Stumbling Upon Marc Hannaford

Sometimes, I feel guilty about the attention I devote to albums that happen to have Tim Berne on them. Seems a little unfair. Then again, Berne was my touchstone to creative music and has been a reliable beacon for discovering interesting artists — much the same way that the viola obsession helped educate me on the the classical music side.

hannaford-ordSo, yes, Ordinary Madness  (Marchon, 2012) came to my attention because it has Berne on it — but I’d also been aware of Australian trumpeter Scott Tinkler and the darting abandon he can bring to free jazz. And now I’m acquainted with pianist Marc Hannaford, another Australian (now living in New York) and the leader of this session.

As you can read on Bandcamp, Berne actually was the impetus for the recording, as he’d met Hannaford at the Melbourne International Jazz Festival. The album is unedited — three long improvised pieces by a quintet, a studio concert documented in the moment.

It’s a crisp session, with Tinkler sounding particularly inspired and frequently taking the lead (to my ear, anyway). Here’s a nice segment from the title track, where a group session gives way to a trio moment for Hannaford’s piano, bassist Philip Rex, and drummer Simon Barker.

You can sample Ordinary Madness on eMusic.

As mentioned, Hannaford is in New York nowadays. He has a trio with Simon Jermyn (bass) and Satoshi Takeishi (drums) that’s been rehearsing for three years; here’s a video sample of a Jan. 28 gig they did at IBeam Brooklyn.

Vicky Chow and the One-Bit Army

Tristan Perich [Vicky Chow, piano] — Surface Image (New Amsterdam, 2014)
Vicky Chow (Tristan Perich) -- Surface Image (New Amsterdam 2014)“One-bit electronics” refers to a speaker that either beeps or doesn’t. Only one tone is possible, and it’s on or off — much like the bell on an Apple II computer or IBM PS/2, if anyone remembers those.

Put a bunch of one-bit speakers in a room, set to different tones, and you’d have a programmable music box. Set those tones to a bright, minimalist major/suspended chord and play them really fast, and you’d have a hyperkinetic, jumpy music box — and a captivating, forceful musical experience, if you did it right.

Now add a pianist who can either augment or cut across the flow — and you’ve got Tristan Perich’s “Surface Image,” where pianist Vicky Chow does battle with (or leads the march of) 40 one-bit speakers all chattering away for a little more than an hour.

As you can see in the preview video, it’s an assault of bright, insistent tones blasting forth.

At its peak, the music is a maximal minimalism. It’s in your face, bouncing you around like a bumper-car ride. I think the piece is best experienced in one sitting — yes, your attention wavers, but as it does, your experience shifts from a pinpoint shower (lots of individual notes hurtling forth) to a shimmering haze (everything blurring together).

That first half really is fun, with Chow and the electronics playing in an upbeat frenzy with a stiff rhythm. It feels light even as Chow bears down on the keyboard, hammering away at marshmallow-puff harmonies or playing impressive runs against the speakers’ pulsing. The inevitable change of mood is a welcome break, though, one that’s key to molding the music into a story. It’s a story with a mostly predictable trajectory (hey guess what: it slows down in the second half), but it’s a good one, and the conclusion was not really what I’d expected.

The one-bit speakers are split between the listener’s left and right stereo speakers, so when they really get going, there’s an odd sensation of the left and right sides blinking on and off in opposite phases. (Fans of Bang on a Can, of which Chow is a member, might recall the Louis Andriessen piece “Hocketus.”) It’s an interesting effect that makes you wonder what the piece would be like in a live performance — especially one like the SF Tape Music Festival, with speakers around the room.

For a more academic yet still captivating example of one-bit electronics, in a venue where your exact location really matters, check out Perich’s 1,500-speaker microtonal wall:

Fieldwork in the 2010s

Vijay Iyer is in residency at The Stone in New York City this week, and one of the many bands he’s featuring is Fieldwork, the trio with Iyer on piano, Steve Lehman on sax, and Tyshawn Sorey on drums.

All three have worked with Pi Recordings, separately and as the full trio. That label has found a niche in a very modern jazz of exciting complexity; I’ve read at least one review that wondered if the sound is too cold or abstract, but I love that sound. Fieldwork, with albums on Pi dating back to 2002, certainly fit the bill, with heavy-handed piano chords and drum-machine-inspired percussion (originally by Elliot Humberto Kavee, a late ’90s Bay Area transplant to New York). For an acoustic trio, they had a stunningly futuristic sound, one that I referred to as “steel and glass.”

Of course, times change, and the music Iyer, Lehman, and Sorey play today is necessarily the descendant of last decade’s creations. Here’s the trio in another appearance at The Stone, filmed earlier this year. It’s one long improvisation, with flashes of steel-and-glass at the 5- and 9-minute marks, and a terrific slow groove that starts just after 17:20, but the core sound has shifted, and the fierceness feels more dissipated. (Which, mathematically, isn’t a surprise in a 53-minute piece.)

While it would have been cool to see Fieldwork reprise those earlier compositions, it’s easy to understand why they didn’t. It’s part of the evolution of the music — and on a simpler note, re-learning and re-rehearsing the tunes just might not be worth the time. You don’t have to know the old Fieldwork to feel the excitement in their current incarnation, though. I like to think these particular “reunions” are more about friends enjoying some music together (while giving one another a paying gig, of course). That’s also what I was envisioning with Jim Black’s “Not Bloodcount” gig of a year ago.

Fans are a double-edged sword. The good ones want to believe in the progress of the music, and yet, even they want to pull musicians back into playing the old stuff. We’re a difficult lot.

Alvin Lucier in Santa Clara

Alvin Lucier, "I Am Sitting in a Room"
See Alvin sit.
A still from the Biennale Musica 2012 performance on Youtube.

Related to that prior posting about the SF Tape Music Festival: Alvin Lucier is coming to perform at Santa Clara University, down here in the South Bay.

In fact, there are three new-music concerts coming Santa Clara’s way this month. First, as previously noted, SCU professor Bruno Ruviaro will present “Cinema for the Ears” on Friday, Jan. 23. Billed as “a film without images,” it’s an electronics presentation similar to the Tape Music Festival, but with a specific mission: creating the aural equivalent of a movie:

In this immersive surround-sound concert, SCU faculty Bruno Ruviaro becomes an acousmatic DJ guiding you through a full evening dedicated to your ears. Is this music, cinema, radio? With this unusual, genre-defying combination of dialogue, sound, music, and ambience, let your imagination to boldly go where it has never gone before.

Then, on Jan. 29 and 30 (Thursday/Friday), SCU is hosting a New Music Festival. I haven’t found an itinerary, but a mailing from Ruviaro says the Jan. 30 concert will focus on Lucier’s work, with the composer on hand to perform “I Am Sitting in a Room.”

A classic piece of experimental sound, “Room” consists of Lucier reading text, recording it, then playing it back into the same room — and recording the playback. The text is an blank-faced explanation of what’s going on: Lucier is recording his voice, then plays back the recording and records the playback. He iterates this process to create copies of copies, each one more degraded than the last (“Room” predates digital recording). Eventually, the series converges on what are supposedly the resonant frequencies of the room, with Lucier’s voice and words an imperceptible blur. What’s left, in a sense, is the room’s natural sound. It emerges as ghostly, ringing tones, like bowed harmonics on a violin.

The point, of course, is the descent — the disintegration of the words, and the gradual slipping-away of rational sound. Yes, you can hear the piece on LP or CD (or in the Vimeo clip below), but just as seeing a movie in the theater is different from watching on Netflix, it might be something special to experience “Room” live, as a shared experience. And of course, it’s a performance that comes out differently every time.

Tape Music Festival, With a Live-Music Twist

SF Tape Music Festival 2015It’s time again for the San Francisco Tape Music Festival, this year being held at the Victoria Theater in San Francisco.

It’s the annual presentation of pre-recorded electronics works played on dozens of speakers surrounding the audience — a very cool event that has to be experienced in person, not on YouTube. I wrote my impressions of the experience back in 2012.

This year’s edition has a few unusual twists:

  • Sunday night, Jan. 11, will feature compositions that combine tape music with live performers. It’s not that unusual a concept but is new ground for the Tape Music Festival. I’m hoping the “tape” portion continues to take advantage of the multispeaker setup.
  • There’s a late-night show, 11:00 p.m. tonight (Saturday, Jan. 10) in addition to a normal-timed 8:00 p.m. show.
  • That late-night show will include the world premiere of a Brian Eno piece, “Golden.” The web site explains: “In 2007, Eno composed Golden, a new 16-channel work specifically for our festival. He created multiple versions of various lengths, and the “full” 17-minute version will have its public debut on this program.” Also on the program: a 1966 piece by Pauline Oliveros.
  • The Saturday 8:00 p.m. show features “Nasal Retentive Calliope Music,” a 1968 piece by Frank Zappa. Also on the program: a new piece by Cheryl Leonard, a musician who works with natural objects as “instruments” and once took that practice to Antarctica.

If that isn’t enough, you can also catch Bruno Ruviaro’s “Cinema for the Ears,” a recital of electronics being performed on Jan. 23 at Santa Clara University. Ruviaro is the SCU professor who guides the Santa Clara Laptop Orchestra (SCLOrk), which I’d profiled in 2012.

Reconnaissance Fly on KZSU, January 7

Reconnaissance Fly Coming to KZSU
Reconnaissance Fly drummer Larry The O, filmed during an on-air performance at KFJC-FM.

Local prog band Reconnaissance Fly is going to play on KZSU this Wednesday, Jan. 7, at 9:00 p.m.

KZSU hosts a band (usually a local one) every Wednesday at 9:00. It’s a show called Wednesday Night Live that’s been running for a very long time. The show hosted bands like Primus and Green Day long before the wide world discovered them. In fact, what’s left of an interview with Primus has been digitized and is in KZSU’s A-file right now.

Anyway. Reconnaissance Fly is a mix of prog and jazz, with lyrics derived from spam emails; I reviewed their first album, Flower Futures, about a year ago. For a taste of the band, you can check out some videos from their on-air performance at KFJC in August. The tune below is a nifty new instrumental written by bassist Tim Walters.

Tune in Wednesday at 90.1 FM in the Bay Area, or anywhere.

Eat the Sun

Eat the SunThe Djerassi Sessions (Edgetone, 2014)

Eat the Sun -- The Djerassi Sessions (Edgetone, 2014)
Source: Edgetone. Click to go there.

Straddling between melody and abstraction, the improvisations on The Djerassi Sessions build a cloaked mystery but feature more color than the gray-on-gray cover art suggests. The all-strings trio (koto, acoustic bass, and electric guitar) have produced an album of dark shadings that open the way for some fast, captivating playing.

Eat the Sun seems to have Hoopes’ bass miked as a lead voice in general, with his pizzicato work cutting through the groundwork of crunchy guitar noise and rustling koto. Even one note amid the din becomes a clarion call, as happens on “Postfeasttwo” and “Prefeastone.” I’m also partial to this busy passage from “Prefeast Three,” with Hoopes’ bass taking the lead.

Most of the pieces track atonal or cross-tonal melodies. Gretchen Jude’s koto often conjures up the most pleasant patterns of the three instruments (a Japanese motif, obviously) giving Hoopes room to rattle off some impressive jazzlike soloing. She also flits from meditation to rock-like rhythm to frenzied attack. The final seconds of “Postfeasttwo,” with koto and bass slashing viciously, make for a particularly fine moment.

Noah Phillips’s guitar often treads in noisy territory or, as on “Prefeastfour,” winds a path through newly defined scales of its own. It’s a ground fog that defines the mood: never quite pretty, even amid the playing of “normal” notes, and often thick with distortion. “Postfeastone,” for instance, flickers in and out of melodic logic, with the koto riffing against the sour tomes of a detuned guitar.

Eat the Sun is a trio that has definitely found an aesthetic and a sound. It’s territory ripe for more exploration.