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…

Church of the Superserge at Robotspeak: Djll, Day, Normalien

The monthy Church of the Superserge event at Robotspeak in San Francisco has been going on five years. We at CatSynth were on hand to mark this milestone during the May show.

Musically, the highlight was a solo set by Tom Djll on modular synth and mini trumpet. It was quite musical, blending rhythms and phrases with the timbral elements, even a “melody” of sorts from the processed trumpet.

The afternoon opened with a set by Normalien, also on modular synthesizer. Some delightfully weird sounds with rhythmic elements.

And Carson Day closed things out with a forceful set that included Novation and Dave Smith instruments.

It’s always a fun afternoon at Robotspeak. Not only do I enjoy the music and technology in the performances, but also just browsing the display cases on the wall, seeing what instruments I should covet next. This little DIY synth stood out this time, especially juxtaposed between the giant vacuum tube and the WMD pedal.

We look forward to next time, and perhaps playing again soon.

CDP at the Make-Out Room, San Francisco

Today we look back at the May 1 performance by Census Designated Place (CDP) at the Make-Out Room in San Francisco, as part of the monthly Monday Make-Out series.

We were all very excited to play this show. And then things started going awry. First, our synth player Tom Djll was ill an unable to make the gig. And when we were about to go on, I found myself with cable faults and other technical issues. I had actually anticipated many things and had several redundancies, but also a few blind spots, particularly around 1/4” cables. That will not happen again. And after the anxiety of those mishaps in front of a packed room, we played on, and it turned out to be a great show. We played very well, indeed the heads of the various tunes came out as well as I have heard them, and the energy throughout was great. We even had folks dancing in the audience.

You can see a bit of our set in this clip, featuring our newest tune Marlon Brando.

CDP Marlon Brando May 1 from CatSynth on Vimeo.

We were preceded by two other bands. First was a project from our friend Lucio Menegon from New York, together with Janie Cowan on upright bass and John Hanes on drums.

Lucio Menagon Trio

Lucio’s guitar performance had a very narrative, almost storytelling quality. This was set against a mixture of idiomatic rhythms and percussive stops from Cowan and Hanes.

They were followed by a quartet featuring Anton Hatwich from Chicago together with Ben Goldberg on clarinet, Josh Smith on saxophone and Hamir Atwal on drums.

Anton Hatwich Quartet

During this time, the crowd at the Make-Out room continued to grow, and by the time we were setting up it was as crowded as I have seen there since I played there with Surplus 1980 some four years earlier. Which made the technical difficulties all the more stressful. But as stated earlier, the show ultimately went well as a trio with myself, Mark Pino on drums and Joshua Marshall on saxophones. The music was very well received by the audience and the other musicians.

Thanks to Karl Evangelista for organizing the series, Rent Romus for helping with logistics on that night, and all the folks at the Make-Out Room. Overall, it was a good show, and some important lessons learned on technical blind spots. We will get back to composing, rehearsing and preparing for next ones.

Hardly Strictly Personal 2017 Day 3: CDP and More

We finally catch up on the remaining show report in our backlog: the Hardly Strictly Personal 2017 Festival that took place at the Finnish Kaleva Hall in Berkeley about two months ago. We will be presenting it out of order, with Day 3 first. This day featured my band CDP (Census Designated Place) among many other artists.

We had our full four-member lineup for this event, including myself, Tom Djll on synthesizers, Joshua Marshall on saxophones, and Mark Pino on drums. We played three tunes with extended improvisation sections. The energy on stage was great, and the music just seemed to flow. This was the band and style of performance I always wanted. You can here a bit in these two videos, featuring our tunes White Wine and North Berkeley BART.

CDP Playing White Wine at Finnish Kaleva Hall from CatSynth on Vimeo.

CDP "Playing North Berkeley BART" at Finnish Kaleva Hall from CatSynth on Vimeo.

Mark and I form the rhythm section, where I lay down vamps over his solid drums. The interplay of Tom and Josh on melody and open solos wasn’t planned per se, but adds a lot to the sound of the group. We got a great reception from the audience, and definitely looked forward to our future shows.

The evening opened with Alphastare performing a solo electronic set.

There were a lot of interesting timbres that I liked, some quite thick and noisy, that were woven into a narrative.

We were on second, and then followed by United Separatists, featuring Drew Wheeler on guitar and Timothy Orr on drums.

The instrumentation can sometimes be treacherous in an experimental-music setting, but I like what I’ve heard from this duo whenever I have heard them. There is phrasing, punctuation and space that gives it a captivating feel. Sometimes Orr’s drums are the melodic instrument and Wheeler’s guitar is the percussion. This photo of Wheeler framed by Moog Theremini (not mine) and a water phone was a fun coincidence.

Next up was ebolabuddha with their unique combination of black metal and improvised literary readings.

In addition to the musicians on stage, including Eli Pontecorvo on bass, Mark Pino on drums, Plague, Tom Weeks, Lorenzo Arreguin and Steve Jong, there always a wide selection of books scattered about. Members of the band read from them at various points, but the audience is encouraged to participate as well.

An ebolabuddha performance is always an intense experience but it was even more so in the Finnish Hall with its delightfully bizarre acoustics and the friendly audience. Here is Mark having a quintessential “ebolabuddha moment.”

They were followed by Double-A Posture Palace , a trio featuring Andrew Barnes Jamieson on keyboard and voice, Joshua Marshall returning on saxophones, and Aaron Levin on drums.

It was a quieter set (especially in comparison to what preceded it), but the gentle piano sounds in the opening belied the extremely clever and snarky nature of what was unfolding, as Jamieson sang an ode to performing experimental music that simultaneously celebrated it and pointed out some of the musical shortcomings that many of us discuss only privately. It was truly funny and ingenious, and I congratulate all three members of the set on this performance.

The final set of the evening, and of the festival as a whole, featured the latest incarnation of Instagon is an ever changing set of musicians, never the same. For this version, project creator Lob was joined by Rent Romus on saxophone, Hannah Glass on violin, Leland Vandermuelen on guitar, and Mark Pino on drums – Mark once again demonstrating why I refer to him as the “hardest working man in the new music scene.”

Overall the third day of the festival went well and showcased a variety of music. I am glad that CDP played early so I could relax and enjoy the sense of accomplishment while listening to the subsequent sets. The festival is a fundraiser for EarthJustice and the Homeless Action Center, both fine causes that many of us stage are proud to support. I would also like to give a special thanks to Mika Pontecorvo for organizing the event, and to Eli Pontecorvo, Kersti Abrams, Rent Romus and others who worked hard to make it happen.

New False Gods &The Xman, LSG Creative Music Series

It’s been a while since I have been able to attend Outsound’s regular weekly music series at the Luggage Store Gallery, but I was finally able to do so a week ago. The show featured two very different sets focused on electronics.

First up was the New False Gods, a “supergroup” of sorts featuring Eli Pontecorvo , Jack Hertz, Doug Lynner, Tom Djll, and R Duck.

New False Gods

I am quite familiar with all the artists and count them all as friends, but this is the first time I heard them together as this unit. Musically, this was an improvised set, but Jack Hertz’s rhythmic percussion helped provide a structural foundation for the other sounds, which varied from sparse and light to thick noisy pads. Doug Lynner provided intricate sounds on his Serge modular, and Tom Djll had an intriguing setup with trumpet driving a modular synth.

Doug Lynner, Tom Djll

Next up was Charles Xavier, aka The Xman performing a solo set with electronics and small sound makers. The central instrument in his setup was a malletKAT, an electronic MIDI mallet percussion instrument.

The Xman (Charles Xavier)

The Xman was musically quite different from the New False Gods. In addition to presenting a series of composed pieces as opposed to a set-length improvisation, his music was centered on standard tonal pitches, albeit sometimes in more atonal arrangements. There was a gentle and playful quality to many of the pieces.

Overall, it was a good night to come back to the series. Hopefully it won’t be so long before I attend again.

Outsound New Music Summit: Vision Music 

The final night of the Outsound New Music Summit featured three sets combining music with visuals. The room was dark, with all illumination coming from the visuals on the screen and the sonic elements abstractly arrayed around them.

The evening opened with Mika Pontecorvo’s project Bridge of Crows performing an improvised set to a segment Pontecorvo’s film The Bedouin Poet of Mars: The Last Poet.

Mika Pontecorvo
[Photo: PeterBKaars.com]

The film’s story is a bleak tale of a poet who is the last survivor of a once-thriving civilization on Mars, searching for a home for himself and the last surviving plant. He sees the results of several self-destructive civilizations on his journey. Despite the dark subject matter, the visuals themselves were lively and abstract at times, with lots of interesting visual and image processing.

Bedouin Poets of Mars : The Last Poet

The music moved in and out of a variety of textures and dynamic levels, though the focus remained on the visuals throughout. Joining the regular ensemble was Bob Marsh, wearing one of his trademark suits and performing on a string instrument made from a tree.

Bob Marsh
[Photo: PeterBKaars.com]

One disadvantage of the darkened environment was that I did not get to see much of Marsh or his instrument, which I would have liked to. Rounding out the ensemble were Kersti Abrams on winds, Elijah Pontecorvo on electric bass, Greg Baker on electronics, hydrophone and clarinet, Mark Pino on percussion, and Mariko Miyakawa on vocals.

Next up was Tender Buttons, a trio featuring Tania Chen on small instruments, with Gino Robair and Tom Djil on analog modular synthesizers. The trio performed sounds against live interactive video by Bill Thibault.

Tender Buttons
[Photo: PeterBKaars.com]

The set was anchored by Chen’s piano, which ranged from intricate and complex to loud and aggressive, augmented by small toy instruments. The piano interlaced with Thibault’s abstract visuals, which started out simply but grew more complex over the course of the set. Throughout, the visuals displayed words from Gertrude Stein’s poem Tender Buttons, but were increasingly mixed with the more complex elements.

Tender Buttons
[Photo: PeterBKaars.com]

Robair and Djll provided a variety of adept sounds from modular synthesizers and circuit-bent electronics to complement the piano and video.

The final set featured live interactive video by Bill Hsu with James Fei on reeds and Gino Robair returning on percussion.

James Fei with Bill Hsu visuals
[Photo: PeterBKaars.com]

I am quite from the minimalist quality in Bill Hsu’s visuals. The began with very simple geometric elements, but soon hope added a bit of controlled chaos that led to very organic elements on the screen.

Bill Hsu visuals

Befitting the visuals, the music in this set was more sparse, with moments of quiet and loud solo bursts from Robair and Fei. Robair percussion worked best with the early geometric elements, and Fei’s complex runs on saxophone worked well with the more organic visuals.

I enjoy sets that integrate visuals and music into a single unit. It can sometimes be a challenge to take everything in, much less write about it afterwards. But I hope this gives a little insight into the evening. It was a good closing concert for this years Summit, and was appreciated by those who came only that night as well as the loyal audience members who were there most or all days. This concludes the 2015 Outsound New Music Summit, and I look forward to its return next year.

San Francisco Electronic Music Festival (SFEMF): Celebrating John Cage

Today we review the opening concert of the Thirteenth Annual San Francisco Electronic Music Festival (SFEMF). The concert was a tribute to John Cage on his centennial (one of many) and took place at SFMOMA. It specifically featured four of his conceptual pieces with chance processes or novel instrumentation.

The main included a performance of Cage’s Score Without Parts on SFMOMA’s rooftop terrace, conducted by Gino Robair with texts by Tom Djll. The performance was in conjunction with the opening of the museum’s intriguing minimalist design exhibition Field Conditions. There were even hors d’oeuvres served on tiles from one of the pieces in the exhibit. Unfortunately, because of another commitment I only arrived at the tail end of the performance, so I did not hear enough to reasonably review it.


[sfSoundGroup. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

The main concert opened with members of sfSoundGroup performing Cartridge Music. This is the same piece that concluded the Music of Changes: Variation VIII concert a few weeks earlier, and featured the same personnel: Matthew Goodheart, Kyle Bruckmann, Matt Ingalls, and Tom Dambly. However, I felt that this was a stronger performance. Some of this may have been the staging and the sound support, but it also seemed that the cues for various elements were crisper and tighter, and the selection of sounds to use with the contact mics (i.e,, “catridges”) was more focused and suited to the structure of the piece. As in all music, practice and review from earlier performances helps.

This was followed by a performance of Cage’s most famous work, 4’33”. Normally, the piece is for a single pianist, but this particular performance featured a laptop ensemble. After all, it is a festival of electronic music.


[4’33” performed with laptops. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

The performers (mostly members of SFEMF’s steering committee) sat in silence, as required by the score of the piece, with a few motions here and there. The audience mostly listened respectfully as well, I only noticed a few deliberate comments at soft volume. Thus, it was a successfully executed performance of the piece. I hope none of the laptops crashed.

The score for Fontana Mix, which is itself a work of art with curving lines and randomly distributed points, is actually a tool for generating other pieces. Aria is one such piece that Cage himself generated. For this performance, Fontana Mix with electronic sounds and Aria for voice were layered on top of one another, with Daniel Steffey and Christina Stanley performing the layers on electronics and voice, respectively.


[Daniel Steffey and Christina Stanley. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

My least favorite performance of a Cage composition was a boring and long version of Fontana Mix, so I had a little bit of trepidation. But this realization by Steffey and Stanley was vibrant and dynamic. Stanley’s vocals moved between numerous styles of singing (e.g., classical, popular, cabaret) and languages, punctuated by percussive strikes on found objects. Steffey’s foundation of electronic timbres was strong as well, with a lot of variation that left room for the vocals. Using these elements, they were able to realize genuine musical phrases and structure with a sense of narrative from the abstract scores.

The final performance of the evening was a realization of Variations II by Guillermo Galindo that featured a mariachi band. A mariachi band performing John Cage is certainly unusual, but in truth no different from any other interpretation of his scores with open instrumentation. For this performance, a four-piece group Mariachi Nueva Generación with traditional costumes and instrumentation, including violin, trumpet, the distinctive large guitarrón mexicano, and guitar.


[Mariachi Nueva GeneraciónPhoto: PeterBKaars.com.a]

Like Fontana Mix, Variations II is based on graphical elements that are combined to form instances of the composition. Specifically in this case, the interpreter combines lines and dots that represent musical elements that can then be notated for the performers. The result in this instance was a very sparse texture. The musicians would often play a single or pair of disjoint notes surrounded by periods of silence. There were only a few moments where multiple members of the ensemble played at the same time. The texture is a familiar one from realizations of Cage’s indeterminate pieces, but the overall experience with the band was a novel one.

The musical performance was preceded by a video with documentation and commentary produced by Jen Cohen. The video had some fun moments, with befuddled Mills professors reacting to the idea of a mariachi band performing Cage, and allusions to the graphical elements of the Variations II score. It didn’t feel like it was necessary to the experience of the performance. Nonetheless, Galindo considered it an “inseparable part of the piece and one doesn’t exist without the other.”

Overall, it was a strong opening concert for the festival, and it was quite well attended.

John Cage, The Music of ChAnGEs: Variation VIII

Today we review The Music of ChAnGEs: Variation VIII, a concert in a yearlong series by sfSound celebrating John Cage’s centennial. This particular concert, which took place at The Lab, featured some of Cage’s more adventurous and experimental compositions, including works involving electronics and noise elements. These more conceptual pieces involved use of simple electronics, household objects, or unexpected musical sources. The scores are mostly based on sequences of instructions with absolute or relative time scales. In addition to 4’33” (which was not on the program), these are among the most celebrated examples of Cage’s music, but also among the more misunderstood and even reviled. I fall unequivocally on the side of celebration of these more radical and pioneering works, and thus I was privileged to be able to participate in this concert myself as well.

The pre-concert and intermission music featured an interpretation of One3 by John Leidecker (aka Wobbly). The piece contains the instruction to “arrange the soundsystem so that the whole hall is on the edge of feedback, without feeding back. The result is an abstract texture that goes from silent to occasionally quite loud at the unstable boundary, but the sound was also blended with the ambience of the conversations and commotion in the hall.

The formal concert opened with Radio Music. In this piece, each performer is given a written part with a sequence of AM radio frequencies to which to tune his or her radio (traditional analog broadcast AM/FM radios are required to perform this piece, no internet or digital-broadcast radios allowed). What, if anything, is audible on those particular frequencies is of course up to chance – sometimes it is just static, while other times one tunes into an actual station. Additionally, the performers were free to walk around the hall and to interpret the flow of time among positions in their part. The result was a spatialized electronic music texture with the radios playing the part of synthesizers with noise generators, distorted sine waves, and the occasional sampled recording. Particular combinations of sportscasts, music and tuning noise could be quite humorous.

This was followed by Music for Amplified Toy Pianos. Cage is often credited with bringing the toy piano into the realm of serious music with his 1948 Suite for Toy Piano. In Music for Amplified Toy Pianos, he pushes the instrument further with the use of contract microphones, amplification, and more percussive interactions with the instrument itself. Like Radio Music, the score involves a series of instructions, indicating the pitches to be played by each performer, when to perform a “sound effect” on the instrument, and when to change the level on the associated amplifier – but in this piece, the times are given in absolute units. This was my station for the performance, with my own toy piano that was rescued from curbside dumping in New York. It has certainly had a better life at CatSynth HQ, and then the opportunity to appear in a concert like this!

Performing this piece accurately requires concentration – one must pay attention to the cues on his or her own part without being distracted by the other sounds. Nonetheless, like all ensemble music one is listening to overall sound. The texture of the piece is quite sparse, with individual disjoint notes punctuated by percussive sounds (hits, scrapes, etc.). The amplification changes add a strange sort of dynamic expression especially as the ear inevitably tries to pull together disparate parts into short phrases. There was not as much empty space in this performance as I heard on earlier recordings of the piece, in part due to our interpretation of the noise elements, which included longer-duration sounds like scraping a comb on the piano and the interaction of the amplifiers with ambient and electrical noises. It was a delight to play and to be able to at least partially listen to. The other performers for the piece included Kyle Bruckmann, Daniel Cullen, Tom Djll, Sivan Eldar, Matt Ingalls, and Hadley McCarroll.

The only piece on the program not written by Cage himself was a tribute by Christopher Burns entitled Unlit Cigarettes (for John Cage). Ostensibly a multi-movement chamber piece with voices, winds, and strings, it followed the theme of other pieces in the concert with unusual patterns and instructions for the performers. Among the most interesting were the instructions for one or more performers to play on another performer’s main instrument. For example, multiple performers attempted to make sounds from Burns’ guitar while he held it. There was also a recitation of a familiar-sounding text by Gertrude Stein in one movement. Her writing often involves repeated words and phrases, which made for very contrapuntal and rhythmic music. Burns was joined in the performance by Kyle Bruckmann on oboe, Tom Dambly on trumpet, Tara Flandreau on violin, Matt Ingalls on clarinet, John Ingle on saxophone, and Hadley McCarroll on voice. You can hear a bit of the performance in this video:

This was followed by one of Cage’s most conceptual pieces, 0’00”. The score of the piece consists of the single statement “In a situation provided with maximum amplification (no feedback), perform a disciplined action.” It is often subtitled 4’33” no. 2, and although it has very little in common with the original 4’33”, it does represent another extreme of what can be considered music. The “deliberate action” in this particular performance involved Matt Ingalls’ sitting at a desk and writing checks to pay the musicians. A contact microphone picked up the sound of the writing and it was amplified into the hall. It wasn’t the most pleasant sound even when judged in comparison to the other extreme sounds of the evening, but it was a faithful rendition and the action was a humorous and appropriate choice for this concert. (And it’s nice to get paid for playing experimental music.)

[Photo by Tom Djll.]

The final piece before the intermission was Living Room Music. Dating back to 1940, this was one of Cage’s earlier pieces and explores the use of household objects as percussion instruments. Ingalls was again seated behind the desk from 0’00” with the other performers (Matthew Goodheart, Tom Dambly, and Hadley McCarroll) arranged to either side. Despite what was radical instrumentation for a concert setting at the time, the rhythmic work seemed rather conventional, with repeated polyrhythms and other patterns from idiomatic music. It was the combination of the staging, to look more like a room in a house with the desk and books, and the timbres of the “instruments” that allowed the concept of the piece to enter the listening experience. Once one accepted the setting, then focus shifts to the rhythms.


The concert resumed with Music for Six, a performance of Cage’s modular piece Music for _____ by six musicians, essentially the same ensemble that played Christopher Burns’ piece minus Burns. This is one the most flexible and reconfigurable pieces, even more of a “composition generating kit” than the others. Although the instrumentation for this performance was traditional chamber instruments, the piece calls for extensive use of microtones that push the instruments into different sonic territory.

The most unusual instrumentation of the evening was in Inlets (Improvisation III). The piece called for three amplified water-filled conch shells, one conch shell played like a trumpet, and pre-recorded sounds of fire. The honor of playing the conch shells fell to Matt Ingalls, Tom Dambly and Tom Djll.

There was much of the expected splashing and gurgling sounds that one would expect from the conch shells, but also surprising details such as short percussive sequences from the action of the water. These instruments were quite difficult for the performers to control, which makes the resulting music more unpredictable. At times it was also difficult to tell what was generated by the water in the shells and the fire in the recording, adding an aspect of “elemental ambiguity” to one’s enjoyment of the piece.

The concert concluded with a performance of Cartridge Music. The piece has a similar structure to Music for Amplified Toy Pianos and Inlets, but distills the concept further to just modified phonograph cartridges – realized for this performance using contact microphones – and found objects. The piece unfolded with each performer rubbing his or her respective found objects against the microphones according to the timed instructions in the score. The resulting music was once again quite sparse, but with a wide dynamic and timbral range from the array of objects used, including Matthew Goodheart’s cymbals (a miniature version of the system he presented a few weeks earlier at the Outsound Music Summit), metal objects in a bowl played by Kyle Bruckmann, and many others. By following the changes in texture, density and volume, one can start to hear phrasing and form in the music.

In listening to (and in some cases performing) the works in this concert with their emphasis on generative techniques, “compositional tools” and indeterminacy, I could not help but think of Fluxus, for which Cage was an important influence (though not technically a member). The connection to Fluxus provides a strong conceptual context as well as connection to visuals of the time and place where Cage created these works. Nonetheless, they all still stand out as excellent on a purely musical level in the concert setting, with sounds and textures that were quite enjoyable to listen to despite Cage’s undeserved reputation of writing impenetrable music. The concert was also well attended, with a full house packed into The Lab. A very successful night all around.

Outsound Music Summit: Fire and Energy

The final concert of the 2012 Outsound Music Summit was Fire and Energy, a night of “improvised-jazz-inspired-music.” Labeling a new-music concert as jazz can often be treacherous, with some people all-too-quick to join arguments about what does and does not qualify as “jazz.” But in the case if this evening’s artists, who all had long established histories in the world of improvised free-jazz, there should be no argument.

The concert opened with a solo set by Jack Wright, a long-time veteran and leader of the Bay Area improvised music scene. His performance began on soprano saxophone with discrete notes and short phrases filled with overtone, microtones, percussive sounds. The were some moments that were quite subtle, with long notes that had deliberate microtonal variations or timbral variations on a single pitch- I found this to be quite expressive. There were other more melodic sections that made reminded me of old popular jazz recordings from the 1930s. Wright communicated a lot of emotion in his improvisations, with some parts sounding quite plaintive, almost a lamentation, while others were bright and happy. The first have of his set ended with some exceptionally high notes.


[Jack Wright. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

Wright then switched to alto saxophone. There was something about this piece that just seemed “jazzier” – it’s difficult to pinpoint any one thing, but perhaps it is just the nature and expectations of the alto sax. This piece was also a bit louder and aggressive, with numerous scoops, bends, growls and noises. He employed extended effects with the bell to change the dynamics and timbre of the instrument (including at one point playing with the instrument pointed into his knee), and used key clicks, buzzing and voiced tones.

The next set featured Dave Bryant, first performing solo on acoustic piano and then in a trio with drummer Dax Compise and bassist Bryan Clark. Bryant is best known for his work as a member of Ornette Coleman’s Prime TIme group, and as an expert and teacher of Harmolodic Theory. His solo piano work was an impressive virtuosic display, with a barrage of fast moving chords up and down the keyboard that nonetheless were quite expressive. It felt like the music was constantly moving towards something, a bit frantically. Then all at once the energy was released as if in a sigh. He spent a fair amount of time in the often under-appreciated lower registers of the instrument, and kept the velocity of the performance going. The big loud low chords were followed by softer high chords in a moment that was reminiscent of late Romantic piano music. As he continued, he was joined on stage by Comprise and Clark, and in an instant the solo turned into an acoustic jazz trio.


[Dave Bryant Trio. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

After a short section, Bryant switch to electric keyboard and the character of music changed considerably. It became softer and dreamier, with the bass setting the tone and pace. But there was still forward motion to the performance, and more of Bryant’s virtuosic high-speed chord work that at times seemed superhuman. The pace slowed down again, with a distinctly blues-like line and then pentatonic glissandi. After another reset, a new harmony and rhythm emerged with Bryant leading the group into heavy, almost final-sounding cadences. In between, there were bass and drum solos and more frenetic work, but the cadences remained as the framework. It all came to a sudden by definite stop.

The following set featured Vinny Golia with his sextet, including Gavin Templeton on alto sax, Daniel Rosenboom on trumpet, Alex Noice on guitar, Jon Armstrong on electric bass, and Andrew Lessman on drums. Of all the performances on this evening, this one most embodied the concert title “Fire and Energy.” There was an intensity to the full ensemble in both fast runs, hits, and the driving rhythm that underpinned the set-spanning piece. It began rather quietly, with Golia on pray bowls. Soon, the other members of the group entered with long drone sounds, along with soft symbols, trumpet noise and a chime harmony. Golia always has a collection of saxophones and other wind instruments at his disposal, and he switched to a smaller instrument that looked like a soprano sax but with a bent neck, which he played together with Rosenboom on trumpet. The music gradually became more animated and evolved in a unison rhythm and eventually into a rather funky groove. I can easily get absorbed into music like this.


[Vinny Golia Sextet. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

The rhythm continued for a while, with various interruptions, including some solos – Rosenboom in particular tore it up during his trumpet solo. Then there was a sudden change in rhythm and texture, led by Templeton on alto sax. Rather then the unified driving rhythm, the ensemble played a complex intricate orchestration that still retained a rhythmic structure. There were more extended effects and sounds, such as squeaking and percussive effects, and Noice used a Kaoss Pad with his guitar. Golia switched to bass clarinet for a slower section of music that included a short four-part “chorale”. The ensemble quieted down and the prayer bowls returned, before everyone joined in for a final segment to close the set.

The final set of the evening and of the Summit as a whole was also the largest in terms of personnel. Tony Passarel’s Thin Air Orchestra is a project that brings together a large number of improvising musicians, and on this night the group swelled in number to include several musicians from the previous sets, including Vinny Golia and Dax Comprise, as well as regulars from Outsound. Festival director Rent Romus was able to temporarily remove his directors hat and play saxophones in the ensemble. Other players that evening included Ross Hammond, Randy McKean, Keith Kelly, John Vaughn, Cory Wright, Ken Kawamura, Tom Djll, CJ Borosque, Murray Campbell, Keith Cary, Mike Turgeon, Bill Noertker and Gerry Pineda.


[Tony Passarel’s Thin Air Orchestra. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

The first piece began with unison trumpets, soon joined by viola. The texture was very sparse, but they were soon joined by Hammond on guitar and the other instruments followed in a crescendo made of small bits of sound. There was a brief sax-and-flute duo, and playing inside the piano strings by Passarell. The next piece began with the rhythm section (piano, electric bass and drums) in a fast sparse motion, followed by a huge cloud of sound from the entire ensemble. The music became more rhythmic for a bit and then everyone hit one big chord.

For the next couple of pieces, vocalist Loren Benedict joined the group. After an intro with ponderous piano and then a funky rhythm, Benedict launched into an impressive stream of fast highly rhythmic scat singing. The other musicians joined in the rhythm with him. Rent Romus also had a particularly crazy double-sax solo in this piece.

One of the last pieces was softer and did not have as intense a rhythm. The guitar and viola were rather bluesy and were joined by Tom Djll with extended-technique trumpet noises. Hammond’s hard-driving guitar and minor chords combined with the others made this the ensemble’s “Miles Davis Moment” (with apologies to Raskin and Haryman from the Sonic Poetry Night). Benedict came back and joined the group for a big finale.

This was once again a long concert, but it went by rather fast given the energy and vitality of the music. It was a very strong final concert in what was a particular strong Outsound Music Summit this year.

San Francisco Electronic Music Festival, Part 1

Today we look back at the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival that took place earlier this month. Specifically, we review the opening concert which took place for the first time at SFMOMA. Appropriately for a collaboration with an institution focused on the visual arts, many of the pieces combined electronic music with graphics, video, or dance.

SFEMF is often a coming-together of people from the Bay Area electronic-music and new-music communities, and the audience was filled with familiar faces. Some even joined me in live tweeting with hashtag #sfemf during the concerts.

The concert opened with a solo performance by Sarah Howe entitled Peephole live electronic music and video.


[Sarah Howe. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

Howe describes her video work as “beautifully messy textures of low fidelity source material”. The result was quite mesmerizing, with ever-changing pixelated patterns on the large screen that pulsated and radiated, sometimes converging on seemingly recognizable images, sometimes completely abstract. The music featured highly processed electronic sounds taken from acoustic sources.

Next was Interminacy, a performance by Tom Djll and Tim Perkis based on “lost” John Cage stories, as “rescued from a Bay Area public-radio vault” (they did not say which public radio station). We hear Cage’s distinctive voice and speaking style, as recognized from his recorded interviews – see our post on John Cage’s 99th birthday for an example – with Djll and Perkis providing music in between the words supposedly derived from I-Ching. The music did cover a variety of synthesized electronic sounds, recording samples, and other elements, leaving plenty of silence as well.


[Tom Djll and Tim Perkis channel John Cage. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

It started out straightforward enough, but the narrations took a bit of a darker turn, which audience members may or may not have reacted to in amusement or horror. I personally fell into the former category, and considered this one of the more brilliant and well-crafted tributes I have heard in a long time. You can hear an excerpt from an earlier performance below (or here).

<a href=”http://djll.bandcamp.com/track/interminacy-excerpt” _mce_href=”http://djll.bandcamp.com/track/interminacy-excerpt”>Interminacy (excerpt) by Tom Djll/Tim Perkis</a>

The following performance featured Kadet Kuhne performing live with a video by Barcelona-based artist Alba G. Corral in a piece entitled STORA BJÖRN. Corral created visuals using the programming environment Processing that generated complex graphical patterns based on the constellation The Great Bear.


[Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

Kuenhe’s music weaved in and out with the visuals in undulating but ever changing textures and timbres. The result of the combined music and visuals was quite meditative – at the same time, the visuals retained a certain analytical quality perhaps because of all elements based on connected lines. Glitchy elements in the music fed back into the lines and spaces.

Plane, a collaboration Les Stuck and Sonsherée Giles featured dance, visuals together with music. Stuck’s musical performance began against a video of Giles’ dancing that was created using a special camera technique and a limited palette of colors and effects to produce a low-resolution image with no sense of perspective. It did look a bit like a heat image of a moving body.


[Les Stuck. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

At some point during the performance, Giles herself appeared on the stage and the performance transitioned to live dance. Her movement was slow and organic, and she often stayed close to the ground, as if to make herself two-dimension like the images on the screen.  Stuck’s music combined with the dance had a greater intensity than the previous music-and-visual performances on the concert, particularly in contrast to the far more delicate STORA BJÖRN that preceded it.

The concert concluded with a performance of Milton Babbit’s Philomel, performed by Dina Emerson. We lost both Milton Babbit and Max Mathews this year, and both were recognized with tribute performances during the festival. Philomel is perhaps the best known of Babbit’s famously complex compositions. You can hear an early recording of the piece in a tribute post here at CatSynth, as sung by soprano Bethany Beardslee. Emerson certainly had her work cut out for her in taking on this piece, but she came through with a beautiful and energetic performance.


[Dina Emerson performs Milton Babbit’s Philomel. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

The piece combines electronic sounds, live voice and processed recorded vocals weaved together in a fast-moving texture that preserves a narrative structure. One can alternately listen to the words as disjoint musical events or as part of the larger story. At some point, even while focused directly on Emerson’s presence, the live and recorded sounds began to merge together. The electronics often seem to match the timbre and pitch register of the voice, which aided in the illusion of a single musical source.

Overall, I thought it was a strong concert with a particularly strong finish. It also was somewhat shorter and faster paced, with no intermission or long pauses between sets, which I thought was quite effective.

I also attended the Saturday concert and will review that in an upcoming article.