Myrmyr and Tiny Owl, Luggage Store Gallery

June began with a particularly strong electroacoustic and noise performance at the Luggage Store Gallery in San Francisco with Myrmyr and Tiny Owl.

Myrmyr is the electroacoustic duo of Agnes Szelag and Marielle Jakobsons, and their performance was in anticipation of the release of their new album Fire Star. Their work incorporates strings (in this case, electric violin and cello along with other instruments) and advanced electronics. I have heard and reviewed Myrmyr before, but this set was perhaps the most beautiful I have heard from them. Set amongst a dizzying array of electronics and wires, it opened with a series of struck string sounds that invoked the sounds of strings in South Asian or East Asian music. Szelag’s voice emerged over a series of rich arpeggios and became part of the texture via live looping. The complex harmony resolved to a long major-seventh chord, after which the strings became harsher and more percussive. Amidst pitch and delay effects, a plucked cello entered in counterpoint to the voice and other instruments. The overall effect was quite tonal and dream-like, and gave me the impression of glass objects.

[Myrmyr. Photo by Michael Zelner.]

The next piece started with strings, both plucked and tapped and used as a live-looping source. A rhythmic pattern formed from the loops, which built up in complexity and volume with lots of distortion. Over time, the distorted sounds became clearer and more ethereal as the strings cut out and left only the bells and electronic effects. These were in turn displaced by more liquidy sounds and the return of cello and violin, this time bowed. The piece featured interesting harmonies and vocals.

The final piece was from the soon-to-be released album. It became with a drone, with harmonium sounds and voice building up into a rich texture. As they fade out, a plucked string instrument (possibly guzheng after reviewing Myrmyr’s website) enters on a minor pattern. The sound was accompanied by bells and distortion effects. The music built up to a big recognizable chord that was unresolved. Another build-up followed, this time with voice that turned into a rich harmony with a particularly plaintive violin line.

[Tiny Owl. Photo by Michael Zelner.]

Myrmyr was followed by Tiny Owl, a band consisting of Matt Davignon (drum machines and synthesizers), Lance Grabmiller (computer and synthesizers), Suki O’Kane (percussion), and Sebastian Krawczuk (double bass and objects). Their performance consisted of one long constantly evolving piece. It opened with an impromptu round of “Happy Birthday” for Matt Davignon (it was indeed his birthday) that appropriately elided to a series of glitchy noise sounds. Soon the bass drum and cymbals and string bass entered. The overall undulating timbre seemed very insect-like, but there also bits of melody that came and went in opposition to the overall swells and dips in the sound. One gesture that I particularly liked involved drum machine “gurgling” set against bass. The gurgling sounds, which formed a complex timbre, were gradually slowed down to the point where it became a series of rhythmic elements – moments like this always make me think of Stockhausen’s Kontakte II. Eventually, they merged back into the overall ambient sound. Over time, the overall texture became busier, but also more drone like, with high pitches and even some screeches eventually emerging. Pitched noises moving up and down like factory machinery were set against a drum rhythm reminiscent of “Wipe Out” (that very insistent sixteenth-note rhythm that every young percussionist attempts to play). As the percussion (drums and objects) grew more rich, so the electronics became more intense with bursts of machine noise and longer notes with strange harmonics. The section of louder sound and more complex rhythm grew to a climactic point and suddenly faded out with just a low rumble and a sparse texture of percussive sounds. This part of the performance was drier, with more punctuated elements and scratching sounds. During a gentle rise in pitch and volume near the end of the performance, the sound seemed to merge with a passing siren on Market Street. (It wouldn’t be a Luggage Store Gallery performance without at least one siren incorporated into the music.)

The show concluded with both groups uniting for short jam. It was fun to hear the combined sounds: noise drones punctuated by strings, and at least one more siren from the street.

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.]