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)

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