Apple II Part II: George Lewis in 1984

George LewisRainbow Family (Carrier, 2020; recorded 1984)

Three years ago, I wrote about a 1984 experiment in computer-driven improvisation. George Lewis, then researching at France’s IRCAM, presented a concert of top-notch improvisers — Douglas Ewart, Joelle Leandre, Derek Bailey, and Steve Lacy — performing with three networked Apple II computers that controlled Yamaha synths.

The concert is now available as an album on France’s Carrier label. It’s a valuable document of this early moment in the history of computer music. You have to excuse the limitations of computer sound at the time (try not to think of Tom Baker-era Doctor Who) but the computer element does work. Or, maybe it’s that the high-caliber musicians — Joëlle Léandre, Douglas Ewart, Derek Bailey, and Steve Lacy — are able to make it work.

The three Apple IIs don’t just bleep randomly. Lewis programmed them to take the (analog) musicians’ choices as input and make digital decisions to create output, including an option to add some randomness (i.e., to play freely). The source code Lewis used is lost, unfortunately, but his recollections of the strategies provide some useful insight in the CD liner notes. The programs did have a way to create a chunk of music from scratch, without inputs, and Lewis infers that this is how some of the pieces start.

Whether real or perceived, the computers manage to create some sublime moments of communication. Léandre’s duet includes a nice stretch where she’s calmly following the computers’ cues, but when she takes control, the machines respond with an anthemic burst.

Lewis had conceived of the three computers developing distinct personalities. What he found, though, was that the human musicians kept thinking of their bandmates as “The” computer. Same here, I have to admit. (See how I just called Léandre’s piece a “duet.”) It’s an interesting test of human perception.

Of course, the humans’ personalities and choices lead to specific characteristics for some of the pieces. Ewart produces a piece that is both forceful and calm, drifting like a Calder mobile and creating some of the most neatly matched improvising of the album. Bailey’s low-key piece features a stretch of harmonics that tease out some pleasant tone-tinkering from the computers.

The album culminates with a group session — all four humans, all three computers. It starts at a cautious pace, with the humans avoiding the “spew” factor that a group of this size can create. As the activity builds up, the computers seem to know to sometimes stay out of the way. Here’s a particularly noisy section with the humans taking the lead; the Apple IIs slip into the mix with small chimes and shimmers that get more assertive as the humans back down. It feels organic. Whether that’s excellent foresight on the part of Lewis the coder or just a lucky happenstance, we’ll never know — but Lewis’ knowledge and experience certainly increased the probability of these kind of moments.

You can sample and purchase the album on Bandcamp. I’m especially partial to Douglas Ewart’s piece.

George Lewis and the Apple II in 1984

takingthestageHere’s a nice slice of history. In the 1980s, IRCAM, the French institute for music, sound, and science, hosted a series of concerts called “Écoutez Votre Siècle,” and one of the installments was an early presentation of George Lewis‘ work with computer-generated sound.

A bit of that concert survives on the web, part of a 26-minute TV documentary that IRCAM produced. While we don’t get to hear the whole concert, the real treasure might be the interviews and rehearsal footage, which offer a look at the state of computer music in 1984.

Lewis’ piece, “Rainbow Family,” was created for a combination of human and computer players interacting. He assembled quite a team for it: Douglas Ewart (saxophone), Joëlle Léandre (bass), Steve Lacy (soprano sax), and Derek Bailey (guitar).

Lewis manned the computers and coordinated the rehearsals, during which the human players got acquainted with the tendencies of Lewis’ programs, much like feeling out another musician they’ve met for the first time.

lewis computers 80It’s fun watching Lewis work with fellow musical giants. I’ve known about Ewart but haven’t heard much of his playing; getting to know the man a little bit, while also hearing bits of his music, was enjoyable. He has some keen insights — noting, for example, that one strategy would be to consider the computer “an improviser who might not have the seasoning that we do.”

I’ve never heard Steve Lacy speak, something that didn’t occur to me until watching his video. His voice has an east-coast hip-cat lilt — which shouldn’t have been such a surprise, considering he comes from exactly that era.

Lewis himself is interviewed at length, mostly in French; he seems nearly fluent in the language. (Again, maybe I shouldn’t be so blown away. “Never mind that he’s a trombone great, an AACM biographer, and a computer-music pioneer — the dude speaks French!”)

hands and apple ii 80

Early in the show, Lewis switches to English to explain that his work is the barest glimmer of what artificial intelligence should eventually be capable of. He knew that his then-exciting technology was still a limiting factor; 1984 was a long way off from Tim Perkis’ real-time laptop musicianship. Still, the sounds Lewis wrests from the Apple II aren’t as dated as I was expecting. In the end, it does sound like the players found a rapport with the machines.

Interestingly, the documentary ends with the sound of trains — found sound, another type of sonic experimentation.

You can find the half-hour mini-documentary, along with others in the “Écoutez Votre Siècle” series, here.

Hat tip: Andrew Raffo Dewar on Twitter.

ROVA & Saxophone Special

Steve Lacy,
Source: emanemdisc.com.

ROVA Saxophone Quartet will pay homage to Steve Lacy with a performance of his album Saxophone Special on Wednesday Sept. 16 at the Center for New Music (55 Taylor St., San Francisco).

Lacy is the band’s collective hero and was also a friend. And for them, Saxophone Special stands out in Lacy’s catalogue because it’s a saxophone quartet album, recorded from a one-time concert with three other sax players, guitar, and synthesizer. The “three others” aren’t just others — they’re giants of the improvised music genre: Evan Parker, Steve Potts, and Trevor Watts.

Released by the Emanem label in 1976, Saxophone Special was one of the albums that “led to the formation of Rova in 1977-78,” according to the band’s press blurb.

The Sept. 16 concert, with Kyle Bruckmann on electronics and Henry Kaiser on electric guitar, serves as both an encore and a warm-up, because ROVA performed Saxophone Special once already, in July, and is scheduled to record its own version of the album next week.

Saxophone Special is out of print — both the orignal LP and Emanem’s expanded CD version. Close to its orbit, however, is the newly reissued ROVA album Favorite Street, a 1984 collection of Lacy tunes. Here’s a link to that album on eMusic.

Sax Special Card_08.2015

Favorite Street: Steve Lacy Remembered

ROVAIt’s hard to believe Steve Lacy passed away 10 years ago this week. Doesn’t seem that long ago.

For many musicians in the Bay Area, Lacy was a contemporary, a peer, a mentor, a correspondent, and even a fan. They knew him and admired his work, and his passing at the age of 70 was like a color dropping from the spectrum.

So when the members of ROVA Saxophone Quartet arranged a commemorative concert, it also served as a 10-year wake and a community catharsis. Held at the Community Music Center in San Francisco, back on June 6, the show was a celebration of Lacy’s music, a chance to share memories, and a repainting of Favorite Street, ROVA’s 1984 album of Lacy compositions. (The CD is even back in print, part of a re-emergence of the Black Saint record label, although ROVA noted it might be hard to find in stores.)

Steve Lacy and Don Cherry: EvidenceI wanted to see the show not just for the music, but to learn a little more about Lacy and his influence.

Bruce Ackley did a lot of the talking for ROVA, explaining how Lacy’s influence had crept into their musical lives. ROVA members would attend many a Lacy show — and he would attend theirs in turn. (Lacy, a native New Yorker, spent most of his career in Paris and was a frequent Bay Area visitor. ROVA probably encountered him in both places.)

Ben Goldberg talked about the album Evidence, which he and ROVA both mentioned as a key influence. It’s got Steve Lacy and Don Cherry, but more importantly, it came out in 1961, when Lacy wasn’t as well known. His records weren’t numerous and were hard to come by. Evidence was a portal into a new sound world and a revelation, to hear the musicians tell it.

Ben Goldberg: The Door, The Hat, The Chair, The FactYears later, Goldberg received the news of Lacy’s death just days before a previously booked studio date. That album — which would become The Door, the Hat, the Chair, the Fact — was meant to be an homage, songs Goldberg assembled upon hearing Lacy had cancer. It turned into an emotional therapy session, as the whole community was rocked by Lacy’s passing. One track is a brief, classically styled song, “Cortege,” where the lyrics are the text of a fax Lacy sent Goldberg. The concluding line is a casual comment by Lacy that becomes poetic in its new context: “I am hardly here these days.”

Darren Johnston, Doug Stewart, Kjell Nordeson, Aram Shelton

The Concert

The first act was a variation of the quartet Cylinder, with bassist Doug Stewart sitting in for the traveling Lisa Mezzacappa. They started with a thundering take on “Trickles,” a fast-moving free-jazz rendition propelled by Kjell Nordesson’s drums and percussion. Aram Shelton (sax) and Darren Johnston (trumpet) took the lead voices, spelling out Lacy’s melodies — which have always struck me as simple and playful, but bent with a foreign accent of a country only Lacy’s mind could inhabit — and spiraling into solos inspired by the music. Johnston, in particular, seemed to be working the Monk-like strategy of using the melody to overtly build a solo (Monk being a fascination of Lacy’s, of course).

Michael Coleman and Ben Goldberg, ready for their close-upWhere the Cylinder group presented Lacy in a jazz context, the duo of Michael Coleman (piano) and Ben Goldberg (clarinet) showed off a more classical-oriented side, more akin to a recital-plus-improvisation. It turns out they were, in fact, playing Lacy’s etudes, a book of intentionally difficult exercises called Hocus Pocus. For much of the set, Coleman and Goldberg played the melodies in unison, the piano following the same fractally linear paths as the clarinet. Coleman expertly darted and dodged his way through, sometimes tripping up but always able to jump back in within a couple of sixteenth notes; it was all very impressive.

On a few occasions, Coleman had arranged chords to go along with the themes, adding unexpected and dramatic effects. “Herky Jerky” took on a deep ocean-waves color; it didn’t remind me of McCoy Tyner but it was that same monumental spirit. “Hustles,” dedicated to Niccolo Paganini, got a brief passage of insane circus music (at least, I’m pretty sure it was the Paganini piece and not the one dedicated to Karl Wallenda).

Bruce Ackley and Jon Raskin of ROVADuring ROVA’s set, I found myself suddenly paying attention to rhythms. This might have been because they opened with the funky bassline of “The Throes,” with Jon Raskin chugging away at the baritone sax. Several pieces also broke the group into a 2×2 format, with duets playing counterbalancing themes — again, tickling the ear’s sense of rhythm. While they played the songs from Favorite Street, some of them got new interpretations. (I know that not because I’m a brilliant Lacy-ologist, but because Steve Adams contributed some arrangements, and he wasn’t in ROVA in 1984.) It was a joyous set that ended with a new arrangement of “Cliches,” a track that’s not on the album.

It was a concert, a remembrance, and an education. I’m glad I was able to be there.

Upcoming Live Shows: Early August

Some upcoming Bay Area shows of note. Always check the Transbay Calendar or Bay Area Improvisers’ Network first! Most of this info was cribbed from there.

Tuesday, August 4 — Mary Halvorson is coming to Yoshi’s Oakland with the same trio that performed on Dragon’s Head, the CD that garnered her so much attention last year. I’d noted this here. There’ll be only one set, at 8:00 p.m. So sad that they can’t put up two sets.

Corn moon. Source: space.fmi.fiThursday, August 6 — At the Luggage Store Gallery, Polly Moller is curating a monthly series of 12 shows, each celebrating the monthly full moon and dedicated to a particular type of full moon from folklore. This month, it’s the Corn Moon. First on the bill is the duo of Karl A.D. Evangelista (guitar, vox, misc.) and Margaret Rei Scampavia (piano/keys, accordion, flute, saxophone, vox, misc.), performing as Grex. They’ll be followed by Phillip Greenlief and David Boyce, a tenor sax duet, who will “explore the identity of corn in Native American Mythology and everyday life.”

Thursday, August 6 — Uh-oh, a conflicting, yet also terrific, show: Vinny Golia will be up from L.A. for a performance that happens to be titled “Up from L.A.” He’ll be performing his compositions with a local troupe that includes strings and a jazz grouping, so you might get to hear a mix of his free-jazz work and his more classical/abstract composing. At Flux 53.

Friday, August 7 — The Best of the East Bay party includes music from a few Bay Area standouts, including David Slusser and Damon Smith. You’ll also get to hear Phillip Greenlief again, this time with his trio Citta Di Vitti, which plays swingy jazz inspired by the films of Michelangelo Antonioni. This time they’ll perform alongside projections of the films, apparently. At the Oakland Museum of California.

Saturday, August 8 — I don’t know much about Ideal Bread, but they’re from New York, they play Steve Lacy music, and they’re at the Jazzschool this night. And Phillip Greenlief will be there, again. He’s on a roll (again).

source: sfsound.orgSunday, August 9 — Any sfSound concert is a treat. Modern classical music treated with respect, both from the performers and the audience. (You know: applauding the performers as they come out, holding applause between movements of a piece, that sort of thing.) Sunday night’s show includes Karlheinz Stockhausen’s creeping “Kreuzspiel,” Anthony Braxton’s “Composition No. 75,” two premiere works, one very recent composition, and improvisation(s) by the group. At ODC Dance Commons.

Monday, August 10 — Now comes the honesty: I won’t be able to make it to any of the shows listed here. And this one might be the most painful miss, because I really want to see Go-Go Fightmaster in action. They’ll be the first act at the Ivy Room tonight, for free! (See here.) Second on the bill is Ava Mendoza‘s Thrash Jazz Band; she’s done terrific, noisy stuff on her own and with Mute Socialite. The improvised jazz trio The Spirit Moves Us closes things out, shifting gears to a mostly acoustic grouping that’s probably less in-your-face but not necessarily quiet.