I attended two nights of the Outsound New Music Summit and enjoyed both concerts immensely. But before going into detail, I wanted to post something about Kyle Bruckmann’s Wrack, because they’re coming to Los Angeles tonight (July 28) and Sacramento on Monday (July 29).
Having now seen the hour-long piece they’ll be playing, “… Awaits Silent Tristero’s Empire,” I can say that if you’re in either of those locales, you don’t want to miss it.
It’s loads of fun, filled with silly, old-timey-jazz melodies made up to the songs in Thomas Pynchon’s novels. (The piece itself is all instrumental, so Pynchon scholars can have some fun trying to guess which song is which.) Sometimes the melodies are played straight. Sometimes they’ve got some twisty improvised backing, and sometimes they overlap, with half of the septet playing one melody and the other half playing something else (I think I even heard three overlapping songs at one point.)
Bruckmann’s madcap, turn-on-a-dime composing stays mostly upbeat, sometimes relentlessly so, packed with pulse-pounding free-jazz motifs and some vicious soloing. It’s divided into three movements, for V, The Crying of Lot 49, and Gravity’s Rainbow, which might be another point for Pynchon scholars to geek out on: How do the moods of the movements differ, and what’s the relationship to the books?
The piece is certainly packed with improvising and creative moments. The famous screaming across the sky that starts the third movement is represented by a jittery group improv, but the mood doesn’t take long to shift back into skewed cartoon smiles.
And it all launches very quickly, showing off free-jazz chops in the first instants of the first movement. Tim Daisy’s drums have a lot to do with that. He’s an absolute monster, delivering two pummeling, exhilarating solos with distinct personalities.
The rest of Saturday evening’s Outsound concert was a big success, too, with a packed crowd enjoying debut pieces from Rent Romus and Lewis Jordan. Thursday night’s computer-music show was great as well. More on those later. (UPDATE: It’s now later.)
Rent Romus’ Lords of Outland — Thee Unhip (Edgetone, 2012)
The Outsound New Music Summit is a labor of love for all volunteers but especially for Rent Romus, who not only runs the whole shebang but does an aces job raising funds and gathering sponsors. It’s been a while since he’s booked himself to play at the festival, though.
Originally a jazz band with Romus channeling late-era Coltrane on his sax, Lords of Outland has developed a dark side in the past several years, delving into electronics and sound-experimentation for a more ghoulish atmosphere. Ray Schaeffer’s down-in-the-mud electric bass certainly helps on that front, but outright electronics and the occasional ferocious free-for-all make for a more overtly ghoulish atmosphere.
Jazz is not dead in these tracks. “If Ornette Grew Cacti” opens up with an appropriately prickly take on what could have been one of Ornette’s danceable themes. From there, it goes into a speedy free-jazz attack — Philip Everett’s drumming fills the air with joyous cymbal clashing, and Schaeffer jams madly on bass. There’s also the tuneful and almost traditional “Temple of Dolphy, which shows off Romus’ sax soloing in a relatively light and uncluttered setting.
Throughout the album, C.J. Borosque shows some great work on trumpet. She’s positively screaming on “If Ornette Grew Cacti” and opens up “Planet of the Plutarchs” with some terrific improv, starting with vocalized growls and moving into bright, quick riffs. That track blooms into a bright free-jazz jam, with the bass adding a touch of psych here and there.
The free jazz and noise sides converge all over the place but are used to particularly good effect on “Dedicated to Lord Kraken off Titan off the Shores of Saturn,” where Romus cuts through thick electronics with somber, reverent sax in long tones, a ceremony of respect. In the end, it all explodes into a free-jazz celebration.
This final concert of the Summit should be a doozy. In addition to the Lords and Kyle Bruckmann, the bill includes Lewis Jordan’s Music at Large, a quintet bolstered by guitarist Karl Evangelista and violinist India Cooke. Here’s the Outsound “In the Field” video introducing Jordan, a veteran of the Bay Area jazz scene.
Joe Lasqo and Ritwik Banerji have each been working on electronic-music software that reacts to the surroundings. I wrote a bit about their efforts, and a performance of Lasqo’s, back in February.
They’ve spent a good part of this year refining their music-improvising software in advance of this performance — where one goal is to have the two musicbots play off of each other, to see where they’ll go without human intervention. Lasqo told me the idea was inspired by a Cornell experiment that squared two chatbots off each other; you can see those results here (and it’s embedded on the Outsound schedule page as well — nice touch).
The music here will be of the computer/laptop variety — meaning lots of interesting sounds and effects, as opposed to actual notes and chord changes, most likely. Banerji’s research at the University of California does involve a jazz-improvising program, so the possibilities are lurking in the background.
He and Lasqo will be adding music to the performance as well — sax and piano, respectively — so some part of their set will have an acoustic influence. Video artist Warren Stringer will be accompanying them as well.
Strange results can occur when machines are left to think for themselves. One early experiment in genetic semiconductors — that is, chips that program themselves, tweaking the program over time — yielded a chip that had an unconnected bit of circuitry in the corner. Theoretically, this was extra baggage that could be cut, but when it was, the chip stopped working. I find myself wondering what the musical equivalent of that would be, and whether it’s anything we’d be able to spot aurally in Thursday’s performance.
The Banerji/Lasqo performance is one of five on Thursday night, a program titled “Vibration Hackers” and filled with computerized and synthesized sounds. Other performers include the CCRMA Ensemble, Ilya Rostovtsev, Fernando Lopez-Lezcano, and the ensemble #Max.
“…Awaits Silent Tristero’s Empire” is a concert-length “free jazz phantasmagoria” inspired by the early novels of Thomas Pynchon, scored for a septet of oboe, bass clarinet, trumpet, trombone, viola, bass and percussion. The title comes from the group W.A.S.T.E. in The Crying of Lot 49, and the piece incorporates some of them made-up songs in Pynchon’s texts.
I think of Wrack as an out-jazz group with chamber-music leanings, and while they’ve played a variety of styles, “Awaits” is different due to its size, if nothing else. Considering the work it entails, it’s nice to see the piece getting three performances next weekend — full schedule at the bottom of this post.
For a deep dive into the Pynchon aspect and the compositional process, read this interview with Bruckmann by Chamber Music America, which funded the project.
There’s also a half-hour video interview produced as part of the “In the Field” series filmed for the festival.
Finally, I had a few basic questions that had been itching at me, and Bruckmann was kind enough to take a few minutes to email some responses…
Q: What made you decide to write a long piece in the first place?
Bruckmann: I wanted to challenge myself to attempt a longer form. To date, Wrack compositions have always been self-contained entities — 5- to 10-ish minute forms (I suspect a holdover from “rock band” mindframe) that could extend as far as 15 minutes or so when the improvisations really took off. But my experience stretching things out to a half hour with On Procedural Grounds inspired me to see if I could go further and keep it coherent and cohesive.
That intention evolved in tandem with the Pynchon concept, and that material really seemed to demand a sprawling, kaleidoscopic sort of treatment — something that could ideally feel as intricate and exhausting as the novels themselves. In the end, the composition has wound up being quite a collage, and as such maybe is only just barely more of a “long form” than a carefully sequenced album — I’m also struck by how much it was informed by my history as a college radio DJ!
Q: When writing a large piece, is there pressure to make the themes/ideas “bigger?” I’ve always wondered about that.
Bruckmann: Interesting question — probably, but I think at least in this instance there’s a chicken/egg problem. Pynchon’s novels – like so much “encyclopedic” postmodernism — definitely have a way of containing the universe, or at least tangentially hinting at its presence within the bloody mess. But so does a Mahler symphony, for that matter. And while I tremendously respect restraint and concision in art, I think I’ve always tended to resonate more naturally with audaciousness — extremity, proliferation, OCPD, and the delicious stew of megalomania and self-loathing that both those two gentlemen, for instance, appear to have.
I don’t know that the music I’ve written can be said to have much profundity – or even “thematic” content at all, for that matter — but I was repeatedly surprised at how much (somewhat embarrassingly 19th-century) autobiographical psychoanalysis seemed to keep bubbling up. I suspect that was all internal, and a listener wouldn’t necessarily know or care.
And that’s just fine with me, as long as it at least comes across as having some heart — I do not intend for this to be an arch and snarky joke.
Q: Wrack is a pretty unusual combination of instruments (oboe, viola, trombone) … when you started the group, were you going out of your way to pick less common instruments?
Bruckmann: Absolutely. I was choosing specific people in the Chicago scene as much as instruments, but there was definitely resonance for me with picking black sheep of both the orchestra and jazz combos. In Wrack’s first phase, I was also particularly interested in a dark, woody timbre, with all the contrapuntal possibilities inherent to having two winds and two strings with staggered and overlapping ranges. When Jeb Bishop had to step out, a bass clarinet worked perfectly in the trombone’s place, while making some balance issues even easier. Now I get them BOTH, plus Darren Johnston! The trumpet definitely suggests “jazziness” more emphatically, but that’s fairly crucial for this piece. And the pairs of woodwind, strings, and brass make the options practically orchestral.
Upcoming performances of “Awaits”:
27 Jul 2013 Wrack | premiere of …Awaits Silent Tristero’s Empire, made possible by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation through Chamber Music America‘s New Jazz Works program | Outsound New Music Summit | Community Music Center, 544 Capp St SF | 8:00
28 Jul 2013 Wrack | …Awaits Silent Tristero’s Empire, made possible by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation through Chamber Music America‘s New Jazz Works program | AD HOC #8, presented by SASSAS and the City of West Hollywood | WEHO Library, 625 N San Vicente Blvd, West Hollywood | 8:00
29 Jul 2013 Wrack | …Awaits Silent Tristero’s Empire, made possible by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation through Chamber Music America‘s New Jazz Works program | Nebraska Mondays Creative Music & Jazz Series | Luna’s Cafe, 1414 16th St, Sacramento | 7:30
The annual Touch the Gear expo, featuring hands-on demonstrations of electronic instruments and effects, takes place Sunday, July 21, followed by four concerts later in the week — not to mention special events such as a composers’ discussion.
You’ll find the schedule at the Outsound site. I’ve been meaning to crank out a couple of related posts, which will hopefully emerge soon — and I’ve put a summary at the bottom of this post.
In the meantime, you can learn about the artists in detail through a series of video interviews conducted by Rent Romus. Titled “In the Field,” the series is something he’s put together for the past few summits, and he’s got quite a lot of them in the can for this year.
And now for that summary of the Summit. As with last year’s slate, they’ve organized the shows into themes… click the titles to see a listing of artists. (Sorry, but there’s so many, even by cut-and-paste standards…)
Weds. July 24 — “Drift Flow Swing” — three takes on composition and improvisation, with nods to classical and jazz.
Alas No Axis is essentially an indie rock outfit that happens to have a clarinet, and Antiheroes sticks to the same ingredients that have made rock stars out of the band.
You often get a catchy melody laid down by the guitar or even the bass, topped by Chris Speed playing sax or clarinet in his languid, drifting mode, often more a backdrop than a lead voice. Other songs tip their wings into noise territory, with Hilmar Jensson’s guitar providing a fuzzy haze that only hints at the melody. Black’s drumming varies between bashing and subtle, depending on each composition’s desired mood. It’s all familiar, but just as with a rock band that’s got a successful sound, it still works.
Despite the off-putting cover, the quasi-title track “Antihero” opens the album in a state of peace, a slow sunrise melody on tenor sax. It’s a risky way to start things, but then again, “Antihero” might have gotten lost if it were buried on Side 2, so to speak.
Things get noisy enough from there. “Much Better Now” is a mini-suite that features a quirky, bouncing clarinet theme and another friendly, folky melody. “Tockle” is noteworthy for being a non-pretty track in a pretty setting, calm and serene in its ugliness.
Of the song that are closer to outright rock, “Super K’s” is the most tuneful, but I’m partial to “Marguay,” where a pulsing bass beat is augmented by shards of glass out of Jensson’s guitar. Speed sticks to a chilled breeze on sax there, but the rest of the band is tearing it up.
The album ends with “Square Pegs,” a slow burner that’s like a sunny take on Sunn_0)))). The toneful, droning wash almost obscures the fact that there are chord changes and a beat, and it’s all followed by a long, long fade-out
I was thinking during my first listen that Antiheroes had less emphasis on melody and greater use of noise elements than previous albums, but revisiting the last two albums, Houseplant and Dogs of Great Indifference, I’m not so sure. With each listen, my ear seems to gravitate toward different aspects of the music — the writing, the effects, the drumming. Maybe the band’s depth is what keeps the formula so rich.
Not to be morbid, but we’re living in a time when many of the jazz masters — the greats whose works have defined the genre — are leaving us. It’s wise to catch their shows while you can.
Then you’ve got the Sun Ra Arkestra, whose shows carry the same ominous weight (band director Marshall Allen is 89), but with extra baggage: It’s an avant-jazz big band, sort of a double whammy for promoters trying to book shows. Despite the band’s fame, a California trip can’t be easy.
Sun., Aug. 4 — Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles. Yes, the freakin’ Hollywood Bowl!
It sounds like the Arkestra will play one set per show, preceded by an opening act or two. In San Francisco, that’s going to be the sfSound ensemble, playing Penderecki’s composition for Don Cherry’s Jazz Orchestra, and Hans Grusel’s Krankenkabinet, which is …. you know, it’s better if you just see for yourself.
For the San Francisco show, tickets are $25 for regular admission, or $50 for “gold circle” status that includes a T-shirt, an autographed poster, a keychain, and, of course, special seating. The Kuumbwa arrangement is similar, with slightly lower prices.
SF tickets are available online or at a few venues including Aquarius Records.