Cordelia, Theatre of Yugen

Cordelia is a Noh adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear presented by Theatre of Yugen at NOHspace. The play is a combination of old and new. It draws its structure and performance elements from the tradition of Noh and its source text from Shakespeare, both centuries old. But the actual text by Erik Ehn, music by Suki O’Kane and production directed by Jubilith Moore are wholly contemporary. They draw heavily from the traditional sources, but are in no way limited by them. Enh’s text is a rearrangement of lines from the original Shakespeare but focused on the point of view of Cordelia (King Lear’s youngest daughter) minimized to fit within the constraints of Noh. Polly Moller performs on standard concert and bass flutes and a bagpipe chanter, but expertly invokes the attacks, pitch bends and timbral shifts of traditional Japanese music. Sheila Berotti plays the tradition role of the chorus, but as a single voice with a shruti box (a drone instrument usually found in Indian classical music). The main element of the set, a bridge that folds into to descending segments, seems very contemporary and industrial – but it is in fact an adaptation of the traditional hashigakari from Noh theater.

In the first act, Cordelia (played by Moore) appears as a member of a royal court and recounts her refusal to flatter her father, the king, with words, which leads to her being disowned and exiled. In the second act, she returns in the form of a warrior, reflecting her return to England at the end of the play in an attempt to save her father that ultimately ends tragically. In the interlude, we meet the Fool (played by Lluis Valls), who both recites lines from the original play and provides a synopsis of the story. He serves as a comic counterpoint, and as a practical guide for those either unfamiliar with the original King Lear or new to structure of Noh theater. (One particularly fun moment was when he relates the marriages of Cordelia’s sisters, he pauses with a slight look and sound of disgust for the rather creepy Duke of Cornwall.)


[Click to enlarge.]

Overall the elements of the performance, the music, the set design, the text, the movement all have a very minimalist quality. There is a lot of empty space in the slow and deliberate movements of Moore as Cordelia and chanting of the text. Similarly, the music is very sparse. The flute lines are composed from small sets of notes that explore timbre, dynamics and abrupt rhythmic changes. The silence between the flute, text and motion is occasionally punctuated by loud hits on the snare drum (performed by Anna Wray). The space left me ample opportunity to escape from the narrative of the play and instead focus on specific details, such as qualities of the flute performance, the text on wall of the set, the occasional harmonic swells of the shruti box, or details of the lighting.

The main exception to the overall minimalism was the costume design by Risa Dye. Cordelia’s two costumes are both quite elaborate. They combine the multiple layers often found in Noh costumes with rather ornate and highly textured elements reminiscent of Elizabethan England (at least as seen in paintings from the time). The costume of the Fool was something else again, a hooded suit covered entirely in text (taken from another play by Ehn). It helped to emphasize the character of the Fool as a “word artist”, and also contribute to his more frenetic character in contrast to the rest of the performance.

The words were also present on the wall of the set (designed by Joshua McDermott). The wall was inspired by memorial walls, in particular from the genocides in Rwanda and the Balkans in the 1990s. Phases from Ehn’s plays were used in place of names. In addition to its direct meaning, the wall evoked for me a sense of urban space with graffiti, which is central in my own visual work.

It is interesting to reflect on how easily the minimalist and non-linear elements of Noh seem to translate into a contemporary work of art, and also provide opportunity for reflection and meditation. At the same time, the structure provides enough space for contemporary visual and musical elements to poke through. As such, it provides some ideas and inspiration for future work.

Cordelia continues with additional performances at Theatre of Yugen tonight (May 5) through Saturday May 7.

[All photos in this article courtesy of Theatre of Yugen.]

ReCardiacsFly at Cafe Du Nord

I have been busily preparing for the next show, coming up this weekend:

Members of Rennaissance Fly (myself, Polly Moller, and Tim Walters) are teaming up with Moe! Staiano, Chris Broderick, Marc Laspina and Suki O’Kane as “ReCardiacs Fly”, a tribute cover of the UK band Cardiacs.

It is been a bit of a challenge to learn our four pieces, approximately note for note and also capture the energy of the originals.

One fun bit to re-create was the synthesizer line from “Hello Mr. Sparrow.” We found this video on YouTube, featuring a Mellotron and Sequential Circuits Pro One:

Well, I don’t have either of those devices, but I can approximate the Pro One with the Dave Smith Evolver (it is essentially the successor to the Sequential Circuits instruments):

The most challenging song we are doing is R.E.S., you can get an idea of what we are up against in this Cardiacs’ video:

It has been great to hear things coming together in our rehearsals, and it should be a good show next weekend. Polly photos from our most recent rehearsal.

Official info below:

Sunday, May 8. 6PM-10:30PM
Cafe Du Nord
2170 Market Street

San Francisco, CA
$10 donation at the door

This is a benefit for Tim Smith, leader and founder of the UK band Cardiacs. From Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cardiacs):

Cardiacs are an English alternative rock/psychedelic pop band formed in 1977 and led by Smith. Noted for their complex, varied and intense compositional style and for their eccentric, theatrical stage shows, they have been hailed as an influence by bands as diverse as Blur, Faith No More and Radiohead.

In 2008, Smith suffered a stroke, and has not been able to perform or finish the new Cardiacs record. From the official website (http://www.cardiacs.com/):

Since the accident Tim Smith’s body has become his enemy. He is in a great deal of pain and is experiencing difficulty with the finer points of control with regard to his extremities so obviously perfected prior to the unhappy event, but Tim Smith, his family and those so called friends, (with whom he keeps counsel), all assert that his mind, however, has been sharpened by the episode. THE ALPHABET BUSINESS CONCERN can confirm that no part of YOUR favourite pop star’s intellect or personality has been found to be absent WHATSOEVER.

Last year, a tribute CD Leader of the Starry Skies was released (http://www.thegenepool.co.uk/items/597.htm), with all proceeds going directly to Smith. Our plan is for the May 8 concert to have all funds go to Tim. Our friend Kavus Torabi is the lead guitarist in Cardiacs, and he is our contact for making sure the funds reach Smith.

Performing will be Dominique Leone, Wiener Kids, Inner Ear Brigade, Grex, Amy X Neuburg, ReCardiac Fly, performing the music of Cardiacs/Tim Smith.

Ivy Room Hootelatkenanny, December 2010

Today we look back at the Ivy Room Hootelatkenanny, the December edition of the Ivy Room Hootenany improvised music series. The Ivy Room in Albany, CA, has in fact turned into a great venue for new music, with many performances even beyond this long-running series. The combination of music, mixed drinks and quirky decor seem to come together.

Despite the play on words in the title, there was nothing Hannukah-related about the performances that evening.

The first set featured a quartet I put together with Bill Wolter on guitar, Dave “Djembe” Coen on percussion and JP O’Keefe on drumset. Gear-wise, I kept things pretty minimal, with just the Dave Smith Evolver and the iPad running Curtis and the Korg iMS-20 apps.

I started out the set with my usual metallic patch on the Evolver, and quickly added granular sweeping with Curtis. Slowly the percussion came in, with soft rolls on the cymbals and djembe. As Bill Wolter with soft chromatic harmonies on guitar, I switched to a different Evolver patch and to the iMS-20 with some analog-like arpeggios. These set up a rhythmic foundation which the drums matched with a strong 16-note rhythm – the tempo and pulse were reminiscent of disco but texture and individual rhythmic phrases were more complex – something akin to 1970s fusion. The iMS-20 served as a de facto bass with heavily filtered patches set against the guitar improvisation – at various times I opted for a softer tone like an electric bass, others a highly synthetic sound like a “techno bass.” Harmonically and melodically, we danced around blurs, pentatonic, chromatic and tri-tone patterns against the ever changing but steady pulse rhythm of the two percussionists. At one point, Bill started playing the strings below the bridge and I used this sound effect opportunity to return to Curtis. We kept the pulse going for a bit, then cut out for a quiet moment. Then the rhythm gradually re-emerged, a bit more tribal and accented off beat, and with more inharmonic timbres on synth and guitar. Then we returned the jam feel with guitar, bass and drums, and continued in one of these patterns or another for the remainder of the set, at one point switching to a 6/8 rhythm with a more humorous sounding synth line. I have to admit, this was one of the most fun I have played in a while, both idiomatic and experimental at the same time, both completely free-form and rhythmically structured. I will have to get this quartet back together again sometime soon!

We were followed by the duo of Kenneth and Kattt Atchley. Their music also combined experimental electronic elements with a strong idiomatic style, in their case something reminiscent of late-night electronic music at dance clubs or lounges. They did several distinct pieces during their set. The had a slow steady rhythm with soft electric-piano chords set against analog or analog-like electronic sounds, relative high pitched with pitch LFO. The chords and rhythm continue in a very moody, almost R&B fashion while the high pitched electronic sounds ride above more rapidly. Then all at once it stops, replaced by a very distant-sounding synth pad, and the voices and poetry returned amidst the sparser texture. The music moved back and forth seemelessly between these two overall textures. Kenneth and later Kattt at various moments intone “I wouldn’t change a thing” and descriptive phrases about “East Bay nights” and “Pacific Fog cooling the air”. The texture eventually gave way to harsher electrical noises and pulsating sounds that still have a harmony of their own – and one can still hear minor chords in the background. When the chords and rhythm return to the forreground, there are a bit more fragmented than before.

The next piece was entitled Over Ice. It started with very liquidy and crystalline sounds, with words and melody in a descending minor scale. There was something vaguely religious or spiritual sounding about this pattern, almost like a chant. A sparse rhythm emerges, and the high crystalline sounds remain in the background. It eventually because very abstract, with electronic hits and noises sounding at first in a random pattern that gradually becomes more rhythmic. After a monologue section, the original melodic pattern returned, but with a more rhythmic foundation.

The final set featured Dean Santomieri with Michael Zelner on reeds, and Suki O’Kane “massaging the skins”, i.e. on percussion. It consisted of improvisation around a series of poems featuring “spine words” and “spine phrases” based on Jonathan Franzen’s best-seller Freedom. Things opened with resonating cymbols and Santomieri’s introductions, followed by the initial poem based on the spine word “Franzen.” The music consisted of short clarinet and percussion phrases filling in the spaces in between Santomieri’s words, with some more extended instrumental lines. The overall texture was very sparse with individual notes, but also some jazzy phrases and some extended wind techniques set against a diversity of percussive sounds. Among the spine phrases used were “left right rhetoric”, “Lolita” and perhaps the most memorable “Franzen, Franzen, Franzen”. Indeed, the author’s name was frequently used in many playful contexts, such as “Franzomancy reveals a function, the zen idolatry…”. Section with more complex and richly tonal words followed by noisier and squeakier instrumentals. During one of the poems, Zelner switched to extended-technique flute, which was set against small metallic and wooden percussion from O’Kane. He returned to clarinet this time employing multiphonics for the final poem, which again used the spine “Franzen, Franzen, Franzen”.

Polly Moller at Trinity Chapel

Today we look back at a concert of works by Polly Moller at Trinity Chapel in Berkeley, CA that I attended back in December. This concert was a large undertaking, not only with a full night of music by a single composer, but a large cast of characters from the Bay Area new-music scene, as one might see at an event like the Skronkathon, but in this case all working towards a single purpose and vision. There were several pieces I was already familiar with from previous performances, including two that I have performed myself. Three others were being premiered. Mythology and narrative seemed to permeate all of the pieces, whether drawn from specific mythological stories or unfolding through rituals and rule-based processes.

(As with several of the larger performances and events I attended last year, I was live tweeting @catsynth, and have included a few choice tweets in this larger review.)

The concert opened with a performance of The Flip Quartet. I had first seen it performed at Hypnogogia at the Climate Theater in 2009, and then had the opportunity to participate in a performance myself later the same year. This performance brought back the original lineup of Karl Evangelista, Jason Hoopes, Thomas Scandura and Bill Wolter. Four stations were set up, representing the four cardinal directions and the traditional elements of air, water, fire and earth. At each station was an array of instruments and other objects that in some way represented that element (e.g., wind instruments at the air station, electrical instruments at the fire station, etc.). Each performer starts at a station and improvises using the objects for two minutes before advancing to the next and repeating the process. Musically, this can really go in many any number of directions (no pun intended) based on the particular objects available and the sensibilities of the performers involved. Often the sounds happen coincidentally, but every so often the four performers come together and produce that is musically integrated (@catsynth Lots of nice gurgling and drumming and whistling. Strong musical moment.) This was the first time I had seen the piece performed on a traditional proscenium. The previous performances were done in the round with the audience in the center and the stations surrounding them. While it was easier to see all the performers at once this way, there was something fun about the round format, the connection to the elemental and directional aspects and the ability to see the instruments close up.

Next was the premier of Duo No. 1 featuring Gino Robair on a variety of instruments and Krystyna Bobrowski playing a “sliding speaker instrument.” The piece has a dual identity as a narrative following the life cycle of a moth and an excuse to make Gino Robair “play really, really quietly.” And indeed, it was relatively quiet and subtle, but still with a lot of dynamic energy. Robair played a variety of percussion instruments, including the signature broken cymbal that I often see him play. Robair’s sounds are fed into the speaker in Bobrowski’s instrument and excite the tube, which she can then vary in length to change the timbre of the sound.

Bobrowski was able to get quite a variety of interesting timbres from her “acoustic signal processor”, which then informed how the improvisational duet unfolded within the context of the overall graphical score.

The next piece, Penelope, was perhaps the most traditional of the evening, as it was through composed for a single performer on piccolo with supporting vocal and foot-stomping parts. It was commissioned for and performed by Amy Likar.

The piece based on the final chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses (which is of course itself inspired by Greek mythology), and the extended piccolo techniques, combined with the irregular foot-stomp rhythms and repeated breathy voicing of the word “yes” are intended to “evoke Molly Bloom’s sensual stream of consciousness.” I found myself mostly focused on the combination of the foot stomps, trying to find syncopated patterns whether or not they were there, and the surprisingly powerful sounds from the extended instrumental techniques. (@catsynth Who knew the piccolo could be such an angry instrument?)

After a brief intermission, the concert resumed with a performance of the Three of Swords. I had first seen Polly perform this piece for Pamela Z’s ROOM series at the Royce Gallery in San Francisco. This version was performed by Sara Elena Palmer using vocals and electronics.

The narrative structure is a bit more abstract in this piece, but it is nonetheless present through the highly ritualized nature. The program notes describe it as a “sound-art divination ritual for solo performer and tarot cards.” It unfolds with the setting of a 20-minute hourglass and lighting a series of candles. For each candle, the performer draws a card from the tarot deck arrayed out in front of her, and interprets the card musically. (@catsynth http://yfrog.com/hsv2tzj pick a card any card.) At the end of each section, the corresponding candle is extinguished. Sara Elena Palmer’s bright red costume and head covering (which she removed during the recitation concerning the heart) seemed to be an integral part of her interpretation of the ritual. Among the more interesting musical elements she employed was a radio used to generate analog noise sounds.

The next piece, Alcyone is based on the Greek legend of Alcyone, the Kingfisher Queen, who calms the ocean for seven days before and after the winter solstice so she can incubate her eggs in a nest on the waves. (Appropriately, this concert took place three days before the winter solstice.) Musically, the piece opens with an energetic instrumental quartet featuring Philip Greenlief on clarinet, Cory Wright on bass clarinet, Lisa Mezzacappa on contrabass and Suki O’Kane on percussion. After a stretch of time, mezzo-soprano Laura Malouf-Renning entered the stage regally costumed with a black cape and crown and carrying a nest with Christmas ornaments (@catsynth A festive birds nest). She silenced the instrumentalists one by one with a tap on the shoulder, and began an expressive monologue.

The final piece of the evening was Genesis for 12 performers. I had first seen this piece at its premier at the Quickening Moon Concert last year, and then had the opportunity to perform it myself with Cardew Choir last summer. This version followed closely the personnel and interpretation of the original performance, featuring Polly as the conductor and Matt Davignon in the role of the new universe. The piece combines “Western magical tradition” with the concept of the 11-dimensional universe from string theory. The performers represent each of the dimensions, with special roles for the conductor, the timekeeper who represents the time axis, and three performers representing the conventional spatial dimensions. The final performer represents the new universe that is born from the multi-dimensional processes.

The performers are arranged in a very specific spiral formation with the new universe (Davignon) at the center. The conductor (Moller) carries chimes and walks the spiral, tapping each performer to enter or exit. The sound starts out slowly and gradually, but then builds into a loud crescendo as the new universe is born. At this point, Davignon took over with a solo on live electronics. Like many of his other electronic performances, he achieves a very organic sound with lots of textural details, sometimes liquidy or like a series of objects being shaken or dropped. After the new universe solo, the spiral reverses as the other dimensions re-enter, but gradually get softer before a final statement by the new universe.

(@catsynth #pollymoller concert concludes. Good night!)

The Line Between in The Bowls Project

Today we look back at I performance I saw in July, an early performance of “The Line Between” in The Bowls Project, an installation at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. Although the performance took place in the white domes set up for The Bowls Project, it was really a separate work.

The Line Between is collaboration of musicians Jason Ditzian, Suki O’kane, and Frank Lee with Shinichi Iova-Koga and Dohee Lee of inkBoat. Like other butoh performances that I have seen, such as the Emergency (X)tet at the Meridian Gallery in July, it involved very slow and deliberate motion, stark white coloring and an absurdist quality. This performance also including vocals, which was an element I had not heard before. Set against the minimalist musical background of percussion, bass clarinet and portable electronics, the dancers played with the space of the domes and the audience, who sat on various cushions arranged throughout. Some of the motions were very slow and serious, and in time with the rhythms of the music. Others were more playful, such as climbing on the outside of dome. The music provided moments of steady drumming, tonal and extended-technique sounds from the bass clarinet, and bits of noise from the electronics. There were lots of empty and silence spaces in which the dancers could take the audience by surprise.

In keeping with the stark nature of the performance itself, I think it is best reviewed through images:


[Click images to enlarge.]

In the two photos looking upwards, one gets a sense of how this unique performance and setting is still situated within the surrounding landscape of the city.

Look for one more to appear this Wednesday.

Although this performance took place over two months ago, it is in a way a timely review. Dohee Lee will be appearing in PURI 5: “SPoRA” at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center on October 16, an event I am looking forward to attending.

Oakland Underground Film Festival Summer Salon

Last Friday, I participated in the Expanded Strangelet Minus One ensemble at the Oakland Underground Film Festival’s Summer Salon.

The event took place in the cavernous space that used to be a Barnes and Noble in Jack London Square in Oakland. There was a large screening area as well as several installations arranged around the space. The most captivating installation was Tracey Snelling’s Bordertown. She created a series of models at different scales that one might see in a small town in rural California. The scales range from life size in the “Maria” ice cream cart to a miniature commercial strip with detailed buildings. The entire model fits on a large table, but when photographed up close, one loses the sense of scale and the town seems like it could be a life-size model. One could spend quite a bit of time examining all the details, the buildings, the objects inside of them, and signs on the sides.



[Tracey Snelling, installation views. Photos by CatSynth (click to enlarge)]

[Tracey Snelling, installation view.  Photo by Michael Zelner (click to enlarge).]

Several of the pieces incorporate video, such as the “El Diablo Inn” with videos playing in each of the rooms. The larger apartment building had movies playing in each of the windows, and videos of scenes from U.S.-Mexican border were projected onto a full-size screen behind the installation.

Although Snelling’s installation captures a small border town rather than a large urban area, some of the elements that she focuses on, such as industrial buildings and somewhat seedy spaces are similar to those that drive my current interests in urban photography. Urban photography was, however, the central focus of Idan Levin’s photography, which included scenes of colorful city buildings in Japan, industral lots and highway overpasses. As he states, “I prowl the streets at night, seeking a unique vantage point from which I can capture an alternate view of the world…”. He describes this view “prying, mysterious, lonely, and sometimes resembling a sci-fi post-apocalyptic cinematic scene.”

[Idan Levin, Tokyo Scape #1]

Only a few of his images were on display, but I encourage readers to visit his online portfolio.

Michelle Lewis-King’s installation featured projected video onto two cut-outs of female figures.


[Michelle Lewis-King, installation view. Photo by CatSynth (click to enlarge).]

The combination of the video and the empty space of each figure made it seem like both the adult woman on the left and the young girl on the right were present in the environment of the video.

The Expanded Strangelet is an electronic improvisation group founded by Lucio Menagon. He was not with us for this performance, hence the “minus one.” But we did have myself, Matt Davignon, Wayne Grimm, John Hanes, Suki O’Kane, Jonathan Segel, and Michael Zelner. I have played with them before at last year’s Oakland Underground Film Festival, and once again I had my minimal setup if iPhone and Korg Kaoss Pad.

[Expanded Strangelet Minus One.  Photos by Michael Zelner (click to enlarge).]

With Suko O’Kane conducting, we performed an improvised set of exactly 45 minutes, with various duos and solos, and sections with low drones and high staccato elements to provide some texture and an arc.

During the performance, we also projected videos onto the wall, and floor, and even onto people who walked by. We projected my video of Luna from the Quickening Moon Concert onto the floor, and at times it was appeared on the clothes of people nearby:



[Click images to enlarge.]

Our performance was preceded by a pair of bands from Bay Area Girls Rock Camp, including the band Poison Apple Pie. The local nonprofit program “aims to empower girls through music education, promoting an environment that fosters self-confidence, creativity and teamwork.”

There were numerous short firms and videos shown as well, including work by the Cinepimps and others.

[Cinepimps.  Photo by Michael Zelner (click to enlarge).]

Please visit the event site for a full rundown.

Pmocatat Ensemble and Chorus, and Weller-Borosque Duo

Last Thursday night, the Pmocatat Ensemble performed again at the Luggage Store Gallery. Pmocatat (pronounced “Moe Ka Tatt”, the “p” is silent) stands for “pre-recorded music on CDs and tapes and things”. The members of ensemble pre-record acoustic material (instruments, voice, environmental sounds, etc.) according to compositional instructions, and then during the performance, improvise with these pre-recorded sounds using standard playback controls: play, pause, fast-forward, rewind, and speed controls. Devices used for playback included CD players, cassette tape players, and iPods/iPhones. This performance featured Matt Davignon, Amar Chaudhary, Suki O’kane, Michael Zelner, Rent Romus and Edward Schocker. It was billed as the “Pmocatat Ensemble and Chorus” as many of the pieces featured vocal material.

Matt DavignonMichael Zelner's iPod TouchAmar ChaudharySuki O'kaneRent RomusEdward Schocker

[Photos by Michael Zelner.]

We opened with a sparse piece, with single-syllable words entering periodically to perform collaborative nonsense phrases. There was a lot of open space between the words, which was filled in with droning instruments later in the piece. This was followed by a free-improvisation with pre-recorded woodwinds, mallet percussion and bell sounds. The result was an expressive performance with rich textures and complex rhythms composed articulated notes from the different instruments.

graphical score for Pmocatat.  Click to enlarge.

graphical score for Pmocatat. Click to enlarge.

My composition contribution was a piece with a graphical score which called for vocal sounds, instrumental and vocal drones, and animal sounds. It for this piece that I recorded clips of Luna last week, and thus she made her “debut” in a new-music concert. Her meows were set against moderately long vocal sounds that arbitrarily “cut off”, followed by a series of very short sounds to represent the tiny scratches in the graphical element. Here, we heard Luna’s clicking sounds that she makes when hunting. For the longer sounds, her purrs were set against various drones. I think was received well, judging by the looks of delight and amusement from various members of audience.

The graphical piece was followed by an interpretation of Pauline Oliveros’ Form Unknown Silences. The sparse texture, with a variety of short sounds interrupting periods of silence, had both a playful and meditative quality. This was followed by a brand new piece featuring guitar sounds set against percussion. The percussion was really following the guitar sounds, with the pa

This being a holiday show, we of course had to conclude with a holiday offering. In this case, it was a rendition of the classic “O Christmas Tree”, with pre-recorded versions of the song sung very slowly, and played back even more slowly and asynchronously, with gaps, pauses and changes in playback speed overtime growing more complex until the artifacts overtook the original.


The Pmocatat Ensemble was preceded by a duo of Ellen Weller and CJ Borosque. The set opened with an atonal “call to prayer” of Weller on a shofar and Borosque on trumpet. The remainder of the set unfolded as an interplay with Weller’s wind instrument and Borosque’s noise synthesizers (and trumpet). Among her instruments was an experimental box with chaotic oscillators and filters – I acquired one of these a few weeks ago but she has gained significantly more proficiency than I have. There were moments with fast saxophone phrases against the synths, and others with Weller’s exceptionally noisy and agressive flute sounds against very finely articulated synth noise. Other moments included undulating unstable waves, a snake charmer flute, and a variety of acoustic and electronic squeaks. The were moments when the music became quite trancelike even as it remained loud and noisy.

Ivy Room Experimental Improv Hootenany, November 16

Last Monday, I performed again the experimental improv “Hootenanny” at the Ivy Room in Albany, CA. This is always a fun series to participate in or attend. It starts a little later at 9PM, and is set in a rather plush bar that makes a great setting for drinks and experimental music.

Free Rein. Photo by Michael Zelner

The evening opened with Free Rein, consisting of Andrew Joron (percussion, theremin), Joseph Noble (woodwinds) and Brian Lucas (guitar).  They began with Joron playing a bowed metal percussion instrument and Noble on flute.  The bowed instrument had discrete pitches and the music was quite tonal and repetitive, almost hypnotic. They were joined after a while by Lucas on guitar, and together weaved between pentatonic and chromic sounds that were sometimes quite lush, and other times sparse. Joron switched the theremin at some point during the set, and there was a particularly interesting duo of theremin and pennywhistle.

Free Rein gave way to The Lords of Outland with CJ “Reaven” Borosque (electronics), Philip Everett (drums), Ray Scheaffer (bass), and Rent Romus (alto saxophone).  There sound was loud, fast, dramatic, with many of the standard idioms from free jazz, run of fast notes (particularly from Romus on sax), squeaks, and loud hits.  It was interesting to have the electronic noises set against the jazz sounds.

Lords of Outland.  Photo by Michael Zelner.

Lords of Outland. Photo by Michael Zelner.

The set was very energetic and seemed to go by fast, and I had to keep track of time lest I miss the start for the set that I was curating.  On cue, as they faded out, we began to fade in.

Photo by Michael Zelner

Photo by Michael Zelner

The set I curated included myself on electronics, Brandan Landis on prepared guitar, Beau Casey on violin and David Slusser on saxophone and the Slussomatic. As usual, I began by ringing one of my prayer bowls, which was answered by the metallic sounds of the prepared guitar and the violin, followed by the Kaos Pad and Evolver, and then the Slussomatic.  None of us have played together as a group before, but I was happy with the way we able to play off one another.  There were a couple of moments that particularly stood out for me, such as a rhythmic ostinato that emerged organically and I then reinforced; we went on with that pattern for a while, adding accents and syncopations; towards the end, the full ensemble played a series of loud and dramatic swells (anchored by a noise patch on the Evolver) that brought the set to a close…

Elizabeth Torres with Cansafis Foote. Photo by CatSynth.

…which segued to the next set featuring Elizabeth Torres on tenor sax, with Cansafis Foote on baritone sax and Mario Silva on trumpet.  The set began with Torres and Foote as a duo, moving between very synchronous playing in which the two saxophones acted as one instrument, and Torres’ improvising freely against a driving but ever-changing rhythm provided by Foote.    The duo was then joined by Silva, again moving back and forth between more free improvisation and rhythmic sections.

Thanks again to Lucio Menegon for hosting the series and Suki O’kane for being “virtual Lucio” on this particular night.

Expanded Strangelet at oakuff

Last night I performed with Expanded Strangelet at the Oakland Underground Film Festival. The Expanded Strangelet was described as “Lucio Menagon’s peripatetic ensemble with Suki O’kane, Michael Zellner, Jonathan Segel, John Hanes, Amar Chaudhary, and Allen Whitman.”

This was a combined “music jam” and “projectionist jam”, with several improvised video and film projections on the screen, a free-form piece that followed the more formal screenings earlier in the evening. The screen was filled with several changing images projected from different angles:

It was particularly interesting in the context of the theatre itself. This was one of those classic cavernous movie theaters with stylized art-deco details, but with very contemporary abstract lighting in deep blues, reds and violets, as can be seen on the right side of the image above.

It was in this context that we set up on the floor of the theater and made music. Basically, the performance was a collection of bleeps and bloops, noises, glitches, loops, crashes and snippets of melody and harmony here and there. Nonetheless, it was all musically done with phrasing and dynamics, loosely “conducted” with ongoing whispered directions from Suki O’kane.

In order to keep things light, I bright a very small setup, consisting of red Korg Kaos Pad, an iPhone now loaded with multiple software synthesizers, a circuit-bend instrument with photovoltaic modulation, along with a small mixer and amplifier.

As expected, it was difficult to pay attention to the screen during the performance, while attempting to manage the instruments and listen to the other performers. Fortunately, I did get to see the first half of the projectionist jam with another group providing the music: POD BLOTZ (Suzy Poling) and lazyboy (Bruce Anderson, Dale Sophiea and Gregory Hagan). The combination of images, sounds and environment combining old and new elements, noises and images, was quite captivating.

I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the beer from Linden Street Brewery. I particularly liked the stout.

Moe!kestra! “End of an Error” at Cellspace

Last night I attended the latest performance of the Moe!kestra! at Cellspace.

“Imagine a man playing an orchestra as though it were a percussion instrument, and you might get some idea of the Moe!Kestra!”. Indeed the performance was in many ways a percussion piece even though the ensemble was almost entirely string instruments: violins, violas, electric guitars, and upright basses. All led by Moe! Staiano.

A Moe!kestra! often includes many familiar musicians. Frequent collaborators Bill Wolter and Clyde Niesen played guitar and upright bass, respectively. Suki O’kane (percussion) and Moe! were both participants in the July Flip Quartet performance. Marielle Jakobsen was part of the Blessing Moon concert that we reviewed here at CatSynth.

The piece being performed was “End of an Error”, inspired by the date January 20, 2009, a date that many of us were highly anticipating, both for its beginning and for the great national embarrassment that it (at least in a formal sense) ended.

The music started out with series of percussive notes on the basses. Soon the violin and viola sections joined in, not on their regular instruments, but instead playing “switches”, i.e., cut sticks that they shook vigorously. An “out of phase” rhythm emerged between the basses and switches, may two notes from the former followed by a splattering of air sounds from the other.

Eventually the other instruments, the guitars, the percussionists and the actual violins/violas entered with more of the percussive notes, and the music became louder and denser. At some point, with all the instruments playing, the texture changed dramatically to something more akin to a “rock orchestra” or a film soundtrack. The pitched material was tonal with lots of familiar chords, but what I call “tense tonality” that one hears in films, and behind it the rhythm of a conventional drum kit from the percussionists. I can’t pin point exactly when the texture and style changed, but it was a sharp contrast.

There were several such changes throughout the performance. Things grew to a crescendo, then “crashed”, with everyone playing long extended tones, forming an atonal drone. After a subsequent swell, there was another “film-like” element with string glissandi. Other moments of note included the tossing of an empty water cooler by Moe! over the heads of the violists. No one was hurt, and it landed a perfect hit in between the other instrumental rhythms.

There was a really thick drone of all seven guitarists playing slides out of sync. The guitarists also closed the performance with a series of repeating flange/chorus tones that gradually came to a stop.


The Moe!kestra performance actually did not begin until 9:30 (despite the announcements suggesting 8PM as the start). We were treated a Sun Ra tribute, featuring videos set to music from The Arkestra. The video included clips of Sun Ra and animations with pseudo-Hebrew lettering and odd vaguely extraterrestial elements, presumably from some of his films. But there were also many other unrelated elements including numerous anime scenes – there was one anime in which all the characters seemed to be playing keytars while doing battle with mechs; martial-arts comedies, a James Bond film (probably Diamonds Are Forever); and a transgendered singer walking down the street and then being transported to another dimension with a Sumo wrestler and bizarre Asian puppet characters. Four of us started playing iPhone Scrabble instead. It has a multi-player mode where one can pass the phone around in a circle and each player takes turns with their own tile set. Highly recommended as a way to pass the time.