Wednesday, April 29, 2015

CD Reviews: Where (we) Live and As:Is

These reviews of musical collaborations were originally published by SitDownListenUp on

As:Is, As Is

Christine Abdelnour (saxophone), Bonnie Jones (electronics), and Andrea Neumann (inside piano) improvised this music, "As:Is", together. The cover art is a picture of their hair, which makes them appear anonymous – none of them sport particularly individualistic hairstyles.

That’s all. There is nothing else about this CD that in any way suggests that the performers might be humans, or that the music itself is even from this planet. Listening to it, however, is (at the risk of sounding trite) a journey to an exciting, or at least interesting, new world.

One could say that this album has no individual tracks. At least it has no “songs”, or “compositions”, or any other labels that divide sound into individual structures. …And yet, there are separate pieces with names. This is only to give the listeners some idea of where they are in the recording. The music itself is of no help.

The opening “number” has some sense of organization, which makes the listener complacent about what is coming. One might almost be able to follow it. Harmonics on the piano strings (sounding rather like an electric guitar) lead to a silence, then “chubbling” (chuckling/bubbling) sax noises, then a frightening build-up of electronic claxons. These subside, with small percussion clinks. Perhaps this has been an actual composition; after the intro (the piano harmonics) it moves from A to B to C (from the chubbling to the claxons to the percussion) in a seemingly logical manner. None of it has any connections to the traditional idea of “music”, but the overall effect is that we have heard music.

Even that effect is abandoned in the following tracks. There is no repetition, no development, no refrains, no chords, no rhythms, no reverb. We, the listeners, enter a new world of clicks, static, silence, squeals, hums, feedback, silence, dolphins, glitches, thumps, distorted voices from a radio, silence, piano as percussion, saxophone as percussion, microphones as percussion, silence, squirrels, scraping, buzzing, whirring, unidentifiable noises, and more silence. Technically it is the world of “microsounds”, but it is a world without a map. There is nothing familiar, no way to navigate these resonances. It is neither and both noise and music.

So why is it so fascinating? Why can I listen to it over and over without boredom?

I think the answer lies in its very rejection of all that is “music”. In this rejection, the players have become “free” to make whatever sounds (or no sounds) they feel are right at the time. And they truly play together; one sound leads to another, or not; but altogether it works as a single thought. Finally, as we, the listeners, settle into a quiet state of listening without preconceptions, we begin to understand it and hear its beauty.

And there are moments of exquisite beauty. In “Ganzfeld” (track 4), a saxophone drone with recurring, evolving, cyclic white noise leads to deeper static and then crumpling paper. We hear it as soft rain.

In “Despair” (track 5), the return of the piano bass harmonics (a “classical” recapitulation?) generates a loud sax buzz with very quiet feedback over the top. We hear it as a multiphonic “chord”, a word spoken by some new cosmic yet strangely intimate instrument. It is both “out there” in space and right here inside the listeners’ head. The bass harmonics mix in and out.

In “And Transport” (track 6) sounds actually are being transported by other sounds, as scrapes and high harmonic whistles gradually build up with a rolling motion. This leads into the distance, and each iteration of sound or silence becomes longer. This process continues into the last track, “Hair Idioms” – the title is possibly a reference to the CD’s cover; the only link on the album to anything remotely familiar.

In the end, what have we heard? Was it music? Yes. No. Was it noise? Yes. No. Was it fascinating? Absolutely. Would I recommend it? Absolutely. Would I play it for a friend? Absolutely, if only to watch another listener proceed from incredulity to understanding, and finally to perception of an alternate beauty – the same journey that I made the first time I heard this the first time.

(A disclaimer – it may take a listener more than one hearing to make the journey. I was somewhat primed for it because I’d heard “microsounds” before, and saw Ms. Jones and Ms. Neumann play in a similar style at the Seattle Improvised Music Festival in 2013, where I bought this CD.)

Indie-Rock, Sō Not As Usual

The album is "Where (We) Live" by Grey McMurray and Sō Percussion. I came across it at the public library a couple of months ago, in the jazz section. I had heard some of Sō Percussion’s gamelan-inspired work before, though the cover (a cardboard sculpture of the Brooklyn Bridge against a stark white background) suggested gritty New York free-improvisation. I was somewhat surprised to find it to be an indie-rock album. …Or is it?

White noise and piano, with a spoken poem (not a “rap”) by a male voice. So begins this album which clamors (quietly) to get your attention in a world of alt-rock sameness. The piano fades into the distance, adding more and more reverb, as unidentifiable noises come to the foreground. The poem speaks of getting lost in a strange new home. Indeed, we the listeners are entering a strange new home of music. This is not indie-rock (or any rock) as usual.

Perhaps it was never intended to be any genre as usual. Sō Percussion is a “new music” ensemble who performs improvised music and contemporary classical compositions. Grey McMurray is a guitarist and vocalist who plays several styles (he’s in several bands, too). So the combination could go in any direction, or more than one direction at a time.

That said, the second track, “Five Rooms Back”, definitely picks up the rock vibe by adding guitar and drums after the piano, but soon moves past it into a world of improvised noise. The surreal lyrics, spoken again, recall thinking about how lucky the narrator was to have a panic attack…

Then quickly the noise is over. Atmospheric guitar and accordion begin “Strange Steps”, though almost immediately this turns into what could pass for an instrumental Death Cab for Cutie song (in 5/4 time). Return to the atmospheric guitar, then the song starts again in a different meter. This happens several times. Each time, the “song” is different (one of the most interesting times, the percussion line is taken up by a glockenspiel). The words keep talking about “strange steps” in each meter. Perhaps these odd rhythms are metaphors for the strange steps.

“Moat” again recalls Death Cab for Cutie with a languid vocals over a slow guitar line; this is almost immediately dispelled by clattering wood blocks and cowbells. The ballad resumes, still melodically, over noise guitar. Again, there are several variations (and several odd meters), before piano and glockenspiels end the song in a mood that is introspective but oddly hurried.

“Room and Board” is a stream of consciousness reminiscence of childhood accompanied by a shifting sonic landscape. Some of the more interesting moments include repeated samples of the narrator; heavy fuzz-guitar drowning out the words; and at the end, little percussion “drips” that are microtonally out-of-tune with the piano chords.

“In Our Rooms” is a mysterious echoscape with stereotypically spooky Theremin, autoharp-on-piano (Henry Cowell’s “Aeolian Harp”), and occasional microtonal guitar. Its end leads directly into the drum beats of “All Along”; this is another instrumental. Here there is a steady but irregular rock beat, ambient piano chords, and slightly distorted guitar – sounding as if Radiohead and Pink Floyd had gotten together for a jam. Again the “outro” leads directly into the next song, “Strangers All Along”, which continues the irregular meter but has a more peppy, upbeat “pop” feeling despite its introspection. It’s quiet, but it’s all primary colors in a major key. The vocals return; the melody repeats several times without an actual refrain.

Fast African rhythms (on cowbells and caxixi) begin “Five Rooms Down”, the sequel to the previous “Five Rooms” track. This is another stream of consciousness, with whistling melodies, and spoken vocals distorted as through a CB radio.

In the last song, “Thank You”, 70’s electric piano accompanies a balladic melody in the style of a jazz-standard. The repeated words, “thank you for letting me know…” provide a concluding commentary, possibly “thank you for listening” as background noise builds up and then subsides. The album ends with the tune fading, but still ringing in the listener’s mind as it disappears into silence.

…So, what of it? What have we heard? The first time I listened to this, it was one of the most interesting and “different” indie-rock albums I’d ever found, comparable to Radiohead’s “Kid A” and Sigur Rós’ unpronounceable “()”. On a second listen, in my car on a long trip, I found it to be rather depressing, not up-tempo enough for a car ride (though this is paradoxical because I often listen to Cage and Takemitsu chamber music in my car). Finally, a third listen revealed it to be what the musicians probably intended all along: a fusion of two genres; a look at rock through the lens of “new music”, or perhaps the other way around. It is a beautiful homage to two genres that encourage a great deal of experimentation. The two fuse into something that is more than either by itself, and neither loses its individuality.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Ambient Piano Minimalism: r. andrew lee at the Chapel Performance Space, 4/17/2015

(Lower case specified by Mr. lee)

I’d heard Mr. lee’s rendition of Dennis Johnson’s four-hour “November” in 2013 (in November), and this concert featured the premier of a work from the beautiful Pacific Crest Trail series by Nat Evans, so I thought I’d check this out.

Mr. lee played three pieces, in ascending length, for a total time of just under two hours. The first was the shortest – but in some ways also the longest (that is a positive comment). Craig Shepard’s “December” was a meditation on three chords in the lower end of the piano; not three chords repeated as in a simple pop number, but three chords, period, played as trills over the (middle) pedal, and each lasting for several minutes. Or perhaps “chords” is a misnomer, since each only had two pitches and was more correctly just an interval. There was a major sixth, then a major second, then something that was at first unidentifiable due to heavy resonant overtones but eventually revealed itself to be a minor second. (The “closing” of intervals and increasing dissonance seemed to be a metaphor for the dwindling sunlight in December.) As the pianist commented after playing, “I play this piece at the beginning of a concert because it forces the listeners to listen in a different way…”

That “different way” is a meditation on continuous sound, essentially the same as listening to a drone piece. Another aspect of drone music also manifested: microtonality. I mentioned the heavy resonant overtones. There is a plethora of these on the lowest strings of a concert grand piano; revealed by continuing trills, they seem to hover over the bass notes, constantly changing, often creating just-intoned microtonal chords. The effect was very beautiful.

The piece ended with a couple of deep “gong strikes” on the last chord, leading into: “Desert Ornamentation” by Nat Evans (written for r. andrew lee). The piano part was the ornamentation, over field recordings made in the desert of the southern part of the Pacific Crest Trail. Both parts of the music were quiet. The piano played fragments of (modal) melodies, too far apart to coalesce into a single recognizable “tune” but too close together to be separate thoughts. This ambiguity created an interesting spatial tension. The field recordings went at their own, much slower, pace. Power lines crackled, airplanes roared quietly overhead, and dogs barked – all sounding in the distance of infinite space. As always with music of this quietude, sounds from outside of the performance space filtered in and mixed into an aleatory soundscape – one of the most engaging moments was a microtonal drone that interacted with the piano tones to produce binaural beats; it was created by a motor running somewhere in the building and wasn’t actually in Mr. Evans’ recordings. As often when “randomness” is embraced in art, the result is not “random” at all.

The last piece, “Obsessions” by Adrian Knight, was a minimalist theme and variations with a lot of surprises. The volume was constant (slightly louder than Nat’s piece) and the tempo was constant (neither slow nor particularly fast). The surprises – and these were relentless – came in the harmonies. Pungent post-Debussy dissonance (think Messiaen) led to jazz progressions (think Bill Evans) led to wide-open “Americana” harmonies on fourths and fifths (think Copland) which in turn led to thick polytonal clusters (think Stravinsky) and mysterious whole-tone resonances (think George Crumb). The whole piece was a kaleidoscope of sound-worlds. This is not to say that it sounded patched together in any way; it did not. The harmonies continuously mutated, but the “theme” was a constant force in the upper half of the piano, each iteration ending with a shadowy tracery of bass notes of ambiguous tonality. There was a slight crescendo near the end (the Obsessions seemed to grow more demanding) and then, abruptly, it was over. The piano merely stopped playing, without a resolve or final cadence. There was a second of silence (the rest of the audience was as startled by the ending as I was) and then wild applause. The piece is, however, probably continuing out there somewhere in another world.

This kind of playing represents, of course, a rejection of both mainstream “loudness” and avant-garde formalism. It is thus a continuation of the aesthetic theorizing of John Cage. I hear it as a beautiful extension of that tradition into conventional “tonal” music, but of course only time will tell if this is actually the case.