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.