Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Last Post of 2010: Christmas, and Report on This Blog

This may (or not) be the last posting for 2010, so I just thought I’d stick in a couple of random musical thoughts (I don’t think I need to call them “neuron firings” again; I’ve said that too many times…)

1. “Experimental” Christmas Music

I thought that I’d do a posting on this, but didn’t get any time to write it. Here, at any rate, are a couple of ideas. I mentioned the Messiaen “20 Aspects of the Baby Jesus” in a previous posting; this is indeed “different” from the standard piano playing of Christmas standards (i.e. in hotel lobbies during this season). I’d like to hear this instead, sometime! There also exists a “Little Suite for Christmas” by George Crumb, in the same vein, but darker and using a number of Crumb’s inside piano techniques (I’ll concede that Christmas music probably shouldn’t be dark). It has a rendition of the “Coventry Carol” in the middle, mostly monophonic and plucked.

Another one is the interlude, “For the Birth of Christ”, from the African Sanctus by David Fanshawe. Predating music with digital samples, this uses Fanshawe’s own recordings of traditional African music but is mostly a large “classical” work for chorus, piano, and rock band. Some of it sounds oddly dated now (like a 1960’s rock opera that never quite got going) but this interlude is worth listening to. Both relaxing and tense, the piano adds an atonal accompaniment to a love song from Sudan. In the original vinyl release, the love song was panned too far to one direction and the piano too far to the other, and they switched sides in the middle (an unnecessary and unnerving special effect); but that was fixed on the CD reissue.

Some “pop” oddities: There’s a full-orchestral Christmas tune by Japanese folk-rocker Reimy (on her self-titled first album; her barely-controlled childlike voice stands out in sharp, weird contrast to that grand accompaniment), and Bob Dylan did a Christmas CD. I checked out the latter from the library, asking the question: What happens when everybody’s favorite non-singer and arguably the last of the beatnik poets decides to take on Christmas carols? Answer: not much. It just sounds like anybody’s cantankerous but loveable great-granddad wheezing Christmas songs in a karaoke bar. Charming in its way, but definitely not classic Dylan. (Maybe he meant it to be ironic; but ironically, the irony is lost.)

Last, and probably least, there's my own piece "Angelconcert" on my CD "PianoSphere".

2. Report on this blog:

The most-read postings, in order: Concert Review, Eye Music (Sept. 19, 2010); Sound Installation Review: Steve Peters (Sept. 14, 2010); and CD Reviews: Boretz, Lierman, Improvised Music Festival (Oct. 30, 2010).

Least-read postings: Max’d Out Cartoons (Dec. 17, 2010), and the Free Downloads (Sept. 1, 2010). I don’t know what this means. I thought the cartoons were funny, and the free downloads are in fact free (also they don’t contain viruses, and you can delete them if you don’t like them). Probably something about the way internet traffic is being routed to (or away from) these postings…

There are also these weird spikes in activity: sometimes I find that suddenly 97 or 102 people in Malaysia or Latvia or Mozambique looked at my blog all within two minutes of each other. It’s happened roughly four times a month (six in September). What gives? It’s too quick for one person to discover it and then e-mail a link to all of his/her friends. Maybe it’s just a glitch in the Blogger software…? Or does this blog rotate onto a “next blog” list in some places periodically?

3. What's Up Next Year?

Obviously, there's the concert (May 21) of the complete "StormSound" Cycle. Also, I have a concert scheduled for Thursday, February 4, at the Good Shepherd Center, but I haven't completely planned it out yet. I'm working on a new piece for it, one of the old "SoundScrolls" series. And, I'd like to get those "New Music in the Library" concerts going again.

Well, that’s it. Signing off for now. If I don’t post anything else before next year, Merry Christmas to anyone who’s reading this, and Happy New Year.

(This posting is Christmas Day, 2010; 150 days until the first performance of the complete "StormSound" Cycle.)

Monday, December 20, 2010

Concert Review: Wally Shoup Quartet (with Dennis Rea and James DeJoie), Gallery 1412, Seattle, 12/17/2010

Before the concert began, there was some funky, dissonant jazz-rock playing. The MC said it was Captain Beefheart, who had just died, and this concert would be dedicated to his memory. I haven’t listened to much Beefheart but this little bit made me want to hear more.

As the audience filed in (I was there quite early), the chairs were moved around more than once – “Improvised seating for improvised music!” suggested someone. A little boy in the front row was showing off to his parents that he knew the names of all of the percussion instruments in the drum kit that was set up on stage.

The opening set was by Dennis Rea (electric guitar) and James DeJoie (spoken word and bass clarinet). James’s provided dark existential ramblings and a disturbing narrative poem about a woman who slowly dismembered herself (minus any gory details) by dancing – probably a metaphor about “giving oneself entirely to one’s art”. He spoke in informal, conversational tones, while Dennis improvised ambient sounds on the guitar, often by simply turning the amp loud enough to hear the strings reverberate when he tapped on the neck of the instrument. There was also one piece where James played the bass clarinet, in a style that echoed his informal poetry reading – notably, there was one section where they both wound up on exactly the same note at exactly the same time, so this was obviously not entirely improvised music.

The second set was the main act: Wally Shoup (alto sax), Gust Burns (piano – really, this blog is not turning into a Gust Burns fan club, though I like his piano), Paul Kemmish (bass), and Mark Ostrowski (drums). Wally, a long time fixture of the Seattle improvised music scene, said at the beginning that they would play some structured improvs in the middle of the set, but would bookend it with two completely free and spontaneous pieces. Then they launched into the first, and right away it was clear that this was a free-jazz power band. Their tremendous volume at a furious pace seemed to expand outside of the small venue. Altogether they played five pieces, two of them in excess of fifteen minutes. Wally played the sax with both skill and beauty, often making surprisingly subtle melodic lines in the middle of the semi-chaos. Mark provided an often blues-based groove, and sometimes played the cymbals with two drumsticks in one hand, one above and one below the instrument, providing a quick metallic chatter. Gust played in several styles, some suggesting McCoy Tyner; sometimes he attacked the sound with a clattering nebula of notes; at other times he held back and just plunked a chord or two here or there. During a solo he occasionally held a note and then semi-released it several times, producing a wobble. Paul’s bass is the hardest to comment on; as often in ensembles, it seemed to be drowned out by the other, louder instruments, but at the same time gave the music an underpinning that would have been missed had it not been there.

Near the end, they played a slow piece with balladic undertones; then Wally announced, “We’re going to play one more for you – it’s about two hours… joke…” The title, he said, was something like “Squid Eating Joe in a Polyethylene Bag”, and it was a short, dizzying spiral of sound that slowly disintegrated into silence. I guess Joe ate the squid, or was the title ambiguous – did the squid eat Joe? At any rate it was a fitting conclusion to an exciting concert.

[A 3/6/2011 comment here: I finally got around to listening to some Beefheart a couple of weeks ago. One song begins with a couple of lines of nonsense blank verse: “A squid eating dough (or squid-eating doe) in a polyethylene bag is fast and bulbous, also tapered”. So the title of the above piece is a reference.]

(This posting is Dec. 20, 2010; 155 days until the first performance of the complete StormSound Cycle.)

Friday, December 17, 2010

Just for Fun: Max'd Out Cartoons

Some years ago I drew (badly) about fifteen cartoons for an underground newspaper in the San Francisco Bay Area. There was a running gag about a guy from the country of Vegetaria, but three of the others were on the subject of music (I can’t find the third). Click on them to enlarge them and make the captions legible.

©1993 by S. E. Scribner (“Skribz”)

Note: Obviously a “nerd” calling someone a “clone” for listening to Madonna was funnier in 1993 that it is now. Replace with Lady Gaga for the "now" version.

(This posting is Dec. 17, 2010; 158 days until the first performance of the complete StormSound Cycle.)

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Just for Fun: 25 of My Favorite CDs

I can hear it now – “new music” fans who are reading this and groaning… “This is a "top-ten" list, right? Isn’t ‘new music’ antithetical to that idea? If a piece of experimental music starts getting too popular (or shows up on anybody’s ‘top’ anything list) then hasn’t it by definition ceased to be experimental? Aren’t ‘underground rap’ and ‘alternative rock’ really oxymora? Take the cases of Philip Glass, Steve Reich, the Kronos Quartet, and Laurie Anderson…”

Well, listeners, you can relax. This is simply a list of CDs (and some original vinyl albums) that I could listen to over and over, and find just as fresh and interesting and beautiful each time. I’m recommending them only because I’ve enjoyed them, not to make them more “popular” – fat chance that there are enough readers on this blog for that to happen anyway. (However, as I’ve said before, the entire experimental genre needs to be made more popular without changing its impetus for experimentation. This could be done with promotion – the same way that rock was made popular in the 1960’s, and rap and new age both in the 1980’s.) That said, some of my “top 25” are far from experimental anyway – at least one of them was a commercial top-forty hit…

So here they are, alphabetized because I can’t really count from favorite to lesser favorite (those categories don’t exist for me).

Art Ensemble of Chicago: Full Force

A free-jazz masterpiece with lots of deep resonances, touches of laugh-out-loud humor, moments of (un-)controlled chaos, and a lot of groove.

Pierre Boulez: Chamber Music

A retrospective of the composer’s work, showing the variety that is unexpectedly available in strict serialism. Ranges from the classically-structured piano pieces near the beginning to the freeform (and partially aleatory) “Dialogue of a Double Shadow” for clarinet and electronics; the latter is a tour-de-force of instrumental and textural virtuosity.

John Coltrane: A Love Supreme

The only conventional jazz album on this list is a true classic. What I like about it is, 1.) from a technical standpoint: the extension of the classical “sequences” into modal atonality (!) (I’ve based a lot of my own compositions on this idea, with stacks of fourths and fifths leading into chromaticism and microtones); the unpredictability of when the improvisations (and occasional vocals) start and end; and the unexpected changes of timbre (such as the drum solo on timpani). 2.) From an artistic standpoint: the totality of the experience of the music – somehow it transcends its genre from “merely” small ensemble partially-improvised music into something both unique and universal.

Gamelan of Danuredjo VII: Langen Mandra Wanara

Once I heard this playing in a coffee shop, and I heard a customer say that “they probably didn’t get many Grammies with that.” ‘Tis true, unfortunately – the best music seldom does (this won a major award in France). This is one of the more beautiful gamelan recordings out there, not beautiful in a smarmy mellowed-out manner (as some gamelan has been made into “new age” music) but because of its interesting composition and complex sound structure. What it is, is a tale from the Ramayana, rendered as an “opera” over a Javanese gamelan. That description is merely technical: how it actually sounds is another matter. This is classical Indonesian poetry as improvised recitative (along with the humorous addition of some vocalists who sit on the sideline and make fun of the proceedings on stage), over pre-set gamelan compositions that gradually increase in intensity. It begins nebulous, then somewhere in the middle the listener realizes that a gentle, swaying rhythm has begun. There are moments where this ceases for some vocal solos (including several charming, child-like interjections from the lead female character, Sinta, and a long rumination by the lead male character, Senggana), but the last half is a headlong rush into a volcanic climax (when Senggana jumps off of the burning stake and thrashes the antagonist). NOTE: this is merely a fragment of a longer composition; the entire “cycle” would take over 80 hours (that’s the “StormSound” Cycle times nine, or Wagner times four), though I don’t know if it’s ever been performed in its entirety. Supposedly all of this was facilitated (not “composed” in the usual manner) by an early 20th-centry Javanese prince, though it may, of course, been done partially or completely by others working under him. Whatever; it’s spellbinding music that deserves to be heard at least once.

Toumani Diabate (with Ballake Sissoko): New Ancient Strings

Continuing in the “world music” vein, here’s a CD of kora music that’s not to be missed. This music is all about subtlety; the two koras scatter delicate arabesques over a tranquil and gently rocking rhythm, and lull you into a world where melodies seem to be spun from spider silk.

Ensemble P.A.N.: The Island of St. Hylarion

Quite simply the most beautiful early music recording I’m aware of, both from the aesthetic and technical standpoints. The first two pieces are particularly exquisite.

FourTet: Rounds

I have to admire anyone who would use a harp and a live drum kit in electronica, and then apparently retune everything so it matches the (sampled) gamelan.

Evelyn Glennie: Touch the Sound (video)

This is the only music I’m reviewing here that isn’t a CD (though there is a somewhat disappointing CD release of some of it). A “movie”, though not in the usual sense, this is a visual as well as audio delight. Ms. Glennie is, as you probably know, a percussionist who happens to be deaf. In a few small sections of an interview, she discusses how she plays and perceives music. Most of the video, however, is taken up by audio-visual montages of various places (ranging from the cacophony of traffic in New York City to the quiet of the countryside in Japan) and improvisations by Glennie with various other instrumentalists. Most of the music is quite subtle, perhaps unexpectedly for percussion music (though there are of course precedents).

John Hassell: Dream Theory in Malaya

I’d actually heard a couple of tracks from this on a pirate radio station two or three years prior to knowing what it was – and I’d taped it. I listened to that cassette many times, marveling at the unique and beautiful sonorities I was hearing – what instrument is that?, I’d ask myself. The answer came unexpectedly when I was Christmas shopping for some friends and found the vinyl album in the jazz section of a music store in a mall (usually a place not to find experimental music!). It looked intriguing, so I took it home for myself and gave it a listen. I was expecting fairly conventional jazz (or jazz-rock fusion) despite the liner notes suggesting something different – I hadn’t yet heard of Jon Hassell – and was greeted instead by something so new and startling and delightful that I waited to wake up proving that I was dreaming. Jazz, yes, but with a decidedly humid feeling, if that makes any sense; a sharp-edged haziness, a dreamy focus. The trumpet, processed in unimaginable ways to make chords, scattered scintillating lines over deep, asymmetrical rhythms. By the end of side one I was beginning to think that this could be the source for those pieces on my cassette – and when I started side two, there it was. Since then, I’ve heard many Hassell albums, and his wholly unique trumpet styling had shown up in unexpected places (such as a CD of Flamenco and Spanish early music, by Jon Balke and Amina Alaoui) but none of it has quite matched the beauty and sheer originality of this recording.

Heart: Dog & Butterfly

When this appeared in the late 1970’s, I think I (as other young people at the time) regarded the title track as a pretty if rather puzzling hit song, and ignored the rest of it or dismissed it as drug music. Too bad. I will admit that the first two tracks are forgettable. But then something happens – first the music goes into an odd kind of minimalist funk, and then gradually travels into an entirely new space. Impressionism and rock shouldn’t blend well, but here they mix with delicate beauty. The open tunings, flowing non-metrical structures, complex acoustic guitar work, tone painting, surprising touches (at one point the bass line is taken up by a tuba) and strange, metaphorical, often unrhymed lyrics – all of these contribute to a unique experience. If you’ve got this stashed away in your basement somewhere, take it out and try it again (beginning somewhere in the middle), and listen to it as if it were an impressionist symphonic piece. You’ll be surprised how refreshed it is at the end, when the fuzz guitars of “Mistral Wind” give way to an expansive, gamelan-like texture. This is a direction in mainstream music that was offered once – by this album alone – and then forgotten. The music world is slightly less beautiful by that forgetting.

Jars of Clay (their first CD)

This picks up somewhat where the Heart left off, though it sounds considerably more recent with its hip-hop bass below the tight (often acoustic) rock guitar. Again, there are those surprising touches – mandolins, little bits of plainsong, unexpected rhythmic changes, and the (always unanticipated, no matter how many times it happens) addition of the string trio to the guitars. At the end comes the real treat: after “Worlds Apart” (a song that takes its cue for a final crescendo from Rosini!) and a gradual “deflating” of the instrumentals in “Blind”, there is a moment of silence and then a twenty-minute, dreamlike, aleatory “field recording” of fragments of a rehearsal for the band, under heavy reverb. In the end, it becomes quite peaceful, with modal minimalist loopings. The lyrics are no less interesting: there is no stereotypy here, but metaphors, some of which I’ve never heard before.

Yo-Yo Ma: Silk Road Journeys

The world, no, the galaxy of music on one CD. It ranges from the epic to the intimate, from the classical (European and Asian) to the boldly experimental. This is the only “world music” CD where I’ve ever heard a prepared piano; and yes, it is possible to play taiko on the timpani. Too bad subsequent “Silk Road Ensemble” CDs were so disappointing.

Mahler: Symphony no. 4

I don’t have any particularly favorite recording of this piece (it’s probably been recorded hundreds of times) but I have to list it here because it’s one of my favorite symphonies. (Some of my other favorites in the genre are the Beethoven 7, Mendelssohn 2, Schumann 2, Dvorak 8, Sibelius 4, Nielsen 6, Bruckner 9, Ives 4, and Shostakovich 14, though the latter is a "symphony" in name only.) Anyway, the music is stunning, but there’s also that layer of what it means… I’ll let the listener draw their own conclusions as Wagnerian bombast slowly gives way to simple, beautiful, sustained, pianissimo chords and then a “little” children’s song about heaven.

Mars ILL: Raw Material

I’ve been waiting for a rap recording to come along that is of reasonable musical intelligence as well as not giving into cheap shock-value techniques of racist/misogynist/obscene lyrics and profanity. As with punk rock in the 1980’s, it took a while before that happened. Now there are a many such recordings. Here is one (“The Art of Translation” by Grits is another, as are certain tracks on "Kala" by M.I.A. and the "Tsotsi" soundtrack by Zola – though I don’t have space to review more than one here). As with any rap, the lyrics are at the front, with a lot of complicated internal rhyme and wordplay. The music is interesting enough that it would stand without the words, however; there are samples here of Mussorgsky, Chinese cheng music, something I can’t identify but it sounds like Luigi Nono, as well as the usual pop and snippets from movies – but it’s all worked together into a surprisingly intricate (and dark) set of textures. Worth listening to. Also, it’s nice to hear someone rapping about something besides clothes and cars (this is a group of Christian rappers – do you still say “band” for rappers? – and they’re decidedly non-materialistic.)

Messiaen: Vingt Regards (Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano)

Though the sixth of these twenty pieces is a bit overblown, the rest show how the piano can be treated (no, thundered upon) as a percussion instrument and survive nicely. Beginning introspectively, then running the gamut of expressions, this is one of the great cycles of pieces for solo piano. Try to listen to these “20 aspects of the Infant Jesus” in one sitting, and it will be overwhelming. I should mention this on a list of “alternative” Christmas music too.

Phill Niblock: Touch 3

Inexplicably some people hear drone minimalism as auto horns; and a friend of mine once angrily denounced it by saying “That’s not music, that’s a tone.” That's rather like looking at a plate of Italian noodles and saying, “That’s not food, that’s pasta,” and I might add that it sounds about as much like auto horns as it sounds like Bach. The first time I heard it (on NPR in the 1980’s, back when they were still interested in music) it blew my mind. Anyway, this three-CD set is destined to become a classic of the genre. It does, unfortunately, include a couple of duds (they’re both on the second CD, and are too long, loud and strident to really be of interest) but the rest shows the fascinating beauty that delicately intense sound can be. Listen to it twice: once with the volume on low, and once as loud as possible without blowing your speakers. You’ll hear two completely different worlds.

Tom Nunn, Miya Masaoka, Gino Robair: Crepuscular Music

Say what you will, to me this is the mother of all free-improvisation sessions. It sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard because of its mix of koto, prepared drums, and homemade electro-acoustic percussion. There are moments of resonance bordering on silence, moments of beautifully structured chaos, and moments of surprisingly funky groove – yet the instruments always blend as one, never competing with one another. It’s unique every time I hear it.

Steve Peters: The Very Rich Hours

Intended as an installation, not a “composition” per se, this is somewhere between a piece of musique concrète and a podcast about environmentalism in New Mexico. Over sampled and minimally-altered nature sounds, voices chant the scientific names of species found in the area (in both Gregorian and Orthodox-style chant) and narrators tell the story of the environment in soothing, conversational tones. A listener’s first reaction might be that it’s relaxing but there might not be enough substance to bear repeated listenings, and there the listener would be wrong. By the second or third time through, the melodies of chanting come to the front of one’s attention; by the eighth or ninth time, the symphony created by the nature sounds are the focus of attention. A few more listenings, and one pays attention to the interactions of these elements; and finally, after a few more, the narrations are of interest again – so it comes full circle. It’s a perfect, subtle soundscape about landscape.

Larry Polansky: Simple Harmonic Motion

This is the quietest of music; microtonal harp (with barely audible singing) and some drone minimalism, all on the threshold of silence.

Jade Simmons: Revolutionary Rhythm

I got this from the library one time without really knowing what I was getting into, and it shifted my perception of the boundaries of “commercial”, “classical”, and “experimental” music. Here are two contemporary “classical” piano solos with electronica and hip-hop accompaniments, paired with two major 20th-century jazz-influenced sonatas. Elevator music? Hardly. The solo sonatas have enough dissonance and general volume to avoid that; there is a danger of banality in the hip-hop piece (piano over a beat is a pretty hackneyed idea even if it hasn't been this particular beat before) but Ms. Simmons plays with such power and verve that all hints of that are banished from the start.

Toru Takemitsu: Corona (Played by Roger Woodward)

Like the Coltrane, this is another true classic. I was fifteen years old the first time I heard “Corona” on KING FM, back in the 1970’s when they still played challenging music. I sat there transfixed. It taught me in twenty minutes what I’d failed to learn about music in fifteen years previously. I learned about silence, about subtlety, about lack of subtlety, about beauty, about ugliness, and improvisation and about form. I immediately requested it for a Christmas gift. After receiving it, I took it to school where it became one of several favorites for my own little four-member music-nerd club – perhaps uncharacteristically, since our other favorites were by Styx, Kansas, and Rush (those recordings quickly lapsed into ho-humness, though this one still sounds edgy). Several years later, when I was in college, a music professor asked me how I could play the inside piano and the piano keys at the same time (without going around to the back of the piano as it had "always" been done since the days of Henry Cowell) – this surprised me because I’d learned how to play the piano strings from the pictures on the inside sleeve of this “Corona” album, and hadn’t thought of doing it any other way! I simply reached in from the front of the piano without bothering to do any awkward repositioning. …Anyway, what is this music about? Four piano pieces; three are more or less conventional (“For Away” is the gem, a graceful swirl and quiet blizzard of sixteenth-notes; “Piano Distance” is the only one that I don’t really like – it seems to be an inferior imitation of Stockhausen). The other piece, “Corona”, is the showstopper – entirely produced with “extended” techniques, it utilizes a myriad sounds (backed up by a recurring three-note motive) over a constantly changing, wobbling drone on the electric organ (probably the only piece where I like that instrument). Generally quiet, it has three loud outbursts: the first introduces the organ, the second introduces the first (only) major chord on the organ; the third occurs after a long build-up and represents the piece’s climax in volume, though not in intensity (that comes later). I’ve heard that once this was re-issued on CD it vanished off of the shelves immediately. For once, that happened without the major record labels hyping it – think what would happen if they did decide to promote other types of music…

John Michael Talbot: Come to the Quiet

Folk music with a twist, written and performed by a monk. After an orchestral instruction (which features an odd pentatonic melody that is strangely delayed from its rhythm), Mr. Talbot sings biblical texts in a voice that sounds rather like a male Jean Redpath. He is accompanied by his own acoustic guitar, as well as recorders, Celtic harp, and a ‘cello. The music is simple and direct without being banal, pretty without being saccharine. And, it is deeply felt. Musically, the album has an overall shape (a rarity in folk music) – there are a series of stark pieces in minor keys; then the “Peace Prayer” of St. Francis (the only non-biblical text on the CD) bridges into a major key and the tempo picks up slightly. The last piece, the title track, is indeed an invitation to “come to the quiet”.

Xenakis: Chamber Music (Arditti, et al.)

What can I say? Jagged, ugly, and unrefined on first hearing, this music slowly reveals itself to be none of those things. An uncompromising romp in modernism, this will last long after much of the movement has gone. Great performances of even greater music.

Savina Yannatou: Songs of An Other

This has to be heard to be believed. Ms. Yannatou has a voice that would arouse the envy of any nightingale or warbler, and she uses it to great effect in these experimental arrangements of Mediterranean folk songs. No, experimental folk music is not an oxymoron. Introspective, transparent, yet with touches of discordance; it manages to be both edgy and profoundly beautiful at the same time.

Isang Yun: Chamber Symphony 1

Too bad this is rather obscure. The string ensemble is used to create beautiful heterophonic melodies, very different from “standard” symphonic music but striking nonetheless. The harp concerto is particularly engaging, as it uses that instrument for its “traditional” tranquil/celestial sound but in a very different context.

Well, there you have my opinions, for what they're worth. Any readers who have read to this far, want to contribute some of your favorites?

The World of Harry Partch.

Oh, one extra. Columbia Records should be charged with a felony for never releasing this as a CD (or at least re-releasing the vinyl). This introduced a generation of music lovers (including me) to microtonal music and the possibility of inventing new instruments.

(This posting is Dec. 15, 2010; 160 days until the first performance of the complete StormSound Cycle.)

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Non-Playlist for a Concert

Haven’t gotten to many concerts lately, but I think I’ll keep going with a few blog postings here about music anyway – a few random neuron firings, as I said above…

This first one is about a jazz symposium I attended at a high school in the Seattle area some months ago. Mostly it's just about music in general.

Due to the weird circumstances involved in this “concert”, this blog posting will be mostly a playlist of music that wasn’t played at the concert itself…

The reason I went in the first place was not to hear the music (though that would have been a good enough reason; some of the high school jazz bands sound nearly professional) but as a supervisor – I’m a teacher and once in a while they assign me to watch the grounds while there is some school event going on. Although this was not the school where I usually teach, the people who do the assigning must have known about my hobby of music, and offered me this one-day job. I took it.

Arriving early in the morning on Saturday, I let myself in with the key they’d given me, and in so doing set off a silent alarm. A custodian showed up about five minutes later, grumbling, and disabled it.

Playlist Item 1: Improvisation by me – The others who were running the symposium showed up, and I helped set up the facilities. Then, while there was nothing really to do while waiting for the students to come, I wandered off to the music rooms and practiced a little on the piano. There was one baby grand that was horrendously out of tune, but for some reason I started improvising on it anyway (maybe I wanted to hear some unintentional microtonality) and came up with a particularly beautiful jazz chord progression. More on that later.

Still waiting for things to start, I took out a book to read, and put on my iPod. “What are you listening to?” asked one of the others. I told her.

Playlist Item 2: Felix Mendelssohn: Symphony no. 4

We talked a little about symphonic music, and she commented that she like mixes of jazz and orchestral, i.e. Gershwin, and Ellington’s symphonic pieces. I asked her if she’d heard of William Grant Still.

Playlist Item 3: Grant Still: Symphony no. 2

“That’s really symphonic…” she commented. (…uh, that’s one reason it’s called “Symphony no. 2”. I didn’t say this, of course.)

Playlist Item 4: Miles Davis: Nefertiti – They were playing this on the big sound system in the theater while checking the sound. I like what Miles did by “reversing” the roles of the jazz ensemble and giving the “rhythm” to the (his) trumpet, and the “melody” to the piano, bass, and drums.

Then the members of the bands (all high school students) started wandering in, so I helped them check in. Then, once they started playing, the doors were shut. The theater was soundproof and I was supposed to remain outside. So the other supervisors and I started discussion various topics (local restaurants, movies we'd seen recently, politics, etc.). At lunchtime, they told me that there would be nothing to do until 2:00 when I could help set up a jam session for the high-schoolers, so I should hang around the lunch room in case they needed me to help with anything. I did, and found a couple of university music students there who were attending the symposium for the same reason I was. I played a game of billiards with one of them (I won), then (after asking if it would be okay) set up my iPod with speakers in a corner and turned it on.

Playlist Item 5: Dave Holland Big Band – great free improvisation, but got too intense while they were eating.

Playlist Item 6: Thelonious Monk: Rhythm-a-Ning (Live in Paris) – Gotta admire how he mixes dissonance, intended “clunkers”, and jagged angles with that flowing, swinging jazz feel…

Playlist Item 7: Debussy: Cello Sonata – One of the university students said, “I love Debussy! Do you think he (and the other impressionists) occupy a space between jazz and classical? The chord structures are jazz, and yet…”

Playlist Item 8: Ginny Landgraf and me: Irish Debussy (from my CD “PianoSphere”) – One of the students asked if I knew Debussy’s “Sunken Cathedral”, so I played this piece. Ginny and I originally made it up on accident. I was practicing some chords from “Sunken Cathedral” while Ginny was playing an Irish hymn on the kaen, and suddenly we realized that what we were playing worked nicely together.

Playlist Item 9: Minoru Miki (Ensemble Nipponia): Hanayagi (The Greening) – Such an impressionist piece for the koto!

Playlist Item 10: Toumani Diabate: New Ancient Strings – kora music, again, proves to be beautiful, tranquil, yet not boring/annoying background or “elevator” music.

Playlist Item 11: George Crumb: A Haunted Landscape – one can say this is the exact opposite of the Minoru Miki and the Toumani Diabate. To me it’s not all that “scary” sounding, just a collection of “special effects” over a deep drone, but some find it as frightening as a horror film. NOTE: I used to criticize Crumb for being “only” special effects. I’ve realized, though, after listening a few more times, that it’s not about special effects – like other experimental music, it’s primarily about sound itself, and the sounds of the sounds… Those sounds are handled in very interesting and beautiful ways, and there is always melodic and rhythmic interest lurking not too far below the surface.

Playlist Item 12: SoundScrolls I, by me, played by Ginny Landgraf (flute) and me on piano – the “SoundScrolls” are a set of pieces I did in the 1980’s (recorded in the 1990's), for various instrumentalists improvising on graphic scores: landscapes drawn or copied onto music paper. The result is more freeform, louder, and less contemplative than much of my recent work. I’m thinking of doing one or two more of these pieces, however (maybe one for Eye Music).

Playlist Item 13: Seawind: “Free” and “Morning Star” from “Light the Light” – Some (now) rather obscure Latin-jazz-pop-fusion, with one tune (“Free”) partially in 15/16 time. Was pretty popular when I was in college (I’m dating myself there) but maybe that was because there were a lot of students from Hawaii, where this band was from.

Playlist Item 14: Show-Ya – more (now) obscure pop-rock. Was pretty popular in Japan when I lived there for a couple of years in the late 1980’s. Like a lot of Japanese rock, it’s based on “classical” chording and sequences, without a trace of blues, and often it can sound as if it’s being “forced” from one genre to another. However, the singer does have a pretty voice and there are some notable melodies. “祈り” (A Prayer) also has some interesting poetry (which sounds tacky in English: “towards a sea of love” seems like a silly line but in Japanese it’s ai no umi e, which is nearly all vowels and flows around the tongue like a honeyed liquid).

After this, it was time for that jam session, so I went and helped move an upright piano from the music room to the cafeteria. Five high school students followed, and played blues as the others ate lunch. Their ensemble playing was right on, and some of the solos were amazingly skillful (though only one, a trumpet player, transcended from skill to art. Another Miles Davis in the making?)

Then it was time to go home. We all packed up; I put the piano back, put everything else away, and left. The high school music students had all gone but there was another group arriving; the robotics club. They had their own teachers with them. Along with setting up their mechanics and electronics, they assembled a big stereo system and played, appropriately, techno music. Nts nts nts nts nts. “We wanted the robots to feel at home,” commented a student.

Now – that chord progression I mentioned earlier. I was doing it in E, but it works just as well in C, and makes a set of chord changes for a roughly conventional jazz improvisation. It also contains references to Takemitsu’s “For Away”, which I was planning to do open-ended variations on for “Day Signals”, (#19 in the StormSound Cycle) – see my “StormSound Bugs” posting. So it looks like this is the answer for what to do with that rather difficult piece…

(This posting is Dec. 14, 2010; 161 days until the first performance of the complete StormSound Cycle.)

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Updates and a Video

…Taking a little Christmas time off from writing this thing, and I had to have a couple of medical procedures last week, so obviously there haven’t been as many postings as of late… Anyway, there is some news concerning my music.

First of all, this recently came back from the concert on the 20th last month. See my previous posting. R to L: Me, Beth, Bruce.

Bruce’s friend also took this video of a fragment of one of our pieces during the concert: (As you watch it, keep in mind that it was recorded with a cell phone.) No, it isn’t one of the “StormSound” pieces; it isn’t a piece at all, but part of a free improv session. Some things to watch for:
0:52 – Some extended piano-string techniques.
1:15 – Bass clarinet solo by Bruce.
1:48 – “Mewing” sound by all three players (including me on piano, using one of George Crumb’s “on the wires” techniques).
2:33 – Fast runs: I begin this on the piano and Beth picks it up on the clarinet.

Now, onto the “StormSound” Cycle itself. Keith Eisenbrey, on his blog (also about "new music") came up with an interesting comment that the acoustic sounds seem to derive from the electronic sounds; the opposite of "usual" for electro-acoustic music. This is exactly what I've wanted to do: the electronic sounds in the Cycle form a universe, so to speak, within which the "live" instruments have various amounts of freedom to play. They (the "live" instruments) are part of the whole, but not completely embedded within it. (This is the same idea as in an earlier piece of mine, "From the Oceans; From the Stars", which began life as a doodle during my undergrad college coursework at Seattle Pacific University in the early 1980's.) Concerning the Cycle: I’ve just about finished it, as far as the written material goes. Recruitment of musicians has begun. The two “signals” pieces that I blogged about previously as giving me problems have been fixed – one in an unexpected way in that one of the musicians I wanted to play in it turns out to have a set of home-made zither-like instruments – exactly what I’d like to do for one of the other pieces in the Cycle but I didn’t think anybody would have any…

So as it stands now, here are the 21 pieces, all 9 hours’ worth:

Part One
1. Nature Lives in Motion (NLIM): piano, string bass, home-made zither-like instruments, electronics

Part Two
2. Song from the Voices on Earth (clarinet, electronics)
3. Desert Bloom (clarinet, electronics)
4. Circle Song (clarinet, trombone, electronics)

Part Three
5. Song from the Storms and the Winds (NLIM II) (electronics only)
6. Songbird and Stillness (trombone, electric guitar, electronics)
7. Soundform I: Voice (electronics only)
8. Spherics (trombone, electric guitar, electronics)*
9. The Songbird Flies Unhindered Through Storm and Violence (NLIM III) (electronics only)

Part Four
10. Song from the Winds of the Sun (bass drum, electronics)
11. Song from Magnetic Fields (cymbals, electronics)
12. Malacandra (marimba, vibraphone, wind chimes, electronics)

Part Five
13. Soundform II: Cricket (shakers, electric guitar, electronics)
14. Night Signals – Journey to the Sea (2 bass clarinets, electronics)
15. Soundform III: Wind (marimba, electric guitar, electronics)

Part Six
16. Through a Glass Darkly (Out of the Depths) (piano, electronics)
17. Song from Deep Silence (piano, electronics)
18. Frogscape (piano, electronics)

Part Seven
19. Day Signals – Sonic Nebula (flute, piano, drum kit, electronics)
20. Soundform IV: Spaces (electronics only)
21. Consort of Voices (flute, piano, marimba, vibraphone, electronics)

Besides the obvious structure of seven sections, there are some subtle symmetries for those who care to find them: Soundforms I and IV use electronics only, for example, and Soundforms II and III use electric guitar, percussion, and electronics. Not noticeable from this list: the only two pieces where the electronics are not based on processed nature sounds are the second in parts two and six. NLIM is by far the longest piece (over two hours), but the total time of part seven is almost exactly the same as that of part one. The most complex pieces, musically, are also in parts one and seven. …and so on.

*Yes, for those who noticed, “Spherics” has been remixed from the concert last time. The sound worlds of the clarinets and the electronics clashed, to my ear at least; I’ve opted for didgeridoo sounds from the trombone (or maybe a real didgeridoo) and ambient sounds from the guitar, with reverb on extreme. The clarinets have moved to “Night Signals – Journey to the Sea”.

(This posting is Dec. 5, 2010; 170 days until the first performance of the complete StormSound Cycle)