Posts filed under ‘shows (past)’

sfSound Goes Epic With Boulez

IMG_2320-dominoes-crop

Setting up for Domaines.

Last weekend, sfSound — a very active Bay Area new-music collective — put on a three-night festival exploring graphical scores. I missed the first night, which included new works by sfSound members Kyle Bruckmann and Matt Ingalls. But I did make it to the final installment, featuring classic works by some big names.

The centerpiece was Pierre Boulez’s Domaines (Dominoes), a through-composed work broken into modular pieces that can be rearranged, within some strict rules.

It happened to be the longest piece of the evening, but it was also a highlight for its use of space, which made the piece feel sprawling and epic. And it was a workout for clarinet soloist Ingalls.

Domaines pits a solo clarinet against six ensembles, each numbering one through six members. These small ensembles were spread out around the theater space, including the 1-person bass clarinet sitting in the central aisle in the audience.

Boulez’s instructions have the soloist play a segment with each of the ensembles in a prearranged but arbitrary order. Ingalls started with segment number 4: He played his part, alone, followed by the 4-person ensemble playing their part.

domaines

Source: sfSound.

The modular part comes not only from the sequencing of the six segments (Boulez called them “cahiers” — notebooks), but in the clarinet solos, which are divided into segments that can be played in two different ways.

4 was a good place for Ingalls to start, because that clarinet solo featured raspy, brash tones — a personality that would turn out to really stand out from the others. To accent this, the 4-person ensemble consisted entirely of trombones, keeping that same raspy sound going.

Here’s the fun part: Ingalls had his own music stand next to each ensemble, so for each segment, he stood in a different place. As the piece progressed, in the order 4-5-2-6-3-1, Ingalls had to walk the room.

As I mentioned, the sequences were predetermined, so as one segment ended, Ingalls or the next ensemble could start the next segment, often overlapping the two by a bit. That was a nice effect, kind of like cross-fading in radio.

But wait, there’s more! That was only half the piece. The second half, subtitled “Miroirs” (“Mirrors”), consisted of each ensemble playing a segment, followed by a clarinet solo — the opposite concept of the “Originales” segments, but with different music. sfSound played the “Miroirs” segments in the order 5-2-3-4-6-1.

And of course the music, while through-composed, is Boulez: spikey, poking phrases, huge leaps, swooping slashes, and the occasional bit of extended playing as indicated in the sheet music. Exciting stuff, augmented by the effect of Ingalls and the ensembles playing from different regions of the room.

I also happen to enjoy geeking out on things like permutations. If I’m using combinatorics correctly, there are 518,400 ways to arrange the six segments. Factor in the two choices for each clarinet solo, and I think it multiplies to more than 2 billion possibilities.

Every concert is unique, even if the music is through-composed, but I really like to geek out about the uniqueness of a permutation. We heard one possibility out of 2 billion that might never arise again, and I found that really appealing.

Graphical Scores and Improv

outoflastpieces

Source: sfSound

The rest of the concert featured pieces that allow many more degrees of freedom to the musicians. These ranged from the box notation of Morten Feldman’s “Out of ‘Last Pieces'” (excerpted at right) to the modular segments of Earle Brown’s “Available Forms” to Pauline Oliveros’ Fluxus-like “The Inner/Outer Sound Matrix.” The latter, written for sfSound in 2007, instructs the performer to “listen inwardly for your own sound” and play it — or not — at the right time.

In most cases, the effect was like an episodic large-group improvisation. That is, the basic sound was similar to symphonic improv, but there were definite spikes and surges, as well as group drop-offs. Each piece came across boisterously, like a pot boiling, with clusters of activity coming from different parts of the group.

Oliveros’ “Matrix” was loud and brash, which surprised me. I’d expected something more meditative. But the volume built up quickly, and it seemed at times as if players were forced to out-shout each other to be heard.

The group also performed Oliveros’ a capella “Sound Patterns,” comprised of vocal sounds including vowels, tongue clicks, and various buzzes and barks. It’s a mostly non-improvisational piece, and while it’s not a virtuoso turn, it requires organization and an ensemble that takes the idea seriously.

Hearing groups of people making the same nonsense sounds in unison turned out to be revelatory. Even though there’s an absurdity factor (a couple of segments seem designed to get a chuckle from the audience), and even though the ensemble was clearly having fun, their professionalism made this into a piece to be taken seriously. I was surprised how much I enjoyed it.

July 17, 2016 at 10:22 am Leave a comment

Monday Make-Out: May 2016

mihaly-MORmay16-cropThe most recent live music show I’ve seen (not counting the theater experience) goes back to the beginning of May, when I headed to San Francisco’s Mission District for the first-Monday jazz program at the Make-Out Room.

This one was really different. Walking through the door, I was greeting by the wavering clang of a Chinese gong and the high-pitched caterwauls of traditional Asian song, but infused with the aggressive showmanship of rock or even punk. This was mashed up against an energetic, Afropop-influenced guitar-and-bass combo, all anchored by drummer Dave Mihaly.

This was DaMaDa, a world fusion band that put out one CD in 2011 and possibly has another one in the wings.

I hadn’t encountered them before, but lead singer Luo Danna grew up in China as a singer, actress, and dancer, and she brings that theatricality to the forefont for this band. Their final song was fast-paced, with Danna adding a percussive exclamation point to the rhythm by snapping a fan closed dramtically. You do have to have a taste for the shrill vocals of traditional Chinese music, but the mix of those motifs with the freedom of jazz is something worth hearing.

grex-MORmay16-cropThe second set was by local stalwarts Grex, this time in basic trio format:  Karl Evangelsta on guitar, Rei Scampvia Evangelista on keyboards, and Robert Lopez on drums.

Jazz and modern classical music are among Grex’s influences, but it was a heavy set this time, with lots of crunchy, aggressive guitar and a psychedelic feel. Among the new songs with Rei on vocals was “Martha,” relating to the last of the carrier pigeons.

A quartet called Two Aerials closed the program, combining out-there jazz singing (singer/cellist Crystal Pascucci) with a chamber-music vibe, a breezy sound from the combination of cello, vibraphone, and electric piano. Still, they put up some hard-driving numbers, really rocking out at times. Drummer Britt Ciampa kept the volume high with a lexicon of shuffles and taps, playd with subtlety and precision but loud and exciting.

aerials-MORmay16

I did not make it to the June installment of the Monday Make-Out, but I’d like to be more of a regular there. The bar setting isn’t conducive to every type of music, but this is the kind of setting jazz used to enjoy, after all, and you get a good dose of locals who wander in and seem to have a pretty good time.

June 17, 2016 at 2:57 pm Leave a comment

Wild Sound

ThirdCoastPercussion@2xGlancing at the stage before a performance of Glenn Kotche’s Wild Sound, we got a good idea what to expect. All the detritus, tools, stray wood pieces — a suburban garage exploded — suggested a Cageian experience in sound and improvisation.

Turns out, Wild Sound is a lot more than that. It’s structured and partially composed, including melodies. And gets the audience involved, both literally (we got to make noise) and figuratively, in the sense that the piece involves the sounds and sights of instruments being built.

It’s a piece by Glenn Kotche, who’s best known as the drummer from Wilco but is also a classical composer with a respectable discography on labels such as Nonesuch and Canteloupe. Wild Sound was the last in a short series of hip, modern-classical evenings called Pivot, which on this evening was hosting Third Coast Percussion, a creative quartet that’s also the ensemble-in-residence at Notre Dame University. The performance, in early April, was also my first visit to the SFJazz complex in San Francisco’s Fillmore district.

thirdcoast-IMG_1884Wild Sound progresses through the four elements of water, air, fire, and earth, with a coda that transcends all four and could be called just “civilization.” At the same time, the “settings” of the piece start out primitive — Water draws inspiration from jungle rainfall, Air from the swirling winds of deserts and chapparel — and eventually shift into urban society. After a surprisingly quiet Fire segment, Earth went all-in with steel girders and concrete.

The whole piece was backed by abstract video projections, occasionally overlaid with real-time video of the performers, and a backing soundtrack of field recordings Kotche made on tour. I don’t think we were meant to think of the nature-to-civilization progression as a bad thing. It felt more celebratory, and the Earth and Civilization sections included some of the most engaging segments of the piece.

The best part, and the most pleasant surprise, was the realization that the players were assembling instruments as they went. Wild Sounds does include a lot of Cageian randomness, as expected — one segment has a guy rattling large marbles in a bowl, and he eventually dumps them on top of two other musicians who are busy performing the actual composed melody. But along the way, you start to realize that some of the “randomness” is productive work.

It’s sneaky, and it adds to the fun. One guy loudly slapping wood blocks onto a table turned out to be building an honest-to-goodness marimba, finely tuned. A more subtle bit of work is the guy who was cutting wire at another table. That became a kind of slide violin: one hand (or person) plays the string, the other sets the tuning.

The sounds of construction also factor into the piece. Early on, one player was slapping packing tape onto the end of a tube, unrolling the tape as loudly as possible. Obviously, this was going to be used as a tribal drum later on — but during the construction, the unraveling of the tape contributed to the surrounding noise.

By the time the Earth section came around, it wasn’t any surprise to see the power tools come out, complete with safety shields. Drills, power screwdrivers, and even a welding torch, I think, got applied in small amounts — because one power tool makes enough noise to make the point. The piece was created with help from Notre Dame’s engineering department, by the way.

thirdcoast-sticks-crop-IMG_1887We got to participate, too. During Water, one Third Coaster pantomimed instructions for us to rub our hands and slap our thighs, emulating rainfall. Everyone was also handed small, ribbed balsa-wood sticks when we entered the theater. These became percussion instruments during Earth, when we got instructed to scrape out certain rhythms.

This concert was co-sponsored by The Exploratorium, which was so fitting — it all felt like the kind of “performance” exhibit they might host. In a post-concert talk, one of the Third Coasters (was it David Skidmore?) pointed out how inviting the instruments were. Anybody in the audience could wander on stage, pick something up, and make music. The group takes particular glee in that aspect of the piece, he said.

The first four movements of Wild Sound are quite a feast, but there’s still a major surprise in store for the dessert course. (This is a SPOILER. If you’re reading this in advance of going to see Wild Sound, you should probably stop here.)

The four large brackets at the back of the stage were, predictably enough, used for hanging sheet metal and other implements, which got bashed around for the raucuous parts of Earth. Turns out they have another purpose in Civilization — they hold synthesizers built inside transparent plexiglass. These are essentially keyboards that get played vertically, and the conclusion of Civilization is a long, through-composed melody for a quartet of these instruments. (You can see them for a moment in this promo video.) The sci-fi sound of the synths, and the fact that you can see the circuitry inside, create a futuristic air. The melody itself is pleasant and relaxing, suggesting that yes, this is our home today. Spotlights indicate who’s playing at any given time — and there have to be a lot of rest breaks for each musician, considering this segment is rather long and the blood is running out of their arms whenever they’re playing. It’s a peaceful ending and a chance to digest everything that’s happened in the preceding hour.

Wild Sound was written specifically for Third Coast. They performed it only about 10 times in the past year, Skidmore said — because it’s such a production. In addition to all the equipment, tools, and materials required, the performance needs a videographer, a lighting technician, and a soundboard engineer (some of the instruments’ sounds get enhanced with a computer) who are familiar with the piece.

That makes Wild Sound all the more rare. I don’t think it’s an experience that can be captured well enough on DVD. If it’s coming to your town, go see it.

April 20, 2016 at 7:53 am Leave a comment

Achievement Unlocked: Vortex Jazz Club

The Markov Chain at the Vortex Jazz Club, London, on 2 December 2015Early this month, I made my first-ever trip to the UK, visiting London on business. There wasn’t much time to get around, especially considering we were near the London ExCel conference facility, well to the east of anything in London that I’d heard of.

But I did sneak out on my final night to visit the Vortex Jazz Club, a cozy second-story music space and bar that’s been a cornerstone of creative jazz worldwide. Saxophone legend Evan Parker performs there once a month on a kind of permanent residency.

Cafe Oto, nearby, also features plenty of experimental music, but I had only one evening available. The Markov Chain, a piano-bass-drums combo of improvised jazz, won out.

Both venues are in the neighborhood of Dalston, one of those formerly low-rent areas where ethnic foods and skateboarders collide with redevelopment money and hipsters. The area has that city grime to it, and the surface similarities to Manhattan’s Lower East Side were actually a little comforting.

vortexThe Vortex itself is off the main drag, in a small plaza that’s now named Aim Bailey Place after Derek Bailey. The shot at left, from the Hackney Hive site, gives you a pretty good impression.

It’s a friendly place where they didn’t mind that I wasn’t drinking alcohol that night. (I honestly felt bad about that and contributed to the till via multiple mineral waters and couple bags of crisps.) The place filled up by showtime — many attendees being friends of the band, certainly, but not all. I wasn’t the only one who’d staked out a table early, and music fans’ reservations filled out the front row.

The Markov Chain is a free improvisation group that infuses plenty of jazz idiom into their playing — although extended technique did show up a bit during the show, particularly with bassist Tim Fairhall.

Pianist and bandleader Adam Fairhall (Tim’s brother) has had a couple of other projects out, including The Imaginary Delta, a septet suite released by Slam Productions. Possibly the best known member of the trio is drummer Paul Hession, who’s recorded frequently for Slam and Bruce’s Fingers — the latter having also put out The Markov Chain’s eponymous CD.

markovchain-stThe show at the Vortex started with Adam Fairhall doing a solo piano piece lasting maybe 20 minutes. It was a stunning mashup of old and new jazz styles, bursting with references to boogie-woogie and ragtime. Lots of blues colors, and some near-classical, concert-hall-style jazz, and sprinklings of free improv.

One particularly memorable stretch built off of a rolling 6/8 boogie-woogie theme in the bassline, with right-hand playing that was tonal and massive, built from fistfuls of chords.

After a break, the Markov Chain played two pieces — a long improvisation tracking maybe 40 minutes, and a 10-minute “encore” piece.

The longer piece was an exercise in sustained energy — not one solid wall of music, but a fast-paced series of episodes. I don’t recall any long quiet stretches, although there were plenty of passages where one player dropped out, leaving the other two in an extended duet.

Hessian is an excellent drummer, a whirlwind with a feather touch. And Tim Fairhall was captivating on bass — lots of pizzicato with big intervallic leaps, and later, a string-mashing bowing style.

The 10-minute followup stared in a mode crystalline and careful, one of the few settings they hadn’t explored in the longer piece.

I liked these guys. I’ve been enjoying their CD, where every track is an anagram of The Markov Chain. (“Monk Crave Hi Hat” is a particularly catchy title.) I was exhausted from the work week, but I was glad to see the Vortex and to experience this music. I’m rarely unhappy after I’ve taken the extra effort to go find out what’s out there.

December 19, 2015 at 3:57 pm Leave a comment

Lisa Mezzacappa’s Glorious Ravage

Lisa Mezzacappa performs Glorious Ravage one more time: tonight, Oct. 2, at Brava Theater Center (2181 24th St., San Francisco).

steampunkGlorious Ravage is Lisa Mezzacappa’s “panoramic song cycle,” a set of ambitious tunes inspired by the writings of pioneer women — scientists, explorers, and adventurers.

It might sound incongruous, pitting modern jazz styles against words written a century ago. But with an ace 15-piece band; some thoughtful video from four artists; and Fay Victor on vocals, Mezzacappa has created an exciting an uplifting production.

It really is a production, as I saw on Thursday night. Mezzacappa developed the song cycle during the course of this year, a process that included not only writing and rehearsals, but live previews at the de Young Museum and a research visit to the Louise Arner Boyd archives in Marin. She blogged about it all, and it sounds like it’s been quite a rush for her.

The band combines top-notch musicians from northern and southern California. Alongside a team of Bay Area favorites, it includes Myra Melford, Mark Dresser, and Vinny Golia, along with Nicole Mitchell, a stalwart of Chicago’s AACM scene who now teaches at U.C. Irvine.

Lisa Mezzacappa performing Glorious Ravage, 1 October 2015
Then there’s Fay Victor, who inspired the project after impressing Mezzacappa during a 2011 performance together. Based in New York, Victor sings with a voice like Betty Carter’s but also has a penchant for experimenting. Her albums in the mid-2000s includes elements of psych rock and free improv, and she’s more than willing to experiment with sounds.

The lyrics she’s singing are taken from the writings of women who broke with the customs of the 19th and early 20th centuries to explore, whether for science, for adventure, or “for anything but awaited them in their suffocating Victorian parlors,” as Mezzacappa writes in the show program:

“The fact that there was no contemporary precedent for how they chose to live their lives, and the great lengths they went to live so fully off-script, resonated with me enormously.”

The show got its official debut Sept. 25 at U.C. Irvine, followed by a performance at Los Angeles’ Angel City Jazz Festival. The Oct. 1 and 2 shows at Brava Theater might sound a little less prestigious, but it’s a lovely theater with an expansive stage that suits the video projections well.

Some highlights of the music:

“Heat and Hurry” displayed a quick-stepping, sophisticated kind of jazz. It was one of a few songs backed by the cut-out animations of Kathleen Quillian — think Terry Gilliam with less silliness and with varying landscapes in the background (jungle, mountains, Hawaiian lava bed). The song was inspired by world traveler Isabella Bird, who “literally fell ill whenever she returned home to the British Isles of her birth,” as Mezzacappa’s program reads.

“Taxonomical” made use of Victor’s creative use of sounds and inflections, because the lyrics are just scientific names of plants in Greenland. It’s from the journal of Louise Arner Boyd, a biologist who lived in Marin and developed a fascination for the Arctic Circle. Her list made for some creative vocal babbling, after an introductory duet that contrasted eerie laptop sounds by Tim Perkis with some brisk vibraphone statements by Kjell Nordeson.

victoBoyd and Bird showed up again in “Shut Out the Sun,” which set one of Bird’s poems against actual video footage that Boyd took in the Arctic Circle. The song featured swaying horn harmonies and attractive piano chords — and later, a sublime flute solo from Mitchell to go with the ice floes and glaciers of Boyd’s journey.

“Soroche” drew from the weird rivalry of Annie Smith Peck and Fanny Bullock Workman, mountain women who were intent on setting world records and got into some heated arguments in the Scientific American letters-to-the-editor column. Victor read just a few phrases, repeating them and twisting them all about with her voice. Later, Mezzacappa and Dresser got into a brief duet, the two basses battling in a frenzy as if to replicate the argument. That was a fun moment, and Dresser continued playing for an equally fun duet with Victor.

“City of Wonders” closed the show with some upbeat music and somber thoughts. The writings, by Ida Pfeiffer and Marianne North, reflected on the negative aspects of the California gold rush and the carving up of redwood forests, respectively — two subjects familiar to anyone who grew up around here. The bouncy and brisk piano/vibraphone lines soon cut away to a swinging, old-timey jazz theme with some cool solos from John Finkbeiner (guitar) and Dina Maccabee (violin).

With professional lighting by Allen Willner and with Bay Area musician Suki O’Kane controlling the video, Glorious Ravage had the look that a major work deserves. There’s one more chance to catch it. And check out Mezzacappa’s interview with KALW-FM to learn more about the show’s historical aspects.

October 2, 2015 at 2:15 am Leave a comment

Tim Berne’s Snakeoil in Berkeley

Oscar Noriega, Ches Smith, Tim Berne -- Tim Berne's Snakeoil at Berkeley Arts Festival, May 3, 2015

If you were to ask me what makes Tim Berne’s music so appealing, I’d probably point you to one of his fast themes. That stacatto zig-zag melody, set in a long and ambling thread, has become a signature sound of his, and it catches my ear in an almost rock-music way.

But I also appreciate Berne’s ability to build drama, in carefully developed, looming plotlines. I’ve been familiar with that aspect of his work for a long time — the song “2011” from …theoretically, his 1986 collaboration with Bill Frisell, comes to mind.

It struck me during Berne’s show last Sunday, at Berkeley Arts Festival, that his current Snakeoil band nicely highlights that sense of drama. It’s the chords. With Matt Mitchell on piano and Ches Smith sometimes on vibes (when he’s not rustling or bashing at the drum kit), the compositions get a rich harmonic backdrop, something I’m noticing more now than with previous keyboard bands.

The drama came across as Snakeoil played a set of the longer pieces from the new album, You’ve Been Watching Me (ECM, 2015). One passage that particularly struck me had the piano churning out a slow cycle of quarter-note against Oscar Noriega‘s high-pitched blaring on clarinet, the insistent rhythm building tension until the band launched into a majestic composed theme. It’s that theatrical pacing that makes Berne’s longer compositions work.

Oscar Noriega and Ches SmithThe band we saw was the original Snakeoil quartet, without Ryan Ferreira, the guitarist who’s included on the new album. They looked a little tired, and rightfully so. The west-coast swing of their tour had just passed through Los Angeles, where they’d had a gig canceled — without being told until they got to Los Angeles. We tried to make up for it with a warm welcome — maybe 70 or more filling up the storefront gallery of Berkeley Arts.

Matt Mitchell

Matt Mitchell.

Oscar Noriega’s bass clarinet was often hard to hear over the drums, taking away some of the counterpoint that I enjoy in Berne’s writing. But we got to hear plenty of Noriega on plain clarinet, the higher notes sprinting or floating through the music. Some passages highlighting clarinet and vibes were particularly nice.

I think it was on “Embraceable Me” that Matt Mitchell showed off his talent at playing “split” piano, with his two hands doing almost unrelated things. That kind of musical puzzle was the foundation of his album, Fiction (Pi Recordings, 2013).

Another moment that stood out was the show’s opening — the song “Lost in Redding,” which immediately dived into the kind of fast, pecking melody that I was talking about at the beginning. From that point, we knew it was going to be a fun ride.

May 10, 2015 at 8:07 pm Leave a comment

Trance Mission Rides Again

DSCN7540-trance-mission-cut

A side note to that Fred Frith Trio show back in January …

While I missed Jack o’ the Clock, I did catch the show’s other opening act, a longtime Bay Area favorite called Trance Mission. It’s a world-music kind of trio whose grooves combine a droney sound with danceable beats — insistent music with a relaxed vibe.

Sometimes a quartet, Trance Mission has always featured Stephen Kent on didjeridu and percussion and Beth Custer on clarinets, vocals, and sundry (a bit of trumpet for this particular show, surprisingly enough). The latest version also included Peter Valsamis on the drum kit.

Of course, Kent and Custer have been involved in myriad other projects over the years. Trance Mission was a ’90s thing for both of them, but they still convene the group every now and again. I’d never seen them before that show at Slim’s, where I got a taste of what I’d missed all these years.

The didjeridoo allows for vocals and tongue slaps, so Kent often became the rhythm as well as the backing bass drone, freeing Valsamis to sprinkle the brighter colors of the drum kit. Kent also used a baby cello as an ersatz guitar on a couple of songs, for a different sound and a fun effect.

It was a really good time. I’m glad I finally caught up with them.

Trance Mission Duo (Kent and Custer) will be performing on March 21 at Red Poppy Art House (2698 Folsom St, San Francisco).

Kent will be performing with the Del Sol String Quartet at the Other Minds Festival on March 6, at the SF Jazz Center (201 Franklin Street, San Francisco).

February 22, 2015 at 10:22 pm Leave a comment

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