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.)

Thursday, April 7, 2011

"StormSound" Updates and Upcoming Gigs

No real full-time “gigs” coming up – I’ve been concentrating on finishing up the “StormSound” Cycle. Only one movement left to go; the last – and it’s almost done too. All the parts have been sent off to their respective musicians, and I’m currently trying to organize rehearsal times.

I am, however, planning to play live a couple of times before the Big Concert. First up, is, tomorrow: the next open mike at Woodland Park Presbyterian Church. This was quite a venue last time (the first time) I played there; this time I’m planning to do a version of “The Psalm” for pipe organ and prerecorded electronics. It’s something a drone-minimalist piece, so I’ll see what happens when I play it live…

Drone minimalism has gotten some very negative reactions from others when I’ve played it for others, though it’s never been any drone minimalism that I’ve written myself. Though I find these reactions bizarre and inexplicable, they are as frequent as the other side – those who think it’s the best music ever done – and the negative responses are, as negatives tend to be, much more extreme than necessary. One conversation (about a piece by Phill Niblock) ran something like this:

The critic: So that music is trying to say that you can just play one note and call it ‘art’.
Me: Well, no, but I suppose you could, in theory, compose a one-note piece.
The critic: You could also put a cross in a bucket of manure and call it ‘art’.
At this point it was pointless to argue – simply insulting the music without listening to it is the same as refusing to have a serious conversation about it. Implicit in the comments of the “critic” is that the piece did in fact consist of one note, and that this would have been a problem even if it did. It reminds me of the time (this is actually true!) that a high school student decided to break the teacher’s boom-box rather than listen to a piece of drone minimalism in a class!

Anyway, as always at open mikes, I’ll play one of my other styles as well.

Another upcoming gig is something that I’ve been invited too: next Thursday (April 14th), there’s something called “Music for the Peoples” at the People Republic of Koffee (coffee shop), 1718 12th Ave., Seattle. I haven’t been there, but it looks fun. The first set is a band (including Beth Fleenor, among others) and the second is “open to anyone interested in improvising”. I’ll join in that second set if possible. If they have a piano, I’ll play it; if not, I’ll bring along the dulcimer, a slab gong, or something else worth making noise on. (A disclaimer: see my 11/11/2010 posting for a review of a free-improv open mike…)

The third upcoming gig is the May installment of the Seattle Composers’ Salon; as always, a set of various composers’ new works, and discussions following the music. There are several pieces scheduled (there seem to be more than the usual four or five), so I have an eight-minute slot. I’ll do two 4-minute fragments from “Nature Lives in Motion”, the first of the “StormSound” pieces. As always, the Salon is at the Chapel Performance Space, Good Shepherd Center, 50th and Sunnyside, Seattle.

(This posting is on 4/7/2011; 44 days until the first performance of the complete "StormSound" Cycle.)

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

CD Reviews: Dana Reason, Steve Barsotti, David Loy

These are some CDs that I’ve picked up at concerts lately (actually last year) or in a studio. Two are experimental, and two are jazz piano – though with two drastically different takes on the latter.

Dana Reason Trio: Revealed

Think of this as one large composition in a virtuosic “lots of notes” free-jazz style. It begins with a showy allegro with chaos and clusters of notes (reminiscent of some of the work in Chick Corea’s “Early Days”). More pieces in a similar vein follow, though the listener may be able to discern a gradual “opening up” of the harmonies: chords with more fourths and fifths in them, and less minor (or dissonant) intervals. Then, halfway through, something entirely unexpected happens. A grand hush comes over the music. Silence (never actually heard, always felt) becomes the focus. At the same time, the piano playing at least becomes more intense, more concentrated. In this way, this album (this single large composition) becomes like those rare large-scale classical works where the climax is in the quietest music, after all the din and drama has subsided (think of the Mahler 3rd, the Berlioz Requiem, or the Monteverdi “1610” Vespers). The end becomes slightly more active, with the bass leading the way in a long improvisation over sparse sounds from the other instruments. Altogether an interesting and refreshing approach for a jazz album.

David Loy: Cranes

David sold me this CD while I was at his Lake Union Studio, recording some tracks for a CD of my piece “SoundScrolls V” (one of my tracks is available for free online; here.) David recorded this CD in the studio, on their amazing grand piano, and he worked out much of this music to sound optimal on this particular piano. This is not the kind of piano music that I usually listen to – but in this case I make an exception. At first hearing, this is “George Winston” easy listening – but not in a bad, muzaky way. The long reverberations were not added in post-production to smooth out the piano sound – they were produced by the piano itself and are an intrinsic part of the music. Likewise, the piano was not compressed so that all notes are the same volume level – here, loud notes sound loud not only because they have a sharper “attack”, but because they actually are louder – the way a piano sounds in real life and the way it is recorded in classical music and jazz. These techniques make nuances possible which never occur in “easy listening” piano. Fans of Windham Hill should give this a listen to hear what they’ve been missing.

That said, what about the music? Here, even casual listening reveals another surprise: unusual for this genre, David is not afraid of jazz chords, chromaticism, and even dissonance (the piece “For My Father” actually has an atonal melody; “Oropesa” frequently harmonizes the melody against a minor second). These do not detract from the “style” of the music but are subtly worked into it. The result? I stated above that at first hearing, this is “George Winston” easy listening – but after a second or third hearing, those impressions fade. In the end, this is actually a solo piano jazz CD. I recommend it for anyone who is interested in something that, on close inspection, turns out to be something else entirely.

Steve Barsotti: along these lines

This is a beautiful album of (arguably) “old-school” musique-concrete (think the old Xenakis “Electroacoustic Music”) but with an alluring combination of high- and low-tech recording that wouldn’t have been possible in the older music. Like the Dana Reason CD, it can be thought of as a single large-scale composition, though obviously in a much different style. In this case, the four movements form a giant crescendo. The first piece (movement), “Boundaries”, is an excersize in boundary-breaking; the distinction between sounds (and between recognizable and unrecognizable sounds) blurs, and we’re left with vague, almost subliminal soundscape of electro-acoustic “microsounds”. All is quiet, with hints of mechanical noises and “electronica”, but the sources of very little can be discerned; it appears that many of the frequencies (those that make the sounds recognizable) have been filtered out.

The second and third pieces (movements), called “Bridges” and “Terraces”, bring in more high frequencies, and thus the sounds are more familiar. Some of the sounds are periodic, thus setting up rudimentary meters (“Bridges” actually begins with traffic driving over an expansion seam in a bridge), though the emphasis is still on the interest of the sound itself. Both also establish drones based on electronic processing of the same sounds, thus also establishing “tonality”. “Terraces” is the longest piece, and here the electronic drones become the most ambient, blending with the other sounds in an epic slow movement.

If “Terraces” is the adagio, then “Bypass” is the finale. Strange blips give way to massive static and “heavy metal” distortion. This could be a piece by Merzbow, though, as Mr. Barsotti explained to me, “It’s not just that you turn it on and let it scream at you.” As in Merzbow’s “1930” album, there is subtlety behind the noise. Delicate bells quiver behind walls of static; quiet overtones sing out amid thunderous din. The final 30 seconds fulfill what had begun 60 minutes before; the same sounds that started “Boundaries” return, and the listener suddenly realizes that these are the same sound sources that produced the chaos of “Bypass”. The CD ends refreshed, despite the intensity of its final minutes.

Steve Barsotti: Rarebit

Mr. Barsotti’s other CD, “Rarebit”, is a collection of pieces made on homemade instruments. None of these (either the pieces or the instruments) are “musical” in the conventional sense; rather, they are excursions into the possible beauty that untuned percussive sound can (perhaps unexpectedly) produce. It is not possible to determine which instrument plays which sound, nor is this necessary. There is a continuous contrast between pointilistic and drone-like sounds, and between sounds that appear “near” and those that have echoes and appear “far”: the constant shifting between these creates a tension in the music. The most surprising manifestation of this tension, however, occurs in the form of the “playlist” itself: the first and last pieces are made by multitracking material from other pieces on the CD. One would expect these to be denser (and thus the pieces in the middle, which were played “live”, to sound shallow) – but oddly, this does not happen. The first dense piece merely presents the material in an unfocussed, unclear haze; an overture of sounds that will be explored more completely in later pieces. The last dense piece is the finale, summing up all that has gone before in an aleatory overlapping. Like “Along these Lines”, this CD ends refreshed and completed, without any dangling ideas. I recommend both of them.

(This posting is on 4/5/2011; 46 days until the first performance of the complete "StormSound" Cycle.)