Shuffle Bach Viola

Does anybody else wonder if classical compositions can work modularly?

I know it’s a silly question. I understand that those allegro and andante movements are sequenced to tell a story, in an abstract sense, whether it’s a roller-coaster of a symphony or through your usual fast-slow-fast sonata. But if you took the fast introductory movement of String Quartet No. 4 and replaced it with the fast introductory movement of String Quartet No. 6, would you even notice? Would the (probable) change of keys matter? Might it even be better?

From the few experiments I’ve done, the answers seem to be “yes,” “probably not,” and “no.” In other words, the exact selections of movements does matter, and when you do the kind of substituting I suggested above — well, even if the original piece didn’t seem to completely “flow,” the new version tends to flow even less.

kashkashian-bachSo, along comes Kim Kashkashian’s recording of Bach’s cello suites (ECM, 2018), upshifted for viola. It’s not the first time a violist has done this, but Kashkashian’s rendering, aside from being novel for simply being new, has a lightness that makes it attractive, an frictionless glide like the footfalls of ballet. I can see why so many artists have recorded the complete suites: The six suites are divided into six movements each, for an attractive symmetry, and of course, every movement is oh so unavoidably Bach. There’s a suggestion of orderly self-similarity that just feels satisfying, in a math-geeky sense.

And it also made me wonder. How interchangeable are the pieces of these suites? All six seem to follow similar patterns, after all.

So, I tried building my own viola suites by hitting shuffle play. Even if an ear-pleasing fast-slow-fast pattern didn’t emerge, the parts should still make some sense together, right?

No, not right. I gave it three tries, and the first one showed why this is such an improper use of Bach.

I. Strategy: Shuffle play, stopping when it feels “done”
A) 6.5 [Suite No. 6, movement 5] Gavotte (D major)
B) 6.4 Sarabande (D major)

The gavotte movement was a bright midtempo, a cautiously optimistic opening. That worked. But it was followed by a slow movement in the same key. Fast-slow is a natural progression, but this just felt laconic. The lack of key change actually hurt; the slow movement felt like a lazy deceleration. I think the problem is that the gavotte is setting itself up to be followed by something even faster — which of course is exactly how the original suite is written. Faced with immediate failure, I had to hit Stop. Grade: D (fittingly enough).

II. Strategy: Shuffle play until “done.”
A) 3.2 Allemande (C major)
B) 1.2 Allemande (G major)
C) 3.6 Gigue (C major)

That’s a little more like it. The “Allemande'” movements are regal: formal but still lighthearted. They aren’t meant to be openers, because that’s what the Prelude movements are for, but I thought 3.2 did the trick well. That the same mood carried into 1.2 wasn’t a problem; it felt like a reasonable continuation, and maybe the key change from C to G added some new color. The gigues are crowd-pleasing conclusions, so 3.6 felt like the right time to call it. Grade: B+.

That was fun, but both mini-suites were awfully “mini.” I’d hoped to last for something like eight movements, not three. One problem was that the lack of minor-key movements was driving me batty. There’s only so much upbeat Bach or Mozart that I can take before I have to go crank some gloomy Schnittke for balance. So, I gave it one more go with slightly different rules, and I lucked out:

III. Strategy: Four movements no matter what
A) 4.6 Gigue (Eb)
B) 6.1 Prelude (D)
C) 5.1 Prelude (C minor)
D) 2.2 Allemande (D minor)

The gigue, meant to be a closer, made for a bouncy, crisp opener, but it clashed mightily with the D major Prelude, because the latter piece just screams “intro segment.” Interesting how music has that language, like the cadences of a speech: Certain rhythms and timing work better in certain situations. But by the end of the Prelude, I acclimated. It was like when the first song on a rock album is the hit single, and the second song is a less intense one that feels like filler… but over time, that second song ends up being your favorite.

With movement three, I finally got a minor key, and in the perfect spot for toning down the mood. I didn’t even notice the key change to C minor. In general, I hadn’t found the key changes very jarring; the only problem I had was with the lack of key change in that first  attempt. The C minor Prelude ends with a gentle sigh that would have been a good way to conclude a suite — but the rules said I had to add one more segment, so, into the D minor Allemande we went. More of a minor key. It didn’t feel like overkill, but it did mean the suite would end with a gray sky, not a happy field of flowers. And it did just that, dying out with quiet understatement that felt like an interesting artistic “choice.” Grade: A-.

I’d envisioned doing a lot more of these, but having found two permutations that I liked, and one that I really didn’t like, I figured it was time to call it quits. Maybe next, I’ll build a truly modular suite: Movements 1 through 6, in order, but each taken from one of the six suites selected at random. (Should repetition be allowed, or should it be one movement from each of the suites? Hmm.) First, though, I think I’ll show the old man some respect and try to dig into some of these suites in the proper order. They’re written that way for a reason.

Gordon Beeferman: Tunnel Visions, for Viola & Piano

Stumbled upon: A world premiere performance of a Gordon Beeferman composition for viola and piano:

“Raucous, rhythmic, spicy and microtonal” is how violist Stephanie Griffin, in her YouTube “liner notes,” describes Beeferman’s jazz-related music, and you get a taste of all that in the opening moments of Tunnel Visions, the pressure-packed first movement. It slows immensely for the middle movement then surges back with sweeping drama. Really good stuff.

The jazz band she’s referring to is Other Life Forms, a quartet with Pascal Niggenkemper on bass and Andrew Drury on drums. They’re pretty interesting.

9 9 9

Roscoe Mitchell wrote a piece for solo viola, apparently.

It’s called “9/9/09,” and it was performed as part of an April Yoshi’s concert that featured a variety of Mitchell’s works.

The piece is quite abstract and full of what I suppose are microtones — they sound like purposefully sour notes.

I have to admit, I’m not sure I’m on the same page with the composition, so to speak. The first half sort of drifts past my ears. I’m able to get into the rhythms that appear after the midpoint — the faster tempo in the middle helps me get more into tracing the swing of the rhythm rather than trying to decode the harmonies.

That’s my amateur’s opinion, anyway. I’m sure there’s a lot I’m missing.

The violist, Nils Bultmann, is also part of an amusing-sounding viola night coming up Oct. 29 at the Freight & Salvage in Berkeley.

Playlist: January 3, 2012

I filled in for a couple of hours Tuesday night on KZSU. You’ll find the playlist here.

I’d decided to alternate sets of experimental music (we have lots of drone/ambient in rotation at any given time) and classical. Found a couple of interesting things looking through the library.

The big discovery: The San Francisco rock band Battlehooch. A group I certainly didn’t expect to be adding to my classical/experimental show.

I wanted to pick a show to give away tickets to, and the info sheet for this one indicated that Battlehooch might be something weirder than ordinary rock. OK, then — I randomly grabbed the Oof Owf EP, spun the track “Boog Woogily,” and — yowza. Fast cartoony rock with saxes beating out the bassline and wacky percussion. Signs of serious musicianship behind a clown-punk exterior. They’re one of those bands that I can’t believe I’ve missed for all these years.

I couldn’t not play this stuff after falling in love with it, so I used a few noisy tracks to lead up to a Battlehooch ticket giveaway. (Credit one assist to Liz Allbee, whose nifty little track “Drill Sergeant, Drunken Revolt” ends with the same kind of vocal hoots that “Boog Woogily” starts with — nice transition there.)

Battlehooch plays at Slim’s on Saturday, Jan. 7. I just might go. Hear these guys on Soundcloud.

In my show, Battlehooch led to an art-rock phase with the newest from Cheer-Accident (highly poppy stuff, but still progged out and a little weird, just how the band’s fans like it), and old stuff from 5UUs (a mellower track with bassoon-sounding synths, comparatively stripped-down)

I got back to classical music with a performance by solo saxophone and tape from Susan Fancher. Her album In Two Worlds, on Innova, shows off a lot of jazzy dexterity in a spare, modern-classical environment.

Having said all that, I did manage to get some classical music spun, and that led to another nice discovery.

In rotation, we’ve got In Memoriam, a collection of performances by Emanuel Vardi, considered a modern master of the viola. It was released by the Cembal d’Amour label last year after Vardi’s January 2011 death. I’d never heard of Vardi, I have to admit, but he was well respected — and he’d been living a second career as a painter, after a 1993 shoulder injury ended his music-playing career. It’s a bittersweet story. He and his wife both painted, and you can some of their pieces at (That’s one of them, to the left of the next paragraph.)

Anyway. We’ve got one overenthusiastic DJ who’s been stuffing the rotation with Brahms, Bach, Chopin kinds of classical music — stuff that’s damn near impossible to fit into an eclectic show — but I was pleasantly surprised to discover the Vardi CD focuses on 20th century pieces. I played Michael Colgrass‘ “Variations for Four Drums and Viola,” recorded by Vardi and Colgrass in 1959; it’s got a stern strength despite the spare duet setting.

I followed that up with a solo viola sonata by Paul Hindemith, off the Lawrence Power collection of Everything Hindemith Ever Wrote For Viola (not the actual title) on Hyperion.

From a poster for the Jan. 7 Battlehooch show at Slim’s. Click to go to The Bay Bridged, from whence I copied this.

Longer Burning: The Music

Pamela Z has confessed. She owns a viola.

She told us as much at the start of Sunday’s “Longer Burning,” the latest in her years-long ROOM series of chamber concerts. She played viola as a child, and the instrument is still in her possession. Rather, the case is. It’s apparently been years since she’s verified that the viola is still alive. Schroedinger’s viola.

Several of the ROOM concerts have focused on one instrument or class of instruments — flutes, percussion, bass, voice — and Pamela Z has apparently been trying to get a viola version together for years. She did well, recruiting players who presented a wide range of styles.

Charlton Lee, founder of the Del Sol String Quartet, started the program with three modern works. “Melt Me So” by Edmund Campion was a piece for computer and performer, where the live instrument triggers responses generated by computer. It’s a dialogue but not a pure improvisation; the program notes provided by Lee describe a deeply collaborative engagement between Campion and the various performers who’ve done “Melt Me So.”

His other two pieces were acoustic. “Calligraphy No. 5” was written by Reza Vali as a modern piece that uses a traditional Persian scale that to Western ears sounds, well, Persian. For Western ears, that meant a mixing of the familiar and the new, a soaring and very engaging piece.

Lee closed with “Insistence” (Matthew Cmiel), an athletic piece that kept returning to an almost bluesy little phrase.  Really nice, with a rhythmic middle that calls for the performer to tap his foot (or maybe Lee was just getting into it).

Jhno performed next, as mentioned below. As often happens in electronic music, his piece developed in patient layers, and he’d just laid down the foundational colors before being interrupted.

Hank Dutt of Kronos Quartet presented what I suppose was the most conventional set of pieces, but it still wasn’t conventional conventional.

He started with the Bach-influenced “Solo Based on Courante” by Nils Bultmann. Very Bachian, in statements formed by long chains of notes. I was fascinated by one element of Dutt’s technique here. Maybe I just don’t see enough classical music up close, but many times, I noticed he started notes without friction, with none of the tiny crunch or grind that’s inevitable in more aggressive bowing. There was just air, as if he were coaxing the viola into breathing the tones.

Like Lee, Dutt took a “world music” turn, picking India as his destination, and a segment called “Alap” from “Raga Mishra Bhairavi,” by Ram Narayan. He closed it out with “Waiting,” a solo looping piece from Joan Jeanrenaud‘s album, Strange Toys. It’s a pretty piece that builds one phrase after another over a two-chord pattern, culminating in a dramatic credenza.

Pamela Z followed with a solo improvisation — a collage for samples, voice, and processing, where the samples came from the piano in her practice room during a Montalvo residency. She triggered these with hand motions in front of a sensor, a jangly little breakdown of noises matched against her voice’s soprano notes.

The program ended with Pamela Z, Dutt, and Lee in a group improvisation. They started tentatively, building from staccato fragments, and later meshed into some longer, gorgeous tones.

Longer Burning, Short Fuse

We got a heckler at the Pamela Z viola show Sunday night.

He prematurely ended the performance by Jhno, who was building an improvisation in his usual format: long electronic washes of sound and feedback, some of it using a viola as source instrument.

Yes, it was loud. The man, an elderly gentleman, decided the loudness was physically painful. And so, he abruptly started to applaud and yell “Bravo,” clearly indicating he’d had enough.  Jhno continued, maybe even turning it up a little to drown out the distraction. (At the time, nobody knew it was the loudness that bothered the guy. I think most of us assumed he just didn’t like the nonconformity of it all.)

The guy didn’t quit. He started rapping the floor with his cane — how stereotypical is that? — and started shouting over the music: “Thank you! Over! FINISH!”

Jhno wasn’t able to shrug it off. He threw the viola to the ground and stormed off. The viola was destroyed, the neck snapped apart. The rumbling tones he’d set in motion just lingered as audience members started heckling the heckler, telling him what a jerk he was, asking why he didn’t just leave.

Luckily, an intermission was programmed after Jhno’s set. Friends of Jhno’s turned his equipment off and cleaned up, and the audience dispersed and cooled down. It was a long intermission.

The heckler stuck around and was more than willing to explain his position. He was a violist himself — with one degree of separation from the Kronos Quartet, it turns out — and he probably did object to Jhno’s presentation, where the viola came through only in warped, distorted form. But what got to him was apparently the volume, which he decided was worth causing a scene.

I still don’t understand why he didn’t just step out. But at least, he was calm afterwards, and he welcomed discussion with the detractors who tried to engage him (although he did repeatedly call Jhno’s piece an atrocity). Joan Jeanreneaud, the cellist, debated him for a long time; they parted peacefully but didn’t convince one another.

The program’s second half went smoothly, including Jhno silently returning to the stage, as scheduled, to help with Hank Dutt’s performance. At the end, when Pamela Z asked for some extra applause for Jhno (who’d apparently left the building by then), the heckler joined politely.

What he did was ridiculously selfish. (I don’t think his wife was happy with him, either.) But Jhno didn’t help matters by smashing his viola, something I think he’s going to regret. I understand how interruptions like this can throw someone off their game, but there had to be a better way to respond.

I’ve been at performances where people didn’t like the music, but the only other time I remember actual catcalls was at the Starry Plough — a bar in Berkeley that’s willing to host the occasional experimental show. A group of Irish fellows (I got the impression they were a casual soccer team) made a few disgruntled noises during an improv set. It didn’t last, though, and in fact, one member of the group shushed the others, encouraging them to give the music a try. “This is what I like about the Plough,” he said. “You never know what you’re going to get.” And he applauded enthusiastically for each piece.

Me, I’ve been to three performances where the music made me physically uncomfortable. Never once stopped a show because of it. I’ll save that for another time; 570 words about this is enough.

Upcoming Shows: 6/3/11 and Onward

Lots going on in Bay Area music circles for the next several days.  In chronological order, starting with tonight:

* Mission Eye and Ear — The latest in Lisa Mezzacappa‘s ongoing series of film/music collaborations, featuring short films with live-performed soundtracks. Tonight’s installment includes music by Darren Johnston, Aaron Novik, and Matt Ingalls. There’s a little more information in this article about Mezzacappa’s own band. At Artists Television Access (992 Valencia Street @21st, San Francisco), Friday June 3, 8:00 p.m.

* ROVA + DJ Olive + DJ P-Love — As mentioned here, it’s the 33-1/3rd anniversary of ROVA’s first concert, and they’re celebrating with an SFJazz-sponsored, one-time concert.  At Swedish American Hall (2174 Market St., San Francisco; same place as Cafe Du Nord), Saturday June 4, 8:00 p.m.

* sfSound — The modern-classical troupe performs a daytime set inspired by the Legion of Honor’s exhibit, “Pulp Fashion: The Art of Isabelle de Bochgrave.” Compositions will be interspersed with group improvisations. The program mentions some early-music influence, but don’t count on hearing harpsichords and recorders. Concert is free with museum admission. At the Legion of Honor Museum (100 34th St., San Francisco), Sunday June 5, 12:00 noon.

* ROOM: Longer BurningPamela Z‘s ROOM series of shows has spotlighted individual instruments from time to time. Now it’s the violas’ turn. Hank Dutt (Kronos Quartet), Charlton Lee (Del Sol String Quartet), and Jhno (better known to me for electronics work) will perform solo and together and with Pamela Z. The program’s title comes from the classic portfolio of viola jokes that classical players know.  At Royce Gallery (2901 Mariposa St., San Francisco), Sunday June 5, 8:00 p.m.

* Michael Formanek Quartet — Part of a West-coast tour with the band from The Rub and Spare Change:  Formanek (bass), Tim Berne (sax), Craig Taborn (keys), and Gerald Cleaver (drums). Previously noted here. A rare chance to see these guys in California. At Yoshi’s Oakland (501 Embarcadero West, Jack London Square, Oakland), Monday June 6, 8:00 p.m.

UPDATE:  The L.A. Times has a review of Formanek’s June 1 performance at the Blue Whale.

* Jazz at the Make-Out Room — First-Monday jazz returns to this friendly Mission District bar. I think they’d had to move elsewhere for a month or two, so hopefully, the bar has welcomed them back. (This is another series that was being organized by Lisa Mezzacappa.) This installment includes the Steve Adams Trio (Adams being from ROVA), Doug Stuart’s Catfish, and the latest edition of Jim Ryan’s Forward Energy.  Adams did a Trio album a while back, eventually released on Clean Feed; Forward Energy is an improv-jazz group that’s been Ryan’s vehicle for a couple of decades at least. Because it’s at a bar, there’s a good chance they’ll start late — meaning it might be possible to catch both Formanek and this show. BART could do the Bay-crossing for you. At the Make-Out Room (3225 22nd St., San Francisco), Monday June 6, 8:00 p.m.