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)


  1. A minor correction concerning the voice intoning "sound example 2, sound example 3, etc.". The voice is not mine, it is taken from a 20+ year old tape issued with an issue of Perspectives of New Music. -kee

  2. I would have liked to have attended this!