Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Literature? Music? Drama? Something between? Neal Kosaly-Meyer performs: Finnegan’s Wake (Part One, Chapter One), the Stage Play? (12/13/14)

Litesout. All begain in darknews and sighlands. Mr. Meyer approached the stage, removed his (stylistically suggestive of James Joyce) hat, and donned an ecclesiastical vestment (hand-made by Karen Eisenbrey). He spun a huge rainbow-colored drum, then removed from it a newly-made ancient manuscript (in Celtic uncial lettering) which he placed on the floor, then hung on various racks around the stage. Riverrun, the words were intoned, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.

A flashlight stabbed into the dark. Brief illuminations of other pages of calligraphy. Slowly at first, then gathering speed, Joyce’s poetic stream of (un)consciousness was recited. The dreamscape unfolded. Sobs they sighdid at Fillagain’s chrissormiss wake, all the hoolivans of the nation, prostrated in their consternation, and their duodismally profusive plethora of ululation.

This way to the museyroom. Mind your hats goan in! Much of chapter one of the Wake consists of short sketches of places or characters. These are fragments of memories from the edges of sleep; they contrast with the denser, more opaque wordstrings later in the book and the obviously dreamlike images from the subconscious that emerge in the middle. This particular section, the Wallinstone/Willingdone Museum, presents a set of increasing absurdities, all introduced with “This is –” and separated by “Tip!”, which Mr. Meyers rendered in a comical falsetto, his own sound effect as punctuation. This way the museyroom. Mind your boots goan out!

The (usually) subtle sound design, by Jake Thompson, was as much a part of the performance as the words and the setting. There were four microphones, each beneath one of the racks on which to hang the calligraphic manuscript; each provided an understated manipulation to the sound of Neal’s voice. One microphone was suspended over a grand piano with the damper pedal stuck down, to create reverberation by sympathetic vibrations. (Two more obvious alterations were signaled by the flashlight turned off and on quickly twice. One of these was a cascade of echoes that occurred, fittingly, with “So this is Dyoublong? Hush! Caution! Echoland! How charmingly exquisite! It reminds you of the outwashed engravure that we used to be blurring on the blotchwall of his innkempt house.” The other bounced the voice from side to side, foreshadowing the conversation between Mutt and Jute that would occur a couple of minutes later (Neal did this conversation in two stage-voices that traded places somewhere in the middle, and with the flashlight illuminating calligraphic pages of the character’s names.)

Though the entire first chapter was presented from memory (the “manuscript” only contained a couple of words), the point was not a feat of memorization (though it was that, even if some plays are longer) but that the Wake can also be seen as a piece of music. Neal’s program notes commented on the musicality of the words, and the aforementioned sound effects provided contrasting “movements” of a longer whole, a large-scale minimalist composition. There was an actual sonic climax with the tale of Jarl van Hoother and the prankquean. So her grace o’malice kidsnapped up the jiminy Tristopher and into the shandy Westerness she rain, rain, rain. And Jarl van Hoother warlessed after her with soft dovesgall: Stop deef stop come back to my earin stop. But she swaradid to him: Unlikelihud. As with most of the Wake, this passage could be analyzed endlessly for its wordplay: the pun on “rain” and “ran” (and “reign”); the reference to Tristam Shandy; the fact that a “dovesgall” with a voiced G could sound softer than a “dove’s call” (which would be soft anyway), though “gall” adds a bit of sarcasm. But the reason for this to begin the loudest part of the performance isn’t the wordplay; this a gripping moment (however obscure the actual narrative) – there is action and violence; an edge of nightmare in the dream, contrasting with the more psychological explorations elsewhere. (Another passage in a similar vein is the Humpty-Dumpty-like fall near the beginning, though this is actually the beginning of something that plays out over the entire book.)

So, in the end, was this literature, music, drama, or all of the above? Answer: Yes. It is what you make of it. Seen as literature, it is tribute to one of the most magical and mysterious texts in the English language. As music, it joins the long list of compositions (by John Cage, Toru Takemitsu, Samuel Barber, Stephen Albert, and many others) in homage to the Wake. As drama, it adds yet another dimension to Joyce’s already multidimensional work. Literature, music and drama are all richer for it.

This is the first of a Finnegan’s wake project, to be performed, one every year, for seventeen years …in lashons of languages …sober serious, he is ee and no counter he who will be ultimendly respunchable for the hubbub caused in Edenborough.

Oh, and yes, these framing quotations aren’t actually in the book. Liteson. All enned in brightnews and sighlance.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Concert Review: Seattle Composers' Salon 11/7/14

"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: Three guided improvisations, from a longer set by Jacob Zimmerman and played by same, along with Christian Pinock and Jeff Draper. These were unified by their approach to improvisatory structures: each consisted of nine sections (not always perceptible as such), each developing from the last; an extended drone that spun into diverse eddies and constellations. Instrumentation included wind instruments (sax and trombone) and electronics consisting of a hot pink telephone and a bank of guitar pedals.

Next up: Me. This was another guided improvisation which, like a lot of my pieces, is coordinated (more or less) with a prerecorded soundtrack that adds shape and structure. The piece was three short selections from a longer work, “Sounds, Found”, for field recordings and found objects played as percussion. Keith Eisenbrey joined me playing the latter. I can’t say a lot about these since I haven’t yet had a chance to hear the recordings; what I can say is that I’ve been working on the prerecorded parts for this for several years but have never done any of it “live” because I’ve been rather reluctant to present something so different in aesthetic from most of my pieces. In contrast to my often more ambient approach, these are deliberately rough and unpolished, with rough “unmusical” sounds and audible edits – something of an auditory version of bizen vs. celadon pottery. The first (shortest) piece consists of clunks and clanks over a recording of plumbing repair; the second develops (live) unsynchronized rhythms that fade into a (recorded) hip-hop band at a street fair; the third uses sustained tones, intended to sound like overtones, over the mechanical drone of an industrial air-conditioning unit.

Third: Nat Evans presented part of his project, “Tortoise”, consisting of musique-concrète derived from field recordings of his recent trek along the entire Pacific Crest Trail. (On his journey, he did, in fact, once meet a tortoise.) This particular piece was based on howling desert winds (tamed, in this concert setting) with interjections from cowbells on both cows and horses, and deep gamelan gongs that were added later for compositional effect. The vast scale of the piece (despite its being less than ten minutes), invocations of nature, and cowbells all inevitably seem to channel Mahler, though this is a Mahler shorn of heart-rendering fortissimo outbursts and filtered through a century of modernisms to return to the roots of music, at one with the natural sounds from which it arose.

If Nat Evans’ piece recalled Mahler, the last piece on the program recalled the Second Viennese School which followed directly on his heels. Keith Eisenbrey’s “J”, a solo piano piece in memoriam to J. K. Randall, sounded (on the surface) like Anton Webern – but listening to it as he practiced before the concert, I realized that the “row” had fewer than twelve notes… In fact, there was no “row”. Each melodic fragment consisted of a chain of increasing intervals, descending until a pitch class repeated, then ascending at half speed. Several of these together produced counterpoint, or at least superposition. As always with such procedural music, much of the effect was in the playing (Webern’s works can sound either ravishing or bone-dry, depending on performance) – in this case, Keith rendered each fragment in sharp contrast to its surrounding silence, without pedal, as if to present it as its own case for existence (with its emotional content derived from its intellectual rigor). This type of music is, perhaps somewhat paradoxically, some of the most engaging (on several levels) that one is likely to hear (see, for example, some of Xenakis’ pieces, which are to be played without emotion or sense of beauty, yet the very lack of these things produces them…).

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Concert Review: William O. Smith at Earshot, 10/18/14

Described as a “man of prodigious talent both as a composer and clarinetist,” William O. Smith has been straddling the boundaries of classical, jazz and improvised music for nearly his whole musical life. He even goes by two names: Bill Smith for jazz, William O. Smith for classical.” – Earshot Jazz website

Mr. Smith played solo clarinet, with or without computer additions; he also played with two other well-known Seattle musicians: Jesse Canterbury (also clarinet) and Stuart Dempster (trombone). There were seven pieces.

1. Five Fragments for Double Clarinet – Pictures of “double pipers” in Greece inspired this short work – “well, my clarinet comes apart into two pieces…”. The lower half, however, wasn’t intended to be played by itself, so it makes quite different intonations, resulting in microtonal harmonies. The piece consisted mostly of short sounds and sporadic fragments of melody, which gave it an atmosphere of incompleteness and expectation; a good introduction to the concert as a whole.

2. Duo – Jesse Canterbury played the double clarinet this time (actually two whole clarinets). This improvisation was roughly a continuation of the first piece, though with a thicker texture interspersed with more recognizably melodic material.

3. Paris Imp – Here the jazz elements manifested strongly. The computer “improvised”, that is, played quasi-random patterns according to predetermined sequence, but what emerged was, if not exactly jazz, certainly had a swinging rhythm and jazz harmonies. That said, the music did not unfold in a “song” format; there was no refrain, no repeats of chord changes, no obvious difference between the “tune” and the “solo” (and yet the rhythm and chords were far too obvious to be “free jazz”). It was like looking at a cubist painting of jazz; jazz taken apart and fractured, reassembled into something new. Mr. Smith’s clarinet was part of the texture, not a solo instrument standing out from the rest.

There were four movements: the first two were the most obviously based on a swing rhythm (though the first was broken into several sections of different meters and timbres – including sudden electric piano riffs – almost suggesting an overture or condensed version of a longer piece); the third was sparse and atmospheric (with the computer “playing” only tom-toms); the last sounded atonal but brought back the jazzy rhythms and a variety of “instruments”.

4. Duo – Trombonist Stuart Dempster joined for an improvised duet that added serious clowning around to the earlier mix. When, at the beginning, Mr. Smith accidentally dropped his mute, Mr. Dempster responded by dropping his own mute (and giving Mr. Smith an aggressive “I challenge you to drop something else!” expression) – and it went from there. Scattered pops, whistles, burps, roars, moos, meows, clicks, pings, squeals, raspberries, and other sounds (and a lot of silent gestures) eventually coalesced into an organized back-and-forth improvisation. Fun!

5. Sumi-e – “The title refers to Japanese black ink drawings; this piece is so named because the computer screen while playing it resembles such pictures.” Each of the six movements began with twenty seconds in which Mr. Smith played various techniques on his clarinet while the computer was silent. Then the computer began with “temporal variations” on what the clarinet had played, though as the work progressed it became obvious that there was more digital processing involved than just changing the durations of the sounds. Walls of sound, and in some cases, noise, began to accumulate. There was one supremely Xenakis-like moment when a cascade of glissandi gave rise to quick repeated dissonances – neither of which I’d heard the clarinet actually play before the processing began. I suspect, though I cannot be entirely sure because I didn’t discuss the composition process with Mr. Smith after the concert, that the computer was not only processing the clarinet but also its own earlier iterations of the same material, and perhaps even re-processing different sounds in different ways. In some ways, this tightly-controlled but massive (almost symphonic) piece was an opposite to the improvisation with trombone. At the end, everything sunk back into the silence from which it had arisen, leaving the audience refreshed and ready for another type of opposite piece.

6. Lover Man – here was a jazz standard fragmented and presented as a solo with a lot of ambient reverb provided by the digital delay system. Quiet, meditative, and beautiful, this was a melodic and atmospheric (almost Impressionist) interlude.

7. Trio (with Jesse Canterbury and Stuart Dempster) – the final improvisation combined elements of most of the forgoing in the manner of a classical finale. Though probably not planned as such, the piece was in an arc form, with the most intense part in the middle. The three musicians provided spatial ambient by slowly walking around the performance space while playing. At the highest point in the arc, they all met in front center, with the two clarinets being played directly into the bell of the trombone (an interesting sound as well as a comic visual) before scattering with quick splinters of sound. A satisfying conclusion to this too-short concert by one (or three!) Seattle musical legends.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

My "Says You" Questions, including some about music

Last Saturday, I attended a taping of the NPR game show “Says You”. A few days before, I had sent them some puzzles. The last time I did that, and told them that I’d be in the audience, they used one of my puzzles. This time, they used one right at the beginning. Then they used another. And another, and another – five in all (three puzzle rounds and two of the bluffing words). By the time they’d finished, I’d written an entire one-hour show…!

'Twas definitely a major hoot.

They gave me credit of course. This caused one of the ushers (who hadn't heard the show and didn't know audience members could send in puzzles) to assume that they'd chosen my name at random and were just picking on me for some reason. She said I was a good sport about it.

Anyway, four of the questions contained material about music (actually six did originally, though they didn't ask the one about Axl Rose and they edited the music out of another), so it’s suitable for posting in this blog. Here, then, is the complete set of questions that I’d written for that evening. I've put the answers separately at the end for any reader who’d like to try to figure them out first.

Round One: Odd One Out (Which one doesn’t belong in the list? Why?)
1. Marty, Melvin, Michael, Morton
2. Cephalopod, Gigantic, Monopoly, Preposterous, Sophomore
3. Anime, karaoke, karate, Pokemon
4. Bruce Dern, C. S. Lewis, H. G. Wells, Jody Foster, John Cage, Rachel Carson
5. Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Kansas, Oregon
6. Esmeralda, Nostromo, Pequod, Titanic, The Book of Job

Round Two: Bluffing
“Frob” is a real word. Which of the following does it mean? (Two of these definitions were invented on the spot by the panelists.)
1. to randomly move the controls of an electronic device, to see what they do
2. counterfeit money or goods
3. Facebook status: “finally rid of boyfriend”

Round 3: “Stuff” or “Things” that may not actually exist – Tell me all that you know about these (possibly) fictional substances or ideas.
1. The Ether
2. The Great Inuit Vocabulary Hoax
3. The Philosopher’s Stone
4. Piltdown man
5. Plebney
6. The (original) Planet Vulcan

Round Four: Bluffing
“Bloob” is a real word. Which of the following does it mean? (Two of these definitions were invented on the spot by the panelists.)
1. a professional wrestling chokehold
2. coffee shop slang for a blueberry muffin
3. to make a humorous noise

Round Five: “Doppelnyms” – Names shared by two (or more) famous people, real or fictional
1. Espionage ace and ornithologist/author.
2. Actor and literary giant’s spouse.
3. Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, and (spelled slightly differently) inventor of potato chips.
4. Philosopher/politician, and painter.
5. Former NBA star, and revolutionary-era newspaper publisher who performed the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence and was the founder of the American Antiquarian Society.
6. Magazine mascot, and Academy-Award nominee film composer.


Odd One Out:
1. Melvin. The others all share a last name: Marty Feldman, the comedian; Michael Feldman, the radio personality; and Morton Feldman, the composer. There’s no famous Melvin Feldman that I’m aware of.
NOTE: This question was the result of some friends and I having a game retreat; the prize package for the winner of one tournament was a Michael F. “Whadya Know” game package, a CD of Morton F., and a DVD of “Young Frankenstein” starring Marty F.
2. Gigantic. The others are (self-contained) oxymora: cephalopod is “head-foot”, monopoly is “one-many”, preposterous is “before-after-(ous)”, and sophomore is “wise fool”.
NOTE: Another blogger commented (below) that the etymology of "sophomore" might be different, which is possible, so I'll say it could mean "wise fool".
3. Karate. It’s the only one of these Japanese words that doesn’t contain any English. Anime is short for “animation”; the “oke” in “karaoke” is from “orchestra”; and “Pokemon” is “pocket monster” with a few letters missing.
NOTE: Incidentally, the “kara” in both “karaoke” and “karate” means “empty” – “karaoke” is an “empty orchestra” – missing a vocalist, I guess – and “karate” is “empty hand” – no weapons.
4. H. G. Wells. As far as I know, he didn’t do anything with “Silent” or “Silence” in the title. Jody Foster starred in “Silence of the Lambs”; Bruce Dern starred in “Silent Running”; C. S. Lewis wrote “Out of the Silent Planet”; Rachel Carson wrote “Silent Spring”; and John Cage wrote “Silence: Lectures and Writings” and “Four Minutes and Thirty-Three Seconds” (which is 4’33” of silence, though it isn’t in the title).
NOTE: They didn’t use “John Cage” in the clues; it would have been too easy and there were other questions about music.
5. Cincinnati. The others are (or were) well-known bands.
NOTE: There was some confusion about this one. I'm sure I heard them answer "Oregon, because the others are bands". During the intermission several other audience members approached me and stated that Oregon was a band but Cincinnati wasn't, which I knew. Just before the second half started, I asked Richard Sher (the host of the show) what he'd heard the panelists answer for the one about the cities/bands. He said the answer was "Cincinnati, because the others are bands", which is, of course, the correct answer. So I don't really know what happened there. Maybe we'll have to wait until it goes on air to hear it for real. In the meantime, is there a band called Cincinnati that I should know about?
6. Titanic. “…and I alone escaped to tell the tale”. The first chapter of the Book of Job contains this phrase four times; the others (except the Titanic) all end with only one escapee to tell the tale. The Esmeralda was Robinson Crusoe’s ship; the Pequod was the ship in “Moby Dick”, and the Nostromo was the spaceship in “Alien”.
NOTE: The audience booed this one for some reason.

Frob: to randomly move the controls of an electronic device, to see what they do.
NOTE: One of the panelists pointed out that if it had actually meant “finally rid of boyfriend”, then it could have had a sister word "frog".

“Stuff” or “Things” that may not actually exist
The Ether: a medium that, in the wave theory of light, permeates all space and transmits light waves and other forms of energy. Proved not to exist by Einstein’s theories.
The Great Inuit Vocabulary Hoax: The “Eskimo” language doesn’t have five hundred words for snow. It doesn’t even have one hundred. It has about twelve, which (if you count the specialized usage by skiers, snowboarders and weather forecasters) is about the same number as English.
NOTE: The word “Eskimo” is considered to be pejorative by some, who prefer “Inuit”.
Philosopher’s Stone: a legendary alchemical substance said to be capable of turning base metals (lead, for example) into gold or silver.
Piltdown man: a hoax in which bone fragments were presented as the fossilised remains of a previously unknown early human. These fragments consisted of parts of a skull and jawbone, said to have been collected in 1912 from a gravel pit at Piltdown, East Sussex, England. The Latin name Eoanthropus dawsoni ("Dawson's dawn-man", after the collector Charles Dawson) was given to the specimen. The significance of the specimen remained the subject of controversy until it was exposed in 1953 as a forgery, consisting of the lower jawbone of an orangutan deliberately combined with the skull of a modern human.
Plebney: (also recalcitrant plebney or demeaning plebney) – A fictional disease invented by Don Martin of Mad Magazine.
The (original) Planet Vulcan: a small planet proposed to exist in an orbit between Mercury and the Sun. Attempting to explain peculiarities of Mercury's orbit, the 19th-century French mathematician Urbain Jean Joseph Le Verrier hypothesized that they were the result of another planet, which he named "Vulcan". No such planet was ever found, and Mercury's orbit has now been explained by Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity.

Bloob: Coffee shop slang for a blueberry muffin.
NOTE: One of the panelists (I believe it was Carolyn Faye Fox) called the definitions for this word “bloob jobs”.

Round Five: “Doppelnyms”
1. James Bond: Ian Fleming got the name of the (fictional) spy from the (real) ornithologist.
2. Anne Hathaway: movie actress, and wife of William Shakespeare.
3. George Crumb: Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, and (without the “B”) inventor of potato chips.
4. Francis Bacon
5. Isaiah Thomas
6. Alfred E. Newman: Mad Magazine mascot, and Academy-Award nominee film composer.
NOTE: The unused one about Axl Rose (see beginning of this post) was one of these. His real name is Bill Bailey, as are two major-league baseball players, a comedian, and a character in “West Wing” (also called Will Bailey). I also included one about two presidents and two composers (all John Adams with various middle names), though it would have been redundant by this time and probably too easy.

Addendum 11/10/2014: A couple of days ago I heard another of my questions that they'd asked (at another taping), on the radio broadcast. They didn't give me credit for it, though. The question: "Odd One Out": which one doesn't belong?

Sarcastic fringehead, diabolical nightjar, invisible rail, screaming piha

Answer: sarcastic fringehead; it's a fish and the others are all birds.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Electrovoxtronica: Pamela Z at the GSC Performance Space, 10/10/14

Electrovoxtronica – that’s my coined word for this genre of electronic music based almost exclusively on one’s voice. I got there a little late (more on that later), so I didn’t hear the entire concert. However, two numbers are particularly worth mentioning.

The first was an untitled piece that began with birdcalls. I thought at first that she actually had recorded birds on her sampler, but then she sang a couple of nonsense phrases, sampled them, and slowly sped them up – resulting in more of the same birds. Scattered laughter and applause in the audience (they’d obviously all been fooled the same as I had) and the piece continued, more seriously. Layers of birdcalls intermingled with melodic material (all wordless), building to a sonic climax. Abrupt silence, with a couple more birdsongs, and it was over. The final stillness seemed an extension of the wild sounds before.

The second piece I found intriguing was a remix: a Meredith Monk cover tune (“Scared Song”). A lot of Monk’s work has minimal (or nonsense) words chosen for their sounds rather than their meaning, though surrealistic meanings emerge from the sounds. “Scared Song” is no exception to this rule; the words merely tell that three unnamed people are scared for some unknown reason. In this remix, that doesn’t occur until half-way through; by that time it may be that they’re scared of experiencing the masses of sound that have been building up to this point. Monk’s original has some instrumentals; Ms. Z’s remix is almost entirely built of layers of her own voice, though with a brief snippet of piano near the end. This was the only actual “instrument” I heard during the concert.

Part of the experience of the music was the performance. Ms. Z seemed to be continuously ready to break out into a balletic dance, gracefully swaying or fluidly moving her hands and arms. This choreography is necessary for the music. Most of her gestures were directed at a small, boxlike electronic device on the stage, set on a stand. After the concert, I took a closer look at it, and found it to be emitting a (quiet but discernable) high-pitched whine; it was an echolocator, the electronic trigger for her various samples and effects. It was both an enhancement of the experience of the music, and the instrument with which much of the music was played.

Earlier in the evening (this is the reason I got to Pamela Z’s concert late), I’d been at the open mike at Woodland Park Presbyterian Church. As usual, the acoustics were spectacular, and there was a longer than usual line-up of musicians playing. One highlight this time was the well-known Seattle singer/songwriter Jim Page, some of whose oddly minimalist songs compositionally recall Steve Reich and Terry Riley as much as they do "vocalist with a guitar". He did a song protesting Columbus; good for Indigenous Peoples Day. Another highlight was a (mostly) a capella group, “The Drunken Maidens”, who sang English and American folk songs in scintillating four-part harmony (though maybe with too much spoken silliness between songs, based on the name of their group). Also, Jeremy Hepp’s piano pieces were beautiful as always (Windham Hill but much, much more interesting). I recommend this open mike for any musician, from traditional to experimental to pop, who wants to hang out with other musicians and hear how his/her music sounds in a really great acoustic space. It’s on the second Friday of every month; look it up if you’re in Seattle.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Sound/Video Installation: (The) Nature (of) Sound

Well, okay, I’ve resisted hyping my own work in this blog, but since I haven’t had time to write a lot about any other music I’ve seen recently, I decided I might as well.

“(The) Nature (of) Sound” is a sound/video installation currently running (until 10/24/14) at Jack Straw New Media Gallery (4261 Roosevelt Way NE, Seattle, WA). The video part is a series of slides, abstracted from photographs of natural environments, slowly cross-fading. The audio part is environmental sounds (some originally recorded by Jonathon Storm; mostly easily recognizable, some computer-processed) and several instrumental tracks, overlapped in random sequences, played (from a graphic score called a “soundscroll”) by Aaron Keyt, Indigo Pathfinder, Jay Hamilton, Keith Eisenbrey, and myself. Audience members, if they are musicians, may add to the “soundtrack” by playing along with the same graphic score.

An excerpt from the soundtrack is available for download here.

An hour-long Youtube version (with the graphics) can be seen here.

Following are from a presentation I gave last Friday, concerning the work.

Literary and other Textual Sources

Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,
sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twanging instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometimes voices,
That, if I then had wak’d after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that, when I wak’d,
I cried to dream again.

Shakespeare: The Tempest (1610)

May or may not refer to “natural” sounds – there were a lot of strange things going on, on that island… I’ve also seen the same quote used to refer to gamelan music on the island of Java (Neil Sorrell, A Guide to the Gamelan).

Sometimes, on Sundays, I head the [distant] bells… when the wind was favorable, a faint, sweet, and as it were, natural melody, worth importing into the wilderness. At a sufficient distance over the woods this sound acquires a certain vibratory hum, as if the pine needles in the horizon were the strings of a harp which it swept. All sound heard at the greatest possible distance produces one and the same effect, a vibration of the universal lyre, just as the intervening atmosphere makes a distant ridge of earth interesting, to our eyes, by the azure tint it imparts to it. There came to me in this case a melody which the air had strained, and which had conversed with every leaf and needle of the wood, that portion of the sound which the elements had taken up and modulated and echoed from vale to vale. The echo is, to some extent, an original sound, and therein is the magic and the charm of it. It is not merely a repetition of what was worth repeating in the bell, but partly the voice of the wood.

Henry David Thoreau: Walden: or, Life in the Woods (1854)

Natural (and not) sounds modified by nature.

Shout joyfully to the Lord, all the earth;
Break forth in song, rejoice, and sing praises.
…Let the sea roar, and all its fullness.
The world and those who dwell in it;
Let the rivers clap their hands;
Let the hills be joyful together before the Lord.

Psalm 98:4, 7-8 NKJV

A possible meaning to nature: behind, over, and under all natural sound, there may be a continuous song to God.

There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it. The road climbs seven miles into them; and from there, if there is no mist, you look down on one of the fairest valleys of Africa. About you there is grass and bracken and you may hear the forlorn crying of the titihoya, one of the birds of the veld. Below you is the valley of the Umzimkulu, on its journey from the Drakensberg to the sea; and beyond and behind the river, great hill after great hill; and beyond and behind them, the mountains of Ingeli and East Griqualand.

The grass is rich and matted, you cannot see the soil. It holds the rain and the mist, and they seep into the ground, feeding the streams in every kloof. It is well-tended, and not too many cattle feed upon it; not too many fires burn it, laying bare the soil. Stand unshod upon it, for the ground is holy, being even as it came from the Creator. Keep it, guard it, care for it, for it keeps men, guards men, cares for men. Destroy it and man is destroyed.

Where you stand the grass is rich and matted, you cannot see the soil. But the rich green hills break down. They fall to the valley below, and falling, change their nature. For they grow red and bare; they cannot hold the rain and mist, and the streams are dry in the kloofs. Too many cattle feed upon the grass, and too many fires have burned it. Stand shod upon it, for it is coarse and sharp, and the stones cut under the feet. It is not kept, or guarded, or cared for, it no longer keeps men, guards men, cares for men. The titihoya does not cry here anymore.

Alan Paton: Cry, the Beloved Country (1948)

Humans’ interactions with nature are not always benevolent. (That’s probably too obvious to mention.)

The car coasted to a stop along the gravelly roadside. In a moment, [Susan] was out the door and bounding across the desert. She skipped and whirled and cartwheeled among the prickly natives [plants]. She shook hands with a yucca, waltzed with a saguaro. She plucked a red blossom from a barrel cactus and fixed it in her hair. … She snapped a needle from a cactus and with the slapstick pantomime of a circus clown pretended to pick her teeth with it.

Mr. McShane and I were leaning on the car, laughing, when suddenly she stopped, cocked her heard, and stared off in another direction. She stayed like that, stone still, for a good two minutes, then abruptly turned and came back to the car.

Her face was thoughtful. “Mr. McShane,” she said as the teacher drove off, “do you know any extinct birds?”

“…The moa. … Huge bird … Make an ostrich look small. Twelve, thirteen feet tall. …Died out hundreds of years ago. Killed off by people.”

“Half their size,” said Susan. … “Did moas have a voice?” …[She] looked out the window at the passing desert. “I heard a mockingbird back there. And it made me think of something [the old professor] said. … He said he believes mockingbirds may do more than imitate other living birds. He thinks they may also imitate the sounds of birds that are no longer around. …[that] the sounds of extinct birds are passed down the years from mockingbird to mockingbird. …when a mockingbird sings, for all we know, it’s pitching fossils into the air.”

Jerry Spinelli: Stargirl (2000)

A (heavily edited) excerpt from a YA novel that I’d used in a class for teaching English as a second language to high school students. Had no direct influence on my installation, but relates to it in the three ideas presented.

The tall trees do not create within them [children] a sense of security. The sound of nature does not give a sensation of safety or peace. … Nature does not seem friendly to little children. We adults must constantly assure them that there is nothing to worry about and that nothing out there is going to hurt them…

Do children who have not yet been taught to repress their feelings grasp a certain truth about the forest to which big people no longer pay attention?

… I often wonder if the reaction to children being in the forest is not somewhat akin to what the animals themselves constantly feel. The rabbit frozen in its path; the wildcat with its hunched back; even the rattlesnake poised for its strike all reek of fear. Is it just a projection of my childish emotions onto the animal kingdom or is the natural condition … fraught with a sense of being in danger?

…There is also a certain sadness. …The birds, I notice, sing in a minor key… Even the sounds of the crickets and the buzzing of the bees seem to give off an eeriness that, if I let it, creates a strange pervading pathos in my bones…

Tony Campolo: How to Rescue the Earth Without Worshipping Nature (1992)

The comment about “a minor key” is of course cultural, but the idea is clear: is there something “wrong” with nature? (This idea does not include the “song to God” that I mentioned earlier.)

…the song. Now high in the air above him, now welling up as if from glens and valleys far below, if floated through his sleep and was the first sound at every waking. It was formless as the sound of a bird, yet it was not a bird’s voice. As bird’s voice is to a flute, so this was to a cello: low and ripe and tender, full-bellied, rich and golden brown: passionate too, but not with the passions of men.

…”The singing beast?” said Ransom. “I would gladly hear more of this.”

“The beasts of that kind have no milk and always what they bring forth is suckled by the she-beast of another kind. She is great and beautiful and dumb, and till the young singing beast is weaned it is among her whelps and is subject to her. But when it is grown it becomes the most delicate and glorious of all beasts and goes from her. And she wonders at its song.”

C. S. Lewis: Perelandra (1943)

Could nature be different? On the planet Perelandra, apparently a brood parasite is not unwelcome…!

Visual Influences

All of these show a tendency towards horizontality, suggesting open spaces.

Mark Rothko – the famous rectangle paintings, viewed in groups as suggested by Rothko himself, suggest wide horizons. Same with these paintings from a different series of murals.

John Cage – I was initially surprised to learn that Cage is also known as a painter. In this piece (one of a series) he rolled stones onto the canvas and then traced around them. As always with creativity, randomness is not random.

Sam Gilliam – Though most of Gilliam’s flat-surface paintings (as opposed to those on loose draped canvas) have shapes arrayed on a vertical matrix, there is still that Cagean use of chance elements.

Wang Ximeng – oxidation over centuries has produced some startling colors; again, though, there’s that horizontal stretch.

Andy Goldsworthy – Nature becomes art. The stone wall here was made from rocks found in the area, with no mortar, so it will eventually break down, back into nature from whence it arose.

Frederick Murray – This series looks like slides from “(The) Nature (of) Sound”. Actually it consists of photographs of a lake in Australia, which is only a lake once every century or so when there happens to have been enough rain. It is only a few feet deep at most.

Musical Influences

Claudio Monteverdi: “1610” Vespers
Late Renaissance music with a twist: at the climax, where all the words of the ritual condense into “Glory to God!”, everything stands still. It is as if all of creations stops and sings quietly, contemplatively, to God.

Olivier Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time; L’Ascension; Turangalila Symphony; 20 Aspects of the Infant Jesus; From the Canyons to the Stars
The Turangalila Symphony, like its namesake one-eyed laser-slinging character in Futurama, is sometimes said to have a bad attitude. It is, after all, one of the consistently loudest pieces in the symphonic repertoire, arguably beating out “The Rite of Spring” and the Janacek Sinfonietta but with a harder edge than either. Personally I enjoy the piece very much (I like to listen to it on long car trips), but in the case of “(The) Nature (of) Sound”, it was something I chose to react against; the soundtrack to my installation is practically its antithesis. Other of Messiaen’s works relate more directly, particularly how there are large passages where all the instruments play birdsongs.

Toru Takemitsu: Corona (London Version); For Away; Waterways; November Steps; From Me Flows What You Call Time; Arc; Munari by Munari
In contrast to Messiaen’s epics, Takemitsu tended to write shorter pieces that focus on tranquility and the necessity of silence. Even the rackety early piano concerti (of which “Arc” is one) leave quietude in the wake of their tsunamis of chaos. A note about “Corona, London Verion”: this was the music that really introduced me to extended piano techniques, and it includes one that I’ve never been able to replicate.

John Cage: Sonatas and Interludes; 4’33”; The Number Pieces
“Random” elements against silence – yet there appears to be very little that sounds “random”. Chance operations, at least in the case of creativity, do not seem to produce chance results.

The (Untitled) Aleatory Ending by Jars of Clay
Stuck on the end of a classic Christian rock CD is this rehearsal of a string trio and an oboe, playing background parts for one of the songs on the CD; multi-tracked (?) and with a lot of reverb – this is essentially an aleatoric piece that proves again that “random” needn’t be. I once remixed it with one of Cage’s pieces and got something new that was also interesting.

Heart: The “Dog and Butterfly” album
An interesting direction for late 1970’s hard rock. Who ever heard of rock music that both uses a lot of dissonance and creates tranquility…!? This approach, though I generally don’t play rock, has influenced a lot of my musical thought.

Phill Niblock’s drone pieces and Neal Kosaly-Meyers’ “Gradus”
Pieces that show an infinity within a single note. In “(The) Nature (of) Sound”, single notes come in clusters that may or may not stack up to make chords.

The rest of the presentation consisted of samples of my other artwork and slides from the installation itself – this would probably not be interesting to someone who hasn’t seen it. So I’ll sign off for now.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Vinyl Gems

I recently got my turntable out of storage, refurbished it, and found my old collection of vinyl LPs. True to my early life as a classical music nerd, the vast majority of them are large-scale symphonic works by Mahler, Stravinsky and the like, with occasional nods to jazz and world music (I was actually collecting a fair amount of the latter before I put them all in storage and headed off the Japan in the late 1980’s). Most of my favorites, of course, I’ve re-collected on CDs, including more recent recordings of the better-known classical works. However, a few seem to still be more interesting on vinyl (including possessing that indefinable retro-coolness factor). Here’s a selection, in no particular order.

Jan Kapr: String Quartet, Dialogues, Rotazione
A Czech composer whom I’ve never heard of before or since. Too bad. This music is fascinating and starkly, dramatically, beautiful. Mostly it reminds me of Schoenberg (though “beautiful” is an adjective too seldom applied to that composer’s work, despite the literal meaning of his surname); to this aesthetic, Kapr adds a sense of stability enhanced by passages in moto perpetuo (!), and, in the quieter moments of the “Dialogues”, strange glimpses of the possibility of atonal folk music.

Pallavi: South Indian Flute Music (T. Viswanathan)
A pivotal “world music” record for me, that I first heard on KRAB. The single repeated melody of the raga is obvious as it goes through various manipulations in rhythm and speed (against an unchanging rhythmic base) and is interspersed with improvisations. This kind of flexibility over stasis is found mostly (in American music) in the minimalists such as Steve Reich, though I’ve heard hints of it in more “popular” genres: prog rock (the changes of speed in the base line of “Portrait: He Knew” by Kansas) and electronica (the climax of “Entropy” by Prophetica has one theme played over itself in two tempi). I might also mention some of Miles Davis’ experiments with expanding meters. One oddity is that one of the various sounds of the mrdangam drum sounds exactly like a “scratch” from the turntable; could this be an old precursor to the hip-hop aesthetic…?

Stokowski conducts Ives and Messiaen
Yeah, I know, both of these works have much better, more recent recordings; this version of the Ives is too heavy and ponderous, completely lacking in subtlety, and basically just sounds like a bad dream; and the slow movements of the Messiaen are rushed to the point of absurdity (the “suspended” sixth at the end of the last movement sounds completely unfinished at this breakneck tempo)… But, this is still one of my favorite recordings of “modern” orchestral repertoire. This is the record that introduced me to Messiaen, after all, and I have yet to find a performance of the third movement that reaches the ecstatic joy of this one.

Ron Carter: Pastels
One of the rare, happy instances where adding a string section to a set of jazz compositions did not result in schlock. Mr. Carter’s bass solos are that indefinable and superb combination of dexterity, inspiration and beauty that the improvising jazz artist strives for.

Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker: Carnegie Hall Concert
Jazz at its smoothest, without being “smooth jazz” (which happily didn’t exist then).

1980’s jazz/funk with a Gospel twist. This band was popular with students at Seattle Pacific University when I was an undergrad there; one reason may be because there were a number of students there from Hawaii who liked to promote “their” local band. At any rate, the general sound is rather like Earth Wind and Fire but with only one, very flexible vocalist (she’s too skillful and expressive for me to just call her a “singer”). The instrumental pieces are worth noting: somewhat “prog” brass-laden jazz compositions with some hot improvisations and cross-cuts of interesting off-meters (this would climax in their second album, “Light the Light”, which has a song partially in the meter of 15/16).

Stockhasuen: Prozession
Another reference to my undergrad days at Seattle Pacific – I used to play music like this, as loudly as possible, to annoy the many other students who listened to only Contemporary Christian Music (which at the time was really, to my ear, none of the above). This is “classic” Stockhausen, with spacey avant-jazz/serialist piano riffs, edge-or-your-seat amplified gong scrapes, and punctuations of silence. The whole 50-minute piece is figuratively a gargantuan diminuendo, gradually loosening up from the horrific opening ten minutes (which at times sound like effects in “Alien”) through a number of episodes to quiet meditations on single unstable pitches near the end. In space, nobody can hear you slowly slip into hibernation.
By the way, my attitude has lightened up about CCM – though the writers and musicians in the genre have also greatly improved since the early 1980’s.

Claude Ballif: Un Coup de Dés
When I first heard this, I didn’t know what to make of it. It defied any attempts to analyze or hear “where it was going”; yet the atonal aesthetic was clearly of the mid-20th century classical avant-garde, and thus “should” be a highly mathematical and teleological piece. What I know now, of course, is that this in one of those transitional pieces, like works of Cage and Feldman – leading into the more expansive, meditative musics of the “contemporary” (as opposed to “modern”) period.

Bernstein and Ormandy: “2001” Music / Blomdahl: Aniara
Seen with nearly fifty years’ hindsight, this “remix” of Ligeti’s music used for “2001: A Space Odyssey” (along with the Kachaturian and music by two Strausses used in the same film) seems a little on the kitschy side. The Morton Subotnik interludes in particular conjure up images from bad 1960’s space operas. This was, however, the album that introduced me, as a kid, to the avant-garde, when my Dad gave it (this album) to me as a birthday present. At the time I thought that Ligeti’s “Atmospheres” was entirely electronic, and was surprised by the obvious appearance of “live” violins near the end. At any rate, from today’s perspective, it’s the “B-side” that’s more interesting: Blohmdahl’s “Aniara” suite is a crystalline encapsulation of the state of classical music right at end of the “modern” period.
Unfortunately, my copy of this didn’t survive the storage well – it’s like trying to listen to the music from behind a wall of static.

Ormandy conducts Mahler: Symphony no. 10
Of course this exists on CD’s, with newer digital recordings and better stereo fidelity. However, CD’s don’t seem to capture the deep fundamentals of the all-important bass drum in the finale, and so this is still my favorite version of this piece. The performance isn’t bad either.

Carl Orff: Streetsong
The more recent CD version of the Orff-Schulwerk music on Celestial Harmonies adds a lot of classical finesse (and a lot of compression) and completely loses the point. This is music for (and usually played by) children. That said, this 1970’s LP version was probably not played by children (though no instrumentalists are credited), but it has that necessary edge of rough and untamed enthusiasm. Each piece is in itself a tiny, perfectly-cut gem, by turns reminiscent of Javanese gamelan, European Renaissance music, marching bands, Latin American folk music, or fusions thereof.

Koto Vivaldi
The “Four Seasons” played on six kotos – a novelty album, but an interesting one. Somehow it sounds more like a giant flamenco guitar than either baroque or koto music.

Cleo Laine sings Schoenberg
The legendary jazz vocalist tackles Pierot Lunaire, with startling expressions and only subliminal hints of jazz. Changing the words to English renders the music a stream of consciousness monologue in what could be a slightly twisted Broadway musical – and has the unsettling effect that it probably had on its original German listeners.

Missing in Action

The following were favorites that seem to have been sucked into a black hole sometime between 1987 and now. If anybody’s seen them (perhaps beamed down from a passing UFO), please let me know.

The World of Harry Partch
Columbia Records should be charged with a felony for never releasing this as a CD (at the least, grand theft for stealing people’s chance to hear this brilliant music).

Sumire Yoshihara: Percussions in Colors (works by Takemitsu and Ichiyanagi)
Percussion becomes spacey arrhythmic ambience, then a complete about-face with aggressive taiko-flavored polyrhythms.

Javanese Court Gamelan vol. 1
The “original” recording that brought the mellifluous "gong-chimes" (as they were then known) to an American audience. It’s been reissued on CD, but the vinyl somehow feels more “authentic”.

Shivkumar Sharma
The first recording I heard by the Indian santur (hammered dulcimer) master. These are shorter, more concise versions of ragas than those that appeared later on CDs.

A true experiment (and fun!) – a band that fused bluegrass with repetitive minimalism. This could have been an exciting new genre (a variation on “newgrass”), had there been any follow-up.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Concert Review: Seattle Composers' Salon, 3/7/2012

"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."

Aaron Keyt: Sonata after Haydn - Keith Eisenbrey, piano
Mr. Keyt announced before Keith played this piece that it was a reworking (based on his musical upbringing between the twin pillars of modernism: serialism and aleatory music) on Haydn’s Sonata in E, Hob. XVI:31. The result was not really serialist (though based on ideas from the Haydn treated as pitch classes) and not at all aleatory. Rather, it seemed to me a hard-edged neoclassicism. I’m sure I heard hints of Hindemith. It was all very delicate though loud in places, angular and squiggly, and with surprising flashes of intense beauty – such as the final two chords of the second movement or the gamelan-like melody in the finale.

Clement Reid: Northern Lights, and Three Stories
Another blogger (and audience member) said this reminded him of the music of Greg Short, and I would agree on this point. Late Romanticist tone-poems in inspiration, yet scaled down to solo piano, with sudden dissonances, interesting coloristic effects, and ecstatic climaxes; each piece was a broad epic that took place in just a few minutes.

Jay Hamilton: #5 for Left Hand, and Did Everybody Get a Balloon?
The left-hand piece was intended as a rebuttal to the “cheating” left-hand piano repertoire that tries to make it sound as though both hands are playing. Here most of the writing was simple (though not simplistic or easy), and in the bass register – exactly as one would expect for a left-hand solo. Yet there was nothing “missing” in this quiet piano introspection.

Then Mr. Hamilton gave instructions on how to play the balloons that he’d handed out at the beginning of the concert, and let everybody improvise. With that, he broke down any stuffy pretense we had about having gathered to listen to recent “classical” compositions.

Video Installation Review: Etsuko Ichikawa's "Echo at Satsop"

This is one of an ongoing series of works commemorating the earthquake, tsunami, and resulting nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, 2011. At first, however, it appears to celebrate the immensity of space rather than any kind of disaster; it is only after some contemplation that one makes the connection.

Before entering the installation space, I could hear deep booms and clatters echoing from within. After entering, these resolved into the sounds of metal railings and pipes, struck like gongs, and reverberating in a vast chamber. The video began a half-minute or so later with the silhouette of a cooling tower of a nuclear power station. Nuclear, yes, but here appearing as an art object; a gigantic abstract sculpture, a huge curving geometric shape. As the scenes shifted to images from the interior of the tower, it became obvious that the sounds were made (and echoed) from inside. Birdcalls echoed from outside. A tiny human figure (the artist herself) walked along parapets and the rim of the tower’s summit; clad in the white robes of the priestly caste of some ancient, unknown civilization (or perhaps those of a future world). Close-ups of her clapping (the sound becomes colossal in that space) and dropping water from a bamboo pipe into the void. Fade to black; the sounds and reverberations continue for another six minutes with no video.

So what have we experienced?

It seems to be an exploration of the reverberation of sound in a large space, rather than a lamentation for victims of a nuclear disaster – more akin to Paul Horn’s Taj Mahal recordings or the classic “Cistern Chapel” CDs by Stuart Dempster (with or without the other members of the Deep Listening Band) than Penderecki’s Hiroshima music. There is no sadness or horror here. There is only tranquility generated by the interaction of sound, space, and visuals.

But what kind of space is this? A decommissioned nuclear tower; it was originally not an expansive echo chamber, but a home to the same kind of power that has nearly destroyed Fukushima. The generation of such power was not, or course, originally intended for harm – Fukushima (and Chernobyl) are not Hiroshima or Nagasaki – but the question remains: is this power safe? What is it that drives us to attempt to harness it to begin with? And what will happen after the power is no longer needed, or after our civilization has run its course and collapsed into dust as all works of humans must?

I don’t intend to get political here, and I don’t believe that Ms. Ichikawa intended to make a political statement about nuclear power either. There are legitimate arguments both for and against its use and its safety. Rather, this installation/video seems to be using the no longer used nuclear cooling towers as a metaphor for the impermanence of things. (The use of the water from the bamboo inevitably recalls Zen artwork, and parenthetically the idea of impermanence and the return to nothingness espoused by that philosophy – see my further comments here.) The tranquility created by the vast echoes in the enormity of the space invites us to look beyond temporal impermanence into something that is eternal and unchanging.

Echo at Satsop runs until March 14th, 2014, at Jack Straw New Media Gallery, 4621 Roosevelt Way NE, Seattle.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

SIMF (Seattle Improvised Music Festival) 2/7/2014

This is the only SIMF concert that I’m able to get to this year. It was, however, the one that I most wanted to see – I was curious, if nothing else, about Andrea Neumann’s modified autoharp.

Joe Morris: Solo Guitar
Three pieces: 1. Splintered needles of sound, rather in the manner of some of Elliot Sharp’s acoustic improvisations. 2. Fingernails used to create a scrubbing, bowing sound. 3. Variations on the above, with a surprising amount of melodic development. In all three pieces, short tone “cells” continuously evolved in a state of flux, each sprouting numerous variations and techniques.

(album cover by Bonnie Jones and Andrea Neumann, with Christine Abdelnour)

Andrea Neumann: Autoharp / Gust Burns: Electronics
Gust’s electronic device was known as a “dub plate” – which is apparently a variation on the standard turntable. Andrea’s autoharp was amplified with a pick-up and run through various guitar foot pedals; it may also have been retuned or prepared (though with the sound distortion from the pedals, this was not obvious). Together they produced a sparse soundscape. Foggy memories of sounds emerged and faded back into the silence of the room. Here was a cluster of high notes on a piano; there was a voice speaking unintelligibly; over there were crystalline prepared-piano timbres. Electronic hums occasionally floated through the air. The room itself seemed to get into the act with crackings and boomings; the old boards and beams of the building were expanding and contracting with the cold winter night (outside) and the warmth (inside).

Naomi Segal: trombone / Bonnie Jones and Jonathan Way: electronics
This began as a continuation of the previous set. Bonnie started with thumping and knocking on the table where her electronic equipment sat; these sounds were amplified and filtered and cycled back into the room. Naomi added slivers of melody on her trombone. The piece grew and developed organically. The two electronic musicians functioned as a single player; the trombone likewise added what seemed to be electronic sounds (sometimes also filtered and repeated). The result had the effect of a symphonic work, with its own development and climaxes.

After hearing this concert, I’m disappointed that I won’t be able to make it to the next one, tonight (2/8/2014). All concerts of the series are at the Chapel Performance Space at Good Shepherd Center, Seattle.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Concert Review: Elizabeth A. Baker at the Good Shepherd Center Chapel Performance Space, 1/31/2014

There have been some memorable piano concerts at the GSC Performance Space. Dennis Johnson’s “November”, played by R. Andrew Lee, was particularly good, played last year, fittingly, in November. Though entirely different, these enthusiastic and muscular performances by this young pianist from Florida rate as another.

Ms. Baker played nine pieces. For the first, recordings from the Apollo Moon Landings played over loudspeakers while she played fragmentary motives more or less in the style of Schubert, quite loudly. At first I wondered what the connection was (or if there was a connection) between these two sonic worlds. After the piece, she put it more in context with the first of her several stories for the audience. The piano music was called “Fold-Out Franz”, and related to how she’d found a box of Schubert piano music at a flea market (with a fold-out of the composer). The moon landings didn’t relate except that she’d happened to have them playing once when she practiced the piece and they synched up nicely. Fold-Out Franz serendipitously goes to the moon.

The remaining pieces for the first half were “conventional”, without any electronics or prerecorded parts. One of Philip Glass’ “Metamorphoses” was Glass’ usual “fun with arpeggios”, though with a slightly more interesting chord progression than Glass often uses. Ms. Baker played it with quite a lot of rubato, which always strikes me as odd for this kind of rhythmically precise piece (though Glass himself plays his music this way). As is often the case with Glass, though, this was pretty but the least interesting piece of the evening.

Arvo Pärt’s “Partita” shifted the concert into intense high gear. Ms. Baker stated before playing that those used to Pärt’s “tintinabulary” style will be in for a shock – this is nothing like that. An aggressive moto perpetuo begins, with some stutters; then it suddenly collapses into a quiet quasi-fugue. Atonal harmonies and dissonances flicker in and out as the music slowly builds to a climax (of mostly major chords – startling in this context!) and then returns to the beginning. All in all it reminded me more of Bartok or even Ligeti than other Pärt piano pieces I’ve heard.

“The Artist in Turmoil” (written when Ms. Baker was in her early twenties) was an explosion of pianistic passion in the manner of Rachmaninov – though it was cross-cut and fragmentary in a way that made this a wild, dark, angst-y piece.

The first four pieces of the second half were Ms. Baker’s own compositions. Two of these were for piano echoed with electronics into a dreamy, otherworldly ambience. I had expected these to be rather like Somei Satoh’s drone piano pieces (of which “Incarnation” has actually gotten a fair amount of airplay on KING-FM over the past couple of years). I was wrong. The “echoes” did not continue or intensify any piano drones; rather, they sounded quietly, as if from a room down a long hallway. Delicate individual notes seemed to float in the room like stars in the night sky. The first piece, “Homage à Pärt”, sounded more like Pärt than Pärt’s partita did. The second piece was shorter but much in the same vein. These pieces may be a continuation of what Feldman would have done had he gone entirely modal (a direction hinted at in his later pieces). They also reminded me of Dennis Johnson’s “November”, which I mentioned above.

“Magnetic Resonance”, Two pieces for piano and MRI machine, were up next (recordings, obviously, not a real MRI machine.) In the first, an MRI loop produced a “doomp pa-doomp pa-doomp” dotted rhythm on a minor third, over which Ms. Baker had composed fragmentary minimalist and jazzy riffs, with an occasional hint of boogie-woogie. The second was more expansive in mood though shorter: the MRI became sound became a series of drones of various timbres; the piano part seemed to grow out of this in an almost symphonic manner.

The last piece was a set of selections from Hovhaness’ “Visionary Landscapes”. Ms. Baker stated before playing that Hovhaness was one of the first to compose minimalist music; I had never particularly thought of this though a lot of it does seem to be more recent than it actually is. Here, however, the connections to Glass and Pärt were obvious, particularly in the way in which the melodic line is often pared down into nothing more than two or three harmonious tones. The piece stated this at the very beginning; one repeated note gradually unfolded into a pentatonic melody that kept looping but was never the same. Once in a while, deep bass notes resounded like the low gongs in a gamelan. As always, Hovahness’ “tunes” were particularly beautiful.

What to say at the conclusion? Ms. Baker’s compositions continue the classical tradition into the current information-rich generation in the way that they are composed from fragments cut and pasted together (this is not a negative comment) in the way that a hip-hop DJ might combine older popular music into a background texture for a rapper – though in this case, of course, a classical-based composition results. John Zorn has done similar. I’m also reminded of some of the “pseudo-minimalism” by Toshi Ichiyanagi, where various fragments emerge and entangle over a quick, jagged loop consisting of only a few notes. All in all, exciting music.