Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Concert Review: "May Day" (Second Annual New Music Marathon); Town Hall, Seattle, 5/1/2011

This was the second annual 10-hour “new music marathon” at Seattle’s Town Hall, curated by Wayne Horvitz, Jarrad Powell, and Christina Valdez. It was a continuation of last year’s concert, though somewhat different in direction. There was more variety (though, as I’ll say more at length later, a lot of it wasn’t exactly “new music”) and less of the loud, hyperactive, non-repetitive post-minimalism – both of these are neither negative nor positive comments, merely observations. I will, however, start out with a couple of minor negatives. Keep in mind, of course, that these are only my subjective opinions.

Another audience member commented that the music was often quite similar; there was “a lot of improvisation and a lot of looping”. His criticism was astute. This was supposed to be experimental music, but I was surprised how non-experimental a lot of it was. Improvisations (there were a lot of them) were mostly modal; and the idea of improvising with electronics took over many of the acts – indeed, the performers often improvised something, recorded it on the spot, set it going as a loop, and continued improvising over the top. Yes, there was “a lot of looping”. This was new back in the 1980’s when Paul Dresher did it with his guitar. It was all part of the excitement during that period of the minimalist revolution; the new possibilities of music based on gradual changes in (and apparent secretion of) repetitive thematic and chordal material. But the excitement is gone, at least to my ears. What was new is no longer; this is not to say that it’s “bad” music (nobody says that about Baroque or jazz, and neither is “new”) but the thrill of the new isn’t there anymore. This kind of experiment is no longer an experiment.

My other slightly negative comment was the repetition of the performers; the curators of the program chose a lot of ensembles that featured the same musicians – again, this doesn’t necessarily imply bad music (nobody complains that Robert Plant has formed at least one new band since Zeppelin) but somehow it smacks of Hollywood, where the same actors turn up again and again in movie after movie. I would have liked it better if there had been a lot more acts that didn’t feature the same musicians as in the previous acts.

Those minor negatives said, the concert was for the most part very good. As I got there, the Valdes/Parker/Schaefer trio was just wrapping up a loud post-minimal piece (according to the program, Christina Valdez had just finished a solo piano set). The music was very much along the lines of many of the pieces presented last year (in the style of Jo Kondo with a lot of caffeine), though there were no more pieces in this style later.

Christ de Laurenti, long time Seattle new music fixture, presented a set of laptop improvisations. “I see my role in music as to be like your second set of ears,” he commented before playing, “…not ears that you have to carry around with you, but that find interesting things for you to listen to.” His set consisted of found sound music (probably the only way that one can improvise with prerecorded sounds on a laptop); they were indeed “interesting things to listen to”. The most striking was, near the end, the howling of wind through around a corner or through a slightly-open window. I’ve never actually heard this sound used in musique concrète, though it has certainly been imitated in instrumental pieces in the past (Sibelius’ “Tapiola” and the Chinese pi-pa classic “Ambush” come to mind).

Joe Kaufman, principal bassist for the Seattle Symphony, presented a performance piece that took its cue from the Rolling Stones. He began by tuning a five-string string bass and smacking its strings with the bow. Then he tuned it again, this time winding a string so tight that it broke; he did the same with a second and third string – they made a curious pop-twang as they broke – and then he dropped the bass on a tarp on the floor (the sound was unbelievably loud as it clattered to the stage floor). Rummaging in his instrument case, he pulled out a sledgehammer and smashed the bass a couple of times (“Oh no!” shouted a child in the audience somewhere to my right), and repeated the action with a crowbar. Then he started to saw it in half with a small battery-powered circular saw that got stuck partway through; he dislodged it, gave the audience a “Just a minute!” signal and left the stage; coming back fifteen seconds later with a larger saw. He plugged it in and sawed the bass into three pieces. He broke the bow across his knee and stomped on the bridge. Finally he stuffed the whole mutilated mess into his instrument bag and walked away. “He must have been pretty frustrated having to work under conductors all the time,” I jokingly commented to another audience member. “Playing bass in the symphony can be tough – you never get a chance to solo,” was the response. “I hope he has another bass,” said someone else.

What to say? A comment that art is dead? Nihilism, perhaps? Or just the fun of seeing something get obliterated? (The latter is a negative comment on human nature – this kind of destruction has been done in music before; besides the Stones smashing their guitars, there was a mike inside a burning piano – I forget the artist – and Tom Nunn once commented on the paradoxical creativity of Moe Staiano’s “destructo” mode. How is it that we are fascinated by violence, even against inanimate objects…? Is this kind of musical “slasher story” a comment on our predilection for carnage, a protest against it, or a “giving in” to it…?)

After a break, Stuart Dempster calmed the mood considerably. He played trombone into a piano, creating lingering echoes as the stings vibrated sympathetically. The effect was much like his classic “Abbey” recordings. He also dragged the bell of the instrument across the support bars of the piano, producing curiously different timbers – scraping the trombone away from his chest made “in tune” notes to ring out – these sounded very much like “regular” trombone notes – while scraping it in the opposite direction caused high, screechy overtones. The piece ended with trombone played in the standard manner; fragmentary melodies based on 4ths and 5ths, with occasional trills on 2nds. He ended with a “Tibetan” multiphonic. All in all the piece was relaxing if fragmentary.

Tom Baker continued the “improvisations of loops” idea with his fretless guitar, though these pieces had a larger percentage of composed material. Called “The Cage Elegies”, these were indeed elegiac pieces, much in the vein of some of his other work. An interesting (aleatory?) performance aspect was part of the music itself. He adjusted the various controls on his guitar (and the foot pedals) for several seconds, without listening to the results, before playing anything. The audience was left in suspense: “What sound will be next?” Samples of John Cage quotations finished out the music, expressing Cage’s inimitable blend of nihilism, zen, and celebration of creativity: “Originally we were nowhere, and once again we are having the pleasure of going slowly nowhere.” “Why do I have to go on asking questions? Why do they call me a composer, if all I do is ask questions?” “I have nothing to say, and I am saying it.” “Here we are at the middle of the 4th large part of this talk.” “Here we are now, a little bit past the middle of the 4th large part of this talk.

Briggan Krauss and Wayne Horvitz then played what was probably the longest set in the concert (and certainly the set for the largest ensemble). They began with an extended improvisation for alto sax (Krauss) and synthesizer (Horvitz); the sounds of the instruments often blended so that it was difficult to tell them apart. Strange wails and bleeps gave rise to melodies; drones dissolved into squeals and meows, all in what sounded like a modal framework. Then came the surprise. There was an entire high school jazz band on the stage (Krauss and Horvits had announced beforehand that they’d have to sit there during the improvisation and be completely quiet); after a huge wave of electronic sound, this band began playing. What was surprising is that, although I could see that the band was starting to play, it was difficult to hear exactly when they’d started and the electronics had ended. The electronic sound merely carried over into the acoustic sound of the band (with tremelos and trills, then emerging bass riffs) while the synthesizer faded into its texture. To me, this was a flawless transition (I commented later to one of the kids, who had a “Rush” t-shirt, that it was like one of the intros that Rush had been famous for) – though another audience member said that to him it was overdone and too dramatic (again, like Rush?). Whatever. It was fun. The band played skillfully, if not completely competently, with an amazing groove – Sun Ra maybe hasn’t sounded this good since Sun Ra.

What followed was the only disappointment of the day (to my ear). Scrape, an original music string orchestra, played their own atmospheric compositions with Jessika Kenney (vocals) and a vibraphone that sounded oddly like a piano. (It was hidden behind the other players, who were standing, so at first I was wondering where the “piano” sounds were coming from.) I couldn’t hear the words when Ms. Kenney sang, but the pieces were so hazy and impressionistic that this wasn’t a problem. In fact the music was quite beautiful (and didn’t sound like a “scrape”). What was a problem was the intonation; several times various instruments came in sharp or with scratchy bowing. This may have been intentional microtones or extended techniques, but it didn’t sound that way – given the nature of the music, it merely sounded off-key. I didn’t stay for their third piece, but wandered off to have something to eat.

When I returned, Maria Mannisto and Robin Holcomb were finishing up the excerpts from the “Smokestack Arias” (again by Wayne Horvitz) – these were pretty lieder, but since I only heard a little I can’t really comment.

Beth Fleenor followed, with a twist on the “improvising with loops” idea. She’s becoming a fixture in the Seattle new music scene, and it’s obvious why (her rendition of “Desert Bloom”, part of my “StormSound” Cycle, at a concert last year, was one of the most exquisite clarinet solos I’ve ever heard even if she didn’t have all of the score due to a snafu…!) Here she performed part of “Crystal Beth”, or she was “Crystal Beth”, or whatever. The borders between conventional “music” and “performance art” are broken down here, so I don’t know if “Crystal Beth” is a piece, a concept for improvisation, a character, a pseudonym, some combination of these, or something else I haven’t thought of. At any rate, as a performance art piece it was attention-grabbing (at the beginning, her vaguely “heavy-metal” shamanic howls were white-knuckles-on the-armrests disturbing) and then as a piece of music it slowly evolved into its own beauty as a clarinet solo (with electronic loops). Partway through, there was an unprecedented effect (at least to me): she began a loop, but there was no indication that she’d recorded it – she continued to “play” it in pantomime – so it was surprising when one of the notes in the loop (a high overtone) suddenly began to appear before the previous note had ended. This wouldn’t have been at all startling as a recorded piece, but “live”, it created a wonderful bit of cognitive dissonance between what is expected for “live” instruments had what literally can’t be done. It was a vaguely hallucinogenic moment, relating possibly to the name “Crystal Beth” – though, like the vocalisms at the beginning, it was both beautiful and disquieting. Again, a comment on the name “Crystal Beth” – the drug allusion is obvious here: the euphoria of the “trip” and the certainty of addiction and destruction later. Or, as in Spiderman III, “It feels good to be bad”; but there is a pay-off at the end. I couldn’t have made a more eloquent anti-drug statement.

Next up: “Today!” (the exclamation point is part of the name); a band featuring Dayna Hanson, Maggie Brown, Paul Moore, and Dave Proscia. This wasn’t “new music” or experimental in any way – I don’t really know why it was included in a “new music marathon” except that it was music that is new. It did, however, provide a nice, pretty interlude. What was it? New songs (written by the band members) in the style of 1960’s folk-pop (think Peter, Paul, and Mary), with beautiful, understand vocal harmonies accompanied by two acoustic guitars, electric bass, and piano. The words to the songs weren’t particularly clear, and the playing seemed oddly tentative, but otherwise this was a pleasant diversion.

Eyvind Kang and Jessika Kenney (from Scrape) presented three pieces that fused the avant-garde with Persian classical music. Modal (though the third piece, the longest, changed keys a couple of times), based on long rhythmic cycles, and with sinuous decorated vocalisms, this continued the lovely tranquility of the “Today!” folk music. These were two sides of the same coin: new compositions in an old style, but from a different part of the world in a different century.

The Persian music, having shifting from familiar tonality into just intonation, prepared us for the climax of the evening. Zachary Watkins, composer/electronics, presented his “Suite for String Quartet”, which wasn’t a suite and featured electronics as much as the (amplified) strings. Played by Paris Hurley and Brandon Vance (violins), Eyvind Kang (again, this time on viola) and Brad Hawkins (‘cello) and the composer on live electronic processing, this was a drone minimalist piece so profound that I could almost feel the earth shifting on its axis. Each string of the quartet was retuned to an odd number partial of 60Hz. The players created slow harmonies that cross-faded in and out of existence, and interacted with the electronics (which occasionally amplified a harmonic, but mostly remained as an idée fixe in the background). This made a drone effect that is neither harmonious nor discordant (in the classical sense), but filled the performance space with shimmering acoustic beats. As with much drone minimalism, it was both exciting and relaxing, threatening and completely at peace with the listener. The long-time reader of this blog of course knows my fondness for this startlingly beautiful and too-seldom heard genre – but this piece went beyond even that into its own universe. I cannot say more without lapsing into crazy superlatives.

There were several more performers at the Marathon. Time constraints force me to review them at a later date; check back over the next couple of days for the rest of this posting.

(This posting is on 5/3/2011; 18 days until the first performance of the complete "StormSound" Cycle.)

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