The Rumble of Euphoniums

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Jeffrey Lievers, setting up

I left the Luggage Store Gallery with the rumble of euphoniums in my ears. Brian Pedersen and Courtney Sexton had heavily processed the instruments through microphones and pedals, creating a deep-tissue bass rumble. Jeffrey Lievers added more electronics, a white-noise sheen using the other players as source material.

This is the band Dancin’ Baby, a quartet completed by Kit Young projecting abstract analog video onto the stage. On this night in May, they played a single long-form piece, a wall of noise maybe an hour long.

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Courtney Sexton

The euphonium looks like a small tuba, with four valves instead of three. But of course, we didn’t hear any conventional euphonium playing. Sexton played a euphonium strapped to an E-flat alto horn, with both mouthpieces close together so that he could feed them with the same breath, doubling the foghorn blasts. Pedersen used a saxophone mouthpiece on his euphonium — and, later, on a trumpet and an actual saxophone.

And there were drums. The drum kit was Lievers’ primary instrument, when he wasn’t at the electronics console, and Pedersen sometimes pounded a tympani to add to the rumble.

Dancin’ Baby creates a thick lava flow of drone and doom. Bits of free jazz popped up from Pedersen’s horns and Liever’s drumming, but really it was all about keeping the wave of sound going — to the point where the drum kit sometimes sounded frail against the storm. The drums got their moments though — such as as an effective blast timed with Pedersen’s first, shrieking notes on the saxophone.

The long-form piece never got quiet but did have moments of evenness, where the rumble settled into low tones and opened the atmosphere for the next phase. Throughout the show, analog video feedback artist Kit Young covered the band in abstract psychedelic projections, colors crawling with oversaturation.

You can taste the noise for yourself on Bandcamp. Pedersen also performs with free jazz unit Key West, while both Lievers and Sexton are members of Extra Action Marching Band.

Shuffle Bach Viola

Does anybody else wonder if classical compositions can work modularly?

I know it’s a silly question. I understand that those allegro and andante movements are sequenced to tell a story, in an abstract sense, whether it’s a roller-coaster of a symphony or through your usual fast-slow-fast sonata. But if you took the fast introductory movement of String Quartet No. 4 and replaced it with the fast introductory movement of String Quartet No. 6, would you even notice? Would the (probable) change of keys matter? Might it even be better?

From the few experiments I’ve done, the answers seem to be “yes,” “probably not,” and “no.” In other words, the exact selections of movements does matter, and when you do the kind of substituting I suggested above — well, even if the original piece didn’t seem to completely “flow,” the new version tends to flow even less.

kashkashian-bachSo, along comes Kim Kashkashian’s recording of Bach’s cello suites (ECM, 2018), upshifted for viola. It’s not the first time a violist has done this, but Kashkashian’s rendering, aside from being novel for simply being new, has a lightness that makes it attractive, an frictionless glide like the footfalls of ballet. I can see why so many artists have recorded the complete suites: The six suites are divided into six movements each, for an attractive symmetry, and of course, every movement is oh so unavoidably Bach. There’s a suggestion of orderly self-similarity that just feels satisfying, in a math-geeky sense.

And it also made me wonder. How interchangeable are the pieces of these suites? All six seem to follow similar patterns, after all.

So, I tried building my own viola suites by hitting shuffle play. Even if an ear-pleasing fast-slow-fast pattern didn’t emerge, the parts should still make some sense together, right?

No, not right. I gave it three tries, and the first one showed why this is such an improper use of Bach.

I. Strategy: Shuffle play, stopping when it feels “done”
A) 6.5 [Suite No. 6, movement 5] Gavotte (D major)
B) 6.4 Sarabande (D major)

The gavotte movement was a bright midtempo, a cautiously optimistic opening. That worked. But it was followed by a slow movement in the same key. Fast-slow is a natural progression, but this just felt laconic. The lack of key change actually hurt; the slow movement felt like a lazy deceleration. I think the problem is that the gavotte is setting itself up to be followed by something even faster — which of course is exactly how the original suite is written. Faced with immediate failure, I had to hit Stop. Grade: D (fittingly enough).

II. Strategy: Shuffle play until “done.”
A) 3.2 Allemande (C major)
B) 1.2 Allemande (G major)
C) 3.6 Gigue (C major)

That’s a little more like it. The “Allemande'” movements are regal: formal but still lighthearted. They aren’t meant to be openers, because that’s what the Prelude movements are for, but I thought 3.2 did the trick well. That the same mood carried into 1.2 wasn’t a problem; it felt like a reasonable continuation, and maybe the key change from C to G added some new color. The gigues are crowd-pleasing conclusions, so 3.6 felt like the right time to call it. Grade: B+.

That was fun, but both mini-suites were awfully “mini.” I’d hoped to last for something like eight movements, not three. One problem was that the lack of minor-key movements was driving me batty. There’s only so much upbeat Bach or Mozart that I can take before I have to go crank some gloomy Schnittke for balance. So, I gave it one more go with slightly different rules, and I lucked out:

III. Strategy: Four movements no matter what
A) 4.6 Gigue (Eb)
B) 6.1 Prelude (D)
C) 5.1 Prelude (C minor)
D) 2.2 Allemande (D minor)

The gigue, meant to be a closer, made for a bouncy, crisp opener, but it clashed mightily with the D major Prelude, because the latter piece just screams “intro segment.” Interesting how music has that language, like the cadences of a speech: Certain rhythms and timing work better in certain situations. But by the end of the Prelude, I acclimated. It was like when the first song on a rock album is the hit single, and the second song is a less intense one that feels like filler… but over time, that second song ends up being your favorite.

With movement three, I finally got a minor key, and in the perfect spot for toning down the mood. I didn’t even notice the key change to C minor. In general, I hadn’t found the key changes very jarring; the only problem I had was with the lack of key change in that first  attempt. The C minor Prelude ends with a gentle sigh that would have been a good way to conclude a suite — but the rules said I had to add one more segment, so, into the D minor Allemande we went. More of a minor key. It didn’t feel like overkill, but it did mean the suite would end with a gray sky, not a happy field of flowers. And it did just that, dying out with quiet understatement that felt like an interesting artistic “choice.” Grade: A-.

I’d envisioned doing a lot more of these, but having found two permutations that I liked, and one that I really didn’t like, I figured it was time to call it quits. Maybe next, I’ll build a truly modular suite: Movements 1 through 6, in order, but each taken from one of the six suites selected at random. (Should repetition be allowed, or should it be one movement from each of the suites? Hmm.) First, though, I think I’ll show the old man some respect and try to dig into some of these suites in the proper order. They’re written that way for a reason.

Navigating Meredith Monk

As the DVR recorded the Tony Awards for my daughter, who was working Sunday evening, I was absorbing music theater of a different kind: Meredith Monk’s opera Atlas.

I’m not exactly a Meredith Monk devotee, but Atlas was a nice surprise. Like Einstein on the Beach, it’s built from bright and downright pleasant musical phrases (repeated in groups of four, versus Einstein‘s groups of 40 minutes). But it feels more operatic. Atlas has concrete characters and a storyline, with the action occurring through mostly wordless singing. Sometimes it’s melodic; sometimes it’s vocal swooping, shrieking, half-spoken bird calls — different vocal quirks that emerge based on what the scene and story are calling for. Experimental vocals aren’t always my thing, but I mostly enjoyed Atlas.

The catalyst for listening was a New York Times article about the Los Angeles run for Atlas, happening this week. The performance is special in itself, because this thing ain’t exactly Hamilton. It sounds like Atlas hasn’t re-emerged since debuting in Houston in 1992. But what makes the upcoming show interesting is that Monk isn’t directly involved. Normally, her operas are only partially scripted and involve a lot of intuition in the casting and rehearsals, with Monk overseeing what I suppose is the loose “feel” of the project. This time, all the big decisions are up to Yuval Sharon, with Monk being kept in the loop but not directly involved.

Monk’s process sounds new-agey, but listening the ECM recording of the opera, you can tell where it comes from. There are “normal” melodies and harmonies, and many downright pretty segments filled with “ahhs” and “da-da-da-das.” But some scenes brim with abstract vocal sounds — improvised, not formally scripted, but not chaotic. The right people are playing the right parts, and they’re building a cohesive scene, but it must be largely improvised, and from what I’ve read, I would also guess that the exact sounds are tailored for each performer’s voice. (The operatic precision of the voices really does matter. It elevates the whole project.) This seems like the kind of work that won’t work unless the performers are collectively in the right frame of mind. The L.A. production is apparently the first time the vocal parts were written down; the Houston cast learned their parts by ear. No wonder Monk is normally so closely involved.

Like EinsteinAtlas has a clean, pared-down sound and pleasant, airy tonalities. It’s certainly different and minimalist but doesn’t feel like the kind of avant-garde meant to send the audience screaming to the exits. [Note to self: An opera built from angry yelps and shouting, where the sound of the audience departing loudly in disgust is actually part of the composition…]

Bits of dialogue appear here and there. “Choosing Companions” has travelers introduce themselves to the main character (a female explorer) in plain speech, then reveal character traits in vocal wandering. For one man, it’s kind of a clumsy, meandering “aah,” as if his brain is stalling during a job interview. I hope it’s meant to be a comic moment, because I did laugh. Another character launches into a scripted tune that the heroine joins in on. He must be a better fit.

Some feature operatic tones sung in what might as well have been composed form. “Loss Song” plays like a through-composed piece, a quiet break featuring vocals and harp. It’s pretty and straightforward and would make a nice standalone piece during a college radio show.

I get the feeling that on stage, Atlas uses the singers’ more abstract sounds to convey elements of character, in-the-moment emotion, and setting. There’s some shrieking in the segment titled “Ice Demons,” for example — no big surprise. And the visual aspect probably helps convey a sense of story. Probably. The L.A. production puts some or possibly all of the action inside a massive sphere, with video projections on the outside. Audiences might walk out puzzled, but I do think they will come away with a sense of a story amid all their questions.

’60s Jazz and a Finnish Connection

The Life’s Blood Ensemble will be performing May 25 and 26 at the Berkeley Finnish Hall, (1970 Chestnut St., Berkeley, just off of University) at 8:00 p.m.

Rent Romus’ Life’s Blood EnsembleSide Three: New Work (Edgetone 2019)

romus-side3The Life’s Blood Ensemble has become Rent Romus’ vehicle for ’60s-style free jazz, using the versatile format of multiple horns, two basses, drums, and vibraphone. The new album Side Three conjures that era with some strong composing and an easygoing flow of improvisatory ideas.

Romus and Joshua Marshall play saxophones, and Vinny Golia joins the group for this album, but the album’s spotlight often falls on Finnish musician Heikki Koskinen on e-trumpet, a compact instrument that sounds like the real thing, maybe with some extra smoothness to those high-register flutterings. At different junctures, Koskinen recalls the bristling electricity of Bitches Brew or a cool-swinging easygoing vibe.

Separately from Side Three, Koskinen and Romus have composed Manala, a suite that infuses the Life’s Blood Ensemble’s jazz with Finnish folklore. They’ve performed Manala before — samples of that show are in a Soundcloud file — and will be reprising it for two shows in Berkeley this weekend, in preparation for taking the music to Finland.

Manala, referring to the netherworld of the dead, is “inspired by the mythic prose of cultural liberation and identity found in the Finnish National Epic known as the Kalevala as well as folklore of Finno-Ugric shamanic traditional stories.” It’s a product of Romus’ ongoing research into Finnish culture and music, and it sounds like an epic and inspiring work.

Getting back to Side Three — it seems like a good proxy for what to expect from Manala. Tight horn parts frame the pieces in bright energy, complemented by the cool splash of Mark Clifford’s vibraphone. Koskinen’s composition, “The Humming of Trees,” is bold and purposeful, with an anthemic feel and a cool-stepping space for a bright solo on e-trumpet. Among Romus’ compositions is “Downbeat for the Forgotten,” a funky strut that again features Koskinen’s blowing.

Golia contributed “Area 52,” a composition that pulses along lightly behind some lively group improvising. And for ’60s-style titles, you can’t beat Marshall’s “Three Rites of Recombinance,” a suite dedicated to figures from different literary/sci-fi circles: Fred Moten, Jamie Delano, and A.A. Attanasio.

The 99 Voices of Kyle Bruckmann’s Dear Everyone

A trio version of Kyle Bruckmann’s Degradiant (I’m assuming sans voices) performs at Uptown Nightclub (1928 Telegraph Ave., Oakland) on Tuesday May 14, 2019 and at the Center for New Music (55 Taylor St., San Francisco) on June 13, 2019.

Kyle Bruckmann’s DegradiantDear Everyone (Not Two, 2017)

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The introductory movement to Dear Everyone is called “Overt? Sure,” and the first words spoken, two minutes into the 7-minute piece, are “lather up.” That pretty much sets the tone — that, and the horns jackhammering like an alarm clock out for revenge.

At its core, Degradiant is a quartet — two horns, electric bass, percussion, and some electronics — mixing free jazz with heavy math rock. But its debut recording brings in a huge cast for a large-scale concept: 99 voices reading poems by Matt Shears. For bandleader and composer Kyle Bruckmann, it’s kind of a follow-up to “… Awaits Silent Tristero’s Empire” (Singlespeed, 2014), his zany, ambitious Thomas Pynchon tributeDear Everyone brings a similar touch of absurdity, again framed by Bruckmann’s own Pynchonesque flair for language and love of words.

The readers aren’t pros, by design, and Bruckmann’s liner notes suggest many of them were ambushed with the idea. The result is a collage of voices and tones, some smooth, some self-conscious: male, female, varying accents, and at least one child handling the big words with some adorable stumbles.

Narrators come and go rapidly,  sometimes overlapping with an intentionally confusing intensity, leaving fragments of ideas lingering in your ears. This effect can be mysterious or, as on “Significant Details,” a little silly.

Musically, Dear Everyone ranges from humorous to disturbing, mixing the planned-and-intricate with freewheeling improvisation. Bruckmann sometimes ditches his oboe for analog electronics for darker spells of uneasy tension, and Jason Hoopes (Jack o’ the Clock, Fred Frith Trio) turns up the acidity on bass for the tough-fisted math rock passages. It all mashes together gloriously on “Sound Byte Culture,” including a nifty Hoopes solo.

There’s a sense of fun throughout the 2-CD album, but it ends on a jarring note with “Recessional and Postlude.” It’s sparse and somber, with a slow electronic pulse backing two voices formally reciting a full poem.

An Explosion of Happy

David DominiqueMask (Orenda, 2018)

daviddominique-mask-500A manic, cartoony jazz sound is always welcome, but sometimes it can be a little too much. Mask is full of tricky octet charts that toy with you: a theme will repeat way too many times, or slow down again and again to the point of absurdity. Grooves get cut off abruptly. Electric guitar makes a screaming appearance and then just vanishes.

It’s all executed with crisp, geometric precision, as on the staggering hot-jazz explosion of “The Wee of Us.” But you’ve got to be in the mood for this stuff. The joy in here is relentless, and the cleverness can start to grate, especially when Dominique plays games with repetition. Any song in this collection would be a delightful surprise if snuck into a mainstream set. Together, they teeter between exhilarating and exhausting.

Dominique means well, though. Mask amps up certain elements from his previous album, Ritual, and I do like where his ideas are coming from. There’s an upbeat sense of rebellion here, and a risky dash of humor.

The flute line in “Gotta Fumble” keeps shifting just slightly, for the kind of pleasant disorientation you get from prog rock. “To Dave Treut” is my favorite track, flipping between a buzzy sprint and a swingy, slower-tempo theme. A calmer soloing section features tangly improvising on viola while a steady beat soldiers on in the background.

That violist is Lauren Elizabeth Baba, who runs a big band of her own, the BABAorchestra. It’s a more concretely “jazz” project but it shares a touch of the irreverence of Dominque’s band and is worth hearing.

Jordan Glenn’s BEAK

Jordan GlennBEAK (Geomancy, 2018)

jordanglenn-beakJordan Glenn is a ubiquitous Bay Area drummer, playing in so many jazz/improv contexts including the prog band Jack o’ the Clock and his own pranskerish trio Wiener Kids. With BEAK, Glenn showcases himself as a composer, leaving the playing up to others. It’s a set of coordinated rock jams thick with guitar and percussion — four percussionists! Sometimes they combine for a glorious stomp; sometimes it’s an intricate exercise in counterpoint.

Compositions build off of riffs and rhy, with guitars (Will Northlich-Redmond and Grex‘s Karl Evangelista) drenched in fuzz and surrounded by hand drums. Mark Clifford’s vibraphone adds splashes of extra melody. The percussion barrage, so vital to the album’s overall mood, comes from Geneva Harrison on the drum kit and Robert Woods-LaDue and Robert Lopez on hand percussion. Max Judelson on bass rounds out the band.

Glenn’s trademark sense of humor is found more in the song titles than in the music itself. Sublime moments come in the trilogy of “Coda” pieces, with the easygoing odd-time beat of “Coda 2 – This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” and the lingering haze of “Coda 3 – The Games Chickens Play.”

Some of the album’s most satisfying moments are the quieter ones. “Coda 2” is worth another mention in that regard; it’s a slow burn, a moderate tempo that builds momentum as the odd rhythm latches into your brain. That said, the full-blast bombastic tracks are fun. “Flower Fashion Fantasies” announces the band: “We’ve got guitars! We’ve got four percussionists!” and builds into a frenzy. Later, the track returns in a higher-energy reprise.