Tender Buttons

From a YouTube video by Ann O’Roarke
From the “need to get out more” file: Two of the local musicans whom I’ve known the longest have been part of an interesting electronics trio for quite some time, and I never noticed.

Tender Buttons performs electronic/computer noise (plus keyboard, frequently) with an aesthetic that seems to emphasize smooth flow. At even-handed volume, they’ll amass sounds, some comforting, some abrasive, and it seems so placid until you realize it’s gained enough momentum to border on harsh. And then they’ll shift back down to a smaller mode.

I’ve seen Gino Robair and Tom Djll play in many contexts, including electronics. I’m not as familiar with Tania Chen, but she’s a KZSU Day of Noise veteran.

Here’s the trio in action:

Here’s another performance, from March. This one gets into rougher textures, and you can see Robair, in silhouette, using bows, sticks, and other non-electronic objects.

There’s more to be had on Djll’s YouTube playlist, or you could see/hear the band live very soon.

Tender Buttons is playing a show on Friday, Oct. 28, at Turquoise Yantra Grotto (32 Turquoise Way, San Francisco), and they’re performing live on KFJC-FM on Oct. 29 at 3:00 p.m.

Grosse Abfahrt, the Latest Version, in San Francisco Tonight

Grosee Abfahrt and Birget Ulher at what looks like 21 Grand
Grosse Abfahrt, in a combination that does appear to include Birget Ulher. Source: sfSound.

The improv collective Grosse Abfahrt will be convening tonight — Saturday, Sept. 27 — in San Francisco at the Center for New Music. It’s a 7:48 p.m. show that will include out-of-town guest Birget Ulher on trumpet.

The general idea is that there’s a core group of GA players, Bay Area residents, who play occasionally and always bring outside guests into the fold, usually creating a largish ensemble of eight to 10.

You can read more about the group, and hear a sound sample, in this post from last year.

For this year’s show, I thought I’d ask Tom Djll, via email, something that’s been gnawing at me about this group — and about free improv in general, really — for a few years. Namely: If you’ve got a rotating cast of characters, how do you define a group “sound?” Or do you even bother; is it a matter of picking the people you know and trust?

Here’s what he said:

GA has not really kept its “core sound” over the years. It has definitely changed since 2004. It changes with every new iteration, really. You may hear the same language bits from the individuals over a long period of time — I certainly do — or you may not. I definitely told the players what I had in mind on the first few gatherings. There have been scores on at least two occasions, #1 and #10. I tend to think of the player mix as a big part of “the score.”

There have been at least two occasions where I felt the group sound was so far away from my conception of what it’s supposed to be that I hesitated to call it a “Grosse Abfahrt.” #2 was one of those, which was a live show done at CMC. I don’t remember the year. Sometimes all it takes is for one player to take over to tip the thing over into the zone Where Tom Is Unhappy With the Esthetic. That happened on #2, #5 and #13. #11 was too dense — too many players in a tiny space. Yet on each one of those occasions there were moments and passages of The Sublime. And that’s just my judgement, which is only worth exactly what any other person’s judgement is worth.

But, as you say, it is all very much “a matter of trust, knowing that [we] all know each other and have the same general concept in mind.” But just that would be boring. There has to be some disruption from time to time. That’s my specialty!

So, as you’d expect with free improv, there’s an element of unpredictability, and it’s up to the players to mold the piece as a whole into the right form.

Here’s the lineup for tonight’s show:

Birgit Ulher (trumpet)
John Shiurba (guitar)
Gino Robair (percussion/electronics)
Tim Perkis (electronics)
Kanoko Nishi (koto/piano)
Bill Hsu (video)
Jacob Felix Heule (percussion)
Tom Djll (trumpet/electronics)
Kyle Bruckmann (oboe/english horn)

SperryFest Day 3

Brand/Djll/Perkis/Shiurba/Robair, June 2009

Friday night’s closing of the Matthew Sperry Memorial Festival turned out to be a knockout, with some brilliant improvisations from a quintet and due both featuring Gail Brand.

The evening started with the quintet pictured above: Brand (trombone) on the far left; Tom Djll on trumpet, sort of visible to the naked eye; Tim Perkis (electronics), obscured by mic stands; John Shiurba (guitar); and Gino Robair (drums), who in this picture has become a being of pure energy.

It was a strong set, bristling with energy from the get-go. The first piece, of medium length, was a nicely rolling crackle of sound, winding up to a satisfying ending. The second piece was even faster and louder, a bustling group piece that ended quickly when everybody stopped on a dime. It took them a second to realize it, too; the band got a good laugh out of it.

The third and longest piece was the most varied, featuring some of the slower, textured passages that can make an improv session stand out. This one nearly ended quickly, too, but Brand held one insistent note long after the others had wound down to a halt. Robair eventually took the suggestion and started up a light percussion patter, and the piece re-ignited for a strong second half.

I’ve found there is a game element to live improvised music, namely: When do you stop? Each piece winds through its course and approaches many possible ending points, but whether the “right” one gets taken depends on whether the players are hearing the same thing you are. This particular quintet seemed to really be “on,” in that respect.

But it’s not just the ending that counts. The interplay, the mood, the overall flow — all these elements came together nicely. The session was recorded (hence the multiple microphones in that picture), so hopefully the world will get to hear it eventually.

The Hillside Club, BerkeleyThe Hillside Club, by the way, turns out to be a wonderful place for music. It’s a social club north of the U.C. Berkeley campus, housed in an old wooden building (this picture was taken long before the show started, by the way; the audience wasn’t this absent). Robair noted that the acoustics of the room are solid, and it’s a rare thing for such a comfortable, good-sounding venue to be willing to host such experimental music. They host music every week — normally chamber music or mainstream jazz — so I’ll have to come by again sometime soon.

Source:EmanemDisc.comBack to Friday’s show: It concluded with the duo of Brand on trombone and Morgan Guberman on vocals. They’ve recorded one CD, on Emanem, and have a second one in the can, apparently.

They’re a great musical team and a good slapstick duo as well. Guberman puts forth a combination of singing (with good operatic tones), strange noises, and crazy-old-guy shtick, often making up syllables but sometimes reverting to normal language for a spell. He’s often spastic and loud, and was never in danger of getting out-shouted by the trombone.

Duo improvisation can work well when the players are in opposition (one playing fast, the other slow) but these pieces really shone when Brand and Guberman worked in concert — both quieting down, or both going on the attack. Guberman also brought an enormous drum head that he shook like a kite for some great, low tones. (No pictures; the camera ran out of battery.)

Their set ended with Guberman sticking his shaved head into the trombone’s bell as a mute, in a silly and almost sensual intertwining.

This show was attended by Matthew Sperry’s wife and daughter, and several of her daughter’s friends and parents, although they all stayed in a back room, for the most part. Understandably so — the kids are old enough to know when they’re not having fun! Hopefully they come away from these concerts with some appreciation of the music, some fragment of it that will lock away in their minds and click into awareness years later.

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.

Getting Smudged and Liking It

Tom Djll — Smudge (Soul on Rice, 2006)

This one’s part of a stack of recent music recently given to the station by Tom Djll, a trumpeter, electronics dabbler, and the brains behind the ambitious Mockracy music/theater production.

Smudge has Djll in electronics mode, often using the trumpet as a sound source. Most tracks feature a variety of metallic swooshes and drones, but the altered trumpet comes through clearly in some tracks, like the buzzy fanfare of “Schizy.”

A couple of tracks stick to a dronelike consistency, but more often, Djll features a sequence of different sounds. It’s not a Jackson Pollack splatterfest; more a set of Mark Rothkos overlaid irregularly to form a new collage, made of individual parts reflecting stillness but combining into a dynamic jumble.

The 15-minute “Split” is the pinnacle of that metaphor, featuring a raspy slow burn, a deep metallic pulse, and sparse stretches of modified trumpet groans. I also like the closing track, “Patina,” which moves from slow doom chimes into the high-pitched tones of a UFO taking off, then rounds things out with blobular, pulsing sounds. That’s the track that KZSU DJs seem to be latching onto.

There’s a pleasing variety here. I’ve highlighted some of the more active tracks, but there are rewards in the quiet, pensive rides, too.

Upcoming Shows: The Greenlief Five

Phillip Greenlief, at Bluesix with The Lost TrioYou don’t turn 50 every day (so I’m told). Phillip Greenlief is celebrating in fine fashion, with five shows starting with Valentine’s Day. Below, I’ve cut-and-pasted his show announcement and added some comments in italics. Happy birthday, Phillip!

concert #1 – an evening with the lost trio
phillip greenlief – tenor saxophone; dan seamans – bass; tom hassett – drums
saturday, february 14th (phillip’s birthday) 8:30 pm
@bluesix acoustic, 24th street (at treat street), san francisco, 94110

[For two decades, this trio’s been playing their mix of covers: standards, rock songs, country songs. They’ve got a great sound together.  Click at right for a full band picture taken at Bluesix.

Bluesix, by the way, is a Mission District housefront that hosts quite a range of interesting music. It’s the kind of place that makes you glad to live in a big city.]

concert #2 – improvised music at 1510
first set – michel doneda, tatsuya nakatani
second set – tom djll, michel doneda, phillip greenlief, scott looney, tatsuya nakitani
sunday, february 15, 8pm
@1510 performance space – 1510 8th street, west oakland 94607

[Doneda (sax) is in from France for a few concerts. Nakatani (percusssion) is on his way back to Japan and will be in the Bay Area for just this one night — listen to him here. Djll (trumpet) and Looney (piano/electronics?) are mainstays of the local scene.]

concert #3citta di vitti at improv hootenany
monday, february 16 9:30 pm
@the ivy room – san pablo street, just north of solano avenue, albany

[Jazz trio playing music inspired by the films of Michelangelo Antonioni.]

concert #4music for large ensemble [click for details]
compositions by greenlief for orchesperry, special guests, the cardew choir
tuesday, february 17, 10:30 pm
@the uptown – telegraph street@18th street, oakland

[Part of Weasel Walter‘s monthly Avant-Garde Tuesdays at this downtown rock club. It’s a free show! (Donation suggested.) Come out, see a sprawling 20-piece band of great local musicians — and help convince the Uptown that they’re doing a good thing by supporting this music.  With two opening sets, including a quartet with Weasel Walter.]

concert #5orchestra nostalgico plays nino rota
sunday, february 22 @9:30 pm
@amnesia, valencia street between 19th & 20th streets, san francisco 94110

[Amnesia’s a bar, but one with an affinity for jazz/world live music and the occasional out-of-left-field group, like the What Cheer? Brigade. Cool place; the music will fit the vibe, even if the band doesn’t fit the stage.]