Outsound Live Report

The Outsound New Music Summit concludes tonight — Saturday, July 23, 2011 — at the Community Music Center, 544 Capp St., San Francisco.

I really did make it to last night’s Outsound installment, “The Art of the Composer.”  As mentioned, “composition” here didn’t involve just notes on paper, but different strategies for infusing improvisation and artists’ choices into the music. The compositions were structures to be decorated, or parameters for molding an improvisation.

Gino Robair, who would be on stage for three of the four acts, opened in duo with Krystyna Bobrowski, playing duets on Bobrowski’s new-music instruments. (See also Polly Moller at Trinity Chapel.) The first piece started with Robair on balloon gongs — you see that vertical black rectangle next to the yellow balloon? It’s a metal gong. Robair would strike the gong, then hold the balloon up to it. A contact mic on the balloon produced a resonant, ringing sound — a clever use of electronics.

The next movement had the two of them on a metallic xylophone, playing together in coordinated snippets of melodic chiming at first, then gradually exploring other sounds — rubbing the xylophone tubes (they seemed to be tubes) with mallets, for example. A very “musical” feeling segment.

The second piece had Bobrowski and Robair playing glass instruments filled with water. Robair played wine glasses but went beyond rubbing the rims, creatively tapping and splashing. Bobrowski played those IV-looking bottles, which are played like wine glasses but can shift up and down on their stands to produce different tones.

Andrew Raffo Dewar’s Interactions Quartet was next, debuting “Strata.” The quartet has played and recorded before, but it was “grittier,” noisier stuff, as oboist Kyle Bruckmann puts it. Their piece on the sampler CD (DID I MENTION YOU GET A SAMPLER CD when you come to the shows? You do!) has a drifting quality augmented by the buzzing of electronics.

By contrast, “Strata” was full of clean, acoustic chamber-music lines and apparently provided room for solos as well. It started sparsely, with each instrument providing small snippets that interconnected through an invisible sense of rhythm. Later came some melodic passages, including one where John Shiurba tapped a steady rhythm with ankle bells and with his acoustic guitar, setting up a backdrop for some nice ensemble playing. Late in the piece, oboe and sax played a unison fanfare and then dove into what appeared to be improvised variations. Raffo capped it all with a dynamic conclusion.

The Kanoki Nishi graphical score was nowhere in sight, but whatever it was, it got translated into a dark, loud, amplifier-heavy display. Tony Dryer and Italian artist IOIOI performed on the floor in front of the stage, with the lights turned way down, which added to the effect.

We got a taste of what was to come when Dryer was setting up. He was correcting for some kind of sound problem, and occasionally, the work created a huge blast of feedback or the big loud crunching sound that you get when you plug or unplug an audio lead. Audience members got tense, ready to cover their ears at a moment’s notice.

And there was a good tension to the piece. Dryer went first, starting with whispery, chaotic bowing of his amplified acoustic bass, producing barely audible scratches. Then he created one loud BLAST — striking the strings with his palm, maybe? — and left that on sustain for a long while. This was obviously the moment he’d done the careful sound-check for, and it paid off: one loud amplifier scream. I keep earplugs in my jacket pocket just for moments like this. From there, Dryer worked the electronics dials, filtering the sounds down to a manageable electronics trickle, then a full stop.

IOIOI then took to the spotlight with an electric guitar. She started with the guitar on her lap, a metal bowl on the strings. She wobbled and rolled the bowl for a liquidy set of sounds. Then, she got into some more conventional extended playing — a metal bar through the strings on the fingerboard, for example. By tapping the bar, she produced a melodic ringing — rather nice, actually. Finally, she took a bow to the strings, creating nervous, scratchy sounds but doing so with a strong sense of purpose and control; this wasn’t just flailing for noise’s sake. I really liked that segment.

Gino Robair‘s quartet, Ensemble Agaucalientes, rounded things out. (For a guy who was on stage 75% of the time, Robair sure didn’t get into many of these pictures.)

The group was patterned after Mexican folk and popular music, with flutes, acoustic bass, marimba, and a host of Latin percussion. The sound was neither folky nor pop, instead lingering in the non-idiomatic, abstract area that’s more characteristic of Outsound. Players were given bits of melody to perform, and these fragments were apparently mutable at the players’ whims. So, occasional folky melodies would arise, mostly from Polly Moller’s flutes, but only in fleeting instants.

Robair conducted the group, giving players assignments to jump to particular parts of the score, to drop out, to play in certain ways. Every playing of this score, then, is intended to be vastly different, a very “In C” unpredictability that’s a hallmark of improv work and a focus of some Robair projects, such as his I, Norton opera.

Ensemble Aguacalientes, in this sitting, at least, played in sparse individual parts but with a sense of continual, ongoing momentum. Something was always going on, in other words, but the four instruments didn’t overwhelm each other and intentionally didn’t saturate the space — a respectful quite was an important element of the color here.

Overall, quite a successful evening, played to a crowd that felt like 50 or 60, possibly even more. So, I’d encourage you to take a few hours tonight to check out tonight’s show, which focuses on crazy invented instruments. The coffee’s good and the T-shirts are bright and colorful (the purples seemed to be selling out the most quickly).

Previous Outsound 2011 posts:

3 thoughts on “Outsound Live Report

  1. hey wedge can you write something about varsity theater in palo alto, to get the word out about its potential as a music venue? there is some michael hedges and maybe stanley jordan circa 1980 videos out there, via randy lutge. robben ford maybe (charlie ford, he sat in).

  2. Ben – Could it be that it was both of them? I didn’t see any of Robair from the waist down during that piece, but I had a good angle on Shiurba.

    Mark — I don’t know anything about the Varsity (keep in mind I never hung around Palo Alto until joining KZSU). But I think I know the location you’re talking about. You’ll have to e-mail me (see the About page) & clue me in.

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