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.]

Outsound Music Summit: Part 2

This is the second part of my report on the Outsound Music Summit, focusing on the first two concerts. For those who missed it, the first part described the Touch the Gear Expo on the Sunday before the formal concerts began.

The first concert, which was titled “Free Improvisation | Free Composition” began the way I often begin my own performances these days: with the ringing of a prayer bowl. This signified the start of Sacred Unit, the duo of Alicia Mangan on saxophones and the percussionist Spirit. Overall, this set consisted of free improvisation that blended avant-gard and more idiomatic jazz techniques with other folk and world traditions. I did find myself paying most attention to Spirit’s drumming and use of other elements for percussion, including his body and voice.

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The Rova Saxophone Quartet performed a new, set-length performance piece created especially for the Summit titled The Contours of the Glass Head. This is one of those pieces where it is difficult to tell where composition ends and improvisation begins. The group describes it as “the intersection of improvisation and composition, using improvisational games and strategies.” The members of the quartet demonstrated their powerful technical and musical skills as an ensemble and as four very strong players working together. At times one could focus on an individual solo or line from one performer, while at others the timbres and harmonies of the four saxophones seemed to act as one. As with some of the electronic performances the following night, there were sections of long drawn-out notes, and some very quiet subtle moments, which were interrupted by flurries of fast notes and punctuated phrases. Even if it was largely improvised, one could follow an imaged narrative to go along with the music.

Throughout the evening, I couldn’t help but notice the rather large wind instruments on the right side of the stage:

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In this photo, we see a bass saxophone, a tubax, and a contrabass flute. These were all instruments used by Vinny Golia in the final set of the evening. Golia performed solo and group Compositions for Woodwinds together with Thollem Mcdonas (piano), Damon Smith (bass), Rent Romus (saxophone, electronics), Garth Powell (percussion), and Noah Philips (guitar).

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The lively and energetic performances centered on free jazz , with free improvisation and interaction among the performers, but showcasing the unique aspects of each musician and instrument. In addition to Golia’s virtuosic performance wind instruments large and small, I also noticed prepared piano sounds from Mcdonas, and hard driving guitar and percussion from Philips and Powel, respectively, and Smith’s ever present and versatile bass.

The second program, “Industrial Soundscapes”, opened with Ferrara Brain Pan’s Form of Things Unknown. Long droning oscillators served as the foundation, on top of which he layered various shakers, bowls and other sounds, processed electronically. Ferrara Brain Pan is also an accomplished wind player, and incorporated bass clarinet into the set, which complemented the low-frequency oscillators. Sometimes they matched precisely, while other moments were as a counterpoint. Perhaps more than any of the other sets, this one matched my own current style of electronic music performance.

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Guitarist Peter Kolovos was introduced as having “surgical precision”. And it was an apt description. The staccato articulation of the guitar as well as the frequent changes of effects were very precise. There was never a moment where the sound was not changing, and changing quickly. At times it was quite loud and the effects quite heavy, but his dextrous performance was great to watch.

Conure focused on analog and digital noise, with lots of distortion, feedback, delays and lo-fi effects. There were sections of steady-state noise, but what most stood out were the moments with interesting transitions and glitches. I realized that Conure and I had crossed paths at an Outsound event last year.

Hans Fjellestad presented Slimspor Cosmonau, a short video with improvised electronic sound accompaniment. I actually wasn’t sure whether or not the music was scored out precisely to match the film, but I was assured by the artist that was entirely improvised, which is possible if one is intimately familiar with the visual material. The film appears as a computer screen, with controls around a central video area depicting lunar and astronomical images as well as biological and anatomical scenes.

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Late in the piece, I recognized a distinctive squeak that I thought might be a Metasonix effects box, and inspecting his setup after the performance confirmed that he did have one of these infamous boxes. Indeed, Fjellestad’s performance featured an eclectic mix of analog instruments – fitting for creator of the 2004 documentary MOOG.

Thomas Dimuzio concluded the program with his complex electronics and timbrally rich and evolving soundscape. Dimuzio uses a variety of technologies, including live sampling and looping, feedback and modulated effects. The piece started quite simply with a relatively harmonic chord, and the overall effect was very calm but also metallic. Then a swell, and metal resonances. The overall motion of the set was very slow, a strong contrast to Kolovos’ set earlier in the evening. This is not to say that there weren’t discrete textures and details within the music, but it was more like the details one would focus on while examining a natural scene, or perhaps the industrial urban landscapes where I enjoy walking. With it’s gradual place and close, this was an apt conclusion to the “industrial soundscapes” evening.

Greenlief @ 50

On Tuesday, I attended the fourth greelief@50 concert, a series marking the birthday of local musician and composer Phillip Greenlief. We haven’t actually played together, but have been on the same program several times, and we have crossed paths and numerous Bay Area new-music events over the last few years. The show took place at The Uptown in (downtown) Oakland.

The opening set was a performance by Weasel Walter/Devin Hoff/Darren Johnston/Damon Smith. I hesitate to say whether or not it was an improvisation set because they did have scores, but in any case it had the sound and structure of a free jazz improvisation set. The best moment was when a particularly dense section suddenly gave way to a tenor solo, and then back to the full ensemble just as suddenly.

The main set was a large ensemble, consisting of orchesperry (named for local musician Matthew Sperry) and the Cardew Choir. In total, this was indeed a large ensemble.

I’m not sure what the lab coats were about.

The group performed several compositions by Greenlief, who conducted in bold and dramatic style. Of particular note was the second piece, which opened with percussion and a string sound that seemed electronic. This was followed by a saxophone solo that was rather melodic, a voice solo, and then bursts of sound from various musicians. The piece then built up towards the standard loud and dense improvisation, before quickly coming to a close. The piece was rather short, so short that it seemed the audience wasn’t sure it was over, and performer Bob Marsh had to cue the audience to applaud.

Another piece of note, for me at least, was Monument, dedicated to work of artist Eva Hesse, whose work I have seen on several occasions here in San Francisco and elsewhere. The piece was “dedicated to the electronic musicians in the ensemble”, and featured the electronic sounds and textures to which we at CatSynth have become very accustomed – so that hearing synthesizers and processors in the midst of a large mostly-acoustic concert can have a very familiar and inviting quality – especially when one thinks about in the context of modern and contemporary visual art.

As is often the case, there are a fair number of familiar faces at these performances, so a certain amount of time is spent being social in addition to the music itself. Nothing wrong with that, though it was a Tuesday and I ended up not staying very long.

NOTE: this was the 800th post for CatSynth

Last Saturday at 1510 8th Street

A quick review of a pair of performance at 1510 8th Street in the Oakland last Saturday. Yes, I’m a bit slow on posting these. Hence, the “quick” part. Plus, I didn’t bring a camera…

…which is unfortunate, because the first performance was quite visual. It featured improvised music and movement by saxophonist Phillip Greenlief and dancer Karen Fox. Greenlief’s performances are often full of motion, but the combination with Fox was something quite different, indeed her improvised movement was quite fun and provocative.

The second set was the “Kristian Aspelin Quartet” featuring (not surprisingly), Kristian Aspelin on Guitar, Damon Smith on bass and electronics, Scott Looney on piano and electronics, and Weasel Walter on drums. Although both Looney and Smith had laptop-based electronics, I probably would not characterize this performance as “electronic music.” But that’s not a criticism, I do like to hear more acoustic sets. The main word I would use to describe this set is loud, indeed one of the louder I have heard at 1510. Of course, these are were plenty of quieter moments, where I was able to hear Looney’s prepared-piano work (I would love to do more prepared piano myself). There were moments when all four members seemed to match the sound of the piano, or one of the other instruments, all bells, or all harmonics. And then there were more the loud moments.