Posts filed under ‘shows (past)’
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.
He wasn’t bragging; he was bemoaning. He has to put up with the crowded stores and parking lots — not to mention the even thicker traffic on I-110.
Maybe it was coincidence, but that evening as I headed to Little Tokyo for Weller Court, the small, clean shopping center that houses the Blue Whale jazz club, I think I caught a taste of what he was talking about. Orochon, the spicy ramen counter, was overflowing, with a line outside waiting for tables. And at the Blue Whale itself, all the seats were filled when I came in at the beginning of the Armen Nalbandian Trio’s first set.
During my infrequent visits — maybe three in the past six years? — I’d become accustomed to almost having Weller Court to myself. I was expecting a nearly empty Blue Whale. It was Tuesday night. It was raining. And yet, Little Tokyo was alive and jumping.
I wasn’t the only one surprised. Pianist Nalbandian was too, as he happily told the crowd at the end of the first set. It was a pretty live crowd, too.
I was in L.A. this past week for a work assignment, and it wasn’t looking like I would have a chance for an evening out, especially with early morning events to attend each day. The quartet Sigmund Fudge — straightahead guitar/keys-led jazz with a touch of attitude — was tempting, but I didn’t have the energy Monday night and already knew I’d be struggling the next morning.
But Tuesday at about 8:00 p.m., I found myself with a surprising reserve of energy. Before fatigue could catch up with my body and brain, I headed for Japantown. Nalbandian seemed like a good bet, with a rhythm section of familiar names: Eric Revis on bass and Nasheed Waits on drums.
Nalbandian’s music draws from traditional jazz, as you can hear on the solo records on his Blacksmith Brother label, but he’s also a fan of noisy tricks such as playing the inside of the piano. He used the trio format nicely, giving Revis and Waits (and himself) plenty of leash.
One number had an extended intro from Waits that you wouldn’t call abstract — but it wasn’t your typical drum solo: clicking and fast, with irregular stresses. Revis, at center stage, was fun to watch, especially during his hard-digging solos.
They played a couple of world-premiere tracks including one that I think was called “Nogu,” named after a restaurant. (The crowd got a good laugh out of that. I think we were all expecting a metaphysical Asian backstory.) The set-closer, “Aries,” was a relatively long, episodic piece with lots of high-throttle group improvisation.
There was also an ornate Nalbandian solo (was it “Just a Gigolo,” or am I remembering that from the radio?) and a reading of Monk’s “Light Blue.”
Nalbandian hangs out in some big circles. His website includes a glowing quote from Matthew Shipp, and he’s recorded with Han Bennik, an improv session that mixes swing with creative mischief. In May, he’s presenting a trio with saxophonist Steve Lehman and drummer Guillermo E. Brown. That will be at E.T.A. in Highland Park, another Los Angeles-area venue.
His one album with Revis and Waits is called Quiet As It’s Kept (Blacksmith Brother, 2011), and it features Fender Rhodes rather than acoustic piano, for a sound that’s more quilted but no less high-energy.
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.
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.