Today we look back at the Ivy Room Hootelatkenanny, the December edition of the Ivy Room Hootenany improvised music series. The Ivy Room in Albany, CA, has in fact turned into a great venue for new music, with many performances even beyond this long-running series. The combination of music, mixed drinks and quirky decor seem to come together.
Despite the play on words in the title, there was nothing Hannukah-related about the performances that evening.
The first set featured a quartet I put together with Bill Wolter on guitar, Dave “Djembe” Coen on percussion and JP O’Keefe on drumset. Gear-wise, I kept things pretty minimal, with just the Dave Smith Evolver and the iPad running Curtis and the Korg iMS-20 apps.
I started out the set with my usual metallic patch on the Evolver, and quickly added granular sweeping with Curtis. Slowly the percussion came in, with soft rolls on the cymbals and djembe. As Bill Wolter with soft chromatic harmonies on guitar, I switched to a different Evolver patch and to the iMS-20 with some analog-like arpeggios. These set up a rhythmic foundation which the drums matched with a strong 16-note rhythm – the tempo and pulse were reminiscent of disco but texture and individual rhythmic phrases were more complex – something akin to 1970s fusion. The iMS-20 served as a de facto bass with heavily filtered patches set against the guitar improvisation – at various times I opted for a softer tone like an electric bass, others a highly synthetic sound like a “techno bass.” Harmonically and melodically, we danced around blurs, pentatonic, chromatic and tri-tone patterns against the ever changing but steady pulse rhythm of the two percussionists. At one point, Bill started playing the strings below the bridge and I used this sound effect opportunity to return to Curtis. We kept the pulse going for a bit, then cut out for a quiet moment. Then the rhythm gradually re-emerged, a bit more tribal and accented off beat, and with more inharmonic timbres on synth and guitar. Then we returned the jam feel with guitar, bass and drums, and continued in one of these patterns or another for the remainder of the set, at one point switching to a 6/8 rhythm with a more humorous sounding synth line. I have to admit, this was one of the most fun I have played in a while, both idiomatic and experimental at the same time, both completely free-form and rhythmically structured. I will have to get this quartet back together again sometime soon!
We were followed by the duo of Kenneth and Kattt Atchley. Their music also combined experimental electronic elements with a strong idiomatic style, in their case something reminiscent of late-night electronic music at dance clubs or lounges. They did several distinct pieces during their set. The had a slow steady rhythm with soft electric-piano chords set against analog or analog-like electronic sounds, relative high pitched with pitch LFO. The chords and rhythm continue in a very moody, almost R&B fashion while the high pitched electronic sounds ride above more rapidly. Then all at once it stops, replaced by a very distant-sounding synth pad, and the voices and poetry returned amidst the sparser texture. The music moved back and forth seemelessly between these two overall textures. Kenneth and later Kattt at various moments intone “I wouldn’t change a thing” and descriptive phrases about “East Bay nights” and “Pacific Fog cooling the air”. The texture eventually gave way to harsher electrical noises and pulsating sounds that still have a harmony of their own – and one can still hear minor chords in the background. When the chords and rhythm return to the forreground, there are a bit more fragmented than before.
The next piece was entitled Over Ice. It started with very liquidy and crystalline sounds, with words and melody in a descending minor scale. There was something vaguely religious or spiritual sounding about this pattern, almost like a chant. A sparse rhythm emerges, and the high crystalline sounds remain in the background. It eventually because very abstract, with electronic hits and noises sounding at first in a random pattern that gradually becomes more rhythmic. After a monologue section, the original melodic pattern returned, but with a more rhythmic foundation.
The final set featured Dean Santomieri with Michael Zelner on reeds, and Suki O’Kane “massaging the skins”, i.e. on percussion. It consisted of improvisation around a series of poems featuring “spine words” and “spine phrases” based on Jonathan Franzen’s best-seller Freedom. Things opened with resonating cymbols and Santomieri’s introductions, followed by the initial poem based on the spine word “Franzen.” The music consisted of short clarinet and percussion phrases filling in the spaces in between Santomieri’s words, with some more extended instrumental lines. The overall texture was very sparse with individual notes, but also some jazzy phrases and some extended wind techniques set against a diversity of percussive sounds. Among the spine phrases used were “left right rhetoric”, “Lolita” and perhaps the most memorable “Franzen, Franzen, Franzen”. Indeed, the author’s name was frequently used in many playful contexts, such as “Franzomancy reveals a function, the zen idolatry…”. Section with more complex and richly tonal words followed by noisier and squeakier instrumentals. During one of the poems, Zelner switched to extended-technique flute, which was set against small metallic and wooden percussion from O’Kane. He returned to clarinet this time employing multiphonics for the final poem, which again used the spine “Franzen, Franzen, Franzen”.