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.