Posts filed under ‘shows (past)’
On the docket at Studio Grand in Oakland last Monday night: a yet-unrecorded saxophone quartet and the latest installment of a graphical-scores project. And it happened between storms, so I didn’t even have to get that wet to see it.
Social Stutter was the saxophone quartet, playing the compositions of Beth Schenck. I’m accustomed to the quartet format of one-of-each-type-of-saxophone, but Schenck doubled up on altos (herself and Kasey Knudsen). They often joined forces on lead themes — pleasant melodic lines poking at one another in counterpoint. It was a compelling effect of overlapping, similar sounds.
Phillip Greenlief held down the tenor sax and Cory Wright the baritone — although Wright occasionally switched to tenor, doubling up on that overlap effect. In Schenck’s own words: “Some of the pieces are composed for two altos and two tenors, which leads itself to denser harmonic territory and a uniquely homogenous sound.”
During a break, Schenck had a good quip related to that sound: “You know those couples who look like each other, people that date other people who look like themselves? Playing in a saxophone quartet is like that.”
The first three pieces focused mostly on hopping rhythms and cross-cut melodies, less so on the thick jazz chords that a quartet of saxophones can bring out. That made the fourth and final piece extra dramatic, with the sudden appearance of big, sweeping low chords (baritone sax came in handy here).
Good stuff that certainly had a sound and color all its own.
Phillip Greenlief’s Barbedwire was next, in the format of two vibraphones accompanying Greenlief on reeds. Barbedwire is a set of 37 graphical scores that Greenlief created in 2015, and he’s been performing the pieces with varying combinations of instruments. Each page is written for a trio, with each musician’s trajectory represented by a free-drawn line pocked with semi-regular scribbles that represent barbs.
The improvisations are timed, with each barb representing one minute and the “shape”of the line between barbs serving as the player’s instructions. Some of the scores have a linear look or suggest a minimalist approach (tiny crooked lines), while others are outright nuts, with lines twisting and intersecting. In the end, the pieces are improvised, but there’s a planned trajectory of sorts, and the combination of the score, the timekeeping, and the act of listening all factor into the performer’s decisions.
I would imagine that for some graphical scores, it’s fun for the performer to dive in cold. Barbedwire is not such a piece. I asked Tim DeCillis about that after the set, and he said that he went into these pieces with at least an inkling of a strategy.
The trio played three pieces, each combining one or two of the Barbedwire sheets with pre-assigned solo improvisation segments. Greenlief, on saxophone, used a lot of extended techniques, devoting his solo to air-through-horn sounds and a long, ragged siren blare.
As for the vibes, they filled the air — sometimes literally, with those dissonant vibrations piling up enough to rattle your skull. Mark Clifford, standing to our right, spent a lot of time creating gorgeous strings of tones. DeCillis, on the left, did a lot of work with bowing, particularly during the solo that opened the final piece, filled with lingering, shimmering tones.
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.
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.
I am not proud of this, but: The only show of the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival that I attended was Sunday night’s closer, the one where clipping. performed. Predictably, at least half of the apparently sold-out crowd at little Brava Theater was there to see that band, specifically rapper Daveed Diggs. And, yes … my daughter was one of them.
I had fun. But as you might expect, it wasn’t quite the same experience SFEMF normally delivers.
The second half wasn’t, anyway. The first half featured electronic pieces by Madalyn Merkey and Tujurikkuja, and I’m grateful to the clipping. fans for being respectfully silent during that set. Those who couldn’t deal with it quickly decamped to the lobby, which was a distraction but was the right thing to do. Many of them seemed willing to accept the music on its own terms, though, and they applauded enthusiastically, as did the “usual” SFEMF-goers.
The clipping. set was different. After one or two songs, fans rushed the stage, dancing and jumping in full hip-hop mode. My daughter and I had fun (and stayed in our seats, for a better view) — but any pretense about savoring experimental electronic sounds was gone. The show had been taken over, and it was my turn to accept someone’s music on its own terms.
Nothing against clipping. or Diggs. They were doing their normal thing, and they’re very good at it. It’s great that SFEMF experimented with pop music, but the show was overrun by one factor no one could control: Diggs’ notoriety from Hamilton.
We got a taste of that before the show, when Diggs appeared near our section of the audience to greet friends (the guy siting next to me was clipping. bandmate William Hutson, it turned out). It wasn’t long before one teenage girl asked for an autograph, and soon a line formed. It’s in the photo, above; Diggs is on the far right in black-and-white stripes.
Warm and generous, he worked through a good portion of the line, at one point remarking that the evening wasn’t meant to be all about him. He finally had to excuse himself, promising he’d hang around after the show — which he did.
Regarding the music, I’m going to use a separate blog entry to discuss the Madalyn Merkey and Tujurikkuja pieces. They did fine work which shouldn’t be overshadowed by all the words I’m devoting to clipping.
But I do want to talk about clipping., because their live act felt so different from their records. To me, the CDs have an ominous edge, defined by not only the noisy backing, but also the lurking sparseness. The sounds are crunchy and aggressive, but they leave enough blank space for a sense of isolation and dread.
The live show was, well, a hip-hop show. Compared to the CDs, the sounds were infused with more melody and more of that thump-thump beat, and Hutson’s fellow DJ, Jonathan Snipes, took at least one crowd-pleasing solo. While Diggs’ delivery was still edgy and his lyrics dense with political and social tension, the show became a dance party, as hip-hop tends to be.
But I enjoyed it, as I’ve said, and the tracks they played from their new album, Splendor and Misery, were stunning. The opening narrative, “The Breach,” showed off Diggs’ redlining rap style, fast as a machine gun and precise as a diamond cutter. Later, all the rapping and electronics stepped aside for a surprising folk song called “Story 5,” a dark and eventually bloody tale performed by one woman, alone, on harp and vocal. (On the record, it’s an elegant a cappella piece for male ensemble.)
I found myself geeking out about the fact that a couple of the raps added up to 6/4 time. That included the final track, “A Better Place,” which was surprisingly upbeat and tonal, ending with a grand sunburst of noise. To show off, I’ll add that the song mentions “bodies and cities,” confirming that the EP’s title comes from an unfinished Samuel R. Delaney novel.
I wouldn’t have sought out clipping. on my own, so I’m grateful to SFEMF for exposing me to something new. I hope some of clipping.’s fans went home thinking the same thing about the other acts. If so, maybe the experiment worked after all.
The 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.
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.
The 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.
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.
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
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.