Hardly Strictly Personal 2017 Day 1: Vacuum Tree Head and More

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.

Vacuum Tree Head
[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.

Earspray

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.

Crow Crash Radio

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.

Jakob Pek

The final set of the evening brought Lost Planet to the stage.

Lost Planet

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.

Jack Curtis Dubowsky Ensemble and Dan Plonsey’s Quartet

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.

Jack Curtis Dubowsky

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?).

Penguin in Polar Ice Caps video

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.

Dan Plonsey quartet, 3 of 4 members

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.

John Hanes and John Shiurba

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.

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.

Outsound Music Summit: Touch the Gear and Composers’ Forum

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.

Reconnaissance Fly and Vegan Butcher, Berkeley Arts Festival

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.


[Photo by Michael Zelner.]

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.


[Photo by Michael Zelner.]

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.

Reconnaissance Fly in Berkeley, June 20

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.

BAND BIOS:

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.

http://reconnaissancefly.bandcamp.com/

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.

ReCardiacs Fly, Surplus 1980, PG13 at Hemlock Tavern

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.

[Photo by Michael Zelner.]

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.


[Photo by Michael Zelner.]

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.


[Photo by Michael Zelner.]

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.

Outsound Music Summit: The Art of Composition

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.

[Bobrowski and Robair. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

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. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

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.

[IOIOI. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

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.

[Ensemble Aguacalientes.  Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

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.

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.

The 2010 Annual Transbay Skronkathon

As summer drew to a close, much of the Bay Area new music community gathered at 21 Grand for our annual ritual of live musical performance, socializing and tasty barbecued treats known as the Annual Transbay Skronkathon. The Skronkathon is also a benefit for the Transbay Creative Music Calendar, a free print publication that serves the creative music community here with event listings and articles (including several from this site).

I had been planning my own part in this ritual since, well, last year’s Skronkathon when Polly Moller discovered that my CatSynth review had been reposted in “spammogrified form” by another website. That became the basis for this years performance, which featured a reading of the spammogrified text and the inexplicable repeated phrase as a dominate. Another thing that was different this year was our “live tweeting team” of myself, Polly Moller and Tom Duff. It sort of happened spontaneously. It seems a bit difficult to search for the past #skonkathon posts via Twitter, but I have collected them all and will sprinkle a few throughout this article. (Look for the @ signs.)

[Live tweeting.  Photo by Suki O’kane. (Click to enlarge.)]

In fact, one of Tom’s live tweets described the duo of Ann O’Rourke and Carlos Jennings as “a disco remix of Berio’s Visage”. I am sorry I did not arrive earlier – it’s hard to pass up something with a description like that.

Rachel Wood-Rome. Photo by Michael Zelner.

I did arrive in time to see Rachel Wood-Rome’s performance for solo horn. Her melodic performance seemed like a snippet from a 19th or early 20th century concerto, minus the orchestra. However, in listening I started to fill in an orchestral part myself. She then presented a sing-along of a piece with lyrics by Max Gutmann. It included this refrain song with a minor melody in 5/8 time:

Our librarian is Miss Marion
she is scary an’ very old
pause and pity us
’cause she’s hideous
very hairy an’ likes to scold

Wood-Rome was followed by Respectable Citizen. Usually the duo of Bruce Bennet and Michael Zbyszynski, they were actually a trio on this occasion with the guest appearance of Jeff Ridenour on violone. For those not familiar with the violone, it is a large bowed stringed instrument with frets, closer to the viols used in Renaissance and baroque music than to the modern orchestral string family. The set started off softly with flute, picking on the violone, and stringy ethereal sounds.

[Respectable Citizen.  Photo by Michael Zelner.  (Click to enlarge.)]

The next piece featured more noise and distortion, with scratching sounds on the violone and a particularly interesting moment with the keyboard resonated together with squeaking sounds from the saxophone. There was also a section of “loungy free jazz” – which is certainly fun for me – mixed with some FM-like sounds.

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Respectable Citizen was followed T.T.F.W.’z. If I had to describe their performance, it would be “punk skronking”, with loud, fast, driving rhythms and noisy squawks, squeaks and long strings of notes. And they had their own fan section doing 1990s-style jumping-up-and-down dancing. Given the loudness, I opted to enjoy their set from the alley, and even relive a bit of my youth by briefly demonstrating this form of dance to some of my musical colleagues.

The next set was one I was quite looking forward to: a duo of Matt Davignon with “a table full of junk” (as Tom Duff delicately described it) and Eric Glick Rieman on prepared electric piano. I am quite fond of electric piano (e.g., Fender Rhodes) and interested in prepared acoustic piano, but this was first time I had seen and heard the two concepts together.


[The prepared electric piano. (Click to enlarge.)]

The sounds of the Rieman’s instrument and Matt’s drum machines and effects ranged from high and tinny, to scratchy, glitchy, or sometimes more bell-like. The piano certainly made some unique sounds: boings. bell-like scratching and other effects that made the purely electronic sounds seem tame by comparison On occasion, the instrument’s piano-like quality would stand out, and one could hear the tines that are characteristic of electric pianos. At other times it was more aggressive and percussive. Rieman’s playing style brought out this quality, and I found myself watching the mechanics of the instrument as I was listening to the music. There was moment that seemed like film music, with long piano notes set against “squishy sounds” from Matt Davignon’s electronic effects. And then a sound that reminded me of marbles. There were anxious harmonies, and rhythms on top of rhythms in samples.

[Matt Davignon and Eric Glick Reiman.  Photo by Michael Zelner. (Click to enlarge.)]

Next up was blipvert (aka Will Northlich-Redmond). Standing behind a table with an Alesis Air and a Pioneer DJ controller, he launched into an intense and frenetic blast of music and choreography (@TomDuff He doesn’t *act* like a guy in cargo pants & a black teeshirt). The electronics were all controlled by his voice or other live sounds and gestures, so when he shouted or snapped or spun around or fell and the floor only to spring back up moments later, it would trigger a new sound or change in the sonic process. The hits and squeaks and thuds and sample loops and retro-1980s synthesizer sounds were perfectly timed to his over-the-top theatrics and choreography. It is clear that he spent a lot of time practicing and perfecting this. And it was definitely a fun performance to watch! Just when it seemed he was running out of energy and about to collapse from exhaustion, he got back up with a shout and launched into the next one. It is difficult to describe in words, but you can get a flavor from his videos from other performances. And the videos do not give the full sense of the energy.

[Blipvert.  Shared by @TomDuff on twitter.  (Click to see original post.)]

Blipvert was followed by Blowout Preventer (@TomDuff fresh from their gig at Deepwater Horizon), a clarinet quartet featuring Philip Greenlief, Dan Plonsey, Ceylan Yagmur and Michael Zelner. I am always intrigued by clarinet ensembles, having played the instrument in the past and written a piece for clarinet quartet. This performance began with whaling sounds that sounded like sirens, and then suddenly became quiet and harmonic and even contrapuntal. An intricate rhythm emerged in the sum of the four parts – even though each part seemed relatively simple, the interaction was complex. There was also a section with long growling tones, followed by more harmonic sounds; scraping of mouthpieces set against multiphonics; and a waltz that was interrupted.

Next up was Kattt and Ron, a duo of Kattt Atchley on Ron Heglin on vocals with electronics. Their set began with long electronic drones with beating patterns. Heglin began his vocal incantations in this backdrop, with his words soft and purposefully hard to discern. The drone, which was slowly but continually changing, had a generally minor harmony, but with inharmonic tones and continued beating patterns. The overall effect was very meditative. There were some odd facial expressions as the vocals became more noisy. By this time, both Atchley and Heglin were performing with voice, gradually becoming more harmonic and moving between unisons and perfect intervals. I was able to hear the voices both as a single unit and as individuals, the male and female contrast. The sounds gradually faded to a single beating tone at the end with a sprinkle of more percussive vocalizations.


[Kattt Atchley and Ron Heglin. Photo by Michael Zelner.]

As always happens at Skronkathon, I miss the set right before my own as I set up and prepare. In this, the set featured Bob Marsh on classical guitar, CJ Borosque on pedals an turntable, and Sandra Yolles on electronic percussion.

This is as good a time to mention the work of art that served as a backdrop for the performances, perhaps the most beautiful that I have seen at 21 Grand. The piece is by Dina Rubiolo and is titled 13th Ave. It features 8500 35mm slides arranged into the shape of a building facade and backlit. (@pollymoller Stage area has a striking backdrop: a proscenium arch made of backlit photographic slides.)

It was then time for our performance. I recited the entirety of the spammogrified text (you can see a copy here), while Polly performed the refrain “as a dominate” as it appeared within the text, complete with props and choreography. It was interesting to both read (and hear) how my text was affected by the various translators and other processes that may have been used. Certain phrases kept popping out, such as “plum sonorous” and “plum decorous” – I think “plum” was the retranslated equivalent of “rather” or “quite”, which I often use in my writing. Soft instruments or musical passes were re-worded as “sissified”, and several people seemed to enjoy the phrase “sissified trombone” – and some people also had fun hearing their own names of those of their friends and colleagues appear in the middle of the barely comprehensible narrative.

[Amar and Polly.  Photo by Michael Zelner.  (Click to enlarge.)]

In terms of technology and instrumental accompaniment, I kept things rather sparse. I opted to only use the iPad, running the Smule Magic Piano and the a granular synthesis app called Curtis. As source material, I used some pre-recorded passes of myself reciting the text.

(@TomDuff Decourous as a notwithstanding. #skronkathon(Amar and Polly.). As a dominate)

We were followed by RTD3, with Doug Carrol on cello, Tom Nunn on his invented instruments, Ron Heglin on trombone and voice. They are always a fun group to watch. (@catsynth Scraping sounds percussive cello trombone and vocal blah blah. Some particularly interesting moments included all three instruments making percussive scraping sounds, Carrol performing the cello like a guitar and also upside-down, and a moment whether the tone of bowed cello and the skatch box and the two blended together. There were some very soft moments, such as soft staccato trombone tones, and a low drone-like rumble from the ensemble. There was also a series of sounds that conjured up the image of a scampering mouse.

Next was a trio of Matt Ingalls on clarinet, Tom Scandura on percussion, and Thomas Dimuzio on Moog guitar. This was the first time I had heard a Moog guitar in a live performance setting. Knowing the musicians involved, I knew in advance this was going to be a loud set (@catsynth Scandura, Ingalls and Dimuzio trio will definitely not be sissified). The music started off with a dramatic film-like drone, with the clarinet coming though on top. The drums gradually got louder and started to match. From this point, there was mixture of fast runs and loud notes, some sections that sounded like 1960s free jazz and others that seemed to follow a more Middle Eastern scale. At some point, both the clarinet and the electronic guitar become more inharmonic and the drums got wilder and louder. Then suddenly a beat entered into the music, a bit of a slow rock shuffle or rock ballad overlaid with dark ambient guitar sounds. Matt Ingalls switched the violin at one point during the set. As the music started to feel more relaxed, it suddenly get loud again with FM-like sounds and acoustic drum, and then it got “super loud”. Even within the loudness, one could hear interesting details, such as a latin beat and a phrygian scale, and a really loud high-pitched squeak.

The contrast to the next set, a duo of Philip Greenlief and David Boyce, was rather dramatic. Although it was full of fast virtuosic runs, it was relatively quiet and spacious. There were moments where the seemed to go into unison, or where the rhythm seemed to stand still, before returning to the fast and complex runs. There were also a variety of interesting breathing sounds, mouthpiece effects, and other extended techniques. At one point, it sounded like a bird or a creature that was “laughing”.

[Greenlief and Boyce in front of Dina Rubiolo’s artowrk.  (Click to visit original post.)]

The combination of the relative calm of the set and the time of the evening made this one that truly took advantage of the backdrop provided by Rubiolo’s artwork. I featured this image of Greenlief and Boyce in front of it in a previous Wordless Wednesday.

They were followed by another duo, Gino Robair and John Shiurba under the name G / J. Robair was billed as playing “voltage made painful”, and incorporated a Blippo Box, as well as a drum machine, effects boxes and a device for pre-recorded samples into the mix. Shiurba played guitar with a variety of extended techniques, including using a superball to excite the strings. The were lots of fast cuts and cartoonish moments, with boinks and slaps and machine noises. The Blippo Box had a liquidy organic sound that contrasted with finger-picking on the guitar. At one point in the performance, Robair set in motion a rather funky rhythm loop that sounded for a bit, then came in and out and decayed into grains of sound (@catsynth I want Gino to keep that funky rhythm background going longer. As a dominate.). There were moments that were a bit more aggressive, with loud piercing sounds, but then others that were…well, “plum sonorous” and featured minor harmonies.

[G / J in front of the wall of beauty.  Photo shared on twitter by @TomDuff. (Click to visit original post.)]

Next up was Wormses, a trio of Jacob Felix Heule (percussion), Tony Dryer (bass) and Bobby Adams (electronics). The set started with a low rumble and hum, with the bass soon coming on top of scratchy electronic sounds and Heule playing a cymbal against a bass drum. The music became more anxious and busy over time, with some electronic insect-like sounds coming in above the other parts. Then all of a sudden things got very soft. A rhythm emerged in the background, but barely audible behind the bass and cymbal. As the set continued, a walking bass line came out of nowhere, then lots of swells and glissandi. Gradually, the music built back up to a rather loud level, a couple sounds that were like clipping and feedback, and ultimately ending with the sounding of the bass drum.

I think that was where I walked out to the alley for another break. There was lasagna!

The final set featured Ghost in the House, with Karen Stackpole (percussion), Tom Nunn (invented musical instruments), David Michalak (lap-steel guitar) and Andrew Voigt (who was sitting in for Kyle Bruckman on winds). I had heard them previously at the Wind Moon Concert back in April, and their sound is quite ethereal and airy, even for the percussion and lap-steel guitar. As with the previous performance, they began with a procession, of elemental instruments. The room was dark, except for the light from the 35mm slides in front. The performers then took their places for the remainder of the performance. The sounds were quite subtle at times, slightly minor, and sometimes like old film or radio soundtracks with eerie wind sounds mixed in. The metal instruments (primarily Stackpole’s gongs on Nunn’s instruments) served as a foundation, with the sounds of the wind instruments floating above. In addition to the long atonal sounds, there were moments with high squeaks and east-Asian harmonies and timbres. In the final piece, Stackpole played on an interesting metal-tube instrument and also used a vinyl record as percussion. Michalak’s lap-steel guitar featured prominently in this piece as well. The overall effect sounded electronic, even though the ensemble was purely acoustic instruments. The night concluded with the ensembles recessional from the room, still appropriately dark.

(@casynth #skonkathon concludes. Good night)

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