They Will Have Been So Beautiful: Amy X Neuburg with Paul Dresher Ensemble

“They Will Have Been So Beautiful”, a collaboration between Amy X Neuburg and the Paul Dresher Ensemble, premiered a little over a week ago at U.C. Berkeley’s Zellerbach Playhouse. It was an event I was happy to have attended, as it lived up to its future-perfect-tense name.

“They Will Have Been So Beautiful” was actually ten pieces by ten different composers, all inspired by Diane Arbus’ “stunningly poetic 1963 Guggenheim grant application titled American Rites, Manners and Customs“. Each composer selected a photograph or series of images that spoke and him or her and to use as the inspiration for the music. The performance featured Neuburg on voice and electronics, with members of the Paul Dresher Ensemble and guest performer John Schott on guitar.

The evening opened with Pamela Z’s piece 17 Reasons Why based on a photograph by Donald Swearingen. It began in a fashion very typical of Neuburg’s solo work where she layers looped and processed live recordings of her voice to create thick textures. There is always a precision to her performance that makes it work live, and I can only imagine the challenge in getting the full ensemble to match it as tightly as they did.

Lisa Bielawa’s Ego Sum was a much sparser piece, featuring text overheard in “transient public spaces”, such as the New York City Subway. The accompanying photographs featured people coming and going on a bench in a subway station in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn (I know the station). It would be easy to dismiss the piece as “hipster” for its concept and visual setting, but in my case it made me feel a little homesick even though I was just in New York a couple of weeks earlier.

Paul Dresher’s own contribution, A Picture Screen Stands in Solitude, was perhaps the most poignant of the evening. It featured two photographs: Richard Misrach’s image an abandoned drive-in theater near Las Vegas by , and Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photo of an empty movie palace in Encinitas, California. The text was from an essay by a young man named Michael Nelson named incarcerated in San Quentin for murder, written for a prison course named “Contemporary Issues in Photography.” The images themselves were quite powerful, and very much in the themes of urban decay and sparse built spaces that are featured in many of the photography reviews here on CatSynth. But Nelson’s words are make it emotionally strong. His observations are very detailed and articulate, and also quite melancholy on the subject of forgotten places (and in turn forgotten people). The music was extremely sparse in keeping with the photos, and did not get in the way of Nelson’s words.

Ken Ueno’s piece Secret Meridian, features the composers’ own photographs of the meridian lines in two churches in Italy. It was perhaps the most abstract of the evening, both in its theme and the composition itself. The words felt secondary to me and I found myself focused on the electronic resonance sounds and impressive solos from John Schott on electric guitar and Gene Reffkin on electronic drums.

The song cycle concluded with Amy X Neuburg’s composition Is It Conflict-Free and Were Any Animals
Harmed in the Making of It?
. From the start it was pretty obvious this was going to be a more humorous piece, with frequent references to the oft-used punchline “no animals were harmed in the making of this”. And Neuburg didn’t disappoint in that regard, using her distinctive mixture of operatic vocals, musical theater, and clear comedic lines. The piece did have a serious origin, using a photograph of a snowy mountain in Wyoming and the loss of wild winter spaces as the point of departure, but then veering into the absurd including the above lines and images of herself in the bathtub. She deftly managed to put all these elements together into a poetic and theatrical whole.

[Photo by Moe! Staiano.]

Five other pieces rounded out the evening, with composers Fred Frith, Guillermo Galindo, Carla Kihlstedt, Jay Cloidt, and Conrad Cummings. I regret not being able to write about all of them, as each contributed something to the whole of this event. The entire evening was well performed and choreographed between music, projection and lighting, and made for a quite impressive experience. Congratulations are in order to everyone involved in this multi-year project.

Perhaps the strength and intensity of this concert made it even more surreal to exit to the reality of protests in Berkeley on the precipice of a violent confrontation only a few minutes later that evening. Certainly not a planned juxtaposition, but a powerful one.

Metal Machine Manifesto – Music for 16 Intonarumori

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.