Thursday, October 27, 2011

A (recent) review of the "StormSound" Cycle

This blog is "officially" retired, but I got this in my e-mail a couple of weeks ago and had to post it. It was from a teenager who'd attended the concert of the complete "StormSound" Cycle. I don't know why he sent it five months after the concert, but anyway, here it is.

Dear Mr. Scribner,

Thanks for the concert. I loved it! It was very ingenious, professional and epic! My mother, who has a low tolerance for microtonality and loud high pitched noises, even enjoyed it! I still remember the part of the concert I attended really well.

Attending the concert had a big impact on me. I learned so much, too. The concert taught me how to enjoy everyday sounds, and it cured me of my unconscious habit of tuning out birdsong. I heard this amazing combination of bird chirping and highway sounds that I would have missed, if it weren't you and your friends' concert. Thanks for demonstrating that there is so much more to microtonality than quartertones. Thanks for introducing me to experimental music.

That's why I play music (experimental or otherwise) -- for the listeners. Now, if only the record producers would take their heads out of the sand and promote the other ninety percent of the world's music that isn't mainstream...

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

New Blog: The SoundScroll

Hey readers, thanx for following this blog. Now it continues in a new place: "The SoundScroll". It's up and running, though I haven't posted anything more than an introduction yet.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Final Posting: Last Thoughts on the “StormSound” Concert

First of all, I’d like to thank all of the musicians who took part in this crazy project. Several of you went above and beyond what I’d expected to make the music sound great, and for this I’m grateful. And thank you, Keith, for your insightful review of the concert.

I’ve had a chance to listen to all of the music that was recorded at the concert, and most of it sounds pretty good. My little digital recorder didn’t pick up the bass drum in “Winds of the Sun” very well; there’s the sound of someone dropping something in the middle of “Songbird and Stillness” (probably in the audience); and the prerecorded part of “Consort of Voices” doesn’t really match the “live” music (I suspected that) but these are only small momentary glitches in nine hours of otherwise fantastic music.

I’ve finally had a chance to look at these pictures from the concert too. Sorry they don't come with audio...

Mike (bass) and I in the middle of "Nature Lives in Motion", the first and longest piece in the Cycle.

Neal (guitar), Ivan (clarinet) and Matt (percussion) playing "Songbird and Stillness", the first and shortest trio piece.

Bruce (bass clarinet), Keith and Jay (homemade instruments) playing the nocturnal dreamscape that makes up "Night Signals".

David (piano), Ryan (drums) and Clifford (flute) in the loudest piece, "Day Signals", the point where the instruments start to overshadow the prerecorded sounds.

Clifford (flute), Keith (piano), Matt and Dale (mallet percussion) at the start of their playing in the finale, "Consort of Voices".

One final thing of note. In order to “fill out” the sound of the recorded “StormSound” concert recordings, I’ve been multi-tracking the original prerecorded parts back onto the concert recordings. This makes up for the fact that the speakers during the live performance weren’t aimed at the small mikes of my recorder. However, I’ve noticed something odd: using my computer, I can synch the two recordings within a hundredth of a second – but by the end of the longest pieces (particularly the two-hour-plus “Nature Lives in Motion”) they get ever-so-slightly out of phase, resulting in a strange and unexpected slap-echo effect. I’ve read that Steve Reich discovered phase minimalism by listening to tape loops running on two different reel-to-reel tape recorders at the same time (this technique eventually lead to his classic “Come Out” – there’s a techno remix of that, by the way!); apparently what I’ve discovered is a digital variation on the same phenomenon. However, it takes longer – if Mr. Reich had been using digital technology, “Come Out” would have been twenty hours long.

So that wraps it up. I’m going to retire this blog (although there have been people reading it even though I haven't posted anything for the last month). But, stay in touch, readers… There will be a new one starting up in a couple of weeks: The SoundScroll.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The "StormSound" Concert, May 21st, 2011

After more than a year of planning, last Saturday we finally played the entire “StormSound” Cycle in a single concert. There were a few glitches, but overall the music came off well – all nine hours of it – and I was more satisfied than I thought I would be. (This despite the completely pathetic audience showing.) I even partly liked the last piece, “Consort of Voices”, which has always given me trouble (though there are still some very rough spots in it).

Click here for a write-up about the concert from Gavin Borchert of the Seattle Weekly.


Before all of this, there were the several rehearsals. I’ve already written about two of them here, but didn’t have time to post the others – too busy rehearsing! There were three others: with Ivan (clarinet), to do his solos (I got caught in traffic and so got there late; I could only hear and make comments on them briefly), and with Mike (string bass) to do “Nature Lives in Motion” (the first piece in the Cycle). The latter began with a snafu: I’d told Mike to be there at 6:00, right after I finished talking to Ivan – and then somehow mixed it up and went and had dinner and came back in plenty of time to meet Mike at 7:00. When I got there, he was standing there with his bass, looking confused, and we discussed the time a little… We practiced in the Seattle Pacific University music building, and SPU has a gamelan. Ordinarily these two facts wouldn’t relate, except that the students were practicing the gamelan in the next room from where we were practicing, and gamelans can be rather loud. It was okay, in the long run; “Nature Lives in Motion” contains a lot of recognizable nature sounds and somehow a gamelan in the background works well with nature sounds…

The last rehearsal was all of the percussionists in one place, along with me: we worked on “Spherics” and the last piece, “Consort of Voices” – the latter, we decided, wouldn’t be too embarrassing to play (I had though that it might, since I had to keep simplifying the parts to get them to work together) though there were some momentary dissentions (“I vote for doing free improvisation instead…”) More on that piece later.


The day before the show, there was a freakishly bizarre snafu that makes no sense and can only be logically explained by resorting to sci-fi (aliens, rips in the fabric of the space-time continuum, etc.) I’ll spare the readers the details (they’re pretty tedious) but if you happen to see any two-CD boxes with back labels only, printed as “Pieces from the StormSound Cycle”, and they happen to be beamed down from a passing UFO, let me know.

The Concert

The morning of the concert was cloudy and humid. This made little difference as I drove to the Chapel performance space. I got there before anyone else and started to set up the electronic equipment for the prerecorded parts; these refused at first to put out any sound. Finally Mike and Keith got them to work by plugging Keith’s laptop in differently and rearranging the speaker cables. The percussionists showed up a little later to set their instruments up, and it all went off without a hitch. Ready, we waited for the first people in the audience to show. Well, we waited…

The first part of the concert was the worst, audience-wise. Most of the people there to listen were either musicians who’d be playing later in the day, or their friends. Also, the strange snafu of the disappearing papers continued – my score for “Nature Lives in Motion” (the long first piece of the Cycle) had vanished out of my notebook, though all of the other scores were still there. I had to ad-lib my part. Fortunately this piece (as all in the Cycle) calls for large amounts of improvisation, and the parts that weren’t improvised were in my head. I think it worked okay. Mike played amplified string bass (he had his score, though his parts had even more improvisation than mine) – his playing blended perfectly with the prerecorded (processed) instruments and nature sounds.

Ivan’s clarinet solos followed. They were nearly flawless. His rendition of “Desert Bloom” (#3 in the Cycle) was different than Beth Fleenor’s earlier version – less consciously melodic, with more quick microtonal ornamentation – but equally as beautiful. Neal and Matt joined him for “Songbird and Stillness” (#6 in the Cycle). We’d had no time to rehearse this piece, so the performance was completely ad lib – but it had worked that way a couple of years ago with Neal, Steward Dempster and Dean Moore – and it succeeded again. Maybe it works best without planning! Bringing this section to a close, Matt and Neal played the hour-long “Spherics” (#8), their instrumental sounds blending with (and barely distinguishable from) the cosmic prerecorded sounds. There was a momentary false start, when the beginning of “Soundform I” (#7) was mistaken for the beginning of “Spherics”, and there were suddenly “live” instruments over its supposedly “solo” electronics – but this made little difference in the concert as a whole. As I commented before to Matt and Neal, “If you guys always play ‘Spherics’ like that, I’d win a Pulitzer for the composition…!” (Not! - “Spherics” is almost completely improvised.)

The central “Field of Arbol” section was not as successful as I’d hoped, though not because of Dale’s playing. These solo percussion pieces (over prerecorded sound, as always in the Cycle) have mostly delicate textures and don’t hold up that well after the cosmic reverb of “Spherics”. (They might work better as a set of solo pieces, not part of a larger cycle.) Matt, however, played admirably, adding subtle beauty and force on the bass drum, cymbals, and mallet instruments. There was one glitch: there are supposed to be antiphonal bells rung in “Malacandra” (#12), the last of these three pieces. I’d drafted Neal to play one set of bells while I played the other, and told him to ring his every 30 seconds. I was supposed to ring mine every 20, but neglected to tell him this, so he kept trying to sync up with me, and I kept trying to not sync up with him… In the end I just started ringing mine where it sounded like it could go as part of the music, and I think Neal did the same. A different interpretation of the piece, perhaps; it adds a certain unpredictable flow and maybe emphasizes that “time” (at least in the sense of history) ran very differently on Malacandra (despite my original idea that the slow polyrhythm of the bells indicated a more or less changeless eternity).

One of my favorite pieces turned out to be “Soundform II”, which followed the solo set. Percussion (Matt and Dale) and guitar (Neal) created rustling, rattling, whooshing and scrabbling noises to imitate a (processed) cricket over the quiet drone of the “mystic chord”. I added my own improvisation on the seashells, as I’d played them in “Nature Lives in Motion” and at the Composers’ Salon the first Friday of May. The result filled the halls with shifting shadows of sound. The hour-long “Night Signals” followed, with Keith continuing the scrabbling, scruffling sounds on his collection of found objects, Jay improvising with Keith on his homemade instruments (see my posting called "Instrumania") and in the 2nd half, Bruce adding eerie harmonics and reed buzz on his bass clarinet (he also walked around the stage; a nice touch that I hadn’t specified in the score). This piece is a "nocturnal dreamscape", but there are some pretty funny sounds partway through it. After one of them, a child sitting near me in the audience stifled a laugh, guffawed quietly, and tried to suppress a second outburst of hysterics. I went over to him and said quietly, “It’s okay to laugh if something’s funny in the music. Go ahead and crack up!” He didn’t; he just kept trying to keep from laughing and he finally left the hall for a couple of minutes. My comment was in earnest, though; if something is funny, then go ahead and laugh – even in “serious” music. Music (of any type) is no place for stuck-ups. (I remember hearing about audience members looking down their noses at two women who were giggling at a deliberately funny trombone solo in a Berwald piece – I think it was at a Seattle Symphony concert – really, listeners, if you have no sense of humor, then you have no sense at all…!)

After the suddenly frenetic “Soundform III” (Neal, Dale, and Matt creating frantic scatters, trying to drown out the tranquility from the end of “Night Signals”), it was time for my piano solos. In retrospect I don’t think I did that well on them, probably because I hadn’t eaten much during the day and I kept thinking about being hungry. That said, the subject of the first of these would discourage appetite anyway – “Through a Glass Darkly” describes how humans (including me, of course) often only see darkness when we try to look into eternity. Blocked off from Light (usually by our own doing), we sometimes see horror (the program notes for this piece describe the visualizations in a gruesome Tibetan meditation ritual) – and as a result we often propagate horror. The piano part for this piece is just a set of tone-clusters that get out of synch with each other, and at the end, if time is left, an improvisation of general mayhem by simply pounding on the keys. It worked as a contrast to the peaceful music before; but I don’t think it worked that well as a piece. A piece of horror, it is, yes, but horror as seen by Steven Spielberg: too loud, too horrible, too in-your-face, too obvious. It needs revising, and I need to cut out that thunderclap at the end.

I followed with “Song from Deep Silence” (#17), the variations on “Sing Alleluia” that is one of my more popular solo and open-mike pieces. This is a total contrast to the previous solo; an offer of hope in the midst of darkness – and is the only truly lyrical part of the Cycle (until the coda) and one of the only two pieces that uses no nature sounds. The prerecorded parts are all pianos, and are derived from an improvisation I did some years ago called “Rain and Desert Thunder”. (Fans of irony may like the fact that I did this original improvisation over the same recording of desert thunder that I based “Through a Glass Darkly” on, though played at normal speed, not sped up, and without those intentionally awful bleeps over the top.) “Frogscape”, the last piano solo, followed, returning to the world or human’s (and nature’s) darkness, though in a more sardonic vein. After playing these, I sat down in the audience, and noticed a friend of mine who didn’t seem to be enjoying the music at all. “It’s a little different,” she said – and in the conversation that followed I realized that she’d come in during “Through a Glass Darkly” and had heard only the piano music. These pieces (in fact the whole last fourth of the Cycle until the coda) are all pretty dark, and she might have liked some of the earlier parts better. She left before the next large section, “Day Signals; Sonic Nebula” (#19).

“Day Signals” is the ferocious climax of the Cycle. At first all pretense of being “pleasant music” is gone – the piano, drums, and (later) flute create webs of noise over a relentless barrage of nature recordings processed to sound like traffic and warfare. These are the same recordings as in “Nature Lives in Motion”, but distorted and lowered. The piece represents a day in the life of that grand spoiler of nature, Homo sapiens… but at the end, there is hope. The “mystic chord” (absent from the piano solos) reemerges, and leads the music into tranquility, despite being battered by both the “live” instruments and beastly prerecorded noises until nearly the end. As far as the live playing goes, this is the part that requires the greatest virtuosity. It’s certainly beyond anything I could play on the piano (the pianist is instructed to create two “matrices” from provided fragments of melodies, by rolling dice) – the flute improvises on similar material. The drummer reads from “soundscrolls” (abstract graphic scores), including a fifteen-minute opening solo. David Mesler did a superb job on the piano part, and Clifford Dunn (flute) and Ryan Burt (drums) supplemented him, adding both drama and completeness to his part. (After the performance, I heard an audience member tell David, “I play the piano, but I’d pay to hear you play just one note, over and over… I like how you make it sound!”) The drama continued after the piece ended, even – the prerecorded parts, being quieter than the “live” instruments at the end, were not clearly audible to the trio on stage – and since their parts at this point were improvised, they didn’t hear when they were supposed to end. They were on a serious roll (free-jazz power!) so I let them play for a minute or two before cutting them off. This can be fixed on the recorded version.

What happened at the end was the opposite sort of mistake. “Consort of Voices” is the gamelan/ minimalist coda, a sort of cosmic resolve, where piano (here played by Keith), flute, vibes and marimba realize a set of melodic fragments in a “Terry Riley” fashion over the “mystic chord” (expanded to four octaves) and references to earlier parts of the Cycle. This was, as I expected, the least satisfying part to me – though several members of the audience commented to me afterwards that they’d liked it. The “gamelan” part is rough – some of the key-changes don’t work very well (even if it is based on the same melody that crops up in both “Song from the Voices on Earth” and “Malacandra”) and it tends to compete with and overshadow the prerecorded sound in a fractious and awkward manner. The piece is supposed to represent peace, rest, and harmony after all the strife in the piano solos and in “Day Signals”, but it doesn’t really do so. Individual moments of it are catchy and the “live” playing was beautiful, but I have to re-write it. What of the “mistake” I mentioned earlier? The performers finished too soon. My fault, for not cuing them correctly – they wound up three minutes before they were supposed to, and the prerecorded sound simply rambled on for the rest of its time without really saying anything. The two parts were supposed to work together! Oh well – as it stands now, the piece is something of a dud anyway so this didn’t really make it any worse.

So that was that. The “StormSound” project came to an end, sort of with a whimper instead of a bang. Time will tell if this whole mad undertaking actually meant anything or if it was just much ado about the proverbial nothing. It was, however, certainly fun to do.

What's next?

It doesn’t look likely that the project will be repeated in its present form. I do have a vague idea for a “Second StormSound Cycle”, probably with a different name, and scaled down to only five players. Some of the pieces for this already exist: after the original Cycle reached ten hours, I simply cut it off, put the existing pieces into a particular sequence, and said to myself that any more compositions in the same manner would be either “on their own” or part of another Cycle – then I reduced it to nine hours. “Discarded Poems” and “Rain and Desert Thunder” are two of the discarded pieces (the former even uses the “mystic chord”!). There’s also a way to do various pieces from the Cycle in a different form, an idea that I need to develop further.

What about this blog? Obviously the title “The StormSound Cycle” won’t make much sense from here on out. I’ll probably simply wrap this up after a couple more entries. I have an idea to start a new blog, with a somewhat expanded subject matter: not just music but art in general (including visual art, film, literature and poetry). The problem is that I don’t attend enough of those events to really write about them – though when I started this thing I said it would be a lot of my opinions, and who doesn’t like to express their opinions…?

Monday, May 16, 2011

"StormSound" Rehearsals Part One, and Open Mike at Woodland Park Presbyterian Church

The first two rehearsals for the “StormSound” Cycle have come and gone.
The first was last Friday. Dale Speicher and I went over his solo pieces, the three “Field of Arbol” movements that come roughly in the middle of the Cycle (in the 4:00 hour during the live concert).

These are atmospheric, spacey pieces that deliberately obscure the fact that the instruments are percussion. In the first, “Winds of the Sun”, a drone from a processed pipe organ and a birdcall slowed 1000 times create a pulsating hum; over this, the percussion adds deep rumbles on a bass drum – the total of all of this is intended to sound like the solar wind (if we could hear it). The second is likewise intense: the prerecorded sound consists of processed recordings of Dominican monks chanting “Alleluia” and the mysterious “mystic chord” that appears in much of the Cycle (ultimately derived from wave sounds on a lake). The percussionist creates shadowy sounds on the suspended cymbals, in an aesthetic a thousand times removed from the more familiar jazz and rock music where such cymbals are often used. Again, the intent is to create the sound of something that we can’t hear; in this case, magnetic fields both on earth and in space. After a long silence (important to the music), the third fades in: “Malacandra”. This is the mythic perfect world in C. S. Lewis’ sci-fi classic “Out of the Silent Planet” – a very old world where
evolution ran (as on Perelandra) in a non-Darwinian mode, and three species have attained human-like intelligence (explained as rationality and spirituality). They also saw what went wrong on earth… [An aside note: since one of these three species is roughly nine feet tall and human/birdlike, and since all three live in perfect harmony with their environment and the personality that runs their environment, I wonder if the idea was borrowed in more recent sci-fi such as “Avatar”.] Anyway, the music I’ve invented for “Malacandra” is tranquil but alien; birdcalls and deep drones are overlaid to create an atmosphere of strange quiet. The percussionist reads from a score of melodic fragments without meter, creating harmonies on the marimba and vibraphone that are not intended to sound anything like those two instruments. There is also a very slight hint of both danger and banality – humans on Malacandra experience both of these feelings before finding out the truth behind it all.

Dale’s playing on these impressed me greatly, though he did it without the prerecorded sound. He also showed me a new technique on the suspended cymbal – I’d originally asked him to create a couple passages by bowing the metal edges, a buzzing, whistling effect used often by Takemitsu (and seen in Evelyn Glennie’s DVD “Touch the Sound”). However, using this technique, it is difficult to create a sound that is sustained enough to play with “Magnetic Fields”. Dale suggested a sound made by “grinding” (it’s not nearly as rough as it sounds) – spinning the cymbal with one hand while using the other to rub it with the end of a drumstick. The sound is very similar to bowing, if a little louder, but can be continued as long as one wishes.

The second rehearsal was yesterday afternoon. Jay Hamilton (homemade instruments – see my 1/11/2011 posting), Keith Eisenbrey (found objects), and Bruce Greeley (bass clarinet) read the dark graphic score for “Night Signals; Journey to the Sea” (the long 14th piece in the Cycle, which will be in the 5:00 hour of the live concert). The score calls for improvisations within predetermined times indicated by boxes within the graphic. All three had a stopwatch, and they were calling out “one, two, etc” indicating which box they were playing in (each box stands for one minute). We all agreed that I should conduct it in the concert to avoid this necessity. (I may conduct from the piano and add an occasional note, though I didn’t originally plan to play in this piece). Some performance notes gleaned from this run-through: softer mallets work best for both Jay’s metalophone and his wooden xylophone; Bruce’s “melodicies” (melodic fragments) work best if he ignores most of the notes and instead concentrates on two or three, elaborating them with drones, multiphonics, harmonics, and reed buzz; and Keith’s bits of packaging flotsam sound exactly as he intended: a small mammal foraging in the night.

The music for this piece (one of the four longest in the Cycle) is a nocturnal dreamscape. I had originally intended it to be somewhat eerie and even scary (as it was in a concert in 2008 with Dean Moore on percussion and myself on inside piano), with the “night signals” (variations on the “mystic chord”) to lead out into the tranquility of the sea sounds. However, there was a problem. The elk "bugling" heard in the first version (a tour de force recording by Jonathon Storm) was, when processed the way I had it, too loud and harsh. I wanted it to sound a little unpleasant, but apparently it went overboard. Listeners were getting headaches. I rarely change anything based on what performers say; however, in improvised music such as this, feedback is a part of the composition process – and I saw the need to delete this attack of harsh sounds. I replaced it with some wolf howls, slowed down considerably – they are as eerie but not disagreeable at all. In fact all unpleasantness is gone from the piece – what remains is a peaceful nightscape that (to me at least) recalls some of the quieter gems by George Crumb. The meaning has changed: the “mystic chord” variations still appear but lead the music away from what appears to be tranquility – thus it must be seen (in the context of the “StormSound” music as a whole) that the tranquility masks a subtler danger. The music doesn’t communicate this, though; so I’ll have to be content with “Night Signals” being a calm nocturnal interlude. (This despite the fact that some of it takes a clue from the menacing “night forest” music in the Nielsen 5th Symphony.) A calm nocturnal interlude is not bad, of course; something like this occurs in the first piece of the Cycle (“Nature Lives in Motion”) but is destroyed by a multitudinous barrage of flutes…

Between the two rehearsals, I played a little of the “StormSound” music in the open mike at Woodland Park Presbyterian Church. I actually played the same two fragmentary pieces that I had played at the Composers’ Salon last week – though I extended the fragment of “Soundform II” in the manner of “Discarded Poems” (see my 7/31/2010 posting) to play part of the room itself as percussion. Amazing resonances from the organ cabinet and the railings…

Wayne Lovegrove also played his beautiful guitar stylings. He added a delay pedal to one piece, playing in canon with himself and creating a whole new atmosphere (particularly in that large church space).

There were also two readings of poetry and original short stories, including a hilarious wedding poem by Ogden Nash and a personal experience with a prophetic dream. However, this open mike was not nearly as large as previous ones at the same venue. (Last month, there was a pianist who actually played one of Messiaen’s “Little Pieces” and Takemitsu’s “Rain Tree Sketch”, and then did a free improvisation with clarinet and ‘cello – how many times could one hear that at an open mike!?) Part of this month’s “smallness” may be because it was held at the same time as the Fremont “art walk”, where various shops in the area become temporary art galleries and large numbers of pedestrians walk about viewing them. Maybe most performers thought that they wouldn’t be interested in sitting still for an open mike rather than visiting the art shops.

Two pictures by Michael and Jamie Foster: Jamie's "Ocean Breathes Salty" (top) and Michael's "Predictions" (bottom), from their website. Both of these were on display at the open mike.

Anyway, Woodland Park Presby was part of this too; they’ve had art in there before but this time the paintings were much larger (both in size and number). The artists were Michael and Jamie Foster, a husband and wife “art team” who sometimes work together. Jamie’s works are medium-sized abstracts, with multiple layers of texturing. Webs of dribbled and splattered paint are obscured under carefully-layered opacities and textile surfaces. To me they recall both Tobey and late-period Kandinsky. Michaels’ work is in a similar vein, but often includes a sketchy outline of a human or cartoonlike character. Many of these recall Radiohead and Moby album covers. The human character is often a solitary female – she is frequently the same from one picture to another and may be a likeness of Jamie. At any rate, it was interesting art to accompany the music.

(This posting is on 5/16/2011; 5 days until the first performance of the complete "StormSound" Cycle.)

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Open Mike, Q Cafe, Seattle, 5/10/2011

A quiet little café near both the Ballard Bridge and Seattle Pacific University, Q Café is an excellent place for music. Students from SPU frequent it, as well as people from nearby businesses, and it has a good sound system. The open mike is one of several in the Seattle area sponsored by Victory Music. I’d played there a couple of times last summer.

As at most open mikes, the performances were varied (though not as varied as at the open mikes at Woodland Park Presbyterian Church – see my 3/19/2011 posting). There was one stipulation, though: I asked beforehand about doing some electro-acoustic work from my “StormSound” Cycle, and was told that “no prerecorded material or electronics of any sort are allowed – it’s all acoustic all the time.” Undoubtedly this is to prevent it from turning into karaoke night, as sometimes happens at open mikes (to the detriment of the music). So I decided to play a piano piece – more on that later – but I had brought along the seashells I use for “found objects” in the “StormSound” music and I’m sure that other audience members were wondering what exactly they were for. Oh well.

Some of the more interesting performers (this is not a complete list):

Dick Moore played “slow blues” on a recorder (then a guitar without a slider). I had expected the recorder to sound rather like the pre-blues “fife” music on Arhoolie Records’ classic Mississippi Blues Jam in Memphis CD – but to my surprise, it sounded more like the Native American flute, with its slow, contemplative, mournful sound and melodies decorated with grace notes and trills.

Indigo (a soloist, not a band) followed up with more blues; she sang in a deep, scratchy voice over twanging guitar (again, without a slider).

Pandy played the Appalachian dulcimer, and sang a James Taylor tune (and an original). She had a nice voice, reminding me of the (now defunct) folky-rock Christian band Clear. Some fun lyrics: “If change is the only constant, why do so many fail to take a chance?” “If you stumble, make it part of the dance.” From a music theory standpoint, the original song was interesting, with its melodic phrasing in a major (pentatonic) key accompanied by its own relative minor.

Thomas Hubbard sang a couple of clever, quirky songs with lyrics like “Can you think with your heart, can you feel with your brain…?”

For my turn, I played the piano – an old upright with a heavy sustain pedal. Since I couldn’t do any of the “StormSound” music, I opted for my “hit” piano solo, “Strange Repeating Bird” (based on the sound of the kijibato “repeater” pigeon in Japan). The piece always gets a round of applause, probably because of its quick right hand riffs (which sound more impressive than they actually are). I originally wrote it as a “minimalist” piece in the manner of Steve Reich, but a lot of people think it has a Eurobeat “techno” influence as well. I always think those two styles are related despite their completely different aims…

Karin Blaine – a cousin of one of the instrumentalists in the upcoming “StormSound” concert – sang a couple of original songs that mixed heartfelt lyrics (some metaphorical, some humorous, some both) with gutsy, gritty vocals. I was reminded of Geraldine Barney – stylisically at least; I’ve only heard a couple of her songs (and can't understand the Navajo that she often uses) so I can’t comment on the content of the poetry.

There was a “Dynmaic Duo” of Jonathan and Evan (otherwise unnamed) who were probably SPU students. They sang modern rock covers with guitars and tight vocal harmonies; a style that made me think of the bizarre combination of Simon & Garfunkel singing Death Cab for Cutie songs. Weird in its way (and in another way perfectly normal) but effective.

Two more pianists rounded out the event, both singers, and both with delightful vocals.

(At one point the M.C. chewed out the performers for playing longer than their allotted 8 minutes. Such is the problem with being a musician on a schedule – we tend to play longer than we think. I actually sometimes have the reverse problem too…!)

After the show, the M. C. announced, “That’s a wrap!” to which I responded, concerning the last song, “No, that wasn’t rap, that was a ballad…” Fortunately nobody there heard this awful pun.

One more comment: Q café is also an art gallery, and the art this time (by Mark Banaag) was a beautiful, understated show of photography and semi-abstracts that played off of the paradoxically tranquil tension between cityscapes and the three-form color field paintings of Mark Rothko. Interesting and beautiful!

(This posting is on 5/12/2011; 9 days until the first performance of the complete "StormSound" Cycle.)

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Concert Review (and some participation): Seattle Composers' Salon, Chapel Performance Space, Good Shepherd Center, Seattle, 5/6/2011

“The Seattle Composers’ Salon fosters the development, performance and appreciation of new music by regional composers and performers. At bi-monthly, informal presentations, the Salon features finished works, previews, and works in progress. Composers, performers, and audience members gather in a casual setting that allows for experimentation and discussion. Everyone is welcome!” (from the Composers’ Salon website).

David Paul Mesler (piano) and Tony Rondolone (sax – see my 3/7/11 posting) first played “Double Play” by Doug Palmer. This was a light, clever opening piece. Doug said the title “Double Play” was because he had been watching a baseball game on TV while writing it; however, this title was reflected in the music. The sax and piano “bounced” ideas (such as the sputtering opening phrase) off one another in just the right way; reminding me of baseball players cooperating to throw the ball just right to make more than one “out” on a play.

I was the second composer of the evening. Of course I played some fragments of the “StormSound” Cycle (not complete pieces, just fragments). With piano, found objects (seashells and a chair) and prerecorded sounds, I did the opening of the piano cadenza in “Nature Lives in Motion” (the first, and longest, piece in the Cycle) and about half of the second “Soundforms” (the 13th piece in the Cycle). The former is a quartet of piano and prerecorded flute, birdcalls, and woodpecker percussion. The latter uses found objects in quasi-“random” jingling sounds over prerecorded crickets (altered slightly) and the “mystic chord” that haunts much of the Cycle. I recorded both performances; the electronics, as usual, didn’t sound quite loud enough, probably because the speakers were pointed at the audience, not the small mikes of my hand-held digital recorder. But, the pieces sound beautiful and I’m looking forward to performing the entire set in a couple of weeks.

Yvonne Hoar then presented her piece “Langsam”, played on piano by Jennifer Yu. She first talked about how she’d written the piece with a different ending, didn’t really care for it and shelved it for a while, then came back to it and re-wrote the ending and added a lot of atonality in the rest of the piece as well. I course I’ve never heard the earlier version, but this “new” version was a beautiful piece. Impressionist chords suspended a slow (langsam) melody over silence in a way that recalled both Debussy’s “Sunken Cathedral” and the first movement of Messiaen’s “Visions de l’Amen”. The real interest came about 2/3 of the way through (probably where the “new ending” began); it abruptly shifted to a completely unrelated key with a suddenly dissonant progression – but still kept its meditative aura. This was an evocative, thoughtful piece that I’d like a chance to hear again sometime.

Lastly, Ben Houge (composer of electronica and video-game music, among other things) presented part of his electronic installation “Kaleidoscope Music”. This was originally done as the “soundtrack” of an art exhibition in Beijing (the artist used digital cameras and processing to create kaleidoscopic patterns from scenes in and around the museum). Ben’s sound installation was also created from available material, though in this case it was prerecorded from his own conversations with other musicians and from a radio station also in Beijing. He then processed these sounds, in one or more layers, with one or more techniques (all computerized) to bring out various frequencies or overtones (narrow band filters), provide rhythmic interest, or alter the sound in other ways. The result was indeed a kaleidoscope of sound – added to, in this case, by Ben’s continuous explanations of exactly what he was doing. Since there were voices in the sound installation, and since his own voice wasn’t always completely clear or understandable over the electronic sound, he often sounded as though he were simply adding another layer to the mix. The result was a kind of performance art, whether or not it was intended… Interesting work, and I’d like to hear it in its original context.

After a discussion with the audience, there was a fifth, unplanned piece in the concert. During the discussion, I’d raised my hand, and said that I’d like to ask my question last. When there were no other questions or comments, I asked mine to Ben: “Could you let that (Kaleidoscope Music) play for four or five minutes? I’d like to improvise with it.” And so I did, using various inside-piano techniques. I recorded it (in addition to my earlier pieces) and think it came out pretty good – particularly near the end where I imitated the rhythmic beeps in Ben’s piece with muted notes from the damped piano strings. This might be another idea for a piece…

Friday, May 6, 2011

"StormSound" Concert Schedule

The entire "StormSound" Cycle concert is gearing up. Rehearsals begin next week, and the musicians are no longer "subject to change" as they were in previous postings such as the older version of the poster. (The new poster will be posted here soon.)

As stated in previous posts, the audience will be able to come and go as they please during the nine-hour performance, which will last from noon to 9:00 PM on Saturday, May 21, 2011. The concert will be at the Chapel Performance Space at Good Shepherd Center, 50th and Sunnyside, Seattle.

The entire Cycle is twenty-one pieces, separate movements of the whole. Each is for a different combination of instruments (or a solo), all with prerecorded electronics. Much of the latter were ultimately derived from nature recordings by J. R. Storm, though these are often processed beyond recognition.

The following is a list of musicians and, roughly, the hours they will be playing during the nine-hour concert.

Noon – 2:00 PM: Mike Sentkewitz, acoustic bass; S. Eric Scribner, piano, inside piano, and found objects. This is “Nature Lives in Motion”, the longest piece of the Cycle, and the one with the most recognizable prerecorded nature sounds.

2:00 – 3:00 PM: Ivan Arteaga, clarinet; Neal Kosaly-Meyer, electric guitar. Ivan plays three clarinet solos, including “Song from the Voices on Earth” and “Desert Bloom”, as well as a piece with guitar. At the end of this set, the “Mystic Chord” (important to the composition of the Cycle) makes its first recognizable appearance (though it has been in the texture of the music previous to this).

3:00 – 4:00 PM: Neal Kosaly-Meyer, electric guitar; Matt Kocmieroski, percussion. Most of this hour consists of “Spherics”, a cosmic alteration of prerecorded nature sounds intended to sound like the “music of the spheres”. The graphic scores for this section are based on the planets, and the guitar and percussion sound as otherworldly as the prerecorded parts.

4:00 – 5:00 PM: Dale Speicher, percussion. A long section of prerecorded sound alone leads to the three “Field of Arbol” pieces for percussion – the luminous central heart of the Cycle. Antiphonal bells decorate the last of these pieces.

5:00 – 6:00 PM: Bruce Greeley, bass clarinet; Jay Hamilton, mey and homemade instruments; Keith Eisenbrey, found objects. Most of this hour is the “Night Signals”, a haunted dreamscape led out of darkness by variations on the “mystic chord”.

6:00 – 7:00 PM: S. Eric Scribner, piano. The reintroduction of the piano begins the climax of the Cycle, but this section also includes its most lyrical movement, “Song from Deep Silence (variations on the Gospel tune "Sing Alleluia")", which has been a big hit at previous concerts.

7:00 – 8:30 PM: Clifford Dunn, flute; David Paul Mesler, piano; Ryan Burt, drums. The second longest piece in the Cycle, “Day Signals”, represents a day in the life of Homo sapiens, again led out of darkness by reiterations of the “mystic chord”. The flute and piano parts are derived from freeform aleatory variations and improvisations on musical material from a piece by Takemitsu.

8:30 – 9:00 PM: Clifford Dunn, flute; Keith Eisenbrey, piano; Dale Speicher and Matt Kocmierosky, percussion. The “mystic chord” expands into five octaves for this gamelan-like finale, “Consort of Voices”. This piece is actually not quite finished yet…

The first rehearsal is scheduled for next week. In the mean time, I’ll be promoting the concert by playing various solo fragments of the music at concerts and open mikes around Seattle and environs. The first of these is at:

The Seattle Composers’ Salon,
tonight (5/6/2011) at 8:00
at the Chapel Performance Space, Good Shepherd Center, 50th and Sunnyside, Seattle (the same venue as the complete "StormSound" concert, so this should be a chance to preview the music in those amazing acoustics). Admission: sliding scale, $5.00 to $15.00.
Other composers include Yvonne Hoar, Doug Palmer, Ben Hogue, and Jeffrey Izzo.

“The Seattle Composers’ Salon fosters the development, performance and appreciation of new music by regional composers and performers. At bi-monthly, informal presentations, the Salon features finished works, previews, and works in progress. Composers, performers, and audience members gather in a casual setting that allows for experimentation and discussion. Everyone is welcome!” (from the Composers’ Salon website).

(This posting is on 5/6/2011; 15 days until the first performance of the complete "StormSound" Cycle.)

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Concert Review: JACK Quartet; Town Hall, Seattle, 5/3/2011

“If you don’t know JACK, it might be time for an introduction.” So said the promotional blurb – and listed several of their achievements, including “at least a dozen major-media Best of 2009 lists”. The JACK quartet consists of Violinists Christopher Otto and Ari Streisfeld, violist John Pickford Richards, and cellist Kevin McFarland. My comment, after hearing them: if you don’t know JACK, then it's time you did.

JACK quartet; an image from their website.

Actually I hadn’t heard of them either until a friend of mine had a couple of free tickets. (Thanx, Tom!) He said that Ligeti and Xenakis were on the program, and that alone would have made it worth hearing. So I went.

The hall was packed (sold out, of very nearly so). An announcer from KING-FM introduced the quartet, taking a moment to inform anyone in the audience who didn’t know that his radio station had just converted to a listener-supported station. (To me this is hopeful – there might be more of JACK’s type of music on there now, along with several other seldom-heard styles – I’ll keep my fingers crossed.)

The quartet walked on stage, dressed formally as if to play Beethoven or Mozart, though with a decidedly informal demeanor. ‘Cellist Kevin McFarland introduced the first piece, which he had composed for his sister’s wedding. “My sister gave the additional restriction that the piece must be tonal (she knew me too well),” was a comment on the program notes that he repeated. (I’ll admit that an atonal piece would probably not have set the right mood for a wedding.) Then they played it; a relatively short piece (8 minutes or thereabouts) that sounded like “minimalist Beethoven” (as I said to another audience member later). Loops in different meters built up in complexity, then resolved into slightly tense classical progressions straight out of the Beethoven quartets. Quite an effective opener, both an homage to the classical roots of the string quartet genre and a statement that experiments are welcome.

They followed with one of the masterworks of the avant-garde quartet, the Ligeti Quartet no. 2. I’ve heard this piece before, on the old recording by the Arditti Quartet. That recording emphasized the shocking techniques and sudden shifts in timbre that pepper the music. JACK’s performance was different – the wild grittiness was still there, but they emphasized the atmospheric slow sections, the singing (non)-dissonances where nothing much happens and the music is content to settle into half-heard quietude before more action starts. The whole piece, of course, is a study in these contrasts: now wild and raw and explosive; now contemplative – but in this presentation the contemplative won out. I found myself thinking of the Shostakovich 15th quartet – a very different kind of piece, but with the same spacey, brooding near-silences. It was a beautiful performance.

After the intermission, JACK was joined by Joshua Roman, TownMusic Artistic Director and former principal ‘cellist with the Seattle Symphony. He gave a short talk on the differences between equal temperament and just intonation (which he defined as “playing exactly in tune”) and had the quartet give some examples. The five of them then played Joshua’s arrangement of three madrigals (c. 1610) by Gesualdo. These had the very sweet sound characteristic of much Renaissance music. I had always thought this sound was due to the difference in the construction of the instruments – but here, these modern instruments gave off the same perfumed notes. It turns out that it’s partially because of the tuning, though I haven’t heard comparable sounds in contemporary “just intonation” pieces such as those by Harrison or Partch. Whatever; the chromaticism of the music was also certainly interesting (adding an intellectual component to the prettiness), as was the tone-painting: Joshua had commented before playing that he’d arranged to have the instruments play with various techniques to imitate the voices’ drama. He’d also read a translation of the texts, so the audience knew roughly what sounds were to imitate what. There were examples of angst being played by scratchy sounds near the bridges of the instruments, and bittersweet lovesick sighs played on open strings – but the most striking bit of tone-painting was that of a mosquito, imitated almost painfully. These kinds of effects, of course, are attention-getters but become tiring quickly. In this case, though, there was enough interest in the music itself to keep them from becoming banal.

Chris Otto (violin), composed the next piece, Algol. This is the Arabic name of a supossedly baleful star in the constellation Perseus (also called the “demon star” – the name can obviously be picked apart to mean “al-gol – the ghoul”). However, astrological malevolence had nothing whatsoever to do with this music. This was a fifteen-minute drone-minimalist meditation. Comparison with the very similar but much more dramatic drone-minimalist piece (presented at the New Music Marathon two days earlier) shows the contrasts possible in this supposedly homogenous genre. Algol was a genuinely beautiful piece, an electronic drone that slowly faded into existence and then sprouted delicate webs of harmonics from the string quartet. These harmonics came in waves (appearing out of two different sets of just-intonation intervals based on two slightly different versions of the drone); each wave was different and presented its own sound-world before cresting and collapsing back into the pseudo-silence of the drone. Fantastic music.

The final piece was Xenakis’ “Tetras”. The title means “Four”, and it explores the possibility of sounds created by the four instruments of the string quartet. Mathematically based, but raw and primitive in effect, this is the antithesis of both the “classical” quartet and drone music such as Algol. The instruments rattle and squeak, whine and whistle, scrape and scratch and bellow, and occasionally lapse into melodic material – most of it at full volume. Crunchy scuffing noises (made by bowing parts of the body of the instrument) are passed from violin to viola to ‘cello as if they were "voices" in a classical fugue. Whistling glissandi materialize and then disintegrate into spasms of sawing-scrubbing sounds. What’s amazing is that all of this somehow still sounds like music, and still sounds organized. What’s even more amazing was a feat of musical technique I’ve never seen the likes of before: less than half-way through the tortuous piece, ‘cellist McFarland broke a string. It gave a loud “snap” and could be seen coiled around the decorative scroll atop his instrument. There was no time to fix it – when he got a chance he merely removed it – but the music didn’t sound any different. I’ve heard the piece on a recording, and I missed nothing in this performance! He was able to shift the whole clatter of notes over to the three remaining strings and play as if nothing had happened (one violinist gave a knowing smile a little later when it was obvious to him at least that one set of notes had been transposed down an octave, but this had no effect on the music). Bravo! Skill counts even when playing so heartily; but this was skill so advanced that it didn’t sound like skill – the music simply went on as if nothing had happened…

So that was that. A good program, and a good concert. If they play again in Seattle, I’d like to hear them (if nothing else to see if they can play “Tetras” with all sixteen of their strings). And, it turns out now that I do know JACK, at least a little.

Oh, where did their name JACK come from? Look closely at their names…

(This posting is on 5/4/2011; 16 days until the first performance of the complete "StormSound" Cycle.)

NOTE: A comment on this blog has noted a mistake. Ari Streisfeld arranged the Gesualdo madrigals, not Joshua Roman (as I wrote above). Oops! My mistake! The comment goes on to say that it isn't really a big deal -- but to me it is a big deal. I apolgize.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Concert Review: "May Day" (Second Annual New Music Marathon); Town Hall, Seattle, 5/1/2011

This was the second annual 10-hour “new music marathon” at Seattle’s Town Hall, curated by Wayne Horvitz, Jarrad Powell, and Christina Valdez. It was a continuation of last year’s concert, though somewhat different in direction. There was more variety (though, as I’ll say more at length later, a lot of it wasn’t exactly “new music”) and less of the loud, hyperactive, non-repetitive post-minimalism – both of these are neither negative nor positive comments, merely observations. I will, however, start out with a couple of minor negatives. Keep in mind, of course, that these are only my subjective opinions.

Another audience member commented that the music was often quite similar; there was “a lot of improvisation and a lot of looping”. His criticism was astute. This was supposed to be experimental music, but I was surprised how non-experimental a lot of it was. Improvisations (there were a lot of them) were mostly modal; and the idea of improvising with electronics took over many of the acts – indeed, the performers often improvised something, recorded it on the spot, set it going as a loop, and continued improvising over the top. Yes, there was “a lot of looping”. This was new back in the 1980’s when Paul Dresher did it with his guitar. It was all part of the excitement during that period of the minimalist revolution; the new possibilities of music based on gradual changes in (and apparent secretion of) repetitive thematic and chordal material. But the excitement is gone, at least to my ears. What was new is no longer; this is not to say that it’s “bad” music (nobody says that about Baroque or jazz, and neither is “new”) but the thrill of the new isn’t there anymore. This kind of experiment is no longer an experiment.

My other slightly negative comment was the repetition of the performers; the curators of the program chose a lot of ensembles that featured the same musicians – again, this doesn’t necessarily imply bad music (nobody complains that Robert Plant has formed at least one new band since Zeppelin) but somehow it smacks of Hollywood, where the same actors turn up again and again in movie after movie. I would have liked it better if there had been a lot more acts that didn’t feature the same musicians as in the previous acts.

Those minor negatives said, the concert was for the most part very good. As I got there, the Valdes/Parker/Schaefer trio was just wrapping up a loud post-minimal piece (according to the program, Christina Valdez had just finished a solo piano set). The music was very much along the lines of many of the pieces presented last year (in the style of Jo Kondo with a lot of caffeine), though there were no more pieces in this style later.

Christ de Laurenti, long time Seattle new music fixture, presented a set of laptop improvisations. “I see my role in music as to be like your second set of ears,” he commented before playing, “…not ears that you have to carry around with you, but that find interesting things for you to listen to.” His set consisted of found sound music (probably the only way that one can improvise with prerecorded sounds on a laptop); they were indeed “interesting things to listen to”. The most striking was, near the end, the howling of wind through around a corner or through a slightly-open window. I’ve never actually heard this sound used in musique concrète, though it has certainly been imitated in instrumental pieces in the past (Sibelius’ “Tapiola” and the Chinese pi-pa classic “Ambush” come to mind).

Joe Kaufman, principal bassist for the Seattle Symphony, presented a performance piece that took its cue from the Rolling Stones. He began by tuning a five-string string bass and smacking its strings with the bow. Then he tuned it again, this time winding a string so tight that it broke; he did the same with a second and third string – they made a curious pop-twang as they broke – and then he dropped the bass on a tarp on the floor (the sound was unbelievably loud as it clattered to the stage floor). Rummaging in his instrument case, he pulled out a sledgehammer and smashed the bass a couple of times (“Oh no!” shouted a child in the audience somewhere to my right), and repeated the action with a crowbar. Then he started to saw it in half with a small battery-powered circular saw that got stuck partway through; he dislodged it, gave the audience a “Just a minute!” signal and left the stage; coming back fifteen seconds later with a larger saw. He plugged it in and sawed the bass into three pieces. He broke the bow across his knee and stomped on the bridge. Finally he stuffed the whole mutilated mess into his instrument bag and walked away. “He must have been pretty frustrated having to work under conductors all the time,” I jokingly commented to another audience member. “Playing bass in the symphony can be tough – you never get a chance to solo,” was the response. “I hope he has another bass,” said someone else.

What to say? A comment that art is dead? Nihilism, perhaps? Or just the fun of seeing something get obliterated? (The latter is a negative comment on human nature – this kind of destruction has been done in music before; besides the Stones smashing their guitars, there was a mike inside a burning piano – I forget the artist – and Tom Nunn once commented on the paradoxical creativity of Moe Staiano’s “destructo” mode. How is it that we are fascinated by violence, even against inanimate objects…? Is this kind of musical “slasher story” a comment on our predilection for carnage, a protest against it, or a “giving in” to it…?)

After a break, Stuart Dempster calmed the mood considerably. He played trombone into a piano, creating lingering echoes as the stings vibrated sympathetically. The effect was much like his classic “Abbey” recordings. He also dragged the bell of the instrument across the support bars of the piano, producing curiously different timbers – scraping the trombone away from his chest made “in tune” notes to ring out – these sounded very much like “regular” trombone notes – while scraping it in the opposite direction caused high, screechy overtones. The piece ended with trombone played in the standard manner; fragmentary melodies based on 4ths and 5ths, with occasional trills on 2nds. He ended with a “Tibetan” multiphonic. All in all the piece was relaxing if fragmentary.

Tom Baker continued the “improvisations of loops” idea with his fretless guitar, though these pieces had a larger percentage of composed material. Called “The Cage Elegies”, these were indeed elegiac pieces, much in the vein of some of his other work. An interesting (aleatory?) performance aspect was part of the music itself. He adjusted the various controls on his guitar (and the foot pedals) for several seconds, without listening to the results, before playing anything. The audience was left in suspense: “What sound will be next?” Samples of John Cage quotations finished out the music, expressing Cage’s inimitable blend of nihilism, zen, and celebration of creativity: “Originally we were nowhere, and once again we are having the pleasure of going slowly nowhere.” “Why do I have to go on asking questions? Why do they call me a composer, if all I do is ask questions?” “I have nothing to say, and I am saying it.” “Here we are at the middle of the 4th large part of this talk.” “Here we are now, a little bit past the middle of the 4th large part of this talk.

Briggan Krauss and Wayne Horvitz then played what was probably the longest set in the concert (and certainly the set for the largest ensemble). They began with an extended improvisation for alto sax (Krauss) and synthesizer (Horvitz); the sounds of the instruments often blended so that it was difficult to tell them apart. Strange wails and bleeps gave rise to melodies; drones dissolved into squeals and meows, all in what sounded like a modal framework. Then came the surprise. There was an entire high school jazz band on the stage (Krauss and Horvits had announced beforehand that they’d have to sit there during the improvisation and be completely quiet); after a huge wave of electronic sound, this band began playing. What was surprising is that, although I could see that the band was starting to play, it was difficult to hear exactly when they’d started and the electronics had ended. The electronic sound merely carried over into the acoustic sound of the band (with tremelos and trills, then emerging bass riffs) while the synthesizer faded into its texture. To me, this was a flawless transition (I commented later to one of the kids, who had a “Rush” t-shirt, that it was like one of the intros that Rush had been famous for) – though another audience member said that to him it was overdone and too dramatic (again, like Rush?). Whatever. It was fun. The band played skillfully, if not completely competently, with an amazing groove – Sun Ra maybe hasn’t sounded this good since Sun Ra.

What followed was the only disappointment of the day (to my ear). Scrape, an original music string orchestra, played their own atmospheric compositions with Jessika Kenney (vocals) and a vibraphone that sounded oddly like a piano. (It was hidden behind the other players, who were standing, so at first I was wondering where the “piano” sounds were coming from.) I couldn’t hear the words when Ms. Kenney sang, but the pieces were so hazy and impressionistic that this wasn’t a problem. In fact the music was quite beautiful (and didn’t sound like a “scrape”). What was a problem was the intonation; several times various instruments came in sharp or with scratchy bowing. This may have been intentional microtones or extended techniques, but it didn’t sound that way – given the nature of the music, it merely sounded off-key. I didn’t stay for their third piece, but wandered off to have something to eat.

When I returned, Maria Mannisto and Robin Holcomb were finishing up the excerpts from the “Smokestack Arias” (again by Wayne Horvitz) – these were pretty lieder, but since I only heard a little I can’t really comment.

Beth Fleenor followed, with a twist on the “improvising with loops” idea. She’s becoming a fixture in the Seattle new music scene, and it’s obvious why (her rendition of “Desert Bloom”, part of my “StormSound” Cycle, at a concert last year, was one of the most exquisite clarinet solos I’ve ever heard even if she didn’t have all of the score due to a snafu…!) Here she performed part of “Crystal Beth”, or she was “Crystal Beth”, or whatever. The borders between conventional “music” and “performance art” are broken down here, so I don’t know if “Crystal Beth” is a piece, a concept for improvisation, a character, a pseudonym, some combination of these, or something else I haven’t thought of. At any rate, as a performance art piece it was attention-grabbing (at the beginning, her vaguely “heavy-metal” shamanic howls were white-knuckles-on the-armrests disturbing) and then as a piece of music it slowly evolved into its own beauty as a clarinet solo (with electronic loops). Partway through, there was an unprecedented effect (at least to me): she began a loop, but there was no indication that she’d recorded it – she continued to “play” it in pantomime – so it was surprising when one of the notes in the loop (a high overtone) suddenly began to appear before the previous note had ended. This wouldn’t have been at all startling as a recorded piece, but “live”, it created a wonderful bit of cognitive dissonance between what is expected for “live” instruments had what literally can’t be done. It was a vaguely hallucinogenic moment, relating possibly to the name “Crystal Beth” – though, like the vocalisms at the beginning, it was both beautiful and disquieting. Again, a comment on the name “Crystal Beth” – the drug allusion is obvious here: the euphoria of the “trip” and the certainty of addiction and destruction later. Or, as in Spiderman III, “It feels good to be bad”; but there is a pay-off at the end. I couldn’t have made a more eloquent anti-drug statement.

Next up: “Today!” (the exclamation point is part of the name); a band featuring Dayna Hanson, Maggie Brown, Paul Moore, and Dave Proscia. This wasn’t “new music” or experimental in any way – I don’t really know why it was included in a “new music marathon” except that it was music that is new. It did, however, provide a nice, pretty interlude. What was it? New songs (written by the band members) in the style of 1960’s folk-pop (think Peter, Paul, and Mary), with beautiful, understand vocal harmonies accompanied by two acoustic guitars, electric bass, and piano. The words to the songs weren’t particularly clear, and the playing seemed oddly tentative, but otherwise this was a pleasant diversion.

Eyvind Kang and Jessika Kenney (from Scrape) presented three pieces that fused the avant-garde with Persian classical music. Modal (though the third piece, the longest, changed keys a couple of times), based on long rhythmic cycles, and with sinuous decorated vocalisms, this continued the lovely tranquility of the “Today!” folk music. These were two sides of the same coin: new compositions in an old style, but from a different part of the world in a different century.

The Persian music, having shifting from familiar tonality into just intonation, prepared us for the climax of the evening. Zachary Watkins, composer/electronics, presented his “Suite for String Quartet”, which wasn’t a suite and featured electronics as much as the (amplified) strings. Played by Paris Hurley and Brandon Vance (violins), Eyvind Kang (again, this time on viola) and Brad Hawkins (‘cello) and the composer on live electronic processing, this was a drone minimalist piece so profound that I could almost feel the earth shifting on its axis. Each string of the quartet was retuned to an odd number partial of 60Hz. The players created slow harmonies that cross-faded in and out of existence, and interacted with the electronics (which occasionally amplified a harmonic, but mostly remained as an idée fixe in the background). This made a drone effect that is neither harmonious nor discordant (in the classical sense), but filled the performance space with shimmering acoustic beats. As with much drone minimalism, it was both exciting and relaxing, threatening and completely at peace with the listener. The long-time reader of this blog of course knows my fondness for this startlingly beautiful and too-seldom heard genre – but this piece went beyond even that into its own universe. I cannot say more without lapsing into crazy superlatives.

There were several more performers at the Marathon. Time constraints force me to review them at a later date; check back over the next couple of days for the rest of this posting.

(This posting is on 5/3/2011; 18 days until the first performance of the complete "StormSound" Cycle.)

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Concert Review: Steve Barsotti and Paul Kikuchi; Chapel Performance Space at Good Shepherd Center, Seattle, 4/22/2011

Another music teacher made the comment (last week) that, curiously, when he was running both jazz camp and classical music camp, that the students who were learning classical music were better improvisers. The reason, he said, was that the jazz students were simply regurgitating licks, whereas the classical students were actually thinking about their improvisations.

In the world of experimental music, such a dichotomy need not exist. Jazz “licks” would sound out of place in a Cage aleatory work, for example (even though an aleatory piece would, by nature, include the possibility of jazz or any other “licks”). But, then again, so would a baroque fugue, or a blues progression… Such “out-of-style-ness” can be used for humor too, as in the case of P.D.Q. Bach: rap in the middle of a Baroque chorus; or a serialist “row” suddenly materializing from a rococo symphony. At any rate, this concert was one in which the ideas of “genre” and “out-of-style” were anachronisms. The music belongs to no recognizable style or genre. It creates its own.

I got there slightly late due to some other business. (Sorry about that creaking door that interrupted a quiet moment. Yes, that was me… Note to self: The “StormSound” music contains a lot of quiet moments, will be performed in the same venue, and the audience will be able to come and go as they desire. Leave that door open…!)

I heard the last part of the first set, and then the entire second set. In the first, Steve played solo: electronic manipulations (from a laptop) of field recordings. Much of this was atmospheric, quasi-impressionist, in the manner of Steve’s CD “Along These Lines” (see my 4/5/11 posting). There was a consistent drone in the background, of indeterminate origin and tonality; a chordal pink noise that kept the music together as something of a recurring motif.

(After the concert, I talked to another audience member who said that the drone was probably derived from a “singing bridge”. Steve confirmed that this was the case. A “singing bridge” is the sound made by the reverberations of a bridge, as traffic passes over it, or rain and wind “play” it like a giant instrument – these sounds can be picked up with a contact mike. Fascinating!)

Paul Kikuchi, instrument inventor, joined Steve for the second set. Here again, the background sound was field recordings, including a drone and a slow, rhythmic drip of rain onto a metallic surface – a sound used frequently by the Seattle Phonographers’ Union (see my 2/20/2011 posting). The difference is that instruments were added.

Said instruments were homemade electro-acoustic contraptions (I mean that word in a good way). Thin wooden dowels protruded from a wooden plate, with a pick-up attached. Giant rubber bands stretched across a metal frame. A sound-sculpture occupied much of stage right, consisting of car parts and sheet metal. Steve and Paul played all of these as percussion instruments, or bowed them. The wooden dowels made eerie whistling sounds when bowed, or percussive click-clacks when struck (very reminiscent of some of Tom Nunn’s “electro-acoustic percussion boards”). The giant rubber bands didn’t produce a “boing-boing” sound, but surprisingly loud and resonant “sting bass” notes and bowed lamentations. The metal sound-sculpture? This made any number of squeaks, whistles, drones, hums, bongs, clangs, clunks, thumps, and whatever else – all quite beautiful and none of them at all like “sound effects”. Added to this were two surprises: a blade from a circular saw, struck with a mallet and then brought in and out of range of a microphone (resulting in a “gamelan” gong sound that varied in volume and attack a la Stockhausen’s “Mikrophonie” – I called it a “sawmelan”); and then suddenly, toward the end, Steve knelt down to play something on the floor, and clear electric bass guitar notes rang out. The latter was simply another of the giant rubber bands stretched across, in this case, a wooden plank.

The result of all of this was very musical, though not in any conventional sense and certainly not in the sense of any known “genre” (even “non-genres” like electro-acoustic music and noise music fall short of defining this). In the end, this lack of specification results in a more authentic sound encounter – because we don’t know what to expect. It was a beautiful experience. …and it doesn’t matter whether the improvisation was based on classical or jazz tradition because without a genre, there are no “licks” to repeat.

(This posting is on 4/26/2011; 25 days until the first performance of the complete "StormSound" Cycle.)

Thursday, April 7, 2011

"StormSound" Updates and Upcoming Gigs

No real full-time “gigs” coming up – I’ve been concentrating on finishing up the “StormSound” Cycle. Only one movement left to go; the last – and it’s almost done too. All the parts have been sent off to their respective musicians, and I’m currently trying to organize rehearsal times.

I am, however, planning to play live a couple of times before the Big Concert. First up, is, tomorrow: the next open mike at Woodland Park Presbyterian Church. This was quite a venue last time (the first time) I played there; this time I’m planning to do a version of “The Psalm” for pipe organ and prerecorded electronics. It’s something a drone-minimalist piece, so I’ll see what happens when I play it live…

Drone minimalism has gotten some very negative reactions from others when I’ve played it for others, though it’s never been any drone minimalism that I’ve written myself. Though I find these reactions bizarre and inexplicable, they are as frequent as the other side – those who think it’s the best music ever done – and the negative responses are, as negatives tend to be, much more extreme than necessary. One conversation (about a piece by Phill Niblock) ran something like this:

The critic: So that music is trying to say that you can just play one note and call it ‘art’.
Me: Well, no, but I suppose you could, in theory, compose a one-note piece.
The critic: You could also put a cross in a bucket of manure and call it ‘art’.
At this point it was pointless to argue – simply insulting the music without listening to it is the same as refusing to have a serious conversation about it. Implicit in the comments of the “critic” is that the piece did in fact consist of one note, and that this would have been a problem even if it did. It reminds me of the time (this is actually true!) that a high school student decided to break the teacher’s boom-box rather than listen to a piece of drone minimalism in a class!

Anyway, as always at open mikes, I’ll play one of my other styles as well.

Another upcoming gig is something that I’ve been invited too: next Thursday (April 14th), there’s something called “Music for the Peoples” at the People Republic of Koffee (coffee shop), 1718 12th Ave., Seattle. I haven’t been there, but it looks fun. The first set is a band (including Beth Fleenor, among others) and the second is “open to anyone interested in improvising”. I’ll join in that second set if possible. If they have a piano, I’ll play it; if not, I’ll bring along the dulcimer, a slab gong, or something else worth making noise on. (A disclaimer: see my 11/11/2010 posting for a review of a free-improv open mike…)

The third upcoming gig is the May installment of the Seattle Composers’ Salon; as always, a set of various composers’ new works, and discussions following the music. There are several pieces scheduled (there seem to be more than the usual four or five), so I have an eight-minute slot. I’ll do two 4-minute fragments from “Nature Lives in Motion”, the first of the “StormSound” pieces. As always, the Salon is at the Chapel Performance Space, Good Shepherd Center, 50th and Sunnyside, Seattle.

(This posting is on 4/7/2011; 44 days until the first performance of the complete "StormSound" Cycle.)

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

CD Reviews: Dana Reason, Steve Barsotti, David Loy

These are some CDs that I’ve picked up at concerts lately (actually last year) or in a studio. Two are experimental, and two are jazz piano – though with two drastically different takes on the latter.

Dana Reason Trio: Revealed

Think of this as one large composition in a virtuosic “lots of notes” free-jazz style. It begins with a showy allegro with chaos and clusters of notes (reminiscent of some of the work in Chick Corea’s “Early Days”). More pieces in a similar vein follow, though the listener may be able to discern a gradual “opening up” of the harmonies: chords with more fourths and fifths in them, and less minor (or dissonant) intervals. Then, halfway through, something entirely unexpected happens. A grand hush comes over the music. Silence (never actually heard, always felt) becomes the focus. At the same time, the piano playing at least becomes more intense, more concentrated. In this way, this album (this single large composition) becomes like those rare large-scale classical works where the climax is in the quietest music, after all the din and drama has subsided (think of the Mahler 3rd, the Berlioz Requiem, or the Monteverdi “1610” Vespers). The end becomes slightly more active, with the bass leading the way in a long improvisation over sparse sounds from the other instruments. Altogether an interesting and refreshing approach for a jazz album.

David Loy: Cranes

David sold me this CD while I was at his Lake Union Studio, recording some tracks for a CD of my piece “SoundScrolls V” (one of my tracks is available for free online; here.) David recorded this CD in the studio, on their amazing grand piano, and he worked out much of this music to sound optimal on this particular piano. This is not the kind of piano music that I usually listen to – but in this case I make an exception. At first hearing, this is “George Winston” easy listening – but not in a bad, muzaky way. The long reverberations were not added in post-production to smooth out the piano sound – they were produced by the piano itself and are an intrinsic part of the music. Likewise, the piano was not compressed so that all notes are the same volume level – here, loud notes sound loud not only because they have a sharper “attack”, but because they actually are louder – the way a piano sounds in real life and the way it is recorded in classical music and jazz. These techniques make nuances possible which never occur in “easy listening” piano. Fans of Windham Hill should give this a listen to hear what they’ve been missing.

That said, what about the music? Here, even casual listening reveals another surprise: unusual for this genre, David is not afraid of jazz chords, chromaticism, and even dissonance (the piece “For My Father” actually has an atonal melody; “Oropesa” frequently harmonizes the melody against a minor second). These do not detract from the “style” of the music but are subtly worked into it. The result? I stated above that at first hearing, this is “George Winston” easy listening – but after a second or third hearing, those impressions fade. In the end, this is actually a solo piano jazz CD. I recommend it for anyone who is interested in something that, on close inspection, turns out to be something else entirely.

Steve Barsotti: along these lines

This is a beautiful album of (arguably) “old-school” musique-concrete (think the old Xenakis “Electroacoustic Music”) but with an alluring combination of high- and low-tech recording that wouldn’t have been possible in the older music. Like the Dana Reason CD, it can be thought of as a single large-scale composition, though obviously in a much different style. In this case, the four movements form a giant crescendo. The first piece (movement), “Boundaries”, is an excersize in boundary-breaking; the distinction between sounds (and between recognizable and unrecognizable sounds) blurs, and we’re left with vague, almost subliminal soundscape of electro-acoustic “microsounds”. All is quiet, with hints of mechanical noises and “electronica”, but the sources of very little can be discerned; it appears that many of the frequencies (those that make the sounds recognizable) have been filtered out.

The second and third pieces (movements), called “Bridges” and “Terraces”, bring in more high frequencies, and thus the sounds are more familiar. Some of the sounds are periodic, thus setting up rudimentary meters (“Bridges” actually begins with traffic driving over an expansion seam in a bridge), though the emphasis is still on the interest of the sound itself. Both also establish drones based on electronic processing of the same sounds, thus also establishing “tonality”. “Terraces” is the longest piece, and here the electronic drones become the most ambient, blending with the other sounds in an epic slow movement.

If “Terraces” is the adagio, then “Bypass” is the finale. Strange blips give way to massive static and “heavy metal” distortion. This could be a piece by Merzbow, though, as Mr. Barsotti explained to me, “It’s not just that you turn it on and let it scream at you.” As in Merzbow’s “1930” album, there is subtlety behind the noise. Delicate bells quiver behind walls of static; quiet overtones sing out amid thunderous din. The final 30 seconds fulfill what had begun 60 minutes before; the same sounds that started “Boundaries” return, and the listener suddenly realizes that these are the same sound sources that produced the chaos of “Bypass”. The CD ends refreshed, despite the intensity of its final minutes.

Steve Barsotti: Rarebit

Mr. Barsotti’s other CD, “Rarebit”, is a collection of pieces made on homemade instruments. None of these (either the pieces or the instruments) are “musical” in the conventional sense; rather, they are excursions into the possible beauty that untuned percussive sound can (perhaps unexpectedly) produce. It is not possible to determine which instrument plays which sound, nor is this necessary. There is a continuous contrast between pointilistic and drone-like sounds, and between sounds that appear “near” and those that have echoes and appear “far”: the constant shifting between these creates a tension in the music. The most surprising manifestation of this tension, however, occurs in the form of the “playlist” itself: the first and last pieces are made by multitracking material from other pieces on the CD. One would expect these to be denser (and thus the pieces in the middle, which were played “live”, to sound shallow) – but oddly, this does not happen. The first dense piece merely presents the material in an unfocussed, unclear haze; an overture of sounds that will be explored more completely in later pieces. The last dense piece is the finale, summing up all that has gone before in an aleatory overlapping. Like “Along these Lines”, this CD ends refreshed and completed, without any dangling ideas. I recommend both of them.

(This posting is on 4/5/2011; 46 days until the first performance of the complete "StormSound" Cycle.)

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Three Concerts: Wishbone Ensemble and Agogic; Open Mike at Woodland Park Presbyterian Church; Christohper DeLaurenti

Continuing writing in this blog late because of extreme busy-ness, I’ll here review a series of concerts that I went to last week. (At this point I should be able to catch up at least on the topic of concert reviews.)

The Concert That Wasn’t: Composer Spotlight at Jack Straw Studios

This was supposed to be another in the series where composers talk about their work, sometimes as promos for upcoming concerts. (I had given one of these last month; see my 2/7/2011 and 2/10/2011 postings.) I got to Jack Straw Studios at about 7:15, expecting at least a few people to be there waiting for the presentation. The doors were locked and nobody was around except for an occasional pedestrian ambling by. I asked the man at the cash register at the little market next door if he knew anything about the “concert at Jack Straw tonight”; he responded with surprise that there was something going on there…

I wandered back to the door, finding two more who were there waiting for the door to open; but it never opened. We talked about the scheduled music (and other music) for a couple of minutes, then we decided that there had been some mistake and we’d missed the fact that the presentation had been cancelled. We went our separate ways.

I decided that, since the presentation was partially about a concert that would be at the Good Shepherd Center later on, that they might have rescheduled it and were going to present it there instead. The two locations are about two miles apart, so I drove over to the Good Shepherd Center.

The Concert That Was: Wishbone Ensemble and Agogic

Crowds were gathering there. There were several activities going on; one was actually a concert – but not the one intended. (I talked to a couple of people who knew what had happened: the presentation at Jack Straw had been cancelled, and everyone had been notified – but the Seattle Times hadn’t taken it off of their website until after I’d looked at it… These things happen, I guess.) Anyway, the unexpected concert was worth seeing, if entirely different than what I’d originally gone to see.

It was a concert of two contemporary jazz bands; presented by Earshot Jazz. I’ve often been a skeptic of “contemporary” jazz – to me it’s often not “contemporary” at all and far too close to “smooth jazz” (which is just a new way to say elevator music). These two bands exposed, once again, my musical snobbery.

First up: the Wishbone Ensemble (a.k.a. Andy Clausen’s Wishbone Ensemble – though I can’t find a list of musicians, on the web or anywhere else, except for Andy Clausen, trombonist). Their music was certainly the mellower of the two, and included an accordion besides the “standard” jazz ensemble of piano, bass, drums, and wind instruments (clarinet and trombone in this case). There were a lot of melodic, harmonic, and textural similarities to Pat Metheny, but not in a negative way. “Splitstream”, the first piece, was harmonized almost entirely in 4ths and major 2nds – an expansive, atmospheric sound that was actually reminiscent at times (to me) of my modal pieces in the “StormSound” Cycle. It did in fact feature a “split stream”: the trombone and clarinet soloed at the same time. Any hints of Dixieland that this should have engendered were smothered by the piece’s smooth, mellow sound.

They followed with the “Wishbone Suite” – a long set of full-length compositions (is there such as thing as a jazz “concept album”?) that ostensibly told the story of one of the band members trying to impress a girl on the playground when both were in the 3rd grade. There were nostalgic hints of childhood in the music, particularly in the sometimes nursery-like melodic material (see Keith Jarrett’s “Innocence” on the “Personal Mountains” album, or the last part of the Mahler 4th) – cross-cut with extreme musical sophistication. The first part, “Who Goes There?”, began with bubbling sounds in the trombone and a heterophonic melody, then very fast music in odd, ever-changing meter (think 70’s prog-rock bands like E.L.P. and Kansas). “Trouble” began with microtonality (disturbing in this context) and a spaghetti-Western twanging bass (in the style Ennio Morricone); the main solo was by the accordion. “The Pursuit” was a bebop tune for clarinet over a syncopated bass, with a slower angst-riddled guitar solo in the middle. “Dialogue” seemed to be a conversation between the piano/guitar (treated here as a single instrument) and the clarinet. Neither played a true melody; the p/g played chords based on 2nds while the clarinet made rippling sounds, and then slid into a real “solo” – that is, an improvisation without accompaniment. “Affinity” was essentially a reprise of “Who Goes There?”, with its fast prog-rock meters – but ramped up into a frantic chaos of simultaneous solos and then a grand, symphonic, restatement of the tune. Altogether a successful, beautiful, and interesting set. The wild applause by the audience confirmed this to be a crowd-pleaser. I, for one, would have preferred to have a little more “compositional” variety in the suite; that is, some pieces with no solos or some with several solos, or maybe some with a longer or shorter format – but that is a mere quibble probably brought about by my classical roots. This band is going somewhere (and it’s not down) – I’d like to hear what they can come up with next time they play.

Between acts, the MC announced that they would now “Crank it up – less talk, more rock!” The second act was Agogic, a band of four members: Cuong Vu (trumpet), Andrew D'Angelo (sax), Luke Bergman (bass), and Evan Woodle (drums). Their first piece was indeed much more rock-oriented. The drums began with a slow, steady beat, then the others joined in a unison tune with an indie-rock feel. At the end, an elderly woman shouted “Wow!” which shows that the music can impress across generations.

Agogic; a photo from a promotional website

Their next two pieces were, however, something of a disappointment in that they were almost stereotypical “free jazz” (it’s odd how a genre that’s supposed to be about a lack of clichés can sometimes be a cliché…) Full of crashing drum work, screaming loud wailing and screeching solos, spacey effects with a digital delay unit, and distortion – these pieces affected me as exercises in excess. That said, there were a lot of interesting moments: the bass producing strange bubbling noises by rubbing the strings to produce harmonics; didgeridoo and gagaku sounds where the instruments blended into a single voice; and trumpet and sax solos that seemed to continue sputtering and creaking even while these same instruments were starting to restate the main theme. That’s skillful playing, if nothing else.

The last three pieces returned to the format of the first. “Too Well” was a rock tribute to Ornette Coleman – a fusion of rock and free jazz that wasn’t really like anything I’d heard before. “Song for Lisa” was a poignantly personal ballad for a friend who has leukemia; here, a quiet bass solo against brushed cymbals led to heartfelt vocals (“we love you, come back down to this place….”) and a deeply moving trumpet melody based on the same theme (with a sax solo at the same time). Lastly, the drummer began a rock beat again, which started the final piece, an up-tempo rocker that brought the concert to a rousing conclusion.

It was altogether an interesting set, though maybe I’m being too picky in saying that I’d have liked it better if the “free jazz” was a little more free and the rock explored more that’s possible in that (admittedly rather narrow) genre. At the time, though, I left the concert satisfied.

The Second Concert That Was: Open Mike at Woodland Park Presby

The second night of this concert week began with the open mike at Woodland Park Presbyterian Church – a new once-a-month open mike that Wayne had invited me to. (As I’ve said before, some object to the idea of an avant-gardist playing at an open mike. My response always is, “What are avant-gardists doing not playing at open mikes…?” The music needs exposure, plain and simple.) Anyway, having looked on Google Maps and being slightly surprised that Woodland Park Presbyterian Church was not the same Presbyterian Church near Woodland Park that I’d been to years ago a couple of times with a friend, I found it fairly easily (just west of Seattle’s Greenwood Avenue).

It turned out to be a beautiful, cavernous space for performance (and certainly for church services, at least aesthetically – with all that natural reverberation, it would be a perfect setting for “traditional” services with chanting and the roar of the pipe organ). There was art on the walls; not “religious” art but scenes of musicians and Seattle buildings, made of photomontages in a fractured neo-cubist style. Someone – I forget who – commented that it was rather ironic that such “shattered” structures were being displayed after the devestating earthquake in Japan.

The open mike itself turned out to be like most open mikes, but with a very high level of musicianship (and some recitations). Highlights included a didgeridoo solo by Max (“I got this didgeridoo for $20.00 at the Renaissance Fair; it will probably sound better than the last one I played here, which was a rolled up banner with the cardboard tube attached…”); a suite of Celtic tunes played by a duet (called Waterbound) of autoharp and “octave” (bass) mandolin; and Wayne’s ambient guitar piece called “Chamber”, which has a striking use of a minor sixth against a major triad – what I sometimes call an “orange note” (opposite of a “blue note”). Gary and Stefan sang a James Taylor tune (beautifully). Doug played and sang two traditional hymns (“There is a Balm in Gilead” and “Precious Lord”): first on the clarinet (in a non-metered, almost impressionist rendering - the acoustics were perfect for this type of playing) and then a capella in a more rhythmic manner - the sincerity in his voice was deeply moving. Joyce read some classic poetry (Yeats, among others) in a voice that lacked the cloying dramatism often used in such recitations – which made it much more effective. There was also a recitation of hip-hop poetry, without a beat-box. Isla flawlessly played Irish and Swedish fiddle tunes; their lilting melodies surprisingly filling the entire hall. Kai sang “karaoke” of his own songs, R&B vocals against synthesized accompaniment that he’d recorded himself. These were a lot more “commercial” than most music at an open mike, but not commercial in a bad way (cheap hackwork) but in a good way (catchy and fun). And, I attempted an improvisation session, with me on piano and Max on the didgeridoo; it sounded okay at the time (though I missed quite a few notes) but I don’t know how it really sounded because the recording I made didn’t come out.

It turns out that the MC will let the musicians play the pipe organ, and the speakers are available for prerecorded material (hence Kai’s “karaoke”) – so maybe next time I’ll attempt the organ version of my piece “The Psalm”, which I’ve never played live, or even a version of “Desert Bloom” (one of the “StormSound” pieces), both which use prerecorded material. Should be fun.

Chris DeLaurenti at Good Shepherd Center

When the open mike concluded, I jumped in my car and drove over to the Good Shepherd Center to see if I could catch the tail end of Christopher DeLaurenti’s concert of electronic music. (Previous attempts to catch the last part of something have often failed; see my 10/20-2010 posting.) I did manage to hear the (long) last piece: a fifteen minute antiphonal free counterpoint of several female voices singing the old song “You’re my Thrill”. The recordings were of jazz-style vocals (some reminiscent of Nina Simone, others of Diana Krall) – but the blending, with no accompaniment other than each other, created a very different impression. As one sang in one corner and another drifted in from the other side, it almost gave the notion of a 21st-century secular organum. A suitable music for a secular concert in what is still to be considered a sacred space. For a more complete review, see Keith Eisenbrey’s blog (he was there for all of it).

(This posting is on 3/19/2011; 63 days until the first performance of the complete "StormSound" Cycle.)