Saturday, July 31, 2010

Discarded Poems, Part Three: Concert at the Chapel, 7-24-2010

Some wonderfully atmospheric pictures that my wife Arleen snapped of me practicing before the concert: the altered “Gust Burns” technique (see my 6/28 posting); one of the slab-gongs.

At the Chapel Performance Space, Good Shepherd Center (Seattle), we (Neal Meyer and I) played “Discarded Poems” in concert last Saturday night… (So this blog update is a little late. Been busy lately…!) The concert came off pretty good, though it had a number of minor mishaps (perhaps “mishaps” is the wrong term for a concert of mostly aleatory music).

At the beginning Neal played a half-hour edit from his Gradus, a hyper- universal-length study of all the possible combinations of notes on the piano. This is a continuation of the “Gust Burns” type of music, with the silences and outside noises highlighted by the instrumental sounds on stage; the difference here is that this is a piano piece (for piano played in the “conventional” manner, on the keys) and it has some pretty extreme dynamics. It is rather startling to hear for the first time, however – since at least this section is a half-hour of all A’s and chords consisting of all A’s. At first one might think it’s nothing. And maybe that’s the point – listening to it over the course of the half-hour increases one’s awareness of the pitch A, and then the fact that all other pitches (including those filtering in from outside) are related to A. And, though this is only one note, the timbre of that note is infinitely varied; Neal used different techniques of duration, holding, releasing, half-releasing, pedaling, half-pedaling, and various combinations – to bring out the various harmonics of the note as he played it. Sometimes it was as loud and strident (figuratively) as a Hendrix guitar solo, completely drowning out the silence as it commented on it. At other times it was a quiet as the ambient sound from out the window: birds, distant voices, little bits of traffic sound, and a police siren at the end that went by in glorious stereo. That Neal accidentally played two G’s and one B shouldn’t worry us here – these notes could be considered part of the ambient sound surrounding the A’s, as they literally surround it on the piano keyboard.

The next couple of pieces were short, and the first of the mishaps started to occur. I played an improvisation on piano, with Neal playing electric guitar – I started with just A’s, spinning off of what I’d just heard, then threw in some G’s, while Neal went all over the pitch and effects range, then we went from there into other territories. Upon listening to a playback, however, I heard a problem: neither Neal nor I could tell how loud our respective instruments were to the audience (not the soundman's fault; neither of us were plugged in to the system), and throughout the performance, either the piano was too quiet or the guitar too loud. Not that this was necessarily a problem (electric guitar is known as a loud instrument, of course); one audience member commented on the piano part afterwards, noting that whatever I played, it was still “A” – so obviously the piano was audible to him. (And yes, I was generally basing everything off of that initial “A”.)

Next I played “Water”, the prologue to my set of compositions, “SoundScrolls”. Usually I play it as “Wind over Water” with an added part for (any) wind instrument; here, however, I played just the (prepared) piano. One of the pen-caps I’d stuck between the strings worked its way loose and popped out partway through, changing the timbre of the piano. It seems that the audience thought the change was on purpose so I won’t comment further (there’s another change later that is on purpose).

Then came “Discarded Poems”. This time we did destroy the slab-gongs intentionally, though not with as much élan as the first time. Right after that came the poems that give the piece its title: one about (an unpleasant memory of) childhood; one a stream-of-unconsciousness a la Finnegan’s Wake; and two satirical commentaries on modern culture. One of the latter contains, after a long description of the beauty in a given piece of experimental music, this:

“They listened, and decided.
This is not music.
It is not popular.
It is wrong.
It must not continue.”

Having had two record producers tell me more or less exactly that, I could have written it: "This is not music. It is not popular. It is wrong. We must prevent anyone from hearing it." The audience, however, definitely thought it was music, and they bought my CD’s to prove it.

I’m rambling, and I guess there’s a sort of conflict of interest here in reviewing my own concert, so I’ll leave it at that.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Open Mike, Tim Noah's Thumbnail Theater, Snohomish, WA, 7-16-2010

So the oft-asked question is, “What is an avant-gardist doing playing at an open mike?” The answer of course, is, “What are avant-gardists doing not playing at open mikes?” The music needs exposure. Open mikes are usually full of musicians playing various types of folk and traditional music (including acoustic versions of current and not too distant pop) but I’ve never known them to throw a classical, jazz, world music, or experimental musician off the stage (in fact they usually welcome these). …And I might add that most of the “traditional” musicians are really good.

I’ve been to the Thumbnail several times before. Though about a half-hour’s drive from where I live (if there’s no traffic), it’s well worth the slight inconvenience. It’s a quaint, intimate little performance space, with just enough room four or five people to play guitars or mandolins at one time, along with a baby grand piano and about twenty audience members. Or at least it was like this – on Friday I discovered (after not having been there for a couple of months) that it’s expanded. Now they’re holding it in the large hall of the same building (the building is a former church, so the large hall was the sanctuary). There’s room for about fifty people, and it seemed nearly full.

I came early to sign up (once or twice before I hadn’t gotten there on time and wound up playing last), then realized how things had changed. The baby-grand piano is still in the smaller room, with the upright in the large hall – and I got a well-deserved chew-out from the MC for stupidly trying to “prepare” the upright and nearly demolishing it in the process. I’d planned to do the one prepared piano piece that I was going to play in the upcoming “Discarded Poems” concert (see my previous two postings), but thought better of it at this point. The upright piano had no damage once I got it back together.

Wandering out in the hallway, saying hello to some of the regulars that I recognized, and wondering what to play instead of what I’d planned, I came across a Harry-Partch contrivance sitting unobtrusively in a corner. A round column of wood, with two doughtnut-shaped wooden resonators, strung with piano wires and held together by a crescent moon sounding board – it looked like something I’d like to give a try. There was a bow sitting on one of the resonators. I drew it across several of the strings. It made a thin, quiet, but not inharmonious sound. Obviously it wasn’t in tune, but that didn’t seem to matter. I got more interesting sounds out of it when I took out my percussion mallets and hit the strings in the manner of a dulcimer or cimbalom. Then on a whim I decided to try playing it during the open mike.

I asked the MC about it. He called it a rondolin, and said that there had been several of them made by someone there in Snohomish some years back. The historical society had the rest of them. And yes, I could take a stab at it. So two of us hauled it up on stage (“Don’t grab it by the resonators!” the MC shouted protectively – apparently it’s not as sturdy as it looks) and left it there in the corner until it was my turn to go on.

I played the piano (the prepared piano piece with an “unprepared” piano) and then tried the rondolin. I’d met a Celtic harp player, Francois Pernel, before the open mike, and asked him if he wanted to improvise something – and then, at the last minute, I called for anyone who wanted to play the djembe drum that they had on the stage too. This made an improvising band, and (if I do say myself) we did a pretty good job of ad-libbing on something that at least I’d never played before. The drum started, with a vaguely African beat (that morphed into reggae, and then hip-hop, at least once); Francois added rhythmic sounds on the harp (mostly untuned, behind the bridge) and I played the rondolin with the percussion mallets. The result sounded raw, “primitive”, and unrehearsed; but it also had odd shades of Harry Partch (of course), Lou Harrison, Foday Musa Suso, and Stravinsky. I made a recording of it, and (on playback) heard lots of maracas and shakers from the audience. They loved it, at least if the wild applause at the end is any indication (or maybe they were just glad that we’d finished).

Anyway, the rondolin turns out to be an interesting instrument, and the question looms: is there any way to get one into the StormSound Cycle? It might work, still untuned, for those atmospheric drone and percussion passages in some of the pieces.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Discarded Poems, Part Two (Concert Review: Seattle Composers' Salon, 7-2-2010)

We didn’t destroy the slab gongs on purpose this time. But next time we will.

The event was the bi-monthly Seattle Composers’ Salon. On the program were four pieces: an electronic work by Nathaniel Evans, two chamber pieces by Kam Morrill, and my piece “Discarded Poems”, with the afore-mentioned slab gongs.

Nathaniel’s electronic piece, done originally for a runway fashion show in Berlin, was both what one would expect and what one would not expect from fashion-show music. He explained before playing that one usually thinks of “pounding techno music” for a runway show, and that this wasn’t that. He also said that most of his compositions were in the “West-Coast-can’t-play-slow-enough” style, and that this wasn’t that either. He was right; it was neither, but in a way, it was both. Ambient sounds from Berlin and Seattle (voices, traffic, rain) faded in and out of massive electronic chords and an understated “electronica” beat. This was ambient techno music, yes, but in a way that was somehow not ambient techno music at all. It reminded me of Robert Rich or Carl Stone, the quieter moments of effects-laden 70’s rock (think Pink Floyd or the intro to Rush’s “Xanadu”), and, oddly, some of the more percussive music by Hovhaness or Lou Harrison (if I could imagine the electronic chords as played by acoustic instruments). There was also a polyrhythm and an accelerando in the middle, both unexpected in this genre but quite effective. Near the end, there was what sounded like a sample from Pauline Oliveros on accordion. A beautiful piece, all the more so because this is a style that usually shuns the rarified world of “new music”.

In contrast, the two pieces by Kam Morrill, both duets, were decidedly “classical” in nature. The first, a brief (1-minute) violin and piano piece, had the German title “Stück an Gerhard Samuel” and used the late composer’s name as the basis for its melodic material (the letters A-G were used as notes – though oddly it didn’t use the German system of assigning the sharps and flats letters like “H” and “S”). This melody was repeated in several quick variations, culminating in a flashy unison coda. As a composer of sprawling pieces like the StormSound Cycle, I’m amazed at how Kam condensed his musical material into such a small space.

Kam’s second piece, “Elegy”, for viola and piano, was a little longer (about seven minutes). He said after the performance that he didn’t compose according to any particular formula, though in this piece it was obvious that end was the same as the beginning but with the piano and viola parts switched. To me it didn’t sound particularly elegiac, with its broad melodies, open chords based on fourths and fifths, and little hints of Scriabin – I heard it as a mostly tranquil meditation, perhaps in a pastoral setting.

Both pieces were played by Kam on piano with Gwen Franz on the stringed instruments.

Now we get to those slab gongs. Neal Meyer and I played them as part of the “live” music for excerpts from my piece “Discarded Poems”, which is related to the StormSound Cycle. Like the StormSound pieces, it uses “live” instruments over prerecorded electronics, and, like the StormSound pieces, it’s on the longish side (in fact, Tom Baker, MC at the Composers’ Salons, had to fade in the prerecorded sound partway through to make the piece fit the 20-minute time limit). At the beginning, Neal and I played the room, using the walls, doors, windows, etc., as percussion; then we moved to the slab gongs.

Improvising over prerecorded sound also derived from slab gongs, at first we played resonant metallic sounds. Then Neal began to damp the reverberations with his hands, an interesting effect, and I joined in – watching as Neal’s slab gong (a precarious contraption even in the best of circumstances) suddenly began to destabilize. I continued to play mine, perhaps helplessly, as his wobbled, collapsed, and sort of melted itself sideways onto the stage. He continued to play. All hint of “beautiful” reverberation was gone; after another minute I joined in by deliberately knocking mine over and scattering the pieces. Now we both hammered on the remaining metal slabs, making quite a racket – but it worked so well with the piece that we decided to do it next time we play it. “Discarded Poems” is not about destruction or death, but it is about moving from the “here and now” into the realm of the eternal, discarding worldly things along the way. Hence, destroying the slab gongs works perfectly (in the manner of the poems that later get “discarded” as metal pipes rolled across the floor).

In the last section we played “real” instruments (guitar and piano), not in the conventional way, but in a ringing style over a microtonal drone – a sound that is supposed to both break away from and fulfill the “noise” that we made earlier. Whether this works or not, I’ll leave up to the listener. I can say, however, that two sounds were very beautiful to my ear: jewel-like bell-tones from Neal’s prepared guitar (with paper clips inserted among the strings) and a sliding overtone effect on the piano strings that I adapted (not stole exactly) from Gust Burns.

Next performance of “Discarded Poems” (complete this time):

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

Also on the program: an excerpt from Neal’s “Gradus: for Tesla, Fux, and Milo the Wrestler”, a vast supra-universal-length study of all the possible combinations of notes on the piano; a couple of shorter, more conventionally melodic, piano pieces by me (probably one with percussion played from the piano); and an improvised set (guitar and piano).