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.

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