They Will Have Been So Beautiful: Amy X Neuburg with Paul Dresher Ensemble

“They Will Have Been So Beautiful”, a collaboration between Amy X Neuburg and the Paul Dresher Ensemble, premiered a little over a week ago at U.C. Berkeley’s Zellerbach Playhouse. It was an event I was happy to have attended, as it lived up to its future-perfect-tense name.

“They Will Have Been So Beautiful” was actually ten pieces by ten different composers, all inspired by Diane Arbus’ “stunningly poetic 1963 Guggenheim grant application titled American Rites, Manners and Customs“. Each composer selected a photograph or series of images that spoke and him or her and to use as the inspiration for the music. The performance featured Neuburg on voice and electronics, with members of the Paul Dresher Ensemble and guest performer John Schott on guitar.

The evening opened with Pamela Z’s piece 17 Reasons Why based on a photograph by Donald Swearingen. It began in a fashion very typical of Neuburg’s solo work where she layers looped and processed live recordings of her voice to create thick textures. There is always a precision to her performance that makes it work live, and I can only imagine the challenge in getting the full ensemble to match it as tightly as they did.

Lisa Bielawa’s Ego Sum was a much sparser piece, featuring text overheard in “transient public spaces”, such as the New York City Subway. The accompanying photographs featured people coming and going on a bench in a subway station in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn (I know the station). It would be easy to dismiss the piece as “hipster” for its concept and visual setting, but in my case it made me feel a little homesick even though I was just in New York a couple of weeks earlier.

Paul Dresher’s own contribution, A Picture Screen Stands in Solitude, was perhaps the most poignant of the evening. It featured two photographs: Richard Misrach’s image an abandoned drive-in theater near Las Vegas by , and Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photo of an empty movie palace in Encinitas, California. The text was from an essay by a young man named Michael Nelson named incarcerated in San Quentin for murder, written for a prison course named “Contemporary Issues in Photography.” The images themselves were quite powerful, and very much in the themes of urban decay and sparse built spaces that are featured in many of the photography reviews here on CatSynth. But Nelson’s words are make it emotionally strong. His observations are very detailed and articulate, and also quite melancholy on the subject of forgotten places (and in turn forgotten people). The music was extremely sparse in keeping with the photos, and did not get in the way of Nelson’s words.

Ken Ueno’s piece Secret Meridian, features the composers’ own photographs of the meridian lines in two churches in Italy. It was perhaps the most abstract of the evening, both in its theme and the composition itself. The words felt secondary to me and I found myself focused on the electronic resonance sounds and impressive solos from John Schott on electric guitar and Gene Reffkin on electronic drums.

The song cycle concluded with Amy X Neuburg’s composition Is It Conflict-Free and Were Any Animals
Harmed in the Making of It?
. From the start it was pretty obvious this was going to be a more humorous piece, with frequent references to the oft-used punchline “no animals were harmed in the making of this”. And Neuburg didn’t disappoint in that regard, using her distinctive mixture of operatic vocals, musical theater, and clear comedic lines. The piece did have a serious origin, using a photograph of a snowy mountain in Wyoming and the loss of wild winter spaces as the point of departure, but then veering into the absurd including the above lines and images of herself in the bathtub. She deftly managed to put all these elements together into a poetic and theatrical whole.

[Photo by Moe! Staiano.]

Five other pieces rounded out the evening, with composers Fred Frith, Guillermo Galindo, Carla Kihlstedt, Jay Cloidt, and Conrad Cummings. I regret not being able to write about all of them, as each contributed something to the whole of this event. The entire evening was well performed and choreographed between music, projection and lighting, and made for a quite impressive experience. Congratulations are in order to everyone involved in this multi-year project.

Perhaps the strength and intensity of this concert made it even more surreal to exit to the reality of protests in Berkeley on the precipice of a violent confrontation only a few minutes later that evening. Certainly not a planned juxtaposition, but a powerful one.

The Book (Part 2) at SOMArts: Avy-K with Ken Ueno and Matt Ingalls

A week ago I attended a performance of The Book, a monthlong project by Avy-K Productions at SOMArts as part of their Commons Curatorial Residency prorgram. Avy-K, founded by long-time collaborators Erika Tsimbrovsky (choreographer/performer) and Vadim Puyandaev (visual artist/performer), specializes in multidisciplinary pieces combining contemporary dance, live music, live painting and evolving installations. The Book used these elements to present a framework for audience interaction and narrative.

From the online program notes:

The Book is an installation-performance series accompanying an ongoing exhibition based in experimental non-theater dance. Each performance is a random page from The Book, and each invites a different guest artist to enter the structure, created by Avy K Productions and collaborators, in order to destroy it and give it new life.

Matt Ingalls and Ken Ueno

The performance featured live improvised music by Matt Ingalls and Ken Ueno. I have of seen both of them perform in a variety of venues on numerous occasions, but never together as duo until now. There were many moments where Ingalls’ wind instruments and Ueno’s extended vocal work matched perfectly. In fact, the timbres of the voice and instruments were close enough to seem indistinguishable at times. Both performances held single pitched tones, with only slight variations the led to pronounced beating effects. At other moments, clarinet multiphonics were set against low intense growling, or Central Asian (i.e., Tuvan) throad singing. There were also percussive notes passed back and forth between the performers in sparse rhythmic patterns – something that worked well with the movement of the dancers. I was interested in some of the more unusual uses of instruments, such as Ueno’s combining of a clarinet bell and snare drum with vocalizations or Ingalls’ decomposition of the clarinet into subsections.


The dancers costumes featured “dresses” made of black-and-white patchworks that seemed to resemble newsprint on top of black – this costuming was used by both the male and female dancers. It matched the starkness of the room and the displays, which were mostly white with black text or markings. The music, dance movements and costumes provided plenty of empty space, which seemed in keeping with the stated mission of The Book for “artists and audience members [to] allow their personal stories to enter the performance space, creating a collective public diary.” The main source of bright colors were large paintings at various places on the wall – their significance would become apparent as the performance unfolded.

The dance began very subtly and quietly, with long pauses and brief motions that matched the soft percussive sounds from the voice and clarinet. The motion focused on dancers interacting in pairs or individual dancers interacting with the large white panels set up throughout the room, the floor, or their costumes.

As the dance continued, Vadim Puyandaev emerged in all black and began live-painting a new large-scale mural on one wall of the gallery. The painting used vibrant colors and it became clear that the colorful paintings I noticed earlier must have been the result of previous performances. As the painting progressed, the dancers gradually set down in close formation facing Puyandaev, as if in prayer or meditation. The music appropriately moved to a long clarinet drone and throat singing.

[Photo by Elena Zhukova, reprinted courtesy of SOMArts.]

As the next section of the performance began, the audience was invited to gather around one particular set of curtains. The shadowy figures of two dancers could be seen through the curtain, with the outline of their bodies coming in and out of focus. They emerged very gradually from underneath the curtain, first a foot poking out, then a head and neck, squeezing out like a caterpillar, As they fully emerged, the two dancers came together in slow, undulating and curving motions. This part of the performance was, to say the least, rather sexually charged. After continuing for a period of time, the dancers separated and retreated behind the curtain.

Photo by Elena Zhukova, reprinted courtesy of SOMArts

The final section of the performance was more heterogenous in terms of content, with a greater variety of motions and interactions with the space. Large rolls of paper were spread out on the floor – a dancer proceeded roll himself up in one of these. Square holes were cut in some of the white curtains to create windows that performers peeked through. A large circle was created which some dancers followed as if on a monorail. Over time, the dancers one by one exchanged their costumes for “street clothing” – basically, the sort of things one might wear when to attend a serious art performance like this but remain casual. Were it not for the deliberate nature of their motion, they would have been indistinguishable from the audience. It was clear that it was coming to an end as the all gathered in one spot and the music went silent.

[Photo by Elena Zhukova, reprinted courtesy of SOMArts.]

So the question is how how successful the piece was at allowing audience members to enter their own stories? For me, I found myself focused on the literal elements of the visual design, music and movement. Even as the piece evolved over time, I was drawn the elements as abstractions – perhaps not surprising for someone who gravitates towards abstract music and art. Particularly through the costumes and overall shapes of the installation, I could also connect to the urban landscape.

The Book continues at SOMArts with additional performances, including a free closing event on July 29 where one will be able to see how the gallery space was altered over the course of the series.

Garden of Memory 2010

This past Monday on the Summer Solstice I once again attended the annual Garden of Memory at the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland. This year, I was going not just as an audience member and reviewer, but also to participate with the Cornelius Cardew Choir, and also ended up playing in an impromptu electronic improvisation.

Being practical, I first crossed the building to where the choir was located to check in and drop off a few things. On the way I encountered Randy Porter’s “one man orchestra” featuring prepared guitar, brass instruments and tubing. This was a fun performance to watch, and it did not escape me that there were a lot of kids watching him, too.

After dropping off my stuff, I wandered around the corner following some strong bass tones that echoed around the hallway. In one of the side chambers, Beth Custer was performing clarinet. She produced a variety of standard and extended-technique tones. I was wondering if she also was going to perform using the array of other wind instruments behind her. I continued to follow the resonant bass sounds and in a side room found Thomas Dimuzio performing dronelike sounds with guitar and effects. This section of his performance had long tones with heavy distortion and bass undertones that were the source of resonances in the main hallway. I sat to listen for a few minutes as his tone gradually moved away from distortion towards something more pure sounding. Nearby was an outdoor patio, where Orchestra Nostalgico was playing minor-key jazzy music that reminded me a bit of klezmer.

[Schocker, Ueno and Fong. (Click to enlarge)]

One of my favorite new performances this year was the trio of Ken Ueno, Adam Fong and Edward Schocker. Ueno’s expressive and virtuosic vocals, which focus on a variety of extended techniques, blended well with Schocker’s performance on glasses and Fong’s bass. For example, Ueno’s vocals used techniques like throat singing with strong resonances, which complement harmonics on the bass. The sounds were more delicate at times, but the performance an aggressive, harder sound overall which I found welcome. It is interesting to note that they were situated in the Chapel of Tenderness.

Maggie Payne had an installation in the same room as last year, once again making use of the fountain and other elements of the room. Next door was the Crank Ensemble, who were getting started with a new piece as I arrived. The instruments cover a wide range of sound-generation techniques and timbres, but they are all hand cranked. As such, they tend to produce regular rhythms of repeating notes and different rates. The piece began with some slow patterns of metallic and plucked sounds, but as more performers came in it got increasingly complex, with faster rhythms and more variety. One thing that is always readily apparent is how much physical effort it must take to operate some of those instruments, especially given the repetitive nature.

An equally rhythmic but very different performance was unfolding in the Chapel of Eternal Wisdom. Laura Inserra performed on an instrument called a hang, a large tuned metal pod set against a percussionist with three tablas (as opposed to the standard two). The duo quickly built up complex but meditative rhythms. Interestingly, there was another hang performance nearby (I am not sure which group this was, however).

[Laura Inserra. Hang and tabla performance. (Click to enlarge)]

In the columbarium, a heard a performance of Gino Robair’s opera I Norton. I had seen a large production of the piece at least year’s San Francisco Electronic Music Festival. This performance once again featured Tom Duff in the role of Norton I, “Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.” Robair performed with a small custom electronic instrument alongside a Bleep Labs Thingamagoop (I do want to get one of these at some point), with small portable speakers and taking advantage of the acoustics of the stone room. This performance also featured dance elements, and the two dancers also provided theatrical supporting vocals.

[Scenes from Gino Robair’s I Norton. (Click images to enlarge.)]

Wandering back I heard Theresa Wong performing cello while singing a blues song. I have heard her perform cello both solo and in ensembles on many occasions, but had not heard her sing blues before. I then walked by another performance featuring cello. Albert Behar and the Movement combined cello with electronics to produce ambient music that sounded like a score for a film.

I passed by a trio with our friends Tom Djll, Karen Stackpole and Ron Heglin. The combination of brass (Djll and Heglin) with Stackpole’s trademark gongs seemed like it would be quite a contrast, but at this particular moment, the short tones on the gongs and the bursts from the trumpet and trombone seemed to match in overall contour if not in timbre.

[Cornelius Cardew Choir. (Click image to enlarge)]

It was then time for my first shift with the Cornelius Cardew Choir. We were performing a four-hour version of Pauline Oliveros’ The Heart Chant, in which performers enter and exit a circle, and while joined with others sing long tones on a steady pitch in between breaths. This turns out to require a lot of energy, singing a series of long tones for about ten minutes, especially for someone who does not do a lot of singing. I did my best, and also simultaneously listened to the sounds of the other voices and the overall harmonies. My favorite moment was when the harmony evolved organically into a steady perfect fifth. The overall quality, while very focused on the body and breadth, was meditative and calming. The piece is supposed to be one of healing, and I used the opportunity of this performance to send healing vibes to someone who needs them.

At sundown, around 8:30PM, we led the annual ringing of bells, as part of Brenda Hutchinson’s Daily Bell project, which started in 2008 but continues every year. At 8:32PM bells started ringing throughout the main hall, gradually getting louder as more people joined in; and then a minute later, it came to an end.

After sunset, I wandered down to the Sanctuary, a small dark room, where Sylvia Matheus and Thomas Miley were performing a large and richly textured electronic improvisation with a mixture of synthesized sounds and vocal samples. Gino Robair had joined in with the instrument he had used in I Norton, and at Matheus’ invitation I joined in as well, using several iPhone instruments such as the Bebot and Smule Ocarina. This spontaneous performance was a welcome coda to this long evening of music.

Dieb13, Djll, Greenlief, Robair, and Ueno at CNMAT

Last Thursday, I found myself back at my old “stomping ground”, the Center for New Music and Audio Technologies (CNMAT) to hear an evening of improvised music.

Dieb13 (aka Dieter Kovacic) opened with a solo set for multiple turntables. It started with a single turntable producing noise/static sounds, and gradually incorporated electrical hums and synthesizer sounds, along with complex repeated rhythms. The rhythmic patterns were sometimes metric, sometimes more stuttering. With three turntables going at once, Kovacic’s performance seemed more “synthesizer” and less “DJ.”

Dieb31 was then joined by Tom Djll (trumpet and electronics), Philip Greenlief (saxophone), Gino Robair (percussion and electronics) and Kenn Ueno (extended vocal techniques). The set began with “scraping sounds”, Robair blowing a small horn against a drum and Greenlief scraping a mouthpiece cover along his tenor sax. Indeed, the acoustic instruments as noise sources dominated the first section of this extended improvisation, before the Blippo Box, the other electronic instruments and Dieb31’s turntables entered. It was interesting to hear how the sounds from the turntables an Ueno’s vocal techniques matched the acoustic instruments, and it was a challenge at times to tell which sounds were acoustic and which sounds were electronic.

Another notable confluence was Ueno’s throat singing set against low-frequency sounds from the turntable and the Blippo Box. There were also contrasting sections with percussive short notes on all the instruments (trumpet, electronics, sax, voice, turntable, percussion) in rapid succession. There was a very soft section with saxophone multiphonics (we have commented on Greenlief’s expertise with multiphonics in the past), vocal whispers, low-level electrical sounds, and a resonant tube; and very loud moments, screeching, high-pitched. One very rhythmic section featured Gino running fan against cymbals and Tom Dill running a similar fan against his trumpet. Greenlief joined in running keys against his sax. The piece ended with loud notes that came to a sudden stop.

This was followed by a much shorter “encore” improvisation, whose memorable moments were the variety of sounds from the turntable, which included an excerpt from a bebop recording and a toilet flushing.