Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The "StormSound" Concert, May 21st, 2011

After more than a year of planning, last Saturday we finally played the entire “StormSound” Cycle in a single concert. There were a few glitches, but overall the music came off well – all nine hours of it – and I was more satisfied than I thought I would be. (This despite the completely pathetic audience showing.) I even partly liked the last piece, “Consort of Voices”, which has always given me trouble (though there are still some very rough spots in it).

Click here for a write-up about the concert from Gavin Borchert of the Seattle Weekly.


Before all of this, there were the several rehearsals. I’ve already written about two of them here, but didn’t have time to post the others – too busy rehearsing! There were three others: with Ivan (clarinet), to do his solos (I got caught in traffic and so got there late; I could only hear and make comments on them briefly), and with Mike (string bass) to do “Nature Lives in Motion” (the first piece in the Cycle). The latter began with a snafu: I’d told Mike to be there at 6:00, right after I finished talking to Ivan – and then somehow mixed it up and went and had dinner and came back in plenty of time to meet Mike at 7:00. When I got there, he was standing there with his bass, looking confused, and we discussed the time a little… We practiced in the Seattle Pacific University music building, and SPU has a gamelan. Ordinarily these two facts wouldn’t relate, except that the students were practicing the gamelan in the next room from where we were practicing, and gamelans can be rather loud. It was okay, in the long run; “Nature Lives in Motion” contains a lot of recognizable nature sounds and somehow a gamelan in the background works well with nature sounds…

The last rehearsal was all of the percussionists in one place, along with me: we worked on “Spherics” and the last piece, “Consort of Voices” – the latter, we decided, wouldn’t be too embarrassing to play (I had though that it might, since I had to keep simplifying the parts to get them to work together) though there were some momentary dissentions (“I vote for doing free improvisation instead…”) More on that piece later.


The day before the show, there was a freakishly bizarre snafu that makes no sense and can only be logically explained by resorting to sci-fi (aliens, rips in the fabric of the space-time continuum, etc.) I’ll spare the readers the details (they’re pretty tedious) but if you happen to see any two-CD boxes with back labels only, printed as “Pieces from the StormSound Cycle”, and they happen to be beamed down from a passing UFO, let me know.

The Concert

The morning of the concert was cloudy and humid. This made little difference as I drove to the Chapel performance space. I got there before anyone else and started to set up the electronic equipment for the prerecorded parts; these refused at first to put out any sound. Finally Mike and Keith got them to work by plugging Keith’s laptop in differently and rearranging the speaker cables. The percussionists showed up a little later to set their instruments up, and it all went off without a hitch. Ready, we waited for the first people in the audience to show. Well, we waited…

The first part of the concert was the worst, audience-wise. Most of the people there to listen were either musicians who’d be playing later in the day, or their friends. Also, the strange snafu of the disappearing papers continued – my score for “Nature Lives in Motion” (the long first piece of the Cycle) had vanished out of my notebook, though all of the other scores were still there. I had to ad-lib my part. Fortunately this piece (as all in the Cycle) calls for large amounts of improvisation, and the parts that weren’t improvised were in my head. I think it worked okay. Mike played amplified string bass (he had his score, though his parts had even more improvisation than mine) – his playing blended perfectly with the prerecorded (processed) instruments and nature sounds.

Ivan’s clarinet solos followed. They were nearly flawless. His rendition of “Desert Bloom” (#3 in the Cycle) was different than Beth Fleenor’s earlier version – less consciously melodic, with more quick microtonal ornamentation – but equally as beautiful. Neal and Matt joined him for “Songbird and Stillness” (#6 in the Cycle). We’d had no time to rehearse this piece, so the performance was completely ad lib – but it had worked that way a couple of years ago with Neal, Steward Dempster and Dean Moore – and it succeeded again. Maybe it works best without planning! Bringing this section to a close, Matt and Neal played the hour-long “Spherics” (#8), their instrumental sounds blending with (and barely distinguishable from) the cosmic prerecorded sounds. There was a momentary false start, when the beginning of “Soundform I” (#7) was mistaken for the beginning of “Spherics”, and there were suddenly “live” instruments over its supposedly “solo” electronics – but this made little difference in the concert as a whole. As I commented before to Matt and Neal, “If you guys always play ‘Spherics’ like that, I’d win a Pulitzer for the composition…!” (Not! - “Spherics” is almost completely improvised.)

The central “Field of Arbol” section was not as successful as I’d hoped, though not because of Dale’s playing. These solo percussion pieces (over prerecorded sound, as always in the Cycle) have mostly delicate textures and don’t hold up that well after the cosmic reverb of “Spherics”. (They might work better as a set of solo pieces, not part of a larger cycle.) Matt, however, played admirably, adding subtle beauty and force on the bass drum, cymbals, and mallet instruments. There was one glitch: there are supposed to be antiphonal bells rung in “Malacandra” (#12), the last of these three pieces. I’d drafted Neal to play one set of bells while I played the other, and told him to ring his every 30 seconds. I was supposed to ring mine every 20, but neglected to tell him this, so he kept trying to sync up with me, and I kept trying to not sync up with him… In the end I just started ringing mine where it sounded like it could go as part of the music, and I think Neal did the same. A different interpretation of the piece, perhaps; it adds a certain unpredictable flow and maybe emphasizes that “time” (at least in the sense of history) ran very differently on Malacandra (despite my original idea that the slow polyrhythm of the bells indicated a more or less changeless eternity).

One of my favorite pieces turned out to be “Soundform II”, which followed the solo set. Percussion (Matt and Dale) and guitar (Neal) created rustling, rattling, whooshing and scrabbling noises to imitate a (processed) cricket over the quiet drone of the “mystic chord”. I added my own improvisation on the seashells, as I’d played them in “Nature Lives in Motion” and at the Composers’ Salon the first Friday of May. The result filled the halls with shifting shadows of sound. The hour-long “Night Signals” followed, with Keith continuing the scrabbling, scruffling sounds on his collection of found objects, Jay improvising with Keith on his homemade instruments (see my posting called "Instrumania") and in the 2nd half, Bruce adding eerie harmonics and reed buzz on his bass clarinet (he also walked around the stage; a nice touch that I hadn’t specified in the score). This piece is a "nocturnal dreamscape", but there are some pretty funny sounds partway through it. After one of them, a child sitting near me in the audience stifled a laugh, guffawed quietly, and tried to suppress a second outburst of hysterics. I went over to him and said quietly, “It’s okay to laugh if something’s funny in the music. Go ahead and crack up!” He didn’t; he just kept trying to keep from laughing and he finally left the hall for a couple of minutes. My comment was in earnest, though; if something is funny, then go ahead and laugh – even in “serious” music. Music (of any type) is no place for stuck-ups. (I remember hearing about audience members looking down their noses at two women who were giggling at a deliberately funny trombone solo in a Berwald piece – I think it was at a Seattle Symphony concert – really, listeners, if you have no sense of humor, then you have no sense at all…!)

After the suddenly frenetic “Soundform III” (Neal, Dale, and Matt creating frantic scatters, trying to drown out the tranquility from the end of “Night Signals”), it was time for my piano solos. In retrospect I don’t think I did that well on them, probably because I hadn’t eaten much during the day and I kept thinking about being hungry. That said, the subject of the first of these would discourage appetite anyway – “Through a Glass Darkly” describes how humans (including me, of course) often only see darkness when we try to look into eternity. Blocked off from Light (usually by our own doing), we sometimes see horror (the program notes for this piece describe the visualizations in a gruesome Tibetan meditation ritual) – and as a result we often propagate horror. The piano part for this piece is just a set of tone-clusters that get out of synch with each other, and at the end, if time is left, an improvisation of general mayhem by simply pounding on the keys. It worked as a contrast to the peaceful music before; but I don’t think it worked that well as a piece. A piece of horror, it is, yes, but horror as seen by Steven Spielberg: too loud, too horrible, too in-your-face, too obvious. It needs revising, and I need to cut out that thunderclap at the end.

I followed with “Song from Deep Silence” (#17), the variations on “Sing Alleluia” that is one of my more popular solo and open-mike pieces. This is a total contrast to the previous solo; an offer of hope in the midst of darkness – and is the only truly lyrical part of the Cycle (until the coda) and one of the only two pieces that uses no nature sounds. The prerecorded parts are all pianos, and are derived from an improvisation I did some years ago called “Rain and Desert Thunder”. (Fans of irony may like the fact that I did this original improvisation over the same recording of desert thunder that I based “Through a Glass Darkly” on, though played at normal speed, not sped up, and without those intentionally awful bleeps over the top.) “Frogscape”, the last piano solo, followed, returning to the world or human’s (and nature’s) darkness, though in a more sardonic vein. After playing these, I sat down in the audience, and noticed a friend of mine who didn’t seem to be enjoying the music at all. “It’s a little different,” she said – and in the conversation that followed I realized that she’d come in during “Through a Glass Darkly” and had heard only the piano music. These pieces (in fact the whole last fourth of the Cycle until the coda) are all pretty dark, and she might have liked some of the earlier parts better. She left before the next large section, “Day Signals; Sonic Nebula” (#19).

“Day Signals” is the ferocious climax of the Cycle. At first all pretense of being “pleasant music” is gone – the piano, drums, and (later) flute create webs of noise over a relentless barrage of nature recordings processed to sound like traffic and warfare. These are the same recordings as in “Nature Lives in Motion”, but distorted and lowered. The piece represents a day in the life of that grand spoiler of nature, Homo sapiens… but at the end, there is hope. The “mystic chord” (absent from the piano solos) reemerges, and leads the music into tranquility, despite being battered by both the “live” instruments and beastly prerecorded noises until nearly the end. As far as the live playing goes, this is the part that requires the greatest virtuosity. It’s certainly beyond anything I could play on the piano (the pianist is instructed to create two “matrices” from provided fragments of melodies, by rolling dice) – the flute improvises on similar material. The drummer reads from “soundscrolls” (abstract graphic scores), including a fifteen-minute opening solo. David Mesler did a superb job on the piano part, and Clifford Dunn (flute) and Ryan Burt (drums) supplemented him, adding both drama and completeness to his part. (After the performance, I heard an audience member tell David, “I play the piano, but I’d pay to hear you play just one note, over and over… I like how you make it sound!”) The drama continued after the piece ended, even – the prerecorded parts, being quieter than the “live” instruments at the end, were not clearly audible to the trio on stage – and since their parts at this point were improvised, they didn’t hear when they were supposed to end. They were on a serious roll (free-jazz power!) so I let them play for a minute or two before cutting them off. This can be fixed on the recorded version.

What happened at the end was the opposite sort of mistake. “Consort of Voices” is the gamelan/ minimalist coda, a sort of cosmic resolve, where piano (here played by Keith), flute, vibes and marimba realize a set of melodic fragments in a “Terry Riley” fashion over the “mystic chord” (expanded to four octaves) and references to earlier parts of the Cycle. This was, as I expected, the least satisfying part to me – though several members of the audience commented to me afterwards that they’d liked it. The “gamelan” part is rough – some of the key-changes don’t work very well (even if it is based on the same melody that crops up in both “Song from the Voices on Earth” and “Malacandra”) and it tends to compete with and overshadow the prerecorded sound in a fractious and awkward manner. The piece is supposed to represent peace, rest, and harmony after all the strife in the piano solos and in “Day Signals”, but it doesn’t really do so. Individual moments of it are catchy and the “live” playing was beautiful, but I have to re-write it. What of the “mistake” I mentioned earlier? The performers finished too soon. My fault, for not cuing them correctly – they wound up three minutes before they were supposed to, and the prerecorded sound simply rambled on for the rest of its time without really saying anything. The two parts were supposed to work together! Oh well – as it stands now, the piece is something of a dud anyway so this didn’t really make it any worse.

So that was that. The “StormSound” project came to an end, sort of with a whimper instead of a bang. Time will tell if this whole mad undertaking actually meant anything or if it was just much ado about the proverbial nothing. It was, however, certainly fun to do.

What's next?

It doesn’t look likely that the project will be repeated in its present form. I do have a vague idea for a “Second StormSound Cycle”, probably with a different name, and scaled down to only five players. Some of the pieces for this already exist: after the original Cycle reached ten hours, I simply cut it off, put the existing pieces into a particular sequence, and said to myself that any more compositions in the same manner would be either “on their own” or part of another Cycle – then I reduced it to nine hours. “Discarded Poems” and “Rain and Desert Thunder” are two of the discarded pieces (the former even uses the “mystic chord”!). There’s also a way to do various pieces from the Cycle in a different form, an idea that I need to develop further.

What about this blog? Obviously the title “The StormSound Cycle” won’t make much sense from here on out. I’ll probably simply wrap this up after a couple more entries. I have an idea to start a new blog, with a somewhat expanded subject matter: not just music but art in general (including visual art, film, literature and poetry). The problem is that I don’t attend enough of those events to really write about them – though when I started this thing I said it would be a lot of my opinions, and who doesn’t like to express their opinions…?

1 comment:

  1. As a performer who occasionally manages to pull in 10 or 20 audience members myself, I can sympathize fully about attendance. But it helps to realize that a mass audience is largely an artifact of tribal identity. Unless a music becomes strongly associated with a group of people - a village, a demographic group, a nation, etc. - then the audience will always consist of a few musicians (a tribe of the curious), their friends, and the accidental adventurer. Add to this the "scary" aspect of monumental length and the audience will shrink as a result. As for myself, I enjoyed the show immensely. The length, once I had committed myself, was not really a problem.

    One side note - early on in the show your audience consisted of the original three members of Banned Rehearsal. You could do worse.