Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Last Post of 2010: Christmas, and Report on This Blog

This may (or not) be the last posting for 2010, so I just thought I’d stick in a couple of random musical thoughts (I don’t think I need to call them “neuron firings” again; I’ve said that too many times…)

1. “Experimental” Christmas Music

I thought that I’d do a posting on this, but didn’t get any time to write it. Here, at any rate, are a couple of ideas. I mentioned the Messiaen “20 Aspects of the Baby Jesus” in a previous posting; this is indeed “different” from the standard piano playing of Christmas standards (i.e. in hotel lobbies during this season). I’d like to hear this instead, sometime! There also exists a “Little Suite for Christmas” by George Crumb, in the same vein, but darker and using a number of Crumb’s inside piano techniques (I’ll concede that Christmas music probably shouldn’t be dark). It has a rendition of the “Coventry Carol” in the middle, mostly monophonic and plucked.

Another one is the interlude, “For the Birth of Christ”, from the African Sanctus by David Fanshawe. Predating music with digital samples, this uses Fanshawe’s own recordings of traditional African music but is mostly a large “classical” work for chorus, piano, and rock band. Some of it sounds oddly dated now (like a 1960’s rock opera that never quite got going) but this interlude is worth listening to. Both relaxing and tense, the piano adds an atonal accompaniment to a love song from Sudan. In the original vinyl release, the love song was panned too far to one direction and the piano too far to the other, and they switched sides in the middle (an unnecessary and unnerving special effect); but that was fixed on the CD reissue.

Some “pop” oddities: There’s a full-orchestral Christmas tune by Japanese folk-rocker Reimy (on her self-titled first album; her barely-controlled childlike voice stands out in sharp, weird contrast to that grand accompaniment), and Bob Dylan did a Christmas CD. I checked out the latter from the library, asking the question: What happens when everybody’s favorite non-singer and arguably the last of the beatnik poets decides to take on Christmas carols? Answer: not much. It just sounds like anybody’s cantankerous but loveable great-granddad wheezing Christmas songs in a karaoke bar. Charming in its way, but definitely not classic Dylan. (Maybe he meant it to be ironic; but ironically, the irony is lost.)

Last, and probably least, there's my own piece "Angelconcert" on my CD "PianoSphere".

2. Report on this blog:

The most-read postings, in order: Concert Review, Eye Music (Sept. 19, 2010); Sound Installation Review: Steve Peters (Sept. 14, 2010); and CD Reviews: Boretz, Lierman, Improvised Music Festival (Oct. 30, 2010).

Least-read postings: Max’d Out Cartoons (Dec. 17, 2010), and the Free Downloads (Sept. 1, 2010). I don’t know what this means. I thought the cartoons were funny, and the free downloads are in fact free (also they don’t contain viruses, and you can delete them if you don’t like them). Probably something about the way internet traffic is being routed to (or away from) these postings…

There are also these weird spikes in activity: sometimes I find that suddenly 97 or 102 people in Malaysia or Latvia or Mozambique looked at my blog all within two minutes of each other. It’s happened roughly four times a month (six in September). What gives? It’s too quick for one person to discover it and then e-mail a link to all of his/her friends. Maybe it’s just a glitch in the Blogger software…? Or does this blog rotate onto a “next blog” list in some places periodically?

3. What's Up Next Year?

Obviously, there's the concert (May 21) of the complete "StormSound" Cycle. Also, I have a concert scheduled for Thursday, February 4, at the Good Shepherd Center, but I haven't completely planned it out yet. I'm working on a new piece for it, one of the old "SoundScrolls" series. And, I'd like to get those "New Music in the Library" concerts going again.

Well, that’s it. Signing off for now. If I don’t post anything else before next year, Merry Christmas to anyone who’s reading this, and Happy New Year.

(This posting is Christmas Day, 2010; 150 days until the first performance of the complete "StormSound" Cycle.)

Monday, December 20, 2010

Concert Review: Wally Shoup Quartet (with Dennis Rea and James DeJoie), Gallery 1412, Seattle, 12/17/2010

Before the concert began, there was some funky, dissonant jazz-rock playing. The MC said it was Captain Beefheart, who had just died, and this concert would be dedicated to his memory. I haven’t listened to much Beefheart but this little bit made me want to hear more.

As the audience filed in (I was there quite early), the chairs were moved around more than once – “Improvised seating for improvised music!” suggested someone. A little boy in the front row was showing off to his parents that he knew the names of all of the percussion instruments in the drum kit that was set up on stage.

The opening set was by Dennis Rea (electric guitar) and James DeJoie (spoken word and bass clarinet). James’s provided dark existential ramblings and a disturbing narrative poem about a woman who slowly dismembered herself (minus any gory details) by dancing – probably a metaphor about “giving oneself entirely to one’s art”. He spoke in informal, conversational tones, while Dennis improvised ambient sounds on the guitar, often by simply turning the amp loud enough to hear the strings reverberate when he tapped on the neck of the instrument. There was also one piece where James played the bass clarinet, in a style that echoed his informal poetry reading – notably, there was one section where they both wound up on exactly the same note at exactly the same time, so this was obviously not entirely improvised music.

The second set was the main act: Wally Shoup (alto sax), Gust Burns (piano – really, this blog is not turning into a Gust Burns fan club, though I like his piano), Paul Kemmish (bass), and Mark Ostrowski (drums). Wally, a long time fixture of the Seattle improvised music scene, said at the beginning that they would play some structured improvs in the middle of the set, but would bookend it with two completely free and spontaneous pieces. Then they launched into the first, and right away it was clear that this was a free-jazz power band. Their tremendous volume at a furious pace seemed to expand outside of the small venue. Altogether they played five pieces, two of them in excess of fifteen minutes. Wally played the sax with both skill and beauty, often making surprisingly subtle melodic lines in the middle of the semi-chaos. Mark provided an often blues-based groove, and sometimes played the cymbals with two drumsticks in one hand, one above and one below the instrument, providing a quick metallic chatter. Gust played in several styles, some suggesting McCoy Tyner; sometimes he attacked the sound with a clattering nebula of notes; at other times he held back and just plunked a chord or two here or there. During a solo he occasionally held a note and then semi-released it several times, producing a wobble. Paul’s bass is the hardest to comment on; as often in ensembles, it seemed to be drowned out by the other, louder instruments, but at the same time gave the music an underpinning that would have been missed had it not been there.

Near the end, they played a slow piece with balladic undertones; then Wally announced, “We’re going to play one more for you – it’s about two hours… joke…” The title, he said, was something like “Squid Eating Joe in a Polyethylene Bag”, and it was a short, dizzying spiral of sound that slowly disintegrated into silence. I guess Joe ate the squid, or was the title ambiguous – did the squid eat Joe? At any rate it was a fitting conclusion to an exciting concert.

[A 3/6/2011 comment here: I finally got around to listening to some Beefheart a couple of weeks ago. One song begins with a couple of lines of nonsense blank verse: “A squid eating dough (or squid-eating doe) in a polyethylene bag is fast and bulbous, also tapered”. So the title of the above piece is a reference.]

(This posting is Dec. 20, 2010; 155 days until the first performance of the complete StormSound Cycle.)

Friday, December 17, 2010

Just for Fun: Max'd Out Cartoons

Some years ago I drew (badly) about fifteen cartoons for an underground newspaper in the San Francisco Bay Area. There was a running gag about a guy from the country of Vegetaria, but three of the others were on the subject of music (I can’t find the third). Click on them to enlarge them and make the captions legible.

©1993 by S. E. Scribner (“Skribz”)

Note: Obviously a “nerd” calling someone a “clone” for listening to Madonna was funnier in 1993 that it is now. Replace with Lady Gaga for the "now" version.

(This posting is Dec. 17, 2010; 158 days until the first performance of the complete StormSound Cycle.)

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Just for Fun: 25 of My Favorite CDs

I can hear it now – “new music” fans who are reading this and groaning… “This is a "top-ten" list, right? Isn’t ‘new music’ antithetical to that idea? If a piece of experimental music starts getting too popular (or shows up on anybody’s ‘top’ anything list) then hasn’t it by definition ceased to be experimental? Aren’t ‘underground rap’ and ‘alternative rock’ really oxymora? Take the cases of Philip Glass, Steve Reich, the Kronos Quartet, and Laurie Anderson…”

Well, listeners, you can relax. This is simply a list of CDs (and some original vinyl albums) that I could listen to over and over, and find just as fresh and interesting and beautiful each time. I’m recommending them only because I’ve enjoyed them, not to make them more “popular” – fat chance that there are enough readers on this blog for that to happen anyway. (However, as I’ve said before, the entire experimental genre needs to be made more popular without changing its impetus for experimentation. This could be done with promotion – the same way that rock was made popular in the 1960’s, and rap and new age both in the 1980’s.) That said, some of my “top 25” are far from experimental anyway – at least one of them was a commercial top-forty hit…

So here they are, alphabetized because I can’t really count from favorite to lesser favorite (those categories don’t exist for me).

Art Ensemble of Chicago: Full Force

A free-jazz masterpiece with lots of deep resonances, touches of laugh-out-loud humor, moments of (un-)controlled chaos, and a lot of groove.

Pierre Boulez: Chamber Music

A retrospective of the composer’s work, showing the variety that is unexpectedly available in strict serialism. Ranges from the classically-structured piano pieces near the beginning to the freeform (and partially aleatory) “Dialogue of a Double Shadow” for clarinet and electronics; the latter is a tour-de-force of instrumental and textural virtuosity.

John Coltrane: A Love Supreme

The only conventional jazz album on this list is a true classic. What I like about it is, 1.) from a technical standpoint: the extension of the classical “sequences” into modal atonality (!) (I’ve based a lot of my own compositions on this idea, with stacks of fourths and fifths leading into chromaticism and microtones); the unpredictability of when the improvisations (and occasional vocals) start and end; and the unexpected changes of timbre (such as the drum solo on timpani). 2.) From an artistic standpoint: the totality of the experience of the music – somehow it transcends its genre from “merely” small ensemble partially-improvised music into something both unique and universal.

Gamelan of Danuredjo VII: Langen Mandra Wanara

Once I heard this playing in a coffee shop, and I heard a customer say that “they probably didn’t get many Grammies with that.” ‘Tis true, unfortunately – the best music seldom does (this won a major award in France). This is one of the more beautiful gamelan recordings out there, not beautiful in a smarmy mellowed-out manner (as some gamelan has been made into “new age” music) but because of its interesting composition and complex sound structure. What it is, is a tale from the Ramayana, rendered as an “opera” over a Javanese gamelan. That description is merely technical: how it actually sounds is another matter. This is classical Indonesian poetry as improvised recitative (along with the humorous addition of some vocalists who sit on the sideline and make fun of the proceedings on stage), over pre-set gamelan compositions that gradually increase in intensity. It begins nebulous, then somewhere in the middle the listener realizes that a gentle, swaying rhythm has begun. There are moments where this ceases for some vocal solos (including several charming, child-like interjections from the lead female character, Sinta, and a long rumination by the lead male character, Senggana), but the last half is a headlong rush into a volcanic climax (when Senggana jumps off of the burning stake and thrashes the antagonist). NOTE: this is merely a fragment of a longer composition; the entire “cycle” would take over 80 hours (that’s the “StormSound” Cycle times nine, or Wagner times four), though I don’t know if it’s ever been performed in its entirety. Supposedly all of this was facilitated (not “composed” in the usual manner) by an early 20th-centry Javanese prince, though it may, of course, been done partially or completely by others working under him. Whatever; it’s spellbinding music that deserves to be heard at least once.

Toumani Diabate (with Ballake Sissoko): New Ancient Strings

Continuing in the “world music” vein, here’s a CD of kora music that’s not to be missed. This music is all about subtlety; the two koras scatter delicate arabesques over a tranquil and gently rocking rhythm, and lull you into a world where melodies seem to be spun from spider silk.

Ensemble P.A.N.: The Island of St. Hylarion

Quite simply the most beautiful early music recording I’m aware of, both from the aesthetic and technical standpoints. The first two pieces are particularly exquisite.

FourTet: Rounds

I have to admire anyone who would use a harp and a live drum kit in electronica, and then apparently retune everything so it matches the (sampled) gamelan.

Evelyn Glennie: Touch the Sound (video)

This is the only music I’m reviewing here that isn’t a CD (though there is a somewhat disappointing CD release of some of it). A “movie”, though not in the usual sense, this is a visual as well as audio delight. Ms. Glennie is, as you probably know, a percussionist who happens to be deaf. In a few small sections of an interview, she discusses how she plays and perceives music. Most of the video, however, is taken up by audio-visual montages of various places (ranging from the cacophony of traffic in New York City to the quiet of the countryside in Japan) and improvisations by Glennie with various other instrumentalists. Most of the music is quite subtle, perhaps unexpectedly for percussion music (though there are of course precedents).

John Hassell: Dream Theory in Malaya

I’d actually heard a couple of tracks from this on a pirate radio station two or three years prior to knowing what it was – and I’d taped it. I listened to that cassette many times, marveling at the unique and beautiful sonorities I was hearing – what instrument is that?, I’d ask myself. The answer came unexpectedly when I was Christmas shopping for some friends and found the vinyl album in the jazz section of a music store in a mall (usually a place not to find experimental music!). It looked intriguing, so I took it home for myself and gave it a listen. I was expecting fairly conventional jazz (or jazz-rock fusion) despite the liner notes suggesting something different – I hadn’t yet heard of Jon Hassell – and was greeted instead by something so new and startling and delightful that I waited to wake up proving that I was dreaming. Jazz, yes, but with a decidedly humid feeling, if that makes any sense; a sharp-edged haziness, a dreamy focus. The trumpet, processed in unimaginable ways to make chords, scattered scintillating lines over deep, asymmetrical rhythms. By the end of side one I was beginning to think that this could be the source for those pieces on my cassette – and when I started side two, there it was. Since then, I’ve heard many Hassell albums, and his wholly unique trumpet styling had shown up in unexpected places (such as a CD of Flamenco and Spanish early music, by Jon Balke and Amina Alaoui) but none of it has quite matched the beauty and sheer originality of this recording.

Heart: Dog & Butterfly

When this appeared in the late 1970’s, I think I (as other young people at the time) regarded the title track as a pretty if rather puzzling hit song, and ignored the rest of it or dismissed it as drug music. Too bad. I will admit that the first two tracks are forgettable. But then something happens – first the music goes into an odd kind of minimalist funk, and then gradually travels into an entirely new space. Impressionism and rock shouldn’t blend well, but here they mix with delicate beauty. The open tunings, flowing non-metrical structures, complex acoustic guitar work, tone painting, surprising touches (at one point the bass line is taken up by a tuba) and strange, metaphorical, often unrhymed lyrics – all of these contribute to a unique experience. If you’ve got this stashed away in your basement somewhere, take it out and try it again (beginning somewhere in the middle), and listen to it as if it were an impressionist symphonic piece. You’ll be surprised how refreshed it is at the end, when the fuzz guitars of “Mistral Wind” give way to an expansive, gamelan-like texture. This is a direction in mainstream music that was offered once – by this album alone – and then forgotten. The music world is slightly less beautiful by that forgetting.

Jars of Clay (their first CD)

This picks up somewhat where the Heart left off, though it sounds considerably more recent with its hip-hop bass below the tight (often acoustic) rock guitar. Again, there are those surprising touches – mandolins, little bits of plainsong, unexpected rhythmic changes, and the (always unanticipated, no matter how many times it happens) addition of the string trio to the guitars. At the end comes the real treat: after “Worlds Apart” (a song that takes its cue for a final crescendo from Rosini!) and a gradual “deflating” of the instrumentals in “Blind”, there is a moment of silence and then a twenty-minute, dreamlike, aleatory “field recording” of fragments of a rehearsal for the band, under heavy reverb. In the end, it becomes quite peaceful, with modal minimalist loopings. The lyrics are no less interesting: there is no stereotypy here, but metaphors, some of which I’ve never heard before.

Yo-Yo Ma: Silk Road Journeys

The world, no, the galaxy of music on one CD. It ranges from the epic to the intimate, from the classical (European and Asian) to the boldly experimental. This is the only “world music” CD where I’ve ever heard a prepared piano; and yes, it is possible to play taiko on the timpani. Too bad subsequent “Silk Road Ensemble” CDs were so disappointing.

Mahler: Symphony no. 4

I don’t have any particularly favorite recording of this piece (it’s probably been recorded hundreds of times) but I have to list it here because it’s one of my favorite symphonies. (Some of my other favorites in the genre are the Beethoven 7, Mendelssohn 2, Schumann 2, Dvorak 8, Sibelius 4, Nielsen 6, Bruckner 9, Ives 4, and Shostakovich 14, though the latter is a "symphony" in name only.) Anyway, the music is stunning, but there’s also that layer of what it means… I’ll let the listener draw their own conclusions as Wagnerian bombast slowly gives way to simple, beautiful, sustained, pianissimo chords and then a “little” children’s song about heaven.

Mars ILL: Raw Material

I’ve been waiting for a rap recording to come along that is of reasonable musical intelligence as well as not giving into cheap shock-value techniques of racist/misogynist/obscene lyrics and profanity. As with punk rock in the 1980’s, it took a while before that happened. Now there are a many such recordings. Here is one (“The Art of Translation” by Grits is another, as are certain tracks on "Kala" by M.I.A. and the "Tsotsi" soundtrack by Zola – though I don’t have space to review more than one here). As with any rap, the lyrics are at the front, with a lot of complicated internal rhyme and wordplay. The music is interesting enough that it would stand without the words, however; there are samples here of Mussorgsky, Chinese cheng music, something I can’t identify but it sounds like Luigi Nono, as well as the usual pop and snippets from movies – but it’s all worked together into a surprisingly intricate (and dark) set of textures. Worth listening to. Also, it’s nice to hear someone rapping about something besides clothes and cars (this is a group of Christian rappers – do you still say “band” for rappers? – and they’re decidedly non-materialistic.)

Messiaen: Vingt Regards (Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano)

Though the sixth of these twenty pieces is a bit overblown, the rest show how the piano can be treated (no, thundered upon) as a percussion instrument and survive nicely. Beginning introspectively, then running the gamut of expressions, this is one of the great cycles of pieces for solo piano. Try to listen to these “20 aspects of the Infant Jesus” in one sitting, and it will be overwhelming. I should mention this on a list of “alternative” Christmas music too.

Phill Niblock: Touch 3

Inexplicably some people hear drone minimalism as auto horns; and a friend of mine once angrily denounced it by saying “That’s not music, that’s a tone.” That's rather like looking at a plate of Italian noodles and saying, “That’s not food, that’s pasta,” and I might add that it sounds about as much like auto horns as it sounds like Bach. The first time I heard it (on NPR in the 1980’s, back when they were still interested in music) it blew my mind. Anyway, this three-CD set is destined to become a classic of the genre. It does, unfortunately, include a couple of duds (they’re both on the second CD, and are too long, loud and strident to really be of interest) but the rest shows the fascinating beauty that delicately intense sound can be. Listen to it twice: once with the volume on low, and once as loud as possible without blowing your speakers. You’ll hear two completely different worlds.

Tom Nunn, Miya Masaoka, Gino Robair: Crepuscular Music

Say what you will, to me this is the mother of all free-improvisation sessions. It sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard because of its mix of koto, prepared drums, and homemade electro-acoustic percussion. There are moments of resonance bordering on silence, moments of beautifully structured chaos, and moments of surprisingly funky groove – yet the instruments always blend as one, never competing with one another. It’s unique every time I hear it.

Steve Peters: The Very Rich Hours

Intended as an installation, not a “composition” per se, this is somewhere between a piece of musique concrète and a podcast about environmentalism in New Mexico. Over sampled and minimally-altered nature sounds, voices chant the scientific names of species found in the area (in both Gregorian and Orthodox-style chant) and narrators tell the story of the environment in soothing, conversational tones. A listener’s first reaction might be that it’s relaxing but there might not be enough substance to bear repeated listenings, and there the listener would be wrong. By the second or third time through, the melodies of chanting come to the front of one’s attention; by the eighth or ninth time, the symphony created by the nature sounds are the focus of attention. A few more listenings, and one pays attention to the interactions of these elements; and finally, after a few more, the narrations are of interest again – so it comes full circle. It’s a perfect, subtle soundscape about landscape.

Larry Polansky: Simple Harmonic Motion

This is the quietest of music; microtonal harp (with barely audible singing) and some drone minimalism, all on the threshold of silence.

Jade Simmons: Revolutionary Rhythm

I got this from the library one time without really knowing what I was getting into, and it shifted my perception of the boundaries of “commercial”, “classical”, and “experimental” music. Here are two contemporary “classical” piano solos with electronica and hip-hop accompaniments, paired with two major 20th-century jazz-influenced sonatas. Elevator music? Hardly. The solo sonatas have enough dissonance and general volume to avoid that; there is a danger of banality in the hip-hop piece (piano over a beat is a pretty hackneyed idea even if it hasn't been this particular beat before) but Ms. Simmons plays with such power and verve that all hints of that are banished from the start.

Toru Takemitsu: Corona (Played by Roger Woodward)

Like the Coltrane, this is another true classic. I was fifteen years old the first time I heard “Corona” on KING FM, back in the 1970’s when they still played challenging music. I sat there transfixed. It taught me in twenty minutes what I’d failed to learn about music in fifteen years previously. I learned about silence, about subtlety, about lack of subtlety, about beauty, about ugliness, and improvisation and about form. I immediately requested it for a Christmas gift. After receiving it, I took it to school where it became one of several favorites for my own little four-member music-nerd club – perhaps uncharacteristically, since our other favorites were by Styx, Kansas, and Rush (those recordings quickly lapsed into ho-humness, though this one still sounds edgy). Several years later, when I was in college, a music professor asked me how I could play the inside piano and the piano keys at the same time (without going around to the back of the piano as it had "always" been done since the days of Henry Cowell) – this surprised me because I’d learned how to play the piano strings from the pictures on the inside sleeve of this “Corona” album, and hadn’t thought of doing it any other way! I simply reached in from the front of the piano without bothering to do any awkward repositioning. …Anyway, what is this music about? Four piano pieces; three are more or less conventional (“For Away” is the gem, a graceful swirl and quiet blizzard of sixteenth-notes; “Piano Distance” is the only one that I don’t really like – it seems to be an inferior imitation of Stockhausen). The other piece, “Corona”, is the showstopper – entirely produced with “extended” techniques, it utilizes a myriad sounds (backed up by a recurring three-note motive) over a constantly changing, wobbling drone on the electric organ (probably the only piece where I like that instrument). Generally quiet, it has three loud outbursts: the first introduces the organ, the second introduces the first (only) major chord on the organ; the third occurs after a long build-up and represents the piece’s climax in volume, though not in intensity (that comes later). I’ve heard that once this was re-issued on CD it vanished off of the shelves immediately. For once, that happened without the major record labels hyping it – think what would happen if they did decide to promote other types of music…

John Michael Talbot: Come to the Quiet

Folk music with a twist, written and performed by a monk. After an orchestral instruction (which features an odd pentatonic melody that is strangely delayed from its rhythm), Mr. Talbot sings biblical texts in a voice that sounds rather like a male Jean Redpath. He is accompanied by his own acoustic guitar, as well as recorders, Celtic harp, and a ‘cello. The music is simple and direct without being banal, pretty without being saccharine. And, it is deeply felt. Musically, the album has an overall shape (a rarity in folk music) – there are a series of stark pieces in minor keys; then the “Peace Prayer” of St. Francis (the only non-biblical text on the CD) bridges into a major key and the tempo picks up slightly. The last piece, the title track, is indeed an invitation to “come to the quiet”.

Xenakis: Chamber Music (Arditti, et al.)

What can I say? Jagged, ugly, and unrefined on first hearing, this music slowly reveals itself to be none of those things. An uncompromising romp in modernism, this will last long after much of the movement has gone. Great performances of even greater music.

Savina Yannatou: Songs of An Other

This has to be heard to be believed. Ms. Yannatou has a voice that would arouse the envy of any nightingale or warbler, and she uses it to great effect in these experimental arrangements of Mediterranean folk songs. No, experimental folk music is not an oxymoron. Introspective, transparent, yet with touches of discordance; it manages to be both edgy and profoundly beautiful at the same time.

Isang Yun: Chamber Symphony 1

Too bad this is rather obscure. The string ensemble is used to create beautiful heterophonic melodies, very different from “standard” symphonic music but striking nonetheless. The harp concerto is particularly engaging, as it uses that instrument for its “traditional” tranquil/celestial sound but in a very different context.

Well, there you have my opinions, for what they're worth. Any readers who have read to this far, want to contribute some of your favorites?

The World of Harry Partch.

Oh, one extra. Columbia Records should be charged with a felony for never releasing this as a CD (or at least re-releasing the vinyl). This introduced a generation of music lovers (including me) to microtonal music and the possibility of inventing new instruments.

(This posting is Dec. 15, 2010; 160 days until the first performance of the complete StormSound Cycle.)

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Non-Playlist for a Concert

Haven’t gotten to many concerts lately, but I think I’ll keep going with a few blog postings here about music anyway – a few random neuron firings, as I said above…

This first one is about a jazz symposium I attended at a high school in the Seattle area some months ago. Mostly it's just about music in general.

Due to the weird circumstances involved in this “concert”, this blog posting will be mostly a playlist of music that wasn’t played at the concert itself…

The reason I went in the first place was not to hear the music (though that would have been a good enough reason; some of the high school jazz bands sound nearly professional) but as a supervisor – I’m a teacher and once in a while they assign me to watch the grounds while there is some school event going on. Although this was not the school where I usually teach, the people who do the assigning must have known about my hobby of music, and offered me this one-day job. I took it.

Arriving early in the morning on Saturday, I let myself in with the key they’d given me, and in so doing set off a silent alarm. A custodian showed up about five minutes later, grumbling, and disabled it.

Playlist Item 1: Improvisation by me – The others who were running the symposium showed up, and I helped set up the facilities. Then, while there was nothing really to do while waiting for the students to come, I wandered off to the music rooms and practiced a little on the piano. There was one baby grand that was horrendously out of tune, but for some reason I started improvising on it anyway (maybe I wanted to hear some unintentional microtonality) and came up with a particularly beautiful jazz chord progression. More on that later.

Still waiting for things to start, I took out a book to read, and put on my iPod. “What are you listening to?” asked one of the others. I told her.

Playlist Item 2: Felix Mendelssohn: Symphony no. 4

We talked a little about symphonic music, and she commented that she like mixes of jazz and orchestral, i.e. Gershwin, and Ellington’s symphonic pieces. I asked her if she’d heard of William Grant Still.

Playlist Item 3: Grant Still: Symphony no. 2

“That’s really symphonic…” she commented. (…uh, that’s one reason it’s called “Symphony no. 2”. I didn’t say this, of course.)

Playlist Item 4: Miles Davis: Nefertiti – They were playing this on the big sound system in the theater while checking the sound. I like what Miles did by “reversing” the roles of the jazz ensemble and giving the “rhythm” to the (his) trumpet, and the “melody” to the piano, bass, and drums.

Then the members of the bands (all high school students) started wandering in, so I helped them check in. Then, once they started playing, the doors were shut. The theater was soundproof and I was supposed to remain outside. So the other supervisors and I started discussion various topics (local restaurants, movies we'd seen recently, politics, etc.). At lunchtime, they told me that there would be nothing to do until 2:00 when I could help set up a jam session for the high-schoolers, so I should hang around the lunch room in case they needed me to help with anything. I did, and found a couple of university music students there who were attending the symposium for the same reason I was. I played a game of billiards with one of them (I won), then (after asking if it would be okay) set up my iPod with speakers in a corner and turned it on.

Playlist Item 5: Dave Holland Big Band – great free improvisation, but got too intense while they were eating.

Playlist Item 6: Thelonious Monk: Rhythm-a-Ning (Live in Paris) – Gotta admire how he mixes dissonance, intended “clunkers”, and jagged angles with that flowing, swinging jazz feel…

Playlist Item 7: Debussy: Cello Sonata – One of the university students said, “I love Debussy! Do you think he (and the other impressionists) occupy a space between jazz and classical? The chord structures are jazz, and yet…”

Playlist Item 8: Ginny Landgraf and me: Irish Debussy (from my CD “PianoSphere”) – One of the students asked if I knew Debussy’s “Sunken Cathedral”, so I played this piece. Ginny and I originally made it up on accident. I was practicing some chords from “Sunken Cathedral” while Ginny was playing an Irish hymn on the kaen, and suddenly we realized that what we were playing worked nicely together.

Playlist Item 9: Minoru Miki (Ensemble Nipponia): Hanayagi (The Greening) – Such an impressionist piece for the koto!

Playlist Item 10: Toumani Diabate: New Ancient Strings – kora music, again, proves to be beautiful, tranquil, yet not boring/annoying background or “elevator” music.

Playlist Item 11: George Crumb: A Haunted Landscape – one can say this is the exact opposite of the Minoru Miki and the Toumani Diabate. To me it’s not all that “scary” sounding, just a collection of “special effects” over a deep drone, but some find it as frightening as a horror film. NOTE: I used to criticize Crumb for being “only” special effects. I’ve realized, though, after listening a few more times, that it’s not about special effects – like other experimental music, it’s primarily about sound itself, and the sounds of the sounds… Those sounds are handled in very interesting and beautiful ways, and there is always melodic and rhythmic interest lurking not too far below the surface.

Playlist Item 12: SoundScrolls I, by me, played by Ginny Landgraf (flute) and me on piano – the “SoundScrolls” are a set of pieces I did in the 1980’s (recorded in the 1990's), for various instrumentalists improvising on graphic scores: landscapes drawn or copied onto music paper. The result is more freeform, louder, and less contemplative than much of my recent work. I’m thinking of doing one or two more of these pieces, however (maybe one for Eye Music).

Playlist Item 13: Seawind: “Free” and “Morning Star” from “Light the Light” – Some (now) rather obscure Latin-jazz-pop-fusion, with one tune (“Free”) partially in 15/16 time. Was pretty popular when I was in college (I’m dating myself there) but maybe that was because there were a lot of students from Hawaii, where this band was from.

Playlist Item 14: Show-Ya – more (now) obscure pop-rock. Was pretty popular in Japan when I lived there for a couple of years in the late 1980’s. Like a lot of Japanese rock, it’s based on “classical” chording and sequences, without a trace of blues, and often it can sound as if it’s being “forced” from one genre to another. However, the singer does have a pretty voice and there are some notable melodies. “祈り” (A Prayer) also has some interesting poetry (which sounds tacky in English: “towards a sea of love” seems like a silly line but in Japanese it’s ai no umi e, which is nearly all vowels and flows around the tongue like a honeyed liquid).

After this, it was time for that jam session, so I went and helped move an upright piano from the music room to the cafeteria. Five high school students followed, and played blues as the others ate lunch. Their ensemble playing was right on, and some of the solos were amazingly skillful (though only one, a trumpet player, transcended from skill to art. Another Miles Davis in the making?)

Then it was time to go home. We all packed up; I put the piano back, put everything else away, and left. The high school music students had all gone but there was another group arriving; the robotics club. They had their own teachers with them. Along with setting up their mechanics and electronics, they assembled a big stereo system and played, appropriately, techno music. Nts nts nts nts nts. “We wanted the robots to feel at home,” commented a student.

Now – that chord progression I mentioned earlier. I was doing it in E, but it works just as well in C, and makes a set of chord changes for a roughly conventional jazz improvisation. It also contains references to Takemitsu’s “For Away”, which I was planning to do open-ended variations on for “Day Signals”, (#19 in the StormSound Cycle) – see my “StormSound Bugs” posting. So it looks like this is the answer for what to do with that rather difficult piece…

(This posting is Dec. 14, 2010; 161 days until the first performance of the complete StormSound Cycle.)

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Updates and a Video

…Taking a little Christmas time off from writing this thing, and I had to have a couple of medical procedures last week, so obviously there haven’t been as many postings as of late… Anyway, there is some news concerning my music.

First of all, this recently came back from the concert on the 20th last month. See my previous posting. R to L: Me, Beth, Bruce.

Bruce’s friend also took this video of a fragment of one of our pieces during the concert: (As you watch it, keep in mind that it was recorded with a cell phone.) No, it isn’t one of the “StormSound” pieces; it isn’t a piece at all, but part of a free improv session. Some things to watch for:
0:52 – Some extended piano-string techniques.
1:15 – Bass clarinet solo by Bruce.
1:48 – “Mewing” sound by all three players (including me on piano, using one of George Crumb’s “on the wires” techniques).
2:33 – Fast runs: I begin this on the piano and Beth picks it up on the clarinet.

Now, onto the “StormSound” Cycle itself. Keith Eisenbrey, on his blog (also about "new music") came up with an interesting comment that the acoustic sounds seem to derive from the electronic sounds; the opposite of "usual" for electro-acoustic music. This is exactly what I've wanted to do: the electronic sounds in the Cycle form a universe, so to speak, within which the "live" instruments have various amounts of freedom to play. They (the "live" instruments) are part of the whole, but not completely embedded within it. (This is the same idea as in an earlier piece of mine, "From the Oceans; From the Stars", which began life as a doodle during my undergrad college coursework at Seattle Pacific University in the early 1980's.) Concerning the Cycle: I’ve just about finished it, as far as the written material goes. Recruitment of musicians has begun. The two “signals” pieces that I blogged about previously as giving me problems have been fixed – one in an unexpected way in that one of the musicians I wanted to play in it turns out to have a set of home-made zither-like instruments – exactly what I’d like to do for one of the other pieces in the Cycle but I didn’t think anybody would have any…

So as it stands now, here are the 21 pieces, all 9 hours’ worth:

Part One
1. Nature Lives in Motion (NLIM): piano, string bass, home-made zither-like instruments, electronics

Part Two
2. Song from the Voices on Earth (clarinet, electronics)
3. Desert Bloom (clarinet, electronics)
4. Circle Song (clarinet, trombone, electronics)

Part Three
5. Song from the Storms and the Winds (NLIM II) (electronics only)
6. Songbird and Stillness (trombone, electric guitar, electronics)
7. Soundform I: Voice (electronics only)
8. Spherics (trombone, electric guitar, electronics)*
9. The Songbird Flies Unhindered Through Storm and Violence (NLIM III) (electronics only)

Part Four
10. Song from the Winds of the Sun (bass drum, electronics)
11. Song from Magnetic Fields (cymbals, electronics)
12. Malacandra (marimba, vibraphone, wind chimes, electronics)

Part Five
13. Soundform II: Cricket (shakers, electric guitar, electronics)
14. Night Signals – Journey to the Sea (2 bass clarinets, electronics)
15. Soundform III: Wind (marimba, electric guitar, electronics)

Part Six
16. Through a Glass Darkly (Out of the Depths) (piano, electronics)
17. Song from Deep Silence (piano, electronics)
18. Frogscape (piano, electronics)

Part Seven
19. Day Signals – Sonic Nebula (flute, piano, drum kit, electronics)
20. Soundform IV: Spaces (electronics only)
21. Consort of Voices (flute, piano, marimba, vibraphone, electronics)

Besides the obvious structure of seven sections, there are some subtle symmetries for those who care to find them: Soundforms I and IV use electronics only, for example, and Soundforms II and III use electric guitar, percussion, and electronics. Not noticeable from this list: the only two pieces where the electronics are not based on processed nature sounds are the second in parts two and six. NLIM is by far the longest piece (over two hours), but the total time of part seven is almost exactly the same as that of part one. The most complex pieces, musically, are also in parts one and seven. …and so on.

*Yes, for those who noticed, “Spherics” has been remixed from the concert last time. The sound worlds of the clarinets and the electronics clashed, to my ear at least; I’ve opted for didgeridoo sounds from the trombone (or maybe a real didgeridoo) and ambient sounds from the guitar, with reverb on extreme. The clarinets have moved to “Night Signals – Journey to the Sea”.

(This posting is Dec. 5, 2010; 170 days until the first performance of the complete StormSound Cycle)

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Reflections on the concert at The Chapel Performance Space, Good Shepherd Center, Seattle, WA, 11/20/2010

Here I go again, reviewing my own concert...

This concert came up rather abruptly (as regular readers of this blog will already know); there was a cancellation of a concert at the Chapel, so I grabbed it and pulled in two other musicians – Beth Fleenor and Bruce Greeley, both clarinetists. We played what we could on short notice (for what audience showed up at the last minute), and at least the two clarinetists pulled it off admirably.

We did three pieces (two relatively short, and one longer) from my StormSound Cycle.

First up, Beth played “Desert Bloom” (#3 in the Cycle). Essentially a drone piece more or less in the manner of Phill Niblock, it features microtonal variations on a single chord. Over the prerecorded sound of the kaen (Thai mouth organ), the clarinet is supposed to improvise more microtonal variations. I emailed the instructions and the prerecorded part to Beth, but there was some kind of a glitch in the email and she didn’t receive the instructions. For the warm-up, she played a beautiful modal cadenza over the prerecorded drones. I actually liked that better than how I’d originally conceived it; so (after we realized what had happened) we combined the styles: she began with microtonal drones, then gradually added pitches (with their microtones) and finally let the music blossom into melody. It was strikingly beautiful, and I think I will make sure that the piece is performed in this way every time (it will only take a minor adjustment of the written score). There is now a co-composer of one movement of the Cycle.

The second piece was “Frogscape” (#18 in the Cycle), which I played on piano almost to break the tranquility with something humorous. The piano simply plays rhythmic chords over prerecorded frogs; in a sense, it acts like another frog. The piece perhaps sounds trivial, particularly after the deep peace of “Desert Bloom”, but it occupies a similar space in the complete Cycle: coming on the heals of the only other piece in the set that doesn’t use processed nature sounds, “Song from Deep Silence”, it serves as a reminder that not all is well in nature… It is a slightly comical interlude no matter when it is played, and, as an audience member pointed out later, frogs (like chickens) are inherently funny.

We followed with a free improvisation. Here, the clarinets worked out counterpoint with one another, ranging from melodic to chaotic; for my piano part I mostly commented on what they were doing, or provided a momentary tonal center. One of Bruce’s friends got a video of this; if it came out well, it may make it onto YouTube – I’ll keep readers posted on this.

After the intermission, we played “Spherics” (#8 in the Cycle). One of the Cycle’s “medium long” pieces, (about 40 minutes), this one alters the prerecorded nature sounds to such an extent that they sound like, well, outer space. Yes, I know that there are no actual “sounds” in space that can be detected by the human ear (despite the din that things always make when they blow up in Star Trek), but these deep drones and strange reverberations always sound like they’re from somewhere else in the universe. Over this, the instrumentalists play scores based on the planets: cloud decks become long held tones; craters become single points of sound; the terminus of a night side becomes a sudden shift in the tone; the swirling cloud bands of Jupiter become a flurry of trills (Beth played these with particular flair). I thought the clarinetists ran out of steam a little before the end, but that could also be the fault of the prerecorded sound (which simply loops back to the beginning to finish up). I actually had originally written it for ‘cello and/or trombone anyway (rather than bass clarinet) but I liked the overtones and breathy sounds that Bruce was able to produce on his bass clarinet. I will admit, though, that altogether it was not as successful a piece as I would have liked (this was not the fault of the other two players). The prerecorded sound is from a different sound world than that of the "live" music, and the two don't blend as well as I had hoped. I have an idea, though, to fix it...

Anyway, as always, I’m going on too long about my own concert. I’ll sign off for now.

(This posting is Nov. 23, 2010; 181 days until the first performance of the complete StormSound Cycle)

Monday, November 22, 2010

Concert Review: Seattle Phonographers Union; Chapel Performance Space at Good Shepherd Center, 11/19/2010

"The Seattle Phonographers Union convene to explore the ways in which we recognize, differentiate, map and navigate our sonic environment. Our intent is to move beyond habitual experience of sound and uncover what is foreign in the familiar and familiar about the foreign; to explore what we hear and relearn what we know." - from the Seattle Phonographers Union Facebook page.

This was presented after a meeting of the Pacific NW Chapter of the American Society for Acoustic Ecology. I wanted to go to that meeting, but due to a series of snafus I only got there in time to hear the last half or so of the concert. At any rate, this was one of the more interesting takes on music I’ve heard in a long time, and it used (what I think) the meeting was about as a starting point.

There were six people in the band. They played five laptops and one MP3 player. That is, they actually play prerecorded material as an instrument (much in the way that hip-hop artists play turntables) – the difference being that all of the prerecorded material is their own, and none of it is “music” in the conventional sense. It is all field recordings. And, I might add, this performance is improvised. They interact with each other, adding and subtracting layers based on what the others are doing.

The result is a mishmash of environmental sounds. Some of them contrast with one another, but most often they blend into a continuous low murmur that is intrinsically beautiful and interesting. Traffic sounds (ugly in their usual form) are played quietly against ocean and river sounds, and they become indistinguishable. Rain in the forest (with birds) echoes in the infinite distance, morphs into hail on metal (on a screen door?), then overlays with rain on logs over an electric hum. A foghorn sounds, suddenly loud (causing one of the members of the Union to smile, nearly laughing) against steady, rhythmic, metallic dripping. A clock chimes 3. khht khht khht scratches appear from the end of a vinyl record, then a hollow metallic whoosh (unidentified) scatters into the sound of crows. A loop of birds (and monkeys?) repeats at half volume below this. Gongs bong out a steady rhythm. A plane goes over, growing louder, but not in the way that it would if it were actually passing by – the sound grows very slowly, then suddenly crescendos to a climax (the loudest sound of the concert) and then abruptly – click! Silence, for half a second. A coda of car sounds, repeated, strangely musical, fading into water.

All sound is music, here; and all sound (even ugly sound) becomes exquisite in this context. I’ve heard the Phonographers Union before, and I’ve heard their CD – but these live performances shed a different light on their sound (particularly in the echoing resonance of that space) and shed a different light on the concept of music in general.

Concert Review: Keith Eisenbrey, Aaron Keyt, and Neal Meyer; Chapel Performance Space at Good Shepherd Center, 11/18/2010

The concert began with a set of solo piano pieces, Aaron’s “Bagatelles”, played by Keith. Aaron introduced the pieces, saying that he’d written them as relaxation but Keith said learning to play them was like “trying to build a house of cards in a tight space”. One misplaced movement could topple the whole construction. Anyway, I heard them as relaxed, but with an undercurrent of slight nervousness. Though melodic in a standard (almost Baroque) sense, they were harmonized modally (sometimes chromatically) and with rhythmic ambiguity. More than once the tonal center was lost, though it always reappeared. There were hints of Bright Sheng’s “My Song” or Jo Kondo’s sen no ongaku style, particularly in the last piece, with its heterophonic crosscutting of fragments of the same melody in different variations.

Aaron’s “Foliage”, the next piece, was altogether different. Aaron introduced it as an electronic piece without visual elements (by which he meant there was nothing to see on stage) derived from common sources – few of the sounds were altered in any way except that he’d put them together to make the piece. However, most of the sounds were unrecognizable (at least to me). Curious whistle/creaks gave way to wooden sounds; suddenly gongs appeared, which bridged to a deep silence. Then end returned, slowly, to the beginning: the whistles reappeared, at first distant and with echoes, then moving back to the front of the sound field. As a piece of musique concrète, and as a composition, the piece worked: it had a beautiful overall shape, but the sounds were interesting enough in themselves regardless of what they did.

Then came the shocker. I’ve heard some of Keith’s music before, but still wasn’t ready for “Blood and Fire: Alleluia”. After the half-hour performance for piano (Keith) and “canned” sound, all I could say was, “One word: INTENSE.” Neal put it better: “Charles Ives meets Samuel Beckett.” The Charles Ives Americana was there in the form of the prerecorded sound: processed percussion, and Keith’s own voice singing an old hymn in a style that sounded like a fusion of shape-note singing and a Gaither revival. But despite the Gospel element, this was a musical portrayal of damnation: the piano seemed to act as a demonic force, playing a clatter of fortissimo wrong notes (or occasionally landing on a chord that fit the tune), acting on the recorded sound (!), cajoling it to reject its own message of harmony and move instead into “blood and fire” – chaos, violence, noise, and finally nothingness (the nihilism of Beckett). The hymn’s many repeats were altered only in timbre, and thus it seemed to focus only on itself – and it eventually lost its identity as it became grotesquely distorted. Several times it disappeared completely, leaving the piano hammering at the extreme registers as if in malevolent triumph. In the end, I heard it as a soundtrack to Dante’s “Inferno” by Merzbow…

The entire second half of the concert was given over to an hour-long version of Neal’s “Gradus for Fux, Tesla, and Milo the Wrestler”. I’ve reviewed performances of this piece before (see the 7/31/2010 posting) but this was a chance to hear it in an even longer version. Of course the entire piece would, as Aaron pointed out before Neal began playing, if it could truly explore all of the possible combinations of all the possible notes on a piano, be longer than the age of the universe… Though titled “Three Rungs from ‘Gradus’”, this performance was a full hour of A’s, interspersed with long silences and randomly occurring “extra” sounds from the audience or outside the performance space. In such a long, austere, version, the piece became theatrical; Neal was like an actor, the piano his speaking voice, reciting lines from an abstract play against stark lighting. There were several moments where he froze, hand in the air, endlessly ready to play the next set of A’s, but not finished with the silences created by the last set…

This was a concert that featured the extremes of avant-garde piano music, from the silence of “Gradus” and the tranquility of some of the Bagatelles, to the horror of “Blood and Fire”. An interesting program.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Abruptly, a concert of pieces from the StormSound Cycle

This is rather spur-of-the-moment, but I suddenly have a concert coming up this weekend. There was an opening at the Chapel Performance Space, so I grabbed it. I have no idea whether anyone will want to hear live music, with such little notice, in the evening the weekend before Thanksgiving; so I think mainly I'm doing it for the fun of it... But anyway, here are the details:

S. Eric Scribner (composer; piano, inside piano, percussion) in concert
With Beth Fleenor, clarinet
and Bruce Greely, bass clarinet

8:00 PM, Saturday, November 20
Chapel Performance Space, Good Shepherd Center
50th and Sunnyside, in Wallingford (Seattle)

Sliding scale: $5.00 to $15.00

Yes, it sounds like something of a clarinetty concert. I've reviewed clarinet playing by both Beth and Bruce before in this blog (see "2nd New Music in the Library Concert", 10/24/2010) and "Double Yoko", 10/3-2010). Should be fun. We're playing "Desert Bloom" (a drone piece) and "Spherics" (something of a dark ambient piece), both from the StormSound Cycle; as well as a group free improvisation and some solo piano work by me; and maybe a couple of shorter StormSound pieces too.

A slightly more detailed description:
"Desert Bloom" is one of the only two of the 21 pieces in the Cycle that isn't based on electronic processing of nature sounds. Its room-filling drone-chords come from the kaen (Thai mouth organ), processed for microtonal variations of pitch and timbre. "Spherics" slows the nature sounds down hundreds of times and adds massive reverb, resulting in an immense, cosmic sound; the graphic scores used by the performers are based on the planets. There is a long section, near the beginning, of a "deep space" sound (originally made from the songs of crickets) that always makes me think of hovering in space somewhere near Jupiter. (I don't really know why this is so; I've never hovered in space anywhere near Jupiter.) Anyway, the piece suggests, to me at least, the old concept of the "music of the spheres", though I change the idea slightly to mean music of the planets.

(This posting is Nov. 15, 2010; 189 days until the first performance of the complete StormSound Cycle)

Thursday, November 11, 2010

11/7/2010: Three Concerts -- Wayne Lovegrove; Jack Wright and Gust Burns Large Ensemble; St. Mark's Organ Recital

It’s been over a week and I’ve finally gotten some time to add a posting to this thing. Of course it’s about music…

Sunday evening I went to three concerts. Yes, that’s quite a few…

Wayne Lovegrove, at Little Red Bistro, Seattle WA

I’ve heard Wayne play before, of course; both at open mikes and with me in concert (Tim Noah’s Thumbnail Theater, Snohomish, WA, last month). This was a chance to hear him play his guitar a longer period of time.

The Little Red Bistro is a French/Italian/Spanish restaurant just north of Seattle’s downtown. I found it easily on Google Maps, but couldn’t get there as easily as it looked because several of the streets that looked drivable in the satellite view were blocked off for construction (and an annoying number were one way the wrong way or marked “no turns”). But I finally got there, and found that there was abundant street parking. The restaurant itself is a small space, suitable for intimate dining or for groups of four to ten or so (there was one group of eight there and several groups of two). Having already had dinner, I just sat at the bar, ordered a dessert from the friendly wait staff, and listened to Wayne play the guitar.

While I was there, he played five pieces. These are in his usual “new acoustic” style; though as I’ve written before, to label them as such misses the point of the music. He is one of those rare musicians who manages to do “background music” that is much more than just background – if one ignores it and treats it as wallpaper, then it is wallpaper; but if one pays attention, there’s enough to listen to that it really is foreground music. There are some interesting rhythms (including polyrhythms), beautiful melodies, intricate counterpoint (interlocking of parts, not “fugues” in the baroque sense), and always, those alternate tunings that create spacious sounds with open fourths and fifths. There are also little bits of dissonance snuck in; two of the pieces have slight blues tendencies and use the genre’s characteristic flat notes to create tension (only audible to the careful listener) which always resolves into those open sounds.

I listened for about forty minutes, then wandered back out to my car to go to the next concert.

Jack Wright and Gust Burns Large Ensemble, Poncho Theater at Cornish Institute, Seattle WA

Nothing could be more different from Wayne’s guitar styling than this. Presented as part of the Earshot Jazz Festival, this was four lengthy pieces of free improvisation.

“Free Improvisation” and “Large Ensemble” are terms that can be at odds with one another. I remember a “free improv” open mike (at Beanbenders Concert Series, Berkeley, CA) where, after several sets of two or three players, they let everyone who’d played all play together (including me). Mistake. There were about twelve players, mostly on electric guitars and saxes of various sizes, all playing as loudly and quickly as possible, and paying absolutely no attention to what anyone else was playing. It would have been fun for a minute or two – but nobody wanted to quit, and it kept going at full frenetic howling, snorting and screeching volume for twenty-five minutes. Finally I added even more volume by playing several crescendos on the suspended cymbals (at least to give some sense of one different sound in all that chaos) but it really didn’t help. The audience was long gone by the time any of the players (including me) thought to admit defeat and quit.

So it was with some trepidation that I went to see this “large ensemble” at Earshot. I wouldn’t even have gone if I hadn’t remembered Gust Burns’ “silent” music from several months ago (see my 6/28/2010 posting) and wanted to see how that aesthetic would work for a larger group.

I was not disappointed. The “large ensemble” was a sextet, consisting of Jack on sax, Gust on piano, two basses (Mark Collins & John Teske), another sax (Wilson Shook), and electronics (Doug Theriault); the latter provided strangely non-tonal drones and small tinkles, scratches, pops, and clunks that seemed to be derived from little percussion implements under high amplification (though I couldn’t see exactly what he was playing). Gust did not use the “dowel” technique I’ve blogged about before (though one of the bass players used it); he played the piano “conventionally” (meaning on the keys) if atonally. He added flurries of notes, or, occasionally, single pitches dropped in right where another player paused. Having two basses was an interesting concept; particularly since neither played “bass parts” but explored the timbre of the instruments.

Then we come to the sax parts themselves. Jack was listed by Gust as a “legend” in his field; and I wasn’t disappointed when I heard him play. During the two large ensemble pieces he added to the textures in such a way as to be indistinguishable from the other players. A lesser talent would have insisted on blasting at least one “solo” here or there; he was content to provide the basis for the playing but melt into it – one senses that, if he weren’t there, the entire ensemble would fall apart. And yet, while listening, the sounds he provided were almost subliminal. In a sense he played the “spine” of the music – inside of it, not visible on the outside, but vitally necessary and providing support.

He also played two solo pieces, without the other players. I made the following notes during the performance:

(Alto sax)
Squawks, pops, evolves into notes, vibrating buzz –
Adjusted a valve (!)
Uses knee as mute
Percussive fluttering – I’ve never heard this before!
Attack, whimper, wa-wa effects with “mute” and keys (valves)
Has “hollow” didgeridoo-sound when muted
Vocalize into sax – dog woof or scary/comical “Ghostbusters” effect
Changes mouthpiece – clicks, deeper pops, wails (Coltrane/Coleman) – loud!

(Soprano sax)
Clear notes emerge from pink noise, but “noise” continues
Very smooth – almost as if notes were overlapping

After these pieces, an audience member in sitting in front of me said to someone next to her, “It was too long, and it wasn’t very thoughtful of him to play another solo after the first one – it was too taxing on the audience.”

I countered that the first solo didn’t seem to be finished (Jack seemed so have left it unresolved in anticipation of the second solo) and I preferred to have the second part. Judging from the reactions of the audience, I think most (though certainly not all) heard it the way I did.

I made a similar set of notes about the ensemble pieces:

Piece 1:
Bass bowed the bridge of the instrument
Electronic “shell chime” sounds
Bass bow with hair wrapped around it in a spiral – adjustable – makes several different timbres
Gust’s “dowel” technique works on bass too!
Microtones (sax vs. piano)
Trio (two basses, piano) – sax joins
“Harsh” drones over chaos – Art Ensemble of Chicago style
Trills (sax) over piano
Piano pedal techniques (half-released)
Sparkles, clouds from sax; thumps, clunks (electronic)
High overtones (reed buzz) strangely calm, not strident – crescendo into all instruments – now loud, Klaxon – drones become violent (!) – quiet – dog whimpers (sax) – electronics gonglike
Whhhhhhfffft! (sax)
Tiny electronic murmur, high, pulsating – “a still small voice”

Piece 2:
Bass – bowed the rosin box! Squeeeee!
Spasmodic motions, scattered sounds
Wraps and unwraps hair on bow
Massive drones – Vvvvvvvvvvvvv!
Sudden “cosmic” reverb in electronics opens the soundspace
Piano – one clear, bell-like tone in midst of fluttering, flapping chaos
Electronic clang-drones (Roger Reynolds’ “From Beyond the Unreasoning Mask”) – these abruptly stop while other instruments continue
Sax changes from soprano to alto with no change in mood…

Near the end, the piece seemed to lose focus; several times it should have ended but one player kept starting it up again. Then, Jack led the ensemble into thirty seconds (or less) of “conventional” jazz (improvised melody over chords), and a crescendo – and it ended having been “brought back” from near death.

The concert ended refreshed, despite its length (and of course I’m guilty of overly long concerts myself…) and I headed over to hear the third concert.

Organ Recital – St. Mark’s Cathedral, Seattle, WA

I had intended to get there for the Compline Service – the (by now) world-famous plainsong service held there every Sunday evening at 9:30. I missed it, the Earshot concert running longer than I expected, but was there for the organ recital that always follows at 10:00. This time the organist’s name was Bill Giddings. He played a concert of mostly 19th and 20th-Century Scandinavian pieces – many were variations on the same hymn tune (which I didn’t happen to know, so I could listen to it objectively as a concert performance without any preconceived ideas). The Flentrop organ is truly an acoustic marvel, particularly in that vast cathedral space where its sounds hang in the air for what seems like a minute each, before trailing off into the realm of the spirit. The most surprising effect was – as always – the set of pipes that’s located on the balcony just above the congregation – when played, they make the music suddenly sound as if it’s located much closer in space than it “should” be, almost as if it were coming from only a foot or two in front of the listener. Almost shocking, and yet beautiful.

So that was my evening of concerts. I don’t recommend anyone to attend three in rapid succession like that, but I’d do it again if I got the chance…

(This posting is Nov. 11, 2010; 193 days until the first performance of the complete StormSound Cycle)

Saturday, October 30, 2010

CD Reviews: Boretz, Lierman, Improv Festival

I said in some earlier postings that I’d do some CD reviews, so here they are. These are all CDs that I’ve picked up over the last year or two at concerts at the Chapel Performance Space in Seattle, where many of the concerts I review on this blog have been. Unfortunately, due to budget constraints, I’m not likely to be getting any many more CDs in the months to come, so these reviews will have to do for this year (and maybe next as well).

Benjamin Boretz: String Quartet (played by Quartet Dafo)
Open Space 23

The two Benjamin Boretz CDs represent different aspects of the composer’s music. The string quartet (composed over forty-eight years!) really shows the two aspects itself: the first two movements are conservatively “classical” (or “20th-century classical”, rather reminiscent of Stravinsky or the relatively lesser known French composer Frank Martin). The second, a scherzo, could also have stepped out of a Shostakovich quartet. This is not to say that neither shows originality – Boretz’ harmonic language or two-note chords (rather than triads or more complex chords) is obvious in certain passages, and sometimes it is rather surprising. It comes to fruition in the third movement, a long slow movement that derives much of its sound-world from Morton Feldman. It is in complete contrast to the first two, but forms an elegant counterbalance to their louder, more strident activity.

So the composition itself is interesting. I might also mention that the Quartet Dafo plays with a considerable amount of verve and intensity, even in the long quiet section. The recording, on the other hand, has a major problem (which to me at least is unforgivable). The second movement is recorded at least twice as loud as the other two. (The music itself is slightly louder, but the recording sounds as if the mikes had suddenly been placed several feet closer to the instruments and the volume not adjusted accordingly.) I’m used to this occurring when home-burning CDs from home-assembled playlists; some pieces are naturally recorded louder than others. But it should never happen on a studio-produced CD. It completely destroys the flow of the music, and sent me scrambling for the volume button. I finally had to upload it into iTunes, adjust the volume on each movement separately, and burn a copy myself in order to listen to it.

Benjamin Boretz: Piano Music 1976 – 2000 (played by Michael Fowler)
Open Space 18

The piano CD says right in the insert that the individual pieces were recorded under different circumstances, which were not always optimal. This is true; they do not sound like studio recordings (though they’re certainly not bad). They do, however, sound consistent, which cannot be said for the quartet CD. These piano pieces are all in the “quiet” mode of musical thinking, a la Feldman. Nathaniel Evans called this the “West-Coast-can’t-play-quietly-enough” style (see my 7/7/2010 posting). Not a lot can really be said about them that wouldn’t detract from the music. They are slow, quiet, tranquil yet intense meditations on the sounds of the piano. Each note or note-cluster rings into its own silence in its own way, both related to all the others and at the same time utterly separately from them. Mr. Fowler plays the music with considerable nuance. I might add that at least one of these pieces is an intensely beautiful experience when played by a capable pianist in concert; I heard Keith Eisenbrey play (“…my chart shines high where the blue milks upset…”) at a recital last June (see my 6/12/2010 posting) and the piece's chiming resonances were like a revelation of the inside of the sound.

C. Lierman: Huon
2002 onethum disc

I picked up this C(arl) Lierman CD at the Eye Music concert (see my 9/19/2010 posting). Mr. Lierman is a member of that band. The music continues a similar aesthetic to the Boretz, but achieves it in a far different manner.

“Huon” has four meanings that I could find: a software development compnay, a character in a 13th-century French epic, a type of particle in the British cult TV show “Dr. Who”, and a wilderness area in Tasmania. I’m assuming that Mr. Lierman was referencing the particles and/or the legend (the music could be the accompaniment for a fantasy epic), but it could also refer to new technology or wilderness…

The CD consists or two long tracks. Like a lot of “ambient” music (I use that term in a good way) they appear to be composed from improvisations; that is, made from several recorded improvisations sampled, multilayered, and pieced together. The sound is uniformly slow and mysterious; drones of various intensities interweave with and comment upon sections of white noise and deeper indefinite rumbles. Most of the sound has heavy reverb; so much so that it is difficult to tell when one sound ends and the next begins. Besides this difficulty of pinning down the exact origins of these sounds in time, it is also difficult to discover their nature (both in material and in space) -- someimes they sound like distant trombones from outside of the room where one is listening; sometimes they are digeridoos from somewhere above the left speaker; sometimes they are waves from somewhere else... In totality the work sounds rather like my piece “Spherics” (number 9 in the StormSound Cycle), which is intended to represent the “music of the spheres” and was derived from computer-altered nature sounds (along with synthesized drones). It is best for quiet but active listening; the same way one would listen to it at a “live” concert. I recommend it heartily.

The 1st Seattle Festival of Improvised Music,
2 March 1986
Self-Produced by Paul Hoskins

This “improv” CD, a historical record (derived from historical vinyl records or cassettes) was my most recent acquisition of music from “The Chapel” (see my 10/20/2010 posting). As a historic record it is indeed very interesting; one can hear the sounds made by the older, analogue technology (I once heard some people complain that George Crumb’s music for electric string quartet sounded much better with the old electronics; the new digital sound didn’t roar and scream as much). Musically, it varies in quality.

It also varies in quantity. The informal concerts were recorded with a lot of talking and audience noise, and there are long stretches in the recording of nothing but background sounds with no music playing. (It sounds as if it had been recorded in a restaurant or bar, so this could be bar talk without Bartok. …sorry, couldn’t resist…) The impetus for this was probably the inclusion of as many “aleatory” elements as possible in what was essentially chance sounds made on purpose, but it doesn’t work that well on a CD. To me it comes off as sloppy editing. There are also places where the CD track number changes in the middle of a piece; I’ve seen this even on commercially released CDs and it’s probably a software glitch during the manufacturing process – I can’t complain yet again about bad editing…

That said, much of the music is interesting and worth repeated listening. Several of the pieces follow the standard “improvisational” form of beginning with sparse sounds, building in density to a wailing, screeching climax, then trailing off into silence. These are, as always, expected, and not so interesting. There are, however, a number of tracks that are genuinely inventive. There is one that lists Johnny Calcagno as playing “guitar and tapes” – but the “tapes” are manipulated and played with such dexterity that it seems to presage digital sampling and use of the turntable as in instrument in hip-hop. There is a piece with Wally Shoup (alto sax) and Harlan Mark Vale (drums) where they catch each other’s “groove” and are able to synch up – and stop and start – with almost mechanical precision even though there is no discernable meter. There is a piece entirely for voices – screeching, singing, howling, yodeling, ululating, and laughing (along with the audience at several points). There is one for four guitars and voice that sounds nothing like four guitars and voice: it is a minute of repetitive grinding howls with distortion, as if the guitars had been “prepared” with chainsaw and jackhammer motors. (Right as this piece finishes, an audience member can be heard saying, "That was too much!") There is a guitar solo that eschews the (then popular) Van Halen-esque riffs in favor of blocks of pure electric noise, taking cues from both Hendrix and the post-punk “noise” bands that were starting at the time (though, paradoxically, the end effect of this piece is calming). And, speaking of calming, there are a number of slow, ambient pieces with delicate points of sound, that remind me of Takemitsu’s sparser works. All in all, this is an interesting (and sometimes beautiful) collection of music, and most of it stands up to multiple hearings.

(This posting is Oct. 30, 2010; 204 days until the first performance of the complete StormSound Cycle.)

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Malice of a Symphony

...Just an amusing incident, concerning music, that happened a couple of weeks ago. I wrote this then but didn't post it.

Can works of art have a vendetta against someone?!

Some weeks ago I found a CD of Hindemith’s “Mathis der Maler” symphony at the public library. I hadn’t heard it in several years, so I took it home for a listen.

I stuck it in my CD player. It was exactly as I remembered, with that beautifully textured and colored Engelskonzert followed by the deeply tragic Grablegung and the scarifying “St. Anthony” tormented by demons.

A couple of hours later, I forgot that I had it in the CD player, and went to play another CD. I opened the CD player and put another CD in (the Hindemith symphony CD didn’t come out when I opened the drawer, and I didn’t notice that anything was amiss) and pushed play. Nothing happened except weird scratching noises from the mechanism of the player. I ejected the CD, thinking it had somehow loaded wrong, and tried again. Nothing happened except scary grinding noises from the mechanism of the player. I tried another CD. Nothing happened except awful grinding and scraping noises from the mechanism of the player. This time when I ejected it, two CDs came out – one was the Hindemith. Like an idiot, I put the Hindemith back in the player to see if it worked again – nothing happened except gruesome ripping and crunching noises from the mechanism of the player – and when I pushed “eject” again, nothing happened at all. It’s stuck in there for good. Calls to repair shops indicated that there’s nothing to be done – it costs more in labor to take a CD player apart and take out an impacted CD that to buy a new player.

I hooked up my old discman to my stereo, which works fine. I ordered another copy of Mathis der Maler from the library, thinking I might want to hear it again.

Three weeks later I happened to check my library account online. The “Mathis der Maler” symphony was listed as “1 of 3 holds on 0 copies”. How can they put a hold on a CD they don’t have?! I asked a librarian the next time I was in the library (yesterday). She also had no idea what that meant. She did some calling to other branches and to the central office – it turns out that the CD is in fact missing – it’s somewhere “in transit” but has been there for a week or two. She tried to cancel my hold and put another on, so I could get another copy – but the hold can’t be cancelled because the CD is in transit! Basically I can’t get the CD because it’s being sent to me, but it's not being sent to me because I already have it, but I don't already have it because it's (not) being sent to me.

Something there is that doesn’t want me to hear this music…!

(This posting is Oct. 26, 2010; 208 days until the first performance of the complete StormSound Cycle) -- The problem with the Hindemith symphony has been solved, well, not completely: it's still stuck in my CD player but I got the other copy from the library.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Second “New Music in the Library” Concert: Broadview Public Library, October 23rd, 2010

The second concert in the “New Music in the Library” series was a hundred-percent improvement over the first. For one thing, the poster hadn’t been removed, and they announced it over the library’s intercom system. (A minor set-back did occur. I got there early to set up the slab gongs, only to realize that I’d forgotten to bring some of their components – and simultaneously remembered that I’d forgotten to take the Lao mountain harp with me to the concert in Snohomish last Thursday,10/14/2010. It seems to be impossible to play both the Lao harp and the slab-gongs in the same concert…!)

I played two improvised pieces, both on the hammer dulcimer. One was a solo accompanied by prerecorded slab-gongs; the other was a duet with Bruce Greely on bass clarinet. The latter was the longer. He said he was an amateur, but his playing denied this. He filled the air with sinuous melodies interspersed with the deep, smooth chuckling and squeaking sounds that only the bass clarinet is capable of producing. (A sax can do similar, but not in as mellow a manner.) I used the dulcimer mostly for percussive and drone effects, along with some sparse plucks on the Lao harp.

So it looks like these concerts are (slowly, to be sure) taking off. The next will be in Lynnwood, next Wednesday; then I’ll put them on pause during the holiday season and resume in January.

Wallcussion, CCM, and the Sherványa Nocturnal Music

“It’s been a talented set so far,” said one participant as he tuned up his baritone ukulele, “Let’s see if I can rectify that.”

The occasion was the open mike at Tim Noah’s Thumbnail Theater two days ago. The musicianship level was indeed very high, for most of the evening.

At one point during the evening, a singer said she’d just written a song and it needed “some music”, by which she meant an accompaniment. She asked the audience members to play any percussion that was lying around. They did, with the djembe and the various shakers that the theater has; I had my percussion mallets with me so I joined in by drumming on the wall. “Where did you get the idea for that?” she asked me later. I’ve seen drummers and percussionists do it – particularly Moe Staiano, who will play anything as a percussion instrument.

Earlier in the evening a guitarist had played an intricately rhythmic instrumental number by a “Christian rock band from Hawaii, back in the 1970’s, and they had an incredible horn section…”

“Seawind!” I shouted, recognizing the band by his description.

“Ah – somebody knows them!” He talked about their music a little, then played. Later I talked to him a little about my recollections of hearing Seawind at college (in the early 1980’s). There were a lot of students there from Hawaii, who liked to hype “their” band by playing the music loud in the dorms with all the windows open.

“Yeah, that was a band,” he agreed. “They’ve just reissued a collection of their music. There are a lot of good musicians in the Christian music movement…”

“There are now,” I commented, “but back then there didn’t seem to be that many. Seawind was an exception.” He agreed with my opinion.

…Which reminds me of something that occurred about a year ago. The following is a posting I wrote for this blog but never posted.

About a year ago, on an impulse, I checked out a DVD of a reunion concert (more like an open mike) of artists of the original “Contemporary Christian Music” (CCM) movement from the 1960’s and early 1970’s. I used to hate this music. I considered it dull, generic, contrived, banal, boring, cloying, wishy-washy, and superficial – exactly what music of strong religious conviction should not be, and basically pop music done badly (isn’t it interesting how the best pop tunes are almost all of these things, but they never quite cross the line?). So I don’t really know why I got this DVD, but I took it home and watched/listened to it – and I was in for a surprise.

The music is, of course, very simple – but by its nature as music that can be sung along with, it has to be. The simplicity was a strength – and to my surprise, some of it was also quite intricate (such as the harmonies by The Second Chapter of Acts). So much for being dull, at least on an intellectual level. It didn’t seem to “take a stand” on what style of mainstream music it was supposed to be, either (rock, country, funk, etc.) but crossed from one to another freely – but it no longer sounded wishy-washy or generic because of this. Rather, this was an attempt to include more than one style, and even when it mixed them together the result was not “elevator music” but fusion. (And who am I to dislike mixing styles, when I don’t like to make a distinction between my experimental and “mainstream” music!?) The lyrics did sometimes contrast with the melodic material or vocal delivery (such as loud hard-rock screaming “Praise the Lord!” over fuzz-guitar bombast) but the result was more gently ironic than contrived, and if anything, it pulled the listener in to hear what was really going on here. …and as for cloying or superficial; the obvious sincerity of the performers (which could be heard in their voices) eliminated this from the start.

So what made the difference? First of all, there is a little of me in it; I admit to a certain amount of Ignatius J. Reillyism – but aren’t we all that way? Don’t we all think of our likes and attitudes as somehow above those of the “common people” (whoever they are)? Case in point: I went to a Christian college, where CCM was very popular among the students – and I used to play Messiaen very loudly on the stereo in my dorm room (with all the doors and windows open) to show the others that there was something better. (I might do the same today, but to show that them that there is something different, not something better – another concept altogether.) Once in a history class, when a professor had commented that another historian had quipped that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire, I had triumphantly stated that the same criticism could apply to CCM – neither contemporary, nor Christian, nor music. One or two members of the class cheered, two or three folded over in hysterical laughter, but most just glared or grimaced at me with obvious contempt.

My attitudes have mellowed somewhat. But even so, it wouldn’t account for the complete turnaround in how I perceived this music. It was not just my perception, but the music itself that seemed to be different.

After some puzzling, I think the answer is subtler. It is the process of the recording of the music that made it different. Those older recordings that I had considered boring, banal, and superficial, might still sound that way to me today – the songs were mass-produced as popular media, and forced into rock or soul idioms, which they were not. They sounded contrived because they were trying to be something they weren’t. They were supposed to be for the quiet or communal worship of God, not for wild parties and loud concerts where one listens to show-off guitar riffs. In short, it attemptyed to be pop – which it was not, so it never really worked out.

Back to the open mike. When it was my turn (my number came up near the end), I played a little piano tune called “A Poem” (available on my CD “PianoSphere”) and then decided to pull out the stops by actually attempting to do the Sherványa Nocturnal Music.

In my forthcoming sci-fi novel “Tond”, the Sherványa people have the custom playing shéyi sulándusei (Shay-yee soo-LAHN-doo-say), translated as “Nocturnal Music”. This does involve a plot element in the novel, but an earlier passage describes it. …We join a band of adventurers in the outdoor plaza of an inn deep in the Sherványa lands.

The innkeeper whistled at one of the Sherványa servants, and a tray was brought to the table with black ceramic mugs, which were placed before the guests. They contained a hot dark drink which Rodan recognized immediately as the source of the aroma; he took a sip but found it disappointingly bitter. The others drank enthusiastically, however (except Teyan, who seemed to think about the same as Rodan), and the innkeeper said (in nearly perfect Fyorian) that the Emb woman had brought it with her from the far south; it was a popular drink in both the Imperium and the Emb Lands. He couldn’t remember what it was called, though. “It’s called káhei, and it’s made from a certain kind of bean.” filled in Ai-Liina. “She brought the beans, I assume; you wouldn’t expect she’d carry water-jugs full of it all the way from there. After it’s made into a drink, it goes stale quickly anyway.”

“It’s good hot,” put in S’Tai, “But it’s better, I think anyway, cold, on a hot day, mixed with milk, honey, and spices. Be careful, though; it’s not intoxicating, exactly, but it can make you feel unpleasant if you drink too much.”

...At that point everyone introduced themselves (the innkeeper’s name was En) and then several conversations began at once in different languages; Rodan found it hard to concentrate on what was being said (he could barely speak anything besides Fyorian anyway); he thought about pulling out his Karjaenic dictionary and trying a few phrases, but thought better of the idea. The music was about to begin, or at least they looked like they were about to play something besides the bells, and maybe that would be interesting. He wondered if he could keep awake during it; after all, it was meant to put people to sleep; but maybe that wouldn’t be a problem in the mid afternoon. The sun was still shining brightly, though the air was chilly.

One of the musicians noticed that Rodan was watching, and he stood, and, carrying his instrument, approached their table. He set it down in front of Rodan. “Would you like to try?” he asked in Fyorian. Rodan stuttered a yes, but found the instrument baffling. At first it was just a collections of metal rods arranged in a wooden frame at random. As he studied it more carefully (the others were curious too, he noticed), he finally saw the pattern to the arrangement. The rods were arranged in four rows of eleven each, smaller to larger from right to left; but behind each bar and slightly raised, there were other bars, seemingly two to each main rod, one on each side.

The musician explained. “It’s a metal kitál.” he said. “The first row, in the front, those are the notes for the sheyándol mode, the first mode to play. The raised rods behind them are the attendant tones, we call them; play them, you’ll see what I mean. Play the main ones first.” He handed Rodan a mallet, shaped like a hammer but with a pad on the end, held by a wooden handle.

Rodan struck one of the rods on the first row; the sound was high and pure, a ringing bell-tone. He struck a few of the others, from left to right, and found that it made a scale (with some notes missing, he thought, though it was very harmonious). Then he tried one of the ‘attendant’ tones; it was a slightly flat version of one of the others.

“Try it with this one.” said the musician, pointing to one of the main rows.

Rodan struck the two of them quickly together. The result was a blending and a shimmer; a beautiful sound more like light than anything. “The main notes are the notes of the mode; the ‘attendant’ tones are eighth-tones.” explained the musician, though Rodan did not know the meaning of the term. “They are, as pitches go, very close together; therefore they make that shimmer. We call the shimmer the sound of the stars singing; even if there aren’t any stars in the night, we like to keep their light shining.” He demonstrated himself, playing a looping melody. The sounds leapt into the air and continued their sparkle. The melody continued (against the ringing of the much larger bells) and gradually it began to change in effect; the musician was introducing, very gradually at first, a note from the second row, and its ‘attendant’ tones; at first it seemed to clash, but he gradually dropped a note from the first row as well, and then moved entirely over to the second row. The entire sound of the music had shifted; it was somewhat darker yet paradoxically more harmonious, and the shimmers were more penetrating. “Avalinkáalei. The Wandering of the Moon; the second mode.” he said as he kept playing. “That’s how we change modes; the first note from the new mode is brought in as the ‘enemy tone’, but soon the other tones accept it, and it becomes a friend. If you listen closely, only one note has actually changed.” He stopped playing, then played the scales of the first two rows. He was right; only one tone was different. “Now the third mode is different yet; again, only one note changes, but now the tonic, that’s the note that sounds like where it ought to end, is in a different place...”

He demonstrated at length and expounded his knowledge of Sherványa musical theory; Rodan kept interrupting to try to play something himself, but to no avail; finally the other musicians over by the bells began to play something different, and the demonstrator took his instrument in hand and wandered back over to join them. “Well he’s a good teacher,” commented Teyan. “If he taught the others how to play, they’d wind up playing Karjaenic music or something else.” He snickered as Ai-Liina glared at him, then she guffawed.

At last Naemar changed the topic, and his aged and ageless face was grave. “Teyan, we must speak of more serious matters.”

“Indeed,” replied Teyan with a final gulp of káhei; “Like how that stuff tastes.” He paused, waiting for a laugh, but none was forthcoming...

In an appendix, I describe the music in somewhat more detail for those who care to look it up. I think in my mind it derives ultimately from Indonesian kacape music. I imagine it as a symphonic form of kacape; a gamelan that has somehow sprouted a secondary ensemble of harps and kotos.

Whatever its “original” sound, I had a working version of it around 1995 at an improvisation workshop at Mills College in Oakland, CA. (led by violinist India Cooke). I gave the rather detailed instructions about the modes and the “enemy tone”, and we played it in a concert. It worked pretty well, at least according to my recollections, though it wasn’t exactly music for sleeping because it included lots of loud saxophones, trombones, and an electric bass.

I’ve been looking for an excuse to try it again, and decided that I might as well give it a shot at the open mike. I set up the hammer dulcimer next to the by-now infamous rondolin, and gave simplified instructions (it would be pointless to take an hour to explain the entire invented music theory for something that would last seven minutes tops). We tried it. One audience member imitated the bass “bells” on the piano by repeatedly, quietly, playing low E’s (with some other improvisation later); I improvised on the dulcimer and the rondolin; and the audience members joined in by playing guitars according to my instructions. One guitarist (I think it was Tim Noah) added beautiful desending open-string strumming at key points. We actually included one mode-shift, though I didn’t bother to include the “enemy tone” idea.

It sounded wonderful. The hall was filled with the chiming, twanging sound of multiple guitars (and mandolins, and a kalimba) played quietly. The lights were low, and the sound was in fact a magical “nocturnal music”. I think I will try it again, sometime when my turn is earlier in the evening (so there are even more audience members), and I think it’s also worth giving it a shot as an entire piece (longer, with all the modes) at some future concert.

(This posting is Oct. 24, 2010; 210 days until the first performance of the complete StormSound Cycle)