Outsound Music Summit: The Composers’ Muse

The Outsound Music Summit continued with The Composers Muse, a night of new compositions by three noted Bay Area composers. They were participants in the Composers’ Forum that I moderated earlier in the week, where they gave tantalizing descriptions of their work. On this evening, we finally got to hear what they were talking about.

The concert opened with the Skadi Quartet performing compositions by Christina Stanley, who also is the first violist for the quartet. Her compositions were based on large abstract oil paintings that were placed center stage, with members of ensemble arrayed to either side.


[Christina Stanley and Skadi Quartet. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

As someone interested in visual art as well as music, I was quite intrigued by this piece, and how the composer wanted the performers to interpret the visual work. Stanley had very specific instructions for performers in each piece for how to perform the score. In the first piece, Put it On, performers were to move visually from the focal point just to the lower right of center and move outwards, with different shapes corresponding to very specific sounds and modes of playing. You can see a close-up of the score at Stanley’s website. Within this structure, the music began with short notes and then moved to longer bow strokes, jaggedly moving up and down in pitch. My visual and aural senses focused on the straight-line character of both the score and the music. At one point, the performers diverged into different textures, with staccato notes against longer lines and glissandi that then melted into a single harmony. There were also elements of noise and percussive scraping, harmonics, and quite a bit of empty space in the sound. The piece concluded with a large and more traditional flourish.

The second piece was a duo of Stanley and cellist Crystal Pascucci. The score for this piece was more sparse with curving lines, and these qualities were reflected in the music as well. It started with harmonics and other high, airy tones. Overall, it was more melodic, but with some pizzicato tones as well. Gradually, the cello became lower and filled out the harmony, which seemed almost folk-music-like at times. There other elements such as sliding harmonics, but overall it still fit with the visual imagery of the score.

The next set featured a solo piece written and performed by Matthew Goodheart for piano and metal percussion. Gongs and cymbals were placed at various spots around the hall, including in the balcony. A small transducer was attached to each of the instruments so that it could be excited by electronically generated sounds.


[Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

The sounds used to excite the metal percussion were created by analyzing the partials and spectra of such instruments, a process that was part of his research involving “recursive physical object electro-acoustics” at the Center for New Music and Audio Technologies (CNMAT). The acoustic and spectral properties of these sounds also informed Goodheart’s live piano performance during the piece.


[Matthew Goodheart. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

The music that resulted was unusual and exceptionally beautiful. It began with high ethereal harmonics coming from the cymbals and gong spreading across the hall, and then high notes from the piano to match. The piano and some of the harmonics featured in the metal percussion gave the music an air of anxiety even while it was calming. As the harmonics grew thicker, the timbre grew more metallic and at moments took on the quality of water pouring. The music became more active, deeper harmonics and a few tones that sounded like flutes and clarinets alongside the metallic resonances. Again, Goodheat’s piano matched the changes in timbre as he moved into lower registers. Some of the sounds from the cymbals became more disjointed, sounding like tops, and after a loud gong hit the texture of the music grew thicker and more inharmonic. Then all at once it stopped leaving a single resonance. It looked like Goodheart was playing inside the piano as well with various objects, though it was hard to tell from where I was sitting. There were various percussive sounds and something that reminded me of my cat scratching, and then piano became more harmonic and tonal again with rather plaintive chords. There were more high frequencies and electronic swells broadcast through the cymbals, and a finale with a single repeated note on the piano. Overall, the performance was one of the most memorable experiences of the summit.

The concert concluded with John Shiurba’s large-scale composition 9:9. The number 9 permeated the structure and concept of the piece. There were nine performers and nine movements; and the piece employed a nine-note scale and nine different styles of notation all derived in one way or another from newspapers – there was standard notation along with text and graphics, some of which were taken directly from newspaper clips. Shiurba described his use of newspaper elements as a “celebration and/or elegy for the old-fashioned print medium.”


[John Shiurba 9:9. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

The movements were bounded by vocal interpretations of cryptograms from the New York times. The encrypted text was sung by Polly Moller, who had to work through challenging clusters of consonants. The decrypted solutions, which often featured corny or trite phrases, were sung by Hadley McCarroll in a more melodic style. Within this structure, each movement began with a solo by one of the nine performers, with a couple of other instruments gradually joining in, and finally the entire ensemble. Each of the solo sections had a very different character, representing both the performer and his or her instrument. Ava Mendoza’s strong articulation on acoustic guitar stood out, and Polly Moller’s solo on bass flute sounded quite familiar from Reconnaissance Fly pieces. The piano solo by Hadley McCarroll was quite aggressive, as was the bass clarinet solo by Matt Ingalls. There were interesting moments in the ensemble playing as well, such as a big minor chord and a section that more jazz or cabaret-like. Other sections were extremely quiet. The final movement featured a percussion solo by Gino Robair on a variety of instruments and implements, which mirrored the introduction to the piece. Other members of the ensemble included Philip Greenlief on clarinet, Monica Scott on cello, Scott Walton on bass, and Sarah Wilner on violin.

This was a very successful concert for the Outsound Music Summit, and not only musically. We had a full house at the Community Music Center, and I am pretty sure we set a record for paid attendance. There was certainly a lot of Outsound, curator Polly Moller, the composers and performers to be proud of.

Reconnaissance Fly and FPR Trio at Luna’s Cafe, Sacramento

Today we look back Reconnaissance Fly’s performance at the Nebraska Mondays series at Luna’s Cafe in Sacramento. We had played this series last year as well and had a positive experience, and looked forward to performing again this past June. And of course, I cannot turn down an opportunity to play someplace called “Luna’s Cafe.”

It was a hot day in Sacramento. Though I have to admit, I was actually feeling relatively comfortable in the evening warmth, and took the opportunity to walk around, take photos and experience the atmosphere. Inside the cafe, things were once again a bit on the cozy side.

But we somehow managed to get a keyboard, drum set, bass and concert and bass flutes onto the stage along with the four humans that were supposed to play these instruments. Interestingly, in this photo it seems a lot more spacious than it actually was.

[Photo by George R. Thompson.]

It is always interesting to perform for a relatively intimate audience in a setting such as this, especially with a program as varied as our Flower Futures spong cycle. People seemed receptive to both the more purely experimental pieces and the more idiomatic jazz shuffles, sambas and rock ballads. It was also our first show featuring our drummer Larry The O – I thought he brought a new vitality to our most rhythmic pieces in particular, such as An Empty Rectangle and sense iz crede nza. In balance, it was a successful performance.

We shared the bill with the FPR Trio, consisting of Phillip Greenlief, Frank Gratkowski, and Jon Raskin on saxophones, and after a hasty teardown of our equipment we settled by the bar for refreshing beverages, tasty snacks and the opportunity to hear this accomplished ensemble. They performed several pieces based on graphical scores (which I got to take a look at after the performance). The first pieces featured complex polyrhythms with occasional bursts, blurts and squeaks. Every so often as things built up, they would resolve softly, either to an anxious harmony or even to something tonal. There were moments of very defined counterpoint embellished with virtuosic flourishes.

However, the most impressive and memorable part of the set was when all three saxophones came together in a trio of multiphonics. It is a tribute to their skills that they were able to produce complex harmonic series, periods of unison, and intricate beating effects. The timbres moved in and out of stability, and at times seemed like the metallic resonance of a digital subtractive synthesizer. They went on for quite a while in this way, and I and many of the other members of the audience remained captivated throughout.

Thanks to Ross Hammond for continuing to support us through this series, and to Art Luna for hosting us at the cafe.

2010 DroneShift – Long Nights Moon Concert

Two weeks ago, I participated in the 2010 edition of the Droneshift at the Luggage Store Gallery here in San Francisco.
The Droneshift has become an annual event, though this year it was part of the Full-Moon Concert Series, approximately coincident with the Long Nights Moon.

Droneshift is a collaborative concert of improvised drone music. Between 15 and 25 musicians will gather to contribute to a continuous 2 hour drone, each adding their acoustic or electronic instruments here and there, and weaving their sounds together to create gradually shifting tapestries of music. The performance will most likely shift back and forth from completely acoustic music to electric ambiance and post-industrial noise.

Basically, the two hour performance is one continuous ever-changing sound. No individual notes, rests, phrases, breaks, etc. That doesn’t mean it is at all monotonous – there are continuous changes in timbre, dynamics and expression, both within individual parts as various musicians enter and exit the sound.


[Rachel Wood-Rome, Rent Romus. Photo: PeterBKaars.com. (Click images to enlarge.)]

There were actually close to (if not more than) 30 performers participating this year. The performers were arranged along periphery of the gallery with the audience situated in the middle looking outward. So between the audience and musicians, things got quite crowded. I was able to stake out some chair space for myself my minimalist setup:

I just had the iPad and an amplifier, and I was primarily running the Smule Magic Fiddle throughout my allotted time. It is a good instrument for droning, as one can linger on the strings pretty much forever, and play subtle pitch and dynamic changes. It’s easy to gradually fade out, and then fade in very slowly another pitch, which will change the overall sound of the performance without causing a distinct note break.

Because the nature of overall drone sound and the large number of participants, it was often difficult to focus on what any one other musician was playing. I mostly shifted between focusing on my own part and getting lost in the overall sound, which was quite meditative at times. I was able to take in some details, such as Matt Davignon’s distinctive glass-vase performance:


[Matt Davignon. Photo: PeterBKaars.com. (Click image to enlarge.)]

David Michalak’s Omnichord and Joe McMahon’s plastic-tube “didgeridoo” were also quite distinctive (particularly because they were sitting near me):


[David Michalak, Joe McMahon. Photo: PeterBKaars.com. (Click images to enlarge.)]

I was sitting across from Adam Fong on upright bass. There were moments when I took cues from him and other string players to re-enter the mix on Magic Fiddle. I was also trying to take cues from purely electronic musicians, such as Kristen Miltner on laptop or Andrew Joron’s theremin:


[Adam Fong, Kristen Miltner. Photo: PeterBKaars.com. (Click images to enlarge.)]

Overall, the instrumentation was quite varied and there was a balance between winds, strings, percussion and electronic, although there were a few moments were it seemed some low-frequency analog electronics were overpowering everything else. It was interesting to hear how the textures and orchestration evolved. Sometimes similar instruments (e.g., strings) would cluster together, sometimes the texture became more scratchy and granular with lots of noise elements – something which is pushing the boundaries of what might be considered a continuous “drone” sound. At times, traditional harmonies emerged, e.g., minor or diminished chords, while at other times the timbres themselves were purely inharmonic. There were very sparse sections with only one or two participants, and others that seemed to include much of the ensemble. All of these elements just happen organically, based on how the musicians hear one another and are inspired to layer on their own parts.


[Ron Heglin, Aurora Josephson. Photo: PeterBKaars.com. (Click images to enlarge.)]

You can listen to a ten-minute excerpt of the full performance in this video, courtesy of Matt Davignon:

As one can hear, the emergency vehicles that inevitably come down Market Street with sirens blaring during Luggage Store Gallery shows became part of the overall tapestry in this performance.

My personal sense of the performance as being meditative, perhaps even more so than previous Droneshifts, was echoed by members of the audience with whom I had spoken.

In addition to reflecting on the music, I would like to call out the photography of Peter B Kaars, which is featured in this article Those who have followed my own interest in photography know I tend to like very sharp, high-contrast black-and-white images. Additionally the monochrome fits with the full-moon theme and overall quality of the music they document. I wish I had space for more, or to call out more individual musicians. A full list of performers appears below:

Tom Bickley – wind controller
CJ Borosque – trumpet
Bob Boster – processed voice
Amar Chaudhary – iThings
Matt Davignon – wine glasses/vessels
Tony Dryer – bass
Adam Fong – bass
Phillip Greenlief – sax/clarinet
Ron Heglin – trombone/trumpet
Jeff Hobbs – bass, clarinet or violin
Travis Johns – electronics
Andrew Joron – theremin
Aurora Josephson – voice
Sebastian Krawczuk – bass
David Leikam – Moog rogue synthesizer
Cheryl Leonard – viola
Brian Lucas – electric bass / tapes
Melissa Margolis – accordion
Bob Marsh – voice
Marianne McDonald – didgeridoo
Chad McKinney – supercollider/guitar
Joe McMahon – didgeridoo
David Michalak – Omnichord
Kristin Miltner – laptop
Ann O’Rourke – bowed cymbal
Ferrara Brain Pan – sopranino saxophone
Rent Romus – sax/tapes
Ellery Royston – harp w/effects
Lx Rudis – electronics
Mark Soden – trumpet
Moe! Staiano – guitar
Errol Stewart – guitar
Lena Strayhorn – tsaaj plaim / wind wand
Zachary Watkins – electronics
Rachel Wood-Rome – french horn
Michael Zelner – analog monophonic synthesizer, iPod Touch

The Experimental Side of the Y2K-X Live Looping Festival

I have participated in the main Live Looping Festival in Santa Cruz in past years, but this is actually the first time I have attended the satellite event co-produced with Outsound at the Luggage Store Gallery. The performance, and the rest of the festival, took place in mid October.

The evening opened with a solo set by Chris Rainier on guitar. He began with some interesting and rather harsh sounds that through the looping processing grew into minor harmonies. On top of these loops, he layered more percussive, piano-like sounds and then a low bowed tone. The texture gradually got thicker, as often happens in looped music. The next layers of sound featured slide guitar effects reminiscent of old 1960s psychedelic recordings or old sci-fi sound tracks, and a harsh ebow sound that ultimately resolved to a consonance. Overall, Rainier’s performance had a quality reminiscent of a film or an old radio program – but without an overarching plot structure so one could easily get lost in the music (which is a good thing). He was also quite technically adept, switching quickly among several effects as well as guitar techniques.


[Chris Rainer. Photo: PeterBKaars.com]

The next set featured Krispen Hartung on guitar with Rent Romus on saxophone. The performance at first focused entirely on the pairing of the instruments acoustically (I sometimes count electric guitar as an “acoustic instrument”). Indeed the presence of the looping was very subtle at first. Romus’ saxophone runs matched and complemented Hartung’s atonal harmonies on the guitar. Then at times, the music switched into a more tonal and relaxed state reminiscent of older “cool jazz” performances. Here, the sampled loops become more apparent, as the jazz-like sounds were played back out of their original meter and sounding as if off in the distance. The music become quite intricate, with lots of percussive and staccato notes, and moving back and forth between extremely active and extremely sparse moments. The was a splattering of electronic sounds, but still mostly the original instruments, moving into more anxious dissonant harmonies before resolving back into more tonal jazz.


[Rent Romus and Krispen Hartung. Photo: PeterBKaars.com]

In addition to his own musical pursuits, Hartung runs the Boise Experimental Music Festival, which I should attend next time it comes around!

The final set featured Andreas Willers on guitar with guest collaborator Phillip Greenlief on saxophone. It interesting how all three sets featured guitar, and two of three featured guitar-and-saxophone duos (and for more symmetry, in each case it was an out-of-town guitarist paired with a local saxophonist). The set began with shaking and spinning strings, and a whistling sound. Greenlief entered by scraping a mouthpiece cover on the side of the side of his saxophone, and then blowing into the instrument itself without a mouthpiece. The sounds from the guitar were very soft, set against percussive wind sounds on the sax. The loops were quite short, and I did not notice them at first and then only as ambient sounds from the speakers. Gradually, the music become more intense, with lots of extended technique sounds on both instruments. Willers moved from playing the strings with objects to more standard but percussive guitar techniques, with a squeaking saxophone mouthpiece set against perfect forths. The next section had a very rhythmic, almost Flemenco, quality to it, followed by moments of unison between the two instruments where they seemed to stay together even through microtones.


[Andreas Willers and Phillip Greenlief. Photo: PeterBKaars.com]

The second piece began with Willers’ excellent virtuosic guitar playing against Greenlief’s performance whistle tones on the saxophone. This gave way to heavily distorted guitar set against microtonal saxophone notes. Through the looping process, subtle warbling tones were built up into a much larger and richer texture. Then, in the midst of a rather quiet section, Greenlief startled me (and several other audience members) with a rather loud POP! Indeed, the remainder of the piece was quite playful, with key effects and other techniques, and distortion guitar, all processed and represented via looping.

2009 Annual Transbay Skronkathon

It is mid-summer, and so once again the annual Transbay Skronkathon and BBQ comes around, with a full day of experimental and weird music at 21 Grand in Oakland. There are always a few from outside the Bay Area, or who are appearing in this setting for the first time, but overall it is a who’s who of local experimental and avant-guard musicians and familiar faces. We spend the whole day performing and listening to music, and dining on a variety of grilled food items in the neighboring alley.

I arrived at 4PM, which was already three hours into the event. I was just in time to catch most of Respectable Citizen, a duo of Bruce Bennett and Michael Zbyszynski performing live improvisation with keyboard/electronics and saxophone, respectively. The set started with ethereal noisy computer sounds in the background, with the noises increasingly insistent and louder over time, culminating in a defined whistle sound and a wave that became something akin to electrical noise. The electronics were complemented by the saxophone improvisation; there was a moment where the sax and electronics together formed a sound like an emergency siren. Then things became quiet again with the noise growing into an ever louder rumble.

Next was electric-guitar looping performance by George Ludwig. It was very similar to the looping guitar performances I hear annually at the Live Looping Festival in Santa Cruz, with drones and long tones; mostly harmonic, though there was some good clean distortion effects as well.

I made sure to be in for the next group, T.D. Skatchit, featuring Tom Nunn and David Michalak on custom instruments called skatch boxes. I had just seen Nunn and his custom instruments at the “Tuesdays at Toms” performance. This performance featured similar instruments, made primarily of cardboard and performed with combs and other implements. The result is a series of scratches, streches, scrapes, squeaks and other noises, all very musical. With two performances and multiple instruments, harmonies start to form. Even when not looking directly at the performers (which is quite interesting to do), the performance had a very “visual” quality. The overall texture reminded me of the sounds of the woods at night. I could hear scampering mechanical creatures. Although the structure of the music was very static, the performance was very expressive.

The next set was a trio of Jacob Felix Heule (drums), Tony Dryer (double bass) and
Jay Korber (tenor sax). This set qualified as actual “skronking”, with very rapid notes (especially on the drums) and the belting of inharmonic and variable pitch tones on the sax. Lots of details to listen to. But above all, skronking tends to be very loud, so I did end up listening to second part of the set from the alley, where I also had a chance to socialize and check out the barbecue.

However, the loudest set of all was yet to come, and it wasn’t even officially on the program. Someone in a ski mask with a table-saw on an old turntable record player claimed to be the next set Sndrft eeoo, though it turned out he wasn’t. Nonetheless, we were treated to ear-threateningly loud high-pitched noises that sent everyone out into the alley to join those of us already there for conversation and sausages (the official food of choice at the Skronkathon). Outside, the sound was somewhat bearable, and vaguely interesting. Sndrft eeoo and Mike Jacobs did get to play an abbreviated set once the impostor left the stage (much to our collective relief).

Hanuman Zhang described his set as found objects, toy piano, circuit-bent toys
noise, mayhem, and roaring silence. He was introduced by Tom Duff as playing “a big pile of junk” – but a nonetheless musical pile of junk. He started with stones and bass drum, making rhythms. He then moved to to bins and metal objects, all the while maintaining a basic rhythm. He bashed in a large plastic bottle really good. There were also some electronic circuit-bent toys, and a toy piano (acoustic toy piano being an instrument I am quite fond of). As the toys came to the forefront, the rhythm began to break down and the texture more sparse.

From loud skronking and found objects, we then had a very contrasting set from Protea, with Serena Toxicat and thereminist Joey D’Kaye performing ambient electronic music. Sporting a Hello Kitty tunic, Serena Toxicat gave an evocative performance with vocals and dancing . The vocals and theremin both consisted of long tones that followed one another without exactly matching. Overall, there were minor harmonies, etherial textures, gradual changes and a bit of tension.

We then switched back from ambient electronic to skronking (but it is really “skronking”?) with a free-improvisation set by z bug with David Leikam, Zachary Morris, Sheila Bosco and Craig Latta. Once again, lots of fast loud notes, with the bass acting as a third drum set (there were two drum sets in this group), and some performance with a Moog synth. Although the set was very loud at times, there was really a good range with sudden drops in volume where one could here bells and chimes sounding. However, I could not at all hear the vocals. I did like the sudden switch during the performance to a steady disco beat.

Tom Nunn and David Michalak returned as part of RTD3. Overall, the performance was similar to their set the previous tuesday, with Nunn and Michalak performing free improvisation together Ron Heglin on trombone and Doug Carrol on electric cello. However, Nunn’s instrument in this set was quite different. It was a much larger board that he played vertically. It looked a bit like a modernist painting with some elements that seemed derivative of Kandinsky, but it had a very clearly marked eye and geometric shapes. The texture of music was more sparsem and there was a good moment with soft trombone. it sounded like “a radio from the past.” There was a section that sounded vaguely ethnic (in the way that a contemporary western audience might label some music as “ethnic”) and then hit a watery pattern on Nunn’s instrument.

John Hanes and Steve Adams performed “dueling laptops” (and an iPhone). Moments in the music reminded me a bit of one of my favorite Stockhausen recordings, but there were also drums and beats, timbrally rich drones and bowed tones and loops. It reminded me a bit of the “Off-ICMC” concerts (often the more interesting performances) I would hear when I used to attend the computer-music conferences.

I did not get to hear as much of PG13 in detail as I would have liked because I was busy setting up for our upcoming set. The trio consisted of Phillip Greenlief on saxophone, John Shiurba on guitar and Thomas Scandura on drums. It seemed during the introduction that there was some question as to whether they should be described as “1970s rock” or not, but musically they did have a strong driving 4/4 beat with heavy drums and loud guitar. Greenlief also played very rhythmic accented lines on the saxophone that fit with the guitar and drums. So with my only partial listening, it did have a lot of “rock-like” elements, which were welcome, and a good lead in to our own set.

This was our first time performing re-named as Reconnaissance Fly and as a trio rather than a quartet, with myself, Polly Moller (flute, voice, heatsink) and Bill Wolter (guitar, custom electro-mechanical “boat”). We are currently looking for a bassist/composer to round things out.

The set consisted of four pieces based on “spoetry” or poetry found in spam emails – most email spam (or blog-comment spam) is completely worthless text, but occasionally there are very poetic passages that can be used for creative work. I did two pieces setting spoetry to graphical scores in which the performers improvised based on interpretations of graphical elements, and Polly and Bill each did more idiomatic pieces. All the practicing and rehearsing paid off, and the set was quite tight and full of energy, with fun and theatrics – and I’m glad I brought the full keyboard for playing more traditional jazz piano at various spots alongside the more esoteric electronic sounds from the Kaos pad. Probably the most memorable moments were repeated riffs on “Ca-a-na-da-a”, and the rolling jazz bass and guitar in “Emir Scamp Budge”. And it seemed like we had a pretty decent audience.

We were followed by the all-acoustic sfSound group. As an acoustic group with winds, strings and percussion, they have a really rich palatte of textures and timbres. One can hear small percussive phrases emerge from a series of long tones. The winds (Kyle Bruckmann,
Matt Ingalls, Christopher Jones, and John Ingle) sometimes match the percussion (Kjell Nordeson) , sometimes the strings (Alexa Beattie, Monica Scott). The performance was very subtle with lots of dynamic range and empty spots, and quite a contrast to our set with its loud electronic improvisations and theatrics.

sfSound was immediately followed by another powerful accoustic set, featuring Karen Stackpole with her impressive array of gongs, Jen Baker and Ron Heglin on trombones, and Tom Djll on trumpet. An unusual instrumentation, “Brass and Bronze” (as introduced by Tom Duff). The set began with the gongs followed by really soft long notes on the three brass instruments. The gongs resonated as Stackpole moved along their perimeters, producing beautiful long stretched out tones. They formed inharmonic chords anchored by drones on the brass. The texture became less sparse over time with bowing of gong and faster swells on trombone and notes on trumpet. This eventually turned to loud hits and gong strikes, and more expresive phrases.

The final set of the Skronkathon featured Gino Robair and Amy X Neuburg on dueling Blippo Boxes. The Blippo Box is a custom analog synthesizer by Rob Hordijk that features chaotic oscillators and a wide range of non-linear modulation options – I wouldn’t mind having one of these myself. The Blippo Boxes produce constantly modulating sounds that are difficult to control in advance, the performer must react to whatever is produced using his or her best musically instincts. As the boxes can occasionally go unstable, being able to react quickly is key. Fortunately, we have two master musicians whose listening and improvisational instincts can be called upon to handle such situations. The result was a very expressive mixture of machine noise and rumbles, gargles, clicks and chirps – the chaotic sound actually becomes familiar after listening for a few minutes (though in fairness I should say years of listening to such music). And there were many moments where the oscillations of the two boxes seemed surprisingly on sync, with the waveforms and modulations slowing down to the level of musically distinct notes.

And once the Blippo Boxes went silent, this marathon event came to a quiet end.

Hypnagogia, Climate Theater

Hypnagogia defines the state between sleeping and waking: the state in which our dreams can seem more real to us than the waking world, and which, depending upon the nature of our dreams, our limbo-selves seek to flee, or to sustain.

My primarily mission in attending Hypnagogia at the Climate Theater was to see the performance of The Flip Quartet by Polly Moller, as I will be part of upcoming performance of the piece in July. The performance featured Karl Evangelista, Jason Hoopes, Thomas Scandura and Bill Wolter. 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.


[click to enlarge]

“Earth” had drums, stones, and blocks. “Air” included various wind instruments and shakers. “Fire” featured metal instruments and electric instruments (keyboard, electric guitar, etc.). And “Water” included water-filled containers, but also acoustic string instruments – this was the only association I had a difficult time figuring out, with my own interpretation being “standing waves.” Each section of the piece starts with the performers “flipping” a timer. When the time runs out, they stop and move on to the next station.

The audience sat in the middle of the theatre, with half the seats facing one pair of elements and half facing the others. Since there were two performances, I got a chance to see and hear the piece from “both sides.” Musically, the piece unfolded as ever changing harmonies of the different objects, often very discrete and percussive, along with many theatrical moments such as attempting to balance on the “earth” elements on the head of a drum. My favorite moment musically was the combination of the Asian pipe (shown one of the photos above), lute, shakers and thunder tube.

The other musical performance was Philip Greenlief performing a solo work The Fourth World. The piece is based on Hopi conception of time and the Fourth World from Hopi mythology, and is a solo performance featuring Greenlief’s expressive and virtuosic saxophone playing. I am always impressed with his multiphonics, which he manages to make seem as easy to play as standard tones. Spatially, this performance was the opposite of The Flip Quartet, with the audience seated in a circle facing inward and creating a more intimate space.

In addition to the featured live musical performances, there were visual art pieces, installations, and media and performance art. Sean Clute, Jessica Gomula and Gina Clark presented a “video action painting and performance” entitled Slippery Dreams 2009.

Live video of the drawings being created were projected onto the screens, and I believe also used to control the sound that was generated.

Louis Rawlins presented the installation Sleep Patterns, set up as a bedroom or sitting room where one could relax and touch the ball of yarn on the table.


[click to enlarge]
The string (which included conductive thread) was used to generate sounds in response to the viewers interactions. Presumably, one could interact with this piece while asleep.

The were several video pieces of varying subject and quality. I did like Vanessa Woods’ What the Water Saw, a short film that originally was shot on 16mm/35mm film and transferred to video. It was meant to mimic ocean with the distortion of images through water, as represented by the intense layering and deep colors of the film. After looking at Woods’ website, I think I might have been more interested in some of her black-and-white films. Rebekah May’s Celestial Cadence for video on five iPod Touches was an interesting visual in itself, with its arrangement of abstract color and shape patterns:

Among the purely visual works that caught my attention was the undulating Circulation III by Julia Anne Goodman, a mobile work that was created from junk mail (and there is certainly plenty of that around); also Klea McKenna’s Taxonomy of My Brother’s Garden from Center of Gravity:


[click to enlarge]

Finally, as it was quite stuffy inside the theatre and gallery on this rather warm night, there was the welcome retreat to the rooftop, where VoxMaids performed rhythmic and traditional-sounding music for drums, accordion and voices against projections of astronomical objects. Alternatively, one could look at a real astronomical object, the moon, on this rather clear night.

Greenlief @ 50

On Tuesday, I attended the fourth greelief@50 concert, a series marking the birthday of local musician and composer Phillip Greenlief. We haven’t actually played together, but have been on the same program several times, and we have crossed paths and numerous Bay Area new-music events over the last few years. The show took place at The Uptown in (downtown) Oakland.

The opening set was a performance by Weasel Walter/Devin Hoff/Darren Johnston/Damon Smith. I hesitate to say whether or not it was an improvisation set because they did have scores, but in any case it had the sound and structure of a free jazz improvisation set. The best moment was when a particularly dense section suddenly gave way to a tenor solo, and then back to the full ensemble just as suddenly.

The main set was a large ensemble, consisting of orchesperry (named for local musician Matthew Sperry) and the Cardew Choir. In total, this was indeed a large ensemble.

I’m not sure what the lab coats were about.

The group performed several compositions by Greenlief, who conducted in bold and dramatic style. Of particular note was the second piece, which opened with percussion and a string sound that seemed electronic. This was followed by a saxophone solo that was rather melodic, a voice solo, and then bursts of sound from various musicians. The piece then built up towards the standard loud and dense improvisation, before quickly coming to a close. The piece was rather short, so short that it seemed the audience wasn’t sure it was over, and performer Bob Marsh had to cue the audience to applaud.

Another piece of note, for me at least, was Monument, dedicated to work of artist Eva Hesse, whose work I have seen on several occasions here in San Francisco and elsewhere. The piece was “dedicated to the electronic musicians in the ensemble”, and featured the electronic sounds and textures to which we at CatSynth have become very accustomed – so that hearing synthesizers and processors in the midst of a large mostly-acoustic concert can have a very familiar and inviting quality – especially when one thinks about in the context of modern and contemporary visual art.

As is often the case, there are a fair number of familiar faces at these performances, so a certain amount of time is spent being social in addition to the music itself. Nothing wrong with that, though it was a Tuesday and I ended up not staying very long.

NOTE: this was the 800th post for CatSynth

Last Saturday at 1510 8th Street

A quick review of a pair of performance at 1510 8th Street in the Oakland last Saturday. Yes, I’m a bit slow on posting these. Hence, the “quick” part. Plus, I didn’t bring a camera…

…which is unfortunate, because the first performance was quite visual. It featured improvised music and movement by saxophonist Phillip Greenlief and dancer Karen Fox. Greenlief’s performances are often full of motion, but the combination with Fox was something quite different, indeed her improvised movement was quite fun and provocative.

The second set was the “Kristian Aspelin Quartet” featuring (not surprisingly), Kristian Aspelin on Guitar, Damon Smith on bass and electronics, Scott Looney on piano and electronics, and Weasel Walter on drums. Although both Looney and Smith had laptop-based electronics, I probably would not characterize this performance as “electronic music.” But that’s not a criticism, I do like to hear more acoustic sets. The main word I would use to describe this set is loud, indeed one of the louder I have heard at 1510. Of course, these are were plenty of quieter moments, where I was able to hear Looney’s prepared-piano work (I would love to do more prepared piano myself). There were moments when all four members seemed to match the sound of the piano, or one of the other instruments, all bells, or all harmonics. And then there were more the loud moments.