Archive for March, 2010

Quotables, Visuals

I’m about to sit down and listen to the Minamo album, Kuroi Kawa [Black River], for the first time: a double-CD on Tzadik of Satoko Fujii and Carla Kihlstedt, in piano/violin duos.  I’d sampled the title track but haven’t given the whole thing a proper listen.

I find myself pausing, though, to contemplate the quotation on the CD booklet.

The albums in Tzadik’s Oracles series, devoted to women in experimental music, come with quotations. Carla Kihlstedt once told me it was a requirement for her album, Two Foot Yard.  And her choice was unique: She used a note she’d written herself, as a child, to her parents, apologizing for falling asleep during a Mozart concert.

For Minamo, she and Fujii chose a quotation from Japanese poet Akiko Yosano, from 1911. I feel like I shouldn’t spoil it by typing the full quotation, but it’s about mountains moving.  Not in the geological sense of earthquakes and faults, but in a larger, sweeping sense, poetic yet literal. “You need not believe it,” she writes. And then she ends with two lines about the awakening of the world’s women — something as unbelievable in 1911 as mountains moving, and just as powerful. I like it.

I guess I just spoiled it by giving away the ending. Oh, well.

I’m enjoying the art, too. The CD tray photo looks like some black-and-white scan out of cellular biology… until you read in the credits that it’s a photo of Denali National Park, by QT Luong.  Suddenly things make more sense — that white curve is a frozen river; the black patches above might be the unfrozen spots of a lake. It doesn’t look as good as the shots you’ll see on Luong’s Web page, but it gives you a sense of the majesty of the place.

You just don’t get these kinds of things from digital downloads.

March 8, 2010 at 12:40 am Leave a comment

ROVA Meets Nels Cline

ROVA & Nels Cline Singers — The Celestial Septet (New World, 2010)

One perk of the Other Minds festival was the healthy selection of CDs at the merch table — from the composers, the performers, and Other Minds’ own stacks.  Amid those on Thursday night was a surprise: the about-to-be-released CD of the ROVA/Nels Cline Celestial Septet.

The band combines the ROVA Saxophone Quartet with the guitar/bass/drums trio called the Nels Cline Singers. A 2007 show at the Freight & Salvage in Berkeley was the band’s debut, I think, followed by a show at Yoshi’s in May 2008.

These shows were a real treat, providing lots of free-jazz fireworks and healthy doses of Nels freakouts. One song that stood out in memory was “Trouble Ticket,” a crackling Steve Adams composition that had the kind of dynamism that seemed suited for radio; it’s why I chose to play that track last Friday.

But the song I really wanted to hear was a memorable Cline composition that was a standout of the live performances.  Its middle part involves the four ROVA players wandering offstage and out of the auditorium altogether. Gradually, they work their way back, each playing small, relatively quiet phrases.  They work their way back to the stage and surround Amendola, like space rocks drawn to a gravitational center, and they continue to play in snippets while Amendola records and processes the sounds into an electronics stew.

The piece was untitled at the time and I’m guessing it’s the same piece that goes by “The Buried Quilt” on this record. Lacking the live-performance aspects, the studio version settles for a pause in the dark intro, after a segment of clamorous drums by Scott Amendola backed by dissonant sax parts.  From there, tiny sax sounds start to dart and swirl, then give way to an explosion of sound. From there, it alternates: loud brazen sax, then a bluesy-quiet sax/guitar duet, then more bombast, eventually ending with grand, sweeping gestures.  It’s a fitting way to end an album, and the piece presents a wide enough canvas to be a worthy listen on its own — but it’s still a particular treat live.

The album opens with a daring choice: Amendola’s powerful composition “Cesar Chavez.”  It’s got the emotional weight of a great song but not the feel of an opener: crawling, atmosphering.  Its combination of sorrow and hopefulness made for a strong closing to Amendola’s 2005 album, Believe.  As an opener, it’s not the obvious pick, but it brings a sense of gravitas that serves the rest of the album well.

Albert Ayler-like passages pop up like guideposts during the 25-minute “Whose To Know,” written by Larry Ochs.  That track includes plenty of exciting stretches including a killer bass solo from Devin Hoff.  Ayler also figures into the formula of the 2.5-minute “Head Count,” another Ochs track that includes prodigious Cline feedback.

The Celestial Septet gets officially released on March 15.

March 7, 2010 at 12:57 pm 1 comment

Playlist: March 5, 2010/Other Minds

Click here for the full playlist for Friday, March 5, 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m.

I started with the intention of playing just a little bit of Other Minds-related music.  (See here and here.)  I wanted to show off the new ROVA/Nels Cline and something from Carla Kihlstedt, and figured I’d wrap it up with Kidd Jordan.

But upon searching our awesome KZSU music database (zookeeper.stanford.edu, or better yet, try this out), I was able to about double the amount of stuff I had to play.  Here’s the rundown.

* ROVA & Nels Cline Singers — “Trouble Ticket” — The Celestial Septet (New World, 2010)
… Album comes out March 15, but ROVA had early copies on sale at the show. They’ll be there tonight as well, I’d assume. More on this later.

* Minamo [Carla Kihlstedt/Satoko Fujii] — “Kuroi Kawa – Black River” — Kuroi Kawa – Black River (Tzadik, 2009)
… More on this one later, when I’ve given it a full listen. Chamber-like duets of violin and piano, with occasional bouts of violence.

* Kidd Jordan, Hamid Drake, William Parker — “Living Peace” — Palm Of Soul (AUM Fidelity, 2006)
… Ecstatic jazz. Jordan doesn’t just blow fast; the opening is a keening, moaning lament; then things heat up over the next 14 minutes.

* Gyan Riley — “Yubalation” — Food for the Bearded (New Albion, 2002)
… Hadn’t encountered Riley before. His classical guitar has the density of John Fahey and the beauty of Spanish guitar. I picked a track that teams him up with viola and percussion, but he’s fascinating solo as well.

* Tom Johnson — “The 1287 Five-Note Chords [excerpt]” — The Chord Catalogue (XI, 1999)
* Tom Johnson — “The 78 Eleven-Note Chords” — The Chord Catalogue (XI, 1999)
… Couldn’t resist. Johnson is big on using combinatorics as a compositional tool. For instance, his “Combinations” for string quartet, one of the pieces being performed tonight, assigns notes so that each member plays one of four notes, and they cycle through all possible combinations. The Chord Catalogue is of similar mind, but quite extreme: It’s every possible chord in one octave. Played in order. I recall a review in an avant-garde-friendly magazine, and even they had a hard time dealing with this one! I love the idea — seriously love it, and if someone pitched it to me, I’d be all in favor of it. And to play the piece perfectly requires intense concentration on the player’s part. But I don’t know if I have the stuff to listen start to finish.

Luckily, Johnson adds pauses (assigned at mathematically chosen spots) but it’s still monotonous. And written, when you consider the pauses are pre-planned. What’s amusing, when you play the 11-note chords right after the five-noters, is that Johnson had to slow down markedly in order to play them.

* Tom Johnson — “Eighty-Eights” — Music for 88 (XI, 1991)
… A combinatorics piece that’s easier to take: Solo piano, where each of the 88 keys is used exactly once. But Johnson divides the keyboard into sections and patterns, so that you get melody, tempo, and mood variations as the piece progresses.

March 6, 2010 at 1:32 pm Leave a comment

Other Minds: Kafka Songs

So, I really did make it to the first night of the Other Minds festival. Very nice experience.

Rather than describe the show in sequence, I’m just going to cut to the end: Carla Kihlstedt was terrific, and Lisa Bielawa‘s Kafka Songs is a very interesting and involved piece. It consists of seven segments, each one a violin-and-vocal combination to be performed solo (written with Kilhstedt in mind).

Each song opened with Kihlstedt reciting the short Kafka text. That was good, because it let us catch the mood of the text and mentally encapsulate it, enhancing the mood of the music that followed. It also guaranteed that we knew what the text was; as with most vocal classical works, Kafka Songs stretches syllables into long tones, making it difficult to keep track of sentences or even words.

The piece began life as a single song and gradually expanded into seven movements. That explains why the first two songs seem to be the most athletic. There’s a lot of bow trickery, such as having Kihlstedt draw the bow for one note and pluck a left-hand note on another string (something I think I’ve seen her do in concert, but it’s still a good effect).

Not that things calm down after that opening. “Ghosts,” the fourth song, consists of ukelele-like strumming, if the ukelele were a harsh, forceful instrument. It was hard on the strings; Kihlstedt had to retune before moving on.

It does not look like an easy piece. I don’t know if “counterpoint” is even the right word to describe the diverging vocal and violin paths; they swoop and cross like independent diving birds. And the violin parts show off Kihlstedt’s rich mix of techniques well.

As for the rest of the program: Varied, and challenging in a good way.

Eva-Maria Zimmerman played a short 53-year-old piano piece by 87-year-old Chou Wen-chung (pronounced “soo-wen-sung” by Other Minds Artistic Director Charles Amirkhanian). Titled “The Willows Are New,” it made impressive use of the high register, putting those skinny high notes to menacing use, like poisoned darts alongside the dark, bombastic low-register cannons. The piece comes to a quiet ending where the high notes are their usual, quiet selves, but most of it is dark and spiky. (Test my memory: Listen to the piece on Wen-chung’s site.)

A longer Wen-chung piece, Twilight Colors, was performed by a double trio of Left Coast Chamber Ensemble members — three strings and three woodwinds. It was a dynamic piece in three or four movements, full of serene overlapping lines and frequent passages of fun intensity. There were some sublime moments where a gently drawn-out note from one instrument would be handed off to another imperceptibly — bass clarinet into cello, or low flute into low violin.

The concert opened with the 30-minute Streichquartett II by Jürg Frey, performed by Quatuor Bozzini, a Montreal-based string quartet. It’s a minimalist piecewith an engaging premise: All four members play unison whole notes, using the edges of their bows so that the tones are a scratchy whisper. Tones change from one note to the next, creating a series of drifting chords that start mostly sublime, but drift toward more dissonant territory. It’s a bit of an endurance test. But one thing I appreciate about minimalism is the commitment to a structure that, even for quiet pieces, is sometimes daunting in scope.

In addition to this being my first Other Minds festival, it was my first time at the Jewish Community Center. I didn’t know the place was so huge. At least one class was taking place in a remote corner of the first floor. There’s also a cafe that includes wine, beer, ice cream, and, if the hour is early enough, food.

Other Minds 15 continues with shows on March 5 and 6 at 8:00 p.m.  Check out the program.

March 5, 2010 at 1:48 am 1 comment

Other Minds

Time to get psyched about another Other Minds festival — the 15th, and the first that I’ll get to attend.  It runs for three nights, starting tonight, in at the Jewish Community Center at 3200 California, in Pacific Heights (northern SF, near the Presidio).

The festival collects musicians and composers from around the world for performances of new music. It seems scaled down from the more elaborate programs that used to be held downtown at Yerba Buena … but then, it occurs to me that because I’ve never gone, I can’t really back up that statement.

In fact, because I’ve never gone, I can say with equal confidence that this will be the best Other Minds festival ever. Ever!

On the Sequenza21 site, Polly Moller has a good Q&A with Lisa Bielawa, whose “Kafka Songs,”  for violin/vocal will be performed tonight by Carla Kihlstedt. The piece was written for Kihlstedt and has had the seasoning that comes with multiple performances: “Carla has taken these songs with her through so many twists and turns of life, they really do just keep growing and deepening,” Bielawa says.

Bielawa was also featured in an SF Chronicle article yesterday. Nice to see the festival get some big-paper exposure.

There’s what appears to be an outright jazz-improv spot on the Friday night bill.  Saxophonist Kidd Jordan will appear with William Parker (bass) and Warren Smith (percussion).  Jordan has recorded some great ecstatic jazz, including some quartet work with Fred Anderson (sax) by his side — specifically, I’m thinking of the CD Two Days in April (Eremite, 2000).

I became a fan of the Del Sol String Quartet after catching one of their concerts on a whim.  (They’re based here.)  Lively, vibrant interpretations of new classical music. On Friday, they’ll be performing String Quartet No. 2 by Paweł Mykietyn.

Kihlstedt returns in spirit to close out the Saturday evening program: Her composition, “Pandæmonium,” will be debuted by the ROVA Saxophone Quartet.  That just sounds so cool I could burst. (Bonus: According to the ROVA site, the composition is “is a one-of-a-kind piece of tactile art made from individually sewn cloth graphic scores.”)

Sadly, it looks like Thursday is my big chance to catch any of Other Minds 15. I’ll learn a little about composers Jürg Frey and Chou Wen-Chung, and of course I’ll get to experience that Bielawa piece. It should be a really good evening.

March 4, 2010 at 6:17 am 1 comment

A Vancouver Playlist

Leave it to me to put this posting off until after the Olympics.  Oh well.

Something I considered but didn’t have time for during the Games was to play a solid hour or so of all-Vancouverite music. Some of it I’ve found through the normal radio channels — CDs sent to the station — but a bit of my knowledge comes from a trip to Vancouver about nine years ago.

I didn’t get to do many touristy things, but I saw parts of downtown and the suburbs and got to visit some really cool CD stores including Zulu. There was a French-style crepe stand, 24 hour coffee right next to our hotel (yes!), and, randomly, a comic-book store with Shannon Wheeler (Too Much Coffee Man) doing a signing. I hope to go back someday with time to do some more outdoorsy activities — or to just be in Stanley Park for a few hours.

Anyway. If you told me to do a Vancouver-themed jazz show, here’s what I’d pull:

* Tony Wilson — “I Am the Walrus” — Pearls Before Swine (Drip Audio, 2007) … This one, I actually did play. The album in general features a heavy rock influence and lots of great guitar riffage.

* ESQ — “Reaction” — Breakfast in Kamloops (self-releaesd, c. 1997) … A blind pick out of Zulu. I wanted to leave Vancouver with some unknown quantities in my pocket. This one, with its colorful cover, appeared DIY enough and edgy enough. Turns out it’s more straight than avant-garde, but with a chipper, youthful air and some crisp composing. This track’s theme is swingy and irresistable to me. I’ve seen Kevin Elaschuk (trumpet) and Dave Say (sax) mentioned in other projects since. Names worth noting.

* Now Orchestra — I love the idea of large orchestras that play long, composed pieces with lots of movements and lots of room for improvising. It’s not just that the music is awesome; it’s the sense of community and accomplishment that comes out of such an undertaking. (Note to self: Still have to check out the Oakland Active Orchestra at the Uptown one of these Tuesdays.) I happen to have their CD Wowow (Spool, 1997), but just about anything from them would do.

* Lisle Ellis/Paul PlimleyKaleidoscope (Hat Art, 1992) … Another one that I actually spun. It’s an album of Ornette Coleman covers, played on bass and piano. Crackling good stuff. Ellis hung out in the Bay Area for years. I got to see Plimley once in the ’90s, and he’s an entertaining performer: loose, and with a sense of humor.

* Peggy Lee — Cellist of note out of Vancouver. I’m running out of steam, idea-wise, but I’d definitely include something by her. In fact, I did, during last Friday’s show: Escondido Dreams, a trio CD with Wilson and Jon Bentley. There’s also the Peggy Lee Band’s self-titled album on Spool (which I haven’t heard) or the big, cinematic sweep of New Code, her recent album on Drip Audio. Dang, I’d forgotten about that one — shoulda pulled that for the show. Maybe next Friday.

March 2, 2010 at 10:17 pm Leave a comment

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