Author: AndrewSigler

Sounds Heard: Aeolus Quartet—Many-Sided Music

The Aeolus Quartet, late of Austin, has been making music for several years now. They came together in 2008 in the time-honored tradition—while students at their conservatory of choice, in this case the Cleveland Institute of Music. Prize winners at the Fischoff International Chamber Music Competition and the Plowman Chamber Music competition among others, Aeolus was also the first resident graduate string quartet at the Butler School and they have recently begun studies at the University of Maryland. Before their return to the frozen Northeast, they entered the studios at UT Austin to record Many-Sided Music, an album of new works by American composers, its title taken from Leonard Bernstein’s description of the “many-sidedness” of American music. I’ve had the good fortune of hearing several of these pieces live, fresh, and new, but it’s great to hear them with the benefit of time and reflection.

Dan Visconti’s Black Bend begins with longing, gestural wails accompanied by the pizz. and pop of a lazy river. Stabs and runs fight for space, as abbreviated melodies push their way through a mosquito texture of sixteenth notes. Seemingly out of nowhere, a blues bar opens up “just around the bend,” complete with chromatic strolls to IV and back again. Guitar riffs straight out of the Robert Johnson songbook play out over pizzicato parts in the cello that nod to their string bass roots. A few choruses in, violinists Nicholas Tavani and Rachel Shapiro do their best “Devil’s Crossroad,” battling in the upper register as the violist Gregory Luce and cellist Alan Richardson trade in their bass lines for some new chordal duds. The final moments of this 12-bar blues section play no differently than the frozen time at the end of any blues tune, tremolo chords and flying riffs; everybody rocking out so much that you can almost see the cellist give the final downbeat, its only lacking elements the bass drum, cymbal hit, and leap from the drum riser that typically wraps this sort of thing up. Beyond that, the piece flows away, decelerating with just the slightest reference to the opening as the river flows around another bend.

Steven Snowden’s Appalachian Polaroids turns the Americana trajectory of the album towards the wide inland swath of the country where hills meet fiddles. Inspired by the photography of Shelby Lee Adams, Snowden begins with a haunting field recording of Shelia Kay Adams (no relation) singing “Black is the Color.” Quick and seamless integration of the quartet with the recording leads to a pentatonic celebration as the recording ends and the quartet steps to the forefront. Idiomatic double stops pop around all fourthy-fifthy in a frenetic eighth-note pattern as the folk melody makes its way from low to high strings. Sixteenths in the upper register up the ante as the longer lines find their way back to the bass, eventually dominating the competing sixteenths which lose a battle of attrition. The long pentatonic lines and harmonies of the opening material return to bring the piece to a close.

Lady Isabelle by Alexandra Bryant was written for Aeolus as a companion piece to Appalachian Polaroids. Also inspired by a field recording, Bryant uses the quartet to voice the song. Recorded here with separate microphones, the brief vocalizations give a stark, broken quality to the introductory material, a quality that is echoed in the quartet writing which doesn’t fully arrive until nearly two minutes into the piece. Shortly after this arrival we hear the first plaintive melody of the piece accompanied by arpeggiated harmonics and the breathing rise and fall of cello and viola. This dies and is replaced by double stops with glissandi on one of the strings of the cello played over a small range. Just before the halfway mark the melody returns over a newly vibrant texture which is followed by another section recalling the broken elements of the opening. A return to the cello glissando punctuated by pizzicato and wide open chords leads us to a recap of the opening material, vocalizations and all.

William Bolcom’s Three Rags for String Quartet, the oldest music on the album, matches well with the other offerings while fully embracing the characteristics of the rag. “Poltergeist” is playful while flirting with the dark side, occasional whole tone scales threatening to fully pull the piece into a modern idiom, only to turn at the last minute back to the diatonic scales that bring us home. “Graceful Ghost” is a melancholy waltz, firmly diatonic yet still nimble enough to perhaps raise a few eyebrows if it were played in the late 19th century. “Incineratorag,” however, sounds like it could be right out of the Joplin songbook, a fantastic study in the form and characteristics of that music and among the first works of its kind that Bolcom wrote.

Many-Sided Music is very well played and recorded and is extremely approachable. Populated and played by a mostly under-thirty crowd, it’s a welcome indication of the creativity and potential of Aeolus as well as that of the composers. In fact, I think that Bolcom guy has a real future.

SXSW 2012 Postmortem

You can feel SXSW approaching about two weeks before Austin’s population doubles and everybody and their grandmother has a keg and a band in the backyard. The locals can be divided into two categories: those who have made travel plans, and those who haven’t and are preparing like the Mayans got it right. For those in the latter group, supplies are purchased and thoughtful itineraries are carefully outlined. Friends are flown in, stationed on couches, given keys, and told where to get breakfast tacos; specifically where to get them at 3 a.m. Bars, venues, coffee shops, food trucks, transportation, wristbands, multi-level passes, and wardrobe (always tricky with the sketchy weather) are all prepped.

Everything is possible.

And then you end up doing a fraction of what you had planned, you lose your phone, your wristband turns out to be fake (happened to a friend, tragic) and the highlight of your Thursday was the time you spent east of I-35 watching a band from Iceland play chip tune music on rewired Game Boys….

And it’s still a blast.

What strikes me about my SXSW experiences in the twelve years I’ve been here (and what I typically hear from friends and acquaintances) is that some of the best parts were not vaguely planned. What they stumbled upon as they made their way around downtown Austin and the surrounding area is what made their festival experience fun and unique. I, too, have stumbled around downtown Austin (SXSW notwithstanding), and this year found a few shows that I’d planned to see, and a few that just showed up.

Owen Weaver - Photo by Elisa Ferrari

Owen Weaver – Photo by Elisa Ferrari

SXSW 2012 was a cloudy, overcast affair. The festival that starts and ends with music is nonetheless dominated by its technology-focused interactive festival which takes place at the start of SXSW and is indoors by and large; a situation that played out well this year. “Yeast By Sweet Beast“ (my stumble-in) is a three-day experimental improvisation and “outsider music” festival founded in 2000 by poet, musician, and film maker Anne Heller. Inspired by Andy Warhol’s “Exploding Plastic Inevitable” happenings, these showcases of sound artists were accompanied by installations by video artists Paul Baker, Katie Rose Pipkin, and Laurel Barickman, creating a thoroughly hypnotic vibe.  Held at a number of venues including Skinny’s Ballroom, Trophy’s, and Headhunters, the festival featured a tremendous variety of artists and styles. Highlights included the scattered vocal improvs of Bosco Stravinsky, Futureblondes, the “pop with big beats” of Ichi Ni San Shi, the rhythmic noise trance of Daze of Heaven, and Austin favorites Matt Burnett and Rebecca Ramirez.

The “They Used to Call it Classical” panel was held at the Austin Convention Center and featured Ed Ward, Justin Kantor, Alex Ross, Janet Cowperthwaite, and Carl Stone discussing the classical crossover trend that got its start decades ago but has since become the “It Girl” of new music discussion. The modest crowd heard a number of stories and insights, including Kantor’s take on keeping the doors open on a venue that features different styles nightly, Cowperthwaite’s discussion of the Kronos Quartet’s long-term commissioning project, and Alex Ross’s historical perspective on crossover. This should be required listening, and I hope that there is a repeat/update for next year.

Peter Gregson - Photo by Elisa Ferrari

Peter Gregson – Photo by Elisa Ferrari

Nonclassical and Fast Forward Austin curated a showcase downtown on the last weekend of the festival. Steve Snowden’s live remixes of music from the Nonclassical catalogue providing a great beginning to the show while offering a buffer for those filtering in a little late. Solo bass performances by P Kellach Waddle of his own compositions were followed by the Bel Coure sax quartet which performed music by Rob Honstein, Jennifer Higdon, and Nick Sibicky, resulting in an enthusiastic standing ovation. Cellist Peter Gregson brought a minimalist vibe to the room with pieces by Reich, and Nonclassical’s Gabriel Prokofiev and percussionist Owen Weaver performed a “sculpture piece” providing one of the more captivating visual performances of the evening. The Aiana String Quartet gave stellar performances of music by Piazzolla, Gabriel Prokofiev, and Bartok’s First String Quartet, the last of which was clearly the “classical” music of the night. Finally, Line Upon Line closed the show with pieces by Snowden, Ethan Greene, and a killer performance of Xenakis’ Okho. Well aware of the time limit imposed on the show (they run a tight ship at the Hilton, folks) LUL performed ninja-like set changes between pieces, a bit of ballet all by itself.

The Innova Records showcase the following night was held in the same “is this really a conference room?” venue as the FFA/NC show the previous evening.  Kicking off the showcase was Prester John  sounding every bit like the Presidents of the United States of America, if they were locked in a room for several years with a metronome, a monster work ethic, and a penchant for scales. I can only imagine that the phrase “quirky pop” is used from time to time in describing these guys, but it doesn’t do them justice. From fun tunes like “Fireman’s Drive Inn,” to the Zappa “Black Page“-esque (at least the intro) of “The Library Thief (with The Half Speed Cakewalk),” Prester John managed to maintain a sense of humor while displaying impressive chops. Sxip Shirey came on stage guns blazing, bearing train whistles, harmonica, prepared guitar, and an effects set up that sounded at times like trains in the distance (his description) and at others like the solo from “Owner of a Lonely Heart (my take, which I think is very cool btw…check 2:35). The Golden Hornet Project dusted off their Prokofiev (Sergei this time) arrangements (among the first pieces the group worked on when they formed) and dropped them, early Mr. Bungle-style, on the crowd. Their hyperkinetic mini big-band stylings, complete with pounding piano and killer horns, would have fit seamlessly into nearly any venue in town.

During the set change, Hall and Oates’ “Rich Girl” was playing over the P.A. and man, there was a lot of whistling and humming going on in that room. Just sayin’….

Todd Reynolds’s set was, for me, the highlight of an evening full of great performers and composers. His performance of Michael Lowenstern’s Crossroads was absolutely thrilling and had the audience positively grooving. Val-Inc’s Afro-electronica set included field recordings mixed with beats and a theremin-like control interface which made for a compelling show both visually and aurally. Finally Grant Cutler along with Innova’s own Chris Campbell laid a bit of an ambient mix on the audience, a fitting come-down to a very stimulating evening.

Owen Weaver and Adam Bedell – Observations by Tristan Perich (excerpt) from Fast>>Forward>>Austin.

 

Now that the town has released its seasonal population to the four winds, I can take a moment to reflect on another South By Gone By. Bookended by the weird and freaky YBSB at the front and the somewhat more formal but nonetheless funky showcases at the end, this year’s festival had a lot to offer those who are looking for something other than the usual fare. If there is anything that the audiences at these shows have in common with audiences at the traditional SXSW venues, it’s the fact that it’s hard for anyone to get out and see everything they want to see, especially if your tastes are varied. An embarrassment of riches such as SXSW demands that some shows go unseen, and that’s a bummer. However, the shows I made it out to this year were all pretty fantastic, and that gives me hope that (assuming the Mayans blew it) next year will be even better.

Improvising Conversation: No Idea Festival

No Idea poster

Poster artist: Noel Waggener

To the uninitiated, free improvisation can often seem formless and confusing. Unlike theater or comedy, the lack of text to provide a narrative can leave an audience member lost in a world of sounds, rhythms, and gestures that may be difficult to reconcile as a whole. The “free” in free improvisation can give the impression that anything goes, and while there may be a kernel of truth in that, those for whom improvisation is a regular and important part (or the whole) of their musical experience know that the real freedom in improvisation is working within the initial constraints that often come in the opening moments of a performance. Listening, communicating, and moving towards a cohesive realization is no less than real-time composition, and to do it well requires experience, patience, and perhaps most importantly, restraint.

The No Idea Festival recently celebrated its ninth year with seven days of concerts in Austin, Houston, and San Antonio. An international roster of artists participated in workshops and performances in spaces large and small and, as a run up to the festival, the No Idea Sunday Series featured four performances from local and regional improvisers. Each performance was preceded by screenings of Derek Bailey’s documentary On The Edge: Improvisation In Music, a series of four 55-minute films broadcast in the UK in early 1992. The Austin NIF shows took place at The Broken Neck, a venue in east Austin that has not forgotten that a warehouse is supposed to be a huge unrefined space. Nods to acoustics were evident, but by and large this was a space that could in no time return to its storage or manufacturing roots. AV equipment was ubiquitous, not just for use by the performers but in service of archiving the event and at times the two sets of equipment seemed to overlap. NIF was sponsored by some of the usual suspects, including the Texas Commission on the Arts and Meet The Composer (its logo now amended to reflect the New Music USA transformation), as well as a few local heroes like Ruby’s Barbecue (Austin) and St. Arnold’s Brewery (Houston) which supplied a great spread (gratis!) and a keg respectively, with beers available for a modest donation.

Andrea Neumann and Bonnie Jones

Andrea Neumann and Bonnie Jones

The first set featured Andrea Neumann from Berlin and Bonnie Jones from Baltimore. Both artists were set up behind large custom-made electronic kits attached to boards approximately three feet square, replete with hard and soft-wired elements. Neumann’s board also featured the miniaturized guts of a piano which she was able to manipulate both physically and electronically during the performance. As Neumann began generating a low frequency, Jones slowly played bells that recalled the sound of an analog phone. Neumann’s frequencies slowly opened up, though still remaining in the low range, while Jones began to create light static in a rhythmic pattern, the pulsing beats panning across the stereo field. Jones used her fingers to create and break connections on the board, causing small, pointed moments to occur slowly and without pattern, like rain dripping from a tree long after a storm. Neumann began to work with the “piano,” physically playing a few notes while the electronics transformed the sound, the last note of which became the only controlled and sustained feedback of the set. While the feedback echoed in the space, Jones manipulated a number of stompboxes and other custom equipment, at one point dragging one piece around the board, using the sounds of the analog contacts connecting and disconnecting within the device to create a counterpoint to the feedback and a reimagining of the previous patternless rain music.

Maggie Bennett

Maggie Bennett

Maggie Bennett’s dance set began as the audience returned to their seats following a brief set change. Attached to the wall was a tremendous paper construction, like a waterfall pouring from the wall and flowing ten feet across the floor. Bennett’s performance was an exercise in control, her movements mostly small and subtle, at one moment seeming to fall asleep and the next moment waking up on the large paper wave. It was a compelling and direct translation of movement into sound, so much so that late in the set when she moved away from the paper, I experienced a bit of cognitive dissonance in that it was odd to see her move without hearing the sound of the paper. It struck me that in conventional dance the sound of the dancer’s feet slamming into the marley flooring is always distracting. It’s a sound that I’d rather not hear if possible, but here the secondary sound was developed, celebrated, and made a strong follower to Bennett’s lead.

Bhob Rainey, Greg Kelley, and Jason Lescalleet

Bhob Rainey, Greg Kelley, and Jason Lescalleet

Sound artist Jason Lescalleet was joined by his nmperign collaborators Bhob Rainey (saxophone) and Greg Kelley (trumpet) for the third set of the evening. Lescalleet used a variety of reel-to-reel and hand-held tape machines to create organic textures. He began by placing a reel-to-reel unit at the front of the performance space and setting in motion a length of analog tape which went through and then out of the machine, made a circular trip several feet around a microphone, and returned to its origin. A broken ostinato slowly formed from this circuit and remained for the first few minutes, establishing itself as a static framework. Rainey joined the ostinato, his sax sounding long tones like a sine wave mixed with breathing through the instrument that recalled the broken static of the original signal. Lescalleet moved almost constantly around the stage and behind his own electronic setup at the back, manipulating various pieces of equipment including smaller tape decks that were placed on the side of the stage. Kelley removed the mouthpiece from his muted trumpet while he and Rainey complimented the spare tape textures with long, quiet, subtle quarter-tone lines and more breathing and blowing through the instruments. As the piece developed, Lescalleet removed tape from one machine, spliced and taped it on the fly, and fed it into the main machine at the front of the stage. While he held the tape, minute changes in the timbres could be heard as the tape machine motors worked to keep the mail moving through the system. Low aquatic sounds shared space with more breath effects from Rainey and Kelley, leading to pops and crackles from the reassembled tape. Finally, Lescalleet disconnected each of the machines, bringing the performance to a close.

Bryan Eubanks, Chris Cogburn, and Vic Rawlings performing as LUCRE

Bryan Eubanks, Chris Cogburn, and Vic Rawlings performing as LUCRE

The fourth set featured Chris Cogburn, Bryan Eubanks, and Vic Rawlings on percussion, electronics, and cello respectively, performing as LUCRE. Though Eubanks’s contribution was primarily electronic, both Cogburn and Rawlings had their own electronic setups as well which they used during the set. The performance began with Cogburn creating resonance on a snare drum (snares off) by dragging rubber beaters and other materials across the head of the drum. With cymbals placed on a tom tom, Cogburn used a long thin dowel and did his best fire-starter impression, using both hands to create vibrations in the stick that drove both cymbal and drum. Eubanks created a slight white noise texture that extended for several minutes while Rawlings drew clicking sweeps from the cello, the sound further altered electronically to sound a bit like the ocean from very far away. Most of the performance (and this was true of all the performances) utilized primarily old school analog electronics, with instruments and sounds largely derived from older hardware, but this section also featured the odd contemporary digital moment, adding a welcome trace of “reverse anachronism” to an otherwise earthy and visceral show.

It was impressive that in these chamber performances the members of the ensembles spent as much time (or more) listening as they did playing. Thoughtful, well-paced conversations and occasionally conventional forms with fairly clear beginnings, middles, and ends (as opposed to more open-ended jams in which less formally connected smaller moments and motives might play a larger role) were evident in each set. Among Cogburn’s goals for this yearly festival is to provide a forum for performers to improvise together multiple times, not just within a given festival but over the course of several meetings over many festivals. These relationships change and grow over time, and it’s a treat for performers and audience members alike to experience the results of that growth.

“Matrices and Entropy” from the Austin Museum of Digital Art

This past Saturday, the Austin Museum of Digital Art presented “Matrices and Entropy,” the most recent concert in their performance series focused on experimental music and digital performance art. AMODA has presented a variety of series over the years, including educational presentations, electronic concert music, and live interactive exhibitions. Though AMODA has no physical address (and really, isn’t that what you’d expect from a purely digital outfit?), their presence has been felt throughout the Austin area, and I was anxious to see what they had in store.

The show opened with Sam Pluta’s multimedia presentation data structures/monoliths ii (for chion)[*] which featured a variety of clips (with their original audio attached) from popular mainstream films manipulated in real time via Supercollider. Presented initially in short, two- to three-second bursts, the clips eventually began to take their place as structural elements of the piece despite their familiar origin. Patterns began to develop as the work progressed, though it was difficult to say whether these were intended or simply my brain trying to get its head around all the disparate input. The clips began to fly by more and more rapidly, leading to a climactic moment before slowing down and becoming arranged in such a way that their relative volume levels also decreased. This was followed by an extended (and thrice repeated) scene from the opening montage of the film Carrie which was, shall we say, somewhat calming relative to the hyperkinetic rapidity of the first section. Additionally, the Pino Donaggio music which accompanied this particular scene, all strings and slowly plucked guitar, was quite a “puppies and rainbows” setup for the deluge that followed. Fortunately, I’ve seen Carrie, so when the final iteration ended and gave way to a faster, louder, and more violent series of clips, I at least was able to keep my composure. This fugal section continued without respite, save for one clip featuring a man reaching for an electrical panel from which electricity was arching. This particularly calming image was the respite. Fortunately, the piece screeched to a halt before the guy blew up.

Line Upon Line performs Anders Vinjar

Line Upon Line performs Anders Vinjar’s +/-. Photo by Craig Washburn.

Percussion trio Line Upon Line performed Anders Vinjar’s +/- for assorted percussion and multichannel tape. The piece began with sparse offerings from non-pitched instruments that gave the impression of call and response or birdsong. Slowly, more clearly organized rhythms emerged from the spare texture, coalescing in short unified patterns and phrases and even the occasional pulse. This section came to a close after which the members pulled out sticks and went to work on the heads and sides of snares, timbales, and bongos. Grooves developed, stated even more clearly than before as smaller hand percussion was folded into the larger drum figures, recalling the introductory material and heralding one of the few instances when the pre-recorded audio gained prominence. Following the large, low frequency recorded bit, a section featuring cymbal scrapes and other metallic elements built to a climactic ending involving virtually every drum on the stage.

Steve Parker and Sam Pluta

(from left) Steve Parker and Sam Pluta. Photo by Craig Washburn.

Steve Parker joined Pluta for an improv set featuring trombone and electronics. Following a prolonged silence, Parker began working for a living. Breath effects, short riffs, and flutter tongue were immediately processed through a variety of effects, from common delays and reverbs to stuttered bit-crushing in what became a canonic tit for tat between the two performers. Parker took the trombone apart, played with mutes, removed the bell and created suction with the slide (with his thumb over the tube) to create high pitched, pinched squealing effects. Most notable in this performance was Parker’s ability to go blow for blow with modern technology on a bunch of twisted tubes that are a few hundred years old.

Line Upon Line returned to the stage to perform Cage’s Variations II, which falls squarely into his “meditative/contemplative” category. As much about the silence as the sounds that punctuate it, Variations II allows the listener to become so focused on the silence that when the metal slabs are stroked, struck, or slammed, the sounds serve as markers or borders for that silence. The only downside of the experience was the air conditioner which droned on throughout the work, about which I imagine Cage would have been profoundly indifferent.

Line Upon Line and Sam Pluta

Line Upon Line and Sam Pluta. Photo by Craig Washburn.

The closing work was Pluta’s Matrices featuring Line Upon Line flanked by two televisions. These were the regular old 4:3 CRT monitors (as opposed to the ubiquitous 16:9 flatscreens) tuned to a static channel. With Pluta on laptop, the piece began with loud, piercing oscillations bursting from the speakers, sounding somewhat like the scratchy static from dirty guitar pots. The screens responded to the audio output, horizontal lines dancing up and down, forming, disappearing, and breaking into snowy static as the percussionists and Pluta performed. Each of the percussionists faced microphones and had different instruments to use. These were (from left to right, respectively) two handheld fans, the blades of which were allowed to slap against the mic, a balloon and a paper bag, and a bowed flexatone. In an alternating quasi-rondo form, the music basically alternated between two sections, the first featuring the above instruments played furiously by Line Upon Line and processed by Pluta , the second, shorter, featuring piercing rolls on two blocks of purple heart wood. The dichotomy of the jumpy action of the first section versus the short uniformity of the second was echoed in the juxtaposition of Line Upon Line’s physicality and Pluta’s immobile figure behind the laptop. Further, the piece followed the form of the concert in general, as it was in like a lion and out like a lamb.

AMODA held its concert in the Mexican American Cultural Center, its performance space a relative newcomer to the scene. It was a large “white box” of sorts with a backstage area separated by a delicately curved wall that seemed more like a spot to hang art than a dividing object. The crowd of around fifty was quite diverse, though the average age skewed a bit high, perhaps due to the eight to ten p.m. Saturday night time slot. The show ran straight through with no intermission and little in the way of formalities, short of a brief introduction. It was clean, neat, and well played sir, well played.


* The first piece performed was actually data structures/monoliths ii (for chion), not American Tokyo Daydream I (Calypso Sunrise), as was indicated in the printed program. The swap was brought to our attention after the post of this report, and we have updated it to reflect that change.

We Sing Life: Conspirare

Since its founding in 1991, vocal ensemble Conspirare has become not only part of the firmament of the Austin music landscape but also part of the national and international scene. Led by founder Craig Hella Johnson, Conspirare has recorded a number of CDs and DVDs on the Harmonia Mundi label and has received awards and media recognition, including the PBS television special “A Company of Voices: Conspirare in Concert,” an Edison award (Dutch Grammys), and five Grammy nominations. Among the highlights of last season were “Renaissance & Response: Polyphony Then and Now,” a weekend-long festival featuring works by Josquin Des Prez, Orlandus Lassus, Tomás Luis de Victoria, and J.S. Bach in four distinct programs, each featuring a world premiere by series composer-in-residence Robert Kyr. The ensemble’s out-of-town engagements included three performances in New York under the auspices of the Weill Music Institute of Carnegie Hall. This year is shaping up to be similarly busy, and Conspirare has wasted no time in presenting two concerts of new music multiple times over the past few days.

Conspirare led by Craig Hella Johnson

Conspirare led by Craig Hella Johnson. Photo by Karen Sachar

The first concert featured the world premier of Peter Scott Lewis’s The Changing Light, a co-commission between Conspirare and the Sanford Dole Ensemble. On either side of the Lewis were a number of pieces by Eric Whitacre, including Five Hebrew Love Songs and the U.S. premiers of Whitacre’s Oculi Omnium and Alleluia. Conspirare opened the afternoon concert with Whitacre’s With a Lily in Your Hand, a light but driving movement in 7/8 in which faster figures were contrasted with longer, less rhythmic segments. Right off the bat, it became clear that this was a seasoned group of musicians performing at an extremely high level; singers who could probably sing the phone book and sound fantastic. Part of me noticed the nuts and bolts elements, such as communication among the members and the strong direction of Johnson, but another part of me was just floored by the sound both in terms of quality and quantity. The twenty-four singers produced truly impressive volume at one moment, and were able to draw in the audience with the lightest pianissimo the next.

Five Hebrew Love Songs on poems of Hila Plitman was distinctly different from the other Whitacre offerings, partly because of the addition of string quartet and partly because of the structural elements both within each movement as well as in the larger form outlined by the five movements. The second and fourth movements, “Kala kalla (Light Bride)” and “Eyze Sheleg! (What snow!)” were haiku-like in their length and syllabic structure. “Kala kalla,” with its tambourine and 3-3-2-2 contrasting sections had a compelling forward movement throughout before coming to something of an unresolved cadence. The final movement, “Rakut” (Tenderness), began with a “bum-bum-bum” vocalization which changed to what was virtually a speaking part complimented by string harmonics. The effect was a captured texture (I hesitate to say “frozen” here as the immobility was not cold, but static string harmonics can certainly have that effect) which began to move forward via rising tenor lines, their pitches circled by the strings. Alleluia was presented as a tribute to UT Professor of Organ Gerre Hancock, who had passed away earlier in the day. An arrangement of an earlier work for band, “alleluia” was the primary text of the piece, driving the sopranos higher and higher until an “amen” ending closed the work.

The Changing Light by Peter Scott Lewis on text by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and scored for string quartet, vibes, marimba, and choir in four movements was the centerpiece of the concert. The three poems (the second, “Big Sur Light,” was divided into two parts to create the middle movements) describe the light of the sun in various locales and times in California. In “Big Sur Night,” a steady opening pulse gave way to more animated movement, as soprano and tenor wound their way through the text. Throughout, the string quartet mostly followed and supported the choir until the instrumental and vocal roles came together when the pulse returned at the end. “The Moon Stayed Full Last Night” began with an instrumental introduction followed by a warm, lyrical accompaniment. An interlude into which the pulse seemed to disappear was followed by a gentle ending, hints of pulse returning as the final notes echoed through the space.

Conspirare rehearsal

Conspirare in rehearsal. Photo by Karen Sachar.

The second concert featured Joby Talbot’s Path of Miracles. On text by Robert Dickinson, Path of Miracles is an a capella oratorio of sorts which describes four of the main stops along the route from France to the cathedral shrine of Santiago de Compostela. Commissioned in 2005 by Nigel Short’s Tennebrae ensemble, the piece features 17 separate vocal parts as well as a crotale here and there. The first movement, “Roncesvalles,” began with a bit of theatricality. An altar lit with red light remained empty for several minutes, allowing the audience to settle into the space in what felt like a brief meditative state. If that seems like a short amount of time to meditate, try to sit quietly for two minutes while bathed in red light.

Slowly and deliberately mimicking stylized pilgrims, the basses and tenors entered from the back of the church, and when they had made their way to the front they continued pacing in a circle for a short period. Eventually they turned to face the audience, the basses singing quite low in their range and developing a slowly rising glissando that culminated in a tremendous climax. They were joined in this climax by the female voices hidden in the choir loft above us. A decrescendo followed as the sopranos and altos came down and took up antiphonal positions along the length of the church. Long, vaguely Arabic motives were traded back and forth for a time as the women transitioned from the sides of the church to their places on stage. A fugal section gave way to declamatory phrases as the basses took the melody from the sopranos. A largely 6/8 section peppered by hemiola provided tension as piercing crotales cut through the texture. All this built to a climax which quickly dwindled to a solo bass ending the movement.

The second movement illustrated the drudgery of pilgrimage through a reflective, slow ostinato topped by various individual lines rising mirage-like over the top. A fever dream staccato tutti emerged from this texture and lead ultimately to a quieter, unsettled harmony, overtones pulsing against one another. Slowly and in turn, the vocal parts dwindled, leaving the basses alone at the end.

The third movement saw previous motives return in ostinato patterns sung by the tenors and basses. In a return to the antiphony of the first movement, the chorus took up a flanking position while the basses spread through the center aisle. Johnson turned to face the audience (and conduct his group) and during these moments it was difficult not to see the music on his face as clearly as you could hear it in the room. Conductors need no excuse to be emotional and effusive, but it seemed less like Johnson was conducting the music and more like the music was passing through him. It was something I’ve witnessed in a handful of experiences with performers, but very rarely with a conductor and it was, quite frankly, a powerful thing to see. The tumultuous motion of the piece culminated in a truly gorgeous arrival, moved briefly to the minor mode, and ended in a preparation for the final movement.

The final movement depicts the arrival at Santiago and starts with the initial motif of the piece. Overlapping entries played like stretti writ large, each voice gently entering in what seemed like an isorythmic treatment of the material. This gentle music moved to a declamatory tutti section, the men joined by the women as staccato major mode 5/4 figures transformed to 6/4. The piece ended reflectively with the members of the choir moving, one by one, out of the room in a reversal of the initial entrances. The wonderful difference was that instead of leaving the audience alone in silence, the singers continued to sing as they walked further and further from the space, which sounded (to listeners of a certain vintage) not unlike the fade-out on any number of albums, though one that lasted several minutes. The effect was tremendous and the audience responded strongly, applauding for some time after the piece ended.

Vocal music has the advantage of text to connect to the listener, but I’m not sure that it’s simply the narrative that keeps an audience connected to a piece like Path of Miracles. The power of the human voice directed and shaped by a significant musical mind like Johnson’s has the power to do nearly anything, including connecting with incredibly diverse audiences like the one at St. Martin’s church in Austin this past Saturday.

Austin Music 2012: New Year Evolution

The Top Five Shows to See Before The Sun Comes Out In Austin
1. No Idea Festival – February 2, 3, 4 in Austin, February 5 in Houston, and February 6 in San Antonio: Solo and ensemble improvisation.
2. Austin New Music Co-op’s 10th anniversary party-concert – March 23 and 24: Music by NMC composers as well as Feldman, Lucier, Dreyblatt, Cage, Cardew, and more. Also featuring inventions and ephemera from a decade of new music in Austin.
3. Revel – March 30: Piano trio performs contemporary chamber works
4. Fast Forward Austin – April 15 (yes, Tax Day): Second annual festival featuring regional and national performers and composers.
5. Fusebox Festival – April 25 through May 5: Innovative works of art across a variety of different mediums.

I wrapped up my last article with a comment about new music coexisting with the music Austin is most well known for; namely the blues, Americana, indie rock, and country twang that have filled the bars and clubs of Austin since forever. Venues like Antones, Armadillo World Headquarters, Continental Club, and the juggernaut festivals South by Southwest [1] and the Austin City Limits Festival (not to mention the original Austin City Limits show) have served to spread the sound and style of Austin music, as well as the general vibe of the place; one built on organic growth that was equal parts cheap rent, cheap beer, complete indifference to upward mobility, and an odd hippie/cowboy dichotomy that Austin’s favorite son, Willie Nelson, helped foment in the mid-seventies.

While these venues, styles, and festivals have garnered the lion’s share of interest and publicity, a lower profile and largely behind-the-scenes group of composers, performers, and curators have quietly developed a burgeoning independent new music scene amid the glitz and glamour of the national players–and in some cases these new folks have infiltrated the national scenes. In particular, the last decade has seen a number of significant groups, festivals, and events pop up here in town that share little with their popular cousins except a zip code, and my plan for 2012 is to feature these groups in and around Austin as they ply their wares.

Fusebox “End of Year” 2011 from Fusebox Festival on Vimeo.

 

Among these is the Austin New Music Coop, a group of musicians dedicated to bringing new music to a different and diverse audience. Since forming in 2001, ANMC has featured dozens of premiers and hundreds of new works, including “a commission of a program-length work by Berlin-based American composer Arnold Dreyblatt, a realization of John Cage’s Songbooks, music for the extinct instruments of Luigi Russolo, Pauline Oliveros’s Four Meditations for Orchestra (with the composer in attendance), a three-day series of the works of the New York School, and Ellen Fullman’s Long String Instrument Performance at Seaholm Power Plant.” A multi-day performance (and detailed audio and video recording) of the late British composer Cornelius Cardew’s The Great Learning is ANMC’s most recent large-scale undertaking, and it will be featured in an upcoming podcast by yours truly.

Austin New Music Co-op rehearses Arnold Dreyblatt’s Kinship Collapse from Fast>>Forward>>Austin on Vimeo.

 

Ten Pounds To The Sound and the No Idea Festival (both curated by Chris Cogburn) have created an environment for improvisation to flourish in and around Austin, as well as nationally and internationally. Featuring a variety of group, solo, acoustic, and electric performances, their concerts display a wide range of improvisational styles and voices, and have fostered fruitful long term relationships among the participants. The ninth annual No Idea Festival promises to be the biggest ever with an international roster of artists and shows and workshops in Austin, Houston, and San Antonio.

Remi Alvarez / Ingebrigt Håker Flaten / Stefan Gonzalez from no idea festival on Vimeo.

 

The Golden Hornet Project has its roots in the Golden Arm Trio and Brown Whorenet groups that came together around the end of the 1990s. Initially featuring post-punk and free improvisation in a number of haunts on Red River Street, Graham Reynolds and Peter Stopschinski (of the two groups, respectively) eventually joined forces and have since made a significant mark on the Austin music landscape, in the area of new music and otherwise. Live performance, film music (live and recorded), orchestral, chamber, jazz, dance, opera, and a number of cross-over varieties have been part of the ground covered by this group. The recent Symphony VI concert (the sixth of a sorta-annual orchestral show) was named “Best Symphonic Performance of the Year” by the Austin Critics Table, beating out performances by the Austin and University of Texas symphony orchestras. This is “new music notable” in that both sold-out shows were organized, rehearsed, and performed without the typically large and long established infrastructure normally required for such undertakings.

New music groups across the nation and around the world will celebrate John Cage’s centenary this September 5. In Austin, “Happy Birthday Mr. Cage” will continue its second decade with another evening-length program of Cage’s works curated by the Austin Chamber Music Center’s Michelle Schumann. This event has become an Austin favorite, partly because of Cage’s notoriety outside of musical circles (which is to say that a similar concert of Partch might be of interest to a smaller and more music-centric community given Cage and Partch’s relative blips on the cultural radar) and partly because Austin cottons to the unusual. When 4’33” is performed, it’s funny to watch a few of those “in the know” roll their eyes at the performance of Cage’s “hit.” It’s not because of the content or concept of the piece, mind you. It’s because these people want the deep cuts, and Schumann delivers.

Not everyone got their start during the last administration. Newcomers Revel came on the scene in 2009, and since then they’ve produced dozens of concerts as well as a CD of early 20th-century works. Based primarily in Austin (with occasional performances in New Mexico and points in between), Revel’s mission is to provide an audience experience disconnected from the formality of traditional concerts.

Fast Forward Austin will celebrate its second anniversary this spring with another day-long festival featuring local and national performers, including headliner Vicky Chow of Bang on a Can All-Stars fame. Last year’s inaugural festival was a huge success and featured a wide variety of music, improvisation, and dance.

Bel Cuore performs two *Bagatelles* by Gyorgy Ligeti from Fast>>Forward>>Austin on Vimeo.

 

Very few of these shows will be held in conventional venues and none of them will be targeted at traditional audiences. There won’t be many ties, clasped hands, or perfectly motionless audience members. There will be lots of people who don’t know what they’re in for, and that’s why most of them will have bought their ticket. They want something new, and they’ll find it here in Austin.

*


1.     One of my favorite parts of SXSW is walking through downtown a month or so after the festival. Here you’ll find recently relocated hipsters (who have made the move to town based on the generally epic spring weather in Austin) sweating through their skinny jeans as the Big Sun takes up its six-month residency

Six Skinny Strings: The Reason for the Season

Two weeks into the virtually undodgeable 24/7 Winter Wonderland sound collage that is this time of year, I’ve been looking for something without sleigh bells, warm brass, and mixed chorus. Though we’ve finally cooled to a seasonally congruent temperature here, it’s still odd to hear all the Christmas tunes when only a few weeks back people were still wearing shorts and sandals in the beer gardens (I’m looking at YOU, me). I don’t mean to come off all Scroogey. For the most part I enjoy all the seasonal goodness, but my search for sanctuary from the rising Yuletide led me to Skinny’s Ballroom in the heart of downtown Austin for a bit of improv holiday cheer. After paying a sliding scale cover ($5-$10, pay what you can), I found myself in a physically typical and fairly swanky shotgun shack of a downtown bar (though one that had been thoroughly renovated) with a bar to port, a half-dozen church pews to starboard, and the requisite booths, stools, and dudes. A cursory glance at a stage decorated with drums, monitors, guitars, and all the typical gear—including a guy checking levels on a red Gibson 335—seemed to indicate a place that was prepped for any of a number of Austin’s indie bands.

The show was curated under the auspices of Ten Pounds To The Sound by Chris Cogburn (whose No Idea Festival will be covered here in the very near future) and featured three guitarists—Jonathan Horne (Austin), Lucas Gorham (Houston), and Mexico City guitarist and improviser Fernando Vigueras in his first ever U.S. tour. Kicking off the festivities was Horne, who started his set in a sort of gonzo, quasi-Hendrix fashion, steeped in feedback and blurred scale runs, head lolling around like a rag doll. Standing mute before a microphone, Horne smeared blues licks mixed with arpeggios in a flurry of messy, expressionist fretboard gymnastics. The second tune featured bowed sextuple stops and heavily textural elements—think of the first minute of Penderecki’s Threnody… without the following minutes, for about six minutes. In a screeching left turn, Horne followed up with an instrumental cover of the Carter Family’s version of “Wildwood Flower,” the melody peeking out through the madness like a country mouse lost in the big city. A brief encore echoing the gestural elements of the first piece wrapped up Horne’s set.

Lucas Gorham

Lucas Gorham
Lucas Gorham began playing almost imperceptibly with a lap steel signal hissing like the start of a record. Volume and wah-wah swells developed so quietly you could actually hear him pick the string before the swell, and the audience (in a bar which required no such reverence) was drawn in and church quiet. These were actual Cageian moments in which the ambient sounds of the room (sounds at the bar, front door opening, someone walking to the back) mixed with the music in a truly compelling counterpoint. Granted, you might get a similar mixture of sounds at your local coffeeshop’s singer/songwriter night, but the impact here was different, perhaps because of the improvisatory and non-lyric-oriented nature of the music. As the piece developed, reverb explosions[1] morphed into lonesome tritones in a captured sound-on-sound texture. A layered figure not unlike cello tremolo was created by beating the bridge of the guitar, and as the sound-on-sound looped round and round, Gorham dumped the lappy and moved to a Strat to begin playing bass notes over the repeating texture. These notes had a multidimensional quality that I can only describe as the opposite of overtones—“undertones” maybe? Swelling power chords[2] oozing distortion spoke to their metal roots while shrugging off any sense of hipster appropriation as sixteenth note strumming lent a percussive rhythmic element to the pulsing mix. A shift to a hoedown rhythm marked a move back to the pedal steel, which Gorham used to play somewhat more traditional licks over the Strat groove-soup that still boiled around him. It was striking that despite the use of these instruments and fairly idiomatic techniques, the music never sounded like borrowed stylistic material. Gorham continued by picking behind the bridge and manipulating a delay pedal, which when done in real time (typically these pedals are “set it and forget it”) created a magical toy piano effect mixed with something of a microtonal glissando. This was followed by a return to the grumble roar of distortion which sort of tore the whole thing a new one. When the sound had faded and Gorham looked up, the audience responded with long and loud applause. There was even a guy in the back who did that “whipping your cowboy hat around in a circle” thing[3], which I can safely say I’ve never seen except in the movies.

Fernando Vigueras

Fernando Vigueras
Fernando Vigueras’s background includes conventional guitar playing and training, but his performance at Skinny’s was anything but conventional. He came on stage with a nylon string acoustic guitar and a small portable fan (the tiny handheld kind you might see around the pool) and sat down on a chair surrounded by foot pedals and other electronics. He began by detuning the bass strings while using the spinning fan blades to create a tremolo so severe that the loosened strings began to slam against the fretboard repeatedly like Bartók pizz trapped in a MAX patch. This quasi-percussive sound gave the impression of a drum roll as opposed to a pitch event, and as the sound evened out, Vigueras captured it with a loop pedal. Above this texture, he gave the same fan treatment to the treble strings which came off like a giant harpsichord or press-rolled hammered dulcimer in a horror film. He then began stick-rubbing, pick-sliding, and finger-tapping the strings against the fretboard, the last of which looked a bit 1980s but sounded really quite 2080s. Against the slow decay of this large texture and in a wash of reverb, he began plucking the strings and adjusting the tuning pegs, providing the first substantial (and melodic—a term I use loosely here) pitch material of the piece. Harmonies began to form from the extended single lines, which in turn formed beds for further melodic material. During the bulk of the performance Vigueras held the guitar in a more or less conventional fashion, but as the piece progressed he pulled the guitar up such that the neck was nearly parallel with his own, with the lower bout (the bottom of the guitar) in his lap. As both arms wrapped around the body, one hand made its way up the fretboard and moved above the nut, plucking the parts of the strings which are only a few inches long between nut and tuning pegs. The other hand moved down to the bridge and began touching the strings, creating sounds through the pedals like the striking of super-tight drum heads or (as it says in my notes) “popcorn in Satan’s microwave.” Finally, Vigueras pulled out a bow, carefully pulling across the highest strings[4] which created impossible overtones that, while quite beautiful, must have completely freaked out any dogs within several blocks.

A few weeks ago, I said that my experience at the Green House show was one that was “uniquely Austin,” and while I stand by that statement, I have to say that my idea of new music in this town (particularly in terms of venue) has been somewhat broadened. This show was really spectacular, pulled no punches, and was only a block from the Austin Convention Center. I’ll never tire of shows in funky little out-of-the-way venues, but to see a full-fledged improv show in an otherwise conventional bar in the middle of the week was heartening. Maybe it’s the season that’s raised my spirit, or maybe it’s Vigueras’s impossible overtones still ringing around in my head, but it’s good to know that I can duck into a downtown bar and hear looped and layered improv guitar alongside the backbeats and blues licks that have echoed through the air in Austin for so many years.

 

***


1.     Anyone who has ever moved a powered-on guitar amp with a spring reverb knows this sound (at about 0:08.)

2.     It’s just a root and a fifth, but with distortion they are, well…quite powerful. Just ask the Scorpions. Do not ask Twee.

3.     It was sort of like this. Sort of…

4.     A technical note for the uninitiated. Unlike the strings of the viola and violin (which describe an arch) the strings of the guitar live on a plane, so for the most part you can either bow the lowest few, the highest few, or all six. Horne was conjuring a big texture hitting all six, while Vigueras (for the most part) was shooting for more precision.

Plugging into Grass Roots at Green House

I’ve covered a number of events over the last few months put on or sponsored by large arts organizations in and around Austin. These groups tend to have significant financial backing, (in “arts dollar” terms, that is) are typically frequented by a particular crowd, and have their own ebb and flow. Big rooms, slick clothes, and pricey intermission drink prices have their place, but I thought I should get out to shows organized by smaller, less tightly knit groups, where the filters are off and the experimentation is on. I also thought that I’d seen lots of fiddles and horns, so it might be worth finding a show where there’s more plugged in than the announcer’s microphone.

No Signal

I took a drive north through the downtown streets and a few shucks and jives later found myself at the Green House, a funky little boutique that happens to have a tremendous backyard and a stage. As I walked through the shop and out into the backyard, I found myself in an environment that felt decidedly “Austin” to me. Complete with makeshift bar, mismatched chairs, and a few industrial thimbles for tables[1], the vibe could not have been more spot-on. A cadre of the tattooed and pierced mingled with folks from the neighborhood as Eli Good ran tests for his first set and, after a few squeaks and squawks, we were underway. Set up on a small table topped with the ubiquitous Macbook Pro, Good’s syncopated beats mixed with a stuttered bass groove that was one part club, one part jet engine from a distance. The jet bass was slowly granulated[2], becoming less and less defined as a second voice burst like wind chimes through the texture. It was tough to tell if these chimes were re-purposed from the granulated bass or a completely separate instrument, but the contrast between the initial signal and the chimes was striking. The chimes swirled around briefly before getting sucked back into the jet-engine mix, which as it drew to a close, was considerably closer and threatening to land right on top of us. The second piece began similarly with the manipulation of a simple texture which slowly developed into a large, dense mass, giving the impression of a huge, chugging Motown bass mixed with a church organ. Good controlled dynamics, loops, a variety of envelopes, and other parameters in real-time as the ghosts of James Jamerson and Earl Van Dyke traded fours.

Eli Good

Eli Good
Electronic music sometimes suffers for lack of a visual component (or maybe I should say that other music benefits from the visual component) but behind the stage, a screen was set up that ran a variety of images, from the early ’80s video game Dig Dug[3] to random YouTube videos. This imagery continued as Christopher Petkus began preparing for his set. Watching Petkus set up to perform is like watching Schwarzenegger load in for the third act in any of his ’80s film work. An abbreviated equipment list includes delay pedals, an ebow, midi controller, computer, and amps, all topped off by a cherry red Gibson 335. His first tune started with an ostinato that sounded like a ten-ton bass cricket chirping in an outsized forest and continued mini-passacaglia-like throughout the entire piece. The cricket morphed (see the Neo scream footnote below and imagine it taking ten minutes) into something that sounded like a submarine; slow, distant, and a million miles under water[4]. A fading, detuned organ sample popped its head above the bass, shimmering and distorted. This distortion slowly spread to the ostinato, amplifying frequencies that I could feel in my teeth and which tested the limits of the sound system. Petkus upped the acoustic/electric ante with guitar in his second piece. It started in similar fashion to the first, with a low pulsing bass that here sounded less underwater and more outer space, and over the course of the piece outlined a slowly deteriorating rondo. Whistling, screeching harmonies reminiscent of a Branca symphony coursed over the top of the bass texture (though interestingly the guitar part had not yet started), and when Petkus finally put ebow to string it was as though the aliens had landed, and when they said, “Take me to your leader,” Robert Fripp showed up. The distorted but draconically controlled tone of the guitar gave way to feedback and then the whole thing came to an end when the bass was abruptly shut off. We in our lawn chairs applauded then shuffled off into the night.

Christopher Petkus

Christopher Petkus
This was a small show. I haven’t covered any shows with fewer than one hundred people in the audience (there are usually a few hundred), and it was compelling to watch the interaction between the performers and this smaller crowd before, during, and after the show. Try as they might, the larger organizations will probably always have a harder time making that personal connection in the way that a performer playing in front of a few dozen people can. I suppose you could show up at an orchestral after-party and chat up one of the cellists, but it’s not quite the same as talking to an artist five minutes after his set in the quiet and relaxed environment of a boutique’s backyard. The personal feedback loops that occur during these intimate shows go a long way towards humanizing the performances and performers and help facilitate the connections between artist and audience. I’m going to put a few more on my list for the near future.

***


1. And at least one guy whose skateboarding skills were about as strong as his ability to chat up the girl at the bar. Who skateboards on grass?

2. For a super-detailed definition of granulation (including granular synthesis) go here, but basically it’s visually comparable to pixilation. Also, you can check out this example of Neo screaming from the Matrix. It starts fairly clean and becomes less focused and more granulated through the scream.

3. This actually was a bit distracting for yours truly. When my sister had surgery as a kid, the hospital had a few video games that you could play for free. I played a lot of Dig Dug.

4. It was around this point that captain skateboard tried to sync his ollies with the pulse of the submarine, with varying degrees of success.

Soundspace Takes an Arts Audience Exploring

You know how you tend to learn new things about your town when friends come to visit? This might involve a visit to that restaurant you never got around to checking out or to the bookstore you pass every morning but haven’t yet worked into your schedule because you’ve been reading everything on a tablet? Or at least you planned to read everything on the tablet, but hilarious kitten videos got in the way? Well, the kittens have gotten the best of me because despite living in this town long enough to remember when “Keep Austin Weird” was a way of life and not a t-shirt slogan, I’ve still managed to miss out on the Blanton Museum. Located on the south side of campus, this museum has been a part of the Austin community in one form or another for nearly fifty years. In addition to a wide variety of sculpture, painting, and installations, the museum features the Soundspace series which pairs composers with choreographers and dancers with instrumentalists to create interdisciplinary works that interact with and explore various spaces and works of art within the museum.

Despite showing up early there was little room remaining in the largely kitten-free viewing area of the second floor gallery. Cellist Elizabeth Lee, with her back to the wall and framed on both sides by two huge paintings, sat prepared to perform Ethan Greene’s Aerial Ballet which is a “re-imagined recitation of Cornelius Eady’s poem of the same name.” As the piece began, dancer Beth Terwilleger began pacing cat-like around the space, her arms seeming to do their own dance in counterpoint to the motion of her legs and body.

And then the fire alarm went off.

Cellist Elizabeth Lee and dancer Beth Terwilleger perform Aerial Ballet by Ethan Greene, choreography by Michelle Thompson

Cellist Elizabeth Lee and dancer Beth Terwilleger perform Aerial Ballet by Ethan Greene, choreography by Michelle Thompson. Photo by Elisa Ferrari.

 

Thirty minutes later, we were all back inside. Lee bowed long, continuous, pulsing arpeggios passages across all four strings while Terwilleger resumed her movement, at times stopping completely and striking a pose in response to changes in the music. Chromatic smears down the neck followed by declamatory, angular, melodic lines were contrasted by the smoother-flowing movement of the dance. In fact, much of the dance closely followed (or directly contrasted) the ebb and flow of Greene’s music; certainly the bread and butter of traditional dance but not always the case in contemporary performances which can at times seem like two different works of art simply coexisting.

Dancer Magdalena Jarkowiec. Photo by Elisa Ferrari.

Dancer Magdalena Jarkowiec. Photo by Elisa Ferrari.

 

Following Ariel Ballet, we followed choreographer Michelle Thompson into another large gallery for the second performance which featured violinist Molly Emerman playing the Bach Sonata no.1 in G minor with dancer Magdalena Jarkowiec. Separated from dancer and violinist by a large round rock installation some 20 feet in diameter, the audience watched as Jarkowiec arched her body over the installation, testing the boundary between art and artist and making yours truly just a bit nervous about the possibility of that boundary being breached. While most of her performance was opposite the audience, at times she circled the installation completely, testing the audience/performer boundary as well.

Flautists Francois Minaux and Joanna Martin perform Duet in E minor by W.F. Bach, choreography by Michelle Thompson. Photo by Elisa Ferrari.

Flautists Francois Minaux and Joanna Martin perform Duet in E minor by W.F. Bach, choreography by Michelle Thompson. Photo by Elisa Ferrari.

 

We continued our journey through the museum with the third piece, Duet in E minor, this time by J.S.’s eldest son, W.F. Flautists Francois Minaux and Joanna Martin played inside a square installation (countering the previous large room with a round structure) with tens of thousands of pennies on the floor and backlit bones hanging from the ceiling. This smaller room-within-a-room was bordered by sheer gold curtains through which dancer Lisa del Rosario moved during the multi-movement work, her diminutive frame contrasting that of the long-limbed Jarkowiec from the previous performance. The border between performer and observer was further eroded in this movement with del Rosario dancing in very close proximity to the audience. The tension in the previous piece carried over here as well as del Rosario flirted with the penny pool, seeming to defy gravity more than once as her body extended over the pool in concert with the counterpoint of the flute duo.

Dancer Beth Terwilleger and trombonist Steve Parker. Photo by Elisa Ferrari.

Dancer Beth Terwilleger and trombonist Steve Parker. Photo by Elisa Ferrari.

 

Finally, we returned to the first gallery to hear Mike Svoboda’s Concert Etude performed by series curator and trombonist Steven Parker. Parker was framed in a central doorway on what was the right side of the room relative to our original orientation. Dancer Beth Terwilleger was joined by Emily McLaughlin for this piece, (providing yet another counterpoint, this time contrasting the “two musician/one dancer” setup of the previous piece) both dancers taking their positions framed in doorways that bookended Parker. The piece began quietly with scales running up and down as the dancers played hide-and-seek in the doorways with the audience. Deep swells traded place with low hits as the two dancers used the floor and doorframe as integral parts of their performance, holding doorjambs close and using the thresholds as invisible borders begging to be breached. Through his playing Parker somehow managed to move while standing still while the dancers illustrated a moving stasis; at once thrilling and undulating while also statuesque and posed against the full tones of the trombone. The second movement started with foghorn calls accented by Harmon mute. The dancers came out to play, at times running the length of the room only to meet in the middle and immediately return from whence they came. Eighth-note lines gave way to longer and longer figures punctuated by multiphonics and singing into the trombone to harmonize with the trombone’s pitch, which Parker somehow made sound like a Didgeridoo/Tuvan throat singer jam. In the last movement, Parker swapped out the Harmon for a straight mute. Distant gestures gave way to multiphonic timbral dissonance peppered with quarter-tones. As the dancers moved around Parker in close proximity, the notes were swallowed up through his twisting lines in a honking New Orleans Morse code of sorts. As the final notes echoed through the space we could have heard the proverbial pin drop, followed by huge applause.

Of course, the Bach family players have been on the scene for a while, but these performances, with their interaction with dance and art, served to reframe the music in a new light. They felt less like autonomous pieces and more like source material for a larger presentation; less like oratorio and more like opera. The Greene and Svoboda also benefited from a setting in which the audience is not tied to a seat for an hour or two but is allowed to move from one place to another to take in the art from new perspectives. Fire alarms notwithstanding, the afternoon was a great example of how to present new music to audiences. It gave a sense of mobility to player and listener alike, connecting the two by shifting focus, position, and perspective.

I can’t wait to see what they have on the first floor.

Music In Architecture

Don’t let the gray, which is rapidly overtaking the brown, fool you. Despite not looking the part, I am in fact a doctoral student at the University of Texas at Austin, and I make my way several miles north on a daily basis to get my fair share of abuse. It’s a big campus—40 acres—and like the downtown of our fair city, it is populated by cranes, work crews, new buildings, detour signs, and all the attendant din that accompanies such environments. Despite being constantly surrounded by sound and structure, the connection between the two is usually overlooked, especially while dodging buses, scooters, and the tide of humanity that moves hourly from building to building. Recently, the Center for American Architecture and Design, The School of Architecture, and The Sarah and Ernest Butler School of Music hosted Music in Architecture • Architecture in Music, an international symposium to “explore the connections between architecture and music through research, composition, design, installation, and live performance.” The four-day event featured papers and presentations from an international gathering of artists and scholars, plus a collaborative composition/architecture competition. Eight collaborations were presented, as well as several pieces that were written for the festival or were featured specifically because of their relationship to architecture.

hEAR TOuch LISTEN

Fieldsteel’s setup for hEAR TOuch LISTEN
Photo by Steve Snowden

hEAR TOuch LISTEN by Florian Tuerke and Rene Rissland was performed in the main lobby of Bass Concert hall by Eli Fieldsteel (full disclosure: Eli is a fellow student/colleague). The hall is five stories tall and the lobby is a large open atrium with balconies on each level. Connected to the handrails (actually sort of wedged in there) were seven speaker drivers which were, in turn, connected by long wires to a control system on the first floor consisting of a laptop, power amplifiers, and a MIDI interface with which Fieldsteel controlled various parameters. Each of the seven rails was chosen based on the natural resonant frequencies they produced when driven (vibrated) by the speakers, as well as to provide a variety of sounds from subsonic to supersonic [1]. The audience was encouraged to move around the space and among the floors, as well as to touch the rails to experience the sound in a variety of ways. The piece was in three continuous sections and began with primarily long tones. The volume and variety of sound was impressive, at times causing the floor to rumble before giving way to high ringing sounds like some giant bowed waterphone. Low frequencies descended and became rhythmic figures, which resulted in a number of “kids at the zoo” moments [2] (with all due respect to the audience) as people touched the rails and felt the vibrations course through their bodies. The second section contrasted the first and featured shorter, sharp sounds bouncing from floor to floor. Unlike the physicality of first movement, this section was primarily experienced through the ears for me. I noticed that some of the audience moved away from the rails to hear the sounds throughout the space. This finally segued to the third section, which featured pre-recorded sounds from outside the hall. The original plan was to feed live sounds from outside through the system, but because of technical issues the pre-rendered sounds of birds, bugs, and other campus life were featured instead.

Line Upon Line Percussion performing Seeing Times are not Hidden

Line Upon Line Percussion performing Seeing Times are not Hidden
Photo by Steve Snowden

A variety of styles and aesthetics were represented during the symposium, and the next presentation I saw was quite different from sound-art abstraction in the lobby of Bass. Composer Frank Clark and architect Cecil Balmond created Theater of the Imagination, a five-movement work for chorus based visually on elements from a variety of Balmond’s works and fundamental shapes such as line, circle, quadrilateral, polygon, and arch, and musically on “Byzantine Chant, Bartok’s axial tonal structures, and the prime numbers 2, 3, 5, and 7.” Clark used the aforementioned shapes not only in conjunction with the circle of fifths to derive the musical materials but also to derive the text of the piece. The choir appeared in a number of configurations relative to the audience; sometimes surrounding us, sometimes flanking us antiphonally, and even occasionally hopping in place. Center stage and facing the audience were two large flat screen televisions and two larger projection screens on either side, all of which displayed a variety of visual material throughout the piece, including architectural mock-ups, undulating shapes, and mathematical formulas. The piece was largely polyphonic and dense, and the performance was essentially a capella, though there were additional pre-rendered lines that echoed various lines of the chorus. At the end of the piece, director Jerry Ulrich came to the stage (he’d been conducting from the center of the seating area of the hall with help from assistant conductor Tim Hsu) and indicated that while the choir was from Georgia Tech, they were not music majors. He then asked the members of the choir who were engineering majors to please raise their hands, in response to which around 80% of the performer’s hands went up. He also indicated that later in the season they were performing pieces by Pärt, Webern, and Gorecki, which for a professional (or music-major populated) choir would be challenging, but for an amateur group (and I use that term in its truest sense: one who loves what they do) is really impressive. Avocational choirs populated by engineers, lawyers, bus drivers, and the guys holding the slow/stop signs at construction sites that perform 20th- and 21st-century repertory are a good sign for the future.

For the closing work of the symposium, Paul Dresher and Michael Benedikt, with Michael Rotondi and Coleman Coker, created LOW CLOSE VAST, a three-movement work performed (for the most part) with the audience and performers on the stage of Bass Concert Hall. The first movement began with Benedikt introducing the piece and informing the audience that he would direct them to different areas of the stage for each movement. He then directed the audience to move inside a large circle in the middle of the stage surrounded by several music stands stage left and right, a piano further back on the stage, and a drum kit closer to the edge of the stage. Above us were three large back-lit cloth panels. The stage curtains were drawn and the lights were low, so we were all pretty cozy in there. The piece started with the piano playing ascending eighth-note lines accompanied by low brass that would occasionally peak above the piano waves. These were joined by high brass and winds in a slowly building antiphonal (there was a lot of surround sound at this symposium) hocket-centric maelstrom. The drum kit came in, hi-hats blazing on upbeats somehow squeezed in between the antiphony, all of which somehow held together despite the fact that the conductor was perched on a modest podium in the middle of a slowly simmering and spinning audience that was not only crammed (not uncomfortably) into a circle, but was also being advanced upon from the heavens by the aforementioned back-lit cloth panels. There was so much going on musically and visually that it wasn’t until the closing moments that I noticed that the sky was falling, albeit in slow motion. The movement ended with gentle swells and our friend the panels, well, quite low. For the second movement, the audience moved to bleachers set up further back on the stage. The bleachers faced gently inward and formed a “C”, converging on a pianist, a cellist, and a lamp. It was as though we were looking in on a living room and watching two friends play chamber music at home. This was accentuated by the fact that the cellist was facing the same direction (stage right) as the pianist, as opposed to facing the audience. And his jacket was hanging off of the back of his chair. A lilting 2 against 3 white note pattern slowly developed into a more dissonant texture until eventually the pianist’s right hand was doing a kind of cluster hopscotch from the bass to the treble while the cellist followed suit. The piece quietly ended having clearly given us a sense of “Close” in the same space we’d just experienced “Low.” The finale began with the lifting of the curtain and final move of the audience to the edge of the stage, which allowed for a nice full view of the hall. Those who have played in large theaters have experienced a view like this, but it was particularly interesting to experience it with most of the lights off and without anyone in the seats out there. Vast, yes. Off in the distance, a piccolo on the second balcony began sounding, and despite the tessitura of the piccolo (which usually allows you to find it with pinpoint accuracy) it took a moment to work out that it was all the way up there. Eventually a light fell on the player as he was joined by a clarinetist, both performers trading sparse parts off in the distance. One by one the other players were revealed throughout the theater as the piece unfolded, built, and quietly ended. This literal approach to relating to the space was refreshing, and it brought the audience into the music in a way I hadn’t experienced during any of the other presentations.

Ellen Fullman's Long String Instrument

(left to right) Andrew Stoltz, Brent Farris, Ellen Fullman, and Travis Weller perform Fullman’s Tracings
Photo by Steve Snowden

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see Ellen Fullman and the Long String Instrument, which was one of the performances I was most excited about. Despite arriving 20 minutes before the show (and only 10 minutes after the doors opened) I was told that they were already at capacity. Crushingly disappointed, I went back out into the cold Austin night (78ish…) sad that I’d missed the show, but heartened to know that even though there were four days of experimental music involving lowering ceilings, singing handrails, and hopping choirs, the demand and interest in such music is alive and well. And building [3].

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1. If this concept is little tricky to imagine, take a tuning fork, strike it, and put the handle firmly on the top of your head while it’s vibrating. In this scenario your head is the handrail and the tuning fork is the speaker driver. Now imagine that you have seven heads and your tuning fork goes to eleven.


2. Lots of “Ooohs” and “Ahhhs” and “That is so cool”s going on in that room.


3. That was a bad one, sorry.