Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Getting Ready for the Snohomish Thumbnail Concert, part one

Went over to the music building at Seattle Pacific University to meet Wayne Lovegrove and practice for the upcoming concert at Tim Noah’s Thumbnail Theater in Snohomish. While we were waiting for the large classroom with the grand piano to become available, we discovered an anomaly in a practice room. SPU has a baby grand piano that’s painted white (“This is the Liberace room,” quipped Wayne) but unlike any other painted piano I’ve tried, it still sounds good.

Wayne and I had an e-mail correspondence going concerning the music we’re going to play. I’d sent him an MP3 of “…into all the world…”, a piece I’d written that implies a kind of world fusion. The piano part is basically the same melody, first played as parallel chords (in the manner of Debussy or Satie) and then four times in the style of the Javanese gamelan (with a gong-cycle played from the piano). It’s been mistaken for something by Lou Harrison, though I wasn’t trying to copy him exactly. I recorded it once about ten years ago in California, with Peter Valsamis and Tom Nunn improvising percussion parts.

I've been listening to "Into All The World" repeatedly to develop a feel for what kind of guitar part would fit. It's such a simple, self-contained melody that subsists on it's own lack of ornamentation that I'm not sure any conventional guitar part or improv won't detract from it. The percussion parts on the recording fit precisely because they're not melodic. I'll try to play actual guitar against the track today and let you know how it goes. Perhaps something with some delay effects?

Wayne wrote that a couple of days ago, but then, yesterday (before the practice):

I think I've found a very nice way to fit a guitar part to "Into All The World", so this is just a note to give you an opportunity to keep that tune in your mind for our meeting tonight. The guitar part is textural, rhythmic, and somewhat percussive (filling the roles of the percussion and gently melodic mallet work on the recording), so it allows the simple piano melody to remain clear while providing a quite rich accompaniment that both contrasts with and complements the piano part. Hopefully!

So I was looking forward to the practice, and I was not disappointed. The guitar part he’d added was beautiful; rippling waves of sound against the piano’s gamelan sounds. However, when we played some other pieces, it seemed to me to be the least interesting of them – mainly because the others were phenomenal. I tried adding a part to Wayne’s piece “Here and There”. I’d never heard it before, but found that it lent itself easily to improvising over; I added a hammer dulcimer part at the beginning, moved over to the piano for a faster part in the middle (against Wayne’s rapid flurries of notes at that point) and then, at the end, an epiphany: another melody can be played contrapuntally against the de capo of Wayne’s guitar part. I improvised it this first time (or actually first two times; I tried to record the result but found that I’d left the recorder on “pause” for the first time through – stupid, stupid!). I’ll probably try to come up with a composed melody for the concert.

We also tried “Oceanic Music”. This is one of my pieces, but it’s really more of a concept than a composition. The “crywire”, a piano modification of my own invention, is not entirely controllable – so any performance with it (including “Oceanic Music”) must be improvised. No matter. I’ve recorded it twice before, once with my own hammer dulcimer over the top (available on my CD “Music from Thousand Oaks”), and once, in a much more atonal/experimental version, with Tom Nunn playing a homemade bowed-percussion instrument called the “space plate” (on my CD “Duets and Trios”, not currently available). I like both of those versions, despite their completely opposite aesthetics; in Wayne’s rendering, the piece will take on its beautiful third form. He added sparse sprinklings of guitar (reminiscent of Ralph Towner) in a strange and resonant low tuning, and gentle percussion from the body of the instrument.

So it looks like we’re going to do “Here and There”, “Oceanic Music” (the first time I’ll have played the latter in concert) along with two solo pieces by Wayne. Also on the program: Two solo piano pieces by Keith Eisenbrey (including his “economical panneumiad” called N), a solo piano piece by Neal Meyer, one of the StormSound pieces (with me on piano), and a set of improvisations (by Keith, Neal, and myself) over prerecorded “compositions” that Keith and I are working on specifically for this concert. In the latter set I’ll be playing the hammer dulcimer, the rondolin, the slab-gongs (maybe) and probably some other miscellaneous and odd contraptions.

The concert, billed as “An Evening of Ambient and Experimental Music”, will be on Thursday, October 14th, 7:30 PM, at Tim Noah’s Thumbnail Theater, 1211 4th Street, Snohomish, WA 98290. $10.00 admission. It will run about two hours, including the intermission.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

First “New Music in the Library” Concert: Broadview Public Library, September 26th, 2010

Waaaa!! Nobody showed up for this "open mike"! No other musicians, no audience. Also, the advertisement had been inexplicably removed from the library bulletin board some time during the week (none of the librarians knew who had taken it down). As a “new music” artist, this is the type of apathy I expect from record producers and radio stations – but I’ve never seen it in musicians or (non-)audiences. Probably the short notice (and disappearing ad) scuttled it. I’ll have to see what happens with the next two of these concerts (I may have to sign up for Twitter before then).

The day was not a total loss musically. I managed to play a twenty-minute solo improvisation, on hammer dulcimer with prerecorded electronics (a variant of one of the StormSound pieces). I used some of George Crumb’s piano techniques on the dulcimer, though the piece is generally in a sparse style reminiscent of Gust Burns' "silent" music. I recorded it; it is not a professional recording by any means, but I’ll offer it free for anyone who wants to hear it. Write to me at and I’ll send you a copy.

Concert Review: Foday Musa Suso, Chapel Performance Space at Good Shepherd Center, 9/24/2010

Foday Musa Suso with the kora; a picture from his website.

I described the Steve Peters installation at Jack Straw as a “profoundly meditative soundspace”; this was another. Kora music is relaxing, delicate, sweet, and gently rocking. It has a way, as one audience member sated after the concert, of “being good for listening for long periods of time, and you don’t care about time.”

The kora is somewhere between a harp and a lute. That is, the 21 strings are arranged like those of a double harp (one set for each hand), but they’re attached to a long neck and large gourd resonator – giving the appearance of a giant lute (the Renaissance theorbo comes to mind). The strings are wound around the neck by means of leather thongs; the tuning (which is approximate; more intuitive than mathematical) is done by sliding these thongs up and down a millimeter or two.

This much I knew. This was, however, my first chance to hear an entire concert on this beautiful instrument (the only other time I’d heard it “live” was a short set at an open mike in California).

When I walked into the performance space, I was greeted by the quiet sounds of an old Brian Eno and John Hassell CD, vaguely African in its ambience. Random bits of audience conversation drifted by: “I met the girl he’s dating…” “I just thought I’d come by to wish you a happy birthday…” “I think that zoo is the saddest one I’ve seen; the tiger is emaciated and the birds are all losing their feathers because they’re nervous…” The stage was set with a chair, a mike, a stand for the kora, and some electronic equipment, all on a hand-woven African rug that had stripes of brown, beige and tan triangle-within-triangle patterns vaguely reminiscent of Navajo weaving.

Steve Peters introduced Mr Suso, who then came on stage with his wildly decorated kora (the back of the instrument, which faced the audience, had a bull’s-eye star within star pattern in red, white, black, yellow, and green, with Mr. Suso’s website address in bold letters spelled out around the outside: He started to play. The pattern on the instrument was much “louder” than the music, but its rhythmic patterning was quite appropriate.

Mr. Suso played ten pieces. Eight of them were his own compositions. Rather than just playing the kora “straight”, he used electronics: fuzz pedals, reverb, and loops; he also played the strings with many different plucking techniques (all with his thumbs!) and tapped on the body of the instrument (or on the “handles”) to produce a drum-like sound. Many of the compositions (both his own pieces and the traditional ones) consist mostly of repeated patterns that the performer improvises over – a thicker texture could be achieved by looping. There was no discernable difference in “style” between the traditional pieces and the new compositions (with one exception, see below…). Both were modal, and began with a melodic introduction, set up an ostinato based on some fragments of the introduction (with more, related, melodic material above) and went into an extended coda that dropped the repeated pattern but in some cases seemed almost to start up a new pattern before ending. There was a complex relationship between the repeated accompaniment and the melodic fragments above: sometimes the phrases echoed one another, sometimes they harmonized; more than once they were in a two-against-three rhythm. Some faulty electronics detracted from the first few songs (there was distortion where it wasn’t wanted) but this was fixed and the rest of the concert went smoothly.

The piece called "Spring Waterfall" was the one notable exception in “style". Here, there was no fragmented introduction, and the repeated “loop” was clearly based on minimalist arpeggios, varied in rhythm, in the manner of Philip Glass (who is a personal friend of Mr. Suso’s, and collaborator for music). This was similar to the piece “Morning Light” on Mr. Suso’s CD “The Dream Time”, but the rest of the composition was structured much like the others.

My description makes the music sound monotonous. It was not. The change-within-repetition was a strength of the music, and it made one listen closer: for nuances, for details, for minute changes in timbre and rhythm and color. In that close listening, one could escape into another world, a world where time was suspended, at least for the duration of the concert. By the end, the audience was thoroughly entranced by the gentle rhythm (if the finger-snapping scattered here and there is any indication) and the evening closed magically.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

"New Music in the Library" Concert Updates

This series of concerts will be called (for now) “New Music in the Library”. If the series continues, there will eventually be other types of New Music featured, but these first three are for free improvisation. Basically they’re open mikes, though without the mike – so as one audience member at the Eye Music concert last Friday said, they’re “open mikelesses”. If you do free improvisation, bring your instrument. We’ll do duets or trios (probably put together on the spot), with 10-15 minutes per group (depending on how many are there).

Here are the details:

Saturday, September 25th, from 3:00 to 5:00 PM
Broadview Public Library
12755 Greenwood Ave. N, Seattle, WA

Saturday, October 23rd, from 3:00 to 5:00 PM
Broadview Public Library
12755 Greenwood Ave. N, Seattle, WA

Wednesday, October 27th, from 7:00 to 8:30 PM
Lynnwood Public Library
19200 44th Ave W, Lynnwood, WA

And again, here are the “rules” (sorry, there have to be some rules, even in free improvisation)
1. The concert will be in the meeting room to the side of the library foyer, and the library will be open – so the music must be of a quiet nature (not loud enough to disturb people using the main part of the library).
2. Get there early to set up. We will take a break about halfway through, but don’t want too many musicians setting up during the break (and none trying to set up while others are playing!).
3. There is no piano or sound system.
4. There will be some traffic noise from outside, so pieces that interact with the sound environment are good.
5. The concerts are free and open to all. They are not paid gigs.
6. The meeting rooms hold about 25 audience members plus musicians (that’s a pretty rough estimate; we might be able to have a few more).

So that’s that. See you there!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Concert Review: Eye Music, Chapel Performance Space at Good Shepherd Center, 9/17/2010

The Stage Set-Up: piano (lid closed), moon-lute, guitar, kaen, wad of aluminum foil, sticks, plastic cups, Celtic harp (prepared), Indian harmonium, another guitar, Tibetan bells, another kaen, wooden slats on a table, wok, more sticks, wires, flute, plastic bottle, lnaw, sax, stones, pie plates, light bulb, book in French, European harmonium, wooden toys, whiskey bottle (glass), auto horn, seashells, cello, more stones, slabs of ice frozen onto a string and suspended above a metal mixing bowl with a mike attached.

The Band:
(photograph by Rachael Lanzillotta, from the Eye Music website

The Music:
1. “Shuffle” by Alison Knowles
Shuffle around the performance space
Shoooop shooop shuffle (hush) drink from a thermos shoooop

2. “Drip Music” by George Brecht
Amplified water drips drip drop drip drip splat!
Amplified ice melting (almost melodic)
Dripping water from eyedroppers, cups, syringes, watering can, folded up wet towel, into plastic tub, wok, wad of crinkled foil
…too long (getting bored)… (snoring sound from closing window)
kerplunk splash drip drip plink plunk

3. “Instruction” by George Brecht
(Turn down the audience lights)
Bring old radio (1950’s) on a stand, place in front of stage, walk away
Another player walks up, bows, gingerly touches (investigates) radio, turns it on briefly (two bursts of static), bows, walks away
Retrieve radio and stand

4. “Piece for any number of vocalists” by Alison Knowles
(To the audience) “Hum any song that resonates in your entire body.”
He conducted us humming. (The first song that occurred to me was the guitar riff from “Carry On Wayward Son” by Kansas.)

5. “Newspaper Event” by Alison Knowles
(audience still humming)
Players read newspapers in various European languages (Italian, English, German, French)…conducted for volume & intensity.
“Money saving tips!” “Story about acid attack is…” “Louder! Louder!”

6. “Instruction” by George Brecht
Bring old radio (1960’s) on a stand, place in front of stage, walk away
Another player walks up, bows, gingerly touches (investigates) radio, turns it on briefly (burst of static), walks away with radio
Retrieve stand

7. “C/T Trace” by Robert Watts
Try to catch plastic coin pouch with plastic monkey toy. It falls onto a music stand when not caught.

8. “For La Monte Young” by Emmett Williams
(Still trying to catch coin pouch)
“Excuse me, is La Monte Young in the audience?”
(to one audience member) “Are you La Monte Young?”
(answer) “I used to be.”
(reply) “Congradulations!”

9. “Piano Piece for David Tudor #2” by La Monte Young
Inspect the sides of the piano keyboard keep looking at lid
(ice continues to drip)
thump thump rattle creak !
Move piano from side to side clunk stomp on the floor !
Blow dust off of the piano lid (again) one note! Another (let ring)!
Look inside piano
(During the intermission I asked what the instructions actually were. The pianist said that he was supposed to close the piano lid without making any sound whatsoever. Any other sounds may be made during this process.)

10. “Boundary Music” by Mieko Shiami
All musicians (seven) on stage. (Strong perfume drifts by.)
Flute overtones. Quiet. Cello strum. Quiet. Bowed Celtic harp. Quiet. Sounds blend into a barely-perfectible drone. Rattle seed pod. Deep reverberations (electronic?) – fade in and out. Shake long hair to make sound(!)
Snap! Harmonic drones. Crack. All stop, look around.

11. “South no. 3 (Malika)” by Takehisa Kosugi
ssssssssssssssssss (groan) owwwww (squeal) ooohhhhhhh (sing) thhhhhh
s! ow! oo! (frown) thp! ssssssouuuth
soouuuth southhhh (slobber) thhhhhhh sssss (dry howl) thhhhp!
s ow oo south s – ow – oo – th サー アオー ウー thー

12. “Constellation no. 4” by Dick Higgins
Conduct. One loud, brief, explosion/squawk from all instruments.

13. “Flute Solo” by George Brecht
Show flute to audience, take flute apart, put flute back together, bow.

14. “Instruction” by George Brecht
Hurry! Run! Bring old radio (1970’s) on a stand, place in front of stage, run away
Another player stomps up, prepares to karate chop radio, hurriedly switches radio on and off (kkhhh!) instead
Stomp! Stomp! (Ice in bowl echoes.) Walks away.
Retrieve radio and stand (stomp stomp).

15. “Organic Music” by Takehisa Kosugi
2 kaens
breathy sound from sax
comical/obscene sound from balloons
microtonal drone
blow across bottle whooooooo

16. “96” by Clifford Burke
Huge hand gestures with paint created a giant sheet of music; this was cut apart into 96 notebook-paper sized cards. These were distributed among the players (and three were put on a music stand facing the audience).
pluck scrape flute flutter crescendo chaos glissando scatter regroup hummm whistle whoosh fwump! clatter feedback whine plucked cello cadenza mwooom mwooom mwooom (electronic) white noise at end
Rearranged, unarranged, disarranged
In the style (more or less) or Anthony Braxton

17. “Looking North” by Christian Wolff
Drone (airplane? No!) Irregular drumming, plucking on Celtic harp. Harmoniums and Tibetan bells create beautiful drone. Stops. Electric bass sounds, then flute cadenza (Japanese mode). Silence. Faster electronic thumps (rhythmic) – mournful cello. Microtonal.
(After the concert I asked the flautist if the flute cadenza had in fact been based on a Japanese mode. She said yes and showed me a small Japanese flute.
“It looks nothing like a shakuhachi,” I commented.
“It’s easier to play,” she replied.
“That’s good!” And I recounted my brief encounter with the shakuhachi, some twenty years ago. The first time I tried it, I got it to hum a nice sustained note. Any time after that, I couldn’t get it to make any sound at all.

18. “Sticks” by Christian Wolff
blow on sticks (fftt) clatter (rolling sticks in hand) clunk of sticks together
drop sticks on floor rub sticks on floor tie sticks together, untie
wooden slabs with resonators (like marimba)
drop sticks on guitar strings and cello strings
break sticks (snap!) Bow across ends of stick (keeeeee!) TLACK!
rub sticks together, use floor as resonator

19. “Play” by Christian Wolff
Short plucks, scrapes, becomes longer drone. Rubbing strings of Celtic harp with Popsicle stick produces static-like schchchchssschch!
Drone becomes dissonant, tense. One player blows up a balloon. He continues to blow it up. And he continues to blow it up. Chord is now unbearably tense! Will he pop the balloon!?
No. He lets it go, flying aimlessly into the air. Music stops.
(This piece seemed to comment on the several meanings of the verb “to play”: play an instrument, play a game, play with toys, play with someone’s expectations; and perhaps the entire piece could be thought of as performing an [abstract] play.)

20. “Stones” by Christian Wolff
Rub stones together on moon lute, and on floor
Stone wind chimes
Drop stones on floor
Roll round stone (like grapefruit) around on floor
Bow stones (high squeals and squeaks) – birdlike, avian
(Third bowed stone made no sound)
Metrical clicks, marimba-like tones.

So that was the concert, actually more of what used to be called a “happening”. Most of these were performance pieces based on text scores (i.e. instructions) rather than written “music” in the usual sense, and all except the Clifford Burke piece dated from the late 1950’s to the early 1970’s. (The Clifford Burke piece was written by the performer of the saxophone, and was receiving its first concert performance.)

After the concert I noticed the Celtic harp player using an e-bow to produce drones from his instrument. “Just yesterday, a clerk at Guitar Center in Lynnwood told me that that was impossible!” I told him, truthfully. “He said the sound made by an e-bow on an acoustic instrument is too quiet to be heard.”

He shrugged, “It works on any instrument that has the right kind of strings.”

A few minutes later I got to talking to another audience member about some other experimental music concerts I’d seen, including the one with the contrabass clarinet and electronics at the gallery on Capital Hill.

“When was that?” He asked.

“About a month ago.”

“…Contrabass clarinet and electronics?”


“That was me.” He was Paul Hoskin, whom I’d seen with Jesse Kudler, Gust Burns, Chandan Narayan, and others (see my August 28th posting).

My overview of the whole thing: fun music, though most of it probably wouldn’t work in recorded form – hence the name of the band, “Eye Music”. One has to see it to hear it. (Of course, the name also comes from the fact that they do "graphic scores" more than traditionally notated music.)

Two More Upcoming Concerts

Things have gone crazy in this music thing… Yesterday the Broadview Library (12755 Greenwood Ave. N, Seattle, WA) called me and said that they’d okayed two more “Avant-Garde in the Library” concerts:

Saturday, September 25th, from 3:00 to 5:00 PM
Saturday, October 23rd, from 3:00 to 5:00 PM

Their phone number is 206-684-7519.

These concerts will be like those at the Lynnwood Library – (see my previous posting) – and I’ve pretty much decided to run all three of them like an “open mikeless” as an audience member at the Eye Music concert on Friday said (see my next posting) – an open mike without a mike. If you do free improvisation, show up and bring an instrument. See the Lynnwood Library concert to see the procedure, etc.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Two Upcoming Concerts – both in October

1. Thursday, October 14th, 7:30 PM in the Gold Room at Tim Noah’s Thumbnail Theater, 1211 4th Street, Snohomish, WA 98290. $10.00 admission. I’ll be joined by Keith Eisenbrey (piano), Neal Meyer (piano and guitar), and possibly Wayne Lovegrove (guitar). We’ll play some of the StormSound pieces (at least two of them), a couple of excerpts from “Discarded Poems”, some solo work, and possibly a new set of four electro-acoustic works made specifically for this concert by Keith and me. The slab-gongs will be set up, though I don’t know yet if we’ll be able to obliterate them again. …And I’ll be doing some free-improv on the hammer dulcimer and maybe give the rondolin another spin…

2. Calling Improvisers! (and people who want to come and listen)

The first of what might be a series of "Avant-Garde in the Library" concerts is scheduled for Wednesday, October 27th, from 7:00 to 8:30 PM at the Lynnwood Public Library, 19200 44th Ave W, Lynnwood. This is not a paid concert, but it will give improvisers a chance to play for some who might have never heard this music before. It's free and open to the public.

How the concert will be run: improvised sets, 10-15 minutes each, with duos or trios (depending on how many musicians show up). Some may get to play twice, again, depending on who's there.

1. The concert will be in the meeting room to the side of the library foyer. It holds about 25 audience members plus musicians.
2. There is no piano or sound system.
3. The music must be of a quiet nature (not loud enough to disturb people using the main part of the library).
4. There will be some traffic noise from outside, so pieces that interact with the sound environment are good.
5. Can somebody think of a better title for this proposed series than "Avant-Garde in the Library"?

Again, I’ll do one or more of the StormSound pieces (ones that don’t use a piano), some free-improv on the hammer dulcimer, and I may bring the Lao mountain harp out of storage (I used to use it at open mikes years ago in California…)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Sound Installation Review: “Chamber Music 8: Particles/Waves” by Steve Peters; Jack Straw New Media Gallery, Seattle

An entry in a guest book in the gallery foyer described this music as “delicate splatters”. And that’s what it is: delicate splatters of sound, and also metaphorically of light.

When you first walk in, it seems that there is nothing in the room (more on that idea later!). The walls are bare white. There are no pictures in the gallery. The ceiling lights are obscured but a white sheet (in fact, in the daytime when I went, they were not even lit). It is a blank white space with a round seat in the middle.

One becomes aware of the sounds. There are indeed delicate “splatters” of sound, single resonant notes or dots (which once when I was there spontaneously formed themselves into a melody). There are deep reverberating drones that enter one’s consciousness and cross-fade into other drones, sometimes below the threshold of hearing. There are occasional high squeals and sighs that would sound like auto brakes screeching, were they not so quieting.

Those high squeals probably were, in fact, originally derived from auto brakes. The sounds of this installation were made “from thin air”, that is, from the resonances of rooms in the gallery itself (think Alvin Lucier’s “I Am Sitting In A Room”) – and by extension, the sounds that have entered the room from elsewhere. I don’t know the details of the process by which they were then turned into this music – but the result is a set of sixteen continuous loops of sound (of different lengths) that are broadcast quietly by sixteen speakers placed around the gallery room floor and ceiling. Since these sounds were drawn from the room, they cause the room to echo in return; and they also blend with the sounds outside the room (which would have been filtered by the walls of the room when they were recorded) – in this case, the traffic sounds outside become part of the composition (I’ve written about that phenomenon in this blog before) and a commentary on the recorded sounds.

It is a profoundly meditative sound-space. I sat there and listened for about twenty minutes, then lay down on the round seat for another half-hour, listening still. I would have liked to have stayed longer. I drew this "picture" while listening, with the thicker lines indicating the deeper drones.

I started thinking about the nature of what I was hearing. These sounds are drawn from “nothing”. Yet they are not nothing. They are drawn from the reverberations of the room(s) in which they were recorded. Reverberations are not “nothing”. These sounds are drawn from empty space, but empty space (on earth) is full of air, and even a vacuum is full of quantum particles that continuously appear and disappear. Like the other works in Mr. Peters’ “Chamber Music” series, this is a (probably intentional) negation of the ideas of nothingness and emptiness – I’m also reminded of John Cage, who eloquently and beautifully disproved randomness by writing “random” music that is not random at all. (I realize that some would consider this a misinterpretation of Cage’s work – but I’m speaking of the results of his music and the “mood” and feeling that it produces, not the concepts behind the music itself.) Morton Feldman also comes to mind, and the “color field” paintings of Mark Rothko – because the sounds of Mr. Peters’ installation also can be interpreted as delicate splatters and washes of color in a blank expanse.

Another graphic using the same principle of pulling design from “nothing” – and again, there is no “nothing” here…

“The Jack Straw New Media Gallery, located in Seattle's University District at Jack Straw Productions, opened in 1999 to support artists working with visual and installation art, with an emphasis on sound.” – Jack Straw website. “Chamber Music 8: Particles/Waves” will run until November 12, 2010.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Open Mike, Tim Noah's Thumbnail Theater, Snohomish, WA, 9-10-2010

Played at the open mike again last night – though due to a snafu in getting there, I wound up playing last (there were still enough people in the audience to be worth it)… I also tentatively scheduled a concert (not an open mike) for Thursday evening, October 14th. More on that as the time approaches.

Some highlights of this open mike:

Julio’s screaming of 20-something angst over technically impressive guitar work – a fusion of speed-metal and flamenco. This is what Al Di Meloa might do if he played in a punk rock band. One of the songs had the repeated refrain “Let it go,” which in itself wouldn’t be so interesting if he hadn’t somehow fused his voice and the guitar into a single percussive instrument right at the key point.

Jan’s rendition of “Summertime” in a very beautiful classic jazz-vocal style.

Marco’s jazz piano – he managed to mix Thelonious Monk and Rachmaninov into one style for an instrumental rendition of “Somewhere over the Rainbow” with lots of neo-Romantic runs and intentional “clunkers” hit at exactly the right time. His second piece was “in the style of a piano roll” and it did, in fact, sound like a player piano.

Greg’s humorous, high-energy Gospel song with a lot of fast swing guitar – none of those adjectives there need contradict each other.

As I’ve said before, this is one of the best open mikes north of Seattle. That’s me there with the mike in my face, playing the rondolin (see my July 19th and August 28th postings) and Vance on the djembe, though this picture was taken last month.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

StormSound Bugs

This posting probably won’t be that interesting except to people who are really fascinated by the process of composition itself. Anyone else may want to skip to my next posting, coming, well, I don’t know when yet…

Though it seems like a long way off, May 21st 2011 (the tentative date of the performance of the entire StormSound Cycle) is approaching fairly rapidly. Before even worrying about that, there are still some bugs that need to be worked out in the music itself.

One of these is what to do with “Malacandra”, (#12 in the Cycle). The third of a set of essentially drone pieces for prerecorded sounds and solo percussion, it needs to be modal and relatively melodic, but still open-ended as the others are. I’ve somewhat decided on a series of motives without meter, which the performer fleshes out into a kind of melody – but it needs to be longer than the other moments of this type in the Cycle. Vibraphone will be the best instrument for this.

Another problem is the noisiest piece – the "Day Signals" (#19 in the set). This is the climax, describing a day in the life of that grand spoiler of nature, Homo sapiens. Here, the prerecorded nature sounds morph into traffic and hints of warfare. The piano part requires virtuosity quite beyond my skill. David Mesler has said he'd take a look at it, but the score is far from complete at this point. I think there will be open-ended variations on Takemitsu’s “For Away” (always one of my favorite piano pieces), played in the much louder, more staccato, “free-jazz” style of Stockhausen’s Klavierstück X. The end of the piece resolves into the mystical C-chord that haunts much of the Cycle, and here the piano part could give way to a more or less conventional jazz piece (though it will “freak out” at the end, in contrast to the – now calm – prerecorded sound).

Earlier in the Cycle comes the “Night Signals” (#14 in the set). I’ve played this before as a piano piece with Dean Moore on gongs – but it would work better as originally conceived, for 4 recorders and percussion. (There are too many long piano pieces in the Cycle otherwise, and the recorders blend better with the prerecorded animal sounds.) However, the recorders have, in the past, been a difficulty. I took a shorter piece based on material from the Cycle to a recorder group (of which my Dad is a member) – they did well on the Canon (a short, traditionally notated composition, and not part of the Cycle) but they fell apart when they got to a free improvisation on a graphic score (“Points and Curves in a Silence that is not Silent”). This piece was only seven minutes long – the hour-long “Night Signals” would be much harder.

With that in mind, I reworked a shorter recorder piece based on the last part of the Cycle, “Consort of Voices”. Here, I used the same melody-without-meter that I’d used for “Phase Transition” (see my 9/1/2010 posting) and an earlier version of part of the Cycle in concert (with Stuart Dempster and Neal Meyer). I took the resulting score over to my Dad’s place to have looked at by the recorder group – and at least some of them seemed enthusiastic (though they didn’t get a chance to try to play it). They do, however, want to (possibly) perform it and (certainly) the Canon in a Composers’ Salon sometime (either in November or January) so I’ll see where that goes.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Concert Review: Composers’ Salon 9-3-2010, Chapel Performance Space at Good Shepherd Center, Seattle

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

Tom Baker, the organizer and MC of the Salons, had been on the program for the previous Salon (in July), but that piece had been for a deconstructed piano (a project he’d worked on with some other musicians) and the instrument itself had proved problematic in moving to the chapel. His piece had, therefore, not been played (he didn’t play at all). When I saw his name on the list for composers at this Salon, I expected that a solution had been found and they were going to play it this time. I was wrong. Tom told me that it would be some months before they’ll be able to perform that piece at the Salon. Instead, he (Tom, on electric guitar) and Jesse Canterbury (clarinet) played an untitled piece that “explored the boundaries between composition and improvisation”.

Exploring the boundaries between composition and improvisation has, of course, been a major part of jazz since its beginnings (indeed, Jesse and Tom warmed up before the salon by playing a 30-second jazz improvisation) but this piece took it in a different direction. In a lengthy discussion of the procedure (after playing), Tom mentioned that there were sections where the pitches were given but not the duration or any ornamentation, resulting in a kind of heterophony. (An audience member asked if there was a part in the score where it says, for example, “Do something weird with trills”? The answer was no.) The piece began with an introduction made with circular breathing of overtones on the clarinet (there was also a long discussion afterwards about how to do this technique). Then there were two sections of roughly equal duration. In the first, modal melodic fragments came and went over a drone/loop (created with a guitar effects box); the second was sparser and contained longer developments of the melodic material, now augmented and/or diminished in turn to sound slightly atonal – played in the heterophonic style I mentioned above. This second section reminded me a lot of the guitar music of Takemitsu, with its nods to jazz and “popular” music within a quite different framework. Altogether very beautiful, peaceful, and a little nostalgic – a good piece to begin a concert in the evening of the fading days of summer.

Doug Palmer’s “Domestic Disturbance”, for violin and piano, was the second piece on the concert. Doug explained that it told the story of a “young girl who’s had a life-threatening experience – her boyfriend hasn’t texted her in over 15 minutes…!” She and her father argue, and in the end she “just drifts off into a reverie”. A humorous program, and the piece was light-hearted to match. Doug didn’t specify that the teenaged girl was represented by the violin (and the father by the piano) but it seemed that this was the case. The violin part were capricious, flighty, “talkative”, but capable of serious thought anyway; the piano part seemed capable of nothing but serious thought. The violin played two longer, slower, cadenzas – the last was microtonal and “drifted off into a reverie”. The sections where the two instruments “argued” contained much of the harmonic language of Aaron Copland, and I realized that this was certainly an argument that took place in the United States. Marjorie Kransberg-Talvi ( played the violin and David Mesler played the piano, both beautifully.

Two longer piano pieces, played by their composers, rounded out the concert.

David Mesler, already at the piano, first played his memorial piece for the late George Shangrow. The piece did not try to sound elegiac or funereal, nor did it attempt to describe Shangrow’s “ebullient personality”, according to David. Rather it was one of a long series of pieces that take names, change their letters to numbers, put them through mathematical permutations according to Pythagorean numerology, and change the resulting numbers into notes – which David then uses as the basis for a composition. This sort of alternate serialism resulted in, in this case, a 13-minute piano allegro-fantasy with hints of Chopin and Debussy. The multiple layers of quick notes (of which nearly the whole piece consisted) were, in themselves, cheery, and they did describe an ebullient personality. Even more interestingly, when these arabesques and filigrees of notes collided, they often resulted in minor tonalities (traditionally elegiac), which David let ring before beginning the next group. The piece ended with an extended coda on an open-fifth against a minor sixth (think of the characteristic “orange note” – opposite of a blue note – in the Mahler 7th), and in the end was resolutely minor, so it also sounded, despite its quick pace, like a memorial piece as well. David’s considerable piano virtuosity added to both the technique and the expressiveness of the piece. (George Shangrow, a well-known Seattle musician and music director, was killed in a car accident on July 31st.)

Lastly, Keith Eisenbrey played his “Sonata Liebeslied”. I’ve reviewed this piece before on this blog, so I won’t talk about it at length here (see my posting for July 12, 2010). It was, however, interesting to hear this piece again, because Keith played it differently. He emphasized the dissonance and the clatter of the piano’s extreme range and dynamics, de-emphasized the long delay and ringing that a piano can be made to do, and somehow reformatted it so that the climax was in the middle and the second half was a gradual release from the tension (in the previous performance, all the tension had built up to a climax near the end). Was it, then, the same piece? I’m certain that it was; the notes were the same, the harmonies were the same, the overall development was the same. (I can’t be certain if it was, in fact, note-for-note identical, though I’m certain it was very close, since the whole piece is written in conventional notation.) It was merely Keith’s playing that made it different. The work does not involve improvisation in any normal sense, but maybe it did in this case because Keith was relying on the context of the piece (different from when he’d played it previously) to decide how to play. Thus, the question that began the Salon is left open: what is the boundary between composition and improvisation?

Friday, September 3, 2010

Avant-Garde in the Library?

The last couple of times I’ve been to the public library, I’ve noticed that there are meetings and art shows in the adjoining side rooms. It occurred to me that it might be possible to give a concert in there too, as long as the music is not loud enough to disturb the patrons in the main part of the building. I asked about it. The librarian mentioned that it might be possible, as long as the concert was free and open to anyone. She gave me a form to fill out.

Performing in such a concert would not be for commercial purposes anyway, but for the promotion of one or more genres of music. I’m reminded of the Shakespeare in the Park series of plays – those were begun (so I’ve heard) because actors in theater groups were tired of the boring “classical” old-fogy image that Shakespeare had, and they wanted to shed that baggage. Avant-garde music could be another example – but with a difference. It doesn’t have a boring “classical” old-fogy image to shake off. It doesn’t have any image at all. To a lot of people, it simply doesn’t exist.

Case in point: after hearing some excerpts from the StormSound Cycle at a concert I did with Stuart Dempster, Mary Kantor, Neal Meyer, and Dean Moore a couple of years ago, someone described my music as “very different”. I’ve heard the same comment about Takemitsu, Phill Niblock, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. But different from what? To me, my music is rather ordinary, and I wish I could be as inventive as those other three that I just mentioned. It only sounded “different” because it was unfamiliar. To someone who’s never had sushi, an ebi-roll is certainly “different”.

So I play at open mikes, and I’ll see if I can do some concerts at the libraries. I’ve already got a couple of others interested. I’ll keep anyone reading this posted on what the library staff decides about doing the concerts, and when and where they will be. In the meantime, I’m going to a Seattle Composers’ Salon concert this evening, and I’ll ask some there if they’d like to join in (I’ll review that concert on this blog too…).

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Free Music: This is for those interested in actually hearing some of the StormSound Cycle.

I’ve just finished putting together a 4-CD compilation of some of my experimental pieces. Called “Abstracts”, it includes nine of the StormSound pieces – some of these with the “live” instrumental parts played on top, some without. (All of the “StormSound” pieces are for “live” instrumental parts realizing graphic scores over prerecorded electronic material.) The longest of these is the hour-long “Spherics”.

I haven’t had “Abstracts” printed up yet. However, I’m offering a chance to hear a couple of tracks. Write to me at and I’ll send you two tracks. This is not a scam – I won’t try to steal any of your information.

The two pieces:

“Winds of the Sun”
This is a computer-processed drone improvisation. Over a synthesized drone, the pipe organ plays a fragment of “Amazing Grace”, slowed and overlapped to produce chords. The slower vibrations are a natural part of the sound, made in some cases by opening stops part way. The sound was computer-processed to emphasize the timbre. I then added another (faster) vibration – a birdcall slowed 1000 times. The result should suggest how the solar wind would sound, if we could hear it.

Excerpt from “Phase Transition / Convergence”
Though this sounds like an amiable bit of piano “noodling”, it is actually computer music. The piano plays two realizations of the same graphic score, a given series of pitches of a melody without meter. These are then multi-tracked by computer according to a strict mathematical time sequence (which will not be notable in this brief excerpt). This is not one of the “StormSound” pieces, though I use the same technique in the much longer and more developed “Song from Deep Silence”, the sixteenth piece in the Cycle and the beginning of its climax.

Hope you enjoy these!