Usufruct, a Harvest of Sound

UsufructWindfall (VF Industrial, 2018)

Usufruct performs at the Luggage Store Gallery (1007 Market St., San Francisco) on Thursday, January 10.

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:

Road to Aacheron

Photo: Sandra Yolles, from

Rent Romus’ theatrical project, “Road to Aacheron,” got a couple of performances last weekend in Berkeley. It’s a story built around a series of arias — improvised vocal monologues, mostly in made-up tongues — telling a story influenced by the sci-fi and horror writers of the 1930s (think H.P. Lovecraft).

Sifting through an ancient book discovered by a colleague, a professor finds a portal into (of course) a mysterious and dangerous world, a planet populated by a civilization whose technology and hubris are on the verge of rending their universe apart.

The production fit nicely on the relatively small stage of Berkeley’s Finnish Kaleva Hall, with simple but effective lighting creating a pocket of eerie darkness around each performer. The story is mostly driven by the narrator (Roderick Repke, Romus’ uncle) who was standing to the side of the audience at a mic’ed lectern. The 10-piece musical ensemble started at the foot of the stage and extened outward, to the side of the audience — Kaleva Hall is cavernous and had plenty of space for all this.

The story starts with the professor, played by Dean Santomieri singing in the grave, steady tones you’d associate with opera. His part is in English and is pre-written, tracing his exploration of the book and his colleague’s notes, and his growing sense that something troubling is happening.

The other characters are various denizens of Aacheron — the high priest, the scientist, and so on — singing in gibberish and sound conveying a sense of an ancient language but also reflecting the characters’ motivations and emotional states.

Musically, what drives the production are the mini-ensembles backing each vocalist — subsets of the musicians, chosen to convey particular moods. Santomieri’s narration was accompanied by an oboe adding curt, angular responses — a nice foil that added a sense of foreboding and mystery, but also a voice of pert curiosity.

Another aria that people liked was Polly Moller’s role as the high priestess of Aacheron, accompanied by a group featuring flute, recorder, and (if I’m remembering things right) vibraphone.

That segment was a cool oasis after the spiky intensity of Bob Marsh’s character, Sareith, the High Priest of Aacheron, dressed in the awesomely abstract costume you see in the photo up top. He dug into his role with relish and fervor.

Mantra Plonsey was deliciously mad as the architect of Aacheron, reciting bits of English accompanied by saxophone. (“I cannot pay the rent!” “You must pay the rent!” It’s from W.C. Fields, Tom Djll told me later.) And quite a few of the musicians in the audience said Kattt Achley’s airy soprano aria was their favorite, portraying the scientist who might have a way to avoid catastrophe.

Romus performed an aria-less version of “Road to Aacheron” — using a quartet of instrumentalists, with Romus narrating — during KZSU’s recent Day of Noise. You can find that performance on the Day of Noise archive — it’s number 19 on the list. Romus has extracted part of it on Soundcloud as well.


Outsound Summit: IMA and Big City Orchestra

DSCN2555-cropThe concluding night of the recent Outsound New Music Summit started with a full stage. No people, and not much apparent room for people — but lots of instruments, some draped in cloths evoking images of Persian finery.

It turns out the instruments around the edges were meant for the five members of Big City Orchestra. Squeezed near center stage were the keyboards, effects, and percussion instruments for the duo of IMA, who started the evening. Two very different groups with different approaches.

Photo by Peter B. Kaars

Combining percussion with electronics and live sound manipulation, IMA worked together like a well-oiled machine, with a shared sense of dynamics and the timing of a Swiss watch.

The pieces built mostly ominous and dark atmospheres sprinkled with occasional elements of bright melody. A few pre-staged samples came up but the overall structure was improvised, to impressive effect.

Amma Ateria (aka Jeanie Aprille Tang) laid down a base of dark, crunchy sounds and occasional chords, while percussionist Nava Dunkelman flickered seamlessly from one implement to another: snare drum, cymbals, xylophone, plexiglass table. Her sounds, full of snap and command, got manipulated or echoed through the mic — I’m guessing Ateria had some say in that — and were sometimes sampled back for additional effect. Both players added vocal tones and breaths, often heavily distorted, adding an extra blanket of storm clouds overhead.

During a pre-concert talk, they mentioned that the use of melody was a relatively new addition to their work after years of noisy collaborations. This included plenty of xylophone improvising from Dunkelman, as well as a pre-recorded melody against which she improvised or played a counter-melody.

Photo by Peter B. Kaars

Big City Orchestra is the long-running improv/experimental project of Das and Ninah Pixie, always varying in the number of players and the concepts being presented. They were the styrofoam-playing act that I engineered on KZSU’s Day of Noise a couple of years ago.

This edition of BCO was a quintet performing a set-long reworking of “In a Persian Market,” a popular music piece from 1921. Written by a Londoner, it’s sort of a white man’s image of an exotic Orient that he’s never seen, as people pointed out during the pre-concert talk. It’s also apparently a pretty famous piece of music.

The general concept was that the band played each movement of the piece interspersed with some improvisational ideas. The song’s primary melody came first, played by various lead instruments — flute or bass flute by Polly Moller; vibraphone by Suki O’Kane — over and over with a dull noise background between iterations. Each cycle of the melody got introduced by Andy Cowitt playing the intro on bass guitar, a two-note pulse that was so supremely simple, it started to get humorous (intentionally, I think) after the fourth or fifth time around.

BCO’s ever-shifting nature comes at the cost of working with a new band nearly every gig. This one hit some rough patches early, with a few hand cues that seemed to get missed or misinterpreted. The segments of the opening melody were nice, but the noisy spaces in between seemed to just be in the way.

A more successful movement featured Pixie and Moller on harmoniums (or similar accordion-like instruments) creating a bright drone, a space-filling wall of sound. Cowitt added some long clarion tones on electric guitar — a Frippertronic touch. This worked well with the quasi-Persian spirit of the whole piece and set up some composed elements quite nicely.

The piece began and ended with the sound of sand, a contribution of Das’. He first poured it onto a contact mic. Then he rolled a spherical stone over the pile of sand, creating a crunching sound, like listening to a passing caravan from deep beneath the surface of the desert. That same sound brought the piece to a calm ending.

Reconnaissance Fly Turns Spam Into Prog Rock

Reconnaissance FlyFlower Futures (Edgetone, 2014)

Source: Bandcamp; click to go therePolly Moller’s experiements with spoetry — poetry made from the babble of spam emails — has come to a fruition in the band Reconnaissance Fly, which adds prog-rock and avant-garde musical backings for a new kind of songwriting.

Now they’ve got their newest album out, called Flower Futures (Edgetone, 2014), and they’ll be promoting it with a show at the Berkeley Arts Festival space (2133 University Ave., Berkeley) on Saturday, Feb. 1.

It’s full of Canterbury sounds: electric piano, jazzy chords, and stumbling time signatures. Snatches of free improvisation crop up here and there. And flute! In addition to fronting the band with operatic alto vocals, Moller plays flute alongside the band’s woodwind or guitar leads.

Much of the music does feel patterned after the lyrics, which transforms the nonsense into something more ably amusing or even pretty. The musical passages never settle into verse/chorus patterns, but they occasionally lock in on particularly funny or strange phrases for some songlike repetition. Free improv segments on “The Party Constraint” and “Seemed to be Divided in Twain” form around controlled bursts, so that the abstract music actually makes more “sense” than the lyrics do — or, maybe the music helps create more meaning for the words.

The songwriting did start with the lyrics. Moller says she assigned spoems to band members who then wrote the music. “Tim [Walters, bassist]’s tunes reflect his love for Rock in Opposition and progressive rock, Amanda [Chaudhary, keyboards] gave us our graphic scores for improvisation, and mine are kind of all over the place,” she writes in an email.

The album was more than four years in the making and survived a couple of band shifts — notably, saxophonist Chris Broderick departing, with Rich Lesnik taking his place. The band’s history makes for a pretty good read, actually. (By the way, these same folks formed the bulk of the Cardiacs tribute band founded by Moe! Staiano.)

You can hear parts of the album (and of course buy the whole thing) on Bandcamp. Try the ’70s prog sound of “Sanse Is Crede nza” or the Henry Cow chamber-funk of “An Empty Rectangle” for songs that’ll grab the ear quickly. I’m also partial to the proggy “One Should Never.”

Cardiacs Fly Again

I forgot to bring my camera to the ReCardiacs Fly show at The Starry Plough last Friday. Dang.

Luckily, Michael Zelner has posted some photos. Hooray!  There was video filmed as well, so hopefully some of that will get posted eventually.

It was a great time, with the band tightly charging through some fast, complex Cardiacs songs. Highlights included “R.E.S.” — which tops a lot of Cardiacs fans’ lists, I think — and “Tarred and Feathered,” which I don’t think they played at their first concert.  (Links go, respectively, to videos of the previous concert and the original Cardiacs.)

Polly Moller hammed it up on stage, playing the role of quirky, aggressive Tim Smith. Moe! Staiano did a sharp job on drums; it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen him play on a drum kit before, not in a rock setting, anyway.

Lots of people were asking if they’d be doing more shows — which I think they’d like to do, but of course, they’ve got other musical projects to concentrate on as well. That includes Reconnaissance Fly, the band that’s the core of ReCardiacs Fly.

A couple of people said they’d be interested if the band were to make a CD. But I think the band would prefer that you go to iTunes and just buy the original Cardiacs albums. It’s a way to send a few extra dimes to Tim Smith, Cardiacs’ leader.

Apologies to Wiener Kids and Dominique Leone, who’d played earlier in the evening and probably did some Cardiacs covering of their own.

(What’s the big deal about Cardiacs? Read here.)

UPDATE 12/11: Videos from the show are up. Find them on ReCardiacs Fly’s YouTube channel. “A Wooden Fish on Wheels” came out really well, but I can’t help embedding “R.E.S.” yet again. They’ve gotten quite good at that one.

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.

A Kickstart for Polly Moller

Polly Moller has a special evening of her compositions coming up in December, and she’s using Kickstarter to help secure a grant to pay the musicians.

That is, she’s applying for a $1,000 grant that will only come through if she puts up a matching $1,000. Kickstarter helped her raise the money (and the project is still open for supplementary donations, through Nov. 3).

Moller’s program will be on Saturday, Dec. 18, at Trinity Chapel in Berkeley. The program, which seems to combine directed improvisations and traditional composing, includes a piece for improvising quartet; solos for piccolo and voice; a duo with Gino Robair and someone playing “invented instruments;” and a new piece for quintet.  The evening caps with a conducted improvisation for 12 that dates back to 2006.

As for this Kickstarter thing …

It’s an interesting model for funding the arts (or any other kind of project) and for giving the audience a deeper way to participate. They get an ownership stake, figuratively or even literally. An artist posts a project to the site, challenging supporters to supply the funding. If the project doesn’t make its goal, all the money goes back.

(If you want to get all Web 2.0 pseudoscience-y about it, you can read about how sites like this create an addictively fun aspect to giving.)

In the case of music, Kickstarter seems popular for funding recordings. Free copies, T-shirts, and sheet music are among the common gifts for contributors. Moller is offering CD copies of the concert (which won’t be mass-produced), sheet music, and more.

Her project has already reached its goal. So, anything you pledge will immediately get charged to your credit card or PayPal account. Still, the goal simply means Moller gets a matching grant to help pay the musicians. It’s still not much of a payment, and it would certainly be nice to add a little more to the pool, to help Moller express gratitude to these dedicated musicians who are working hard to make her career milestone happen.

Find out more, here, but do it before Nov. 3  at 10:00 a.m. That’s the deadline.