Seattle Improvised Music Festival day 4

February 20th
Chapel Performance Space, Seattle WA USA

  1. International Nothing (Kai Fagaschinski & Michael Thieke) duo
  2. Rachel Thompson / Jonathan Zorn duo
  3. Lê Quan Ninh & Michel Doneda duo
The International Nothing

The International Nothing

Returning to the Chapel for the first night of the second half of this years SIMF, brought new visiting musicians and a new format. The first night would be three established duos from the visiting musicians. The first of these was The International Nothing, who in lieu of an official introduction explained to us that this project was for composed music and that they’d be playing six compositions tonight. Kai expressed some amusement in playing composed music at an Improvised Music festival.  Kai also explained that part of the theory behind the group was to work out pieces in such a way that it the sounds would work together as a whole. The six pieces spanned the entire history of the group, with the first being (I’m fairly certain) the opening track on their album Mainstream. The pieces are usually long held tones that weave in and out from the two clarinets and do create this effect of a single instrument, like a pump organ say, with a key held and then another pressed, then the first released and so on. Really hypnotic and fascinating, though my experience with the album was that the tunes in this vein felt a lot alike.  In this set though only the two oldest tunes had exactly this structure the other four, two of which were quite new and untitled varied in ways from this formula to provide a lot of interest. The second piece worked in a lot of natural gaps, nice incorporating the sounds from in and outside the chapel. A later piece featured “lyrics” in Morse Code, that one of them would create with small short (and long!) events over the sustained tones of the other. Another piece was only a couple of minutes long and was made up of short alternating melodic fragments. The final piece, titled Sleep, was long overlapping stretched out melodic elements that really evoked its name, though it’d be an uneasy sleep. I really enjoyed this set and it was one that I was initially uncertain about as I’d found their album a bit mixed.

Rachel Thompson / Jonathan Zorn duo

Rachel Thompson / Jonathan Zorn duo

The next set was Rachel Thompson and Jonathan Zorn from New York City, whom I’d only heard to date on a couple of CDs.  One of these recordings, ALBERTJZ, features five concerts on an audio DVD, two of which I found quite amazing. I’m probably the most interested in this wave of improvisers right now as the music seems a lot more risky. It doesn’t work possibly most of the time but there is an energy and excitement that I don’t really find as much in the preceding generation. As an aside this evening features the last three waves of improvisers and while I think that the middle wave (Fagaschinski and Thieke) was the most successful it pretty much broke down as I expected. Fagaschinski and Thieke were able to seemingly effortlessly create interesting if rather familiar music, Doneda and Ninh followed predictable patterns that have become rigid and rarely interesting and Thompson and Zorn were unpredictable, energetic and usually unsuccessful. The duo is made up of Thompson on viola with various preparations that she plays in an inherently aleatoric manner.  She seems to utilize purposeful lack of control, or perhaps intentionality as if the sounds that arise are almost incidental to the gestures that she makes. Reminds me a bit of Annette Krebs, especially her older stuff where she seemed as surprised by what her guitar would do as the audience.  Zorn was engaged both in live processing Thompsons sounds as well as generating some of his own.  This was generally the unsuccessful part for me, his overuse of echo effects, stereo panning and the like was frankly cheesy. His own sounds tended toward low rumbles and basic synth sounds, which sometimes work and sometimes seemed a bit hackneyed.  There were a few fantastic moments, one that especially gripped me was when Thompson was bowing a thin piece of sheet metal that she had placed under her strings as Zorn gently transformed it into this alien sound as of metal shearing away from some inexplicable stress. When he kept his processing on her sounds subtle it work this best, but alas that was too infrequent an occurrence. The conclusion of their set was unsure, with them stopping and then Zorn coming back in for a couple of minutes of more minimal synth work.  Ineffective but on the other hand I’ve found the way that most sets in improvised music music rather stereotyped at this point, so definitely some points for not just slowly stopping and looking sidewise at everyone ’til they are sure they are done.

Lê Quan Ninh & Michel Doneda duo

Lê Quan Ninh & Michel Doneda duo

The final duo was percussionist Lê Quan Ninh and soprano saxophonist Michel Doneda from France.  I had seen Ninh solo at the 2005 SIMF and it was an impressive and high enjoyable set.  Doneda I am only familiar with from a couple of recordings, I am far from familiar with his discography.  This is primarily because I was never that into to what I had heard, which was always a bit too predictably structured for my taste.  I was quite curious to see how Ninh worked in collaboration as his solo was so complete, with no wasted movements as he produced a continuous, though varied, set of sounds.  Well it turns out that he plays well with others but in a wholly deferential way. When it’s quiet he is quiet, when its more active he ramps it up, if there is a silence he joins it.  His sounds always fit in perfectly and complimented his compatriots but it rarely drove things forward, created tension or that delicious frisson of uncomplimentary sounds.  Doneda tonight followed a structure that he would use in all of the sets that I was to see him play. He’d began with very quiet delicate sounds, hisses on this occasion, he would slowly morph that into increasingly tonal elements and eventually be up to full on blasts of sound.  The beginning part of this tonight was fantastic with Ninh first playing two stones against each other and then on the drum which worked right in with Doneda’s hisses and breathy tones.  But as things built up more and more the restraint seemed to fall away.  The piece followed a wave format, starting quiet and building up then falling to silence and repeating. Doneda switched to a sopranino sax for one of this and mostly just quietly blew spittle through it as Ninh scrapped pine cones across the floor. Again this was quite engaging but again it just built up in a (now) predictable fashion, with Doneda quickly swapping out the sopranino so he could get some real blasts of volume in.  So while this had some nice moments, its structure was hackneyed and the bulk of the sounds tired and of little interest to me. I’d say if this was the only set that Doneda was playing it would have been different – a varied mix of sounds in a rather tired structure. However the three other sets Doneda played colored this one along with them.

See all of my pictures from this night and the rest of the festival in my SIMF 09 Flickr set.