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…