Turntables

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The use of turntables as noise/improv instruments has long fascinated me, mostly in the sense that I wasn’t sure how it was done.

My interest got piqued by four CDs released in the span of about one year by Martin Tétreault and Otomo Yoshihide, both “playing” turntables. The discs — Grrr, Tok, Ahhh, and Hmmm — document a European tour in 2003, with each CD meant to reflect a particular mood (the titles are hints).

I enjoyed those albums and spent a lot of time wondering how they created all those sounds, and what it really meant to “play” a turntable. Some sounds resembled a characteristic record scratch or the scraping of a finger against the needle. But what were they doing the rest of the time?

Only now did it occur to me to go look.

In my defense, YouTube’s avant-garde catalog was more sparse a decade ago. But in 2017, a quick search for Tétreault answers my questions right away. My French isn’t good enough to follow along with this interview, but the visuals say it all: He uses discs that are wrapped with different textures, giving him different sounds to play with.

He also uses a sound board (as shown in the photo up top), which gives him a few more options.

Well. Now I know.

By the way, Yoshihide and Tétreault had an established musical partnership before those 2003 concerts were recorded. Here’s a sample of their work from 1999.

And if you want to find out a little more about that four-album set, released on the Ambiances Magnétiques label, you can see a few reviews in Zookeeper, the KZSU music database.

March 9, 2017 at 9:22 am Leave a comment

Nature & Music / Music & Tech

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ORGANELLE score, by Lisa Mezzacappa, via SFCV.

A bit of stream-of-consciousness on a day off from work …

Lisa Mezzacappa’s latest big project, ORGANELLE, has a gig at the Exploratorium in San Francisco on Thursday night, March 9.

I wrote a little bit about it last fall, but Jeff Kaliss of San Francisco Classical Voice has done a comprehensive interview with Mezzacappa, going through the details of the score. She discusses which natural processes or phenomena inspired each movement (the longevity of trees, the tiny lifespan of the mayfly) and discusses a new movement, Szygzy, that will feature Wayne Grim, the Exploratorium’s staff artist, who converts celestial data into electronic music.

A week later will be the CD release concert for another of Mezzacappa’s projects, avantNOIR. The self-titled album came out on Clean Feed Records in January, and I’ve been listening to it in spurts, mostly in the car or via the laptop.

I haven’t given the album a proper, full listen, because I’ve been on the go. I spent most of last week in Barcelona for work (no sightseeing, and only one meal at a restaurant) and spent quite a lot of time chauffeuring kids in the time before and after the trip.

One thing I’ve discovered: My primary music-listening medium has been my work laptop. It was just fastest and easiest to collect everything there. That’s a problem, as I’m discovering this morning: The reason for my day off is that I’m between jobs, voluntarily. I handed in that laptop on Monday. I’m already itching to get it back.

The music is all here, at home, in CDs and vinyl and hard-drive backups. Some of it is in the cloud, I suppose (that’s unintentional, though, a side effect of today’s music services). But it turns out, I got addicted to the convenience of the laptop. It was always on and often right in front of me.

None of that means anything; it’s just interesting. This didn’t happen with my last job transition, which means my music-listening habits have changed radically in just four years.

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All of my post-Barcelona busy-ness meant I missed a couple of good shows last weekend. Saturday was the Toychestra reunion, as noted here. Sunday night was a prog show including Jack o’ the Clock and Reconnaissance Fly. Jack o’ the Clock doesn’t have another local show planned soon, but they’ll be performing at Seattle’s SeaProg Festival in June, which sounds pretty cool. Reconnaissance Fly’s next gig is in April, at PianoFight (144 Taylor St, San Francisco).

March 7, 2017 at 11:01 am Leave a comment

Back Pages #2: Toychestra and My Brief Music-Writing Career

Toychestra & Fred FrithWhat Leave Behind (SK, 2004)

Toychestra is back, about to play a 20th-anniversary show at the Ivy Room (860 San Pablo Ave, Albany) on Saturday, March 4.

Does that ever bring back memories.

For a couple of years starting in 2002 or 2003, I moonlighted as a music reviewer for the San Francisco Bay Guardian. I had a full-time job but thought it might be fun to write blurbs for the SFBG entertainment calendar in my spare time. That job opening was filled by the time I called, but they did need live-music writers. Do something on spec, and we’ll see what happens, they said.

That’s how I joined their stable of music freelancers. I took pride in the position and scrutinized calendars for suitable creative-music shows. My editor, Summer Burkes, held my copy to high standards, sending back drafts with stacks of questions poking holes in my writing — but she liked my work and kept nudging me for more. She even started feeding me assignments in the pop realm. (Ledisi was one.)

The sharpest review I filed, and the one that earned me a handshake from Burkes’ boss, was about the noise/drums duo Compomicro-Dexall. (Half of that duo was bran(…)pos, whom I just saw, for the first time in years, at KZSU’s Day of Noise.) That review ended with: “Bring earplugs and drink decaf.”

But my best and most satisfying story was Toychestra.

“Like Santa’s sleigh crashed into a garage sale” is how I described them, with their grandma’s-attic collection of instruments set on ironing boards, the Christmas lights threaded about the stage, and their crazy kitchy wigs and outfits.

Toychestra was a group of five female artists, mostly non-musicians, hammering out pre-written songs on toy instruments. The music was clanky and innocent but, because it was written without awareness of keys or modes, also bore an uneasy shadow: “It’s Miranda July conducting the Residents in the Twin Peaks Elementary School symphony,” I wrote.

Dan Plonsey, who curated the Beanbenders series of shows starting in the mid-’90s, has a taste for the absurd and took a liking to the group. He couldn’t resist pairing them with an improv pro who would appreciate their musical naivite — and thus, Plonsey wrote What Leave Behind, a concerto for Toychestra and guitarist Fred Frith.

The sounds are dry and mostly bassless, as you’d expect — these are literally toy instruments. But they’re in tune. Toychestra member Lexa Walsh told me one of their biggest challenges was finding instruments that played a true major scale. Toymakers, realizing most parents had no musical ear, had stopped bothering.

With coordinated rhythms and syncopated melodies, What Leave Behind plays out like a sinister circus overture. Frith’s contributions are subtle at first — a buzzing in the opening movement (“The Dub”), a choppy composed melody in the second movement (“Fellini”). He gets to cut loose during “3 Elephants and a Cow,” backed by animal-noise toys.

 
The 24-minute piece ends with the five women singing a ghostly melody.

I don’t recall the details, but Toychestra was compelling enough that Summer let me write it as a straight feature rather than a concert review. I did attend one of the live performances of What Leave Behind, at the Starry Plough in Berkeley, and interviewed Walsh afterwards. The resulting story is still viewable on Toychestra’s press page.

What Leave Behind, and two other Toychestra albums, are now available on Bandcamp.

band50After Summer Burkes left the Bay Guardian, I was still welcomed as a reviewer but wasn’t nearly as prized. This is normal when a publication changes editors, and I was OK with it. With a toddler and a grade-school kid at home, my showgoing needed to slow down anyway.

My final Bay Guardian review must have run at the start of 2006. I had gone dark by then, but one day, Summer’s successor sent a desperation email blast — she needed someone to find a review-worthy show during the week after Christmas. I wrote up the multi-instrumental duo of Chaos Butterfly — experimental stuff that involved Jonathan Segel of Camper Van Beethoven fame, giving my story a connection to mainstream readers. (The other player, Dina Emerson, is no slouch either.) My piece was good, but the experience confirmed that my heart wasn’t in it any more.

Mildly Amusing Epilogue: I talked to the Bay Guardian only once more — to the finance department. I was getting paid for my work, but between the day job, the kids, and my KZSU radio gig, I honestly didn’t notice that the checks had never arrived. The light bulb went on a couple of years later, when the IRS asked about a chunk of money that I’d never paid taxes on.

Turns out the Bay Guardian had transposed two digits of my home address. We figured this out on the phone within a couple of minutes, and they immediately issued a new check. They were iconoclasts and hellraisers, but the Bay Guardian that I encountered was also quite professional. I have fond memories of my short time with them.

For more on Toychestra, check out this edition of KQED’s Spark: http://ww2.kqed.org/spark/toychestra/.

March 1, 2017 at 9:35 pm Leave a comment

Back Pages #1: Bill Bruford’s Earthworks

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Bill Bruford’s Earthworks — self-titled (E.G., 1987)

The first song I ever played on the air at KZSU was “Bridge of Inhibition” by Bill Bruford’s Earthworks.

It starts like a declaration of purpose. Hey, listeners, it’s JAZZ time.

 
But it’s also symbolic. Earthworks was a key discovery in my early explorations of jazz, bridging the gap between prog rock and what would come next.

I bought Earthworks’ self-titled album on vinyl from a short-lived Cupertino record store, where it caught my eye in a display. This was during a time when I’d been scouting for solo prog projects, picking up albums by Tony Banks and Steve Hackett and, the most treasured find of them all, Chris Squire. It intrigued me to think that Bill Bruford had formed a jazz band, so I gave it a chance.

Earthworks songs like “Thud” trace crooked melodies educated by Monk — unusual stuff that throws you off balance but becomes easy to process on a second or third listen. That’s part of what I liked about prog — the process of “decoding” a song to find out what was going on. Earthworks turned out to have just the right mix to tickle the prog and jazz portions of my brain.

My favorite tracks had bouncy melodies and odd time signatures. The 13/8 of “My Heart Declares a Holiday” is really not so complicated, but I sure loved tapping my fingers along to it, especially the bassline in the “chorus.”

earthworks-pic

Source: Discogs

Earthworks also gave me a dose of the untethered improvisation that would be in my future. “Emotional Shirt,” in particular, goes through a speedy jazz-improv stretch before plunging back into Django Bates’ heavy-handed composition. It’s not 100% free, as it’s anchored by Mick Hutton’s furious bass rhythm, but it’s still something that was just outside my grasp at the time.

Future Earthworks albums didn’t capture my attention the way the debut did. I appreciated Bruford’s synth-drum experiments, which were producing new rhythms not possible for regular keyboardists, but the ’80s were ending, and the synths were already sounding a bit dated. And the melodies on future albums generally didn’t click with me the way something like Iain Ballamy’s “Thud” did.

In that sense, Earthworks contributed to the musical restlessness — the dissatisfaction with “jazz” — that eventually led me to Tim Berne and creative music. But this wasn’t a dead end. I’m a fan of the band’s first three albums (the ones with Ballamy and Bates — Bruford had essentially co-opted their band to form Earthworks), and I went back to “Bridge of Inhibition” occasionally at the start of Stanford’s academic quarters. If I’m ever on the air again, even for a one-off show, it’s almost certain to get a spin.

February 20, 2017 at 10:04 am Leave a comment

Back Pages

I’ll be devoting a series of occasional blog posts to some of the albums that I found early in my creative-music travels.

We’re mostly talking about a period between 1998 and 2004 — in terms of when I discovered the albums, not in terms of when they were released. Some predate my conscious interest in creative music. Many of them are out of print. Some were lucky finds, others more deliberate, but all of them helped further my education in creative music and jazz.

What they have in common is that they have stories.

The very first story — the zeroth album on this list, in a sense — is Low Life: The Paris Concert (Part 1), by Tim Berne’s Bloodcount. That’s the album that really catapulted me into avant-jazz — and it’s a story that I’ve already told.

On to other things, then. I’ll be doing 10 or 20 of these “back pages” posts at irregular intervals in the coming months or years. The first official installment is about a bridge between my prog-rock and free-jazz lives, and you’ll find it written up here.

February 20, 2017 at 10:03 am Leave a comment

MOPDTK Gets All Literary

Mostly Other People Do the KillingLoafer’s Hollow (Hot Cup, 2017)

mostlyother-loafersHow old is Mostly Other People Do the Killing? Old enough that they once had a Myspace page (and possibly still do).

How old is this blog? Old enough that when I reviewed the band’s third album — the very album reviewed on the blog — I mentioned their Myspace page unironically.

Say what you will about the blog, but the band has aged well, evolving and experimenting while still adhering to its original formula: Mixing styles that pay homage to jazz through the ages, while naming every track after real towns in Pennsylvania. Expanded to a septet, the band goes even deeper with the energy and twisted creativity that have been its hallmarks.

After 13 years and now 10 albums, you’d think bassist Moppa Elliott, the band’s leader and songwriter, would be out of amusing names — but no! He’s not only kept up the trend but has also found towns that relate to five great authors. The result is a five-track span of Loafer’s Hollow that suddenly becomes a book club: “Bloomsburg” is dedicated to James Joyce, “Kilgore” to Kurt Vonnegut, “Mason and Dixon” to Thomas Pynchon.

Moreover, each of those five compositions is based on music that Elliott set to the authors’ words. (Loafer’s Hollow, by the way, is original name of a town now called Library.)

Musically, you can’t tell. The touchstone era for Loafer’s Hollow is the ballroom-stomping jazz of the ’40s. The music carries a “hot club” feel, and Brandon Seabrook’s banjo is a nicely bucolic touch.

The layer on top of that, of course, is madcap free jazz. So you get Jon Irabagon’s soprano-sax babble to start “Five,” or an impossibly long pause on “Kilgore” where he creates the smallest sound possible out of his horn, a subliminal creak that’s the unaccompanied introduction to a wild solo. Or Ron Stabinsky, on that same track, gradually going insane on the piano, staring out with a a rapid boogie-woogie vibe that gets even faster, then starts to wobble. The suspense is palpable.

 
Trumpeter Peter Evans has left the band, but replacement Steven Bernstein is a known quantity and obviously no slouch. He gets to declare his presence early on the album with an unaccompanied solo on “Hi-Nella,” starting with an impressively sustained high-pitch siren sound. On “Bloomsberg,” he and bass trombonist Dave Taylor (another crucial veteran added to the lineup) trade licks in a comedic bit of one-upsmanship.

 
The band has a smart-aleck reputation, but they’re earnest in paying homage to old jazz styles. You get to hear that side on “Meridian” (the Cormac McCarthy piece), an honestly good, straightforward song with a nostalgic mellow tint and a hardy beat. (Oh, and a Seabrook banjo solo that sticks to the way-up-there upper register, where the notes come out like tinny clicks.)

Loafer’s Hollow will be released on Feb. 24.

February 17, 2017 at 4:36 pm Leave a comment

Berne on Piano

Matt Mitchell [playing the music of Tim Berne] — førage (Screwgun, 2017)

mitchell-forageFørage is an album that demands attention. You have to listen actively, letting Matt Mitchell‘s unaccompanied piano guide you down his twisty trails.

The storyline is that Mitchell, who’s been the pianist in Tim Berne‘s band Snakeoil, is interpreting Berne’s compositions, combining multiple songs per track. Blending it all with his own improvisational instincts, Mitchell creates dense, fractal-like structures that carry an elegant air, whether the mood is crystalline and quiet or stern and hammering.

Satoko Fujii’s recent solo album, Invisible Hand, is more direct, sampling a variety of jazz and blues forms. Her music takes plenty of unexpected sharp turns, but you can quickly absorb the moment of whatever passage you’ve dropped the needle onto. førage is a more difficult read.

Both approaches produce admirable results. I loved Invisible Hand, and I’m also savoring the intricate puzzles of førage.

Touches of Berne-ness are recognizable — at the start of “RÄÅY,” or in the recurring riffs that appear in “TRĀÇĘŚ,” — but the overall effect is a melting pot. It’s better that way. If I saw a title like “Simple City,” off the first Snakeoil album, I’d be looking for snippets of the composition.

 
Lacking any such touchstone, the mind is left free to admire Mitchell’s labyrinths. “ŒRBS,” in particular, is darting and densely packed, and it’s exciting when Mitchell lifts the sustain pedal for an unembellished glimpse of his technique. “CLØÙDĒ” lives up to its name on two fronts, starting out gossamer and innocent but building into a relentless storm.

The track not to overlook is “ÀÄŠ,” the long, slow one. The mood is one of high art, with a glacial opening and echoey sustain pedal, and it builds to a passionate, whirling crescendo.

Interestingly, førage seems to be Mitchell’s first solo piano album. His collection of practice etudes, Fiction (Pi Recordings, 2013), was a duo album with drummer Ches Smith, and his solo outing vapor squint, antique chromatic (Scrapple, 2006) was an extended noise collage.

While førage can be purchased as a download on Bandcamp, Berne considers the physical CD package vital to the experience, with its art by Steve Byram and photos by Berne and engineer Daniel Goodwin. Like Berne, I grew up in the age of LPs and glorious album art, so I would echo his plea: “I hope we can sell these bastards cause I’d really like to do more Screwgun stuff.”

February 12, 2017 at 10:41 am 2 comments

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