sfSound Hits The Airwaves

The environment for the arts has turned even more hostile in this country, and creative music is particularly hard-hit. The selloff of college radio frequencies makes it harder and harder to find anything interesting on the airwaves.

The Internet is not an adequate substitute, as I think I’ve said before. At the same time, though, it’s a way to keep an interested audience nourished, whether it’s through podcasts or live presentations.

Enter sfSound Group, the local modern-classical troupe that probably cringes at the term “modern classical.” For some time now, Matt Ingalls and crew (or possibly just Matt) has/have been presenting recorded works through sfSound Radio, an automated shuffle-play Webcast. (Warning: that link automatically launches the audio broadcast).

And now, sfSound Radio is going live on Fridays, presenting a mix of concerts, interviews, and … other things. File this coming Friday, March 4, under “other” or possibly “aleatoric musique concrète,” as they’ll be hanging a microphone out of an Oakland window and broadcasting the results live for 24 hours.

Future broadcasts include interviews with local artists Wobbly and David Slusser … and a March 18 live broadcast of UK saxophonist John Butcher (right) performing with Grosse Abfahrt, the local-plus-Euro-guests improv troupe (see here).

Later on: Tom Duff will be presenting a five-day broadcast of an Alvin Lucier work, and Matthew Goodheart will present an extended interview with Italian saxophonist Gianni Gebbia.

I like this development. It fills a gap that even college and public radio increasingly refuse to acknowledge. Granted, I’ve dropped the ball myself by abandoning my post at KZSU, but the station’s “out-there” quotient is still being kept alive by DJs such as Your Imaginary Friend (Wednesdays, 6:00 to 9:00 p.m. Pacific time!)

This might be a good moment to rejoice in the wealth of independent radio that’s still broadcasting in the Bay Area:

  • (Save KUSF!)
  • KZSU
  • KFJC
  • KALX
  • KPFA
  • KCSM — Plain jazz, you might call it, but very much a resource to cherish. And they do play the outside stuff, late Thursday nights.

Harvesting Steve Coleman

Steve ColemanHarvesting Semblances and Affinities (Pi, 2010)

I’ve heard Steve Coleman’s music before, but this is the first time I’ve been aware of a trombone in the mix. Trombone isn’t the first instrument I’d associate with Coleman’s intricate clockwork funk. It’s so rounded, so un-agile.

It’s the opposite of the Henry Threadgill case. Something about Threadgill’s cellular composing seems perfect for tuba, but Coleman’s music seems a strange fit for trombone.

Coleman does have his big-band moments — that is, pieces that draw directly from traditional formats, pairing a group of horns with funky electric bass and drums. The trombone naturally fits that environment. But my first impressions of Coleman from the ’90s still stick with me: interlocked meters; calculated funk from the electric bass; small and twisted chords from piano and/or a springy “very late ’80s” electric guitar. There’s an attractive coldness there that the warm, rounded trombone sound wouldn’t seem to fit.

Or would it? I’m listening to “Day Two” on Coleman’s album Genesis (available for free download), where I think the trombone is played by Tim Albright. For long passages of this track, two or three horns blare madly over a rhythm section of electric bass, drums (a cowbell adding some of that “clockwork” Coleman touch) and keys. The free-flying trombone adds just the right colors, not to mention some agile dancing. Here’s a clip; listen for the moment where the trumpeter follows Albright’s lead.

So, the trombone is no stranger to a Steve Coleman band. But on Harvesting, Coleman drops the chord instruments and builds a band around individual horns and a vocalist. The elements that helped make Genesis familiar to be are gone.

I should be clear that this is a new exercise for me, not for Albright, who’s been in Coleman’s band for some time (I’m guessing he’s on some of Coleman’s Label Bleu CDs of recent years, and I’ll admit I’ve missed some of those). And I do like the way the trombone fits into Harvesting as part of an overall warmer sound. There’s still bass on the album, but it’s acoustic, not popping funky electric, and I have to admit I miss the piano. The horns are simultaneously soloing and weaving a background. You wouldn’t expect a title like “060706-2319 (Middle of Water)” to convey warmth, but there it is, with the trombone contributing quite a bit to that mood.

That warmth also means there’s less of the compellingly icy feel of albums like Black Science. “Beba” has some of the same properties, but again: with acoustic bass, no piano, and a trombone shadowing the scatty vocal line, the sound is more organic, less sci-fi. One constant, at a macro level, is Coleman’s sax, still cutting lines that are at once swingy, analytic, cerebral, and dancing.

Albright delivers a nice sputtering solo on “Atilla 02 (Dawning Ritual)” … and then along comes “Clouds,” a slower track whose determined intro is led by the trombone, as if Coleman had inserted that track just to mock my doubts about the instrument. The writing on “Clouds” — pleasant and floating, yet with a stern chord change or two — is a good fit for the trombone’s quilty brashness.

I already knew Coleman’s music could take shapes that I hadn’t considered — the hovering, darkly angelic vocals of Lucidarium come to mind. And considering music is his art, I shouldn’t be surprised if he tries new directions with it. But while vocals have always been a part of Coleman’s presentation, trombone hasn’t, and that minor surprise led me to listen to the music from an angle I wouldn’t have considered — one that’s possibly too close but that nonetheless offers a point of view I hadn’t considered.

Bobby Previte: Terminals

Drummer/composer Bobby Previte has an interesting new project in the works, being prepped for a March 28 performance. It’s called “Terminals, Part 1: Departures,” and there’s an interesting promo video out about it:

Previte’s inspiration started with the shapes of airport terminal maps, the kind of thing that would strike the mind of a musician who spends so much time traveling. In the video, Previte also discusses his musical directions with the piece — talking, for instance, about the link between classical concertos and improvisation.

And at the end, you get to see him play a building with drumsticks. Very cool.

The “Terminals” performance will feature SO Percussion, John Medeski, Zeena Parkins, Jen Shyu, and DJ Olive. If you’re in NYC, it sounds like something to look out for.

Previte is giving updates on the project via Facebook and also via Twitter: @rankhypocricy.

Emily Hay: Video Clips

Emily Hay and Motoko Honda appear Sunday, Feb. 27, at Musician’s Union Hall, 116 9th St. near Mission, San Francisco.

Southern California flutist/vocalist Emily Hay has a new quartet CD out (Polarity Taskmasters) and is coming up this way for a show. Random stuff I know about her:

I liked her self-titled trio album with Brad Dutz and Wayne Peet, on pfMentum.  Dutz, a percussionist, often improvises in a melodic and rhythmic mode, using tuned instruments such as xylophone or marimba. Peet, an organist, often works on building rhythm and groove as well. It’s a different type of improvisation, not quite groove music but less abstract than you often find as well. It’s a mix I enjoyed. You can hear some of the groove element about halfway through this video:

Hay’s improvising can be quite cutting and acidic, which complements Motoko Honda’s piano work quite well. Add in some reverb, and they make a formidable wall of sound, far from the welcoming grooves of the Dutz/Peet trio. Here’s one of their appearances at the Boise Improvised Music Festival.

What I hadn’t noticed in Hay’s bio before now was her turn in art rock, singing for Motor Totemist Guild and U Totem, circa 1990. Via YouTube, I’m getting my first taste of what that music was like, and I’m intrigued.

I guess my only point here is that I spent a lot of time on the Web last weekend. I realize some people would chalk up U Totem/Motor Totemist/5UUs as Art Bears/Henry Cow derivatives, but I’m still curious to hear more from them.

ROVA/Nels Cline Webcast Tonight

The ROVA Saxophone Quartet and The Nels Cline Singers (combined to form The Celestial Septet) will perform tonight (Feb. 22) in Philadelphia, and you can watch it on a live, free webcast: http://arsnova.webillishus.com.  The concert starts at 5:00 p.m. Pacific time.

The concert and webcast are the product of Ars Nova Workshop, an impressive Philly organization that brings free jazz and creative music artists into town for concerts. The group plays host to Philly’s own musical community sometimes, but more often, they draw from the deep pool of NYC talent, probably taking advantage of being within driving distance. I’ve been to one of their shows — Tim Berne’s Bloodcount reunion at the International House in 2008 — and the operation is impressive in its organization and its ability to draw an audience.

I don’t believe that musicians benefit every time they give away their work for free. But here’s one instance where it probably doesn’t hurt. Fans in California certainly can’t attend the Philly show. And those in Philadelphia who are interested in the music have plenty of incentive to see it in person. Key to that second point is that the Ars Technica shows are hand-picked and infrequent — maybe a half-dozen shows per month — which keeps the series fresh in terms of novelty and quality. (But just in case fans don’t realize that, the webcast is being blocked in Philly.)

The value of a webcast is doubled in the case of The Celestial Septet, given that the band isn’t easy to convene; the five shows on this tour might be their last for a long while. That’s why Ars Technica is going through this effort, which sounds like a one-off project. I hope it goes well. Most of the groups in this genre are necessarily ephemeral, and some video documentation would go a long way. And it would help nurture fan bases in remote areas like mine, where it’s just too costly for east-coasters to tour.

My review of The Celestial Septet (the CD) is here.

There’s a similar philosophy — albeit an entirely different purpose and result — in the Telematics concerts that Mark Dresser has been participating in, where groups of musicians in different cities are linked together via Internet2, a high-speed Internet offshoot that links research sites. As Dresser mentions at the end of this All About Jazz essay, Telematics is not a substitute for live, in-person interaction. It’s a good alternative, though, given today’s economic realities. It’s a subject I’m hoping to investigate more in the coming weeks.

Tim Berne’s To-Do List

After a period of relative silence in terms of CD releases, Tim Berne is busting loose. From the e-mail newsletter for his Screwgun Records label, here’s what he says is on the way:

* Insomnia on the Clean Feed label (already out, but it’s a good place to start).

* Old and Unwise, on Clean Feed — duo with bassist Bruno Chevillon. Arriving in May.

* On ECM, a CD from his band Los Totopos, which includes Berne (sax), Oscar Noriega (other sax), Matt Mitchell (keyboards), and Ches Smith (drums). The band has been performing regularly for a couple of years now, it seems, and should be in top form for their upcoming Australian tour.  The Screwgun home page offers some sound clips and a taste of Totopos on video; I’ve embedded the same video below. UPDATE: I should add that the CD is unmixed and not likely to appear this year. That’s what Berne indicates in his e-mail; I’m adding this because I think some folks who’ve seen that e-mail are stumbling on this blog hoping for more info.

* Sons of Champignon, a band originally called The BBC, apparently has a CD arriving this year. It’s the trio of Berne (sax), Nels Cline (guitar), and Jim Black (drums). They, too, are findable on YouTube.

And now, Los Totopos:

What the Heck Is Prepared Electric Piano?

Eric Glick Rieman plays his prepared electric piano on Friday, Feb. 26, at Meridian Gallery, San Francisco. He’ll play solo and with electronics artist Kristin Miltner.

What the heck is “prepared electric piano?” Eric Glick Rieman actually responded to that question when I’d posed it on this blog a while back, with an answer that told me that 1) the question wasn’t all that dumb, and 2) I had never thought about how electric piano worked.

Knowing that Rieman built the prepared electric piano himself made me feel better about not knowing the answer. And I finally got to see the thing in action earlier this month at the Luggage Store Gallery, where Rieman improvised some duets with cellist Theresa Wong.

Here’s what was throwing me. Prepared acoustic piano is pretty easy to understand: You take an object (wooden blocks work great) and put it onto the strings of a piano. This mutes the strings, creating a clicky percussive sound. Guitarists can do something similar with the palms of their right hands: they kill the reverb and create something percussive.

But with electric piano, there are no strings. In fact, having grown up digitally, I’m accustomed to the sound coming from solid-state elements (semiconductors), with no physical object to manipulate.

What I wasn’t considering was that electric piano is an old concept, and being such, it’s actually based on physical concepts just like the piano. Glockenspiel might even be a closer relative. An electric piano’s sound comes from metal bars, like tuning forks, that resonate when struck by the keys.

Knowing that, it’s a simple mental step to use something to block those bars just like you would a prepared electric piano.

Rieman’s instrument, then, is a normal, working electric piano — he even played me some non-prepared sounds to prove it — that’s been dissected, its guts exposed to the world. That leaves Rieman free to mess with the sound, but he doesn’t just use wooden blocks.

His is an electrified electric piano. Rieman puts pickups and contact mics on the instrument’s surface, so that pretty much anything he touches gets sent out as a sound.  In the picture to the right, you can see the electric piano with its top removed, exposing the tines. To the left are the mixing board and effects boxes Rieman uses to adjust the sound.

One limitation is that the bare sound of Rieman slapping and thumping the instrument can actually overwhelm the amplified sounds that you’re supposed to be hearing. It was advantageous, then, that Rieman insisted on letting the crowd wander the Luggage Store during his set with Wong. They’d played one short improvisation, and Rieman told us the the audience/performer hierarchy wasn’t exactly giving him the warm fuzzies. So, we wandered, most of us starting on Rieman’s side to get an up-close view of the prepared electric piano. Later, I found myself moving away, trying to hear more of the amplified sound for a “purer” view of the music.

Rieman played kinetically, with lots of finger tapping and palm thumping to trigger the contact mics. Wong often contrasted this with long or skittery tones from both the cello and her voice, adding a shade of mystery.

What you’re not seeing in my pictures is the stand that held up the instrument. It looked like a short four-legged stand that was placed on top of four other legs, held together by little more than a prayer to the balance gods. I figured it was sturdy and that that’s just how it always looked, but after the show, Rieman glanced at it and made a comment along the lines of, “Whoa, that’s not good!”

Ann O’Rourke has posted a good video of the Luggage Store performance — starting from the beginning, then cutting to the time we were invited to wander the stage. You’ll hear some high-pitched singing in there, which is Wong rhapsodizing along with her cello.

For more about Rieman, check out this interview by Dan Godston of Experimental Arts Examiner.

ROVA’s Russian Return

ROVA plays tonight (Feb. 19) in Marin County, at The Dance Palace Community Center in Point Reyes. Then they’re touring the northeast.

ROVA Saxophone QuartetPlanetary (SoLyd, 2010)

Planetary is a nice slice of classic ROVA, in my imprecise idea of what “classic” means. While it’s great seeing or hearing the band doing full-on improvisation with graphical scores, or appearing in augmented form with electronics (see the upcoming 33-1/3 concert or The Celestial Septet), there’s always something to be said for the straight lineup of four acoustic saxophones and some robust composing.

The other reason why “classic” comes to mind is because Planetary, released on a Russian label, extends ROVA’s connection to what used to be the Soviet Union.

In 1983, before the Iron Curtain fell, out-there jazz was outlawed — which, of course, created a thriving underground scene. ROVA accepted an invitation to make a clandestine tour through Russia, Latvia, and Romania. It sounds like it was tremendous fun, and they were treated like underground rock stars. The results came out on the CD, Saxophone Diplomacy (Hat Hut, 1991).

ROVA would return in 1989 for a formally welcomed tour — bigger venues and probably bigger audiences, but not the same enthusiasm, according to liner notes on the CD, This Time We Are Both (New Albion, 1991).

In addition to those recordings, there’s a marvelous double CD called San Francisco Holidays (Leo, 1992) by the Ganelin Trio, a Soviet group that Leo had been championing. It documents the Ganelins’ 1986 trip out west, including a couple of short performances with the trio and ROVA combined.

Planetary itself has no direct ties to Russia, other than the SoLyd label. The recordings, from 2003 and 2009, were made in the East Bay rather than Eastern Europe. But it’s still a nice excuse to revisit the whole Soviet story.

The album consists of two tracks by Larry Ochs (ROVA’s “O”) and two by Steve Adams (nominally, the “V”). As you’d expect, the songs combine aggressive group work with more thoughtful moments, the latter often in the form of untethered playing by subsets of the quartet.

Ochs is good at writing really chipper themes for the quartet (a fave of mine is “Torque,” from This Time We Are Both). His track, “Planetary,” does take you on a 17-minute journey, but don’t expect something reverentially cosmic. A catchy opening theme is followed by a suite of solos, including what I think are long stretches of Ochs unaccompanied — gruff and blustery in an almost comical way for one long stretch; later, calm and colorfully kinetic. It ends with a gravely shrill march, maybe a nod to Holst’s “Mars, the Bringer of War.”

Ochs’ other composition, “S,” starts by playing around with overlapping sax lines for a tumbling, perpetual-motion sensation. Later themes get more swingy, providing backdrop for individual members’ solos.

Adams’ tracks include the breathy, wandering “Parallel Construction #1” and its perkier companion, “Parallel Construction #2.” They take similar themes and carve different pathways with them — “#1” has a wide-open feel and a chamber-music lilt, while “#2” gets more dense and frenzied. Adams also contributes a peppy, upbeat track called “Flip Trap.”

The track that’s easy to overlook, because it’s quiet, is Adams’ “Glass Head Concretion.” It creeps along, starting with careful foreshadowing and light tension, working its way through some ostinato themes and composed passages that are actually quite catchy, if you don’t let them drift past unnoticed. It’s full of long tones and agile but whispered soloing — a great, close listen if you’re in a quiet environment.

The “SoLyd” link up top connects you to the distributor Forced Exposure. You can also purchase the CD directly from ROVA.

Jen Baker x2

With a couple of evenings free, I had the chance to check out a couple of the improv shows featuring Jen Baker, the former Bay Area trombonist who’s now living in New York.

I’d also never been to Mama Buzz Cafe, out in Oakland on a less-gentrified stretch of Telegraph Avenue. It’s essentially a diner that’s been converted into a coffeehouse, with a counter that offers coffee and food and yummy spheroid vegan donuts. Greasy spoon meets Bay Area bohemia. An adjacent room, sheltered from the counter, is scattered with tables and chairs in the classic DIY coffeehouse look, and that’s where music events are held. (Photo below is by Flickr user katerw; I’d forgotten my camera that night.)

Wednesday night, Baker was playing here with a quartet including Phillip Greenlief (sax), Lisa Mezzacappa (bass), and Ava Mendoza (guitar).  Only a half dozen of us were in the music room, including a couple of people with the requisite Mac PowerBooks (it can’t be a coffeehouse without  a couple of open laptops), but everyone paid rapt attention to the music, which was nice.

The sparse crowd, the midweek vibe, and maybe the fact that Baker had been out of town — it all made for a fun and casual session.  These were four friends just having fun with music. Mendoza’s electric guitar mixed well with the acoustic instruments; she seemed to be keeping things at a careful volume and contributed some nicely choppy rhythms. There were good long passages of all four tuning in on a propulsive mood and a strong pace.

Baker also found a couple of good spots for a few seconds of lyrical vibrations — the multiphonics created by singing into the trombone. It’s become an area of study for her, but the sound stands out and could really overwhelm the music, applied carelessly. She used the technique only for seconds at a time, and it worked well. Later, she told me she’s started transcribing some of her previous lyrical-vibrations improvisations — which turns the method into a composed technique that requires a different type of thinking in performance.

The set ended sublimely, with Greenlief dedicating a birthday piece to his late mother. It started with just Greenlief and Mezzacappa playing in a wistfully lyrical mood, with Baker and Mendoza following suit in long, gentle tones.

Thursday night, Baker played in two sets at the Luggage Store Gallery. The first was an improvising trio with Philip Gelb on shakuhachi and Tara Flandreau on viola, all three standing in front of the blank movie screen that occupied the gallery’s back wall. (A video installation was playing on the other side, visible out on the street.) Lots of serene moments in this set, some of that attributable to the natural sound of the shakuhachi — Flandreau even spent one passage playing whispery sounds on the viola’s bridge, matching the wooden flute’s demeanor.

The evening closed with 25 minutes of Baker’s lyrical vibrations. She introduced the solo performance by explaining that this music draws her into a trancelike state that she’d never experienced before — which is part of her fascination with the concept. The goal of the set was to share that experience with us, and it worked, aided by the stark white of the Luggage Store’s blank walls.

You can hear samples of the concept on Baker’s Web site.

Between Baker’s sets was the duo of Eric Glick Rieman (prepared electric piano) and Teresa Wong (cello). I’m going to write that one up separately. (Preview: I finally got to see the prepared electric piano!)

Einstein on My CD Player

I’ve started working through Einstein on the Beach, and I do mean “working through.” The liner notes say that audience members were encouraged to wander in and out of the hours-long opera at will, so that’s what I’m doing, in a virtual sense — digesting one of the three CDs per night, and even allowing myself to doze off during scenes.

Why bother? Well, I actually have fond memories of mocking a friend’s copy of the CD set. He played me one of the knee plays — segments between acts of the opera, which can stand together as a play of their own — where one female voice is chanting along with the rhythms: ONEtwothree ONEtwothree ONNNE-two-three ONNNE-two-three ONEtwothree ONEtwothree… and so on.

This was 1988. I didn’t listen to any remotely avant-garde music, or even anything classical. I laughed heartily.

Years later, I’d been exposed to more of Phillip Glass, and I’d learned how to listen to minimalism, to admire the tapestry while studying the weaving, the tiny shifts making up the whole. And I’d developed a sense of humor for the avant-garde — ONEtwothree ONEtwothree is still amusing, but I feel like I’m in on the joke.

That first listen had stuck in my mind all these years. I wanted to go back and discover what I’d missed.

I was also inspired by Eric Bogosian. The introduction to his book, Drinking in America, is a longtime favorite, something I reread a few times every year. He describes his immersion in the New York avant-garde art world of the ’70s, and how he departed that phase to do the solo works that made his name. Of Einstein, he wrote:

“I was a true believer and sat dutifully in my seat for the full six hours. I found an excitement I couldn’t find in traditional theater. Einstein was a visual and aural masterpiece, intellectually stimulating, bold, loud, bohemian, young and unfettered by commercial stodginess.”

To be fair to my 1988 self, there is quite a visual element to Einstein that a listener can’t grasp. That’s the Robert Wilson contribution, as I undertstand it: big, spare, minimal, abstract sets. Large spaces and oddly robotic movements by the actors. Musicians scattered about the landscape of the set.

Yeah… none of that comes across on CD.  ONEtwothree ONEtwothree…

Don’t get me wrong. I’m enjoying the opera. Minimalism is not my preferred style of classical, but as I said, I can appreciate its intricacies. I’m amazed at the concentration it takes to keep one’s place in that maze of twisty tunnels, all alike. And I’m really enjoying the knee plays, where violinist Gregory Fulkerson, who nominally “plays” Einstein in the cast, really tears through those arpeggios.

There’s an athleticism to the singing, too. I don’t understand where the chorus takes their breaths! There are times when they’re barking out wordless rhythms, keeping up with that Glassian patter, and they seem to go minutes without a break. It’s impressive.

The opera certainly has punch and energy, sometimes accentuated by Glass’ bright major-chord tendencies. A very large percentage of the music comes from the two keyboards, for a very non-classical sound that must have been invigorating (or off-putting) to 1976 ears.

On top of everything else, I think one of my goals here was simply to add the opera to my library. Like my copies of Kind of Blue and Sgt. Pepper, it feels essential. I can’t wait to hear my kids giggle at it — and then, maybe years down the line, return to it with open minds and earnest curiosity.