Posts filed under ‘Bay Area music’
It wasn’t until days after the fact that I learned Pauline Oliveros had passed. So, I spent part of the past week absorbing random samples of her work.
Oliveros will be remembered as a pioneer of electronic music, a director of the San Francisco Tape Music Center (now succeeded by the New SFTMC and sfSound’s annual tape music festival), an improviser who crafted the philosophy of Deep Listening, and a female composer and crusader against sexism in classical and new music.
I started my Oliveros walkabout by listening to “Bye Bye Butterfly,” her seminal 1965 electronics work, for the first time. Its source material includes a recording of Madama Butterfly, the opera, spun on a turntable and run through “oscillators and a tape delay,” as Smith describes it.
For a dose of Oliveros’ accordion playing, Roulette TV has a 20-minute performance followed by a brief interview. The music is a droney sheen, drawing you in to hear the buzzing harmonies.
Here’s something out of the ordinary: Circa 1993, Oliveros scored a dance-performance piece called “Ghostdance.” Created by Paula Josa-Jones, it’s meant to be performed in an area such as a park, so that the location becomes part of the piece. Oliveros’ score is as ethereal as you’d expect. There’s a lot more info on Josa-Jones’ website.
I also picked up The Roots of the Moment, the 1988 Hatology album, rereleased in 2006, that situates Oliveros’ accordian in the “interactive electronic environment” created by Peter Ward. He adds electronic touches, turning the accordion’s sound into endless shimmering planes of music. At first, I assumed Ward’s contributions were pre-recorded — tape music to guide Oliveros — but it blends together so nicely, I wonder if he was recording and playing back samples, like Robert Fripp does with Frippertronics.
For a deeper “deep listening” experience, I devoted some time to the album that’s actually titled Deep Listening (New Albion, 1989). Oliveros, trombonist Stuart Dempster, and vocalist Panaiotis, along with engineerAlbert Swanson and a didjeridu that one of them played, recorded it in an army cistern 186 feet in diameter, letting the reverberations layer over one another. Gentle waves of sound overlap and dissolve; it’s a different kind of “ambient” music.
Fred Frith Trio performs Dec. 3 at St. Cyprian’s Church (2097 Turk Street, San Francisco) on Dec. 3 at 8:00 p.m.
Fred Frith Trio — Another Day in Fucking Paradise (Intakt, 2016)
With a title like that, you’re not expecting a bucket of sunshine. And indeed, the Fred Frith Trio’s debut album delivers a long-form improvisation that’s often dark and ghostly, with Frith playing plenty of sinister, echoey tones against the deep, nimble bass of Jason Hoopes and the often aggressive drumming of Jordan Glenn.
There’s a happy subtext to all of this. Hoopes and Glenn were students of Frith’s at Mills College. They’re part of a collective of prog/pop/folk-minded musicians Frith had mentored, work that resulted in bands like Jack o’ the Clock, which includes Hoopes and Glenn, and Frith’s own Cosa Brava.
The Fred Frith Trio debuted last year with a show at Slim’s in San Francisco, followed by a tour in Europe. I’m calling Another Day in Fucking Paradise a long-form improvisation, which would match the strategy the band used at the Slim’s show, it appears to really be a set of studio improvisations stitched into one long piece with 13 track divisions. There might be some overdubs involved as well; Frith is keen on the idea of touching up an improvisation for the sake of a recording.
The album generally follows a fast-slow-fast trajectory — meaning, the tracks in the middle cover slower, subtler territory. That’s where some of the trio’s darkest and most intersting music gets made. The 11-minute “Yard With Lunatics” starts with Hoopes and Glenn spewing shards of nighttime glass but quickly levels into a spacious plateau, full of ghostly guitar and bass statements left to linger in the air, backed with swampy electronic squiggles and blips.
Of course, the faster segments are fun, too. Early in the album, “Dance of Delusion” and “La Tempesta” feature lots of Hoopes’ throttling electric bass sound and some rapid-fire clatter by Glenn. Frith is all over the place, as you’d expect — but even when Frith is in a “lead” role, it often feels like he’s tending to the overall tapestry rather than taking center stage.
The last third of the album has Hoopes turning to acoustic bass, strolling melodically through the clutter and cobwebby guitar effects of “Straw Man,” and eventually bowing on “Schelechtes Gewissen,” an incongruously organic sound against Frith’s tight staticky guitar fuzz and Glenn’s aggressive drums.
“Phantoms of Progress” has a jam feel, with droplets of psychedelic guitar echoing against Hoopes’ hopping, jazzy bass melody — it’s a very nice choice for the penultimate track. “The Ride Home” closes it out with a shuffling rhythm and some peaceful electric-bass melody. Frith hovers in the background, spinning near-rhythms and near-melodies to keep things just a little unsettling.
For five years, Berkeley Arts Festival has hosted a variety of music shows, including a creative-music series curated by Phillip Greenlief. It’s also an art gallery that’s hosted various exhibits and events.
An oasis like this rarely lasts, especially when it’s in an economically desirable spot like downtown Berkeley, one block from the U.C. campus. Berkeley Arts is pulling up stakes in a few days. I’m assuming it’s the usual story of the building being sold. In fact, the hardware store next door has already vacated.
For his final show at the space, Greenlief convened a couple dozen musicians last night to perform one big, sublime, conducted improvisation called “Index.”
“Index” was based on a graphical score, with Greenlief cueing musicians in and out, creating episodes that crested and then shrank back down. After the show, he talked about the “reverence” that permated the piece — no one broke loose and really went nuts. There was a conscious effort to keep within the boundaries of the piece, maybe in deference to the community feel of the concert. This being the final Berkeley Arts show, dozens of people turned out.
For an additional emotional note, this band was considered a convening of OrcheSperry, the improvising orchestra created in honor of bassist Matthew Sperry, whose life was cut short in a traffic accident more than a decade ago.
Each phase of “Index” began with Greenlief picking one or two players to rebuild the sound from silence or near-silence. Most of the entrances were subdued, letting the blanketing air linger around the music. Gradually, Greenlief added more players until an active jam developed. He’d let that ride for a while, then drop out most or all of the musicians at once, flashing a sign with the Ø symbol to queue them to wrap up their statements.
Electronics figured heavily into the piece. Not just laptops, but good old fashioned analog as well — check out Thomas DiMuzio‘s cabling in the photo up top. Even Tom Bickley, who plays recorder, put a mic on his instrument, turning it into a growling nightmare wolfhound. (This was really cool.) The four electronics players each had their solo moments, but their main contribution was to color the periods when the energy began to surge, filling the gaps with crunches and swirls. It was a nice effect of busy-ness that helped spur the music forward.
One thing to understand about Berkeley Arts: It’s divided into two long, thin galleries, which meant the large band and relatively large audience were both arranged in long rows. I sat to one side of the band and didn’t get to see who was on the other end, in the percussion section.
That created some pleasant surprises. I hadn’t realized there was a vibraphone in the house, or that someone would be playing the piano, but boom, there they were. There was a long percussion solo that sounded like sand being poured onto a drum. I didn’t find out who that was, but Suki O’Kane, who’d brought an enormous bass drum, seems like a good suspect.
The point is, some sounds seemed to come out of nowhere. Even people in the band were saying they had that experience.
One thing that made Index work was that Greenlief, as far as I could tell, never felt obligated to get the entire band playing at once, not even for a “grand finale” moment. That kept the sounds focused, with few cases of players drowning one another out. What we essentially heard was a rotating ensemble, ranging from 1 to maybe 10 people at a time. And when violinist Gabby Fluke-Mogul and cellist Crystal Pascucci hit the right moment during a duet — with Fluke-Mogel playing a few loud strums on the violin, as if it were a guitar — it was time, and the piece ended.
In all, it was a nice finale for Berkeley Arts. But it was also a chance for all of us, including members of the band, to thank Phillip for curating this series. It’s hard work, but it helps the community so much. Thanks, Phillip.
ROVA: Orchestrova — No Favorites! (for Butch Morris) (New World, 2016)
Anybody could conduct a large improvising group into a formless junkyard sound. (Maybe not anybody. I’ve tried it.) But a conduction moves in distinct syllables, bursts of activity from parts of the group that start and stop on command. The small silences between segments are your proof that something here as been created with precision and forethought.
No Favorites! isn’t an album of pure conduction, but it’s in the same spirit, using conduction, graphical scores, and text instructions to coax unified pieces out of 11 improvisers. It’s an exercise in community.
In fact, the album documents a June 2015 concert in honor of Morris, where the ROVA Saxophone Quartet teamed up with a foursome of strings (violin, viola, cello, bass), and — adding a nice electric jolt — three “rock” instruments (electric guitar, electric bass, drums). The three pieces, written by ROVA members, are meant to be played as a full program, preferably using the same combinations of instruments.
ROVA has posted the scores and instructions to all three pieces here. Reading them beforehand enriches the listening experience immensely.
The strengths of conduction are well displayed on “Nothing Stopped / But a Future,” the lone piece featuring Gino Robair as conductor. Under his direction, the band darts and weaves, cleanly flipping channels to each new phase. Robair builds it all to a satisfyingly drawn-out conclusion with big, dramatic tones and just enough discord to retain the improvised feeling, even during the composed phrases.
“Contours of the Glass Head,” spanning 27 minutes, moves more deliberately, with the band lingering over a each of eight segments. The score consists of short paragraphs of text, describing environments for the group to dwell in
Some of those instructions appear to play off of pre-notated segments. Here’s part of a segment titled “Cycler Duos,” described thusly: “Designated pairs play short, repeated rhythmic ideas, eventually leading to a duo of Larry Ochs on tenor with Jordan Glenn on drums.”
“Contours” is a conduction piece, but this time, everybody shares the conductor’s duties. Like “Nothing Stopped,” it builds up to a definite conclusion, an agreed-upon crescendo that builds gradually, then wraps up abruptly.
Overall, there’s so much to savor. I’ve mentioned Hoopes’ guitar sound. The strings add moods from pensive to angry to madcap, led by Christina Stanley‘s violin and Tara Flandreau‘s viola. I haven’t heard John Shiurba on electric guitar much lately, and his sonically destructive crunch is just the right sound to get some of these segments really going.
And of course, there’s ROVA, punching and dancing as individuals or as a cooperative. They’ve planted Morris’ fingerprints all over this music, and it’s a fitting tribute.
Tender Buttons performs electronic/computer noise (plus keyboard, frequently) with an aesthetic that seems to emphasize smooth flow. At even-handed volume, they’ll amass sounds, some comforting, some abrasive, and it seems so placid until you realize it’s gained enough momentum to border on harsh. And then they’ll shift back down to a smaller mode.
Here’s the trio in action:
Here’s another performance, from March. This one gets into rougher textures, and you can see Robair, in silhouette, using bows, sticks, and other non-electronic objects.
There’s more to be had on Djll’s YouTube playlist, or you could see/hear the band live very soon.
Gold Age — Gold Age (Singlespeed, 2016)
For the past several years, the Bay Area has been graced with the presence of Aram Shelton, a saxophonist out of the Chicago scene who came here to study at Mills College. He’s moving to Copenhagen in November, so the past few weeks have seen him perform one last spate of shows, kind of a victory lap.
His musical work spans from free improvisation to nearly straight jazz, as a leader and as a sideman. His final shows here have toured different parts of that history, including Wiener Kids, the trio led by drummer Jordan Glenn (it was standing room only, reportedly) and Tonal Masher, Shelton’s experimental project based on saxophone feedback and computer-generated sound.
Gold Age is up next, with a show at the Woods Bar & Brewery this Friday. The band, whose debut album came out in July, is a free-jazz quartet with all four members contributing compositions and showing off plenty of improvisational prowess.
Their easy, liquid sound is colored by the cool hand of Mark Clifford on vibraphone. But it’s also a product of the expert work of Safa Shokrai on bass and Britt Ciampa on drums, holding that balance between a straight groove and outright anarchy.
A good example is “The Docks,” where the solos fly over a rhythm that’s bustling and full of sparkling details.
That track and Clifford’s “Levity Faction,” with its broken-swing melody, might be the album’s closest examples to conventional jazz. One of the more swerving departures is “The Hand That Might Mend Itself,” written by Ciampa, which breaks into full-on group improv that intensifies until it’s coalesced into the song’s final theme. It’s a nice display of creative energy honed toward a purpose.
“Show Jumping” is a nice chance to hear Shelton’s bass clarinet in a bouncy, lively setting. “Peach Orchard,” written by Shokrai, opens with sour-toned fluttered notes that slowly build a melodic line; it’s the jumping-off point for a lively midtempo vibraphone solo, followed by Shelton doing some of his most adventurous playing on the record.
You can sample the entire Gold Age album at Bandcamp. Here’s the itinerary for Shelton’s final three shows — until he comes back for a visit, of course.
October 28: Gold Age. Woods Brewery, Oakland. 9pm
October 30: Shelton/Ochs/Walton/Nordeson. The Back Room, Berkeley, 8pm.
November 1: Aram Shelton, Chris Brown, Jordan Glenn. Tom’s Place, Berkeley, 8pm.
Tom Johnson composes pieces that are mathematical almost to the point of parody. The most extreme example is The Chord Catalogue, consisting of literally every possible chord in a particular octave. As I’ve noted before, he plays the chords in order, and the result, depending on your mood, is either amusing or maddening.
“Narayana’s Crows” tilts more toward the amusing side. It’s still a math piece, but it can be presented with some humor, and it builds a melody that’s dynamic and engaging.
I found this one on the Soundcloud page of Splinter Reeds, the all-reed quintet I wrote about a little while ago. The composition is based on an algebra problem credited to 14th-century Indian mathematician Narayana, and it has to do with the number of cows in a herd after successive generations of breeding. It’s a modified Fibonacci series, essentially.
The piece itself consists of a narrative (a little hard to hear in this recording) explaining the setup of the problem. The music itself consists of long and short notes representing each adult and calf in the herd — Morse code for cows. You get the idea pretty quickly.
As with all of Johnson’s compositions, the structure is clever and is a big part of the fun. I love his ideas, even the simple ones like The Chord Catalogue. In this case, though, there’s enough rhythmic and tonal variety to produce some interesting music as well — although I’m glad they didn’t do the 20 generations of Narayana’s original problem. The 17th generation alone consists of 872 notes and takes 3 minutes to play.