2019 Outsound New Music Summit in Review

It’s been a little over a week since the 2019 Outsound New Music Summit and it seems a good time to look back over all five nights of adventurous musical programming. If you haven’t already seen our summary video with highlights from all ten acts, please check it out.

The concert series kicked off with a performance by the duo B Experimental Band, a large project led by Lisa Mezzacappa (bass) and Jason Levis (drums). They have been performing as a duo for a long time, taking on different challenges as their musical relationship has evolved. The latest is bringing their improvisational focus to a large group, i.e., maintaining spontaneity and musicality of improvisation while herding cats.

duo B Experimental Band

What I most noticed about this set was how sparse and spacious it was. In the first piece, space played an important visual as well as musical role, with different pairs of performers scattered around the concert hall. And towards the end, the full group thinned out to a single solo line from Polly Moller Springhorn on flute. The complete ensemble also included Bruce Ackley, Randy McKean, Cory Wright, and Joshua Marshall on woodwinds; Theo Padouvas and Rob Ewing on brass; and Gabby Fluke-Mogul (violin), Murray Campbell (octave violin), Shanna Sordahl (cello), and Kjell Nordeson on percussion.

By contrast, the second set featuring saxophone quartet Social Stutter was densely packed with rich harmonies and melodies. Composer and bandleader Beth Schenck makes the quartet – which also includes Phillip Greenlief, Cory Wright, and Casey Knudsen – function as a single instrument with some exquisitely beautiful chords and melodic lines. There was also space for each of the members to shine individually, with Knudsen’s fast runs, Greenlief’s unique timbres and keywork, and Wright solidly holding down the foundation on baritone sax. I was quite taken by this performance and now inspired to write my own compositions for saxophone quartet.

We always aim for a diversity of styles of music and instrumentation throughout the week, loosely categorized into nightly themes. For example, both of the bands that could be characterized as “rock music” were on the same night, but the two groups were still quite contrasting. Gentleman Surfer, a trio featuring Jon Bafus (drums), Barry McDaniel (guitar), and Zack Bissell (synthesizers) delivered a hard-driving set – my favorite moments were those where all three played unison syncopated rhythms complete with silences that were as intense as the sounds.

Gentleman Surfer

By contrast, Vegan Butcher’s set had a more plaintive, cerebral quality, due in large part to composer and bandleader John Shiurba’s “January Scale” and lyrics taken from his dream state just before waking up. The scale removes C-sharp, A-sharp, and F-sharp from the available twelve tones. This provides some interesting musical challenges. For example, a song centered in the “key” of F would have to avoid B-flat (A-sharp), and some keys like D become challenging indeed! The selection of chords to work around these gives the band’s music the plaintive sound. Their final song was particularly memorable, especially the section where rhythmic chords undergird the lyrics “I’m coming down from my stilts now, baby!” I found myself singing that for days afterward.

Vegan Butcher. Photo by Charles Smith

The next night again featured two contrasting sets. First was a very spare improvisation featuring Francis Wong on saxophone and Lenora Lee on dance/movement. Wong and Lee are longtime collaborators and have been working on both improvised and larger-scale compositions for two decades.

Francis Wong and Lenora Lee

This performance, which made use of the space around the hall as well as the stage, was extraordinarily subtle and quiet as both the sound and movement bounced off the silent space – but at the same time forceful in the message it delivered, decrying all forms of violence and discrimination against immigrants and refugees from the Chinese Exclusion Act and the internment center on Angel Island to the images of mistreated children out our southern border today.

As with duo B and Social Stutter, the sparse nature of Wong and Lee’s performance was in sharp contrast to the lush landscapes of Andrea Centazzo’s solo set, with live percussion – drums, gongs, and his signature stacks of cymbals – set against both live and recorded electronics.

Andrea Centazzo

Centazzo’s solo performances often involve multimedia projections with the music. Sadly, this was not able to happen for this concert, but one could still “hear the images” of nature and remote places in his sounds, from the initial thundering drums to the gong array set against what sounded like singing monks.

The next night brought Polly Moller Springhorn’s much-anticipated Tomography Fortunae to the Outsound stage, or more specifically to the floor in the middle of the hall as the audience looked on from the edges. Her composition combines a variety of sounds with ritualistic movement and concept, all codified in a graphic score. The most unique element was the fact that all performers had to be named “Tom.” This comes from a longstanding observation that many of the musicians in the Bay Area new-music scene happen to be named Tom (or Matt, or David). The Toms on this occasion were Tom Djll, Tom Dimuzio, Tom Duff, Tom Dambly, Tom Nunn, Tom Scandura, and Tom Weeks.

Polly and all seven Toms.

The piece unfolded as a series of three movements, each with more elaborate patterns of motion, ritualistic drawings, and numerical interplace. Most of the music was improvised within that framework, often bringing together pairs or trios of Toms for humorous interplay leading a loud and raucous finale with everyone playing. The whole experience was fascinating and fun.

Tomography Fortunae

The next set brought together percussionist William Winant with Zachary James Watkins on guitar and electronics. The two had performed together before, but I still did not know what to expect. The set opened with Winant on pine cone and drum, with Watkins gradually building up high-pitched noisy sounds to fill the spaces in between. The guitar soon emerged with stronger electronic sounds as Winant shifted to his gongs and metal percussion.

William Winant rocking the pine cone
William Winant and Zachary James Watkins

The sounds are fascinating but quite loud (especially for those of us who have maintained our high-frequency hearing) – and this was perhaps the most challenging moment of the entire festival. But things settled down again into a cloud of sound mixing percussion and electronics where the two became entangled.

The final night brought two veterans of the summit and of experimental jazz to the stage. Rent Romus (also the executive director of Outsound and the festival) teamed up with fellow woodwind multi-instrumentalist Keith Kelly for Deciduous, a set that unfolded as a collection of short stories, complete with characters, magic, and mischief. They were joined by Nava Dunkelman on percussion, Heikki Koskinen on e-trumpet, Gabby Fluke-Mogul on violin and Lisa Mezzacappa on bass.

Rent Romus
Deciduous

The final set brought back Vinny Golia and his wild collection of wind instruments to the Outsound Stage. In addition the more conventional baritone saxophone and bass clarinet, he also had a contrabass flute, a sopranino saxophone, and a rare G Mezzo-Soprano saxophone (which he describes in our preview video).

Vinny Golia trio. Photo by Charles Smith

Golia was joined by Miller Wren on bass and Clint Dodson (drums). Originally, our friend Steve Adams was going to join them on saxophones but was unfortunately unable to make it for medical reasons. Fortunately, he appears to be much better and back to performing since then, and we wish him the best.

It’s particularly interesting to be present all nights and hear how the different artists and styles of music follow one another on the same stage. And I am glad to have been a part of it again this year both as a listener and part of the organizing committee.

San Francisco Electronic Music Festival (SFEMF): Celebrating John Cage

Today we review the opening concert of the Thirteenth Annual San Francisco Electronic Music Festival (SFEMF). The concert was a tribute to John Cage on his centennial (one of many) and took place at SFMOMA. It specifically featured four of his conceptual pieces with chance processes or novel instrumentation.

The main included a performance of Cage’s Score Without Parts on SFMOMA’s rooftop terrace, conducted by Gino Robair with texts by Tom Djll. The performance was in conjunction with the opening of the museum’s intriguing minimalist design exhibition Field Conditions. There were even hors d’oeuvres served on tiles from one of the pieces in the exhibit. Unfortunately, because of another commitment I only arrived at the tail end of the performance, so I did not hear enough to reasonably review it.


[sfSoundGroup. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

The main concert opened with members of sfSoundGroup performing Cartridge Music. This is the same piece that concluded the Music of Changes: Variation VIII concert a few weeks earlier, and featured the same personnel: Matthew Goodheart, Kyle Bruckmann, Matt Ingalls, and Tom Dambly. However, I felt that this was a stronger performance. Some of this may have been the staging and the sound support, but it also seemed that the cues for various elements were crisper and tighter, and the selection of sounds to use with the contact mics (i.e,, “catridges”) was more focused and suited to the structure of the piece. As in all music, practice and review from earlier performances helps.

This was followed by a performance of Cage’s most famous work, 4’33”. Normally, the piece is for a single pianist, but this particular performance featured a laptop ensemble. After all, it is a festival of electronic music.


[4’33” performed with laptops. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

The performers (mostly members of SFEMF’s steering committee) sat in silence, as required by the score of the piece, with a few motions here and there. The audience mostly listened respectfully as well, I only noticed a few deliberate comments at soft volume. Thus, it was a successfully executed performance of the piece. I hope none of the laptops crashed.

The score for Fontana Mix, which is itself a work of art with curving lines and randomly distributed points, is actually a tool for generating other pieces. Aria is one such piece that Cage himself generated. For this performance, Fontana Mix with electronic sounds and Aria for voice were layered on top of one another, with Daniel Steffey and Christina Stanley performing the layers on electronics and voice, respectively.


[Daniel Steffey and Christina Stanley. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

My least favorite performance of a Cage composition was a boring and long version of Fontana Mix, so I had a little bit of trepidation. But this realization by Steffey and Stanley was vibrant and dynamic. Stanley’s vocals moved between numerous styles of singing (e.g., classical, popular, cabaret) and languages, punctuated by percussive strikes on found objects. Steffey’s foundation of electronic timbres was strong as well, with a lot of variation that left room for the vocals. Using these elements, they were able to realize genuine musical phrases and structure with a sense of narrative from the abstract scores.

The final performance of the evening was a realization of Variations II by Guillermo Galindo that featured a mariachi band. A mariachi band performing John Cage is certainly unusual, but in truth no different from any other interpretation of his scores with open instrumentation. For this performance, a four-piece group Mariachi Nueva Generación with traditional costumes and instrumentation, including violin, trumpet, the distinctive large guitarrón mexicano, and guitar.


[Mariachi Nueva GeneraciónPhoto: PeterBKaars.com.a]

Like Fontana Mix, Variations II is based on graphical elements that are combined to form instances of the composition. Specifically in this case, the interpreter combines lines and dots that represent musical elements that can then be notated for the performers. The result in this instance was a very sparse texture. The musicians would often play a single or pair of disjoint notes surrounded by periods of silence. There were only a few moments where multiple members of the ensemble played at the same time. The texture is a familiar one from realizations of Cage’s indeterminate pieces, but the overall experience with the band was a novel one.

The musical performance was preceded by a video with documentation and commentary produced by Jen Cohen. The video had some fun moments, with befuddled Mills professors reacting to the idea of a mariachi band performing Cage, and allusions to the graphical elements of the Variations II score. It didn’t feel like it was necessary to the experience of the performance. Nonetheless, Galindo considered it an “inseparable part of the piece and one doesn’t exist without the other.”

Overall, it was a strong opening concert for the festival, and it was quite well attended.

John Cage, The Music of ChAnGEs: Variation VIII

Today we review The Music of ChAnGEs: Variation VIII, a concert in a yearlong series by sfSound celebrating John Cage’s centennial. This particular concert, which took place at The Lab, featured some of Cage’s more adventurous and experimental compositions, including works involving electronics and noise elements. These more conceptual pieces involved use of simple electronics, household objects, or unexpected musical sources. The scores are mostly based on sequences of instructions with absolute or relative time scales. In addition to 4’33” (which was not on the program), these are among the most celebrated examples of Cage’s music, but also among the more misunderstood and even reviled. I fall unequivocally on the side of celebration of these more radical and pioneering works, and thus I was privileged to be able to participate in this concert myself as well.

The pre-concert and intermission music featured an interpretation of One3 by John Leidecker (aka Wobbly). The piece contains the instruction to “arrange the soundsystem so that the whole hall is on the edge of feedback, without feeding back. The result is an abstract texture that goes from silent to occasionally quite loud at the unstable boundary, but the sound was also blended with the ambience of the conversations and commotion in the hall.

The formal concert opened with Radio Music. In this piece, each performer is given a written part with a sequence of AM radio frequencies to which to tune his or her radio (traditional analog broadcast AM/FM radios are required to perform this piece, no internet or digital-broadcast radios allowed). What, if anything, is audible on those particular frequencies is of course up to chance – sometimes it is just static, while other times one tunes into an actual station. Additionally, the performers were free to walk around the hall and to interpret the flow of time among positions in their part. The result was a spatialized electronic music texture with the radios playing the part of synthesizers with noise generators, distorted sine waves, and the occasional sampled recording. Particular combinations of sportscasts, music and tuning noise could be quite humorous.

This was followed by Music for Amplified Toy Pianos. Cage is often credited with bringing the toy piano into the realm of serious music with his 1948 Suite for Toy Piano. In Music for Amplified Toy Pianos, he pushes the instrument further with the use of contract microphones, amplification, and more percussive interactions with the instrument itself. Like Radio Music, the score involves a series of instructions, indicating the pitches to be played by each performer, when to perform a “sound effect” on the instrument, and when to change the level on the associated amplifier – but in this piece, the times are given in absolute units. This was my station for the performance, with my own toy piano that was rescued from curbside dumping in New York. It has certainly had a better life at CatSynth HQ, and then the opportunity to appear in a concert like this!

Performing this piece accurately requires concentration – one must pay attention to the cues on his or her own part without being distracted by the other sounds. Nonetheless, like all ensemble music one is listening to overall sound. The texture of the piece is quite sparse, with individual disjoint notes punctuated by percussive sounds (hits, scrapes, etc.). The amplification changes add a strange sort of dynamic expression especially as the ear inevitably tries to pull together disparate parts into short phrases. There was not as much empty space in this performance as I heard on earlier recordings of the piece, in part due to our interpretation of the noise elements, which included longer-duration sounds like scraping a comb on the piano and the interaction of the amplifiers with ambient and electrical noises. It was a delight to play and to be able to at least partially listen to. The other performers for the piece included Kyle Bruckmann, Daniel Cullen, Tom Djll, Sivan Eldar, Matt Ingalls, and Hadley McCarroll.

The only piece on the program not written by Cage himself was a tribute by Christopher Burns entitled Unlit Cigarettes (for John Cage). Ostensibly a multi-movement chamber piece with voices, winds, and strings, it followed the theme of other pieces in the concert with unusual patterns and instructions for the performers. Among the most interesting were the instructions for one or more performers to play on another performer’s main instrument. For example, multiple performers attempted to make sounds from Burns’ guitar while he held it. There was also a recitation of a familiar-sounding text by Gertrude Stein in one movement. Her writing often involves repeated words and phrases, which made for very contrapuntal and rhythmic music. Burns was joined in the performance by Kyle Bruckmann on oboe, Tom Dambly on trumpet, Tara Flandreau on violin, Matt Ingalls on clarinet, John Ingle on saxophone, and Hadley McCarroll on voice. You can hear a bit of the performance in this video:

This was followed by one of Cage’s most conceptual pieces, 0’00”. The score of the piece consists of the single statement “In a situation provided with maximum amplification (no feedback), perform a disciplined action.” It is often subtitled 4’33” no. 2, and although it has very little in common with the original 4’33”, it does represent another extreme of what can be considered music. The “deliberate action” in this particular performance involved Matt Ingalls’ sitting at a desk and writing checks to pay the musicians. A contact microphone picked up the sound of the writing and it was amplified into the hall. It wasn’t the most pleasant sound even when judged in comparison to the other extreme sounds of the evening, but it was a faithful rendition and the action was a humorous and appropriate choice for this concert. (And it’s nice to get paid for playing experimental music.)

[Photo by Tom Djll.]

The final piece before the intermission was Living Room Music. Dating back to 1940, this was one of Cage’s earlier pieces and explores the use of household objects as percussion instruments. Ingalls was again seated behind the desk from 0’00” with the other performers (Matthew Goodheart, Tom Dambly, and Hadley McCarroll) arranged to either side. Despite what was radical instrumentation for a concert setting at the time, the rhythmic work seemed rather conventional, with repeated polyrhythms and other patterns from idiomatic music. It was the combination of the staging, to look more like a room in a house with the desk and books, and the timbres of the “instruments” that allowed the concept of the piece to enter the listening experience. Once one accepted the setting, then focus shifts to the rhythms.


The concert resumed with Music for Six, a performance of Cage’s modular piece Music for _____ by six musicians, essentially the same ensemble that played Christopher Burns’ piece minus Burns. This is one the most flexible and reconfigurable pieces, even more of a “composition generating kit” than the others. Although the instrumentation for this performance was traditional chamber instruments, the piece calls for extensive use of microtones that push the instruments into different sonic territory.

The most unusual instrumentation of the evening was in Inlets (Improvisation III). The piece called for three amplified water-filled conch shells, one conch shell played like a trumpet, and pre-recorded sounds of fire. The honor of playing the conch shells fell to Matt Ingalls, Tom Dambly and Tom Djll.

There was much of the expected splashing and gurgling sounds that one would expect from the conch shells, but also surprising details such as short percussive sequences from the action of the water. These instruments were quite difficult for the performers to control, which makes the resulting music more unpredictable. At times it was also difficult to tell what was generated by the water in the shells and the fire in the recording, adding an aspect of “elemental ambiguity” to one’s enjoyment of the piece.

The concert concluded with a performance of Cartridge Music. The piece has a similar structure to Music for Amplified Toy Pianos and Inlets, but distills the concept further to just modified phonograph cartridges – realized for this performance using contact microphones – and found objects. The piece unfolded with each performer rubbing his or her respective found objects against the microphones according to the timed instructions in the score. The resulting music was once again quite sparse, but with a wide dynamic and timbral range from the array of objects used, including Matthew Goodheart’s cymbals (a miniature version of the system he presented a few weeks earlier at the Outsound Music Summit), metal objects in a bowl played by Kyle Bruckmann, and many others. By following the changes in texture, density and volume, one can start to hear phrasing and form in the music.

In listening to (and in some cases performing) the works in this concert with their emphasis on generative techniques, “compositional tools” and indeterminacy, I could not help but think of Fluxus, for which Cage was an important influence (though not technically a member). The connection to Fluxus provides a strong conceptual context as well as connection to visuals of the time and place where Cage created these works. Nonetheless, they all still stand out as excellent on a purely musical level in the concert setting, with sounds and textures that were quite enjoyable to listen to despite Cage’s undeserved reputation of writing impenetrable music. The concert was also well attended, with a full house packed into The Lab. A very successful night all around.