Composers’ Night at the Outsound Summit
Specifically, we got exposed to a graphical score, a computer-driven (yet acoustically-produced) backdrop for improvisation, and a highly structured piece that still had high degrees of freedom.
(For more about the Summit in general, see here, or read this excellent overview at the Fenderhardt blog.)
Christina Stanley presented two graphical scores: oil paintings meant to be interpreted by string players. Before the concert, she explained that the players are given instructions. For “Put It On,” the piece presented first, they start at the central confluence (that spot to the right and below center, where the spokes converge, I think) and work their way outward and then around the edges — but the direction and speed of motion are their choice. Different shapes represent different types of playing, small cells to be linked together. (You can see the painting on Stanley’s web site and read more about her compositions in this interview on Sequenza 21.)
That piece got performed by the Skadi Quartet, with Stanley at first violin. It was an active piece, spiky and often aggressive but also featuring some airy slow bowing. The execution was a lot more organized than I’d expected. The players started with two quick notes, directed by Stanley, and as the piece progressed, Stanley would cue them into speeding up or slowing to a whisper. They also stopped at Stanley’s direction (I’d been wondering how a piece like this would end.)
Her second piece, for a violin/cello duet, was more mellifluous, and in fact, the score looked calmer, with flowing squggles surrounding a central unit of musical shapes, the way a moat surrounds a castle. The sound was sometimes delicate, sometimes rich in melody. It was a lovely piece.
Matthew Goodheart performed a solo piece consisting of cymbals and gongs spread around the edges of the audience space, with little buzzers (computer speakers?) attached to the backs. These were activated by a computer program, creating rattling or buzzing sounds, or mimicking the small taps of a drum stick.
The piece started with whispery tones from the cymbals, eventually building to louder sounds. Goodheart’s piano included some strident playing, full of big, stiff chords to stand up to the clamor of metal in the air. As with any installation piece, the sound depended on where you sat; I couldn’t her the gong in the balcony, but I got an earful of the cymbal in the front row (the one at right).
The sound never got overwhelming, and the sensation of cymbals pinging and rattling behind me was interesting, reminiscent of the surroundsound experience at the SF Tape Music Festival.
Overall, Goodheart’s piece was slow-moving yet created a feeling of constant motion, new sounds arriving all the time. Goodheart himself was hammering and bold at the piano keys, and he also provided some quieter and creaking sounds by working directly with the piano strings.
The piece ended with Goodheart hammering one piano note very fast, over and over, building up that tone in our heads and in the air. And when he stopped, I thought I could faintly hear the metal instruments shimmering in resonance. Whether it was there or not, it was a good effect.
John Shiurba‘s 9:9 was the most ambitious of the pieces, a 65-minute composition in nine segments, performed by a nine-piece ensemble.
The sound was a cross between modern classical music and pure improvisation, and in fact, the score opened many places for improvising, including some instructions that came in the form of pictures or diagrams without explanation. At the same time, Shiurba conducted with active zeal, using notecards to cue certain players to play particular notes or rhythms.
After the first few minutes, the structure started becoming clear. Each of the nine segments consisted of:
- One soloist, who I think improvised throughout, dramatically standing out from the crowd at first and then blending into the mood of the piece. Each player got a turn being soloist.
- Little songs, lyrics to which were cryptograms taken from The New York Times. One female vocalist (Hadley McCarroll) sang the corny English solution, while the other (Polly Moller) sang the encrypted part phonetically. The songs were entirely scored for both singers and all the instruments, and the melody was that cross-tonal, spiky sound of contemporary classical song.
- Pre-determined phrases that two or three players performed on the side, almost in unison but not necessarily. Sometimes these consisted of fragments of the songs.
- Little rhythms that other side players would create on cue. The rhythm was set, but the exact notes weren’t.
- Individual notes: small glancing blows. Shiurba used the notecards to execute these, pointing to a couple of players to hit the note, then stop.
The last three elements would be woven throughout the soloing part, but the songs stood by themselves, with all nine players included in the score.
(Shiurba explains 9:9 in more detail in this interview with Polly Moller, published on Sequenza 21.)
There was a lot to take in — lots of moods, lots of soloing styles, and of course the ear-deciphering of trying to make out the cryptogram lyrics. The English part was easy to pick out of the mix; the encrypted side, less so, which shouldn’t be surprising.
Some standout moments from a few segments:
Gino Robair, who had started the piece with a bit of solo percussion, also took the last solo — lots of fun pattering (pots and metal bowls placed on a towel, I think).
The bass segment, led by Scott Walton, got immense and droney, propelled by his bowing but also by the choices of the rest of the ensemble.
Ava Mendoza played acoustic guitar, turning in an engaging and tangy solo with lots of offbeat choices in the melody. I liked it a lot.
McCarroll was the one performer I’d never seen before. She could certainly belt out the soprano (mezzo-soprano?) notes, but she also proved to be really good on the piano. Her solo was fierce and thundering.
Matt Ingalls, on bass clarinet, started off in a slow, patient mode, and the music around him continued with that glacial mood as he shifted gears into loud squeaks and ungodly howls.
The Summit ends tonight (Saturday) with “Fire and Energy,” a program of jazz-inspired music from Jack Wright (who’ll be very non-jazzy), Dave Bryant, Vinny Golia, and Tony Passarelli. Location is 544 Capp St., near 20th, in San Francisco’s Mission District.