Tania Chen and Feldman and Cage

Tania Chen, Wobbly, and Thomas Dimuzio will perform Triadic Memories at The Lab (2948 16th St., San Francisco) on Wednesday, Jan. 16 at 8:00 p.m.

Tania Chen and Jon LeideckerMorton Feldman: Triadic Memories (Knitted, 2018)

Tania Chen (with Thurston Moore, David Toop, and Jon Leidecker)John Cage: Electronic Music for Piano (Omnivore, 2018)

feldman score

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.

Chen-Electronic-Music-For-Piano-OV-262As 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.

chen cage silences

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.

Tender Buttons

tender-buttons-studio-grand
From a YouTube video by Ann O’Roarke
From the “need to get out more” file: Two of the local musicans whom I’ve known the longest have been part of an interesting electronics trio for quite some time, and I never noticed.

Tender Buttons performs electronic/computer noise (plus keyboard, frequently) with an aesthetic that seems to emphasize smooth flow. At even-handed volume, they’ll amass sounds, some comforting, some abrasive, and it seems so placid until you realize it’s gained enough momentum to border on harsh. And then they’ll shift back down to a smaller mode.

I’ve seen Gino Robair and Tom Djll play in many contexts, including electronics. I’m not as familiar with Tania Chen, but she’s a KZSU Day of Noise veteran.

Here’s the trio in action:


Here’s another performance, from March. This one gets into rougher textures, and you can see Robair, in silhouette, using bows, sticks, and other non-electronic objects.

There’s more to be had on Djll’s YouTube playlist, or you could see/hear the band live very soon.

Tender Buttons is playing a show on Friday, Oct. 28, at Turquoise Yantra Grotto (32 Turquoise Way, San Francisco), and they’re performing live on KFJC-FM on Oct. 29 at 3:00 p.m.

Outsound Live Report

The Outsound New Music Summit concludes tonight — Saturday, July 23, 2011 — at the Community Music Center, 544 Capp St., San Francisco.

I really did make it to last night’s Outsound installment, “The Art of the Composer.”  As mentioned, “composition” here didn’t involve just notes on paper, but different strategies for infusing improvisation and artists’ choices into the music. The compositions were structures to be decorated, or parameters for molding an improvisation.

Gino Robair, who would be on stage for three of the four acts, opened in duo with Krystyna Bobrowski, playing duets on Bobrowski’s new-music instruments. (See also Polly Moller at Trinity Chapel.) The first piece started with Robair on balloon gongs — you see that vertical black rectangle next to the yellow balloon? It’s a metal gong. Robair would strike the gong, then hold the balloon up to it. A contact mic on the balloon produced a resonant, ringing sound — a clever use of electronics.

The next movement had the two of them on a metallic xylophone, playing together in coordinated snippets of melodic chiming at first, then gradually exploring other sounds — rubbing the xylophone tubes (they seemed to be tubes) with mallets, for example. A very “musical” feeling segment.

The second piece had Bobrowski and Robair playing glass instruments filled with water. Robair played wine glasses but went beyond rubbing the rims, creatively tapping and splashing. Bobrowski played those IV-looking bottles, which are played like wine glasses but can shift up and down on their stands to produce different tones.

Andrew Raffo Dewar’s Interactions Quartet was next, debuting “Strata.” The quartet has played and recorded before, but it was “grittier,” noisier stuff, as oboist Kyle Bruckmann puts it. Their piece on the sampler CD (DID I MENTION YOU GET A SAMPLER CD when you come to the shows? You do!) has a drifting quality augmented by the buzzing of electronics.

By contrast, “Strata” was full of clean, acoustic chamber-music lines and apparently provided room for solos as well. It started sparsely, with each instrument providing small snippets that interconnected through an invisible sense of rhythm. Later came some melodic passages, including one where John Shiurba tapped a steady rhythm with ankle bells and with his acoustic guitar, setting up a backdrop for some nice ensemble playing. Late in the piece, oboe and sax played a unison fanfare and then dove into what appeared to be improvised variations. Raffo capped it all with a dynamic conclusion.

The Kanoki Nishi graphical score was nowhere in sight, but whatever it was, it got translated into a dark, loud, amplifier-heavy display. Tony Dryer and Italian artist IOIOI performed on the floor in front of the stage, with the lights turned way down, which added to the effect.

We got a taste of what was to come when Dryer was setting up. He was correcting for some kind of sound problem, and occasionally, the work created a huge blast of feedback or the big loud crunching sound that you get when you plug or unplug an audio lead. Audience members got tense, ready to cover their ears at a moment’s notice.

And there was a good tension to the piece. Dryer went first, starting with whispery, chaotic bowing of his amplified acoustic bass, producing barely audible scratches. Then he created one loud BLAST — striking the strings with his palm, maybe? — and left that on sustain for a long while. This was obviously the moment he’d done the careful sound-check for, and it paid off: one loud amplifier scream. I keep earplugs in my jacket pocket just for moments like this. From there, Dryer worked the electronics dials, filtering the sounds down to a manageable electronics trickle, then a full stop.

IOIOI then took to the spotlight with an electric guitar. She started with the guitar on her lap, a metal bowl on the strings. She wobbled and rolled the bowl for a liquidy set of sounds. Then, she got into some more conventional extended playing — a metal bar through the strings on the fingerboard, for example. By tapping the bar, she produced a melodic ringing — rather nice, actually. Finally, she took a bow to the strings, creating nervous, scratchy sounds but doing so with a strong sense of purpose and control; this wasn’t just flailing for noise’s sake. I really liked that segment.

Gino Robair‘s quartet, Ensemble Agaucalientes, rounded things out. (For a guy who was on stage 75% of the time, Robair sure didn’t get into many of these pictures.)

The group was patterned after Mexican folk and popular music, with flutes, acoustic bass, marimba, and a host of Latin percussion. The sound was neither folky nor pop, instead lingering in the non-idiomatic, abstract area that’s more characteristic of Outsound. Players were given bits of melody to perform, and these fragments were apparently mutable at the players’ whims. So, occasional folky melodies would arise, mostly from Polly Moller’s flutes, but only in fleeting instants.

Robair conducted the group, giving players assignments to jump to particular parts of the score, to drop out, to play in certain ways. Every playing of this score, then, is intended to be vastly different, a very “In C” unpredictability that’s a hallmark of improv work and a focus of some Robair projects, such as his I, Norton opera.

Ensemble Aguacalientes, in this sitting, at least, played in sparse individual parts but with a sense of continual, ongoing momentum. Something was always going on, in other words, but the four instruments didn’t overwhelm each other and intentionally didn’t saturate the space — a respectful quite was an important element of the color here.

Overall, quite a successful evening, played to a crowd that felt like 50 or 60, possibly even more. So, I’d encourage you to take a few hours tonight to check out tonight’s show, which focuses on crazy invented instruments. The coffee’s good and the T-shirts are bright and colorful (the purples seemed to be selling out the most quickly).

Previous Outsound 2011 posts:

Outsound 2011, #3: The Art of Composition

The Outsound New Music Summit takes place July 17-23, 2011, at the Community Music Center, 544 Capp St., San Francisco.

The Art of Composition (Fri. July 22) is preceded by a Monday evening panel session titled, “Elements of Non-Idiomatic Composition Strategies.”  Academic as the title sounds, it gives you a clue into what to expect from these compositions.  “Non-idiomatic” is the phrase often used for the abstract, seemingly formless improvising pioneered by the likes of Derek Bailey. (I think the phrase is often attributed to him. It’s a quite British phrasing, in any event.)

So, the compositions to expect here go beyond traditional notes and rests, into things like graphical scores — pictures that are left for the performers to interpret.

Click the link above for the full program. It’s got a wide variety of compositional experimentation.  Gino Robair will conduct a series of variable compositions for his Ensemble Aguacalientes, and he’ll also perform a sound-based piece composed by Krystyna Bobrowski. The latter accommodates Robair’s penchant for exploring the sounds of random items; his instruments, as listed on the program, include glass, water, balloons, and kelp.

Andrew Raffo Dewar is presenting a new composition for a quartet that includes Robair, and Tony Dryer (bass) and IOIOI (electric guitar, from Italy) will perform works by Kanoko Nishi.

I feel like I’m giving this concert the shortest writeup of the four, but really, it’s the one that I’m anticipating the most. Something about the process of composition fascinates me. I should have studied more classical music in my youth, I guess.

This program promises to offer a look at the extension of the compositional concept, trusting the musicians with a relatively unconventional level of freedom. And I think the Monday evening talk (that’s tonight, July 18, 7:00-9:00 p.m.) as well as Thursday’s pre-concert Q&A (7:15 p.m.) will be particularly enlightening.

Previous Outsound 2011 posts:

I, Norton Happening July 5

Gino Robair’s improvisatory opera, I, Norton, will get a rare performance on July 5 in San Francisco. Performers will include Robair and, on the church organ, David Hatt, whose specialty is the organ music of Max Reger.

It’s an early show, 4:00 p.m., at St. John’s: 1661 15th St. at Julian.

The show is tied to, of all things, an American Guild of Organists convention happening July 3 through 7, which includes 16 free concerts at Bay Area churches and other organ-having sites. I, Norton is not one of them; they’re asking for $5 at the door.

As I’ve noted before, I, Norton — about the life of San Francisco’s Emporer Norton I — is not your typical opera. It’s built in fragments, any number of which can be performed by any number of performers. (Hopefully, they’ll have Tom Duff on hand to play Norton; he’s very good in the role, pacing the stage, reciting Norton’s proclamations.)  A CD version, on Rastascan Records, includes performances full of acoustic instruments and others packed with electronics. An organ in a resonant church hall could be a very powerful rendering. (I wrote about the CD in May 2010.)

Operatic side note: I, Norton will play out with the backdrop of Wagner’s Ring Cycle going on at the SF Opera. I don’t think there’s a Ring performance on this exact night, but the fact that the Ring is happening has overshadowed the Bay Area arts scene for the past few weeks, almost like the piece is technically happening even between performances. At least, that’s how I’ve thought of it — even though I’m not going to go, there’s a tingling excitement in knowing it’s happening.

Hat tip: San Francisco Classical Voice (sfcv.org)

Polly Moller at Trinity Chapel

The Dec. 18 concert of Polly Moller‘s works was terrific fun. Most of the pieces were based on instructions and improvisation, and many took their concepts from nature, pagan mythos, and… for lack of a better word, I’ll say “magic.”

Pictures taken during the show came out rather fuzzy, since I was sitting in the back. Amar, over at the Catsynth blog, has a better camera and knows how to use it; he might eventually post some pics beyond what I could do.

I’d previously mentioned the show here. And here, now, is a rundown of the program:

The Flip Quartet (2006). The first piece happens to be the hardest to describe. Four improvisers stand at four tables, each representing a compass direction (N,E,S,W) and an element (earth, fire, air, water, not necessarily in that order). Each table is ornamented with various objects for soundmaking — among them: glass, whistles, metal, books to read from, and even a guitar. All four players perform for a set amount of time, then they pause and rotate. (Photo below by Michael Zelner, michaelz1 on Flickr, taken from a 2009 “Flip Quartet” performance.)

I wish I’d taken notes on how the five movements differed (they played a second time at their original positions, making for five movements). The first seemed quietest and more tentative — in fact, the piece is supposed to be amplified so that the performers can focus on quiet sounds. Some of that did come into effect — the fire table had a book of matches, and the act of striking a match and shaking out the flame sounded interesting over the amplifier. In the third movement, the guy at table 3 tried snapping matches in half. He stopped after only two, probably thinking he wasn’t being heard — but the second match’s snap came through clearly. Nice idea.

Part of the exercise, I think, is to see how different improvisers react to the same sets of materials. It’s almost like the piece is challenging them to produce their own sounds out of, say, metal chains and bowls, or innocuous pitchers of water.

Duo No. 1 (2008, premiere). Written for Gino Robair, who played all manner of objects, this duo traces the life cycle of a moth, and the score consists of a diagram of that life cycle, with some dynamic markings (basically showing that the piece is meant to be very, very quiet in the middle). Robair was accompanied by Krystyna Bobrowski on sliding speaker instrument: a tube, the length of which she varied for different sound timbres, altering and accentuating the sounds Robair was feeding into the mic. The piece was quiet but propulsive, and you really could trace events from the breaking of the chrysalis to the final flight into a flame.

Penelope (2010, premiere). Solo piccolo piece for Amy Likar, and possibly the program’s only through-composed piece. It combines sparse piccolo flurries, timed foot stomps, and a breathy “yes” frequently blown into the mouthpiece, all representing Penelope’s monologue that ends Ulysses. There was no set meter, so the piece was unpredictable and the foot stomps irregular: just one continuing flow, much like stream-of-consciousness writing. Very nice.

Three of Swords (2009). The most difficult of the pieces, for both performer and audience. It’s solo performance art, with the performer (Sarah Elena Palmer) alternately emitting improvised vocal sounds, conducting a tarot reading, and tuning up what sounded like a shortwave radio. Long pauses, particularly for the tarot-card turning, made this one hard to pull off, but the audience stayed reverently quiet. I liked the effect but came away feeling like I didn’t “get” this one.

Alcyone (2010, premiere). By contrast, this piece told a straightforward story: the Greek legend of Alcyone, who calms the winter seas for seven days while incubating her eggs on the waves. A quartet (two saxes, bass, percussion) played tumultuously as Alcyone (mezzo-soprano Laura Malouf-Renning, darkly costumed and carrying a nest of Xmas ornaments) arrived and, with a touch, quieted each player in succession, the overall sound slowly receding. Alcyone then got a long monologue/aria, stern and dramatic — I’d be curious if it was actually in Greek, or some language, or whether the syntax was improvised. She ended the piece by cueing each player to return to noisy tossing and turning. A nicely theatrical piece, and the liner notes say Moller is planning seven more, based on Neo-Pagan holidays.

Genesis (2006-2010). A piece for 12 improvisers (with Moller, as conductor, included in that count) and a 13th player: Matt Davignon on electronics, representing the new universe. The concept is clever: the 12 players were arranged in a spiral, with Davignon at the center. Moller walked the spiral, cueing each instrument to play, dronelike, according to scored parts that suggested patterns but didn’t give specifics. Davignon eventually joined in and took over. The sum was a powerful and almost calm sound, surging and receding. (UPDATE: Polly notifies me I’m off by a number: It really is a piece for 12 improvisers, including the conductor and the New Universe person. And, in fact, they were missing a person for this performance — I hadn’t bothered to count them all, I’ll admit.)

What’s it mean? The latest models in string theory and M theory, at least according to the PBS shows I’ve seen, say the universe is 11-dimensional and occupies a cosmic membrane, called “brane” for short. A further-out postulate is that multiple branes might exist, with their collisions causing the Big Bangs that create universes like ours. Cool, huh? So, Davignon represented the new universe birthed by the actions of these 11 other dimensions (and the role of the conductor is, I presume, an exercise left to the listener).

Again, it was a visual piece, theatrical. Unlike “Alcyone,” the music here tells only a fraction of the story; you have to experience this one live. Davignon’s new universe wasn’t the obvious, ferocious outpouring of a big bang, but more of an audio primoridal ooze, feeling its way outwards into newfound, unfilled dimensions. That was an interesting choice, one that wouldn’t have occurred to me but set the perfect mood.

All told, a wonderful evening of thought-provoking music. Great to see all these musicians in action together, too.

The scores were available for sale, and quite nicely packaged and presented. “Alcyone” comes in black binding; “Duo” is an elegantly rolled-up scroll. The picture below doesn’t do them as much justice as I’d hoped.

Our Faceless Empire: Cali-Portugese Improv

Ernesto Diaz-Infante, Manuel Mota, Gino Robair, Ernesto RodriguesOur Faceless Empire (Pax, 2010)

This one’s all about strings — not sweet symphonic strings, but the percussive potential behind strings: the dry clacking and snapping of acoustic guitar and viola, the tiny grunts and pops of electric guitar.

Diaz-Infante and Robair are both part of a Bay Area improv scene that favors a sound-sculpture aesthetic, with performances rich in extended technique. Robair stopped calling himself a drummer at some point, preferring the term “energized surfaces” to describe his combination of oddball objects (bowed styrofoam, for instance), and unconventionally played drums, all of it adding up to a forest of sounds barely traceable to acoustic instruments.

So, this album is full of rattly, percussive sounds — a mesh of sound, full of strings clicking, squeaking, and scraping. Ironically, it’s the drummer who produces the longest and most singing tones, if you can call them that. Robair frequently bows his cymbals or other free-hanging pieces of metal, producing a tarnished ringing tone with a scraped quality, a siren’s cough.

Small blips of guitar tones appear on “E Metico Labilty,” and an accordion seems to pop up on “Um Lilburn Em Flovilla,” towards the end of the album. Mostly, though, it’s a thicket of what’s sometimes called insect music, lots of little sounds adding up to a collective and a direction.

The first three tracks keep things on a fast gait, clattery but not overwhelmingly busy, and often quiet. The third track, “Mi Conde, El Odiosas,” gets downright rowdy and is followed by the quiet respite of “O Bursty Bruegel,” a calming sheen.

The album come to be when Rodrigues (viola) and Mota (electric guitar) were doing a tour from Vancouver on down the Pacific coast. It’s all part of the improv mystique: players of similar minds getting together, spinning music into the air, and possibly never reconvening in that exact combination again. Sometimes, it’s nice to have a document of those moments.