Once in a while, I like to dip into UbuWeb: Sound. Part of the Ubu online collection of avant-garde art and video, it was originally conceived as a library of sound poetry but now encompasses a generous spectrum of experimental music, too.
I cherish the idea that these mostly out-of-print works have a home, but I have to admit, I also revel in the obscurity of it all. So much art from so many unfamiliar names. So much history! It’s a playground for hipsters of the avant-garde: “I was into Laurie Anderson back when she was doing actual songs! On vinyl!” (Check out “It’s Not the Bullet That Kills You, It’s the Hole.”)
So one day — the day I found that Laurie Anderson page, actually — I decided to spin the big wheel. Push the cursor blindly, investigate a name. It could have been someone extremely famous like Phillip Glass or Don Cherry. But I lucked out and got a modern classical composer of great renown who had so far escaped me: Helmut Lachenmann.
His purview is “musique concrète instrumentale,” meaning the extramusical sounds that can be squeezed out of musical instruments. His pieces are like noise sculptures, full of extended playing and improv-like atmosphere. The sound of “a beetle on its back,” the Guardian says, quoting the instructions from one of Lachenmann’s pieces.
Ubu’s collection includes two of his works, from a 1986 recording on the Col Legno label; it’s still available on eMusic. A string quartet called “Gran Torso” fills the space with creaks, scrapes, bow bouncing, and the occasional wisp of an open-stringed tone. I can see how pieces like this might have informed works like Elliott Sharp’s “The Boreal.”
Even abstract noise can be used to carve a trajectory, a pacing, as “Gran Torso” does. The activity ebbs and flows in a storytelling fashion. It’s enjoyable.
The secon piece is “Saut für Caudwell” for two acoustic guitars, played in clackety percussive style that I would have mistaken for violins. It gets into a snappy rhythm with the guitarists chanting in German — simple stuff, a 1/4 time signature in a sense. That’s followed by a dynamic segment of springy, scraping sounds.
Exploring elsewhere, I’ve found that when Lachenmann’s aesthetic is applied to an orchestra, the result is pretty much as I expected — lots of sparse abstract sounds, but a wider variety that comes at you from a multitude of directions. I’m also trying to get into his solo piano piece, “Serynade,” which combines moments of fluid virtuosity; sudden, shrill bursts; and long bouts of silence.
I know there’s a whole world of musique concrète to discover, but for now, I’m happy exploring Lachenmann’s corner of it. His work essentially involves extended techniques on acoustic instruments, a milieu I’m more than familiar with, but I’m finding fresh aspects to his music. Despite the abstractness of it all, I think I can feel a common style and personality in the pieces I’ve heard so far.
Here’s a performance of “Serynade” by Mexican concert pianist Anna Paolina Hasslacher. It’s also on her Soundcloud page, but I like the way this camera angle reveals the techniques involved.
For the record, I did give this a listen before going to New York and meeting Jeff Arnal in person. But I hadn’t taken the time to write it up yet.
Pail Bug, an improvising quartet, is another collaboration between drummer Arnal and pianist Dietrich Eichmann. The first was in 2004, a Leo Records CD called The Temperature Dropped Again. That was followed by a vinyl 12″ record called Live in Hamburg, recorded in 2004 and released in 2007 as a 12″ LP on the Broken Research label.
The cover of Live in Hamburg shows what appears to be some kind of big structure being built, and that influenced my listening. It’s always unfair to ascribe a visual image to a type of music, because so much depends on what’s on your mind in the first place. It’s arbitrary, like having a dream about something you did just the other day. Still — I listened to the spacious, sometimes raucous piano and drums, and I came up with images of grand architecture, of towering structures in progress.
The group Pail Bug adds two bassists — John Hughes and Astrid Weins, contributing lots of aggressive arco and extended technique to the sounds of the piano and drums. It’s a busier, buzzier construction site, with the basses babbling and tapping, sometimes filling the percussive role while Arnal scrapes sticks against cymbals to form long tones. Eichmann dabbles in prepared piano as well.
“Second Pail” grabs you from the start, pushing directly into a gallop. It’s an engaging and busy opening, and after about four minutes, it decelerates, with buzzing, metallic bass bowing giving the image of a large beast careening to a halt. The quiet segment that follows still has a sense of motion; you’re still moving at a trot. A fast trio emerges later, with Arnal and one bass flying off the handle while another bass chugs along, its bowing providing the rhythm section.
I really like the sound of pizzicato bass, and that’s what opens “Third Pail,” accompanied by some kind of industrial-steam sound — I assume it’s coming from Arnal, but I can’t tell, and that ambiguity is a constant theme of Pail Bug’s. The second bass adds some metallic scraping of the strings to complete the bustling, compact trio. Eichmann enters in a flurry, with an angular sort of boogie-woogie prancing, dire and bright, prompting Arnal into a more conventional drum-kit attack. All told, it’s a dynamic 12 minutes.
There are five tracks, and you’ve probably figured out the naming scheme by now. “First Pail” opens the album with a quiet aesthetic, with small sounds creeping into the frame, starting as isolated chords or squeaks and building slowly into stirrings. The piece eventually builds into a howl built of bass strings and screeching, scraped cymbals.
“Fifth Pail” gives us a good dose of unabashed clatter, including plenty of Arnal’s drum kit. “Fourth Pail” is along the same lines, with (if this makes any sense) a more tempered sound yet a more anarchic feel — except for one moment where the band suddenly hits a dead stop. It might have been cued visually, but on disc, it’s an interesting little surprise.
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.
(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.
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.
UPDATE: I’ve now got a set of photos posted to Flickr. Other KZSUers will be posting photos there and elsewhere, I’m sure, and plenty are on Twitter (like this one). I’ll add photos to the blog somehow — either this entry or another one — in the coming days as the Day Job permits.
I’m in the Green Room for KZSU’s Day of Noise. Yes, there is a thing; we’re borrowing the Stanford Drama Department’s green room, just upstairs from the station.
Abode, the duo of Caroline Pugh and Paul Stapleton, are about to start their set; I’m watching the Ustream feed and seeing them setting up. Megabats, from Seattle, just got done performing; this is one of the few breaks during the day when we’re spinning CD music between acts. We’re managing to fill more than 90 percent of the 24 hours with live performance.
I haven’t been at the station all 24 hours, although some have (some with no sleep at all, it seems). Here’s some of what I’ve caught so far (and photos will be coming later):
* Brian B. James and crew started the day with a performance piece (as noted last night), the “score” of which was available on fliers at the station. It culminated in the performers literally preparing a meal — making sushi, specifically, with contact mics on every feasible tool and implement.
* One part I actually didn’t see: Voice of Doom playing his Machinery of Doom, at about 4:00 a.m. Doom was a KZSU DJ in the ’90s, the one who organized the first several Days of Noise, back when. Great to have him involved in this one.
* David Leikam and Joe Straub attacked a bass and a guitar with bows and random objects for a partly-toneful barrage of sounds.
* Leikam later brought his z_bug free-psych band into the studio for a good heavy set that culminated with a strong actual rhythm (oh no!) on drums. It was a well timed, soaring coda to the whole set, actually.
* Bill Orcutt, of Harry Pussy, attacked a four-stringed acoustic guitar with precision and abandon. A peg on one of the strings has been malfunctioning, so it became three-stringed guitar after a while.
* I was not able to hear much of Jessica Rylan‘s set, as I was attending to other duties around the station, but I’ll note that she has a pink mixing board.
* Frank Rothkamm played the world debut of his newest song set, titled K5, to be released later on his Flux record label. We had a fun interview as well, where he talked about his love for older technologies: vinyl records, analog synths. He’s got one of the very first (if not the first) Hewlett-Packard oscillators in his possession, it seems. And on his way out of the station, he was intent on visiting the Computer History Museum, which seemed fitting.
* Matt Ingalls and John Ingle played a terrific duo set that I heard in the car, with woodwinds playing off one another, sometimes in scribbly quick sounds, sometimes savoring the dissonant beats arising from simultaneous long tones. They got joined by Matt Davignon and Abode for a terrific second set. Paul Stapleton brought an array of insruments, including percussion; Caroline Pugh does a lot of inventive vocalizing, sometimes enhanced with props (an electric toothbrush, e.g.), sometimes in odd texts (a recitation of a recent dream). She has a lot of personality in her vocalizing; it’s not too over-the-top serious.
* Megabats turned in a couple of good electronic improvisations, the last one being heavy on tone and melody. (Again: oh no! But seriously, we don’t mind a touch of those qualities during Day of Noise.) Right now, they’re in the Green Room with a stack of CDs they brought, and DJ Adam (who led the coordination of the whole Day) and others are geeking out with them over bands and CDs. It’s pretty cool, and it’s the kind of vibe that college radio should be all about: sharing common joys and new discoveries.
Photos later, as I noted. I’ll tack some onto this post and/or put them into a separate post, and I might add annotations and links (and proofreading) to this post as well. The bands White Pee, The Lickets, and Vulcanus 68 — KZSU favorites all, especially among noise-minded students — are yet to perform tonight, and Thea Farhadian is due to be up right now. It’s been a tremendously successful Day of Noise. Big props to the staffers, especially the students, who did most of the organizing, and of course a big thank you to all the artists for coming down to perform.
It’s just past midnight on the west coast, and Brian B. James and crew (one of whom is pictured above) have taken over the studio, kicking off 24 hours of live, on-air performances of noise, electronics, and improv. Also interviews, band introductions, and the like — but the core idea is that we’ll be switching from one noise act to the next all day long.
The link above has the full schedule, and further links to hear and watch the whole spectacle. Note that “watch” means a stationary laptop streaming to Ustream; it’s not hi-def and you’ll have to stream the audio separately.
See previous blog entry for more info. I would have loved to have been there for this first act (the setup for which might extend out the hallway and out the front door, based on what I was told earlier)… but I need my beauty sleep to report to the station for duty tomorrow morning. I’ll be doing behind-the-scenes helping, then interviewing Frank Rothkamm at 12:00 noon.
It’s 24 hours of noise music, experimental music, and free improv, with live performances taking up most of every hour. We will be pausing for musician introductions, interviews, etc. — but the idea will be to pack as much live performance into the time as possible. We’ve even set up an ersatz second studio for some of the performances, so we don’t have to wait for setup time.
The whole program is available at the link above. Three things to note:
First — The opening act, Brian B. James, is apparently promising to do something visually spectacular. They’re not telling me what it is. But it’s so compelling that there’s talk of putting up a screen in White Plaza on the Stanford campus just to expose passers-by to it. (Yes, this would be after midnight on a Saturday night, essentially — apparently there’s quite a bit of foot traffic at that time.)
If all goes well, you’ll be able to watch the video stream from the comfort of wherever-your-broadband-is, by watching the Ustream feed. (I don’t think that feed will have audio, though; you’ll have to get that from the usual on-air feed: kzsulive.stanford.edu.)
Second — “NegativWobblyland,” originally listed as “Wobbly Black Hair People” is the combination of Peter Conheim (of Negativland) and Wobbly. They did a few live shows together in Europe in November. Expect greatness, or at least madness. They’re due on at 2:00 p.m.
Third — It looks like I’ll be interviewing Frank Rothkamm for about 20 minutes, preparatory to his performance, which (I’m told) is designed to last 33 minutes and 33 seconds. This’ll start at noon on Sunday. Rothkamm’s work includes electronics and modern-classical piano; I’ve mentioned his Spongebob Variations before.