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.]

SoundSpeak, Luggage Store Gallery

Last Thursday’s performances at the Luggage Store Gallery were all about poetry and spoken word.

The first performance was a duo Polly Moller (vocals) and Moe! Staiano (percussion) interpreting a recent form of spoetry. Spoetry is spam that in its effort to evade filters rises to the level of high art. Our current set of songs in Reconnaissance Fly is based on spoetry, but the performance this evening featured a new and different form where words were grouped into disjoint sequences of two or three words, and in one case the words were themselves decomposed into individual sounds and reordered.

[Click on images to enlarge.]

The performance began with coarse drums and cymbals set against dramatic recitation of the first spoem. Although I wasn’t fully aware of the structure of the spoem at the time, one could definitely sense that the words were quite disjoint from one another. There were multiple languages, which allowed Polly the opportunity to play with different accents, pitches and timbres within the text. The drums at times were “prepared” with various objects on the heads. At one point, the drums got very soft, then gave way to scraping sounds on the cymbals set against longer drawn-out words, and then both the voice and percussion suddenly became very staccato and active.

The third piece focused more on Moe!’s percussive gadgets, including a back massager that was used to set a steady pulse for the piece, and set of old intercoms that were used to remotely set of loud squeaks from the edges of the room. This was the most rhythmic of the pieces, with a steady pulse that one could even sway to a bit. Moe! expertly threw and struck various objects in a way that kept the beat going, complete with accents.

In the final piece, the sounds of the words were decomposed into even smaller units that further blurred any sense of meaning. I did recall the phrases “Isis kitsch”, however. The main percussion instruments in this piece were a set of rubber balls attached to sticks that created a powerful sound when rubbed along the walls or on the heads of the drums.


The second set featured poet Robert Anbian with Rent Romus on saxophones and Bob Marsh on cello. This was more of a “traditional” poetry performance, with Anbian reciting long-form poetry against improvised music, and quite a contrast to Polly and Moe!’s more experimental set.

The first piece began with long cello harmonics that were matched by tones on the saxophone. The poem had memorable phrases such as “square root of suffering” and “posey for your supper.”

The second piece started with an animated run of fast saxophone notes and pizzicato on the cello. Then the poetry entered, with imagery and words related to fire and memorable phrases such as “The post war blues you are feeling is perfectly normal.” The music became noisier and sparser, then moved towards more of a jazz idiom (i.e., with the cello sounding a bit like a bass) then back to more noise and free improvisation. This was quite a long poem, and towards the end I think we in the audience began applauding before it was actually done. Anbian took this in stride and simply said “the audience has spoken.”

The last piece, My Country Loves Peace Remix began with cello and electronics (delays, etc.) set against a moaning saxophone. After a while the music moved to bowed cello and sax harmonics, then back to more electronically processed cello. The poem was about the perpetual state of war we seem to find ourselves in, despite leaders proclaiming their desire for piece. War was used broadly and included not only guns and bombs, but the taking of resources and cultural assets from others, sometimes by force, yet still proclaiming peace. “When will the war end?” A section of the music featured harmonics on the cello matching long tones on the sax with tremolo on both instruments. At one point, the pitches stablized on a major third before “falling apart” as a series of glissandi. The poem ended with the question repeated “When will the war end…Barack?”

Metal Machine Manifesto – Music for 16 Intonarumori

Last Friday, I attended Metal Machine Manifesto—Music for 16 Intonarumori at the Yerba Buenca Center for Arts here in San Francisco.   This concert, a joint performance of SFMOMA and Performa, was part of a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the launch of futurism, or more specifically the Italian Futurist movement launched in 1909. A century ago, the futurists were producing art, music, architecture and performance that still feels very modern, even more so than some of the more conservative post-modern art of recent decades.

In the area of music, one of the most influential composers and writers was Luigi Russolo, who wrote the Art of Noises, and developerd the intonarumori or noise makers.  The work of Russolo and others in futurist music paved the way for experimental and technologically-focused music from George Antheil to the electronic experimental and noise music of today that we at CatSynth perform and celebrate.  Indeed, RoseLee Goldberg in her introductory remarks to the program refers to the music of the futurists as the “original DNA of noise music.”

The intonarumori were hand-cranked instruments designed to produce “noises”.  Their sounds included whirrs and buzzes, clangs, scrapes, and also sirens and mechanically plucked strings.

For this performance, Luciano Chessa, a “foremost Russolo scholar” oversaw the recreation of 16 intonarumori, which were used to perform both pieces by the original futurist composers, and contemporary pieces for these instruments.

The recreated intonarumori looked much like the old pictures, with simple wooden boxes and large cones for sound projection.  You can see and hear some of the futurist noise makers in this video from Chessa and composer/performer Mike Patton:

After the concert I a chance to see the intonarumori up close and even try a couple of them out.  This medium-sized instrument produced repeated plucked-string sounds.

This one was purely mechanical, though another that I tried which produced automobile noises appeared to have an electric motor.

The concert itself featured Luciano Chessa as conductor for most of the pieces, and members of the Magik*Magik Orchestra under the direction of Minna Choi.

It opened with Paolo Buzzi’s 1916 piece Pioggia nel pineto antidannunziana.  This was a rather theatrical piece, with dramatic conducting by Chessa and various words in Italian shouted through a megaphone.  The noise intoners here were used to literally reflect the urban noises of the time such as sirens and the whirring of machinery.

In the the more contemporary pieces, the noise intoners were used in other contexts rather than as simulation and expression of the modern noisy environment, but as instruments that could be played subtly and expressively. Such was the case with Theresa Wong’s Meet me at the Future Garden.  Hits and clangs and mechanically plucked strings were set against Wong’s percussive vocals and Dohee Lee’s more dramatic low voice with loud vowel intonations.  From Wong’s program notes: “2 a.m. sharp, in a primordial cooperation of pulsating forest, I will sing you a song tactitle tick tocking of residual harmonies, caution manifest launching the dominance of mutual respoect and hypersensitivitiy this message sent from my iphone [sp].”

let us return to the old masters, a collaborative composition by members of sfSoundGroup, took its inspiration directly from a quote of Francesco Balilla Pratella ‘s Manifesto of Futurist Musicians to “destroy the produce for ‘well-made’ music”.  The piece itself was composed during the rehearsals for the concert.  The sfSoundGroup members have excelled at extended technique and performance of complex compositions with their traditional instruments, and brought that skill to the intonarumori.

The first half of the concert ended with one of the most disinctive pieces of the evening, Donno Casina by Carla Kihlstedt and Matthias Bossi.  The performance featured two the larger “bass” intonarumori, along with Kihlstedt on vocals and violin, Bossi on accordian, and Moe! Staiano playing a large drum and collection of colorful metal objects.  The distinctly futurist sound of the intonarumori was blended with Kihlstedt’s more contemporary extended vocal and violin techniques, and Moe!’s intense and theatrical percussion performance.

In addition to having the best title of any piece in the concert, James Fei’s New Acoustical Pleasures (A Furious Meow) was the most subtle.    It was made of “quiet noises” with lots of empty space between sounds and relatively little movement, and reminded me of some of John Cage’s more static pieces.  The short, soft tones from the intonarumori were quite a contrast to the loud blaring representations of modern life of the original futurist pieces.

While listening to John Butcher’s penny wands and the native string, I came up with the word “scrapier” to describe the piece.   And I am pretty sure that is not a real word.  Nonetheless, the piece was “scrapier” than the others.  The performance, which featured Gino Robair, included lots of scrapes and grinding sounds building up to a crescendo and then coming to an abrupt stop.  After a brief silence, the scrapes and grinding sounds resumed.  This pattern repeated a couple of times, with variations in each repeitition.

After Fei’s and Butcher’s pieces, the full ensemble returned for Mike Patton’s << KOSTNICE  >>.  All sixteen intonarumori were played together to produce a thick “orchestral” sound along with drums.

Luciano Chessa’s L’acoustic ivresse (Les buits de la Paix) also featured the full ensemble plus bass vocalist Richard Mix.   There were similar thick clusters as in << KOSTNICE >>, but this time framing Mix’s vocals.  There were moments when the vocals and ensemble played off on another, with Mix’s strong bass voice and traditional singing style simultaneously blending and contrasting with intonarumori.  This performance received one of the longer and more spirited rounds of applause of the concert.

Elliott Sharp’s Then Go, which featured Dohee Lee, received a similar reaction.  This was another full-ensemble piece, where the noise tones were very well synchronized to Lee’s dramatic singing.  She also tapped (or stomped) her feet in time with percussive sounds from the ensemble in a strong rhythmic pattern.  Through the rhythm, piece seemed to connect both the futurist sounds (as archetypically modern sounds) with something much more traditional, even primal.

The concert concluded with a realization of a fragment from Luigi Russolo’s 1913 Risveglio di una città.  Like the other original futurist work in the program, this piece directly referenced “sounds of the modern world” like cars and sirens.  This very short fragment of a piece abruptly ended with Chessa dropping his baton.

Moe!kestra! “End of an Error” at Cellspace

Last night I attended the latest performance of the Moe!kestra! at Cellspace.

“Imagine a man playing an orchestra as though it were a percussion instrument, and you might get some idea of the Moe!Kestra!”. Indeed the performance was in many ways a percussion piece even though the ensemble was almost entirely string instruments: violins, violas, electric guitars, and upright basses. All led by Moe! Staiano.

A Moe!kestra! often includes many familiar musicians. Frequent collaborators Bill Wolter and Clyde Niesen played guitar and upright bass, respectively. Suki O’kane (percussion) and Moe! were both participants in the July Flip Quartet performance. Marielle Jakobsen was part of the Blessing Moon concert that we reviewed here at CatSynth.

The piece being performed was “End of an Error”, inspired by the date January 20, 2009, a date that many of us were highly anticipating, both for its beginning and for the great national embarrassment that it (at least in a formal sense) ended.

The music started out with series of percussive notes on the basses. Soon the violin and viola sections joined in, not on their regular instruments, but instead playing “switches”, i.e., cut sticks that they shook vigorously. An “out of phase” rhythm emerged between the basses and switches, may two notes from the former followed by a splattering of air sounds from the other.

Eventually the other instruments, the guitars, the percussionists and the actual violins/violas entered with more of the percussive notes, and the music became louder and denser. At some point, with all the instruments playing, the texture changed dramatically to something more akin to a “rock orchestra” or a film soundtrack. The pitched material was tonal with lots of familiar chords, but what I call “tense tonality” that one hears in films, and behind it the rhythm of a conventional drum kit from the percussionists. I can’t pin point exactly when the texture and style changed, but it was a sharp contrast.

There were several such changes throughout the performance. Things grew to a crescendo, then “crashed”, with everyone playing long extended tones, forming an atonal drone. After a subsequent swell, there was another “film-like” element with string glissandi. Other moments of note included the tossing of an empty water cooler by Moe! over the heads of the violists. No one was hurt, and it landed a perfect hit in between the other instrumental rhythms.

There was a really thick drone of all seven guitarists playing slides out of sync. The guitarists also closed the performance with a series of repeating flange/chorus tones that gradually came to a stop.


The Moe!kestra performance actually did not begin until 9:30 (despite the announcements suggesting 8PM as the start). We were treated a Sun Ra tribute, featuring videos set to music from The Arkestra. The video included clips of Sun Ra and animations with pseudo-Hebrew lettering and odd vaguely extraterrestial elements, presumably from some of his films. But there were also many other unrelated elements including numerous anime scenes – there was one anime in which all the characters seemed to be playing keytars while doing battle with mechs; martial-arts comedies, a James Bond film (probably Diamonds Are Forever); and a transgendered singer walking down the street and then being transported to another dimension with a Sumo wrestler and bizarre Asian puppet characters. Four of us started playing iPhone Scrabble instead. It has a multi-player mode where one can pass the phone around in a circle and each player takes turns with their own tile set. Highly recommended as a way to pass the time.

Flip Quartet performance at Book Zoo, July 17

Last Friday, I performed at Book Zoo in Oakland. To start off the evening, I did a solo set, which was followed by a performance of Polly Moller’s The Flip Quartet.

Book Zoo itself was an interesting space, with high ceilings and bookshelves. For a space of this size, we had a decent turn-out as well.

This was the first time in quite a while that I did not use any software components as part of a solo set. The performance centered around the Line6 DL4 for looping and various delay effects. I made extensive use of the analog-delay simulation for echoes and feedback, with various wood blocks, gongs and the ektar as source material.


[Photograph by Jennifer Chu. Click to enlarge]

Of course, the Kaos Pad, DSI Evolver and E-MU Proteus 2000 were also used as electronic sound sources. I also included several beat-based elements, both from hand-drumming and from the sequences are the Evolver and the Proteus 2K, which were matched both rhythmically and arhythmically against the delay lines. Overall, it was not the tightest solo set I have done, but it worked and seemed to be well received by the audience, and stylistically it was a good lead-in to the Flip Quartet.

I had seen a recent performance of the Flip Quartet, and this performance followed the same structure and format, but with different performers. In addition to myself, there was Moe! Staiano, Suki O’Kane and Travis Johns.


[Photographs by Jennifer Chu.]

Basically, 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. Each performer has a three minute timer. The timers are synchronized, and when the three minutes are up, everyone moves to the next station. We rotate around all four stations twice.

The “fire” table, which included metal and electronic items, was the most populated, with the water table (liquids, strings) having the fewest items. However, Moe! did bring an interesting old string instrument. It was wooden, had four strings and piano-like keys for striking the strings. It was not an auto-harp, it was definitely something else – and it was the main instrument I played during my trips to the water station.

Another interesting addition was the box of worms that Travis Johns contributed to the earth station – the earth station mostly features drums and wooden objects. The worms, were in a box with dirt and vegetable manner, and the box was equipped with a contact microphone that could pick up audible signals from the worms that could then be interpreted musically by the performer.

Musically, this was very different from the previous interpretation of the Flip Quartet, a combination of the musicians involved, the objects available, and the setting. There were some cool moments, where two or more performers together make a musical phrase or pattern emerge from within the overall improvisation – that is something I am always looking for.