Outsound New Music Summit: neem and Sheldon Brown’s Blood of the Air

The third concert of this year’s Outsound New Music Summit was truly a study in contrasts between minimalism and large-ensemble exuberance.

First up was neem, the duo project of Gabby Fluke-Mogul (violin) and Kelley Kipperman (double bass).

neem (Kelley Kipperman and Gabby Fluke-Mogul)
[neem (Kelley Kipperman and Gabby Fluke-Mogul). Photo: peterbkaars.com.]

This was minimalism in its truest form, starting with the deliberate silence led by Fluke-Mogul before the first note was intoned. The music unfolded in a similarly sparse manner, with plenty of room to observe the details the sounds from both artists’ extended techniques. Although open and spacious, there was also an intimacy in some sections where the two closely followed one another musically, bouncing sounds from one instrument to the other. Whether intentional or not, one could envision the music unfolding in a natural landscape.

By contrast, Sheldon Brown’s Blood of the Air, was large and exuberant, and featured a ten-piece ensemble. In addition to Brown, the group featured Darren Johnston on trumpet, Lorin Benedict on voice, Andrew Joron on theremin, Dave MacNab and John Finkbeiner on guitars, Dan Zemelman on piano, and Vijay Anderson and Alan Hall on drums.

Sheldon Brown's Blood of the Air
[Sheldon Brown’s Blood of the Air. Photo: peterbkaars.com.]

The work centered around “speech melodies” created from readings by the Beat-era poet Philip Lamantia. Each piece began with a recording of Lamantia reading his poetry, and one of the musicians (often Brown himself) responding in a melody that matched the prosody of Lamentia’s speech. The melodies served as points of departure with the ensemble responding with rhythmic vamps, countermelodies, and solos. When I wasn’t watching Brown’s solos or drawn into Lorin Benedict’s frenetic scatting, I found myself captivated by Zemelman’s virtuosic piano playing, both comping and solo. It was both musically and technically impressive. But the group functioned together as a unit, even in a setting that featured a lot of improvisation, and remained tight.

It is interesting to note that despite the musical contrast, both groups were very much focused on listening as a central element. For Blood of the Air, it was listening to the melody of the rhythm and poetry, and then to one other to form the tightness and musical phrasing of the ensemble. In neem, it was also listening and responding to one another, but was also “deep listening” to the individual sounds of the instruments, and especially to the spaces between the sounds. Yes, all good music requires disciplined listening, but sometimes it’s good to step back and take note of it.

Outsound New Music Summit: Vacuum Tree Head, avantNoir and Cabbages, Captain and King

While the first night of the 2015 Outsound New Music Summit was billed as “Quiet Noise”, the second night was something altogether different. The concert features three exuberant but very different bands spanning a wide variety of musical techniques and styles.

First up was Cabbages, Captain and King, a trio featuring Eli Wallace on piano, Karl Evangelista on guitar, and Jon Arkin on drums.

Cabbages, Captain and King
[Cabbages, Captain and King. Photo: peterbkaars.com.]

I have become quite a fan of Eli Wallace’s piano playing, which is virtuosic and energetic. Combined with Evangelista’s intense and varied guitar performance and Arkin’s drums, the trio packed quite a punch. The speed and energy rarely let up throughout the 45-minute set. The music had an unsettled quality, always moving forward and never quite reaching a groove or tonal center. There were occasional quiet moments when the overall intensity of the performance let up, and the final notes with prepared piano were a nice touch.

Eli Wallace
[Eli Wallace. Photo: peterbkaars.com.]

Next up was Liza Mezzacapa’s Bait & Switch performing her project avantNoir. The pieces in this project were all inspired by noir fiction. The first half was based on “hard-boiled” stories by Dashiell Hammett set in 1920s San Francisco – with many familiar places and streets references – and the second half was based on “soft boiled” stories by Paul Auster set in 1980s New York (also a familiar setting).

Lisa Mezzacapa's avantNOIR with Bait&Switch
[Lisa Mezzacappa’s avantNOIR with Bait & Switch. Photo: peterbkaars.com.]

The music fit into the punctuated jazz style I have heard many times from Mezzacapa and her bands. But there was a distinctly 1970s crime show vibe to many of the pieces that contrasted with the times and places of the original stories’ settings. The interplay of bass, guitar with wah wah and drums, along with some of the electronic sounds from guest performer Tim Perkis led to this 1970s feel. The project itself suggests film scores for the stories, and I liked the idea of changing listeners’ expectations, especially if they have seen Hollywood versions of these stories. In addition to Mezzacapa and Perkis, the set featured Aaron Bennett on tenor saxophone, Jordon Glenn on drums, John Finkbeiner on guitar and special guest William Winant on vibraphone and sound-effects percussion. I found Winant’s seltzer bottle and tiny door particularly amusing.

Aaron Bennet and William Winant
[Aaron Bennett and William Winant. Photo: peterbkaars.com.]

Then it was time for Vacuum Tree Head to take the stage.

Vacuum Tree Head
[Vacuum Tree Head. Photo: peterbkaars.com.]

Led by Jason Berry who was conducting this evening, led us through fast-paced set of short pieces that ranged from classic jazz to deep funk to something approaching metal rock. Above the fray were vocals by Amy X Neuburg, who brought her theatrical and operatic voicings to the rather challenging music along with her very distinctive performance personality.

Amy X Neuburg, Vacuum Tree Head

Jason Berry, Vacuum Tree Head
[Amy X Neuburg and Jason Berry. Photos: peterbkaars.com.]

Many of the pieces, which were composed primarily by Berry and Michael de La Cuesta who together formed the band in 1989(!), were premiers. The band made the most of the variety of music, with an extended fusion keyboard solo by Amanda Chaudhary in DL DS, deep funk from the whole band behind Rich Corney’s guitar in EMS, a blindingly short jazz tune inspired by the Akhnaton dynasty of ancient Egypt, and a loud metal tune that may have been a first for an Outsound New Music Summit.

Amanda Chaudhary et al, Vacuum Tree Head
[Amanda Chaudhary et al. Photo: peterbkaars.com.]

Rich Lesnick (also a band-mate of mine in Reconnaissance Fly) brought solid saxophone and bass clarinet, including an extended moody bass-clarinet solo in Cushion Fortress; and Michael de la Cuesta featured in many songs on analog synthesizer, guitar and glockenspiel. Justin Markovits held things together with his drumming, assisted in the rhythm section by Tom Ferguson on bass. There was even a bit of abstract electronics from Amy X Neuburg on Blippo Box and Amanda Chaudhary on modular synth.

Michael de la Cuesta, Vacuum Tree Head Justin Markovits, Vacuum Tree Head
[Michael de la Cuesta and Justin Markovits. Photo: peterbkaars.com.]

The set was very well received by audience, some of whom were longtime fans of the band and some hearing us for the first time. And personally, it was quite a privilege to be part of the band for this event.

Overall, it was a strong evening for the summit, one that stood out as quite contrasting among the sets as well as with the other concerts.

Outsound New Music Summit: Deconstruction Orchestra and Rakin-Parker/Pearce Duo

We continue our reports from the Outsound New Music Summit with the concert on Friday, August 1. This evening featured two very contrasting sets, both in composition and volume.

The first set featured the duo of Teddy Rakin-Parker and Daniel Pearce. They performed new works by composer Renee Baker that were commissioned for the Outsound Summit.

Rakin-Parker/Pearce Duo

Baker’s compositions “use a wide range of graphics and cued micro-improvisations as a means to denote the various developmental stages of our planet’s evolution.” Musically, the result was a mixture of subtle sounds, often low in volume, with occasional bursts of energy and percussive elements. The latter worked particularly well for this duo, with the cello becoming a percussion instrument alongside the drums.

If the initial set was subtle and focused on details, the second set was the complete opposite. Joshua Allen’s Deconstruction Orchestra was a loud event with no fewer than 22 instrumentalists on stage.

Joshua Allen's Deconstruction Orchestra

The ensemble performed The Structure of Sound and Space, an original deconstructivist-inspired suite of cell structure game compositions. Allen conducted the group through gestures and a series of instructions on sheets of paper. The piece and the ensemble were described in advance as being “cathartic”. That characteristic was hard to discern, but they certainly were loud. It seemed that most of the ensemble was playing at the same time, creating a very thick, intense and sometimes chaotic texture; though there were points where subgroups performed and there were several solos by ensemble members. It was certainly a spectacle that had to be experienced live.

The full ensemble featured Aaron Bennett, Sam Flores, Vinny Golia, John Ingle, Matt Ingalls, Josh Marshall, Dave Slusser, Rent Romus, Cory Wright, Peter Bonos, CJ Borosque, Matt Gaspari, Ron Heglin, Jeff Hobbs, George Moore, Matt Streich, John Finkbeiner, Henry Kaiser, Lisa Mezzacappa, Timothy Orr, and William Winant.

Overall, this was a somewhat shorter program than the other nights, but it packed quite a punch.

Outsound New Music Summit: Guitar Night!

The 2014 Outsound New Music Summit continued last Thursday with night featuring guitars, and only guitars. This was an unusual curation for a concert of new music, and generated some lively and amusing discussion during the pre-concert Q&A.

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The concert itself opened with a solo set by Henry Kaiser. He performed on an instrument that he had never used before, or even plugged into an amplifier before the set began.

Henry Kaiser
[Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

He opened with a simple piece directly into the amp that was quite pretty, with lots of harmonic and melodic sounds punctuated by percussive moments. But it was when he added his effects that things because more interesting, with very lush sounds and intricate patterns of delays and loops – not the simple looping harmonies one often hears but complex textures reminiscent of improvising ensembles.

Next up was a duo featuring Sacramento-based guitarists Ross Hammond and Amy Reed.

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[Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

Their set featured a wide range of sounds and styles, some quite idiomatic drawing on the artists’ blues and folk roots, some much more experimental with extended sounds techniques, and some quite noisy. Particularly memorable moments includes drones that were interrupted by higher scratchier sounds, and the final acoustic traditional song sung by Reed.

Hammond and Reed were followed by another duo, John Finkbeiner and Noah Phillips. At once one could tell theirs would be a different sound, heavier and a bit more aggressive.

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[Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

There was a lot of fast playing and use of percussive and prepared techniques. The music never really settled down, which I suspect was the intention. I liked a lot of the electrical and “beyond guitar” sounds they were able to achieve.

The final set was also a duo, this time bringing Houston-based Sandy Ewen together with Jakob Pek. From the start, this was the most avant-garde of the sets, with both performers placing the guitars in their laps, and bowing or striking the instruments.

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[Photos: PeterBKaars.com.]

This was a beautiful and captivating set, with dramatic changes in texture and technique. There mere many long tones but also moments that were very sparse and quiet. They kept the listeners on edge with strange and eerie sounds combining guitar strings with rubber balls, steel wool and other elements, but their gentle intensity also kept us drawn into the performance for the entire duration.

Overall, it was an interesting night, with quite a range of music from a single instrument. All of the artists took us far beyond the typical stereotypes and expectations of the guitar and showed us a lot more of what it can do in the right hands.