Outsound New Music Summit: Karen Borca and Positive Knowledge

The final night of the Outsound New Music Summit featured a performance by Karen Borca, returning to the Bay Area for the first time in two decades. For those not familiar with Borca, she is one of the few bassoonists in avant-garde jazz and free jazz; and she had a long and illustrious career playing with many of the greats in the field, including Cecil Taylor and Jimmy Lyons. On this night, she was joined by two figures in the local jazz and experimental-music scene, Lisa Mezzacappa on bass and Donald Robinson on drums.

Karen Borca trio
[ Karen Borca Trio (Karen Borca, Lisa Mezzacappa, Donald Robinson). Photo: peterbkaars.com]

Bassoon is a hard instrument to play in any genre, let alone jazz. But Borca made it sound effortless. There were sections that featured the instrument’s well-known lower registers, but also higher melodic lines and runs more often associated with saxophones. Interestingly, Borca discussed how she started on saxophone in school and was shredding the instrument until she was advised to try the bassoon, as it was both more challenging and more likely to make her stand out for scholarships and such. And this turned out to be the right decision. Musically, things unfolded with sparse lines and harmonies and the three performers bounced off one another. The best moments were when the notes from bassoon, bass and drum all seemed to form a single line.

Karen Borca
[ Karen Borca. Photo: peterbkaars.com]

It was a shorter set, but very well received with audience clamoring for more afterwards. But I can understand that the music took a lot of energy. But it was a great experience, and Karen Borca has now taken her place alongside Wendy Carlos, Pauline Oliveros, and all the other women in music that I want to be when I finally grow up.

The Karen Borca trio was preceded by Positive Knowledge, a project of Oluyemi Thomas (bass clarinet and other instruments) and Ijeoma Thomas (voice). They were joined by Hamir Atwal on drums.

Positive Knowledge
[Positive Knowledge. Clockwise from left: Oluyemi Thomas, Hamir Atwal, Ijeoma Thomas.]

I have heard Positive Knowledge before, and know how their music unfolds. There are sparse, scratchy lines from Oluyemi’s bass clarinet and other wind instruments, including a shawm (or similar instrument), interspersed with Ijeoma’s vocals, which include passages of spoken word as well as more extended sounds. The music is at times quite percussive, but also melodic and energetic. There was an exuberance and joy in the sound, even in the moments that seemed to be melancholy. And Atwal’s drums added a foundational underpinning the sustained the set.

So this concludes our coverage of the 2017 Outsound Music Summit. It was the longest we have covered, with five concerts plus Touch the Gear. It can be a bit of overload, so much music and fellowship in a week, but worth the effort. We look forward to next year, and the inspiration for all the musical adventures between now and then.

Outsound Music Summit: The Freedom of Sound

The Outsound Music Summit continued on Thursday night with a concert titled “The Freedom of Sound”. It is a rather lofty title that can mean many things – in this case it describes ensembles that have explored and perfected musical improvisation through many years of playing together. The emphasis on experience and discipline is a reminder that “freedom” is a double-edge sword, in music, in politics or any area of life. During the artist Q&A before the concert, Tom Djll of Grosse Abfahrt lamented that bad improvised music can just be “mush” – and any of us who have been immersed in improvisation for an extended period have experienced the mush. But the examples of free musical expression on display this night were very articulate, structured, with musicality and narrative.

Tri-Cornered Tent Show opened the evening with an “operatic improvisational song cycle.” In the Q&A, composer Philip Everett talked about the influence of the Vietnam War and legacy leading up to the seeming perpetual war of today in his piece. The subject was hard to miss as guest vocalist Dina Emerson sang the lines “After war came the barking of dogs” and “After the war came another” among others, allusions to the unending series of wars we have found ourselves in over the past few decades. Behind Emerson’s singing, regular group members Philip Everett, Ray Schaeffer and Anthony Flores provided a foundation of static noise, explosive synthesizer and drum phases and free improvisation that moved between disparate rhythms and lines to a single unified tone. In listening to performance, I was reminded of the traditional oratorio, with the theatrical operatic vocal performance with the dramatics and emotion but without the staging and costumes.

[Tri-Cornered Tent Show, with Dina Emerson. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

There were particular moments that I liked, such as the emergence of a funky bass-driven riff with percussion and harmonic support that went on for some time, while some of the electronics remained asynchronous. And then there was the movement of the piece where Emerson’s voice was front and center channeling the sound of a Southern blues or spiritual singer with minimal instrumental sounds, mostly strings and delay effects, and later metallic resonances.

Next up was Positive Knowledge, the duo of Oluyemi Thomas and Ijeoma Thomas. opened with free improvisation with bass clarinet and voice. They were able to make their disparate instruments sound quite a like a times, and if I wasn’t watching the performance I could have mistaken them for a saxophone duo. The unity diverged a bit as Ijeoma Thomas moved from free vocals to poetry. In the gaps between lines of the text, the clarinet provided squeaks, growls and other noisy sounds.

[Positive Knowledge. Photo: PeterBKaars.com. ]

The instrumentation shifted throughout the performance, with recorder and whistle, expressive pentatonic humming, a walking gong, and poetry set against metallic percussion. The shifts in timbre and texture and movement between words and abstract sounds gave the sense of a story unfolding.

The final performance of the evening, featured Grosse Abfahrt. Regular ensemble members were joined by guest artist Kyle Bruckman. It began with a large balloon, which Tom Djll inflated and then placed over the mouthpiece of a trumpet. The resulting squeaky but steady sound served as a basis for the first part of the performance, and given the size of the balloon continued for quite a while. Kyle Bruckman on oboe matched the pitch of the balloon and trumpet quite closely, but with enough imprecision to leave interesting beating and timbral effects. The other performers entered into the mix, complementing the tone of the balloon and filling in the void when it finally expired. Tom Djll provided a number of creative noisy tones on the trumpet as well as other custom one instruments: a purple hose that could be played like a brass instrument but also spun around like a whirly. He also had a pair of long orange pipes that looked like didgeridoos and were played both trumpet-like and with air canister that is usually used for cleaning keyboards. Gino Robair continued percussion sounds such his signature oddly-shaped bowed cymbal and chaotic electronic sounds from the blippo box. Tim Perkis’ electronic sounds had a delightful liquidy quality that added a lot of fullness to the ensemble. John Shiurba’s guitar and effects pedals rounded things out with a harder sound closer to Djll’s trumpet than to the other electronics.

[Grosse Abfahrt, with giant yellow balloon. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

After all the performers joined in, the music gradually built into a thick noisy metallic texture – mostly a drone but with different shorter sounds in front. Then things shifted to softer, staccato sounds. I liked the empty space in which I could hear details like the distinctive timbre of the blippo box. There were other moments of soft, uniform tones among all the performers, register movement between high and low, wind noises and scratches, tiny sounds and loud drones. It was a powerful, energetic performance that went by rather quickly.

In total, it was a strong show, with three very different ensembles and styles that nonetheless fit together musically beyond simply the theme of free improvisation.