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.