Jack Curtis Dubowsky Ensemble and Dan Plonsey’s Quartet

Today we look at the recent premiere of Current Events by the Jack Curtis Dubowsky Ensemble and a new quartet from Dan Plonsey. Both groups performed on April 28 at Berkeley Arts.

We have featured recordings by the Jack Curtis Dubowsky Ensemble (JCDE) a few times on The World of Wonder radio show and podcast, but this was an opportunity to see them perform a live improvisation to short experimental films. Joining Dubowsky for this performance were Hall Goff on trombone, Erika Johnson on percussion and Rufus Olivier III on bassoon.

Current Events is structured around five short films concerning recent events or contemporary topics. The first film featured TV footage and simulations of Air France Flight 447 that crashed in the Atlantic Ocean in 2009. The second featured a variety of video sources concerning both the technical aspects and controversy about drone warfare. Through both of these sections the music was relatively pointed, with short and often inharmonic notes from all members of the ensemble. While this was the natural state for the percussion, is particularly noticeable for the trombone and bassoon. Dubowsky was mostly on acoustic piano during these films, but did switch over to the synth for some longer extended sounds.

Jack Curtis Dubowsky

The next film featured “futurist cities”, 20th century utopian designs for cities of the future that are long in the past. This was my favorite of the films, primarily because of the material – I am a sucker for past visions of the future and lament that fact that our time does not always live up to their ideals, at least in terms of design. Musically, this was a transition piece with more long tones leading into the final two films which focused on nature. The first was about the polar regions, including the melting ice caps. But it also featured penguins (and who doesn’t love penguins?).

Penguin in Polar Ice Caps video

The music for this piece did veer into some of the cliches of high sounds and noisy drones that often accompany images of ice and snow, but there were also parts that were simply musical improvisation. The final piece on the desert was more inviting, partly because of the warm environment it portrayed but also the variety of musical elements compared to the polar piece. In all, the suite as performed was a particularly fun live set combining music and visuals, and I thought it was well done and well prepared.

The second set featured the debut performance of Dan Plonsey’s new quartet with Steve Lew on bass, John Hanes on drums and John Shiurba on guitar.

Dan Plonsey quartet, 3 of 4 members

Between generous amounts of verbal banter – much of it around the relative difficultly and quality of the numerically titled pieces – the band delivered the type of jazz that still celebrates driving rhythms and strong harmonies alongside complex lines. I particularly liked the final “jam/funk” piece. It was just different enough to be original, but had the familiar qualities that makes funky pieces so addictive.

John Hanes and John Shiurba

Personally, I could have done with less of the banter. It did get a bit repetitive, especially when members of the audience started chiming in. Even Plonsey himself, a voluble individual, suggested that they could have gotten to more music if there was less of it.

While Plonsey’s big band is fun, too, I do like the spare and focused nature of the quartet and hope they continue to perform in the future.

Jay Korber Benefit Performance, Berkeley Arts

Last Friday, a large portion of the Bay Area new-music community gathered at Berkeley Arts in an evening of large-ensemble improvisation and to raise money to help fellow local musician Jay Korber. Korber had been seriously injured recently when he was struck by a street sweeper truck in San Francisco, and this concert was a benefit to raise funds and support his recovery.

The first half of the concert featured a specially convened Moe!kestra conducted by Moe! Staiano. The ensemble consisted of woodwind, percussion and electric-guitar sections. I managed to incorporate myself into the “guitar” section with an iPad and amplifier. Moe!’s conducting consisted of a series of simple gestures aimed at individuals or groups of performers that led to both an expressive and varied performance and entertaining conducting.

In the above photo, Moe! is actually giving a “V” sign to some of the guitarists, and not giving them “the finger”, although that gesture was used by both conductors during the course of the evening. You can hear our first piece from the performance here (recording courtesy of friend and fellow participant Neal Trembath):

The second half of the concert featured an ensemble conducted by Gino Robair:

This group was heavier on horns, and overall had a jazzier feel to it. While the majority of the set consisted of large-scale free-jazz improvisation with dynamic runs, hits, and responses, the final piece was based on a Miles Davis riff that was initially repeated and then deconstructed. It was a bit of a musical in-joke, but I for one like having familiar idioms alongside experimentation.

In all, it was a fun night of music and fellowship, and the event raised quite a bit of money for Jay Korber. We wish him a full and speedy recovery.

Reconnaissance Fly at the Starry Plough in August

Here is a video from our Reconnaissance Fly show at the Starry Plough in Berkeley this past August. (It was the same show the generated this Weekend Cat Blogging post.) It features one of our more challenging but also fun pieces, the medley of “Electric Rock Like a Cat” and “sanse is crede nza”, with music by Polly Moller and Amar Chaudhary, respectively.

It was our best performance of this set to date, and a lot of energy from both the band and the audience. So much so that we nearly had a disaster on our hands when our drummer Larry-the-O knocked over his hi-hat dangerously close to bassist Tim Walters’ foot. Fortunately, no one was hurt and a good time was had by all.

Improv Hootenanny Revival, Berkeley Arts

The Improv Hootenanny series from the Ivy Room may be gone, but we recently had a “Hootennany Revival” at Berkeley Arts. Lucio Menagon, who started the Ivy Room series, was back in the Bay Area and joined by Suki O’kane and other familiar faces along with new participants. The musical (and visual) artistry is of course the center of the Hootenanny experience, but drinks and lively conversation are also a key part, and there was plenty of these before the formal part of the program began.

The performance opened with a solo set by Henry Plotnik, perhaps the youngest participant I have seen in any of these Bay Area improv events. He made use of the venue’s acoustic grand piano in addition to his electronic keyboard, and effortlessly weaved a set that moved between tonal and inharmonic elements.


[Photo by Michael Zelner.]

Plotnik was followed by a duo featuring veteran improvisers Philip Greenlief and Ross Hammond, on saxophone and guitar, respectively.


[Photo by Michael Zelner.]

Their performance had a sparse but intricate texture, frequency bouncing odd melodic lines or noisy extended techniques between them.

The evening also featured a version of Lucio Menagon’s Strangelet project, with familiar members Suki O’kane on percussion and John Hanes on electronics as well as a relative newcomer to the Bay Area scene Stephanie Lak.


[Photo by Michael Zelner.]

Lak’s contribution contrasted physically and sonically with the other members of the group, who provided the steadily evolving cloud of improvised sounds I remember from previous Strangelet performances. She was completely mobile with a pair of toy megaphones and tiny amplifiers and moved around the stage area freely with bursts of vocal and electronic sounds that floated on top of existing soundscape.

All the sets were accompanied by visuals from the cinePimps (Alfonso Alvarez and Keith Arnold). Using film projectors, they layered abstract film clips along with old B movies on two walls of the space. There were also musical interludes featuring Raub Roy and the TreeJay OctoPlayer. Raub Roy had a collection of hand drums that he excited with balloons expelling air and electric toothbrushes. The effect was something that sounded drum-like but without the usual articulation. You can see part of his performance in this video:

The TreeJay OctoPlayer, a project of Thad Povey and Mark Taylor, featured eight independently controllable platters and styli for vinyl records. During their mini-sets, the performers switched among different records and changed speeds to create a rich and somewhat eerie musical collage. It was also fun to watch the process of working with this towering instrument.


[Photo by Michael Zelner.]

The final set featured Stanosaur with guitar and a wall of large amplifiers. Basically, he played long heavily distorted drones that drove all of the amps to create different beating and phasing effects at rather high volumes. And by “high volumes” I mean ear-splittingly loud! Fortunately, I had my ear protection, and earplugs were made available to the audience. But it was still an intense experience to hear and to feel the effect of this sound, and a fog machine and lasers added a visual element.


[Photo by Michael Zelner.]

In all, it was a fun night of friends and good music, which is something to be valued. I hope we can start another regular improvisation series in the Bay Area with the same degree of casual fellowship and quality musicianship.

Weekend Cat Blogging #376: South Berkeley Cat

I encountered this cat in south Berkeley yesterday, as I was unloading my equipment for the Reconnaissance Fly show at the nearby Starry Plough bar.

This cat was quite friendly and greeted me with a tiny voice. I of course had to set the equipment aside for a moment to play. A passerby saw us and said “Too friendly!”, to which I replied “there is no such thing.”

Despite my invitation, the cat did not join us at the Starry Plough for the performance later that evening. But the show did go quite well.


Weekend Cat Blogging #376 is hosted by Vincent at Judi’s Mind Over Matter. We’re wondering where Jules is – he looks a lot like the cat we are featuring this weekend.

The Carnival of the Cats will be up this Sunday at Meowsings of an Opinionated Pussycat. Our friends Nikita, Elvira and Keeril are preparing for a big move, and we wish them well!

And the Friday Ark is at the modulator.

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.

John Cage at Tom’s Place

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.

ReCardiacs Fly, Wiener Kids, and Dominque Leone at the Starry Plough

After our first ReCardiacs Fly performance this past spring, we were hoping for an opportunity to perform again. That opportunity came (and went) at the beginning of December as part of an energetic night of music at the Starry Plough in Berkeley that also featured Wiener Kids and Dominique Leone.

ReCardiacs Fly is the coming together of several members of Reconnaissance Fly (Polly Moller, Amar Chaudhary, Tim Walters, Chris Broderick) with Moe! Staiano, Marc Laspina and Suki O’kane as a tribute to the UK band Cardiacs. We performed a full set of Cardiacs songs – the four from the previous show as well as several new ones – with as much authenticity and energy as we could. Much of the work in learning these songs involves mastering the complex meter and rhythm changes that can often be quite unpredictable, and we spent a lot of time practicing in preparation for the show. And the work paid off. I thought R.E.S. in particular came out well, but you can hear for yourself in this video:


[Videography by Marjorie Sturm.]

I am still not sure what R.E.S. stands for.

I also thought Wooden Fish on Wheels came out well – it’s not as hard musically as R.E.S. and some of the others, as it stays in a relatively steady 4/4 ska-like rhythm. I would like take another shot at getting Burn Your House Brown and In A City Lining (both of which I quite like) up to the same level. Overall, however, it was a great performance, and we had a very enthusiastic response from the large crowd at the Starry Plough.


[Photo by Tom Djll.]

As one can see from the above photo, Polly was definitely getting into the character of lead singer Tim Smith. Most of our digital cameras cannot keep up.

The evening opened with Wiener Kids (Jordan Glenn, Aram Shelton and Cory Wright). They are one of the more unusual trios, with Glenn on drums and Shelton and Wright on reeds. As a result, their music has a very sparse texture, which they use to great effect for complex rhythms and lines. I found myself caught up in the patterns with lots of syncopations and unisons and empty space. Every so often they would come together into one jazz-like idiom or another before spreading out again with their unique texture.

Wiener Kids were followed by Dominique Leone together with Ava Mendoza, Aaron Novik and Jordan Glenn pulling double-duty by appearing in two out of three bands. And they were quite a contrast, with thick textures and rich harmony and a more song-like quality, but equally tight in terms of rhythm and phrasing. I found myself particularly interested in Aaron Novik’s use of bass clarinet as the equivalent of a bass guitar, complete with electronic effects.

This won’t be the last ReCardiacs Fly show, as we already have one planned for March in San Francisco. But until then, it’s back to some of the other musical projects. We conclude with an image of some flowers that fulfilled their deranged-rock destiny that evening.


[Photo by Michael Zelner.]

Daniel Popsicle vs. Brooklyn, Subterranean Arthouse

It’s rare that I get to see Berkeley and Brooklyn collide, but that is exactly what I found at the Subterranean Arthouse last week at a show entitled “Daniel Popsicle vs. Brooklyn.” In this case, “Brooklyn” was represented by members of the composers’ collective ThingNY, violinist Jeffrey Young and cellist Valerie Kuehne with her band Dream Zoo. The overall theme that unified the music across coasts was the incorporation of words and wordplay, in the forms of cabaret, theater, opera and casual banter.

I arrived as the first set was beginning, with Valerie Kuenhe center stage framed by the center aisle of the space, with band-members Lucio Menegon on guitar, Jeffrey Young on violin and Sean Ali on bass on either side. The music opened with rhythmic instrumental playing and Kuenhe’s theatrical singing, and moved between vigorous rhythmic patterns and playful lyrics with occasional breaks into arhythmic free playing. Kuenhe’s avant-cabaret style of performance reminded me a bit of Amy X Neuburg, both in the cadence and rhythm of her singing and the humor and word-play of her lyrics. Sometimes they were quite abstract and seemed to reflect the joy of words for their own sake, and at others described visual and familiar scenes, such as riding in an New York City subway.

[Jeff Young, Lucio Menegon, Valerie Kuenhe, Sean Ali.  Photo by Michael Zelner.]

In some respects, the band was a variation on the traditional string quartet, with the fourth string instrument was Lucio Menegon’s electric guitar. At times he blended seemlessly with the other instruments, with his fingering and ebow playing matching the volume and timbre of the acoustic strings. At other times, his playing was front and center, with more of a blues or rock style, with the cello and bass acting as percussion instruments.

At one point late in the set, the steady rhythm and lyrical music disintegrated into a more chaotic and freeform texture, and one by one members of Daniel Popsicle joined the group on stage in a free improv. At first, I thought this was a set transition, but then they left after a short period of time, with things settling back down into a minor plucked rhythm by Kuenhe and a jazz/rock jam line by Menegon. A repeated chant emerged: “Forget about geometry, forget about geometry”, with all band members and eventually the audience joining in. And while I don’t personally want to forget about geometry, it was a fun moment. The set concluded with a slowly descending guitar tone that lingered for a good long time.

Jeffrey Young returned for the second set with Paul Pinto for a performance of their opera Jeff Young and Paul Pinto, Patriots, Run for Public Office on a Platform of Swift and Righteous Immigration Reform, Lots of Jobs, and a Healthy Environment. They had lots of boxes with politically salient terms written on each face.

Amidst soft musical tones, the pair began to unpack the boxes to reveal a US flag to serve as their backdrop, a variety of musical instruments, and piles of clothing whose purpose would soon become apparent. The boxes themselves became musical instruments to be bowed in counterpoint to Young’s violin. This gave way to to both percussive and harmonic sounds on xylophone. The dialogue of the piece unfolded as Pinto donned a dark suit from the pile of clothes and Young proceeded to ask pointed questions in a mock political debate which, in between virtuosic violin arpeggios and intense percussion breaks, crossed many topics ranging from quinoa to absurd solutions to immigration reform to the idea that “sex begins in the classroom.” One particularly amusing exchange involved the question of a “single American identity”, which Young answered affirmatively from the point of view of a “single American.” Towards the end the boxes were stacked into a large tower that was then toppled over, with individual boxes distributed to members of the audience. I received one of the boxes, though I’m afraid I don’t recall what was written on it. The piece concluded with a ceremonial folding of the flag – I am pretty sure this was actually done the correct way.

[Paul Pinto and Jeff Young. Photo by Michael Zelner.]

The final set featured Daniel Popsicle, complete with copious banter between Dan Plonsey and the other members of the group. Indeed, the banter seemed to be a foundation for the music, with the live back-and-forth as well as recordings of dialog. On top of this was layered a mixture of anxious harmonies and fast lines that gave way to more idiomatic sections with familiar harmonies and guitar rhythms and licks complete with wah-wah pedal. In that vain, my favorite piece in the set was New Monster 10 with its driving funky rhythms and timbres. There were also good moments with the words that overlaid the music (distinguished from the banter in between pieces), ranging from references to ponies to insider computer-software jokes like the term “T++”.

[Chris Silvey, Jeff Young, and Dan Plonsey.  Photo by Michael Zelner.]

Young sat in with the group, pulling a trifecta by appearing in all three sets.

Overall, it was a good performance and well worth the trip over to Berkeley on a weeknight. And I don’t think this is the last time we will hear from our newest musical friends from New York.