Posts filed under ‘Bay Area music’
Dialectical Imagination — The Angel and the Brute Sing Songs of Rapture (Atma Nadi, 2017)
The piano-drums duo of Dialectical Imagination is all about chasing a big sound, but not in a noisy way.
Eli Wallace (also of the Bay Area trio Sound Etiquette — who play tonight at Octopus Literary Salon, incidentally) provides jittery and hammering piano laced with jazz and classical elements. It’s like heavy, elegant drapery crashing down on your head. That’s paired with the thunderous but sure-handed drumming of Rob Pumpelly, formerly of prog band miRthkon.
“Angel and the brute” is a good way to describe both sides of the music — it gushes lushly in one moment, then screams with adrenaline-rush urgency.
The 12-minute “Sky in Eye Free of I” is a good example. It opens with some sophisticated, jazzy dabbling — Pumpelly on brushes, even — that soon begins to speed up and unravel. By minute 8, Wallace is stabbing mercilessly at the bass notes while Pumpelly, now using drumsticks, batters away deftly.
“Immutable Light” is a power play, with Wallace sternly hammering away for a dramatic opening and Pumpelly taking a strong solo full of toms rolls and cymbal crashes, in a style closer to serious classical percussion than metal-like thrash. “Rungs” is another good example of high-energy bobbing and weaving, possibly the most exhilarating track on here.
One dial down the notch in intensity is the jittery “Turnabout,” where both players show tasteful restraint during Wallace’s hyperactive splashing.
“Deepest View’s Horizon You” starts out describing vast, mysterious caverns, then dissolves into a lyrical and downright pretty ending for the album.
If you buy the album in physical form, there’s a fun twist: It comes on “faux cassette” — a USB drive in a cassette-shaped housing. You can also download and stream the album on Bandcamp.
Rent Romus’ theatrical project, “Road to Aacheron,” got a couple of performances last weekend in Berkeley. It’s a story built around a series of arias — improvised vocal monologues, mostly in made-up tongues — telling a story influenced by the sci-fi and horror writers of the 1930s (think H.P. Lovecraft).
Sifting through an ancient book discovered by a colleague, a professor finds a portal into (of course) a mysterious and dangerous world, a planet populated by a civilization whose technology and hubris are on the verge of rending their universe apart.
The production fit nicely on the relatively small stage of Berkeley’s Finnish Kaleva Hall, with simple but effective lighting creating a pocket of eerie darkness around each performer. The story is mostly driven by the narrator (Roderick Repke, Romus’ uncle) who was standing to the side of the audience at a mic’ed lectern. The 10-piece musical ensemble started at the foot of the stage and extened outward, to the side of the audience — Kaleva Hall is cavernous and had plenty of space for all this.
The story starts with the professor, played by Dean Santomieri singing in the grave, steady tones you’d associate with opera. His part is in English and is pre-written, tracing his exploration of the book and his colleague’s notes, and his growing sense that something troubling is happening.
The other characters are various denizens of Aacheron — the high priest, the scientist, and so on — singing in gibberish and sound conveying a sense of an ancient language but also reflecting the characters’ motivations and emotional states.
Musically, what drives the production are the mini-ensembles backing each vocalist — subsets of the musicians, chosen to convey particular moods. Santomieri’s narration was accompanied by an oboe adding curt, angular responses — a nice foil that added a sense of foreboding and mystery, but also a voice of pert curiosity.
Another aria that people liked was Polly Moller’s role as the high priestess of Aacheron, accompanied by a group featuring flute, recorder, and (if I’m remembering things right) vibraphone.
That segment was a cool oasis after the spiky intensity of Bob Marsh’s character, Sareith, the High Priest of Aacheron, dressed in the awesomely abstract costume you see in the photo up top. He dug into his role with relish and fervor.
Mantra Plonsey was deliciously mad as the architect of Aacheron, reciting bits of English accompanied by saxophone. (“I cannot pay the rent!” “You must pay the rent!” It’s from W.C. Fields, Tom Djll told me later.) And quite a few of the musicians in the audience said Kattt Achley’s airy soprano aria was their favorite, portraying the scientist who might have a way to avoid catastrophe.
Romus performed an aria-less version of “Road to Aacheron” — using a quartet of instrumentalists, with Romus narrating — during KZSU’s recent Day of Noise. You can find that performance on the Day of Noise archive — it’s number 19 on the list. Romus has extracted part of it on Soundcloud as well.
A bit of stream-of-consciousness on a day off from work …
I wrote a little bit about it last fall, but Jeff Kaliss of San Francisco Classical Voice has done a comprehensive interview with Mezzacappa, going through the details of the score. She discusses which natural processes or phenomena inspired each movement (the longevity of trees, the tiny lifespan of the mayfly) and discusses a new movement, Szygzy, that will feature Wayne Grim, the Exploratorium’s staff artist, who converts celestial data into electronic music.
A week later will be the CD release concert for another of Mezzacappa’s projects, avantNOIR. The self-titled album came out on Clean Feed Records in January, and I’ve been listening to it in spurts, mostly in the car or via the laptop.
I haven’t given the album a proper, full listen, because I’ve been on the go. I spent most of last week in Barcelona for work (no sightseeing, and only one meal at a restaurant) and spent quite a lot of time chauffeuring kids in the time before and after the trip.
One thing I’ve discovered: My primary music-listening medium has been my work laptop. It was just fastest and easiest to collect everything there. That’s a problem, as I’m discovering this morning: The reason for my day off is that I’m between jobs, voluntarily. I handed in that laptop on Monday. I’m already itching to get it back.
The music is all here, at home, in CDs and vinyl and hard-drive backups. Some of it is in the cloud, I suppose (that’s unintentional, though, a side effect of today’s music services). But it turns out, I got addicted to the convenience of the laptop. It was always on and often right in front of me.
None of that means anything; it’s just interesting. This didn’t happen with my last job transition, which means my music-listening habits have changed radically in just four years.
All of my post-Barcelona busy-ness meant I missed a couple of good shows last weekend. Saturday was the Toychestra reunion, as noted here. Sunday night was a prog show including Jack o’ the Clock and Reconnaissance Fly. Jack o’ the Clock doesn’t have another local show planned soon, but they’ll be performing at Seattle’s SeaProg Festival in June, which sounds pretty cool. Reconnaissance Fly’s next gig is in April, at PianoFight (144 Taylor St, San Francisco).
Toychestra & Fred Frith — What Leave Behind (SK, 2004)
Does that ever bring back memories.
For a couple of years starting in 2002 or 2003, I moonlighted as a music reviewer for the San Francisco Bay Guardian. I had a full-time job but thought it might be fun to write blurbs for the SFBG entertainment calendar in my spare time. That job opening was filled by the time I called, but they did need live-music writers. Do something on spec, and we’ll see what happens, they said.
That’s how I joined their stable of music freelancers. I took pride in the position and scrutinized calendars for suitable creative-music shows. My editor, Summer Burkes, held my copy to high standards, sending back drafts with stacks of questions poking holes in my writing — but she liked my work and kept nudging me for more. She even started feeding me assignments in the pop realm. (Ledisi was one.)
The sharpest review I filed, and the one that earned me a handshake from Burkes’ boss, was about the noise/drums duo Compomicro-Dexall. (Half of that duo was bran(…)pos, whom I just saw, for the first time in years, at KZSU’s Day of Noise.) That review ended with: “Bring earplugs and drink decaf.”
But my best and most satisfying story was Toychestra.
“Like Santa’s sleigh crashed into a garage sale” is how I described them, with their grandma’s-attic collection of instruments set on ironing boards, the Christmas lights threaded about the stage, and their crazy kitchy wigs and outfits.
Toychestra was a group of five female artists, mostly non-musicians, hammering out pre-written songs on toy instruments. The music was clanky and innocent but, because it was written without awareness of keys or modes, also bore an uneasy shadow: “It’s Miranda July conducting the Residents in the Twin Peaks Elementary School symphony,” I wrote.
Dan Plonsey, who curated the Beanbenders series of shows starting in the mid-’90s, has a taste for the absurd and took a liking to the group. He couldn’t resist pairing them with an improv pro who would appreciate their musical naivite — and thus, Plonsey wrote What Leave Behind, a concerto for Toychestra and guitarist Fred Frith.
The sounds are dry and mostly bassless, as you’d expect — these are literally toy instruments. But they’re in tune. Toychestra member Lexa Walsh told me one of their biggest challenges was finding instruments that played a true major scale. Toymakers, realizing most parents had no musical ear, had stopped bothering.
With coordinated rhythms and syncopated melodies, What Leave Behind plays out like a sinister circus overture. Frith’s contributions are subtle at first — a buzzing in the opening movement (“The Dub”), a choppy composed melody in the second movement (“Fellini”). He gets to cut loose during “3 Elephants and a Cow,” backed by animal-noise toys.
The 24-minute piece ends with the five women singing a ghostly melody.
I don’t recall the details, but Toychestra was compelling enough that Summer let me write it as a straight feature rather than a concert review. I did attend one of the live performances of What Leave Behind, at the Starry Plough in Berkeley, and interviewed Walsh afterwards. The resulting story is still viewable on Toychestra’s press page.
What Leave Behind, and two other Toychestra albums, are now available on Bandcamp.
After Summer Burkes left the Bay Guardian, I was still welcomed as a reviewer but wasn’t nearly as prized. This is normal when a publication changes editors, and I was OK with it. With a toddler and a grade-school kid at home, my showgoing needed to slow down anyway.
My final Bay Guardian review must have run at the start of 2006. I had gone dark by then, but one day, Summer’s successor sent a desperation email blast — she needed someone to find a review-worthy show during the week after Christmas. I wrote up the multi-instrumental duo of Chaos Butterfly — experimental stuff that involved Jonathan Segel of Camper Van Beethoven fame, giving my story a connection to mainstream readers. (The other player, Dina Emerson, is no slouch either.) My piece was good, but the experience confirmed that my heart wasn’t in it any more.
Mildly Amusing Epilogue: I talked to the Bay Guardian only once more — to the finance department. I was getting paid for my work, but between the day job, the kids, and my KZSU radio gig, I honestly didn’t notice that the checks had never arrived. The light bulb went on a couple of years later, when the IRS asked about a chunk of money that I’d never paid taxes on.
Turns out the Bay Guardian had transposed two digits of my home address. We figured this out on the phone within a couple of minutes, and they immediately issued a new check. They were iconoclasts and hellraisers, but the Bay Guardian that I encountered was also quite professional. I have fond memories of my short time with them.
For more on Toychestra, check out this edition of KQED’s Spark: http://ww2.kqed.org/spark/toychestra/.
KZSU’s Day of Noise came and went last Saturday, and a glorious time it was.
Dr. Information held down the mic for all 24 hours, as far as I know (I skipped out on the ending myself) and Smurph led the sound engineering crew for the entire time as well.
Me, I was around for the breakfast/lunch shift, early-ish a.m. to midafternoon. Below is my photo journal of what went down during that time. Click for full-sized photos.
I would add that you should keep watching the Day of Noise page, because there’s a good chance that recordings of the performances will eventually be posted there.
KZSU’s Day of Noise is imminent, coming on Feb. 4, as I wrote here.
The full schedule has now been posted to KZSU’s site. Give it a click to see the 40+ artists who’ll be performing live on-air starting at midnight that Saturday.
You’ll also find descriptions of the artists — important for the groups that consist of a few well known local improvisers, such as Revenant Quartet, Oa, Tiny Buttons, and Ear Spray.
You’ll find KZSU (Stanford University’s radio station) at 90.1 FM in the San Francisco Bay Area. The signal, originating near Palo Alto, tends to reach from the city’s SoMa district down to at least San Jose, and possibly eastward to Fremont (I haven’t check that direction in a long while).
And if you’re not local to us, the web feed is at http://kzsu.stanford.edu/live/.
The fun starts at midnight (I prefer to say 12:01 a.m., to avoid ambiguity) on Saturday, Feb. 4. Please join us!