The concluding night of the recent Outsound New Music Summit started with a full stage. No people, and not much apparent room for people — but lots of instruments, some draped in cloths evoking images of Persian finery.
It turns out the instruments around the edges were meant for the five members of Big City Orchestra. Squeezed near center stage were the keyboards, effects, and percussion instruments for the duo of IMA, who started the evening. Two very different groups with different approaches.
Combining percussion with electronics and live sound manipulation, IMA worked together like a well-oiled machine, with a shared sense of dynamics and the timing of a Swiss watch.
The pieces built mostly ominous and dark atmospheres sprinkled with occasional elements of bright melody. A few pre-staged samples came up but the overall structure was improvised, to impressive effect.
Amma Ateria (aka Jeanie Aprille Tang) laid down a base of dark, crunchy sounds and occasional chords, while percussionist Nava Dunkelman flickered seamlessly from one implement to another: snare drum, cymbals, xylophone, plexiglass table. Her sounds, full of snap and command, got manipulated or echoed through the mic — I’m guessing Ateria had some say in that — and were sometimes sampled back for additional effect. Both players added vocal tones and breaths, often heavily distorted, adding an extra blanket of storm clouds overhead.
During a pre-concert talk, they mentioned that the use of melody was a relatively new addition to their work after years of noisy collaborations. This included plenty of xylophone improvising from Dunkelman, as well as a pre-recorded melody against which she improvised or played a counter-melody.
Big City Orchestra is the long-running improv/experimental project of Das and Ninah Pixie, always varying in the number of players and the concepts being presented. They were the styrofoam-playing act that I engineered on KZSU’s Day of Noise a couple of years ago.
This edition of BCO was a quintet performing a set-long reworking of “In a Persian Market,” a popular music piece from 1921. Written by a Londoner, it’s sort of a white man’s image of an exotic Orient that he’s never seen, as people pointed out during the pre-concert talk. It’s also apparently a pretty famous piece of music.
The general concept was that the band played each movement of the piece interspersed with some improvisational ideas. The song’s primary melody came first, played by various lead instruments — flute or bass flute by Polly Moller; vibraphone by Suki O’Kane — over and over with a dull noise background between iterations. Each cycle of the melody got introduced by Andy Cowitt playing the intro on bass guitar, a two-note pulse that was so supremely simple, it started to get humorous (intentionally, I think) after the fourth or fifth time around.
BCO’s ever-shifting nature comes at the cost of working with a new band nearly every gig. This one hit some rough patches early, with a few hand cues that seemed to get missed or misinterpreted. The segments of the opening melody were nice, but the noisy spaces in between seemed to just be in the way.
A more successful movement featured Pixie and Moller on harmoniums (or similar accordion-like instruments) creating a bright drone, a space-filling wall of sound. Cowitt added some long clarion tones on electric guitar — a Frippertronic touch. This worked well with the quasi-Persian spirit of the whole piece and set up some composed elements quite nicely.
The piece began and ended with the sound of sand, a contribution of Das’. He first poured it onto a contact mic. Then he rolled a spherical stone over the pile of sand, creating a crunching sound, like listening to a passing caravan from deep beneath the surface of the desert. That same sound brought the piece to a calm ending.