Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Sound Installation Review: Ruth Tomlinson’s “Lost Long: A Landscape” at Jack Straw

A curious paradox exists within this installation space.

This is a place to linger. Delicate percussion (wind snapping a rope against a flagpole) sounds randomly and as if from a great distance; speaking of picturesque, wide landscapes. Gentle voices proclaim the condition of the cloud cover and of the wind; the timbre is both calming and sensuous.

This is not a place to linger. There is no place to sit or relax. The while light is glaring, unfriendly. The landscape on the wall – made with hundreds of push-pins in the shape of mountains and valleys – is bleached white, the color of the wall, as if scorched by a malevolent sun and then left to disintegrate over eons in a world without life. There is a table in the center of the room, but it emits more garish light and offers nothing but desiccated, abstracted branches (cut from paper with black outlines showing) and skeletal remains of more branches (painted white, again) on the floor below.

The audio is based on the natural, and is friendly, welcoming. The visual is based on the natural, and is unfriendly, even hostile. This is of course the world we live in: “nature” is both a calming balm for the soul and the abode of predators and parasites. This installation is about this, though dividing the experience so that one feels the benevolence with one sense (hearing) and the horrible with another (sight).

But there is more to it than that. The accompanying flier suggests some alternate readings.

1.) The landscape of branches and push-pins is derived from a specific location, and suggestive of memory of that location: perhaps one’s remembrance of a particular place and time diminishes over time, becoming washed out, fading to white, as it were. The glaring light is simply the absence of color, as the memory disappears; diminution of sound also occurs but quiet sound produces a quite difference experience.

2.) At one point, the light is referred to as “Jesus Light”. What is expressed here, then, is not malevolence at all, but the inescapable light that penetrates and reveals all. One would naturally feel discomfort in its presence, were it not the very source of refuge from its own glare.

3.) Maybe one’s experience of a landscape, whether natural or man-made, is always subjective; what suggested a dichotomy to me (or a sort of antagonistic yin-yang) may not actually be so. I was able to – briefly – sit against the wall and shut my eyes against the brightness, and experience the sound aspect differently, and more peacefully. Another person might “see” the whole piece (or be able to enter into it) in an alternate, but equally meaningful, way.

Cloudless, windless, few clouds, no wind, half cloud cover, slight wind, cloudless, slight to moderate wind, few clouds, no wind, three-quarter cloud cover, slight wind, few clouds, no wind, few clouds, no wind, quarter cloud cover, slight wind, three-quarter cloud cover, no wind, few clouds, no wind, half cloud cover, slight wind, no clouds, moderate wind…

CD Reviews: Another Seattle Music Scene - Sunn O))), Double Yoko, Deep Listening Band

Three Seattle-connected CDs I've heard recently that have little to do with that more famous (1990’s) “Seattle scene”…

Sunn O))) – Monoliths and Dimensions

This caught me completely by surprise. I was looking for “drone music” in the online catalogue of the public library, hoping to find something in the manner of Phill Niblock that I didn’t happen to have heard. I came across this, and clicked on it just to see what it was – the unpronounceable name had piqued my interest. The notes said that it was “drone metal”. At this point, the reader will have to imagine a question mark and an exclamation point, both about two feet high, swirling in the air above my head. A fusion between drone and metal…!? Two incompatible genres if there ever were: non-commercial, unpredictable and seemingly motionless vs. highly commercial, stereotyped, belligerent…

I checked out the CD.

I listened to some of it in the car driving home from the library. It’s not exactly drone music in that it’s not really based on microtones and sustained pitches that seem not to move. However, unlike any other rock-based music that I’ve heard, it is played as slowly as possible – usually letting each guitar chord ring until it fades to near nothing (or, with the use of a limiter, doesn’t fade) before the next one is played. It has the overall aesthetic of drone music. A careful listening reveals standard rock chord progressions, at least in places. However, the time frame is altered. The slow (sometimes almost infinitely slow) tempo, and the notable absence of drums, obscure the rhythm – in fact, the “beat” is usually discarded in favor of a more impressionist wash of sound. In track two, all motion ceases twice, letting a single chime ring out. But, it all still qualifies as “metal” because of the heavy fuzz guitars, deep dark bass, and distorted vocals (sometimes with a growly “sore throat” whisper that’s only possible because of high amplification). Incidentally, those vocals are usually subsumed into the instrumental strata and are seldom understandable – and the lyrics (for those who bother to read the insert) are, mostly, refreshingly free of the usual head-banger twaddle about torture and demons.

There are little surprises here and there. During the first long track, I was sure that I was hearing a kind of "avant-garde" scratchy/noisy treble sound that is usually made with a violin (i.e. in some of Xenakis’ chamber music or Ligeti’s String Quartet no. 2). I assumed they were doing it with a guitar. But in the fourth (instrumental) track, another long one, there was no mistaking it: there are other instruments here besides the “rock band”. First, an accordion picks up the overtones of several of the guitar’s chords as they fade out (okay, the keyboard player could be doing that) but then there’s that modal trombone solo that appears… I glanced again at the notes on the insert – there is a whole list of well-known Seattle experimental and “new music” artists who took part in this recording. So, as I thought, this is not just another dime a dozen “heavy metal” CD…

Double Yoko

This is a collaboration between Beth Fleenor (see my 3/27/13 posting) and Paris Hurley. I saw their performance as this “band” a couple of years ago (see my 10/3/10 posting in my old blog), and picked up this CD at Beth’s concert (as clarinetist for Tim Root’s “Kerplunk!” project) on 3/22/13. This is not a commercially available CD, so anyone who’s interested should probably contact one of the two “Yokos”. (Yoki?) However, it is so worth listening to that I decided to review it here. It needs the exposure, though fat chance that my blog will help it much…

“Double Yoko” of course is a pun on “double yolk”. When playing together, they do seem to be two in one shell, as it were. One plays a riff, or just a single note, and the other spins an intricate and beautiful web from it, and then the roles are abruptly reversed with no pause in between…

This is a recording of seven untitled tracks made in a radio studio, for a late night “Sonarchy” live experimental music broadcast. Beth Fleenor plays clarinet and (sometimes) sings; Paris Hurley plays violin in the foreground and does tricks with old cassette players in the background. Track one begins with one of the old cassette recordings, an unidentified plucked stringed instrument (sounding like a cross between a guitar and a koto); Beth picks it up with Balkan/Navajo-tinged vocals (interesting combination!) and it goes from there. There are occasional references to the free-jazz roots of the music; track three, for example, allows a couple of animalistic screech-honk fracases over an increasingly insistent drone from Paris’ violin; later these are recycled quietly (as recorded from one of Paris’ cassette machines) under gentler murmurs by both players. Generally, though, this is “new music” at its most amiable. There are modal melodies, usually on the verge of breaking into a full-scale “classical” major key; there are little touches of Klezmer and Appalachian fiddling; there are bird-like chirps from a greatly stretched and speeded-up cassette of (probably) folk music; there are charming bells and phantom glockenspiels and snippets of radio broadcasts. The mixture is eclectic and sparse, but virtually every moment smiles at the listener. I recommend it for anyone who still thinks that experimental music has to be dark and doom-laden (it actually seldom is, but that's another matter).

Deep Listening Band – Great Howl at Town Haul

…I was there…!

They recorded DLB’s 1/19/11 concert where I was in the audience, and this is that recording, slightly edited. What follows is not a conventional concert review. The improvisatory, stream of consciousness, ambient and environmental nature of the music makes that impossible. Instead, this will be a “nonsense” poem in the manner of Finnegan’s Wake (this is actually an edited version of what I wrote after seeing the concert). I’m no James Joyce, but I’ve attempted to write similar material before – the “technique” for composing this word salad is rather like aleatory/improvisational music, involving both intuition and random chance).

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If anyone could read all of that, they’d realize that the music made by Pauline Oliveros (accordon), Stuart Dempster (trombone) and David Gamper (piano) – collectively called Deep Listening Band – is improvisational, and augmented by live computer processing. A single note (or effect) played by one player results in a refractive cavalcade of echoes from all directions, often changing in pitch. The result is alternately meditative or chaotic (sometimes both at the same time!). There is a humorous moment when they play toys as instruments: the squeaks, digital noises, bye-bye!s, and whistles from stuffed animals, teletubbies, etc., join into the computerized conversational soundscape. (This actually goes deliberately over-the-top when Halloween witch-cackles join the fray.) Titles were added for the CD: like the title of the CD, most are puns on the name of the performance venue (Town Hall, Seattle) and the word “howl” – though there is little on the CD that brings to mind a “howl”. (The exception might be the piece “Great Horned Howl”, which includes the aforementioned funny/scary sounds.) At any rate, this is a generally grand-ambient soundscape, with little bits of unexpected wit, and it is well worth a listen (or several).

…I was there…!

Monday, April 8, 2013

Beautiful blast from the bardic past: Benjamin Bagby’s “Beowulf”

Benjamin Bagby, singer, multi-instrumentalist, musicologist, and one of the founding members of the early music group Sequentia, brought his one-man performance of his reconstruction of “Beowulf” (as it would have been originally performed) to Seattle’s Town Hall on Saturday, April 6th.

“If you’re expecting Game of Thrones, sorry,” said the MC, Laurence W. Herron, the president of the (Seattle) Early Music Guild. “It’s better than that. No CGI monsters. It will be a theater of the mind, as it would have been performed more than a thousand years ago in the mead halls of Medieval Britain.”

Please turn off all cell phones or risk the vengeance of Grendel’s claw.

Exactly how “authentic” it was, of course, will never really be known. We have to be content with an educated guess – though this guess was very well educated. Mr. Bagby’s bardic instrument was probably as close as we can come after this many centuries. It is a copy of a small harp found in a 7th –century Germanic tomb. The tuning – a pentatonic minor (i.e. A, C, D, E, G, A) was another educated guess, though based on known music theory from the time. I’ve heard the same scale in other early music, as well as in some surviving ancient music from elsewhere in the world (Ethiopia, China).

In contrast to other still-extant bard-like traditions (such as the epics recited to the accompaniment of the Turkish tar or the Japanese biwa), Mr. Bagby used the harp for little (if any) sound effects – there was not even a galloping rhythm to indicate horses. Rather, it created an ever-changing (yet at the same time unchanging) underpinning of partly melodic indications of mood: fast and rhythmic for happy situations; slower for sad or solemn moments (there were a lot of the latter); fast but disjointed for scary or exciting scenes; occasional complete pauses for the punch-line of a joke.

Yes, there are jokes in Beowulf. Some of them – no doubt helped by Mr. Bagby’s comic timing, are still funny. But, of course, there is a lot more there too. Mr. Bagby recited roughly the first third of the epic, telling how the monster Grendel, a descendant of Cain, turned the Hall of Heorot into a scene of carnage (not once, but multiple times) and how the hero Beowulf came from across the sea to defeat him – with his bare hands, since it would be dishonorable to use a weapon against a monster who does not use one. It’s quite a swashbuckling, heroic tale. Culturally there are some differences from more recent tales of the same (albeit reworked) genre (i.e. The Lord of the Rings or even Star Wars) – contemporary authors would probably spend more time talking about the battle itself and less describing the gifts given to Beowulf after his victory (even if these are important later in the story). The language also has a different “sound” from modern English, though some words and even phrases are still recognizable. It still retains its Germanic “CH” sounds, for example; and to the modern ear (mine, at least), the king's name, Hrothgar, sounds more like a name for a monster than “Grendel” does.

Above all, though, “Beowulf” is a poem. Its power resides in its recitation as a poem. Here is where Mr. Bagby’s performance comes to the fore. He delivered much of it as an actor might deliver a Shakespearean monologue, with or without the harp; and his narration was enhanced by dramatic facial expressions and animated gestures. At key point he would chant or break into a fully melodic song, often a long melisma on a single emphatic syllable. (Those songs often provided melodic tension with the simplest of means: by continuously ending on the fourth tone of the scale while the harp insisted that the first tone was the tonic.) He has a beautiful, clear voice, with enough resonance to fill the large hall with sound despite that neither he nor his harp was amplified. By the end he (and Beowulf) had woven a spell that transported the audience to another age, both heroic and barbaric. It was an experience that I will not soon forget.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Kerplunk goes nihilist: Tim Root's performance piece at Good Shepherd Center, 3/22/13

About five minutes before arriving at the venue for this performance, I suddenly had a recollection of that most horrific and blood-curdling moment in all of mainstream cinema, the chest-bursting scene in “Alien”. I don’t know why this abruptly came to mind (I actually still can’t watch the scene all the way through), though it turns out to have connections, at least in mood, to the performance of “Kerplunk!”.

Both the music and the stage setting had an emphasis on the macabre. Beth Fleenor vocalized and played clarinet next to a gruesome sign labeled “severed leg”, and often froze with a happy/creepy expression that was both a grimace and a smile (“Welcome to my nightmare!”). Eric Barber, likewise, played sax behind what was obviously meant to look like a blood-splattered television screen, as if the horror show were no longer contained (safely) within the video. The other three players (Bill Horist, guitar; Naomi Siegel, trombone; and Tim Root, keyboards and electronics) were more in the background, at least visually, though their playing was obviously part of the texture of the whole. Yet, ironically, the whole piece was based on the children's game "Kerplunk".

Composer Tim Root stated that the piece would be between thirty and forty minutes because it was partly improvised (it was closer to fifty-five). Then it began with Ms. Siegel rolling croquet balls (?) down an amplified chute, followed by a spate of strange vocalizations (from all players) and sampled sounds from a prepared piano. The piece was in several sections. For most of the first, Ms. Fleenor carried on a stream of consciousness monologue with details about eyes that had been plucked out, agonizing pain, a bad smell, and (longer) about the aforementioned severed leg. Some of the tension of this was relieved when she paused to sing in the manner of Meredith Monk, or to draw straws out from a cylinder set up with random items held in place by the straws (like the game). In the second section, Ms. Siegel came out from the shadows to continue the monologue, now with themes of both existentialism and regret, and just a little of the gore from the first part. Her voice, and perhaps the character she was playing, were much more soothing – though the background music began to recycle samples from earlier sections. An interlude of sorts was provided when Mr. Horist set down his guitar and played a home-made (?) instrument that looked (and sounded) like a cross between a sitar and a very large pi-pa. During this, the others alternately played modal melodies or ruminated about calculating what is incalculable and/or dissecting a dog. Sampled snippets of previous material continued to flutter about. Ms. Siegel danced slowly with her trombone on a couple of bags filled with packing peanuts (?) to give a crackling, snapping sound. All climaxed in a dissonant spasm of freeform improvisation – though the first attempt at this build-up was abruptly halted by Mr. Root shouting “Freeze!”; and then the piece ended with drones – quietly – after Ms. Fleenor had removed the last straw, and the last objects dropped (disappointingly noiselessly) to the bottom of the cylinder.

It was all pretty entertaining, though in the end I wasn’t quite certain exactly what I had seen or heard (that was probably the point). Certainly there was an air of death and Kafkaesque horror about it, including more than a trace of gallows humor. Obviously this was a function of the words, but the instrumental sounds themselves often had a sinister edge – particularly the sampled prepared piano, which (with its amplification) was much louder than it “should” have been and gave a kind of hollow, scary resonance. The entire work was probably “about” mortality in the way that “Finnegan’s Wake” is about dreams and the subconscious, or “The Lord of the Rings” is “about” Christianity, friendship, existentialism, environmentalism, and WWII (of course it isn’t “about” any of these, but it is also about all of them). The metaphor of things dropping (beginning with the balls in the tube and ending with the objects falling to the bottom of the cylinder) was simply about everything ending, and it seems that it was an ending where all of reality drops into a bucket of gore and is never heard from again. No possibility of redemption was offered, and therein lies its nihilistic tragedy.

After a short intermission, the “band” played two free improvisations. The first started with grumbly drones and evolved into a chaotic free-for-all (ending with a sudden hush and some Balkan-inspired vocals from Ms. Fleenor). It quit before Mr. Horist had a chance to play the cymbal that he’d been diligently threading through his guitar strings for a minute or two beforehand. The second (“Let’s play a short one for the road!”) began with a one-note trombone flourish (“Wow – that was short!”) and then began again, loud, and settled back into quiet drones. All in all, these were lighter pieces that provided a welcome contrast to the darkness of “Kerplunk!”.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Radiophonic Abstract Expressionism: Amber Cortes’ “Signal to Noise” at Jack Straw Productions

I went to “see” this installation twice between the time it opened and when it closed, too soon, yesterday. I thought I should, finally, make a new posting in this blog and write about it…

“Imagine a space where all broadcasts are possible along a "radiophonic continuum," where voices and sounds mingle with spontaneous white noise, existing away from time and place, separate and uncontrolled and triumphant in their ephemeral power. This is the magic of radio. 4 imagined radio stations will be transmitted from four different radios, each station a testament to how freeform radio space can be reimagined, re-purposed, and revitalized.” - Jack Straw Website

Walking into the room, first one hears the “noise” – accumulations of static and fuzzy voices squawking from four radios placed on stands. At first I thought that they were simply recordings, with the “radio fuzz” added digitally. Speaking with Ms. Cortes, however, told me otherwise: these are actual “radio stations”, broadcast only into the one room, and picked up with the small radios, tuned out slightly.

The content of these “stations”? Looped, from CD’s in the other room. One consisted of old broadcasts from KRAB, the (real) station that was run by Jack Straw in the 1960’s through the 1980’s. “Random” pictures and program listings – all organized in a regular grid on the wall – emphasized KRAB’s eclectic mix. Another station was a punk rock amalgam, complete with the expected witty and vulgar digs at society, the broadcast media, and particularly the FCC (presented with altered initials). The third, broadcast from a speaker behind the shell of an antique stand-up radio, was the “internet ephemera station”, dedicated (in the year 2030 or thereabouts) to preserving old sounds from the early days of electronic communications. The old radio emitted dial tones, busy signals, dial-up modems, and “your call cannot be completed as dialed”, as well as a soothing female voice announcing the origin of each sound. Lastly, there was a CB radio, adding bouts of static and rougher voices to the mix.

The idea was, of course, that the radio media needn’t be as regulated and monetized as what is usually found on the FM dial (one of the placards of the installation said this), and it might be fun just to imagine the possibilities of what actually could be (and in some cases is) broadcast outside of the mainstream. Apart from this, though, is the experience of the installation itself. This experience is, in some sense, similar to viewing wall-sized abstract expressionist paintings. The “non-mainstream” stations don’t match up, either in programming or any type of synchronization. What one hears, then, is a continually changing collage of sound – a sort of Jackson Pollock splatter of tone paint. Sometimes the sound/color is as loud and strident as a track by Merzbow (or a De Kooning painting); less frequently, it settles into a quieter murmur, more reminiscent of late pieces of John Cage (or Mark Rothko paintings). I found it fascinating to just sit there and listen in exactly the same way I would sit there and look at certain visual art.

Note to readers of this blog: It appears that "Blogger" has changed their formatting, and it is no longer possible to insert graphics in the same manner as I had been doing before. My apologies to those who liked the little abstract "bullets" at the start of each post.