Monday, November 5, 2012

At long last: Review of my Concert with Wayne Lovegrove, Woodland Park Presbyterian Church, 10/20/2012

What can I say? First, a computer virus attacked my computer, then an actual virus attacked me; so I’m really late in posting this. By now, most people are probably no longer interested, but anyway, here’s a review of my concert with Wayne Lovergrove (guitarist) on October 20th.

Actually, it’s difficult to have anything to say, because the concert was, roughly, perfect. That’s not to say that I didn’t make any mistakes – I had quite a few in my first piece, “Wind over Water” – but none of them detracted from the music. (Actually, I thought that my own playing during the first half wasn’t quite up to par, though Wayne’s was perfect; he said the same thing in reverse…)

For the first half, we alternated solo guitar pieces (by Wayne) and piano pieces (by me). One exception; Wayne played a drone on the organ to back up “Wind over water”. My longest piece was the nebulous, arrhythmic “SoundScrolls V” for piano and prerecorded sound – this had been a big hit at a Seattle Composers’ Salon in 2009, and oddly, at this concert, seems to have prompted a minor rush of listening to my piece SoundScrolls VII (which doesn’t even have a piano part) on my Soundcloud page. (SoundScrolls V is actually there; just scroll down.) Wayne followed this up with a complete contrast, a study in catchy, lilting rhythms called “Hop Along”. I followed with my own study in rhythms, the minimalist “Kijibato: Strange Repeating Bird”.

This has gradually become one of my more popular pieces, despite its initial frosty reception the first time I played it at the Fukushima Ongakudo Concert Hall in Japan in 1989. I first heard the titular “repeating bird” (きじばと, Streptopelia orientalis) itself while living in Tokuyama in 1987 – I was gently awakened in the morning by its weird, almost mechanical, hooting and cooing tones. I was a little disappointed a week or two later when I actually saw one and found it to be a type of pigeon. When composing the piano piece, I changed its intervals (the falling minor third and minor second sounded a little too mournful on a piano) but kept its rhythm, known as “de-de-po-po” in Japanese onomatopoeia. (The rhythm is steady enough for a Japanese musician to have composed a piece of ambient techno-pop around it – some of the other birdcalls near the end reveal a tape-loop, but probably not at the beginning…!) I added the changes of meter in the right hand of this piece almost without noticing them; they were at first merely to keep the minimalist development of the four-note motive interesting – it was only when people began remarking on the rhythmic interplay that I noticed that I’d actually been doing something difficult. Interesting. (A note for birders reading this: I’ve heard a similar, though less melodious, birdcall on outdoor scenes in British movies; a related species called the Eurasian collared-dove.)

Wayne started the second half with “Open Skies”. This is one of my favorite of his pieces, showing how unexpectedly pretty a rhythm can be on a single note – it also does a surprise reverse of “classical” expectations in that the slower, more melodic sections are much louder than the fast rhythmic material. Most of the second half, though, was taken up by improvisations. First, I did a version of “Eco Slab Gong” (the slab gong is a variation on Tom Nunn’s “Space plate”) with prerecorded sound made from the same – a microphone and a speaker were placed about one millimeter from it; the microphone picked up its sympathetic vibrations as I played sounds of nature through the speaker). Wayne added some skitterings on the inside of the piano. The result was supposed to suggest a natural ambience (hence “Eco” Slab Gong) but at least one audience member commented afterwards that it sounded quite frightening (always a problem with experimental music in a culture conditioned by Hollywood, though of course I’m not the only one to have noticed an intermittent sense of menace in nature). We continued with “Oceanic Music”, an improvisation for guitar and crywire (a piano modification of my own invention that produces whale-like sounds) and a long improvisation in 6/8 time. We’ve done “this improvisation” before – Wayne sets up the “beat” with the help of a delay pedal and I have certain riffs that I play over it – but this time the result was more unified, with a sense of overall development. It almost sounded like a composed piece (either a plus or a minus depending on one’s view of improvised music). To my ear, at any rate, it sounded spectacular, particularly as it echoed in the grand acoustics of the church sanctuary.

An atmospheric photo of Wayne (inside piano) and me (percussion) by Randall or Rita Kelley, who attended the concert. They also had some photos on display (this was a “music and art” event, after all), but those pictures appear to be copyrighted…

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Seattle Symphony’s “Untitled: 1962” – How the future used to sound

There was something in the air during the 1950’s and 1960’s. “Classical" music had shifted its focus to “music of the future”, and most of it was based on the science and experience of sound. This sold-out concert on Friday, October 19, 2012 (commemorating the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair) showed the results of that type of experimentation. Seen through the lens of 50 years hindsight, it is, after all, just classical music. The atonal aesthetic, so edgy and “space age” at the time, seems merely another style, not so distant from the world of Debussy (to my ears, at least, the minimalism of the 1970’s was a much more radical break). There was even a remarkable homogeneity in these several works, as much as there would be in a program of, for example, late 18th-century pieces.

That said, there was nothing boring or mundane in the performance. The concert was presented informally in the grand lobby of Benaroya Hall, with introductions by Ludovic Morlot (conductor), some videos, and room for the audience to walk around during the performance. Each piece was presented in its own space, so to speak – both physically (there was more than one stage set up for performance) and aurally, with a spoken introduction about the procedure used to compose and/or perform it. Those “procedures”, however, were usually not audible in the music. Without the visual cues (offered by the videos) and introductions, a listener wouldn’t know that the Xenakis piece was based on geometrical shapes and architecture, that each player followed his/her own tempo in the Feldman piece, or that the Cage and Brown pieces were based on the conductor choosing ensembles or sections of the score during the performance. This lack of “obviousness” led to the aforementioned homogeneity.

Some of the pieces were strikingly beautiful. Morton Feldman’s “For Franz Kline“, obviously intended to invoke the paintings of Franz Kline, was an exercise in delicate bell-like sounds, like single breaths, creating both space and silence. Giancinto Scelsi’s “Khoom”, probably my favorite piece of the evening, was a kaleidoscopic meditation on the complexities of a single note, set in almost violent contrast to the sung nonsense language (made for the sounds themselves). The intense drumming in one movement, and the calamitous culmination in a later section, only added to the mystery. In contrast, the John Cage’s “Variations III” and Earl Brown’s “Novara” both involved a lot of humor and whimsy (see picture above; there is something ironic about seeing a conductor drawing colored lines, intentionally clumsily, through little plastic rings on a piece of paper while conducting an instrumental ensemble). The audience was invited to join in during the Cage piece, though I think I was the only one who did so, by drumming on the glass wall of the balcony whenever a blue line was made. In contrast again, Iannis Xenakis’ “Atrées” seemed way too serious, and it was not as “in your face” or obnoxious as a lot of the composer’s work (there was only one half-minute section where the trombone and percussion approached the usual Xenakis “sound”), and I found it rather disappointing as a result. The concert concluded with Ligeti’s music for 100 metronomes, which go off ticking at their own tempos until they’ve all wound down. Unfortunately, their sound seemed muffled, and I couldn’t really hear how they were interacting. (In a humorous aleatory finale, one simply refused to stop, and went on ticking for about five minutes after all the others had given up. Rumblings went through the audience, “I’ll buy that metronome…”)

Prior to the “1962” music, there was a piece with an obviously “2012” aesthetic. Gabriel Prokofiev (grandson of Sergei) presented his “Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra” with D.J. Madhatter playing the turntables. Such a piece could have been a disaster, as classical/pop fusions often are (“Hooked on Classics”, anyone…?) – but such was definitely NOT the case. The orchestra parts were atonal, dark, and percussive, with an emphasis on brash colors and thudding rhythms. The turntable parts – from custom vinyl records of the same music – added virtuoso hip-hop “scratches”, producing a complex interplay of styles and parts. To a listener now, this is music of the future – yet one is of course aware that it would not be possible without the previous styles of futuristic music (the concept of a turntable as an instrument predates hip-hop by several decades) and I have to wonder if, fifty years from now, this will not simply be like its Cage and Xenakis predecessors, more “classical” music. Not that that’s a bad thing, of course.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Upcoming Concerts (Fall 2012) and CALLING ALL AVANT-GARDE PIANISTS!!!

For fans of my music (and fans of Wayne Lovegrove’s music): we’ll be playing in a concert of acoustic and experimental music at Woodland Park Presbyterian Church, on Saturday, October 20th, from 7:00 to 9:00. That’s just a couple of weeks away – rehearsals start tomorrow.

For those who don’t know, Wayne’s guitar music draws its aesthetic sense from “new acoustic” music but doesn’t inherit any of the stereotypical “easy-listening” baggage of that genre. He experiments with alternate tunings, and often plays the “both hands up on the fret board” technique, producing shimmering cascades of notes. It’s usually pretty, but never just that. His influences include Ralph Towner; I hear a little Dominic Frasca in there as well.

As for my compositions, I’ll be playing SoundScrolls V and a long version of “Kijibato – Strange Repeating Bird” – a minimalist piece based on the haunting call of a Japanese bird. I haven’t played the long version in concert since I was in Japan, twenty years ago. Both of these are piano pieces (“SoundScrolls V” uses prerecorded electronics as well); I’ll probably also do a version of “Eco Slab-Gong” for electronics and homemade percussion (obviously the “slab-gong”, and maybe something called “Berkeley bowls” – anyone who’s lived in Berkeley CA will get that joke). Wayne and I will also do some pieces together, including “Oceanic Music” for guitar and crywire, a piano modification of my own invention that plays whale songs.

This should be an interesting and beautiful concert, in a great acoustical space (I’ve played at the open mike there many times) and I’m looking forward to it. If you like music that’s both tranquil and edgy, “be there or be an equilateral quadrangular parallelogram.”

Here’s the skinny:
Concert of acoustic and experimental music
S. Eric Scribner, piano etc.
Wayne Lovegrove, guitar

Woodland Park Presbyterian Church
225 North 70th Street (off of Greenwood), Seattle
7:00 to 9:00 PM, Saturday, October 20, 2012
A free-will donation will be taken.

A scheduling snafu resulted in this concert being on the same night as a recital by a friend of mine, another pianist, Keith Eisenbrey. His concert starts an hour later and is only a few blocks away (at the Good Shepherd Center), so concertgoers to either of these concerts might like to check out the other.

Now about that other heading, “CALLING ALL AVANT-GARDE PIANISTS!!!” A week ago or so Wayne e-mailed me that the owner of A-1 Pianos (just across Greenwood Avenue from Woodland Park Presbyterian) was interested in doing an avant-garde concert for all (or most) or the pianos in their showroom. I called them and set it up. The tentative date is Friday, December 14th, from 6:00 to 9:00 PM, as part of the “Art Up Phinneywood” Art Walk. Possible pieces of music may (or may not) include:

Free improvisation

One of more of John Cage’s “Number Pieces” (One, One2, One5, and Four3 all use piano, though the latter has a couple of other instruments too – and there are some for “unspecified”; due to the nature of these pieces, several could be played simultaneously without creating cacophony.)

Terry Riley’s “In C” (has this ever been done on only pianos?)

Takemitsu's "Corona for Pianist(s)" – a graphic score. We shouldn't try to do it like the famous "London Version" by Roger Woodward (it also uses a harpsichord and an electric organ), but other versions are possible.

Both Keith Eisenbrey and Neal Kosaly-Meyer have pieces that just might be adaptable for multiple pianists...?

I’ll be sending out notices to my pianist friends, and anyone else interested (especially pianists) can let me know – my e-mail is listed under my profile in this blog.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

A New Definition of Heavy Metal: Tempered Steel at Good Shepherd Center, 10/5/2012

What can one say about a band that improvises on electrified kalimbas run through all of the effects boxes and “footpedals” that are used for electric guitars? Adjectives fail here – one simply has to experience this experience to experience it… The music, which was not as loud as expected from its amplification, was gorgeous, rhythmic, scintillating, and hypnotic; at times an explosion of simultaneous Afropop dance riffs, at other times an ambient haze (with chord-splitters) reminiscent of Jon Hassel or the musique-concrète of Paul Dresher. Their set lasted for about forty minutes, a continuous kaleidoscopic interlacing of melody, sound, and rhythm. The three of them seemed to have different parts (I don’t know if they’ve worked this out in advance, attempting to set conventions for this completely new type of music, or whether it merely comes from their individual personalities as musicians): Dennis Rea (stage right) used the most effects, including sampling loops and singing into his kalimba; Ffej (center) seemed to provide most of the melodic material, and Frank Junk (stage right) acted as the bass, providing most of the underpinnings. He also hand-built most of the instruments, Ffej later told me. My descriptions fail, however; this was totally unique music, unlike anything I’ve ever heard. I hope it is a new genre that becomes a trend – it is, besides being a cutting-edge experiment, catchy enough to filter into the mainstream.

L to R: Ffej, Frank Junk, Dennis Rea

Two brief acts opened the show. Noisepoetnobody improvised on 70’s and 80’s analogue synthesizers, making a sort of retro-psychedelia take on Phill Niblock and other drone music. “The Crutch Guy” played a homemade percussion instrument, a crutch fitted with strings, springs and a pickup – creating crunchy, noisy electroacoustic grooves, some of which (“at the risk of desecrating the Chapel”) had a decidedly hip-hop bent. Fun! I might add that I don’t think the Chapel was desecrated.

Symphony for Wood, Wind, and Phantom Bells: Abbey Aresty's "Paths II: The Music of Trees" in the University of Washington Arboretum

The Washington Park Arboretum is, besides a place to see the beauty of trees and other plants, a place of unexpected soundscapes. Twice before I’ve run across auditory surprises (more on those at the end of this posting) – this time, however, the sounds were expected but surprising nonetheless.

I say “expected” because I’d gone there specifically to experience these sounds (“It’s experiential music,” said another listener, punning on “experimental”). I’d been at the Arboretum a couple of days previously on a guided tour, and heard about it then – and a friend had e-mailed me the next day about it. Always intrigued by the intersection of art and nature (which is God’s art), I went.

“The Music of Trees” is a doctoral dissertation in composition by Abby Aresty. It consists of seven installations (or one very large-scale one); sounds repeated in a loop from speakers hidden in trees at various “stations” around the north end of the Arboretum. Sometimes there are additional visual or sound-producing elements as well.

When you listen in a space long enough, you begin to cross thresholds. Your perspective shifts. In a quiet environment you can hear softer and softer sounds as your focus gradually intensifies. And if you listen carefully for a long enough period of time, you are bound to experience countless instances of natural musicality. Sometimes you will stumble into them unexpectedly.” – from Ms. Aresty’s notes for the project. I couldn’t have explained it any better, even for my own projects…

The first station is in two weird Camperdown elms (a cross-section of one of them is the logo for the project.). The twisted and writhing branches of these trees bend in such a way as to give the entire tree the shape of a giant canned straw mushroom, or perhaps the nose-cone of an antique fighter plane (recalling Harry Partch’s “cone gongs” – perfect for a sound installation). Camperdown elms assume other, equally bizzare shapes. These trees do not occur in nature; they are made by hybrid grafting of mutant (really!) branches – and Ms. Aresty has added another artificial element. On close inspection, there are several clear plastic tubes laced around and through the branches. Until one hears the sounds, this would appear to be a comment on the origin of these “Franken-trees” – the tubes bear a resemblance to medical catheters – but there is no sense of disquiet or discomfort here, due to the sounds that are present. The trees are filled with delicate, whispered chords, almost imperceptible against the background of wind. This music (which has a decidedly metallic timbre) is based on processed recordings of wind made at this very location, and it gives the impression both of more wind, and of twisting auditory “branches” to match the living branches of the trees.

Like me, Ms. Aresty seems to find that music made from metallic sounds (gongs, piano with the pedal down) is the most evocative of natural sound. In my case, it is the long, lingering reverberations that die away into silence, that suggest both wide and open spaces and the surrounding echoes that one hears in a forest as any distant sound bounces off the myriad tree trunks. The second station is based on a similar idea. Water sounds – sounding from high in a cedar tree next to a little pond – are transformed suddenly into quite different water sounds, and then into a metallic drone; into a different metallic drone, and then back to water sounds. The entire “cycle” lasts about six minutes, then it all repeats. Again, the sounds were made from processed recordings of the same location – though I couldn’t hear the pond making any particular sound, so this could be regarded as an amplification of what is otherwise inaudible.

The third station (which was hard to find) brought back the idea of artificiality –the plastic tubes were present again in the branches fringing a seemingly hollowed out part of another cedar tree, and the sounds were based on (besides rain, again) a lawnmower. Again, the sounds were processed and not really recognizable from their sources, and this time I became aware of the meaning of the tubes. The sounds were coming out of their open ends. They were obviously attached to speakers at the other end, hidden somewhere in the tree…

The fourth station was based on rain in the forest, and provided a shimmering pointillism of rustling and distant gongs, echoing spaciously from several trees. Quite lovely.

If the third station recalled the first, the fifth recalled the second. Here again were otherwise inaudible sound (in this case, flies walking across a contact microphone) processed to give it the timbre of a cymbal or tam-tam, sounding from a speaker high in a tree. There were also strange creaturely rustling and chuckling noises. To me it gave the impression of a gigantic set of wind-chimes, large enough so that the wind could only give them the faintest of nudges (this is an imperfect metaphor, since there were scraped-gong sounds as well) – yet somehow it all sounded as if it were part of the ambient soundscape.

With the sixth station, I entered the world of interactive music. A number of short trees, leafless at the human level, were hung with a web of cording, from which were suspended ten or so seed-pods (probably from the same trees) and an equal number of half-dollar sized metal finger-cymbals. This appeared at first to be merely an added visual element to the installation, but the finger-cymbals invited playing. I picked up a stick from the ground and struck the nearest one. The sound rang out, a surprisingly loud (but very tiny) ping! in the forest – and it blended perfectly with the prerecorded sound. I tried the others; all rang out similarly. The seed-pods made no audible sound. What of the prerecorded sound? Again, it was highly amplified bell-like shimmering, processed from (otherwise inaudible) dropping dried flower petals, probably onto a contact mike. “All the bells quiver in the light; light and therefore life.” – Olivier Messiaen. In this case, the bells quivered in the half-light of the tree-shade, and the sounds, of flowers, indicated the brevity of individual life of earth, and the continuity of life in a collective sense.

Finally, the seventh and last station was on the edge of what Ms. Aresty called the “outside world”; the world of traffic and other human-sound outside of the arboretum. The prerecorded sounds (from birdsong and a bicycle going by) were abstracted, unrecognizable – but they were not as continuous or ambient as those of the previous stations. They blended with the intermittent rumbles and roars of cars going by. I sat on the bench and listened to this and (at Ms. Aresty’s suggestion in the accompanying flier) the voices of people walking by on the footpath – and found myself drawn back into the everyday world, away from this oasis of tranquility.

After seeing an installation such as this, one is tempted to search for meanings. The flier provided some, certainly: the interaction of natural and man-made sound, the many layers of the arboretum's soundscape, an “exercise in silent reflection” which was both for the observer and the composer making the recordings that formed the basis for the whole composition. I would add some others, akin to those of my own “StormSound” music (though I don’t know if any of these were intended in this case). 1. The interaction of man and the environment (not just the sounds) – the tubes in the Camperdown Elms were a potent symbols of how we’ve messed with nature in not always benevolent ways. (There is, of course, the Biblical mandate to “subdue the earth”, but I think this is to make it bloom, not to obliterate it with pesticides, pollution and resultant global warming, and millions of miles of concrete). …And one could note, of course, that the arboretum itself is actually an artificial environment, no matter how “natural” it appears on the surface. 2. (Suggested by the occasional seeming discord) the hint that nature doesn't seem quite "right" anyway – something on planet earth seems to have “gone off” somehow (I won’t go into “evolution vs. creation” here – that's the silliest debate that's ever been voiced). Predators, parasites, viruses, and ghastly diseases exist, and are certainly not artificial; and we all know that vague sense of unease we can sometimes (though not always) experience in a natural place, regardless of the surrounding beauty. 3. Despite all of this, there is simply the aesthetic sense that trees, bark, leaves, flowers, and the sounds that they make as the wind blows through them, are often spellbindingly beautiful.

Paths II: The Music of Trees will run in the Washington Park Arboretum in October, Wednesdays from 3:00 to 6:00 PM, and weekends (Saturdays and Sundays) from 10:30 AM to 1:30 PM.

Other surprising soundscapes at the arboretum:

A couple of years ago, on a very hot day in August, I happened by the grove of walnut trees. They were filled with a continuous (and strangely musical) crackling and popping, like a simultaneous sound-infusion of irregular drumming, leaves crunching underfoot, and a monumental kettle of popcorn. I immediately stopped and looked for the source, which seemed to be from every direction – and found a bunch (herd? flock?) of squirrels – at least ten in each tree. Apparently the walnuts crack open in the heat, and the squirrels have a feast.

Now this one caught me completely off-guard. About a month ago there was a recreational tree-climbing tournament in several tall deciduous trees at the north end of the arboretum. (I didn’t even know such a sport existed until I happened upon it!) Of course I asked if I could give it a try, which they let me, but I couldn’t get more than a foot off the ground using the ropes they’d provided. Anyway (and more fitting to this blog, which is about sound), one of the games was to climb to certain places in a big-leaf maple and ring bells that had been hung there. When I returned later in the day, three people were high in the tree, taking the bells down – and their “pastoral” ringing (like the cowbells in the bucolic moments of the Mahler Sixth and Seventh) against the swish of wind in the leaves and the echo of distant resounding Euro-beat techno music from a wedding party in the nearby reception hall produced an unforgettable aleatory ambient composition. I only wish I’d had my little digital recorder with me.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Cage, Cage, and Cage Again (Part Three) – Seattle Composers’ Salon, Good Shepherd Center, 9/7/2012

"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."

First up: “Blankets and Bioluminescence” for violin, cello, piano, drum kit, and prerecorded sound, by Matthew James Briggs. Vaguely similar to some of my own “StormSound” music, this was a gigantic minimalist polyrhythm over a recording of crickets and other night sounds. The prerecorded sound started, and the piano added a rumbling bass chord (not really harmonious, but not really dissonant either). This repeated several times before the violin entered with a two-note melody. The ‘cello followed, with another two-note melody. The result was beautiful modal harmonies. Soon it became apparent that these three parts were actually on different rhythms, and gradually moving toward synchronization. (Another composition in a similar vein, though without the prerecorded nature sounds, is Steve Peters’ “Circular lullaby”.) Once the rhythms met up, they locked together in a repetitive phrase supported by the drums. The overall effect was quiet lovely – something of a mellow bit of techno/electronica (think Bonobo or FourTet) taken into a different genre (minimalism) and played on acoustic instruments. I would like to hear more of this.

Next: Eight of the 24 Preludes by Keith Eisenbrey (the composer at the piano). I’ve heard some of these before. The 19th (and early 20th) century references continue; these are brief melodic pieces in a tonal idiom, full of references to Chopin, Scriabin, and (somewhat less so) Debussy. These references do not “take over” the pieces, each is clearly original (not a copy or imitation) with mere hints of the older works. What Keith has created here is a brilliant continuation to the tradition of piano preludes. Each is in a different key. He stated beforehand that, in trying to figure out exactly what piano preludes were “about”, he eventually decided that it was nothing more – or less – than the key that they were written in (this is a much broader concept than it would appear at first; each key spreads out via various intervals into all other keys so that every key is merely a point on a continuum; working with keys in this light produces a sort of atonality-within-tonality or vice-versa). Added to this, each of these short pieces had a one-word title descriptive of its musical essence: “curvy”, “rapt”, “turbulent”, “bubbly”, etc. Each piece takes the ideas of its title and of its key, and crafts them (with, of course, melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic material) into a brief masterpiece, a brilliantly cut gem of sound. It makes me think that I should also work on composing some tonal miniatures, though my own compositional forays into this territory have not been nearly so successful…

[Between composers there was a raffle for CDs. I seldom win anything at raffles, though this time I won a recording of the Emerson String Quartet playing the three Mozart “Prussian” quartets. Turns out this is quite a CD, though I probably wouldn’t have picked it given a choice – and I’ll have to review it the next time I review of couple of CDs in this blog…!]

The last new piece: a scaled-down and mostly improvised version of a much longer (40-minute or so) piece for large ensemble, by John Teske. John is rapidly becoming something of a fixture in the thriving Seattle new-music scene, and this piece showed why. Generally of the “quiet music” genre (as opposed to “mellow”) and full of texturing vaguely reminiscent of the aleatory sections of early Takemitsu pieces, it was nonetheless strikingly original. Strings and wind instruments produced a constantly shifting web of barely-audible sound. In the afore-mentioned early Takemitsu (see, for example, the “Arc” for piano and orchestra), similar textures were used to create ever denser layers which reach a climax of unbearable intensity and then collapse into silence – here, in contrast, the silence was taken as a given. It didn’t need to be created (or collapsed into); it was already there, part of the fabric of the music itself. At the same time, it was not there because the instrumental haze obscured it. Part of the brilliance of the piece lay in this tension between implied and actual silence. For their part, the instrumental sounds were never those of “conventional” music, and consisted mostly of strange bowing techniques such as playing “extra” strings attached to the main strings of the instruments, or (for the winds) equally otherworldly overtone-blowing and taking the French horn apart and playing small parts of it as a whole instrument. The piece was about ten minutes long, but it could have been much longer – too bad I will not be able to attend the concert later this month where John and his ensemble will play the entire, long version.

Now, what about Cage? Continuing with the Cage centenary, Tom Baker (curator of the Composers’ Salons) had composed a performance-art piece in the manner of John Cage, which, like a lot of Cage’s work, was both profound and silly (in a good way) at the same time. Or, perhaps, profoundly silly. (Remember that the German word selig is directly related to the English word “silly” but translates as “blessed”…) It consisted of three singers singing “Happy Birthday John Cage”, a random number of times at their own speed, but silently, to themselves – and the audience members supposedly doing the same. The result was, of course, no audible music, so one could call it a birthday version of Cage’s (in)famous “4’33””. …And that’s about all that needs to be said.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Cage, Cage, and Cage Again (Part Two) – Pacific Rims Percussion Quartet @ Good Shepherd Center, 9/5/2012

The second of the series of John Cage tribute concerts was the Pacific Rims Percussion Quartet performance at Good Shepherd Center, 9/5-2012. I missed the first part of the concert – concerts here usually start at 8:00 so I waited in the car until about 7:45 (listening to the Ravel string quartet on the radio) and when I walked in they were wrapping up the first piece. The concert had started at 7:30…

At any rate, the first piece was the (supposedly satirical) “Credo in US”, for percussion (including coffee cans), piano (slightly modified, with a piece of metal laid across the strings to give it a more percussive sound) and a radio (static turned off and on to provide another texture). Mostly the piece was about rhythms, with a frenetic drive toward the climax. The title refers to both the U.S. and to “us”, and provides an ironic comment on American society (“I believe in US – forget anybody else!”, or “I believe in my country, not any higher purpose or goal, or even God…”) These are certainly damning statements, though nothing in the music itself indicates this level of venom. Whatever, it’s a fun piece to listen to (and, I’m sure, to perform, though like a lot of “modernist” music it takes intense concentration to get all of the counts right).

The much longer second half of the concert consisted of the 70-minute “Four4”. This is one of Cage’s late “Number Pieces” – which, in my opinion, are some of the most profound musical expressions of the later 20th century. Most of these pieces give time frames within which the performers are to play (or act out) certain pre-set musical ideas; these can often be chosen by the performers themselves but – because of the complexity and planning of the time-frames – always work together into a harmonious (and usually tranquil) whole. This particular piece, the fourth “Number Piece” for four players, is (in a recording by the Amadinda Percussion Ensemble) one of the more beautiful of contemporary works in my CD collection. They play it mostly on metallic instruments (gongs, bells, and steel drums) with an occasional (deliberately non-beautiful) intrusion by a bullroarer. This live performance was quite different. I had told another audience member that I’d heard the piece before, and it only had one loud passage (where the bullroarer builds to a climax and then gets abruptly silenced by a huge tam-tam) – now, the passage in question was played quietly as a delicate shimmering of metallic sound (gongs and a waterphone) and many other parts of the piece were loud – sometimes startlingly so. As the piece thins out toward the end, the Amadinda recording trails off into peaceful silence; this live version got funnier instead. The humor began about halfway through (there’s something inherently comical about seeing someone violently agitating a beat-up suitcase full of rocks) – and then continued with rolling a tam-tam on the floor, opening a bag of potato chips (for its sound!) and eating the chips (again, for their sound), breaking a light bulb (it took three times of dropping it in a bucket), blowing bubbles in a cup of water, and an occasional ear-splitting sound emerging suddenly from nowhere. All in all, it was a fitting tribute to Cage, the composer at the forefront of both deep and comical experimentation for several decades.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Cage, Cage, and Cage Again (Part One) - Neal Kosaly-Meyer (and friends) @ Jack Straw Productions

The title of this posting refers of course to three tribute concerts of music by John Cage on the occasion of his centennial, all three during last week in Seattle.

First of the three: Jack Straw Productions, 9/4/2012, Neal Kosaly-Meyer performing Cage’s epic (12-hour) text-into-music transformation titled “Empty Words”. The idea is to take fragments of Thoreau’s “Walden” journal and use various techniques to bit by bit remove all meaning from the words (i.e. one section has only syllables, one has only individual letters, etc.). Neal “acted” the composition in a dreamlike, half-speaking, half-intoning voice, assisted by slight amplification and subtle stereo manipulations. I agree with another blogger that removing meaning from words is like removing the ego from the author or the performer (a very Cagean concept), and the “why” is rather vague in the same way that attempting to remove my ego doesn’t render me innocent; however, I will add that the “why” in this case could also be nothing more than the reduction of speech into pure sound – akin to Alvin Lucier’s “I am Sitting in a Room” though achieved purely through live speech. The result is rather hard to pin down. Is it music? Or, is it performance art? Is it theater? Or, is it poetry? The answer is both “yes” and “no” in all four cases; and it transcends these categories anyway into something that is also somehow both profound and trivial. I found that I could both listen intently and completely ignore the proceedings at the same time, which I’m sure was a state of mind similar to what Cage had intended.

Neal did not perform the entire twelve hours without a break, of course. “Interruptions”, in the form of other (shorter) Cage pieces, punctuated the concert at regular intervals. I only heard one of these since I did not stay for the entire piece (the audience was encouraged to come and go – a necessity for such a long work). William O. Smith played the Sonata for Clarinet (solo), an early piece in a serialist-souding style. It fit right in – the bare acoustics of the hall caused every sound of the clarinet to stand out sharply (and sometimes very loudly!) against the background quasi-silence – as if the clarinet “notes” were being reduced to pure sound, in the same manner as Neal’s recitations.

Other “punctuation marks” included Neal’s sung rendition of a brief part of Cage’s “Writing for the Second Time through Finnegan’s Wake”, without the amplification (though it sounded, probably intentionally, like more of “Empty Words”) and, during later parts of “Empty Words”, Roger Nelson reading from Cage’s “Indeterminacy” stories. Cage’s anecdotes are as well-known as his music, and listeners familiar with Cage’s work have probably heard at least some of these particular tales from the classic 1960’s recording. Some are funny, some are bizarre, and some seem to have no point at all – interspersed here they emphasized the idea of speech into pure sound, providing an understandable (until one listened too closely) counterpoint to Neal’s abstract vocalizations.

Altogether the performance was interesting and surprisingly relaxing. I listened to about six hours of it (on and off) and found myself refreshed.

Signing off for now – Cage Part Two will be posted shortly.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Installation Review: Outside In / Inside Out: The Inner Life of Jack (by Ellen Sollod and Johanna Melamed); Jack Straw Studios, Seattle

Upon entering the gallery room, I became aware of a dim image on the wall. Though I had read what the image was, I could not make it out for a minute or two as my eyes adjusted to the darkness. I felt around, looking for a chair or bench to sit on; finding none, I was content to stand for a few minutes.

The image came into focus. Or rather, almost into focus; it remained fuzzy, soft-edged, dreamlike. It was, of course, of the street in front of the Jack Straw gallery, projected upside down and backwards onto the wall by the camera obscura – merely a hole in the wall with a lens. Such “darkened chambers” (translation of “camera obscura”) were mentioned in both Chinese and Greek sources from the 4th and 5th centuries B.C. (without the lens), so they probably existed prior to that. They are the ancestor of all of our cameras today. Usually they have been used for amusement, as an aid to drawing, or to prove scientific ideas such as that light travels in a straight line. Here, together with a stream-of-consciousness soundtrack, one was used to create a surreal, meditative atmosphere.

When my eyes had fully adjusted, I could see a bench, which I sat down on. I could also see that the image was not only on the wall. That delicate pattern of dark and light trapezoids on the floor was the image of the windows of a building across the street. The sparkle of diamonds arrayed across the ceiling was refractions from a light bouncing off of a mirror from a parked car next door. The angular blurred lines across the far wall were continuations of the same image, but distorted due to the angle of the lens. Every so often, a car or pedestrian passed by; seen upside down and unrelated to the soundtrack that was going on, they created a surreal but not disquieting atmosphere.

According to the promo material, “’Outside In/ Inside Out: the inner life of Jack’ is an installation that employs a camera obscura and sound score to create an immersive experience, evoking the essence of Jack Straw Productions on its 50th anniversary.” This experience is of course created partially with the moving images, but also with the score. This is a varied soundscape derived from a “compilation of found sounds, field recordings made in situ, archival material from KRAB (the 1970’s and 1980’s experimental radio station run by the same organization), and contemporary recordings made at Jack Straw.” Clips ranged from the profound to the silly and included discussions on blindness, trees, how to survive an atomic bomb, and whether bagels were defiled by peanut butter and marshmallow fluff. There were also bits of music, including some jazz and (contemporary) classical, an experimental harpsichord piece under a discussion (“I’m not photographing, I’m recording – is that the same thing?”) and three different African selections: one “pop”, one somewhere between “pop” and traditional, and one balafon solo that was traditional at least in style, but emerged from an austere free-jazz scatter of clarinets. The totality of the experience was what counted here; the sounds and images (and sound filtering in from outside the gallery) were all dreamlike and disconnected, but somehow at the same time connected and profoundly nostalgic. I can’t really explain how. It was, however, a fitting tribute to 50 years of an organization for experimental music and media.

One topic is left to discuss. I thought, after I left, that the pedestrians and people in the cars I had seen go by (upside down) probably were not aware of the dreamworld unfolding only a few feet from them. This discussion could go several ways; we are all, of course, not usually aware of what is happening behind any given wall at any particular time. But also, it could be a metaphor for experimental music and media itself: such art is a complex, beautiful, and infinitely interesting world, yet (due to “blockage” by the mass media) a lot of people are simply unaware of it. Jack Straw Studios is doing what they can to rectify that situation.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Concert Review: Rock at the Taste of Edmonds (Borrowed Time and Heart by Heart), Edmonds, WA, 8/12/2012

Those who think I’ve sold my soul here needn’t worry; I’ll get back to the avant-garde in my next post. I went to this food festival but got in on some of the music; here are my thoughts.

“The Grand Illusion” by Styx was one of the special favorites of my own little four-member music-nerd club when I was in high school (along with albums by Kansas and Rush, Roger Woodward plays Takemitsu, and the Shostakovich 8th – though I had initially told the others that the latter was the soundtrack to a Russian sci-fi movie because there was an idea going around that classical music was the same as muzak…) Anyway, with thirty-plus years of hindsight, a lot of recordings by Styx sound dated and overproduced, too reliant on (rudimentary) synthesizers, and (let’s face it) a little silly. Or so I thought. Albums by Styx might sound this way now, but individual songs, when played enthusiastically by a capable band, can still sparkle. This band, called “Borrowed Time”, did a particularly good job of the vocal harmonies in “Renegade” and the instrumental licks in “Angry Young Man”. They also played several tunes from “Paradise Theater” (without the saxophones) and they generally rocked the stadium. They didn’t play either “Babe” or “Castle Walls”, but one can’t have everything. They ended with the epic “Come Sail Away”, adding a drum solo (under the regular power chords for the song) in place of the prosaic fade-out. I might add that they sounded as much like Styx as a band that isn’t Styx could.

Then came the Heart tribute band, called “Heart by Heart”. They started off well with “Cook with Fire” (it sounded exactly like Heart’s recording of the same) but then something happened. Early in the show, they got off-key in the first ten seconds of “Magic Man” and never recovered. In fact, they got worse. In “Love Alive”, a song that relies on intricate syncopations for its effect, the guitarists couldn’t get the rhythms right and the drummer kept missing counts. They also made some aesthetic choices that left me scratching my head – the addition of fuzz guitar to “Dog and Butterfly” was an absurdity akin to playing Coltrane on a harpsichord (wrong instrument, dudes!). And on and on. As they got worse, they also got louder; at some point it became obvious (to me at any rate) that they were cranking up the volume so the music would just turn into a wall of sound and we wouldn’t notice how badly they were playing. In the end I gave up and left early. I didn’t wait around to see if they were going to play “Barracuda” or “These Dreams”, and I’d realized by the time I left that any of Heart’s more artsy songs – such as “Sylvan Song / Dream of the Archer”, or that wonderfully Zeppelin-esque tone painting, “Mistral Wind” – were simply beyond them.

Of course, there’s the argument that since rock-and-roll is just for fun, we needn’t hold it to the same standards as other types of music. Ask a rock musician for a second opinion about that. (And, if the same argument were made in other fields, I can imagine someone saying, “Ice cream is just for fun, so it needn’t have any good ingredients…” You can see my point.) It is just for fun, mostly, but it’s a lot less fun if it’s done badly. …and the real kicker here was that some of the members of this band were the original members of Heart. What has happened…? In their defense, the vocalist did sound a lot like one of the original Wilson sisters, and this may have been a mostly unrehearsed band (they announced at the beginning that one of the guitarists was from another band that had just finished playing elsewhere in the festival). So, I suppose I could cut them some slack. At least some of the other people there seemed to be enjoying the music.

So that was that. The food was delicious (I had a salmon piroshky and a salmon salad, ended with a dessert oddity – a deep-fried Snickers bar – just as weird but not as tasty as I’d expected) but it was expensive, and the place was hot and dusty and the music was mediocre. I can’t say if I’ll be back next year.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Concert Review: Free Form Flute (Robert Dick, Clifford Dunn, John C. Savage, Paul Taub); Good Shepherd Center, 8/1/2012

I first encountered Robert Dick’s music on KRAB back in the 1980’s. I’m not a fl(a)utist myself, so I didn’t know exactly which of his extended techniques were “new” (I had heard some of them in Jethro Tull) but I recognized a freshness in this music, as there often is when the music is by an artist who is interested in the sound of the sound itself.

Fast forward to 2012. I happened to meet R. D. before the concert, and asked what music he was going to play, “It’s going to be spontaneous – but there will be quartets, trios, duets, and solos.”

(Photo by Brenden Z. Smith)

The first (and longest) piece was a quartet improvisation, with R. D. and Clifford Dunn, John C. Savage, and Paul Taub (all well-known Seattle “new music” flutists). There is a surprising variety of music that can be produced by the “simple” ensemble of four flutes, particularly when the alto and bass flute are added. I kept a running commentary on the music:

Shakuhachi sounds, then with staccato interruptions. Quasi-serialist (all standard flutes, with C. D. on alto). 2 players stop playing and move to the side, letting C. D. and J. C. S. play microtonal drones. R. D. picks up bass flute (from table in the middle of the stage) and plays a solo. Percussive tapping sounds, beautiful ripples of notes, then overtones. Quiet, tranquil. Crescendo, others join in, becomes strident, avian. Messiaen. Amazing how loud this can be – produces feedback-like humming in my ears. Dies out in a standard “free jazz” gesture, but leaves harmonics with a hip-hop bass quietly filtering in from the open window (did the flutists notice this while they were playing loudly and decided to give it a place in their improvisation?) Return of the shakuhachi sounds. R. D. picks up piccolo, solos (a sopranino shakuhachi?) P. T. begins actual whistling while playing the bass. Humorous tapping (swing rhythm) from R. D.; random flutterings from the others. Stop; immediately piccolo solo begins coda. Quasi-serialism again, then “talking” back and forth from all players. End.

A second, slightly shorter improvisation concluded the first half of the concert. However, the master strokes came during the second half. Here, R. D. began with some strangely frightening, bubbling noises which gave way to a short piece for flutes and voices – at one point R. D. actually vocally instructed the others (while still playing his flute) to join in. Afterwards they added all types of vocal “tics” to their fluting. The results were both hilarious and vaguely disturbing. And then followed The Solos.

In contrast to the two long pieces of the first half, this second “jam” consisted of a suite of short pieces. Four of these were solos, one for each player. Ranging from gentle pentatonic melodies in the style of Debussy (or Lou Harrison, or even Paul Horn) to microtonal drones with multiphonics, to syncopated jazz riffs, these solos emphasized the variety that is possible on this instrument. As the promo from Wayward Music Seattle proclaimed: ignore everything you think you know about a solo flute recital. This was anything but a solo flute recital.

The concert concluded with something that I would have though impossible. The audience demanded an encore, so R. D. announced “…and now for the ugly ending…” and they all began at exactly the same time in exactly the same key. How does a group improvise in unison?! (Actually it was a continuation of the piece they’d just finished, but the sudden unity was unexpected and beautiful anyway.) During this final improvisation, two of the players wandered to the sides of the audience, resulting in an organic type of surround sound. Despite what R. D. had said, there was nothing “ugly” about this ending.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Ramblings on the "Dumbing" of Music

Most of my recent blog postings have been concert reviews (and there are several more of them coming) so I think I’ll post at least one here about various musical ramblings…

MINOR TRAGEDY: A major classical station recently sent me the results of a survey. According to them, their listeners would like to hear “less contemporary, and less opera”. Odd, since they play very little of either (they also play very little early music). I might add that nobody I know was included in the survey. This limiting of "classical" to a narrower definition would appear to be more of the general dumbing down of music on the radio (“classical music by request” on KUOW in the 1980’s played at least half contemporary) – though in this case it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: of course nobody would want to hear something that they don’t understand because they haven’t heard much of it to begin with.

MAJOR TRAVESTY: Last month I received several panicked e-mails that something should be done because a major Seattle jazz club had booked Kenny G. Again, part of the dumbing down of music – it reminds me that about a month ago I saw a Lawrence Welk CD in the classical section of a public library. (That would be hilarious if it weren’t so sad). The e-mails suggested a noisy free-jazz jam outside of the door of the jazz club, demanding equal rights for adventurous music. Right on! However, of course there’s no reason to stop people from listening to Kenny G if they want to. There should just be some kind of notice that muzak isn’t jazz. (In the 1970’s a lot of people seemed to think that muzak was classical; I don’t know how that one got started either, but at least it seems to be disappearing now.)

MODAL PARADIGM SHIFT: Restricting classical music to its narrow definition and including elevator music as jazz are examples of the dumbing of music. It would seem, though, that people (particularly younger people) aren’t buying it. The following story is only a minor incident, but it illustrates my point. The last two weeks I had the experience of substitute teaching for a junior high orchestra. Contrary to stereotypes about junior highschoolers, their minds are open to different kinds of music and they don’t all suffer from Bieber Fever. One student said that his favorite composer was George Crumb, and then he proceeded to conduct the rest of the group in a spontaneous performance of Hovhaness’ “And God Created Great Whales” (with the Seattle Symphony’s recording of the same playing on the stereo at the same time to thicken out the sound and provide the whale parts). We didn’t have a score, of course; he shouted the instructions as they were playing and skipped the conventionally melodic parts. Judging from the students’ reactions, they didn’t think that this aleatory playing was weird at all; in fact they seemed to have a blast. There were only two dissenters: one who snickered throughout at the fact that nobody else seemed to get that the music was a joke, and one who argued that John Cage’s method of composition was the same as fraud (I had brought up Cage—and Terry Riley’s “In C” – later, in explaining that Hovhaness’ piece wasn’t an isolated bit of musical eccentricity).

So, what of it? Does this represent some kind of shift in musical ideas? When I was in junior high, anything that didn’t sound exactly like Led Zeppelin was suspect; yet here are kids enjoying something completely different from the current pop (and they like Zeppelin too, in itself a paradigm shift – when I was that age, I wouldn’t have been caught dead listening to my parents’ music…!). In a game of music trivia, they also correctly identified music as diverse as Bach, Miles Davis, the Andrews Sisters, and a gamelan (as well as current pop tunes). This may be the beginnings of revenge against being “stupidified” by the mass media, at least in the field of music. Now, what about other fields…?

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Concert Review: John Cage Tribute by Neal Kosaly-Meyer, Melissa Walsh, Stuart Dempster, and William O. Smith; Good Shepherd Center, 5/25/2012

This concert of Cage music was what a concert of experimental music should be. William O. Smith played the serialist-sounding Clarinet Sonata (the first piece that Cage played live in a concert) with technical virtuosity that didn’t detract from the austere beauty of the piece. Neal Kosaly-Meyer gave a performance of “One7” (for one performer producing sounds in any manner) as a spoken-word piece, reciting the ten “thunderwords” from James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake” (one of Cage’s favorite text sources). Each of these is essentially a nonsense word but each chimes with subtle overtones and clangs with not-so-subtle references to source words; Neal spoke each of them (from memory) with its own emotions and dynamics (and let the silence between them speak for itelf). In the voice of a lesser “actor”, the effect could have been boring, pretentious, or forced. It was none of these, and the audience was mesmerized by the sounds of the sounds. Exactly what Cage would have wanted.





After the intermission, Melissa Walsh played the delicately beautiful (and vaguely gamelan-ish) “In a Landscape” on the solo harp – a tranquil contrast to the intensity of the vocal piece. Stuart Dempster enacted a bit of serious clowning around for the “Solo for Sliding Trombone” (including several minutes of playing trombone and conch shells in pantomime) and then it all came together for the finale, “Four6”. Again, this is for any manner of producing sounds; here, clarinet, trombone, voice, and harp played a kaleidoscope of fragments against the silences created by their own reverberations. (The players actually chose their sounds independently of the others, yet their synchronicity made it all sound planned – calm harp chords were interrupted by vocal or clarinet squeaks, only to resume; or intense trombone drones were dispelled by percussive sounds from other instruments.) These late “number pieces” of Cage are, in their calm intensity, very close to the late works of Feldman, and they prove once again that even when random elements are used to construct music (or any art form) the results are seldom random.

Reflections on my own concert, May 24th 2012

This was at the Good Shepherd Center, and featured three of my compositions. My apologies to anyone wanting to read this sooner.

Well, I guess it’s time that I face facts: I am a better composer of graphic scores and installations than I am of conventional through-composed material. This became obvious during this concert: the three “composed” piano pieces in my “Ukiyo-e” set sounded elementary, simplistic, forced, and simply not as interesting or beautiful as the fourth piece in the set (which is based on guided improvisation). However, in keeping with the general failure of this music, even my playing of this last piece was off. I thought it was okay at the time, but when I listened to my recording later, it was obvious that I was rushing the tempo for most of it. …And this is a quiet, slow piece, roughly in the manner of Morton Feldman…! It was all just very bad, and I’ll have to redo these pieces before attempting to perform them again.

The other part of the concert fared much better. These were two ensemble pieces based on graphic scores and instructions (none of which I actually played in…!). The first: “SoundScrolls VII”, played by Bruce Greeley (bass clarinet), Natalie Mai Hall (‘cello), and Mike Sentkewitz (string bass). Altogether they did a remarkable job on this; the “lugubrious tone-fog” that I’d mentioned in an earlier post was gone, replaced by a delicate landscape of quiet sustained drones, rain-like scatters, and quasi-impressionist melody. I can only say thanks to these players for their great performance (with a minimum of rehearsal time). I’ve posted a recording of the piece on my SoundCloud page.

The second: “Four Places on Planet Earth”, with Keith Eisenbrey and Matt Kocmierowski (found objects and percussion). This is a performance piece, where the percussionists play various objects (sorted by material) and consult field guides to determine what (and where in the performance space) to play next. The “four places” in the title refer both to the four places where the prerecorded tracks were made (the Olympic Peninsula, the Great Smokey Mountains, Israel, and Kisakata, Japan) and the four “playing stations” around the concert hall. These don’t particularly correspond to each other. The piece sets up an ever-changing cascade of environmental sounds; the prerecorded material was mostly originally recorded by Jonathon Storm (I edited, multi-tracked, and processed it) and the “live” players add their layers of “natural” sounds as well. “Natural”, that is, except for one of the playing stations, which contains brightly-colored plastic objects that wind up crowding out the sticks, stones, and seashells.

So that was it. I’m looking forward to working with these instrumentalists again, especially since they played so much better than I did…

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Concert Review: Seattle Modern Orchestra plays Dufourt and Feldman; 5/19/2012

This concert presented two pieces based on visual art. The idea is familiar from Mussorgsky and Respighi and more recent pieces; I have used it myself (see the note at the end of this post).

The first half of the program was “L'Asie d'aprés Tiepolo” by Hugues Dufourt. This was my first chance to hear a French spectralist work “live”; the effect of the timbre-based music was nearly overwhelming. The piece was based on a chaotic depiction of “Asia” by Baroque painter Tiepolo. The first movement was indeed very chaotic, though chaotic in a familiar (if organized) way – the use of multiple layers of extreme complexity to give the impression of chaos is a frequent feature of various other European “modernisms” including works of Ligeti, Xenakis and Messiaen. All of those achieve their complexity/chaos in different manners (mathematical formulae and birdsong, among others); Dufourt’s use of timbre to “cause” composition was another twist on the concept, but in the end, the “newness” is purely academic. The overall effect, like that of Ligeti’s piano concerto or the wilder parts of Messiaen’s “Turangalila Symphony”, is mostly excitement; a driving force (like an action movie) beneath (or above) layers of noise. Whatever; it was fun and interesting music.

A sudden moment of silence and a piano cadenza led into the longer second section, which consisted mostly of unstable clusters of notes (too slow and quiet to be “chaotic” anymore) that faded into silence. It resembled music by Feldman, and of course set up the expectations for the next piece on the program.

Feldman’s “Rothko Chapel” (for chorus and small ensemble) is one of the seminal pieces of late twentieth-century music. Ambiguous “cluster chords” float above nothingness, blank sounds in imitation of Rothko’s “blank” canvasses. Through its several connected sections, the music gradually brings out melodic material: beginning nebulous, then with the barest hints of a “tune” in a simple timpani ostinato, then a soprano solo that keeps attempting to be diatonic but is foiled by stubborn off-key intervals, and finally with a modal (and very recognizable) melisma for viola. In the end, however, there is that ambiguity – the choral “cluster chords” return and the modality is obliterated. This use of sound symbolism and “traditional” melody is at odds with much of Feldman’s music; it may represent the ambiguity of the Rothko Chapel itself – if it is about all (or no) religions, and the paintings (and architecture) avoid any recognizable religious iconography, then who is the God at the center?

The playing of both pieces was excellent, both in technique and interpretation. Oddly, however, the performance space was less suitable for the Feldman than one would expect; the high ceilings create wonderful echoes for small instrumental ensembles, but somehow the chorus didn’t sound resonant enough. This was no fault of theirs; it may have been only because of where I was sitting (in the middle of the large audience) but it surprised me anyway. I’ll have to hear another Seattle Modern Orchestra concert with a chorus to see if this is the case.

Now for that comment about music based on art: I’ve often used the same idea in my own pieces, such as the Ukiyo-è piano pieces, and my set of “SoundScrolls” – both of which will be played in my concert tonight, 8:00, at Good Shepherd Center. The Seattle Weekly has already called one of the pieces “gorgeous”. I had to get in a plug there before I signed off…

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Concert Review: New Music from the West Coast – Chapel Performance Space at Good Shepherd Center, Seattle, 5/5/2012

A varied concert, though generally tranquil; by three different composers.

Music for qin, by Christopher Roberts

The Chinese music for this ancient stringed instrument often emphasizes its twanging bass notes, which sound oddly akin to Mississippi delta blues, and save the airy, ringing harmonics for special moments of surprising beauty – something of an ethereal special effect. Christopher’s music was the inverse. He created most of the (freeform) melodic material from the overtones, with only occasionally venturing into the bass reverberations. The result was deeply affecting, meditative sounds that revealed their Chinese and “new music” roots equally. He played four pieces that seemed to form a set (they are also together on a CD), lasting a little longer than thirty minutes, and this half of the concert was far too short.

(...not played by Christopher Roberts in this picture.)

Trombones, found objects and found sound by Nat Evans

After the intermission, Jeremiah Cawley and Ken Pendergrass (both on trombones) played the only ensemble piece in the concert, Nat Evans’ “Still Life with Transmigration”. Nat had provided prerecorded electronic ambience: peaceful nature sounds mixed with unidentifiable, mysterious drones – both akin to my “StormSound” music – over which they began the piece with summonings on two conch shells. These had microtonal intonations, which set up harmonic beats throughout the hall – a portentous introduction to the trombones. The trombone music itself was melodic, tranquil, and overlapped heterophonically, furthering the “otherworldly but of this world” atmosphere. For the last third of the piece, they set down their trombones and played the various natural objects scattered around the stage as percussion instruments: sticks, stones, and leafy branches all became part of an orchestra of organic sounds. One can of course rub stones together to make a sound, as well as striking them, and breaking sticks provides a percussion sound somewhat different from striking them as well. My only negative reaction to the piece was that Nat has scooped me; my piece “Four Places on Planet Earth” (to be played in my May 24th concert) also uses prerecorded nature sounds and mysterious drones (derived electronically from the same nature sounds), and “live” percussionists playing natural objects – but of course this kind of thing has been done before (it seems to be part of a possible “greening” of music) so I can’t really complain. It was a beautiful piece anyway…

Jim Fox's Pleasure of Being Lost

The last piece was a piano solo, “The pleasure of being lost” by Jim Fox, as played by Cristina Valdes. This was in several movements played right together; however, none of them were complete by themselves so they formed a single, longer movement with pauses between sections. I described the piece later as “the melodic language of Peter Garland, the harmonic language or Takemitsu, and the time extension of Morton Feldman” – something of a fusion of the triumvirate of piano music of the late 20th century brought into the 21st. Cristina commented that Jim Fox had said it was something like Bill Evans as played by Feldman, which is much the same idea stylistically. Simple melodic figures with complex, ambiguous harmonies, floated dreamily over silence; each seemed “lost” by itself but lead inexorably forward into the next one – and for the duration of the piece, time was suspended. It was around ten minutes long, but seemed both far longer and far shorter. I am looking forward to hearing more music by this composer (and want to hear more of the delicate touch of this pianist as well).

Monday, May 7, 2012

Concert Review: Seattle Composers' Salon – Chapel Performance Space at Good Shepherd Center, Seattle, 5/4/2012

From the Composers' Salon website: “The Seattle Composers’ Salon fosters the development, performance and appreciation of new music by regional composers and performers.

First up: Five one-minute pieces by Emily Doolittle, played by Keith Eisenbrey. These were little character pieces with a wide variety, including a Debussyesque haze of open fifths, a humorous start-and-stop cluster of “wrong notes”, and a birdchirpy dance in irregular meters. A fun opener.

Next, the Rubaiyat of Greek poet Stavros Melissinos as set to music by Yvonne Hoar. For baritone soloist and piano, this was difficult music that stretched monody into borderline atonality. A rubaiyat is a Persian poem where the poet discusses (at considerable length) his/her views of life, love, and philosophy. This particular setting was not particularly long (it was the shortest piece on the program) because Ms. Hoar had only set a couple of verses; I personally was just starting to like piece when it ended, and I’m waiting for another couple of verses.

The third piece was the last work with piano: a set of three pieces by Anne Cummings. Ann is a familiar performer at the Composers’ Salons; here she made her Salon debut as a composer (but still a performer; the piece was more performance art than piano solo). She announced beforehand that the piece was based on a deeply abstract concept, but she wouldn’t reveal what that concept was until after the performance so she could judge the audience’s reaction. “Broken and Not Broken” began with a sparkling minimalist figure, then its inversion, then the two of them in harmony – and was abruptly cut off as Ms. Cummings removed her hands from the keyboard and clapped a rhythm. Keyboard and clapping alternated until both were cut off by a third sound – dull thudding (with echoes) from the inside of the piano, bass strings (same rhythm). “Sound Reveals My Existence” began with a series of overtones, then presented (vocally) the philosophical conundrum that “I have already not existed before”, i.e., before one’s birth. What was my experience then? Shouting into the piano strings (for sympathetic vibrations) failed to answer the existential question, so the final piece (“Present Absent Time”) was entirely instrumental. A dissonant chord alternated with quick, running, pianistic figures in 7/8 time and then suddenly resolved into an unrelated key. The piece did not come to an end; an end came to it. It seems that we are left with the question and even the possibility that we can’t even really ask the question.

Last up: my own work-in-progress “SoundScrolls VII”; one of my few pieces that use no piano. Having not practiced it beforehand, Bruce Greeley (bass clarinet), Mike Sentkewitz (string bass), and Natalie Mai Hall (‘cello) showed up about an hour early and we went over it before the show. I made a couple of adjustments to the concept of the piece (my score said to repeat the melodic fragments up to three times, but this was far too long so I ditched the repeats) and then we gave it a shot. The Salons welcome “works in progress” (I’ve heard some unrehearsed pieces before) so it wasn’t really a problem, though I did announce beforehand that we’d only played through it once…

We did the first and third movements; both are graphic scores (the first looks like a landscape on “music paper” that only has four lines per staff – one for each string of a stringed instrument; the second is a set of melodic fragments to be played in order at one’s own pace). The first came off quite well as free jazz with a lot of spaces for silence and contemplation. I thought the third needed more work (Bruce, who played the bass clarinet, was with me on this); a lugubrious tonal mud – but audience members found it otherwise (such adjectives as “lovely” and “sensual” were tossed around). At any rate, I’m going to slightly revise it and it’ll be ready for the concert on the 24th.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Two Upcoming Concerts: May 4th and 24th

For fans of my compositions: I’ll be doing a concert in May and appearing at the Seattle Composers’ Salon. Both of these are at the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford (Seattle). I will also play in another upcoming concert at Woodland Park Presbyterian Church (also in Seattle) sometime in September – more on that one in upcoming postings, though I know at this point that Wayne Lovegrove (guitar) will also be playing his original compositions too.

First, the Seattle Composers’ Salon, on May 4th (Fri.). This is “an informal presentation of new music by regional composers. The salon meets the first Friday of every other month, and features finished works, previews, and works-in-progress. It brings together composers, performers and audience members in a casual concert setting that allows for discussion and experimentation.” At this particular Salon, I’ll be presenting a selection from my extended piano piece “Ukiyo-e” (the name refers, technically, to various types of Japanese art, though it’s used mostly to mean woodblock prints). OR, a trio of Bruce Greeley (bass clarinet), Natalie Mai Hall (‘cello), and Mike Sentkewitz (string bass) will present an excerpt of my new (right now, unfinished) piece “SoundScrolls VII”. In either case, there will be a discussion of the music; and, of course, three other composers: Ann Cummings, Emily Doolittle, and Yvonne Hoar.

The Salon performance is mostly to promote the longer concert on May 24 (Thurs.). This will be three of my roughly half-hour pieces: “SoundScrolls VII” (with the above-mentioned trio); “Four Places on Planet Earth” (with Keith Eisenbrey and Matt Kocmierowski, percussion and found objects); and “Ukiyo-e”. It should be a good, if somewhat sparse, concert; all three of these pieces encourage the creation of silence (though in the case of “Four Places”, the “silence” is that of prerecorded ambient nature sounds and gongs).

Both concerts start at 8:00. Both are at the Chapel Performance Space at Good Shepherd Center, 4649 Sunnyside Ave. N., Seattle.
Be there or be an equilateral quadrangular parallelogram…!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Video/Sound Installation Review: CARTASONIC – Jack Straw Studios, Seattle

"CARTASONIC combines field recording, projection, and montage to convey the layered architectural history of Civita di Bagnoregio, a remote Italian hill town."

Having heard some of Perry Lunch’s work as a member of the Seattle Phonographers’ Union, I decided to have a look at the installation she put together with Lara Swimmer and Robert Zimmer, at Jack Straw Productions.

images projected onto the walls
shades of grey
one is always on the left wall
bells peal when it appears – a churchlike building under construction
other wall; small images fade in: a door, a brick wall, an enigmatic space
slowly missing bits appear, fit together, puzzle pieces
a façade
above the doors, pictures of walls are at a different angle
voices mumble, cough, pray, recite
mysterious place
where is it, exactly?
images disappear, leaving a white line or a void

This is both an art piece (not exactly a video installation) and a musique concrète composition. The images are projected (one of them is associated with loud bells ringing) while the recorded sounds shuffle in and out of reality – mostly voices in addition to the bells, and an occasional birdcall. The effect gives the impression of a historical documentary, though without narration. The pictures are all of fronts or sides of buildings in the remote Italian hill town, though their exact juxtaposition may or may not have anything to do with their layout in the “real” town. In the end it is up to the museum-goer to decide exactly what this documentary is about, and whether this is a real or imagined location.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Concert Review: Clifford Dunn & Anne Le Berge, with guests – Chapel Performance Space at Good Shepherd Center, Seattle, 4/6/2012

"Improvisations and compositions by Clifford Dunn, flute and electronics; Anne LaBerge, flute; Lisa Miller, piano; Tom Baker, guitar and Jessika Kenney, voice." - From Wayward Music Seattle

I missed the beginning of this concert due to a scheduling conflict. When I got there, about a half-hour after the beginning, Clifford Dunn (who also did a great performance in my “StormSound” concert last year) was playing the flute in an electronic environment created on his laptop.

Electronic “environments” seem to be a promising trend in experimental music and improvisation. I first encountered them on a CD of selected works of Pierre Boulez; there, amid the more-or-less classical ensembles, was a piece (“Dialogue de l'ombre double”) for clarinet and electronic environment. The clarinet part was not improvised, but a complex serialist composition with possible “detours” and alternate versions. The electronic sound “listened in” and reacted according to what the clarinet was doing. Fascinating. I’ve heard another recording of the same piece since then, and it’s as similar as two versions of the same jazz number would be (not as similar as two version of a standard classical piece), but at the same time, it seems completely different…

Obviously, such interactive “environments” work well for improvisation. In Mr. Dunn’s piece, the electronics processed the flute and returned it in various guises, some flutelike and some more percussive; some looped and some more linear. There were also prerecorded voices (usually not intelligible) that came and went without rhythm – a possible opposite of hip-hop vocals. Unfortunately I can’t comment more on the piece since I walked in partway through and I don’t really have a sense of how it developed or where it came from.

The next two pieces were by Anne La Berge, a guest flutist from Amsterdam. These were, again, for flute(s) plus interactive electronic environments. The first, for two flutes (Ms. La Berge plus Mr. Dunn) was a fragment of a memoir by Madame Curie, and included dissonances to create a tragic mood amid the sounds of triumph and obsession. As Ms. La Berge commented before playing, “scientists, like artists, are often in love with their work even though it’s killing them…”

“…And now for “Grunt Count”. This is a bit of fancy computer programming by English composer Martin Parker, and it can be very loud. So, if I see any of you with your hands over your ears, I’ll consider it a positive comment.” Ms. La Berge began her second piece, a tour-de-force “solo” that stretched the boundaries between music and noise, delicate beauty and fearsome, overwhelming ugliness. A description of the piece offers an intellectual analysis; however, this does not include the stage presence of Ms. La Berge – her performance was also a dance, using the microphone as an instrument to modify and stretch the sound of the flute. Quick motions brought the flute only millimeters away from the microphone (and the sound was correspondingly earsplitting); at other times she played several feet away from the mic, as if it wasn’t even there; delicate flute stylings amid numberless other sounds. Quite a piece!

The second half of the show was given over to one long improvisation, with both Clifford Dunn and Anne La Berge, and guests Eyvand Kang, violin, Lisa Miller, piano, Tom Baker, guitar and theremin, and Jessika Kenney, voice. This “band” produced one of the most atmospheric, mysterious, and luminous improvisations I’ve heard in a long time. It was difficult to distinguish the instruments (the flutes were, again, processed), as it was difficult to distinguish between dissonances and resolves. The sound was continuous, but created the effect of silence, and, unlike some free improvisations that take more than a half-hour, it did not seem to ramble. The time passed quickly, and the piece ended refreshed. This was a perfect example of how free improvisation should be done.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Concert Review: Waterbound – Woodland Park Presbyterian Church, Seattle, 3/11/2012

Readers of the blog will note a shift here: this is completely different from the music that I often review. That said, it had the other attributes of the music that I often write about: it was both interesting to listen to, and beautiful. It held my attention for the entire hour and a half…

Waterbound is a Celtic duet of Steve Akerman (mandolin) and Mimi Geibel (autoharp); both play occasional other instruments and sing when they decide to. The music? Celtic, obviously; but without fiddles or pipes; an ethereal kaleidoscope of shimmering plectra – it sounded like something I would expect to hear at a dinner and recital in Lothlórien or Cair Paravel. Each individual song was a beautifully-cut gem. Mr. Akerman stated that his musical roots include other types of music (including bluegrass, blues, and jazz) and that his improvisations within the Celtic framework would often stray into these idioms. At one point he announced that his octave-mandolin part had been derived from “Can’t Get No Satisfaction” (I hadn’t noticed, but then again, I seldom listen to the Stones because I’ve never liked what I’ve heard by them); at another point, they played a “vertical medley” (two songs at once) where the mandolin part was from a Vivaldi concerto. None of these “excursions” destroyed the continuity of the music; in fact were barely noticeable. They just contributed a little seasoning to the concert.

Another point that both performers often made (before playing a tune) was that “traditional” tunes of course had a composer – they’ve done some research and they often know who that composer was. …And some of the “old” traditional tunes were apparently written within the last twenty years. Some of the most affecting melodies were actually themes from NPR shows.

The gossamer quality of the music worked well in Woodland Park Presbyterian Church. This is a cavernous, reverberant space; I’ve often attended the open mic there (second Friday evening every month) and the acoustics are marvelous for both folk and experimental music, as well as classical. I might mention that Waterbound has played there (at the open mic), and that last week’s open mic had an interesting guest – an old friend of mine who has since moved to Chicago and plays the kaen (Thai mouth organ) – that full-bodied reedy instrument sounds like the grandfather of all accordions there.

So I have nothing bad to say about the concert? No, not really; there were a couple of obvious wrong notes (but no more than that!), but this is to be expected in an hour and a half of live music. All in all it was a satisfying concert.