Polly Moller at Trinity Chapel

Today we look back at a concert of works by Polly Moller at Trinity Chapel in Berkeley, CA that I attended back in December. This concert was a large undertaking, not only with a full night of music by a single composer, but a large cast of characters from the Bay Area new-music scene, as one might see at an event like the Skronkathon, but in this case all working towards a single purpose and vision. There were several pieces I was already familiar with from previous performances, including two that I have performed myself. Three others were being premiered. Mythology and narrative seemed to permeate all of the pieces, whether drawn from specific mythological stories or unfolding through rituals and rule-based processes.

(As with several of the larger performances and events I attended last year, I was live tweeting @catsynth, and have included a few choice tweets in this larger review.)

The concert opened with a performance of The Flip Quartet. I had first seen it performed at Hypnogogia at the Climate Theater in 2009, and then had the opportunity to participate in a performance myself later the same year. This performance brought back the original lineup of Karl Evangelista, Jason Hoopes, Thomas Scandura and Bill Wolter. Four stations were set up, representing the four cardinal directions and the traditional elements of air, water, fire and earth. At each station was an array of instruments and other objects that in some way represented that element (e.g., wind instruments at the air station, electrical instruments at the fire station, etc.). Each performer starts at a station and improvises using the objects for two minutes before advancing to the next and repeating the process. Musically, this can really go in many any number of directions (no pun intended) based on the particular objects available and the sensibilities of the performers involved. Often the sounds happen coincidentally, but every so often the four performers come together and produce that is musically integrated (@catsynth Lots of nice gurgling and drumming and whistling. Strong musical moment.) This was the first time I had seen the piece performed on a traditional proscenium. The previous performances were done in the round with the audience in the center and the stations surrounding them. While it was easier to see all the performers at once this way, there was something fun about the round format, the connection to the elemental and directional aspects and the ability to see the instruments close up.

Next was the premier of Duo No. 1 featuring Gino Robair on a variety of instruments and Krystyna Bobrowski playing a “sliding speaker instrument.” The piece has a dual identity as a narrative following the life cycle of a moth and an excuse to make Gino Robair “play really, really quietly.” And indeed, it was relatively quiet and subtle, but still with a lot of dynamic energy. Robair played a variety of percussion instruments, including the signature broken cymbal that I often see him play. Robair’s sounds are fed into the speaker in Bobrowski’s instrument and excite the tube, which she can then vary in length to change the timbre of the sound.

Bobrowski was able to get quite a variety of interesting timbres from her “acoustic signal processor”, which then informed how the improvisational duet unfolded within the context of the overall graphical score.

The next piece, Penelope, was perhaps the most traditional of the evening, as it was through composed for a single performer on piccolo with supporting vocal and foot-stomping parts. It was commissioned for and performed by Amy Likar.

The piece based on the final chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses (which is of course itself inspired by Greek mythology), and the extended piccolo techniques, combined with the irregular foot-stomp rhythms and repeated breathy voicing of the word “yes” are intended to “evoke Molly Bloom’s sensual stream of consciousness.” I found myself mostly focused on the combination of the foot stomps, trying to find syncopated patterns whether or not they were there, and the surprisingly powerful sounds from the extended instrumental techniques. (@catsynth Who knew the piccolo could be such an angry instrument?)

After a brief intermission, the concert resumed with a performance of the Three of Swords. I had first seen Polly perform this piece for Pamela Z’s ROOM series at the Royce Gallery in San Francisco. This version was performed by Sara Elena Palmer using vocals and electronics.

The narrative structure is a bit more abstract in this piece, but it is nonetheless present through the highly ritualized nature. The program notes describe it as a “sound-art divination ritual for solo performer and tarot cards.” It unfolds with the setting of a 20-minute hourglass and lighting a series of candles. For each candle, the performer draws a card from the tarot deck arrayed out in front of her, and interprets the card musically. (@catsynth http://yfrog.com/hsv2tzj pick a card any card.) At the end of each section, the corresponding candle is extinguished.┬áSara Elena Palmer’s bright red costume and head covering (which she removed during the recitation concerning the heart) seemed to be an integral part of her interpretation of the ritual. Among the more interesting musical elements she employed was a radio used to generate analog noise sounds.

The next piece, Alcyone is based on the Greek legend of Alcyone, the Kingfisher Queen, who calms the ocean for seven days before and after the winter solstice so she can incubate her eggs in a nest on the waves. (Appropriately, this concert took place three days before the winter solstice.) Musically, the piece opens with an energetic instrumental quartet featuring Philip Greenlief on clarinet, Cory Wright on bass clarinet, Lisa Mezzacappa on contrabass and Suki O’Kane on percussion. After a stretch of time, mezzo-soprano Laura Malouf-Renning entered the stage regally costumed with a black cape and crown and carrying a nest with Christmas ornaments (@catsynth A festive birds nest). She silenced the instrumentalists one by one with a tap on the shoulder, and began an expressive monologue.

The final piece of the evening was Genesis for 12 performers. I had first seen this piece at its premier at the Quickening Moon Concert last year, and then had the opportunity to perform it myself with Cardew Choir last summer. This version followed closely the personnel and interpretation of the original performance, featuring Polly as the conductor and Matt Davignon in the role of the new universe. The piece combines “Western magical tradition” with the concept of the 11-dimensional universe from string theory. The performers represent each of the dimensions, with special roles for the conductor, the timekeeper who represents the time axis, and three performers representing the conventional spatial dimensions. The final performer represents the new universe that is born from the multi-dimensional processes.

The performers are arranged in a very specific spiral formation with the new universe (Davignon) at the center. The conductor (Moller) carries chimes and walks the spiral, tapping each performer to enter or exit. The sound starts out slowly and gradually, but then builds into a loud crescendo as the new universe is born. At this point, Davignon took over with a solo on live electronics. Like many of his other electronic performances, he achieves a very organic sound with lots of textural details, sometimes liquidy or like a series of objects being shaken or dropped. After the new universe solo, the spiral reverses as the other dimensions re-enter, but gradually get softer before a final statement by the new universe.

(@catsynth #pollymoller concert concludes. Good night!)

William Leavitt, Boyce/Greenlief duo and Karl Evangelista trio

I continue to work through the backlog of art and music reviews by presenting some of the openings and performances I saw on the particularly busy and fun evening of February 19 here in San Francisco. Although the evening included both musical performances and exhibitions of visual art, music was present as a central theme throughout.

First up, we visited Jancar Jones Gallery for the opening of William Leavitt: A Show of Cards. The exhibition featured “over 300 ink drawings on index cards” (though I only counted 248) arranged in three groups on the walls of the gallery.


[William Leavitt, A Show of Cards: Installation View. Photo courtesy of Jancar Jones Gallery. (Click to enlarge.)]

The gallery’s stark white walls presented a great surface for drawings, which were sometimes very sparse and sometimes quite detailed. Many featured musical elements, such as instruments or notes on a staff. There were also mathematical pieces (such as an x-y plot of a sine function), electronic circuit diagrams, architectural drawings, animals and abstract textures.


[Click photos to enlarge.]

It was fun to scan the rows of cards, picking out individual ones for closer inspection and comparison, particular the abstracts and the references to some of my own areas of expertise (e.g., music and electronics). It turns out Leavitt has a long-standing interest in electronic music, and was featured in this article at GetLoFi alongside circuit-bending godfather Reed Ghazala.

William Leavitt, Pyramid Lens Delta. Image courtesy of Jancar Jones Gallery. (Click to enlarge.)

In addition to being works of art in their own right, the cards serve as a source material for chance procedures that Leavitt uses in other works. In particular, a random subset of cards were used to generate a narrative that was incorporated into the text for his play “Pyramid Lens Delta” (the title came from the first three cards in the set). The script for the play was part of the exhibition. The back of the script contained the card set, and glancing through the text one could see where portions of the dialogue seemed to be drawn from the cards, particularly dialogue associated with Ivan, one of the characters in the play.

Leavitt has used chance processes for past works, including a theater piece The Radio which premiered in 2002. This piece includes not only dialogue but also an original score that included musique concrete. I would have liked to have seen this.


After Jancar Jones, we made a brief detour into that ambiguously defined area at the base of Potrero Hill to Project One for The Art of Noise, a visual exhibition coincident with the Noise Pop Festival. It featured large artistically altered portraits of well known musicians, as well as some installations, such Ted Riederer’s piece featuring drums covered in rose petals.


We finally ended up in the Mission District, and after a brief stop for tacos arrived at Bluesix for a pair of musical performances.

The saxophone duo of David Boyce and Phillip Greenlief. As noted in previous reviews, Greenlief’s virtuosic saxophone performances cover a wide variety of instrumental techniques. The duo weaved effortlessly between idiomatic jazz riffs and more free-form sections featuring multiphonics, noise production and vocals. The change between sections was both sudden and subtle; I was immersed in a jazz riff with long up-and-down lines or rhythmic patterns and only later would realize that we had moved to a more non-tonal (i.e., “noisy”) and arhythmic section. They demonstrate that these modes of music making need not be at odds (as they are sometimes portrayed on musician discussion lists) and can be part of a single piece of music. The performance did, however, inspire a short discussion with a friend about what is “experimental music” and why the performances this evening did or did not qualify as “experimental”.

Boyce and Greenlief were followed by the Karl Evangelista Spaceman Explorer Trio, featuring Karl Evangelista on guitar, Cory Wright on baritone sax, and Jordan Glenn on drums. Evangelista in his various groups blends jazz traditions with elements of late-20th-century experimental music. This of course led back to the question of whether or not this performance was “experimental”, particularly given strong jazz foundations on the pieces that we heard. The trio opened with loud driving rhythms and Evangelista and Wright trading long fast melodic runs. The piece “Hurdles” on Evangelista’s MySpace is quite representative. Another piece a somewhat slower groove with strong quarter notes (one might say a little bit “funkier”, more 1970s). Within this context, the melodies, riffs and one-off notes were often atonal, which helps to keep things moving forward. Overall, it was a fast-paced and virtuosic performance.

Hypnagogia, Climate Theater

Hypnagogia defines the state between sleeping and waking: the state in which our dreams can seem more real to us than the waking world, and which, depending upon the nature of our dreams, our limbo-selves seek to flee, or to sustain.

My primarily mission in attending Hypnagogia at the Climate Theater was to see the performance of The Flip Quartet by Polly Moller, as I will be part of upcoming performance of the piece in July. The performance featured Karl Evangelista, Jason Hoopes, Thomas Scandura and Bill Wolter. The Flip Quartet is a composition for four improvisers who move between four stations representing the cardinal directions (north, east, south, west) and the four medieval elements: earth, air, fire, water. Each station had a variety of instruments and sound-making objects to represent elements.


[click to enlarge]

“Earth” had drums, stones, and blocks. “Air” included various wind instruments and shakers. “Fire” featured metal instruments and electric instruments (keyboard, electric guitar, etc.). And “Water” included water-filled containers, but also acoustic string instruments – this was the only association I had a difficult time figuring out, with my own interpretation being “standing waves.” Each section of the piece starts with the performers “flipping” a timer. When the time runs out, they stop and move on to the next station.

The audience sat in the middle of the theatre, with half the seats facing one pair of elements and half facing the others. Since there were two performances, I got a chance to see and hear the piece from “both sides.” Musically, the piece unfolded as ever changing harmonies of the different objects, often very discrete and percussive, along with many theatrical moments such as attempting to balance on the “earth” elements on the head of a drum. My favorite moment musically was the combination of the Asian pipe (shown one of the photos above), lute, shakers and thunder tube.

The other musical performance was Philip Greenlief performing a solo work The Fourth World. The piece is based on Hopi conception of time and the Fourth World from Hopi mythology, and is a solo performance featuring Greenlief’s expressive and virtuosic saxophone playing. I am always impressed with his multiphonics, which he manages to make seem as easy to play as standard tones. Spatially, this performance was the opposite of The Flip Quartet, with the audience seated in a circle facing inward and creating a more intimate space.

In addition to the featured live musical performances, there were visual art pieces, installations, and media and performance art. Sean Clute, Jessica Gomula and Gina Clark presented a “video action painting and performance” entitled Slippery Dreams 2009.

Live video of the drawings being created were projected onto the screens, and I believe also used to control the sound that was generated.

Louis Rawlins presented the installation Sleep Patterns, set up as a bedroom or sitting room where one could relax and touch the ball of yarn on the table.


[click to enlarge]
The string (which included conductive thread) was used to generate sounds in response to the viewers interactions. Presumably, one could interact with this piece while asleep.

The were several video pieces of varying subject and quality. I did like Vanessa Woods’ What the Water Saw, a short film that originally was shot on 16mm/35mm film and transferred to video. It was meant to mimic ocean with the distortion of images through water, as represented by the intense layering and deep colors of the film. After looking at Woods’ website, I think I might have been more interested in some of her black-and-white films. Rebekah May’s Celestial Cadence for video on five iPod Touches was an interesting visual in itself, with its arrangement of abstract color and shape patterns:

Among the purely visual works that caught my attention was the undulating Circulation III by Julia Anne Goodman, a mobile work that was created from junk mail (and there is certainly plenty of that around); also Klea McKenna’s Taxonomy of My Brother’s Garden from Center of Gravity:


[click to enlarge]

Finally, as it was quite stuffy inside the theatre and gallery on this rather warm night, there was the welcome retreat to the rooftop, where VoxMaids performed rhythmic and traditional-sounding music for drums, accordion and voices against projections of astronomical objects. Alternatively, one could look at a real astronomical object, the moon, on this rather clear night.