Posts tagged ‘modern classical’

Tim Daisy: The Drums of October

Tim DaisyOctober Music, Vol. 1 (Relay, 2014)

daisy-octoberIn addition to being a first-call free-jazz drummer on the prolific Chicago scene, Tim Daisy is also a composer. For October Music, he’s sketched duets to play with seven hand-picked partners, pieces seemingly built to play off their strengths. It’s got some serious moments but overall feels like an opportunity to just enjoy making some music with friends.

Many of the sessions come in a jazzy vibe — especially “Writers,” a spirited free-jazz romp with Marc Riorden on piano. It quickly gets into a sprint, with Riorden’s knotted piano improvising racing against Daisy’s fleet, subtle drumming. The composed theme, when it emerges, is a skeleton staircase of rising notes, setting the stage for a second round of high-energy improvising.

“Roscoe St.,” with Dave Rempis on baritone sax, seems like a nice reflection of Roscoe Mitchell’s many facets, a combination of burly, swinging saxophone and warbly experimental sounds. “For Jay” likewise slips through a few mood changes, from a sprited jazz-improv duet to a more careful space where James Falzone’s clarinet paints images of stillness against some astoundingly fast vibraphone — Daisy showing off some serious high-precision rolls on the sustained notes.

Other pieces opt for a modern-classical sound. “Some Birds” features Katherine Young, who’s explored the outer limits of the bassoon. It’s a calm chamber piece with vibraphone, presented with care, as if you were watching the assembly of a delicate and carefully balanced structure. “Near a Pond” is a studious piece where Jen Clare Paulson plays some sad, folky melodies on viola but also gets a moment of scratchy, whispery experimentation, adding to the overcast feel. It all culminates with a surprisingly vibrant marimba solo.

Vibraphone takes center stage on “For Lowell,” with Jason Adasiewicz at the hammers, playing bright, cool splashes against the palette of Daisy’s drum kit. “Painted,” with Josh Berman on cornet, is a reflective ending, played at a decently chipper clip but with lots of white space, created mostly from Daisy’s restraint on the drum kit. It’s not exactly sad, just very thoughtful.

You can find a more of Daisy’s composed or improvised musical ventures on Bandcamp. Here’s a dash of the aforementioned “Writers,” with Marc Riorden on piano:

April 9, 2015 at 11:06 pm Leave a comment

Ken Thomson’s Slow/Fast

Ken Thomson and Slow/FastSettle (NCM East, 2014)

Source: ktonline.net, click to go there

Source: ktonline.net, click to go there

I’m familiar with Ken Thomson because of Gutbucket, the sharp-attitude quartet that uses his sax as an offensive weapon. Their shows are full of exciting, pinpoint jazz, but they’re also raucous events, more rocking than a lot of rock shows, with Thomson drenched in sweat before the set is half over.

Slow/Fast isn’t like that — and yet, it’s still got Thomson’s personality and presence. The group, shaped like a jazz quintet, is a showcase for Thomson’s compositions, which occupy that zone straddling jazz and modern music. The writing is full of elegant and complex melodies, sometimes seasoned with a warm, jazzy solo.

Some pieces almost feel like games, built up from an exacting geometry. I want to say “minimalism,” but it’s closer to proggy jazz; in either case, the hallmark is a not-quite-regular construct of time signatures.

As an example, “Welding for Freedom” starts off with a scripted dialogue of sax and trumpet statements, short blips like a puzzle. Then it bursts into this pretty, flowing theme — a not-quite-waltz — and gives way to a warm and blossoming trumpet solo from Russ Johnson.

“We Are Not All in This Together” likewise pairs bass clarinet and single-note guitar in unison stop/start lines, tracing a winding path accompanied by slow, earthy bass from Adam Armstrong.

That gives way to a spider-fingered guitar solo by Fender, backed only by Armstrong’s bass and Fred Kennedy’s drums — a sublimely jazzy segment.

“Settle,” the bright and forceful title track, is the only one that reminds me of Gutbucket. It features Thomson in a darting solo against a hyperactive rhythm section: Armstrong’s brisk walking bass and Kennedy’s light, fast cymbal taps. It’s got fuzzed-out guitar and an aggressive stance overall, and the Spanish-tinged, two-horn theme is bold and dramatic. (The whole track is up on Soundcloud — be warned that the audio starts automatically.)

Finally, one of my favorite moments of zen on Settle comes during “Spring,” where a long bass solo gives way to the butterfly-flapping theme as played by Thomson and Johnson. The fingerwork is quick and sounds difficult, but the mood is airy and slow, very much evoking the feeling of a sleepy spring meadow.

February 21, 2015 at 10:44 pm Leave a comment

Vicky Chow and the One-Bit Army

Tristan Perich [Vicky Chow, piano] — Surface Image (New Amsterdam, 2014)
Vicky Chow (Tristan Perich) -- Surface Image (New Amsterdam 2014)“One-bit electronics” refers to a speaker that either beeps or doesn’t. Only one tone is possible, and it’s on or off — much like the bell on an Apple II computer or IBM PS/2, if anyone remembers those.

Put a bunch of one-bit speakers in a room, set to different tones, and you’d have a programmable music box. Set those tones to a bright, minimalist major/suspended chord and play them really fast, and you’d have a hyperkinetic, jumpy music box — and a captivating, forceful musical experience, if you did it right.

Now add a pianist who can either augment or cut across the flow — and you’ve got Tristan Perich’s “Surface Image,” where pianist Vicky Chow does battle with (or leads the march of) 40 one-bit speakers all chattering away for a little more than an hour.

As you can see in the preview video, it’s an assault of bright, insistent tones blasting forth.

At its peak, the music is a maximal minimalism. It’s in your face, bouncing you around like a bumper-car ride. I think the piece is best experienced in one sitting — yes, your attention wavers, but as it does, your experience shifts from a pinpoint shower (lots of individual notes hurtling forth) to a shimmering haze (everything blurring together).

That first half really is fun, with Chow and the electronics playing in an upbeat frenzy with a stiff rhythm. It feels light even as Chow bears down on the keyboard, hammering away at marshmallow-puff harmonies or playing impressive runs against the speakers’ pulsing. The inevitable change of mood is a welcome break, though, one that’s key to molding the music into a story. It’s a story with a mostly predictable trajectory (hey guess what: it slows down in the second half), but it’s a good one, and the conclusion was not really what I’d expected.

The one-bit speakers are split between the listener’s left and right stereo speakers, so when they really get going, there’s an odd sensation of the left and right sides blinking on and off in opposite phases. (Fans of Bang on a Can, of which Chow is a member, might recall the Louis Andriessen piece “Hocketus.”) It’s an interesting effect that makes you wonder what the piece would be like in a live performance — especially one like the SF Tape Music Festival, with speakers around the room.

For a more academic yet still captivating example of one-bit electronics, in a venue where your exact location really matters, check out Perich’s 1,500-speaker microtonal wall:

January 24, 2015 at 3:22 pm 1 comment

Opera As an Immersive Experience: Invisible Cities

The Pulitzer Prize winners were announced yesterday, but it’s one of the runners-up that I’m most excited about.

It’s Christopher Cerrone‘s opera, Invisible Cities:

I’ll give away the punch line before you watch the video: The opera is performed in a public place, with cast and audience wandering about together, all connected on wireless headphones to hear the concert. Discovering where the action is, or stumbling onto the plainclothes players, is part of the whole experience.

The premiere run, in the fall of 2013, got some rave reviews and sold out every show, according to the rider. Yes, there’s a rider [21-page PDF] — they’re hoping to take this opera on the road.

Still from the <i>Invisible Cities</i> promo video.Those performances spanned two weeks at Los Angeles’ Union Station. It’s a large, elegant place — not the size of Grand Central, which would hopelessly swallow the performance, but still large enough to provide physical distance and separation. The opera was spread out, compelling the audience to wander and explore.

Part of the trick is that the opera performs during the evening, while the station is operating. My guess is that a ticket buys you the headphones, but if you’ve legitimately got a train to catch, or you just want to gawk, you get the show’s visual aspect for free.

While I’d love to see Invisible Cities in the Bay Area, I can’t think of a good location, offhand. A transit station is ideal due to the natural bustle that would surround the opera and hide some of the “offstage” performers. But Caltrain’s San Francisco station is open-air and too small — an aspects of off-stage mystery would be lost. The San Jose station actually seems bigger (it’s an Amtrak stop, too) but still not big enough, and it doesn’t have a layout that would provide a good, dynamic experience.

There’s always BART. Annnd…. I think that discussion ends right there.

So, if you live somewhere else, keep an eye out. Invisible Cities might come to your town, and you won’t even know it until the dancers spring up from that row of seats and Ashley Faatoalia‘s whispered tenor starts gently pressing at your ear.

April 15, 2014 at 9:07 pm Leave a comment

Banging on Cans: How the New New Music Won Out

Bang on a Can All-Stars, 2000s version

Bang on a Can All-Stars, 2000s version.
Source: bangonacan.org; click to go there.

It wasn’t until about 1995 that I really tapped into avant-garde music, so I have a romanticized image of the 1980s “downtown” scene. I arrived for the tail end of that era. The Knitting Factory was feeling the decay that would eventually transform it into a rock club. John Zorn and other avant-jazz stars were starting to become accepted by the critics (if not the general jazz public). Still, with lots of recent history to catch up on, I had a terrific adventure backtracking the careers of folks like Tim Berne, Bobby Previte, and Jim Black.

Bang on a Can emerged from that era as well, but not quite from the same direction. Liner notes to Industry (Sony Classical, 1995) describe the 1987 debut of the Bang on a Can festival as an attempt to create a polyglot musical direction, one that bridged the tuxedos of uptown new-classical with the black T-shirts of the downtown scene.

It must have been an exciting time. I’ve certainly heard of Bang on a Can, and I’ve played the music on KZSU, but I’ve never really listened to much of their output. I recently amended that by cozying up with two earlier Bang on a Can All Stars CDs: Industry and Cheating, Lying, Stealing (Sony Classical, 1996)

Bang on a Can: Industry (Sony Classical, 1995)

Industry.

Those recordings come from an intermediate stage, when the Bang on a Can Festival was lesser-known to the wider world but accepted enough to drive a recording deal with Sony. For me, the CDs were a good lesson in the group’s aesthetics and goals. In the past decade, I’ve heard a lot of new-classical music that seems to fit the Bang on a Can mold, where minimalism, virtuosity, and even improvisation collide, and now I know at least one force that helped get that message out.

Pounding It Out
In particular, a lot of new music is loaded up with percussion, sometimes to lend a rock-like heartbeat, sometimes to just plain bash and thrill. Industry shows how strong that trend already was prior to the ’90s. “Lick,” by Bang on a Can co-founder Julia Wolfe, opens the album with strident blips that build into something like a rock rhythm (Mark Stewart’s electric guitar certainly helps push that suggestion). Built of various types of pounding that eventually emerge in melodic forms, it’s an engaging piece that grabs me like a good jazz track would. “The Anvil Chorus” is simply all percussion. David Lang composed the piece, then left Steven Schick to pick just which junk-percussion items would be making the sounds — a nice idea that acknowledges the importance of percussion and the wide flea market of sounds waiting to be tapped.

Bang on a Can: Cheating, Lying, Stealing (Sony Classical, 1996)

Cheating, Lying, Stealing

Two compositions take some inspiration from the early Soviet practice of trying to replicate pounding, steaming factory sounds in music. One is “Industry,” a somber Michael Gordon piece performed by cellist Maya Beiser. But the one that’s particularly effective is Annie Gosfield’s “The Manufacture of Tangled Ivory.” It uses a sampling keyboard where some notes are “tuned” to industrial clangs or to muffled, prepared-piano clacking. That lends a percussive sound to the keyboard solo that starts the piece — and then, when the ensemble kicks in like a fast conveyer belt, the percussive piano, guitar, and bass sounds augment the outright percussion for what, indeed, comes across like the sound of a factory.

Pianist Lisa Moore gets another percussive turn on Frederic Rzewski‘s “Piano Piece No. IV.” While it’s got some rich melody and some serious classical-music flutters and runs, it’s also full of pecking, poking, and two-handed jackhammering. A regally lyrical passage might give way to a sudden near-tuneless pounding — followed by a very tuneful pounding in the higher registers, like a small spoon delicately cracking an egg.

Another element often found in modern classical music, and even in improvisation, is process. Louis Andriessen‘s “Hocketus” has two identical sextets playing one chord at a time in strict alternating patterns: Team A plays, then holds silent as Team B plays. On the CD, one sextet is in each speaker, so you get the ping-pong effect of the music bouncing back and forth, eventually in rapid patter that creates long rhythmic phrases. After several minutes, the music feels purely percussive. The exact notes being hit become secondary to their timing; by altering which instruments’ sounds dominate, Andriessen creates different sounds, but you’re not trying to follow any melodic thread, not until the saxophones start building one in the end.

Lincoln Center presents "Bang on a Can: 25 Years" at Alice Tully Hall on April 28, 2012.  The performances included: Gamelan Galak Tika perfoming Evan Ziporyn "Tire Fire" Asphalt Orchestra Bang on a Can All-Stars with Mira Calix, Christian Marclay and NIck Zammuto performing "Field Recordings (2012) Credit: Stephanie Berger

Bang on a Can founders Gordon, Wolfe, and Lang, at the 25th anniversary concert in 2012. Photo by Stephanie Berger; source: bangonacan.org — click to go there.

I’ve seen Andriessen’s name but never realized he was such a patron saint for Bang on a Can’s cause, a composer “versed in the European modernist tradition but [who] recognized that rock ‘n’ roll existed,” as Wolfe, Gordon, and Lang (Bang on a Can’s founders) write in the Industry liner notes. To me, as a latecomer, Bang on a Can itself has always been a touchstone for new-classical music; it’s strangely refreshing to think of the outfit as the spunky new kid looking for sympathetic ears out in the classical world.

Just Rock, Dammit
At the root of it all is a desire to just plain rock out, as the Bang on a Can founders state on Cheating, Lying, Stealing:

In classical music, you’ll have this amazing musician, but he sits in a chair or stands still. There’s no visual element, no show. In rock bands, it’s all show. Since we began the Bang on a Can festivals in 1987, we have merged and synthesized these worlds, putting together programs of seemingly contradictory pieces: gutsy, funky, highly energetic, sound-world stretching music that takes in influences from rock, jazz, folk, world music, and technology.

The track where those principles particularly shine is “Arapua,” by Hermeto Pascoal — an exciting, screeching free-jazz tumult that lets the band really tear it up while never fully giving way to abandon. It’s driven by big piano chords and some searing electric guitar, including a whole patch of chord strumming that plays out like a solo. Evan Ziporyn goes nuts on bass clarinet above the tumult. That’s how it’s done!

It’s a comfort to listen to this music and read these liner notes knowing that Bang on a Can’s ideas and experiments won out in the end. Artists have embraced the idea of letting classical music absorb modern influences rather than the other way around, and the resulting works are rich and plentiful — you just have to find the right places to look. The Bay Area’s Switchboard Music Festival, which I’ve mentioned here but never actually attended, would be a perfect example. Now I can’t wait to go.

December 29, 2013 at 6:00 pm 1 comment

Bruno Ruviaro: Happy New Ear

Bruno introduces the evening's program.Bruno Ruviaro demonstrated some nifty ideas around electroacoustic music and voice performance Friday night, and he also got to show off the Laptop Ensemble that’s going to be the seed for Santa Clara University’s first Laptop Orchestra.

Ruviaro got SCU’s Music Recital Hall to himself for “Happy New Ear,” a program of his music. (See Laptop Music Invades Santa Clara.)

University events can be nice. You get a plush, acoustically pleasing theater and an appreciative crowd — in this case about 70 people including Ruviaro’s students, fellow SCU faculty, and other colleagues, and some curiosity seekers like me.

Two pieces used the stage theatrically, with physical movement adding a dimension of storytelling to the music. “Clippings” started with flautist Rachael Beetz and soprano Jessica Aszodi seated on opposite sides of the stage, backs to one another. Aszodi played a wine glass and made small, almost flute-like whining sounds that Beetz responded to, a blind conversation. (That movement was even called “Whine.”)

DSCN0826

Beetz (left) and Aszodi after performing “Clippings.” Yes, it’s blurry. Aszodi later performed “Unspell,” and her Web site says she’s preparing a CD of vocal-plus-electronics pieces like that. That combination is a current passion of hers.

Then Beetz went upstage and Aszodi downstage, still with their backs to each other, for a second movement of rapid-fire monologuing by Aszodi, a phonetic jungle gym that reminded me of Finnegan’s Wake. The final movement had them on opposite sides of the stage again, this time slightly facing one another. The whole effect was like minimalist experimental theater.

Later, Aszodi took to the stage alone for a piece titled “Unspell,” vocalizing against the electronics Ruviaro triggered from the soundboard in the middle of the auditorium. Aszodi rapid-fired through passages of French, English, and possibly something in between, running a gamut of emotions from contented bliss to jilted anger. She’s an accomplished opera performer with a lot of stage presence and a wide range of emoting — her facial expressions alone told the story.

The text itself, inspired by a Roland Barthes book, mostly concerned the narrator waiting for a lover, at different times either voluntarily or by order, and it included the classic scenario of not daring to use the telephone in case the lover should try to call. The electronics lingered in back, setting moods including a rabid buzz, or a series of joyous, bouncing notes, like metallic balloons being released.

Aszodi spent most of “Unspell” standing front-and-center on the bare stage, then sat at the edge of the stage for the conclusion, reading off of a music stand placed there. It was a clever way to end with more of a tête-à-tête setting.

Laptop EnsembleThe six-person laptop ensemble involved Ruviaro conducting the players through cues while leaving them options for their playing — varying different types of waveforms. Each laptop got its own speaker, so that your ears could tie a location to each player, just as with acoustic instruments. That came into play early, as the piece, “Intellectual Improperty 0.6,” started with a continual buzz that turned out to be ratchety clicking coming from each laptop. The nature of the sound became apparent as players dropped out or moved to the next phase, reducing the sum-of-parts to some discernible components. It was a nice effect.

The second half of the piece was dominated by recognizable piano sounds, some sampled from Beethoven’s “Diabelli Variations.” (I’ve mentioned that piece before, in a surprisingly similar context.) It started with high plinks invading the sound one by one, eventually descending into a big rumbling thunder, the evolving back into recognizable piano sounds near the ending.

Laptop music does have that “people checking e-mail” quality, which Ruviaro joked about in the program notes, but this was an enjoyable piece. Being closer to the stage, to better hear the sound separation between players, might have been interesting.

Laptop Ensemble cleanup.

The Laptop Ensemble, disassembling during intermission. Click for big view – those bowl looking speakers *are* Ikea bowls, with car speakers inserted through holes in the sides.

Ruviaro also performed two prerecorded electroacoustic pieces, with speakers around the auditorium playing the sounds in the dark, just like at the San Francisco Tape Music Festival (coming up Jan. 25-27, 2013.)

“Fonepoemas,” which opened the concert, was apparently sampled from different vocalizations of the name “Tania.” I completely did not pick up on that; I was enjoying the sci-fi insect chatter of it all.

The other piece, “Study on Japanese Themes,” was not the zen stillness I expected. In fact, it was lively and driving. I liked it a lot. It drew from sounds by composers Ryoji Ikeda and Keiichiro Shibuya, combining hundreds of tiny bits of sound through a technique called concatenative synthesis.

Overall, a very enjoyable faculty concert, even though I felt sorry to miss the Jay Korber benefit in Berkeley.

Ruviaro isn’t done, of course. In the spring quarter, he’ll offer a class whose members will become the SCU Laptop Orchestra, and they’ll play a concert on the afternoon of Thursday, June 6.
Taken from the "Happy New Ear" program

January 12, 2013 at 12:46 am Leave a comment

Lisa Mezzacappa and Nightshade

Lisa Mezzacappa & NightshadeCosmic Rift (Leo, 2011)

Nightshade is essentially a new-classical quintet, performing compositions that reserve large spaces for improvisation. But while you get frequent episodes of scribbly improv — furious crackles and scrapes on John Finkbeiner’s electric guitar, for instance — there’s still a concert-hall studiousness to the music. It’s not something that would come off well in a bar.

It was a treat, then, to see the group perform at Old First Church in San Francisco last month. The church hosts chamber music concerts regularly, from the very traditional to the new and outbound (like this one, from 2009).

Old First was a natural habitat for Nightshade. Sounds thrive and resonate there; they can be relished and absorbed. The resonance isn’t echoey, it’s more of a magnifying effect — you can hear everything, from the quietest musical details to the frustratingly loud rustling of your own jacket as you scratch your arm.

Nightshade’s sound relies on a lot of vibraphone (Kjell Nordeson), played in sleek and modern lines. There’s no true lead voice, though; clarinet (often bass clarinet, from Cory Wright), guitar, bass (Mezzacappa herself), and subtly tinged electronics round out the group. The written themes often follow dreamy, glassy melodies, striking onto a few jazzy moments before opening up into solos or improvising.

The electronics are a surprisingly subtle touch. Tim Perkis isn’t just thrown in there to make noise. He’s handed a score like any other player and abides by it. Now, his part must have a higher level of improvisation (or at least randomness) than the others, but still — it’s a gentle addition, arriving at specified times, blending into the group aesthetic. There’s a lot of potential in that approach.

The most aggressive melody on the CD (and in the concert) is/was “Regard de L’etoile,” taken from a suite of Olivier Messiaen piano pieces. It comes across stern and jazzy. Mezzacappa also put a Zappa song, “The Eric Dolphy Memorial BBQ,” into the band’s repertoire. It’s got lots of vibes, of course, and some slash-and burn moments for Finkbeiner. I seem to remember both having a spikier, more aggressive sound live than on the CD, which I’d attribute to the usual difference between recording a clean-take CD (it’s “classical,” after all) and performing live, in the moment.

Most of the album consists of Mezzacappa compositions, and they’re terrific. “Delphine,” is introduced on the CD by a quiet, bubbling improvisation before moving into the placid, glassy composed lines. It flows at a careful, liquid pace. “Cosmic Rift” likewise starts in improv territory, this time chaotic, aided by generous electronics, and shifts to a crepuscular tick-tock melodies that the band improvises around. It moves like a quirky classical music, with dark improvising flitting about the margins.

Separate, self-absorbed note: As mentioned earlier, this CD hadn’t even made it onto Leo Records’ web site when I played it on the air, and how cool is that? It’s up there now.

September 4, 2011 at 9:12 pm Leave a comment

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