Outsound Music Summit: The Composers’ Muse

The Outsound Music Summit continued with The Composers Muse, a night of new compositions by three noted Bay Area composers. They were participants in the Composers’ Forum that I moderated earlier in the week, where they gave tantalizing descriptions of their work. On this evening, we finally got to hear what they were talking about.

The concert opened with the Skadi Quartet performing compositions by Christina Stanley, who also is the first violist for the quartet. Her compositions were based on large abstract oil paintings that were placed center stage, with members of ensemble arrayed to either side.

[Christina Stanley and Skadi Quartet. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

As someone interested in visual art as well as music, I was quite intrigued by this piece, and how the composer wanted the performers to interpret the visual work. Stanley had very specific instructions for performers in each piece for how to perform the score. In the first piece, Put it On, performers were to move visually from the focal point just to the lower right of center and move outwards, with different shapes corresponding to very specific sounds and modes of playing. You can see a close-up of the score at Stanley’s website. Within this structure, the music began with short notes and then moved to longer bow strokes, jaggedly moving up and down in pitch. My visual and aural senses focused on the straight-line character of both the score and the music. At one point, the performers diverged into different textures, with staccato notes against longer lines and glissandi that then melted into a single harmony. There were also elements of noise and percussive scraping, harmonics, and quite a bit of empty space in the sound. The piece concluded with a large and more traditional flourish.

The second piece was a duo of Stanley and cellist Crystal Pascucci. The score for this piece was more sparse with curving lines, and these qualities were reflected in the music as well. It started with harmonics and other high, airy tones. Overall, it was more melodic, but with some pizzicato tones as well. Gradually, the cello became lower and filled out the harmony, which seemed almost folk-music-like at times. There other elements such as sliding harmonics, but overall it still fit with the visual imagery of the score.

The next set featured a solo piece written and performed by Matthew Goodheart for piano and metal percussion. Gongs and cymbals were placed at various spots around the hall, including in the balcony. A small transducer was attached to each of the instruments so that it could be excited by electronically generated sounds.

[Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

The sounds used to excite the metal percussion were created by analyzing the partials and spectra of such instruments, a process that was part of his research involving “recursive physical object electro-acoustics” at the Center for New Music and Audio Technologies (CNMAT). The acoustic and spectral properties of these sounds also informed Goodheart’s live piano performance during the piece.

[Matthew Goodheart. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

The music that resulted was unusual and exceptionally beautiful. It began with high ethereal harmonics coming from the cymbals and gong spreading across the hall, and then high notes from the piano to match. The piano and some of the harmonics featured in the metal percussion gave the music an air of anxiety even while it was calming. As the harmonics grew thicker, the timbre grew more metallic and at moments took on the quality of water pouring. The music became more active, deeper harmonics and a few tones that sounded like flutes and clarinets alongside the metallic resonances. Again, Goodheat’s piano matched the changes in timbre as he moved into lower registers. Some of the sounds from the cymbals became more disjointed, sounding like tops, and after a loud gong hit the texture of the music grew thicker and more inharmonic. Then all at once it stopped leaving a single resonance. It looked like Goodheart was playing inside the piano as well with various objects, though it was hard to tell from where I was sitting. There were various percussive sounds and something that reminded me of my cat scratching, and then piano became more harmonic and tonal again with rather plaintive chords. There were more high frequencies and electronic swells broadcast through the cymbals, and a finale with a single repeated note on the piano. Overall, the performance was one of the most memorable experiences of the summit.

The concert concluded with John Shiurba’s large-scale composition 9:9. The number 9 permeated the structure and concept of the piece. There were nine performers and nine movements; and the piece employed a nine-note scale and nine different styles of notation all derived in one way or another from newspapers – there was standard notation along with text and graphics, some of which were taken directly from newspaper clips. Shiurba described his use of newspaper elements as a “celebration and/or elegy for the old-fashioned print medium.”

[John Shiurba 9:9. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

The movements were bounded by vocal interpretations of cryptograms from the New York times. The encrypted text was sung by Polly Moller, who had to work through challenging clusters of consonants. The decrypted solutions, which often featured corny or trite phrases, were sung by Hadley McCarroll in a more melodic style. Within this structure, each movement began with a solo by one of the nine performers, with a couple of other instruments gradually joining in, and finally the entire ensemble. Each of the solo sections had a very different character, representing both the performer and his or her instrument. Ava Mendoza’s strong articulation on acoustic guitar stood out, and Polly Moller’s solo on bass flute sounded quite familiar from Reconnaissance Fly pieces. The piano solo by Hadley McCarroll was quite aggressive, as was the bass clarinet solo by Matt Ingalls. There were interesting moments in the ensemble playing as well, such as a big minor chord and a section that more jazz or cabaret-like. Other sections were extremely quiet. The final movement featured a percussion solo by Gino Robair on a variety of instruments and implements, which mirrored the introduction to the piece. Other members of the ensemble included Philip Greenlief on clarinet, Monica Scott on cello, Scott Walton on bass, and Sarah Wilner on violin.

This was a very successful concert for the Outsound Music Summit, and not only musically. We had a full house at the Community Music Center, and I am pretty sure we set a record for paid attendance. There was certainly a lot of Outsound, curator Polly Moller, the composers and performers to be proud of.

Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise

I will be once again participating in the annual Matthew Sperry Festival performance at the Luggage Store Gallery this coming Thursday. In addition to the tag-team trio shift (similar to last year’s event) we will be performing Cornelius Cardew’s piece Treatise, which is based on a rather monumental graphical score. As in most graphical score pieces, performers freely interpret the images. Below you can see an realization by Shawn Feeney that uses simple electronic sounds to realize an animated version of the score. I find it quite interesting as a visual+audio work

Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise – Realization from Shawn Feeney on Vimeo.

I suspect given the size and scope of our ensemble, our interpretation will be somewhat different.

An interesting discussion of Treatise (with a link to a flash animation) can be found here.

Sylvano Bussotti and sfSoundGroup at SFMOMA

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.

Conduct Your Own Orchestra Night

Last Thursday, I participated in Outsound Presents Conduct Your Own Orchestra Night at the Luggage Store Gallery. During the course of the evening, several conductors took turns conducting an “orchestra” of improvising musicians for ten minutes. Each conductor took a very different approach, using a variety of gestures, instructions and symbols to guide the performers.

[Bob Marsh conducts the orchestra.]

As with other recent guided-improvisation pieces, I used a graphical score for my conducting. The performers were each given a set of 16 graphical symbols. During the course of the performance, I held up large cards each containing one of the symbols, directed either at individuals, groups or the ensemble as a whole.

You can see some of the symbols below:

[Click to enlarge.]

This is the second page of the 16 available symbols, generally these were the more complex. Viewers might notice that symbol 12 is a cat. Like other symbols, I expected to be interpreted relatively freely – but by coincidence percussionist Ann O’Rourke had a cat-shaped metal CD rack as an instrument, so it became a very obvious cue for her to play the “cat.”

Ann O’Rourke’s piece was based entirely on pairings of words, such as “fearful/choppy” and “fearful/flowing” or “hesitant/slow” and “confident/fast”. The orchestra was divided in half, with one side receiving one pairing and the other side receiving the other pairing.

Brandan Landis’ conducting was more physical/body-oriented. He did not use any visual cues (textual or graphical), but instead used dramatic body movements to guide the orchestra. Some of these were rather intense and the piece ended with his collapsing on the floor.

Mark Briggs used short rhythmic patterns and cues to individual performers to build up a complex rhythmic texture. I was given a very simple repeated pattern to perform, which allowed me to remain immersed in the overall rhythm of the piece.

Tom Bickley led the orchestra in a very sparse and beautiful piece with individual sounds from cued performance set against silence. It was the sparse texture that made this among my favorite pieces of the evening, musically speaking.

Bob Marsh used his own instructional cards and gestures to conduct the orchestra, and contributed his own vocal performance on top.

Other conductors included CJ Borosque and Matt Davignon, who used a combination of instructional cards, including one that instructed a performer to make a loud sound when Matt pointed a finger gun and shot him/her.

Pmocatat Ensemble and Chorus, and Weller-Borosque Duo

Last Thursday night, the Pmocatat Ensemble performed again at the Luggage Store Gallery. Pmocatat (pronounced “Moe Ka Tatt”, the “p” is silent) stands for “pre-recorded music on CDs and tapes and things”. The members of ensemble pre-record acoustic material (instruments, voice, environmental sounds, etc.) according to compositional instructions, and then during the performance, improvise with these pre-recorded sounds using standard playback controls: play, pause, fast-forward, rewind, and speed controls. Devices used for playback included CD players, cassette tape players, and iPods/iPhones. This performance featured Matt Davignon, Amar Chaudhary, Suki O’kane, Michael Zelner, Rent Romus and Edward Schocker. It was billed as the “Pmocatat Ensemble and Chorus” as many of the pieces featured vocal material.

Matt DavignonMichael Zelner's iPod TouchAmar ChaudharySuki O'kaneRent RomusEdward Schocker

[Photos by Michael Zelner.]

We opened with a sparse piece, with single-syllable words entering periodically to perform collaborative nonsense phrases. There was a lot of open space between the words, which was filled in with droning instruments later in the piece. This was followed by a free-improvisation with pre-recorded woodwinds, mallet percussion and bell sounds. The result was an expressive performance with rich textures and complex rhythms composed articulated notes from the different instruments.

graphical score for Pmocatat.  Click to enlarge.

graphical score for Pmocatat. Click to enlarge.

My composition contribution was a piece with a graphical score which called for vocal sounds, instrumental and vocal drones, and animal sounds. It for this piece that I recorded clips of Luna last week, and thus she made her “debut” in a new-music concert. Her meows were set against moderately long vocal sounds that arbitrarily “cut off”, followed by a series of very short sounds to represent the tiny scratches in the graphical element. Here, we heard Luna’s clicking sounds that she makes when hunting. For the longer sounds, her purrs were set against various drones. I think was received well, judging by the looks of delight and amusement from various members of audience.

The graphical piece was followed by an interpretation of Pauline Oliveros’ Form Unknown Silences. The sparse texture, with a variety of short sounds interrupting periods of silence, had both a playful and meditative quality. This was followed by a brand new piece featuring guitar sounds set against percussion. The percussion was really following the guitar sounds, with the pa

This being a holiday show, we of course had to conclude with a holiday offering. In this case, it was a rendition of the classic “O Christmas Tree”, with pre-recorded versions of the song sung very slowly, and played back even more slowly and asynchronously, with gaps, pauses and changes in playback speed overtime growing more complex until the artifacts overtook the original.

The Pmocatat Ensemble was preceded by a duo of Ellen Weller and CJ Borosque. The set opened with an atonal “call to prayer” of Weller on a shofar and Borosque on trumpet. The remainder of the set unfolded as an interplay with Weller’s wind instrument and Borosque’s noise synthesizers (and trumpet). Among her instruments was an experimental box with chaotic oscillators and filters – I acquired one of these a few weeks ago but she has gained significantly more proficiency than I have. There were moments with fast saxophone phrases against the synths, and others with Weller’s exceptionally noisy and agressive flute sounds against very finely articulated synth noise. Other moments included undulating unstable waves, a snake charmer flute, and a variety of acoustic and electronic squeaks. The were moments when the music became quite trancelike even as it remained loud and noisy.