Discover more from harmonic series
conversation with organizer PG Moreno; notation from Robin Hayward; reviews
Welcome to the first newsletter of harmonic series. I’ll use some space in this first issue to provide some purpose and an introduction.
A goal of this newsletter is to contribute to the community of this music: the musicians; the organizers, label runners, and engineers that make it accessible to more ears; the listeners; the writers; and everyone else too. I hope to achieve that through engaging the music and the people around it as plainly and openly and deeply as I can muster. And I hope that goal is evident in the format of the newsletter.
In each monthly newsletter, I intend to include a conversation. Published in Q&A format. I recently interviewed a few people for longer writings that I’m working on; it feels silly to muddle their words with mine and is frankly anxiety-inducing to try to do their intentions justice when what is said could stand alone. As a reader, I am always more interested in what the interviewee says than what the writer does. If I fail to organize an interview in time for a newsletter, I’ll include my own musings on something related to music, or some other feature.
I’m most excited about the (hopefully) recurring feature, annotations, which will present samples of graphic or other non-traditional notation with context and a preference for recent work with recorded examples, in the spirit of John Cage & Alison Knowles’ Notations and Theresa Sauer’s Notations 21. This is not an implied evaluation of scores or practices that don’t use notation. As a non-musician illiterate in traditional notation, I believe alternative notation can offer intuitive pathways to enriching interpretations of the sound it symbolizes and, even better, sound in general. In contrast to Mark Fell’s recent sentiments, I hope to showcase the plasticity of time, space, sound, and interpretation possible in notation. I hope these scores make you wonder. What does chartreuse sound like? Or the blending of it? What about a curve? A circle? A sphere? Am I perceiving musical movement in two dimensions or three? How and why do I interpret the scale of the piece in such a way when time is not indicated? At the very least they might provide a visual map for a close listen. Or a cool piece of visual art. For some time, the newsletter will feature just one composer each month, but I hope to grow this.
And each newsletter will contain reviews. With a preference for recent recordings of music, but no medium or time is off the table. Unrated and unranked. While they will maintain their curatorial character in what is included, this is an effort to deemphasize negative aspects of the consumer-guide approach to music writing. I try to avoid evaluative statements. Certainly unconstructive negativity. Instead, I try to offer brief contextualization with other avenues to explore if a listener enjoyed what they heard, and I try to find patterns that characterize the music and make it interesting. In the best case, I provide a bold interpretation that provokes a listener to engage more closely with the music; in some, I provide a bland description of what is obvious to any ear. I write about music because it encourages me to put on my headphones and listen with less distraction, and to think about what I’m hearing. It is also useful to some musicians for others to write about their work, either for encouragement, promotion, perspective, or something else. I hope to write things that are useful to and respect musicians and other listeners. I already have a kind of idiom apparent in the structure of my reviews; I’m working to subvert this.
The bottom of each newsletter contains a button to share it. Neither I nor the newsletter maintain social media accounts but recognize that they are a useful tool for some musicians to reach more ears; please share it if you appreciate it.
The bottom of each newsletter also contains a button to donate. The newsletter will always be free and accessible without a sign in or sign up. I hope you consider supporting the people - musicians especially - in the newsletter by purchasing from them. And this newsletter is not intended as a money-making venture. However, donations offset the cost of the newsletter and might determine if and how quickly the annotations feature grows. In the event the newsletter becomes a more collaborative effort, donations would be used to offset the cost of providing contributors a respectable fee.
Everything is subject to change. I encourage you to reach out for anything at all, even just chatting, at email@example.com. Thanks so much,
I interview PG Moreno, who has organized the Epistrophy Arts concert series in Austin, Texas, USA since 1998. Upon moving to Austin in 2014 and seeing Fred Frith live, presented by Epistrophy Arts, I was encouraged to dig deeper into improvised music. Over video chat, we talk about the approaches, processes, joys, and headaches of organizing, providing impressions of Austin along the way. One big takeaway for me is the positive impact of international cultural exchange at the local level, and the near-impossibility of it due to American visa and work permit policies. Another: advocate for this music whichever way you can!
KP: I moved to Austin in 2014, and I think during that time there was a boom of organizers. There’s Tara [Bhattacharya], Chris [Cogburn], Nate [Cross], Ingebrigt [Håker Flaten], Bob [Hoffner] and many others too, but I think those were the big ones bringing in musicians from all over the world. But, yeah, you were the first, or at least among the first, starting Epistrophy Arts in 1998. So, what nudged you to start organizing?
PG: Well, I had been sort of around, involved in the DIY punk rock scene in Houston and never really actively did things but was always just around that kind of creativity and just people doing stuff. So I had always been around that. And then when I moved to Austin, I moved ostensibly to go to school. I was a little older than average; I had taken a few years off and lived in Houston and I moved to Austin to go to school and started working here. I loved indie rock and I was way into it and then I started just kind of getting into jazz. And it seemed so exotic and far off and I’d listen to these records from 20 years before… 30 years… and then the contemporary scene just didn’t seem like it was tangible, or I couldn’t really take part in it. I went to a few things here in town. When I moved here, Tina Marsh and the Creative Opportunity Orchestra were active. She had her own big band of improvisers, composers, Alex Coke, a lot of really cool people that I had gotten to know and know about. So I saw their activities and they brought in… I had read about stuff that they’d done. Tina brought Kenny Wheeler and a bunch of other really great soloists and I was just so amazed to hear about this. And then she brought the ROVA Saxophone Quartet and they played at Continental Club. I had never really seen this kind of music live. I had seen lots of great indie rock shows and punk rock but just being in a room with those frequencies and the way that it just sort of transformed the space - a space that I had seen lots of music in - really blew me away. You’d have to wait every six or nine months to see something else like that in Austin at that time; this was in the early ‘90s. But you’d hear… talking to old timers, they’d tell me “you know, Steve Lacy played here, some great shows.” Maarten Altena brought his sextet to the Continental [Club]. And then the Armadillo had Old and New Dreams and Braxton and Sam Rivers. So it just blew me away. And I also started checking out Austin Film Society, going to their screenings and they would show these great avant-garde films from the ‘50s and ‘60s, often with improvised music in the soundtrack. And then also, at UT, going to see Indian classical music concerts and I just thought “this is such a great way to present music.” It’s a master, and he’s playing. There’s no opening act. Just a long concert, like two hours long, just playing. And I thought, “wow, this would be great to do for improvised music and jazz.” And I used to, when I’d walk home from work or ride my bike, I used to just daydream about winning the lottery and bringing Evan Parker and Brötzmann and just all this stuff just, “wow, wouldn’t it be great.” And before me, there was some grassroots activity. This guy, Craig Koon, used to work at Sound Exchange; he was the manager at Sound Exchange on the drag. And he brought in Matthew Shipp. I think he put out a Matthew Shipp/William Parker duo CD and brought them here and then brought William Parker solo. I went to those and it was just really austere. A room and then just some improvisers and it was great. And I started thinking, “wouldn’t it be great, wouldn’t it be great…” And my friend in Houston, Dave Dove, my close roommate in 1990, when he was 18 years old I was a couple years older, we started getting into this music around the same time. We’d talk on the phone and complain, “wouldn’t it be great if…” And he started volunteering at this school called MECA (Multicultural Education and Counseling through the Arts). And they gave him a budget to set something up and he thought, “man wouldn’t it be great…” And we thought about people. We were kinda getting into Arthur Doyle at that time; he had a little renaissance. And then we also thought, “who else could we ask?” We talked to a few people and then we talked about Joe Mcphee, started getting into his music. And I was too nervous to call, but Dave called him up and it turned out that Joe had been retired for a little while to take care of his ailing parents and he was no longer doing that, so he said sure. And we had no track record. Nothing. Just, “sure, I’ll come down there, and I’ll play solo, I need a little amp and this and that.” And then coincidentally, we also got approached by Susie Ibarra, who I had gone to high school with; she was a couple years younger than me and she was good friends with my sister and I knew that she was playing. Actually I had seen her a year before; Craig Koon presented a duo with Assif Tsahar and it was great, at the Hyde Park Theatre. So, it turned out that her and Assif were visiting Susie’s parents in Houston, Clear Lake, were I’m from, and we set it up. So it was two nights. Two nights in Houston. Two nights here. And so Joe and Arthur came, well Dave drove ‘em up the second night, and then those guys went down to Houston. So we had two nights at 33 Degrees Records on Guadalupe, and it’s now a bike store I think. They just said, “hey, if you ever wanna do anything like that, talk to us, we’re happy to use the space.” And so I used that for awhile. I did a bunch of concerts there. So I just kind of fell in it. I was in grad school. I had a little bit of money from life insurance. I just said, let’s just do it. And then it just kept growing. I kept getting contacted by all kinds of people. And I was really wide-eyed, optimistic, and innocent and, you know, I put myself in some really stupid financial situations because of the concerts. But, in general, there was such a good turnout and good popular support at the time - this is ’98 - a lot of interest in improvised music and free jazz among young rock folks. That’s where I came from, indie rock, Sonic Youth, and you know, just noisy rock. So there was a lot of interest, and so we had a lot of young people. And a lot of the old timers who knew the music and didn’t really have the opportunity to experience it. So right off the bat, we had allies in The [Austin] Chronicle, KUT, Jay Trachtenberg since like the very first day supported everything that we did and was super enthusiastic. So that made it possible. And then just knowing everybody from the record stores. The free jazz freaks that I met at the record stores while looking through vinyl. So it was really just a good time and place, so I kept doing it. And then a few years later, I was encouraged to apply for the city funding, for the cultural arts funding, and I got it. First year it was like three grand, which I can’t imagine doing a whole season with now, but I was able to present Evan Parker with Susie Ibarra, [Peter] Brötzmann with [Hamid] Drake and William Parker, and then Mats Gustafsson and Paul Lovens, all within like five months, just with those three thousand bucks. ‘Cause I knew that I could get 150, 200 people to come out to any of those shows. And the Brötzmann was packed. So it worked really well, and I just kept going. Just wherever I could, venues I could find. We sort of outgrew the record store and then we started using this place called Ceremony Hall, but then they got bought out. It’s now a luxury hotel across from the Hancock HEB.
KP: What were some of the challenges starting out? Or did it kind of just grow organically and happily?
PG: It was pretty amazing how it grew. The word of mouth was amazing. And the community here. Just being in the scene and knowing people really helped. The challenges I think were more… I mean, well, the real estate, that’s perpetual, that’s always been a challenge. You use a venue a couple of times and then the rents go up. Just totally unreasonable rental rates for spaces. Also, being acutely aware of the role the arts play in the gentrification process. Sort of the first wave of it. Feeling a little bit of guilt with that, doing concerts in these underserved areas and then the venue gets bought, the property’s bought and then it’s no longer available. And the coffee shops and everything move in.
KP: Yeah, that’s kind of happened with Red River for sure and then moving into that Victory Grill space too.
PG: Absolutely. Victory Grill’s a special situation ‘cause they have historical status for the time being and the family doesn’t wanna sell it, although I’m sure they’d be offered millions and millions of dollars. Yeah, Victory Grill, those were real special shows there when we started doing that ‘cause, you know, learning about Ornette having played at Charles Moffett’s wedding reception in the Victory Grill and with John Gilmore and Prince Lasha all these guys being there when they were in the military. And, of course, all the R&B stuff there too. So that was really special, those concerts. It’s not the best-sounding room but those magic nights there… then we sort of outgrew again and when the North Door came along they were super welcoming and inviting. Which is really special. You don’t really feel that way a lot of times with these venues. But they wanted us to do more and more and took an active role in promoting the events and making sure that we had a nice, comfortable space. We always had good crowds… well there was one show that was messed up and we had to start at 11PM. It was Ballister and I think it was probably the lowest attended show, there were like eight people in the audience. In the North Door. It was rough. But, you know, you have a few bad… you gotta know what that’s like.
KP: Yeah, I’ve heard Ingebrigt talk about this a little bit, with Sonic Transmissions, how it’s really difficult to find a venue because of expected earnings or drink tabs and stuff like that. What could venues do to help out with this music that would be reasonable for them? Or are there conditions for a city as far as funding and venues to help really promote this music as well?
PG: My ideal situation would be a multi-use art space that community groups could use for workshops and concerts. It’s cool if you allow alcohol. It seems to, you know, it’s… I’ve done concerts in churches. People will sneak in the alcohol, and that’s fine, but just clean up after yourself. But, yeah, in Houston, there’s a spot, I forget the name of it, but they have a big theater and a smaller theater and it’s an arts complex, there’s a couple of art galleries, it’s close to downtown, there’s good parking. They have a Bösendorfer and a Steinway; nice, nice setup. It’s probably not cheap, but it’s a good quality spot. As far as commercial venues, they have to be allies, they have to understand independent music, non-commercial music and really wanna do that for that reason. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea and it doesn’t always materialize. I organize the concerts with a venue in mind, like some things that don’t do well, or certain, more austere things, like solo concerts, which I love and I wish I could go back to doing solo shows, probably may do that with the economics of the music. When we started doing the Victory Grill, I would think about concerts for that space, things that would work well there. So, not a lot of small sounds, that kind of stuff doesn’t really convey on a stage like that - that’s better in an intimate gallery, or you know, cold cement room. We think internationally and we know spaces like this, like Cafe OTO in London, they’re very much... their mission, I mean they want to present this music and they organize an amazing array of shows. In New York you have some smaller spaces, Clemente Soto Velez, those are venues that are rented by arts groups. That would be ideal. Just a place were we could do our thing, that has a minimal setup, where we could bring in our gear. A venue like The North Door had good professional sound and they had such an eclectic mix of things that they presented that they had a really solid marketing community that they could blast out to so that really helped us a lot. They really added to the experience. Butch [Webster], who was the talent buyer there who I worked with setting these up, I’ve known him for years, decades now, and he was a kid in the punk rock scene in town and I knew him and he understood the special nature of the music and the audience. That really goes a long way and not everyone can do that. Someone like Steve Wertheimer of Continental Club is a friend of the music. He’s busy running a business and making sure that it’s profitable so he books things that are gonna fill up the room, but he was into the idea of doing something there, but it’s never materialized.
KP: I know you had what seemed like a pretty good friendship with The North Door, but for a lot of the organizers, it seemed like every few months, they were pushed to a new venue, whether that was the Museum of Human Achievement, or the piano gallery on Anderson that I’m forgetting the name of, or The Carousel Lounge. What’s causing that to go on?
PG: With Ingebrigt, I know for sure, we tried to book Sonic Transmissions there the second time, and I think that they were concerned ‘cause the first year, they had three nights, it wasn’t a big crowd, and they really didn’t generate the alcohol sales, I guess. There is a certain formula that The North Door needs to make something work. With us, we never had that problem except that one time with Ballister, but they just came in to save the day ‘cause I got double-booked at another place, so we had to switch gears. I think with Ingebrigt they said… they have different pricing models for working, so if you want to do a fundraiser or gala event for your corporate thing you pay a certain fee. This is more of like, you use the space, you give a percentage of the ticket sales to the venue, and then liquor sales go to them. They just have to weigh it. With us, it seemed like every show, we packed them, and people drank, they went well. I don’t know why Sonic Transmissions couldn’t draw more, but I think it just has to do with… it’s riskier. His curating approach is amazing, but it’s a lot more obscure things, and it’s a lot of people. It’s hard. It’s hard to get the kind of numbers that the North Door needs to have to pay their staff and everything. It’s unfortunate.
KP: You mentioned earlier drawing a lot of crossover from the rock crowd in the ‘90s and that’s for sure the majority of listeners in Austin. And I feel like there’s this mentality in rock where the live stuff is kind of viewed secondary to records. On top of this music being a little out there. Have you found that it’s hard to get new people to come in to the shows?
PG: It’s hard to say. It wasn’t at first. I was always impressed, like, “wow, all these people came in.” Austin is a young city mostly, it’s changing a lot, the influx of college students, creative types who are here for short periods of time. They’ve lived in Amsterdam, they’ve lived in Berkeley, they’ve seen stuff and they kind of gravitate towards the kind of community that we have. But, yeah, bringing new people in is challenging. The things that we have going for us now are other kindred spirits like the Me Mer Mo series; like a regular, sustained presence that brings people in, just people curious about weird music. I think that’s how they get hooked, and the ones that want to dig a little deeper and give up their Friday or Saturday night to see something, they’ll do it. Just the creative ferment that’s happening with all the stuff that goes on at Museum of Human Achievement. I think people find out about our shows that way. But bringing new people in is increasingly challenging as I get older and more out of touch. I have to be aware, cognizant of this because when I started I really thought, “we gotta get young people into this music, bring ‘em in.” Many of them will go back to listen to whatever, and we won’t hook ‘em, but some will become fanatics like myself. I think of my colleagues, my indie-rock fan friends from my early twenties, they’re still listening to the same stuff they were listening to when they were twenty, I mean not even new stuff that way. They stopped. They stopped listening. Finding new audiences, new ears is a challenge. We do it by bringing the music to the schools. It’s hard to say, I can’t assess that, there’s a few people who I’ve seen who are now in their thirties who remember me from going to their high school in ‘99, which is pretty awesome. But that’s a very small number. We’re still gonna do that, ‘cause that’s essential. But, yeah, new audiences is key and, for me… I really need to figure out a way, and thinking now, moving into the next phase, I need to bring in some new blood, some folks who have different sensibility who are listening to things that I don’t listen to. To find a way to connect. I think improvised music will stay and free jazz will keep going, it’s always gonna be there, it’s just finding a way to make it relevant to other people who don’t get exposed to it.
KP: Yeah, so every time someone comes in to town, they also play at a school. With the videos that you post, one thing that’s always struck me is how open the kids seem to all the sounds. I remember when Michel Doneda and Lê Quan Ninh came in, and they’re doing their thing, and the kids are just completely enrapt by it. So, what are your goals for bringing the musicians into the schools, and do you think there’s something lost between children of that age and children of college-age or something like that where they lose an openness to that sound?
PG: I believe so. I love it. It’s difficult, logistically, to do, when you have people in town and you’re trying to schedule all this stuff to do it. The musicians are super into it. They love it. They like playing for new audiences. New people. The kids, I mean, you’ve seen some of the videos and there is typically a very enthusiastic response. But not always. Sometimes it’s fear. They’re very sensitive to extreme sounds sometimes. Also, when you get older kids, there is sort of an attitude and trying not to look like you’re into it, and that’s fine. The last show we did was at an alternative learning school, Ingebrigt and Ingrid Laubrock played at the ALC here in Austin and it was challenging ‘cause the kids didn’t know each other and it’s hard to be vulnerable and look like you’re enjoying something around people you don’t know, I guess. But a few came up and talked to us and they seemed to really, like... “wow, this is really.... I didn’t know anything like this existed.” As far as the older kids, high school or college age, I think being exposed to the real deal, in person, is gonna hook some of them. It’s hard for me to be objective about it, but it seems like you’re witnessing something really unique. These guys can really play. It’s not a bunch of noise. When you hear it on a Youtube clip or a little sound sample, it’s gonna sound like absolute mess, but when you hear it live, you feel it and you see the communication. And just the humor too. That’s another thing a lot of people don’t really think this music has. Humor. But it has humor and charm and... just amazing… it really hooks people in the live setting. And that’s what gives me the energy to keep going. When I talk to people, maybe someone from work, or someone from another part of my life who just happens to come - it doesn’t happen much, but they do - and they go, “wow, that was really something. I’ve never seen anything like that.” And they relate it to other experiences they’ve had with other musics and it’s amazing. But with the kids, yeah, it’s something I want to keep doing as much as possible. I believe in arts education. As we know, funding for arts education is usually the first to go. With the Austin Discovery School, my son went there for awhile and we had a great experience there. Very open to me bringing whoever. They didn’t need to know anything, just, “great, we can do it.” And usually we would confirm things just a few days ahead of time. Chaotic. But they loved it. I would take bands to other schools and kids that saw my presentations from the [Austin] Discovery School from ten years ago would be there and talk to me. It’s amazing and that’s something that I want to keep doing. The way I’d like to develop that is not only the artists in my series but as a way to involve more of my peer organizations in the community, ‘cause I’ve done this with artists from No Idea. I always try to find some way to bring someone from No Idea to the schools. Akira Sakata and Marshall Trammell played for little guys, and it was intense free jazz, so good, and the kids were ecstatic, laughing, having such a great time. The idea is to do more of that. I raised some money for that purpose. Ingebrigt and Ingrid was one show. We were gonna have Blacks’ Myths; they were gonna come for SXSW and I was working on getting them to one of the schools but it fell through. Just whoever we can, just to have a fun setup, that I can pay a good fee for visiting artists from other organizations.
KP: Since I’ve only been here for a few years [and wouldn’t know], have you seen proliferation of this music in the local scene from bringing people in through town?
PG: I think so. I’m not the first. There’s always been activity here. One thing that gets overlooked is that Brötzmann and [Han] Bennink played here in ‘86 or ‘87. I was still in Houston and… just not on my radar. But I heard about this. Alex Coke told me, this guy, I can’t remember his name, this Dutch guy whose… I think he started Terra Toys, the company, he sold it, but he just set it up. He rented a little coffee shop downtown and they just played there. There’s always been this kind of thing happening, just every few years. When I came on the scene in ‘98, we did three shows in ‘98, and do two or three a year, sometimes five. Having that sustained presence, I think, really helped. ‘Cause people would meet each other, at the gigs. A lot of folks who play or do music now here met at these concerts and then they’ve started their own or they’ve brought musicians themselves. It provided opportunities for local bands to play, that sort of thing. My role in it has to do more with just being a sustained presence and then people gravitate towards each other. At the record store, you see someone, “hey, didn’t I see you at that Joe McPhee show?” That kind of thing. I took some heat from some folks early on about not doing enough for the local scene. I always try to explain, using the model of the Indian classical music concerts, I want the focus to be on the master on the stage and not so much giving an opportunity for someone to work out their concept. I have presented local music, but it hasn’t been the focus. It’s always been, let’s have this person that’s come all the way from Norway play for an hour and a half and not have to worry about a whole set schedule and getting a bunch of other bands on the bill. It’s not always appropriate. I’ve sat through a lot of opening acts in my life and, you know, it’s just like, “no I don’t really want to see…” Well, anyway. All that to say, the focus has been on the masters and not so much working with local acts. Not that we don’t do that, because when we can, we will. That’s where some of the philosophies behind other organizations… you know, it’s healthy now, I can really relax and keep doing it the way I want to do it because with Ingebrigt doing his series and with everyone else you mentioned, you can create more opportunities. I would feel a lot of guilt when I’d get a lot of proposals for shows and I just was not able to do it. I took on some things that I shouldn’t have and I learned that I just can’t do that. When you’re the only game in town, you feel that pressure, but now I can refer you to these six people.
KP: Is Ingebrigt still in town or did he have to go back to Trondheim?
PG: He went back to Trondheim. He was here for like one week. He had to sort out all this stuff. He had to put some things in storage. And he had to take care of some legal stuff, also, his green card, he can’t be out of the country for longer than six months or something like that. He’s definitely planning on coming back. He’s just in Trondheim, teaching. And scheming for a way to get back here.
KP: If someone’s in a town that doesn’t really have a good scene going, what’s a rough guidebook, or what are the nuts and bolts of organizing, to get someone started? Any words of advice that you might have?
PG: It’s crazy. It’s been such an up and down, topsy-turvy thing, you know. You gotta really want to do it. Figure out why you want to do it. Understand that. And then when people support it, be happy with that. If they don’t support it, don’t take it personally. Sometime it’s easy to feel undervalued. You just have to do it for your own reasons. When you do it for attention and you want to be appreciated, you’re not always gonna get that. You have to do it because you love the music, you love the connection to audience and musician. Really taking time to think about what you want to achieve, why you want to do it, is important. And then that will help you later when your expectations may not work out. But I think one thing that’s sort of guided me is that I think of it not just as a presentation but as a larger advocacy role. Since I became a fan of this music, I’ve always wanted to turn people on to this music one way or another. Making mixtapes was one way. I wrote a little bit, although writing doesn’t come very easily for me so I didn’t pursue that, but I thought that’d be a way to do it. I did a radio show for awhile. I volunteered. Find a way to be involved with the music somehow, with the tools that you have at your disposal. I always thought, in this town, with all these great folks stepping up and presenting, shouldn’t we really just try to come together and all do the… but everyone has their own individual approach and their taste and all these things that they want somehow to put out there. But I think that we don’t need as many new presenters as we might need audience members and advocates. I’m so thrilled that you’re doing this project, it’s great, it’s so important. We do this stuff in a void, and it’s nice to have communities online where we can learn and connect. So, as far as advice goes, figure out why you’re trying to do it and just keep at it.
KP: Everything has been shut down for some time. If and when travel and gathering does become safer, do you see any long-term effects from the pandemic and what are those?
PG: This is really worrying to think about this. I’m fortunate that I don’t have to depend on my livelihood for this, as musicians do, and venues… like The Blue Whale in LA is closed. I think about the landscape. When we start allowing stuff to happen again, the pent-up demand is gonna be there. There’s gonna be a lot of demand for live music, for community. But what are people gonna run to? There’s a lot of other entertainment opportunities that people seek out. They might not seek out this one first; some might. That’s worrying. Where will people go? Also, what spaces are going to be available? The North Door has gone out of business conceivably; they may come back if things work out, but venues are gonna be harder to rent and find. But I think with the model that I use and the way we started out, it might have to go back to that. It might have to go back to just someone renting a building or using a VFW hall or an art gallery that doesn’t want to charge a lot of money. It’s going to be crucial to link up with venue owners and people who have spaces. Practically, the city funding that we rely on, I don’t know how that’s going to shake out. Austin’s still doing pretty well economically and the money that comes in for the cultural arts program is funded by hotel taxes and I know that industry’s taken a big hit. So, there could be less to go around. Also, more organizations and businesses might want some of the money that is there; it might not go as much to arts groups like myself. That’s an unknown. We’ve had some success with other sources of funding, from foreign consulates, Chamber Music America - we got a nice grant from them for Ten Freedom Summers - and we’ve had a few other little grants, but it’s not a regular, sustaining funding. It’s just a nice little added thing. So, yeah, it’s hard to say. Crowdfunding, that sort of thing, is great and works well but there’s just so many things in this world that need to be addressed and so many other priorities that I worry that it’s gonna be harder to get on the radar. People will be torn between feeding someone and then getting a concert going. It’s a lot of uncertainty and we just don’t know. But there are gonna be people and there are gonna be fanatics that just want to sit in a cold, un-air-conditioned room and see some music. I’ll be there.
KP: I know this kind of goes against the feeling of music in a live setting and hearing it in a room and the need for a live setting after so long, but do you see yourself streaming performances? I don’t think that you have. Or, how do you feel about streamed performances?
PG: Ambivalent. It’s not optimal. I can’t get my head around it right quite yet. We teamed up with Ingebrigt, with Sonic Transmissions, and we set up a few of the concerts, we funded those. I was really excited by James Brandon Lewis and Chad Taylor’s performance, which we sponsored. They created a video in the studio. It sounded great first of all. And there were no technical hiccups. It was just a nice video streamed and they created music for that festival. And that still exists; that video is out there and we can keep showing it and it can be there. That’s exciting. I do like that. Streaming concerts, I’ve taken part in a lot of them, I’ve watched a lot, I’ve also avoided a lot just because... just not being in the mood. And I feel bad, you know, but especially after working and then being on zoom and then just staying in the office to stay and watch is not fun. Although, they serve an incredible purpose right now and that’s why I say I’m guilty about that. They do keep us connected. And that’s essential right now. Artists and musicians and audiences staying connected. Some people are doing really creative things; I’ve really been enjoying Tim Berne’s Instagram live things. We commissioned him to do an oral history and performance video. He has a friend who is a very talented filmmaker, Noah Hutton, came to his house in Brooklyn, just put the camera on and Tim shared stories about working with Julius Hemphill. We tried to get Baikida Carroll involved, but he doesn’t want to leave his apartment which makes perfect sense. But we’re looking at maybe having him involved in another iteration this next year. I am going to have to do something, some kind of streaming event. I might focus more on just conversations, rather than performances, because I think these little webcams, they don’t really capture the sound and not everyone has access to good mics. It’s a crapshoot. But I do see it as important and I need to get over myself and get involved and send donations to some live streams that are happening. Constellation in Chicago has a really nice setup; they’ve done good shows. And Collin Shook here in Austin, while working with sort of more mainstream jazz, did a piano trio with Ingebrigt this weekend; great sound, I think five cameras set up, it was really, really good. So all that to say I’m ambivalent, but we do need to stay connected and next year I need to do something. But I think in the model of getting a professional videographer to record the performance and then stream it later is much better. It sounds much better.
KP: So you’ve mentioned Dave Dove, of Nameless Sound in Houston; are there any other organizers from anywhere that you want to shout out?
PG: Oh, yes! CapitalBop in D.C.; they are a marvel, amazing. Arts for Art, of course, is the gold standard and who we all aspire to… you know… they’re the most important. Vision Festival has been a mainstay and we’ve been very fortunate to have artists play here while touring the Vision Festival. Constellation in Chicago is a big one. Portland has a really cool scene - I can’t remember their name now - they’re kind of a collective. Montreal, Casa del Popolo; great scene. There’s a lot of stuff... Civic Minded 5 out of Orlando; they brought some pretty amazing stuff and we’ve coordinated with them, I think Brötzmann/Parker/Drake this last time. But, yeah, CapitalBop, Arts for Art, great, great, great.
KP: And what are some of your happiest moments as an organizer, other than sharing BBQ with everyone every time?
PG: I was gonna say that! My favorite experiences when I do these are eating with the musicians, and then announcing them from the stage, and then maybe just doing some random errands, like taking Brötzmann to go buy a cable for his computer. That kind of thing, I like that. One of my most satisfying and amazing experiences was when we teamed up with Sonic Transmissions and we had Carmelo Torres and Los Toscos. My father’s from Colombia and I lived in Colombia for awhile; I’ve always appreciated Colombian culture, but never really dug deep into it until last 10, 15 years. To connect with the scene in Bogotá - which is another, I should give a shout out to Matik Matik, who are… cool scene - you know, I met these guys down there, and women, and they’re all into the same music I’m into, in addition to Latin American, South American music, culture, folk, and progressive music. So connecting with that scene and then having that band, Carmelo, who is a traditional musician from San Jacinto, a little town, perform in Austin was just something special. And then perform at the school too. That was just so rewarding and so much fun. And also so difficult. Ingebrigt and I just took a step back and, “wow, I can’t believe this actually came together and happened.” It was a little strange for some people accustomed to hearing free jazz masters to make the switch and they probably weren’t into it, but we connected with a whole other scene of people. Austin has this really kind of cool, Colombian vanguard. A Colombian-American scene, with Superfónicos, Kiko Villamizar. I mean, they’re playing popular music and they’re not really interested in what we’re doing so much, maybe, I don’t know. But it doesn’t matter, I think it’s cool. But the special thing has been making a lot of new friends in Colombia who love the same music and we can geek out on Brötzmann records and that sort of thing. And they presented Peter, actually, which was great. So, yeah, I’d say the Colombian connection has been really, really remarkable.
KP: What’re you listening to these days?
PG: I’ve been hoarding music for awhile. I have all these records, but I also just have terabytes of digital music, so I go for long walks and I listen to long pieces of music. A lot of things that I haven’t listened to, that people have given me over the years. Lately, I’ve been getting way into just listening to Blue Note records. Sitting down and listening to a bunch of Mosaic box sets. That’s been great. New music as well. David Tudor; I had a really nice walk the other day where I listened to Rainforest and it was great. And then just tons of reggae. Tons and tons and tons of reggae. I’ve always felt guilty about how much music I just hoard, but now I really have the time and attention to listen. And I’ve also been watching music documentaries of music I’m not even interested in; I just watch the documentary. Some are not so good. One revelation for me was that documentary about the cellist… New York City cellist who did underground disco… the name is… but it was great. I’ve known about his work for a long time but it never really hooked me. And then seeing the film and really delving into the music… I can’t remember his name… that’s terrible... That, and then just listening to everything I can that I have. But at the same time trying to listen to some new things: James Brandon Lewis and Irreversible Entanglements, those two records, heavy rotation. My responsibility as a listener is I really need to be aware of what’s happening and what’s coming down and what’s going on. It’s a little harder and more challenging when you’re older like me and the risk is just getting stuck in a rut and only listening to the stuff that you liked when you were cool. I gotta listen to new things and try to feel uncomfortable and keep digging. That’s why blogs like yours and other things like that, just trying to be aware of activity. People like Ingebrigt, he has his ear to the ground and has turned me on to a lot of great stuff. And Nate, of course, with Astral Spirits, it’s like revelation upon revelation. He’s got stuff that I know but also a lot of people I’ve never heard of. He just gave me a little stack of records down here that I’m gonna start playing pretty soon.
KP: Is there anything else that you wanted to talk about or discuss?
PG: One important issue that has to be addressed with this music is - not on the local level but the international level - is the visa and restrictions and immigration issues. I think this country is really not served by our work permits for touring musicians. It’s very restrictive and difficult and arbitrary. A lot of musicians, of course, will just go under the radar with their tourist visas. It’s very restrictive and limiting. The impetus behind it, I think, is this idea that people are taking away jobs from Americans or American musicians, but I don’t think this is true at all. Someone who comes here from The Netherlands or Sweden is doing something distinct. And they’re probably going to spend more of their money here than they’re going to take back. Also, American artists, there’s very few restrictions in the EU specifically, and Latin America. They can just go there and play, no permits, unless it’s like a big touring rock band where you take a whole… I think there may be some issues there. But I think for individual artists there needs to be much free-er cultural exchange and less travel restrictions. I hope that gets addressed. It’s been this way under both Republican and Democratic administrations. This really needs to be addressed and we need to advocate for that. Also, some European countries might start restricting American bands and putting up some of the same hurdles, which just doesn’t help anybody. That’s my issue and I’d like to work on that a little bit. Having applied for visas for some of the artists, or having written letters for other artists, it’s a horrible, horrible process and it really doesn’t serve anybody and it just antagonizes people and keeps us away from great music.
KP: Yeah, you mentioned Ingebrigt having to jump through some loopholes to keep his visa and I know a couple years ago Alexander von Schlippenbach was scheduled for Big Ears but couldn’t get a visa. Both of those are relatively huge names in the music and still being denied travel access is a little ridiculous. How’re you going to try to tackle that or help out?
PG: There’s Americans for the Arts; it’s done lobbying on that issue for a number of years. The difficult thing is, there’s so many pressing concerns, even in immigration, that go before artist visas. Working with other presenters to advocate for more sensible policies is the way to go. And then this law firm that does a lot of pro-bono work in this area, Tamizdat. They’re advocating and doing some lobbying in that area, so lending my support to that and hopefully raising awareness through the usual channels, and email lists, and that kind of thing. I think there could be a very simple fix to this that could make it easier and just benefit everybody, venues, fans, presenters, artists. Some of the restrictions have to do with some of the professional organizations, like the Music Union, or sound engineers, ‘cause some musicians travel with their own sound person and a lot of times they can get a visa for the band but not the sound person. Because that’s where the protectionism falls into place. It’s just very misguided. It makes it unworkable for some bands to come over. But, yeah, advocating is the only thing we can do. And to keep going and applying for visas when we need them. A lot of the EU musicians can get subsidies to pay for the permits, but the Latin Americans we just have to pay an additional $5,000 to the whole thing to make it work and it’s arbitrary as hell. The thing fell through so many times and then the visa was granted three days before their flight out of Bogotá. We just didn’t even know, like, “what are we gonna do if they don’t get it?” ‘Cause they’re coming from Latin America, we felt a little bit like we really had to be on the up and up; there might be more scrutiny. They’ve arrested Anders Hana from Norway, who was playing in Houston with Frode Gjerstad’s big band and he had toured with some big rock group and had had proper work permits before, so when he came in through the airport they saw that he had work permits prior and he had his guitar so they detained him and held him incommunicado for 24 hours. He couldn’t talk to his family, tell them what was going on, and then they sent him back and banned him from the US for I think 10 years. Toby Delius from ICP Orchestra was gonna do a little tour and probably spend more on food and booze than he was making and they stopped him. But they had an organized response. The Dutch arts agencies pushed back and they were gonna start doing things to American artists so I think they let him... he wasn’t banned for 10 years like they normally do, so he came back with the ICP Orchestra. So yeah, it’s not a good situation. And this affects other arts too, not just musicians but filmmakers, anybody, and we’re trying to connect these communities and I think that the world… progressive, democratic principles can be conveyed personally this way. It’s really shooting ourselves in the foot by restricting artists from coming here.
KP: Anything else you wanna put out there?
PG: I can’t wait to see everyone when it happens again. And we can go out and experience music. I miss hearing, just feeling a musical instrument. I don’t play, so I don’t have access to that, and no one in my house plays. I can’t wait to see everybody and just be around music again.
annotations is a recurring feature sampling graphic or other non-traditional notation with context and a preference for recent work with recorded examples, in the spirit of John Cage & Alison Knowles’ Notations and Theresa Sauer’s Notations 21. As a non-musician illiterate in traditional notation, I believe alternative notation can offer intuitive pathways to enriching interpretations of the sound it symbolizes and, even better, sound in general. For many listeners, music is more often approached through performances and recordings, rather than through compositional practices; these scores might offer additional information, hence the name, annotations.
All scores copied in this newsletter are done so with permission of the composer for the purpose of this newsletter only, and are not to be further copied without their permission. If you are a composer utilizing non-traditional notation and are interested in featuring your work in this newsletter, please reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org for purchasing and permissions; if you know a composer that might be interested, please share this call.
Robin Hayward - Words of Paradise
Robin Hayward’s Words of Paradise is a 2015 composition for horn, trombone, microtonal tuba, and tuning vine (the horn part is pictured here). Hayward developed the microtonal tuba and invented the tuning vine, which is an interface for exploring Just Intonation and provides the colors of the staves. Rich with religious and linguistic metaphor, the composition moves performers outward through the seven circles, away from paradise, and towards more complex, “Babel-ing” harmonic relationships; read Hayward’s full explanation here. It is performed by Hayward (tuba), Hilary Jeffery (trombone), and Elena Kakaliagou (horn) on this recording, which is available on LP as a picture disc and features the horn and trombone parts on either side.
I’m overjoyed to be able to present a composition from Hayward for the first newsletter. At this point, I know little about alternative notation and its practitioners, but Hayward was an inspiration for this project. Select other graphic notation from Hayward is available to view here. When listening along with the score, I might try to discern the circles and their components with the help of the temporal markers. And parse the sonic relationships of the single-syllable Brabantic words, opposite each other and reversed in each circle, that Johannes Goropius Becanus used to support the ideas that inspire the composition.
Cristián Alvear & Cyril Bondi - Michael Pisaro-Liu: E là Fora (self-released, 2021)
Cristián Alvear and Cyril Bondi, on ebowed guitar and harmonium respectively, perform Pisaro-Liu’s E là Fora, a brief composition that characteristically gilds field recordings and draws thought towards the human relationship with the natural world. The title comes from the Fernando Pessoa poem, The Keeper of Sheep, and in particular the (translated) line, “and outside a great silence,” recalling the Cagean inspirations of this music. Another recorded example from Chaz Underriner can be heard here.
The twelve-minute track begins with birdsong: a machine-gun call; a distant choir of tweets; and a caw from a crow or vulture. Harmonium and ebowed guitar swells of varying volume, pulse, and duration punctuate the field recordings. Gradually, anthropomorphic sounds enter: the distant swoosh of cars; human shuffling; a bell tolling an overhead airplane; human speech, at first a distant adult and then a nearby child. By the end of the track, the nearby machine-gun call and crow caw are absent, and only the distant cacophony of tweets remain. In bringing these sound sources together, it reminds me of the distance we create between ourselves and the natural world, or even among other things. The distinction between inside and outside. Our encroaching machines. Music’s appropriation of nature into an acceptable noise that has more often tried to overwhelm it than communicate with it.
Martina Bertoni - Music For Empty Flats (Karlrecords, 2021)
Martina Bertoni makes cinematic new age music with a dark edge using cello and electronics on Music For Empty Flats. Bertoni composes and performs film music, especially with Teho Teardo, and this release explicitly invokes comparison to cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir whose work, especially with Jóhann Jóhannsson, significantly contributes to the emotive success of several films, particularly Denis Villeneuve’s. Music For Empty Flats is the latest in Bertoni’s sequence of solo work that began in 2018 with In Paradise You Would Be Happy and is a followup to her first full-length, All the Ghosts Are Gone, from 2020. It contains the mood-setting, ambient-leaning ominous tones that arouse tension, mystery, and wonder in film viewers, but with enough texture and character to not leave listeners wanting for visual accompaniment.
Most tracks establish similar atmospheres through layered swashes of processed cello bowing that swell in pitch and volume and dissipate. Underpinned by low-end rumbling or plucking. And occasional bleeps, bloops, and clicks like simulated clipping or glitching. The variation of these elements is most apparent in their clarity. The cello can appear clean and pulseless, or nearly vocal, or purring with vibrato, or distorted like a crashing wave. The bass can appear as well-defined beats or anonymous rumblings. The movement is lumbering and most often comes from the low-end pulses and the peaks of cello swells. The music is spacious but rarely, if ever, silent. While the substrate is similar across tracks, each features a distinctive characteristic, usually created with cello techniques. Rapid bowing on “Bits” like flapping wings or shaking; rain-like taps and percussive plucks like inside-piano on “Bright Wood;” the title track’s deep, woody, bassy vibrato; “Fearless’” relatively unaffected, baroque bowing. It achieves a possible goal of ambient music in that it can be heard and felt alongside other stimuli without overwhelming it, but the distinctive characteristics of each track and subtle variations in clarity can occupy closer listeners.
Eric Chenaux - “3 Stars On Mountain Of Doom” (Constellation, 2021)
The three-movement fried reverie of “3 Stars On Mountain Of Doom” emphasizes the flowery-side of psychedelia in guitarist Eric Chenaux’ work. Originally released on a compilation of 1 edition commemorating Richard Young, titled Richard Young’s 50th Birthday, and on Constellation’s Soundcloud in 2018, the eleven-minute track sees a wider release in 2021 as part of Constellation’s ongoing Corona Borealis singles series. The fragile balladry that contrasts his alien melodies on Skullsplitter (one of my all-time favorites) or Slowly Paradise is absent here, but this focuses the ear on the densely-textured soundscapes Chenaux creates from electric guitar, bowed guitar, nylon-string guitar, electronics, and field recordings.
The first couple minutes is all frolicking psychedelic melodies, stumbling, sun drunk, in a field of rippling wah and harmonica-mimicking effects, grounded by a low-end waltz. In the second movement, just a little longer, the wah transforms into a heralding horn, sometimes sounding like melodeon, with a swaying movement, over which languorous tunes dance and among which field recordings of water, bugs, and parties lend sounds more familiar than the transmogrified guitar. The last half is a lullaby of chiming chords flanked with bursting peonies of psych phrasings, and an electric, farty solo that could at times be mistaken for a horn again. The guitar errant is eccentric, but warm and chill.
Mia Dyberg / Matthias Müller - Wide Pointillism (self-released, 2021)
Intersecting musical lines reveal their constituent points on alto saxophonist Mia Dyberg and trombonist Matthias Müller’s half-hour improvised duo, Wide Pointillism. Dyberg is prolific in the duo format, releasing Circumscription with pianist Marina Džukljev and Naboer with pianist Rieko Okuda in 2020, alongside her trio releases. Last year, Müller documented the development of his distinctive style on his second solo recording, Acud/Bunker, and released a duo with multi-instrumentalist Pierre-Yves Martel, Dis-Drill. They’ve recorded together previously on Scope, from cellist Guilherme Rodrigues’ large Red List Ensemble. Both musicians maintain a reputation of remaining comfortable in a range of contexts, from fairly straight-ahead bands to textural soundscapes generated from extended techniques. Wide Pointillism is closer to the quieter, conceptual strain of echtzeitmusik, though not so unconventional as to obscure the identities of the instruments.
The music often plays to the title, utilizing these typically melodic instruments as rhythm machines to play pulses that can appear as lines at scale. A trombone line punctuated with silences reduces further to a flutter. A sustained sax tone distorts into peaks and valleys, like raw data around a curve, to become just the points by way of tongue slaps. Müller varies pressure to create discrete peaks in an otherwise continuous flow of sound. Dyberg employs what sounds like a metal mute to spotlight the jagged ends of vibrations during a sustained buzz. They both use objects against the instruments like a slow guiro for more pointillistic playing. The instrumental lines usually feel parallel but, as they disintegrate to points, can sound intertwined, contrapuntal. At one point, the trombone provides a backbeat for some virtuosic saxophone doodling; at another, roles reverse, and the saxophone lays down an urgent chopsticks for resonance-mimicking, circling glissandos from the trombone. The sound is recognizably saxophone and trombone, but with a healthy dose of textural variation from extended techniques. Dyberg’s melancholic intonations and Müller’s musical sniffs and valve-releasing-steam exhalations continue to serve as a kind of watermark for their styles.
Signe Emmeluth - Hi Hello I’m Signe (Relative Pitch, 2021)
Alto saxophonist Signe Emmeluth meanders through a fine palette of shape and color on the set-length improvised solo, Hi Hello I’m Signe. The first time I heard Emmeluth, in duo with percussionist Vetle Larsen at Ingebrigt Håker Flaten’s Sonic Transmissions Festival, still sticks with me as one of the more intimate and fiery sets I’ve seen. The duo would record Stop Walk that week, with Flaten, but it didn’t quite capture the spirit of the set. Emmeluth has since recorded with several larger ensembles, including Alexander Riris’ Barrage and her own Spacemusic Ensemble and Emmeluth’sAmoeba. Last year’s subtler sounding cosmic fantasias with guitarist Karl Bjorå on the electronic-tinged Mille Feuille was a welcome return to a smaller, more intimate, more freely-played format. The acoustic stream-of-consciousness on her first solo, Hi Hello I’m Signe (recorded during the live-streamed 2020 edition of Sonic Transmissions), offers an intelligent, fun, and fresh portrait of the performer.
The set is a collection of themes, sometimes separated with pauses, with a variety of techniques drawing the ear to the shape and the color of the sound. Skronky points of playful reed explorations coalesce into a fluid, technicolor line. Percussive spit play stipples a plane of sustained humming. Fluctuations in pressure and volume, perhaps amplified with a twisting body, creates a stereo-panning effect that calls attention to the physical volume of sound. I also hear a dialogue with history, though it never overindulges, instead synthesizing it in an understated, personal way. I hear the bop turned avant garde repeated phrases of bird calls, chirpings, warbles, and honkings, and intimations of the carnivalesque romps that might characterize some older Dutch masters. And I hear a folk music in the discrete breathy tones more like pipes than a horn, and in a circular dance more like Eastern European or Near Eastern clarinet tunes than saxophone jazz. One of the more amazing memories of that first duo set is Emmeluth’s command of saliva as a medium for sonic material and that approach returns here; after using liquid in the bore earlier in the set, she caps it with what I’m guessing is a particularly wet embouchure to whistle-lisp over a warm buzz.
gabby fluke-mogul - threshold (Relative Pitch, 2021)
Across six solo improvisations lasting 43 minutes, threshold showcases a rhythmic, high-energy approach with a breadth of noisy textures from violinist gabby fluke-mogul. fluke-mogul released the solo improvisations thread and to alejandra pizarnik and contributed to reedist Phillip Greenlief’s BARBEDWIRE - 37 Graphic Scores for Trio Volume One and Bellingham for David Ireland just last year. threshold provides a foundational document rich with raw material for a rising voice, with a vitality that delights.
In media res is how most tracks begin, shocking the ear with comparatively high volume after track pauses. But this noise tactic doesn’t characterize the tracks, which are dynamic but nearly void of silence, instead constant collages of extended techniques sounding like scratching, scraping, sawing, sucking, rubbing balloons, and squeegeeing glass. Mixed with vocal soundings, passages of at times twangy, occasionally detuned, often chaotic pizzicato, and sonorous swells from more classically-leaning bowing that, when sounding more than one string, could mimic a pulsing harmonium, with a warmth welcome amidst the shriller aspects of the violin here. fluke-moguls’ playing is relatively rapid, subverting expectations of sustained durations from the violin and drawing the ear from just the texture to the beat of the bowing. The arco scratches sometimes so hyperactive they could pass for turntablism. Which lends the violin a sense of action and rhythmic propulsion that is refreshing for the instrument. Despite the prodigious display of technique, the most impressive aspect of this recording is its intimacy. The listener can hear breath, usually deemphasized outside of recordings of blown instruments, suggesting the physicality of this playing but it’s also used intentionally and contrapuntally on at least “gnosis.” During quiet moments, strings on strings sound like silent screams, as if there were no rosin. Sometimes when the bow leaves the violin, the room sighs a soft echo.
Antonin Gerbal - Connectors (Remote Resonator, 2021)
Percussionist Antonin Gerbal catalogs the acoustics of the kit and some consequent phenomena on the continuous, half-hour solo, Connectors. Last year, Gerbal released the highly-acclaimed Sbatax, with frequent collaborator and saxophonist Bertrand Denzler, and will soon release the highly-anticipated Nights on Saturn (communication) with the Ahmed ensemble, which also features pianist Pat Thomas, bassist Joel Grip, and saxophonist Seymour Wright. He is a distinctive voice, even among large groups like the Umlaut Big Band or the wonderful ONCEIM ensemble, and this is his first solo release since Sound of Drums in 2016. Perhaps known for a relatively “traditional” approach compared to the European experimentalists often associated with him, Gerbal transforms series of simple hits into textural beings with pulses of their own on Connectors.
A drum roll begins, with shifting beats and tempos, pitch shifting, and swings in volume. Gerbal can create a rolling thunder and snare or cymbal washes whose relentless crashing draws attention to the reverberations of the recording room. Like Cecil Taylor’s percussive attack and rumbling clusters often encouraged comparison to drummers, Gerbal’s can seem piano-like, one limb comping the bright action of another with low end thrum. But while the orchestra of metal, skin, and wood sounds from many limbs is interspersed throughout the recording, the strength of this recording lies where Gerbal limits the action to one stick repeatedly hitting a single cymbal or drum. Allowing a hit to hang in the air at low tempos or making it clash with itself by increasing tempos. Making space to hear the collateral vibrations from the rest of the kit and the refracting harmonics in the room, which creates a polyrhythmic multiphony and, at times, an audible metallic resonance. Again, like the piano, there is a joy in hearing the rest of the instrument react to something played at the other end of it.
Susie Ibarra - Talking Gong (New Focus Recordings, 2021)
Susie Ibarra’s sportive folk jazz finds a lively vehicle in the Talking Gong trio, with pianist Alex Peh and flautist Claire Chase, on its eponymous debut. It seems to follow the chamber feel of Perception and, with at least two tracks explicitly evoking birdsong, Ibarra’s interests in sonic ecology. Though it leans traditional, Ibarra’s rhythmic, energetic approach, with a broad textural palette of extended techniques that maintain momentum, is infectiously fun.
The LP-length record is bookended by four Meriendas, or snacks, less-than-a-minute vignettes of the trio perhaps at their most textural, though still with a polyrhythmic propulsion that is amplified by their brevity. By virtue of length and name, the seventeen-minute title track draws attention and indeed it captures the essence of the trio. It is a flighty collage of themes, some of which recur. Most sketches begin and seem driven by Peh’s piano, which often provides a tune. But the piano also tends to keep the beat, and is percussive in its attack too, especially with its hammered notes, but rarely angular, instead flowing. The flute is particularly percussive too, with pointillistic blows, fluttering, saliva-laden pops, and thunks and slaps from the keys and tongue, though there are plenty of the soaring tunes and nimble flights more often associated with the flute. And Ibarra freely moves between mallet instruments and the kit; drum breaks, brushing snares, cymbals crashing, marimba tunes, gong. They form a cohesive, dynamic polyrhythmic unit full of light and color thanks to the melodic capabilities of the piano and flute and marimba and the textures Ibarra coaxes out of the kit. The rest of the tracks spotlight components of the trio: two piano/percussion duos; percussion solo; a wind duo with Ibarra and Chase. The percussion solo might be my favorite track, with a rumbling bass drum pulse, hands pattering the toms, hi hats hissing and spitting, and rapidly flapping brushes in the air to make an aviary of hummingbirds.
Marina Kifferstein - Open Improvisations (self-released, 2020)
Marina Kifferstein showcases a broad vocabulary, tuneful and noisy and often both simultaneously, for violin and other instruments, in solo and duo on Open Improvisations. The nine tracks are compiled from streams to the facebook group Open Improvisations, an ongoing open mic organized by violist Carrie Frey, guitarist Alec Goldfarb (who appears here), and Kifferstein, who have nurtured a vital community for often underheard improvisers with the group. Kifferstein’s violin can also be heard with The Rhythm Method and TAK Ensemble, the latter of which will release Star Maker Fragments with Taylor Brook (who also appears here) in March 2021. But on Open Improvisations, acousmatic textural melanges with organic pulses created from guitar, mandolin, ukelele, toy piano, recorder, voice, objects, and electronics sit comfortably next to solo violin improvisations.
Kifferstein’s bowing can be a polyphonic whirling hall of knives, a swarm of bees, a woody and guttural squall as on “6.14.20” or “12.13.20.” Sometimes unveiling rustic or bittersweet tunes like those of “6.21.20.” It’s not aggressive shredding or sawing but rather an openness to the messier sounds of the strings rising from unconventional bowing for longer durations at slower tempos. The collages from other instrumentation contain a similarly relaxed pace and celebration of sound, with the throbbing cavernous electronics of “7.12.20” inhabited by a chimerical barrage of small sounds and chimes, or the tape-like atmosphere of vocal pops and groans on “8.30.20” housing fractured lullabies from toy instruments and wails from an unknown source. In duo, Kifferstein provides a grainy substrate for harmonic guitar playing that sounds like inside-piano pounding with Alec Goldfarb, a tense violin ensemble for (what I assume is) Taylor Brook’s live sampling and multi-tracking, and tea kettle squeals and flurries of singing strings for contrabassist Brandon Lopez’ signature deep, tortuous, visceral vibrations from the low end.
Kode9 - “The Jackpot” / “Rona City Blues” (Hyperdub, 2021)
Kode9 synthesizes an array of dance music styles across time and geographies, especially London and Chicago, and distills the mix into two five-minute frenetic tracks, “The Jackpot” and “Rona City Blues.” Billed as the first solo release of original material since 2015’s Nothing, which was released shortly after the death of poet and frequent collaborator The Spaceape, this 12” finds the DJ filling the spaces previously reserved for the MC and reverb with a density of high-tempo layers to create shifting, animate polyrhythms. It is the first in a series of 12” from Kode9 planned for this year.
Layers enter and exit like an ensemble cast, but a tweeter-range chorus in the style of the Psycho theme, a pitch-shifting bass, and a detuned keyboard melody are usually center stage on “The Jackpot.” Stumbling bass beats, machine-gun fills, swooshing glitches, trap snare and high hat, and woody, high-BPM metronome are just some of the accompaniment. Layers appear kinetic by moving through series of distinctive phrasings before iterating; their shifting overlap with other layers generates fluid, complex polyrhythms. Though the track is nearly all high-volume, high-tempo, high-density, deft arrangement engages the ear with bold momentum shifts achieved by dropping out layers - sometimes all layers for brief silences - or fusing the mind-numbing polyrhythm of so many layers into a unified four-on-the-floor. “Rona City Blues” uses similar strategies, though the sounds change to stuttering, distorted, delayed chords, syncopated tom phrases, sub-bass throbbing, stereo-panning hi hat, claps, and ambient, phasered tones. It is still high-volume, high-tempo, high-density, but achieves a more relaxed character through more longer-duration tones. There’s a seemingly inherent satisfaction with buoyant bass beats; both tracks revel in it.
Catherine Lamb - Muto Infinitas (Another Timbre, 2021)
Muto Infinitas, performed by Rebecca Lane on quartertone bass flute and Jon Heilbron on contrabass, evinces composer Catherine Lamb’s organic austerity with a passion for harmonic ecology. Lane and Heilbron are both part of Harmonic Space Orchestra, which released Lamb’s Prisma Interius VII & VIII in 2020, and Quiver, perhaps best known for their release of Werner Dafeldecker’s Small Worlds. Lamb appears to pick up steam each passing year, with fragment study for inter-spatia, point/wave performed by Giacomo Fiore, and wave/forming performed by Brian Eubanks and Xavier Lopez all released just last year, along with the aforementioned Prisma Interius VII & VIII. It’s hard for me to not associate her music with visual artist Agnes Martin, whose work often used small variations in space, line, and color to alter perceptions of nearby elements and the work as a whole; likewise, Muto Infinitas uses small variations in space, time, and tone to illuminate the sonic singularities of adjacent, relatively similar movements and the piece as a whole. Lane’s cover art only reinforces this association. In the context for “Study for a Mass (Agnes Martin),” which also cites Lamb as inspiration, Nate Wooley says he perceives a kind of gnostic “quietism and rigor” in Martin’s works, which I agree with and also perceive in Lamb’s.
Muto Infinitas is a series of duo sections separated by silences. Within each section, any changes in bowing tempo or contrabass tone are usually imperceptible, and its sounding constant until group silences; the flute plays the same or similar tones separated by silences within each section. The pace is relaxed, the volumes and textures mellow. Harmonic beatings (or maybe the illusion of them) frequently rise into hearing and, despite the relatively homogenous feel of the whole piece, reliably reveal otherwise imperceptible variations in the primary soundings through distinctive behaviors; their pulse, their volume, their various characters of purrs, flutterings, stutterings, rumblings, throbbings, or hymnic hummings. These sections last from about a minute to four, and the silences that separate them from about five seconds to twelve. Like Martin’s lines, the punctuations of total silence, flute silences within sections, and momentary silences during bowing returns form a complex musical lattice. I don’t see a pattern in the progression of silences and sound sections, except that both decrease in duration towards the end of the track to effectively blend together, creating a somewhat familiar, melancholy chamber music for the last few minutes. Or, sometimes it sounds as if each instrument could be one hand’s part for a funereal pipe organ piece.
Mike Majkowski - Fields (Audio. Visuals. Atmosphere., 2021)
The two dreamy soundscapes on Mike Majkowski’s Fields survey the interactions of sonic strata. Majkowski is well known as a contrabassist (catch the relatively straight-ahead Salz released last year, with trumpeter Liz Allbee, Ignaz Schick on alto saxophone, and percussionist Oliver Steidle), but Fields is closer to his ambient-leaning Days and Other Days and Swimming in Light projects. Mixtures of acoustic, electroacoustic, and electronic sounds. Though unrevealed here, the instrumentation is probably more than contrabass or bass guitar, and probably incorporates field recordings. But, whereas those projects feature a somewhat linear progression, the two sidelong tracks on Fields both present most of the musical material upfront and throughout, creating movement through small variations in a layer that can impact the entire formation.
“Oceans Of Fog” is a low-end rumble, electronic melodic line, and a faint whining bowing. It’s difficult to tell if things are looped, repeated in real time, or both. Majkowski provides a sense of movement for these relatively static textures with regular sonar pings, something like effects-laden piano notes that reverberate and dissipate to a purr, and electric coos. But also by slightly adjusting the volume of the layers in the mix. And by subtly varying the repetition in the layers, like the bowing sound sometimes squeaking, or the low end rumble occasionally clarified to a plucked bass note. “Walk Across The Sun” removes the discrete movement markers but has a greater number of continuous layers. The strategies of remixing and varying repetitions for movement continue, but shifts in pulse and their phasing with other pulses are more apparent. A slight shift in an electric throb changes rhythmic relationships not just with a bass pluck but also a buzzing thrum, like the shearing wind doesn’t just blow the grass but changes the soil too.
Damon Smith - Bass Duos 2000-2007 (Balance Point Acoustics, 2021)
Bass Duos 2000-2007 is a love letter to contrabass duos, to contrabass, to mentorship and friendship. It is a collection of three meetings between Damon Smith and Peter Kowald, Joëlle Léandre, and Bertram Turetzky. The duo with Kowald, recorded in 2000, was originally released as Mirrors Broken - But No Dust; the duo with Turetzky, recorded in 2007, was originally released as Thoughtbeetle. The duo with Léandre is new and, recorded shortly after Kowald’s death in 2002, is a dialogue not just with each other but the gift of Kowald’s friendship and mentorship to the performers. The collection’s presentation recalls Kowald’s own venerable bass duo trilogy with Barre Phillips, Maarten Altena, and Barry Guy. While not necessarily representative of Smith’s current, expanded vocabulary, as showcased on his debut solo Winter Solos for Robert Ryman (also recorded shortly after that formative figure’s death), the collection captures many moments where collaboration elevates individual contributions, even among these virtuosos. Here, I’ll focus on just the Léandre duo.
While plucking occasionally accompanies bowing, more often the color and texture of one bass is not too distant from that of the other, but Léandre and Smith maintain a mercurial momentum by weaving the dynamics and beat of their own action through that of the other. The brief lengths of the twelve tracks, totaling around 40 minutes, three of which are solos, all of which are physical, serve to keep the pacing fresh too. There are nuanced sounds, like the percussive bouncing creak of “Hive of Instants” or the trumpet-mimickry on “Lost & Lucid,” and glimpses of tuneful lyricism à la Richard Davis or Barre Phillips, but the kernel of this duo is the breadth and richness of its bowing. The dispersion of sonic material to a harmonic rainbow on “Listening to the Same Blood.” The earthchurning corporeality of “Unweaving the Threads’” growl. The funereal wail, sometimes trembling with vibrato, on “Ancestors & the Future.” The martial dance of “Building our Erosions.”
Marshall Trammell & William Fowler Collins - Untitleable (SIGE, 2020)
Percussionist Marshall Trammell is grievously under-recorded. Beyond the flowing, sometimes supersonic multidextrous polyrhythms, Trammell’s music is underlain by intentions for developing community, cultural change and exchange, and mutual aid. Perhaps most famous for his collaboration with guitarist and electronics musician Zachary James Watkins in Black Spirituals, Trammell documented two brief outings with two other electric guitarists in 2020. Both are presented by SIGE, a label ran by Faith Coloccia and her spouse Aaron Turner, the latter of which features on the other recording, Experimental Love I & II, and is best known for his work with metal bands Isis and SUMAC. Proceeds went to organizations benefiting Black Lives Matter, social equity, bail funds, and COVID-19 relief causes in summer and fall of 2020; they may continue to do so.
Collins’ guitar lays a textural substrate of distortion and delay from which slow psych riffs rise like heat from desert sands, recalling the slow spaced-out doom of Earth. It’s peppered with fluttering hits from every corner of the kit. Trammell is like quicksilver, always moving, and fast, with moments of brutal, rapid repetition zeroed in on one part of the kit. As Collins’ cosmic wanderings and soaring tremolos increase in volume and density, Trammell locks into a high-BPM, aggressive groove with shimmering cymbals like Sunny Murray and Beaver Harris-esque bass drum carpet bombings. A climax slowly crescendos towards the center of the track, breaks down, then builds again. Like the various Co)))ltrane mashups, it’s success seems to lie in the complimentary contrast of a virtuosic wall of discrete dynamic sounds embedded in long-duration, heavy, textural environments.
Michael Winter - single track (Another Timbre, 2021)
single track is a spellbinding process piece in the vein of composer Michael Winter’s mathematical-musical approach, performed by the ensemble Liminar. The specific compositional goals, constraints, and problems are over my head, but the solution to them comes from the computational method figured on the cover. The title comes from the equivalent mathematical term of a musical canon, rather than what is indeed a single 46-minute track. And that solution requires that each existing voice slow down as a new voice enters. What results is a delightfully dense polyrhythm with awe-inspiring dynamism even beyond more familiar, phasing canon pieces.
It begins with a spirited string bowing, already with subtly-shifting components and a frontier, locomotive feel. Most of the voices are strings, but I’m hesitant to say all because I might hear flute; instrumental identities aren’t willfully obscured, but the movement so dense and sometimes so slowed and stretched that the ear might mistake strings for electronics or harmonium. Every two minutes and some change, a new voice enters and by ten minutes the polyrhythm is positively bustling, though at least one voice is already entering droning tempos. Peak density occurs a little before the center of the piece, and towards the end it is transformed to a zen, longform pulse before closing with one string again. Rather than the circular movement of some canon pieces, the tempo adjustments create an expanding spiral curve or a thread boring into increasingly hard material. Cognitively exhilarating. It will take my ear a long time to acclimate to its intricacies, and it’s an addictive listen for that.