Archive for May, 2010

Braxton and Matthew Sperry

The Matthew Sperry Memorial Festival comes June 3 and 5 to San Francisco and Oakland: Rotating trio improvs on June 3; modern classical music on June 5. See earlier post.
Matthew Sperry played on a colossal Anthony Braxton album, Six Compositions (GTM) 2001, so it’s fitting to see a Braxton piece included in the Matthew Sperry memorial concert coming on June 5.

Man, does that album bring back some fun radio memories.

I love owning this 4-CD album, still available on Rastascan. I revel in its bigness, even though the Firehouse 12 label has since outdone it. I never liked those double-wide jewel cases that record labels used in the early days of CD formats — but in this case, it’s awesome, just sitting there on the shelf next to skinny, wimpy cases.

And inside, there’s more bigness.

The opening “track” is “Composition #286 (Tentet),” which lasts 92 minutes and had to be split between the first two CDs. They could have stopped there — but no! Two more CDs hurl Braxton goodness at you, in increments of 18 to 33 minutes. Don’t bother looking for the hit single.

And if the hugeness of the tracks wasn’t enough, there’s the music itself — and that’s where the radio thing comes into play.  We put this album into rotation at KZSU for the usual nine-week run. MU-HAHAHAHAHA!!

See, the music is from Anthony Braxton’s Ghost Trance period, which is vaguely influenced by Native American musics: ritual chants and the like. It’s characterized by a steady, steady pulsing of sounds — but it’s not a steady heartbeat. Lots of triplets and…multiplets (7-over-4 rhythms, that kind of thing) pepper the piece to keep some disbalance going. And because note choices are often left to the performers, there’s a constant shifting of harmony — and yet, because the notes collide so often, it can feel like the same harmony, unrelenting.

For an unsuspecting radio listener, the macro effect is like a hammer, an ongoing pulse that’s varying juuuuust a bit from one strike to the next. BLIP! BIP! BLIP! BI-BAP! BAP! BIP! BLIP! BAP! BI-BAP-BIP! BLEP! BIP! BIP!

I went out of my way to insert segments of this music into my shows. Most times, it was like a sudden, massive roadblock. I loved it.

The part that really blows my mind is that they’re following sheet music! For 90 minutes! I’m imagining an impossibly long scroll of notes, notes, notes, notes. (The reality, I think, is that Braxton used visual cues to conduct the group, keep them on the same landmarks, and jump to different parts of the piece. The concentration required is still impressive.)

As with a lot of experimental music, a deep listen has its rewards here.  There’s usually some saxophone or other that’s soloing over the pulse, darting diagonally across the grid in an exciting free-jazz dance. Ghost Trace Music has a lot more color than in minimalist classical. It’s not like watching someone recite pi.

There’s also the Braxton mix-mash thing.  “Composition No. 286” includes snippets of Nos. 147, 20, 69D, 256, 173, 6J, 162, and 23A.  (Braxton must work on multiple compositions at a time, so it’s feasible he’ll someday accidentally reuse a number. One only hopes this won’t rupture the time-space continuum.)

For more on Ghost Trance Music, check out this blog entry from Steve Smith, a music journalist for the New York Times and Time Out: New York. And take to heed his opening point: That this seemingly monochrome, pulsey music has a tie to the classic jazz bass walk. Hm.

Several Bay Area musicians worked with, or learned from, Braxton, and the Ghost Trance influence pops up now and again.  Dan Plonsey used a similar idea with his CD-long Daniel Popsicle compositions, which use a similar element of a rhythm that’s seemingly long-repeating but is varying just slightly from measure to measure. Two big difference are that Plonsey used a wider range of styles, and that he broke those pieces into segments that were clearly different — so there’d be a sudden shift into something pretty, or funky, or soft. There’s a evenhanded pleasantness to the Daniel Popsicle pieces, and they’re a good listen. But like the Braxton compositions, the sheer length and the near-repetitive nature could make for an endurance test of a concert.

That’s a long way from Sperry (although he probably played on a Daniel Popsicle piece or two).  The point: Be aware that Sperry got to play some challenging, serious music in some really fun settings.

May 31, 2010 at 8:17 am Leave a comment

An Opera in Real Time

Gino RobairI, Norton: An Opera in Real Time (Rastascan, 2009)

(For detailed background on this project, check out Point of Departure‘s lengthy interview with Gino Robair.)

Having mentioned this so much last fall, I’m horrified to find out I never wrote about the actual CD.

I, Norton is an opera built of improvisation, installed in modular pieces and intended for ensembles of varying size and makeup. In one sense, it’s a concession to economic reality — large-scale experimental works are difficult to stage.

But it also means I, Norton is a living creation, augmentable, evolving. In fact, creator Gino Robair, who’s been a major force on the Bay Area experimental music scene for a couple of decades now, still considers it a work in progress. The CD, combining live performances with manipulations and samples of those performances, is just one representation of what the complete opera could be.

You won’t find opera singing. The program contrasts moments of modern-classical music with long stretches of otherworldly electronics.  Metallic buzzes and sound curtains drift by, constructed from a base of Tom Duff’s recital of Norton’s proclamations.

(If you’re wondering: Emperor Norton is one of the colorful, beloved characters of 19th-century San Francisco history. Emperor of the United States, Protector of Mexico — detailed biography here.)

The opera represents the flashes of memory in the final moments of Emporer Norton’s life, as he lies dying in a San Francisco street. While I, Norton doesn’t have to be a linear journey, the CD is arranged in something like a storyline, complete with an overture and an ethereal, heavenly conclusion. Along the way, Robair makes use of the moods that electronics and structured improvisation can create.

“Overture” opens with a mob of cacophonic voices, cut short by a gong that opens the spacious body of the section, colored by metal percussion and sampled, filtered fragments of Norton’s speech. It’s like hurtling through a dust cloud in space. (And I like the cut-up of Duff’s speech, done in fluttering half-syllables. We were taught as schoolkids that an opera’s Overture contains snippets of the music you’re about to hear. In this case, it contains fragments of the words you’ll eventually hear.)

The theme knitting all the pieces together is a Norton speech abolishing Congress, and it appears throughout the album in fragments or in mutated, sped-up form.  Duff does a marvellous job with the character, so the longer passages of untreated speech are a real treat. I’ve seen part of the opera live, and Duff was terrific, dressed in 1880s finery and pacing the stage while giving his proclamations.

“The Hall of Comparative Ovations” is the most classical-sounding of the tracks, using lots of conventional instruments and some quasi-composed passages: grand horns in a sadly regal mood. It sounds like the individual notes are left to players’ choices, a very Braxton-like touch.  All this is augmented with passages of improvisation textrued with squiggly electronics.

The longest track, at 28 minutes, is “Mobs, Parties, Factions (Part 1).”  Its first section is sparse, with long segments of Norton’s proclamations, and “music” built from slowed, sped, or shuffled blurs built of Duff’s voice.  We hear Norton’s words revealed slowly, in pieces, while we also possibly experience some of his madness, the voice-based noises like fascinating insect buzzes, a distraction from the core point (and yet, because they’re the “music” here, they’re also the core point.)  Aurora Jospehson adds skittery vocal sounds accompanied by piano — it’s the aria for her character, Miss Minnie Wakeman, the high school girl who Norton tried to woo. (Minnie was already engaged, and that was that.)  Given its length, this track on its own could be considered a micro version of the opera.

“The Committee of Vigilence (Mad Scene)” is a snippet of crazed electronics, some cries of anguish from Norton.  It’s aptly titled, and works as kind of a soliloquy, a standalone scene.

“Mobs Parties, Factions (Part 2)” brings us back to acoustic instruments, with hammering piano and woodwind wailing. It’s fun and spritely, with long unadulterated passages of Duff speaking — and then it turns dark, ominous. We’re nearing the end of the story.

Duff then quietly recites Norton’s proclamation, as prelude to the final track, “Joshua Norton Enters into Heaven.” A soliloquy of ghostly electronics, the piece slowly builds up to a shimmering haze before ending with a final, quiet heartbeat.

May 30, 2010 at 12:11 pm Leave a comment

Matthew Sperry Memorial Festival 2010

Happening Thursday, June 3, and Saturday, June 5, in San Francisco and Oakland.

It’s time again for the Matthew Sperry Memorial Festival, the annual gathering of Bay Area improv musicians to celebrate the tragically short life of bassist Sperry, killed in a traffic accident in 2003.

This year’s festival is the eighth, and it’s the first without a guest musician from out of town. That’s understandable, considering how long a run they’ve had with the festival. (I think the invited guests were limited to musicians who’d played with Matthew, too — a large but finite pool.)

No matter; it’s still a good cause (proceeds to go this family), and a celebration not only of Matthew but of community.  This year’s shows will be:

* Thursday June 3 | 8pm | $6 – $100 sliding scale (i.e., pay what you want within that range): Tag Team Trio Shift: Improvsations with 3 musicians at any given time, refereed by John Shiurba.
… At the Luggage Store Gallery: 1007 Market St., San Francisco

* Saturday June 5 | 8pm | $6 – $100 sliding scale … Chamber ensemble sfSound plays two Sperry Compositions: “Wadadaism” (1991) and “Veins” (1995). Also compositions by Anthony Braxton, Cornelius Cardew, James Tenney, and sfSoundGroup.
… At 21 Grand, 416 25th Street, Oakland

You can also check out:

* The Matthew Sperry tribute site. I’m impressed that they’ve continued to maintain it (although the link to photos appears broken for the moment).

* This Festival’s Facebook page, listing the compositions to be played on the 5th.

* My explanation of the festival, posted last year.

* Reviews from last year’s festival:  At the Luggage Store (featuring a fun, fun performance of improv rock piece “Treasure Mouth”) and at Berkeley’s Hillside Club (featuring Gail Brand and Morgan Guberman).

May 29, 2010 at 2:04 pm Leave a comment

Cosa Brava

Cosa BravaRagged Atlas (Intakt, 2010)

Is this the right time to admit I’m not that versed in Henry Cow and Art Bears? No?

I do know the music of violinist/singer Carla Kihlstedt, who is Fred Frith‘s main foil on this deep, serene art-pop album. The rest of the cast is terrific, too — Zeena Parkins on harp/accordion/keys is probably more widely known than Kihlstedt and absolutely no slouch, and neither are Matthias Bossi (Mr. Kihlstedt) on drums and percussion and the man named The Norman Conquest adding some sound manipulation.

But it’s Frith’s guitars and bass, his chirpy British vocals, and Kihlstedt’s violin — ranging from lyrical to threatening — that stand out on most of these songs. And there’s a similarity between the artsy pop of this album and the songs Kihlstedt has produced with the band 2 Foot Yard: musical atmospheres that can be pleasant but give you the feeling that something in the world is not quite right.

The tempos don’t lag and the guitar lines are bright — and yet, this isn’t easy pop. “Blimey, Einstein” is a good starting point: a heavy song, but with a strong beat and exotic Middle Eastern flourishes add up to a catchy sum.  That’s the dichotomy here: Many songs don’t feel happy — there aren’t many concessions to sweetness — but there’s a joy in the playing of them.

That’s true even in the darker pieces like “Pour Albert.” That one is slow and ominous, with verses sung in a meterless narrative,  and a chorus of dark voices singing, “I’d like to see you again.” There’s poignancy, aggression, and dread all at once.

I don’t mean to make the whole album sound morose.  It opens with two bright instrumentals. The tricky “Snake Eating Its Tail” is a kind of grand entrance that has multiple instruments playing a theme in unison, possibly blurred together by The Norman Conquest.  “Round Dance” is a folky, sunny instrumental replete with Irish/Celtic joy and time-signature tweaks.

“For Tom Ze” is a comic pop kaleidoscope: an easy and airy song that shifts into the “wacky modern compositional techniques” that Frith says he likes in Ze’s songs. (But only after a surprise bossa nova break!) Something about Frith calling wacky music “wacky” is really charming.

Frith has focused on improv in recent years, but the composing here includes plenty of prog rock trickery, too. That’s part of what makes it fun.

You can count the shrinking time signatures in the refrain of “Falling Up,” going 7/8, then 6/8, then 5/8, then 4/8, as the walls close in. This may be the poppiest song on the record, by the way. The instrumental theme is downright pleasant and radio-friendly, and the lyrics play over cute Philip Glass-like violin patterns.

There’s more prog fun to be had with “Out on the Town with Rusty, 1967,” a stern rocker with thick, brash guitar and reed-thin accordion stepping through irregular patterns. The sound combination alone screams “not normal pop/rock,” and the melody, especially where the violin joins in, is full of spiky protrusions, heady stuff.

Several of the songs are dedicated to influential people from Frith’s experiences, with short explanations provided in the CD card. One standout among these is “R.D. Burman,” Frith’s tribute to the famed Indian film composer.  It’s one of the most upbeat songs here, full of swirling Bollywood drama and intensity, and featuring a kicking tabla solo from Anantha Krishnan.

Then there’s the story behind “Rusty, 1967,” told in short, basic sentences but crafting a touching little story.

The Norman Conquest, who’s apparently touring with the band, deserves a quick mention. His sound manipulations are quietly slipped into the stream, bubbling up enough to add some edge, not usually so thick as to distract. His presence adds sparkle to certain moments — like the watery effect over Kihlstedt’s violin solo on “Round Dance” — and yet can be easily missed. I like that.  The only track where he’s too heavy-handed is “Falling Up,” where there’s a falling-up/falling-down effect that’s too obvious.

Ragged Atlas is a long-awaited CD, as the band’s music has been out, in performances and YouTube videos, for a couple of years now. Some, taken from live shows in Europe, are quite professionally filmed. The first video below is from a series of 4 that’s nicely produced; the second is from Mills College, part of a concert in honor of Professor Frith’s 60th birthday.

May 28, 2010 at 11:30 pm Leave a comment

Selling the Claudias

There’s quite the promotional blitz around Royal Toast, the new Claudia Quintet album. The whole thing was listenable on NPR for a time, and there’s a snappy promotional video as well.

Cool stuff. The Web has opened up a lot of interesting promotional possibilities for the arts.

Now, I don’t happen to buy the “long tail” theory. Or, rather, I believe it’s come to espouse a ill-informed and narrow perspective — most people, when they say “long tail,” are talking about the first Die Hard movie, or Aimee Mann albums, or regular jazz. In other words, mainstream properties that just aren’t top-of-mind for the people who watch network TV. Free improvised music? That’s not even on the “experts'” radar, and Amazon’s existence hasn’t turned the genre into a gold mine.

Still — could Internet technologies help truly obscure, creative musics find their audience? Absolutely. The availability of legal downloading options, and the Web’s ability to let artists share music quickly, certainly helps. I’m not ungrateful for the Web, and I do think it opens possibilities for even the newest of musicians. It’s just that the digerati, when preaching the miracles of Web marketing, aren’t seeing the far corners of the music world.

My thoughts are misplaced here, though, because I think the Claudia Quintet could very easily find an audience among jazz fans and even some adventuresome indie-rock types. So, shelve everything I just said, and wish John Hollenbeck, Cuneiform, & Co. well with Royal Toast.

May 27, 2010 at 6:51 am Leave a comment

Ava Mendoza Swings

Ava MendozaShadow Stories (Resipiscent, 2010)

Performing solo guitar: Sunday June 27, 10:30 a.m., live on KUSF 90.3; Monday, June 28, at Luna’s Cafe (Sacramento); and Tuesday, June 29, at Amnesia (San Francisco) as part of a guitar-compilation release party by the Tomkins Square label.  And non-solo-guitar dates listed here.

Bay Area music fans who know guitarist Ava Mendoza from the punk attack of Mute Socialite, from her noisy guitar experiments on compilations like Women Take Back the Noise, from her noisy work with Weasel Walter — is going to be surprised to hear a straight-up reading of “The Tennessee Waltz” and “I’m So Glad” opening this album. I was.

So, the jazz references in interviews and bios turn out to be for real, and not too distant from what Mendoza’s still into. “The Tennessee Waltz” gets into some unconventional ad-libbing but sticks to its country/blues mood, with a bright and rough-edged guitar sound that evokes a stage in a dusty bar graced with long afternoon shadows.

And you know what? That’s how the whole first half of the album goes!

Yes, this dark gray package that I was taking for a noisefest turns out to be a celebration of roots guitar in a western-swing style.

But only at first, because if you’re on the Resipiscent label, home to guys like this, the noise is sure to come. “The Furious Harpy” lists into some relaxing, distorted ambiance — backwards notes, guitar tones sampled into bouncing-pebble tapping — that gradually turns dark and steely, with stomping guitar from a very non-jazz place. It’s a 12-minute turning point.

That sets us up for two more unsettling tracks. “Penumbra: The Age of Almost Li” returns to a regular musical structure, but now it’s dark, slow, and slightly twisted, like evil biker music. “In My Dreams” puts fragments of guitar melody into an echoey, plinky environment, a dream that’s not a nightmare but still not quite right.

Then, abruptly, the album switches back to friendly jazz for its closing tracks. “Goodnight Irene” gets a particularly nice, expansive treatment.

Getting back to the subject of Mendoza’s jazz/swing playing — it’s terrific. “Shadowtrapping” is upbeat, combining some old-timey tricks with newer improvising ideas that break the mold but not the mood. With a second overdubbed guitar laying down the rhythm, Mendoza shows off some playfully fancy lead lines. “Kiss of Fire” has a darker mood, like an ancestor of rockabilly, but the same snappy jazz rhythm and great creative soloing. They’re tracks you can really sink your teeth into.

Mendoza gets to show multiple sides of her personality on this album. It’s a release to be proud of.

May 26, 2010 at 12:06 am Leave a comment

Tom Rainey Takes the Lead

Tom Rainey TrioPool School (Clean Feed, 2010)

For the amount of work Tom Rainey has done, the sheer number of big-name players he’s backed up — Tim Berne and Tony Malaby, yes, but also more mainstream work with Fred Hirsch (a 1992 standards LP) or Mark Feldman (on an ECM-recorded, non-Zorn like date) — it’s nice to see him listed as the leader on a CD.

Not that it has to be that way, but when someone’s put together a solid body of work, it’s good to have a CD with their own name as a landmark, something you can point to in appreciation of what they’ve done.  The trio isn’t a vehicle for Rainey compositions, though; it’s an all-improv session with two strong musical personalities: saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and guitarist Mary Halvorson.

The session stands out for its quirky personality. There’s an edgy, sour-toned aesthetic that Halvorson brings to the group and that Laubrock and Rainey successfully play off of.  It does not have the feel of improvised jazz — that is, the shapes, motifs, and drum patterns you’d associate with free jazz. But the sound is also distinct from many other free improv recordings; it flourishes with strange, dissonant non-jazz chords and a sense of melody gone askew.

Laubrock and Halvorson are willing to follow each other off the rails. That makes for a rougher-edged session than Sleepthief, the trio album with Labrock, Rainey, and pianist Liam Noble. Sleepthief was plenty adventurous — check the piano sweeps and skronky abandon in “Environmental Stud” — but its milieu was mostly crystalline piano against colorful sax lines. Pool School explores a wider scope of sound — and yet, since the tracks are all less that six minutes, there’s a compactness to each little journey.

“Three Bag Mary” is a good place to start. It opens with a blossoming, florid ugliness: simple guitar notes greeted by a rambling catcall of sax and some tough-edged snare thumps. It’s like a calculated ugliness, not just white-noise screeching. But then all three players stop momentarily, and the guitar and sax shift into a kinder, slightly more elegant playing — while Rainey sticks to his guns, returning to a bumpy, irregular sense of rhythm. These kinds of sudden shifts appear on a few of the tracks; the group veers and careens well as a unit.

“Home Opener” is a more varied stroll through multiple styles.  After a few minutes of easygoing playing, the band hits a pause, with Rainey thumping out some slow, irregular beats.  Then Laubrock latches onto a quick sax riff and Halvorson follows in suit by switching on the rock-guitar distortion, for a brief moment of noisy skronk.

“Coney” opens with a jagged tumbling, with Rainey playing softly thudding toms like a body falling down an infinite flight of stairs. It’s a subtly standout moment for him, crafting the mood of the piece without taking over the foreground. Laubrock and Halvorson follow with appropriately scattershot playing, and it all accelerates into a crash, leading to a peaceful, slower segment.

I liked the flow of “More Mesa,” one of the calmer tracks. It’s got a quiet start, with cymbal splashes, buzzy sax, and tense, fluttering guitar chords — active elements, but a setting where the group is in no particular hurry. It’s as if they’ve found a point of focus and want to explore it for a few uninterrupted minutes. The track picks up momentum as it goes but stays in a mellow, thoughtful vein. Not everything has to be a skronkfest.

The trio did a live set at WFMU that can be heard on the Free Music Archive — check it out via this Lovegloom blog entry.

May 25, 2010 at 5:38 am Leave a comment

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