Grex and Two Aerials, Octopus Literary Salon

Last Thursday we at CatSynth returned to the Octopus Literary Salon in Oakland to hear two groups whose work we follow, Grex and Two Aerials.  The show was also the subject of our most recent CatSynth TV video, which can you see below.

There are similarities between in terms of style and songcraft, and they worked well in tandem.  Two Aerials, led by Mark Clifford (vibraphone) and Crystal Pascucci (cello, voice), had a jazzier vibe and more reminiscent of art-rock and prog of the early 1970s.  Clifford’s frenetic but luscious vibes are a lot of the reason for this, but solid backing from Brett Carson on keyboard and Jordan Glenn on drums added to the overall sound and structure.  There were sounds and textures reminiscent of Henry Cow, especially during the songs that featured Pascucci on voice.  There were also sections that reminded me of Frank Zappa’s best lineups from the early to mid-1970s.
 
 two aerials
 
Grex has gone through a few iterations of style and personnel in the time I have known them.  The current incarnation features principals Karl Evangelista on guitar and Rei Scampavia on keyboards, but they each take on additional musical duties with electronics, foot-driven percussion, and voice.
 
Grex
 
Musically, they also have a style that falls somewhere in the realm of art rock, but with a dreamier, more psychedelic feel.  They move effortlessly back and forth between very tender lyrical songs and frenetic pedal-heavy guitar solos from Evangelista, as well as space in between those poles.  We particularly enjoyed the quote of Princess Leia’s theme during their final song.
In all, it was a fun evening with friends and music.  And the Octopus Literary Salon is fast becoming a frequent destination for us for eclectic and intimate musical performances.  We look forward to more.

Scott Amendola’s Orchestra di Pazzi at Slim’s, San Francisco

Our first music report of the year features the final show we saw in 2017. Scott Amendola assembled a cast of seasoned improvisers for a concert at Slim’s in San Francisco that took us on quite a journey over two full-length sets. It was the subject of our last CatSynth TV.

As one can hear in the video, there were a variety of textures throughout the two sets. My favorites were the forceful rhythmic sections, some of which came at the very start of the performance. There were also quite a few “operatic” segments that featured the voice of Pamela Z, who was also manipulating samples through various electronic processes. Aurora Josephson’s vocals provided a counterpoint with different timbres and style.

Aurora Josephson and Pamela Z

The ensemble includes three electric guitars (Henry Kaiser, John Schott, and Fred Frith) and three percussionists (Jordan Glenn, Robert Lopez, William Winant). As we have often remarked, doubling and tripling of such powerful instruments can be treacherous, especially in an improvised setting. But it worked here, as everyone had a distinct sound, and the good sense to always listen and lay out when appropriate. In fact, to my ears the music, especially during the more operatic less rhythmic sections, was dominated by the concert string section, consisting of Christina Stanley and Alisa Rose on violin, Crystal Pascucci on cello, Zach Ostroff on string bass, and Soo-Yeon Lyuh on haegeum. At various points, Mark Clifford cut through the harmonies and timbres on the ensemble with frenetic solos on vibraphone.

 Crystal Pascucci

The ensemble was rounded out with the wind section, which included the entire Rova Saxophone Quartet: Bruce Ackley, Larry Ochs, Steve Adams, and Jon Raskin. I felt like I didn’t hear as much of a distinct voice from the saxophones as I did from the other sections, but that was perhaps because they blended with the violins and cello.

In all, it was a fine night of music to wrap up the year. As we often do at Slim’s, we enjoyed the concert from the balcony over dinner and drinks, but we also had the chance to mingle with our many friends in the ensemble and the audience. We look forward to more music from everyone in their own projects in 2018.

Outsound Music Summit: Opera Wolf, KREation, Wiener Kids

The concerts of the 2013 Outsound Music Summit opened with an evening of acoustic ensembles that combined improvisation and composition, each to quite different effect.
The evening opened with a performance by Opera Wolf, a trio featuring Crystal Pascucci on cello, Joshua Marshall on saxophone, and Robert Lopez on drums. They performed four pieces: one composed by each member of the group, and a free improvisation.

Opera Wolf
[Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

One structural quality that carried over all four pieces was the use of strongly punctuated phrasing. The initial opening sounds with harmonics and sparse arrhythmic hits was separate by a delineated silence before switching texture completely to growls and intricate cello runs, and then again into more melodious bowed phrases accompanied by the sounds of metal on a drum head. This punctuation continued into the second piece as well, which began quite noisily with scratching and unusual harmonics, but after a pause changed suddenly into jazzy runs followed by vocal effects and whistle tones. Other interesting sonic moments included Marshall cooing and purring with his saxophone against long bowed towns on the cello by Pascucci, and an extended run by all three members with scraping, tapping and clicking sounds.

Next up was KREation, an ensemble led by Kevin Robinson. KREation features a varying lineup, and this evening was somewhat different from the previous time I had encountered them. Along with Robinson, there was Christin Hablewitz, John Schwerbel and Tony Gennaro.

KREation
[Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

Their performance was a single continuous flow of music, starting with a modal and quite serene recorder duet of Robinson and Hablewitz. This gave way to percussion and prepared piano, and then to more fast runs on sax and piano accompanied by loud key clicks on the bass clarinet. The more melodious feel gave way to darker and more tense textures, but then got quite jazzy and rhythmic, especially when John Schwerbel switched over to a Rhodes Stage 73 electric piano (yes, it is one of my favorite instruments).

Rhodes Stage 73

The textures and energy levels came in and out over the course of the performance like waves. There were some intricate counterpoints, including between recorder and saxophone, some pretty piano runs, and sections that moved between slower dramatic tones and bursts of fast motion.

The final performance of the evening featured Wiener Kids, a trio of Jordon Glenn, Aram Shelton and Cory Wright. Ostensibly, the group is a drummer with two masters of reed instruments, but on this occasion all three members also employed a wide selection of percussion.

Wiener Kids
[Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

This was a bit different from the previous Wiener Kids performances I have heard, which usually took place at clubs along side avant-rock bands. A couple of the pieces did employ the same sparse but rhythmically complex and driving sound I recalled, but there was also more detail and variety. The performance started with a somewhat humorous ensemble sound, like an odd-meter march. But it soon morphed into a solid four-beat funky rhythm with Wright on baritone saxophone acting as the all-important bass. The group came back to this funk idiom throughout their performance, and I thought it was their strongest element. They also employed complex polyrhythms and extended techniques as well as long melodic runs – one piece in particular featured a virtuosic saxophone solo by Wright.

The set ended with back-to-back songs starting with a more jazz rhythmic sound combining sax and drums, then moving into a second piece that was more percussion oriented, with polyrhythms and a focus on metallic percussion that gave the music a gamelan-like quality. Then it was back to the driving funkier 4/4 sound up to the finish.

In all, it was a strong start to this year’s Summit concerts, with dynamic performances. And it is quite a contrast to what comes next.

Outsound Music Summit: The Composers’ Muse

The Outsound Music Summit continued with The Composers Muse, a night of new compositions by three noted Bay Area composers. They were participants in the Composers’ Forum that I moderated earlier in the week, where they gave tantalizing descriptions of their work. On this evening, we finally got to hear what they were talking about.

The concert opened with the Skadi Quartet performing compositions by Christina Stanley, who also is the first violist for the quartet. Her compositions were based on large abstract oil paintings that were placed center stage, with members of ensemble arrayed to either side.


[Christina Stanley and Skadi Quartet. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

As someone interested in visual art as well as music, I was quite intrigued by this piece, and how the composer wanted the performers to interpret the visual work. Stanley had very specific instructions for performers in each piece for how to perform the score. In the first piece, Put it On, performers were to move visually from the focal point just to the lower right of center and move outwards, with different shapes corresponding to very specific sounds and modes of playing. You can see a close-up of the score at Stanley’s website. Within this structure, the music began with short notes and then moved to longer bow strokes, jaggedly moving up and down in pitch. My visual and aural senses focused on the straight-line character of both the score and the music. At one point, the performers diverged into different textures, with staccato notes against longer lines and glissandi that then melted into a single harmony. There were also elements of noise and percussive scraping, harmonics, and quite a bit of empty space in the sound. The piece concluded with a large and more traditional flourish.

The second piece was a duo of Stanley and cellist Crystal Pascucci. The score for this piece was more sparse with curving lines, and these qualities were reflected in the music as well. It started with harmonics and other high, airy tones. Overall, it was more melodic, but with some pizzicato tones as well. Gradually, the cello became lower and filled out the harmony, which seemed almost folk-music-like at times. There other elements such as sliding harmonics, but overall it still fit with the visual imagery of the score.

The next set featured a solo piece written and performed by Matthew Goodheart for piano and metal percussion. Gongs and cymbals were placed at various spots around the hall, including in the balcony. A small transducer was attached to each of the instruments so that it could be excited by electronically generated sounds.


[Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

The sounds used to excite the metal percussion were created by analyzing the partials and spectra of such instruments, a process that was part of his research involving “recursive physical object electro-acoustics” at the Center for New Music and Audio Technologies (CNMAT). The acoustic and spectral properties of these sounds also informed Goodheart’s live piano performance during the piece.


[Matthew Goodheart. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

The music that resulted was unusual and exceptionally beautiful. It began with high ethereal harmonics coming from the cymbals and gong spreading across the hall, and then high notes from the piano to match. The piano and some of the harmonics featured in the metal percussion gave the music an air of anxiety even while it was calming. As the harmonics grew thicker, the timbre grew more metallic and at moments took on the quality of water pouring. The music became more active, deeper harmonics and a few tones that sounded like flutes and clarinets alongside the metallic resonances. Again, Goodheat’s piano matched the changes in timbre as he moved into lower registers. Some of the sounds from the cymbals became more disjointed, sounding like tops, and after a loud gong hit the texture of the music grew thicker and more inharmonic. Then all at once it stopped leaving a single resonance. It looked like Goodheart was playing inside the piano as well with various objects, though it was hard to tell from where I was sitting. There were various percussive sounds and something that reminded me of my cat scratching, and then piano became more harmonic and tonal again with rather plaintive chords. There were more high frequencies and electronic swells broadcast through the cymbals, and a finale with a single repeated note on the piano. Overall, the performance was one of the most memorable experiences of the summit.

The concert concluded with John Shiurba’s large-scale composition 9:9. The number 9 permeated the structure and concept of the piece. There were nine performers and nine movements; and the piece employed a nine-note scale and nine different styles of notation all derived in one way or another from newspapers – there was standard notation along with text and graphics, some of which were taken directly from newspaper clips. Shiurba described his use of newspaper elements as a “celebration and/or elegy for the old-fashioned print medium.”


[John Shiurba 9:9. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

The movements were bounded by vocal interpretations of cryptograms from the New York times. The encrypted text was sung by Polly Moller, who had to work through challenging clusters of consonants. The decrypted solutions, which often featured corny or trite phrases, were sung by Hadley McCarroll in a more melodic style. Within this structure, each movement began with a solo by one of the nine performers, with a couple of other instruments gradually joining in, and finally the entire ensemble. Each of the solo sections had a very different character, representing both the performer and his or her instrument. Ava Mendoza’s strong articulation on acoustic guitar stood out, and Polly Moller’s solo on bass flute sounded quite familiar from Reconnaissance Fly pieces. The piano solo by Hadley McCarroll was quite aggressive, as was the bass clarinet solo by Matt Ingalls. There were interesting moments in the ensemble playing as well, such as a big minor chord and a section that more jazz or cabaret-like. Other sections were extremely quiet. The final movement featured a percussion solo by Gino Robair on a variety of instruments and implements, which mirrored the introduction to the piece. Other members of the ensemble included Philip Greenlief on clarinet, Monica Scott on cello, Scott Walton on bass, and Sarah Wilner on violin.

This was a very successful concert for the Outsound Music Summit, and not only musically. We had a full house at the Community Music Center, and I am pretty sure we set a record for paid attendance. There was certainly a lot of Outsound, curator Polly Moller, the composers and performers to be proud of.