Our Faceless Empire: Cali-Portugese Improv

Ernesto Diaz-Infante, Manuel Mota, Gino Robair, Ernesto RodriguesOur Faceless Empire (Pax, 2010)

This one’s all about strings — not sweet symphonic strings, but the percussive potential behind strings: the dry clacking and snapping of acoustic guitar and viola, the tiny grunts and pops of electric guitar.

Diaz-Infante and Robair are both part of a Bay Area improv scene that favors a sound-sculpture aesthetic, with performances rich in extended technique. Robair stopped calling himself a drummer at some point, preferring the term “energized surfaces” to describe his combination of oddball objects (bowed styrofoam, for instance), and unconventionally played drums, all of it adding up to a forest of sounds barely traceable to acoustic instruments.

So, this album is full of rattly, percussive sounds — a mesh of sound, full of strings clicking, squeaking, and scraping. Ironically, it’s the drummer who produces the longest and most singing tones, if you can call them that. Robair frequently bows his cymbals or other free-hanging pieces of metal, producing a tarnished ringing tone with a scraped quality, a siren’s cough.

Small blips of guitar tones appear on “E Metico Labilty,” and an accordion seems to pop up on “Um Lilburn Em Flovilla,” towards the end of the album. Mostly, though, it’s a thicket of what’s sometimes called insect music, lots of little sounds adding up to a collective and a direction.

The first three tracks keep things on a fast gait, clattery but not overwhelmingly busy, and often quiet. The third track, “Mi Conde, El Odiosas,” gets downright rowdy and is followed by the quiet respite of “O Bursty Bruegel,” a calming sheen.

The album come to be when Rodrigues (viola) and Mota (electric guitar) were doing a tour from Vancouver on down the Pacific coast. It’s all part of the improv mystique: players of similar minds getting together, spinning music into the air, and possibly never reconvening in that exact combination again. Sometimes, it’s nice to have a document of those moments.

What I Learned About Conducting My Own Orchestra

I attended Conduct Your Own Orchestra night at the Luggage Store Gallery last night. Not much of a turnout, either for the audience or for the musicians (eight showed up), so — what the heck. I signed up to conduct.

The premise here is that each guest conductor, most of whom are from the ensemble or are fellow musicians, directs the group through some kind of improvisation for about 10 minutes. Some brought instruction cards or graphical signs; others gave verbal instructions for a particular type of playing.

I kept my turn short — probably 5 minutes (I’d planned for 3).  I had no plan and unlike the others, provided no explanation of my gestures. Many were obvious, some were intentionally left open to interpretation. Here’s what I found out.

1. I have no idea how to conduct drums. Every gesture I made was interpreted not as an abstract mood, but as the exact rhythm to play. Sometimes it worked out, but when it didn’t …

2. Mistakes are hard to take back. A couple of times, I launched someone into some playing that totally didn’t fit. Now what? Telling the player to just stop cold is out of the question. The ideal solution would be to slowly shift their playing to merge with what I was thinking. There’s no universal sign for that.

3. Volume control is harder than it looks.  Making things loud: easy. Making them quiet: no problem. Subtly decreasing volume without going straight to zero … um.  Which brings up a related point…

4. People are anticipating the cue to drop out.  It’s part of the overall exercise, after all, and one of the simplest ways to control the overall sound. And these are serious musicians who want to be diligent about following the conductor and not monopolizing the ensemble’s sound. But all this means that any number of gestures can get interpreted as “stop.”

5. It’s hard to keep up. Even with only eight players, I couldn’t always discern who was making which sound,  and I’d occasionally catch an expectant glance from a player and realize they’d been neglected for a while, or were trapped in some boring rut. I can’t imagine juggling 20 musicians (and keeping the volume under control would be a real bear, too).

6. If you try a cool move where you get everyone to STOP except one guy… don’t make it the guy playing an iPhone app.  Crashes happen.

7. Everyone looks at you as if know what you’re doing.  Even if they know you don’t. They take this seriously even if there’s no chance it’s going to work out, and thankfully, they knew I was taking it seriously too. I was grateful for the generosity of spirit that allowed me to step into the community for a few minutes.

The Other World of Henry Kaiser

Henry KaiserWhere Endless Meets Disappearing (Balance Point Acoustics, 2009)

In addition to playing guitar, Henry Kaiser is an oceanographer — as in, serious, university-research oceanographer — and a few years ago, he got a chance to ply both trades in Antarctica.This album, a set of mostly solo guitar improvisations, is a reflection on that alien underwater world.

It’s placid and crystalline, fitting enough. Very pretty stuff — not what you’ll want if you’re looking for the Derek Bailey-influenced side of Kaiser, but even if the weird stuff is your cup of tea, this isn’t an album to miss.

The 12-minute title track opens the album and sets the mood.  Kaiser uses stereo-ized echo effects here to give the illusion of two guitars (14 of the 18 tracks are solo, undubbed).  A single bass note, plucked every now and then, serves as the center of gravity around which Kaiser contently drifts,spinning a slow web of notes. Tiny harmonics glisten like light off the water’s surface. It’s relaxing and deep, great music for Sunday morning coffee.

Kaiser calls this a concept album, and I get the feeling it’s a love letter to the beauty of diving. It definitely has that weightless feeling, as if it’s mimicking the peaceful, muted sounds beneath the ocean’s surface.

Many of the acoustic tracks take on the sound of Hawaiian slack-key guitar, not so much in the note choices but in the overall mood and prettiness.  Kaiser does turn up the electric a few times, though, for some proggy noodling.  “A Precise Kind of Infinity, a Sliver of Clarity Nestled” is mostly pretty and chiming, but the space-exploration electric guitar wail comes in for the second half, for the feel of peering into the infinite. “A Bloom of Tiny Suns” ends the album with criss-crossing electric guitars spiraling outward like a slow-motion sunburst.

A couple of tracks get into “off”-tuning and abrasive dissononace, but they’re in the minority.  The acoustic “I Would Ask” comes up fairly early in the album and is actually a welcome break from the sea of niceness. “The Gate Is That Way, Not This” is the one that will have roommates and spouses running away screaming; it’s an electric-guitar improv with lots of atonality (in the loose, improper sense that jazz critics use) and screechy sounds.

The bulk of this album, though, is really nice, a very rewarding listen.

Random side note: All of the electric-guitar work on the album was performed with a true-temperament neck, which uses squiggly frets to produce more accurately toned scales. Check it out.