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):
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).