Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Concert Review: Steve Peters’ “Canções Profundas (Deep Songs)” at Good Shepherd Center 9/25/15

“Canções Profundas (Deep Songs)” is a new evening-length work by Seattle composer Steve Peters. Inspired by research into his family history in the Azores, this evocative sonic poem explores themes of migration, diaspora, memory, identity and emotional/cultural ties to place.

A chain of nine volcanic islands in the mid-Atlantic, the Azores are an isolated region of Portugal and the western-most edge of Europe. American whaling ships began arriving in the 18th century, taking on Azorean men as crew; this began a long pattern of emigration and the establishment of Portuguese enclaves in New England, California, Hawaii, and Canada in which Azorean cultural traditions and contact with the archipelago have persisted."
- From Wayward Music Seattle

The Music:
Field Recordings and Ambient Sounds from the Azores, recorded by Steve Peters; instrumental music composed by Steve Peters

The Band:
Lesli Dalaba, trumpet
Beth Fleenor, clarinets
Paul Kikuchi, percussion
Naomi Siegel, trombone
Greg Sinibaldi, saxophone
Joshua Parmenter, additional electronic processing
Rafael Carvalho, viola da terra (Azorean guitar), recorded.

The music was played in the dark.

The beginning was an enigma of sound: percolating lava pits gurgled and led into a crescendo of sea-sounds. Saxophone and trombone blatted from behind and to the side, not really imitating the ocean noises and not really contrasting with them either; merely providing a man-made commentary. This in turn led to an uncanny soundscape of squeals and chirrups and nasal “ewww-ewww-ewwwws” like strangled wind instruments. I assumed this to be a birdcall, though it was more alien than avian and as bizarre as the Japanese kijibato pigeon, which I call the “repeater” and mentioned in a previous post. (After the performance, Steve Peters answered another audience member’s inquiry about it, that it was the call of the Cory’s shearwater, common in the Azores. He said the first time he heard it, at night, it scared the #:@!! out of him.)

Crickets and barnyard animal sounds provided a brief, overlapped interlude, leading to a sudden quiet and then the tolling of a bell. Now the music entered the world of human sounds; at first chanting and bells in church, then an electronic fantasy of modulating bell-tones and – eventually – recognizable brass bands. The latter met and mingled in an Ivesian cross-jumble, though the music they were playing was clearly from a European tradition. During this, an aspect of the performance came to fore: in the dark, we could see shadows of the players moving, but not exactly what they are doing or what sounds were linked with their movements. Paul Kikuchi was on the stage with percussion – a large gong hung behind him like a dim sun in space, and a shadowy bass drum sat to his right – he moved around and between them and appeared to be playing, but it was far from obvious exactly what parts of the ambience came from him (except for a loud gong roll during the most abstract section). This added a definite sense of mystery…

The marching bands receded into mysterious clicking. These were the songs of sperm whales, which the Azoreans (and Americans) used to hunt in their whaling ships, not the more familiar melodies of humpbacks. The band added quasi-melodic sputters that seemed to emerge from the sea-sounds behind the whales.

With the abrupt appearance of modal melodic material from the band, the piece entered its last section – or last three sections. Mr. Peters said that he intended this part to represent the people (and music) of one place in the world migrating to another place in the world: hence, melodies for clarinet, sax and trombone with ambient accompaniment from a processed Azorean guitar (as always, Ms. Fleenor’s clarinet was perfect here); then more sea-sounds leading to a chaos of (talking) voices, half-heard mechanical sounds, and squawks from the band; then a recap of the same melodies, slower and with birdsongs and bells in the background. Ambient processed guitar: fade to black. End. My reaction to this was that, once I knew what the “program” was, it was completely fitting with the story. However, when hearing it the first time, I thought that the piece could have ended after the first section of melodies, and that there was one too many movements. This could probably be a mental holdover from my earlier experience with Seattle Phonographers’ Union concerts (of which Mr. Peters is a member) – these are unplanned performances (improvisations, really) with sampled sound, and often they have more than one false ending. In that case, it adds to the fun and spontaneity; in this “composed” piece, however, I found it a little overdone. This is my one and only (and very slightly) negative comment; otherwise, “Canções Profundas (Deep Songs)” is a masterpiece by one of Seattle’s musical luminaries.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Concert Review: John Luther Adams’ “Inuksuit” in the Park, Seattle, 9/19/2015

“Inuksuit” is an Inuit word for the roughly anthropomorphic piles of stones formerly left to direct travelers in that northern part of the world. This work by John Luther Adams was an attempt to make auditory inuksuit, an “evidence of human presence”; a pile of sounds upon an outdoor landscape.

We arrived on time at Seward Park, Seattle, for this outdoor event, and found that it wasn’t really ready yet. There were percussion stations scattered around the lawn behind the amphitheater; some were collections of drums, others racks of cymbals and gongs, still others random assemblages of glockenspiels, Tibetan singing bowls, and bright plastic vuvuzelas. Some were attended by percussionists dressed in black (MIB and WIB), but others seemed to have no one nearby.

We took a seat in the amphitheater, and waited. There were only a few people about, but gradually others gathered. At some point I realized that most of the percussionists had congregated by a small temporary stick sculpture about thirty feet away, and were beginning to blow through “megaphones” made of paper – producing the tiniest whisper of a sound. The piece was actually beginning, though at first it was indistinguishable from the sounds of the breeze.

Gradually they moved to their percussion stations, as the music became louder and more strident – sirens, honks and trombone-like howls began to sound from all directions. The first drum beat happened behind me, signaling a definite change to the next section. As more and more drums permeated the soundspace, we began to walk around and listen from different angles (as many, though not all, of the by now sizeable audience was doing). At one point nature synchronized itself to the music: as a particularly dramatic gong rang, a bald eagle appeared in the sky, seemed to survey the scene, and then (as the next gong rang) soared to elsewhere. The music progressed through thundering gongs and cymbals into delicate ringing reverberations, mostly from the glockenspiels – a myriad of wind-chimes all playing (if you listened closely) the same melodies, but scattered through time. By the quiet end, something of a sonic fade to white, many of the players had gathered again by the stick sculpture.

The effect of hearing this outdoors is one not easily forgotten. As opposed to in the concert hall, where music of this type is usually heard (whether “conventional” classical or “experimental”, like this), the sound was thinner, more scattered, yet more ambient. It seemed to be coming from all directions or perhaps out of the sky or the earth – undoubtedly Mr. Adam’s idea (he has commented that he wanted to make music that would awaken an environmental consciousness). The score consists of blocks of time, with each musician moving at his/her own pace, playing each part, but not necessarily synchronizing with the others. The result is a scattering of tones from all directions, with each part recalling others but recurring as part of an unpredictable continuum and development – rather like listening to sounds of nature.

John Luther Adams is a composer whose music is often inspired by nature in Alaska, where he lived from 1978 to 2014. Another one of his pieces, “Become Ocean”, has a connection with Seattle: commissioned by the Seattle Symphony, it won the Pulitzer Prize in 2014. It, however, is intended to be performed indoors in a standard concert hall setting.

*Another contemporary use of the ancient inuksuk sculptures: in Kim Stanley Robinson's sci-fi novel "2312", inuksuit (plural) have become a form of artistic expression on the planet Mercury as it is being colonized by humans – along with "goldsworthies" (from Andy Goldsworthy).

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

A Disaster? (Maybe Not...)

Last Friday night (8/28/15), Keith Eisenbrey (composer, pianist, percussionist) and I (ditto) played a concert consisting of two relatively long pieces: Keith’s “Etudes d'execution imminent” (piano solo) and my “garbage symphony” called “Sounds, Found” (prerecorded sounds with found objects used as percussion).

What was startling about the concert wasn’t the music, though of course it was avant-garde. Keith’s piece in particular was very beautiful, with its spare, minimalist (not repetitive-minimalist) aesthetic and tendrils of melodies derived from mathematics.

What was startling about the concert wasn’t that few people showed up to listen: this is standard for the Wayward Music Series Concerts, which tend to be woefully under-attended.

What was startling was that, of the few people who came, there were far fewer by the end. So, as I commented to Keith, “Well, we are now officially avant-garde musicians. We have played a concert that cleared the hall.” (I did manage to clear a hall once before, at an open mike in California. I played as part of an unrehearsed folk music band that sang – or screeched – too loud and jarringly off-key. I guess we should have practiced a little first. Other than that, I have to go clear back to my days in Junior High School to remember a performance that tanked this badly.*)

When this occurs, it always leaves a question. Did they leave because the music was awful, like that folk band I just mentioned? (Hey, gimme a break! It was subtitled “a garbage symphony”!) Or, did they leave because the music was too innovative and too interesting, as happened famously to Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Phillip Glass? Or, did they leave because the music was somehow both awful and too interesting, a sort of negative fusion of punk rock and classical/jazz? Since I composed the longer of the two pieces (and the one that seemed to cause most of the problem), I can’t really comment. I would hope that it was “too interesting” (I once had a radio DJ tell me that) and that a repeat performance would bring in more people who’d been frightened off the first time.

There is of course a third option: simply that the audience left because the music wasn’t quite what they wanted to hear, rather like expecting to hear Beethoven and getting The Pogues or vice-versa. Or that time I took a couple of the white cubes at the salad bar in a vegetarian restaurant, expecting tofu, and got feta cheese.

The music itself: Keith’s piece consisted of eight movements of various lengths, all fairly quiet and sparse. Background sound filtered in from outside, which he’d stated before that he didn’t mind – it adds to the ambience. In my opinion, the music wasn’t quite “ambient” enough for this; I tried to concentrate on the intellectual basis of the music but found myself distracted. However, I thought the composition itself was quite beautiful (and not really derivative of anything else I’d heard) and I’d like to hear it again. That description is a little vague, but I can’t really make more comments, having not really grasped the intent of the piece. At any rate, his part was definitely not the part of the concert that tanked...!

For my “garbage symphony”, Keith and I played (or more accurately, made noise with) our collections of pots and pans, plastic and glass bottles, CD storage racks, sticks (no stones), metal pipes, cardboard boxes and seashells – as well as a bunch of semi-instruments like a zoob-toob, a toy koto with the bridges removed, a broken Lao harp, and my “slab gong”. (The latter is a precarious contraption that always gets destroyed in performance – or at least ever since Neal Kosaly-Meyer accidentally wrecked one during a Seattle Composers Salon and I followed by deliberately smashing the other one. In this concert, the single slab gong was taken apart twice: the first time on accident [I put it back together during a later movement] and the second time on purpose.) Anyway, we improvised our parts, though there were instructions that I’d written as a “road map” to make sure we got to the end of each section at roughly the same time. Each section, as in a lot of my music, was delineated by a prerecorded track played over the house loudspeakers: recordings of skateboards, industrial air-conditioning units, wandering through a street fair, road construction, slapping wooden railings, airplanes, a performance of “Much Ado About Nothing”, street musicians, and a collection of other miscellaneous noise and music. That was the idea, of course, to “explore” the continuum from noise to sound to music.

Well, partially. Maybe mostly it was just to have a lot of fun bashing and whacking things.

And that was that. From a performer’s viewpoint there were moments of beauty in it, though its overall concept was perhaps a little dada/nihilist. There were quiet moments, of course, and, after I moved to the piano for the last two sections, it was supposed to end serenely. Not many stayed around to hear that part.

Maybe we’ll have to repeat the performance again and see what happens. If anything.

*About that junior high school performance (1970's):

It’s rather amusing when I tell it now… I had written a modernist-classical piano sonata that I entered in a state-wide composition contest, and I won. I thought that since my piece had won the contest, the kids at the school would like to hear it, so I played it in the talent show. After I finished, another boy asked me if I’d written that “song”. I answered that I had, and his response was to intone sarcastically, "…it figures." I was about to ask him what that was supposed to mean when I suddenly found myself surrounded by the two school bullies and their thugs, proclaiming that I should be punched in the face once for every note in the song. A teacher came over and broke this up before anything happened, but the teacher warned me that “I shouldn’t play such experimental music in the talent show”. Then, after school, one of my friends came over to my house and told me that I’d really messed up by playing something so “abstract” in the talent show, and all the other kids would hate me for it. Most of the other kids scoffed at the idea that it had won a contest when I told them... For the record, the piece was neither "experimental" nor “abstract” – it was simple folk-like melody, played exactly the same way five times, with a different accompaniment each time. Oh well – there’s no accounting for peoples’ perceptions.

Addendum 9/8/2015: A Listener's Reaction to the "Garbage Symphony":

From a Facebook message: "By now I presume you've read Keith's blog. I concur and feel most of what he says there, and was planning to write you after I read your Soundscroll, which seemed to express doubt and frustration over the event. I don't think either are warranted. It's hard to get people out for challenging stuff, and it's hard to get most people to stick around for work that requires stamina or re-adjustment. “Sounds, Found” is a tough and honest piece. Hearing it involves hearing that doesn't seek climaxes, high points or low points, and it involves having a high tolerance for disorderly mess. … [It] was a complete and full evening of music on its own. Though only about an hour, it was definitely a concentrated hour... I'm glad I was there. Your music is not like ANYBODY else's and it takes us places nobody else does. I absolutely look forward to hearing what you do next, and if you ever decide to program this piece again, I'll definitely be back for seconds." N

(He stayed for the whole performance.)