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.

Outsound Music Summit: Face Music

The concert portion of the Outsound Music Summit began on Wednesday with an evening entitled “Face Music.” The four solo performances all centered around voice, but more on unusual uses of the voice and the face for making musical sounds than on traditional singing. Within this context, each of the performances was quite different.


[Theresa Wong. Photo: PeterBKaars.com. (Click image to enlarge.)]

Theresa Wong opened the concert by stepping out in front of the stage with only a microphone. At first it seemed like she was just standing still, but gradually one could hear the very subtle vocal sounds she was making. These soon grew into loud clicks, slurps and other percussive voice sounds, which she played around with for some time. There was a section where she used a mixture of noises and slowly descending squeaks reminded me Xenkis’ 1950s electronic compositions. Her second piece, which featured voice and cello, was more lyrical, with rich high voiced sounds (closer to singing) against more inharmonic cello overtones.


[Joseph Rosenzweig. Photo: PeterBKaars.com. (Click image to enlarge.)]

Joseph Rosenzweig used his voice to drive various electronic processes. For the first part of the set, he mostly used breath sounds, which were processed with distortion and other effects that became quite loud and intense. There were also moments that were more subtle, with softer metallic sounds behind the voice. As his vocalizations grew more complex, some parts began to take on the sound of speech, and there were moments while watching him that it seemed he was actually “speaking” the amplified electronic sounds. Over time, the arrangement grew to include multiple layers with percussive effects on more traditionally voiced sounds that feed into buzzing short loops and long drones of FM-like bell sounds – at this point, the electronic parts began to separate from the vocal source and take on a life of their own, with subtle high sounds, and then a low rumble against high vocalizations.


[Aurora Josephson. Photo: PeterBKaars.com. (Click image to enlarge.)]

Aurora Josephson opened the second half the concert with candles, incantations when led into a performance of John Cage’s Experiences no. 2. The quiet, subdued performance focused more on traditional pitched singing. Experiences no. 2 is in a pentatonic scale and very lyrical, with a folk-song or spiritual quality. It was an oasis of calm, and a great contrast to the performances that preceded and followed.


[Bran…(pos). Photo by CatSynth.]

Bran…(pos) concluded the concert with an intense and theatrical set that probably most fit the term “face music”. He disappeared behind a screen onto which a colorful image of a butterfly was projected. From behind the screen, one could hear disembodied sounds of chewing, crunching, churning, squeaks, pops and other percussion that one can make with the face and mouth – at once they were everyday sounds, but also heightened through amplification and rhythmic placement. After a period of time, the otherwise still video started to glitch, with grainy video images briefly appearing on the screen. After a moment, I realized that this was in fact the face of the artist from behind the screen. Soon, the live video replaced the still images entirely. (From my vantage point, I could actually glimpse the “man behind the curtain” while watching the live video.) The sounds and visuals together gave the impression that he was “eating” the microphone. After a while, soft resonant bell-like sounds emerged in the background behind the face sounds, and gradually loops and rhythms began to emerge as well as the facial gestures in the video grew more frantic. There was a moment when the “face music” seemed to stop leaving only a drone of pure synthesizer sounds, after which Bran…(pos) returned with a more traditional voice sound. The background elements grew more industrial, with strong resonances the morphed into large bells. The set ended in a visual of melting red.

You can see a video of Bran…(pos) below:

The overall trajectory of the concert was good, as was the contrast, ranging from Theresa Wong’s nearly silent and unaccompanied opening to Bran…(pos)’s frenetic and gear-intensive end.

The Outsound Music Summit continues through Saturday evening with additional concerts. Look for more reviews here, or follow @catsynth for live tweets.

2010 DroneShift – Long Nights Moon Concert

Two weeks ago, I participated in the 2010 edition of the Droneshift at the Luggage Store Gallery here in San Francisco.
The Droneshift has become an annual event, though this year it was part of the Full-Moon Concert Series, approximately coincident with the Long Nights Moon.

Droneshift is a collaborative concert of improvised drone music. Between 15 and 25 musicians will gather to contribute to a continuous 2 hour drone, each adding their acoustic or electronic instruments here and there, and weaving their sounds together to create gradually shifting tapestries of music. The performance will most likely shift back and forth from completely acoustic music to electric ambiance and post-industrial noise.

Basically, the two hour performance is one continuous ever-changing sound. No individual notes, rests, phrases, breaks, etc. That doesn’t mean it is at all monotonous – there are continuous changes in timbre, dynamics and expression, both within individual parts as various musicians enter and exit the sound.


[Rachel Wood-Rome, Rent Romus. Photo: PeterBKaars.com. (Click images to enlarge.)]

There were actually close to (if not more than) 30 performers participating this year. The performers were arranged along periphery of the gallery with the audience situated in the middle looking outward. So between the audience and musicians, things got quite crowded. I was able to stake out some chair space for myself my minimalist setup:

I just had the iPad and an amplifier, and I was primarily running the Smule Magic Fiddle throughout my allotted time. It is a good instrument for droning, as one can linger on the strings pretty much forever, and play subtle pitch and dynamic changes. It’s easy to gradually fade out, and then fade in very slowly another pitch, which will change the overall sound of the performance without causing a distinct note break.

Because the nature of overall drone sound and the large number of participants, it was often difficult to focus on what any one other musician was playing. I mostly shifted between focusing on my own part and getting lost in the overall sound, which was quite meditative at times. I was able to take in some details, such as Matt Davignon’s distinctive glass-vase performance:


[Matt Davignon. Photo: PeterBKaars.com. (Click image to enlarge.)]

David Michalak’s Omnichord and Joe McMahon’s plastic-tube “didgeridoo” were also quite distinctive (particularly because they were sitting near me):


[David Michalak, Joe McMahon. Photo: PeterBKaars.com. (Click images to enlarge.)]

I was sitting across from Adam Fong on upright bass. There were moments when I took cues from him and other string players to re-enter the mix on Magic Fiddle. I was also trying to take cues from purely electronic musicians, such as Kristen Miltner on laptop or Andrew Joron’s theremin:


[Adam Fong, Kristen Miltner. Photo: PeterBKaars.com. (Click images to enlarge.)]

Overall, the instrumentation was quite varied and there was a balance between winds, strings, percussion and electronic, although there were a few moments were it seemed some low-frequency analog electronics were overpowering everything else. It was interesting to hear how the textures and orchestration evolved. Sometimes similar instruments (e.g., strings) would cluster together, sometimes the texture became more scratchy and granular with lots of noise elements – something which is pushing the boundaries of what might be considered a continuous “drone” sound. At times, traditional harmonies emerged, e.g., minor or diminished chords, while at other times the timbres themselves were purely inharmonic. There were very sparse sections with only one or two participants, and others that seemed to include much of the ensemble. All of these elements just happen organically, based on how the musicians hear one another and are inspired to layer on their own parts.


[Ron Heglin, Aurora Josephson. Photo: PeterBKaars.com. (Click images to enlarge.)]

You can listen to a ten-minute excerpt of the full performance in this video, courtesy of Matt Davignon:

As one can hear, the emergency vehicles that inevitably come down Market Street with sirens blaring during Luggage Store Gallery shows became part of the overall tapestry in this performance.

My personal sense of the performance as being meditative, perhaps even more so than previous Droneshifts, was echoed by members of the audience with whom I had spoken.

In addition to reflecting on the music, I would like to call out the photography of Peter B Kaars, which is featured in this article Those who have followed my own interest in photography know I tend to like very sharp, high-contrast black-and-white images. Additionally the monochrome fits with the full-moon theme and overall quality of the music they document. I wish I had space for more, or to call out more individual musicians. A full list of performers appears below:

Tom Bickley – wind controller
CJ Borosque – trumpet
Bob Boster – processed voice
Amar Chaudhary – iThings
Matt Davignon – wine glasses/vessels
Tony Dryer – bass
Adam Fong – bass
Phillip Greenlief – sax/clarinet
Ron Heglin – trombone/trumpet
Jeff Hobbs – bass, clarinet or violin
Travis Johns – electronics
Andrew Joron – theremin
Aurora Josephson – voice
Sebastian Krawczuk – bass
David Leikam – Moog rogue synthesizer
Cheryl Leonard – viola
Brian Lucas – electric bass / tapes
Melissa Margolis – accordion
Bob Marsh – voice
Marianne McDonald – didgeridoo
Chad McKinney – supercollider/guitar
Joe McMahon – didgeridoo
David Michalak – Omnichord
Kristin Miltner – laptop
Ann O’Rourke – bowed cymbal
Ferrara Brain Pan – sopranino saxophone
Rent Romus – sax/tapes
Ellery Royston – harp w/effects
Lx Rudis – electronics
Mark Soden – trumpet
Moe! Staiano – guitar
Errol Stewart – guitar
Lena Strayhorn – tsaaj plaim / wind wand
Zachary Watkins – electronics
Rachel Wood-Rome – french horn
Michael Zelner – analog monophonic synthesizer, iPod Touch

Matthew Sperry Festival: Tag Team Trio Shift

Last Thursday I attended and performed in the Tag Team Trio Shift at the Luggage Store Gallery. This event was part of the Eighth Annual Matthew Sperry Memorial Festival, a festival held every year in honor of local composer and bassist Matthew Sperry since his tragic death in 2003.

The event featured a large cast of characters from the Bay Area new music scene, improvising three at a time, with John Shiurba acting as referee.


[John Shiurba as referee, with Gino Robair entering a trio.]

Each of us was given a name card. At any given moment, three musicians would be performing. Anyone could hand in their card at any time and replace one of the three current musicians. Thus, there was an ever changing set of trios. For the most part, musicians entered and exited individually, but in the second half of the program we could submit three cards at once as a planned trio. The music ranged from trios of synthesizers and electronic noise, to purely vocal trios, to free-jazz improvisation (saxophones and bass), and all combinations in between.


[Tom Nunn on skatch box and Tom Duff with Bleep Labs Thingamagoop.]


[Vocal trio of Agnes Szelag, Aurora Josephson, and Myles Boisen.]

There were many strategies one could use for deciding when to hand in his or her card and replace someone. For me, I timed my card to coincide with others with whom I wanted to play, or moments where I thought my sounds would work well with the texture.

One could also be competitive and “cut” someone else’s improvisation (as one might do in a traditional jazz-improvisation setting). I can’t say that anyone did that, but there were certainly some playful back-and-forths with people replacing each other.

I brought the trusty Kaos Pad as well as my iPhone, with the BeBot app and a looping/playing app that I used for the Pmocatat ensemble. The latter (which featured variable-speed sounds of Luna and my Indian instruments) got some attention from the other musicians. Scott Looney, who was sitting next to me, and an interesting new instrument that used Reactable icons on a surface with a keyboard, to create a sort of “electronic prepared piano”:


[Scott Looney’s new control surface (photo by catsynth).]

There were some fun moments. One of Philip Greenlief’s improvisations involved his attempting to balance his saxophone in the palm of his hand, constantly moving and shifting in order to keep it from falling. He was clearly hoping for someone to replace him quickly, but we actually let him keep going for quite a while.


[Philip Greenlief’s balancing act.]

The sounds from busy Market Street outside contributed to the music at various times – indeed, the street should have gotten its own card.

Among the attendees were Matthew Sperry’s wife and daughter, who appropriately closed out the second set with the sound of shaking keys fading out.

The full roster of participating musicians included: Myles Boisen, Amar Chaudhary, Matt Davignon, Tom Duff, Tom Djll, Phil Gelb, Lance Grabmiller, Philip Greenlief, Ron Heglin, Jacob Felix Heule, Ma++ Ingalls, Travis Johns, Aurora Josephson, Scott Looney, Bob Marsh, Lisa Mezzacappa, David Michalak, Polly Moller, Kjell Nordeson, Tom Nunn, Dan Plonsey, Garth Powell, Jon Raskin, Gino Robair, Tom Scandura, Damon Smith, Moe! Staiano, Agnes Szelag.

[Unless otherwise indicated, all photographs in this article are from Michael Zelner. You can see a full set of photos from the performance at his flickr page.]