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.


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.


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.


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.)


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.