Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Concert Review: Seattle Composers Salon, 3/3/2017

"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. Composers, performers, and audience members gather in a casual setting that allows for experimentation and discussion. Everyone is welcome!" from the Seattle Composers Salon website

Sheila Bristow: Two Songs
Mystical lyrics, translated from Medieval texts by Sheila herself – she commented that it was good to be able to take the same meanings but tweak the rhymes to work in a song setting. The music was beautiful, deliberately simplified (melodies over ostinati, though both were often elaborated upon to flow with the text), modal (I recognized one of the modes from Hildegard’s chants – H. was the author of the first text) and very classical (in a Hovhaness mood) with soprano, ‘cello, and piano. A contemplative introduction to the evening’s concert.

S. Eric Scribner: Tree and Stone, performed with The Sherványa Nocturnal Music
Carol Levin, Keith and Karen Eisenbreys, and I performed two of my aleatory pieces at the same time. Or rather, we played one while the audience played the other. “Tree and Stone” (the audience piece) was the “artificial remix” of the piece that we played last summer at Volunteer Park; shaking pieces of partially shredded paper substituted for shaking tree branches, and knocking on the chairs substituted for hitting stones together. The result “sounded more treelike than the original” according to one participant. The other piece goes with my novel “Tond”, and is a form of indigenous classical music of the (imaginary) Sherványa civilization. Bug guitar (“baby kora”) and detuned ukulele formed a microtonal background for quiet modal shifting of melodic fragments. There will be a much longer version of this piece played (at the same venue) next September, hopefully corresponding to the release of Book Three of Tond (in which a performance of this music is part of the plot).

Ivan Arteaga’s band ComManD: Thaumaturgy
Interactive digital music at its finest. Sax, percussion, and a dancer mixed with the electronics in a collaborative way – the dancer, for example, had sensors on her wrists and ankles that transformed the sounds as she moved, so the music was composed by the dance as much as for it. There were two sections; the first omitted the sax and the second (mostly) omitted the percussion, but they worked together to form a twelve-minute whole. Ivan seemed to be the spokesperson, and commented at length about the use of electronics and how the software was written by the performers. ( “At length”, is not a negative comment here; it was fascinating, if arcane, and the audience members kept asking more questions.) I didn’t get the names of the other performers, but would like to hear (and see) all of them again.

Blake Degraw: Electronic Quartet for Humans
Extreme saxophony often abruptly cut short. A quartet of saxes, arrayed around the room, wailed and screamed in perfect synchrony, starting and stopping instantaneously or in layers. The “electronic” part was actually audio cues in headphones that the performers wore; but the effect of the music was that of a highly amplified electronic quartet: one sound, for example, would begin at point A and then travel around the room, processed into other sounds. “Interactive” in the way that Ivan’s piece was, and an interesting reversal – in the past, electronic sounds have been used to imitate (imperfectly) acoustic instruments. Here is the reverse, and it’s fascinating.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

"Magical (Sur)realism" and Music

This is a discussion I started on social media with the intent of putting it in this blog. As in previous such discussions, the initials are changed except for mine.


1

Me: After reading “100 Years of Solitude” by Gabriel García Marquez and “Grimus” by Salman Rushdie (as well my friend Karen Eisenbrey’s “The Gospel According to Saint Rage”, which has traces of the same genre), this question occurred to me: To what extent is “magic realism” in fiction the same as / similar to / different from surrealism in art? (Never mind their different origins.) Does either have any kind of counterpart in music? (Don't count song lyrics and 1970's rock album covers.) What do you think?

RQ: I think of magic realism as "surrealism lite" - that isn't to disparage it, just to acknowledge that for some readers (and film viewers) full on surrealism is a bit too much to stay with, but a little dab can spice things up a bit for those who are less inclined toward hard-core experimentalism but appreciate something that challenges "reality". And although Breton and other vintage surrealists allegedly had a disdain for music, there are free improvisers who have made surrealism the basis of their practice for decades - check out the music of LaDonna Smith, Davey Williams, and Hal Rammel for starters.

LoDonna Smith on her music: in the early days, we tried real hard not to be influenced by anyone, but to go into that trans: trance...transport...transportation... trans... transcend... transcendence... transcendprovisation... that comes from transfiguration... from tranced out... psychic automatism...! (whew)

We tried to steer clear of anything that sounded "like" anything else and sometimes engage in just raw energies leading the body into making all this noise but with a "listening ear to shape it" like free composition so when you'd hear a rhythmic set up, you'd solo on it, or set something up and watch Davey do guitar theater with it, or duel it out in flights of fury, or float slowly… or make imaginary landscapes – all of these were areas, not idioms...

Hal Rammel: My parents were both artists, …so I grew up in a house where making things and exploring new ideas were everyday activities. I decided in my teens that I wanted to pursue a similar course, and started drawing and making collages. This was all of a piece with reading, listening to Jazz, watching movies… I had been exposed to modern art throughout my childhood, so the historical continuity, the groundwork, was firmly at hand. Abstract and surrealist painting and imagery fascinated me, so in my reading I doggedly pursued the art, poetry, and theater of the early Twentieth Century. I knew there were new directions to take those ideas in new times—this was the early 1960's—and I still feel that way.


2

IR: I agree with RQ’s analysis. True surrealism in books/movies has a decidedly different flavor than magical realism. See The Milagro Beanfield War or Like Water For Chocolate for an example of what I consider magical realism, and perhaps The Life of Pi or Alice In Wonderland for surrealism.

Me: I see the original Alice books as quite satirical, on both politics and the formal logic on which politics is supposedly based. Thus they represent a third genre which may be linked to the other two. Movies inspired by those books, however, go in as many directions as there are directors who have made them.

RQ: There are of course the "classics" of Surrealist cinema from the 20s and 30s, like Buñuel/Dali, Cocteau, Man Ray, Cornell, etc. Some recent films that I think qualify and recommend are the films of the Brothers Quay (their animations, but especially their narrative films with actors, like Piano Tuner of Earthquakes and Institute Benjamenta) Jodorowsky, some of David Lynch's work, and Holy Motors, which I saw recently and loved.

Me: The different flavor is often brought up. Surrealism supposedly has a definite edge of disquiet, as in the art of De Chririco, Max Ernst, Dali, and more recently, Geiger. Though the latter two are more or less commercial brands, the "disquiet" is still there. Magic Realism seems more wondrous and, well, magical. However, Miro is often considered surrealist, and I would say his work is often humorous and whimsical rather than disquieting.



3

Me: Concerning the disquiet, C. S. Lewis wrote the following in his sci-fi novel “That Hideous Strength”:

“[Mark] got up and began to walk about. He had a look at the pictures. Some of them belonged to a school of art with which he was already familiar. There was a portrait of a young woman who held her mouth wide open to reveal the fact that the inside of it was thickly overgrown with hair. It was very skillfully painted in the photographic manner so that you could almost feel that hair… There was a giant mantis playing a fiddle while being eaten by another mantis, and a man with corkscrews instead of arms bathing in a flat, sadly coloured sea beneath a summer sunset. But most of the pictures were not of this kind. At first, most of them seemed rather ordinary, though Mark was a little surprised at the predominance of scriptural themes. It was only it the second or third glance that one discovered certain unaccountable details — something odd about the positions of the figures’ feet or the arrangement of their fingers or the grouping. …Why were there so many beetles under the table in the Last Supper? What was the curious trick of lighting that made each picture look like something seen in delirium? When once these questions had been raised the apparent ordinariness of the pictures became their supreme menace… Long ago Mark had read somewhere of “things of that extreme evil which seem innocent to the unintitiate,” and had wondered what sort of things they might be. Now he felt he knew.”

Me: Lewis was stating that surrealism, in representing the unquiet of the subconscious, taps into something truly sinister that we have bottled up, and thus it (surrealism) forms a sort of bridge to the demonic. The subconscious, as explored by Freud and then overlaid with Christian morality, becomes a frightening repository of evil.

Madeleine L’Engle expresses an opposing view of this same disquiet. I am unable to find the exact quote, but I remember her stating that the subconscious has become nasty because we have bottled it up. It should be the creative urge, but has turned into something quite different. This idea, subconscious=creative, minus any “nasty” aspect is, of course, what the original surrealist artists meant by liberating the subconscious to achieve higher states of creativity. (It should be pointed out that Madeleine L’Engle practiced the same religion as Lewis: a form of Christianity quite different from, and in many ways opposed to, our more familiar American fundamentalism. Their differing views on the same topic point to variety of thought within a larger system.)

A parallel theme comes up in the anime “Madlax”, where the antagonist learns how to unleash everyone’s subconscious desires – leading to a bacchanalian and ultimately bloody apocalypse. This antagonist, though, believes that he is a savior, and is doing this in order to liberate everyone from societal demands, and at the same time fulfil their wishes. (A digression: “Madlax” also uses what I call the “split soul” idea, an apparently uniquely Japanese plot element also seen in at least one novel by Haruki Murakami: a single soul is divided and shared among two or more characters. I am not sure if this would qualify as either a surrealist or magical realist idea, or something else altogether.)


4

Me: “Magical Realism” does not have that disquietude. In “100 Years of Solitude” – the man who is always attended by a flock of yellow butterflies; the woman who is taken up into heaven because she is too beautiful and too wise for the earth: both of these seem miraculous rather than sinister. Also, they are narrated as if they were common events, not something dredged up from an ominous dream.

JD: I write Realistic Magicalism.

LD: The closest thing to what I would want magical realism to be, in film, is "Beasts of the Southern Wild".

MJ: I've always had the feeling (and you'd have to ask the writers to confirm if it's the case) that magical realism consists in authors narrating "magical" things that had actually happened to them or their community. The magical quality ensues when many of these actual narrated occurrences are stitched together, in effect concentrating the magic. This kind of thing crops up in my songwriting: after a night dancing in a mosh pit at the Highline I noticed that I had sustained a tear-shaped bruise over my heart thanks to somebody nailing me in the chest with an elbow at some point. Hence the song, “Tear-Shaped Bruise.” Surrealism is so hard to define, because it has to do with different kinds of things: narrating or painting dream images, "found" materials, experimental procedures such as chance-games or "exquisite corpse." An actual example of a surrealist technique is Karen's employment of "St Rage" in her book, after she noticed the lighted STORAGE sign with the O light out (ST RAGE).

Me: So essentially you’re saying that chance occurrences can be seen as “magical” and play a part in one’s personal narrative. Discussion of chance occurrences in art of course lead to the music of John Cage and followers, where events made to happen at random often do not in fact sound random. So by that definition, and not one involving the subconscious, we have arrived at a surrealistic music.

And by the way, we’ve probably all experienced “magical” (or “glitch in the matrix”) events. I’ve had a couple myself that were a little on the weird side.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Mini Reviews: Four Recordings from SIMF

I picked up these four recordings featuring Seattle-area (and other) artists during the “merch-mart” last weekend at the Seattle Improvised Music Festival.


Seattle Phonographers Union: Building 27 WNP-5

The Seattle Phonographers Union improvises ambient music entirely with unprocessed field recordings. On this vinyl album, they join the ranks of Stuart Dempster and Pauline Oliveros (“Deep Listening”), Etsuko Ichikawa (“Echo at Satsop”), and Paul Horn (the seminal “Inside the Taj Mahal”) exploring the acoustics of “natural” (i.e. not electronic) echo chambers with striking beauty and subtlety.

There are two long tracks. The first was recorded in “Building 27”, a decommissioned aircraft hangar, the other in WNP-5, an unfinished (and unused) nuclear cooling tower (the same place where Ms. Ichikawa made her recording). Both produce massive, though slightly different, echoes. The pieces themselves feature ocean sounds, birdsong, hollow didgeridoo effects, machine noises, crows and human speech transformed into huge walls of sound (a startling, even frightening, effect).

My major question is the choice to release this on vinyl. Vinyl reproduction of sound is premium, particularly for the deepest bass notes; but due to the nature of this music, any surface pops or clicks stand out sharply and distractingly. Other than that, I would recommend this album to anyone interested in stretching the boundaries of what music can be, and to anyone interested in fascinating excursions into pure sound.


Lori Goldston (cello), Konako Pooknyw (drums), Karl Blau (bass) and Dave Abramson (percussion): Talking Helps

A 7” single that includes two untitled tracks (and no “A” or “B” side), this is an exploration of slow, improvised rock. One of these is melodic, the other more of a wall of sound in which Lori’s electric cello recalls Hendrix’s guitar but with dark "heavy metal” deep bass distortion. The other instruments are understated; the percussion, as opposed to the drums, is barely audible. Both tracks (or sides) are short ("pop" length, under four minutes) and I’d like to hear more.


C. Spencer Yeh (violin) and Paul Flaherty (sax), with Greg Kelley (trumpet): New York Nuts and Boston Baked Beans

Any record of free improvisation featuring a saxophone is expected to have at least one wild rip-snortin’ screech-and-honk fracas. It’s almost a stereotype of the genre, and it’s somewhat ironic that a style that is supposed to supersede all styles has produced this recognizable style. And, guess what, this entire album is one giant shrieking, snarling, squealing, squawking, caterwauling commotion. But as you listen, you realize that this is not by any means a bad thing. Within that rather narrow confine, the artists produce a surprising amount of variety. There are deep drones. There are vocal sounds against silence, then against a harmonica. There are impossibly dense clouds of noise. There are snippets of jazz standards and pop tunes. There are scintillating high violin tremolos, some possibly played in the manner of the Chinese pipa. There are unexpected hints of the blues. There are shimmering microtones. There are are the two women on the front of the CD (and one on the CD itself) who apparently don’t exist, unless they are C. Spencer and Paul in drag (there are drawings of three men in circus costumes on the back cover; they are not the musicians who are playing either.) Unexpected, unexplained, and yet somehow exactly expected. Fun.


Masashi Harada Condanction Ensemble: Enterprising Mass of Cilia

Conducted large-ensemble improvisation has been around since Bernstein led the NY Phil for a set on the 1965 LP “Music of Our Time” (and again in 1972 for “Pluto, the Unpredictable” on a Young Persons’ Concert TV show). This Masashi Harada CD continues the tradition, though the ensemble is decidedly non-classical. Basically the CD is an exploration of instrumental textures, ranging from nearly silent skitterings to massive waves of chaos. Any performer is permitted to, at any time, break with what is being conducted and interpose their “own” material; this results in some startling juxtapositions (for example, a series of repeated notes that begin on a violin but take over more instruments and soon declare war against the atonal jumbles that are still occurring). Most of the CD is a lot of fun, though I would have preferred to have a few more solo passages here and there, or a break from the emphasis on texture to include something more “compositional” or even melodic – this is possible to do when improvising.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Third Day of the Seattle Improvised Music Festival 2/4/2016

The Workshop

"Improvising Together: A Listening and Playing Workshop for Dancers and Musicians led by dancer Sheri Cohen and musician David Knott. We’ll use listening practices and interactive scores to illuminate the material shared between musicians and dancers and make our improvisations clearer and richer." from the Wayward Music Seattle Website

The “scores” were verbal instructions, ranging from simple yoga-ish awareness exercises (“…now listen to the sounds furthest from you…”) through small ensemble pieces to two long full-ensemble free jams. Once of the more interesting sets was for small ensembles: “five people participate: each make one gesture – sound or movement – and pass it to the person across from you; then, at some point, all agree (without saying so) to let the score ‘decay’ and all do what you think needs to be done at that moment.” There was some discussion whether this was to let the score “decay” or to make it “ripen”. I would argue for the latter.


Commentary heard during the workshop (not exact quotes!):

“This is the first workshop of this type where I’ve seen babies allowed. It gives it a whole different, and beautiful, atmosphere. (That particular little one there) is really getting involved, though he’s getting a really distorted picture of what it is to be a grown-up.”

“Lots of little stories emerged (during the group improvisation). I liked the part where one dancer on the floor grabbed the left foot of another dancer on the floor, and held on. It was like a struggle.”

“I found that, with the music, I could listen to what was happening and then I had three choices: play something similar, play something different, or play nothing.”

“There’s a concept in Tibetan Buddhism that expands on those ideas: after observing what is happening, one has the choice to do the same, do something different, do nothing, do something supportive, or do something destructive.”

“...At a certain point, the piece didn’t need me. So I withdrew. Then I was thinking about going back in, but was hesitant – am I really needed at this point? – but then one of the musicians came up behind me with some loud, strident notes and then I knew that it was time to start again.”

“There was a long point in the middle where the music all came together. It was serene and beautiful. It was in B-flat for quite a while.”

“It was in B-flat and nice and pretty and new-agey, so I decided to kick it up a notch and add some dissonance.”

“For the record, I never played in B-flat.”

“What does all this discussion of B-flat mean to the dancers? There’s nothing in the repertoire of dance movements that corresponds to something like B-flat, just as there’s nothing in the world of music that corresponds to this.” (moves arm)

“I beg to disagree. There are languages that both dancers and musicians share. If I were to play this,” (plays a swinging jazz riff) “the dancers would dance in a certain way.” (They did).

“One of the interesting things about a workshop for improvised dance and music together is that it gives permission: I’m seeing musicians do things with movement, and dancers making sounds.”

“Improvisations involving more than one person grow more complex as one learns. For example, two dancers may improvise in unison by both doing the same movement,” (sitting, two dancers move feet in the same way) “but then make gestures that are related but not the same.” (The same two move their feet in slightly different ways).

“Some things were going on that only one or two people could see. I liked it when I saw you, dancing by yourself, over there by the ramp.”

“There is a continuum between improvising and composing. I have a long piece that I’ve been working on for years, playing individual notes on the piano for long stretches of time. Sometimes it seems like it’s completely composed, since I’ve put severe limitations on what I can actually play. Other times, it’s completely improvised second by second.”

"There was a little tension - a thickened plot - made by the fact that there were three pianists and only one piano."

“Dancers and musicians have something like a clock in their head. There are twenty minutes left; I think we’ll all know exactly when that twenty minutes is done.”


The Concert

Evan Woodle (drums) & Mike Gamble (electric guitar; Portland)
Modal/atmospheric sounds on guitar; athletic playing twisting knobs on amplifiers and signal processors as much as on the guitar itself; delicately clink-chiming cymbals and metallic percussion with occasional more forceful drum rumbles.
Favorite moment: sudden quiet. Evan played miscellaneous metal pieces that are sitting on a towel (a subtle clatter); build-up with guitar gradually fading back in.

Steve Barsotti (home-mades/field recordings), James Falzone (clarinet), Arrington de Dionyso (woodwinds)
A much longer set beginning with raucous screech-honks, settling into extended developmental arcs of sound. James’ clarinet sometimes suggested klezmer, providing a momentary resolve to the harmonic language.
Favorite moment: theatricality. Twice during the performance, Arrington picked up a homemade instrument made from plumbing (a single mouthpiece but two sounding pipes; something of a mutant, bagless bagpipe) and then proceeded to NOT play it. Suspense – we all wanted to hear it – in this case, suspense with no payoff. A dream deferred is a dream lost – a tragedy of denied expectation played out on stage.

Heather Bentley (viola/violin), Catherine Lee (oboe; Portland), Lisa Cay Miller (piano; Vancouver BC), Bonnie Whiting (percussion)
My favorite set of the evening because of the piano, percussion, and extreme contrasts. Fast, clattery ricochets of small gongs and metal shards accompanied longer melodies and drones from the string and wind instruments, and there was a bizarre high-pitched screech sliding upwards from the inside of the piano. I asked Lisa later how she’d done it – apparently the clear part of a cassette tape case can be dragged across the middle piano strings to set them vibrating lengthwise in the manner of Ellen Fullman’s Long String Instrument.
Favorite moment: simplicity. The piece came to a false end, and all the effects were left behind. Lisa started playing lush post-impressionist chords, while Heather played a viola melody that slowly simplified itself until there were just three notes left.

Douglas Ewart (woodwinds; Minneapolis) w/ Steve Barsotti (home-mades/field recordings), Heather Bentley (viola/violin), Lori Goldston (cello)
Several distinct movements, fading into one another. Douglas played drones and slow melodies on home-made wind instruments (including a slide didgeridoo or “slydgeridoo” as I called it), interacting with Steve’s percussive and electric-bass-ish electronics and more drones from Heather and Lori. Faster melodies emerged from this. Lisa appeared on the stage from out of the audience, and tossed a stainless-steel bowl into the piano. Chaos. Then Quieter. Then Douglas made a sudden transition to racous music again by blowing a claxon on the soprano sax. Full-on decibel-stretching screech-honk AEC madness; Lori’s and Heather’s quieter instruments were effectively drowned out but continued to provide background texturing. Gradual fade-out, but this stereotypical ending was not to be: Douglas brought back the loudness, but this time with a lyrical subtone and a recitation of a poem about John Coltrane. Steve’s electronics ended.
Favorite moment: all of it.
>
At the end, Douglas unexpectedly released two “percussion instruments” that had been sitting on the table next to his home-made winds. They were actually tops that spun around on the floor with a quiet rumble, gradually slowing and growing louder. One fell (I thought it would trip the other, though it didn't), then the other fell, and the hall became silent. Then raucous applause. “There was no other way to end this festival” was a motto that appeared at that point, passed from person to person. Maybe a tradition has started and similar tops will announce the end of next year’s as well.


A Final Note

To the guy at the "merch mart" who bought two of my CD's and then disappeared while I was getting your change, contact me. I owe you six bucks.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Concert Review in Poetry, Art, and an "Optigon": Seattle Phonographers Union 1-19-2017

1.
Lights dim, sounds dim
Songle distantce foghorn
Emergence of electronic dronenotes, not electronic, microtones shift inside grains of watersound
Yellowhite trumpet
Chimes begin, bigbells, churchbells, splintersounds of smallbells in wind
Then LOUD horn in fog, trombone’s dark grey didgeridoo
Answered by aviary, left side
Answered by people speaking, right side
Answered by clangclunks, middle side
Answered by didgeridrone fade, no side
Answered by high halfstep semichord, upward
Trum(crows)pet horns drumming toward chaos, downward
Blue French horn mourns end of ambience

2.
Waves filter through cement pipes
Nocturne - cricketsong
Cold shootingstars in darkness

Now sounds get strange:
Trombone belches, French horn farts, trumpet squeeeeeeeels

Eww! Ewww! Ewwww! cries a strange bird
(While they sing in church)
Waves cresssssst, trumpet says Oooooowup!

3.
Quieter gray water
River of yellow bells
Tributary of tawny trumpet-tones
Volume increases, violence begins
Car horns blare red
Answered by bass bells
Answered by wailing French horn
Answered by an announcement: crackling voice, language unclear
Lake of allcolored bellsound
All sounds dwindle except one ghostly whooshwail complicated hum

Jet passes by overhead
Thundroar in night sky
Adds silence as music ends.

"Seattle Phonographers Union – a collective of artists improvising with unprocessed field recordings – perform one of their infrequent “ambient” sets, with group members dispersed around the space and playing through an array of individual sound systems. Even more unusual, tonight they break one of their own rules and are joined by instrumentalists Greg Kelley (trumpet) and Tom Varner (French horn)." From the Seattle Phonographers Union Website.

This is my visual impression of the concert. Each line is one note or sound.

Often during the Phonog Union concerts, several false endings make it obvious that the music is improvised. This concert, a longer set (and with added soloists) seemed to be a single extended composition in three movements. The brass players added another dimension that bound the various sounds together in a musical whole. (This was neither better nor worse than the more obviously unplanned performances, merely a different experience for the listener.)

Now - I mentioned a trombone. This was actually an incident so bizarre that it spawned a neologism. Here's what I wrote about it on a social media site:

New word:

Optigon (n. variant of "optigone"; portmanteau of "optical" and "gone", perhaps influenced by "octagon" and similar words): Something which you see or observe, but when you look it up later or go to show someone else, is no longer there. A type of optical illusion. For example, "The trombone player at the Seattle Phonographers' Union concert last Thursday was not actually there; he was only an optigon created by the lighting and acoustics in the room."

No, I can't explain it. The concert of sounds was beautiful, however, and I recommend that anyone around the Seattle area go hear their next one, phantom brass players or not.