SFEMF: Electronic Animals and Painted Deserts

img_2479-tujurikkuja-cropMy daughter and I compared notes after seeing Madalyn Merkey and Tujurikkuja, two acts that were helping to close out the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival.

I felt that Merkey’s piece had more activity, while Tujurikkuja’s was more about drones and walls of sound. In terms of volume, I could deal with Merkey’s piece but wished for earplugs during Tujurikkuja’s.

My daughter had the opposite reaction: Her ears had a harder time with Merkey. And between the two pieces, she found Tujurikkuja’s drones more fascinating, while I’d thought Merkey’s piece was the richer experience. It just goes to show how differently music can be perceived.

Merkey’s piece, “Stained Air,” was a stroll through forests of different individual sounds, a journey tied together by a recurring element of a tone that would rise in pitch gradually — not the same tone every time, but the same concept of a “revving-up” sound. (Since this was the first Sunday of the NFL season, it was hard not to think of kickoffs.)

According to the program notes, the bulk of the piece was built of tones that were changing, according to pre-set rules, during the course of the piece. The music did seem to move in phases, clustering certain “types” of noises while also never overlapping too many at once. One phase I remember in particular had springy, squelching sounds like small electronic animals making their puzzled way around the landscape.

Markey built the piece for a 4.2-speaker setup to create some stereo effects — side-to-side swooshes, for instance. Being over to the side, we lost some of the effect, but we could still catch the sense of an added dimension.

Tujurikkuja (the J’s are pronounced like H’s, Spanish-style) put a descriptive poem in the program described a scorching hot desert (First clue: The opening line, “It is hot.”) But my daughter and I found the music evoking wide, dark caverns and glassy walls of sound — it felt cold, not in an emotional sense but in a literal sense.

Either way, theirs was a more drone-based set, although there was plenty of sound-shifting, with new elements coming and going. They ended it by simply walking off the stage, allowing the final droney buzz to continue on its own, in darkness, until they cut it off remotely.

These were two thoughtful and contrasting pieces and made for a good program. My daughter admitted she wouldn’t seek out this kind of music, but she paid attention through both pieces, and we talked about both of them quite a bit afterwards. Therein lies the real power of music and the arts.

September 17, 2016 at 12:57 pm Leave a comment

SFEMF Gets a Little Crazy

img_2475I am not proud of this, but: The only show of the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival that I attended was Sunday night’s closer, the one where clipping. performed. Predictably, at least half of the apparently sold-out crowd at little Brava Theater was there to see that band, specifically rapper Daveed Diggs. And, yes … my daughter was one of them.

I had fun. But as you might expect, it wasn’t quite the same experience SFEMF normally delivers.

The second half wasn’t, anyway. The first half featured electronic pieces by Madalyn Merkey and Tujurikkuja, and I’m grateful to the clipping. fans for being respectfully silent during that set. Those who couldn’t deal with it quickly decamped to the lobby, which was a distraction but was the right thing to do. Many of them seemed willing to accept the music on its own terms, though, and they applauded enthusiastically, as did the “usual” SFEMF-goers.

The clipping. set was different. After one or two songs, fans rushed the stage, dancing and jumping in full hip-hop mode. My daughter and I had fun (and stayed in our seats, for a better view) — but any pretense about savoring experimental electronic sounds was gone. The show had been taken over, and it was my turn to accept someone’s music on its own terms.

Nothing against clipping. or Diggs. They were doing their normal thing, and they’re very good at it. It’s great that SFEMF experimented with pop music, but the show was overrun by one factor no one could control: Diggs’ notoriety from Hamilton.

We got a taste of that before the show, when Diggs appeared near our section of the audience to greet friends (the guy siting next to me was clipping. bandmate William Hutson, it turned out). It wasn’t long before one teenage girl asked for an autograph, and soon a line formed. It’s in the photo, above; Diggs is on the far right in black-and-white stripes.

Warm and generous, he worked through a good portion of the line, at one point remarking that the evening wasn’t meant to be all about him. He finally had to excuse himself, promising he’d hang around after the show — which he did.

Regarding the music, I’m going to use a separate blog entry to discuss the Madalyn Merkey and Tujurikkuja pieces. They did fine work which shouldn’t be overshadowed by all the words I’m devoting to clipping.

But I do want to talk about clipping., because their live act felt so different from their records. To me, the CDs have an ominous edge, defined by not only the noisy backing, but also the lurking sparseness. The sounds are crunchy and aggressive, but they leave enough blank space for a sense of isolation and dread.

The live show was, well, a hip-hop show. Compared to the CDs, the sounds were infused with more melody and more of that thump-thump beat, and Hutson’s fellow DJ, Jonathan Snipes, took at least one crowd-pleasing solo. While Diggs’ delivery was still edgy and his lyrics dense with political and social tension, the show became a dance party, as hip-hop tends to be.

But I enjoyed it, as I’ve said, and the tracks they played from their new album, Splendor and Misery, were stunning. The opening narrative, “The Breach,” showed off Diggs’ redlining rap style, fast as a machine gun and precise as a diamond cutter. Later, all the rapping and electronics stepped aside for a surprising folk song called “Story 5,” a dark and eventually bloody tale performed by one woman, alone, on harp and vocal. (On the record, it’s an elegant a cappella piece for male ensemble.)

I found myself geeking out about the fact that a couple of the raps added up to 6/4 time. That included the final track, “A Better Place,” which was surprisingly upbeat and tonal, ending with a grand sunburst of noise. To show off, I’ll add that the song mentions “bodies and cities,” confirming that the EP’s title comes from an unfinished Samuel R. Delaney novel.

I wouldn’t have sought out clipping. on my own, so I’m grateful to SFEMF for exposing me to something new. I hope some of clipping.’s fans went home thinking the same thing. Maybe the experiment worked after all.

September 13, 2016 at 11:52 pm Leave a comment

Lisa Mezzacappa Organelle – Sep. 11 & 16

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Mezzacappa, from BayImproviser.com

In June, Lisa Mezzacappa performed three concerts in Europe with different ensembles, showing off ORGANELLE, her latest concept for an improvising ensemble.

Mezzacappa has initiated so many interesting projects over the years. The electro-acoustic chamber ensemble Nightshade comes to mind, and more recently she adapted her Bait and Switch quartet for a concept called avant-NOIR.

Last year’s Glorious Ravage was an ambitious and successful project combining composition, history, narrative, and visual elements. Parts of it are preserved on the gloriousravage.com website, captured with professional photography and video.

Now there’s ORGANELLE, an improv concept that draws from the natural sciences and, in a physical sense, the universe. Here’s how she describes it on her news page:

ORGANELLE is a “set” of pieces inspired by diverse scientific processes – some enormous and unfathomable, others impossibly microscopic – that form a whole through the insights and explorations of fantastic improvisers. The composition draws its musical ideas from the different ways that the human body, the natural world, and the cosmos mark the passing of time. The rhythms, the musical relationships, the melodies, and structures in the work are each connected to a theory of cell biology, astrophysics, paleontology, zoology, or neuroscience, exploring these otherwise-imperceptible phenomena through sound.

Performances took place in Naples, Rome, and Cologne in June, and now Mezzacappa is going to perform ORGANELLE here in the Bay Area. There’s an open rehearsal on Sunday, Sept. 11 at the Berkeley Art Museum, followed by the full performance at the museum on Friday, Sept. 16 (a show that includes ’90s dub/funk stars Broun Fellinis).

Each performance has featured a different set of four or five local musicians alongside Mezzacappa. Here’s the lineup for the Berkeley Art Museum shows:

Darren Johnston, trumpet
Kyle Bruckmann, oboes
Cory Wright, reeds
John Finkbeiner, guitar
Jordan Glenn, drums
Lisa Mezzacappa, bass

It’s a busy week for Mezzacappa, who’s also performing some solo compositions tonight (Sept. 10) as part of Philip Gelb’s music and food series. (In an intimate setting, a small audience is served a vegan gourmet meal during the show — it’s an intriguing concept.) She’s also appears with an improvising quartet on a newly released CD called Shipwreck 4, which sounds really good (more on that later).

September 10, 2016 at 10:41 am Leave a comment

Larry Ochs, Donald Robinson & a Lot of History

ochsrob2Larry Ochs (sax) and Donald Robinson (drums) will play a rare show as a duo on Thursday, Sept. 8, at the Luggage Store Gallery (1007 Market St., San Francisco).

They put out a CD fairly recently, called The Throne, which I wrote up here. (Was that really more than a year ago?) I also find myself thinking about Robinson’s recent duo concert with Oliver Lake — a highlight of this year’s Outsound New Music Summit.

Ochs and Robinson have played together for more than 20 years in more ensembles than I can count. In the Throne writeup, I’d neglected to mention What We Live, the improvising trio (or more) spearheaded by bassist Lisle Ellis, with Ochs and Robinson. Then there’s also Ochs’ Sax and Drumming Core, with Ochs and Robinson joined by second drummer Scott Amendola. And going back to the ’90s, they were both in the Glenn Spearman Double Trio.

That’s a lot of history, not to mention a nice scenic path through the last two decades of Bay Area creative music. Their show on Thursday will be just another in a long series — but in a way, it’s also worth celebrating.

Here are Ochs and Robinson live from a show three years ago hosted by GRIM (Groupe de Recherche et d’Improvisation Musicales — which actually translates nicely into Group for Research and Musical Improvisation). It’s a brief excerpt with a regal, Coltrane-shaded feel.

And Ochs himself has posted a track from The Throne on Soundcloud. Called “Breakout,” it’s an Ochs composition enhanced by a nice hard snap by Robinson.

September 7, 2016 at 11:51 pm Leave a comment

SFEMF 2017

sfemf2016posterThe San Francisco Electronic Music Festival returns this week, starting with a Thursday show at the Exploratorium and ending with a change of pace that might draw a bit of a crossover crowd.

Most of the shows are at the Brava Theater Center (2781 24th Street, San Francisco). Check the full schedule for more details.

Thursday, Sept. 8: The kickoff show, held at the Exploratorium, will feature Gen Ken Montgomery performing a Cassette CONcert, an idea developed by the late German musician Conrad Schnitzler beginning in the late ’60s. It’s an intriguing spin on the idea of tape music, the preconfigured electronic-music pieces that became an art form in the ’50s. In this case, Schnitzler provides a series of tapes, and it’s up to the musician which ones to play and when.

This means the concert can take variable form and length (Montgomery reports of one concert that lasted 50 hours). It’s a very Cageian idea, this reconfigurable composing; it also makes me think of Pierre Boulez’s Domaines, the modular piece performed by sfSound in July.

That Thursday show also includes the percussion-electronics duo IMA, who just came off a successful performance at the Outsound New Music Summit.

Friday, Sept. 9: This show includes composer Maja S.K. Ratkje, the Norweigan noise artist who also travels in classical-music circles. Her recently released Crepuscular Hour, a piece that includes three choirs, noise musicians, and a church organ, “seeps through the liminal cracks between light and dark, the spiritual gloaming during which living bodies and minds change their patterns of behaviour,” as The Quietus describes it. Performance photos on Ratkje’s website are stunning.

Saturday, Sept. 10, 4:00 p.m.:  There’s a Saturday evening show at Brava, which will include local violin-and-electronics artist Thea Farhadian. In the afternoon, though, there’s a tribute to Contrad Schnitzler happening in the Brava neighborhood. Gen Ken Montgomery will host a “participatory” Cassette CONcert, where you’re welcome to bring a cassette deck and become part of the performance. Elsewhere, there’s going to be a small exhibition of Schnitzler’s archives.

These are happening at Explorist International and Adobe Books — 3174 and 3130 24th St., respectively. I don’t know which event is at which location, but Adobe Books has hosted small concerts in the past, so it might be the CONcert venue.

Not to sell Farhadian short. She has a new album coming out on Creative Sources in November and is a KZSU Day of Noise alum. Here’s a sample:


Sunday, Sept. 11: The SMEMF guest likely to draw the most attention is an East Bay native: Daveed Diggs, performing with the L.A. rap trio clipping. (the period is part of the name). Diggs is better known for less experimental work, being one of the original stars of the Hamilton musical. As the Marquis de Lafayette, he performs some impossibly fast raps in a French accent. With clipping., the speed and energy are there, but in a darker vein — a sinister vibe with lots of F-words and some sharp political messages.

The connection to SFEMF is that the backing music consists of spare, noise-based electronic rhythms — which, for me, is a refreshing change from rap’s usual course of mindless nostalgia samples and weak elementary jazz riffs. For rap fans, it’s a different sound — and for SFEMF, it’s a very experimental turn and a bit of a risk.

Read more about the festival (and about clipping.) at San Francisco Classical Voice.

September 5, 2016 at 12:23 pm Leave a comment

Tyshawn Sorey’s Epic

Tyshawn SoreyThe Inner Spectrum of Variables (Pi Recordings, 2016)

Quoting George Grella on Sequenza21 and The Big City (link temporarily unavailable):

Alloy is on a lot of jazz lists, but I can’t put it on mine: [Tyshawn] Sorey is most closely and accurately defined as a jazz musician, but this is an album, like his others, of his compositions, and there is so little jazz concept and aesthetic in them that they are pretty much sui generis.

That’s the explanation of why Sorey’s album landed on Grella’s 2014 Best-of list for post WWII composition. Grella goes on to discuss Alloy‘s curious lack of time, likening Tyshawn Sorey to John Cage or Morton Feldman but with a compositional persona of his own. The music floats, guided not by Sorey’s drum kit but by Cory Smythe’s patient, drifting piano.

sorey-innerJazz fans know Sorey for his thunderous drumming in a variety of bands, but his own albums reveal he’s a serious composer. Serious enough that he’s on track to earn a Ph.D. in composition from Columbia University in 2017. Serious enough that Wesleyan University has already hired him to replace Anthony Braxton, who recently retired.

Sorey’s latest, The Inner Spectrum of Variables, uses piano, drums, and a quartet of strings to invoke the frills of traditional classical music, the sawing and hard-digging enthusisasm of new classical, and even, yes, elements of modern jazz. Spanning six-plus movements and more than two hours, Inner Spectrum is an epic not only in length, but in feeling. The music is a journey, and the weight of it builds up as you go.

Even if you don’t listen to the whole thing in one sitting — and I didn’t, I admit — you should listen to it in order. You’ll catch the contrast between the oh-so-classical elements of “Movement II” — tropes such as weepy violin vibrato (Chern Hwei Fung) and piano trilling (Smythe) — and the more modern atmosphere of “Movement III,” with Smythe and Sorey hammering out piano/drums Morse code with a backbeat.

You’ll also get to feel the transition from the surprise ending of “Movement III” to the dour, heavy viola (Kyle Armbrust) to kick off “Movement IV.” And you’ll hear “Movement V” in its proper place, with a grand string segment that makes for a climactic moment in the narrative, a mid/heavy pulse layered with forceful improvising. It’s a majestic mid/slow segment that’s just a little heavy, just a little sweet, and it works best if you’ve been along the entire journey up to this point.

“Movement VI,”is a slow heavy conclusion that’s appropriate for Inner Spectrum‘s scope — but the whole thing wraps up with a reprise of “Movement I,” which I’ll let you discover for yourself. That theme is a surprise at the beginning — not at all the mood I was expecting — and it’s a welcome visitor at the end.

Wedged in there is an unnumbered “Reverie” moment that is as dreamy and surreal as the title suggests, opening with a corridor of gongs and building up to a frenzied violin cadenza.

Inner Spectrum is less experimental than Sorey’s previous albums. The challenge he seems to have set for himself is to amalgamate some older styles of Western music into his work. The results are colossal, and worth hearing.

September 3, 2016 at 12:23 pm Leave a comment

Kris Davis’ New Symmetry

Maybe it’s because I was a math major, but I do love to geek out about things like this:

Pianist Kris Davis‘ new album — Duopoly, due out on Sept. 30 — consists of duets with eight different musicians. Sixteen tracks: one apiece with each partner, followed by eight more with the same players in reverse order. It’s a palindrome.

The album’s front cover helps you visualize it all. The tracks start with guitarist Bill Frisell (upper left) and, I’m guessing, work their way “down” the left column, through Craig Taborn, Billy Drummond and Tim Berne. Then they go back up the right-hand column to guitarist Julian Lage. The next eight tracks reverse that sequence.

duopoly

Oh, but it gets better. The first eight tracks are based on compositions, while the last eight are improvisations. And you might notice that the the eight duo partners consist of two players representing each of four instruments: guitar (Frisell, Lage), Other Piano (Taborn, Angelica Sanchez), drums (Drummond, Marcus Gilmore), and woodwinds (Berne, Don Byron). It’s symmetries upon symmetries.

There are times when I’ll buy the physical form of an album — vinyl or CD — because it feels like the packaging is part of the whole experience. In this case, I’m counting geeking out on the overall concept as part of the experience. It’s a good one so far.

To top it all off, they filmed these sessions, so Duopoly is a DVD as well.

To help promote the album, Davis and Taborn are hitting the road for a series of two-piano showcases, including a stop in Los Angeles for the Angel City Jazz Festival and a show at Oakland’s Mills College. I’ve reviewed solo albums from each of them (here and here), and a duet performance seems like it would be something to savor.

Here’s the itinerary for those duo shows:

September 30 — Firehouse 12 – New Haven, CT
October 1 — Music Center at Washington University – St. Louis, MO
October 2 — Roulette – Brooklyn, NY
October 3 — Kennedy Center – Washington DC
October 5 — Constellation – Chicago, IL
October 6 — Britton Recital Hall – Ann Arbor, MI
October 7 — Wexner Center – Columbus, OH
October 8 — Zipper Hall presented by Angel City Jazz Festival – Los Angeles, CA
October 9 — Mills College – Oakland, CA
October 10 — UC San Diego – San Diego, CA
October 11 — Poncho Concert Hall presented by Earshot Jazz Festival – Seattle, WA
October 13 — Bucknell University – Lewisburg, PA

August 26, 2016 at 5:11 pm Leave a comment

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