Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Reflections on the concert at The Chapel Performance Space, Good Shepherd Center, Seattle, WA, 11/20/2010

Here I go again, reviewing my own concert...

This concert came up rather abruptly (as regular readers of this blog will already know); there was a cancellation of a concert at the Chapel, so I grabbed it and pulled in two other musicians – Beth Fleenor and Bruce Greeley, both clarinetists. We played what we could on short notice (for what audience showed up at the last minute), and at least the two clarinetists pulled it off admirably.

We did three pieces (two relatively short, and one longer) from my StormSound Cycle.

First up, Beth played “Desert Bloom” (#3 in the Cycle). Essentially a drone piece more or less in the manner of Phill Niblock, it features microtonal variations on a single chord. Over the prerecorded sound of the kaen (Thai mouth organ), the clarinet is supposed to improvise more microtonal variations. I emailed the instructions and the prerecorded part to Beth, but there was some kind of a glitch in the email and she didn’t receive the instructions. For the warm-up, she played a beautiful modal cadenza over the prerecorded drones. I actually liked that better than how I’d originally conceived it; so (after we realized what had happened) we combined the styles: she began with microtonal drones, then gradually added pitches (with their microtones) and finally let the music blossom into melody. It was strikingly beautiful, and I think I will make sure that the piece is performed in this way every time (it will only take a minor adjustment of the written score). There is now a co-composer of one movement of the Cycle.

The second piece was “Frogscape” (#18 in the Cycle), which I played on piano almost to break the tranquility with something humorous. The piano simply plays rhythmic chords over prerecorded frogs; in a sense, it acts like another frog. The piece perhaps sounds trivial, particularly after the deep peace of “Desert Bloom”, but it occupies a similar space in the complete Cycle: coming on the heals of the only other piece in the set that doesn’t use processed nature sounds, “Song from Deep Silence”, it serves as a reminder that not all is well in nature… It is a slightly comical interlude no matter when it is played, and, as an audience member pointed out later, frogs (like chickens) are inherently funny.

We followed with a free improvisation. Here, the clarinets worked out counterpoint with one another, ranging from melodic to chaotic; for my piano part I mostly commented on what they were doing, or provided a momentary tonal center. One of Bruce’s friends got a video of this; if it came out well, it may make it onto YouTube – I’ll keep readers posted on this.

After the intermission, we played “Spherics” (#8 in the Cycle). One of the Cycle’s “medium long” pieces, (about 40 minutes), this one alters the prerecorded nature sounds to such an extent that they sound like, well, outer space. Yes, I know that there are no actual “sounds” in space that can be detected by the human ear (despite the din that things always make when they blow up in Star Trek), but these deep drones and strange reverberations always sound like they’re from somewhere else in the universe. Over this, the instrumentalists play scores based on the planets: cloud decks become long held tones; craters become single points of sound; the terminus of a night side becomes a sudden shift in the tone; the swirling cloud bands of Jupiter become a flurry of trills (Beth played these with particular flair). I thought the clarinetists ran out of steam a little before the end, but that could also be the fault of the prerecorded sound (which simply loops back to the beginning to finish up). I actually had originally written it for ‘cello and/or trombone anyway (rather than bass clarinet) but I liked the overtones and breathy sounds that Bruce was able to produce on his bass clarinet. I will admit, though, that altogether it was not as successful a piece as I would have liked (this was not the fault of the other two players). The prerecorded sound is from a different sound world than that of the "live" music, and the two don't blend as well as I had hoped. I have an idea, though, to fix it...

Anyway, as always, I’m going on too long about my own concert. I’ll sign off for now.

(This posting is Nov. 23, 2010; 181 days until the first performance of the complete StormSound Cycle)

Monday, November 22, 2010

Concert Review: Seattle Phonographers Union; Chapel Performance Space at Good Shepherd Center, 11/19/2010

"The Seattle Phonographers Union convene to explore the ways in which we recognize, differentiate, map and navigate our sonic environment. Our intent is to move beyond habitual experience of sound and uncover what is foreign in the familiar and familiar about the foreign; to explore what we hear and relearn what we know." - from the Seattle Phonographers Union Facebook page.

This was presented after a meeting of the Pacific NW Chapter of the American Society for Acoustic Ecology. I wanted to go to that meeting, but due to a series of snafus I only got there in time to hear the last half or so of the concert. At any rate, this was one of the more interesting takes on music I’ve heard in a long time, and it used (what I think) the meeting was about as a starting point.

There were six people in the band. They played five laptops and one MP3 player. That is, they actually play prerecorded material as an instrument (much in the way that hip-hop artists play turntables) – the difference being that all of the prerecorded material is their own, and none of it is “music” in the conventional sense. It is all field recordings. And, I might add, this performance is improvised. They interact with each other, adding and subtracting layers based on what the others are doing.

The result is a mishmash of environmental sounds. Some of them contrast with one another, but most often they blend into a continuous low murmur that is intrinsically beautiful and interesting. Traffic sounds (ugly in their usual form) are played quietly against ocean and river sounds, and they become indistinguishable. Rain in the forest (with birds) echoes in the infinite distance, morphs into hail on metal (on a screen door?), then overlays with rain on logs over an electric hum. A foghorn sounds, suddenly loud (causing one of the members of the Union to smile, nearly laughing) against steady, rhythmic, metallic dripping. A clock chimes 3. khht khht khht scratches appear from the end of a vinyl record, then a hollow metallic whoosh (unidentified) scatters into the sound of crows. A loop of birds (and monkeys?) repeats at half volume below this. Gongs bong out a steady rhythm. A plane goes over, growing louder, but not in the way that it would if it were actually passing by – the sound grows very slowly, then suddenly crescendos to a climax (the loudest sound of the concert) and then abruptly – click! Silence, for half a second. A coda of car sounds, repeated, strangely musical, fading into water.

All sound is music, here; and all sound (even ugly sound) becomes exquisite in this context. I’ve heard the Phonographers Union before, and I’ve heard their CD – but these live performances shed a different light on their sound (particularly in the echoing resonance of that space) and shed a different light on the concept of music in general.

Concert Review: Keith Eisenbrey, Aaron Keyt, and Neal Meyer; Chapel Performance Space at Good Shepherd Center, 11/18/2010

The concert began with a set of solo piano pieces, Aaron’s “Bagatelles”, played by Keith. Aaron introduced the pieces, saying that he’d written them as relaxation but Keith said learning to play them was like “trying to build a house of cards in a tight space”. One misplaced movement could topple the whole construction. Anyway, I heard them as relaxed, but with an undercurrent of slight nervousness. Though melodic in a standard (almost Baroque) sense, they were harmonized modally (sometimes chromatically) and with rhythmic ambiguity. More than once the tonal center was lost, though it always reappeared. There were hints of Bright Sheng’s “My Song” or Jo Kondo’s sen no ongaku style, particularly in the last piece, with its heterophonic crosscutting of fragments of the same melody in different variations.

Aaron’s “Foliage”, the next piece, was altogether different. Aaron introduced it as an electronic piece without visual elements (by which he meant there was nothing to see on stage) derived from common sources – few of the sounds were altered in any way except that he’d put them together to make the piece. However, most of the sounds were unrecognizable (at least to me). Curious whistle/creaks gave way to wooden sounds; suddenly gongs appeared, which bridged to a deep silence. Then end returned, slowly, to the beginning: the whistles reappeared, at first distant and with echoes, then moving back to the front of the sound field. As a piece of musique concrète, and as a composition, the piece worked: it had a beautiful overall shape, but the sounds were interesting enough in themselves regardless of what they did.

Then came the shocker. I’ve heard some of Keith’s music before, but still wasn’t ready for “Blood and Fire: Alleluia”. After the half-hour performance for piano (Keith) and “canned” sound, all I could say was, “One word: INTENSE.” Neal put it better: “Charles Ives meets Samuel Beckett.” The Charles Ives Americana was there in the form of the prerecorded sound: processed percussion, and Keith’s own voice singing an old hymn in a style that sounded like a fusion of shape-note singing and a Gaither revival. But despite the Gospel element, this was a musical portrayal of damnation: the piano seemed to act as a demonic force, playing a clatter of fortissimo wrong notes (or occasionally landing on a chord that fit the tune), acting on the recorded sound (!), cajoling it to reject its own message of harmony and move instead into “blood and fire” – chaos, violence, noise, and finally nothingness (the nihilism of Beckett). The hymn’s many repeats were altered only in timbre, and thus it seemed to focus only on itself – and it eventually lost its identity as it became grotesquely distorted. Several times it disappeared completely, leaving the piano hammering at the extreme registers as if in malevolent triumph. In the end, I heard it as a soundtrack to Dante’s “Inferno” by Merzbow…

The entire second half of the concert was given over to an hour-long version of Neal’s “Gradus for Fux, Tesla, and Milo the Wrestler”. I’ve reviewed performances of this piece before (see the 7/31/2010 posting) but this was a chance to hear it in an even longer version. Of course the entire piece would, as Aaron pointed out before Neal began playing, if it could truly explore all of the possible combinations of all the possible notes on a piano, be longer than the age of the universe… Though titled “Three Rungs from ‘Gradus’”, this performance was a full hour of A’s, interspersed with long silences and randomly occurring “extra” sounds from the audience or outside the performance space. In such a long, austere, version, the piece became theatrical; Neal was like an actor, the piano his speaking voice, reciting lines from an abstract play against stark lighting. There were several moments where he froze, hand in the air, endlessly ready to play the next set of A’s, but not finished with the silences created by the last set…

This was a concert that featured the extremes of avant-garde piano music, from the silence of “Gradus” and the tranquility of some of the Bagatelles, to the horror of “Blood and Fire”. An interesting program.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Abruptly, a concert of pieces from the StormSound Cycle

This is rather spur-of-the-moment, but I suddenly have a concert coming up this weekend. There was an opening at the Chapel Performance Space, so I grabbed it. I have no idea whether anyone will want to hear live music, with such little notice, in the evening the weekend before Thanksgiving; so I think mainly I'm doing it for the fun of it... But anyway, here are the details:

S. Eric Scribner (composer; piano, inside piano, percussion) in concert
With Beth Fleenor, clarinet
and Bruce Greely, bass clarinet

8:00 PM, Saturday, November 20
Chapel Performance Space, Good Shepherd Center
50th and Sunnyside, in Wallingford (Seattle)

Sliding scale: $5.00 to $15.00

Yes, it sounds like something of a clarinetty concert. I've reviewed clarinet playing by both Beth and Bruce before in this blog (see "2nd New Music in the Library Concert", 10/24/2010) and "Double Yoko", 10/3-2010). Should be fun. We're playing "Desert Bloom" (a drone piece) and "Spherics" (something of a dark ambient piece), both from the StormSound Cycle; as well as a group free improvisation and some solo piano work by me; and maybe a couple of shorter StormSound pieces too.

A slightly more detailed description:
"Desert Bloom" is one of the only two of the 21 pieces in the Cycle that isn't based on electronic processing of nature sounds. Its room-filling drone-chords come from the kaen (Thai mouth organ), processed for microtonal variations of pitch and timbre. "Spherics" slows the nature sounds down hundreds of times and adds massive reverb, resulting in an immense, cosmic sound; the graphic scores used by the performers are based on the planets. There is a long section, near the beginning, of a "deep space" sound (originally made from the songs of crickets) that always makes me think of hovering in space somewhere near Jupiter. (I don't really know why this is so; I've never hovered in space anywhere near Jupiter.) Anyway, the piece suggests, to me at least, the old concept of the "music of the spheres", though I change the idea slightly to mean music of the planets.

(This posting is Nov. 15, 2010; 189 days until the first performance of the complete StormSound Cycle)

Thursday, November 11, 2010

11/7/2010: Three Concerts -- Wayne Lovegrove; Jack Wright and Gust Burns Large Ensemble; St. Mark's Organ Recital

It’s been over a week and I’ve finally gotten some time to add a posting to this thing. Of course it’s about music…

Sunday evening I went to three concerts. Yes, that’s quite a few…

Wayne Lovegrove, at Little Red Bistro, Seattle WA

I’ve heard Wayne play before, of course; both at open mikes and with me in concert (Tim Noah’s Thumbnail Theater, Snohomish, WA, last month). This was a chance to hear him play his guitar a longer period of time.

The Little Red Bistro is a French/Italian/Spanish restaurant just north of Seattle’s downtown. I found it easily on Google Maps, but couldn’t get there as easily as it looked because several of the streets that looked drivable in the satellite view were blocked off for construction (and an annoying number were one way the wrong way or marked “no turns”). But I finally got there, and found that there was abundant street parking. The restaurant itself is a small space, suitable for intimate dining or for groups of four to ten or so (there was one group of eight there and several groups of two). Having already had dinner, I just sat at the bar, ordered a dessert from the friendly wait staff, and listened to Wayne play the guitar.

While I was there, he played five pieces. These are in his usual “new acoustic” style; though as I’ve written before, to label them as such misses the point of the music. He is one of those rare musicians who manages to do “background music” that is much more than just background – if one ignores it and treats it as wallpaper, then it is wallpaper; but if one pays attention, there’s enough to listen to that it really is foreground music. There are some interesting rhythms (including polyrhythms), beautiful melodies, intricate counterpoint (interlocking of parts, not “fugues” in the baroque sense), and always, those alternate tunings that create spacious sounds with open fourths and fifths. There are also little bits of dissonance snuck in; two of the pieces have slight blues tendencies and use the genre’s characteristic flat notes to create tension (only audible to the careful listener) which always resolves into those open sounds.

I listened for about forty minutes, then wandered back out to my car to go to the next concert.

Jack Wright and Gust Burns Large Ensemble, Poncho Theater at Cornish Institute, Seattle WA

Nothing could be more different from Wayne’s guitar styling than this. Presented as part of the Earshot Jazz Festival, this was four lengthy pieces of free improvisation.

“Free Improvisation” and “Large Ensemble” are terms that can be at odds with one another. I remember a “free improv” open mike (at Beanbenders Concert Series, Berkeley, CA) where, after several sets of two or three players, they let everyone who’d played all play together (including me). Mistake. There were about twelve players, mostly on electric guitars and saxes of various sizes, all playing as loudly and quickly as possible, and paying absolutely no attention to what anyone else was playing. It would have been fun for a minute or two – but nobody wanted to quit, and it kept going at full frenetic howling, snorting and screeching volume for twenty-five minutes. Finally I added even more volume by playing several crescendos on the suspended cymbals (at least to give some sense of one different sound in all that chaos) but it really didn’t help. The audience was long gone by the time any of the players (including me) thought to admit defeat and quit.

So it was with some trepidation that I went to see this “large ensemble” at Earshot. I wouldn’t even have gone if I hadn’t remembered Gust Burns’ “silent” music from several months ago (see my 6/28/2010 posting) and wanted to see how that aesthetic would work for a larger group.

I was not disappointed. The “large ensemble” was a sextet, consisting of Jack on sax, Gust on piano, two basses (Mark Collins & John Teske), another sax (Wilson Shook), and electronics (Doug Theriault); the latter provided strangely non-tonal drones and small tinkles, scratches, pops, and clunks that seemed to be derived from little percussion implements under high amplification (though I couldn’t see exactly what he was playing). Gust did not use the “dowel” technique I’ve blogged about before (though one of the bass players used it); he played the piano “conventionally” (meaning on the keys) if atonally. He added flurries of notes, or, occasionally, single pitches dropped in right where another player paused. Having two basses was an interesting concept; particularly since neither played “bass parts” but explored the timbre of the instruments.

Then we come to the sax parts themselves. Jack was listed by Gust as a “legend” in his field; and I wasn’t disappointed when I heard him play. During the two large ensemble pieces he added to the textures in such a way as to be indistinguishable from the other players. A lesser talent would have insisted on blasting at least one “solo” here or there; he was content to provide the basis for the playing but melt into it – one senses that, if he weren’t there, the entire ensemble would fall apart. And yet, while listening, the sounds he provided were almost subliminal. In a sense he played the “spine” of the music – inside of it, not visible on the outside, but vitally necessary and providing support.

He also played two solo pieces, without the other players. I made the following notes during the performance:

(Alto sax)
Squawks, pops, evolves into notes, vibrating buzz –
Adjusted a valve (!)
Uses knee as mute
Percussive fluttering – I’ve never heard this before!
Attack, whimper, wa-wa effects with “mute” and keys (valves)
Has “hollow” didgeridoo-sound when muted
Vocalize into sax – dog woof or scary/comical “Ghostbusters” effect
Changes mouthpiece – clicks, deeper pops, wails (Coltrane/Coleman) – loud!

(Soprano sax)
Clear notes emerge from pink noise, but “noise” continues
Very smooth – almost as if notes were overlapping

After these pieces, an audience member in sitting in front of me said to someone next to her, “It was too long, and it wasn’t very thoughtful of him to play another solo after the first one – it was too taxing on the audience.”

I countered that the first solo didn’t seem to be finished (Jack seemed so have left it unresolved in anticipation of the second solo) and I preferred to have the second part. Judging from the reactions of the audience, I think most (though certainly not all) heard it the way I did.

I made a similar set of notes about the ensemble pieces:

Piece 1:
Bass bowed the bridge of the instrument
Electronic “shell chime” sounds
Bass bow with hair wrapped around it in a spiral – adjustable – makes several different timbres
Gust’s “dowel” technique works on bass too!
Microtones (sax vs. piano)
Trio (two basses, piano) – sax joins
“Harsh” drones over chaos – Art Ensemble of Chicago style
Trills (sax) over piano
Piano pedal techniques (half-released)
Sparkles, clouds from sax; thumps, clunks (electronic)
High overtones (reed buzz) strangely calm, not strident – crescendo into all instruments – now loud, Klaxon – drones become violent (!) – quiet – dog whimpers (sax) – electronics gonglike
Whhhhhhfffft! (sax)
Tiny electronic murmur, high, pulsating – “a still small voice”

Piece 2:
Bass – bowed the rosin box! Squeeeee!
Spasmodic motions, scattered sounds
Wraps and unwraps hair on bow
Massive drones – Vvvvvvvvvvvvv!
Sudden “cosmic” reverb in electronics opens the soundspace
Piano – one clear, bell-like tone in midst of fluttering, flapping chaos
Electronic clang-drones (Roger Reynolds’ “From Beyond the Unreasoning Mask”) – these abruptly stop while other instruments continue
Sax changes from soprano to alto with no change in mood…

Near the end, the piece seemed to lose focus; several times it should have ended but one player kept starting it up again. Then, Jack led the ensemble into thirty seconds (or less) of “conventional” jazz (improvised melody over chords), and a crescendo – and it ended having been “brought back” from near death.

The concert ended refreshed, despite its length (and of course I’m guilty of overly long concerts myself…) and I headed over to hear the third concert.

Organ Recital – St. Mark’s Cathedral, Seattle, WA

I had intended to get there for the Compline Service – the (by now) world-famous plainsong service held there every Sunday evening at 9:30. I missed it, the Earshot concert running longer than I expected, but was there for the organ recital that always follows at 10:00. This time the organist’s name was Bill Giddings. He played a concert of mostly 19th and 20th-Century Scandinavian pieces – many were variations on the same hymn tune (which I didn’t happen to know, so I could listen to it objectively as a concert performance without any preconceived ideas). The Flentrop organ is truly an acoustic marvel, particularly in that vast cathedral space where its sounds hang in the air for what seems like a minute each, before trailing off into the realm of the spirit. The most surprising effect was – as always – the set of pipes that’s located on the balcony just above the congregation – when played, they make the music suddenly sound as if it’s located much closer in space than it “should” be, almost as if it were coming from only a foot or two in front of the listener. Almost shocking, and yet beautiful.

So that was my evening of concerts. I don’t recommend anyone to attend three in rapid succession like that, but I’d do it again if I got the chance…

(This posting is Nov. 11, 2010; 193 days until the first performance of the complete StormSound Cycle)