Posts filed under ‘Bay Area music’

SFEMF: Electronic Animals and Painted Deserts

img_2479-tujurikkuja-cropMy daughter and I compared notes after seeing Madalyn Merkey and Tujurikkuja, two acts that were helping to close out the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival.

I felt that Merkey’s piece had more activity, while Tujurikkuja’s was more about drones and walls of sound. In terms of volume, I could deal with Merkey’s piece but wished for earplugs during Tujurikkuja’s.

My daughter had the opposite reaction: Her ears had a harder time with Merkey. And between the two pieces, she found Tujurikkuja’s drones more fascinating, while I’d thought Merkey’s piece was the richer experience. It just goes to show how differently music can be perceived.

Merkey’s piece, “Stained Air,” was a stroll through forests of different individual sounds, a journey tied together by a recurring element of a tone that would rise in pitch gradually — not the same tone every time, but the same concept of a “revving-up” sound. (Since this was the first Sunday of the NFL season, it was hard not to think of kickoffs.)

According to the program notes, the bulk of the piece was built of tones that were changing, according to pre-set rules, during the course of the piece. The music did seem to move in phases, clustering certain “types” of noises while also never overlapping too many at once. One phase I remember in particular had springy, squelching sounds like small electronic animals making their puzzled way around the landscape.

Markey built the piece for a 4.2-speaker setup to create some stereo effects — side-to-side swooshes, for instance. Being over to the side, we lost some of the effect, but we could still catch the sense of an added dimension.

Tujurikkuja (the J’s are pronounced like H’s, Spanish-style) put a descriptive poem in the program described a scorching hot desert (First clue: The opening line, “It is hot.”) But my daughter and I found the music evoking wide, dark caverns and glassy walls of sound — it felt cold, not in an emotional sense but in a literal sense.

Either way, theirs was a more drone-based set, although there was plenty of sound-shifting, with new elements coming and going. They ended it by simply walking off the stage, allowing the final droney buzz to continue on its own, in darkness, until they cut it off remotely.

These were two thoughtful and contrasting pieces and made for a good program. My daughter admitted she wouldn’t seek out this kind of music, but she paid attention through both pieces, and we talked about both of them quite a bit afterwards. Therein lies the real power of music and the arts.

September 17, 2016 at 12:57 pm Leave a comment

Lisa Mezzacappa Organelle – Sep. 11 & 16

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Mezzacappa, from BayImproviser.com

In June, Lisa Mezzacappa performed three concerts in Europe with different ensembles, showing off ORGANELLE, her latest concept for an improvising ensemble.

Mezzacappa has initiated so many interesting projects over the years. The electro-acoustic chamber ensemble Nightshade comes to mind, and more recently she adapted her Bait and Switch quartet for a concept called avant-NOIR.

Last year’s Glorious Ravage was an ambitious and successful project combining composition, history, narrative, and visual elements. Parts of it are preserved on the gloriousravage.com website, captured with professional photography and video.

Now there’s ORGANELLE, an improv concept that draws from the natural sciences and, in a physical sense, the universe. Here’s how she describes it on her news page:

ORGANELLE is a “set” of pieces inspired by diverse scientific processes – some enormous and unfathomable, others impossibly microscopic – that form a whole through the insights and explorations of fantastic improvisers. The composition draws its musical ideas from the different ways that the human body, the natural world, and the cosmos mark the passing of time. The rhythms, the musical relationships, the melodies, and structures in the work are each connected to a theory of cell biology, astrophysics, paleontology, zoology, or neuroscience, exploring these otherwise-imperceptible phenomena through sound.

Performances took place in Naples, Rome, and Cologne in June, and now Mezzacappa is going to perform ORGANELLE here in the Bay Area. There’s an open rehearsal on Sunday, Sept. 11 at the Berkeley Art Museum, followed by the full performance at the museum on Friday, Sept. 16 (a show that includes ’90s dub/funk stars Broun Fellinis).

Each performance has featured a different set of four or five local musicians alongside Mezzacappa. Here’s the lineup for the Berkeley Art Museum shows:

Darren Johnston, trumpet
Kyle Bruckmann, oboes
Cory Wright, reeds
John Finkbeiner, guitar
Jordan Glenn, drums
Lisa Mezzacappa, bass

It’s a busy week for Mezzacappa, who’s also performing some solo compositions tonight (Sept. 10) as part of Philip Gelb’s music and food series. (In an intimate setting, a small audience is served a vegan gourmet meal during the show — it’s an intriguing concept.) She’s also appears with an improvising quartet on a newly released CD called Shipwreck 4, which sounds really good (more on that later).

September 10, 2016 at 10:41 am Leave a comment

Larry Ochs, Donald Robinson & a Lot of History

ochsrob2Larry Ochs (sax) and Donald Robinson (drums) will play a rare show as a duo on Thursday, Sept. 8, at the Luggage Store Gallery (1007 Market St., San Francisco).

They put out a CD fairly recently, called The Throne, which I wrote up here. (Was that really more than a year ago?) I also find myself thinking about Robinson’s recent duo concert with Oliver Lake — a highlight of this year’s Outsound New Music Summit.

Ochs and Robinson have played together for more than 20 years in more ensembles than I can count. In the Throne writeup, I’d neglected to mention What We Live, the improvising trio (or more) spearheaded by bassist Lisle Ellis, with Ochs and Robinson. Then there’s also Ochs’ Sax and Drumming Core, with Ochs and Robinson joined by second drummer Scott Amendola. And going back to the ’90s, they were both in the Glenn Spearman Double Trio.

That’s a lot of history, not to mention a nice scenic path through the last two decades of Bay Area creative music. Their show on Thursday will be just another in a long series — but in a way, it’s also worth celebrating.

Here are Ochs and Robinson live from a show three years ago hosted by GRIM (Groupe de Recherche et d’Improvisation Musicales — which actually translates nicely into Group for Research and Musical Improvisation). It’s a brief excerpt with a regal, Coltrane-shaded feel.

And Ochs himself has posted a track from The Throne on Soundcloud. Called “Breakout,” it’s an Ochs composition enhanced by a nice hard snap by Robinson.

September 7, 2016 at 11:51 pm Leave a comment

SFEMF 2017

sfemf2016posterThe San Francisco Electronic Music Festival returns this week, starting with a Thursday show at the Exploratorium and ending with a change of pace that might draw a bit of a crossover crowd.

Most of the shows are at the Brava Theater Center (2781 24th Street, San Francisco). Check the full schedule for more details.

Thursday, Sept. 8: The kickoff show, held at the Exploratorium, will feature Gen Ken Montgomery performing a Cassette CONcert, an idea developed by the late German musician Conrad Schnitzler beginning in the late ’60s. It’s an intriguing spin on the idea of tape music, the preconfigured electronic-music pieces that became an art form in the ’50s. In this case, Schnitzler provides a series of tapes, and it’s up to the musician which ones to play and when.

This means the concert can take variable form and length (Montgomery reports of one concert that lasted 50 hours). It’s a very Cageian idea, this reconfigurable composing; it also makes me think of Pierre Boulez’s Domaines, the modular piece performed by sfSound in July.

That Thursday show also includes the percussion-electronics duo IMA, who just came off a successful performance at the Outsound New Music Summit.

Friday, Sept. 9: This show includes composer Maja S.K. Ratkje, the Norweigan noise artist who also travels in classical-music circles. Her recently released Crepuscular Hour, a piece that includes three choirs, noise musicians, and a church organ, “seeps through the liminal cracks between light and dark, the spiritual gloaming during which living bodies and minds change their patterns of behaviour,” as The Quietus describes it. Performance photos on Ratkje’s website are stunning.

Saturday, Sept. 10, 4:00 p.m.:  There’s a Saturday evening show at Brava, which will include local violin-and-electronics artist Thea Farhadian. In the afternoon, though, there’s a tribute to Contrad Schnitzler happening in the Brava neighborhood. Gen Ken Montgomery will host a “participatory” Cassette CONcert, where you’re welcome to bring a cassette deck and become part of the performance. Elsewhere, there’s going to be a small exhibition of Schnitzler’s archives.

These are happening at Explorist International and Adobe Books — 3174 and 3130 24th St., respectively. I don’t know which event is at which location, but Adobe Books has hosted small concerts in the past, so it might be the CONcert venue.

Not to sell Farhadian short. She has a new album coming out on Creative Sources in November and is a KZSU Day of Noise alum. Here’s a sample:


Sunday, Sept. 11: The SMEMF guest likely to draw the most attention is an East Bay native: Daveed Diggs, performing with the L.A. rap trio clipping. (the period is part of the name). Diggs is better known for less experimental work, being one of the original stars of the Hamilton musical. As the Marquis de Lafayette, he performs some impossibly fast raps in a French accent. With clipping., the speed and energy are there, but in a darker vein — a sinister vibe with lots of F-words and some sharp political messages.

The connection to SFEMF is that the backing music consists of spare, noise-based electronic rhythms — which, for me, is a refreshing change from rap’s usual course of mindless nostalgia samples and weak elementary jazz riffs. For rap fans, it’s a different sound — and for SFEMF, it’s a very experimental turn and a bit of a risk.

Read more about the festival (and about clipping.) at San Francisco Classical Voice.

September 5, 2016 at 12:23 pm Leave a comment

Outsound Summit: IMA and Big City Orchestra

DSCN2555-cropThe 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.

August 8, 2016 at 11:34 pm Leave a comment

Outsound Summit: Oliver Lake in Duo, Brandon Evans in Trio

IMG_2366 oliver lake donald robinson cropOliver Lake and Donald Robinson put on a terrific set Thursday night at the Outsound New Music Summit.

Obviously, that’s what you would expect. Lake is a living legend — but I was also there to see Robinson, a Bay Area drummer whose skill I’ve lauded here repeatedly. A duet with a kindred spirit (both were part of the free-jazz scene in Paris in the ’70s) was the perfect setting for showcasing Robinson’s talents and creativity.

Lake announced his presence with a keening, whistling cry on a miniature curved saxophone. It got the music started with almost no preliminaries and also served as a signal that yes, the avant-garde stuff was going to be welcomed in this set.

Spending most of the hour-long set on alto sax, Lake frequently alternated between rapid-fire chatter and fragments of jazzy, funky melody. Robinson rotated through a few choices of sound palettes, from hard mallets to sticks to brushes. I love the light touch he has on the drums — airy, rapid-fire gestures that build up to a reeling ferocity.

This was a polished set, in a good way, by a couple of pros. The flow of ideas was seamless, aided by Lake’s occasional use of melody to shift the mood. These moments were brief, terminated by a quick spackling of wild sax notes, but Lake and Robinson did let a bit of a groove develop during their lively closing improvisation.

IMG_2364 brandon evans-cropThe evening opened with the trio of Brandon Evans (sax), Christina Stanley (violin), and Mark Pino (drums). They set the tone with a long-form piece of Evans’ devising, an improvisation based on what appeared to be a graphical score and/or a set of instructions guiding the overall flow.

The piece was a frenzied display of power. Stanley, in particular, made the most of it, madly sawing to keep the energy level red-lined while also using occasional electronics to deliver more pulverizing sounds from the violin.

Evans was terrific on soprano sax, but that instrument didn’t offer much contrast to the violin. That might have been the desired effect; both instruments melted into one another to form a continuous chatter. But I appreciated Evans’ contributions more on alto, where the contrast in sounds made it easier to separate his voice from Stanley’s.

It was a take-no-prisoners session, which puts pressure on the drummer to keep the energy level peaked without overpowering the sound. I did feel like Pino fell into occasional ruts early in the piece, but he quickly found his footing and was soon tossing off some impressive fills and rolls.

These two sets complemented each other well. Not because both included improvised sax and drums, but because each started from the premise of “jazz”-like improvising on acoustic instruments and followed a different direction from there. A nice pairing of acts by Outsound.

July 31, 2016 at 11:50 pm Leave a comment

Outsound New Music Summit 2016

2016_SummitCollage-cutStarting tomorrow in San Francisco, the week-long Outsound New Music Summit will convene for the 15th time. It’s a week-long series of shows celebrating creative music of many stripes, from jazz and new-classical to noise and prop.

I’ve written about the event quite a bit over the years, and you can also learn more by digging through the Outsound archive.

The event runs July 24-30, at the Community Music Center (544 Capp Street @ 20th, San Francisco). Check out the full schedule here.

outsound-logoFor a deeper look, you can explore the “In the Field” series of video interviews, posted by Outsound organizer Rent Romus. They’re extensive (usually 20+ minutes) and often explore how these musicians got turned on to creative music and out-there sounds.

Here’s my smattering of highlights — based primarily on how familiar I am with the musicians and concepts. Meaning, I’ve left lots of deserving artists behind; explore the full schedule for more info, with additional video and audio information.

Concert times are 8:15 p.m., except as noted.

Touch the Gear (Sun. July 24, 7:00-10:00 p.m.) — An Outsound tradition. It’s a hands-on exhibit of electronics and noisemakers (and sometimes some more “normal” musical instruments”), giving you an opportunity to find out where some of these unusual noises come from. It’s very informal and, well, noisy: You wander the tables, ask some questions — and push some buttons and make some noise yourself.

Sonny Simmons documentary (Mon. July 25, 7:00 p.m.) — A screening of Brandon Evans’ 2003 film, “Sonny Simmons: The Multiple Rated X Truth.” Simmons is a fascinating story, a forgotton hero of ’60s free-jazz who became re-remembered starting in the early ’00s.

Dan Plonsey: “On His Shoulders Stands No One” (Tues. July 26) — Expect Braxton-like expanse, but with a friendlier, warmer touch than Braxton’s Ghost Trance Music or Echo Echo Mirror House. Find out more in Plonsey’s video interview (embedded here).

Brett Carson’s Mysterious Descent (Tues. July 26) — A theater/poetry/music piece based on the extant texts of the Idnat Ikh-ôhintsôsh (i.e., a language of Carson’s own devising). Might be the most “out-there” concept on the docket. I’m not sure what to expect; I just got drawn in by Carson’s “In the Field” inteview.

Vinny Golia, Lisa Mezzacappa & Vijay Anderson (Wed. July 27) — Three musicians whose work I’ve enjoyed and admired. This should be a rewarding set of sax-bass-drums improvised jazz. Note that they’re also three-fourths of the band on the album Hell-Bent in the Pacific, which included the late Marco Eneidi on sax.

lake-robinsonOliver Lake & Donald Robinson (Thur. July 28) — Outsound goes above and beyond to support local artists, but the festival also usually includes notable names from out of town. Oliver Lake is a luminary known for the World Saxophone Quartet, Trio 3, and his extensive solo career. (See SF Weekly‘s preview.) Donald Robinson is a hero of the local scene, a drummer whose fluid, airy style has always impressed me. He’s also a veteran of the early ’70s free jazz scene in Paris, where his musical cohorts included Oliver Lake. Who knows whether they kept in touch or even knew each other well; in any event, this should be a special dialogue between kindred spirits.

There’s also a trio improv that combines Brandon Evans with local luminaries Christina Stanley (violin) and Mark Pino (drums); an avant-pop night promising shades of prog and electronic music; and an appearance from the long-running, unpredictable Big City Orchestra.

And plenty more. Seriously, explore the schedule. There’s a wide range of music in store.

July 23, 2016 at 10:59 am Leave a comment

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