Posts Tagged ‘avant garde’

John Cage at Tom’s Place

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Today we look at last week’s performance at “Tom’s Place” in Berkeley featuring vocal and piano music of John Cage. Cage is of course one of my musical heroes, and his works for prepared piano are among my favorites.

The concert opened with two of his early pieces for prepared piano performed by Janis Mercer. Waiting (1952) consisted of a long period of silence followed by a short repeated phrase, followed by more silence. It could be seen as a stepping stone of sorts between Cage’s prepared-piano music and 4’33”, which was also written in 1952. Mercer also performed Bacchanale (1940), Cage’s first piece for prepared piano. It opened with dramatic repeated tones that evolved into shorter and then longer repeated phrases. The harmonies were anxious and fit with the timbre of the prepared strings. Prepared piano is sometimes called “piano gamelan”, and the name seemed appropriate for this movement, with its polyrhythms and complex minor harmonies. The following movement was much more percussive, with something that suggested bass and hi-hat.


[Janis Mercer. Photo by Michael Zelner.]

The concert continued with John Smalley performing Experiences No 2 for solo voice. This was the first of two pieces on the program that Cage wrote for Merce Cunningham dances. This one used a text by e.e. cummings. Musically, it had a static and yearning quality, with phrases having an “incomplete” feeling melodically.

This was followed by an untitled vocal interlude from Four Walls informally titled “Sweet Love”. It is a playful piece, both in terms of its music and text (which was written by Cunningham). The performance by Laurie Amat clearly brought out this quality.


[Laurie Amat. Photo by Michael Zelner.]

The concert resumed after a short intermission with In a Landscape featuring Mercer again on piano. Not only was the piano of the “unprepared” variety, the piece was actually quite tonal, with a dreamlike quality and something approaching a folk melody If I was presented the piece and asked to guess the composer, I would be more likely to say Debussy than Cage.


[John Smalley and Laurie Amat. Photo by Michael Zelner.]

The final piece of the evening was Litany for the Whale, song by John Smalley and Laurie Amat. The piece consists of slow vocalization of the letters of the word “whale” in call-and-response form over an extended period of time. The length of the piece (over twenty minutes) and slow motion make it quite challenging for both the performers and the audience. For the performers it was quite an endurance test and for those of us in the audience the challenge was to keep focused on it. What worked best was to go into a meditative state and focus on some details of sound while letting others simply pass.

The show was quite well attended with a full and appreciative house. Overall, I was glad I made the trip to Berkeley on a Wednesday evening to hear it.

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Sylvano Bussotti and sfSoundGroup at SFMOMA

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At the beginning of month, I attended a retrospective concert of music by the composer Sylvano Bussotti, performed by members of sfSoundGroup at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). Bussotti is an Italian avant-garde composer whose body of work transcends into visual media and film as well. His music itself is very visual, and his graphical scores are works of art that combine standard music notation with graphical symbols, spatial positioning on the page and text instructions that inform the musicians on how to interpret and perform the piece. They are also known for being difficult to play, but sfSoundGroup is up to the challenge.

The performance took place in the museum’s expansive atrium, which was bathed in red light, with the musicians in the center and the audience orbiting around them. The space was bounded by two pianos, mysteriously set apart.

In the few minutes before the concert began, I was able to check out a couple of the scores up close.


[Score for “Phrase a trois” by Sylvano Bussotti.]

This score is for the piece Phrase a trois for string trio (violin, viola and cello). I also was able to view the score for Geographie Francaise alongside the percussion setup:

[Score for “Geographie Francaise”, by Sylvano Bussotti, with percussion instruments. (Click image to enlarge.)]

Unlike many graphical scores, which often allow for wide interpretation of visual elements and improvisation, these seemed more designed to describe precise instructions to the performer.

Bussotti himself performed in two of the pieces. For Geographie Francaise, he played piano and incanted stark vocal lines in French, alongside featured soloist Laura Bohn and percussionist Kjell Nordeson. I quite liked this piece for its starkness, conceptual simplicity (i.e., centering around the title itself) and the disparate texture of the instrumentation: voice, piano and percussion. One does not really hear traditional rhythms or melodies, even of the early-twentieth century “atonal” sense, but rather directly on the various sound, musical and narrative concepts, more like an abstract theater piece.


[Laura Bohn and Kjell Nordeson performing “Geographie Francaise” by Sylvano Bussotti. (Click images to enlarge.)]

Bussotti also performed in In Memoriam Cathy Berberian. Here, his voice was more central to the piece, and he spoke in Italian in more expressive tones. This is not surprising, given the subject of the piece was Cathy Berberian, his longtime “friend and muse”.


[Sylvano Bussotti performance with members of sfSoundGroup. Photo by Michael Zelner. (Click image to see original.)]

Different personel from sfSoundGroup were featured in different pieces, ranging from the full nine-member cohort in Autotono to a solo performance by Matt Ingalls on clarinet in one of Bussotti’s more recent pieces, Variazione Berio composed in honor of Luciano Berio who died in 2007. In the performance, Ingalls takes advantage of the portability of his instrument to move freely about the space. In doing so, he was able to employ spatial effects on the timbre of the clarinet within the music, which was filled with lots of empty space punctuated with occasional loud tones.


[Matt Ingalls performs “Variazione Berio” by Sylvano Bussotti. Photo by Michael Zelner. (Click image to see original.)]

The sparseness of the music and performer’s motion did in fact remind me a bit of Berio’s Sequenzas, and also made me think of the parallels between the theatricality of Berio’s music as compared to Bussotti’s. They were contemporaries in Italian avant-garde music – and as another link, Cathy Berberian was Berio’s wife in the 1950s and early 1960s.

The concert concluded with a performance of Tableaux vivants avant La Passion selon Sade (1964) for two prepared pianos. This was probably my favorite of the evening (along with Geographie Francaise). The pianos that were separated up to now were joined together in the center of the space. The two pianists (Christopher Jones and Ann Yi) playing cooperatively on a single piano, operating both the keyboard and elements within the instrument’s body. Their bodies often crossed paths and intertwined as they attempted to perform their respective parts – the motion seemed both chaotic and intimate at the same time. As the piece progressed, they spread out to both pianos – and in the final movement, they close their scores and attempt to play from memory. Throughout, the music was filled with intense, and sometimes violent energy especially when playing the interior of the piano. I contrast this to they very calm and contemplative nature of John Cage’s better known prepared-piano pieces. It fun to watch, and provided for a dramatic finish to the concert.


The concert was preceded by a screening of Bussotti’s 1967 silent Rara that included live piano accompaniment by Bussotti himself. The music, which was based on live interpretation of a graphical score in which he moved about at will, did not strictly follow the events and actions on the screen, but rather provided more of a backdrop and a counterpoint to images that would have otherwise been rather jarring to watch to watch in silence. [However, the music as performed did have a narrative structure of it’s own, moving between very abstract discrete tones and more idiomatic and even tonal sections.] The film itself consisted mostly of “film portraits” of figures from the Italian avant-garde – mostly images of men (though Cathy Berberian is also featured) in a variety of sexual and emotionally uncomfortable poses, including countless shots of tear-streaked male faces. As such, the film did not really hold my attention, although I did like the abstract imagery and close-ups of the musical score, as well as the play on the letters of the title R-A-R-A itself, that were used alongside the more homoerotic portraits. And certainly it was was interesting to see the composer and filmmaker respond musically to his own work after so many years.


Additional credit goes to Luciano Chessa, who organized the evening’s events. We had previously encountered him last year when he organized the event Metal Machine Manifesto, Music for 16 Intonarumori.

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resonant world: John Cage and Morris Graves

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This past Sunday I attended resonant world: an afternoon of music by John Cage for the exibit The Visionary Art of Morris Graves at the Meridian Gallery here in San Francisco.

Morris Graves was an influential artist in the 20th century, based primarily in the Pacific Northwest. The exhibition features about 50 works spread over several decades of his career and two floors of the gallery. Many of his works, which were mostly on paper, had a very simple quality, but often with some recognizable object or concept at its core. I was particularly drawn to a few of his works, including Minnow, Irish Animal, Waning Moon and Roadside Plants and Machine Age Noise. Graves’ work is often described as having Asian and mystical influences, which were apparent in Minnow and many others, but in works like Irish Animal a noticed a humorous quality, something approaching graphic art.

John Cage became a longtime friend and admirer of Graves after the two met in 1935. He described Graves’ work as “Invitations”, or invitationals to attend to the ordinary details that are “ordinarily ignored”. Although the pieces in the program were not directly a response to Graves’ art, they do fit the spare nature of some of his works, and the focus on simple details, as well as the space of the gallery in which those works were presented.

[Raskin, Greenlief and Adams.  Photo by Michael Zelner.  Click to enlarge.]

The first piece, Atlas Eclipticalis featured the saxophone trio of Philip Greenlief, Jon Raskin and Steve Adams. The title refers to the path of the Sun through the constellations of the zodiac, which Cage used as a source for the score of the piece, using tracing paper to determine the placement of dots and then adding a five-line music staff. The trio’s performance was derived entirely from this score. The result was a very sparse musical texture, with large areas of silence punctuated by individual isolated notes from each of the saxophones. There were also moments where the performers played together, forming interesting beating patterns as the simultaneous tones interacted with the room as well as perfect octaves and minor chords that were a bit startling (but quite effective) within the context of the whole piece.

Atlas Eclipaticalis was followed by a performance of Three for “three players having a variety of recorders.” Conveniently, we happened to have three players who each had a variety of recorders, the Three Trapped Tigers (David Barnett and Tom Bickley with special guest Judy Linsenberg). The recorders ranged in size from the familiar C soprano recorders and alto and tenor sizes seen in renaissance ensembles, to very “modernist” F contra-bass recorders composed of wooden rectangular sections with black buttons and levers – I am guessing these were Paetzold recorders.

[Three Trapped Tigers (Bickley, Lindsenberg, Barnett). Click image to enlarge.]

The piece unfolded as a series of chords – the timing of individual notes was left up to the performers – with frequent pauses and changes of instruments. The large number of recorders and frequent changes suggested a solo pipe organ performance as much as a wind ensemble.

[David Cowen reading.  Photo by Michael Zelner.  Click to enlarge.]

Throughout the afternoon, simultaneous to an in between the musical performances, there was a reading of Series RE: Morris Graves, a “long poem derived by John Cage from his own recollections, conversations with Graves and friends” and other sources as described in the program notes. The poem was read by Dave Cowen. I did follow the recommendation to explore the space during the musical performances, including viewing the artwork with the music resonating down the stairs from the floor above, and pausing at partitioned area where the reading occurred. (Note: in the above photo featuring Cowen’s reading, one can also see Graves’ Roadside Plants and Machine Age Noise.)

[Fischer and Binkley enjoying tea and snacks. Click to enlarge.]

The final performance featured selections from Cage’s Song Books (Solos for Voice 3-92) interpreted by members of the Cornelius Cardew Choir. The songs derive from a variety of written sources, with some using graphical-score notation (a current favorite technique of mine) or text-based instructions. From these scores, performs are free to interpret and improvise their actual performances. Some of the songs were purely vocal and melodic, others were more theatrical, while others combined electronics with other elements. Among the moments that stood out were Tom Bickley and Brad Fischer enjoying tea, Sarah Rose Stiles pouring a cognac into a glass with contact microphones, projection of slides “relevant to Thoreau” behind a theatrical performance, a graphical score directing the pressing of keys on an amplified manual typewriter (performed by Eric Theise), and the use of the text from that typewriter in another song. There was also a large orange stuffed fish on a table.

[Sarah Rose Stiles.  Photo by Michael Zelner.]

[Sandra Yolles, Marianne McDonald, Brad Fischer and Tom Bickley.  Projection of “drawings related to Thoreau”. Click to enlarge.]

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Metal Machine Manifesto – Music for 16 Intonarumori

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Last Friday, I attended Metal Machine Manifesto—Music for 16 Intonarumori at the Yerba Buenca Center for Arts here in San Francisco.   This concert, a joint performance of SFMOMA and Performa, was part of a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the launch of futurism, or more specifically the Italian Futurist movement launched in 1909. A century ago, the futurists were producing art, music, architecture and performance that still feels very modern, even more so than some of the more conservative post-modern art of recent decades.

In the area of music, one of the most influential composers and writers was Luigi Russolo, who wrote the Art of Noises, and developerd the intonarumori or noise makers.  The work of Russolo and others in futurist music paved the way for experimental and technologically-focused music from George Antheil to the electronic experimental and noise music of today that we at CatSynth perform and celebrate.  Indeed, RoseLee Goldberg in her introductory remarks to the program refers to the music of the futurists as the “original DNA of noise music.”

The intonarumori were hand-cranked instruments designed to produce “noises”.  Their sounds included whirrs and buzzes, clangs, scrapes, and also sirens and mechanically plucked strings.

For this performance, Luciano Chessa, a “foremost Russolo scholar” oversaw the recreation of 16 intonarumori, which were used to perform both pieces by the original futurist composers, and contemporary pieces for these instruments.

The recreated intonarumori looked much like the old pictures, with simple wooden boxes and large cones for sound projection.  You can see and hear some of the futurist noise makers in this video from Chessa and composer/performer Mike Patton:

After the concert I a chance to see the intonarumori up close and even try a couple of them out.  This medium-sized instrument produced repeated plucked-string sounds.

This one was purely mechanical, though another that I tried which produced automobile noises appeared to have an electric motor.

The concert itself featured Luciano Chessa as conductor for most of the pieces, and members of the Magik*Magik Orchestra under the direction of Minna Choi.

It opened with Paolo Buzzi’s 1916 piece Pioggia nel pineto antidannunziana.  This was a rather theatrical piece, with dramatic conducting by Chessa and various words in Italian shouted through a megaphone.  The noise intoners here were used to literally reflect the urban noises of the time such as sirens and the whirring of machinery.

In the the more contemporary pieces, the noise intoners were used in other contexts rather than as simulation and expression of the modern noisy environment, but as instruments that could be played subtly and expressively. Such was the case with Theresa Wong’s Meet me at the Future Garden.  Hits and clangs and mechanically plucked strings were set against Wong’s percussive vocals and Dohee Lee’s more dramatic low voice with loud vowel intonations.  From Wong’s program notes: “2 a.m. sharp, in a primordial cooperation of pulsating forest, I will sing you a song tactitle tick tocking of residual harmonies, caution manifest launching the dominance of mutual respoect and hypersensitivitiy this message sent from my iphone [sp].”

let us return to the old masters, a collaborative composition by members of sfSoundGroup, took its inspiration directly from a quote of Francesco Balilla Pratella ‘s Manifesto of Futurist Musicians to “destroy the produce for ‘well-made’ music”.  The piece itself was composed during the rehearsals for the concert.  The sfSoundGroup members have excelled at extended technique and performance of complex compositions with their traditional instruments, and brought that skill to the intonarumori.

The first half of the concert ended with one of the most disinctive pieces of the evening, Donno Casina by Carla Kihlstedt and Matthias Bossi.  The performance featured two the larger “bass” intonarumori, along with Kihlstedt on vocals and violin, Bossi on accordian, and Moe! Staiano playing a large drum and collection of colorful metal objects.  The distinctly futurist sound of the intonarumori was blended with Kihlstedt’s more contemporary extended vocal and violin techniques, and Moe!’s intense and theatrical percussion performance.

In addition to having the best title of any piece in the concert, James Fei’s New Acoustical Pleasures (A Furious Meow) was the most subtle.    It was made of “quiet noises” with lots of empty space between sounds and relatively little movement, and reminded me of some of John Cage’s more static pieces.  The short, soft tones from the intonarumori were quite a contrast to the loud blaring representations of modern life of the original futurist pieces.

While listening to John Butcher’s penny wands and the native string, I came up with the word “scrapier” to describe the piece.   And I am pretty sure that is not a real word.  Nonetheless, the piece was “scrapier” than the others.  The performance, which featured Gino Robair, included lots of scrapes and grinding sounds building up to a crescendo and then coming to an abrupt stop.  After a brief silence, the scrapes and grinding sounds resumed.  This pattern repeated a couple of times, with variations in each repeitition.

After Fei’s and Butcher’s pieces, the full ensemble returned for Mike Patton’s << KOSTNICE  >>.  All sixteen intonarumori were played together to produce a thick “orchestral” sound along with drums.

Luciano Chessa’s L’acoustic ivresse (Les buits de la Paix) also featured the full ensemble plus bass vocalist Richard Mix.   There were similar thick clusters as in << KOSTNICE >>, but this time framing Mix’s vocals.  There were moments when the vocals and ensemble played off on another, with Mix’s strong bass voice and traditional singing style simultaneously blending and contrasting with intonarumori.  This performance received one of the longer and more spirited rounds of applause of the concert.

Elliott Sharp’s Then Go, which featured Dohee Lee, received a similar reaction.  This was another full-ensemble piece, where the noise tones were very well synchronized to Lee’s dramatic singing.  She also tapped (or stomped) her feet in time with percussive sounds from the ensemble in a strong rhythmic pattern.  Through the rhythm, piece seemed to connect both the futurist sounds (as archetypically modern sounds) with something much more traditional, even primal.

The concert concluded with a realization of a fragment from Luigi Russolo’s 1913 Risveglio di una città.  Like the other original futurist work in the program, this piece directly referenced “sounds of the modern world” like cars and sirens.  This very short fragment of a piece abruptly ended with Chessa dropping his baton.

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Blood Moon Concert, Luggage Store Gallery

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Last Thursday, in addition the gallery and art walk, I also attended the Blood Moon Concert at the Luggage Store Gallery. This was latest in Polly Moller’s moon concert series and focused on the “Blood Moon”, a traditional name for the closest full moon to the autumnal equinox. It is associated with the fall harvest, and also with the hunting of game and the slaughtering of livestock ahead of the winter season. The two halves of the concert couldn’t have been more different, an experimental electronic/noise texture performance followed by “avant-gard blues”, but they both worked intimately with the evening’s theme of the “blood moon.”

The concert opened with the duo of James Kaiser and Andy C. Way reimagining a piece that originally recorded on a blood moon several years ago. Both the original recorded version and this live performance featured “minimal electronics, voice, metals and much atmosphere”. The performance began with a noise swell, like a strong wave, embellished by ornamental sounds on a cymbal. Actually, the cymbal was part of a larger instrument, and mounted on top of a bicycle wheel. It was bowed to produce a variety of metallic resonances that blended with the electronics. Overall, the piece had a relatively constant texture. It was static, a dark tonescape, fitting for the theme. But there were also a variety of details that changed throughout. In addition to the bowed cymbal and bicycle wheel, there were breathing sounds, the use of voice to drive electronic effects, dark scratches and drones, noise glitches. Later on these were joined by loud bursts and “incidental pitches” from periodic noise. There was one sound that reminded me of the closing doors on a New York City subway train. The piece ended with a strong resonance and rumble, and then faded out.

The second half of the concert featured the trio Past-Present-Future, with Myles Boisen on guitar, “Hollerin’ John Hanes” on drums, and Lisa Mazzacappa on bass.


[Click to enlarge.]

They premiered a Blood Moon Suite written for this concert. It began with a “free-improvisation” section characterized by harmonic and rhythmic swells. In particular, I noticed Boisen’s combination of chromaticism and harmonics admist the ensemble’s clusters of rhythm followed by more free-form sounds. Over time, the piece became more “bluesy” in terms of the scales and chords. There were still very linear chromatic jazz chords, but with a framework rich blues idioms on the guitar and bass. One memorable section featured a straight slow blues rhythm with guitar and drums (with a heavy swing feel), that moved immediately into a serious staccato notes and then to a slow expressive end. The next movement began with a strong six-eight rhythm with low guitar and chromatic thirds. It was definitely more steady rhythmically and harmonically than the previous movement, with occasional hits and stops, and overall more traditional harmonies, and a cool bass solo by Mazzcappa. Things got more free-form later in the piece, and morphed into something slower and darker. The final section was more minimalist, with an interplay between slide guitar and bass that sounded quite “southern”, with lots of slides, bends, octaves/unison and blues-scale lines. It ended more dramatic, and noisy elements on the guitar and bass.

The Blood Moon Suite was followed by another piece, “Devil’s blues”. It featured a latin rhythm, with the bass and drums repeating a rather addictive pattern. The guitar was repetitive and subtle at first, with blue notes and tritones and inharmonic effects all within the rhythm.

One interesting coincidence for this concert was running into Jeff Anderle at the taqueria below the Luggage Store. It was only an hour or so earlier that I had seen him perform at Steven Wolf Fine Arts at First Thursday. Yes, it was quite an evening of art and music.

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2009 San Francisco Electronic Music Festival

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This September was the 10th anniversary of the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival, and I had the opportunity to attend two of the performances. To mark the occasion, many of the original participants in the first festival ten years ago came back to perform.

The festival began with a piece by Miya Masaoka (whom Pamela Z jokingly referred to as the “mother of SFEMF” in her introduction). The LED Kimono project not surprisingly featured a kimono with LEDs, worn by dancer Mariko Masaoka-Drew. The dress itself was very pretty and simple, with a large LED array on the right-hand sleeve. Throughout the performance, different patterns were featured on the LEDa, sometimes very subtle with only a few active, and at other times large oscillating rectangular patterns.

The music began with a very traditional koto performance. There some delay, sampling and pitch-shift effects in the background. The koto was mostly struck or plucked, and occasionally bowed. During the section of the performance, there was almost no dance movement. Over time, more electronics came in, initially low, dronaning, and with overtones that sounded vaguely FM or inharmonic, almost like electrical noise.

As more electronic sounds came in, the dancer began to move, very slowly and subtly. Indeed, most of the movement throughout the piece was very subtle and slow, and did not clearly map to the musical material. On the other hand, the LEDs on the dress did match the rhythms and timbral changes. The first came on during and electronic arpeggio that sounded like classic FM synthesis. There were some dramatic swells with the higher FM-like sounds. The music primarily moved between the elements described, with the long drones and then the fast arpeggiation. But the physical movement of the dancer remained slow. As a result, I found myself mostly focused on the LEDs and the dress.

And the end, I stayed to watch the process of Masaoka-Drew being “unplugged” from the dress, and to fully observe the amount of electronics (and wiring) that were required for it to function.

The second set featured Lukas Ligeti performing his own compositions on the marimba lumina. He began slowly, with very low tones, one so low that the amplitude modulation itself became and audible rhythm. He then layered other sounds over these tones, including some vocal samples that sounded like chatters or whispers. Overall , I would describe his music as a cross between classic minimalism, world music, and electronic music. He described what we was doing as using the marimba lumina to play “samples and funny synths” on his laptop, with a focus on samples were collected from his world travels. One could definitely hear some of the instruments and voices from various places around the world, particularly Africa, in his performance.

The final performance of the evening was by Amy X Neuberg. Her performance was a combination of her “electronic cabaret”, which we have heard several times before and reviewed here at CatSynth; and a new work entitled “The Dude Trilogy”, a series of abstract poems for voice and the Blippo Box. The Blippo Box employs chaotic oscillators and modulation, and can be very difficult to control in a predictable way. However, Neuberg manages to perform it in a very poetic way, and more remarkably is able to match her voice to the sounds of the synthesizer. Rapidly changing vowel sounds matched a fast chaotic filter modulation, the rhythms of spoken word material matching the sequences. At other times her high sung tones followed the unstable high electronic pitches. During the piece, a video camera recorded and projected close-ups of her hands manipulating the instrument, including its theremin-like antenna.

Several of her electronic cabaret pieces were familiar from previous programs. They always are very tight and solid, combining voice, electronics and theatre. She did close with one song I had not heard before. It began with her striking the electronic drum pad repeatedly to produce a “banging piano-chord” pattern, which was matched by her vocals. It ended with a solo and fade-out on the Blippo Box, which almost seemed like a spontaneous moment.


The location of the festival, the restored Brava Theater in the Mission District of San Francisco, was itself an attraction. Besides the large theater space and lobby, the deliberately weathered foyer housed the installation The Exchange by Dukoro, the duo of Agnes Szelag and The Normal Conquest. This installation with subtly placed speakers and sounds generated interactively by visitors, complemented the architecture.


[click to enlarge.]


The Saturday performance opened with [ruidobello], aka Jorge Bachmann performing his piece Coleoptera_0909 for electronics and video. The piece centered around beetles, or scarabs, who are members of the biological order Coleoptera. Videos of scarabs were projected onto the screen. Some were crawling on skin, some were in dishes, a couple were on a corrugated cadrboard surface that resembled a Q-bert board. Initially the beetles were solitary, but then they started to appear in groups. One particular scene involved one poor scarab being madly chased and grabbed at by another (one can only speculate what was going on here). The sounds were based on recordings of natural sounds from scarabs. In the early part of the piece, the relation to the insect noises was quite transparent (i.e., it “sounded like insects”). Later on, the connection between the performed sounds and the original material became more abstract, and sounded like thick pads with delays, time-stretching and pitch-shifting effects. The piece ended with a scarab taking off in flight, and the sound following suit with an ascending glissando.

[ruidobello] was followed by an electronic performance of Gino Robair’s opera I ,Norton. It is an improvisational piece based on the writings of Norton I, “Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico”, and a famous character from San Francisco history. In 1859, Joshua Abraham Norton declared himself Emperor Norton I of the United States, and began to issue a series of decrees, including the dissolution of the United States Congress. The opera is based on the text from these decrees, but in an “open-ended structure [that] allows it to be assembled differently for each performance.”

In this version, Tom Duff played Norton I and read from his various edicts, while the spoken words are processed by three electronic performers Chris Brown, Kristin Miltner and Wobbly. Indeed. all the electronic sounds were based on Tom Duff’s voice. At first, the electronic manipulations kept the words intact through various delay, pitch and time effects; but over time the electronics became more complex, with delay lines or samples short enough for the snippets from the original voice to form completely different timbres, and as such became more detached from the stage performance. I found myself focusing heavily on the video work of Tim Thompson along with the theatrical performance, and the electronic sounds became part of the background. One particularly strong visual moment was when Tom Duff/Norton I built a small “city” out of colored translucent cubes and shining flashlights through them. This illuminated construction was then picked up by the video and projected onto the screen. There was a middle section in which our protagonist appeared to go to sleep (perhaps dreaming) and the electronic music became the focus, with the video playing against the sounds (which were still entirely based on previously sampled vocal material). There was an overall calm pace to the entire opera performance, punctuated by the dramatic proclamations and occasional abrupt shifts in timbre or visuals; and one simply became immersed in the whole experience.

Pamela Z concluded the festival with what she described as an “old-new sandwich” with several short pieces. The first “older” pieces included looped rhythms layered with rich vocal textures and harmonies, with one featuring a dramatic simulation of a manual typewriter complete with carriage return. There was a performance of a piece I had originally seen her perform at room: PIPES back in May. The next piece was the “new” part, a work in progress entitled Baggage Allowance. It opened with a video of a baggage carousel, with various people reciting the contents of their luggage (clothing, toiletries, books, etc.). The contents became a little more unusual over time, as people described confiscated items and even an attempt to hide a knife at LAX. A simulated x-ray of a bag included strange objects like a frog and a gun (actually, I suppose I gun isn’t all that strange). This was set against live electronic processing of vocals as well as other sounds such as the popping of bubble wrap. The final piece was another older work involving delays and dramatic harmonic vocals (it was originally done years ago with hardware effects boxes before being ported to modern laptop computers); as a representation of classic electronic music being redone with modern technology, it was a fitting conclusion to the festival.

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Dieb13, Djll, Greenlief, Robair, and Ueno at CNMAT

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Last Thursday, I found myself back at my old “stomping ground”, the Center for New Music and Audio Technologies (CNMAT) to hear an evening of improvised music.

Dieb13 (aka Dieter Kovacic) opened with a solo set for multiple turntables. It started with a single turntable producing noise/static sounds, and gradually incorporated electrical hums and synthesizer sounds, along with complex repeated rhythms. The rhythmic patterns were sometimes metric, sometimes more stuttering. With three turntables going at once, Kovacic’s performance seemed more “synthesizer” and less “DJ.”

Dieb31 was then joined by Tom Djll (trumpet and electronics), Philip Greenlief (saxophone), Gino Robair (percussion and electronics) and Kenn Ueno (extended vocal techniques). The set began with “scraping sounds”, Robair blowing a small horn against a drum and Greenlief scraping a mouthpiece cover along his tenor sax. Indeed, the acoustic instruments as noise sources dominated the first section of this extended improvisation, before the Blippo Box, the other electronic instruments and Dieb31’s turntables entered. It was interesting to hear how the sounds from the turntables an Ueno’s vocal techniques matched the acoustic instruments, and it was a challenge at times to tell which sounds were acoustic and which sounds were electronic.

Another notable confluence was Ueno’s throat singing set against low-frequency sounds from the turntable and the Blippo Box. There were also contrasting sections with percussive short notes on all the instruments (trumpet, electronics, sax, voice, turntable, percussion) in rapid succession. There was a very soft section with saxophone multiphonics (we have commented on Greenlief’s expertise with multiphonics in the past), vocal whispers, low-level electrical sounds, and a resonant tube; and very loud moments, screeching, high-pitched. One very rhythmic section featured Gino running fan against cymbals and Tom Dill running a similar fan against his trumpet. Greenlief joined in running keys against his sax. The piece ended with loud notes that came to a sudden stop.

This was followed by a much shorter “encore” improvisation, whose memorable moments were the variety of sounds from the turntable, which included an excerpt from a bebop recording and a toilet flushing.

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Moe!kestra! “End of an Error” at Cellspace

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Last night I attended the latest performance of the Moe!kestra! at Cellspace.

“Imagine a man playing an orchestra as though it were a percussion instrument, and you might get some idea of the Moe!Kestra!”. Indeed the performance was in many ways a percussion piece even though the ensemble was almost entirely string instruments: violins, violas, electric guitars, and upright basses. All led by Moe! Staiano.

A Moe!kestra! often includes many familiar musicians. Frequent collaborators Bill Wolter and Clyde Niesen played guitar and upright bass, respectively. Suki O’kane (percussion) and Moe! were both participants in the July Flip Quartet performance. Marielle Jakobsen was part of the Blessing Moon concert that we reviewed here at CatSynth.

The piece being performed was “End of an Error”, inspired by the date January 20, 2009, a date that many of us were highly anticipating, both for its beginning and for the great national embarrassment that it (at least in a formal sense) ended.

The music started out with series of percussive notes on the basses. Soon the violin and viola sections joined in, not on their regular instruments, but instead playing “switches”, i.e., cut sticks that they shook vigorously. An “out of phase” rhythm emerged between the basses and switches, may two notes from the former followed by a splattering of air sounds from the other.

Eventually the other instruments, the guitars, the percussionists and the actual violins/violas entered with more of the percussive notes, and the music became louder and denser. At some point, with all the instruments playing, the texture changed dramatically to something more akin to a “rock orchestra” or a film soundtrack. The pitched material was tonal with lots of familiar chords, but what I call “tense tonality” that one hears in films, and behind it the rhythm of a conventional drum kit from the percussionists. I can’t pin point exactly when the texture and style changed, but it was a sharp contrast.

There were several such changes throughout the performance. Things grew to a crescendo, then “crashed”, with everyone playing long extended tones, forming an atonal drone. After a subsequent swell, there was another “film-like” element with string glissandi. Other moments of note included the tossing of an empty water cooler by Moe! over the heads of the violists. No one was hurt, and it landed a perfect hit in between the other instrumental rhythms.

There was a really thick drone of all seven guitarists playing slides out of sync. The guitarists also closed the performance with a series of repeating flange/chorus tones that gradually came to a stop.


The Moe!kestra performance actually did not begin until 9:30 (despite the announcements suggesting 8PM as the start). We were treated a Sun Ra tribute, featuring videos set to music from The Arkestra. The video included clips of Sun Ra and animations with pseudo-Hebrew lettering and odd vaguely extraterrestial elements, presumably from some of his films. But there were also many other unrelated elements including numerous anime scenes – there was one anime in which all the characters seemed to be playing keytars while doing battle with mechs; martial-arts comedies, a James Bond film (probably Diamonds Are Forever); and a transgendered singer walking down the street and then being transported to another dimension with a Sumo wrestler and bizarre Asian puppet characters. Four of us started playing iPhone Scrabble instead. It has a multi-player mode where one can pass the phone around in a circle and each player takes turns with their own tile set. Highly recommended as a way to pass the time.

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May 9 at Bluesix: Aaron Novik’s Thorny Brocky and Sqwonk

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Last Saturday, I went with friends to the Bluesix Acoustic Room. As the name suggests, this small venue in the Mission District of San Francisco presents acoustic acts. I have seen several interesting shows here, including some experimental ensembles, dance and avant-garde jazz. This show tended towards the latter, with Aaron Novik’s Thorny Brocky ensemble and special guests Sqwonk.

Sqwonk are a bass clarinet duo consisting of Jon Russell and Jeff Anderle. By their own admittance, there is not much of a repertoire for two bass clarinets. But they were able to put together a full set of composed pieces, including one by Novik. Much of their performance was quite harmonic and consonant, including power chords (check out the selection on their MySpace for an example). But there were also interesting microtones and multiphonics that one can do on a clarinet. They also played with the effects of playing unison or near unison or similar lines out of phase. Towards the end, things got quite loud (especially for such a small space as Bluesix), demonstrating the power of these instruments. I am quite partial to the clarinet family, having played the instrument in my youth and composed for Bb and bass clarinet quartet.

Aaron Novik’s Thorny Brocky began their set with bass and light percussion – drummer Jamie Moore definitely has a very light touch that several of us noticed and remarked upon. The bass and percussion were matched by Novik’s bass clarinet key clicks, and eventually by the strings. The odd-time rhythms and phrases of the first two pieces had a strong roll and undulation that was easy to get lost in. There were other moments throughout the set that caught my attention, such as the unisons between different the bass clarinet, violin and accordion, and a bass solo with ethereal accordion tones. A rhythmic moment where the ensemble switched from their syncopated rhythms into a straight swing. There were sections that evoked classical and dramatic music of the 19th century, and some softer “show-tune-like” harmonies. The set ended with what Novik described as their “metal project” – it actually sounded quite familiar, and made me recall that I had seen them at Bluesix before.

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San Francisco Tape Music Festival

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As promised, here is my post on the San Francisco Tape Music Festival. I had an opportunity to attend last Saturday’s program.

First, a word about “tape music.” Of course, it does not actually have to be on tape. Indeed it is now most often rendered as digital media: DVD or audio files. The San Francisco Tape Music Collective (which runs the festival) defines it as “audioArt diffused through a surround-sound speaker environment.” Essentially the “audio art” is music or other sound rendered onto media, and the performance is the live performance of that media in a hall through a speaker system. The way the media is mixed into the speakers and the live space creates a unique performance. And the fact that the material is recorded on media allows composers to create sounds that could never be performed live, even with modern computers – although the gap between what can be done live and what can only be rendered is narrowing over time. In the early days of electronic music, tape was in fact the only way to realize sounds, and thus the only way to perform the music. Modern tape music carries on that tradition.

The idea of going to concert hall and listening to a recording may seem odd, but like any other performance, it is about matching the content and presentation. There are really good tape-music performances, and really bad ones, and I have been to both. The Saturday performance at the festival was definitely a good one. It included classics of electronic music, such as John R Pierce’s Stochatta, one of early experiments in computer music at Bell Laboratories; and Lubiano Berio’s Thema (Ommagio a Joyce). Both pieces were premiered over 50 years ago. John R Pierce may be familiar to longtime readers of CatSynth as one of the co-discovers of the Bohlen Pierce scale.

Most of the other pieces on the program were far more recent, with the most recent being the premier of Cupido’s Suitcase by Cliff Caruthers. A series of three pieces in the first half, Winter Light (for Ingmar Bergman) by George Cremaschi, Pre-fader: Highly reverberant states by Goran Vejvoda and Chart Tempo & World Retrograde by Jon Liedecker/Wobbly explore three different aesthetics within recorded sound art: simple (but very powerful) sound synthesis with two oscillators, complex collages of sounds, and remixing of popular-music elements, respectively.

One piece that also got attention when the program was first announced was a piece by The Fireman, which is actually a due of Paul McCartney and Martin Glover aka Youth. As a piece on the program, I don’t know that is as memorable as the others I have discribed.

The program closed with a rather “hard” piece buzzz by Geraud Bec, which I leave to the reader’s imagination. Works by Maggi Payne, Zhiye Li and Kent Jolly rounded out the program.

Overall, a very even performance, there was no point at which I didn’t want to be there listening. I also think that this series is fairly accessible for those who are not familiar with contemporary or experimental music, nothing is too harsh or too provocative – then again, I don’t know if I am the best judge of that.

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