Outsound Music Summit: Sonic Poetry

The concert series of the Outsound Music Summit began this Wednesday with Sonic Poetry, a night combining poetry and live improvised music. This was a first for the summit, with three leading Bay Area poets collaborating with local improvising musicians. Each of the sets featured a different style of poetry, which was reflected in the music and performances.

The first set featured Ronald Sauer, a leading figure in the North Beach poetry scene. His poetry was infused with social satire and provocative imagery, and his reading style had that driving tumbling-forward energy reminiscent of earlier poets of that scene. In this performance he was joined by percussionists Jacob Felix Huele and Jordan Glenn.


[Ronald Sauer, Jacob Felix Huele and Jordan Glenn. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

The music began with deep ambient sounds and resonances as Heule rubbed a cymbal on a bass drum and Glenn struck metal bowls atop a set drum. Sauer then launched in a humorous poem whose lines poked fun at different poet stereotypes. The music moved into rich textures with mallets, stick hits, vocal sounds and buzzing – the latter occurred as the words alluded to mosquitoes. The next poem, a gentler piece about garnering, was accompanied by soft rattling sounds and resonant metallic rods. Tuned percussion and inharmonic timbres supported Sauer’s “romantic” poem that was featured rather intense sexual language and imagery – and which prompted the evening’s lead curator Robert Anbian to exclaim “Now Ron, don’t hold back!” One of final poems of the set featured the memorable line “The life of an artist is an elegant suicide.”

The next set was a duo featuring poet and performer rAmu Aki with musician Karl Evangelista on guitar and electronics. rAmu Aki’s poetry is deeply rooted in the landscape and culture of San Francisco’s Tenderloin (“TL”) neighborhood where he lives, and by his own declaration was inspired “by the voices inside his head.” He also wore an impressive blue feathered headdress.


[rAmu Aki. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

Alongside Aki’s fast rhythmic words, Evangelista began with an anxious chromatic guitar line. Phrases like “City of Light” and “English Harassment” were followed by sounds with distortion and other effects, and looping to produce contrapuntal textures. The poetry was full of references to the Tenderloin, some of which like the street names, were familiar, others less so. There were light chords against angrier words, surf tone and more distorted guitar moaning. During a break, there was a rather pretty guitar solo on top of which followed a gentler and prettier poem. A jazzier and more rhythmic section of music accompanied the poem “Grove and Laguna Sunset.” Overall, the duo has a strong musical rapport, with rhythmically tight starts and stops to phrases, and pauses that allowed the music to come through clearly.

The final set featured poet Carla Haryman and musician John Raskin on saxophone and other instruments, joined by Gino Robair on percussion and prepared piano. Unlike the other collaborations in this concert, Haryman and Raskin have worked together for a while, and I was quite looking forward to hearing their performance.


[Carla Haryman. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

The music began with the sound of bowed metal followed by soft staccato tones on the saxophone. Haryman’s words were also quite staccato and worked well with the sparse percussive texture of the music. Indeed, I was quite drawn to her more abstract poetry, and I found myself listening to individual words as if they were percussion instruments mixed in with the other parts of the music. There were more metal ringing sounds against a longer and more melodious saxophone line, and some electronic sounds that reminded me of old video games. Raskin also recited words at various times, either independently or in sync with Haryman. Gino Robair’s Blippo Box provided its usual liquidy percussive sounds that blended with the saxophone and words. One particular line that stuck with me, and stuck together as a full phrase, was “why is it that some afternoons turn into Miles Davis events?”


[Jon Raskin. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

The next piece was from a larger work in which the text of a lecture by musicologist and critic Theodor Adorno was processed into a new poetic form and recited by Haryman while Robair performed on prepared piano. Raskin also participated in reciting the text, helping turn parts in a dialogue that included the lament that we “cling to the term new music” unlike visual art which doesn’t hold on to an equivalent overarching term (though one could argue that “modern art” is an equivalent). The overall effect was quite humorous, especially in an audience steeped in experiencing and talking about new music. The piece entitled “Orgasm” was more frenetic, with electronic noises and Raskin employing electronic and electromechanical devices inside a large brass-instrument mute. The final piece featured Raskin playing a squeeze box and Haryman reciting phrases that felt more narrative than the individual words of the earlier pieces, and visual imagery such as “waking hours shiver under glass.”

My experience with poetry is that it tends to be far denser than standard language. As such, it can be a challenge to listen to in sets that are 30 minutes long or more. The rhythmic musicality and phrasing employed by rAmu Aki and the sparse abstract texture of Carla Haryman’s poetry made them work particularly well in the longer setting of a musical performance.

The evening was well attended, with many unfamiliar faces who followed the work of the featured poets but may have been experiencing new-music concerts for the first time. Overall, it was a very strong and dynamic opening concert for the Summit.

Broadside Attractions | Vanquished Terrains at Intersection for the Arts

Today we look at the show Broadside Attractions | Vanquished Terrains which is currently on display at Intersection for the Arts.


[Photo by Scott Chernis. Courtesy of Intersection for the Arts.]

This large and ambitious show, curated by Maw Shein Win and Megan Wilson with Kevin Chen of Intersection for the Arts, brings together twelve pairs of visual artists and writers to produce collaborative work centered around the historical broadside medium. A broadside is generally defined as a large sheet of paper printed on one side and designed to be plastered onto walls in public areas. They were historically used to announce events, proclamations or news in a very concise and public manner before the advent of the internet, broadcasting, or even printed newspapers. Like many media that have outlived their original practical purpose, the broadside continues on in more rarified form for artistic exploration, this show being one such example. For this exhibition, the teams followed a very specific process. First, each visual artist provided his or her collaborating writer with three data points based on the theme of “vanquished terrains”: a piece of music, a movie and a location. The writer then created a short piece that was then given back to the artist to create a small visual work in response to the writing. These were combined to form the historic broadsides, which consisted of the visual piece as a black-and-white printed graphic, followed by the text of written piece.


[Photo by Scott Chernis. Courtesy of Intersection for the Arts.]

Finally, each artist-and-writer pair created another piece that embodied the same ideas and concepts as the historic broadside but using any form or media. The final pieces were quite varied, united only by the connections to their respective broadsides and the process of collaboration. Some were very direct reinterpretations, while others were quite distant from a recognizable broadside. The majority were somewhere in between, with flat media of either physical and or digital varieties.


[Photo by Scott Chernis. Courtesy of Intersection for the Arts.]

The above piece, a collaboration of artist Matthew Rogers and writer Maw Shein Win, is typical of the experimentations with media to augment the traditional broadside concept. The piece is primarily a flat panel of mixed media on paper, with a segment of the space presenting a video, in this case an animation by Rogers with music and bits of a reading of the written piece. The overall feel of the both the visual piece and the poem had a very bleak quality. The prompt location was the Inland Empire, with its combination of stark desert landscape and overdevelopment. The latter is apparent in the poem, while the desert is more present in the visual media, with the video bridging the two with rather dystopian imagery.

Some pieces derived more directly from the original broadside concept. Indeed, one of the media that most captures the original intent in our particular time and place is the protest sign. In their collaborative piece, Megan Wilson interprets the central figure of Hugh Behm-Steinberg’s poem Ruby-Crowned Kinglets as part of a crowd of protest signs.


[Photo by Scott Chernis. Courtesy of Intersection for the Arts.]

The bright solid colors and simple text and graphics makes this piece stand out, even when just wandering by. At the same time, the image of the cartoon bird crying “Help!” has a fun quality to it. It was interesting way to bridge the contrast between protest art and more personal and descriptive nature of Behm-Steinberg’s poem. During the opening, visitors were invited to take one of the textual protest signs on the floor (but not to take any of the birds).

Video was a frequently used element to bring the broadside concept into the contemporary sphere. One of the most creative uses was by Eliza Barrios with writer Myron Michael. Several asynchronous video streams were projected onto a corner window, transforming the rectangular images into more angular shapes that were aligned perfectly to create the illusion that they were coming out of the window. In the center, a changing set of single words were projected. In watching this piece, I was trying to figure out how the words may relate to the images on either side.


[Installation view with Inaoko/Cortez second to left and Barrios/Michael on the right. Photo by Scott Chernis. Courtesy of Intersection for the Arts.]

Other interesting video pieces included artist Misako Inaoko with writer Jaime Cortez. Their stop-motion animation piece, which included text along with what appeared be live photographic images taken with an app like Instagram or Hipstamatic, created a low-fidelity loop of activity. The piece by Keiko Ishihara and Chaim Bertman revealed the frenetic pace of activity in Tokyo’s complex transit system. It seemed a world away from the location prompt of the South Pole, but quite related to the musical prompt, Brian Eno’s Music for Airports.

At the other end of the spectrum, there were several fully three-dimensional installations. The largest and most dramatic was a two-story installation by artist Karrie Hovey and writer Elise Ficarra that covered the spiral staircase of the gallery in felt representations of deer with stylized antlers and legs. Ascending the staircase to the upper level reveals a dark painted sky with floating text and butterflies. Deer may at first seem an odd choice for a piece whose text and imagery is about the plight of human intervention in nature – having grown up north of New York City, I can attest that deer are doing quite well for themselves – but the message in this piece relates specifically to the controversial killings of deer in Point Reyes national seashore.


[Photo by Scott Chernis. Courtesy of Intersection for the Arts.]

As a bonus, this piece also featured sound art via the work of composer Evelyn Ficarra. The generated sounds were diffused via numerous speakers embedded throughout the installation. The was the only piece to use sound design as an independent element (i.e., not part of a video), and of course I had to try and figure out more about it. The sounds appeared to be manipulated and processed from natural sources which was consistent with the theme. I think they were also multiple streams for the different speakers.

Another interesting large installation was the piece by artist Nathaniel Parsons and writer Ly Nguyen. I have seen several of Parson’s installations before, and this one had a similar home-made construction feel to it. But it was a bit more subtle, with a small hole in the side of the coarse wooden surface to reveal a “piece within a piece” inside.


[Photo by Scott Chernis. Courtesy of Intersection for the Arts.]

So how do pieces like these related at all to the original broadsides? They are still in very concise language “shouting” their point like a Tweet in their own varied proportions and media. And in this sense they retain the “broadside” spirit.

Perhaps the most conceptual take on the theme was Tea + Dialogues presented by writer Jenny Bitner and artist Liz Worthy. They constructed a “tea room” where visitors could sit down, enjoy a cup of tea and participate in dialogues with other visitors. The tea was served in custom ceramics created for the installation, and the walls were decorated with text.


[Photo by Scott Chernis. Courtesy of Intersection for the Arts.]

Visitors choose dialogues from a preselected list, many of which were quite humorous and at least one referenced the installation itself. In additional, visitors were offered a fortune cookie that contained a “miniature broadside.” The dialogues, fortune cookies, and embedded text on the walls all related back to the historic broadside but brought it into a more ubiquitous and interactive realm.

I did participate in a dialogue with another visitor whom I had not previously. It was fun to read, and had the minimalist awkward quality of mid-century experimental theater piece.

In addition to the printed broadside and installation, each piece included links to the source prompts, with QR codes that allowed visitors to access the source music and movies via their mobile devices while exploring the exhibition.

As one can tell from this review, the visual art and installations tended to overpower the written work, especially for those like me who tend to be more visually oriented. To help balance this out, the show included to readings where the writers were front and center, presenting their work in the show as well as related readings of their choice. As with the installations, there was a great variety of work, from short song-like poems to surreal fiction to personal recollections.

The show will remain at Intersection for Arts in San Francisco through May 26.

Intermezzo on Water

Intermezzo on Water

The words and sentences float losing their coherence as the visions and narratives of seaside communities decay into dreams of filtered sunlight and free verse and fog and failed concentration and ambiguous affections and terraced layers of improbable houses and the percussion and the solitude and concrete ruins washing into the ocean.

From the dissolving darkness a faint buzzing punctuated by clicks spirals outward along silent waves. In its wake sparks radiate and melt into the meandering trail of a melancholy story.

[Originally written September 15, 2003]

Overpass (August 17, 2003)

Although I had driven this particular stretch of freeway through Las Gatos countless times, I did not recall seeing this particular overpass before. It was exceptionally tall, far taller than the other overpasses that I did remember; they were generally about fifteen feet above the freeway. It was a perfect black against the imperfect black of the night sky.

998

The stripes of black
A bar code on dark wood
Chromatic minor chords
And their calming effect
A black cylinder sheared
Resting upon a white cone
Its imagined vertex a distant height
She carries in her hands
Two numbers
Nine and Ninety-Eight

[Originally written July 23, 2003]

Poetry and Music at Headlands Center for the Arts

Another weekend, another show planned. This time poetry with musical accompaniment. The Headlands Center for the Arts is not far from the location of this week’s Wordless Wednesday photo.

Sunday, April 17 · 3:30pm – 4:00pm
Headlands Center for the Arts, Main Building
2nd Floor, East Wing, 944 Barry

Maw Shein Win will be reading poetry with musical accompaniment by Amar Chaudhary for the Headlands Center for the Arts Spring Open House in Marin on Sunday, April 17. Under the title “Pitta of the Mind”, the duo will combine poetry with a mixture of electronic, ambient and pop-infused music.

The Open House is from noon-5PM. The performance is 3:30-4PM. Arrive early to get good seats.
Admission FREE

Unlike a museum, gallery, or theater showing finished works of art, Headlands Center for the Arts supports the creative process. Come discover how a composer composes, what inspires a playwright, and how a painter decides when to put down her brush. Visit studios of more than 40 local and international artists working across artistic disciplines, explore our historic, renovated military buildings, and enjoy a homemade lunch in our Mess Hall Café.

More info:
http://www.headlands.org/event_detail.asp?key=20&eventkey=958

Directions:
http://www.headlands.org/article.asp?key=23

SoundSpeak, Luggage Store Gallery, and Cornelius Cardew Choir

Today we look back at a busy Thursday back in November. In the early evening, after spending the afternoon with the folks at Smule busking around San Francisco with the newly released Magic Fiddle, I met up with members of the Cornelius Cardew Choir at the Powell BART station to perform several pieces for voice, motion and interaction with the environment.

We performed two pieces by Bob Marsh and Tom Bickley, respectively, in the sunken plaza next to the station. Both pieces were very meditative, even as one moved about the plaza, and the relatively soft and sparse nature allowed one to also listen to sounds of the city as the evening commute tapered off. A few onlookers stopped to see what we were doing and listen in, but mostly we were on our own. We then began a piece by Rachel Wood-Rome that combined live voice with prerecorded material. However, as we were bat to start, a rather enthusiastic individual came over and asked to sing with us and forthwith began his rendition of “The Love I Lost”, a minor disco hit by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. As if on cue, at the end of his song a young man on a skateboard wiped out at the base of the staircase. I wish I had captured this moment on film. We then continued with our performance, in which four participants listened to pre-recorded material on iPods and headphones and then sang their parts for the others to follow.


Later on, several of us made our way to the Luggage Store Gallery for Outsound’s Soundspeak Series, a “series presenting pairings of sound and voice artists.”

The first set featured Hugh Behm-Steinberg with Matt Davignon. Rather than just a recitation of poetry with music, the performance featured both live voice and pre-recorded readings that we played back in combination with live electronic sounds. The first piece, “Sea Monster”, featured electronic sounds by Davignon that sounded very aquatic, like wind and waves. Behm-Steinberg’s pre-recorded spoken lines were separated with large spaces in which to hear the other material. Various loud metallic sounds emerged as the words become more fragmented. Eventually, the words seemed to disintegrate completely and were obscured by harsh resonances from the electronics. Overall, however, the piece maintained an undulating motion. A couple of lines from the text that stuck with me were “to be a girl in her 50s shoes” and “Don’t pay attention to modern literature.”


[Hugh Behm-Steinberg and Matt Davignon.]

The next piece began with metallic sounds that were almost FM-like in timbre, and the texture of the music was more choppy with individual events. The words started out more fragmented as well, and were rendered with a variety of voice qualities. Not only differences in tone, but differences in spatial perception as sometimes the voice seemed more distant. The electronic sounds became more liquidy sounds came in against percussive sounds, and gradually became more “gargly”. The voice began to shift pitches, up and down, against bits of liquidy bells. More glitch noises emerged, and words spread further out to the point of a single word per timbral event. I remember something about “fish bodies”.

The final piece, “Teeth”, was more of a monologue and quite humorous. It began with the line “Suppose you see a tooth” set against very percussive music reminiscent of tablas and other South Asian drums, played more in clusters than continuous rhythmic patterns. The imagery of the text was quite vivid, describing “infinite amounts of teeth” as the drums became more electronic. The text moved on to other topics, but then came back to teeth. As the piece continued on, more layers of electronic percussion emerged, however, the rhythm remained focused on clusters.


The second set featured Rent Romus on saxophone and electronics with CJ Borosque reciting poems from her new blog The Cloud Journals. One piece, “Love is a needle in the ass” was quite memorable both for some of the lines in the poem such as “white is the color of death and evil” and “the drum circle was fun, though” and its combination with Romus’ lively saxophone improvisation and live cassette-player performance.

The next piece “American Hunger”…or “Staving off Hunger (an American Diatribe)” dealt with issues around both hunger and consumption and how one can be both consuming massive amounts of food and other resources while still being “hungry” in some way. The line “where’s my beer” in the middle of the diatribe particularly stuck out for me, perhaps how it was set against the music. Sonically, the music featured warbling tones and chirping, glitches and loops, and effects from a Line 6 variable delay.

The piece “roads and wishes” featured the particularly memorable line “season to season, jam session to jam session” which resonated with me as a musician and as someone who has been quite busy with a great many things in these past few seasons. The poem was set against a variety of string tones: pedaled strings, bending blue tones, and others, and then gave way to more flute tones. The final piece “what if the world ended” featured more saxophone performance and string tones. And while these were not the final lines of the poem, they did once again connect to music and to being at the performance: Music is your muse, I am your butterfly, And your dragonfly, And your sword.

SoundSpeak, Luggage Store Gallery

Last Thursday’s performances at the Luggage Store Gallery were all about poetry and spoken word.

The first performance was a duo Polly Moller (vocals) and Moe! Staiano (percussion) interpreting a recent form of spoetry. Spoetry is spam that in its effort to evade filters rises to the level of high art. Our current set of songs in Reconnaissance Fly is based on spoetry, but the performance this evening featured a new and different form where words were grouped into disjoint sequences of two or three words, and in one case the words were themselves decomposed into individual sounds and reordered.

[Click on images to enlarge.]

The performance began with coarse drums and cymbals set against dramatic recitation of the first spoem. Although I wasn’t fully aware of the structure of the spoem at the time, one could definitely sense that the words were quite disjoint from one another. There were multiple languages, which allowed Polly the opportunity to play with different accents, pitches and timbres within the text. The drums at times were “prepared” with various objects on the heads. At one point, the drums got very soft, then gave way to scraping sounds on the cymbals set against longer drawn-out words, and then both the voice and percussion suddenly became very staccato and active.

The third piece focused more on Moe!’s percussive gadgets, including a back massager that was used to set a steady pulse for the piece, and set of old intercoms that were used to remotely set of loud squeaks from the edges of the room. This was the most rhythmic of the pieces, with a steady pulse that one could even sway to a bit. Moe! expertly threw and struck various objects in a way that kept the beat going, complete with accents.

In the final piece, the sounds of the words were decomposed into even smaller units that further blurred any sense of meaning. I did recall the phrases “Isis kitsch”, however. The main percussion instruments in this piece were a set of rubber balls attached to sticks that created a powerful sound when rubbed along the walls or on the heads of the drums.


The second set featured poet Robert Anbian with Rent Romus on saxophones and Bob Marsh on cello. This was more of a “traditional” poetry performance, with Anbian reciting long-form poetry against improvised music, and quite a contrast to Polly and Moe!’s more experimental set.

The first piece began with long cello harmonics that were matched by tones on the saxophone. The poem had memorable phrases such as “square root of suffering” and “posey for your supper.”

The second piece started with an animated run of fast saxophone notes and pizzicato on the cello. Then the poetry entered, with imagery and words related to fire and memorable phrases such as “The post war blues you are feeling is perfectly normal.” The music became noisier and sparser, then moved towards more of a jazz idiom (i.e., with the cello sounding a bit like a bass) then back to more noise and free improvisation. This was quite a long poem, and towards the end I think we in the audience began applauding before it was actually done. Anbian took this in stride and simply said “the audience has spoken.”

The last piece, My Country Loves Peace Remix began with cello and electronics (delays, etc.) set against a moaning saxophone. After a while the music moved to bowed cello and sax harmonics, then back to more electronically processed cello. The poem was about the perpetual state of war we seem to find ourselves in, despite leaders proclaiming their desire for piece. War was used broadly and included not only guns and bombs, but the taking of resources and cultural assets from others, sometimes by force, yet still proclaiming peace. “When will the war end?” A section of the music featured harmonics on the cello matching long tones on the sax with tremolo on both instruments. At one point, the pitches stablized on a major third before “falling apart” as a series of glissandi. The poem ended with the question repeated “When will the war end…Barack?”