Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Discarded Poems, Part One

Last night I went to the music building at Seattle Pacific University to practice for the upcoming Seattle Composers’ Salon (7/2/2010). Neal Meyer, guitarist, and I are going to play part of a piece called “Discarded Poems”, which is related to (but not necessarily part of) the StormSound Cycle. It’s a performance art piece involving improvising on slab gongs, playing the walls and fixtures in the performance space, reading poems and “discarding” them as metal pipes rolled across the floor; and making unheard-of sounds with prepared guitar and piano strings – all over an accompaniment of prerecorded, computer-processed sounds originally derived from nature (but altered beyond recognition). More intense than most of the “StormSound” pieces, it belongs by itself in a concert, not as part of that gigantic opus – but nevertheless is derived from some of the same sources.

We talked originally about amplifying the slab-gongs; it turns out (after hearing Neal’s sonorous improvisation) that this won’t be necessary. Besides, there will be two slab-gongs in the concert. The second section is improvised on a graphic score over a microtonal drone. I tried some Gust Burns techniques with the dowels (actually mallets in my case) in the piano; these were beautiful but too quiet for this particular piece. I reverted to some of my usual “inside piano” techniques. Neal prepared his guitar with paper clips per my instructions; the result sounded somewhere between an electric pipa (!) and a gamelan. At first my instructions were to play seventh and ninth chords, which even with the paper clips had a film noir feel, as Neal succinctly pointed out – (strum) “I work in the rough part of town…”. We dropped the chords. There were two versions of the background drone: one is the drone played straight, the other has an extra layer of an out-of-sync hip-hop beat derived originally from a 2002 pop tune (I can picture it now, “…and now for something that you never thought you’d hear at a Composers’ Salon – a Stacie Orrico remix…!”) It didn’t work, however; the “beat” (even in a Steve Reich “phase” version) distracted from what we were playing – the interesting was covered up with the less interesting. So we’ll do the straight no-beat version.

Anyway, the practice went off well, and we’ll see how it turns out in the Salon. And, of course, the Salon is just a warm-up for playing the entire “Discarded Poems” in a full-length concert at the same performance space that I’ve been blogging about on this thing.

8:00 PM
Saturday, July 24, 2010
Chapel Performance Space at Good Shepherd Center
50th and Sunnyside, in Wallingford (Seattle, WA)

Monday, June 28, 2010

Concert Review: Gust Burns (piano) & Tyler Wilcox (saxophone) with Seattle Improvisers; Chapel Performance Space, 6/25/2010

This was not so much a concert as it was the fulfillment of the possibilities presented in aleatory music and silence – the sounds presented (whether or not they were made by the musicians) perfectly fit with the time and place that they were made.

This was not so much a concert as a jam session – there were only about twelve chairs set out for the audience, and most of them were occupied by musicians who played in at least one piece in the concert.

They obviously weren’t expecting an audience, and it looks like they didn’t do much advertising. Pity, in a way; this kind of music needs to be moved out of “the fringe” and into the mainstream. Making more people aware of it would be a start.

On the other hand, too large of an audience would have sabotaged it. This is music that needs to be heard one-on-one; one or two musicians to one audience member. Direct communication, nothing held back by player or listener, with no outside interference.

Or actually, everything held back, with all outside interference. The music is one or two notes, understated, almost unsaid, against silence. The silence is part of the music. The outside is part of the silence. The outside is part of the music. The windows were open; sounds from outside of the performance space drifted in – mingled with, interpenetrated, commented on the sounds played on stage. And vice versa.

And always, there was that silence. Different kinds of silence, in fact, made different by the sounds that framed them.

They played, altogether, six pieces. The first was an “overlong” duet for saxophone (Tyler) and piano (Gust). Gust played the entire piece by rubbing his fingers quickly and repeatedly downward on rosined wooden dowels pressed against the piano’s sounding board, producing a sound that was basically white noise but included a hint of the blending of many dimly audible notes.

1. Silence. Airplanes pass over. Silence.
2. Rubbing dowel in piano. Breathing sounds from sax. Silence.
3. Traffic in the distance. Silence.
4. Rubbing dowel in different places in the piano. Quiet drone from sax; screeching overtones (barely audible) blend into airplane passing over. Silence.
5. Harley wolf-howls in the distance. Rubbing of dowel in piano again, letting it bump against the sounding board briefly. Silence.
6. Sax removes mouthpiece. Makes no sound for two minutes, then a short set of exhalations. Silence.
7. Footsteps outside, voices, birds. Silence.
8. Sax plays a set of overtones, with circular breathing. Dowel makes a short set of “hiccoughs”. Silence.
9. Sax and dowel sounds more frequent, fragmented, then scattered. Outside sounds continue: airplanes, traffic, birds, voices. Silence.

It was difficult to tell where it had ended (though it had been nearly an hour); the continuous faint outside sounds had become enough of the “performed” music that I got the impression that it was still continuing, would still continue, was, in fact, all of the continuing sounds and silence that were being made anywhere.

I didn’t want to applaud. It would destroy the silence.

There was a brief break; then they played the other five pieces. These were continuations in the same vein, always the sounds and the silence that were indistinguishable from each other (only one piece, a solo by Gust on the piano keys, had a couple sections of faster notes).

This was the other side of silence; these were sounds that were quieter than silence. This was a new form of silence. This was a new form of beauty.

These pieces were part of a series played by the same musicians. Gust told me afterwards that they play in an ongoing set, once a week, at Gallery 1412 in Seattle.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Concert Review: Bill Horist at the Chapel 6/11/2010

This was another amazing concert at the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford. Bill is an experimental guitarist, of the Fred Frith variety – the guitar, with various implements in and around the strings, becomes an electro-acoustic ensemble by itself.

Before the concert, an MC (turned out to be Bill’s fiancée) walked onto the stage: “The hush of everybody holding their breath in anticipation – He’s being fashionably late. He’ll be another ten minutes or so… – Breathe, people! Be loud!!”

A couple of minutes later Bill appeared, shuffling onto the stage quietly, deliberately acting sheepish as if sneaking into his own concert. As the audience started clapping, he sat down on a chair between his amp and a table holding cymbals, a waterphone, a violin bow, and other miscellaneous objects. He tuned his guitar, and talked briefly about thanking all of the Seattle musicians who’d helped him with his new CD. “…No, they’re not all here…” he muttered, “I wonder if they’re being dogged by volcanoes, as I was…” He explained that he had just been to two places where volcanoes had erupted, including being in Amsterdam when the one in Iceland went off. “Good to be home where I don’t have to worry. …Uh, anyone heard anything about Mt. Rainier…?”

He played two half-hour improvised sets. The first was mellow, a stream-of-consciousness with folk, rock and raga overtones. I began taking notes about what I heard: “E-bow high drone, e-bow chord (open 4th), minor third (triad), 4th above 3rd (do, sol, mi, la), chord kept reverberating as began conventional guitar picking. Jazz raga against drones. Pentatonic with accidentals. Began rock ground-bass, improv over top. Folk guitar, developed as minimalism. Drones fade. Some dissonance (minor 2nd). Change of style, “electro” birdcalls (prerecorded?); folk guitar resumes. Lets some overtones ring. Electro continues as other sounds fade. Manipulation of sounds: “old school” electronic music (Stockhausen, Subotnick). Return to the e-bow, now with dissonance (minor 2nds, flat 5ths, microtones). Hints of Niblock with microtonal vibrations, though faster (not drone-minimalism). Blues. Plucked harmonics (bell-tones) for next section. Slower folk guitar, “electro” reappears during quiet moments…”

I decided about ten minutes in that that kind of writing wasn’t that interesting, and it certainly didn’t tell about the feel of the piece (which was surprisingly mellow); so I began writing about it in a different way. I just let my pen wander across the paper, going up as the music went up, flowing as the music flowed, stopping as the music stopped. Each horizontal group of lines is a couple of minutes of music.

During the intermission, I showed the resulting abstract to some other audience members, who commented that it was a beautiful graphic. Later, I showed it to Bill, and commented that, “Now it’s a graphic score…” “…And I could play it again!” he said.

Before starting the second half, Bill stated that he should have brought a change of clothes because now he’s an entirely different person. And he was right. The second set was much more abstract, less linear, less melodic and concerned with “real notes”, more freeform, more concerned with interesting sounds that were intrinsically beautiful. Bill inserted the waterphone and the cymbal between the strings of the guitar (not at the same time), and at various points played it with the bow or with an electric toothbrush. I described the sound later as “heavy metal Takemitsu”. The volume built, reaching a screaming climax, and then Bill abruptly turned off the amp, leaving a startling silence. The sudden cessation of sound actually made me dizzy for a second or two – a surprising effect. (For those who are reading this and wonder if there were any chemicals involved here, the answer is no, I don't do drugs.)

I did two graphics inspired by the feel of the music for this second half as well. Since the music was not linear, neither are the graphics (I actually seldom looked where my pen was going, though when I sensed that I was getting close to an edge, I started over on the left).

And that was that. Some of the audience members hung around for a few minutes afterwards, talking about various things musical. Bill made an interesting comment that he had a friend, a percussionist, who used to play with Bill in a rock band and who said, “Forget all that experimental garbage – let’s just do straight-ahead rock, rock, rock!” and then started doing experimental music. I’ve switched styles like that several times too…

Origins of the "StormSound Cycle"

This is an excerpt from a journal I wrote seven years ago – just if anyone’s curious about how this nine-hour piece got started. I’ve added a couple of explanations [in brackets] where necessary; and note that I now have music-editing software on my own computer.

Went over to Seattle Pacific University [I was a grad student there] to do some recording. The idea was to try to get the Eco Slab Gong piece recorded, and try out another conceptual piece, Nature Lives in Motion.

Eco Slab Gong didn’t work. The nature sounds, courtesy of Randy Storm, were supposed to resonate the metal sheet, the sounds of which would be picked up by the engineer’s sensitive mikes as an interesting percussion sound. So, brought the metal slab in from the car, unwrapped it from its cardboard. Sliced my finger on the edge of the metal. No blood. Set up the metal on the balloons, allowing it to freely vibrate. Set the headphones on it, cranked up the volume of Randy’s nature recordings. Set up the mikes, a mere mm. from the metal slab. Everything was working but. Failed. Nature sounds too loud or reverberations too quiet. Tried another set of louder headphones, hanging from a mike stand and themselves only a mere mm. from the metal. Again everything was working but. Failed. Randy’s recordings too loud period. There wasn’t a way to even anything out. Oh well. “Experimental” music is just that: experimental. Some experiments don’t work.

So we [the engineer and I] tried the other concept. We loaded two of Randy’s completed CD’s which I’d always liked these because of their arrangements (the sounds are put together almost like music in themselves, complete with recurring motifs – types of birdcalls, etc. – and an interesting overall shape). The concept was to take these recordings – already masterpieces in themselves – and overlay them, one atop the other, and then stretch them out into at least double of their length by elongating the individual sounds (without lowering their pitch – possible with a computer – I may decide later to raise the pitch of selected sections.). The result should be a “spacey aural fabric” (old Miles Davis reviewer) that is suggestive of natural sounds but difficult to pin down exactly because of the altered time frame.

Some experimental music doesn’t work. This worked marvelously. The sounds stretched into a fantastic tapestry of sound, vaguely strange and alien, vaguely familiar, and (after the harsher sounds near the beginning, made from stretched wolf-howls) quite relaxing. There is a section of water running that’s particularly interesting – the individual “drops” in the flow are audible, almost as bamboo wind chimes and tiny voices muttering in an unknown language. Overlaid with this are a few deep wooden sounds of branches breaking under a heavy snowfall – slowed down, these become resonant percussion. Thunder slowed down shows definite “notes”; Tolkien’s “drums in the deep” but not as frightening. Frogs and crickets become a whole Latin percussion band with shakers and maracas – playing polyrhythms that the human mind can’t comprehend. I took the CD home and listened to it several times, loaded it into the computer, and listened to it several times again – I’m listening to it as I write this. Can’t stop listening to it.

Meaning, of course, what I’ve commented on before. Nature (sounds made by things made by God) is the best composer, and nothing is truly random. The overlaying of these sounds was done in an essentially aleatory manner (though the original length of each section was planned by Randy on the original CDs) – but it resulted in a large-scale composition that is far more than the sum of its parts.

The result gives me the idea for a lengthy piece of music in the manner of FTOFTS and SoundScrolls (thus it could form a huge trilogy with these two works). It is the first piece I will have written that doesn’t have a part for piano in it. [FTOFTS, “From the Oceans’ From the Stars” and “SoundScrolls” are two large-scale compositions for “live” instruments and prerecorded sounds. FTOFTS – which I don’t pronounce “eff-tofts” but just “f’tofts” – is the oldest, dating from a music class I took at the University of Washington in 1983.]

“First of all, let me explain that, if you’ve come here to listen to Mozart or Chopin, you will probably be disappointed. This piece is not classical in the narrow sense. But if you’ve come for a sound adventure, or if you like the music of John Cage, George Crumb, LaMonte Young, Toru Takemitsu, or Phill Niblock, then you’ll probably enjoy this. I will warn you in advance, though, as it says on your programs – this piece is nearly two and a half hours long. I you have to leave the auditorium, please try to do so return quietly.

"Now, the piece is titled ‘Nature Lives in Motion’. It is one of a series of three large-scale pieces using pre-recorded sounds and percussion, in addition to various other instruments. The other instrument is, in this case, a ‘cello. The percussion is divided into two groups, for two players: metal and wood. These are ‘natural’ materials representing the inorganic and the organic, respectively.

“The meaning of the piece is not only the ‘movement’ of nature, but the movement – the vibration – that produces sound. It is about sound – it is not just sound, but it is about sound. Specifically, it is about the meaning of sound. Nature is full of sound, and the ultimate purpose of that sound, I believe, is praising God. This music is, then, about nature praising its Creator. Much of what you will hear is either joyous (bird calls – exuberant) or meditative, as in prayer. But you will hear some other sounds too, particularly near the beginning – there are some harsh sounds in nature as there is harshness in nature. This world has become corrupted, and has violence and pain. Near the end of the piece, all the various sounds will come together harmoniously for a while – a yearning for the perfect world without its Darwinian elements – as this world was meant to be.

“So, with no further ado, sit back, and let’s enjoy a performance of ‘Nature Lives in Motion’. Thank you.”

The percussion and ‘cello parts will be graphically notated, in the manner of the Cage “number pieces”, with lengthy time-spans (up to three minutes) for each sound, which are single sounds that respond to the sounds on the tape, or drones that do not. The “harmonious” part near the end is merely an overlaying of two-note motives, in the manner of the repeated birds and frogs that are on the tape at this time. There are long silences in all of the parts, filled in by the pre-recorded sounds.

[After writing this, I started adding to it, and “Nature Lives in Motion” became just the first movement of an all-day piece. It grew without bounds, so to speak, until I finally put a limit on it by simply saying to myself, “The number of pieces in this cycle is now set. Any new pieces I write in a similar style will be by themselves, or be part of a ‘Second StormSound Cycle’ – which may at some point come into existence.” That’s where it is now. And there are a lot of other sounds that I added to the prerecorded part of “Nature Lives in Motion” as well.]

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Concert Review: Piano Recital by Keith Eisenbrey, 6-5-2010

Two of the remarkable things about concerts in the Good Shepherd Center are the piano that they’ve got there, and the resonating space itself. The piano, of a brand I’ve not heard of before (and I can’t remember as I’m writing this), is a concert grand with such amazing tone that its voice leaps out of it like a living thing, with all of the overtones clearly audible. The space of the hall is just as remarkable; sounds seem to hang in there forever, but without covering up the next sounds. The perfect concert venue for Renaissance choral music, string quartets, or (as in this case) contemporary piano music where the silence between the notes is as important as the notes themselves.

I’ve heard Keith play before, in solo recitals and at the composers’ salons, so I wanted to make sure not to miss this concert. I was only there for a couple of minutes (I had gotten there slightly late) before he walked onto the stage, uncharacteristically dressed in tails, and proceeded to play six pieces.

Most were in a style vaguely reminiscent of Messiaen. The opening piece, “Keyboard Shortcuts”, by Richard Johnson, was actually a set of six short pieces with “charmingly evocative titles” such as “Opposable Toes” and “Related Sweepstakes Entities”. Most seemed (to my ear at least) to be serialist, though the program notes indicated that “at the core of each is a tautly dissonant four-part chorale”. Part of the interest in the music was how this chorale was worked into the fabric of each piece, with strikingly different results: some of the pieces were loud and dramatic, while others were elegiac and at least one seemed rather humorous.

After this first piece, Keith gave a brief talk about the music, and mentioned that all of the composers except one (Sean Osborn) were in the audience. Sean, he said, was out of town attending a wedding – his own. We (the audience) all agreed that this was a good reason to miss a concert of his own music.

“Theme and Variations for Piano”, by the afore-mentioned Sean Osborn, was the next piece, and it began in sharp contrast. The theme, a series of individual note-heads to be played softly but without any discernible meter, sounded like a lazy river of notes, mostly in the mid-range but with an occasional resonant series in the bass. The three variations unfolded, each different in mood from the others, climaxing in the “Variation: Fast” – another set of note-heads without meter but here played as quickly and loudly as possible; then there was a return to the meandering ruminations of the opening.

The shortest piece (just over 6 minutes), “dear s.,” by Brian Cobb, was one of the highlights of the concert. This was an impressionistic love-ballad that somehow resisted all of the (by now) clichés of impressionism and ballads; a truly beautiful piece vaguely reminiscent of Takemitsu.

The remaining pieces all had something to do with composer Benjamin Boretz, who has been a frequent contributor to the journal “Perspectives of New Music” ( The first was “Liebeslied, amended”; Keith’s slight reworking of one of Boretz’s earlier pieces that had been left unfinished to head in a different musical direction. There were hints of various classical “Liebeslieder” here, in a double spiral of a piece that ascended to a dissonant climax, resolved into a series of arpeggios, hit a repeat sign, and then ended enigmatically without concluding. The position of this piece at the end of the first half of the concert was a masterstroke: it didn’t end, of course – so one needs to come back for the second half to find out what happens next…

The second half was dedicated to two long pieces, both in excess of twenty minutes. Benjamin Boretz, again, was the first composer – (“…my chart shines high where the blue milks upset…”) is the title; yes, that is the correct punctuation (complete with the parenthesis); and yes, that is a quote from James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake”. That novel’s dream imagery, fractured language, and stream of consciousness narrative formed the basis for this piece: a dreamy, unfractured, stream of consciousness for piano. Notes presented themselves, almost always two at a time as chords, unfolding gradually, usually (but not always) quietly, flowing, like a river of thoughts… A meditative piece, yet not “meditation music” – it had way too much substance for that. If I were to put a label on it, I’d say it was roughly in the style of Morton Feldman – but only roughly. There was way too much “action” below the surface for that; not so much meditation on single phrases; more (and at the same time less) thematic development. My descriptions are perhaps rather vague, but that’s how this piece should be talked about. There was a CD available of the same piece played by another pianist – I bought it and plan to listen to it several times more.

Keith’s own “Sonata Liebeslied”, the last piece, was in complete contrast and yet somehow of the same ilk. It likewise unfolded slowly, meditatively (from the first few notes of Boretz’s “Liebeslied”, but seemed to contain fragments of Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” as well). However, its progression, according to Keith, was “lumpy” – clusters of notes appeared, developed, vanished into silence (and the amazing reverberations of that piano, which seemed made for this kind of piece), reappeared in the same or different manner, were crosscut with other clusters and themes, etc. I had the feeling of being taken along in a musical labyrinth, encountering bits of musical “lumps” here, memories of other “lumps” there, meandering, but always heading towards the exit. Near the end there was an actual climax (a brief, loud, allegro section) – this was both a complete surprise and the fulfillment of where the piece had been wanting to go all along. In all, a very beautiful piece. It needs intense concentration on both the part of the listeners and the performer – but that concentration is rewarded with beauty and silence.

And so the concert ended. Quite the work, there; more extended than many piano recitals, and worth repeating. One of its strengths was that the pieces were chosen and arranged to fit together into a giant meta-composition in several movements. (“…my chart shines high…”) was the long slow movement, and the “Sonata Liebeslied”, with its longer development and recall of the earlier piece(s), was the grandest of finales. Stylistically the pieces all related to one another, yet there was enough variety within that style to keep me interested (which would have been the case even if Keith had arranged them in a different order).

The listeners were enthralled. I myself intend to hear Keith’s next concert, and I asked him to play one or more of the piano parts for the StormSound Cycle…