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…

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