop owner, I informed him “It’s an audience participation project of avant-garde music…” “It’s not avant-garde! It’s new music! It’s contemporary right now music!” shouted another participant who obviously thought that avant-garde refers only to the old-school atonal and aleatory experimental music of the 1950’s through the 1970’s. This is not of those genres… The procession then turned a corner, retraced the same street from the other direction (and actually passed through a QFC supermarket!) before meeting again at the starting point.

The music itself? An electronic piece, obviously; in roughly four sections:
1.) Slow ambient chords with beautiful high ringing sounds; each chord forms a slight discord as it fades in through the others (and then quickly resolves).
2.) Quicker repetitive “minimalism” in the manner of Terry Riley’s “In C”. This gets quite intense by the end as it goes into some dissonant intervals that spread out as phase-shifts through the multiple slightly-out-of-synch stereos.
3.) More ambient sounds, now slightly more ominous. Low hums and rumbles, sometimes with massive crescendos (“Here we go!” I heard someone say behind me, just before a particularly thunderous wave of sound began – obviously this person had heard the piece before).
4.) Actual “Christmas” sounds: chimes, bells (no sleigh bells, though); and what sounded like a boy choir echoing in a cathedral (this part occurred just as we were entering the supermarket, and it prompted a man in a wheelchair just outside of the store to exclaim “Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry! Merry!” in a Santa Claus voice). These sounds gradually faded back into the ambient chords of the beginning.

A promotional picture for “Unsilent Night”. It’s more fun with more than one player with more than one boom box, though…

Comments? The piece is titled “Unsilent Night” and obviously refers to playing a lot of (loud? Not, particularly) music on a night that would otherwise be quiet. However, the title has more to say: an “unsilent night” needn’t be an unholy night. This music was is “about” holidays in the same way that the secular Christmas carols are, and perhaps it goes to a deeper level: it spreads both metaphorical light (as sound) for Hanukkah and radiates the joy of Christmas. It also makes a statement that there are other ways to make music than the way it has “always” been done, and it goes right with my idea of letting people (the public who happens to see or hear the processional) hear experimental music who otherwise have no access to it. I couldn’t have made a better statement myself.

…and then afterwards, there was a party while Tom Baker (curator of the Seattle Composers’ Salon) Dj’d, remixing Vince Guaraldi’s “Charlie Brown Christmas” music with Steve Reich.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Concert Review: Seattle Symphony plays Britten, Knussen, and Bedford; 11/17/11

This is the first of a couple of blog postings that are late being posted, due to my being busy over the Thanksgiving weekend...

Guest conductor (and composer) Oliver Knussen conducted this concert of 20th- and 21st-century British works.

First on the concert was the seldom-heard “Canadian Overture” by Benjamin Britten. This was a delightful, light opening piece, beginning and ending with a “special effect” of fragments of a melody over waves of suspended cymbals. It contained an off-kilter waltz and a racous semi-fugue on “Alouette”. Said Oliver Knussen during a post-concert talk, “Nobody evey does this piece, and I don’t know why… I like to call it ‘El Salon Montreal’”, obviously referring to Copland’s piece about Mexico (not an exact quote).

The orchestra shifted into artistic high gear with Knussen’s own violin concerto. The violinist Leila Josefowicz walked out on stage, looking rather glamorous; she proceeded to play the transparently textured modernist work with verve and emoting reminiscent more of a rock guitarist than classical violinist. It did not distract from the work. The piece itself began with a bell tone (tubular bells) that seemed to dissolve into the violin’s opening harmonics; from there, melodic materials were passed around and variously developed (or not); finally coalescing into a beautifully melodic slow movement and a gigue that retained its dance-like elements despite its atonality. All in all the orchestration and general “sound” of the piece reminded me of “post-Debussyism” as it has been developed by Asian composers (Toru Takemitsu, Isang Yun, even Tan Dun) more than other contemporary European composers – this was due to the ethereal, reverberant textures, bell-tones, sometimes startling use of the harp, and shimmering chords in the strings that seemed to be neither dissonant nor quite harmonious.

The bell-tones and shimmering strings were, however, a feature of this concert – and according to the pre-concert talk, represent a trend in 20th and 21st-century British classical music. Certainly they were there in the two Benjamin Britten pieces, and echoed in the other, more recent, works. (I had actually first noticed Britten’s use of strings on a recording of an “epic” ballet with the unfortunate title “The Prince of the Pagodas”, a little-known but exciting score.) The connections to Asia are probably more obvious to me because I’m more familiar with those particular composers – but in both cases, inspiration has been drawn from Debussy and Ravel.

After the intermission, Knussen presented a short piece by the young British composer Luke Bedford. “Outblaze the Sky” was a meditation on a single chord that grew and expanded (through portamenti, other string effects, and suggested rhythms) into a brief, brassy, “blazing” climax – and then abruptly ended. It was over far too soon, I thought. “It was one piece that was written for a young composers’ project,” Knussen commented in the after-concert talk, “the pieces were to be about six minutes long, and were to be played by a major orchestra. Most of the pieces were just a lot of notes played by all the instruments all the time and very loudly – a “THIS IS AN ORCHESTRAL PIECE!!!” kind of style. One can look over the written scores and see that most of the pieces are like that, and need more work. On the other hand, those that are really good and really bad, or really original in some way, stand out immediately. This is one that was really good, and original.” (Not exact quotes, again.)

(A little aside comment here, from me as a probably controversial critic: “just a lot of notes played by all the instruments all the time and very loudly” is my usual criticism of orchestral works by Johannes Brahms – thick orchestral mud, I call it – but few seem to share my sentiment there.)

The concert concluded with another Britten piece, the “Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia” from the opera “Peter Grimes”. These are too familiar to warrant much of a discussion here (though I always notice the extraordinary orchestrations, such as the use of tubular bells and trombones together to create what sounds like a new percussion instrument to imitate church bells in the “Sunday Morning” section, or the use of overlapping French horns for the same effect earlier in the same piece). Knussen’s particular version of these pieces was to put the Passacaglia in the middle (rather than at the end), as something of an extended development section. This alleviated the usual complaint about the piece that (being excerpts from a longer work) it doesn’t really come to any satisfying conclusion; though it made the following shorter movements sound rather incomplete and undeveloped. That said, the piece did conclude the concert with a blaze of color. An exciting concert, to say the least.

If the reader thinks this blog seems to be shifting away from its "experimental" roots and going too classical, the next postings should be welcome...

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

World's Ugliest Music – Not!

A friend sent me this link a couple of days ago. It’s supposed to be the “world’s ugliest music”, on purpose. But why isn’t it very ugly?

The idea seems to be that it will be ugly because it doesn’t have any pattern. The announcer goes into great detail about the mathematics used to generate these completely random notes before the pianist even plays the first note – and emphasizes over and over again that this lack of pattern will produce intensely ugly music. He states that the reason we perceive the Beethoven Fifth as “beautiful” is that is has that repeated four-note pattern…

Behind the announcer is the mathematical chart used to make the "ugliest music"...

Alas, the music fails. It simply isn’t very ugly. True, it isn’t “catchy”; one wouldn’t walk away from it singing one of its riffs. It would make a very bad pop tune. But it is rather meditative, and I can’t help hearing patterns emerging from the chaos – I can hear it as a slow movement in a piano sonata, surrounded by quicker pieces of more conventional structure. Or, quicker pieces structured in the same way: since it uses all 88 keys of the piano (each one played only once), it could be considered a serialist piece with a very long (88-note) tone-row; it could obviously be developed further. (Keith Eisenbrey has written another piece for all 88 keys of the piano, each played only one time, but with a different aim – his piece, called “N” after Neal Kosaly-Meyer, organizes the 88 keys in a definite pattern and is certainly not ugly, intentionally or not.)

What the composer/mathematician has failed to take into account, I believe, is the aesthetics of the sound. A piano is a resonant instrument, with rich overtones, and playing its notes one at a time and letting them ring, with spaces between them, simply will not produce something ugly (rather, it produces a sound not unlike church bells). Overlapping them with dissonant intervals and percussive attacks (as in the Stockhausen Klavierstück X) would work better if ugliness is your aim (though of course it isn’t the aim in the Stockhausen, which goes through a remarkable transformation by the end). Even “better” would be to use sounds that are intrinsically ugly to the human ear, such as the scraping strings in Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (probably one of the unloveliest pieces ever written, for obvious reasons).

In certain of my own pieces, I’ve used the idea of intrinsic ugliness and beauty of sounds – in the first of the four Ukiyo-è pieces, for example, the pianist is instructed to play the (serialist) tone-row one note at a time, with the fingers of the other hand pressed against the strings in random places, producing unexpected timbres – and to let the “prettier” sounds ring longer and to cover up the “uglier” sounds more quickly with the next notes. Obviously it depends on the opinion of the individual pianist…

But, in the end, what’s the point? Why make intentionally ugly music? My idea: apart from being a novelty, it does make one think about why certain sounds are beautiful and others are not, and perhaps it hints that the beauty and ugliness of certain vibrations goes deeper than merely the human perception of them…

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

“Modern Music” Weekend: Seattle Modern Orchestra 10/28/11 and Seattle Symphony plays Webern and Stravinsky (and Bach) 10/29/11

This has turned out to be a Modernist Music Weekend. I attended two concerts with works by composers from the Second Viennese School, along with other 20th-century pieces (and two by Bach).

The first of these concerts was the Seattle Modern Orchestra led by Julia Tai, at the Chapel Performance Space at Good Shepherd Center. This has become a well-known Seattle venue for experimental and classical music.

After a brief lecture about the history of the relationship between text and (instrumental) music and demonstration of Sprechstimme by soprano Maria Mannisto (both probably unnecessary for this audience), they played two song cycles; one by George Crumb and one by Schönberg. Crumb’s “Night Music I” was a reverberant, haunting, nocturnal soundscape of clanging metal percussion and silences (several times I heard echoes of flutes, which were not actually in the ensemble) interspersed with expressive recitations of Lorca’s mysterious poems. I used to criticize Crumb for being “only” effects; closer listening has revealed a great complexity and depth of feeling behind those sounds (and in fact I’ve been composing in a similar vein for several years now). Obviously the phantom flutes were one of the “effects” (created by close, microtonal resonances on the vibraphone and crotales); others were the extended piano techniques, the water gong, and the soprano’s sometimes startling intonations. Though this piece had more instrumental than vocal music, it affected me much the way other Crumb compositions have in the past: after seeing it performed, my impression is of having seen a play rather than having heard a piece of music. Crumb undoubtedly intended this; he has spoken of the relationship between music and theater, and it was supported by the singer’s Sprechstimme, the long (and precisely-timed) silences, and the instrumentalists all moving around the stage doing very strange things to their instruments.

Schönberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire” sounded positively conventional (or “classical”) in comparison. The vocal lines are again mostly Sprechstimme (here a way to make the rhythms of the poetry more deeply felt), though they were accompanied by tight chamber pieces that, despite their “atonality”, seemed to derive their gestures from Mahler and even Richard Strauss. Such are the currents of creativity. All in all this was an effective performance – and (as I commented to another audience member) a profound way to bring the poetry of the text to the front (and therefore related to more recent versions of text-based music such as Beatnik poetry and Rap). The instrumentation included piano, violin, cello, flute, and clarinet – a much more “classical” chamber ensemble than for “Night Music I”.

The second concert of the “modernist weekend” was by the (scaled down) Seattle Symphony under Andrew Manze. Not that it was all modern, of course – much of the concert was taken up by two relatively large-scale pieces by J. S. Bach. The highlight of the two of these was the last piece in the concert, the Brandenburg Concerto #5. This is instrumental Bach at its most scintillating: a trio of flute, violin and harpsichord create a kaleidoscope of interweaving parts over and against the string orchestra; all is based on different lengths of reiterations of the main themes. Sometimes the strings drop out entirely, leaving the soloists in extended cadenzas – the most obvious of these is of course the long harpsichord solo in the first movement, but there are others (such as the fact that the second movement doesn’t use the strings at all!). Harpsichordist Kristian Bezuidenhout played with a lot of verve (making the instrument actually appear to play crescendos – impossible on a harpsichord) and the conductor danced with infectious enthusiasm. It wasn’t entirely an “authentic” performance (whatever that really means) – these were of course modern instruments, in modern tuning, and they were amplified slightly to be heard in the large hall – but the sound was gorgeous. I’d like to hear the same group play the entire set of Brandenburgs…

The “modernist” part came in the form of the Symphony by Webern and Stravinsky’s “Dumbarton Oaks” Concerto. Again, the conductor felt it necessary to give a long talk introducing the Webern – and again, I don’t know if this was necessary, though in this case it served as the pre-concert talk that they usually do at Seattle Symphony concerts. He compared Webern’s dodecaphonic technique to Bach’s counterpoint, had the instrumentalists play examples, and stated that Bach would probably approve. Whether that’s the case, I wouldn’t know – to me at any rate they’re both “classical music” but in a quite different vein for a different century, and I don’t know how I at least would react to something that will be done two centuries in the future. At any rate the Symphony sounded sparse, bare, mysterious, as if carved in musical stone – as far as possible from the Bach while still being expressive and containing moments of exquisite beauty. There was even a little humor: at the end of the second (last) movement, after an intellectually challenging set of variations and dissonant extremes of pitch, all the instruments dropped out one by one, leaving the harp to give a final “ker-plink” – though I can’t be sure if this is an affirmation or negation of all that came before.

(An aside here: I happened to hear another audience member comment that the term for Webern’s style should be pronounced with the same stress pattern as pol-LYPH-o-ny, – so it should be do-de-CAPH-o-ny. I commented that, depending on one’s opinion, this could be close to ca-CAPH-o-ny, but that I don’t hear it as such – to me it’s just a more abstract style of classical – a Kandinsky painting as opposed to a Vermeer.)

Stravinsky’s “Dumbarton Oaks”, always a catchy piece, represented the other side of modernism. Again the conductor gave a little introduction, though in this case he merely talked about how he’d fallen in love with the piece when he’d first heard it as a teenager and that recently when he played it (on a CD player) for his toddler son, he’d started dancing around in approval as well. The piece is more like the Bach than the Webern – rhythmic, based on catchy tunes that dissolve into great complexities of counterpoint. It also adds a little dissonant “spice” here and there, and unexpectedly syncopates the melodies (delaying an occasional note by a full beat or more – a decidedly anti-jazz way to syncopate, though jazz was coming into its own around the time that Dumbarton Oaks was written). (The only jazzy use of this same type of syncopation I’ve heard is in a jazz/funk anime soundtrack by Yoko Kanno.) …Unfortunately the performance seemed to lack focus. The three movements were joined together into one long and somewhat unwieldy selection. Presented in this manner it seemed to lag behind itself somehow, as if it forgot where it was going and had to plug along to fill up some stretch of predetermined time. The musicians (and conductor) tried to battle the aimlessness by emphasizing certain parts of rhythms, but all in all it fell rather short. I found my mind wandering, and I waited for the Bach. Judging from the audience’s enthusiastic response, however, not many others felt this way.

A good couple of concerts, well worth seeing (and hearing). But, a question surfaces: what, exactly, is the significance of “modernism” now that it’s no longer modern…? To me, at any rate, it’s another form of classical, no more or less conventional or experimental than baroque or impressionism (all forms of “classical” were modern at one time, of course). One can say that a difference is that recent trends in symphonic and chamber music have tended to completely reverse the aesthetic presented by modernism – in a recent NPR interview, Steve Reich stated (this is not an exact quote) that “It was up to composers of my generation to say ENOUGH! to this kind of modern music…” But, of course modernism itself did the same to impressionism, which did the same to romanticism, and, etc. Presenting “modern” music along with Bach shows more similarities than differences anyway.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Concert Review: Seattle Symphony plays Stravinsky, Gershwin, and Varèse; 10/1/2011

Igor Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring
George Gershwin: An American in Paris
Edgard Varèse: Amériques

Two of these pieces are so familiar as to hardly warrant a “review”. Instead, I will write about their juxtaposition, and the performance itself.

A more “logical” order would be to put the (only slightly) less familiar Varèse piece in the middle or at the beginning, with the two “showstoppers” (Stravinsky and Gershwin) at the end so the audience would wait for them. However, presented as a “triptych” with the Gershwin in the middle, the three pieces formed what could almost be considered a larger, continuous work. The Stravinsky, with its fragmentary melodies and sudden jumps and cuts, could have been an extended introduction…

This is not to say that “The Rite of Spring” is not a complete work in itself. It is. And it is still startling after a hundred years – how Stravinsky managed to get the orchestra to make all those “barbaric” sounds yet still be (despite the dissonance) melodic and to have moments of exquisite subtlety. A lesser composer writing the same piece would simply have gone for the shock of the loud and violent; the audience at the premiere would undoubtedly have been titillated but the piece would quickly have faded into obscurity. What perhaps was so shocking about this premiere (and we all know the story of how it caused a riot) was that, beneath its bombastic and horrific surface, there was beauty to be found. Of course one notices the continuous loud rhythms, the thundering bass drums and timpani, the sustained dissonance, the traffic accident of simultaneous rhythms and keys (at one point I counted four meters going on the same time) and the headlong rush to that final cataclysm without pausing for anything as banal as a development section or a recapitulation. But in between, there are those moments of clarity: the violin solo in the central (“quiet”) section; the delicate underpinning of a single bassoon among numberless sounds; the mysterious harp-like tinkling that seems to emerge when instruments play each others’ harmonics. This was the first explosion of modernism, a premonition of the appalling century that would bring two world wars, genocides, and the atomic age – but it also contained hope that not all would be lost and beauty would still remain. Or so one hopes when listening to this music… At the end, this hope fails. The orchestra pounds out apocalyptic rhythms as loud as possible and then concludes with a tuneless shriek and a blat – violence has triumphed and beauty is extinguished; the modern age has begun.

Any concert that begins with “The Rite of Spring” has to be about making some kind of statement, and this was what happened. Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” is as familiar as the Stravinsky, written about a decade later, and something of an opposite aesthetic. This is a much more tuneful work, certainly, “modern” in that it incorporates Gershwin’s signature jazz elements (and use of percussion, particularly the xylophone), but at the same time more of a “romantic” 19th-century tone-poem than the Stravinsky. This can be seen in the (over-)abundance of melodies, the rich use of the full orchestra, the often nostalgic air, and the lush sweeping gestures that at times are reminiscent of nothing so much as Tchaikovsky. Situated in this concert between the Stravinsky and the Varèse, it could be seen as something of a melodic interlude (akin to the smaller pieces one finds between gigantic movements in a Mahler symphony), though of course it’s much too large for that. At the end, we encounter a celebration of street noise, though it’s all classically and cleverly worked out in layers of counterpoint.

The last piece on the concert, “Amériques” by Ergard Varèse, completed the trilogy. Here was a Frenchman looking at New York (to compliment Gershwin’s American looking at Paris) but aesthetically more in lines with the Stravinsky. This is not to say that it really was in the same style as “The Rite of Spring” (it wasn’t) but it did contain the disjointed juxtapositions and startling dissonances. It was also probably considered the work of a madman when first played (though I’ve never heard that it started anything akin to a riot). Listening to it with these other two pieces, however, shows something that is usually not associated with Varèse: conventional harmonic and melodic development (closer to Gershwin than Stravinsky!). It is, after all, a symphonic tone-poem not too distant from Ravel’s La Valse. Like La Valse, it uses harps to created mysterious effects: the phantom harps of the Stravinsky actually materialize here. Also, like La Valse, its “Frenchness” (whatever that means) shows; there are those melodies that remind one of Debussy and Dukas (there’s an almost direct quote from L'apprenti sorcier) and oddly, anticipations of Messiaen. The whole piece moves forward from what appear at first as disambiguated fragments into a long development section and a crescendo into what could be taken as pure noise (a friend of mine stated that it sounded like the Art Ensemble of Chicago with a sixty-piece band) but is really a contrapuntal recap of all the foregoing material. Presented at the end of the concert, this climax seemed to be the culmination not only of Varèse’s piece but of the Stravinsky and the Gershwin as well, and with a 180-degree shift in the “meaning”: if the end of “The Rite of Spring” is gruesome and apocalyptic, this was ecstatic. Dissonant, yes; but positive. Stravinksy’s piece ends with a sacrificial death; this ends with an affirmation of new ideas and new forms of beauty. “Spring” seemed mired in violence in the Stravinsky; in this piece, it blossoms.

So that was the music – what of the performance? This was not the first time I’d heard the Seattle Symphony’s new conductor, Ludovic Morlot (I’d heard the opening night gala concert as well), but this showcased his readings of the music quite well. These were all dynamic pieces with a lot of intense rhythm and volume (I would say that it was one of the loudest symphony concerts I’ve attended), and he practically danced his enthusiasm into the orchestra and audience. What he can do with quiet, contemplative pieces is yet to be seen: if the more subdued moments in this concert were any indication, then his interpretations of these kinds of pieces will be as good. I’m looking forward to hearing other works.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Concert Review: Tom Baker, String Quartet "Invisible Cities" – Chapel Performance Space at Good Shepherd Center, Seattle, 9/28/2011

Before the performance, composer Tom Baker gave an introduction to the music, and to the book “Invisible Cities” on which it is based. Or maybe, “based” is not exactly the right word – Mr. Baker emphasized that the separate sections of the quartet, though named after sections in the novel, were not intended as tone paintings describing events in the book, but as reflections on the “essence” of that particular “invisible city”.

Some clarification is in order here for anyone who hasn’t read the book. (That would include me, though as I write this I’ve just gotten a copy out from the public library.) “Invisible Cities”, by Italo Calvino, is a conversation between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. The Khan has sensed the end of his empire coming soon; Polo consoles him with tales of the cities he has seen in his travels. At some point it becomes clear that most (or all) of these cities are fabrications, and the question is asked, “…are imaginary places as interesting as real ones…?” There is no particular “plot” other than this; the book is open-ended and could theoretically be read in any order.

"Invisible Cities", painting by Nora Sturges.

Mr. Baker’s quartet had the imaginary, dreamlike atmosphere of these imaginary places, conveyed with a heavy use of delicate harmonics and whispery ponticello (bowing near the bridge). There were five movements, each describing the “essence” of one of Calvino’s Cities. The opening movement recalled the later quartets of Shostakovich. Melodies were treated contrapuntally, with an elegiac mood. This was the most “classical” part of the work; subsequent movements became progressively atmospheric and even surrealistic (though lacking the sense of disquiet often associated with surrealism, and of course I’m not exactly sure what “surrealist” – not serialist – music would entail anyway). One highlight was the fourth movement, which described a city so perfectly aligned with the stars that any change in the city brought a new nova or collision of planets. This was a moonlit piece of music; infinitely slow, mathematically structured, not rhythmic yet not exactly freeform; quiet chords (microtonal, neither harmonious nor quite dissonant) came and went like slow breaths, suspended above their own silence. As Mr. Baker pointed out after the performance, this piece could have been much longer (but if so, would have destroyed the structure of the quartet as a whole). I agree on both counts – a much longer version of this piece is possible, but in a different context; I’d like to hear it perhaps as some of Pierre Boulez’ works that exist in several versions – one being an extended work that outgrew its boundaries in a multi-movement piece.

The fifth movement was something of a culmination: rapid quasi-aleatory figures gave rise to rhythms from the first movement and then a slow disappearance (fading like a dream upon awakening) – the last thirty seconds or so were “played” in pantomime. This was a beautiful work, and I’m waiting to hear more – Mr. Baker announced that it is only the beginning of an extended cycle of quartets based on Calvino’s Cities…

Guitarist Tom Baker has been active as a composer, performer and music producer in the Seattle new-music scene since 1994. He is the artistic director of the Seattle Composers' Salon, and plays guitar in the group “Triptet”, both of which I have reviewed elsewhere in this blog. The Quartet was played by Eric Rynes (violin), Tari Nelson-Zagar (violin), Brianna Atwell (viola), and Peter Williams (cello).

Friday, September 23, 2011

Concert Review: The Hexaphonic Three, Plus and Minus – Chapel Performance Space at Good Shepherd Center, Seattle, 9/16/2011

I’ve been busy for the last week or so, and just gotten my computer back from the shop, so these next couple of blog postings are about a week late…

First in a series of concerts and musical events was the concert by The Hexaphonic Three Minus One With Guests. The title of that band needs a little explaining: The Hexaphonic Three originally consisted of (in alphabetical order) Ryan Burt, Bruce Greely, and Mike Sentkewitz. One of the three, Ryan, left for the San Francisco Bay Area, leaving the Hexaphonic Two; they then played a concert with several other musicians, making the Hexaphonic Six. See, the math isn’t really all that difficult.

What they play is a little harder to figure out. Bruce plays (bass) clarinet and Mike plays bass – these two low instruments (both sometimes playing much higher notes) are used in a kind of minimal jazz mixed with the avant-garde. When I say “minimal”, I mean without a lot of “frills”: relatively quiet, austere music with many silences; jazz with an aesthetic more along the lines of Feldman and Cage than Dizzy or Miles. However, getting together with other musicians, the result can be much louder, or more bluesy, or whatever…

Bruce and Mike started this particular concert with a set of unnamed duets (at least no one announced the names). Mostly these were for the two bass instruments (and their sound was rich and resonant in the cavernous performance space of the Chapel); however, there were a couple of pieces with different ensembles. For one, Mike put down his bass in favor of a frame drum (which he played with a completely non-rhythmic accompaniment – a welcome change from the usual role of this instrument); for another, he played solo bass over a layer of scraping, rustling percussion sounds provided by his own feet on a bed of leaves and sticks that he’d brought along and strewn on the stage. (When he put these on the stage he muttered, “The Hexaphonic One making a mess…”, and he commented to me later that he was playing his back yard as an instrument.) These pieces were, for the most part, quiet and contemplative; short bursts of sound suspended in the silence created by their own echoes.

For the end of the first set, they brought on their first guest: me. Thus we were the Hexaphonic Three again, but a different Three than the orginal. We played a ten-minute or so free improvisation (bass, bass clarinet, and piano). Generally I tried to play material that was similar to what we’d played in the studio a week ago (more on that later), with a lot of “inside the piano” techniques, drones, clusters of chaotic high notes, and roaring bass trills – a break in the silence that had been created by the duets. Bruce added a lot of Coltrane-like screeches and wails (and an occasional melodic lick), while Mike mostly supported my piano with similar ostinati alternating with “effects”. I think it worked pretty well overall, though my playing was perhaps a little stereotyped from what I’d played in previous sessions.

The second set brought in the other guests, expanding to a quintet (minus me), with South (percussion/trumpet), Donna Schmidt (violin), and Joel Schmidt (percussion/mandolin). A Highlight of this set was Mike’s composition “Canyonlands”, a beautifully spacious piece based on an understated (or sometimes unstated) ground bass and reminiscent of Oregon (the band, in their earlier style). Another highlight was an actual blues tune (again written by Mike) with hints of Celtic Music, Klezmer, and Country. South (the percussionist) added a lot of humor to the set with stage “antics” that were really not antics at all – they were a definite part of the music – such as slowly shuffling around the stage with a chair full of bells (they would ring quietly and sometimes fall off of the chair with a surprisingly quiet clatter). She also played a delightfully arrhythmic drum solo that included dropping the drumsticks on the floor. Twice.

So this was the first of three concerts I attended this weekend (!) More on the others in the next two or three blog posts, and I’ll write more about that recording session too…

Monday, September 12, 2011

Concert Review: Experimental Video and Music by Berner, Burns, and Evans – Chapel Performance Space at Good Shepherd Center, Seattle, 9/9/2011

Open Mic at Woodland Park Presbyterian Church (before the concert)

The open mic at WPPC was as in previous times, though this time there were more people. They seem to have started drifting back in now that summer is over (never mind that we’re still having summer weather in Seattle).

One notable performer this time was a singer/songwriter, whose name I forgot, and whose aesthetic derives from John Cage and his ilk, not from folk music. He filled in the spaces in his sparse guitar compositions not with singing or more (faster) guitar riffs, but with perfectly-timed silences. His set ran overtime (he played for nearly 25 minutes when his “slot” was ten) but this expansive music needed a large time-frame. I could have listened longer.

There was also a tap-dancer who positively radiated joy as she gracefully clumped on a resounding wooden plank that she’d brought and set up, and Wayne Lovegrove played a quick guitar “improvisation” that sounded like a finished composition. (I commented to him later that I sometimes compose in a like manner – when one of my “improvisations” starts to be the same every time I play it.) For my part, I tried a version of Roger Woodward’s version of Toru Takemitsu’s “Corona”. Avant-garde fans will recognize this as one of the few mega-hits of the genre (it was, along with Terry Riley’s “In C”, an underground phenomenon in the 1970’s despite the record producers’ usual pathetic lack of interest and promotion). My version, however, fell a little flat – mostly because I couldn’t find a register that was resonant enough for the 3-note idée fixe.

Megan Berner, Erin Elyse Burns, and Nat Evans

There was also a show of experimental film and music going on at the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford (a usual venue for experimental performing arts in Seattle), and I decided that I’d at least try to catch a little of it. The two venues are only about five miles apart… As it turns out, I got in on most of the second half (so I missed Dale Speicher's percussion music in the first half).

In the realm of experimental video, I’d been getting ready psychologically for something rather disturbing (as if sometimes the case) – but I wasn’t ready for something as beautiful, contemplative, and relaxing as this. The video, shown on a movie-screen in front of the performance space, was “In a Shifting Landscape” by Megan Berner. Soft, pastel landscapes and seascapes, sometimes seemingly derived from fibrous edges of torn paper, faded in and out of one another or moved imperceptibly across the field of vision. Map symbols sometimes flickered in and out of existence. The piece was set to Nat Evans’ slow, atmospheric music for viola and ‘cello (played from the back of the hall by Heather Bentley and Mary Riles); there was no distinction between melodies and “chords”, and it all moved quietly (in a manner reminiscent of Arvo Pärt) with hints of jazz harmonies and an occasional portamento. The whole experience was meditative, a contemplation on the natural world; of seas and deserts, of mountains, of migrations; and our interaction with nature (and little understanding of it).

Still from "In a Shifting Landscape", from Megan Berner's website.

The violist and ‘cellist played another of Mr. Evans’ compositions, “Telephone Conversation”, this time from the stage and without the visuals. In style it was much like the previous soundtrack, though obviously a “conversation” between the two instruments; a passage would begin on one and then be taken up and developed by the other; or one would suddenly interrupt the statement being made by the other. This was an amiable conversation, though – no attempts were made to represent any particularly unpleasant emotions, and there were hints of Somei Satoh’s “Birds in Warped Time” (despite its title, one of the most non-antagonistic interactions between violin and piano ever written).

Still from "Sandscape", before the drawing begins; from Erin Elyse Burns' website.

The last piece was another video, “Sandscape” by Erin Elyse Burns. (I don’t know what to make of the fact that both videos had names that contained “scape” and were both done by artists whose last names had something to do, at least phonetically, with burning.) At any rate, most of this consisted of a desert landscape (filmed on a remote sand dune in Eastern Washington State) and a solitary figure “drawing” in the sand with a walking stick. This was all filmed from the side (with an unmoving camera), so it was impossible to see what he or she was drawing – and that seems to be part of the point. It doesn’t seem to be our business what this unknown person was doing, and besides, it was pointless anyway – rapidly shifting qualities of light indicated that the hot sun would soon bleach out anything attempted in this harsh setting; and final shots of sand shifting wavelike down the side of the dune indicated that the solitary person’s “art” would be obliterated by the next wind anyway. The message seemed to be that art was a poignant exercise in futility; the music to accompany this (again by Nat Evans) supported this feeling. Electronic sounds emanated from speakers at the front of the hall; hollow, soulless, like desert winds recorded with a microphone inside a didgeridoo. Percussion and trombone at the back of the hall (played by Ken Pendergrass and Nat Evans himself) took up strange hissing and rattling, environmental sounds… But in the end, this was far from nihilistic. The sheer splendor of the light in the desert, the blue of the sky, the ambience of the sound surrounding the listener in the hall – all of this conspired to create an atmosphere that was strangely celebratory. All art is pointless, it seemed to be saying, but there is beauty everywhere and we might as well add our own little bit while we are here.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Sounds of the Underbrush – Gallery 1412, Seattle, 9/6/2011

I attempted to attend one of these “Sounds of the Underbrush” jam sessions last month; it had been cancelled at the last minute and there was a rock band practicing in the studio space instead. No problem; I listened to them for about fifteen minutes (they sounded pretty good, and did a song in 5/4) and then I went elsewhere in the neighborhood and happened in on the Pawlowska exhibit at St. Mark’s Cathedral (see my 8/18/2011 posting).

This time I made sure that the “Sound of the Underbrush” was in fact happening. I invited a couple of friends, and went.

It was more or less what one would expect from an experimental/free improv open mic/jam session: a small number of musicians exploring the limits of the sound on their instruments, and listening to each other (and to other sounds) intensely. Attending were, besides myself, Wayne Lovegrove (guitar), John Teske (string bass) and Tyler Wilcox (sax).

We played four pieces. The first was just Wayne and I – we did a version of my piece “Oceanic Music” for guitar with delay unit and crywire. The latter is a piano modification of my own invention that produces eeire whale-like tones, but is only partially controllable by the performer (so all performances on it are necessarily improvised). Wayne’s guitar part was one that he’d used before for this piece, at a concert at Tim Noah’s Thumbnail Theater last October. He got it from one of his other pieces, but it works just as well in this context. The delay unit produces an echo on a repetitively strummed (but infinitely varied) chord, a major triad with an added flat fifth and/or flat sixth floating high above. This strange chord, which is neither dissonant nor harmonious, served as a perfect balance for the uncertain, reverberant intonations of the crywire. At the end, the chord disappears from the guitar leaving a series of quasi-rhythmic taps on the body of the instrument. With the digital echo these make an underwater sound that recalls both the music used in the old Jacques Cousteau TV specials and the more mysterious tracks on Brian Eno’s “Apollo” soundtrack (which have always sounded more submarine than extraterrestrial to me).

Tyler then had us try one of his pieces, workshop style. The “frame” was merely instructions: listen to the surrounding space (since the door was open) and provide minimal, very quiet, interactions with it, and commentaries upon it. To me this worked beautifully; after merely listening for a couple of minutes we all played a sparse largo that came from, and returned to, that silence which is not silent. Fragments of conversations drifted in from outside, and the sound of traffic. Most of the playing was “extended” techniques; breathy sounds, digital hum, and barely-there harmonics – nothing really sounded like an instrument – and that was part of the interest and charm of the piece. It recalled some of Tyler’s previous work with Gust Burns.

John then suggested that we try something “exactly the opposite”: create an extended, massive drone. He began with a loud snarl of a note, then the others joined. At first we played atonally (I was using trills on tone-clusters on the piano) but at some point it all settled into an ambiguous G / A-flat tonality – as immense as a half-step could be, with Tyler adding crescendo blats here and there. Fun! Yoshi Wada meets Jimi Hendrix.

The last part of the “show” was a discussion on guitar techniques, and an improvisation by Wayne (in a very different style). The technique in question is a “new” style of finger-picking, with both hands producing the melody. Wayne can fill in more of the details here, but it seems to have originated some time in the early 1980’s, mostly with commercial guitarists on the Windham Hill and similar labels. Much of this music is pleasant background sound and that’s about it, but it’s possible to take the idea much farther into more interesting territory – as some of the W H artists managed to do (despite the constraints put on them by their producers, I’m sure). Wayne seems to be carrying on this “tradition” of background music that, if one listens closely, is anything but background music. Of course the same is true for a lot of classical (particularly from the Baroque and Classical periods) and jazz…

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Concert Review: Seattle Composers Salon – Chapel Performance Space at Good Shepherd Center, Seattle, 9/2/2011

The Seattle Composers’ Salon fosters the development, performance and appreciation of new music by regional composers and performers. At bi-monthly, informal presentations, the Salon features finished works, previews, and works in progress. Composers, performers, and audience members gather in a casual setting that allows for experimentation and discussion. Everyone is welcome!
From the Seattle Composers Salon blog

COMPOSERS OF THE EVENING: Elliot Carter, Jimi Hendrix (well, okay, neither of them was actually physically present at the concert, but we did discuss them.)

One of the participants suggested that the concert was on the theme of “adding strings”, starting with the clarinet piece (no strings) through four strings of a ‘cello and a strings bass, to the strings of a grand piano.

TRIVIA QUESTION: What is the average number of strings on a grand piano?


Fist up: Three solo clarinet pieces played by the composer, Sean Osborn. These were intended as teaching pieces (“how to play the clarinet”), and thus are, for clarinet, a small sample of what Bartók’s “Mikrokosmos” is for piano. Like the Bartók, they are far more interesting (to all listeners) than their origin would tend to indicate. Titled “Moderato” and “Presto”, the first and third were melodic. The first had a folk-song feel, reminiscent of Grieg but with some surprising modulations; the third was “classical” in sound with a hint of the Copland concerto. The Second (“Freely”) was a brief atonal interlude that sounded like a free improvisation and included some microtones.

Ryan Hare’s “Quasi Improvisando”, for ‘cello (played by Ruth Boden) began with the same 5-note motif that had figured prominently in Osborn’s “Presto” (an unplanned synchronicity) but quickly went in a very different direction. If Osborn’s piece had been “easy” (in all of the connotations of that word regarding music except for the bad one, “easy listening”), this piece was “difficult” (again, in all the connotations for that word in music except for a bad one). Atonal, rough, scratchy, scrabbly, with areas for the performer to choose between alternatives, this was a hard piece to play and required impeccable technique. The title meant “As if Improvised”, and it sounded such – but also revealed a complex (half-serialist) structure reminiscent of Carter and Boulez. Someone in the audience suggested a connection to Hendrix, too; not for the last time of the evening.

John Teske followed up with another set for solo strings; this time a string bass. These were three (out of five) linked pieces, for which he didn’t give the title. The idea was to move from awkward, rough sounds into deep resonances, though he didn’t play the first two pieces so the “awkward” part wasn’t heard. The first two were melodic. A progression to the lowest open (G) string bridged into the last piece, and here came the deep resonances. Drones on the low G continued, alternating with bluesy pizzicato and a series of wailing, buzzing overtones again reminiscent of Hendrix. Having not heard the entire set of five pieces, I can’t comment on how this last section would have worked in the whole; but in this concert it had the effect of “opening up” the sound from tense, highly structured music into more expansive quasi-improvised sound – an aural counterpart of those IMAX videos where aerial views of rapidly-passing scrublands suddenly open into a vast canyon.

After the intermission, Keith Eisnenbrey, piano, played excerpts from his “24 Preludes”. These pieces are a departure for Eisenbrey; much of his other work is atonal, free improvisation, or electronic with found sounds (and objects); but these were resolutely tonal. They proceeded in the order of the Chopin Preludes: around the circle of fifths with each relative minor after its major. Influences of Chopin and Beethoven were obvious, as well as a consistent use of “American” chords based on fourths, fifths, and seconds. Sometimes the latter unexpectedly appeared in the middle or end of a more strictly “classical” cadence, providing moments of surprising clarity and beauty. Each piece had a distinctive character: there were quiet, calm nocturnes; a Bach-like chorale (its contemplative surface masking its complex structure); a nervous allegretto that kept trying (and deliberately failing) to go atonal, and a jazzy two-part invention reminiscent of Brubeck. Altogether this was a charming set of pieces (and I don’t mean that in a derogatory way), continuing the tradition of the sets of preludes for piano from Chopin to Shostakovich and several modern Northwest composers.

The last piece went back to “no strings”. This was a wind quintet (flute, oboe, clarinet, French horn, bassoon) by Paul Gillispie. (I didn’t get all the names of the performers, though I recognized two of them, and the composer conducted.) As the Eisenbrey piece was a continuation of the solo piano tradition, this was a continuation of the quintet tradition. It was very complex music, again with suggestions of Elliot Carter. Its (half)-serialist approach and (intentional) lack of color variations made it much less approachable than the other pieces in the concert, but this was not a minus. I simply allowed myself to slip into its scintillating cascades and scatters, and soon found myself not needing the more obvious signposts that the other pieces had had. Only the most tightly crafted atonal pieces are able to do this without obvious differences in mood or timbre, and without requiring a second listening. The group only played three out of the four movements in the complete piece, and it was more than twelve minutes (so the complete Quintet might have been approaching twenty) – but the time passed quickly and enjoyably.

Altogether this was a longer than usual Composers’ Salon (usually they’re a little too short anyway, at least to my ear) and very strong musically. I’m waiting for the next one in November.


Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Updates: Uploads and Upcoming Concert

Concert on Friday, September 16th: I’ll be playing piano on one or more free improvisations with two of the Hexaphonic Three (Bruce Greeley, bass clarinet, and Mike Sentkewitz, bass). This is sort of a reunion of some of the participants in the 9-hour “StormSound” Cycle last May; though this time it will deal more with ultra-spontaneity. 8:00, Chapel Performance Space at Good Shepherd Center, Seattle; sliding scale, $5-15.00.

I’ve added a composition based on some material I recorded at the “Arts in Nature Festival” to my SoundCloud page. Included: installations by Trimpin, Rumi Koshino, and Rob Angus; part of a tune (and a drum solo) by One Love, and Suzie Kozawa’s chime cluster (all recorded by permission). This will be part of the “SES Phonography Project”, in progress. More on that later.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Concert Review: Neuma – Chapel Performance Space at Good Shepherd Center, Seattle, 8/27/2011

The name “Neuma” could be a fusion between pneuma, meaning both “soul or spirit” and “to breathe”, and neume, an old system of musical notation (used before “notes” as we know them now).

Variety in homogeneity. One could call the music “minimalist” in that the three clarinets created an unchanging, generally quiet, halo of sound. But below that static surface – again as in minimalism – there was constant variety. Scatters of delicate notes and sputters lengthened into harmonic drones. Open 4ths and 5ths developed microtonal shimmer and then moved through dissonance into consonant harmonies. Occasional, always subtle, reed buzzes and squawks punctuated the music. Once there seemed to be a newly-invented instrument in the mix: the “claramin” or the “theranet”; Jesse Canterbury’s clarinet perfectly imitated a Theremin. The three players usually blended into a dense but elusive web of sound, their sound subsumed into the texture; but individual sound personalities did emerge from time to time. Paul Hoskin (contrabass) provided much of the underpinning with deep but never overtly growly bass, sometimes shifting upwards into the higher regions for a melodic shuffle. Jenny Ziefel provided much of the melodic material (which was usually immediately imitated by the others) and often seemed to initiate the drone textures (which in this context were merely another type of melody). Jesse added much of the ornamentation and sense with a plethora of “extended” techniques.

Left to right: Jenny Ziefel, Paul Hoskin, Jesse Canterbury (from the Wayward Music website).

This description is misleading. Though I mention individuality, it was certainly not the point of the music, and it could only be seen in contrast to what else was happening. They didn’t play as a “band” with clearly-defined roles. There was not a melody and an accompaniment, or “solo” against chords. There was mostly foreground and background, with these parts constantly shifting. One note in a drone would momentarily surface to become foreground, then recede. One scatter would rise and become a focal point, then fall back into the others. It was only in their blending that the individual playing became apparent.

Listening to their playing, I made this abstract without looking (much), just letting my pen wander and scribble to the sounds of the music.

I found this concert to be a beautiful and fascinating excursion into the mind’s perception of sameness, difference, and sonority within a seemingly “changeless” framework.

The Everett Street Pianos

Speaking of fun in music (well, I was, on my last posting), here’s a crazy idea: take a bunch of old rickety pianos, rebuild them, tune them, have local artists paint them, and set them out on the sidewalks downtown for anyone who happens by to play them. That’s what the city of Everett, WA, did for a couple weeks (starting about two weeks ago)…

Artist Evalia Sanchez putting the finishing touches on one of the Everett pianos (from the Everett city newspaper website).

I first heard about this project on KUOW radio. Various snafus kept me from actually going to check it out until the last day (8/24/2011) – car repair, among others – but finally I managed to get there. I only found two of the pianos. I think the others had already been removed.

I once played a painted piano before. It was a concert grand, painted with a thick layer of opaque white. It looked like something someone would play while wearing a tux and a dented top hat, in a parody of a Broadway show. It sounded like a parody of a piano. The white paint completely prevented the wood from resonating, and all sound died the second it was produced (even worse, because the lid was nailed down). I gave up after a minute or two.

So I wasn’t expecting much in the way of sound quality when I sat down at the “Leopard Lounge” piano on Hoyt street. But, I thought, why not – these pianos are in the street, after all, and one isn’t really expecting concert-hall acoustics. All in all, it wasn’t too bad (better than the white concert grand). I played a couple of pieces, mostly my own, including a version of Soundform III which uses the iPod backup. Then I came up with an improvisation which surprised me – I started atonal (hey, gotta make my avant-garde statement even when being a street musician!) then somehow transitioned into a long series of tremelos and trills, slowly alternating between G minor and C major 6th chords. At some point the B-flat from the G minor leaked over into the C, and the E from the C major into the G minor, and the whole think went modal in a completely unexpected way. (Or perhaps not entirely unexpected – it worked in much the same manner as some of Somei Satoh’s pieces for piano with delay unit.) Eddies and currents broke off from the main structure, and slowly it all inched its way up to the highest register of the piano. I liked it so much that I played something like it again at an open mike at Tim Noah’s Thumbnail Theater two days later; there, I added some humor by hammering on the highest “C” on the piano at the end for several seconds. The audience seemed to love it.

The "Leopard Lounge" piano, painted by Janet Wold.

Anyway, there was something disappointing about the street pianos – I had expected lots of people to be there playing, filling the air of downtown Everett with the sounds of boogie-woogie and Mozart and other piano music (besides the traffic); but no one was there. A couple of people ambled by while I was playing, paused to listen for a minute or two, then continued on their way. There was a street musician playing a homemade marimba a couple of blocks away. Other than that, no other music. Maybe this is because I went on the last day…?

Arts in Nature Festival (put on by Seattle nonprofit Nature Consortium), Camp Long, Seattle 8/20/2011

How does one go about doing a “concert review” of a music festival? Well, I’ll start by saying that two of the groups that I wanted to hear, The Early Music Guild and The Hexaphonic Three, were playing on Sunday when I couldn’t make it… I was not disappointed in the groups that I saw, however. This festival, run by the Nature Consortium (a Seattle non-profit), is one of the only music festivals I’ve seen that not only acknowledges the existence of experimental music, but encourages it.

Camp Long is actually a summer camp for kids. There are a several cabins located within the park; experimental musicians and sound artists take them over for the festival and set up sound installations. A notable installation this year included Trimpin’s set of computer-driven plastic pipes – the computer controlled the turning on and off of a flame under each pipe, which in turn caused air to rush in from the bottom and sound the pipe as if it were an organ pipe. The result was a relaxing, reedy ambience suggestive of Phill Niblock and other drone minimalists. Another installation, this one interactive, was by Rumi Koshino; home-made plastic drums filled with sand and gravel produced the sounds of wind and waves (much like rain sticks, but easier to control). Along similar lines was a set of odd assorted percussion instruments brought by Rob Angus; played into a microphone, their sounds were processed through a set of at least six speakers set in the trees by the trail, and set to delay at different amounts of time. The Trimpin and Koshino installations made a similar use of delayed sounds from speakers.

“Nothing is Concrete”, an installation (not a sound installation) by Rumi Koshino, from her website.

Besides the sonic installations, there were some more conventional musical and dance acts. One of these that I happened to see was “One Love”, a classic New Orleans “street honk” band with a touch of klezmer and an unexpected additional member – a time-traveler from the early 1900’s, wearing an art nouveau butterfly dress and playing a stroh-violin (which, despite its attached megaphone amplifier, was not really audible above the brass clamor but a fun visual image nonetheless). They played jazz standards and their own arrangements of tunes like “The Pink Panther”; at first they played in the tented dome but later continued outside. The message in the juxtaposition of this with the somewhat whimsical installations was clear – one needn’t take music so !#&@!! seriously. Even when your “business” is debunking the mainstream, it’s okay to have fun once in a while.

Street honk in the dome.

All of this brought to mind that I’d planned, several years ago, to set up an installation at this very festival; but I'd been foiled because I couldn’t get the installation to work properly beforehand. I cancelled it at the time, then forgot about it for several years. The installation was my “Eco Slab Gong”, a variation on the “slab gong” idea based on Tom Nunn’s “space plate” – in my case, recorded nature sounds were supposed to vibrate a metallic surface, the resonations of which were to be picked up by a microphone and amplified to produce a sound field that is both natural and man-made, both percussion and non-instrumental. But I could only get it to resonate properly once, at a friend’s house. I recorded that performance, and it’s posted here (edited). I’ve never gotten it to work again. Some of the details are in my former blog, for anyone who cares to look it up.

The last music I heard at the festival was somewhere between a performance and an installation. Suzie Kozawa provided several octaves of hand-held chimes, to be played (improvised on) by audience members, again, within the tented dome. The aleatory, ethereal ringing of these bells filled the air as the summer sky darkened into night, and the lights of Oleanna Perry’s illuminated sculpture of a tree (with candles and birds) faded into sight. For a moment I thought I was in Middle-Earth or Auralia’s Expanse…

Lighted tree sculpture by Oleanna Perry.

At the end there was another, impromptu “act” – one of the “chimers” was still there, playing two chimes (a half-step apart) in a steady, syncopated rhythm. There were a couple of others still hanging around, having put all of the other chimes away, and I don’t know exactly who started clapping and knee-slapping to the rhythm – but soon there were five of us improvising on it; a spontaneous, jubilant chamber sonata for applause, a cardboard box, and two chimes. A perfect conclusion.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Concert Review: Larry Karush, piano – Chapel Performance Space at Good Shepherd Center, Seattle, 8/19/2011

The Wayward Music website listed Larry Karush as a pianist who’d played with both Oregon and Steve Reich. That was enough to convince me to go hear him play.

The first half of the concert consisted of a single long piece, “The Wheel”. Mr. Karush stated that, when he was composing it, he didn’t know at first what to call it; and then happened to glance up at a poster on the wall – a Hubble Space Telescope image of the Andromeda Galaxy.

The Andromeda Galaxy.

The piece began with a couple of deep pedal points in the piano’s lowest register, and a fragment of a melody (a near quotation from Charles Ives’ “Unanswered Question”). Intensity gathered and dissipated, several times.

“The Wheel” rotated majestically at five speeds simultaneously. Fastest: the right hand, carrying most of the melodies, interspersed with improvisations in blizzards of 32nd notes. Next fastest: the left hand, providing a continual, mystical, underpinning of minimalist-inspired rhythmic chords, often in 2nds and 4ths. Slower: every so often (the time interval didn’t seem to be exactly even), all motion came to a sudden culmination and stopped, and a deeper bass octave resounded, starting the music up again in a slightly different direction – like the shift in tonality in an organum by Perotin, or the sounding of the great gong ageng in the Javanese gamelan. Slower still: the music rose and fell in 5-minute (roughly) cycles; growing in volume, speed, dissonance, and overall intensity, then sinking back into itself to begin again. Slowest of all: “The Wheel” was itself a giant rotation, beginning nebulous, rising to a frantic improvisational climax in 9/4 time just past the two-thirds point, then subsiding back into the primordial nebulosity from whence it had arisen.

This was technically a jazz composition, and its organization was clearly from that genre: cyclic chord changes, improvisations involving “blue notes” and atonality derived from a tonal matrix, intense rhythms that controlled the melody (not the other way around, as in classical). However, I looked in vain for jazz influences. There was a little bit of Keith Jarett (part two of “The Köln Concert” comes to mind) but other than that, nothing. Rather, the audible influences were 20th-century classical: Debussy and his progeny (Messiaen, Takemitsu); Boulez, Scriabin, Ginestera, Ives (the latter two without their nationalistic references). The overarching structure was in fact “grand symphonic”, by which I mean those late 19- and early 20th-century works in which gigantism is an intrinsic part of the piece (i.e. Mahler symphonies, the Busoni concerto). But, it was played on a solo piano in a jazz-based idiom. Such hybrid compositions have of course been done in the past: Chick Corea’s “Spain” and Wynton Marsalis’ much longer “Blood on the Fields” are examples. Both of these, like “The Wheel”, are in totality much greater than the sum of their bicultural parts.

For the second half of the concert, Mr. Karush played improvisations in various jazz and blues styles (stride, boogie-woogie with a hint of Bartok), and his arrangements of other people’s arrangements of jazz standards (including a version of “Body and Soul” called “Hawking’s Parallel Universe”). They were nice, for the most part, but to me they suffered from the Mark O’Connor / Van Halen syndrome: technique for technique’s sake; playing a lot of fast, crisp notes to show that it is possible to play a lot of fast, crisp notes. Be that as it may, his technique was as impressive as any pianist I’ve every heard. I would have been more satisfied if these “comprovisations” had been stylistically jazz standards but structured more along the lines of “The Wheel”, however.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Abstract Art and Spirituality: Pawlowska at St. Mark’s, and “Landstracts” by Murray Fredericks

I’ve often said that abstract art can express spirituality more deeply than “objective” art (the same can go for “abstract” music). But, these two collections caught me completely by surprise…

First, two days ago, I opened a copy of the latest National Geographic to what I thought (for half a second) was a Mark Rothko painting: a hazy smear/wash of delicate pink, blushing orange, and the most subtle blue, arranged across an invisible horizontal grid. The effect was both immediate and transcendent. Then that half-second of disorientation wore off (they wouldn’t be showing Rothko paintings in National Geographic…) and I recognized what I was seeing. This was a landscape. But it was not a landscape of this earth; rather, a landscape of infinity; and abstracted expanse, a minimalist art piece stripped of all its inessentials and rendered as pure color – pure beauty – with nothing between it and the viewer.

There were several of these colorscapes. Some were darker; one larger one had a tracery of grey amid darker-grey, receding jagged polygons etched across its lower edge. Were I a synaesthete, these would sound notes in my mind akin to Enstalbrecht Stiebler and Phill Niblock – vast canvasses of quiet, continuous, ever-changing sound that would appear at first to be stationary.

One of Fredericks’ photographs of Lake Eyre, from National Geographic. This one features the hazy light of early morning, and is not as flatly horizontal as some.

After a couple of minutes, of course, I got around to reading the accompanying article. These are photographs of Australia’s Lake Eyre by Murray Fredericks. The "lake" is a dry, flat basin that floods once a century. The photographer said that he wanted to take the “landscape out of landscape photography” – and this was the perfect place to do it. There are no hills, no trees, no signs of other humans or animals, for a hundred miles in any direction – nothing but the horizon. The resulting pictures bring the mind of the viewer close to the experience of nothing but the horizon, and as a result, closer to the experience of infinity.

Before I continue, a disclaimer: my spirituality does not include the zen idea of Nothing. I see “nothing” as a nonentity; even “empty” space swarms with quantum particles (according to physicists). As John Cage so eloquently expressed in his music, “nothing” is literally impossible (though he was actually trying to prove just the opposite…!). Rather, the “nothing” that inhabits these pictures (and Cage’s, and Stiebler’s music) is an attempt to express the inexpressible, the infinite; the awe of creation, leading to its Creator…

A discussion of a Creator could lead in the direction of Christianity (though not toward recent American “Christian” right-wing politics, which leads in the opposite direction). Here is where one meets the second of these two exhibits.

Again, it caught me by surprise. I had gone to a concert at Gallery 1412 in Seattle, only to discover that it was cancelled; so on the way home I happened to stop by St. Mark’s Cathedral, a couple of miles from the gallery. I don’t go the church there, though I’d seen a couple of organ recitals on their magnificent Flentrop organ and occasionally attended their famous Compline service (which almost single-handedly updated plainsong into the 20th, now 21st, century). I wanted to see if anything was going on…

I walked in on a prayer meeting that was just concluding. I glanced around (there were a couple of pamphlets that I browsed through) and then my eyes were struck by the presence of a large, gold abstract painting, sitting unobtrusively about six inches away from the back wall like a bronzed version of the 2001 (Space Odyssey) monolith. Closer inspection revealed it to be a textured flat expanse, sort of a Jackson Pollock painting in hatch marks and angles, and all in gold and golden-brown. My question (why is this here?) was answered by a glance around the sanctuary – suspended in space near the side wall were several more of them, and there were at least fifty smaller, square ones on the walls, in various colors. They were purposely displayed in dim lighting, and out of the way enough that one had to look to see them. I’m glad that I looked.

The exhibit was titled “Icons in Transformation”, by Ludmila Pawlowska. Inspiration is from Russian icons more than from modern abstract art, though these represent a fusion of the two styles. The several suspended “monoliths”, of uniform size and shape, were the most abstract: color fields interspersed with slashing lines and squiggles of abstracted “writing”. One of these, near the end, contained a crucifixion scene in red, stylized but easily recognizable.

The smaller square images, though not as immediately striking, were where the artist made more of her statement. Always there were those hatch marks, always the “writing”, always the color fields (stark reds and blues, with gold) – and some surprises. Eyes stared from many of the paintings – accusing eyes, or warm eyes beckoning the observer to heaven. These were directly from the Russian icon tradition, serving to remind of things beyond everyday experience of the world, and painted in a “classic” icon manner (though, more distantly, with hints of contemporary styles such as Japanese graphic illustration). Other “surprises” were more visceral: ragged gashes, metal wires jammed into the pictures (sometimes suggesting both medical stitches and a cage)…

Proceeding through the series of square pictures, there was a discernible progression from red to blue, and then to gold. I’ll let the reader determine the meaning of this (as the artist probably expected the observer to do, though she stated that blue was a highly spiritual color) – but the “climax” is worth further discussion. The square paintings suddenly give way to a sculpture, larger than a human – a deep blue cross wrapped with barbed wire. Near it hangs another square painting, and… it’s shot full of bullets…! The message is obvious: we did this. In our predilection for brutality and war, we have even committed violence against God.

The story doesn’t end there, of course. I didn’t see anything that specifically suggested a Resurrection scene, but there was a sudden transition to gold paintings, suggesting heaven (one of the “paranormal” occurrences sometimes seen at Pentecostal church services is the appearance of gold dust); and the wires, gashes, and other “violent” features disappeared. The path continued right up to the gold monolith that I had seen at first.

This promotional picture has a commercial function and thus a different aim than that of the series itself; I include it because of copyright issues… It does show some different techniques of the artist, though.

So what do I conclude from these collections? Are there really any connections between them? The abstracted icons force us to look beyond nature in a direction that at first is uncomfortable and later transcendent. Fredericks’ “abstract” photographs depict nature in a new and startling way, and perhaps point beyond nature. Of course I only saw the latter in a magazine article, and would like to find them in a gallery setting to find if they effect me as profoundly as the Pawlowska exhibit.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Two Concerts, 8/12/2011: Open Mike at Woodland Park Presbyterian and “Gradus” by Neal Kosaly-Meyer

Open Mike (and a bonus street fair)

This was the open mic that I previously mentioned. It was as interesting and beautiful as it had always been, though I only stayed for about an hour and getting there was an unexpected problem. I fought with nearly stopped traffic (slowly inching along I-5 like a giant, sluggish caterpillar) and a car that nearly overheated in the warm, sticky air – only to find that the street where the open mic was held was blocked in both direction to through traffic. Nobody had told me about the street fair…

I managed to find parking about six blocks away. I wandered through the various goings-on of the street fair (since this is a music blog, I’ll note that it made quite an interesting soundscape – I turned on my little digital recorder and later made the result into a composition of musique concrète or phonography).

I saw 3 ½ musical acts at the open mike. The first was me on piano (and the half was me again, with Bruce on bass clarinet). For my solo piece I played one of my pieces based on Japanese wood-block prints by Hiroshige – the piece is rather long, in the style (more or less) of Morton Feldman. When I’d played it there previously it had been too repetitious, so this time I cut out about half of the repeats. I announced that it would be about seven minutes long, and it turned out to be closer to thirteen. Then, Bruce Greeley (bass clarinet) joined me for a free improvisation which started out stridently atonal and quickly went into a series of rapid, rhythmic modal riffs. We sounded great in that cavernous, echoing hall, though I think I at least wore out my welcome because the set was longer than I expected (I only played two pieces…! I only played two pieces…!) and I think it seemed to the others that I was trying to hog the mike when I talked about the second piece. Oh well – live and learn; I’ll play only one piece next time, 3 minutes or shorter.

One of the "Tokaido" series by Hiroshige. I tried to depict the fog-shrouded, mysterious atmosphere of this picture.

Other musical highlights included one of the regulars playing and singing James Taylor songs and an original guitar instrumental, and Annemarie (Andi) from Amsterdam, who’s appeared here at least once before and sings original songs in a beautiful pop-influenced soprano. Her singing was lovely as before, though they’d turned up the reverb to ridiculous levels. I made a recording, and she sounds like she’s singing from the opposite end of the hall from her piano, and the words are blurred into anunrecognizable slurry. Not her fault, of course – actually there were speakers aimed out into the street (street fair) from the church itself, and this may have had something to do with it.

I said good-bye, then threaded my way back through the street fair to my car (no longer overheated) and then through a tangle of narrow one-way streets. I was trying to drive parallel to the main road (still blocked off for the street fair) but none of the roads there work that way. I finally found my way onto another main street, and from there it was a straight shot over to the Good Shepherd Center for Neal’s concert.

"Gradus" by Neal Kosaly-Meyer

Neal’s performance was already underway when I arrived. For those who don’t know about the piece: “Performed in memory of John Cage on the 19th anniversary of his passing, Gradus: for Fux, Tesla, and Milo the Wrestler is Neal Meyer’s piano composition in perennial progress, his systematic attempt to learn to play the piano one piano key at a time. It is also, among other things, a grappling with many core musical ideas either originating or strongly associated with John Cage. Silence, unintended ambient sound, severe compositional constraints, “letting sounds be themselves,” and a militant and purposeful devotion — all these key elements of Gradus derive from Neal Meyer’s long engagement with Cage’s thought and music.” (from the Wayward Music Series).

At present, Neal is still working on A’s. This is not to say that the piece is in boring in any way. (A friend of mine had once sarcastically said, referring to a piece by Phill Niblock, “So, you’re saying that you could make a one-note song and call it art.” I had answered, “Well, theoretically you could…” but he’d cut me off before I finished saying “…but it wouldn’t be very interesting or beautiful art.” I had meant to point out that the Niblock was anything but one note. However, at the time I hadn’t been thinking about “Gradus” and I take back what I said – here is a "one-note" piece that is very interesting, intensely beautiful, and definitely art.)

I’d seen Neal play parts and excerpts from Gradus before. This performance was somewhat less theatrical that previous versions – he didn’t remain motionless for long periods with just one arm in the air, as a character in a play thinking deeply before bringing his had down to play just the one “A” – but it still used the stark lighting (just one or two harsh spotlights on Neal and the rest of the hall in shadows) to bring out the uncompromising aesthetic of the piece.

All of the windows in the chapel were open. Sounds from the outside continuously drifted in; they were (are) as much a part of the music as Neal’s playing. During the first (hour-long) “rung” of the piece, he did not interact with these sounds at all – a series of car-honks could have elicited a similar series of “A’s” on the piano (it would have if I’d been playing) but he merely let them be another layer of sound, not (un)related to what he was playing on stage. Later, during the second “rung”, there was a sudden rush of outdoor sound – someone was taking apart some type of installation involving metal pipes, and whacking them around in the process. Gong-like clangs and clanks thus filtered into the performance space and interpenetrated the iterations of Neal’s “A”, forming an unpredictable counterpoint (and I think that Neal did, in fact, begin to improvise a “duet” with them as they continued, though very subtly).

A number of bizarre acoustic phenomena occurred. As often in such minimal piano pieces, the upper register seems to “swirl” with differential vibrations. This is more pronounced in a piece where several upper register notes are played at once (Keith Eisenbrey uses this to great effect in his piece “High and Inside”), but was still noticeable here. At another point, the pacing of the “A’s” was just right to produce and reinforce an echo – each “A” appeared to be played twice, the second time from somewhere stage left of the actual piano. It also made each “A” seem to pronounce nonsense syllables almost like a wah-wah pedal on a guitar: “wah-wum, wah-wum, wah-wum”. At another point the piano seemed to buzz, as if a piece of wire had been laid across its strings. At yet another point came the oddest of all: intense, loud, rapid, and strident repetitions of the mid-range “A” seemed to bend the note microtonally sharp, as if Neal had reached in and momentarily detuned the piano. I’ve heard this effect once before: I had set up a stereo system with a microphone to almost feed back, to produce various tones as I walked around the room. At several points, when the feedback grew the loudest, it noticeably went sharp. I had thought that it was merely a psychological effect (akin to learners of a tonal language attempting to make a higher tone by speaking louder) but when I played back the resultant recording through a digital-delay, it produced sonic “beats” and thus was obviously detuning itself. Not knowing much about physics, I had guessed at the time that it might be possible for sound waves of certain characteristics to somehow crowd in on, and push, other sound waves of the same characteristics, causing them to appear to go sharp – a sort of stationary Doppler effect. Thinking more about this now, I don’t think it is possible (sound waves travel at a given speed through a given medium at a given pressure) and thus couldn’t speed up and push others. Also, I have never seen or heard anything else about it. But, during Neal’s performance, there it was again. Perhaps vibrations on a piano string (or strings) can somehow “bend” other vibrations on the piano strings…? Again, probably not possible – the vibrations are essentially sound waves traveling through the metal of the string, and shouldn’t be able to “push” each other there either. So that leaves the question: what really does happen here? If any readers of this blog have a clue, let me know…

A quick sketch of Neal playing the piano, by Keith Eisenbrey.

After two hours of exquisite sound/silence, the concert ended, and I went home refreshed. It also gave me an idea for part of my piece SoundScrolls V, which has been giving me trouble…