Monday, May 16, 2011

"StormSound" Rehearsals Part One, and Open Mike at Woodland Park Presbyterian Church

The first two rehearsals for the “StormSound” Cycle have come and gone.
The first was last Friday. Dale Speicher and I went over his solo pieces, the three “Field of Arbol” movements that come roughly in the middle of the Cycle (in the 4:00 hour during the live concert).

These are atmospheric, spacey pieces that deliberately obscure the fact that the instruments are percussion. In the first, “Winds of the Sun”, a drone from a processed pipe organ and a birdcall slowed 1000 times create a pulsating hum; over this, the percussion adds deep rumbles on a bass drum – the total of all of this is intended to sound like the solar wind (if we could hear it). The second is likewise intense: the prerecorded sound consists of processed recordings of Dominican monks chanting “Alleluia” and the mysterious “mystic chord” that appears in much of the Cycle (ultimately derived from wave sounds on a lake). The percussionist creates shadowy sounds on the suspended cymbals, in an aesthetic a thousand times removed from the more familiar jazz and rock music where such cymbals are often used. Again, the intent is to create the sound of something that we can’t hear; in this case, magnetic fields both on earth and in space. After a long silence (important to the music), the third fades in: “Malacandra”. This is the mythic perfect world in C. S. Lewis’ sci-fi classic “Out of the Silent Planet” – a very old world where
evolution ran (as on Perelandra) in a non-Darwinian mode, and three species have attained human-like intelligence (explained as rationality and spirituality). They also saw what went wrong on earth… [An aside note: since one of these three species is roughly nine feet tall and human/birdlike, and since all three live in perfect harmony with their environment and the personality that runs their environment, I wonder if the idea was borrowed in more recent sci-fi such as “Avatar”.] Anyway, the music I’ve invented for “Malacandra” is tranquil but alien; birdcalls and deep drones are overlaid to create an atmosphere of strange quiet. The percussionist reads from a score of melodic fragments without meter, creating harmonies on the marimba and vibraphone that are not intended to sound anything like those two instruments. There is also a very slight hint of both danger and banality – humans on Malacandra experience both of these feelings before finding out the truth behind it all.

Dale’s playing on these impressed me greatly, though he did it without the prerecorded sound. He also showed me a new technique on the suspended cymbal – I’d originally asked him to create a couple passages by bowing the metal edges, a buzzing, whistling effect used often by Takemitsu (and seen in Evelyn Glennie’s DVD “Touch the Sound”). However, using this technique, it is difficult to create a sound that is sustained enough to play with “Magnetic Fields”. Dale suggested a sound made by “grinding” (it’s not nearly as rough as it sounds) – spinning the cymbal with one hand while using the other to rub it with the end of a drumstick. The sound is very similar to bowing, if a little louder, but can be continued as long as one wishes.

The second rehearsal was yesterday afternoon. Jay Hamilton (homemade instruments – see my 1/11/2011 posting), Keith Eisenbrey (found objects), and Bruce Greeley (bass clarinet) read the dark graphic score for “Night Signals; Journey to the Sea” (the long 14th piece in the Cycle, which will be in the 5:00 hour of the live concert). The score calls for improvisations within predetermined times indicated by boxes within the graphic. All three had a stopwatch, and they were calling out “one, two, etc” indicating which box they were playing in (each box stands for one minute). We all agreed that I should conduct it in the concert to avoid this necessity. (I may conduct from the piano and add an occasional note, though I didn’t originally plan to play in this piece). Some performance notes gleaned from this run-through: softer mallets work best for both Jay’s metalophone and his wooden xylophone; Bruce’s “melodicies” (melodic fragments) work best if he ignores most of the notes and instead concentrates on two or three, elaborating them with drones, multiphonics, harmonics, and reed buzz; and Keith’s bits of packaging flotsam sound exactly as he intended: a small mammal foraging in the night.

The music for this piece (one of the four longest in the Cycle) is a nocturnal dreamscape. I had originally intended it to be somewhat eerie and even scary (as it was in a concert in 2008 with Dean Moore on percussion and myself on inside piano), with the “night signals” (variations on the “mystic chord”) to lead out into the tranquility of the sea sounds. However, there was a problem. The elk "bugling" heard in the first version (a tour de force recording by Jonathon Storm) was, when processed the way I had it, too loud and harsh. I wanted it to sound a little unpleasant, but apparently it went overboard. Listeners were getting headaches. I rarely change anything based on what performers say; however, in improvised music such as this, feedback is a part of the composition process – and I saw the need to delete this attack of harsh sounds. I replaced it with some wolf howls, slowed down considerably – they are as eerie but not disagreeable at all. In fact all unpleasantness is gone from the piece – what remains is a peaceful nightscape that (to me at least) recalls some of the quieter gems by George Crumb. The meaning has changed: the “mystic chord” variations still appear but lead the music away from what appears to be tranquility – thus it must be seen (in the context of the “StormSound” music as a whole) that the tranquility masks a subtler danger. The music doesn’t communicate this, though; so I’ll have to be content with “Night Signals” being a calm nocturnal interlude. (This despite the fact that some of it takes a clue from the menacing “night forest” music in the Nielsen 5th Symphony.) A calm nocturnal interlude is not bad, of course; something like this occurs in the first piece of the Cycle (“Nature Lives in Motion”) but is destroyed by a multitudinous barrage of flutes…

Between the two rehearsals, I played a little of the “StormSound” music in the open mike at Woodland Park Presbyterian Church. I actually played the same two fragmentary pieces that I had played at the Composers’ Salon last week – though I extended the fragment of “Soundform II” in the manner of “Discarded Poems” (see my 7/31/2010 posting) to play part of the room itself as percussion. Amazing resonances from the organ cabinet and the railings…

Wayne Lovegrove also played his beautiful guitar stylings. He added a delay pedal to one piece, playing in canon with himself and creating a whole new atmosphere (particularly in that large church space).

There were also two readings of poetry and original short stories, including a hilarious wedding poem by Ogden Nash and a personal experience with a prophetic dream. However, this open mike was not nearly as large as previous ones at the same venue. (Last month, there was a pianist who actually played one of Messiaen’s “Little Pieces” and Takemitsu’s “Rain Tree Sketch”, and then did a free improvisation with clarinet and ‘cello – how many times could one hear that at an open mike!?) Part of this month’s “smallness” may be because it was held at the same time as the Fremont “art walk”, where various shops in the area become temporary art galleries and large numbers of pedestrians walk about viewing them. Maybe most performers thought that they wouldn’t be interested in sitting still for an open mike rather than visiting the art shops.

Two pictures by Michael and Jamie Foster: Jamie's "Ocean Breathes Salty" (top) and Michael's "Predictions" (bottom), from their website. Both of these were on display at the open mike.

Anyway, Woodland Park Presby was part of this too; they’ve had art in there before but this time the paintings were much larger (both in size and number). The artists were Michael and Jamie Foster, a husband and wife “art team” who sometimes work together. Jamie’s works are medium-sized abstracts, with multiple layers of texturing. Webs of dribbled and splattered paint are obscured under carefully-layered opacities and textile surfaces. To me they recall both Tobey and late-period Kandinsky. Michaels’ work is in a similar vein, but often includes a sketchy outline of a human or cartoonlike character. Many of these recall Radiohead and Moby album covers. The human character is often a solitary female – she is frequently the same from one picture to another and may be a likeness of Jamie. At any rate, it was interesting art to accompany the music.

(This posting is on 5/16/2011; 5 days until the first performance of the complete "StormSound" Cycle.)

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