Naked City: CLICK

My bookshelf includes a March 1991 issue of Wire magazine, inherited from Gino Robair. He’d organized a special show memorializing the Dark Circle Lounge, his weekly concert series at the Hotel Utah in San Francisco. The show doubled as a reunion/party for the creative-music community, and it was amazing fun. To go with the nostalgic theme, Gino was handing out memorabilia — he’d cleaned out his garage or something, maybe — and that’s the one he put into my hands.

I throw away magazines all the time — I have to, to keep the Hoarders cameras away — but I’ve kept this one. I wasn’t into creative music in 1991, and to read about Evan Parker and Myra Melford’s 1990s work from a then-contemporary perspective feels special.

Plus, the issue has a very cool review of Torture Garden.

You know that one, right? It’s hyperactive tour de force album from John Zorn’s Naked City, flooded with jump cuts and short, short, short songs. Here’s an excerpt of Mike Fish’s review:

    Rejected by major click Suck this, you hapless click Impression that Zorn is trying a tad too hard to be a blood brother with those disaffected rock zombies who created hardcore in the first place, while he was off doing weird sh*t with Chadbourne and all those click Sumptuous click Nice sweet person like Frisell doing click Excerpts from a teenage operatic nightmare, maybe, with added click Favourite title: probably the winsomely detailed “New Jersey Scum Swamp,” unlocking click In an MTV world, there’s click

I especially love the Frisell bit. My sentiments exactly, once I found out just who Bill Frisell was.

Anyway, my recent mention of the Antheil/Naked City link is what nudged this memory into the open. And it’s funny how some things never change: One of the magazine’s feature articles is about the scarcity of venues for improvised music!

Antheil II: Naked City, 1923

George AntheilSonatas for Violin and Piano (Azica, 2011)

As I was saying

Years after encountering “Ballet Mécanique,” I’ve finally taken the step into exploring some of Antheil’s other music.

And I’ve found something cool: He presaged John Zorn’s radio-jumping idea by a few decades.

I don’t know if Zorn ever heard Antheil, and Zorn’s Naked City certainly put a more extreme and electrifying spin on the idea. But it’s fun to imagine Antheil’s effect on audiences, because while artists like Stravinsky were creating strange and unsettling music, Antheil went downright loony.

I’m talking specifically about the 1923 Sonata No. 2 for violin and piano. In some ways, the 8.5-minute piece is even more subversive than “Ballet Mécanique.” You walk into “Ballet Mécanique” knowing you’re going to witness something large and crazy, but an violin sonata is an innocuous-seeming place.

The sonata presents one jazzy angle after another, sometimes interspersed with more classically “classical” moments.  He’s genre-hops, too, abruptly cutting off an “oriental” theme at one point, and ending the piece with a quiet Arabian motif. It’s a kind of “frequency hopping” — like switching stations on a radio. Except radio hadn’t yet become a household mass medium.

There are no patterns and no recurring themes. There is no sense of direction or evolution, just one event after another in a stream of consciousness that never lets you settle in and get comfortable. Sometimes the piano plays a perfectly straight pop line, while the violin sings something in another key entirely. Sometimes, you get a fistful of low piano notes next to a screeching double-stop on the violin.

Mario Piccinini’s liner notes quote Antheil about upending the average listener by abandoning the normal A-B-A musical form: “Consequentially, this formula: AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA makes him uneasy: it throws him into the air.” Yes, it does.

The music is smart-alecky, but that also makes it deeply expressive and creates space for showmanship. Antheil apparently gave the musicians instructions such as “sour,” “sweet,” or “giggled.  One umbrella instruction of “sarcastic” might have sufficed. Mark Fewer (violin) and John Novacek (piano) do sound like they’re having fun playing it.

Sonata No. 1 is less jarring but hardly conventional.  It’s peppered with some Naked City moments (a sudden country hoedown that quickly vanishes, for instance), and the first movement includes lots of passages where the piano or violin hammers away at one note or one strident chord — a mechanical, dehumanized moment that presages the “Ballet Mécanique.” But you do get a sense of thematic construction.

Sonata No. 1 has its friendly moments, to be sure, but there’s an overall sternness. And yet it’s delivered with that same smirk as Sonata No. 2. One passage has the violin caught in highly dramatic throes while the pianist plays the lowest and highest registers at the same time.

The fifth movement closes the sonata some impressive fast playing — Fewer on violin, particularly, has to spit out fast, accurate mumbles with a feathery bow touch. Then, at one dramatic point, Antheil delivers one false ending after another. Classical music does that — you should see Hugh Fink, a violin-playing standup comedian, do his bit about it — but Antheil outright toys with you, nearly ending the piece again and again and again and again. And again. And. Again. I like to think he was playing for laughs.

This whole act didn’t last much longer for Antheil, though.

“Ballet Mécanique” got a disastrous reception in New York, possibly caused by the massive overhype that preceded the premiere, author Richard Rhodes surmises in Hedy’s Folly. Antheil was crushed, and maybe because of that — or maybe because of the years he spent on movie soundtracks — his later works took a more conventional voice.

His “New Second Violin Sonata,” here titled “Sonata No. 4 (2),” retains touches of Antheil’s sarcasm and even some allusions to popular music. But overall, the 1948 piece is more “serious classical,” full of modern-sounding harmonies. Cadences and moods stick around for a while, and the quiet parts have a delicacy that was rarer in Antheil’s earlier works. “Sonata No. 4 (2)” is a lot less radical, and for that reason, I want to think of it as a lesser achievement — but the truth is, it’s more listenable (if less fun) than Sonata No. 2.

Elsewhere among recent Antheil releases is a CD of his complete string quartet works, performed by the Bay Area-based Del Sol String Quartet. It’s got the same dichotomy of early and later pieces, and while it’s hard for a string quartet to sound as absurd as a piano can, I’d expect the earlier pieces to have the same kind of adventure to them.

SFEMF 2012

I haven’t been looking ahead in the concert schedule lately, due to the simple hopelessness of not being able to attend anything for a while. While I do enjoy putting up little previews of shows, they also serve as daydreaming-out-loud kind of blogging, where I muse about the cool stuff I’d like to go see. (And hey, sometimes I actually do.)

But knowing that the past couple of weeks were out of the question, I didn’t look ahead to notice the start of the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival (SFEMF) on the horizon. Now the horizon is upon us and nearly past — which breaks the metaphor, but just go with it.

I had to miss Thursday night’s show at SF MOMA, which would have been awesome. Sigh. The remaining SFEMF concert schedule:

Saturday, September 8th, 8pm
BRAVA THEATER CENTER, 2781 24th Street (at York), San Francisco
Dieter MoebiusRichard LermanLoud ObjectsCheryl Leonard

Sunday, September 9th, 8pm
NegativwobblylandJames FeiChuck Johnson

Stray thoughts:

We had Negativwobblyland on KZSU’s Day of Noise in February. It’s Wobbly plus Peter Conheinm of Negativland.

Cheryl Leonard‘s work includes sounds generated from natural objects: water, sand, leaves. She’s the one who took a trip to Antarctica to explore sonic possibilities there.

James Fei is a saxophonist who creates thoroughly modern works (at least that’s true of the stuff I’ve heard), but he also performs with electronics.

(sfSound is also concluding their John Cage centennial series with a Sept. 20 concert; ‘been meaning to catch up with that series as well. That’s a separate topic.)

George Antheil and Ballet Mécanique

In 2000, I was assigned to write a Hedy Lamarr obituary for my day job at a tech publication. High-res images were harder to find on the Web back then, so to find one suitable for print — because we did publish on ink-and-paper back then — took about half an hour of looking through Hedy Lamarr photos. It’s not the worst afternoon I ever spent at work.

Lamarr’s relevance to electronics was her patent for a frequency-hopping system that is now the basis for cellphone communications. The patent is legit; Lamarr had more engineering aptitude than people gave her credit for, and her idea, intended as an unjammable torpedo guidance system, sprang from a concrete knowledge of munitions technology. I’m reading a book about it all now: Hedy’s Folly by Richard Rhodes.

Her partner in the invention was George Antheil, which is how all this ties back to music. It’s through researching Lamarr’s obituary that I came across Antheil, the self-professed Bad Boy of Music — and composer of “Ballet Mécanique,” a piece for (among other things) xylophones, an air siren, three airplane propellers, and 16 synchronized player pianos.

Antheil had overestimated the pianos’ ability to synchronize and to play at volume, so while he did perform the Ballet — to a literal riot of a reception, so the story goes — it was with eight or ten live pianists following his lead.  The Ballet didn’t get a full 16-piano performance until Paul Lehrman developed a MIDI-driven version in the late 1990s. It’s been performed many times, including once in San Francisco with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting.

I attended that concert, and I had a blast. Screens overhead showed the keys of four of the pianos, one of which stopped working early in the piece. Lehrman — a colorful guy who was in a fantastic mood after the performance — got informed of the errant piano during his post-event Q&A and was full of mock indignation. “OK, fine! So you heard only fifteen player pianos! Come back tomorrow, we’ll do it over again!”

“Ballet Mécanique” is pounding from the get-go, with the player pianos hammering away at simultaneous chords that come out almost like a blur. The xylophones create that big-city-bustle feeling that xylophones do, and various alarm bells and other crashing sounds create the image of something relentless and busy. It’s only 1 minute into the 30-minute piece that the air siren shows up.

It’s not just noise. There are definite melodies and episodes, and recognizable repetition and development — you don’t really feel assaulted as much as exhilarated. “Cold as an army operates” is how Antheil described the idea in one letter quoted by Rhodes. Antheil was striving for the image of a machine-dominated landscape, and for the standards of 1920s ears, he achieved his goal — but I still find the music more pulse-pounding than mechanistic.

Late in piece, things get quiet. Long silences abound, stopped by a sudden blare or buzz. Tilson Thomas, listening to a click track, continued conducting through the silences — which looked awfully pretentious but admittedly told the audience that the performance hadn’t simply broken down.

My point behind all this was that I’ve started to explore Antheil’s other work, but that’ll be saved for another blog entry. It’s hard to start talking about “Ballet Mécanique” without rambling. For a LOT more information, spend some time at

While several “Ballet Mécanique” recordings are available, I have to point out the one produced by Lehrman himself, released by the Electronic Music Foundation. You can click the CD cover to get to their site, but I’m not sure if they’re still shipping CDs. You can also get a DVD of a Lehrman-produced documentary about Antheil, Bad Boy Made Good, where one of the extras is a video of the Ballet’s first live performance.

Gravity Comes To Life

UPDATE: To answer questions about whether the concert was recorded or filmed … it was, but not in any form meant for public distribution, as far as I know. One guy filmed it from the front row but not in any official capacity. Dominique Leone tells me that Myles Boisen did a soundboard recording, but that’s not for commercial release (although it might be useful for reviving the project for festivals and the like, which would be intriguing.)

In front of a full and enthusiastic crowd, Fred Frith led a 10-piece band through the album Gravity at Slim’s on Aug. 25.

There were a lot of musicians in the audience, but most of the crowd were faces I didn’t recognize, especially when I moved up front for pictures. (The sound tends to be better in the middle or even the back of the room.) When the show ended, three different people behind me said, “That was amazing.”

It was, and it was a lot of fun, with lots of big smiles on the musicians’ faces — at least during the moments when they weren’t struggling through a difficult passage.

With barely an introduction, other than Frith telling the audience, “I must be dreaming,” the band ran through Side 1, with William Winant playing the part of the deep drum that permeates the entire side and ends in a fury. Frith used the side-change pause to introduce the band members, and then they drove through Side 2.

The start of “Norgarden Nyvla” was a big highlight, huge and anthemic, and Frith showed off some nice electric bass during he song. “Dancing in the Street” got surprisingly little response, almost as if people were disappointed to encounter a song they knew. (A lot of them might consider it a low point on the album; the in-joke is that it’s backed with sounds of Iranian revolt circa 1979 — an image very different from what Martha and the Vandellas intended.)

For the improvised track, “Crack Across the Concrete,” we actually did get to hear the band improvise. That was fun.

For encores, the group played a few other Frith tracks. “Killing Time” by Massacre made for a stunning mini-set opener and kept everyone’s attention. That was followed by an old Art Bears tune and … a transcription of an old hit single from some other artist. For years, Frith had been unable to find the song, so he wrote it out from memory, resulting in a materially different song, of course. So, they closed with that — it was happy, easygoing pop with kind of a Calypso feel.

Wonderful night all around.

The lineup:
Fred Frith — guitar, electric bass
Ava Mendoza — guitar
Wobbly — samplers
Lisa Mezzacappa — acoustic bass (electric on the encores)
Jordan Glenn — drums
Kasey Knudsen — sax
Aaron Novik — bass clarinet (also normal clarinet?)
Dominique Leone — keyboards
Kaethe Hostetter — violin
William Winant — percussion

Photos proceed. I tried some wannabe-fancy formatting with the understanding that it might not work on your screen, so… blame the mess on me. Click each photo for a way-too-large version.

ROVA opened the show with excerpts of a suite written by Frith: Tight, swinging stuff that kept the crowd surprisingly rapt.

Chuck Johnson played a short set of pretty, finger-picked guitar.

The opening moments, during the song “The Boy Beats the Ram.”

Dominique Leone and Kaethe Hostetter. Photo taken between people’s heads, Hubble-telescope style.

Lisa Mezzacappa, Kasey Knudsen, Aaron Novik.

Frith rocks out during Norrgarden Nyvla.

The only decent shot I got of Jordan Glenn on the drums.

Aaron Novik was not the only one to break out in a spontaneous grin.

Frith and Ava Mendoza again.

Kasey Knudsen.

Marie Abe on accordion and William Winant on percussion, both of whom added incredible amounts of depth to the music.

I’d never seen Wobbly before, and for most of the concert, his face was obscured to me, like he was trying to be a Residents-like Enigma. Of course, he’s not that secretive.

Frith took to the piano (lent from Scott Looney) for “Dancing in Rockville Md.,” the final track of Gravity.

Taking bows.

More bows.

Time to start the cleanup.

Group photo being taken by Myles Boisen, to end a night to remember.