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)

Friday, October 22, 2010

"New Music in the Library" Free-Improv Concerts

Just a reminder, to anyone following this, about the upcoming "New Music in the Library" concerts:

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

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

Be there or be an equilateral quadrangular parallelogram...

Again, these are "open mikelesses". I know from correspondances of some musicians who are planning to attend at least one of these, so last month's disappointment won't be repeated.

(This posting is Oct. 22, 2010; 212 days until the first performance of the complete StormSound Cycle)

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

10-15-2010: Indonesian Dance at Seattle Pacific University; Improvised Music at the Chapel Performance Space

I hadn’t seen Indonesian dance before, though I am a fan of gamelan music, so I thought this would be a chance to see the visual element that often goes with the music. Since I know little about this, my ignorance will show: this blog posting will be little more than a description of what I saw. Any readers out there who know more about this topic, put in your comments!

In one aspect I was disappointed. Although SPU has a gamelan, half of it was on loan to the UW – so the dance performance was entirely with recorded gamelan. (More on this discussion about “canned” music, anyone…?)

The visual element was also minimal, though in this case it brought what I was seeing into sharp focus. There was no stage setting, and only one “character” on stage at a time, so I could concentrate on exactly what he or she was doing. The dances were elegant, with generally rather slow gestures, though often with sudden quick movements to emphasize the rhythm. For several dances, the dancer wore a strap of jingling bells on one leg, which took a lot of skill to only make “jingle” at exactly the right time (and never at other times!). There were some movements that seemed to imitate martial arts; others were flowing and balletic. There were some sinuous movements that seemed to indicate a lack of bones in the arms of the dancer... Facial expressions (when there was no mask) fit the character: noble, or drunken, or flirtatious (sometimes a combination of these!). The costumes were particularly elaborate, with sarongs, complicated headdresses, and long streamers worn around the neck and occasionally flapped through the air like ribbons or flags (this is similar to some Chinese dancing I’ve seen, though the movements were different and generally somewhat slower). The dancers wore masks for some pieces, which, interestingly, all seemed to be made to jut out from the face and appear to be somewhat smaller than the dancer’s real head – almost as if the dancers were supposed to appear as close to the shadow puppets as possible.

Concerning the music: the quality of the recording varied considerably. Some pieces sounded as if they’d been recorded underwater with an ancient cassette-deck boom box; others had crisp digital sound. It appears that none of the music was recorded specifically for these particular dancers; they were available recordings – and some were quite old, hence the differences.

Musically the most interesting was Gunung Sari, a dance depicting a legendary Medieval hero. Here, the melody gradually sped up against a steady rhythm, a classic gamelan “form” – but then, just as it became recognizable as a repeated cycle, it was suddenly taken over by a chorus of voices. The dancer went on, almost as if not noticing this change. After two repeats, the chorus stopped, and I (at least) expected the music to end or to go into one of the non-metered modal improvisations that sometimes function as a coda to a gamelan performance – but the gamelan kept going with the melody, faster, then faster again. Now at last the dancer seemed to notice the tempo changes, and sped up accordingly, creating some of the only frenetic movements of the evening. She then danced off of the stage as the music continued (several of the dances ended this way). The music continued for another minute or two, then suddenly slowed and came to a conclusion, leaving the audience somewhat stunned, it appeared (they were silent for a longer time than for any of the other pieces).

Afterwards I heard one audience member comment to another, “…well, it’s very cultural… a lot of people left early because they didn’t know what was going on and it all looks the same if you don’t know about it…” I don’t know what “very cultural” means (is there any music or art that isn’t “cultural”?) and yes, it was a lot the same, but there was a lot of difference behind that surface of sameness. To me, at least, it was a varied (and enjoyable) performance.


On the way home, I stopped at the Chapel Performace Space at Good Shepherd Center (where they hold the Seattle Composers’ Salons and other concerts I’ve reviewed on this blog) to hear the tail end of an improvisation marathon by contrabass clarinetist Paul Hoskin (see my 8-28-2010 and 9-19-2010 postings). I missed it – exactly as I got out of the elevator, I heard the audience start to applaud. Oh well, I didn’t expect to hear very much of it anyway. I did meet Paul in the hall afterwards. He showed me a CD he had played on, a 3-CD set of the Seattle Festival of Improvised Music (recorded in the 1980’s) – I got one and will review it in a future posting. I also met Charlie Rowan, another improviser (used to do sax, now, keyboards) who had been manning the ticket booth. We talked for a while. I invited both of them to the next “New Music in the Library” concert and told them about what had happened last time… (The next one will be on Saturday, October 23rd, from 3:00 to 5:00 PM, at the Broadview Library, 12755 Greenwood Ave. N, Seattle, WA).

(This posting is Oct. 20, 2010; 214 days until the first performance of the complete StormSound Cycle)

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Reflections on the concert at Tim Noah's Thumnail Theater, Snohomish, WA, 10/14/2010

Before the concert. Left to right: piano, rondolin, hammer dulcimer (with mike), congas, tabla (sitting on amp), mikes, Drew, unknown person standing in the doorway.

Wayne on guitar and me on (plucked) hammer dulcimer. The sign on the rondolin says “Please do not touch instrument”.

The “band” after the concert, a little out of focus (we were tired after playing). Left to right: Keith, me, Wayne, Neal.

It was the night that avant-garde music invaded Snohomish, WA. …Well, maybe “invaded” is too strong a word. There was no aggression (or any other intention) involved. Like any of the concerts I’ve given for unsuspecting audiences, it was nothing more than a statement: this exists.

I tried to get to Tim Noah’s Thumbnail Theater early (around 5:00) but battled traffic and road construction – and wound up getting there around 5:45. Still early for a 7:30 show, but not as early as I would have liked. Wayne and Drew (soundman, a regular at the open mikes) were already there, setting up the stage and the sound. Keith arrived a little later, with a collection of odd little instruments. (The big centerpiece of the odd instrument collections, the rondolin, was already set up – with a sign that said, “please do not touch instrument”! There are two large cracks in its sounding boards.) Neal was the last to arrive and set up his guitar amp.

The audience trickled in. Cyndi and Tim (proprietors of the “Thumb”) manned the front ticket office while Wayne, Drew, Keith and I finished setting up. As a bit of preconcert sound ambience, I had Drew play the prerecorded sound for “Spherics” (#8 in the StormSound Cycle) through the sound system. “It’s good for Halloween,” he commented, referring to its dark ambient sound. I said, “…it’s supposed to sound like outer space. The title refers to the old concept of the Music of the Spheres.” “...There’s Halloween in outer space!”

Keith began the concert with two piano pieces. “N”, in which he plays every note of the piano once (beginning in the middle of the keyboard), is a fascinating excursion into the resonances of each particular sound. However, it was partially ruined by one badly out-of-tune note and an insistently ticking clock (which I immediately removed after the piece finished). I commented later that they’d had the open mike in that room many times before, but I’d never heard the clock… (Wayne said that it wasn’t noticeable until Keith’s music forced us to listen to the silence between the notes. …And, he had to move the clock farther out of the room later!)

Keith’s second piece, “High and Inside”, was one of the highlights of the evening. Having not heard the piece, I’d asked beforehand if the “inside” referred to inside the piano. It didn’t; rather, it seemed to indicate a way of listening to the inside of the sounds. Keith stated that the piece was about the “swirly” sounds at the upper register of the piano. He struck high two-note chords (in a sequence of prime numbers), loudly, stridently, and let them ring – and the result was humming and pulsating resonances that did in fact seem to “swirl”. Oddly, even when he struck the same chord more than once, the “swirls” were different; pulsations occurring in a different order, or in a different rhythm to each other – this should be impossible, and I watched carefully to see if he was holding down lower notes to make overtones, adjusting the pressure on the sustain pedal, or what… Nothing! He explained to me later that these differences were merely in the mechanics of the performance. It’s impossible to strike the keys exactly the same way twice. One note may be slightly louder, or struck a millisecond later, and the result is the difference in the reverberations. I was looking for something that he was doing to make these sounds; and it turns out that it is a chance operation! Aleatory music that, again, is not aleatory… (The intensity of these echoing sopranino booms was relieved by brief melodic interludes in the middle register.)

Neal also played a piano piece from much the same sound-world. “Pastorale: The Color of Water” was about the sound and silence in a particular place: “Bickleton is a small town with few streetlights, little traffic, and clear air. Near the town is the Blow Out, a remarkable geological phenomenon, essentially a big hole full of unique lava rock fragments that clink like bells.” The piece, a little longer than Keith’s, consisted of single quiet chords that did in fact “clink like bells”. It very much reminded me of the piano music of Benjamin Boretz, or (more distantly) of Morton Feldman.

Wayne’s guitar pieces were more “conventional” (whatever that really means) but still concerned with the sound of the sound itself. He played “Zigzag”, a rhythmically intense piece with a vague Latin feel and a little dissonance. To me it felt like what would have happened if Bartok had played the guitar and written Cumbia music (with a little country and blues, now that I listen to it again!). Fun! “Chamber” was a more ambient piece, based on chord progression that somehow continuously hovered between dissonance and resolve, never quite achieving either, but always expectant of both… A fascinating piece, and another solo highlight of the evening.

Wayne and I also played two duets: one of his compositions, and one of mine.

Mine, titled “Oceanic Music”, is a piece of conceptual music: one attaches a wire to the piano and improvises on it in various ways – many of the results sound like whalesong, hence the title – and any other instrument(s) may be added over the top. (My 9/29 posting says that I’ve recorded it twice before, but I recently re-discovered one more; an old cassette recording that I’d made of it sometime back in the early 1980’s, with a digital delay and no other instruments on top. I think I’d snuck into the University of Washington music building after hours to record it.) Anyway, Wayne added guitar chords very reminiscent of Ralph Towner, and percussion from the body of the instrument, all with a delay – and it sounded very much like “Oceanic Music”. It seemed to be a particular favorite of the audience.

Wayne’s piece, “Here and There”, begins “here” (a quiet guitar melody), goes “there” (louder, more rhythmic guitar work) and returns “here” – but it is a different “here” because I’d added a piano melody in counterpoint. That piano melody is a conscious bit of schmaltz; its presence in this concert was intended as something like the second movement of the Shostakovich second piano concerto – the quiet, (overly) romantic theme in the midst of more edgy material. Whether it worked, or was merely out of style, I’ll leave for those who heard it to decide. (…There was a problem with the piece: partway through, I suddenly forgot how the melody was supposed to go. I improvised it a little, but when I came back to the phrase I’d forgotten, I still couldn’t remember it… Listening to the recording, what I improvised didn’t sound as good as the original melody. Oh well.)

My solo piece was the “Song from Deep Silence” (#16 in the StormSound Cycle), for piano against four prerecorded (and slightly altered) pianos. It is extended variations on the Gospel song “Sing Alleluia” (though I treat the song more as an idée fixe rather than a set of variations in the standard sense). I think I did one of my better performances of this piece, though the bass on the prerecorded sound was a little heavy. I’ll have to listen back to my recordings of the concert more to find out for sure.

Scattered throughout the concert were the four “Snohomish Pieces”. This was a totally aleatory project. Keith and I worked on them, at first by creating seven-minute compositions for prerecorded sound only, each without knowing what the other’s pieces were going to be like.

Piece 1 (Keith): outdoor sounds, hammering percussion, a voice (Keith’s?) mumbling “sound example 2, sound example 3, etc.”, and at one point, a chicken.

Piece 2 (Keith): scattered plucked string sounds, altered and often abruptly cut off, gradually becoming sparser.

Piece 3 (me): altered sounds of a thunderstorm with hail, altered piano sounds and flute sounds, and altered birdcalls (this is actually a sped-up version of “The Songbird Flies Unhindered through Storm and Violence”, #9 in the StormSound Cycle).

Piece 4 (me): gongs, slowed down or sped up, with highly amplified slab gongs near the end.

I then multi-tracked these, #1 with #3, #1 with #4, etc., resulting in four new pieces. We used these as backgrounds for free improvisations at the concert: the four “Snohomish Pieces”. Keith and Neal played the first, then Neal and I, then Keith and I, then all three of us. These were a lot of fun – I played the rondolin, hammer dulcimer, and slab gongs (along with the piano); Keith played various hand-held percussion, a wooden tube (organ pipe?), cans full of ping-pong balls, and an out-of-tune autoharp (along with the piano); while Neal sang, chanted, muttered, and stomped around on the floor (along with playing the piano and the guitar). His guitar stylings were beautiful. At the end of the last piece, Keith scattered the ping-pong balls across the floor, making an incredible sound (one has to hear it to believe it) and then warned the audience, “Be very careful as you leave…!” These pieces made an ever changing and completely unpredictable sound universe. In retrospect, there were too many of them (two probably would have been enough) and the prerecorded sound was too quiet, so that the “live” sounds drowned it out. The pieces were still interesting, and I hope we can do them again in concert sometime.

So that was it. For another view of the concert by a performer, see Keith’s blog:

Special thanks to Tim Noah, Cyndi, and the Thumbnail Theater for giving us the time and space for the concert.

(This posting is Oct. 17, 2010; 217 days until the first performance of the complete StormSound Cycle)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Concert at the "Thumb", 10-14-2010

Just a reminder for those interested:


Location: Tim Noah’s Thumbnail Theater, 1211 4th Street, Snohomish, WA 98290. The concert will be in the small hall.

Time: 7:30 PM (it will run about 2 hours, including intermission)

Performers: Keith Eisebrey, Neal Meyer, Wayne Lovegrove, and me (S. Eric Scribner). I'll play one of the StormSound pieces ("Song from Deep Silence"); Wayne will play two solo guitar pieces and two duets with me; Keith and Neal will each play some solo piano; and Keith, Neal and I (as a "band") are doing four new seven-minute pieces that Keith and I made specifically for this concert. These are improvisations over prerecorded sound. (We're having a lively e-mail discussion about what to call such music; more on that in future postings.) I'm going to play not just the piano and piano strings for these pieces, but also the slab gongs, hammer dulcimer, Lao mountain harp, and rondolin; Keith also said that he'd see what instruments he should bring, so this should be a load of fun! (The instrumentation is billed as "piano, crywire, hammer dulcimer, acoustic and electric guitars, rondolin, electronics, homemades and contraptions".

Admission: $10.00

See you there!

(This posting is Oct. 13, 2010; 221 days until the first performance of the complete StormSound Cycle)

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Concert Review: Double Yoko and Orkes Manohara, Chapel Performance Space at Good Shepherd Center, 10/1/2010

What is it about the “heavy metal” style of vocalism that is so terrifying? These primal cat-like hisses and yowls lasted no longer than two minutes, yet their very hideousness brought the rest of the concert into sharp focus, and planted a seed that would later grow into melody.

The concert was a double bill: Orkes Manohara and Double Yoko. The first half of the concert could not have contrasted more with the “heavy metal” I just mentioned.

Keroncong music (krone-chong, with both O’s long and the R rolled) is a style of Javanese music, somewhere between our Euro/American concepts of “folk” and “popular” music (think of an Indonesian Fairport Convention). The few recordings I’ve heard of it emphasize the “pop” aspect and are a bit overproduced (if badly recorded). In concert, however, keroncong becomes an intimate type of vocal chamber music. This is how Orkes Manahara plays. The basis for the music is repeated figures on one instrument, often altered during repetition. The instrument is invariably plucked or strummed strings, such as a guitar, Javanese ukulele, or a three-stringed cello. The scales and modes are reminiscent of the more familiar gamelan and kacape music (though the tunings in gamelan are extremely complex and can’t be easily reproduced on a single instrument). Over this, the singer(s) add the melody – sometimes in contrast to the accompaniment or to each other, and sometimes in heterophonic agreement. The lyrics are often melancholy, and sung in the polysyllabic vowel-rich languages of Javanese or Indonesian. The result is quiet, melodic, and hypnotic.

Orkes Manohara is a husband and wife duet (with a baby who, despite being held by someone in the audience, seemed to insist on joining in the performance with happy squeals – and at the end actually seemed to be squealing in tune!). I can’t really review much of the performance, since I got there late (after being at the open mike at Tim Noah’s Thumbnail Theater in Snohomish, a half-hour away) so I only heard the last two songs. The first of these was playing as I entered – since it used the guitar, it seemed to be a continuation of the American folk music at the open mike. Closer listening revealed differences as well as similarities. The vocal line was mostly by Krusnedi, the male singer (who also played the guitar); Maeg added melodic interjections here and there, and she kept swaying to the music to stay in the right rhythm and sing at exactly the right time. The rhythms were quite complex. The last song used the three-stringed cello and an Indian sruti box (a reed drone instrument sounded by opening and closing a bellows). “This isn’t Indonesian; I bought it on Vashon Island,” she said before playing it. She sang the lead vocals, with little bits of harmony from him. Beautiful, quiet music.

Double Yoko (Beth Fleenor and Paris Hurley) played the second half. What they played was also an intimate chamber music, but for clarinet and violin. One audience member told me that “The second half probably won’t be anything like the first half,” and it wasn’t – but there was an odd sense of continuity. The instrumentals were often based on repeated but varied patterns, and there were long stretches in a single mode or scale. There was often a melancholy, nostalgic air. The vocals contributed to a quasi-pop atmosphere (Beth told me after the concert that they play “keening noir-pop”); but here was also a profound contrast. The first piece was entirely instrumental, with bass clarinet drones (created by an electronic loop) slowly fading over a series of raga-like improvisations; the second began in the same manner but went into minimalism – and then abruptly stopped. Then, the vocals (by Beth Fleenor) exploded. She let out a reptilian screech. She followed it with a series of yowls, hisses, screams, and sore-throaty rasps, all part of the standard “heavy metal” vocal weaponry, then settled into repeated “monkey” hoots and hiccups – this, in what had until then been music as gentle as the keroncong of the first half… Then, just as abruptly, the horror show was over, and the instruments returned to the front and the mellow quality returned. The mood had changed, however; Paris played the violin a little skitterishly at first (and Beth played the clarinet in strange jolts), before letting the melodic material bloom again – and all the music had (until the last piece) an intentional hesitancy, as if it was aware of a monstrous id lurking just below its surface. The last piece, pop-esque with its continuous rhythm by Beth on two shakers, finally broke the tension. This time Paris sang, over loops created by her violin and her own vocals – fluid, wordless melismas (her voice is reminiscent of Alanis Morissette or Jennifer Knapp) that “accepted” the singing as part of the instruments and thus negated its previous horrific interruption. Thus, although this may not have been planned, Double Yoko’s performance could be seen as a single large composition dealing with contrasts and acceptance of what is different.

Much of the music I listen to (and have talked about on this blog) is contemplative. This includes most of the StormSound Cycle music. But, I’m also something of a closet metalhead, and I like to listen to Wagner or Shostakovich with the stereo volume maxed out. Thus, I appreciate this incorporation of the primeval “heavy metal” vocal styling into a very different form of music. In this case, however, loudness was not the point. It seemed as though the scary vocals were intended to be an interruption by something threatening and alien, which was then incorporated into the rest of the music in a different form. The set ended in much the same relaxed mood as the end of the keroncong music in the first half.

(Oct. 3, 2010; 231 days until the first performance of the StormSound Cycle)