From the joyous prog rock of Reconnaissance Fly, Polly Moller and Tim Walters have staked new turf in the realm of pensive electronics and austere set pieces.
Windfall paints a spare landscape where silence is a primary color. Moller’s voice and flute are foundational sound sources, both organically and in digitally twisted forms, and Walter adds electronics like small, bright creatures darting across a shadowy geometric plane.
“Usufruct” is a real word, referring to “the right of the people to harvest the fruits of common property.” In that spirit, the band harvests found texts, read by Moller. “Only a Test” borrows from what might be a military handbook, with Moller and Walters barking out disconnected proclamations and lists of words. “Donzerly” cuts up the lyrics to the Star Spangled Banner, backed by swirling, buzzing electronics that sound aggressive but feel solitary.
When the flute is unadulterated, Moller draws forth a sense of color and stillness, augmented by trilling or tilted embouchure. On “Upside Down Wedding,” Walters plays back the melodic lines to create an intertwining vine climbing through the ether.
Here’s Usufruct performing at the 2018 Outsound New Music Festival:
Obviously, that’s what you would expect. Lake is a living legend — but I was also there to see Robinson, a Bay Area drummer whose skill I’ve lauded here repeatedly. A duet with a kindred spirit (both were part of the free-jazz scene in Paris in the ’70s) was the perfect setting for showcasing Robinson’s talents and creativity.
Lake announced his presence with a keening, whistling cry on a miniature curved saxophone. It got the music started with almost no preliminaries and also served as a signal that yes, the avant-garde stuff was going to be welcomed in this set.
Spending most of the hour-long set on alto sax, Lake frequently alternated between rapid-fire chatter and fragments of jazzy, funky melody. Robinson rotated through a few choices of sound palettes, from hard mallets to sticks to brushes. I love the light touch he has on the drums — airy, rapid-fire gestures that build up to a reeling ferocity.
This was a polished set, in a good way, by a couple of pros. The flow of ideas was seamless, aided by Lake’s occasional use of melody to shift the mood. These moments were brief, terminated by a quick spackling of wild sax notes, but Lake and Robinson did let a bit of a groove develop during their lively closing improvisation.
The piece was a frenzied display of power. Stanley, in particular, made the most of it, madly sawing to keep the energy level red-lined while also using occasional electronics to deliver more pulverizing sounds from the violin.
Evans was terrific on soprano sax, but that instrument didn’t offer much contrast to the violin. That might have been the desired effect; both instruments melted into one another to form a continuous chatter. But I appreciated Evans’ contributions more on alto, where the contrast in sounds made it easier to separate his voice from Stanley’s.
It was a take-no-prisoners session, which puts pressure on the drummer to keep the energy level peaked without overpowering the sound. I did feel like Pino fell into occasional ruts early in the piece, but he quickly found his footing and was soon tossing off some impressive fills and rolls.
These two sets complemented each other well. Not because both included improvised sax and drums, but because each started from the premise of “jazz”-like improvising on acoustic instruments and followed a different direction from there. A nice pairing of acts by Outsound.
Starting tomorrow in San Francisco, the week-long Outsound New Music Summit will convene for the 15th time. It’s a week-long series of shows celebrating creative music of many stripes, from jazz and new-classical to noise and prop.
I’ve written about the event quite a bit over the years, and you can also learn more by digging through the Outsound archive.
The event runs July 24-30, at the Community Music Center (544 Capp Street @ 20th, San Francisco). Check out the full schedule here.
For a deeper look, you can explore the “In the Field” series of video interviews, posted by Outsound organizer Rent Romus. They’re extensive (usually 20+ minutes) and often explore how these musicians got turned on to creative music and out-there sounds.
Here’s my smattering of highlights — based primarily on how familiar I am with the musicians and concepts. Meaning, I’ve left lots of deserving artists behind; explore the full schedule for more info, with additional video and audio information.
Concert times are 8:15 p.m., except as noted.
Touch the Gear (Sun. July 24, 7:00-10:00 p.m.) — An Outsound tradition. It’s a hands-on exhibit of electronics and noisemakers (and sometimes some more “normal” musical instruments”), giving you an opportunity to find out where some of these unusual noises come from. It’s very informal and, well, noisy: You wander the tables, ask some questions — and push some buttons and make some noise yourself.
Sonny Simmons documentary (Mon. July 25, 7:00 p.m.) — A screening of Brandon Evans’ 2003 film, “Sonny Simmons: The Multiple Rated X Truth.” Simmons is a fascinating story, a forgotton hero of ’60s free-jazz who became re-remembered starting in the early ’00s.
Dan Plonsey: “On His Shoulders Stands No One” (Tues. July 26) — Expect Braxton-like expanse, but with a friendlier, warmer touch than Braxton’s Ghost Trance Music or Echo Echo Mirror House. Find out more in Plonsey’s video interview (embedded here).
Brett Carson’s Mysterious Descent (Tues. July 26) — A theater/poetry/music piece based on the extant texts of the Idnat Ikh-ôhintsôsh (i.e., a language of Carson’s own devising). Might be the most “out-there” concept on the docket. I’m not sure what to expect; I just got drawn in by Carson’s “In the Field” inteview.
Oliver Lake & Donald Robinson (Thur. July 28) — Outsound goes above and beyond to support local artists, but the festival also usually includes notable names from out of town. Oliver Lake is a luminary known for the World Saxophone Quartet, Trio 3, and his extensive solo career. (See SF Weekly‘s preview.) Donald Robinson is a hero of the local scene, a drummer whose fluid, airy style has always impressed me. He’s also a veteran of the early ’70s free jazz scene in Paris, where his musical cohorts included Oliver Lake. Who knows whether they kept in touch or even knew each other well; in any event, this should be a special dialogue between kindred spirits.
There’s also a trio improv that combines Brandon Evans with local luminaries Christina Stanley (violin) and Mark Pino (drums); an avant-pop night promising shades of prog and electronic music; and an appearance from the long-running, unpredictable Big City Orchestra.
And plenty more. Seriously, explore the schedule. There’s a wide range of music in store.
The Outsound group has posted several videos from this year’s New Music Summit, the annual creative-music festival held every summer in San Francisco. (You’ll find the full playlist of videos here.)
Video is a powerful tool for documenting live music, especially creative music. The music is underrepresented in the media as it is. Video evidence of past performances could be a useful promotional tool, especially when traveling out of town. And for this kind of music, it’s not as if the fans will stay home hoping there’ll be video to replay later — that’s hardly a guarantee.
Here’s Josh Allen conducting an improvising orchestra. It’s a grand, hour-long piece full of big sounds and blazing solos. Rent Romus and Vinny Golia, on saxes, really sink their teeth into it early on. Afterwards, there’s a fiery encore where we get to hear Allen’s tenor sax assault. Great stuff.
I assume they’d take your contribution no matter what the date. But Sunday night is the deadline to contribute via Indiegogo and, for $100 or more, get a ticket to the dinner held each year for organizers and donors. Held at Berkeley Arts Festival, the dinner will include a set of music by percussionist William Winant and another set by Thea Farhadian (violin) and Amy X. Neuburg (vocals, loops, maybe electronics).
No, I don’t know what’s on the menu. But I do know it’s all for a good cause, a locally produced festival for creative music. Rent Romus has kept the fire burning going on 13 years now.
July 27- August 2, 2014, Co-Presented with KFJC 89.7FM
Community Music Center, 544 Capp Street San Francisco, CA
Advance Tickets: Brown Paper Tickets
The Bay Area’s New Sound Festival Features Underground and
Experimental Jazz, Electronics, Noise Art, Spoken Word, Poetry,
Workshops, and Hands-onInteractive “Touch the Gear” Expo.
Sunday July 27th 1:00 PM
Pianist, composer, and educator Thollem McDonas will lead a
collaboration/improvisation workshop for musicians and non-
Monday, July 28th 8:00 PM
Thollem McDonas and participants from the Sunday improvisation
workshop will perform a set of structured and free improvi-
sation. This event is free to the public.
Wednesday, July 30th
Q&A Sessions 7:30 pm, Performance 8:15 pm
PoetryFreqs, a night of spoken word and poetry with electro-
* Pitta of the Mind (Maw Shein Win – poetry and Amanda
Chaudhary – electronics)
* Original jazz beat poet Ruth Weiss with electronic pioneer
Doug Lynner – Buchla Synth, Hal Davis - hollow log
* Watkins/Trammel/McZeal (Zachary James Watkins -
electronics, Marshall Trammell – drums with award winning
poet Amber McZeal)
Thursday, July 31st
Q&A Sessions 7:30 pm, Performance 8:15 pm
Guitars, a night showcasing seven talented and provocative
guitarists Henry Kaiser;Amy Reed & Ross Hammond;Noah
Phillips & John Finkbeiner; Sandy Ewen & Jakob Pek
Friday, August 1st
Q&A Sessions 7:30 pm, Performance 8:15 pm
Constructions will bring two extremes together
* Teddy Rankin-Parker/Daniel Pearce Duo,
premiering new works by renowned composer Renee Baker
* The Deconstruction Orchestra, a mass ensemble of 25 leading
Bay Area improvising musicians led by tenor saxophonist and
composer Joshua Allen, who will perform the debut of The
Structure of Sound and Space, an original deconstructivist-
inspired suite of cell structure game compositions, melding
together post-modern, free jazz and non-idiomatic improvisa-
tion. Saxophones: Aaron Bennett-as, Sam Flores-ts, John
Ingle-bs, Matt Ingalls-as/c, Josh Marshall-ts, Dan Plonsey-bs,
Dave Slusser-ts, Rory Snyder-as, Rent Romus-as, Cory Wright-bs
Brass: Peter Bonos-trpt, Collete McCaslin-coronet, Matt
Gaspar-Flugel, Ron Heglin-tuba, Jeff Hobbs-trpt, George
Moore-trpt, Matt Streich-trombone Rhythm: Henry Kaiser-guitar,
John Finkbeiner-guitar Timothy Orr-drums, William Winant-drums,
Lisa Mezzacappa-bass, Matt Montgomery-bass
Saturday, August 2nd 1:00pm
Transformational Voice, an afternoon vocal workshop with
bodywork/energywork master Jill Burton.
Register at the door or Pre-Register @ Brownpaper Tickets
Saturday, August 2
Q&A Sessions 7:30 pm, Performance 8:15 pm
Improvisations, featuring three different
groups of improvisers exploring the language of the unknown.
* Obstreperous Doves (Karl Evangelista – guitar, Bill Noertker -
bass, Nava Dunkelman - percussion, Christina Stanley - violin,
and Jordan Glenn - drums)
* The Emergency String (X)tet (violins: Mia Bella D'Augelli,
Jeff Hobbs, Christina Stanley; lap steel guitar: David
Michalak; cello: Doug Carroll; bass koto: Kanoko Nishi-Smith;
and cello/director: Bob Marsh); who will premiere a new work
in celebration of Bob Marsh’s 70th birthday
* Jill Burton Trio (Jill Burton - voice, Tim Perkis -
electronics, and Doug Carroll - cello) debuting their
… and here’s what I wrote about last year’s Summit:
I wrote about the concluding act, Kyle Bruckmann’s Wrack, here (now with pictures). The rest of the evening was solid as well — and Bruckmann’s wasn’t the only impressive long-form, world-premiere piece. Lewis Jordan got a great reception for his jazz suite, “Only Children.”
The suite felt large, musically tracing the path from childhood to old age, and featuring a poem of Jordan’s about the adults that children become. It began with a springtime feel, content and innocent. Later motifs included a fun Mediterranean-sunset air that became the backdrop for one of India Cooke’s best violin solos.
Overall, the piece carried on in rich jazz tradition, with engaging solos and, in some places, group work over forceful, swinging bass riffs. I liked the way John-Carlos Perea held the music together during those passages.
Toward the end, the group settled on a gentle, almost weary riff that sounded like a concluding statement. It seemed to repeat one time too many … just lingering … and then, it burst into a jaunty blues, not too fast but saucy and lively. It definitely put a smile on your face. They jammed with that for a few minutes before letting Karl Evangelista erupt into an all-out guitar freakout.
I like to think this part of the suite was meant to show a bursting of happiness and activity late in one’s life, as opposed to the resignation of being used up. In that light, “Only Children” left a feeling of joy and hope in the air.
Rent Romus’ Lords of Outland played a strong set mixing free jazz with heavy, sky-high psych. It included a few new pieces from a sci-fi-influenced suite about “Dr. K.” and also at least one from the Lords’ considerable catalog. The quartet lineup was enhanced by two players from Columbus, Ohio: Hasan Abdur-Razzaq (sax) and L.A. Jenkins (guitar).
Abdur-Razzaq — part of the Rejuvenation Trio album that I reviewed a couple of years ago, added a deep sense of the jazz tradition, while Jenkins’ guitar colored the mix with psych reverb. Both were good complements to the Lords of Outland sound — Jenkins fitting the music’s dark sci-fi overtures and Abdur-Razzaq helping tether it to jazz. C.J. Borosque delivered some crisp trumpet solos, and of course, we got a few minutes of Romus playing two saxes at once.
Overall, a great show. Bruckmann’s “…Awaits Silent Tristero’s Empire” has now been studio-recorded for eventual release, and one can only home Jordan’s “Only Children” can similarly live on.
It’s hard writing a concert review weeks after the fact, and admittedly harder when you’re talking about electronic music — a genre that poses inherent problems of language. The music lends itself to some obvious descriptors (“swampy,” “crinkling,” “droney”) but it’s hard to resist calling everything “metallic” and “abstract.”
That said, I did enjoy “Vibration Hackers,” the computer-music night at last month’s Outsound New Music Summit. Three real-time ensemble performances were interspersed with two fixed-media performances — “tape music” pieces — all with some organic sounds mixing with the inorganic.
As with the SF Tape Music Festival, speakers were installed all around the Community Music Center. The Center’s cozy size made it a little difficult to get the full surroundsound effect, as the speakers closest to me dominated the sound. I could have fixed that by moving to a more central spot, but the house was pretty full, and I was content not to move. It was still a good listening experience.
One advantage to this type of music is that the performers don’t need to be on stage. So, in a nod to the “guys checking email” aspect of laptop concerts, the fixed-media performers — Fernando Lopez-Lezcano and Ilya Rostovtsev — worked from a console in the middle of the audience. And the opening act, #MAX, played from the balcony area that’s behind the audience.
The highlight for me was the more-than-duet of Ritwik Banerjee, Joe Lasqo, and their music software agents, Maxine and Maxxareddu — all accompanied by trippy, kaleidoscope-infused visuals by Warren Stringer. They didn’t have Maxine and Maxxareddu play unaccompanied, something I was kind of hoping would happen, but that was fine — the quartets with Banerjee’s sax, Lasquo’s piano, and the two machines created a sublimely bustling collision of sounds.
Rent Romus’ Lords of Outland — Thee Unhip (Edgetone, 2012)
The Outsound New Music Summit is a labor of love for all volunteers but especially for Rent Romus, who not only runs the whole shebang but does an aces job raising funds and gathering sponsors. It’s been a while since he’s booked himself to play at the festival, though.
Originally a jazz band with Romus channeling late-era Coltrane on his sax, Lords of Outland has developed a dark side in the past several years, delving into electronics and sound-experimentation for a more ghoulish atmosphere. Ray Schaeffer’s down-in-the-mud electric bass certainly helps on that front, but outright electronics and the occasional ferocious free-for-all make for a more overtly ghoulish atmosphere.
Jazz is not dead in these tracks. “If Ornette Grew Cacti” opens up with an appropriately prickly take on what could have been one of Ornette’s danceable themes. From there, it goes into a speedy free-jazz attack — Philip Everett’s drumming fills the air with joyous cymbal clashing, and Schaeffer jams madly on bass. There’s also the tuneful and almost traditional “Temple of Dolphy, which shows off Romus’ sax soloing in a relatively light and uncluttered setting.
Throughout the album, C.J. Borosque shows some great work on trumpet. She’s positively screaming on “If Ornette Grew Cacti” and opens up “Planet of the Plutarchs” with some terrific improv, starting with vocalized growls and moving into bright, quick riffs. That track blooms into a bright free-jazz jam, with the bass adding a touch of psych here and there.
The free jazz and noise sides converge all over the place but are used to particularly good effect on “Dedicated to Lord Kraken off Titan off the Shores of Saturn,” where Romus cuts through thick electronics with somber, reverent sax in long tones, a ceremony of respect. In the end, it all explodes into a free-jazz celebration.
This final concert of the Summit should be a doozy. In addition to the Lords and Kyle Bruckmann, the bill includes Lewis Jordan’s Music at Large, a quintet bolstered by guitarist Karl Evangelista and violinist India Cooke. Here’s the Outsound “In the Field” video introducing Jordan, a veteran of the Bay Area jazz scene.
Joe Lasqo and Ritwik Banerji have each been working on electronic-music software that reacts to the surroundings. I wrote a bit about their efforts, and a performance of Lasqo’s, back in February.
They’ve spent a good part of this year refining their music-improvising software in advance of this performance — where one goal is to have the two musicbots play off of each other, to see where they’ll go without human intervention. Lasqo told me the idea was inspired by a Cornell experiment that squared two chatbots off each other; you can see those results here (and it’s embedded on the Outsound schedule page as well — nice touch).
The music here will be of the computer/laptop variety — meaning lots of interesting sounds and effects, as opposed to actual notes and chord changes, most likely. Banerji’s research at the University of California does involve a jazz-improvising program, so the possibilities are lurking in the background.
He and Lasqo will be adding music to the performance as well — sax and piano, respectively — so some part of their set will have an acoustic influence. Video artist Warren Stringer will be accompanying them as well.
Strange results can occur when machines are left to think for themselves. One early experiment in genetic semiconductors — that is, chips that program themselves, tweaking the program over time — yielded a chip that had an unconnected bit of circuitry in the corner. Theoretically, this was extra baggage that could be cut, but when it was, the chip stopped working. I find myself wondering what the musical equivalent of that would be, and whether it’s anything we’d be able to spot aurally in Thursday’s performance.
The Banerji/Lasqo performance is one of five on Thursday night, a program titled “Vibration Hackers” and filled with computerized and synthesized sounds. Other performers include the CCRMA Ensemble, Ilya Rostovtsev, Fernando Lopez-Lezcano, and the ensemble #Max.
“…Awaits Silent Tristero’s Empire” is a concert-length “free jazz phantasmagoria” inspired by the early novels of Thomas Pynchon, scored for a septet of oboe, bass clarinet, trumpet, trombone, viola, bass and percussion. The title comes from the group W.A.S.T.E. in The Crying of Lot 49, and the piece incorporates some of them made-up songs in Pynchon’s texts.
I think of Wrack as an out-jazz group with chamber-music leanings, and while they’ve played a variety of styles, “Awaits” is different due to its size, if nothing else. Considering the work it entails, it’s nice to see the piece getting three performances next weekend — full schedule at the bottom of this post.
For a deep dive into the Pynchon aspect and the compositional process, read this interview with Bruckmann by Chamber Music America, which funded the project.
There’s also a half-hour video interview produced as part of the “In the Field” series filmed for the festival.
Finally, I had a few basic questions that had been itching at me, and Bruckmann was kind enough to take a few minutes to email some responses…
Q: What made you decide to write a long piece in the first place?
Bruckmann: I wanted to challenge myself to attempt a longer form. To date, Wrack compositions have always been self-contained entities — 5- to 10-ish minute forms (I suspect a holdover from “rock band” mindframe) that could extend as far as 15 minutes or so when the improvisations really took off. But my experience stretching things out to a half hour with On Procedural Grounds inspired me to see if I could go further and keep it coherent and cohesive.
That intention evolved in tandem with the Pynchon concept, and that material really seemed to demand a sprawling, kaleidoscopic sort of treatment — something that could ideally feel as intricate and exhausting as the novels themselves. In the end, the composition has wound up being quite a collage, and as such maybe is only just barely more of a “long form” than a carefully sequenced album — I’m also struck by how much it was informed by my history as a college radio DJ!
Q: When writing a large piece, is there pressure to make the themes/ideas “bigger?” I’ve always wondered about that.
Bruckmann: Interesting question — probably, but I think at least in this instance there’s a chicken/egg problem. Pynchon’s novels – like so much “encyclopedic” postmodernism — definitely have a way of containing the universe, or at least tangentially hinting at its presence within the bloody mess. But so does a Mahler symphony, for that matter. And while I tremendously respect restraint and concision in art, I think I’ve always tended to resonate more naturally with audaciousness — extremity, proliferation, OCPD, and the delicious stew of megalomania and self-loathing that both those two gentlemen, for instance, appear to have.
I don’t know that the music I’ve written can be said to have much profundity – or even “thematic” content at all, for that matter — but I was repeatedly surprised at how much (somewhat embarrassingly 19th-century) autobiographical psychoanalysis seemed to keep bubbling up. I suspect that was all internal, and a listener wouldn’t necessarily know or care.
And that’s just fine with me, as long as it at least comes across as having some heart — I do not intend for this to be an arch and snarky joke.
Q: Wrack is a pretty unusual combination of instruments (oboe, viola, trombone) … when you started the group, were you going out of your way to pick less common instruments?
Bruckmann: Absolutely. I was choosing specific people in the Chicago scene as much as instruments, but there was definitely resonance for me with picking black sheep of both the orchestra and jazz combos. In Wrack’s first phase, I was also particularly interested in a dark, woody timbre, with all the contrapuntal possibilities inherent to having two winds and two strings with staggered and overlapping ranges. When Jeb Bishop had to step out, a bass clarinet worked perfectly in the trombone’s place, while making some balance issues even easier. Now I get them BOTH, plus Darren Johnston! The trumpet definitely suggests “jazziness” more emphatically, but that’s fairly crucial for this piece. And the pairs of woodwind, strings, and brass make the options practically orchestral.
Upcoming performances of “Awaits”:
27 Jul 2013 Wrack | premiere of …Awaits Silent Tristero’s Empire, made possible by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation through Chamber Music America‘s New Jazz Works program | Outsound New Music Summit | Community Music Center, 544 Capp St SF | 8:00
28 Jul 2013 Wrack | …Awaits Silent Tristero’s Empire, made possible by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation through Chamber Music America‘s New Jazz Works program | AD HOC #8, presented by SASSAS and the City of West Hollywood | WEHO Library, 625 N San Vicente Blvd, West Hollywood | 8:00
29 Jul 2013 Wrack | …Awaits Silent Tristero’s Empire, made possible by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation through Chamber Music America‘s New Jazz Works program | Nebraska Mondays Creative Music & Jazz Series | Luna’s Cafe, 1414 16th St, Sacramento | 7:30