Outsound Music Summit: Blurred Lines

Last night was the first full concert of the Outsound Music Summit. “Blurred Lines” focused on the combination of music and visual media, i.e. film and video. ┬áThe pieces were more of a collaboration between film and music rather than one serving the other per se, although in each case the music making and film/video making were done independently .

The first half of the concert featured films by Martha Colburn with live piano improvisation by “local Bay Area pianist impresario” Thollem McDonas. Colburn’s films employ stop animation with original artwork and found images, as well as found footage. The overall look reminded me of Terry Gilliam’s animations (e.g., from Monty Python), though the material was generally much darker. Several of the films dealt with death and violence, particularly in U.S. history and current events. Destiny Manifesto in particular juxtaposed images of western settlers in conflict with Native Americans alongside contemporary looking soldiers and scenes that could have been from the Middle East or Central Asia. Images of people being killed and dismembered abound in these films. Other films, such as Meet Me in Witchita with its images inspired by the Wizard of Oz, but here again things turned dark with Osama Bin Laden’s head superimposed on the Wicked Witch and then being killed and collapsing in a mess of bloody body parts. There were lighter images in some of the films, such as figures that seemed influenced by South Asian shadow puppets and even abstract graphic squares reminiscent of a disco dance floor.

[click image to enlarge]

McDonas’ piano veered between more classical or film-score inspired music and more percussive prepared piano. The music did not follow each film structurally per se (i.e., in the manner of a film score), but did evolve over time and present a particular character in each film. Initially, it started off lighter with fast runs and anxious chords, later on being more percussive and employing prepared piano or plucked strings. As the set progressed, the piano music became dense and darker, with large clusters of fast patterns and arpeggios in lower registers, every so often punctuated by more percussive and plucked elements. Overall the music had an aggressive feel which both showed of McDonas’ piano skills and fit with the violent nature of the films.

The second half of the program featured the 2009 60×60 international compilation. This is a set of 60 one-minute compositions that were selected and ordered into a continuous hour-long performance. For this program, each piece was set to a one-minute video) by Patrick Liddel. I had actually heard the 2009 60×60 compilation before (without the videos) at the Long Night’s Moon Concert last December, and recognized several of the pieces from that performance. Many of the videos were abstract graphics, such as the pixelated images that accompanied the opening pieces by Halsey Burgund and Matthew Dotson, or the abstract kaleidoscopic images set to Polly Moller’s “Abdominal Cyclist Ultra”. Others had more representational images. #16 by Jane Wang featured toy piano and was set to footage of a toy piano being played.

[click image to enlarge]

Some were less directly representational and more evocative of the music, such as the scenes from 1950s television commercials set to Gregory Yasinitsky’s jazz piece. Although it was far more abstract, I would put the constantly moving gray rectangles against Patrica Walsh’s electronica dance music in the same category.

Among my favorite of the combined video+music pieces were Brian Lindgren’s music set to a slowly moving film of a woman in a black dress in front of a brick wall; and Enrico Francioni’s sounds featuring strong resonance and feedback that were set to a beautiful film of forward motion in a dark industrial hallway. Also of note were Jay Batzner’s music (which reminded me of Xenakis) set to geometric views of industrial girders, perhaps power lines; and the intricate grid (along with spiders) set to Anton Killin’s metallic sounds.

Overall, with 60 sets of constantly changing visuals and music, and my attempt to take at least few notes on each, the experience became one of sensory overload. Looking back on the notes, it is interesting in looking at my previous review of the 2009 60×60 mix how different pieces stood out more in the mix without the visuals while others seemed more prominent in the music+visuals mix.

Outsound Music Summit: Part 2

This is the second part of my report on the Outsound Music Summit, focusing on the first two concerts. For those who missed it, the first part described the Touch the Gear Expo on the Sunday before the formal concerts began.

The first concert, which was titled “Free Improvisation | Free Composition” began the way I often begin my own performances these days: with the ringing of a prayer bowl. This signified the start of Sacred Unit, the duo of Alicia Mangan on saxophones and the percussionist Spirit. Overall, this set consisted of free improvisation that blended avant-gard and more idiomatic jazz techniques with other folk and world traditions. I did find myself paying most attention to Spirit’s drumming and use of other elements for percussion, including his body and voice.


[click to enlarge]

The Rova Saxophone Quartet performed a new, set-length performance piece created especially for the Summit titled The Contours of the Glass Head. This is one of those pieces where it is difficult to tell where composition ends and improvisation begins. The group describes it as “the intersection of improvisation and composition, using improvisational games and strategies.” The members of the quartet demonstrated their powerful technical and musical skills as an ensemble and as four very strong players working together. At times one could focus on an individual solo or line from one performer, while at others the timbres and harmonies of the four saxophones seemed to act as one. As with some of the electronic performances the following night, there were sections of long drawn-out notes, and some very quiet subtle moments, which were interrupted by flurries of fast notes and punctuated phrases. Even if it was largely improvised, one could follow an imaged narrative to go along with the music.

Throughout the evening, I couldn’t help but notice the rather large wind instruments on the right side of the stage:


[click to enlarge]

In this photo, we see a bass saxophone, a tubax, and a contrabass flute. These were all instruments used by Vinny Golia in the final set of the evening. Golia performed solo and group Compositions for Woodwinds together with Thollem Mcdonas (piano), Damon Smith (bass), Rent Romus (saxophone, electronics), Garth Powell (percussion), and Noah Philips (guitar).


[click to enlarge]

The lively and energetic performances centered on free jazz , with free improvisation and interaction among the performers, but showcasing the unique aspects of each musician and instrument. In addition to Golia’s virtuosic performance wind instruments large and small, I also noticed prepared piano sounds from Mcdonas, and hard driving guitar and percussion from Philips and Powel, respectively, and Smith’s ever present and versatile bass.


The second program, “Industrial Soundscapes”, opened with Ferrara Brain Pan’s Form of Things Unknown. Long droning oscillators served as the foundation, on top of which he layered various shakers, bowls and other sounds, processed electronically. Ferrara Brain Pan is also an accomplished wind player, and incorporated bass clarinet into the set, which complemented the low-frequency oscillators. Sometimes they matched precisely, while other moments were as a counterpoint. Perhaps more than any of the other sets, this one matched my own current style of electronic music performance.


[click to enlarge]

Guitarist Peter Kolovos was introduced as having “surgical precision”. And it was an apt description. The staccato articulation of the guitar as well as the frequent changes of effects were very precise. There was never a moment where the sound was not changing, and changing quickly. At times it was quite loud and the effects quite heavy, but his dextrous performance was great to watch.

Conure focused on analog and digital noise, with lots of distortion, feedback, delays and lo-fi effects. There were sections of steady-state noise, but what most stood out were the moments with interesting transitions and glitches. I realized that Conure and I had crossed paths at an Outsound event last year.

Hans Fjellestad presented Slimspor Cosmonau, a short video with improvised electronic sound accompaniment. I actually wasn’t sure whether or not the music was scored out precisely to match the film, but I was assured by the artist that was entirely improvised, which is possible if one is intimately familiar with the visual material. The film appears as a computer screen, with controls around a central video area depicting lunar and astronomical images as well as biological and anatomical scenes.


[click to enlarge]

Late in the piece, I recognized a distinctive squeak that I thought might be a Metasonix effects box, and inspecting his setup after the performance confirmed that he did have one of these infamous boxes. Indeed, Fjellestad’s performance featured an eclectic mix of analog instruments – fitting for creator of the 2004 documentary MOOG.

Thomas Dimuzio concluded the program with his complex electronics and timbrally rich and evolving soundscape. Dimuzio uses a variety of technologies, including live sampling and looping, feedback and modulated effects. The piece started quite simply with a relatively harmonic chord, and the overall effect was very calm but also metallic. Then a swell, and metal resonances. The overall motion of the set was very slow, a strong contrast to Kolovos’ set earlier in the evening. This is not to say that there weren’t discrete textures and details within the music, but it was more like the details one would focus on while examining a natural scene, or perhaps the industrial urban landscapes where I enjoy walking. With it’s gradual place and close, this was an apt conclusion to the “industrial soundscapes” evening.