Return to The Hub

Topology of The Hub. Source: perkis.comA laptop ensemble seems novel but not all that impossible these days. Last year, I even wrote about the laptop orchestra that’s a college course at Santa Clara.

But laptops used to be relatively expensive and exotic little beasts, back when personal computers’ capabilities were much more limited. And computer networking was even more primitive — in fact, the very act of “networking” your computer wasn’t something to take for granted.

That was the environment in the late 1980s when The Hub pioneered the idea of a computerized music ensemble, not only performing with the machines but networking them together as well.

The Hub hasn’t quit, either. They put out a 3-CD set on Tzadik six years ago. And they’re making a live appearance Tuesday, April 22, at the Center for New Music in San Francisco.

It’s fascinating to read Tim Perkis‘ notes about The Hub’s operation back in the day. Some of the technological limitations actually sound more intriguing than frustrating.

At first, they used a home-built networking hub. Later, they used MIDI, which was indeed intended to connect computerized machines to musical instruments but didn’t have the flexibility we’d take for granted today. For example, MIDI expected information in the form of musical notes. The metallic screeching and shattered-glass sounds we expect in laptop music today wouldn’t be so easy to convey.

The Hub rose to the challenge by composing for these limitations. Perkis describes a sparse composition of his titled “Waxlips:”

Each player is requested to make his program have the following simple behavior: he had to be able to receive requests to play one note. When the request was received he should play the note, and then send a request to someone else in the group to play one note. This outgoing request must be computed from the incoming one in such a way that the same request in always generates the same request out. For example, any time I asked John Bischoff to play a C#, that would always cause him to issue a request to Chris Brown, say, to play an Ab. The mapping must be deterministic, and static. Every now and then I would send out another special message that meant “change your mapping”, along with a pitch set of allowable pitches to request. I would also start the process off, and jump start it again when necessary by spraying new notes into the network.

This piece always came out very different each time it was played: usually we would end the piece when it fell into a simple loop of some kind; sometimes, if one of the players wasn’t working properly there would be a leak and all the notes would keep dribbling out.

That’s part of a detailed 1999 article Perkis wrote for Electronic Musician magazine. You can read the article on his web site and get a lot of insight not only into how The Hub’s technology but into some of its strategies for composing. Those strategies would still be valid under today’s richer forms of computer networking — although I’d be interested to see how The Hub might be stretching its boundaries. It’s worth a look Tuesday night.

Clarinet Attack

Double Trio des ClarinettesItinéraire Bis (Between the Lines, 2014)

Source: eMusic; click to go there
Source: eMusic; click to go there

It’s an all-clarinet sextet! And the results are anything but monochrome, with the players darting and weaving around one another, building up sound in criss-crossing orbits.

You get a taste of the group’s playfulness with “Almost Twenty-Eight,” which opens with all six men chanting in scripted, syncopated lines before launching into a bouncy, swooping clarinet piece. I can’t understand what they’re saying, but it sure sounds fun.

The album combines two European groups: The Clarinet Trio (Jürgen Kupke, Michael Thieke, and Gebhard Ullmann) and Le Trio des Clarinettes (Jean-Marc Foltz, Armand Angster, and Sylvain Kassap). They’re all expert in that European jazz sound: classical technique adapted to a polished mix of jazz, modern composition, and free improvisation, with a touch of silliness.

On many of the tracks, you’ve got the group playing a serious (or semi-serious) composition while one member solos intensely, showing off jazz chops and joyous abandon. On this segment of “Bizarre,” you can hear the buildup of polytonal parts for each member, finally giving way to a solo:

Many elements of the Double Trio’s approach also apply to Clarinet Thing, the all-clarinet quintet led by Beth Custer. But Clarinet thing feels more tune-oriented to me, with a vocabulary rich in traditional jazz forms — although Jimmy Guiffre is also a heavy influence. (It’s great stuff, by the way, and I compared Clarinet Thing to even more sax/clarinet types of groups in a 2009 writeup.)

Hat tip: I got tuned into this album by the March 24 edition of Taran’s Free Jazz Hour.

Opera As an Immersive Experience: Invisible Cities

The Pulitzer Prize winners were announced yesterday, but it’s one of the runners-up that I’m most excited about.

It’s Christopher Cerrone‘s opera, Invisible Cities:

I’ll give away the punch line before you watch the video: The opera is performed in a public place, with cast and audience wandering about together, all connected on wireless headphones to hear the concert. Discovering where the action is, or stumbling onto the plainclothes players, is part of the whole experience.

The premiere run, in the fall of 2013, got some rave reviews and sold out every show, according to the rider. Yes, there’s a rider [21-page PDF] — they’re hoping to take this opera on the road.

Still from the <i>Invisible Cities</i> promo video.Those performances spanned two weeks at Los Angeles’ Union Station. It’s a large, elegant place — not the size of Grand Central, which would hopelessly swallow the performance, but still large enough to provide physical distance and separation. The opera was spread out, compelling the audience to wander and explore.

Part of the trick is that the opera performs during the evening, while the station is operating. My guess is that a ticket buys you the headphones, but if you’ve legitimately got a train to catch, or you just want to gawk, you get the show’s visual aspect for free.

While I’d love to see Invisible Cities in the Bay Area, I can’t think of a good location, offhand. A transit station is ideal due to the natural bustle that would surround the opera and hide some of the “offstage” performers. But Caltrain’s San Francisco station is open-air and too small — an aspects of off-stage mystery would be lost. The San Jose station actually seems bigger (it’s an Amtrak stop, too) but still not big enough, and it doesn’t have a layout that would provide a good, dynamic experience.

There’s always BART. Annnd…. I think that discussion ends right there.

So, if you live somewhere else, keep an eye out. Invisible Cities might come to your town, and you won’t even know it until the dancers spring up from that row of seats and Ashley Faatoalia‘s whispered tenor starts gently pressing at your ear.

Comeuppance: Still Baiting and Switching

Lisa Mezzacappa’s Bait & SwitchComeuppance (Not Two, 2013)

Lisa Mezzacappa -- Comeuppance. Click to go to Not Two Records.There’s no Captain Beefheart cover tune on Comeuppance, the second album from the Bait & Switch quartet, but the influence lives on. John Finkbeiner colors the session with crackly guitar freakouts, and Aaron Bennett’s sax breaks orbit with slashing, free improvisations.

Bait & Switch is about Mezzacappa’s compositions delivered with serious attitude. Since the release of the debut CD What Is Known, they’ve had a few years to let that formula steep, playing their swingy themes, hard-driven free jazz, and spaces of free improvisation at gigs that have included the Monterey Jazz Festival.

“Le Crabe” opens with a characteristically scribbly theme that opens up into a free-blowing sax solo, Finkbeiner’s guitar chopping and chugging behind him. “Cruciferous” features a hard, scrambling guitar reminscent of Beefheart (whom they covered on What Is Known). Later in that song, Finkbeiner repeats a wacko glissando while Aaron Bennett solos on sax — the glissando becoming, in essence, the “composed” part of the song.

Each of those tracks is a mini-suite that includes a slower or more sublime phase, a chance to hear the band’s different personalities. “Old” plays that way too, contrasting a tart swing wrung from the jazz tradition with small interludes of spare and playful improvising.

“X Marks the Question” starts out like it’s going to be a slow, thoughtful piece — and it is, including a pleasant sax/bass interlude, until Finkbeiner’s guitar solo, egged on by Vijay Anderson’s insistent drumming, draws the band into a fiery blur. “Las Hormigas Rojas” plays around with a straightforward march beat, hinting at Mexican folk music while Bennett and Finkbeiner play scrambled mutterings, like kids in class talking behind the teacher’s back. And “Luna” is a slower track with an uneasy, foreboding air throughout. Finkbeiner plays a sublime guitar solo there, after some buzzy, high-energy sax from Bennett.

Catching Up: Adam Rudolph, Reconnaissance Fly, Dawn of Midi, Battlehooch

The past year has been really busy for me, in non-musical terms, and I’ve never caught up on a few of the things I’ve done since the fall. Most of them found their way onto these pages, but a few slipped past. Here’s the speed diary.

Chihuly Glass. The colors. So many colors.
We went to Seattle and saw the Space Needle and the neighboring Chihuly Garden and Glass exhibit. This has nothing to do with music; it just made for easy, colorful photography — which is generally not a strength of this blog.
Adam Rudolph's Go: Organic orchestra
I enjoyed a trip to NYC in October, where I stopped by Roulette to see Adam Rudolph’s Go : Organic Orchestra. Lively horns, lots of percussion, and odd time signatures everywhere. Loads of fun.
Reconnaissance Fly at Berkeley Arts
I saw Reconnaissance Fly at Berkeley Arts back in February, as advertised. They played a great set that included singer/flautist Polly Moller taking up the guitar for a few songs. The band sounded great, and Larry the O, the drummer, was a revelation — a real dynamo.
Dawn of Midi, in San Francisco
Dawn of Midi came to San Francisco performing Dysnomia, their through-composed piece for piano, bass, and drums. It’s full of polyrhythmic grooves and electronica-sounding minimalism. They drew a pretty heavy crowd to The Chapel, so word’s gotten out. Apparently, they’re coming back on June 15.
Battlehooch at Cafe Stritch
Battlehooch came down to San Jose to perform at Cafe Stritch, a downtown spot that’s hosting jazz on the weekends and rock acts midweek. It was a blast, as you’d expect. They were on their way to Idaho for a festival, and they mentioned that they’ve got shows in Oakland every Friday in April.