Passages: Rules of the Road

Didier Petit & Alexandre PierrepontPassages: A Road Record (Rogue Art, 2012)

petit-passagesHere’s an interesting exercise in turning process into a nearly tangible contributor to the art. Cellist Didier Petit teamed up with prominent North American musicians (Marilyn Crispell, Joe Morris, Hamid Drake, Larry Ochs….) in duos and trios, improvising to the sounds of a poem that we don’t get to hear (with the exception of one short passage).

So, Alexandre Pierrepont’s poem, Le Jardin des Cranes, is reduced to context, like the walls or the weather. It’s the backbone of the entire album, but it’s invisible.

Everything about Passages is a discovery, starting with the packaging: It looks like a typical Rogue Art softpack until you tear the plastic off and realize you’re holding a 48-page booklet. The CD itself blends segues many of the music tracks together, often with an interstitial sound from Petit and Pierrepont’s travels (airplanes, street crowds, etc.) — creating a subtly shifting tableaux, like a long drive where you suddenly realize the scenery has changed. The music, excerpted from thirteen studio sessions, is a  mix of lyrical moods and aggressive sparring.

DSCN0852Here’s how it worked. For each session, a selection of the poem was chosen and translated to English. The guest musician(s) and Petit got acquainted, warmed up a little, then improvised — with the poem segment read into their ears multiple times, including one reading by a special guest (William Parker was one) who would read the French passage phonetically. The CD takes a few minutes from each session, with any part of the musical exercise being fair game.

I love the intangible sense that the process is a major component of the art. What’s being presented is not just the music, but it’s surroundings, too.

It’s the same feeling I get from the “Drawing Restraint” series of works by artist Matthew Barney. Not the movie with Björk in it, but the actual drawings that were the earliest stages of the project. He’d set up some ridiculous physical constraint, such as swinging from the ceiling of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and draw. The MOMA example produced pencil drawings on a piece of paper attached to a wall; Barney had to swing over, draw, then swing back. The drawings themselves are a wreck, as you might imagine, and quite uninformative. It’s the whole process that gives the project the sheen of art.

(This reminds me that I’ve never written up Jean Derome’s album, Le Magasin Du Tissu, a fun application of random processes.)

The music is not a wreck. It’s very good. There’s even a trajectory: It starts in stern tones with Andrea Parkins and Gerald Cleaver, followed by Chicago sessions that are quite sublime, such as the gentle, jazzy groove of Nicole Mitchell’s flute backed by Petit’s cello and singing. His piece with drummers Hamid Drake and Michael Zerang is like an ominous little tribal dance, full of tension and rhythm, topped off by some gruff vocal howling by Petit.

François Houle, on clarinet, gets to represent Canada during the L.A. sessions. He’s got an extended dialogue with Petit that floats from lyrical tones to a choppy call-and-response. Bay Area hero Larry Ochs closes out the album with a session that includes the one time we get to hear the poem.

The booklet is more than liner notes; it’s a template and a road journal. It includes a poetic textual “map” of the 13 studio sessions, the entirety of Pierrepont’s poem, and an explanation of the whole project, written by Yves Citton. And photos, of course, taken during Petit and Pierrepont’s sojourn from Woodstock to New York City to Chicago to Los Angeles.

Passages is a wonderful pack of surprises and a good argument as to why the CD can still have a place in the digital world.

What the Heck Is Prepared Electric Piano?

Eric Glick Rieman plays his prepared electric piano on Friday, Feb. 26, at Meridian Gallery, San Francisco. He’ll play solo and with electronics artist Kristin Miltner.

What the heck is “prepared electric piano?” Eric Glick Rieman actually responded to that question when I’d posed it on this blog a while back, with an answer that told me that 1) the question wasn’t all that dumb, and 2) I had never thought about how electric piano worked.

Knowing that Rieman built the prepared electric piano himself made me feel better about not knowing the answer. And I finally got to see the thing in action earlier this month at the Luggage Store Gallery, where Rieman improvised some duets with cellist Theresa Wong.

Here’s what was throwing me. Prepared acoustic piano is pretty easy to understand: You take an object (wooden blocks work great) and put it onto the strings of a piano. This mutes the strings, creating a clicky percussive sound. Guitarists can do something similar with the palms of their right hands: they kill the reverb and create something percussive.

But with electric piano, there are no strings. In fact, having grown up digitally, I’m accustomed to the sound coming from solid-state elements (semiconductors), with no physical object to manipulate.

What I wasn’t considering was that electric piano is an old concept, and being such, it’s actually based on physical concepts just like the piano. Glockenspiel might even be a closer relative. An electric piano’s sound comes from metal bars, like tuning forks, that resonate when struck by the keys.

Knowing that, it’s a simple mental step to use something to block those bars just like you would a prepared electric piano.

Rieman’s instrument, then, is a normal, working electric piano — he even played me some non-prepared sounds to prove it — that’s been dissected, its guts exposed to the world. That leaves Rieman free to mess with the sound, but he doesn’t just use wooden blocks.

His is an electrified electric piano. Rieman puts pickups and contact mics on the instrument’s surface, so that pretty much anything he touches gets sent out as a sound.  In the picture to the right, you can see the electric piano with its top removed, exposing the tines. To the left are the mixing board and effects boxes Rieman uses to adjust the sound.

One limitation is that the bare sound of Rieman slapping and thumping the instrument can actually overwhelm the amplified sounds that you’re supposed to be hearing. It was advantageous, then, that Rieman insisted on letting the crowd wander the Luggage Store during his set with Wong. They’d played one short improvisation, and Rieman told us the the audience/performer hierarchy wasn’t exactly giving him the warm fuzzies. So, we wandered, most of us starting on Rieman’s side to get an up-close view of the prepared electric piano. Later, I found myself moving away, trying to hear more of the amplified sound for a “purer” view of the music.

Rieman played kinetically, with lots of finger tapping and palm thumping to trigger the contact mics. Wong often contrasted this with long or skittery tones from both the cello and her voice, adding a shade of mystery.

What you’re not seeing in my pictures is the stand that held up the instrument. It looked like a short four-legged stand that was placed on top of four other legs, held together by little more than a prayer to the balance gods. I figured it was sturdy and that that’s just how it always looked, but after the show, Rieman glanced at it and made a comment along the lines of, “Whoa, that’s not good!”

Ann O’Rourke has posted a good video of the Luggage Store performance — starting from the beginning, then cutting to the time we were invited to wander the stage. You’ll hear some high-pitched singing in there, which is Wong rhapsodizing along with her cello.

For more about Rieman, check out this interview by Dan Godston of Experimental Arts Examiner.

Amy X. Neuburg After-Hours

Any show by Amy X. Neuburg and the Cello ChiXtet is a treat, but seeing them play Davies Symphony Hall was irresistible.

They weren’t in the symphony pit, but upstairs, in the second-tier lounge as part of the Davies After Hours series.  There’s a resemblance to an after-hours jazz club: People milling around, buying drinks, and talking over the music.

The motivation for the series, apparently, is the fact that a few hundred people stick around after the symphony for a drink. The crowd was thick, and once the band started playing, the sound drew everyone to that end of the lounge for a look. Click the picture at right, and you can baaarely see Neuburg’s head next to the speaker.

It’s well known that the classical-music crowd is aging, so of the few hundred who started the night, only several dozen were still around after the half-hour mark.  By the end of the band’s 70-minute set, maybe 10 or 20 diehards were still there, including those of us who’d come to the symphony to see Neuburg.

The ChiXtet was created for Neuburg’s song cycle, The Secret Language of Subways.  The songs captivated me back in 2006, as I’d written here and was thrilled when a CD of the songs (including a Peter Gabriel-era Genesis cover they’d been using as an encore) came out last year.

The songs follow the avant-pop formula of Neuburg’s past work, maybe with a dash more intensity given that some of the songs come from staying in New York circa 2001.  The serious songs, like the amazing “One Lie” that opens the cycle, are deeply powerful.  Happier ones, like “Hey” (which opened last night’s set) and “The Gooseneck” are poppy fun. And “Someone Else’s Sleep” has rapidly become one of my favorite songs, possibly of all time. After four years, it still bowls me over.

The CD is great, but you have to see the ChiXtet performing live.  They’re truly enjoying the music, and the visual cues among them help you appreciate the precision in these songs and the work that’s gone into them.  Davies was a high-profile gig for them, and I’m glad for that, but it wasn’t ideal due to the noise.  A lot of the songs’ depth comes from the live looping Neuburg does, of her voice and the cellos, and that was sometimes difficult to hear. And the wordplay in the lyrics — like the similar vowel patterns on different verses in “Shrapnel,” was lost in the din.

It was still a fun set, though, and we even got to hear two newly commissioned songs. Both were based on that night’s symphony program.  One called “Soundproof” took from the main theme of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto No. 1, making for a more somber sound than the group usually has.  Another patterned itself after Berg’s “Lulu Suite,” using a lot of 12-tone rows and some samples from a recorded performance of the suite. And because the “Lulu” opera that Berg was writing has a palindromic structure to the plot, Neuburg wrote this song as a palindrome, including the lyrics. The overall sound was interesting and complicated.

The symphony, by the way, was good.  Guest violinist James Ehnes nailed the violin concerto, not just the fast part sbut the pillowy, soft trilled notes that seemed to come up a lot. His first-movement cadenza was a showcase, as Ehnes played both the main theme and a bass line, creating the illusion of two or even three violinists playing at once. Lots of fireworks, and the music was easy on the ears — the audience loved it.

Here’s Neuburg and the ChiXtet performing “The Gooseneck,” a video taken from the 2006 premiere of the complete song cycle.

Spiller Alley

Larry Ochs, Miya Masaoka, Peggy Lee — Spiller Alley (Rogue Art, 2008)

source:, note the missing 'e'Stef got it right on his Free Jazz blog eight months ago: This is not-so-small music built on small sounds. I’ll echo him in calling it “light:” Even when Peggy Lee is bowing hard on cello, or Miya Masaoka is digging away at the koto, there’s an airiness to the sound. You’re in a whirlwind of feathers.

The quieter pieces display these qualities most strongly, highlighting the cello and koto with Larry Ochs working in small phrases on sopranino sax, careful not to crack the delicacy of the sound.

“micro mirror”* is a lovely quiet exploration with nighttime cello plucking and tense, soft koto trills. “neoNawi” is closer to what you might call a traditional setting. Lee’s cello carves bold, mourning lines, while the koto produces abstract plinks and, occasionally, one of those lovely bending notes.

The album opens aggressively with “nobody knows,” full of tumbling koto and, later, some high, squeaky cello. Ochs keeps a light touch, as on the quieter tracks, but allows himself more skronk with the tenor sax.

The 18-minute title track feels more like “regular” free improvisation, with that abstract and tart sound. Maybe that’s because of the long stretches of group work. Snippets of composition help ground the piece. They pop into view like tiny organized dances — there’s one about 12 minutes into the piece, another at the very end. On first listen, they seemed effectively placed, creating a nice listening journey.

“last light” is a surprisingly rugged piece. That’s what I get for peeking at the track times: You see a 4:49 song to close the album, and you assume it’s a quiet lullabye. It starts that way. But there’s some jazzy, growling tenor sax by the end, alongside scratchy cello. It’s one of the album’s loudest moments.

* I’m honoring the lower-case titles, which in this case are clearly delineated (as opposed to album covers where everything just happens to be in lower-case). It looks weird to me, and I don’t think I like it, but I’ll try it once.

Vancouver Heights

source: drip audioPeggy Lee Band — New Code (Drip Audio, 2008)

If you’re reading this at all, then you know Peggy Lee refers not to the singer, but to a cellist who’s been a standout part of the Vancouver creative-jazz scene. Her band has been around for four albums now, previously as a sextet but expanded to an octet this time.

I haven’t heard the previous three albums, so I don’t know if it’s a result of the octet expansion, but: There’s a bigness to the sound, the kind of ambitious writing that’s made “cinematic” the de facto critics’ word for Pat Metheny. But Lee’s music isn’t as slick and airy as Metheny’s, in a good way; there’s a warmer, down-to-earth quality to the pretty melodies on her album, and a fresher, more raw feel to the avant-garde colorings on the edges — particularly from the two guitars in the lineup.

The album opens in inspiring fashion, with Bob Dylan’s “All I Really Want To Do” bursting forth like a cinematic helicopter shot of the Great Plains at sunrise. Brassy horns play a brightly comforting melody with just a tinge of sadness. Subsequent solos — especially Brad Turner on trumpet — keep feeding that mood. And when Lee’s cello finally gets some space of its own, alongside an elegant guitar solo (either Ron Samworth or Tony Wilson), it’s a bold and beautiful stroke.

Then, like a practical joke, the track collapses completely into free noodling! Always leave ’em off balance.

As if to show off avant-garde improv cred, the second track, “Preparations,” goes for small cave noises: ghostly wisps of cello; squeaked and scraped bowing; tiny, curled guitar sounds. A slow melody comes forth, decorated by strongly toned, hard-sawed cello lines. Eventually, the horns pick up another strong, wistful theme, played slowly under an emotionally punched duet of cello and drums.

“Shifting Tide” unfolds slowly into a nice melody led by cello and trumpet in unison. Jon Bentley on sax glides through the music, sometimes stepping outside the changes for some interesting corner turns, making for a grand and colorful solo overall. “Tug” uses more soaring melody lines to set up a very nice trumpet solo.

It all closes with another soundtrack-y showcase, the Kurt Weill song, “Lost in the Stars.” It’s a soft denouement, a peaceful closing-credits goodnight.

OK, so I’m about eight months behind the curve on this one. I admit it. Just look at the stack of reviews linked from the Drip Audio site. But it really is one terrific album, and I’m really happy to have finally gotten an earful of it.

Hank Roberts: Green in Winter

Hank Roberts — Green (Winter & Winter, 2008 )

Allegro Music
Source: Allegro Music

The Winter & Winter catalog covers a wide swath, including traditional classical music, new music, avant-garde jazz, Uri Caine‘s crowd-pleasing hybrid projects … even the edgy complex funk of Steve Coleman and Cassandra Wilson, in their younger days on the old JMT label. But folk rock?

OK, I’m being a bit disingenuous. I’ve heard Hank Roberts‘ albums Little Motor People and Black Pastels, where a complex, jazzlike theme will suddenly give way to country-hoedown double-stops on cello or a downright catchy riff. I’m aware that his airy voice, while usable to ghostly effect on songs like “Black Pastels” or Tim Berne‘s “Betsy,” is also suitable for a gently sad fireside song.

This doesn’t imply Roberts isn’t “cool” enough to hang with the downtown NYC’ers. Check on the frenzy in the opening minute of “’30s Picnic,” the closing track on Little Motor People. Listen to the delicious pizzacatto pattering that crops up frequently on Green — as well as what sound like hammer-on notes, quickly flittering by, guitar-like but with the richer sound of cello wood.

The point is: Roerts isn’t afraid of a melody or even a catchy song. “Azul” opens the album with just Roberts: cello and wordless vocals, a softly drifting melody. It’s only later that Jim Black‘s drums intrude, gradually, and Marc Ducret‘s guitar eventually opens up a new direction with a menacing but not overbearing buzz.

Melody plays a bigger role in the suite “Bernie,” which includes the songlike “Prayer” and the track that’s named “Bernie” itself. Dedicated to Roberts’ mother, the song uses three(?) overdubbed cellos like a small choir, reflecting joy, mourning, longing, and memory.

Two outright songs — you know, lyrics and everything — grace the album, and other tracks like “In the ’60s” glide like rock instrumentals, a slow Neil Young vibe in the guitars (I think I’m hearing more than one, overdubbed) and amplified cello. “Cola People” is brisk and catchy; “Long Walk” is a slower pace, a mix of contentment, nostalgia, and warmth.

If you’re looking for something edgier, there’s the “Lenape Suite,” which shows a Native American inspiration in the menacing chanting of “The Departing Hunter’s Song” and the powerful gallop of “War Dance Song.” (The Lenape are a tribe that occupied what’s now New York and New Jersey.) It wraps up, surprisingly (unless you’ve read the back cover, I guess) with the climbing, soulful riff from “Jersey Devil,” an old tune from Roberts’ days with Miniature.