John Cage, The Music of ChAnGEs: Variation VIII

Today we review The Music of ChAnGEs: Variation VIII, a concert in a yearlong series by sfSound celebrating John Cage’s centennial. This particular concert, which took place at The Lab, featured some of Cage’s more adventurous and experimental compositions, including works involving electronics and noise elements. These more conceptual pieces involved use of simple electronics, household objects, or unexpected musical sources. The scores are mostly based on sequences of instructions with absolute or relative time scales. In addition to 4’33” (which was not on the program), these are among the most celebrated examples of Cage’s music, but also among the more misunderstood and even reviled. I fall unequivocally on the side of celebration of these more radical and pioneering works, and thus I was privileged to be able to participate in this concert myself as well.

The pre-concert and intermission music featured an interpretation of One3 by John Leidecker (aka Wobbly). The piece contains the instruction to “arrange the soundsystem so that the whole hall is on the edge of feedback, without feeding back. The result is an abstract texture that goes from silent to occasionally quite loud at the unstable boundary, but the sound was also blended with the ambience of the conversations and commotion in the hall.

The formal concert opened with Radio Music. In this piece, each performer is given a written part with a sequence of AM radio frequencies to which to tune his or her radio (traditional analog broadcast AM/FM radios are required to perform this piece, no internet or digital-broadcast radios allowed). What, if anything, is audible on those particular frequencies is of course up to chance – sometimes it is just static, while other times one tunes into an actual station. Additionally, the performers were free to walk around the hall and to interpret the flow of time among positions in their part. The result was a spatialized electronic music texture with the radios playing the part of synthesizers with noise generators, distorted sine waves, and the occasional sampled recording. Particular combinations of sportscasts, music and tuning noise could be quite humorous.

This was followed by Music for Amplified Toy Pianos. Cage is often credited with bringing the toy piano into the realm of serious music with his 1948 Suite for Toy Piano. In Music for Amplified Toy Pianos, he pushes the instrument further with the use of contract microphones, amplification, and more percussive interactions with the instrument itself. Like Radio Music, the score involves a series of instructions, indicating the pitches to be played by each performer, when to perform a “sound effect” on the instrument, and when to change the level on the associated amplifier – but in this piece, the times are given in absolute units. This was my station for the performance, with my own toy piano that was rescued from curbside dumping in New York. It has certainly had a better life at CatSynth HQ, and then the opportunity to appear in a concert like this!

Performing this piece accurately requires concentration – one must pay attention to the cues on his or her own part without being distracted by the other sounds. Nonetheless, like all ensemble music one is listening to overall sound. The texture of the piece is quite sparse, with individual disjoint notes punctuated by percussive sounds (hits, scrapes, etc.). The amplification changes add a strange sort of dynamic expression especially as the ear inevitably tries to pull together disparate parts into short phrases. There was not as much empty space in this performance as I heard on earlier recordings of the piece, in part due to our interpretation of the noise elements, which included longer-duration sounds like scraping a comb on the piano and the interaction of the amplifiers with ambient and electrical noises. It was a delight to play and to be able to at least partially listen to. The other performers for the piece included Kyle Bruckmann, Daniel Cullen, Tom Djll, Sivan Eldar, Matt Ingalls, and Hadley McCarroll.

The only piece on the program not written by Cage himself was a tribute by Christopher Burns entitled Unlit Cigarettes (for John Cage). Ostensibly a multi-movement chamber piece with voices, winds, and strings, it followed the theme of other pieces in the concert with unusual patterns and instructions for the performers. Among the most interesting were the instructions for one or more performers to play on another performer’s main instrument. For example, multiple performers attempted to make sounds from Burns’ guitar while he held it. There was also a recitation of a familiar-sounding text by Gertrude Stein in one movement. Her writing often involves repeated words and phrases, which made for very contrapuntal and rhythmic music. Burns was joined in the performance by Kyle Bruckmann on oboe, Tom Dambly on trumpet, Tara Flandreau on violin, Matt Ingalls on clarinet, John Ingle on saxophone, and Hadley McCarroll on voice. You can hear a bit of the performance in this video:

This was followed by one of Cage’s most conceptual pieces, 0’00”. The score of the piece consists of the single statement “In a situation provided with maximum amplification (no feedback), perform a disciplined action.” It is often subtitled 4’33” no. 2, and although it has very little in common with the original 4’33”, it does represent another extreme of what can be considered music. The “deliberate action” in this particular performance involved Matt Ingalls’ sitting at a desk and writing checks to pay the musicians. A contact microphone picked up the sound of the writing and it was amplified into the hall. It wasn’t the most pleasant sound even when judged in comparison to the other extreme sounds of the evening, but it was a faithful rendition and the action was a humorous and appropriate choice for this concert. (And it’s nice to get paid for playing experimental music.)

[Photo by Tom Djll.]

The final piece before the intermission was Living Room Music. Dating back to 1940, this was one of Cage’s earlier pieces and explores the use of household objects as percussion instruments. Ingalls was again seated behind the desk from 0’00” with the other performers (Matthew Goodheart, Tom Dambly, and Hadley McCarroll) arranged to either side. Despite what was radical instrumentation for a concert setting at the time, the rhythmic work seemed rather conventional, with repeated polyrhythms and other patterns from idiomatic music. It was the combination of the staging, to look more like a room in a house with the desk and books, and the timbres of the “instruments” that allowed the concept of the piece to enter the listening experience. Once one accepted the setting, then focus shifts to the rhythms.


The concert resumed with Music for Six, a performance of Cage’s modular piece Music for _____ by six musicians, essentially the same ensemble that played Christopher Burns’ piece minus Burns. This is one the most flexible and reconfigurable pieces, even more of a “composition generating kit” than the others. Although the instrumentation for this performance was traditional chamber instruments, the piece calls for extensive use of microtones that push the instruments into different sonic territory.

The most unusual instrumentation of the evening was in Inlets (Improvisation III). The piece called for three amplified water-filled conch shells, one conch shell played like a trumpet, and pre-recorded sounds of fire. The honor of playing the conch shells fell to Matt Ingalls, Tom Dambly and Tom Djll.

There was much of the expected splashing and gurgling sounds that one would expect from the conch shells, but also surprising details such as short percussive sequences from the action of the water. These instruments were quite difficult for the performers to control, which makes the resulting music more unpredictable. At times it was also difficult to tell what was generated by the water in the shells and the fire in the recording, adding an aspect of “elemental ambiguity” to one’s enjoyment of the piece.

The concert concluded with a performance of Cartridge Music. The piece has a similar structure to Music for Amplified Toy Pianos and Inlets, but distills the concept further to just modified phonograph cartridges – realized for this performance using contact microphones – and found objects. The piece unfolded with each performer rubbing his or her respective found objects against the microphones according to the timed instructions in the score. The resulting music was once again quite sparse, but with a wide dynamic and timbral range from the array of objects used, including Matthew Goodheart’s cymbals (a miniature version of the system he presented a few weeks earlier at the Outsound Music Summit), metal objects in a bowl played by Kyle Bruckmann, and many others. By following the changes in texture, density and volume, one can start to hear phrasing and form in the music.

In listening to (and in some cases performing) the works in this concert with their emphasis on generative techniques, “compositional tools” and indeterminacy, I could not help but think of Fluxus, for which Cage was an important influence (though not technically a member). The connection to Fluxus provides a strong conceptual context as well as connection to visuals of the time and place where Cage created these works. Nonetheless, they all still stand out as excellent on a purely musical level in the concert setting, with sounds and textures that were quite enjoyable to listen to despite Cage’s undeserved reputation of writing impenetrable music. The concert was also well attended, with a full house packed into The Lab. A very successful night all around.

DJ CatSynth on The World of Wonder (KUSF in Exile)

Tonight at midnight PST, I will be guest-hosting Matt Davignon’s program The World of Wonder on San Francisco Community Radio (KUSF in Exile). You can listen live here at midnight, or find an archived edition at the same location afterwards for those who aren’t awake at that time (it’s 3AM EDT in the US, for example).

The program will feature a variety of unusual music, including several friends from here in the Bay Area and New York, as well as some classics of modern electro-acoustic music. If you enjoy the musical offerings of this site, I invite you to tune in!

Outsound Music Summit: Touch the Gear and Composers’ Forum

The 2012 Outsound Music Summit began this Sunday with the annual Touch the Gear Expo. Visitors have a chance to see and try out the equipment used by musicians and sound artists. Although we had fewer presenters this year, we had a variety of instruments and devices, and a fairly sizable crowd of visitors.

In the above image, we see Matt Davignon presenting effects pedals driven using a Casio keyboard, and Joe Lasquo presenting laptop-based programs with Max/MSP.

One of the fun aspects of Touch the Gear is getting one’s hands on instruments that one only sees on stage. For me, one of those opportunities came when I got to play the Arp 2600 that Benjamin Ethan Tinker brought to the event. It was only a little over a week earlier that I heard him play it at the Luggage Store Gallery.

But it there is the discovery of new and never-before seen musical creations. The most unusual for me was this creation by Omer Gal:

The organic head-like element contained several mechanical and optical sensors that one could touch or put ones hands near to affect the sound. A second part of the installation included a mechanical “robot” that played a set of strings with a pickup. The performer can affect the operation of the robot and the sound through electronic controls.

Other unusual electro-acoustic instruments were presented by Walter Funk and Dan Ake. Walter Funk’s metallic instrument called Ulysses offered opportunities to explore different resonances and timbres through sheets of metal, rods and springs arrayed throughout its body. Dan Ake’s invention was a series of gridded metal inside a large wooden box, than one could excite with a variety of objects, such as bows, rods and a glove with long wooden fingertips.

I was presenting at this event as well. I always try to bring something a little different each year. This year, I decided to go with two ends of the technology spectrum: an iPad running Animoog and iMS-20, and a Eurorack modular system with a Metasonx R53, Make Noise Echophon, Malekko Heavy Industry Anti-Oscillator, and several others. Both technologies caught people’s attention, with some more excited about the analog modular system with its physical knobs and cables, and others gravitating towards the iPad.

Andrew Wayne presented a very tangible set of objects containing unpopped popcorn kernels in aluminum trays and other contains, augmented with contact microphones and electronic effects. He assembled his own contact mics to use with these acoustic sources.

Other participants included CJ Borosque with an Alesis Air, Laurie Amat with vocal and ambient sources into a Line 6, and a surface by April-Jeanie Tang with rubber-ball mallets. Through contact miss, the action of the rubber mallets and the surface and transmitted to effects processors for a deep, haunting sound. Tom Duff presented a series of software processes that could be randomly controlled from a MIDI controller. Despite the randomness, it was quite expressive after playing with it and dialing in on particular processes.  He also had a couple of critters from Bleep Labs.

Long-time participants Tom Nunn and David Michalak were back again with the most recent incarnations of the sketch box. You can read an interview with Tun Nunn and discussion of his musical inventions here on CatSynth.

And finally, Bob Marsh was back with his intriguing and “charismatic” metal creations.

I do tend to gravitate towards metallic sounds when looking for new material, something which seems to be common among those who are looking for invention and discovery in musical sound.


On Monday night, the summit continued with the Composers Symposium, a panel discussion featuring four of the composers in this year’s festival: John Shiurba, Christina Stanley, Benjamin Ethan Tinker, and Matthew Goodheart were on hand to discuss their work. And as a first this year, I acted as the moderator for the evening. It was a great experience, and I did not have to do very much besides seeding the discussion with a few questions. From those starting points, a lively discussion ensued among the composers as well as dialog with the audience. We talked about the role of notation in each of the composers’ music, such as Stanley’s use of paintings as her scores and Shiurba’s use of graphical elements derived from print newspapers (a major theme of his piece this year); and the dual role that these artists played as both composers and performers. One of the things that made this panel work was the variety of musical disciplines, styles and backgrounds among the participants, as well as the interest that the audience brought to the discussion with their numerous questions. Everyone had criticisms of the terms “new music” and “experimental music” that are often used as blanket designations for the music featured in the summit and indeed much of the music reviewed here on CatSynth, but that was to be expected. The two hours of the discussion went by rather quickly, and I’d like to think everyone on the panel and in the audience found the experience enjoyable and illuminating. I would definitely like to do more of these at events in the future.

Reconnaissance Fly and Vegan Butcher, Berkeley Arts Festival

Last month, the five members of Reconnaissance Fly took a break from the recording studio to bring their “charmingly incoherent art pop” to the Berkeley Arts Festival in a concert that also featured the band Vegan Butcher.

The evening began with the debut performance the Vegan Butcher, with John Shiurba on guitar, Wil Hendricks on bass, Suki O’Kane on drums, and Val Esway on “occasional voice.” The band played several compositions by John Shiurba, all of which were written in January and exclusively used the “nine-note January scale.” The pieces all had inventive titles like “These Ones Are All Stretched Out And Bifurcated”; and Shiurba stated that he wrote the lyrics before we was completely awake.


[Photo by Michael Zelner.]

The first song started out with a soft repeating pattern with quiet drums and a gentle guitar motive. Just when one thought this might continue indefinitely, loud drum and guitar hits announced the arrival of full-on rock mode. There was guitar with distortion and minor harmonies over a slow driving rhythm, overlaid with oddly modal melodies. The overall effect was reminiscent of psychedelic rock of the late 1960s and early 1970s – indeed, I thought I heard a bit of Nico / Velvet Underground in Val Esway’s vocals. You can hear the band for yourself in the following video:

Then it was time for Reconnaissance Fly to take the stage. From the start, our energy and vibe was quite different from Vegan Butcher’s dreamy and otherworldly sounds. Our current set based on spoetry (spam poetry) jumps around from style to style quickly, and has an overall humorous character. We opened as we usually do with “Small Chinese Gong”, which set the tone. You can hear a brief excerpt in this video:

All the recent studio work has paid off for live performances. We were much tighter on the challenging medley “Electric Rock Like A Cat / sanse is crede nza” than in previous performances, including those tough unisons. “As Neat As Wax” always stands out in live performances, too. This was also first time in a while that we included “The Animal Trade in Canada” in our live set, with a much stronger interpretation than in the past.


[Photo by Michael Zelner.]

Reconnaissance Fly features Chris Broderick on woodwinds (clarinet, bass clarinet and saxophone), Amar Chaudhary on keyboards and electronics, Polly Moller and voice and flute, Larry the O on drums, and Tim Walters on bass and electronics.

Overall it was a great show for both bands. For those of you who didn’t have a chance to hear it live, we will be playing together again on August 24 at the Starry Plough (also in Berkeley), along with Jack O’ The Clock.

Reconnaissance Fly in Berkeley, June 20

Tomorrow night, Reconnaissance Fly will take a break from the studio for a live performance in Berkeley.  We will be sharing the bill with our friends Vegan Butcher.

The Berkeley Arts Festival Wednesday/Sunday night series continues with the charmingly incoherent art-pop of Reconnaissance Fly and the gritty psychedelic honey-drips of Vegan Butcher.

The Berkeley Arts Festival space is located at 2133 University Avenue, Berkeley, CA USA.

BAND BIOS:

Reconnaissance Fly is a band of composers who have reclaimed the best spam poetry (“spoetry”) for humanity, deploying jazz, progressive rock, funk, samba, free improvisation, a small Chinese gong, and an arsenal of wind instruments against the dastardly internet robots.

The five members of Reconnaissance Fly are Chris Broderick playing clarinet, bass clarinet and C-melody saxophone; Amar Chaudhary with keyboard and electronics, Polly Moller with flute, bass flute and voice; Larry the O on the drums, and Tim Walters on bass guitar and electronics. When not playing live around the Bay Area they are recording their debut album Flower Futures, awakening their inner Peter Frampton, and denouncing pineapple pizza.

http://reconnaissancefly.bandcamp.com/

Vegan Butcher plays music of John Shiurba. Only music written in January is allowed. The nine note January scale is used exclusively. The lyrics were written accidentally before John was completely awake. In addition to John on guitar, Suki O’Kane plays drums, Wil Hendricks plays bass, and Val Esway occasionally sings.

Suggested ticket donation is $10 at the door.

 

I have to admit, I like our music being described as “charmingly incoherent art-pop.”  I hope we continue to use that.

ReCardiacs Fly, Surplus 1980, PG13 at Hemlock Tavern

Today we look back at ReCardiacs Fly’s show at the Hemlock Tavern in San Francisco last month. It was a great show of music in prog and post-punk styles together with experimental/avant-rock groups PG13 and Surplus 1980.

The evening opened with PG13, the “power trio” of Phillip Greenlief (saxophone), John Shiurba (guitar), and Thomas Scandura (drums). I had originally heard them a few years back at the Skronkathon. They did have the loud-rock-trio thing down at the time, but in the intervening time they have become more finessed and detailed without losing that original intensity.

[Photo by Michael Zelner.]

They opened with driving syncopated rhythm and power chords. The rhythmic textures brought all three instruments (saxophone, guitar and drums) together. This was undeniably rock – held together by Scandura’s drums – but later sections did have a more jazz-like quality, which I thought worked when done with sudden changes in volume and texture. I of course did like that one of their songs (composed by Greenlief) was The Totally Unbelieable but Absolutely True Adventures of George Cleaver the Cat. Loud music with complex rhythms about cats works for me any day.


[Photo by Michael Zelner.]

After PG13, it was time for us to take the stage. For those who have not read the previous ReCardiacs Fly articles, we are (possibly the only) tribute group for the UK avant-prog band Cardiacs. We model our line-up after the original band, and don suits and creepy theatrical makeup reminiscent of their appearance in the 1980s. This music is complex and intense, and challenging to play, but a lot of fun for us and for the audience when we pull it off. A few songs came out quite well at the Hemlock, in particular “Burn Your House Brown”, which you can see in this video:

“In a City Lining” also came out quite well. On a technical level, the sound was the best we have had for any ReCardiacs Fly show, with the mix between the amps, speakers and acoustic space balanced so that we could hear everyone even in the loud parts. And we were quite loud, appropriately so.

As always, the performance was full of energy, and we got a great response from the modestly sized but enthusiastic audience. The full lineup of the band features Polly Moller on lead vocals, Masc Laspina on guitar, Chris Broderick on saxophone, Tim Walters on bass, Amar Chaudhary on keyboard,
Moe! Staiano on drums, and Suki O’kane on percussion.

The final set features Surplus 1980, a post-punk project led by Moe! Staiano with a rotating cast of band members. This evening features Moe! together with Bill Wolter and Melne Murphy on guitars, with Thomas Scandura returning on drums and Jason Hoopes on bass.


[Photo by Michael Zelner.]

The band was incredibly tight rhythmically and harmonically, as if they had been playing these songs together for years. In particular, there is the challenge of getting all three guitars to be in sync, which they were able to do, will Bill Wolter front and center. And the group’s lyrics were often quite funny (this in the context of our just completed Cardiacs’ set). It’s difficult to recall any particular line at this point, but they definitely worked at the time. Most of the musical techniques were standard but with complex rhythms and phrases, but Wolter did have quite an array of effects pedals, and during one of the final songs Moe! pulled out a vinyl record which he proceeded to use on his guitar like a pick and destroyed in the process (the record, not the guitar).

Overall, it was fun night of loud rock music from friends and colleagues whom I usually here in more overtly experimental contexts. I hope our bands will get a chance to play together again sometime.

Flower Futures Futures: Our Reconnaissance Fly demo tracks

We have been hard at work on our first Reconnaissance Fly album Flower Futures this year. And things are coming together. We have put together this set of demo tracks Flower Futures Futures available as a free download. Enjoy!

A taste of our spong cycle and album-in-progress, Flower Futures. We set the fine spoetry found in our inboxes to music, reclaiming a sliver of botspace for humanity.
credits
released 29 March 2012
Chris Broderick: c-melody saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet
Amar Chaudhary: electric piano, piano, organ, electronics
Polly Moller: voice, flute
Larry The O: drums, percussion
Tim Walters: bass, electronics

Reconnaissance Fly in Oakland and Sacramento next week

The first performances of 2012 both feature Reconnaissance Fly with our new expanded lineup.  Chris Broderick joins myself, Polly Moller, Tim Walters, and Larry The O.  We will be back at Luna’s Cafe in Sacramento on Monday and then at in Oakland on Wednesday.  Details below:

Monday, January 9, 2012, 7:30PM
Luna’s Cafe, 1414 16th Street, Sacramento, CA

Reconnaissance Fly is back hoping to get stuck in the Luna’s Cafe guacamole once more. Phillip Greenlief & Jorrit Dykstra will play transcendent saxophones and Luke Westbrook will make guitar magic.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012, 9PM
Light A Fire Returns! Luke Westbrook/Grex/Reconnaissance Fly
Revolution Cafe,1610 7th St, Oakland, CA

The Light A Fire series returns! This will be the pilot show for a brand new curation–if we turn out, this series stands to provide a regular home for the local creative music scene. Come out and enjoy the weird and wonderful environs of Cafe Rev in Oakland (fully stocked with great food, coffee, a stage area, and copious seating…)

1. Luke Westbrook/Vijay Anderson Duo
Luke Westbrook (guitar), Vijay Anderson (drums)
westbrookmusic.net

2. Grex
Karl Evangelista (guitar, vox, etc.), Rei Scampavia (keys, vox, etc.)
www.grexsounds.com

3. Reconnaissance Fly
Chris Broderick, Amar Chaudhary, Polly Moller, Larry The O, and Tim Walters
www.myspace.com/reconnaissancefly

Space Music Night at the Luggage Store Gallery, San Francisco

Earlier this month, I participated in a show at the Luggage Store Gallery in San Francisco called Space Music Night that turned out to be quite memorable. So what exactly is “space music”? It is not straightforward to come up with a definitive answer, except that it should reflect some sense of “outer space” as one might imagine it. Or, perhaps more accurately, as people might have imagined it in the 1960s and 1970s. The music that we performed that evoke “space rock” that one might associate with early Pink Floyd or Gong, but also more freeform ambient soundscapes. The latter comes closer to ambient music one might hear on NPR’s “Hearts of Space” program but without crossing over that dangerous line into New Age. The music was certainly contemplative at times, but retained an edge to it and often veered back to rock and jam idioms, and moved back and forth between defined harmonies and more abstract timbres. The “space” effect was also heightened by having a dark room with abstract video projections by Tim Thompson.

The show was divided into two sets with four musicians each. Although many of us were familiar to one another, this was the first each each set of four played together as a group. The first set featured Matt Davignon on drum machines and effects, Kristen Miltner on electronics, Karl Evangelista on guitar, and Andrew Joron on theremin. Musically, this set had a very thick electronic texture with a soft beat from the drum machines that came in and out of presence. The electronics and heavily processed guitar provided anxious harmonies, and the theremin seemed to be narrating a space story with warbles and slides that approached the rhythm of human speech. At moments, the rhythm dropped out altogether, while at others it came closer to an extended jam. You can hear a bit of the set in the following video:

In the second set, I performed with iPad and the Dave Smith Evolver, along with David Leikam, Sheila Bosco on drums, and Steve Abbate on guitar. Perhaps it was the instrumentation of the set, or the musical leanings of the performers (including myself) towards strong rhythm, but we very quickly gelled into a steady rock jam rhythm that extended for most of the length of the set except for avery deliberate breaks. I mostly used Sunrizer on the iPad to provide ethereal harmonies to set again Leikam’s Moog Rogue and his “electric bass cello” and provide structure for melodic improvisation. This was definitely approaching the “space rock” idiom that inspired the evening.

I was quite happy with how well we able to play together despite having not played together before, and indeed a few people afterwards expressed some surprise that we hadn’t. But perhaps we will get a chance to play again.