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…

Monday, August 8, 2011

Open Mike, Tim Noah's Thumbnail Theater, 8-5-2011

So the oft-asked question is, “What is an avant-gardist doing playing at an open mike?” The answer of course, is, “What are avant-gardists doing not playing at open mikes?” The music needs exposure. Open mikes are usually full of musicians playing various types of folk and traditional music (including acoustic versions of current and not too distant pop) but I’ve never known them to throw a classical, jazz, world music, or experimental musician off the stage (in fact they usually welcome these). …And I might add that most of the “traditional” musicians are really good; in this case, folk musicians and singer/songwriters who give perforances that are both skillful and deeply felt.

I’ve been to the Thumbnail several times before. Though about a half-hour’s drive from where I live (if there’s no traffic), it’s well worth the slight inconvenience. The open mike is in the large hall of the building (a former church, so the large hall was the sanctuary). There’s room for about fifty people. There is a homey, family atmosphere, a lot of humor, and friendly “regulars” who join in spontaneous bands. Basically it’s a lot of fun.

No, this is not actually the open mike that I’d written about a couple of postings ago that actively encourages experimental music. But they don't discourage it either. Highlights of this time included:

1. Wayne’s guitar work, both solo and (new for him) with other players. His solo pieces, all originals, are “new acoustic” music but so much more than that label would seem to indicate. For his group performances, he graced other songs and compositions with magical runs and filigrees, always understated, and always at exactly the right moment between verses or at other pauses in the singing.

2. Dawn singing rock songs. Her loud, gritty, powerful voice is somewhat reminiscent of Linda Rondstadt when she was singing top-40 rock (though of course Ms. Ronstadt’s voice is capable of any style of music she wants to sing). I commented to Dawn that, since Ms. Ronstadt has moved to singing classical, opera, and jazz now, that there was a gap in rock music that Dawn might be able to fill. Anyway, she sang one song a capella, then asked for a band. As happens frequently at this particular open mike, it was an audience participation extravaganza. No less that eight of the “regulars” jumped up on stage to form an impromptu band (with accordion, dobro, two guitars, mandolin, piano, bass guitar, and djembe). Dawn “conducted” this jam session while singing, like a true leader of the band, and everyone (including the audience) had a blast.

3. Jim and J.W., both regulars, both singing and playing Celtic-inspired ballads (on guitar, with Wayne as a second guitarist). J.W.’s was an original song, based on his own family history.

When it came to be my turn, I continued the prevailing Celtic atmosphere for the first piece. This was my arrangement of “Song of the Seals”, a Scottish ballad that I’ve actually only heard sung a capella by Jean Redpath. For my piano arrangement I added (rather basic) chords, usually rolled to sound like a Celtic harp; to highten this effect I pluck the melody directly on the piano strings at the beginning and end of the piece (though several people have suggested that the latter sounds more like a koto than a Celtic harp). There was a little time left, so I played a (very brief!) excerpt from my 9-hour “StormSound” Cycle, in the solo piano arrangement that I’d played in February at the Jack Straw Composers’ Spotlight. This particular excerpt attempts to reconcile “experimental” and “mainstream” music in a way that I’ve ofen attempted (though I’m never sure if I’ve actually succeeded) – the piano realizes a graphic score as a modal melody over a drone-minimalist piece (electronic, played on a speaker attached to my iPod). The end result doesn’t really sound “experimental” but it’s certainly not rock, hip-hop, or easy-listening. Judging from the audience response, they liked it.

Next time I might try something a little more shocking at first hearing. Since I’ve recently revisited my old set of piano pieces based on Japanese wood-block prints, I might try one of these. Two of them are “atonal” in the classic sense (i.e. twelve-tone in the manner of Webern), and one draws its inspiration from Morton Feldman. I’ll give one of these a shot. Just for fun. Stir things up a little.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

CD Reviews: Triptet, Gagaku, Radiohead

Well, I thought I'd start this blog with the concert reviews that I mentioned in the last post, but... Here are some CDs that I’ve picked up or heard recently and are worth a second look. Oddly, only one is experimental in any way…

Triptet: Imaginary Perspective

Triptet is a meeting of minds and spontaneous electrical impulses between Michael Monhart (saxophones and percussion), Tom Baker (guitars and effects), and Greg Campbell (percussion, french horn and cheap electronics.” (From Triptet’s website.)

I’ll give this recording three thumbs way up. This is a “free jazz” (?) combo from Seattle that abandons such conventional jazz ideas such as solos and song format, yet still somehow manages to preserve its jazz roots. For the most part the pieces are nebulous in nature. Drones and slow overtones interweave over rapid, understated drumming. The instruments are often indistinguishable; sax and electric guitar create a sonic haze that pulls their individual timbres into itself rather than revealing them. There are moments when other styles momentarily appear: the piece “Muffle and Hum”, for example, is a slow, atonal blues number. It appears to either be desperately trying to prove that it is the blues, or desperately trying to prove that it is not the blues, and succeeding on both counts. “Echolocation Song” features multi-tracking over metallic percussion (which is actually Tom Baker’s guitar). Always, however, the sonic haze returns to reclaim the music. The overall effect is sublime, ethereal, almost drone minimalism (but with that persistent jazzy drumming as an anchor that wouldn’t appear in true drone music). I recommend this recording for any “free jazz” or improvised music fans; but with one comment. “Free jazz”, with its wild riffs and uncontrolled squeals and honks, has often been compared to musical interpretations of Jackson Pollock paintings. This is different; much more subdued, more intimate. As it comes from Seattle, I would compare it to another Seattle visual artist: Mark Tobey.

Mark Tobey: Geography of Phantasy (1948)

The scattered background of drumming is like Tobey's "white writing" (a graphic technique also used by Morris Graves), and the foreground harmonics and drones are like Tobey's pastel colors – though of course in the music, their roles (foreground and background) are reversed.

Ono Gagaku Kai Society

I stumbled upon this Japanese court music when I was twelve years old or so, from a scratchy old record in the public library. I found it noisy, excruciating, incomprehensible, and I couldn’t stop listening to it. It seemed such an odd music, preserved (almost unnaturally) from the depths of time; music without a mid range (only piercing high notes and deep bass drums)…

Besides that old record, I’ve heard a few other recordings of it before, and once live at a folk music club (!) in Berkeley, CA – where they made the mistake of amplifying it to rock-n-roll levels (unnecessary, ridiculous, and it utterly destroyed the sound-world of the music). Of those recordings, this one is the most sonorous. There is a bright ambience to this recording and a fair amount of reverberation from the recording space itself, lending a delicate atmosphere to the already otherworldly sound of the music.

There are six pieces, some of which are among the oldest compositions still in use. “Gakkaen”, for example, is mentioned in manuscripts as early as 702 A.D. The first piece, “Entenraku”, is a standard gagaku piece (and probably the one with which anyone familiar with gagaku would be likely to recognize) – it is notable in that it actually gives the musicians a chance to finish tuning up while beginning the piece, before moving into the main section. I’ve also heard this practice in some recordings of Indian ragas – which brings up an odd point: gagaku originated in India, though in its travels through China, Korea, and finally to Japan, it changed beyond recognition. Comparisons with the ancient Chinese and Korean court musics shows this gradual change; to the modern ear, however, there is nothing obviously “Indian” about any of them. (From a musicological perspective there are a few more clues, such as the presence of long rhythmic cycles vaguely akin to Indian talas.)

Origins and theory aside, this is still interesting music; even (despite its completely unfamiliar aesthetic) beautiful. One doesn’t really need to know the theory to appreciate the music.

Radiohead: The King of Limbs

I picked up this one at the public library at the same time as the gagaku. Obviously it’s of a completely different genre…

It is, on the surface level, very typical of Radiohead. These are “rock” songs in name only. Complex layers of electronics form quasi-minimalist sound-spheres over understated bass and drums – the latter in rhythms that are often derived from recorded loops rather than “beats” and thus can’t always be counted evenly. As always, the lyrics can’t be easily heard or understood – this always seems to be on purpose, so that the vocal line is merely another part of the instrumental music (one is reminded of Sigur Ros’ “Parenthesis” and several of Stephan Micus’ works, where there are no actual words in the lyrics).

Careful listening reveals other influences that are starting to appear in Radiohead’s music. Melodically a few of the tunes (particularly “Lotus Flower”) recall the Beatles, though this is not obvious because it sounds completely different. “Codex”, with its slow mysterious keyboard and heavy reverb, could be a lost track by Pink Floyd. The electronica underneath some of the pieces resembles similar music by FourTet; there are even hints of Jon Hassel’s electro-trumpet experimentation – which seems to be gaining more and more cultural significance.

All of that said, this is not a mishmash. Somehow it all comes together like a larger composition in several movements – always a plus for a “pop” album that is basically a collection of unrelated songs. It’s well worth listening to at least once.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011


Hope this doesn't sound redundant... This blog will be about (mostly experimental) music and sound art concerts that I've attended, some other music that I happen to be interested in, and some visual art; all from (mostly) the Seattle area. For those who've stumbled upon this blindly, it's a continuation of my earlier “StormSound Cycle” blog – but that one was mostly about the performance and composition of a single (very long) piece of music. Once the piece was performed, the blog wrapped up. This one is likely to continue…

The first postings will appear later this week. The next concerts I'm planning to attend are the upcoming John Cage tribute by Neal Kosaly-Meyer and (from the same evening!) an open mike at Woodland Park Presbyterian Church - an open mike that encourages experimental (and all other kinds of) music. Both are on Friday, August 12th, so maybe I'll find something to fill in, in this blog, before then.