Posts tagged ‘classical’

Composers’ Night at the Outsound Summit

The composers: Stanley, Shiurba, and Goodheart.

We got to see three types of musical composition at work in “The Composer’s Muse,” the composition-oriented night of the 2012 Outsound New Music Summit.

Specifically, we got exposed to a graphical score, a computer-driven (yet acoustically-produced) backdrop for improvisation, and a highly structured piece that still had high degrees of freedom.

(For more about the Summit in general, see here, or read this excellent overview at the Fenderhardt blog.)

Christina Stanley presented two graphical scores: oil paintings meant to be interpreted by string players. Before the concert, she explained that the players are given instructions. For “Put It On,” the piece presented first, they start at the central confluence (that spot to the right and below center, where the spokes converge, I think) and work their way outward and then around the edges — but the direction and speed of motion are their choice. Different shapes represent different types of playing, small cells to be linked together. (You can see the painting on Stanley’s web site and read more about her compositions in this interview on Sequenza 21.)

That piece got performed by the Skadi Quartet, with Stanley at first violin. It was an active piece, spiky and often aggressive but also featuring some airy slow bowing. The execution was a lot more organized than I’d expected. The players started with two quick notes, directed by Stanley, and as the piece progressed, Stanley would cue them into speeding up or slowing to a whisper. They also stopped at Stanley’s direction (I’d been wondering how a piece like this would end.)

Her second piece, for a violin/cello duet, was more mellifluous, and in fact, the score looked calmer, with flowing squggles surrounding a central unit of musical shapes, the way a moat surrounds a castle. The sound was sometimes delicate, sometimes rich in melody. It was a lovely piece.

Matthew Goodheart performed a solo piece consisting of cymbals and gongs spread around the edges of the audience space, with little buzzers (computer speakers?) attached to the backs. These were activated by a computer program, creating rattling or buzzing sounds, or mimicking the small taps of a drum stick.

The piece started with whispery tones from the cymbals, eventually building to louder sounds. Goodheart’s piano included some strident playing, full of big, stiff chords to stand up to the clamor of metal in the air. As with any installation piece, the sound depended on where you sat; I couldn’t her the gong in the balcony, but I got an earful of the cymbal in the front row (the one at right).

The sound never got overwhelming, and the sensation of cymbals pinging and rattling behind me was interesting, reminiscent of the surroundsound experience at the SF Tape Music Festival.

Overall, Goodheart’s piece was slow-moving yet created a feeling of constant motion, new sounds arriving all the time. Goodheart himself was hammering and bold at the piano keys, and he also provided some quieter and creaking sounds by working directly with the piano strings.

The piece ended with Goodheart hammering one piano note very fast, over and over, building up that tone in our heads and in the air. And when he stopped, I thought I could faintly hear the metal instruments shimmering in resonance. Whether it was there or not, it was a good effect.

John Shiurba‘s 9:9 was the most ambitious of the pieces, a 65-minute composition in nine segments, performed by a nine-piece ensemble.

The sound was a cross between modern classical music and pure improvisation, and in fact, the score opened many places for improvising, including some instructions that came in the form of pictures or diagrams without explanation. At the same time, Shiurba conducted with active zeal, using notecards to cue certain players to play particular notes or rhythms.

After the first few minutes, the structure started becoming clear. Each of the nine segments consisted of:

  • One soloist, who I think improvised throughout, dramatically standing out from the crowd at first and then blending into the mood of the piece. Each player got a turn being soloist.
  • Little songs, lyrics to which were cryptograms taken from The New York Times. One female vocalist (Hadley McCarroll) sang the corny English solution, while the other (Polly Moller) sang the encrypted part phonetically. The songs were entirely scored for both singers and all the instruments, and the melody was that cross-tonal, spiky sound of contemporary classical song.
  • Pre-determined phrases that two or three players performed on the side, almost in unison but not necessarily. Sometimes these consisted of fragments of the songs.
  • Little rhythms that other side players would create on cue. The rhythm was set, but the exact notes weren’t.
  • Individual notes: small glancing blows. Shiurba used the notecards to execute these, pointing to a couple of players to hit the note, then stop.

The last three elements would be woven throughout the soloing part, but the songs stood by themselves, with all nine players included in the score.

The score. We were given handouts with the lyrics, including the encrypted part. It looks like Shiurba did not actually add vowels to make the pronunciation easier.

(Shiurba explains 9:9 in more detail in this interview with Polly Moller, published on Sequenza 21.)

There was a lot to take in — lots of moods, lots of soloing styles, and of course the ear-deciphering of trying to make out the cryptogram lyrics. The English part was easy to pick out of the mix; the encrypted side, less so, which shouldn’t be surprising.

Some standout moments from a few segments:

Gino Robair, who had started the piece with a bit of solo percussion, also took the last solo — lots of fun pattering (pots and metal bowls placed on a towel, I think).

The bass segment, led by Scott Walton, got immense and droney, propelled by his bowing but also by the choices of the rest of the ensemble.

Ava Mendoza played acoustic guitar, turning in an engaging and tangy solo with lots of offbeat choices in the melody. I liked it a lot.

Shiurba encouraging the ensemble to take a bow.

McCarroll was the one performer I’d never seen before. She could certainly belt out the soprano (mezzo-soprano?) notes, but she also proved to be really good on the piano. Her solo was fierce and thundering.

Matt Ingalls, on bass clarinet, started off in a slow, patient mode, and the music around him continued with that glacial mood as he shifted gears into loud squeaks and ungodly howls.

The Summit ends tonight (Saturday) with “Fire and Energy,” a program of jazz-inspired music from Jack Wright (who’ll be very non-jazzy), Dave Bryant, Vinny Golia, and Tony Passarelli. Location is 544 Capp St., near 20th, in San Francisco’s Mission District.

July 21, 2012 at 2:00 pm Leave a comment

Sylvano Bussotti, Live

I shouldn’t have characterized Sylvano Bussotti‘s music as being “graphical scores.” After seeing some of the music up-close, and seeing Thursday night’s performance at SF MOMA, I’m pretty sure that his crazed sheet music is really meant to be read at face value.

Mind you, there’s some room for improvising and for unpredictable elements, such as when a player is told to use a forearm to smash all the low piano keys at once. But there are also moments of timed precision, matched melodies, and, especially in last night’s two-piano finale, careful coordination.

The scores are gorgeous, and they drew a lot of attention as they sat in the MOMA’s atrium lobby before the music started, attracting lots of cellphone cameras and, happily enough, generating lots of discussion, from music fans and passers-by alike. Thursday nights, the museum stays open late, so the crowd for the Bussotti concert was well into the hundreds, many of them hipster types on hand for the (unrelated) free food and non-free wine.

Everyone seemed to enjoy the theatrical setup:  Music stands and the two pianos, and some of the scores, were left out during the early part of the evening, as the crowd milled around. It turned out that the music, performed by sfSound, was to be staged in sections of the lobby, across a central strip — the opening trio being in the center, then the other small-group pieces off to the left or the right, while the audience lingered around the perimeter of this makeshift stage. People really seemed to enjoy that.

The space got best used late in the performance, for a nonet titled “AUTOTONO” that had two pianos on either end of the performance strip and the rest of the group scattered in between, a setup that was visually arresting, with sound coming at you from different directions.

The rest of the program consisted of smaller sfSound subgroups playing Bussotti pieces from past and present. It started with a choppy, jousting string trio called “Phrase a Trois,” one of the scores the audience had been admiring beforehand. Matt Ingalls later played a solo clarinet piece, “Variazione Berio,” where he took advantage of the fact that a clarinetist can carry his own sheet music. Ingalls wandered the space, turning every so often to change the angle of the sound (it does make a difference), often stopping to let one long, piercing note properly strike the walls and ring.

The crowd was surprisingly respectful, considering how many hadn’t come for the music per se.  Yes, there were lots of ancillary noises — doors closing (especially the front doors, as the crowd thinned during the 70 or so minutes of music), dishes being cleaned up, the occasional elevator bing. Very little conversation, though, which was admirable. I was grateful for that.

More than 100 people remained by the end, reverently sitting through the 22-minute “Tableuax Vivants,” a selection from (or a prelude to?) the opera, La Passion Selon Sade.

This one was really interesting.  It’s for two pianists who start by playing one piano — but they don’t just play high keys/low keys like you’d expect. They play in the same register, and more important, one player sometimes reaches into the piano to hold down a string while the other one plays, or sometimes to pluck a string. The result is that the two players are continually leaning over one another, carefully poking their arms past one another. It’s like a dance.

And it’s meant to be. “The staves (and thus the pianists) sensually merge and depart — both an essay on proxemic theory and an exquisite way of staging intimacy,” Luciano Chessa wrote in the detailed show notes we were given. (A lot of which can be read in this SFCV article: “A Rare Silent Film from an Experimental Composer.”)

The pianists — Christopher Jones and Ann Yi — eventually separated to the two pianos to complete the piece, which went on to instruct them to pluck the strungs, hit them with soft mallets, and slap them with a whip. The finale of the piece has both pianists putting away the score and playing from memory, fading out when they get stuck. Jones and Yi actually lasted about the same amount of time, which made for a more abrupt and solid ending than you’d expect — but it worked.

Bussotti himself was on hand, performing in two of the pieces. He spoke gruff, stark lines (in French) in “Geographie Francaise” and a more pensive commentary (in Italian) for “In Memoriam Cathy Berberian.”

And as mentioned in an earlier post, this program had started with a screening of Rara, Bussotti’s silent film, with Bussotti himself providing piano accompaniment. Most of the film consists of long close-ups of people, mostly shirtless men adorned with gaudy necklaces, tears on their faces. Bussotti’s music wasn’t as sparse as I’d expected — it jumped and leapt, then halted for long pauses. He slipped into straight tonal music on a few occasions, which was surprising — heavy sentimental chords, or slow, regal harmonies. He also had a couple of tricks up his sleeve. For example: By holding down certain keys with one hand while playing notes with the other, he created some different sounding harmonics. It was like holding down the sustain pedal for only a handful of notes — producing the same shimmering decay, but on a different chord than usual.

The film and the concert were very warmly received, and Bussotti showed a lot of energy for someone approaching 80, walking slowly but striking confidently at the piano. The program of pieces selected by Luciano Chessa created a good rhythm as a whole. Bussotti seemed to enjoy his special evening, and maybe the music got heard by some ears that otherwise wouldn’t have given it a try.

Check out sfSound at http://sfsound.org.

December 3, 2010 at 11:45 pm Leave a comment

SF MOMA Thursday Concert

On Thursday Dec. 2, if you’re taking advantage of the SF Museum of Modern Art evening hours and half-price tix, consider lending an ear to sfSound Group. They’ll be doing a concert along with Italian composer Sylvano Bussotti.

Bussotti himself will play a piano accompaniment to his silent film, Rara, described as “filmed portraits of the Italian avant-garde” from the early ’60s. It’s being shown, as a restored print, in conjunction with the exhibit, Exposed: Voyerism, Surveillance, and the Camera Since 1870.

Then, as the exhibits close at around 9:00 p.m., you’ll be able to stick around for an sfSound performance of multiple Bussotti works, with the composer participating. The program includes very recent works as well as pieces from the ’60s.  Details here.

It’s all free with half-price museum admission ($9 for most of us), but the museum’s promo blurbs warn that seating is limited.

Bussotti is one of those composers famous for graphical scores — wild, babbling ones, in his case. Graphical scores are a tricky item, because it’s often up to the performer how to interpret the abstract shapes and drawings involved. In Bussotti’s case, his pictures use standard musical notation as a foundation, twisting the staves and notes into Alice in Wonderland underbrush.  He seems to have multiple pieces called “Rara,” and one of them piles musical notes into the shapes of the letters “R” and “A.”

On one hand, a graphical score invites more of the performer’s personality into the piece, and it emphasizes the uniqueness of the moment. Every performance is a star that shines once, then vanishes. On the other hand, you can’t help but wonder if the composer is playing a prank or, worse, just phoning it in, scribbling stuff down and leaving it up to the musicians to make something of it. Maybe it’s a little of both; there’s certainly something of a serious prankster in John Cage’s work, right?

Some samples of Bussotti’s music are up on YouTube, including the austere sounds of the “Fogli d’Album” suite (which starts here) and some rustling inside-the-piano work on “Noveletta,” below.

UPDATE: For a deeper look at Bussotti’s music, his film, and how this program all came about, check out San Francisco Classical Voice.

November 29, 2010 at 4:38 pm Leave a comment

An Opera in Real Time

Gino RobairI, Norton: An Opera in Real Time (Rastascan, 2009)

(For detailed background on this project, check out Point of Departure‘s lengthy interview with Gino Robair.)

Having mentioned this so much last fall, I’m horrified to find out I never wrote about the actual CD.

I, Norton is an opera built of improvisation, installed in modular pieces and intended for ensembles of varying size and makeup. In one sense, it’s a concession to economic reality — large-scale experimental works are difficult to stage.

But it also means I, Norton is a living creation, augmentable, evolving. In fact, creator Gino Robair, who’s been a major force on the Bay Area experimental music scene for a couple of decades now, still considers it a work in progress. The CD, combining live performances with manipulations and samples of those performances, is just one representation of what the complete opera could be.

You won’t find opera singing. The program contrasts moments of modern-classical music with long stretches of otherworldly electronics.  Metallic buzzes and sound curtains drift by, constructed from a base of Tom Duff’s recital of Norton’s proclamations.

(If you’re wondering: Emperor Norton is one of the colorful, beloved characters of 19th-century San Francisco history. Emperor of the United States, Protector of Mexico — detailed biography here.)

The opera represents the flashes of memory in the final moments of Emporer Norton’s life, as he lies dying in a San Francisco street. While I, Norton doesn’t have to be a linear journey, the CD is arranged in something like a storyline, complete with an overture and an ethereal, heavenly conclusion. Along the way, Robair makes use of the moods that electronics and structured improvisation can create.

“Overture” opens with a mob of cacophonic voices, cut short by a gong that opens the spacious body of the section, colored by metal percussion and sampled, filtered fragments of Norton’s speech. It’s like hurtling through a dust cloud in space. (And I like the cut-up of Duff’s speech, done in fluttering half-syllables. We were taught as schoolkids that an opera’s Overture contains snippets of the music you’re about to hear. In this case, it contains fragments of the words you’ll eventually hear.)

The theme knitting all the pieces together is a Norton speech abolishing Congress, and it appears throughout the album in fragments or in mutated, sped-up form.  Duff does a marvellous job with the character, so the longer passages of untreated speech are a real treat. I’ve seen part of the opera live, and Duff was terrific, dressed in 1880s finery and pacing the stage while giving his proclamations.

“The Hall of Comparative Ovations” is the most classical-sounding of the tracks, using lots of conventional instruments and some quasi-composed passages: grand horns in a sadly regal mood. It sounds like the individual notes are left to players’ choices, a very Braxton-like touch.  All this is augmented with passages of improvisation textrued with squiggly electronics.

The longest track, at 28 minutes, is “Mobs, Parties, Factions (Part 1).”  Its first section is sparse, with long segments of Norton’s proclamations, and “music” built from slowed, sped, or shuffled blurs built of Duff’s voice.  We hear Norton’s words revealed slowly, in pieces, while we also possibly experience some of his madness, the voice-based noises like fascinating insect buzzes, a distraction from the core point (and yet, because they’re the “music” here, they’re also the core point.)  Aurora Jospehson adds skittery vocal sounds accompanied by piano — it’s the aria for her character, Miss Minnie Wakeman, the high school girl who Norton tried to woo. (Minnie was already engaged, and that was that.)  Given its length, this track on its own could be considered a micro version of the opera.

“The Committee of Vigilence (Mad Scene)” is a snippet of crazed electronics, some cries of anguish from Norton.  It’s aptly titled, and works as kind of a soliloquy, a standalone scene.

“Mobs Parties, Factions (Part 2)” brings us back to acoustic instruments, with hammering piano and woodwind wailing. It’s fun and spritely, with long unadulterated passages of Duff speaking — and then it turns dark, ominous. We’re nearing the end of the story.

Duff then quietly recites Norton’s proclamation, as prelude to the final track, “Joshua Norton Enters into Heaven.” A soliloquy of ghostly electronics, the piece slowly builds up to a shimmering haze before ending with a final, quiet heartbeat.

May 30, 2010 at 12:11 pm Leave a comment

Matthew Sperry Memorial Festival 2010

Happening Thursday, June 3, and Saturday, June 5, in San Francisco and Oakland.

It’s time again for the Matthew Sperry Memorial Festival, the annual gathering of Bay Area improv musicians to celebrate the tragically short life of bassist Sperry, killed in a traffic accident in 2003.

This year’s festival is the eighth, and it’s the first without a guest musician from out of town. That’s understandable, considering how long a run they’ve had with the festival. (I think the invited guests were limited to musicians who’d played with Matthew, too — a large but finite pool.)

No matter; it’s still a good cause (proceeds to go this family), and a celebration not only of Matthew but of community.  This year’s shows will be:

* Thursday June 3 | 8pm | $6 – $100 sliding scale (i.e., pay what you want within that range): Tag Team Trio Shift: Improvsations with 3 musicians at any given time, refereed by John Shiurba.
… At the Luggage Store Gallery: 1007 Market St., San Francisco

* Saturday June 5 | 8pm | $6 – $100 sliding scale … Chamber ensemble sfSound plays two Sperry Compositions: “Wadadaism” (1991) and “Veins” (1995). Also compositions by Anthony Braxton, Cornelius Cardew, James Tenney, and sfSoundGroup.
… At 21 Grand, 416 25th Street, Oakland

You can also check out:

* The Matthew Sperry tribute site. I’m impressed that they’ve continued to maintain it (although the link to photos appears broken for the moment).

* This Festival’s Facebook page, listing the compositions to be played on the 5th.

* My explanation of the festival, posted last year.

* Reviews from last year’s festival:  At the Luggage Store (featuring a fun, fun performance of improv rock piece “Treasure Mouth”) and at Berkeley’s Hillside Club (featuring Gail Brand and Morgan Guberman).

May 29, 2010 at 2:04 pm Leave a comment

Yes, It’s a Harp

I have to admit, the first time I looked up The Stone‘s listings for Tuesday and saw “harp” on the bill, I moved on.  Plenty else to do on Tuesday.

But I recanted later.  It’s The Stone, after all, where bookings are hand-picked.  And harp can be an interesting instrument. It’s got pedals that can change the tone of strings up or down by two half-steps — all the Fs can become F#, for instance, or all the strings can be set up in a pentatonic scale (just like playing all black notes on the piano) for that classic “harp” sound. And the bio for the musician noted she’d played composers like Elliott Carter. I like Elliott Carter.

So on a rainy Tuesday, after splurging at Downtown Music Gallery and dining at Boca Chica, the only Lower East Side eatery I know, I decided: What the heck. It was just after 8:00 p.m., and I was blocks away. When else am I going to even consider a harp recital? Let’s see what solo harp can do.

Bridget Kibbey was in the middle of some richly chromatic, modern-classical piece when I arrived. Not the pillowy, heaven-sent cloud music you normally hear. This had lots of color, lots of rich tones. A great start.

Most of the program was not solo harp, in fact; Kibbey used the opportunity to bring in some friends and to play some new pieces (with the composers in the audience).  The next number, called “Crossfade,” actually used two harps, Kibbey and a friend, with one or the other taking the lead in, of course, a kind of crossfading pattern. This was really enjoyable — again, lots of modern chromatic tones, and a good technical showcase. Any classical recital can be described as having pinpoint accuracy, but something about the harp makes “pinpoint” seem more appropriate, more tangible.  It’s a delight to watch the notes get plucked out, right there in the open.

I learned something new about the harp: Harmonics. They’re all over the place in some of these compositions.  They’re played with one hand — I assume the thumb sits atop the string at just the right spot while another finger plucks the note, so there’s a high degree of accuracy involved (same is true for any fretless instrument, I suppose, but it was a lot more surprising on the harp).

Kibbey then brought up a flautist for a succession of several Bartok songs based on folk music. This had more of a “classical” classical feel to it, with jaunty rhythms.  The pieces were written for flute and piano, with Kibbey having transcribed the piano part for harp.  As you’d imagine, it works quite well.

Two pieces for guitar and harp closed the evening. One was an original, written by the guitarist (I’d written names down on scratch paper & will fill them in if I can find that paper), an pleasant piece that was based on a folk tale about an object that creates such an obsession, it absorbs the owner’s entire reality.  That was followed by some Celtic reels, made folky and rocking by the addition of occasional guitar-chord strumming.

Given the rain that night, and the stigma of the harp, there wasn’t much of a crowd — maybe five of us who weren’t players, composers, or personal friends.  But I’m glad I went. Saxophone after saxophone can only teach you so much, after all.

May 23, 2010 at 12:28 pm Leave a comment

Playlist: March 5, 2010/Other Minds

Click here for the full playlist for Friday, March 5, 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m.

I started with the intention of playing just a little bit of Other Minds-related music.  (See here and here.)  I wanted to show off the new ROVA/Nels Cline and something from Carla Kihlstedt, and figured I’d wrap it up with Kidd Jordan.

But upon searching our awesome KZSU music database (zookeeper.stanford.edu, or better yet, try this out), I was able to about double the amount of stuff I had to play.  Here’s the rundown.

* ROVA & Nels Cline Singers — “Trouble Ticket” — The Celestial Septet (New World, 2010)
… Album comes out March 15, but ROVA had early copies on sale at the show. They’ll be there tonight as well, I’d assume. More on this later.

* Minamo [Carla Kihlstedt/Satoko Fujii] — “Kuroi Kawa – Black River” — Kuroi Kawa – Black River (Tzadik, 2009)
… More on this one later, when I’ve given it a full listen. Chamber-like duets of violin and piano, with occasional bouts of violence.

* Kidd Jordan, Hamid Drake, William Parker — “Living Peace” — Palm Of Soul (AUM Fidelity, 2006)
… Ecstatic jazz. Jordan doesn’t just blow fast; the opening is a keening, moaning lament; then things heat up over the next 14 minutes.

* Gyan Riley — “Yubalation” — Food for the Bearded (New Albion, 2002)
… Hadn’t encountered Riley before. His classical guitar has the density of John Fahey and the beauty of Spanish guitar. I picked a track that teams him up with viola and percussion, but he’s fascinating solo as well.

* Tom Johnson — “The 1287 Five-Note Chords [excerpt]” — The Chord Catalogue (XI, 1999)
* Tom Johnson — “The 78 Eleven-Note Chords” — The Chord Catalogue (XI, 1999)
… Couldn’t resist. Johnson is big on using combinatorics as a compositional tool. For instance, his “Combinations” for string quartet, one of the pieces being performed tonight, assigns notes so that each member plays one of four notes, and they cycle through all possible combinations. The Chord Catalogue is of similar mind, but quite extreme: It’s every possible chord in one octave. Played in order. I recall a review in an avant-garde-friendly magazine, and even they had a hard time dealing with this one! I love the idea — seriously love it, and if someone pitched it to me, I’d be all in favor of it. And to play the piece perfectly requires intense concentration on the player’s part. But I don’t know if I have the stuff to listen start to finish.

Luckily, Johnson adds pauses (assigned at mathematically chosen spots) but it’s still monotonous. And written, when you consider the pauses are pre-planned. What’s amusing, when you play the 11-note chords right after the five-noters, is that Johnson had to slow down markedly in order to play them.

* Tom Johnson — “Eighty-Eights” — Music for 88 (XI, 1991)
… A combinatorics piece that’s easier to take: Solo piano, where each of the 88 keys is used exactly once. But Johnson divides the keyboard into sections and patterns, so that you get melody, tempo, and mood variations as the piece progresses.

March 6, 2010 at 1:32 pm Leave a comment

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