Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends, MoMA

The Museum of Modern Art in New York recently concluded a large exhibition of works by Robert Rauschenberg, billed as the “first 21st-century retrospective of the artist.” In 1999, I attended what was probably the last major 20th-century retrospective at The Guggenheim, which resulted in mixed and complicated feelings about his work. I was skeptical of the white-on-white paintings and openly detested the pieces that consisted entirely of unfolded cardboard boxes; but there were other works that were captivating, like his sculptural paintings with electrical elements. This new exhibition elevates the entirety of Rauschenberg’s work by placing it in the context of his many collaborators, both in the New York School of the 1950s and 1960s and beyond. The show also demonstrated the importance of place in the development and evolution of his art.


[Robert Rauschenberg. Grand Black Tie Sperm Glut (1987). Riveted street signs and other metal parts, 60 x 121 x 14″ (152.4 x 307.3 x 35.6 cm), Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York]

The source of his many collaborations can be traced to his time at Black Mountain College. He studied with (and was influenced by) Josef and Anni Albers. It is here that he met John Cage and Merce Cunningham, as well as fellow visual artists Cy Twombly, Susan Weil, and more.

John Cage 4'33
[John Cage. 4’33” (In Proportional Notation) [1952/1953]. Ink on paper, page (each): 11 x 8 1/2″ (27.9 x 21.6 cm); sheet (each, unfolded): 11 x 16 15/16″ (27.9 x 43.1 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the generosity of Henry Kravis in honor of Marie-Josée Kravis.]

Cage’s 4’33” is a piece that I admire greatly. He later claimed that his encounter with Rauschenberg’s white paintings was a major inspiration for the piece. In the context of place and collaboration, the white paintings take on a significance that was lost the first time I saw them. (I still don’t like the cardboard boxes, though.) One can also see in his white (and black) pieces the influence and evolution away from the precise minimalism of Josef Albers.

The friendships and collaborations formed at Black Mountain continued in his work abroad and then at his studios in downtown Manhattan, first at Fulton Street and then at Pearl Street. One amusing collaboration was a long ink-on-paper piece featuring the tire treads of a car driven by John Cage.


[Robert Rauschenberg with John Cage. Automobile Tire Print (detail). 1953. Tire-tread mark (front wheel) and tire-tread mark with house paint (rear wheel) made by Cage’s Model A Ford, driven by Cage over twenty sheets of typewriter paper fastened together with library paste, mounted on fabric, 16 1/2 in. × 22 ft. 1/2 in. (41.9 × 671.8 cm). San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Purchase through a gift of Phyllis C. Wattis. Photo: Don Ross. © 2017 Robert Rauschenberg Foundation]

Rauschenberg continued to work with simple elements to produce three-dimension works both on and off the wall that would lead to his celebrated “Combines.” Some of these early pieces were quite small and often focused on just one or two elements, such as the piece Untitled (c. 1953) consisting of wooden and linen boxes. As an interesting aside, the original fabric box was destroyed by Rachel Rosenthal’s cat – another example of chance collaboration.


[Unititled (1953). Wood box with lid and removable balsa wood-and-fabric cube. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase.]

During the period of his early Combines and red paintings, Rauschenberg collaborated with Jasper Johns on a large mixed-media set design for Minutiae a dance piece by Cunningham with music by Cage. While red was the principal color of the piece, it also brought in a variety of other textures and materials, including wood, mirrors, newspaper and even a paint color chart.

Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Minutiae
[Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Minutiae (1954). Oil, paper, fabric, newspaper, wood, paint sample color chart, graphite, metal, and plastic, with hanging mirror, on wood supports 84 1/2 x 81 x 30 1/2″ (214.6 x 205.7 x 77.5 cm) Private Collection Switzerland. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth.]

The music is very sparse, and the dance moves between very slow minimal motion and periods of frenzied activity. These contrasts are reflected in the set’s various materials and textures. Remy Charlip’s costume designs also seem to reflect the colors and patterns of the set.

In 1960, Rauschenberg participated in Jean Tinguely’s seminal performance piece Homage to New York. Tinguely and his collaborators assembled a large sculptural installation that was designed to self-destruct over the course of the performance, which took place in the sculpture garden of MoMA. Only a few fragments of the original piece remain today.

Fragment from Homage to New York
[Jean Tinguely. Fragment from Homage to New York (1960). Painted metal, fabric, tape, wood, and rubber tires. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the artist.]

Rauschenberg’s contributions included “The Money Thrower”, a mechanical contraption with springs, an electric heater, gunpowder, and silver dollars.

The Money Thrower
[The Money Thrower for Tinguely’s H.T.N.Y. (Homage to New York) [1960].  Electric heater with gunpowder, metal springs, twine, and silver dollars. 6 3/4 × 22 1/2 × 4″ (17.1 × 57.2 × 10.2 cm) Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Gift of Pontus Hultén]

One can also see the performative at play in some of his larger Combines, including Gold Standard, a collaborative piece with artist Alex Hay.


[Robert Rauschenberg and Alex Hay. Gold Standard (1964). Oil, paper, printed reproductions, metal speedometer, cardboard box, metal, fabric, wood, string, pair of men’s leather boots, and Coca-Cola bottles on gold fabric folding Japanese screen with electric light, rope, and ceramic dog on bicycle seat and wire-mesh base 84 1/4 × 142 1/8 × 51 1/4″ (214 × 361 × 130.2 cm) Glenstone.]

 

These collaborations and the increased presence of electrical elements and technology in Rauschenberg’s work foreshadowed E.A.T., the “Experiments in Art and Technology”, an organization which he co-founded with Billy Klüver, Robert Whitman and the engineer Fred Waldhauer. Among the works that came out of E.A.T. was Mud Muse, in which a large glass case filled with bentonite and water is excited by a sound recording fed into an air compression system. You can see a bit of the piece in this video:

Mud Muse. Robert Rauschenberg. #moma #nyc

A post shared by CatSynth / Amanda C (@catsynth) on

Mud Muse was a collaboration with Carl Adams, George Carr, Lewis Ellmore, Frank LaHaye and Jim Wilkinson.

Place is an important element of many pieces. This is perhaps no more apparent than in Tinguely’s Home to New York. But the influence of New York and the artists who coalesced there is apparent in his solo works as well, sometimes visually and sometimes spiritually. Eventually, Rauschenberg moved his home and studio to Captiva Island in Florida, where we worked on a larger scale and in a more solitary manner than during his days in New York. While there are currents that run through his work in both the New York and Captiva periods, the later Captiva works seemed to lack a bit of the edge of the earlier New York work – or perhaps it is simply part of bias towards the city that I always return to.


[Estate (1963). Oil and silkscreen-ink print on canvas 95 3/4 x 69 3/4″ (243.2 x 177.2 cm) Philadelphia Museum of Art. Gift of the Friends of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1967.]

There was far more in this exhibition of over 250 individual works than I can cover in this article. The continuity and focus on collaboration made it not too overwhelming to take it all in. I quite enjoyed the show, and it has given me a renewed appreciation overall for Robert Rauschenberg’s career and body of work.

James Chance and The Contortions, Seaport Music Festival, New York

This past weekend marked the 15th annual Seaport Music Festival at the South Street Seaport in New York, and we at CatSynth were there on Sunday afternoon to see James Chance and The Contortions.

James Chance and the Contortions

For those who are not familiar with James Chance, he was an icon in the New York post-punk and “No Wave” scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This is actually the second time we have seen him and his band, including collaborators Mac Gollehon on trumpet and valve trombone, Eric Klaastad, and Richard Dworkin on drums, in 2017, the previous being at the Knockout in Francisco in March.

For the Seaport show, they were joined by Chris Cochrane on guitar and Robert Aaron filling out the horn section on tenor saxophone.  The San Francisco performance was great, but this performance was even better.  There were the tight funky rhythms with blaring saxophone and trumpet lines along with Chance’s fancy footwork and intense stage presence that channeled James Brown, but the band as a whole was more of an imaginative musical whole.  Cochrane seemed more in tune with the rest of the band and shined on slower tune “Jaded” with a cool Robert-Fripp-like countermelody using an e-bow.  The combined horns of Gollehon and Aaron brought out the jazz and funk elements that separated James Chance from others in the No Wave scene.  And Klaastad was full and powerful on eight-string bass.

The energy of the performance fit well with the setting.  It was a beautiful late-summer day, with the Brooklyn Bridge and waterfront bathed in golden-hour sunlight, matched by Chance’s yellow blazer and trademark pompadour.

James Chance

It was also special to see him performing in New York, given his long history in the local music scene.  Later on walking in the West Village, we espied this old poster advertising one of his shows from the early 1980s on the wall of the former Bleecker Street Records (sadly, now a Starbucks).

James White and the Blacks

We would be remiss if we did not also mention the other bands we saw at the Seaport Music Festival.  The Contortions were preceded by Wolfmanhattan Project, a supergroup featuring Kid Congo Powers, Mick Collins (Dirtbombs/Gories), and Bob Bert (Sonic Youth).  They played to a quite enthusiastic audience.  The Nude Party combined sounds of hard rock scene of 1970s New York with a Southern edge from their hometown in North Carolina.  And Martin Rev (formerly of Suicide) played an energetic solo set on keyboards with backing rhythms from a variety of sources, including classic soul such as the Ohio Players.  A fine day of music on the waterfront.

[Jason Berry contributed to this article.]

Henry Kaiser Quartet Plays Steve Lacy at Piedmont Pianos

On an extraordinarily hot Saturday evening in Oakland, we and several others kept cool both physically and musically at Piedmont Pianos. The occasion was a concert of music by Steve Lacy, as interpreted by an ensemble organized by guitarist Henry Kaiser with saxophonist Bruce Ackley.

Steve Lacy is a visionary but often under appreciated musician in avant-garde jazz. He was a prolific composer especially in the 1970s with his sextet and is an influence on many of the musicians were regularly see and perform with. (You can see Jason Berry’s tribute comic to Steve Lacy in an earlier post.) Bruce Ackley and Henry Kaiser have long been interpreters of Lacy’s music. Ackley and other founding members of Rova shared a deep interest in Lacy, and connected with him in both Berkeley and Paris, ultimately recording their own album of his work in 1983. They teamed up with Kaiser for performances of Lacy’s Saxophone Special in the early 2000s and ultimately recorded the piece together with Kyle Bruckman. More recently, Kaiser and Ackley have put together a group to perform the music from The Wire, which included Tania Chen on piano, Danielle DeGruttola on cello, Andrea Centazzo on percussion, and Michael Manring on bass. The performance on this evening featured a subset of this group featuring Ackley, Kaiser, Chen, and DeGruttola.

Henry Kaiser Quartet

The concert featured many pieces from The Wire as well as a few others, and demonstrated the breadth of Steve Lacy’s composition from the brightly melodic “Hemline” (dedicated to Janis Joplin) to the extremely percussive and avant-garde “The Owl” (dedicated to Anton Webern), which featured Tania Chen and Kaiser blending the extended acoustic techniques of their respective instruments.

Henry Kaiser, Tania Chen, Robert Ackley

Even at its most percussive and noisy, Lacy’s music is quite melodic and structured. Indeed, many of the pieces were intended as songs, specifically songs for the voice of Irene Aebi. The melodies often revolved around simple repeating motifs, as in “Bound” (dedicated to Irene Aebi). On some pieces, including “Deadline”, DeGruttola and Kaiser acted as a string-based rhythm section, providing a foundation for the soprano-sax to interpret the melody and the piano to fill the space in between. Other moments provided lush harmonies, with Kaiser playing long pitch-bent chords on guitar and Chen playing frenetic harmonic fragments on piano. The energy can be intense at times, but then slower and haunting as in “Clouds”. Although structured, there is a lot of room for improvisation in the music, and the ensemble had great on stage chemistry for listening and playing off of one another, leaving empty space, and allowing Lacy’s original ideas to come out even as the performers added their own. The performance also included the title track from The Wire, “Twain”, “Ecstasy” and more.

This was my first visit to Piedmont Pianos. It is a large, friendly, and inviting space, dedicated entirely to the piano. Many were rather impressive, both in terms of their quality as instruments as well as their sticker prices, including the gorgeous Fazioli grand that Tania Chen played for the concert. However, I found myself most captivated by this remake of a 1930s Bluthne PH Piano, which is a work of visual as well as sonic art.  It is based on a design by noted Danish architect and inventor Poul Henningsen.

1931 PH Piano

We look forward to seeing more shows at Piedmont Pianos now that we have discovered it, and of course upcoming shows for all the musicians involved in this evening. Nor is this our last word on the music of Steve Lacy.

Mulatu Astatke w/ Meklit at The UC Theatre

We at CatSynth have long admired the music of Ethiopia from the 1960s and 1970s, with its blending of traditional rhythms and scales with funk, soul, and jazz. And there are few names as synonymous with Ethiopian jazz, or “Ethio-jazz” as Mulatu Astatke. Astatke developed his Ethio-jazz sound while studying in the U.K. and the United States, playing alongside with jazz and Latin artists, including many from Cuba, Venezuela and elsewhere. He combined the melodies and harmonies of Ethiopia with rhythms and instrumentations from his Western training and collaborations, along with his own unique complex system of poly-rhythms. There is also a strong element of funk is some of his work. The bulk of his groundbreaking recordings were made in the late 1960s and early 1970s during the “golden age” of Ethiopian music. After the fall of the Ethiopian Empire and the coup that brought a brutal new regime to power, the thriving music scene in Addis Ababa faded and these recordings fell into obscurity. But they were later prized by record collectors and eventually found a wider audience through reissues and inclusion in the French Éthiopiques series of records in the 1990s. Indeed, that was how he first came to my attention. Since then, Astatke and his music have had a renaissance, with frequent collaborations with musicians around the world, such as his 2008 recording with London based jazz/funk band The Heliocentrics and others. When we learned that he was coming to the U.C. Theater in Berkeley this summer, we know we had to be there.

The evening began with a set by Meklit, an Ethiopian-American musician, songwriter, and bandleader based in San Francisco.

Meklit

Like Astatke, Meklit combined jazz and Ethiopian influences in her soulful and energetic performance. Indeed, she was open about the influence of “Dr. Mulatu” on her own music and waxed poetic on being able to open for him in the concert. Meklit’s voice and movement were backed by a band that featured both a drum set and frame drum tupan, along with horns and bass. The result was continuous energy and rhythm that flowed from one composition to another, even when the tempo was slower. The group performed compositions from Meklit’s latest album The People Move and the Music Moves To as well as her earlier compositions and some more traditional tunes.

Meklit and band

And then it was time for the maestro himself to take the stage.

Mulatu Astatke

Mulatu Astatke

Mulatu began on his signature instrument, the vibraphone, with fast runs in his unique tonality that were picked up by the horn players. But he also played electric piano and drums during the set. The rhythms were intricate and often poly-rhythmic or contrapuntal, with lilting triple time and odd times that propelled the music forward. The harmonies had a dark color but still delivered with energy and exuberance. This was music to dance to, and many members of the audience did (including Meklit who was dancing in the aisle not far from our seat). There was a mixture of newer compositions (I thought I heard at least one familiar tune from his work with the Heliocentrics) as well as classic 1970s compositions. The band was solid and deft at Astatke’s complex rhythms and fit with his more recent work that includes musicians from host countries.

Mulatu Astatke, Jason Lindner, and other band members

We did espy Jason Lindner on keyboards, including synthesizers and electric piano. We had previously seen him with Donny McCaslin a couple of months ago. He brought a similar sense of harmony and tight playing across instruments to this performance. He had a command of the complex rhythms and also provided the lush electric-piano sounds that I quite enjoyed in Astatke’s classic recordings.

It was a wonderful and unique night of music, and the audience at the sold-out concert showed their appreciation for it. And having now seen Mulatu Astatke perform live, I will be hearing his recordings in a new light.

Feline NightLife at the California Academy of Sciences

Most Thursday evenings, the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco hosts Classroom Safari. I have long been fascinated by the small wild cats, so it was interesting to see them up close. The delightfully cheeky staff, however, started out the program with a “cat” that wasn’t a cat at all.

Genet

This feline-esque creature is actually a genet. It has many cat traits, including its appearance, claws, purring, etc. But it is it’s own subfamily of carnivorous mammal, quite distinct from cats. They bear a resemblance to fishing cats with the sleekness, but their snouts are a bit longer, more like a mongoose. Although genet species are native to Africa, they were introduced into southern Europe as the “common genets”.

Next up was a more familiar small cat, the ocelot, a commonly found wild cat of the Americas.

Ocelot

Ocelots are adorable, but they are wild animals, and our hosts were quick to point out that this ocelot in particular is quite ornery. Their membership in the leopard family is unmistakable. And they are superbly adapted for life in the forests as well as more desert-like scrub of their range.

One of the themes during the presentation was that these wild cats do not make good pets. It is not good for the animals themselves who retain their wild instincts. They also pose a danger for humans and other domesticated animals. One particularly amusing anecdote involved a “club” on Long Island where wealthy women kept ocelots as a fad, only to learn that ocelots eat small dogs. The next cat was another that is often kept as an exotic pet, the serval.

Serval

Graceful and athletic, with a sweet face, it’s understandable that people are captivated by these cats. Indeed, the Savannah breed is a cross between a serval and a domestic cat. But their wild instincts are honed for large ranges on the African savannahs and wetlands, including the Sohel region as well as sub-Saharan Africa. Such cats do not adapt well to domestic life.

The next and final cat was one that even as a kitten made our serval friend quite nervous.

Siberian Lynx kitten

This adorable baby is a Siberian Lynx. At first thought it was a caracal with the ear tufts, but once one sees the undercoat and the exceptionally large paws, it is unmistakably a lynx. It also came across a bit of a mini-lion, and as such there is no ambiguity about whether it would make a good pet or not. We’re happy to get a chance to see these cats, and grateful to Classroom Safari for sharing them with us, as well as their work rescuing wild cats.

Many local institutions were on hand as well to talk about their work with cats, wild and domestic. The was the Felidae Conversation Fund, a group that we at CatSynth have long supported. They are involved in small-cat research projects around the world and in our own backyard. The main project they presented at Feline NightLife was the Bay Are Puma Project.

Felidae

The results show that pumas are doing relatively well in some areas, but not others. In particular, pumas in the East Bay hills seem be quite fat and happy in their wild area amidst the urbanized surroundings. By contrast, Marin County is not sustaining a healthy population, most likely due to habit fragmentation and such. It’s a good reminder that wild cats are not just “exotic”, but animals in our neighborhoods.

On the domestic front, our friends at Cat Town were on hand as well. They are dedicated to helping the most vulnerable shelter cats of the East Bay through their fostering program as well as their cat cafe in Oakland, the first in the Bay Area. We wrote about our first visit to the cafe here. The San Francisco SPCA was also on hand, with several adoptable kittens including this adorable black baby.

Black Kitten

It is clearly a great opportunity to advocate for shelter pets and even maybe initiate some adoptions. It was crowded around the SPCA booth, and I can only imagine it might have been stressful for the kittens. But we also hope some found new homes as a result.

The Cat Man of West Oakland (aka Adam Myatt) is a one-man local institution advocating for domestic cats in our communities. He was worked extensively with Cat Town and co-founded their cat cafe. But he also continues his own work with Hoodcats, documenting the beautiful outdoor cats of Oakland neighborhoods. He had several of his photos, including some cute black cats. We managed to acquire one of those black-cat pictures, along with a classic print, from a vending machine he had a fund-raiser.

Cat Man of West Oakland pictures

We had a lot of fun at Feline Nightlife, with all the cats as well as the cocktails, people watching and general exhibits of NightLife at the California Academy of Sciences. It was a bit different, but we hope to be back for another themed night some time, perhaps something musical?

SF Symphony Music for a Modern Age: Ives, Thomas, Harrison, Antheil

Today we look back at the San Francisco Symphony’s “Music for a Modern Age” concert that took place in late June. This wasn’t simply a concert or even a concert focused on American music of the last 100 years. It was a theatrical event, with video projection, staging, and more.

The evening began with two pieces by Charles Ives. First, there was the incantation-like From the Steeples and the Mountains with its interconnecting tones on chimes, followed The Unanswered Question. This was a more complex piece both musically and logistically, as it featured a small wind-and-string ensemble on stage and an offstage antiphonal string ensemble (conducted by Christian Rief). The two groups alternated in a call-and-response form. It isn’t necessarily one ensemble asking the questions and another answering, as the wind instruments are involved in both, but it added another dimension to nature of the piece, which was deliberately unsettling but also hauntingly beautiful. Both Ives pieces featured video by Adam Larsen and lighting design by Luke Kritzeck.

Michael Tilson Thomas

Michael Tilson Thomas. Photo by Spencer Lowell. Courtesy of San Francisco Symphony.

The segment featured a piece by conductor and music director Michael Wilson Thomas, Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind. It was an interesting format, with the orchestra alongside a standard jazz/rock bar band with horns, bass, guitar, keyboard, and drums, complex video and lighting (again by Larsen and Kritzeck, respectively) and singers in elegant dress. The music freely mixed modernist orchestral sounds with jazz and rock idioms as the moved through the text by Carl Sandburg. The subject matter was quite dark – with images of death and decay and ruins of a once-great city that overflowed with pride – ”We are the greatest city. Nothing like us ever was” – that is now left to rats and other wildlife. But it was also a very playful and fun piece, especially in the sections with singing and dancing by the three lead vocalists (Measha Brueggergosman, Mikaela Bennett and Kara Dugan) around the stage in a cabaret style to the rhythms of the jazz band. MTT stated that his influences for the vocal sections included Sarah Vaughan and James Brown, as well as classical influences Leontyne Price and Igor Stravinsky. It is safe to say that we really liked this piece and the performance. Even at a length 32 minutes, it kept our attention and enjoyment throughout.

Lou Harrison was a major force in American music, but is also considered one of California’s own, blending influences from the landscape and culture of the state and bridging them with his interests Asian music. This simultaneously local and world character was well represented in the selections from Suite for Violin and American Gamelan. The American Gamelan is a collection of instruments inspired by the materials, timbres and tunings of traditional Indonesian gamelan but new and different. Harrison often combined his Asian and invented instruments with more conventional western orchestral instruments, in this solo violin played by Nadya Tichman. The piece unfolded as a series of movements. The first, “Threnody” was a lamentation as the title would suggest, showcasing the violin, but all four movements had a distinctly Asian or abstract sound from the preponderance of sounds from the American gamelan.

The final piece of the evening was George Antheil’s Jazz Symphony. It is musically and sonically quite different from Antheil’s most famous piece Ballet méchanique in that it is less noisy, more tonal, and focuses on traditional orchestral and popular instruments. Think of it as a predecessor of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which was in fact influenced by Jazz Symphony. Once again, however, this was not simply an orchestral performance. The lighting and video (this time by Clyde Scott created an enveloping environment reminiscent of a jazz-age cabaret or club. This was further enhanced by the dancers (directed by Patricia Birch) who wore 1920s-style costumes. The overall result of music, visuals, costuming and choreography was energetic, but also rather sexy – as our romanticized view of that era tends to be. There were a lot of fun and even comedic moments a the dancers attempted to distract and even “lead on” members of the orchestra (some of whom turned out to actually be dancers themselves who were soon replaced by the actual musicians).

Overall this was a very strong concert, and perhaps one of my favorites I have seen with the SF Symphony – and we have been going to quite a few in the past year or so. As the symphony often has intriguing programming outside the traditional catalog of 19th century classical works, we certainly expect to be back again soon. I do leave the experience pondering what it means to be “modern” or be in a “modern age”, however. Perhaps the span of time marked by these compositions is in some ways more “modern” than the period that is unfolding now, but that is a discussion for another time.

Outsound New Music Summit: Karen Borca and Positive Knowledge

The final night of the Outsound New Music Summit featured a performance by Karen Borca, returning to the Bay Area for the first time in two decades. For those not familiar with Borca, she is one of the few bassoonists in avant-garde jazz and free jazz; and she had a long and illustrious career playing with many of the greats in the field, including Cecil Taylor and Jimmy Lyons. On this night, she was joined by two figures in the local jazz and experimental-music scene, Lisa Mezzacappa on bass and Donald Robinson on drums.

Karen Borca trio
[ Karen Borca Trio (Karen Borca, Lisa Mezzacappa, Donald Robinson). Photo: peterbkaars.com]

Bassoon is a hard instrument to play in any genre, let alone jazz. But Borca made it sound effortless. There were sections that featured the instrument’s well-known lower registers, but also higher melodic lines and runs more often associated with saxophones. Interestingly, Borca discussed how she started on saxophone in school and was shredding the instrument until she was advised to try the bassoon, as it was both more challenging and more likely to make her stand out for scholarships and such. And this turned out to be the right decision. Musically, things unfolded with sparse lines and harmonies and the three performers bounced off one another. The best moments were when the notes from bassoon, bass and drum all seemed to form a single line.

Karen Borca
[ Karen Borca. Photo: peterbkaars.com]

It was a shorter set, but very well received with audience clamoring for more afterwards. But I can understand that the music took a lot of energy. But it was a great experience, and Karen Borca has now taken her place alongside Wendy Carlos, Pauline Oliveros, and all the other women in music that I want to be when I finally grow up.

The Karen Borca trio was preceded by Positive Knowledge, a project of Oluyemi Thomas (bass clarinet and other instruments) and Ijeoma Thomas (voice). They were joined by Hamir Atwal on drums.

Positive Knowledge
[Positive Knowledge. Clockwise from left: Oluyemi Thomas, Hamir Atwal, Ijeoma Thomas.]

I have heard Positive Knowledge before, and know how their music unfolds. There are sparse, scratchy lines from Oluyemi’s bass clarinet and other wind instruments, including a shawm (or similar instrument), interspersed with Ijeoma’s vocals, which include passages of spoken word as well as more extended sounds. The music is at times quite percussive, but also melodic and energetic. There was an exuberance and joy in the sound, even in the moments that seemed to be melancholy. And Atwal’s drums added a foundational underpinning the sustained the set.

So this concludes our coverage of the 2017 Outsound Music Summit. It was the longest we have covered, with five concerts plus Touch the Gear. It can be a bit of overload, so much music and fellowship in a week, but worth the effort. We look forward to next year, and the inspiration for all the musical adventures between now and then.

Outsound New Music Summit: VOCO and Surplus 1980

Each night of the Outsound New Music Summit is different, but some more different than others. Such was the case with the fourth night of this year’s festival which featured two loud rock-oriented bands.

The tone of the evening was set with the opening sounds from VOCO.

Voco

The group features Alex Yeung (of Say Bok Gwai) on guitar, Tim Sullivan on drums, and Josh Martin on bass, with guest Joshua Marshall on saxophone. Think rock power trio meets experimental jazz. The band is at times punk, at times metal, at times experimental, but with serious chops. There were the periods that were Zappa-esque, mixing rock and experimental guitar with saxophone and bass runs. There was the dub-metal onslaught at times, reminiscent of the bands Last Exit, or Blind Idiot God. And there was also softer complex drones and percussive sounds from Yeung on guitar, with an array of interconnected effects pedals.

Alex Yeung
[Alex Yeung. Photo peterbkaars.com]

These more experimental moments, enhanced with electronics, brought to mind the story about the band’s name coming from Neal Stephenson’s science-fiction writing (discussed during the pre-show Q&A). In contrast, there was a particularly fun moment when drummer Andre Custodio walked up on stage from the audience and sat down at a second drum set. What ensued was an epic double-drum performance that was much funkier than the set as a whole, and also reminiscent of the multiple drum sets we saw a few weeks earlier with King Crimson. This was followed by a final segment that brought the set to a sonically intense close.

It was then time for Surplus 1980 to take the stage.

Surplus 1980
[Surplus 1980. Photo peterbkaars.com]

I did play with Surplus 1980 as part of the regular lineup from 2012 through 2015. I have seen them several times since then, but I have to say the current lineup and set has taken the band to a new level. The performance is tighter and there is increased variety among the tunes. The set began with two new tunes: “Pigeon Obstacle Course” and “Temporarily Present”. “Pigeon” was a short instrumental with Moe! Staiano and Melne wearing pigeon heads.

Surplus 1980 Pigeons

“Temporarily Present” was a longer song, about 10 minutes, and quite reminiscent of early New Wave from late 1970s and early 1980s. Indeed, the call-and-response vocals between Moe! and Melne and new bassist HR Nelly reminded me a bit of early B-52s performances. The remaining “newish” song was “Question After Ended Question”, which features members of the band playing tuned bundt pans.

After this, the band continued with some familiar songs. I have to admit, I did feel pretty nostalgic hopping up and down during “Failure of Commitment” as I did when I played with them. The new feature on that tune was Moe! on saz. And Melne has come into her own on staging, providing energy and character enough of the whole band. One often just sees her as a bright pink blur as she dances about the stage.

Melne Melne

Guitarist Bill Wolter was solid as always; and Mark Pino was a force of nature on drums, even overcoming a somewhat rebellious kick drum (you can read more about it on his blog.

Outsound New Music Summit: neem and Sheldon Brown’s Blood of the Air

The third concert of this year’s Outsound New Music Summit was truly a study in contrasts between minimalism and large-ensemble exuberance.

First up was neem, the duo project of Gabby Fluke-Mogul (violin) and Kelley Kipperman (double bass).

neem (Kelley Kipperman and Gabby Fluke-Mogul)
[neem (Kelley Kipperman and Gabby Fluke-Mogul). Photo: peterbkaars.com.]

This was minimalism in its truest form, starting with the deliberate silence led by Fluke-Mogul before the first note was intoned. The music unfolded in a similarly sparse manner, with plenty of room to observe the details the sounds from both artists’ extended techniques. Although open and spacious, there was also an intimacy in some sections where the two closely followed one another musically, bouncing sounds from one instrument to the other. Whether intentional or not, one could envision the music unfolding in a natural landscape.

By contrast, Sheldon Brown’s Blood of the Air, was large and exuberant, and featured a ten-piece ensemble. In addition to Brown, the group featured Darren Johnston on trumpet, Lorin Benedict on voice, Andrew Joron on theremin, Dave MacNab and John Finkbeiner on guitars, Dan Zemelman on piano, and Vijay Anderson and Alan Hall on drums.

Sheldon Brown's Blood of the Air
[Sheldon Brown’s Blood of the Air. Photo: peterbkaars.com.]

The work centered around “speech melodies” created from readings by the Beat-era poet Philip Lamantia. Each piece began with a recording of Lamantia reading his poetry, and one of the musicians (often Brown himself) responding in a melody that matched the prosody of Lamentia’s speech. The melodies served as points of departure with the ensemble responding with rhythmic vamps, countermelodies, and solos. When I wasn’t watching Brown’s solos or drawn into Lorin Benedict’s frenetic scatting, I found myself captivated by Zemelman’s virtuosic piano playing, both comping and solo. It was both musically and technically impressive. But the group functioned together as a unit, even in a setting that featured a lot of improvisation, and remained tight.

It is interesting to note that despite the musical contrast, both groups were very much focused on listening as a central element. For Blood of the Air, it was listening to the melody of the rhythm and poetry, and then to one other to form the tightness and musical phrasing of the ensemble. In neem, it was also listening and responding to one another, but was also “deep listening” to the individual sounds of the instruments, and especially to the spaces between the sounds. Yes, all good music requires disciplined listening, but sometimes it’s good to step back and take note of it.

Outsound New Music Summit: McCaslin/Reed/Pino Trio, and Animals & Giraffes

The second concert of the Outsound New Music Summit brought together two ensembles focused on more abstract improvisation.

The first set was a trio featuring Collette McCaslin, Amy Reed, and Mark Pino. McCaslin has collaborated with both Reed and Pino in other projects, but I think this is the first time the three of them have performed together as a unit. McCaslin sat stage right in a sitting meditative pose, surrounded by various percussion instruments as well as her cornet and soprano saxophone. Reed was in the center with her guitar, and Pino on stage left with an array of percussion.

McCaslin, Reed, Pino

The music was very sparse, with the space in between the sounds holding as much importance as the sounds from the instruments. And it worked. Each note seemed deliberately placed and balanced, and the space gave the audience time to mentally sit with the sounds. McCaslin’s opening gong tones were followed by a gentle flurry of punctuated hits and scratches from Reed and Pino on guitar and percussion, respectively. At other times her horns weaved in and out of percussive elements from the others. The trio clearly has learned to listen to one another as they have played together. In a sense, they were a percussion ensemble, as Reed mostly played her guitar with extended techniques that made it into another percussion instrument and there were few runs of pitched sounds outside of McCaslin’s saxophone and cornet sections. However, there was also a memorable moment were she paused and Reed and Pino started to groove on a jazzier guitar-and-drum riff. This was in contrast to the minimalism of the rest of the set and stood out, but I quite liked it musically and it showed the musicians’ versatility. I hope they continue to develop this trio project.

Animals and Giraffes also brought back some familiar artists in a new setting. Saxophonist and composer Phillip Greenlief teamed up with writer and performer Claudia La Rocco to explore text and sound in a musical setting. They were joined for this performance by Evelyn Davis on prepared piano, Aurora Josephson on voice, and John Shiurba on guitar.

Animals and Giraffes

La Rocco’s reading provided the overall structure for the music. The words seemed to be drawn from a variety of sources that included the pre-concert Q&A session, with references to the salsa band practicing in another part of the Community Music Center and one of the questions that explored the artists’ popular-music interests. In that sense, the text was as much an improvised element as the instrumental music – Aurora Josephson’s voice being a co-equal instrument with guitar, reeds, and piano in this ensemble. Greenlief’s saxophone and clarinet provided a steady counterpoint to the text; and Shiurba and Josephson added much color and texture to the mix. Evelyn Davis’ prepared-piano performance stood out as the most energetic and embodied performance, with quick changes and motions both on the traditional keyboard and inside the instrument with her wide variety of preparations.

There was a large and appreciative audience, which is always great to see both for the artists and for Outsound. it’s a reminder that quieter music can still get a strong response. We look forward to the next nights of the Summit and will report on them as they unfold.