Scott Amendola’s Orchestra di Pazzi at Slim’s, San Francisco

Our first music report of the year features the final show we saw in 2017. Scott Amendola assembled a cast of seasoned improvisers for a concert at Slim’s in San Francisco that took us on quite a journey over two full-length sets. It was the subject of our last CatSynth TV.

As one can hear in the video, there were a variety of textures throughout the two sets. My favorites were the forceful rhythmic sections, some of which came at the very start of the performance. There were also quite a few “operatic” segments that featured the voice of Pamela Z, who was also manipulating samples through various electronic processes. Aurora Josephson’s vocals provided a counterpoint with different timbres and style.

Aurora Josephson and Pamela Z

The ensemble includes three electric guitars (Henry Kaiser, John Schott, and Fred Frith) and three percussionists (Jordan Glenn, Robert Lopez, William Winant). As we have often remarked, doubling and tripling of such powerful instruments can be treacherous, especially in an improvised setting. But it worked here, as everyone had a distinct sound, and the good sense to always listen and lay out when appropriate. In fact, to my ears the music, especially during the more operatic less rhythmic sections, was dominated by the concert string section, consisting of Christina Stanley and Alisa Rose on violin, Crystal Pascucci on cello, Zach Ostroff on string bass, and Soo-Yeon Lyuh on haegeum. At various points, Mark Clifford cut through the harmonies and timbres on the ensemble with frenetic solos on vibraphone.

 Crystal Pascucci

The ensemble was rounded out with the wind section, which included the entire Rova Saxophone Quartet: Bruce Ackley, Larry Ochs, Steve Adams, and Jon Raskin. I felt like I didn’t hear as much of a distinct voice from the saxophones as I did from the other sections, but that was perhaps because they blended with the violins and cello.

In all, it was a fine night of music to wrap up the year. As we often do at Slim’s, we enjoyed the concert from the balcony over dinner and drinks, but we also had the chance to mingle with our many friends in the ensemble and the audience. We look forward to more music from everyone in their own projects in 2018.

Outsound Music Summit: Sonic Poetry

The concert series of the Outsound Music Summit began this Wednesday with Sonic Poetry, a night combining poetry and live improvised music. This was a first for the summit, with three leading Bay Area poets collaborating with local improvising musicians. Each of the sets featured a different style of poetry, which was reflected in the music and performances.

The first set featured Ronald Sauer, a leading figure in the North Beach poetry scene. His poetry was infused with social satire and provocative imagery, and his reading style had that driving tumbling-forward energy reminiscent of earlier poets of that scene. In this performance he was joined by percussionists Jacob Felix Huele and Jordan Glenn.

[Ronald Sauer, Jacob Felix Huele and Jordan Glenn. Photo:]

The music began with deep ambient sounds and resonances as Heule rubbed a cymbal on a bass drum and Glenn struck metal bowls atop a set drum. Sauer then launched in a humorous poem whose lines poked fun at different poet stereotypes. The music moved into rich textures with mallets, stick hits, vocal sounds and buzzing – the latter occurred as the words alluded to mosquitoes. The next poem, a gentler piece about garnering, was accompanied by soft rattling sounds and resonant metallic rods. Tuned percussion and inharmonic timbres supported Sauer’s “romantic” poem that was featured rather intense sexual language and imagery – and which prompted the evening’s lead curator Robert Anbian to exclaim “Now Ron, don’t hold back!” One of final poems of the set featured the memorable line “The life of an artist is an elegant suicide.”

The next set was a duo featuring poet and performer rAmu Aki with musician Karl Evangelista on guitar and electronics. rAmu Aki’s poetry is deeply rooted in the landscape and culture of San Francisco’s Tenderloin (“TL”) neighborhood where he lives, and by his own declaration was inspired “by the voices inside his head.” He also wore an impressive blue feathered headdress.

[rAmu Aki. Photo:]

Alongside Aki’s fast rhythmic words, Evangelista began with an anxious chromatic guitar line. Phrases like “City of Light” and “English Harassment” were followed by sounds with distortion and other effects, and looping to produce contrapuntal textures. The poetry was full of references to the Tenderloin, some of which like the street names, were familiar, others less so. There were light chords against angrier words, surf tone and more distorted guitar moaning. During a break, there was a rather pretty guitar solo on top of which followed a gentler and prettier poem. A jazzier and more rhythmic section of music accompanied the poem “Grove and Laguna Sunset.” Overall, the duo has a strong musical rapport, with rhythmically tight starts and stops to phrases, and pauses that allowed the music to come through clearly.

The final set featured poet Carla Haryman and musician John Raskin on saxophone and other instruments, joined by Gino Robair on percussion and prepared piano. Unlike the other collaborations in this concert, Haryman and Raskin have worked together for a while, and I was quite looking forward to hearing their performance.

[Carla Haryman. Photo:]

The music began with the sound of bowed metal followed by soft staccato tones on the saxophone. Haryman’s words were also quite staccato and worked well with the sparse percussive texture of the music. Indeed, I was quite drawn to her more abstract poetry, and I found myself listening to individual words as if they were percussion instruments mixed in with the other parts of the music. There were more metal ringing sounds against a longer and more melodious saxophone line, and some electronic sounds that reminded me of old video games. Raskin also recited words at various times, either independently or in sync with Haryman. Gino Robair’s Blippo Box provided its usual liquidy percussive sounds that blended with the saxophone and words. One particular line that stuck with me, and stuck together as a full phrase, was “why is it that some afternoons turn into Miles Davis events?”

[Jon Raskin. Photo:]

The next piece was from a larger work in which the text of a lecture by musicologist and critic Theodor Adorno was processed into a new poetic form and recited by Haryman while Robair performed on prepared piano. Raskin also participated in reciting the text, helping turn parts in a dialogue that included the lament that we “cling to the term new music” unlike visual art which doesn’t hold on to an equivalent overarching term (though one could argue that “modern art” is an equivalent). The overall effect was quite humorous, especially in an audience steeped in experiencing and talking about new music. The piece entitled “Orgasm” was more frenetic, with electronic noises and Raskin employing electronic and electromechanical devices inside a large brass-instrument mute. The final piece featured Raskin playing a squeeze box and Haryman reciting phrases that felt more narrative than the individual words of the earlier pieces, and visual imagery such as “waking hours shiver under glass.”

My experience with poetry is that it tends to be far denser than standard language. As such, it can be a challenge to listen to in sets that are 30 minutes long or more. The rhythmic musicality and phrasing employed by rAmu Aki and the sparse abstract texture of Carla Haryman’s poetry made them work particularly well in the longer setting of a musical performance.

The evening was well attended, with many unfamiliar faces who followed the work of the featured poets but may have been experiencing new-music concerts for the first time. Overall, it was a very strong and dynamic opening concert for the Summit.

Reconnaissance Fly and FPR Trio at Luna’s Cafe, Sacramento

Today we look back Reconnaissance Fly’s performance at the Nebraska Mondays series at Luna’s Cafe in Sacramento. We had played this series last year as well and had a positive experience, and looked forward to performing again this past June. And of course, I cannot turn down an opportunity to play someplace called “Luna’s Cafe.”

It was a hot day in Sacramento. Though I have to admit, I was actually feeling relatively comfortable in the evening warmth, and took the opportunity to walk around, take photos and experience the atmosphere. Inside the cafe, things were once again a bit on the cozy side.

But we somehow managed to get a keyboard, drum set, bass and concert and bass flutes onto the stage along with the four humans that were supposed to play these instruments. Interestingly, in this photo it seems a lot more spacious than it actually was.

[Photo by George R. Thompson.]

It is always interesting to perform for a relatively intimate audience in a setting such as this, especially with a program as varied as our Flower Futures spong cycle. People seemed receptive to both the more purely experimental pieces and the more idiomatic jazz shuffles, sambas and rock ballads. It was also our first show featuring our drummer Larry The O – I thought he brought a new vitality to our most rhythmic pieces in particular, such as An Empty Rectangle and sense iz crede nza. In balance, it was a successful performance.

We shared the bill with the FPR Trio, consisting of Phillip Greenlief, Frank Gratkowski, and Jon Raskin on saxophones, and after a hasty teardown of our equipment we settled by the bar for refreshing beverages, tasty snacks and the opportunity to hear this accomplished ensemble. They performed several pieces based on graphical scores (which I got to take a look at after the performance). The first pieces featured complex polyrhythms with occasional bursts, blurts and squeaks. Every so often as things built up, they would resolve softly, either to an anxious harmony or even to something tonal. There were moments of very defined counterpoint embellished with virtuosic flourishes.

However, the most impressive and memorable part of the set was when all three saxophones came together in a trio of multiphonics. It is a tribute to their skills that they were able to produce complex harmonic series, periods of unison, and intricate beating effects. The timbres moved in and out of stability, and at times seemed like the metallic resonance of a digital subtractive synthesizer. They went on for quite a while in this way, and I and many of the other members of the audience remained captivated throughout.

Thanks to Ross Hammond for continuing to support us through this series, and to Art Luna for hosting us at the cafe.

Matthew Sperry Festival: Tag Team Trio Shift

Last Thursday I attended and performed in the Tag Team Trio Shift at the Luggage Store Gallery. This event was part of the Eighth Annual Matthew Sperry Memorial Festival, a festival held every year in honor of local composer and bassist Matthew Sperry since his tragic death in 2003.

The event featured a large cast of characters from the Bay Area new music scene, improvising three at a time, with John Shiurba acting as referee.

[John Shiurba as referee, with Gino Robair entering a trio.]

Each of us was given a name card. At any given moment, three musicians would be performing. Anyone could hand in their card at any time and replace one of the three current musicians. Thus, there was an ever changing set of trios. For the most part, musicians entered and exited individually, but in the second half of the program we could submit three cards at once as a planned trio. The music ranged from trios of synthesizers and electronic noise, to purely vocal trios, to free-jazz improvisation (saxophones and bass), and all combinations in between.

[Tom Nunn on skatch box and Tom Duff with Bleep Labs Thingamagoop.]

[Vocal trio of Agnes Szelag, Aurora Josephson, and Myles Boisen.]

There were many strategies one could use for deciding when to hand in his or her card and replace someone. For me, I timed my card to coincide with others with whom I wanted to play, or moments where I thought my sounds would work well with the texture.

One could also be competitive and “cut” someone else’s improvisation (as one might do in a traditional jazz-improvisation setting). I can’t say that anyone did that, but there were certainly some playful back-and-forths with people replacing each other.

I brought the trusty Kaos Pad as well as my iPhone, with the BeBot app and a looping/playing app that I used for the Pmocatat ensemble. The latter (which featured variable-speed sounds of Luna and my Indian instruments) got some attention from the other musicians. Scott Looney, who was sitting next to me, and an interesting new instrument that used Reactable icons on a surface with a keyboard, to create a sort of “electronic prepared piano”:

[Scott Looney’s new control surface (photo by catsynth).]

There were some fun moments. One of Philip Greenlief’s improvisations involved his attempting to balance his saxophone in the palm of his hand, constantly moving and shifting in order to keep it from falling. He was clearly hoping for someone to replace him quickly, but we actually let him keep going for quite a while.

[Philip Greenlief’s balancing act.]

The sounds from busy Market Street outside contributed to the music at various times – indeed, the street should have gotten its own card.

Among the attendees were Matthew Sperry’s wife and daughter, who appropriately closed out the second set with the sound of shaking keys fading out.

The full roster of participating musicians included: Myles Boisen, Amar Chaudhary, Matt Davignon, Tom Duff, Tom Djll, Phil Gelb, Lance Grabmiller, Philip Greenlief, Ron Heglin, Jacob Felix Heule, Ma++ Ingalls, Travis Johns, Aurora Josephson, Scott Looney, Bob Marsh, Lisa Mezzacappa, David Michalak, Polly Moller, Kjell Nordeson, Tom Nunn, Dan Plonsey, Garth Powell, Jon Raskin, Gino Robair, Tom Scandura, Damon Smith, Moe! Staiano, Agnes Szelag.

[Unless otherwise indicated, all photographs in this article are from Michael Zelner. You can see a full set of photos from the performance at his flickr page.]