John Cage, The Music of ChAnGEs: Variation VIII

Today we review The Music of ChAnGEs: Variation VIII, a concert in a yearlong series by sfSound celebrating John Cage’s centennial. This particular concert, which took place at The Lab, featured some of Cage’s more adventurous and experimental compositions, including works involving electronics and noise elements. These more conceptual pieces involved use of simple electronics, household objects, or unexpected musical sources. The scores are mostly based on sequences of instructions with absolute or relative time scales. In addition to 4’33” (which was not on the program), these are among the most celebrated examples of Cage’s music, but also among the more misunderstood and even reviled. I fall unequivocally on the side of celebration of these more radical and pioneering works, and thus I was privileged to be able to participate in this concert myself as well.

The pre-concert and intermission music featured an interpretation of One3 by John Leidecker (aka Wobbly). The piece contains the instruction to “arrange the soundsystem so that the whole hall is on the edge of feedback, without feeding back. The result is an abstract texture that goes from silent to occasionally quite loud at the unstable boundary, but the sound was also blended with the ambience of the conversations and commotion in the hall.

The formal concert opened with Radio Music. In this piece, each performer is given a written part with a sequence of AM radio frequencies to which to tune his or her radio (traditional analog broadcast AM/FM radios are required to perform this piece, no internet or digital-broadcast radios allowed). What, if anything, is audible on those particular frequencies is of course up to chance – sometimes it is just static, while other times one tunes into an actual station. Additionally, the performers were free to walk around the hall and to interpret the flow of time among positions in their part. The result was a spatialized electronic music texture with the radios playing the part of synthesizers with noise generators, distorted sine waves, and the occasional sampled recording. Particular combinations of sportscasts, music and tuning noise could be quite humorous.

This was followed by Music for Amplified Toy Pianos. Cage is often credited with bringing the toy piano into the realm of serious music with his 1948 Suite for Toy Piano. In Music for Amplified Toy Pianos, he pushes the instrument further with the use of contract microphones, amplification, and more percussive interactions with the instrument itself. Like Radio Music, the score involves a series of instructions, indicating the pitches to be played by each performer, when to perform a “sound effect” on the instrument, and when to change the level on the associated amplifier – but in this piece, the times are given in absolute units. This was my station for the performance, with my own toy piano that was rescued from curbside dumping in New York. It has certainly had a better life at CatSynth HQ, and then the opportunity to appear in a concert like this!

Performing this piece accurately requires concentration – one must pay attention to the cues on his or her own part without being distracted by the other sounds. Nonetheless, like all ensemble music one is listening to overall sound. The texture of the piece is quite sparse, with individual disjoint notes punctuated by percussive sounds (hits, scrapes, etc.). The amplification changes add a strange sort of dynamic expression especially as the ear inevitably tries to pull together disparate parts into short phrases. There was not as much empty space in this performance as I heard on earlier recordings of the piece, in part due to our interpretation of the noise elements, which included longer-duration sounds like scraping a comb on the piano and the interaction of the amplifiers with ambient and electrical noises. It was a delight to play and to be able to at least partially listen to. The other performers for the piece included Kyle Bruckmann, Daniel Cullen, Tom Djll, Sivan Eldar, Matt Ingalls, and Hadley McCarroll.

The only piece on the program not written by Cage himself was a tribute by Christopher Burns entitled Unlit Cigarettes (for John Cage). Ostensibly a multi-movement chamber piece with voices, winds, and strings, it followed the theme of other pieces in the concert with unusual patterns and instructions for the performers. Among the most interesting were the instructions for one or more performers to play on another performer’s main instrument. For example, multiple performers attempted to make sounds from Burns’ guitar while he held it. There was also a recitation of a familiar-sounding text by Gertrude Stein in one movement. Her writing often involves repeated words and phrases, which made for very contrapuntal and rhythmic music. Burns was joined in the performance by Kyle Bruckmann on oboe, Tom Dambly on trumpet, Tara Flandreau on violin, Matt Ingalls on clarinet, John Ingle on saxophone, and Hadley McCarroll on voice. You can hear a bit of the performance in this video:

This was followed by one of Cage’s most conceptual pieces, 0’00”. The score of the piece consists of the single statement “In a situation provided with maximum amplification (no feedback), perform a disciplined action.” It is often subtitled 4’33” no. 2, and although it has very little in common with the original 4’33”, it does represent another extreme of what can be considered music. The “deliberate action” in this particular performance involved Matt Ingalls’ sitting at a desk and writing checks to pay the musicians. A contact microphone picked up the sound of the writing and it was amplified into the hall. It wasn’t the most pleasant sound even when judged in comparison to the other extreme sounds of the evening, but it was a faithful rendition and the action was a humorous and appropriate choice for this concert. (And it’s nice to get paid for playing experimental music.)

[Photo by Tom Djll.]

The final piece before the intermission was Living Room Music. Dating back to 1940, this was one of Cage’s earlier pieces and explores the use of household objects as percussion instruments. Ingalls was again seated behind the desk from 0’00” with the other performers (Matthew Goodheart, Tom Dambly, and Hadley McCarroll) arranged to either side. Despite what was radical instrumentation for a concert setting at the time, the rhythmic work seemed rather conventional, with repeated polyrhythms and other patterns from idiomatic music. It was the combination of the staging, to look more like a room in a house with the desk and books, and the timbres of the “instruments” that allowed the concept of the piece to enter the listening experience. Once one accepted the setting, then focus shifts to the rhythms.


The concert resumed with Music for Six, a performance of Cage’s modular piece Music for _____ by six musicians, essentially the same ensemble that played Christopher Burns’ piece minus Burns. This is one the most flexible and reconfigurable pieces, even more of a “composition generating kit” than the others. Although the instrumentation for this performance was traditional chamber instruments, the piece calls for extensive use of microtones that push the instruments into different sonic territory.

The most unusual instrumentation of the evening was in Inlets (Improvisation III). The piece called for three amplified water-filled conch shells, one conch shell played like a trumpet, and pre-recorded sounds of fire. The honor of playing the conch shells fell to Matt Ingalls, Tom Dambly and Tom Djll.

There was much of the expected splashing and gurgling sounds that one would expect from the conch shells, but also surprising details such as short percussive sequences from the action of the water. These instruments were quite difficult for the performers to control, which makes the resulting music more unpredictable. At times it was also difficult to tell what was generated by the water in the shells and the fire in the recording, adding an aspect of “elemental ambiguity” to one’s enjoyment of the piece.

The concert concluded with a performance of Cartridge Music. The piece has a similar structure to Music for Amplified Toy Pianos and Inlets, but distills the concept further to just modified phonograph cartridges – realized for this performance using contact microphones – and found objects. The piece unfolded with each performer rubbing his or her respective found objects against the microphones according to the timed instructions in the score. The resulting music was once again quite sparse, but with a wide dynamic and timbral range from the array of objects used, including Matthew Goodheart’s cymbals (a miniature version of the system he presented a few weeks earlier at the Outsound Music Summit), metal objects in a bowl played by Kyle Bruckmann, and many others. By following the changes in texture, density and volume, one can start to hear phrasing and form in the music.

In listening to (and in some cases performing) the works in this concert with their emphasis on generative techniques, “compositional tools” and indeterminacy, I could not help but think of Fluxus, for which Cage was an important influence (though not technically a member). The connection to Fluxus provides a strong conceptual context as well as connection to visuals of the time and place where Cage created these works. Nonetheless, they all still stand out as excellent on a purely musical level in the concert setting, with sounds and textures that were quite enjoyable to listen to despite Cage’s undeserved reputation of writing impenetrable music. The concert was also well attended, with a full house packed into The Lab. A very successful night all around.

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.

Wind Moon Concert

At the end of April, I attended the Wind Moon Concert, the latest installment of the Full Moon Concert series at the Luggage Store Gallery. As the name implies, the theme of the evening was “the wind, and its moonlit travels through tubes”. Both sets featured wind instruments, but also wind-like sounds on other instruments, and an attempt to bring the disciplines of wind performance to all the instruments, as described in program notes for the second set by Sabbaticus Rex:

The instruments themselves are treated with reverence and are given as much if not more command over the path that the music takes. Inasmuch as metal particles or stalks of bamboo want to become instruments, at the point at which we discover them, the gongs and shakuhachi themselves are approached in a highly collaborative manner, i.e. letting sounds emerge from them, guiding rather than forcing, generally unifying with the instrument as much as possible.

Tom Nunn and his musical inventions. Click to enlarge.

The first set featured Ghost in the House performing the Wind Moon Suite, an “elemental arrangement” of pieces. It began with a procession led by Karen Stackpole on a hand drum, followed by Tom Nunn with a conical metal instrument called a waterphone, Kyle Bruckman and David Michalak with wind instruments. Upon reaching, the performers added their other instruments, Stackpole on gongs, Michalak on lap steel and Nunn on his various musical inventions. Nunn’s skatch box opened with long “angry wind” sounds howling and moaning, with more ethereal sounds from the others filling the spaces in between. Sounds gradually entered the mix with slowly moving pitch bends that sounded more “electronic” to me (perhaps even like samples with pitch bends). The metallic and wind sounds began to coalesce around a harmonic structure with minor chords. Within the structure, the lap-steel guitar emerged with its own minor chords and softly moving pitch bends. This was followed by a piece featuring an expressive solo by Bruckman (oboe and english horn) set against long tones on the gongs and the skatch box. Eventually, the melodic line of the reeds gave way to more long tones.

The next piece, which had the memorable title “I killed someone in my dream last night”, began with a strong “growly” note. The sounds of the reeds were set against bowed gongs, and it seemed that both instruments began to sound quite similar despite their obvious physical and acoustical differences. In this section, Nunn played an interesting instrument called the Crustacean, featuring wires on a metal plate set atop orange balloons, another allusion to the combination of metal and air. This was followed by multiphonics on the oboe or english horn set against the skatch box and distorted guitar tones, which eventually gave way to long tones on the gong and high pitched notes from the reeds. Scratching guitar tones added roughness. The piece then built to a strong climax before fading into metallic sounds.

For the final pieces, the group was join by Cornelius Boots on bass clarinet. His featured role in the piece described as the “Alfred Hitchcock” piece included long notes set against long low drones from the ensemble. This gave way to higher, shorter notes, loud harmonics and resonances. The final piece began with a melody on the bass clarinet. The sounds that entered from the skatch box at first reminded me of waves and then of gently moving sand, both of which are shaped by their interaction with the wind. Low drum sounds and a spinning “whirly” reinforce to the return to the elemental theme of wind. The music became more animated as more sounds are added to the mix, metal rods and wires, shakers and whistles. At one point, Cornelius Boots blew into the mouthpiece of the bass clarinet without the body, and then alternately into the body of the instrument without the mouthpiece. These sounds were set against the waterphone played by Nunn. As the piece drew to a close, the performers returned to their original instruments and departed the stage in a procession just as they had entered.


Mark Deutsch on bazantar. Click to enlarge.

The second set featured Sabbaticus Rex, a trio of Cornelius Boots on shakuhachi, taimu-shakuhachi, and throat-singing, Karen Stackpole on overtone gongs, and Mark Deutsch on bazantar, an upright bass with sympathetic strings, much as one might find on Indian stringed instruments. It began with a solo on the bazantar by Deutsch, with lots of bent notes and excitations of the sympathetic strings. Soon he moved to bowed bass, which was set against bowed gongs. Once again, neither instrument was a wind instrument per se, but the long bowed tones gave the impression of the wind that set the stage for Boots’ entry on the shakuhachi. The three performers combined together in long drones. The bass moved gradually between standard pitched tones and harmonics, while the shakuhachi played against the longer droning sounds. The overall feel of the music was quite contemplative. This was followed by a louder, more percussive section where the strings of the bass were scraped and struck with mallets, and rubber mallets were rubbed against the gongs. The effect of the rubber on the gong was very resonant and loud intense rises and a wealth of harmonies. At moments, they almost sounded like loud voices singing. Throughout the remainder of the set, there were lots of expressive moments with throat singing and wind-instrument playing that resembled talking, set against continued drones. The bazantar floated freely between low bass tones and harmonics. There was lots of space, harmonically and temporally, with opening and closing and sounds emerging in between. The music became stronger and louder and more rhythmic, with the bass acting as a drum, before drawing to a close.