Music by Lindsay Cooper, Mills College

Earlier this month, the Mills College music department dedicated an entire concert to the music of Lindsay Cooper. It was an extraordinary event, not only for bringing her work together in one setting, but for the cast of talented musicians who made up the ensemble.

Ensemble performing the music of Lindsay Cooper
[Ensemble performing the music of Lindsay Cooper]

Lindsay Cooper is perhaps best known for work with the experimental rock group Henry Cow, but her musical career spans a variety of other styles and disciplines before and after. And while her instrumental first love remained the bassoon, she also played many other wind instruments, and had a very distinctive haunting voice that could be heard on many of Henry Cow’s recordings. Her compositions, including her time with the band and her later projects including News from Babel up to her retirement while suffering from MS, are not often heard in concert calls. The concert on this evening was a step towards rectifying that.

Musically the concert was a high-speed tour through Cooper’s music. Many of the pieces were short an energetic. Some carried the energy and rhythm of experimental rock, with driving lines on keyboard, guitar and drums; others were quite abstract with longer sounds. There was an anxiety and restlessness that permeated the music, with a need to move forward, sometimes almost tumbling. It was also full of intricate details and contrapuntal lines, which were brought out especially in the horn parts. There were moments which had the grand style and fast-moving details of a classic film score, particularly reminiscent of a closing “The End” from a film for which the ending may not have felt quite so final.

Evelyn Davis, Kate McLoughlin, Fred Frith
[Evelyn Davis, Kate McLoughlin, Fred Frith]

The main ensemble featured two of Cooper’s longtime collaborators, Fred Frith (guitar, keyboard) and Zeena Parkins (harp). Rounding out the ensemble was a group of familiar faces in Steve Admans, Rachel Austin, Beth Custer, Evelyn Davis, Jordan Glenn, Jason Hoopes, Kasy Knudsen, Kate McLoughlin, Emily Packard, and Andy Strain; with Miles Boisen on sound. The performances felt easy and flawless (no doubt the result of countless rehearsals), and with a relatively light texture despite the ensemble’s size. The concert’s sole departure was a performance by the Rova Sax Quartet of Face in the Crowd, a piece they had commissioned from Cooper in 1996. Judging from her biography and the date, it may have been one of her last compositions.

Rova Saxophone Quartet
[Rova Saxophone Quartet]

In addition to the performers on stage, the audience too was a cast of familiar faces and influential musicians from the Bay Area music scene. It seems that Lindsay Cooper had quite an influence on artists her; and thus this was a concert not to be missed. I am glad that I was able to be there.

Optical Sounds: Dementia (Frith, Custer, Stanley)

Optical Sounds is a monthly series at the Center For New Music in San Francisco, curated by Tania Chen with Benjamin Ethan Tinker featuring live improvisation to soundless films. We had the opportunity to attend the most recent installment, which featured a trio of Fred Frith, Beth Custer and Christina Stanley interpreting the 1955 dialogue-less film “Dementia” by John Parker.

DementiaWe at CatSynth often enjoy unusual films, but “Dementia” is weird even among weird films, though the Variety description “May be the strangest film ever offered for theatrical release” seems a bit hyperbolic. The film follows the inner thoughts and actions of a woman as she wanders through dark corners of Los Angeles with even darker characters, while recalling violent events of her childhood. The film is part psychological thriller, part film noir, and part surrealist experiment, constantly jumping between the tropes of all three.

The original soundtrack featured music by George Antheil and a section with Shorty Rogers and his band who also appeared in the film. For this performance however, the original soundtrack was absent with Frith, Custer and Stanley providing the music. The constantly-changing nature of the film was reflected in the music, with eerie vocals by Beth Custer, percussive hits by Custer and Fred Frith, and a mixture of processed violin and analog synthesizer by Stanley. Overall, the music was energetic, with moments of chaos, but also some mellower pads by Stanley on synth. They did blend some film-score tropes into the performance, such as eerie sounds for the internal memories and thoughts of the main character, tense bits of sound for the dark streets of the city, and jazzy cabaret style riffs for the night-club scenes – the latter were definitely my favorite parts of the music.

The dialog-less nature of the film does facilitate such an improvised score, but the oddness of its structure must have made it challenging. But the trio pulled it off. I am glad to have been able to attend the performance and look forward to more in this series.

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.

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[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.

Surplus 1980 and Fred Frith Trio, Brick and Mortar

A couple of weeks ago, Surplus 1980 joined the Fred Frith Trio at the Brick and Mortar in San Francisco from a night of energetic avant-rock and jazz. It was a show we have all been looking forward to for quite a while.

Surplus 1980 went on first, with a set that combined songs from our recent album Arterial Ends Here with older selections. In addition to Moe! Staiano and myself, the band includes Bill Wolter and Melne Murphy on guitar, Thomas Scandura on drums, and Steve Lew on bass.

Surplus 1980
[Photo by Michael Zelner.]

For this set, we expanded our Fred Frith cover “Cap the Knife” into a full medley featuring excerpts for some of his other songs. In a brief exchange back stage, it sounded like he appreciated the gesture, and even suggested that his group perform a “Moe! Staiano medley”, which would have been fun. But overall, it was our strongest performance as a band to date, with rhythms and phrasing much tighter as well as more sophisticated use of all parts.

After Surplus 1980 was done, Fred Frith took the stage with his trio that included Jordan Glenn on drums and Jason Hoopes on bass.

Fred Frith Trio
[Photo by Michael Zelner.]

It was quite a contrast, going from post-punk to avant-jazz. The trio played through longer pieces that moved between fast intricate sections and more familiar idioms with ease. The polyphonic sections were certainly impressive, but I do find when technically strong musicians play in unison or at least synchronous rhythms, it leaves a more memorable impression. Frith deftly filled up the otherwise sparse texture of the music, but not so much that one would get lost or overwhelmed.

Overall, it was a successful show, with a good turnout. Surplus 1980 is now looking forward to our next show in December, but I hope we get to play with the Fred Frith trio again.