From the joyous prog rock of Reconnaissance Fly, Polly Moller and Tim Walters have staked new turf in the realm of pensive electronics and austere set pieces.
Windfall paints a spare landscape where silence is a primary color. Moller’s voice and flute are foundational sound sources, both organically and in digitally twisted forms, and Walter adds electronics like small, bright creatures darting across a shadowy geometric plane.
“Usufruct” is a real word, referring to “the right of the people to harvest the fruits of common property.” In that spirit, the band harvests found texts, read by Moller. “Only a Test” borrows from what might be a military handbook, with Moller and Walters barking out disconnected proclamations and lists of words. “Donzerly” cuts up the lyrics to the Star Spangled Banner, backed by swirling, buzzing electronics that sound aggressive but feel solitary.
When the flute is unadulterated, Moller draws forth a sense of color and stillness, augmented by trilling or tilted embouchure. On “Upside Down Wedding,” Walters plays back the melodic lines to create an intertwining vine climbing through the ether.
Here’s Usufruct performing at the 2018 Outsound New Music Festival:
Tania Chen and Jon Leidecker — Morton Feldman: Triadic Memories (Knitted, 2018)
Tania Chen (with Thurston Moore, David Toop, and Jon Leidecker) — John Cage: Electronic Music for Piano (Omnivore, 2018)
Tania Chen champions the piano music from the quadrant of Cornelius Cardew, Morton Feldman, and John Cage. It was one of her John Cage albums that inspired me to start writing something here. But then I found out Chen is going to be performing Morton Feldman’s 90-minute “Triadic Memories” with real-time electronics responses provided by Wobbly (Jon Leidecker) and Thomas Dimuzio. So I took a detour to hear her 2018 recording of the solo piano piece.
The composition is what you’d expect from late Feldman: lingering, drifting phrases, more relaxing than ominous, organized in delicate, spacious rhythmic doodles, and while you can run the piece as comforting background noise, you can also use the stillness to focus yourself into the moment, clinging to the notes and phrases against the deep silence. It’s also an interesting exercise in perception. The piece consists of arpeggios that spell out dissonant, prickly chords, but the melting-ice pace turns them into sparkling gems.
The added electronics are based on what’s coming out of the piano — Leidecker presumably attached microphones to the instrument, as he and Dimuzio will do in the Jan. 16 performance. On the CD, electronics appear sparingly, trying to accent the sound without being distracting. A passage starting around 17:20 includes a deep-water aftereffect. Another at around the 26-minute mark is more overt and mischievous but still doesn’t upset the overhanging atmosphere.
But that’s not really what I sat down to write about. I wanted to write about John Cage.
As you’d expect from a Cage piece, there’s a game aspect and a touch of whimsy behind Electronic Music for Piano, and I think it’s more enjoyable if you listen knowing the rules. Producer Gino Robair recorded Chen performing the piece three times — in separate duets with Toop and Moore in London, and with Leidecker in Berkeley. The CD knits the performances together with help from a “chance-based system” deciding which sound sources would play at which times.
“Sound sources” seems to include not just the six players (counting Chen three times) but also multiple angles, as microphones were all over the place — under the piano soundboard or at different points in the room, all to capture the mix of sounds persisting in air. Pure silence counted as a source and was weighted into the system, as were special options for “piano tracks only” and “non-piano tracks only.”
The overall mood is a fuzzy darkness: Lots of buzzing and roaring (not just Thurston Moore, but also the amplified piano soundboard), alternating with plinks and plucks from the piano, alternating with thick silence.
About the silence — you don’t put on a John Cage record if you can’t tolerate silence, and this one delivers, with slabs of blankness lasting one to three minutes. “Silence” also factored into the original performances. One silence at around the 8-minute mark is broken by the tiniest flicker of piano strings, almost accidental. That, and the organic way in which the piano sound returns, suggest this was “organic” silence — a very quiet moment that really did happen in the studio.
That said, Thurston Moore’s roar tends to dictate the tone at any given moment — especially in the early minutes, where he’s either ON or off. Much as I enjoyed the chance aspect of the recording, I have to admit it creates jarring results, especially when the guitar kicks in or out. Take the excerpt below, for instance. In the spirit of the recording, I’m starting it at exactly the 15-minute mark, and it includes two silences of roughly one minute apiece.
Yoni Kretzmer’s New Dilemma — Months, Weeks and Days (OutNow, 2018)
Eight years after I stumbled onto his music, Yoni Kretzmer has again recorded with New Dilemma, the group matching his sax with a string trio. It’s a welcome reunion-of-sorts and, considering the double-CD span of Months, Weeks and Days, a heftier dive into the possibilities for this grouping.
This time, the compositions mostly take the form of longer suites, such as the 19-minute opener, “Sunday Oct. 12th.” The band is also augmented with one more low voice — Josh Sinton on bass clarinet, acting as a foil to Kretzmer and complementing the low-string trio of viola, cello, and bass (Frantz Loriot, Christopher Hoffman, and Pascal Niggenkemper). Flin Van Hemmen rounds out the band on drums.
New Dilemma’s self-titled debut highlighted the compositions and the chamber-music potential of the strings. This second album emphasizes the edge of hard-digging improvisation, with raspy horns and gutty strings. Here’s a span of “Sunday Oct. 12” that features some hard-blazing soloing against composed lines.
“Nov 27th – Dec 1st” is an impressive track that starts with a chamber feel — unison melody as a backdrop to some sublime Kretzmer soloing, fast but restrained, working in a currency of burly knots and tangles. “Friday May 13th” likewise veers into the orbit of traditional chamber music, with its fluttering baroque cello line and floating melodies (and Van Hemmen clattering away with some abandon).
“Tishma” is the only title that isn’t a calendar date, and it’s a departure in another way as well, opening with a creeping overhang built of long tones, with cymbal tapping and Pascal Niggenkemper’s plucked bass breaking the surface tension. The rest is a patient piece built of small sounds.
You can sample parts of Months, Weeks and Dayson Bandcamp.
This one got a lot of superlatives after it was released, and it’s easy to see why. Each piece on Blueprinting was written for the Aizuri Quartet and developed collaboratively between musicians and composer, so the album is well crafted to put forth an Aizuri personality of verve, electricity, and casual attitude. They exhibit the elegance and precision you’d want from a group calling itself a String Quartet, but they feel like a rock band.
The highlight is “Carrot Revolution” by Gabriella Smith, which opens with the sounds of a manic clockwork: chugging, grinding scrapes and stabbing glissandos, like darts of lightning, all manufactured organically with strings and bow. The piece gets melodically sublime but builds tension with rubbery tone waves and a lively pulse, and one sublime moment where chaotic mad scraping halts in unison and shifts into a downright pretty passage. It’s not just the composition; it’s the screaming energy that the players put into it. They even stick the landing (watch cellist Karen Ouzounian in the final seconds):
“LIFT,” by Paul Wiancko, is built around robust furrows of melody, with touches like bow bouncing and offbeat glissandos showing up in the slow second movement. The three-movement piece splits Part III into three further segments: a “Glacial” set of heavy chords, a “Maniacal” phase inspired by a springy square dance, and the brightly dramatic “Lift.”
The title track has the feel of “normal” classical music, being based on the harmonic skeleton of Beethoven’s sixth string quartet (Op. 18, No. 6), but is sprinkled with pranksterisms. Violist Ayane Kozasa gets to play melodica on “RIPEFG,” a piece stuffed with jittery virtuosity. And composer Lembit Beecher adds sound sculptures to “Sophia’s Wide Awake Dreams,” a dreamy piece taken from a chamber opera about a 9-year-old girl, her music box, and her imagination.
Grex appears at Bottom of the Hill (1233 17th St., San Francisco) on Jan. 23, 2019.
The art-rock band Grex charms you with upbeat indie-pop melody and then blasts you with psych-driven guitar grit, often in the same song. That mix anchors the band’s personality, honed over years by founders Rei Scampavia and Karl Evangelista, and their steady drummer Robert Lopez. Each album or live show is a workout for multiple brain centers: rock, prog, free jazz, even goofy whimsy.
Scampavia’s airy vocals can make for charming melodic leads. “Martha” is one of the highlights, a sad little tribute to the last of the passenger pigeons. “Mal and Luma” has the slightly silly sound of a kids’ TV theme. Both songs then get a dose of more searing guitar — mournful on the former ebullient on the latter (with some Beatlesesque applause randomly added to contribute to the silliness). “Transpiration” uses guitar blasts in a satisfying power-pop mode before slipping into a tougher psych-rock attack.
That rougher side, with Evangelista’s growly vocals, makes for some satisfying excursions too, with crunchy guitar leading the way on “Husk” and the soulful, pumping riff of “Saints.” Guest horns sometimes add choppy free jazz to the mix, but they also arrive in melodic form, strengthening the rolling pop sounds of “Round Trip” and “Quicksilver.”
Even as any given song flips through disparate ideas, it doesn’t lose its core feeling. Grex knows where it wants to go. There needs to be a place for this kind of pop/rock: music that can smartly flip through many influences to build something exciting.
I didn’t give Joe Harriott enough credit when I first encountered his brand of free jazz. That’s partly because Harriott’s “free” albums also include lots of straight bebop, sometimes with complex themes, sometimes not. But I also got snobby. Harriott’s concept of freedom doesn’t come with the splatter factor of Cecil Taylor or Ornette Coleman.
Harriott deserves better. Playing in the early ’60s, he had visions of abandoning the reliance on chord changes, using composed themes not as a backbone but as a springboard into unguided improvisation. Such ideas are the norm in my listening world, but for musicians accustomed to bebop, it required a deeper type of listening, and of course, an open mind, which is why two of his band members left when Harriott proposed the idea.
My introduction to Harriott was Ken Vandermark’s Straight Lines (Atavistic, 1999), an album of Harriott covers, but it wasn’t until this year that I took the time to delve into that chapter of history. I did some side-by-side comparisons between Harriott’s originals and Vandermark’s versions — an empty gesture, considering the bands came from different background, but still fun. Vandermark, playing with most of the Vandermark 5, holds back the skronk to re-create Harriott’s milieu.
Harriott’s free-jazz didn’t dominate his early albums, so a track like “Straight Lines” comes across a little staid. But it’s a nifty, jumping composition. Harriott and trumpeter Shake Keane are terrific at playing that stuff, and they add lots of frills — little blasts across one another’s solos and the drum solo — that make for an exciting number.
Harriott’s free ideas are more fully realized on “Shadows,” which uses a short composed line but is otherwise freely improvised. It’s an exercise in restraint, played at a brisk pace but with a consistent feeling of stretched time. I especially like the contributions from Keane (who, according to bassist Coleridge Goode in the video trailer above, was vital in bringing Harriott’s vision to life) and drummer Bobby Orr, both of whom seem to really “get” the vibe, contributing small segments to help build the overall sound.
Vandermark’s version is more creeping, with quiet bass featuring heavily. Jeb Bishop’s trombone and Vandermark’s clarinet paint sparse hints of swing, emulating Harriott’s methods.
Compared with Harriott’s band, Vandermark’s players are a lot more practiced at group improvising — they’ve grown up doing it. But Harriott’s band produced some solid results. Sometimes they were still grasping for the right wavelengths, but passages like the six minutes of “Shadows” channel the future of this music.
Jimmy Giuffre did it better, I have to admit. He was brilliantly executing ideas of freedom and abstraction, with results that went largely unheralded at the time. (I’ve been listening to his live stuff circa 1961 — astounding to think that it’s from 1961.) Not many years later, the liner notes for Bobby Hutcherson’s Dialogue would extoll the composer’s “no solo” idea for the improvised title track. It’s a good track, but I’m glad to know that Joe Harriott planted a flag there a few years earlier.
One last word, about instrumentation. Vandermark’s band doesn’t include a pianist. Harriott’s quintet did, and in some ways, the piano was the weak link, still tied to chords. It feels like Pat Smythe and the band were still fleshing out the piano’s role — how could the instrument fit into this world of freedom without causing chaos? Can the pianist find a new way to “comp?”
I don’t think Smythe fully worked out the formula, but he was trying. I’ll point to his work on “Idioms.” The song gave him a chord progression to follow, and while that creates a sense of rigidity, it also seems to inspire some abstract ideas in his brief solo. Here’s the relevant excerpt; the full track is here.
Vinny Golia — Music for Woodwinds, Strings, Piano, and Percussion (pfMentum, 2017)
“Don’t make a mess in my brand new Edgar suit!” is one of the more normal titles in this collection of modern chamber music. One of the less normal titles is “Mr. Pisaro, are all your papers in order? (and his lovely wife too…).”
The psychologically scattered phrases seem like warnings not to take this music too seriously — but it feels like serious music, albeit with a prankster’s touch. Strings set the mood, while composer/bandleader Vinny Golia’s woodwinds furnish the attitude in the form of soloing — sometimes in frenzied free-jazz mode, sometimes with placid flute that could pass for “straight” modern chamber music. Some tracks add piano for elegant depth (“Fish is Fish but that’s another matter”) or artfully jazzy splashes (“Something about a Carnival?”), and Golia occasionally does double duty by adding percussion or sound effects.
My guess is that Golia wrote many, if not all, of these tracks as exercises in improvising over a complicated, through-composed background (although I think the strings get some improv moments as well). On “Edgar suit,” that background is a tense pulsing, egged on by some dissonant piano chords. Here’s a passage where the pulse starts freeing up, and Golia flourishes nicely when the strings glide into a set of unison chords.
In another direction, “‘they look like monkeys, yes!’ (the zeegoes…)” feels steeped in chamber music, with its dense strings and a flute lead that’s mostly choppy and abrasive in this clip, although elsewhere it gets mellifluous and oh-so-chamber-sounding.