The Rumble of Euphoniums

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Jeffrey Lievers, setting up

I left the Luggage Store Gallery with the rumble of euphoniums in my ears. Brian Pedersen and Courtney Sexton had heavily processed the instruments through microphones and pedals, creating a deep-tissue bass rumble. Jeffrey Lievers added more electronics, a white-noise sheen using the other players as source material.

This is the band Dancin’ Baby, a quartet completed by Kit Young projecting abstract analog video onto the stage. On this night in May, they played a single long-form piece, a wall of noise maybe an hour long.

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Courtney Sexton

The euphonium looks like a small tuba, with four valves instead of three. But of course, we didn’t hear any conventional euphonium playing. Sexton played a euphonium strapped to an E-flat alto horn, with both mouthpieces close together so that he could feed them with the same breath, doubling the foghorn blasts. Pedersen used a saxophone mouthpiece on his euphonium — and, later, on a trumpet and an actual saxophone.

And there were drums. The drum kit was Lievers’ primary instrument, when he wasn’t at the electronics console, and Pedersen sometimes pounded a tympani to add to the rumble.

Dancin’ Baby creates a thick lava flow of drone and doom. Bits of free jazz popped up from Pedersen’s horns and Liever’s drumming, but really it was all about keeping the wave of sound going — to the point where the drum kit sometimes sounded frail against the storm. The drums got their moments though — such as as an effective blast timed with Pedersen’s first, shrieking notes on the saxophone.

The long-form piece never got quiet but did have moments of evenness, where the rumble settled into low tones and opened the atmosphere for the next phase. Throughout the show, analog video feedback artist Kit Young covered the band in abstract psychedelic projections, colors crawling with oversaturation.

You can taste the noise for yourself on Bandcamp. Pedersen also performs with free jazz unit Key West, while both Lievers and Sexton are members of Extra Action Marching Band.

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.

Jen Baker x2

With a couple of evenings free, I had the chance to check out a couple of the improv shows featuring Jen Baker, the former Bay Area trombonist who’s now living in New York.

I’d also never been to Mama Buzz Cafe, out in Oakland on a less-gentrified stretch of Telegraph Avenue. It’s essentially a diner that’s been converted into a coffeehouse, with a counter that offers coffee and food and yummy spheroid vegan donuts. Greasy spoon meets Bay Area bohemia. An adjacent room, sheltered from the counter, is scattered with tables and chairs in the classic DIY coffeehouse look, and that’s where music events are held. (Photo below is by Flickr user katerw; I’d forgotten my camera that night.)

Wednesday night, Baker was playing here with a quartet including Phillip Greenlief (sax), Lisa Mezzacappa (bass), and Ava Mendoza (guitar).  Only a half dozen of us were in the music room, including a couple of people with the requisite Mac PowerBooks (it can’t be a coffeehouse without  a couple of open laptops), but everyone paid rapt attention to the music, which was nice.

The sparse crowd, the midweek vibe, and maybe the fact that Baker had been out of town — it all made for a fun and casual session.  These were four friends just having fun with music. Mendoza’s electric guitar mixed well with the acoustic instruments; she seemed to be keeping things at a careful volume and contributed some nicely choppy rhythms. There were good long passages of all four tuning in on a propulsive mood and a strong pace.

Baker also found a couple of good spots for a few seconds of lyrical vibrations — the multiphonics created by singing into the trombone. It’s become an area of study for her, but the sound stands out and could really overwhelm the music, applied carelessly. She used the technique only for seconds at a time, and it worked well. Later, she told me she’s started transcribing some of her previous lyrical-vibrations improvisations — which turns the method into a composed technique that requires a different type of thinking in performance.

The set ended sublimely, with Greenlief dedicating a birthday piece to his late mother. It started with just Greenlief and Mezzacappa playing in a wistfully lyrical mood, with Baker and Mendoza following suit in long, gentle tones.

Thursday night, Baker played in two sets at the Luggage Store Gallery. The first was an improvising trio with Philip Gelb on shakuhachi and Tara Flandreau on viola, all three standing in front of the blank movie screen that occupied the gallery’s back wall. (A video installation was playing on the other side, visible out on the street.) Lots of serene moments in this set, some of that attributable to the natural sound of the shakuhachi — Flandreau even spent one passage playing whispery sounds on the viola’s bridge, matching the wooden flute’s demeanor.

The evening closed with 25 minutes of Baker’s lyrical vibrations. She introduced the solo performance by explaining that this music draws her into a trancelike state that she’d never experienced before — which is part of her fascination with the concept. The goal of the set was to share that experience with us, and it worked, aided by the stark white of the Luggage Store’s blank walls.

You can hear samples of the concept on Baker’s Web site.

Between Baker’s sets was the duo of Eric Glick Rieman (prepared electric piano) and Teresa Wong (cello). I’m going to write that one up separately. (Preview: I finally got to see the prepared electric piano!)