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.