sfSound Goes Epic With Boulez

IMG_2320-dominoes-crop
Setting up for Domaines.

Last weekend, sfSound — a very active Bay Area new-music collective — put on a three-night festival exploring graphical scores. I missed the first night, which included new works by sfSound members Kyle Bruckmann and Matt Ingalls. But I did make it to the final installment, featuring classic works by some big names.

The centerpiece was Pierre Boulez’s Domaines (Dominoes), a through-composed work broken into modular pieces that can be rearranged, within some strict rules.

It happened to be the longest piece of the evening, but it was also a highlight for its use of space, which made the piece feel sprawling and epic. And it was a workout for clarinet soloist Ingalls.

Domaines pits a solo clarinet against six ensembles, each numbering one through six members. These small ensembles were spread out around the theater space, including the 1-person bass clarinet sitting in the central aisle in the audience.

Boulez’s instructions have the soloist play a segment with each of the ensembles in a prearranged but arbitrary order. Ingalls started with segment number 4: He played his part, alone, followed by the 4-person ensemble playing their part.

domaines
Source: sfSound.

The modular part comes not only from the sequencing of the six segments (Boulez called them “cahiers” — notebooks), but in the clarinet solos, which are divided into segments that can be played in two different ways.

4 was a good place for Ingalls to start, because that clarinet solo featured raspy, brash tones — a personality that would turn out to really stand out from the others. To accent this, the 4-person ensemble consisted entirely of trombones, keeping that same raspy sound going.

Here’s the fun part: Ingalls had his own music stand next to each ensemble, so for each segment, he stood in a different place. As the piece progressed, in the order 4-5-2-6-3-1, Ingalls had to walk the room.

As I mentioned, the sequences were predetermined, so as one segment ended, Ingalls or the next ensemble could start the next segment, often overlapping the two by a bit. That was a nice effect, kind of like cross-fading in radio.

But wait, there’s more! That was only half the piece. The second half, subtitled “Miroirs” (“Mirrors”), consisted of each ensemble playing a segment, followed by a clarinet solo — the opposite concept of the “Originales” segments, but with different music. sfSound played the “Miroirs” segments in the order 5-2-3-4-6-1.

And of course the music, while through-composed, is Boulez: spikey, poking phrases, huge leaps, swooping slashes, and the occasional bit of extended playing as indicated in the sheet music. Exciting stuff, augmented by the effect of Ingalls and the ensembles playing from different regions of the room.

I also happen to enjoy geeking out on things like permutations. If I’m using combinatorics correctly, there are 518,400 ways to arrange the six segments. Factor in the two choices for each clarinet solo, and I think it multiplies to more than 2 billion possibilities.

Every concert is unique, even if the music is through-composed, but I really like to geek out about the uniqueness of a permutation. We heard one possibility out of 2 billion that might never arise again, and I found that really appealing.

Graphical Scores and Improv

outoflastpieces
Source: sfSound

The rest of the concert featured pieces that allow many more degrees of freedom to the musicians. These ranged from the box notation of Morten Feldman’s “Out of ‘Last Pieces'” (excerpted at right) to the modular segments of Earle Brown’s “Available Forms” to Pauline Oliveros’ Fluxus-like “The Inner/Outer Sound Matrix.” The latter, written for sfSound in 2007, instructs the performer to “listen inwardly for your own sound” and play it — or not — at the right time.

In most cases, the effect was like an episodic large-group improvisation. That is, the basic sound was similar to symphonic improv, but there were definite spikes and surges, as well as group drop-offs. Each piece came across boisterously, like a pot boiling, with clusters of activity coming from different parts of the group.

Oliveros’ “Matrix” was loud and brash, which surprised me. I’d expected something more meditative. But the volume built up quickly, and it seemed at times as if players were forced to out-shout each other to be heard.

The group also performed Oliveros’ a capella “Sound Patterns,” comprised of vocal sounds including vowels, tongue clicks, and various buzzes and barks. It’s a mostly non-improvisational piece, and while it’s not a virtuoso turn, it requires organization and an ensemble that takes the idea seriously.

Hearing groups of people making the same nonsense sounds in unison turned out to be revelatory. Even though there’s an absurdity factor (a couple of segments seem designed to get a chuckle from the audience), and even though the ensemble was clearly having fun, their professionalism made this into a piece to be taken seriously. I was surprised how much I enjoyed it.

KZSU Day of Noise 2016, Happening Now

2016“Now,” meaning Saturday, Jan. 30, 2016, Pacific time.

Every year, KZSU puts on 24 hours of mostly improvised, mostly noisy music — electronics, ambient, jazzy, sound-wall-ey, you name it. It’s a glorious tradition led by DJ Abra (aka Dr. Information).

From 3:00 a.m. to 4:00 a.m., you’ll hear The Voice of Doom — a barrage of exotic instruments from the collection of Doom the KZSU DJ who started the Day of Noise tradition years ago.

From 6:30 a.m. to 7:00 a.m., bran(…)pos will be on. I know him for harsh, vocal-driven noise, but who knows — he could perform anything.

Improv-rock group Lost Planet performs from 9:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m.

From 1:30 p.m. to 3:00 p.m., you’ll hear a couple of groups from the Bay Area improv scene, combining classical and jazz ideas with good old noise. Jacob Felix Heule, Aurora Josephson, and John McCowen perform first, followed by Tania Chen, Matt Ingalls, and Ken Ueno.

Day of Noise favorite Henry Plotnick, a teen prodigy who weaves hypnotic layers of keyboard minimalism, performs from 4:00 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Computer-music pioneer Tim Perkis seizes the airwaves from 5:30 p.m. to 6:00 p.m.

Rent Romus and Collette McCaslin of longstanding jazz outfit Lords of Outland play as part of a trio from 6:00 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. They’re both very noisy people when they want to be; don’t expect “jazz.”

… And there’s a lot more that I’m probably missing as I skim the schedule. The whole thing is listed here, and you can listen online at kzsulive.stanford.edu.

‘In C’ Gets an iPad App

That video above is a demo of the “In C” iPad app, which lets one person command a mini-ensemble through Terry Riley’s seminal piece, the composition that helped turn minimalism into a movement.

“In C” turns 50 this year, and to celebrate, sfSound ensemble leader Matt Ingalls teamed up with Professor Henry Warwick of Toronto’s Ryerson University to create this app.

I missed the app’s concert debut, which was the other night at The Uptown in Oakland. Warwick came out to the Bay Area, playing the app as his instrument in a larger ensemble that played “In C.” It’s all a little bit meta, isn’t it?

If you’re not familiar with “In C” … the composition consists of 53 composed phrases, all in the key of C, none of them very complex. More than one consists of whole notes, indicating a drone effect. What makes the piece is that the players move forward through the 53 phrases at their own speeds. They do stay in tempo, as I understand it, but they don’t have to stay synchronized. You want the overall ensemble to keep up — no one should be stuck on Phrase 2 if the rest of the group is on Phrase 17 — but you also want them to be playing different phrases.

The overall effect can be like a gentle showering of bells. It’s one huge major chord that’s splintered into snowflakes that land softly on your shoulders and hair and shoes. Alternatively, I’d imagine it could be a drone, or — in the hands of someone like Acid Mothers Temple, who recorded “In C’ along with companion pieces “In D” and “In E” — a blissful psych explosion that just keeps exploding.

And now you can do all that with just a couple of fingers and an iPad. The app appears to be free, so have at it.

 

The Read: June 25, 2011

1. Giving local musicians some love: This goes back a bit, but SFGate ran a nice profile of bassist Lisa Mezzacappa.

2. Quasi related, here’s a review of the band Cylinder in JazzWrap. Cylinder is a quartet that includes Aram Shelton (sax) and Mezzacappa; they’ve played around town for years, and it’s to my detriment that I’ve not seen them nor heard their album on Clean Feed. One more for the to-do list.

3. SOMArts in San Francisco is hosting a five-show dance/installation piece called The Book, by Avy K productions. Performances occur roughly weekly starting July 1. My main interest: experimental vocalist Ken Ueno and clarinetist (and sfSound founder) Matt Ingalls will be performing in Part 2, which takes place July 7.

4. Chris Speed’s Skirl label got a nice writeup in The Wall Street Journal. The story focuses on the general difficulties of selling CDs and getting music out to the public (or getting a fan base into the music).

5. Interesting discussion floating around the Web about whether younger jazz players are paying proper respect to their own sound and to their elders. Without a nightly bandstand to mature on, it would seem fewer musicians are interested in developing a bebop virtuosity. It’s an argument that has some credence and seems to have touched some nerves. Here’s a blog from writer Peter Hum about the issue; that’s a link that goes to other links, but it’s a good summary and a good starting place.

6. Remember that CD diptych from Steven Lugerner?  Here’s more about the former Berkeley native, from the L.A. Times and Berkeleyside.

7. From Louder Than War, a great long Cardiacs article.

8. From 2007, a piece on the coolness of Cryptogramophone.

Clarinetty Things, Edmund Welles, and sfSound

I did see Edmund Welles last weekend and still need to write it up.

But for the moment, take a look at this story from The Bay Citizen: “The Hot New Sound on the Scene? Oh Yes, It Is the Clarinet.”

It’s about clarinet becoming a hip leading instrument in jazz circles. And it comes to us from : Cornelius Boots, Edmund Welles’ founder; Aaron Novik, another Edmund Welleser who’s led many a band himself; Beth Custer and her Clarinet Thing; Ben Goldberg; and Matt Ingalls, a founder of sfSound.

The story also appears on The New York Timessite. Nice press, folks. Congrats!

Slow Burn

Grosse Abfahrt — Everything That Disappears (Emanem, 2009)

source:emanemdisc.comThe name, they assure us, is German for “great departure,” and it’s assigned to a varying collection of Bay Area improvisers teamed up with European guests. This is the third such venture, with Le Quan Ninh (bass drum) and Frederic Blondy (piano) occupying the guest chairs. (More about Ninh here.)

Like the other Grosse Abfahrt album I’ve heard, erstes Luftschiff u Kalifornien (Creative Sources, 2007), there’s a patient aesthetic at work. Although <i>Everything That Disappears</i> isn’t as relentlessly quiet, the pieces build patiently, loose membranes of sound drifting by.

While you’ve got four different players doing some level of electronics, it’s not always easy to distinguish the electronic sources from the acoustic ones. Some of the high-pitched whistles on the third track could conceivably be coming from an acoustic source — a bowed piece of metal or styrofoam in Gino Robair‘s hands, maybe. It adds up to a swampy mystery, odd sounds that could be coming from wispy acoustic playing.

The opening track is a foreboding hum, atop which are sprinkled tiny sounds: metallic tinkles or the tap of a drum. The title here is “The lack Americans connected What disappears.” (Titles are taken from the first words in succeeding lines of a book, a very “This night wounds time” exercise.)

The minimalism there is an exception, though. Track 2, “negativity paradox achieved in humour realm” gets into some recognizable squiggles from the acoustic instruments, like Matt Ingalls’ clarinet, or the thumping of objects placed on Ninh’s drum, or the hush of air blown through Tom Djll‘s drumpet.

“Admittedly, social relations This” gets even noisier, packed with the crinkled and curled sounds common to acoustic free improv, ominous calm tones from the bass and/or bass drum, and smatterings of electronics added as otherworldly decorations.

Track 4 is the longest, at 38 minutes, and it opens like the start of a epic. A metallic hum, maybe some guitar feedback, and lightly ghostly sounds conjure up images of a barren desert plain. A slow-moving cacophany builds up — the individual sounds might flit past quickly, but the overall flow feels slow. You’re wading an ancient river here, not getting face-planted by a tsunami. The flow dissolves into brief silences or near-silences a couple of times — one intriguing example being just before the midpoint, where a calm percussion rhythm takes over, then gives way to subtle, hearing-test tones from the electronics. It ends with tense, high-pitched electronic squeals backed by what sounds like Ninh scraping mallets against the bass drum.

Track 4 even has an epic title: “geometric undulating driveway symmetrical, all the road of masters.”

It takes discipline for nine people to craft an improvisation with this level of delicacy. You might not like the band name, but this is a compelling ongoing project.

sfSound Microfestival, Day 3

domenico sciajno, marina peterson, gene coleman at sfsoundNot that I attended Days 1 or 2, but: On a spur-of-the-moment decision, I managed to catch the final night of this weekend’s sfSound microfestival. Con: A rainy drive to San Francisco. Pro: Easy, easy parking in the Mission District on a Sunday night.  And great music, of course:  Some nice improvising, a mind-enriching earful of Elliott Carter, and a couple of very intriguing composed pieces.

Each night of the microfestival was focused on guest musicians passing through town, which is how Lê Quan Ninh and Michel Doneda were available for that KZSU live performance on Friday. Tonight was the trio of Domenico Sciajno (electronics), Gene Coleman (bass clarinet), and Marina Peterson (cello).

I’m going to talk about the program out-of-sequence, thusly: Those three ended the first half of the program with two improvisations, Sciajno providing a backdrop of sine waves and subtle metallic sounds that sometimes percolated enough to become the lead instrument. I liked that; the electronics didn’t stick out and stab forward like they can in these settings.

Peterson stuck a patch of paper (or light plastic?) on her cello strings to produce some interesting tones. Coleman’s bass clarinet had some of its best moments with strong flurries of staccato pops and blips.

I liked the second of their improvisations best, and that was even before the trio hit one sublime moment, a simultaneous dead STOP, behind which was a lone, subtle, high-pitched sine tone from Sciajno that lived on afterwards. As that tone lingered, Peterson and Coleman began exploring quiet harmonics.

Sciajno and Coleman got an extra treat with this performance by having their compositions played by sfSound members. Coleman’s “Black in White” opened the program, a trio for cello, clarinet, and koto. The koto is presented with “sound models” rather than strict notation, meaning the player’s interpretations will help craft the exact sound of the piece. Tightly scripted passages are interspersed among slower, improvisatory segments; Coleman says the piece derives from astronomy: “The explosions are like stars or nebulae, surrounded by vast amounts of space.”

Sciajno’s “Korzo” for octet was a graphic score, implying heavy amounts of improvisation on all sides. Moods ranged from very quiet to brash and raspy, and maybe it was just me, but it seemed Matt Ingalls‘ clarinet and Coleman’s bass clarinet, on the far left and far right sides, propelled much of the action. Two cellos and Coleman, all seated to the right, also combined for a nice droning segment that might have been in the score, or might have just welled up organically.

sfsound performs elliott carter's triple duoElliott Carter’s 20-minute “Triple Duo” opened the second half with a different sound. For all its avant-gardeness, Carter’s music still has elements of “regular” classical music, especially in the strings: lots of vibrato, long unison notes that quickly rise in volume for dramatic effect, etc. Each of the three duos (piano/percussion, clarinet/flute, and violin/cello) seemed to get a quick monologue early on, but deeper into the piece, the interplay gets more complex and cross-pollinated. The whole thing builds to a thrilling, shrill unison note, followed by a couple of phrases as epilogue before ending abruptly. The sfSound folks really hit that note; the effect was fantastic (more so than the recording of “Triple Duo” that I happen to be listening to right now). Kudos to the players and conductor Mary Chun for that.

The program closed with sfSound and the three guest performers combining on a group improvisation, with saxophonist John Ingle taking the lead.

sfsound en masse