The Red Robot Show and Vacuum Tree Head are back! This time Jason Berry brings footage from our March show at HSP2017, and is joined by Marlon Brando in this full-length episode.
The members of the band for this performance are:
Jason Bellenkes : Alto Saxophone and Clarinet Jason Berry: Conductor Amanda Chaudhary: Keyboards and Vocoder Richard Corny: Electric Guitar Michael de la Cuesta: Guitar, Synth, Vibraphone, Sitar, etc. Richard Lesnik: Bass Clarinet Justin Markovits: Drum Kit Joshua Marshall: Soprano and Tenor Saxophones John Shiurba: Bass Guitar
Cameras by Amanda Chaudhary and Jason Berry
Edited by Berry / Chaudhary
Audio Engineering by Amanda Chaudhary
Animated and Directed by Jason Berry
Special Thanks: Mika Pontecorvo Mark Pino
Brought to you by White Wine. Crisp. And Refreshing.
We conclude our reverse-order look at the Hardly Strictly Personal 2017 Festival that took place at the Finnish Kaleva Hall in Berkeley about two months ago. This day featured Vacuum Tree Head among several other acts.
[Photo by Karen de la Cuesta]
This was among the best Vacuum Tree Head shows I have experienced since joining the band, in terms of energy and musical tightness. The rhythm section, anchored by Justin Markovits on drums and John Shiurba on bass functioned well as a unit and provided a foundation for the rest of the band. We had three horn players: Joshua Marshal, Jason Bellenkes and Richard Lesnik. Our guitar section featured Richard Corny, and Michael de la Cuesta, who also was part of the synth/keyboard section of the band with me. And Jason Berry ran the show with new tunes, new arrangements and interstitial entertainment. We will have a full video of our set soon along with a more detailed review, but for now here is a little clip courtesy of our friend Rick Rees.
As mentioned in previous articles the overarching theme of HSP2017 was “A Celebration of Post-Beefheart Art.” The first two acts of the evening took the theme quite seriously. Earspray projected videos along with Beefhart clips mixed with live improvisations.
The group features Ann O’Rourke on electronics and video, Carlos Jennings on electronics, and Mark Pino on percussion. Mark returned in Crow Crash Radio, which also featured Brian Strang on guitar Andrew Joron on theremin along with guest Garrett Caples on vocals.
Like Earspray, Crow Crash Radio worked the Beefhart theme directly into the contact of their set, with Caples channeling him in his vocal sound and style as the band covered Diddy Wah Diddy and other songs. If there was one thing that didn’t work, it was not being able to hear the vocals well, though perhaps that was part of the concept.
The band performances contrasted sharply with a quiet so set by Jakob Pek on guitar. He uses extended techniques on the instrument, preparations, and electronics to create unusual soundscapes. The sound is mostly long tones and timbres, but punctuated by percussive elements as well.
The final set of the evening brought Lost Planet to the stage.
This band, which features Dave Slusser on winds and electronics, Thomas Scandura on drums, and Len Paterson and Steve Clarke on guitars, mixed loud rock elements with space jazz for an energetic set. In some ways, they combined elements prominent in the previous band sets of the evening.
It was fun to play with VTH on this night and hear the other groups, as I also did with CDP on night 3. We would like to thank Mika Pontecorvo for organizing this event, as well as Elijah Ponteocorvo, Kersti Abrams, Mark Pino and everyone else who followed teared to make it a success.
Today we look at the recent premiere of Current Events by the Jack Curtis Dubowsky Ensemble and a new quartet from Dan Plonsey. Both groups performed on April 28 at Berkeley Arts.
We have featured recordings by the Jack Curtis Dubowsky Ensemble (JCDE) a few times on The World of Wonder radio show and podcast, but this was an opportunity to see them perform a live improvisation to short experimental films. Joining Dubowsky for this performance were Hall Goff on trombone, Erika Johnson on percussion and Rufus Olivier III on bassoon.
Current Events is structured around five short films concerning recent events or contemporary topics. The first film featured TV footage and simulations of Air France Flight 447 that crashed in the Atlantic Ocean in 2009. The second featured a variety of video sources concerning both the technical aspects and controversy about drone warfare. Through both of these sections the music was relatively pointed, with short and often inharmonic notes from all members of the ensemble. While this was the natural state for the percussion, is particularly noticeable for the trombone and bassoon. Dubowsky was mostly on acoustic piano during these films, but did switch over to the synth for some longer extended sounds.
The next film featured “futurist cities”, 20th century utopian designs for cities of the future that are long in the past. This was my favorite of the films, primarily because of the material – I am a sucker for past visions of the future and lament that fact that our time does not always live up to their ideals, at least in terms of design. Musically, this was a transition piece with more long tones leading into the final two films which focused on nature. The first was about the polar regions, including the melting ice caps. But it also featured penguins (and who doesn’t love penguins?).
The music for this piece did veer into some of the cliches of high sounds and noisy drones that often accompany images of ice and snow, but there were also parts that were simply musical improvisation. The final piece on the desert was more inviting, partly because of the warm environment it portrayed but also the variety of musical elements compared to the polar piece. In all, the suite as performed was a particularly fun live set combining music and visuals, and I thought it was well done and well prepared.
The second set featured the debut performance of Dan Plonsey’s new quartet with Steve Lew on bass, John Hanes on drums and John Shiurba on guitar.
Between generous amounts of verbal banter – much of it around the relative difficultly and quality of the numerically titled pieces – the band delivered the type of jazz that still celebrates driving rhythms and strong harmonies alongside complex lines. I particularly liked the final “jam/funk” piece. It was just different enough to be original, but had the familiar qualities that makes funky pieces so addictive.
Personally, I could have done with less of the banter. It did get a bit repetitive, especially when members of the audience started chiming in. Even Plonsey himself, a voluble individual, suggested that they could have gotten to more music if there was less of it.
While Plonsey’s big band is fun, too, I do like the spare and focused nature of the quartet and hope they continue to perform in the future.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
The 2012 Outsound Music Summit began this Sunday with the annual Touch the Gear Expo. Visitors have a chance to see and try out the equipment used by musicians and sound artists. Although we had fewer presenters this year, we had a variety of instruments and devices, and a fairly sizable crowd of visitors.
In the above image, we see Matt Davignon presenting effects pedals driven using a Casio keyboard, and Joe Lasquo presenting laptop-based programs with Max/MSP.
One of the fun aspects of Touch the Gear is getting one’s hands on instruments that one only sees on stage. For me, one of those opportunities came when I got to play the Arp 2600 that Benjamin Ethan Tinker brought to the event. It was only a little over a week earlier that I heard him play it at the Luggage Store Gallery.
But it there is the discovery of new and never-before seen musical creations. The most unusual for me was this creation by Omer Gal:
The organic head-like element contained several mechanical and optical sensors that one could touch or put ones hands near to affect the sound. A second part of the installation included a mechanical “robot” that played a set of strings with a pickup. The performer can affect the operation of the robot and the sound through electronic controls.
Other unusual electro-acoustic instruments were presented by Walter Funk and Dan Ake. Walter Funk’s metallic instrument called Ulysses offered opportunities to explore different resonances and timbres through sheets of metal, rods and springs arrayed throughout its body. Dan Ake’s invention was a series of gridded metal inside a large wooden box, than one could excite with a variety of objects, such as bows, rods and a glove with long wooden fingertips.
I was presenting at this event as well. I always try to bring something a little different each year. This year, I decided to go with two ends of the technology spectrum: an iPad running Animoog and iMS-20, and a Eurorack modular system with a Metasonx R53, Make Noise Echophon, Malekko Heavy Industry Anti-Oscillator, and several others. Both technologies caught people’s attention, with some more excited about the analog modular system with its physical knobs and cables, and others gravitating towards the iPad.
Andrew Wayne presented a very tangible set of objects containing unpopped popcorn kernels in aluminum trays and other contains, augmented with contact microphones and electronic effects. He assembled his own contact mics to use with these acoustic sources.
Other participants included CJ Borosque with an Alesis Air, Laurie Amat with vocal and ambient sources into a Line 6, and a surface by April-Jeanie Tang with rubber-ball mallets. Through contact miss, the action of the rubber mallets and the surface and transmitted to effects processors for a deep, haunting sound. Tom Duff presented a series of software processes that could be randomly controlled from a MIDI controller. Despite the randomness, it was quite expressive after playing with it and dialing in on particular processes. He also had a couple of critters from Bleep Labs.
Long-time participants Tom Nunn and David Michalak were back again with the most recent incarnations of the sketch box. You can read an interview with Tun Nunn and discussion of his musical inventions here on CatSynth.
And finally, Bob Marsh was back with his intriguing and “charismatic” metal creations.
I do tend to gravitate towards metallic sounds when looking for new material, something which seems to be common among those who are looking for invention and discovery in musical sound.
On Monday night, the summit continued with the Composers Symposium, a panel discussion featuring four of the composers in this year’s festival: John Shiurba, Christina Stanley, Benjamin Ethan Tinker, and Matthew Goodheart were on hand to discuss their work. And as a first this year, I acted as the moderator for the evening. It was a great experience, and I did not have to do very much besides seeding the discussion with a few questions. From those starting points, a lively discussion ensued among the composers as well as dialog with the audience. We talked about the role of notation in each of the composers’ music, such as Stanley’s use of paintings as her scores and Shiurba’s use of graphical elements derived from print newspapers (a major theme of his piece this year); and the dual role that these artists played as both composers and performers. One of the things that made this panel work was the variety of musical disciplines, styles and backgrounds among the participants, as well as the interest that the audience brought to the discussion with their numerous questions. Everyone had criticisms of the terms “new music” and “experimental music” that are often used as blanket designations for the music featured in the summit and indeed much of the music reviewed here on CatSynth, but that was to be expected. The two hours of the discussion went by rather quickly, and I’d like to think everyone on the panel and in the audience found the experience enjoyable and illuminating. I would definitely like to do more of these at events in the future.
Last month, the five members of Reconnaissance Fly took a break from the recording studio to bring their “charmingly incoherent art pop” to the Berkeley Arts Festival in a concert that also featured the band Vegan Butcher.
The evening began with the debut performance the Vegan Butcher, with John Shiurba on guitar, Wil Hendricks on bass, Suki O’Kane on drums, and Val Esway on “occasional voice.” The band played several compositions by John Shiurba, all of which were written in January and exclusively used the “nine-note January scale.” The pieces all had inventive titles like “These Ones Are All Stretched Out And Bifurcated”; and Shiurba stated that he wrote the lyrics before we was completely awake.
The first song started out with a soft repeating pattern with quiet drums and a gentle guitar motive. Just when one thought this might continue indefinitely, loud drum and guitar hits announced the arrival of full-on rock mode. There was guitar with distortion and minor harmonies over a slow driving rhythm, overlaid with oddly modal melodies. The overall effect was reminiscent of psychedelic rock of the late 1960s and early 1970s – indeed, I thought I heard a bit of Nico / Velvet Underground in Val Esway’s vocals. You can hear the band for yourself in the following video:
Then it was time for Reconnaissance Fly to take the stage. From the start, our energy and vibe was quite different from Vegan Butcher’s dreamy and otherworldly sounds. Our current set based on spoetry (spam poetry) jumps around from style to style quickly, and has an overall humorous character. We opened as we usually do with “Small Chinese Gong”, which set the tone. You can hear a brief excerpt in this video:
All the recent studio work has paid off for live performances. We were much tighter on the challenging medley “Electric Rock Like A Cat / sanse is crede nza” than in previous performances, including those tough unisons. “As Neat As Wax” always stands out in live performances, too. This was also first time in a while that we included “The Animal Trade in Canada” in our live set, with a much stronger interpretation than in the past.
Reconnaissance Fly features Chris Broderick on woodwinds (clarinet, bass clarinet and saxophone), Amar Chaudhary on keyboards and electronics, Polly Moller and voice and flute, Larry the O on drums, and Tim Walters on bass and electronics.
Overall it was a great show for both bands. For those of you who didn’t have a chance to hear it live, we will be playing together again on August 24 at the Starry Plough (also in Berkeley), along with Jack O’ The Clock.
Tomorrow night, Reconnaissance Fly will take a break from the studio for a live performance in Berkeley. We will be sharing the bill with our friends Vegan Butcher.
The Berkeley Arts Festival Wednesday/Sunday night series continues with the charmingly incoherent art-pop of Reconnaissance Fly and the gritty psychedelic honey-drips of Vegan Butcher.
The Berkeley Arts Festival space is located at 2133 University Avenue, Berkeley, CA USA.
Reconnaissance Fly is a band of composers who have reclaimed the best spam poetry (“spoetry”) for humanity, deploying jazz, progressive rock, funk, samba, free improvisation, a small Chinese gong, and an arsenal of wind instruments against the dastardly internet robots.
The five members of Reconnaissance Fly are Chris Broderick playing clarinet, bass clarinet and C-melody saxophone; Amar Chaudhary with keyboard and electronics, Polly Moller with flute, bass flute and voice; Larry the O on the drums, and Tim Walters on bass guitar and electronics. When not playing live around the Bay Area they are recording their debut album Flower Futures, awakening their inner Peter Frampton, and denouncing pineapple pizza.
Vegan Butcher plays music of John Shiurba. Only music written in January is allowed. The nine note January scale is used exclusively. The lyrics were written accidentally before John was completely awake. In addition to John on guitar, Suki O’Kane plays drums, Wil Hendricks plays bass, and Val Esway occasionally sings.
Suggested ticket donation is $10 at the door.
I have to admit, I like our music being described as “charmingly incoherent art-pop.” I hope we continue to use that.
Today we look back at ReCardiacs Fly’s show at the Hemlock Tavern in San Francisco last month. It was a great show of music in prog and post-punk styles together with experimental/avant-rock groups PG13 and Surplus 1980.
The evening opened with PG13, the “power trio” of Phillip Greenlief (saxophone), John Shiurba (guitar), and Thomas Scandura (drums). I had originally heard them a few years back at the Skronkathon. They did have the loud-rock-trio thing down at the time, but in the intervening time they have become more finessed and detailed without losing that original intensity.
They opened with driving syncopated rhythm and power chords. The rhythmic textures brought all three instruments (saxophone, guitar and drums) together. This was undeniably rock – held together by Scandura’s drums – but later sections did have a more jazz-like quality, which I thought worked when done with sudden changes in volume and texture. I of course did like that one of their songs (composed by Greenlief) was The Totally Unbelieable but Absolutely True Adventures of George Cleaver the Cat. Loud music with complex rhythms about cats works for me any day.
After PG13, it was time for us to take the stage. For those who have not read the previous ReCardiacs Fly articles, we are (possibly the only) tribute group for the UK avant-prog band Cardiacs. We model our line-up after the original band, and don suits and creepy theatrical makeup reminiscent of their appearance in the 1980s. This music is complex and intense, and challenging to play, but a lot of fun for us and for the audience when we pull it off. A few songs came out quite well at the Hemlock, in particular “Burn Your House Brown”, which you can see in this video:
“In a City Lining” also came out quite well. On a technical level, the sound was the best we have had for any ReCardiacs Fly show, with the mix between the amps, speakers and acoustic space balanced so that we could hear everyone even in the loud parts. And we were quite loud, appropriately so.
As always, the performance was full of energy, and we got a great response from the modestly sized but enthusiastic audience. The full lineup of the band features Polly Moller on lead vocals, Masc Laspina on guitar, Chris Broderick on saxophone, Tim Walters on bass, Amar Chaudhary on keyboard, Moe! Staiano on drums, and Suki O’kane on percussion.
The final set features Surplus 1980, a post-punk project led by Moe! Staiano with a rotating cast of band members. This evening features Moe! together with Bill Wolter and Melne Murphy on guitars, with Thomas Scandura returning on drums and Jason Hoopes on bass.
The band was incredibly tight rhythmically and harmonically, as if they had been playing these songs together for years. In particular, there is the challenge of getting all three guitars to be in sync, which they were able to do, will Bill Wolter front and center. And the group’s lyrics were often quite funny (this in the context of our just completed Cardiacs’ set). It’s difficult to recall any particular line at this point, but they definitely worked at the time. Most of the musical techniques were standard but with complex rhythms and phrases, but Wolter did have quite an array of effects pedals, and during one of the final songs Moe! pulled out a vinyl record which he proceeded to use on his guitar like a pick and destroyed in the process (the record, not the guitar).
Overall, it was fun night of loud rock music from friends and colleagues whom I usually here in more overtly experimental contexts. I hope our bands will get a chance to play together again sometime.
The Outsound Music Summit continued last Friday with “The Art of Composition”, performances of new works by Krystyna Bobrowski, Gino Robair, Andrew Raffo Dewar and Kanoko Nishi. I had heard these four composers discuss their work at the panel session a few days earlier. Now it was time to hear their music.
There was an impressive array of equipment on the stage. Much of it was for Krys Bobrowski’s two pieces.
Balloons have definitely been a big theme of this year’s summit. (Tom Djll featured a balloon in the previous night’s concert, and Tom Nunn featured them in his instrument the following night) In this case, the balloon was used as a resonator in Bobrowski’s Lift, Loft and Lull. Gino Robair struck the “gong”, the large metal rectangle, and brought the balloon close to it. The combination of the balloon’s acoustics and the connected microphone produced a unique resonance effect (and a clever use of acoustic and electronic effects). Against this, Bobrowski played a wildly curved orange horn-like instrument made from kelp that brought to mind a shofar.
The second movement brought the duo together on a single instrument, a large metallic xylophone-like instrument where long tubes were resting on…balloons(!). At first, they played the instrument in a standard way, producing percussive melodies with mallets. But over time, they began to explore different sounds of the instrument, such as rubbing the tubes, and also producing a sound that suggested a motorized device. They also placed different preparations on the instrument to invoke different effects and articulations.
You can see an excerpt of the performance in this video:
Bobrowski and Robair also performed a piece featuring the composer’s glass glass instrument in a duet with wine glasses. I had last heard Bobrowski play gliss glass at the benefit dinner. It was interesting to hear the instrument contrasted with the wine glasses.
Robair played them traditionally, rubbing the rims to produce strong resonances, but also used tapping and splashing in the water as percussion. The gliss glass vessels, by contrast, can be drained and filled while they are played, resulting in pitch-bend effects that were put to strong use in the piece. There was lots of complex phrasing as well as eerie harmonies and unexpected sound effects. At times, the harmonies were more anxious and expectant, while at other moments they approached romantic tonality.
Andrew Raffo Dewar’s Interactions Quartet presented Dewar’s new piece Strata, which was inspired by a series of paintings by Argentine artist Eduardo Serón. You can see examples of Serón’s work in this video. His abstract paintings – which I, too, found musically inspiring – feature simple shapes and colors in tight compositions. These simple but powerful visual elements were reflected the clean acoustic notes and sounds of the music. It started out very sparsely, with individual disconnected notes on each instrument. Individual notes became short phrases, and eventually slightly longer lines that intertwined in an undulating counterpoint. The music was quite meditative, with the modal quality and contrapuntal texture, but also had a strong emotional undercurrent. One interesting moment featured the saxophone (Dewar), oboe (Kyle Bruckman) and marimba (Gino Robair) converging into a single pitch range and timbre. Eventually, the complex rhythms coalesced into a single triple meter with a strong driving rhythm anchored by John Shiurba’s percussive guitar and metric beating of ankle bells by Robair. Above the metric foundation one could hear playful descending lines. After staying together rhythmically for a while, the different lines and instruments went their own ways, with various shakers, harmonics on guitar and english horn, and an impressive passage of multiphonics by Dewar on soprano sax – all still remaining within a strong sense of counterpoint.
Kanoko Nishi presented her original graphic scores as interpreted Tony Dryer on contrabass and Italian guitarist and visual artist IOIOI. It would have been interesting to see Nishi’s graphical scores, but the darkened room and minimal setting left ample opportunity for imagination. We did get a taste of what we were in for as Tony Dryer was setting up and soundchecking his equipment, and we were treated to several ear splitting bursts of loud feedback. The performance itself, however, began quite subtly with Dryer bowing very quietly on the bass. Every so often, there would be a louder scraping sound on the bass before returning to minimal levels. Then, all at once, there was a loud hit followed by a long LOUD sustain and feedback. These deliberate and had a great tone, but it was still very loud. When it finally cut out, it was like shutting off a very loud engine – there was even the rumbling slowing to a series of clicks. This was followed by a loop of low-frequency bass notes at a modest volume, which settled into a bit of a groove with noisier sounds layered on top. Eventually, higher electrical noises and squeaks overtook the sounds of the bass. Dryer concluded by playing the stand of the bass (now resting horizontally) with what appeared to be an instrument string.
The performance then transitioned seemlessly to IOIOI, who was also set up in front of the stage with minimal lighting. She began with long sustained notes in a tonality that sounded Middle Eastern, both in terms of the scale and the use of microtones and pitch bends. Things quickly grew louder, with high screeching tones and loud sustained tones that obscured the otherwise beautiful detailed guitar technique. As things quieted down a bit, I was able to focus more on the fine details, such as bends metallic resonances. IOIOI employed preparations in her guitar at times, such as chopsticks, that gave the instrument a more raspy, percussive sound. She also used bowing that yielded a vigorous passage of scratching tones. Overall, a virtuosic display.
Gino Robair returned for his third appearance of the evening, this time to present his Ensemble Aguacalientes, featuring Polly Moller on flutes and ocarinas, John Shiurba on guitar, Loren Mach on marimba, Jim Kassis on percussion and Scott Walton on bass. Aguacalientes is “a musical suite based on scenes captured by Jose Guadalupe Posada in his politically charged engravings of late19th -and early 20th-century life in Mexico”, many of which feature skulls and skeletons, or calaveras. In keeping with this source, the instrumentation of the ensemble reflects Mexican folk and popular music, including the ocarinas and percussion. The piece began with a very sparse texture, where short melodic lines on the flute headjoint were punctuated by percussion hits. Soon an array of other percussion, including a guiro, and the guitar and bass joined in, with numerous rhythmic lines set oddly against one another. The ocarina lines were longer and more traditionally melodic, but with the instrument’s distinctive sound. There were interesting timbral moments, such as a sinister interplay between harmonics on the bass and guitar, and a more gentle combination of string-bass and bass-flute harmonics. I did find myself listening to the polyrhythms that emerged at various points during the piece, and for the more idiomatic moments that channeled the Mexican subject matter.
Overall, it was a strong concert, and seemed well received by the large audience. I was also left thinking about the often boisterous debate in the Bay Area new-music community between composition and improvisation. Having heard the improvisation-centric and composition-centric nights of the summit back-to-back, I am struck by how much similarity there was – one could have interleaved pieces from both nights into a single concert and ended up with a result that was musically consistent.
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.
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.
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.
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.