Rabbit Rabbit, Back Visiting in Berkeley

Screen Shot 2014-07-04 at 12.00.59 AMNow in their third year of monthly song releases, the Rabbit Rabbit duo of Carla Kihlstedt and Matthias Bossi are building up quite a catalog. Their second album of songs, Swallow Me Whole, is due out on July 8, and they’ll be coming to the Bay Area with a show at the Freight & Salvage on Thursday, July 10, augmented by Myles Boisen on guitar and George Ban-Weiss on bass.

The songs on come from the Rabbit Rabbit Radio web site, a kind of online multimedia magazine that showcases a new song each month, with an accompanying video, photographs from the couple’s life adventures (including their ever-growing children), and some user-generated input.

And the songs are something else, drawing from pop and Americana but also laced with the edgy experimentalism that’s defined much of Kihlstedt and Bossi’s careers. The styles range from delicate piano ballads to raw-nerve rock. They’ve been getting some deserved notice, too; “After the Storm,” from Year 1 of Rabbit Rabbit Radio, won in the “eclectic” category at this year’s Independent Music Awards.

You can sample the Rabbit Rabbit catalogue on YouTube. They haven’t yet posted this month’s knockout punch (“Nameless,” featuring Shahzad Izmaily on guitar) but here’s a video for “Falling Awake,” with guitarist Joel Hamilton, issued a few months ago.

Rabbit Rabbit is trying out a couple of new ideas. For this year’s songs, they’ve been working with a guitarist each month, and Kihlstedt has set aside her trademark violin, which helped make her name in groups like Tin Hat and Sleepytime Gorilla Museum.

Here’s something even more different: In lieu of being a CD, Rabbit Rabbit, Volume 2 — Swallow Me Whole is being sold as a limited-edition poster featuring all the lyrics and credits, and a download code for the songs themselves.

It’s an interesting idea. I’ve been thinking that people buy CDs at shows more as souvenirs than anything else. Even in a digital age, it’s nice to walk away carrying something — so, why not a poster instead of a CD?

Rupa, of local world-music faves Rupa & The April Fishes, will be opening the Freight & Salvage show. The full Rabbit Rabbit itinerary looks like this:

Carla Kihlstedt on ABC

This is a few weeks old, but what the heck.

Out of the blue, Carla Kihlstedt — violinist, composer, member of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, member of Cosa Brava (whose new album is on my to-do list), builder of necessary monsters — got a connection to ABC television.

She announced it to Twitter back on July 12:  “My song ‘Hold My Own,’ is appearing tonight on an episode of @FinalWitnessABC…”

I’d never heard of the show. (It sounds full of sad endings, like what would happen if you used only the flashback scenes in a Cold Case episode.) But, wow. A musician of substance whom I admire gets played on ABC. That’s worth a grin and a toast.

Final Witness’ producers are serious about their music. They’ve got a music blog that explains the special songs they’ve picked for each episode — here’s the Carla Kihlstedt entry. They even talked to her about the song and the fact that she plays it on a violin with four “E” strings.

I haven’t heard of the other artists they’ve selected. My guess is that they’re all interesting enough to the point where Final Witness is doomed to be cancelled, because nothing that interesting stays on network TV for very long.

“Hold My Own,” by the way, is on the album Borrowed Arms by Kihlstedt’s band 2 Foot Yard. It’s a lovely yet powerful song, with a floating melody backed by vivid, fluttering violin and emotional cello notes. Very atmospheric. I’m really happy that they found and used this song.

The Big Catchup: Recent Shows

Unintended consequences: When I saw a spate of shows in late July/early August, it ate up the time I would normally use to blog about them. Only now am I catching up, by typing things here and adding pictures to my Flickr account. (Because it occurred to me about two weeks ago: “Oh yeah… whatever happened to my Flickr account?”)

So, here’s my really busy week-or-so, or, How I Spent My Summer.

Necessary Monsters
@ Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
July 30, 2011

As noted here and very briefly here, I did manage to see the staging of this very special project from Carla Kihlstedt. Neither a play nor a concert, it’s a theatrical musical experience that will hopefully have a continued life on the stage.

The stage was set to resemble a dissheveled office or attic, with storage boxes and papers everywhere, as if we were sorting through the discarded paperwork of the mind. There’s no storyline; the central character and narrator, played by Denmo Ibrahim, introduced each of nine songs based on monsters from fables and folklore. Her lines were in the form of extended definition, like encyclopedia entries, with dramatic and sometimes funny text that was poetically rendered.

Kihlstedt shaved her head for these performances, an edgy look that worked well with the richly rough-edged look of the costumes that transformed each band member into one of the monsters.  Kihlstedt played violin and sang most of the lead vocals, often harmonized by Theresa Wong, who hit some high high notes and did an overall amazing job. Wong was also playing cello and got an early showcase as the Squonk (no relation to the Genesis song, other than using the same legend as a source).

Most of the songs were in Kihlstedt’s style of mixing emotional Eastern European folk with classical and jazz elements. Her husband, Matthias Bossi, got to perform something closer to a showtune as the One-Eyed Being, a highlight that hit in about the middle of the show. The Being got played up as quite the narcissist, as Bossi ate up the stage, crooning in an old-timey jazz growl, with jazz hands and high kicks, even. It was a crowd favorite.

Or so I assume, because the audience didn’t clap between songs, and we should have. It’s one of those things: Do you clap after each piece, like you would in normal theatre, or wait for the completion of all movements, as in the symphony? People didn’t clap after the first number, “Squonk,” so that sort of set the tone. I think it would have been a more engaging performance for us and for the performers if we had applauded. In any event, the show got a standing ovation at the end, so people were obviously into it.

What’s next for the project? A recorded version will eventually come out, and Kihlstedt’s Kickstarter page mentions the possibility of a touring life for the show. That would be exciting. It would also be great if Kihlstedt has time to start fleshing out the other half of the Imaginary Beings Project, where the fans help craft new mythologies.

Photography wasn’t allowed at the show, but Pak Han took some crisp shots that are viewable here.

Time Is Now, Not Money
@ Bird & Beckett Books
July 31, 2011

Already blogged here.

Libertas and z_bug
@ Luggage Store Gallery
Aug. 4, 2011

Libertas is an improvised-jazz trio, fierce and loud. Sometimes a bit too loud; Wade Driver’s drums tended to overpower the music, but that’s partly a function of the Luggage Store’s bright sound. I did like the forcefulness, though. Tom Griesser is a saxophone whose resume includes a lot of nice inside-jazz projects; Libertas seems to be his outlet for doing something edgier and cathartic. He was terrific, bouncing with energy both in his playing and in his stage presence. The third member was Liz Byrne — of the Kirby Grips, I think, which is so cool — playing electronics and samplers from gizmos laid out on an ironing board. It’s good punk jazz with some technical chops. Here, go listen for yourself.

z_bug, formerly a quartet, was pared down here to a duo, with Sheila Bosco on drums and David Leikam playing synths and/or electric bass, with high volume and heavy distortion. They turned the lights down for these slabs of industrial jazz. I remember thinking of the pieces as spacey psychedelic jams, roaring and blistering and even hypnotic. A great couple of sets from both bands.

Lisa Mezzacappa & Nightshade
@ Old First Church
Aug. 5, 2011

Already blogged here.

Bait & Switch Octet
@ Berkeley Arts
Aug. 10, 2011

I couldn’t resist the chance to see Mezzacappa’s band expanded to an octet, with the addition of vibraphone, electronics, and two more horns. It was a grand overlapping of Bait & Switch, Mezzacappa’s Nightshade, and the jazz quartet Cylinder. From the latter camp, I remember trumpter Darren Johnston getting a lot of soloing time.

The show started with just the quartet, playing some old favorites off the What Is Known album and some new tracks hopefully destined for another album. Then came the octet, which offered the chance to try some more expansive charts, including one really experimental-looking one, and some longer, suite-like pieces. (That’s how my ear remembers it, anyway; I could be mistaken.) The band’s aesthetic — free jazz based on some catchy composing and a garage-band attitude — still came across.

This performance was part of the Berkeley Arts Festival, which is presenting a few dozen music acts at an art gallery near U.C. Berkeley during the summer and fall. They’re really pouring it on from Sept. 15 to Oct. 31, with a lot of edgy jazz — it’s worth checking out.

I would imagine this was a one-time performance, but they did record it, so … you never know.

Necessary Carla Kihlstedt

Carla Kihlstedt continues to rack up the uncategorizable projects. Witness:

Her Necessary Monsters will debut July 29 and 30 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.  It’s a song cycle based on a catalog of humanity’s imagined creatures, by Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, and the stage show includes lots of dress-up costumes and apparently some dramatic elements. It looks pretty darned cool.

You can actually participate in the second half of this project, The Bestiary! Details here.

UPDATE: Turns out you can participate in Necessary Monsters, too. There’s a Kickstarter page to fund musician expenses, the printing of a libretto, and the documentation of the project in pictures and video.

Still You Lay Dreaming: Tales from the Stage II is a set of music written for dance productions. A collaboration betweek Kihlstedt and husband Matthias Bossi, the album is a followup to Ravish. It’s a digital-only release, ushering in The Age of the Absence of Objects, as Kihlstedt called it in a recent newsletter. Listen and buy at Bandcamp.

Tin Hat continues to branch out. Originally Tin Hat Trio, with enough gypsy-sounding influence to be signed by Angel Records, the band has added trumpeter Ara Anderson and harpist Zeena Parkins (both have moved on) and clarinetist Ben Goldberg (still in there) … and now they’re singing lyrics based on the poems of e.e. cummings. This East Bay Express article explains. The songs are dreamy and drifting, but not necessarily slow; Kihlstedt has posted two of the songs on YouTube — here and here, or link from the Tin Hat news page. An album is in progress.

Kafka, Kihlstedt, Concerto

One year after marveling at Lisa Bielawa‘s “Kafka Songs” at the Other Minds festival — almost in time for the next Other Minds festival, actually — I’m finally realizing that “Kafka Songs” has been available on CD for years. Call me slow.

Bielawa more recently worked with Kihlstedt and violinist Colin Jacobsen on a double violin concerto, performed with Colin Jacobsen. On this piece, as on “Kafka Songs,” Kihlstedt’s voice and violin are put to use simultaneously, creating a role that’s rare in classical music and probably challenging to pull off.

First, to the part many of you knew all along: “Kafka Songs” came out on A Handful of World, (Tzadik, 2007),  paired with two of Bielawa’s vocal works.

At Other Minds in 2010, Kihlstedt introduced each of “Kafka’s” seven movements by reciting the text to come — an important step for those of us who’ve always had trouble interpreting the words in classical singing. That’s not on A Handful of World; you’re flying blind. On the plus side, this keeps the mood of the piece intact — there was a bit of fourth-wall breaking in Kihlstedt’s introductions — but I liked that touch with the live version. It made us consider the texts as well as dwell on the music.

As I recall from last year, there’s a definitive character to each of the segments — the flutter of a bouncing bow, on “Lost,” or the massive intervallic leap that recurs on “A Handful of World,” set up each time by three quick notes, a poise-and-jump reflex. Each is like a little study in a different violin technique, accompanied by slow, airy singing drawn from the gray skies of Kafka’s world.

The suite has some of the emotional weight you’d associate with Kafka, and yet it’s not too heavy. The gentle, fading riff that ends the piece even has some lightness to it.

(Side note: The Kihlstedt photo above, shot by Harold Carr, is from the very performance I saw, at Other Minds 15 in March 2010.)

“Double Violin Concerto,” included on In Medias Res (BMOP/sound, 2010), is more about the orchestra — that is, it’s about the soloists, but I found myself getting snared into the sound of the full orchestra, sometimes at the expense of listening to the actual lead violins. It’s a patient, moody piece, and the soloists’ fireworks are subtle. On “Portico,” the calmly sad opening movement, the soloing is almost camouflaged by the gossamer background strings.

Kihlstedt’s vocal soliloquy comes in the second movement of three, “Song,” wandering slowly against a repeated arpeggio (you can’t help but recall that Bielawa once sang in the Phillip Glass Ensemble). It’s another movement with a slow mood, but more tense than “Portico,” more suspenseful. The mood bursts open when Kihlstedt’s song — taken from Goethe’s Faust — winds up dramatically, calling up the entry of some circusy brass to quickly end the movement.

There’s some lovely very-high-register dialogue in the third movement, “Play Within a Play.” For a couple of passages, the two violins toss phrases back and forth, as if completing each other’s sentences. Late in the movement, they ally in a series of unison and near-unison phrases, finally teaming up with the orchestral strings sometimes answering with the same theme. This movement, taking up about half the total concerto time, was where I could really savor the sounds of the two soloists.

The Double Violin Concerto gets a brief mention in this NY Times review, from which the photo below was cribbed.

Wu Fei

Daniel Fuller has written an illuminating piece on Wu Fei for ALARM Press. She openly discusses the self-doubts that hovered around her during her education, including an uncertain first semester at Mills College.

I discovered Wu Fei’s debut CD, A Distant Youth (Forrest Hill, 2007), during a rare visit to Downtown Music Gallery. They had a whole box of them opened up, making it look like a CD they were taking seriously, and because I always try to make a discovery when I visit a store, I took a peek. Fred Frith and Carla Kihlstedt were listed on the back. I’d heard Miya Masaoka’s avant-garde koto work, and the guzheng seemed like it could offer a new take on similar territory. I took the plunge.

What’s surprising is the depth of traditional influence on the album, with lots of harplike sweeps and very Asian motifs. But it’s got the innovative side you’d expect, as well.

“Diao Chan” is very much Frith territory, dark and noisy, with industrial guitar ringing like giant springs dropped, and Kihlstedt spinning darkly lyrical melodies. The closing track, “Break Away,” has a happy-go-lucky air, with lots of bubbly guitar that starts out folky and gets into some catchy if avant-garde twanging.

I have not heard her album Yuan, on Tzadik, which includes other traditional Chinese instruments but also a solo piece for piano. If you’ve got any thoughts on what that one sounds like, feel free to leave a comment below.

Hat tip: Avant Music News.

Cosa Brava

Cosa BravaRagged Atlas (Intakt, 2010)

Is this the right time to admit I’m not that versed in Henry Cow and Art Bears? No?

I do know the music of violinist/singer Carla Kihlstedt, who is Fred Frith‘s main foil on this deep, serene art-pop album. The rest of the cast is terrific, too — Zeena Parkins on harp/accordion/keys is probably more widely known than Kihlstedt and absolutely no slouch, and neither are Matthias Bossi (Mr. Kihlstedt) on drums and percussion and the man named The Norman Conquest adding some sound manipulation.

But it’s Frith’s guitars and bass, his chirpy British vocals, and Kihlstedt’s violin — ranging from lyrical to threatening — that stand out on most of these songs. And there’s a similarity between the artsy pop of this album and the songs Kihlstedt has produced with the band 2 Foot Yard: musical atmospheres that can be pleasant but give you the feeling that something in the world is not quite right.

The tempos don’t lag and the guitar lines are bright — and yet, this isn’t easy pop. “Blimey, Einstein” is a good starting point: a heavy song, but with a strong beat and exotic Middle Eastern flourishes add up to a catchy sum.  That’s the dichotomy here: Many songs don’t feel happy — there aren’t many concessions to sweetness — but there’s a joy in the playing of them.

That’s true even in the darker pieces like “Pour Albert.” That one is slow and ominous, with verses sung in a meterless narrative,  and a chorus of dark voices singing, “I’d like to see you again.” There’s poignancy, aggression, and dread all at once.

I don’t mean to make the whole album sound morose.  It opens with two bright instrumentals. The tricky “Snake Eating Its Tail” is a kind of grand entrance that has multiple instruments playing a theme in unison, possibly blurred together by The Norman Conquest.  “Round Dance” is a folky, sunny instrumental replete with Irish/Celtic joy and time-signature tweaks.

“For Tom Ze” is a comic pop kaleidoscope: an easy and airy song that shifts into the “wacky modern compositional techniques” that Frith says he likes in Ze’s songs. (But only after a surprise bossa nova break!) Something about Frith calling wacky music “wacky” is really charming.

Frith has focused on improv in recent years, but the composing here includes plenty of prog rock trickery, too. That’s part of what makes it fun.

You can count the shrinking time signatures in the refrain of “Falling Up,” going 7/8, then 6/8, then 5/8, then 4/8, as the walls close in. This may be the poppiest song on the record, by the way. The instrumental theme is downright pleasant and radio-friendly, and the lyrics play over cute Philip Glass-like violin patterns.

There’s more prog fun to be had with “Out on the Town with Rusty, 1967,” a stern rocker with thick, brash guitar and reed-thin accordion stepping through irregular patterns. The sound combination alone screams “not normal pop/rock,” and the melody, especially where the violin joins in, is full of spiky protrusions, heady stuff.

Several of the songs are dedicated to influential people from Frith’s experiences, with short explanations provided in the CD card. One standout among these is “R.D. Burman,” Frith’s tribute to the famed Indian film composer.  It’s one of the most upbeat songs here, full of swirling Bollywood drama and intensity, and featuring a kicking tabla solo from Anantha Krishnan.

Then there’s the story behind “Rusty, 1967,” told in short, basic sentences but crafting a touching little story.

The Norman Conquest, who’s apparently touring with the band, deserves a quick mention. His sound manipulations are quietly slipped into the stream, bubbling up enough to add some edge, not usually so thick as to distract. His presence adds sparkle to certain moments — like the watery effect over Kihlstedt’s violin solo on “Round Dance” — and yet can be easily missed. I like that.  The only track where he’s too heavy-handed is “Falling Up,” where there’s a falling-up/falling-down effect that’s too obvious.

Ragged Atlas is a long-awaited CD, as the band’s music has been out, in performances and YouTube videos, for a couple of years now. Some, taken from live shows in Europe, are quite professionally filmed. The first video below is from a series of 4 that’s nicely produced; the second is from Mills College, part of a concert in honor of Professor Frith’s 60th birthday.

Carla Kihlstedt’s Pandaemonium

I’m still sorry to have missed “Pandæmonium,” the graphical-score composition performed by ROVA for the Other Minds festival a few weeks ago.

Carla Kihlstedt wrote the piece based on the book by Humphrey Jennings, which collects writings on “the coming of the machine.” The writings span the years 1660 to 1886, but I have a feeling their thoughts, criticisms, and fears are a lot like what we consider today. (I also have a sinking feeling that many of the fears proved true, and we’ve just adapted to a worsened world. That’s how I feel about television, for instance.)

ROVA has posted a three-part interview with Kihlstedt and her helper about the thought processes behind “Pandaemonium.”

I’d still like to hear “Pandaemonium” sometime, even on CD. But something in Part III of the interview rings true: The uniqueness of things is vanishing. A live performance, even of a piece that’ s been performed to death, remains unique.  Does a mass-distributed recording of that performance dilute the uniqueness?  What would the writers in Pandaemonium (the book) think of my experiencing the music — which includes “sheet music” in the form of one-of-a-kind cloth-stitched designs — through the lens of a recording?


Minamo [Satoki Fujii/Carla Kihlstedt] — Kuroi Kawa [Black River] (Tzadik, 2009)

Minamo, as Fujii and Kihlstedt now call their piano/violin duet, is producing strong music that’s just this side of classical. These pieces combine the stern precision of serious chamber music, opened up with the rhythms of jazz soloing and the daring openness of improvised music. They have an overtly classical sound but tickle my ear the way good jazz improvising does.

The two have performed together since at least 2002 and released an earlier CD, titled Minamo, on Henceforth Records out of San Diego (a label with some really intriguing titles in its young catalogue).

I thought I would favor the longer pieces, but the short snippets on the 18-track Disc One, the one recorded in-studio, caught my ear more. Combined, they sometimes play like multiple movements of a single, thought-out piece, each movement conveying its mood and then stepping aside. Most of these tracks don’t cross the 3-minute mark and stick to one mood or sound, yet they pack the detail of novellas.

“Kagami” (“Mirror”) is a spooky hallway, marked by alien high squeaks of violin and the metallic crash of hands on bare piano strings.  “Suiheisen” (“Between Sky and Water”) is a slow interlude, leading into the playful chamber sparseness of “Koneko” (“Kitty”).

“Kibo” (“Hope”) uses accordion and trumpet violin played in sad, small figures. “Chihisen” (“Between Sky and Land”) plays like a sonata but throws some jazzy chords from the piano, little curveballs in an otherwise slow, emotional sonority.

The five longer pieces (and one exciting 3-minute encore) are on Disc Two, recorded live at the 2008 Vancouver Jazz Festival.  Despite what I said about liking the short pieces, I do enjoy hearing how Fujii and Kihlstedt take advantage of a wider margin of time, whether it’s a slowed-down contemplative seriousness that builds (“Aoi Saka”/”Blue Slope”) or a quiet rustle giving way to an upbeat allegro dance (on the title track, which includes some of the best moments on the album).

The passages of extended techniques that show up on both discs are admirable, but some of the strongest effects come from more traditional playing, whether in calm contemplation or flashy slashing and pounding. You can sense this strongly on the live track, “Midori No Shinkiro” (“Green Mirage”): It has a wispy segment consisting of swirly sounds whispered off of metallic strings, but it’s afterwards, when it settles into a more classical-sounding mood, that it reaches a deeper level of improvisation.