Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Concert Review: Steve Barsotti and Paul Kikuchi; Chapel Performance Space at Good Shepherd Center, Seattle, 4/22/2011

Another music teacher made the comment (last week) that, curiously, when he was running both jazz camp and classical music camp, that the students who were learning classical music were better improvisers. The reason, he said, was that the jazz students were simply regurgitating licks, whereas the classical students were actually thinking about their improvisations.

In the world of experimental music, such a dichotomy need not exist. Jazz “licks” would sound out of place in a Cage aleatory work, for example (even though an aleatory piece would, by nature, include the possibility of jazz or any other “licks”). But, then again, so would a baroque fugue, or a blues progression… Such “out-of-style-ness” can be used for humor too, as in the case of P.D.Q. Bach: rap in the middle of a Baroque chorus; or a serialist “row” suddenly materializing from a rococo symphony. At any rate, this concert was one in which the ideas of “genre” and “out-of-style” were anachronisms. The music belongs to no recognizable style or genre. It creates its own.

I got there slightly late due to some other business. (Sorry about that creaking door that interrupted a quiet moment. Yes, that was me… Note to self: The “StormSound” music contains a lot of quiet moments, will be performed in the same venue, and the audience will be able to come and go as they desire. Leave that door open…!)

I heard the last part of the first set, and then the entire second set. In the first, Steve played solo: electronic manipulations (from a laptop) of field recordings. Much of this was atmospheric, quasi-impressionist, in the manner of Steve’s CD “Along These Lines” (see my 4/5/11 posting). There was a consistent drone in the background, of indeterminate origin and tonality; a chordal pink noise that kept the music together as something of a recurring motif.

(After the concert, I talked to another audience member who said that the drone was probably derived from a “singing bridge”. Steve confirmed that this was the case. A “singing bridge” is the sound made by the reverberations of a bridge, as traffic passes over it, or rain and wind “play” it like a giant instrument – these sounds can be picked up with a contact mike. Fascinating!)

Paul Kikuchi, instrument inventor, joined Steve for the second set. Here again, the background sound was field recordings, including a drone and a slow, rhythmic drip of rain onto a metallic surface – a sound used frequently by the Seattle Phonographers’ Union (see my 2/20/2011 posting). The difference is that instruments were added.

Said instruments were homemade electro-acoustic contraptions (I mean that word in a good way). Thin wooden dowels protruded from a wooden plate, with a pick-up attached. Giant rubber bands stretched across a metal frame. A sound-sculpture occupied much of stage right, consisting of car parts and sheet metal. Steve and Paul played all of these as percussion instruments, or bowed them. The wooden dowels made eerie whistling sounds when bowed, or percussive click-clacks when struck (very reminiscent of some of Tom Nunn’s “electro-acoustic percussion boards”). The giant rubber bands didn’t produce a “boing-boing” sound, but surprisingly loud and resonant “sting bass” notes and bowed lamentations. The metal sound-sculpture? This made any number of squeaks, whistles, drones, hums, bongs, clangs, clunks, thumps, and whatever else – all quite beautiful and none of them at all like “sound effects”. Added to this were two surprises: a blade from a circular saw, struck with a mallet and then brought in and out of range of a microphone (resulting in a “gamelan” gong sound that varied in volume and attack a la Stockhausen’s “Mikrophonie” – I called it a “sawmelan”); and then suddenly, toward the end, Steve knelt down to play something on the floor, and clear electric bass guitar notes rang out. The latter was simply another of the giant rubber bands stretched across, in this case, a wooden plank.

The result of all of this was very musical, though not in any conventional sense and certainly not in the sense of any known “genre” (even “non-genres” like electro-acoustic music and noise music fall short of defining this). In the end, this lack of specification results in a more authentic sound encounter – because we don’t know what to expect. It was a beautiful experience. …and it doesn’t matter whether the improvisation was based on classical or jazz tradition because without a genre, there are no “licks” to repeat.

(This posting is on 4/26/2011; 25 days until the first performance of the complete "StormSound" Cycle.)

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