Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends, MoMA

The Museum of Modern Art in New York recently concluded a large exhibition of works by Robert Rauschenberg, billed as the “first 21st-century retrospective of the artist.” In 1999, I attended what was probably the last major 20th-century retrospective at The Guggenheim, which resulted in mixed and complicated feelings about his work. I was skeptical of the white-on-white paintings and openly detested the pieces that consisted entirely of unfolded cardboard boxes; but there were other works that were captivating, like his sculptural paintings with electrical elements. This new exhibition elevates the entirety of Rauschenberg’s work by placing it in the context of his many collaborators, both in the New York School of the 1950s and 1960s and beyond. The show also demonstrated the importance of place in the development and evolution of his art.


[Robert Rauschenberg. Grand Black Tie Sperm Glut (1987). Riveted street signs and other metal parts, 60 x 121 x 14″ (152.4 x 307.3 x 35.6 cm), Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York]

The source of his many collaborations can be traced to his time at Black Mountain College. He studied with (and was influenced by) Josef and Anni Albers. It is here that he met John Cage and Merce Cunningham, as well as fellow visual artists Cy Twombly, Susan Weil, and more.

John Cage 4'33
[John Cage. 4’33” (In Proportional Notation) [1952/1953]. Ink on paper, page (each): 11 x 8 1/2″ (27.9 x 21.6 cm); sheet (each, unfolded): 11 x 16 15/16″ (27.9 x 43.1 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the generosity of Henry Kravis in honor of Marie-Josée Kravis.]

Cage’s 4’33” is a piece that I admire greatly. He later claimed that his encounter with Rauschenberg’s white paintings was a major inspiration for the piece. In the context of place and collaboration, the white paintings take on a significance that was lost the first time I saw them. (I still don’t like the cardboard boxes, though.) One can also see in his white (and black) pieces the influence and evolution away from the precise minimalism of Josef Albers.

The friendships and collaborations formed at Black Mountain continued in his work abroad and then at his studios in downtown Manhattan, first at Fulton Street and then at Pearl Street. One amusing collaboration was a long ink-on-paper piece featuring the tire treads of a car driven by John Cage.


[Robert Rauschenberg with John Cage. Automobile Tire Print (detail). 1953. Tire-tread mark (front wheel) and tire-tread mark with house paint (rear wheel) made by Cage’s Model A Ford, driven by Cage over twenty sheets of typewriter paper fastened together with library paste, mounted on fabric, 16 1/2 in. × 22 ft. 1/2 in. (41.9 × 671.8 cm). San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Purchase through a gift of Phyllis C. Wattis. Photo: Don Ross. © 2017 Robert Rauschenberg Foundation]

Rauschenberg continued to work with simple elements to produce three-dimension works both on and off the wall that would lead to his celebrated “Combines.” Some of these early pieces were quite small and often focused on just one or two elements, such as the piece Untitled (c. 1953) consisting of wooden and linen boxes. As an interesting aside, the original fabric box was destroyed by Rachel Rosenthal’s cat – another example of chance collaboration.


[Unititled (1953). Wood box with lid and removable balsa wood-and-fabric cube. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase.]

During the period of his early Combines and red paintings, Rauschenberg collaborated with Jasper Johns on a large mixed-media set design for Minutiae a dance piece by Cunningham with music by Cage. While red was the principal color of the piece, it also brought in a variety of other textures and materials, including wood, mirrors, newspaper and even a paint color chart.

Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Minutiae
[Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Minutiae (1954). Oil, paper, fabric, newspaper, wood, paint sample color chart, graphite, metal, and plastic, with hanging mirror, on wood supports 84 1/2 x 81 x 30 1/2″ (214.6 x 205.7 x 77.5 cm) Private Collection Switzerland. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth.]

The music is very sparse, and the dance moves between very slow minimal motion and periods of frenzied activity. These contrasts are reflected in the set’s various materials and textures. Remy Charlip’s costume designs also seem to reflect the colors and patterns of the set.

In 1960, Rauschenberg participated in Jean Tinguely’s seminal performance piece Homage to New York. Tinguely and his collaborators assembled a large sculptural installation that was designed to self-destruct over the course of the performance, which took place in the sculpture garden of MoMA. Only a few fragments of the original piece remain today.

Fragment from Homage to New York
[Jean Tinguely. Fragment from Homage to New York (1960). Painted metal, fabric, tape, wood, and rubber tires. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the artist.]

Rauschenberg’s contributions included “The Money Thrower”, a mechanical contraption with springs, an electric heater, gunpowder, and silver dollars.

The Money Thrower
[The Money Thrower for Tinguely’s H.T.N.Y. (Homage to New York) [1960].  Electric heater with gunpowder, metal springs, twine, and silver dollars. 6 3/4 × 22 1/2 × 4″ (17.1 × 57.2 × 10.2 cm) Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Gift of Pontus Hultén]

One can also see the performative at play in some of his larger Combines, including Gold Standard, a collaborative piece with artist Alex Hay.


[Robert Rauschenberg and Alex Hay. Gold Standard (1964). Oil, paper, printed reproductions, metal speedometer, cardboard box, metal, fabric, wood, string, pair of men’s leather boots, and Coca-Cola bottles on gold fabric folding Japanese screen with electric light, rope, and ceramic dog on bicycle seat and wire-mesh base 84 1/4 × 142 1/8 × 51 1/4″ (214 × 361 × 130.2 cm) Glenstone.]

 

These collaborations and the increased presence of electrical elements and technology in Rauschenberg’s work foreshadowed E.A.T., the “Experiments in Art and Technology”, an organization which he co-founded with Billy Klüver, Robert Whitman and the engineer Fred Waldhauer. Among the works that came out of E.A.T. was Mud Muse, in which a large glass case filled with bentonite and water is excited by a sound recording fed into an air compression system. You can see a bit of the piece in this video:

Mud Muse. Robert Rauschenberg. #moma #nyc

A post shared by CatSynth / Amanda C (@catsynth) on

Mud Muse was a collaboration with Carl Adams, George Carr, Lewis Ellmore, Frank LaHaye and Jim Wilkinson.

Place is an important element of many pieces. This is perhaps no more apparent than in Tinguely’s Home to New York. But the influence of New York and the artists who coalesced there is apparent in his solo works as well, sometimes visually and sometimes spiritually. Eventually, Rauschenberg moved his home and studio to Captiva Island in Florida, where we worked on a larger scale and in a more solitary manner than during his days in New York. While there are currents that run through his work in both the New York and Captiva periods, the later Captiva works seemed to lack a bit of the edge of the earlier New York work – or perhaps it is simply part of bias towards the city that I always return to.


[Estate (1963). Oil and silkscreen-ink print on canvas 95 3/4 x 69 3/4″ (243.2 x 177.2 cm) Philadelphia Museum of Art. Gift of the Friends of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1967.]

There was far more in this exhibition of over 250 individual works than I can cover in this article. The continuity and focus on collaboration made it not too overwhelming to take it all in. I quite enjoyed the show, and it has given me a renewed appreciation overall for Robert Rauschenberg’s career and body of work.

Henry Kaiser Quartet Plays Steve Lacy at Piedmont Pianos

On an extraordinarily hot Saturday evening in Oakland, we and several others kept cool both physically and musically at Piedmont Pianos. The occasion was a concert of music by Steve Lacy, as interpreted by an ensemble organized by guitarist Henry Kaiser with saxophonist Bruce Ackley.

Steve Lacy is a visionary but often under appreciated musician in avant-garde jazz. He was a prolific composer especially in the 1970s with his sextet and is an influence on many of the musicians were regularly see and perform with. (You can see Jason Berry’s tribute comic to Steve Lacy in an earlier post.) Bruce Ackley and Henry Kaiser have long been interpreters of Lacy’s music. Ackley and other founding members of Rova shared a deep interest in Lacy, and connected with him in both Berkeley and Paris, ultimately recording their own album of his work in 1983. They teamed up with Kaiser for performances of Lacy’s Saxophone Special in the early 2000s and ultimately recorded the piece together with Kyle Bruckman. More recently, Kaiser and Ackley have put together a group to perform the music from The Wire, which included Tania Chen on piano, Danielle DeGruttola on cello, Andrea Centazzo on percussion, and Michael Manring on bass. The performance on this evening featured a subset of this group featuring Ackley, Kaiser, Chen, and DeGruttola.

Henry Kaiser Quartet

The concert featured many pieces from The Wire as well as a few others, and demonstrated the breadth of Steve Lacy’s composition from the brightly melodic “Hemline” (dedicated to Janis Joplin) to the extremely percussive and avant-garde “The Owl” (dedicated to Anton Webern), which featured Tania Chen and Kaiser blending the extended acoustic techniques of their respective instruments.

Henry Kaiser, Tania Chen, Robert Ackley

Even at its most percussive and noisy, Lacy’s music is quite melodic and structured. Indeed, many of the pieces were intended as songs, specifically songs for the voice of Irene Aebi. The melodies often revolved around simple repeating motifs, as in “Bound” (dedicated to Irene Aebi). On some pieces, including “Deadline”, DeGruttola and Kaiser acted as a string-based rhythm section, providing a foundation for the soprano-sax to interpret the melody and the piano to fill the space in between. Other moments provided lush harmonies, with Kaiser playing long pitch-bent chords on guitar and Chen playing frenetic harmonic fragments on piano. The energy can be intense at times, but then slower and haunting as in “Clouds”. Although structured, there is a lot of room for improvisation in the music, and the ensemble had great on stage chemistry for listening and playing off of one another, leaving empty space, and allowing Lacy’s original ideas to come out even as the performers added their own. The performance also included the title track from The Wire, “Twain”, “Ecstasy” and more.

This was my first visit to Piedmont Pianos. It is a large, friendly, and inviting space, dedicated entirely to the piano. Many were rather impressive, both in terms of their quality as instruments as well as their sticker prices, including the gorgeous Fazioli grand that Tania Chen played for the concert. However, I found myself most captivated by this remake of a 1930s Bluthne PH Piano, which is a work of visual as well as sonic art.  It is based on a design by noted Danish architect and inventor Poul Henningsen.

1931 PH Piano

We look forward to seeing more shows at Piedmont Pianos now that we have discovered it, and of course upcoming shows for all the musicians involved in this evening. Nor is this our last word on the music of Steve Lacy.

Feline NightLife at the California Academy of Sciences

Most Thursday evenings, the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco hosts Classroom Safari. I have long been fascinated by the small wild cats, so it was interesting to see them up close. The delightfully cheeky staff, however, started out the program with a “cat” that wasn’t a cat at all.

Genet

This feline-esque creature is actually a genet. It has many cat traits, including its appearance, claws, purring, etc. But it is it’s own subfamily of carnivorous mammal, quite distinct from cats. They bear a resemblance to fishing cats with the sleekness, but their snouts are a bit longer, more like a mongoose. Although genet species are native to Africa, they were introduced into southern Europe as the “common genets”.

Next up was a more familiar small cat, the ocelot, a commonly found wild cat of the Americas.

Ocelot

Ocelots are adorable, but they are wild animals, and our hosts were quick to point out that this ocelot in particular is quite ornery. Their membership in the leopard family is unmistakable. And they are superbly adapted for life in the forests as well as more desert-like scrub of their range.

One of the themes during the presentation was that these wild cats do not make good pets. It is not good for the animals themselves who retain their wild instincts. They also pose a danger for humans and other domesticated animals. One particularly amusing anecdote involved a “club” on Long Island where wealthy women kept ocelots as a fad, only to learn that ocelots eat small dogs. The next cat was another that is often kept as an exotic pet, the serval.

Serval

Graceful and athletic, with a sweet face, it’s understandable that people are captivated by these cats. Indeed, the Savannah breed is a cross between a serval and a domestic cat. But their wild instincts are honed for large ranges on the African savannahs and wetlands, including the Sohel region as well as sub-Saharan Africa. Such cats do not adapt well to domestic life.

The next and final cat was one that even as a kitten made our serval friend quite nervous.

Siberian Lynx kitten

This adorable baby is a Siberian Lynx. At first thought it was a caracal with the ear tufts, but once one sees the undercoat and the exceptionally large paws, it is unmistakably a lynx. It also came across a bit of a mini-lion, and as such there is no ambiguity about whether it would make a good pet or not. We’re happy to get a chance to see these cats, and grateful to Classroom Safari for sharing them with us, as well as their work rescuing wild cats.

Many local institutions were on hand as well to talk about their work with cats, wild and domestic. The was the Felidae Conversation Fund, a group that we at CatSynth have long supported. They are involved in small-cat research projects around the world and in our own backyard. The main project they presented at Feline NightLife was the Bay Are Puma Project.

Felidae

The results show that pumas are doing relatively well in some areas, but not others. In particular, pumas in the East Bay hills seem be quite fat and happy in their wild area amidst the urbanized surroundings. By contrast, Marin County is not sustaining a healthy population, most likely due to habit fragmentation and such. It’s a good reminder that wild cats are not just “exotic”, but animals in our neighborhoods.

On the domestic front, our friends at Cat Town were on hand as well. They are dedicated to helping the most vulnerable shelter cats of the East Bay through their fostering program as well as their cat cafe in Oakland, the first in the Bay Area. We wrote about our first visit to the cafe here. The San Francisco SPCA was also on hand, with several adoptable kittens including this adorable black baby.

Black Kitten

It is clearly a great opportunity to advocate for shelter pets and even maybe initiate some adoptions. It was crowded around the SPCA booth, and I can only imagine it might have been stressful for the kittens. But we also hope some found new homes as a result.

The Cat Man of West Oakland (aka Adam Myatt) is a one-man local institution advocating for domestic cats in our communities. He was worked extensively with Cat Town and co-founded their cat cafe. But he also continues his own work with Hoodcats, documenting the beautiful outdoor cats of Oakland neighborhoods. He had several of his photos, including some cute black cats. We managed to acquire one of those black-cat pictures, along with a classic print, from a vending machine he had a fund-raiser.

Cat Man of West Oakland pictures

We had a lot of fun at Feline Nightlife, with all the cats as well as the cocktails, people watching and general exhibits of NightLife at the California Academy of Sciences. It was a bit different, but we hope to be back for another themed night some time, perhaps something musical?

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.