Outsound Music Summit: The Art of Composition

The Outsound Music Summit continued last Friday with “The Art of Composition”, performances of new works by Krystyna Bobrowski, Gino Robair, Andrew Raffo Dewar and Kanoko Nishi. I had heard these four composers discuss their work at the panel session a few days earlier. Now it was time to hear their music.

There was an impressive array of equipment on the stage. Much of it was for Krys Bobrowski’s two pieces.

Balloons have definitely been a big theme of this year’s summit. (Tom Djll featured a balloon in the previous night’s concert, and Tom Nunn featured them in his instrument the following night) In this case, the balloon was used as a resonator in Bobrowski’s Lift, Loft and Lull. Gino Robair struck the “gong”, the large metal rectangle, and brought the balloon close to it. The combination of the balloon’s acoustics and the connected microphone produced a unique resonance effect (and a clever use of acoustic and electronic effects). Against this, Bobrowski played a wildly curved orange horn-like instrument made from kelp that brought to mind a shofar.

The second movement brought the duo together on a single instrument, a large metallic xylophone-like instrument where long tubes were resting on…balloons(!). At first, they played the instrument in a standard way, producing percussive melodies with mallets. But over time, they began to explore different sounds of the instrument, such as rubbing the tubes, and also producing a sound that suggested a motorized device. They also placed different preparations on the instrument to invoke different effects and articulations.

You can see an excerpt of the performance in this video:

Bobrowski and Robair also performed a piece featuring the composer’s glass glass instrument in a duet with wine glasses. I had last heard Bobrowski play gliss glass at the benefit dinner. It was interesting to hear the instrument contrasted with the wine glasses.

[Bobrowski and Robair. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

Robair played them traditionally, rubbing the rims to produce strong resonances, but also used tapping and splashing in the water as percussion. The gliss glass vessels, by contrast, can be drained and filled while they are played, resulting in pitch-bend effects that were put to strong use in the piece. There was lots of complex phrasing as well as eerie harmonies and unexpected sound effects. At times, the harmonies were more anxious and expectant, while at other moments they approached romantic tonality.

[Andrew Raffo Dewar’s Interactions Quartet. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

Andrew Raffo Dewar’s Interactions Quartet presented Dewar’s new piece Strata, which was inspired by a series of paintings by Argentine artist Eduardo Serón. You can see examples of Serón’s work in this video. His abstract paintings – which I, too, found musically inspiring – feature simple shapes and colors in tight compositions. These simple but powerful visual elements were reflected the clean acoustic notes and sounds of the music. It started out very sparsely, with individual disconnected notes on each instrument. Individual notes became short phrases, and eventually slightly longer lines that intertwined in an undulating counterpoint. The music was quite meditative, with the modal quality and contrapuntal texture, but also had a strong emotional undercurrent. One interesting moment featured the saxophone (Dewar), oboe (Kyle Bruckman) and marimba (Gino Robair) converging into a single pitch range and timbre. Eventually, the complex rhythms coalesced into a single triple meter with a strong driving rhythm anchored by John Shiurba’s percussive guitar and metric beating of ankle bells by Robair. Above the metric foundation one could hear playful descending lines. After staying together rhythmically for a while, the different lines and instruments went their own ways, with various shakers, harmonics on guitar and english horn, and an impressive passage of multiphonics by Dewar on soprano sax – all still remaining within a strong sense of counterpoint.

Kanoko Nishi presented her original graphic scores as interpreted Tony Dryer on contrabass and Italian guitarist and visual artist IOIOI. It would have been interesting to see Nishi’s graphical scores, but the darkened room and minimal setting left ample opportunity for imagination. We did get a taste of what we were in for as Tony Dryer was setting up and soundchecking his equipment, and we were treated to several ear splitting bursts of loud feedback. The performance itself, however, began quite subtly with Dryer bowing very quietly on the bass. Every so often, there would be a louder scraping sound on the bass before returning to minimal levels. Then, all at once, there was a loud hit followed by a long LOUD sustain and feedback. These deliberate and had a great tone, but it was still very loud. When it finally cut out, it was like shutting off a very loud engine – there was even the rumbling slowing to a series of clicks. This was followed by a loop of low-frequency bass notes at a modest volume, which settled into a bit of a groove with noisier sounds layered on top. Eventually, higher electrical noises and squeaks overtook the sounds of the bass. Dryer concluded by playing the stand of the bass (now resting horizontally) with what appeared to be an instrument string.

[IOIOI. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

The performance then transitioned seemlessly to IOIOI, who was also set up in front of the stage with minimal lighting. She began with long sustained notes in a tonality that sounded Middle Eastern, both in terms of the scale and the use of microtones and pitch bends. Things quickly grew louder, with high screeching tones and loud sustained tones that obscured the otherwise beautiful detailed guitar technique. As things quieted down a bit, I was able to focus more on the fine details, such as bends metallic resonances. IOIOI employed preparations in her guitar at times, such as chopsticks, that gave the instrument a more raspy, percussive sound. She also used bowing that yielded a vigorous passage of scratching tones. Overall, a virtuosic display.

[Ensemble Aguacalientes.  Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

Gino Robair returned for his third appearance of the evening, this time to present his Ensemble Aguacalientes, featuring Polly Moller on flutes and ocarinas, John Shiurba on guitar, Loren Mach on marimba, Jim Kassis on percussion and Scott Walton on bass. Aguacalientes is “a musical suite based on scenes captured by Jose Guadalupe Posada in his politically charged engravings of late19th -and early 20th-century life in Mexico”, many of which feature skulls and skeletons, or calaveras. In keeping with this source, the instrumentation of the ensemble reflects Mexican folk and popular music, including the ocarinas and percussion. The piece began with a very sparse texture, where short melodic lines on the flute headjoint were punctuated by percussion hits. Soon an array of other percussion, including a guiro, and the guitar and bass joined in, with numerous rhythmic lines set oddly against one another. The ocarina lines were longer and more traditionally melodic, but with the instrument’s distinctive sound. There were interesting timbral moments, such as a sinister interplay between harmonics on the bass and guitar, and a more gentle combination of string-bass and bass-flute harmonics. I did find myself listening to the polyrhythms that emerged at various points during the piece, and for the more idiomatic moments that channeled the Mexican subject matter.

Overall, it was a strong concert, and seemed well received by the large audience. I was also left thinking about the often boisterous debate in the Bay Area new-music community between composition and improvisation. Having heard the improvisation-centric and composition-centric nights of the summit back-to-back, I am struck by how much similarity there was – one could have interleaved pieces from both nights into a single concert and ended up with a result that was musically consistent.

Rent Romus and Emergency String (X)tet, Meridian Gallery

Last month, I attended the CD release of Emergency Rental at the Meridian Gallery. Emergency Rental is a collaboration between the Emergency String (X)tet and Rent Romus “exploring sound in and outside the elements of free improvisation between saxophone and strings.”

The personnel for the Emergency String (X)tet changes (hence the “x”), but does have a stable core of regulars. Founder Bob Marsh was joined by Doug Carroll on cello, with Adria Otte, Angela Hsu and Jonathan Segel on violins, Kanoko Nishi on bass koto, and Tony Dryer on contrabass.

Overall, the music moved back and forth seamlessly between free improvisation with extended techniques and passages that borrowed from more idiomatic jazz ideas. Early on, there was a bit of a shuffle beat and jazz-like saxophone lines set against more anxious tones from the strings, a mixture of both long tones and pizzicato. There were times when the saxophone and strings seemed to match one another in both tone and musical structure, such as a section that featured glissandi and scraping tones. The next section featured long bass notes and more scratching melodies set against a very lyrical saxophone line. This gave way to loud growling saxophone against a rich pad of strings.

One piece focused on extended techniques, including prepared strings with chopsticks and other items placed between the strings and bodies of the instruments – something I have often seen the Emergency String (X)tet do. Doug Carroll also reoriented his cello upside-down and sideways at various times. Romus played his saxophone without a mouthpiece, blowing directly into the body the way one might on a brass instrument. He also used a sound that I dubbed the “angry breath noises.”

The second half started off very percussive, and even though the ensemble was entirely acoustic, this section reminded me of the analog electronics in early electronic music like Stockhausen’s Kontakte. This segued into a more idiomatic duo of saxophone and walking bass was set against atonal glissandi from the other strings. There were other interesting sections, such as a syncopated rhythm that came together and broke apart, and a section of pure percussion by all the instruments that reminded me of tapping and bouncing balls.
Emergency Rental, which marks Romus’ 25th album release, is available from Edgetone Records.

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 2010 Annual Transbay Skronkathon

As summer drew to a close, much of the Bay Area new music community gathered at 21 Grand for our annual ritual of live musical performance, socializing and tasty barbecued treats known as the Annual Transbay Skronkathon. The Skronkathon is also a benefit for the Transbay Creative Music Calendar, a free print publication that serves the creative music community here with event listings and articles (including several from this site).

I had been planning my own part in this ritual since, well, last year’s Skronkathon when Polly Moller discovered that my CatSynth review had been reposted in “spammogrified form” by another website. That became the basis for this years performance, which featured a reading of the spammogrified text and the inexplicable repeated phrase as a dominate. Another thing that was different this year was our “live tweeting team” of myself, Polly Moller and Tom Duff. It sort of happened spontaneously. It seems a bit difficult to search for the past #skonkathon posts via Twitter, but I have collected them all and will sprinkle a few throughout this article. (Look for the @ signs.)

[Live tweeting.  Photo by Suki O’kane. (Click to enlarge.)]

In fact, one of Tom’s live tweets described the duo of Ann O’Rourke and Carlos Jennings as “a disco remix of Berio’s Visage”. I am sorry I did not arrive earlier – it’s hard to pass up something with a description like that.

Rachel Wood-Rome. Photo by Michael Zelner.

I did arrive in time to see Rachel Wood-Rome’s performance for solo horn. Her melodic performance seemed like a snippet from a 19th or early 20th century concerto, minus the orchestra. However, in listening I started to fill in an orchestral part myself. She then presented a sing-along of a piece with lyrics by Max Gutmann. It included this refrain song with a minor melody in 5/8 time:

Our librarian is Miss Marion
she is scary an’ very old
pause and pity us
’cause she’s hideous
very hairy an’ likes to scold

Wood-Rome was followed by Respectable Citizen. Usually the duo of Bruce Bennet and Michael Zbyszynski, they were actually a trio on this occasion with the guest appearance of Jeff Ridenour on violone. For those not familiar with the violone, it is a large bowed stringed instrument with frets, closer to the viols used in Renaissance and baroque music than to the modern orchestral string family. The set started off softly with flute, picking on the violone, and stringy ethereal sounds.

[Respectable Citizen.  Photo by Michael Zelner.  (Click to enlarge.)]

The next piece featured more noise and distortion, with scratching sounds on the violone and a particularly interesting moment with the keyboard resonated together with squeaking sounds from the saxophone. There was also a section of “loungy free jazz” – which is certainly fun for me – mixed with some FM-like sounds.

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Respectable Citizen was followed T.T.F.W.’z. If I had to describe their performance, it would be “punk skronking”, with loud, fast, driving rhythms and noisy squawks, squeaks and long strings of notes. And they had their own fan section doing 1990s-style jumping-up-and-down dancing. Given the loudness, I opted to enjoy their set from the alley, and even relive a bit of my youth by briefly demonstrating this form of dance to some of my musical colleagues.

The next set was one I was quite looking forward to: a duo of Matt Davignon with “a table full of junk” (as Tom Duff delicately described it) and Eric Glick Rieman on prepared electric piano. I am quite fond of electric piano (e.g., Fender Rhodes) and interested in prepared acoustic piano, but this was first time I had seen and heard the two concepts together.

[The prepared electric piano. (Click to enlarge.)]

The sounds of the Rieman’s instrument and Matt’s drum machines and effects ranged from high and tinny, to scratchy, glitchy, or sometimes more bell-like. The piano certainly made some unique sounds: boings. bell-like scratching and other effects that made the purely electronic sounds seem tame by comparison On occasion, the instrument’s piano-like quality would stand out, and one could hear the tines that are characteristic of electric pianos. At other times it was more aggressive and percussive. Rieman’s playing style brought out this quality, and I found myself watching the mechanics of the instrument as I was listening to the music. There was moment that seemed like film music, with long piano notes set against “squishy sounds” from Matt Davignon’s electronic effects. And then a sound that reminded me of marbles. There were anxious harmonies, and rhythms on top of rhythms in samples.

[Matt Davignon and Eric Glick Reiman.  Photo by Michael Zelner. (Click to enlarge.)]

Next up was blipvert (aka Will Northlich-Redmond). Standing behind a table with an Alesis Air and a Pioneer DJ controller, he launched into an intense and frenetic blast of music and choreography (@TomDuff He doesn’t *act* like a guy in cargo pants & a black teeshirt). The electronics were all controlled by his voice or other live sounds and gestures, so when he shouted or snapped or spun around or fell and the floor only to spring back up moments later, it would trigger a new sound or change in the sonic process. The hits and squeaks and thuds and sample loops and retro-1980s synthesizer sounds were perfectly timed to his over-the-top theatrics and choreography. It is clear that he spent a lot of time practicing and perfecting this. And it was definitely a fun performance to watch! Just when it seemed he was running out of energy and about to collapse from exhaustion, he got back up with a shout and launched into the next one. It is difficult to describe in words, but you can get a flavor from his videos from other performances. And the videos do not give the full sense of the energy.

[Blipvert.  Shared by @TomDuff on twitter.  (Click to see original post.)]

Blipvert was followed by Blowout Preventer (@TomDuff fresh from their gig at Deepwater Horizon), a clarinet quartet featuring Philip Greenlief, Dan Plonsey, Ceylan Yagmur and Michael Zelner. I am always intrigued by clarinet ensembles, having played the instrument in the past and written a piece for clarinet quartet. This performance began with whaling sounds that sounded like sirens, and then suddenly became quiet and harmonic and even contrapuntal. An intricate rhythm emerged in the sum of the four parts – even though each part seemed relatively simple, the interaction was complex. There was also a section with long growling tones, followed by more harmonic sounds; scraping of mouthpieces set against multiphonics; and a waltz that was interrupted.

Next up was Kattt and Ron, a duo of Kattt Atchley on Ron Heglin on vocals with electronics. Their set began with long electronic drones with beating patterns. Heglin began his vocal incantations in this backdrop, with his words soft and purposefully hard to discern. The drone, which was slowly but continually changing, had a generally minor harmony, but with inharmonic tones and continued beating patterns. The overall effect was very meditative. There were some odd facial expressions as the vocals became more noisy. By this time, both Atchley and Heglin were performing with voice, gradually becoming more harmonic and moving between unisons and perfect intervals. I was able to hear the voices both as a single unit and as individuals, the male and female contrast. The sounds gradually faded to a single beating tone at the end with a sprinkle of more percussive vocalizations.

[Kattt Atchley and Ron Heglin. Photo by Michael Zelner.]

As always happens at Skronkathon, I miss the set right before my own as I set up and prepare. In this, the set featured Bob Marsh on classical guitar, CJ Borosque on pedals an turntable, and Sandra Yolles on electronic percussion.

This is as good a time to mention the work of art that served as a backdrop for the performances, perhaps the most beautiful that I have seen at 21 Grand. The piece is by Dina Rubiolo and is titled 13th Ave. It features 8500 35mm slides arranged into the shape of a building facade and backlit. (@pollymoller Stage area has a striking backdrop: a proscenium arch made of backlit photographic slides.)

It was then time for our performance. I recited the entirety of the spammogrified text (you can see a copy here), while Polly performed the refrain “as a dominate” as it appeared within the text, complete with props and choreography. It was interesting to both read (and hear) how my text was affected by the various translators and other processes that may have been used. Certain phrases kept popping out, such as “plum sonorous” and “plum decorous” – I think “plum” was the retranslated equivalent of “rather” or “quite”, which I often use in my writing. Soft instruments or musical passes were re-worded as “sissified”, and several people seemed to enjoy the phrase “sissified trombone” – and some people also had fun hearing their own names of those of their friends and colleagues appear in the middle of the barely comprehensible narrative.

[Amar and Polly.  Photo by Michael Zelner.  (Click to enlarge.)]

In terms of technology and instrumental accompaniment, I kept things rather sparse. I opted to only use the iPad, running the Smule Magic Piano and the a granular synthesis app called Curtis. As source material, I used some pre-recorded passes of myself reciting the text.

(@TomDuff Decourous as a notwithstanding. #skronkathon(Amar and Polly.). As a dominate)

We were followed by RTD3, with Doug Carrol on cello, Tom Nunn on his invented instruments, Ron Heglin on trombone and voice. They are always a fun group to watch. (@catsynth Scraping sounds percussive cello trombone and vocal blah blah. Some particularly interesting moments included all three instruments making percussive scraping sounds, Carrol performing the cello like a guitar and also upside-down, and a moment whether the tone of bowed cello and the skatch box and the two blended together. There were some very soft moments, such as soft staccato trombone tones, and a low drone-like rumble from the ensemble. There was also a series of sounds that conjured up the image of a scampering mouse.

Next was a trio of Matt Ingalls on clarinet, Tom Scandura on percussion, and Thomas Dimuzio on Moog guitar. This was the first time I had heard a Moog guitar in a live performance setting. Knowing the musicians involved, I knew in advance this was going to be a loud set (@catsynth Scandura, Ingalls and Dimuzio trio will definitely not be sissified). The music started off with a dramatic film-like drone, with the clarinet coming though on top. The drums gradually got louder and started to match. From this point, there was mixture of fast runs and loud notes, some sections that sounded like 1960s free jazz and others that seemed to follow a more Middle Eastern scale. At some point, both the clarinet and the electronic guitar become more inharmonic and the drums got wilder and louder. Then suddenly a beat entered into the music, a bit of a slow rock shuffle or rock ballad overlaid with dark ambient guitar sounds. Matt Ingalls switched the violin at one point during the set. As the music started to feel more relaxed, it suddenly get loud again with FM-like sounds and acoustic drum, and then it got “super loud”. Even within the loudness, one could hear interesting details, such as a latin beat and a phrygian scale, and a really loud high-pitched squeak.

The contrast to the next set, a duo of Philip Greenlief and David Boyce, was rather dramatic. Although it was full of fast virtuosic runs, it was relatively quiet and spacious. There were moments where the seemed to go into unison, or where the rhythm seemed to stand still, before returning to the fast and complex runs. There were also a variety of interesting breathing sounds, mouthpiece effects, and other extended techniques. At one point, it sounded like a bird or a creature that was “laughing”.

[Greenlief and Boyce in front of Dina Rubiolo’s artowrk.  (Click to visit original post.)]

The combination of the relative calm of the set and the time of the evening made this one that truly took advantage of the backdrop provided by Rubiolo’s artwork. I featured this image of Greenlief and Boyce in front of it in a previous Wordless Wednesday.

They were followed by another duo, Gino Robair and John Shiurba under the name G / J. Robair was billed as playing “voltage made painful”, and incorporated a Blippo Box, as well as a drum machine, effects boxes and a device for pre-recorded samples into the mix. Shiurba played guitar with a variety of extended techniques, including using a superball to excite the strings. The were lots of fast cuts and cartoonish moments, with boinks and slaps and machine noises. The Blippo Box had a liquidy organic sound that contrasted with finger-picking on the guitar. At one point in the performance, Robair set in motion a rather funky rhythm loop that sounded for a bit, then came in and out and decayed into grains of sound (@catsynth I want Gino to keep that funky rhythm background going longer. As a dominate.). There were moments that were a bit more aggressive, with loud piercing sounds, but then others that were…well, “plum sonorous” and featured minor harmonies.

[G / J in front of the wall of beauty.  Photo shared on twitter by @TomDuff. (Click to visit original post.)]

Next up was Wormses, a trio of Jacob Felix Heule (percussion), Tony Dryer (bass) and Bobby Adams (electronics). The set started with a low rumble and hum, with the bass soon coming on top of scratchy electronic sounds and Heule playing a cymbal against a bass drum. The music became more anxious and busy over time, with some electronic insect-like sounds coming in above the other parts. Then all of a sudden things got very soft. A rhythm emerged in the background, but barely audible behind the bass and cymbal. As the set continued, a walking bass line came out of nowhere, then lots of swells and glissandi. Gradually, the music built back up to a rather loud level, a couple sounds that were like clipping and feedback, and ultimately ending with the sounding of the bass drum.

I think that was where I walked out to the alley for another break. There was lasagna!

The final set featured Ghost in the House, with Karen Stackpole (percussion), Tom Nunn (invented musical instruments), David Michalak (lap-steel guitar) and Andrew Voigt (who was sitting in for Kyle Bruckman on winds). I had heard them previously at the Wind Moon Concert back in April, and their sound is quite ethereal and airy, even for the percussion and lap-steel guitar. As with the previous performance, they began with a procession, of elemental instruments. The room was dark, except for the light from the 35mm slides in front. The performers then took their places for the remainder of the performance. The sounds were quite subtle at times, slightly minor, and sometimes like old film or radio soundtracks with eerie wind sounds mixed in. The metal instruments (primarily Stackpole’s gongs on Nunn’s instruments) served as a foundation, with the sounds of the wind instruments floating above. In addition to the long atonal sounds, there were moments with high squeaks and east-Asian harmonies and timbres. In the final piece, Stackpole played on an interesting metal-tube instrument and also used a vinyl record as percussion. Michalak’s lap-steel guitar featured prominently in this piece as well. The overall effect sounded electronic, even though the ensemble was purely acoustic instruments. The night concluded with the ensembles recessional from the room, still appropriately dark.

(@casynth #skonkathon concludes. Good night)

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Emergency (X)tet, Meridian Gallery (and The Candy Store)

Last Saturday I attended a performance of the Emergency (X)tet at the Meridian Gallery. Unlike a normal string quartet or quintet, the number of performers in the (X)tet is variable. And on this particular evening X was equal to 7, with Adria Otte, Angela Hsu, and Jonathan Segel on violin, Bob Marsh and Doug Carroll on cello, Kanoko Nishi on bass koto, and Tony Dryer on contrabass.

All Emergency (X)tet performances involve free improvisation. But like all good free improvisation, a structure emerges within each piece. Some sections focused on short tone bursts, others on long harmonics, and others on extended techniques such as striking the body of the instrument. I particularly noticed the use of “prepared violin”, in which objects were inserted between the strings of the violin to change the timbre and performance characteristics (similar to a prepared piano). At various points the violins as well as the contrabass were all performing with various rods inserted in between the strings.

In the second half of the performance, the string (X)tet was joined by Kinji Hayashi performing butoh dance. Butoh dance emerged in post-World War II Japan. Most performances of butoh that I have seen involve very slow and deliberate motion, usually in white make-up and has an overall dark or absurdist theme. As with the purely instrumental pieces, the dance movements were improvised in response to the music, but it had an overall structure. Hayashi first emerged from the hall covered in newspaper, forming a sort of a sort of “newspaper monster” or large mass moving slowly. Every so often, one could glimpse his hands or face underneath.

[Click to enlarge image.]

The slow movements were punctuated by dramatic or even comical fast motions (at one point, an audience member’s purse was pulled underneath the newspaper). As the piece unfolded, more and more of the newspaper was cast away to reveal the dancer in full traditional costume, with dramatic movements along the full length of Meridian’s performance space. As with many improvised pieces, the ending came at an unexpected moment.

On display at the Meridian Gallery during the performance was the exhibition The Candy Store featuring the work of John deFazio and Leigha Mason. DeFazio’s 100 Xerox collages based on cantos from Dante’s Divine Comedy was on display in the music room, and was probably the closest aligned to my artistic interests, featuring graphic and text images in black and white. Some were abstract, some featured cultural or historical references, others included disturbing imagery. He also designed several large funerary urns with very whimsical designs dedicated to mythical figures as well as popular culture. The title piece for the exhibition was Mason’s life-size candy shop installtion. The resin and sugar objects are bright and translucent, and seem very inviting, until one gets closer and sees the hair and fingernails embedded within. Mason seems to play upon this mixture of invitation and revulsion, which also was apparent in her accompanying drawings that featured children with grotesque faces expressing joy, perhaps that of “kids in a candy store”.

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.