SF Symphony Music for a Modern Age: Ives, Thomas, Harrison, Antheil

Today we look back at the San Francisco Symphony’s “Music for a Modern Age” concert that took place in late June. This wasn’t simply a concert or even a concert focused on American music of the last 100 years. It was a theatrical event, with video projection, staging, and more.

The evening began with two pieces by Charles Ives. First, there was the incantation-like From the Steeples and the Mountains with its interconnecting tones on chimes, followed The Unanswered Question. This was a more complex piece both musically and logistically, as it featured a small wind-and-string ensemble on stage and an offstage antiphonal string ensemble (conducted by Christian Rief). The two groups alternated in a call-and-response form. It isn’t necessarily one ensemble asking the questions and another answering, as the wind instruments are involved in both, but it added another dimension to nature of the piece, which was deliberately unsettling but also hauntingly beautiful. Both Ives pieces featured video by Adam Larsen and lighting design by Luke Kritzeck.

Michael Tilson Thomas

Michael Tilson Thomas. Photo by Spencer Lowell. Courtesy of San Francisco Symphony.

The segment featured a piece by conductor and music director Michael Wilson Thomas, Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind. It was an interesting format, with the orchestra alongside a standard jazz/rock bar band with horns, bass, guitar, keyboard, and drums, complex video and lighting (again by Larsen and Kritzeck, respectively) and singers in elegant dress. The music freely mixed modernist orchestral sounds with jazz and rock idioms as the moved through the text by Carl Sandburg. The subject matter was quite dark – with images of death and decay and ruins of a once-great city that overflowed with pride – ”We are the greatest city. Nothing like us ever was” – that is now left to rats and other wildlife. But it was also a very playful and fun piece, especially in the sections with singing and dancing by the three lead vocalists (Measha Brueggergosman, Mikaela Bennett and Kara Dugan) around the stage in a cabaret style to the rhythms of the jazz band. MTT stated that his influences for the vocal sections included Sarah Vaughan and James Brown, as well as classical influences Leontyne Price and Igor Stravinsky. It is safe to say that we really liked this piece and the performance. Even at a length 32 minutes, it kept our attention and enjoyment throughout.

Lou Harrison was a major force in American music, but is also considered one of California’s own, blending influences from the landscape and culture of the state and bridging them with his interests Asian music. This simultaneously local and world character was well represented in the selections from Suite for Violin and American Gamelan. The American Gamelan is a collection of instruments inspired by the materials, timbres and tunings of traditional Indonesian gamelan but new and different. Harrison often combined his Asian and invented instruments with more conventional western orchestral instruments, in this solo violin played by Nadya Tichman. The piece unfolded as a series of movements. The first, “Threnody” was a lamentation as the title would suggest, showcasing the violin, but all four movements had a distinctly Asian or abstract sound from the preponderance of sounds from the American gamelan.

The final piece of the evening was George Antheil’s Jazz Symphony. It is musically and sonically quite different from Antheil’s most famous piece Ballet méchanique in that it is less noisy, more tonal, and focuses on traditional orchestral and popular instruments. Think of it as a predecessor of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which was in fact influenced by Jazz Symphony. Once again, however, this was not simply an orchestral performance. The lighting and video (this time by Clyde Scott created an enveloping environment reminiscent of a jazz-age cabaret or club. This was further enhanced by the dancers (directed by Patricia Birch) who wore 1920s-style costumes. The overall result of music, visuals, costuming and choreography was energetic, but also rather sexy – as our romanticized view of that era tends to be. There were a lot of fun and even comedic moments a the dancers attempted to distract and even “lead on” members of the orchestra (some of whom turned out to actually be dancers themselves who were soon replaced by the actual musicians).

Overall this was a very strong concert, and perhaps one of my favorites I have seen with the SF Symphony – and we have been going to quite a few in the past year or so. As the symphony often has intriguing programming outside the traditional catalog of 19th century classical works, we certainly expect to be back again soon. I do leave the experience pondering what it means to be “modern” or be in a “modern age”, however. Perhaps the span of time marked by these compositions is in some ways more “modern” than the period that is unfolding now, but that is a discussion for another time.

Outsound New Music Summit: Karen Borca and Positive Knowledge

The final night of the Outsound New Music Summit featured a performance by Karen Borca, returning to the Bay Area for the first time in two decades. For those not familiar with Borca, she is one of the few bassoonists in avant-garde jazz and free jazz; and she had a long and illustrious career playing with many of the greats in the field, including Cecil Taylor and Jimmy Lyons. On this night, she was joined by two figures in the local jazz and experimental-music scene, Lisa Mezzacappa on bass and Donald Robinson on drums.

Karen Borca trio
[ Karen Borca Trio (Karen Borca, Lisa Mezzacappa, Donald Robinson). Photo: peterbkaars.com]

Bassoon is a hard instrument to play in any genre, let alone jazz. But Borca made it sound effortless. There were sections that featured the instrument’s well-known lower registers, but also higher melodic lines and runs more often associated with saxophones. Interestingly, Borca discussed how she started on saxophone in school and was shredding the instrument until she was advised to try the bassoon, as it was both more challenging and more likely to make her stand out for scholarships and such. And this turned out to be the right decision. Musically, things unfolded with sparse lines and harmonies and the three performers bounced off one another. The best moments were when the notes from bassoon, bass and drum all seemed to form a single line.

Karen Borca
[ Karen Borca. Photo: peterbkaars.com]

It was a shorter set, but very well received with audience clamoring for more afterwards. But I can understand that the music took a lot of energy. But it was a great experience, and Karen Borca has now taken her place alongside Wendy Carlos, Pauline Oliveros, and all the other women in music that I want to be when I finally grow up.

The Karen Borca trio was preceded by Positive Knowledge, a project of Oluyemi Thomas (bass clarinet and other instruments) and Ijeoma Thomas (voice). They were joined by Hamir Atwal on drums.

Positive Knowledge
[Positive Knowledge. Clockwise from left: Oluyemi Thomas, Hamir Atwal, Ijeoma Thomas.]

I have heard Positive Knowledge before, and know how their music unfolds. There are sparse, scratchy lines from Oluyemi’s bass clarinet and other wind instruments, including a shawm (or similar instrument), interspersed with Ijeoma’s vocals, which include passages of spoken word as well as more extended sounds. The music is at times quite percussive, but also melodic and energetic. There was an exuberance and joy in the sound, even in the moments that seemed to be melancholy. And Atwal’s drums added a foundational underpinning the sustained the set.

So this concludes our coverage of the 2017 Outsound Music Summit. It was the longest we have covered, with five concerts plus Touch the Gear. It can be a bit of overload, so much music and fellowship in a week, but worth the effort. We look forward to next year, and the inspiration for all the musical adventures between now and then.

Outsound New Music Summit: VOCO and Surplus 1980

Each night of the Outsound New Music Summit is different, but some more different than others. Such was the case with the fourth night of this year’s festival which featured two loud rock-oriented bands.

The tone of the evening was set with the opening sounds from VOCO.

Voco

The group features Alex Yeung (of Say Bok Gwai) on guitar, Tim Sullivan on drums, and Josh Martin on bass, with guest Joshua Marshall on saxophone. Think rock power trio meets experimental jazz. The band is at times punk, at times metal, at times experimental, but with serious chops. There were the periods that were Zappa-esque, mixing rock and experimental guitar with saxophone and bass runs. There was the dub-metal onslaught at times, reminiscent of the bands Last Exit, or Blind Idiot God. And there was also softer complex drones and percussive sounds from Yeung on guitar, with an array of interconnected effects pedals.

Alex Yeung
[Alex Yeung. Photo peterbkaars.com]

These more experimental moments, enhanced with electronics, brought to mind the story about the band’s name coming from Neal Stephenson’s science-fiction writing (discussed during the pre-show Q&A). In contrast, there was a particularly fun moment when drummer Andre Custodio walked up on stage from the audience and sat down at a second drum set. What ensued was an epic double-drum performance that was much funkier than the set as a whole, and also reminiscent of the multiple drum sets we saw a few weeks earlier with King Crimson. This was followed by a final segment that brought the set to a sonically intense close.

It was then time for Surplus 1980 to take the stage.

Surplus 1980
[Surplus 1980. Photo peterbkaars.com]

I did play with Surplus 1980 as part of the regular lineup from 2012 through 2015. I have seen them several times since then, but I have to say the current lineup and set has taken the band to a new level. The performance is tighter and there is increased variety among the tunes. The set began with two new tunes: “Pigeon Obstacle Course” and “Temporarily Present”. “Pigeon” was a short instrumental with Moe! Staiano and Melne wearing pigeon heads.

Surplus 1980 Pigeons

“Temporarily Present” was a longer song, about 10 minutes, and quite reminiscent of early New Wave from late 1970s and early 1980s. Indeed, the call-and-response vocals between Moe! and Melne and new bassist HR Nelly reminded me a bit of early B-52s performances. The remaining “newish” song was “Question After Ended Question”, which features members of the band playing tuned bundt pans.

After this, the band continued with some familiar songs. I have to admit, I did feel pretty nostalgic hopping up and down during “Failure of Commitment” as I did when I played with them. The new feature on that tune was Moe! on saz. And Melne has come into her own on staging, providing energy and character enough of the whole band. One often just sees her as a bright pink blur as she dances about the stage.

Melne Melne

Guitarist Bill Wolter was solid as always; and Mark Pino was a force of nature on drums, even overcoming a somewhat rebellious kick drum (you can read more about it on his blog.

Outsound New Music Summit: neem and Sheldon Brown’s Blood of the Air

The third concert of this year’s Outsound New Music Summit was truly a study in contrasts between minimalism and large-ensemble exuberance.

First up was neem, the duo project of Gabby Fluke-Mogul (violin) and Kelley Kipperman (double bass).

neem (Kelley Kipperman and Gabby Fluke-Mogul)
[neem (Kelley Kipperman and Gabby Fluke-Mogul). Photo: peterbkaars.com.]

This was minimalism in its truest form, starting with the deliberate silence led by Fluke-Mogul before the first note was intoned. The music unfolded in a similarly sparse manner, with plenty of room to observe the details the sounds from both artists’ extended techniques. Although open and spacious, there was also an intimacy in some sections where the two closely followed one another musically, bouncing sounds from one instrument to the other. Whether intentional or not, one could envision the music unfolding in a natural landscape.

By contrast, Sheldon Brown’s Blood of the Air, was large and exuberant, and featured a ten-piece ensemble. In addition to Brown, the group featured Darren Johnston on trumpet, Lorin Benedict on voice, Andrew Joron on theremin, Dave MacNab and John Finkbeiner on guitars, Dan Zemelman on piano, and Vijay Anderson and Alan Hall on drums.

Sheldon Brown's Blood of the Air
[Sheldon Brown’s Blood of the Air. Photo: peterbkaars.com.]

The work centered around “speech melodies” created from readings by the Beat-era poet Philip Lamantia. Each piece began with a recording of Lamantia reading his poetry, and one of the musicians (often Brown himself) responding in a melody that matched the prosody of Lamentia’s speech. The melodies served as points of departure with the ensemble responding with rhythmic vamps, countermelodies, and solos. When I wasn’t watching Brown’s solos or drawn into Lorin Benedict’s frenetic scatting, I found myself captivated by Zemelman’s virtuosic piano playing, both comping and solo. It was both musically and technically impressive. But the group functioned together as a unit, even in a setting that featured a lot of improvisation, and remained tight.

It is interesting to note that despite the musical contrast, both groups were very much focused on listening as a central element. For Blood of the Air, it was listening to the melody of the rhythm and poetry, and then to one other to form the tightness and musical phrasing of the ensemble. In neem, it was also listening and responding to one another, but was also “deep listening” to the individual sounds of the instruments, and especially to the spaces between the sounds. Yes, all good music requires disciplined listening, but sometimes it’s good to step back and take note of it.

Outsound New Music Summit: Usufruct and Evil Genius

The concert portion of the Outsound New Music Summit opened on Tuesday with performances by Usufruct and Evil Genius. The groups both have unique and fun names, but offered up quite different performances and aesthetics. But they both included instruments that I feel are under-utilized in contemporary music: bass flute and tuba.

Bass flute and tuba

Usufruct is the duo project of Polly Moller on voice, flute and bass flute; and Tim Walters on electronics (specifically, software processing using custom SuperCollider programs). The word usufruct means “the right of the people to harvest the fruits of common property”, a concept which is reflected in the duo’s use of found texts and musical materials from the public domain, modified and reassembled in new and surprising ways.

Usufruct.  Polly Moller and Tim Walters

The music unfolded with a sparse texture that featured single broken lines on flutes and voice interspersed with electronics. Some of the electronic sounds could be readily traced to their sources from Moller’s performance, but others were more obscure. There was often a rather deep and ominous quality to many of the electronic sounds. The texts were interpreted in short bursts that often hid the original sources, although an early section was clearly from some legal document – it almost seemed like it was defining and proscribing punishments for treason. The sections of text from the Star Spangled Banner in the later portion of the set was much clearer, even when broken up. It’s hard to imagine that these texts were not chosen with our current political milieu in mind.

Polly Moller
[Polly Moller on bass flute. Photo peterbkaars.com]

The bass flute is an instrument ripe for electronic processing, and the segments in which it was featured included both harmonized and delayed accompaniment as well as hits and noisier elements derived from extended techniques. Overall, Usufruct’s performance was dark, a bit foreboding, but simultaneously quite clever and playful, as fitting the personalities and aesthetics of the artists.

Calling your band “Evil Genius” sets very high expectations. There were no diabolical death rays, but the Los-Angeles-based trio features Stefan Kac on tuba, Max Kutner on guitar, and Michael “Bonepocket” Lockwood on drums; and performed an energetic an imaginative experimental jazz set.

Evil Genius
[Evil Genius. Photo peterbkaars.com]

Kac’s tuba anchored the group musically. At times he was a bassist, providing solid rhythmic foundation alongside Lockwood’s whimsical and frenetic drumming. But he also made the tuba a melodic instrument at times. Kutner’s sometimes harmonic and sometimes percussive guitar hovered above the other elements. I appreciated the rhythmic grounding of the trio, even as they punctuated it with dry noisier sections. The music freely mixed experimental sounds and rock idioms with their jazz foundation. It has brash, it was hard, but it was also meticulous and filled with softer moments. And they left room for empty space and sparse elements before returning to a driving funky vibe. Quite a variety from what is structurally a “power trio.” The set was divided into several discreet compositions, with all members of the band contributing. So, are they “evil”? Not at all. Indeed, I was quite impressed with the group musically, and I did pick up a copy of their debut CD at the show and look forward to listening to it.

Overall it was a strong start to this year’s Summit concerts. We will bring you the remaining three nights as they unfold.

Outsound New Music Summit: Touch the Gear

The 2017 Outsound New Music Summit kicked off this Sunday with the annual Touch the Gear event. As always, there were several musicians and instrument-makers were on hand to demonstrate their setups or inventions.

alphastare

Above we see Alphastare demonstrating his setup for processing of synthesized and recorded sounds that he uses in his live shows. Below, CDP bandmate Tom Djll shows his analog modular synthesizer setup with sundry external boxes for expressive control of sound.

Tom Djll

I opted to show my modular synth as well this year, along with the Moog Theremini.

CatSynth setup at Touch the Gear, with Modular and Moog Theremini

The theremin is always a popular item at this event.

Kim Nucci demonstrated some custom modules alongside a Korg MS-20 mini and a DIY metal instrument with sensors.

Kim Nucci

I have always found metal plus electronics a musically interesting combination.

Among the more unusual and surprising instruments this year was Dania Luck’s musical chessboard. It contained sensors for the magnetic chess pieces, with each square of the board triggering a different synthesizer in a SuperCollider patch.

Dania Luck.  Chess board and SuperCollider patch.

This wasn’t the only SuperCollider program being shown, as our friend Tim Walters demonstrated his patch and controller setup. It is the setup he will use as part of Usufruct in the opening concert for the Summit.

Tim Walters.  SuperCollider and controller.

Tim Thompson was on hand with the latest incarnation of his electronic-music instrument, the Space Palette Pro.

Tim Thompson.  Space Palette Pro
[Tim Thompson demonstrates the Space Palette Pro to Outsound director Rent Romus.]

It uses the same software as previous versions of the Space Palette, but with a new more compact interface based on new touch-sensitive pads from Sensel Morph. These pads are quite impressive in both response and feel, and we at CatSynth will definitely be looking into them.

Not all the demos included electronics. There were several acoustic instruments demonstrated by the Pet the Tiger collective (David Samas, Ian Saxton, Tom Nunn, Derek Drudge), including this beautiful kalimba tuned to 31edo.

Kalimba with 31edo tuning.  Pet the Tiger

I would love to write a piece for it one of these days. There was also a large metalophone with a deep resonant tone, interesting tuning, and some satellite “bass” notes.

Pet the Tiger.  Metalophone.

Back inside the hall, Motoko Honda demonstrated a network of electronic devices processing voice, along with a fun circuit-bent instrument.

Motoko Honda

Matt Davignon brought his setup for expressive manipulation and processing of samples and other pre-recorded sound materials.

Matt Davignon

We would also like to thank Matt for his efforts organizing this event every year! We would also like to thank the folks at VAMP for co-presenting and bringing a pop-up shop of records and sundry vintage and musical items.

It was a fun afternoon as always, and it was great to see families in attendance. And there were multiple things to inspire me musically and technologically. We will see where that goes. Next up, the concerts…

King Crimson, Fox Theater, Oakland

King Crimson returned to North America this summer for their “Radical Action Tour”. And we at CatSynth were on hand to see them at the Fox Theater in Oakland. As this was their first North American tour in three years, we were not going to miss a chance to see the band, and Robert Fripp.

The band featured a massive stage lineup – referred to by Fripp as a “double quartet” – that included three drum sets, played by Gavin Harrison, Pat Mastelotto and Jeremy Stacey. Behind them were longtime band members Mel Collins on horns, Tony Levin on bass and Chapman stick, Bill Rieflin on keyboard, and Jakko Jakszyk on lead vocals and guitar. Robert Fripp himself held court on the right side of the stage, with guitar and his array of electronic instruments. Three drum sets might seem a recipe for disaster, but in their hands it was quite impressive. A massive but tightly synchronized sound that dominated but also bended with Fripp’s rhythmic delayed-guitar and other elements.

The concert, although nominally feature their new EP, included songs from the band’s full history and repertoire. They played quite a few “deep cuts” this time around, including a number of compositions from the 1970 album Lizard – Cirkus, and a good chunk of the second side’s suite (“Dawn Song”, “Last Skirmish”, “Prince Rupert’s Lament”. The large band, and especially the full-time keyboards (Rieflin) and horns (Collins) allowed the orchestrations to be heard. The title track from Islands was given a lovely reading.

Although they performed a number of classic Adrian Belew-era compositions, the vocal parts were a bit reduced, as on the opener, “Neurotica”, or eliminated altogether, as on The “ConstruKction of Light”. This is not to take anything from Jakszyk’s vocal performance, which was intense and spirited.

The formal concert ended with a rousing rendition of “21st Century Schizoid Man,” among their biggest hits. Sadly, no “Cat Food” at this particular concert. But the did close with their cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes”, which is also featured on their new EP.

King Crimson has always been very strict about photography during their concerts, but at the very end they ritualistically share a moment taking pictures of the audience while we picture them.

King Crimson on Stage in Oakland

Tony Levin in particular is big on photography and documenting their shows, and has a blog post on the two dates at the Fox in Oakland. If you look really carefully, you might see me in the middle of this rather nice photo he took from the stage.

Tony Levin photographs the audience at the Fox Theater

[Image from TonyLevin.com. Click to see original at Tony’s blog in full size.]

Jason Berry contributed to this story.

Red Robot Show presents Vacuum Tree Head Live @ HSP2017!

The Red Robot Show and Vacuum Tree Head are back! This time Jason Berry brings footage from our March show at HSP2017, and is joined by Marlon Brando in this full-length episode.

The members of the band for this performance are:

Jason Bellenkes : Alto Saxophone and Clarinet
Jason Berry: Conductor
Amanda Chaudhary: Keyboards and Vocoder
Richard Corny: Electric Guitar
Michael de la Cuesta: Guitar, Synth, Vibraphone, Sitar, etc.
Richard Lesnik: Bass Clarinet
Justin Markovits: Drum Kit
Joshua Marshall: Soprano and Tenor Saxophones
John Shiurba: Bass Guitar

Video credits:
Cameras by Amanda Chaudhary and Jason Berry
Edited by Berry / Chaudhary
Audio Engineering by Amanda Chaudhary
Animated and Directed by Jason Berry

Special Thanks:
Mika Pontecorvo
Mark Pino

Brought to you by White Wine. Crisp. And Refreshing.

SFJAZZ: Donny McCaslin Group / Antonio Sanchez Migration

In mid June, we at CatSynth were treated to a greatl concert at SFJAZZ that featured Donny McCaslin’s “Blackstar” Band and Antonio Sánchez’s group Migration. McCaslin and his quartet are perhaps best known for their collaboration with David Bowie on his final album Blackstar (which we have discussed previously), but they are a remarkable group in their own right.

Donny McCaslin
[Donny McCaslin]

Indeed, our interest in this show was not just the Bowie connection, but reviews from friends who had previously seen the Santa Cruz-born-and-raised McCaslin live and were blown away by the performance. And as soon as the band started in on their first tune, “Shake Loose” from their latest album Beyond Now, we understood why. It was thunderous, aggressive, but complex and intricate at the same time. There was an intensity, and even a bit of a punk sensibility to the way they powered through the entire set, which included additional selections from the album, a new composition by McCaslin, and “Lazarus” from Blackstar. The encore was also a Bowie song, but a surprising one: “Look Back in Anger.” There really wasn’t a bad moment in the entire set, and it went by quickly with the group’s frenetic pace and energy.

While McCaslin was front and center both visually and musically – he is rather tall as well as a very expressive performer – I was also very impressed with Jason Lindner on keyboards. He freely mixed synthesizers, classic electric piano, and acoustic grand in a performance that was solid harmonically and rhythmically, but again complex and multi-linear. Rounding out the quartet were Mark Guiliana on drums and jazz multi-instrumentalist Nate Wood on bass.

The first half of the show featured Antonio Sanchez Migration performing Sanchez’s long-form composition The Meridian Suite. While the piece has classical influences in its structure, it was unmistakably jazz, and Sanchez himself told the audience that unlike classical-music concerts, the audience was encouraged to applaud between movements and anywhere else the felt warranted such a reaction. The unusually long piece moved through several styles and textures, from very sparse modern jazz to more funky riffs, all anchored by Sanchez’s versatile and precise drumming. Some of the movements included lyrics sung by Thana Alexa. The band also featured Chaise Baird on tenor saxophone, John Escreet on keyboards, and Matt Brewer on bass.


Overall, it was a concert we were happy to have the chance to see; and I will certainly be on the lookout for McCaslin’s next appearance in the Bay Area. In the meantime, we will be enjoying his newest album.