Incredible Risks: Improvised and New Music, Part I

[Steve Koenig labors mightily in the grip of a misapprehension. We do not pay our contributors by the word. Henceforward perhaps we shall see from the hyperkinetic lad, thus sobered by hard times, an application of brevity. Meanwhile, we’ve this report, in length the equal of a middling-large municipality’s telephone directory, but so much more interesting. Ed.]

Steve Koenig

[April 1999. Originally appeared in La Folia 1:5.]

I take incredible risks with my poems. That’s why they turn out so fine.

Tim Dlugosz (1950-1990)

The new and improvised music scene is incredibly alive because artists, performer, promoters, multimedia collaborators and audiences take risks. The risks are real: boredom, ridicule, financial loss, embarrassment, anger, and wasted time and energy.

Recall the last time you hated a piece of recorded music a friend played for you and how you said so. Recall the last time you saw a live performance which didn’t work for you and how you said so aloud, later finding out the performer’s mother or the composer was sitting behind you. Recall the music you once hated but now find nourishing; also the music you’ve decided to put behind you. Sadly, recall the incredible performance you’ll never forget as long as you live, and that there were only two other people in the audience.

The music venues I’ll be covering in this column are mostly in New York, because that’s where I live, but remember this: the performers, composers, record labels, are universal, both geographically (viz., the Sun Ra Astro Infinity Myth-Science Arkestra, Scriabin’s Mysterium, and Karlheinz Stockhausen’s and Anthony Braxton’s intergalactic operas) and because you, dear reader, are reading these dots and dashes from a chair anywhere in the world.

New music, experimental music, improvised music, composed music… call ’em anything but new age, please, and I’ll be there. Like the quote attributed to Big Bill Broonzy: “It’s all folk music, cause horses don’t sing.” Nor forget Edgard Varèse’s aviso: “I do not write experimental music. My experimenting is done before I make the music. Afterwards, it is the listener who must experiment,” and so here we begin.

A different kind of concert was given by “experimental” composer, videographer, and instrument builder Dan Senn. His performance at Experimental Intermedia (a loft, a record label XI, and an arts organization run by composer Phil Niblock) was an eye-opener, both for Senn’s home-made instruments, and for his videography, mostly shot in the Pacific Northwest.

Still Moving, a powerful piece for video and music, was described to the audience by Senn as “rhythmic mapping of the surface texture of the building.” There were slow shots of four sides of a Japanese school building, accompanied by sliding metallic tones, and plucks which sounded like a koto. Visually, think of slow-moving Rothko. As the film took more distant views, the music appeared to be farther back as well. As the camera motion and speed varied, so did the music. The composer was playing his instruments alongside the video screen. You would watch the wires on the side of the building, and wonder to what extent does the music vary; is any improvised? It was hard to watch the video and not watch Senn at his instruments and controllers.

One piece was for the vertical pendulyre, consisting of tuned, strung seventeen-pound fishline, with hanging contact microphones, beneath two loudspeakers, creating sub- and audible pulses from 0-9 cycles per second. It was fun watching the wires swing back and forth. There was some not-so-interesting sampling of kids chanting, but the sound of these kids’ voices contained varied and interesting tonalities.

The most breath-taking piece was The Catacombs of Yucatan, a tribute to a limestone cave in Minnesota once used as a dance hall called The Catacombs of Yucatan, developed in the 1930s. Senn’s piece puts together a collage of video and sound from interviews he did in 1995 of former patrons of The Catacombs. It’s a heartwarming piece of Americana, with clever juxtaposition of video abstractions of the faces being interviewed, along with their words and deep metal tones, overtones, and feedback. At times the music, the various pendulyres, sounded like banjos; at other times, it reminded me of mÏsica yucateca. I wonder if Senn has ever heard traditional Yucatan music. The voices reminded me of the strength of Studs Terkel’s work.

Senn has a CD with several of these pieces, and others, called The Catacombs of Yucatan (Periplum P 0030, 65:47, 1998). At the concert, there was one powerful video with dull music, one dull video with one fabulous piece of music, and two brilliant pieces which worked on every level. So does the music on this disc. Every piece here is a gem, and the label has a wonderful photo of his instruments. It’s riveting from the first metallic rattling with overtone feedback, to the final fading tone. You must visit his beautifully designed, useful Website (listed below) to see photos and documentation of all of his instruments, compositions, and installations.

Senn tells me he’s currently writing a piece for violin and video where the video “conducts” the piece, commissioned by violinist Dorothy Martirano, using another version of the Still Moving video I saw at Experimental Intermedia. He’s also writing a piece for the University of Washington, making a new sculptural instrument, as well as curating the Six Exquisites International Sound Art Festival III to be held in Tacoma, Spokane, Seattle and Port Angeles in July 1999. At XI, I overheard him tell someone, with boyish disbelief, that he couldn’t believe he won a prestigious European video prize “over all those great contributors.” What was he going to do with the prize money? Invest in more video equipment.

Downtown Music Gallery (DMG) is perhaps the preeminent jazz and improvised music store in New York. Proprietor Bruce Gallanter curates a free (read: no admission price) music series every Sunday evening at seven. It’s a small narrow store, and music lovers crowd in amiably to catch the famous and the unknown, who offer music to those of us who need it. Performances this past year have offered “names” such as saxophone genius Joe Maneri, trumpeter Roy Campbell, guitarists Marc Ducret, Eugene Chadbourne, and Loren Mazzacane Connors. Relative newcomers included guitarists Kenta Nagai, Jason Roth, Noël Akchotè, Bruce Eisenbeil, cellist Jane Wang, and dozens of others.

The Gold Sparkle Duo of Andrew Barker and Charles Waters did a Sunday DMG gig which blew me away. This duo was part of the Atlantan group, The Gold Sparkle Band, whose disc, Downsizing (nu records nu-1, 59:57, 1997) also blew me away from the first free-blowing second, to Chris Riggenbach’s acoustic bass solo one minute in, to free play again, to Barker’s percussion solo, and so on throughout the good hour. The fourth partner is Roger Ruzow on trumpet and percussion. This disc is highly recommended; it has it all: Sun Ra Egyptian rhythms (and you can hear the air resonate inside Barker’s drums as you do the walk), klezmeric sonorities of clarinet and percussion, Traneish ensemble crescendo to beautiful, flowing solos and interplay. This is a fun, engaging, sometimes wild disc without a dull second. Get it.

Gold Sparkle saxophonist and composer Charles Waters performed a larger ensemble piece, Numerica Suite, commissioned in part by Roulette, last December 11. The premise of the composition itself seemed beyond the point; basically it was a suite of pieces for improvisers with some composed and some free. It was well played and solid music, but not larger than the sum of its parts.

Roulette constantly offers the famous, the diverse, the perverse, the multi-media. Roulette is run by under-recorded trombonist Jim Staley, with a Board of Directors of the greats. I’d love to be a fly on the wall at a meeting just to hear people like George Lewis, Alvin Lucier, Wlliam Parker, John Zorn, and Ned Rothenberg talk music. For a sixty dollar membership, you can see every concert for one year; it’s an amazing offer, given that there are over thirty concerts each quarterly season.

The Gold Sparkle Band has another disc, on a clear gold vinyl (but no sparkles) seven-inch single. Gold Sparkle Band Plays 2 by Shipp (nu records mx #47846, 2:50/3:45, no date, limited edition of 500) covers two of the pianist’s compositions, “The Flow of Y” and “The Flow of X.” It’s interesting to compare their takes on these comps to Mathhew Shipp’s own on his quartet disc The Flow of X (2.13.61/thirsty ear thi 21326.2, 49:07, 1998). On “Y,” the Gold Sparkle horns play like bees; not only the buzzing, but the bebop dance. On “X,” The Sparkles take it slower. Barker is wonderfully echoey on drums, and Chris Riggenbach’s bass is as strong in this setting as William Parker is in Shipp’s: he meanders threads of melody, listening, interweaving. There’s a false ending. Shipp’s version is rough and grinding, Mat Maneri playing the head fast and wild, Shipp intensely pounding the chords.

Shipp’s whole disc is high energy, even slower and sparse pieces such as “The Flow of Silence.” “The Flow of M” brings to mind Messiaen’s piano birdsong. Shipp is educated in all areas of music, and is, unlike many musicians, a prolific record-buyer. He has recorded nearly twenty discs these few years, and word has it that he’s taking a brief sabbatical from recording, so folks can absorb what they’ve already heard. He still will be playing live, though, so be sure to jump if you see he’s playing near you; the guy’s amazing.

David Moreno is a New York guitarist who has studied classical, Spanish, and jazz guitar. He has been evolving nicely, and picking stronger and stronger partners. Bassist Dwayne Burno was an asset in previous groups, and most recently cellist Nioka Workman and pianist Arturo O’Farrill (yes, these are children of famous musicians, but their work stands totally on their own strengths) have been steady members of Moreno’s quartet.

Moreno’s first disc, State of Things (Beehive Productions BHP-0213, 52:06, 1997), is a solid, mainstream effort, including Howard Prince on trombone (see his discs on Accurate Records), Dwayne Burno on bass, Dion Parson on drums, Antonio Hart on alto, and O’Farrill on piano. They have fun with Thelonious Monk’s “Criss-Cross,” and start off playing free, going into a bossa nova riff that at first listen sounds too mainstream, but Moreno’s guitar slurs and moans makes you listen twice. Parson’s percussion leads you in mystery, then makes your shoulders sway without knowing it. The title track is freer, but doesn’t let loose as much as it could. “Blue Trilia” is a Moreno original with a touch of Monk, and the whole group lets free with it. It’s my favorite on the disc, and my favorite Moreno original in concert.

Two of Moreno’s AlterKnit concerts were fun. At his Third Street Music Settlement concert in December, all the playing was solid, but two pieces truly stood out. One was Moreno’s “The Year of the Orchids,” inspired by the guitar concerto of Heitor Villa-Lobos, which he used to begin by playing solo, the group joining a few minutes in. This time the quartet, which included O’Farrill, were together from the start, making the piece even stronger. I would like to hear Moreno go off on a wild solo with the original Villa-Lobos, either at the beginning or middle. On the CD, it’s a swingy Brazilian arrangement.

The other striking piece, in a truly dumbfounding arrangement, was Monk’s “Blue Monk,” a totally low-down, slinky, dirty, sexy, New Orleans blues. I’d never heard this kind of take on it, and I’ll never hear this familiar piece the same way again. O’Farrill had a wickedly good time with his piano, and the whole audience rocked in the blues sense; an orgy.

Keith Yaun is another guitarist with a debut disc, Countersink (Leo Lab CD 047, 66:29, 1998). Yaun’s use in large part of violinist Mat Maneri and his frequent Boston collaborators is a strength here, including John Lockwood on bass, Nathan Cook on tenor sax, and Johnny McLellan on drums. The violin often comes to the sonic forefront, more because of the sound of Maneri’s instrument (many of his are self-built hybrids) than because of showboating; Yaun’s guitar is always there, and just right. The pieces have heads, but they meander, playing free. I’m keeping this one. I hear more in it every time, and it needs time to reveal its depth.

The liner notes by Boston writer Ed Hazell are excellent; descriptive and explanatory rather than hyperbolic. These players indeed have strong, intuitive communication, having played with each other many times in the Boston area. Many can be found on Joe Maneri’s amazing discs. More on Maneri senior in our next column, much more. (An aside to labels Leo and FMP: Please put performer and track information on the backs of the your traycards. No one likes to keep a folded booklet open just to see what track is playing.)

Kenta Nagai, a guitarist from Boston now living in New York, has no CD out yet, but he’s been playing around town for some years now, often with bassist Jane Wang and Tatsuya Nakatana on percussion. The first time I saw this trio was a few years ago live at DMG, and they played, if memory serves, one hour-long piece which started with guitar scrapings and scratchings and soared off into a soaring, almost psychedelic (think mind-expanding rather than the ’sixties style of pop-rock) journey, catching my breath until the last buzz of the guitar amp was shut down.

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