Structured Improvisation

Friday November 21st  2008
Gust Burns, LARGE ensemble
Good Shepherd Center, Seattle WA

A week or two back I made it to the Chapel performance space on a blustery Friday evening to catch what was advertised as a fifteen person ensemble playing a piece by Gust Burns.  They did three iterations of the piece in three different formations of the ensemble. The first featured two bass players, a violist, Gust playing inside the Chapels piano and three violins.  The second take was two violins, the viola, one bass player and soprano saxophone without Gust. There was a set break at this point and then a final performance with the entire ensemble, which was all of those named above plus clarinet, tenor sax and Gust on his box of piano guts whilst another player took over the Chapels baby grand. That does only add up to eleven or twelve players (I might have skipped a violin player), so either I’m forgetting some or there wasn’t quite the fifteen anticipated (or both I suppose). How ever many it was, it was a quite large group.

The piece they performed, duration, disjunction, relation was composed by Gust and he’s been working on it and performing various iterations of it for the last couple of years.  I’ve seen this piece performed a couple of times before (as a quartet just a couple of weeks prior) this being the largest group performance to date. The piece pretty much sounds similar to how I’ve described it before: longish discrete events, well spaced out, usually of a very consistent dynamic (soft to medium with some slips here and there), affectless performances, mostly dry sounds and with what seemed like highly deliberate silences. There clearly are several mechanisms involving interaction with other players, as one player would often start on their own to then have others join in. Other times overlapping sounds seemed much more indeterminate, though, as I had noticed with the quartet, the players often seemed to cut off sounds quicker then normal in order to join in a silence.  Otherwise the sounds seemed to go for a longish, though natural, duration – breath length, a few bow strokes etc.

Taking into consideration the title of the piece (which I had been unaware of ’til this show), this all pretty much makes sense: duration – probably relating to the length of the sounds, but also possibly to the fact that the piece seems to end when the players agree to it, disjunction – the players seem to be able to make sounds at will, perhaps even having a certain amount they are required to play and relation – the clear interactions I’d seen between players.  Perhaps there were players that you were assigned to, or could choose, that when they played you’d respond. Perhaps it was gesture or sound based. All speculation on my part but that was how it seemed to me as an observer.  This simple rule set, plus a few that must exist regarding tone, dynamics, and something for those forced silences, would pretty much create a structured improvisation system that would generate the performances I witnessed.  Personally this is the kind of systems and performances that I find particularly fascinating; the use of a small set of rules to structure a performance into a consistent yet endlessly varied realm. I have in fact of late been dabbling with what I refer to as Internal Scores, which are just that, systems that you internalize that guide performance.  They could be pretty specific if one wanted, but to be memorized and yet still able to generate wide diversity they tend toward being general guidelines and rules  My interest in this sort of thing could of course have prejudiced how I analyzed this piece.

Anyway what was interesting to me in this performance and what dragged me out to see it at a time I wasn’t particularly motivated to attend live music was the large group aspect.  I’d quite enjoyed the quartet version of the piece and was curious as to how that’d translate to a larger context.  There is always the tendency for large groups to fall into displays of excess, losing all subtlety and becoming an undifferentiated mass of sound.  In fact if all fifteen (or whatever) had played at the same density of the quartet this would have been the case.  While the quartet was definitely far sparser, they did play more in general then most members of the large group. So fifteen people playing at that rate wouldn’t have had the same feel at all, though with the controlled dynamics it would not have been aggressive or any such thing.  The two subsets of the group that played were in the range of the quartet, being only a bit larger especially the second group which was only a quintet. The full group also was in the same range, though there was a dramatic increase in the overlapping sounds which led to a greater density. 

In general it was all very sedate, spacious with a nice timeless quality.  However there was a couple of what I would call bad actors in the ensemble.  These bad actors were defined by imposing too much ego into the proceedings.  With everyone playing at a similar dynamic, all one has to do is play a bit louder and it becomes closer to a solo.  Additionally there was overtly gestural playing using overly dramatic vibrato and other such techniques that in this context was overly showy.  Nothing was to the level of ruining the performances but these bad actors definitely brought things down as opposed to transcending.  In this kind of music ego always ends up as a reductive force leading toward things being less then the sum of their parts.

Anyway this was an interesting and quite enjoyable evening with just a few minor quibbles as noted above. I’ve enjoyed seeing this pieces development and I really have been pleased to see this type of composition performed here.

November 8th
Chaostic Magic / Gust Burns Quartet
Gallery1412, Seattle WA

Chaostic Magic is Corey Brewer on guitar and Eric Ostrowski on amplified violin.  They each had a little amp and shared a big PA horn that was placed behind a small screen upon which a set of slides were played. The slides were fairly abstract material usually looking like two images from ancient books somewhat overlaid. The music was very loud, aggressive, feedback drenched noise.  I wasn’t so into it but there were a couple of nice moments. You can make serious noise with an amplified violin, but it isn’t really so different from what you’d get from a guitar if you bowed it. It didn’t go on too long maybe 15-20 minutes. The slideshow ended and so did the show.

I’d come to see the Gust Burns Quartet who have played a couple of gigs recently. I was familiar with all of the musicians and have seen them with Gust in a larger ensemble a couple of months back.  The quartet is Gust Burns working his dowels inside a baby grand piano, Mara Sedlins working with extended techniques on the viola, Mark Collins wringing fairly uncharacteristic sounds out of the double bass and Wilson Shook sounding more like circuit bent electronics then the alto saxophone he utilized.  The sounds were all very discrete with usually only a subset of the quartet playing at any given moment.  The string players mainly worked with dry scrapes though Mark would use other tools on his bass to eke out some more varied sounds.  Length of tones usually tended toward a couple of bow strokes in duration.  Wilson worked with crackles and pops which coming from his sax with various preparations was really great.  There were a number of gaps in the performance sometimes arising naturally but other times feeling a bit forced.  In general it was a slow, meditative deliberate performance that I quite enjoyed.

It was particularly interesting to me that this all acoustic quartet was working in eai territory. There is a trend among some of the musicians in the Seattle area to do this, eliminating electronics but working with those textures. At times it sounded like say Lachenmann scoring for a chamber group in the style of TV Pow.  As I mentioned above they did use silence but I usually got a feeling that this was because it was a goal. As if they were directed to do so now and again.  For instance everyone would drop out and one person would be playing and it’d seem like that player would rush to stop in order to have a silence they “should” have.  Obviously speculation but that was how it felt to me.  The other criticism I would add is that with the dowels and two string players there was a lot of overlap of sound, especially considering the techniques used.  A bit more varied palette would I think be really rewarding, something like a percussionist would fit in really well. Even better in my mind would be a very tasteful electronicist, though that could go against this trend that I’m sensing.

Anyway caveats aside I really enjoyed this performance and like seeing more and more of this kind of stuff in Seattle.

The Book of Musical Patterns
a book of symbolic scores by Robert j Kirkpatrick

No 36 Hollow Earth Recordings presents:

The Book of Musical Patterns a collection of 50 musical patterns along with 10 mutators that can turn any of the patterns into a new score.  A musical pattern is the bare essence of a composition, the structure as it were. Sounds are represented by symbols leaving all aspects of their generation up to the performer.  There is a set of simple rules on to guide the performer in wringing music out of these miniatures. They exist in many ways as a challenge to the musician – how to take so little information and restrictions and turn this into compelling music. If this sounds interesting then there is a lot here to inspire you. The patterns are divided into seven diverse styles that rate from algorithmic to pictorial.   Additionally the book includes a set of templates that can cut out and placed over the scores to create a new set of scores. For more information on how the scores came about and what they are trying to achieve see the information page.

Additionally there are two CDs of recordings of a small subset of the scores. While not meant in any way to define how these scores sound, they simply provide an example of how they can be interpreted.

Andrew Woods, Eric A. Peacock, Robert j Kirkpatrick
The Seattle Improv Meeting plays from the Book of Musical Patterns (HER008)
Trio versions of six of the scores demonstrates an aspect of group performance of these scores. A wide diversity of sounds and techniques highlights the diversity that one can apply to these scores. This CD is included with the book of scores or can be downloaded or acquired separate.

Robert j Kirkpatrick
Selections from the Book of Musical Patterns
( HER009)
Contains five of the scores as interpreted by the composer.  Stark, spare and uncompromising these interpretations showcase one particular approach towards these scores.

No 16
No 16 from the Book of Musical Patterns

As is always the case from Hollow Earth Recordings these are all available in virtual and physical media. The Book of Musical Patterns is available in PDF format as either one file, or as each individual score.  They are meant to be printed at 11×17 if you take this route. Additionally books will be printed on demand for those who want a physical copy. See this page for details on acquiring a physical copy.

The CDs again can be downloaded in both lossless and compressed formats with pdfs of the covers. The Seattle Improv Meeting plays from the Book of Musical Patterns comes with the The Book of Musical Patterns but can be downloaded or acquired separately. For information on attaining a physical copy, see this page.