Last night was the final night of the 29th edition of the Seattle Improvised Music Festival at the Chapel Performance Space in the Wallingford neighborhood of Seattle WA. I headed to Wallingford earlier than I did yesterday as recent Vancouver transplant Joda Clémant had come down to see the Bonnie Jones/Andrea Neumann duo again (and planned to followed them Dead-Head style to Portland). Snow had been threatening all day and it was a cold, bleak trip featuring missed busses and other low comedy. I met up with Joda at the Chapel and as we walked the couple of blocks to 45th where the restaurants and such are a very light snow began to fall. After vegetarian Thai and beers in Wallingford we returned to the venue and it had clearly snowed throughout dinner and we were trudging through a half inch or so with no sign of the snow ceasing. We made it to seats at the front left about two minutes before the first set.
The duo of Bonnie Jones and Andrea Neumann was what I (and Joda for that matter) were there to see. Happily they’d placed them in the lead off position which means they would a) have an actual soundcheck and b) I’d be able to take off at any point afterwards as I knew the snow was going to mess things up. As I noted yesterday I’ve seen Andrea and Bonnie in various combinations but had only heard their duo from their CD green just as I could see on Erstwhile Records. They were setup on a single table Bonnie with her collection of electronics and various objects at the end of the table stage left. Behind the table on the stage right end Andrea was setup with her autoharp, mixer, preparations and other electronics and objects. There was short introductions and then they came out to play.
Andrea Neumann & Bonnie Jones
The set began with Bonnie picking up pedals and connecting them together while Andrea sorted through her preparations and began to work the autoharp. What followed was a engaging approximately thirty minute continuous improvisation. It was quite a diverse set that flowed though a variety of techniques and approaches to the duo’s instruments revealing a wide array of interpenetrating sounds. Andrea early on used eBow on the strings of the zither creating a very pure tone, agited the strings with little metal mallets creating a wash of sounds which she then muted with a rubber object (looked like a sandpaper holder but could be ink printing related), brought out a fan which she hovered over the strings exciting the pickups, a return to the eBow toward the end and even some plucked out notes. Bonnie as noted began with putting her kit together in a deliberate, sound generating fashion eventually moving on to manipulating her open circuits. In front of their table was red plastic keg cup which turned out to have a speaker in it, which Bonnie picked up and manipulated during the set. At one point she picked up her little singing bowls and bells and dropped them on the floor, picking them up and dropping them again. She also did further percussive work with the cable ends that she uses on the exposed circuits of her pedals. Later in the set she moved the cup out into the audience and returned to more aggressive static outbursts from the pedals now emerging from the speakers behind the duo and the cup out among the seats. Two times during the set she played vocal samples, the first of what sounded like a teenage girl recounting something like a dream or from a diary or perhaps a report to an authority figure; flat, unaffected and tense. The second was much more heavily processed and it was a choir, or chanting but with enough reverb and echo and maybe multracked that it was more of a wash. This more solemn sample was playing at the end which was a sort of deconstruction with Bonnie vigorously moving things about and Andrea creating a more wall of sound with feedback and such. A strong ending with the contrast between this seemingly less focused playing and this created sound with it’s pointing toward the profound.
A really excellent set all around and I’m really glad I braved the weather to see it. In many ways these two work with sounds that have become quite standard material in this particular tiny corner of the improv world. Many of the techniques and processes used could be heavily associated with various musicians and isolated moments would be difficult to ascribe to a particular individual. But it just goes to show that what this music is about is not actually the material, it is the intentionality behind these sounds, the choices that are made, both beforehand and in the moment. There is an understanding of structure, that even if little of that is worked out beforehand, but that intuitively knows that you can move between events in a certain way, relaying upon a compatible partner to do the same and that it is the interpenetration of this disparate events, that are assembled in the heads of the audience that really creates the music.
Gust Burns, Jacob Zimmerman and Joe Morris
Joe Morris/Jacob Zimmerman/Gust Burns It had continued to snow and I’d planned to just head out after the duo but based on the previous night I knew there would be another set without much of a break and then a short intermission before the third. So I figured I’d just check out the second group and head out at the break. Less disruptive and I could make farewells on my way out. So this set was guitar/alto sax/piano (respectively) and was much more free improv of the the older school. Based on Joe’s performance the day before this wasn’t a surprise and while Gust often works in more experimental areas I’ve seen him several times in these more traditional free improv type ensembles. Jacob Zimmerman was new to me but apparently he is a local boy having come from Seattle Garfield High which is famous for it’s jazz programs. I really don’t have the vocabulary to talk about this kind of music – it really has never been my thing and while I’ve seen a number of examples I don’t really have much to say about it. It went on way to long – five individual pieces adding up to nearly an hour of performance. Which is quite unheard of at these shows – last night for instance all three sets was about an hour and half. The most interesting playing was from Gust I thought who generally does a kind Cecil Taylor-ish type playing in these settings. But quite often tonight he would play super quietly which at least the first time he did it brought the playing of his compatriots way down, becoming much softer and less aggressive. But overall with the length and such I found this set tiring and so headed home afterwards missing the third set of Matt Ingalls, Greg Campbell and Paul Kikuchi.
There was a pretty good spread of snow out there now, perhaps as much as two inches. I talked a bit with Joda at the entrance to the Chapel and it turned out that the venue that Bonnie and Andrea were going to play in Portland had suffered from burst pipes and the show was canceled. They were looking to line up a house show or something, but from what I’ve seen PDX seems pretty shutdown. Eventually I made my farewells and walked to the bus. The bus kept being delayed (I could see this on the fantastic One Bus Away app) so I kept walking between stops. Eventually I was at a stop in the U-District where I had a couple of options to catch busses up Capitol Hill and I just waited it out. Eventually got on one that made it about 2/3rds of the way up the hill and then encountered a virtual bus graveyard – a steep section that had buses parked all along it and toward the top a jackknifed bus completely blocking the road. Ended up walking home from there on the icy roads. Lot’s of walking in the cold and snow but I think it was all worth it.
Last weekend was the 29th edition of the Seattle Improvised Music Festival held as it has been for years now at the Chapel Performance Space in the Wallingford Neighborhood of Seattle WA. This year among others they invited Bonnie Jones and Andrea Neumann whose work I’ve enjoyed for quite some time. Bonnie of course plays in the excellent duo English with Joe Foster and Andrea has been a stalwart of the Berlin scene performing on numerous great albums. They’ve been playing as this duo for some time now and of course put out the excellent green just as I could see on Erstwhile Records. So even though it’s been so cold and it constantly threatens to snow I made out Wallingford to see them perform. They played days two and three of the festival, their duo on the third day and in combinations with Seattle based improvisors on the second.
Joe was playing a hollow body electric guitar run through a simple amp with minimal (or no) effects. He played three short improvisations, generally favoring a pretty continuous stream of sound with a mix of melodic and more abstract elements. The first was sort of harmonic Fahey-ish bits interspersed with Bailey-esque angular bits. The second piece, which I found the most interesting, was based around continuously strumming a few strings which generated a really un-guitar-like metallic high pitched effect. This he moderated by chording high on the neck and the interactions of this created some odd tones and lingering overtones. The last piece seemed to be the longest and it again explored more melodic territory. It seemed pretty wandering and not much of it really stuck in my mind except the ending which was with a harmonic that seemed to surprise Joe a bit and which he immediately recognized as a sign to end. A nice ending to a set that was very well done for what it was, though what it was isn’t necessarily my thing.
Andrea on autoharp, electronics, Gust on seemingly on turntable. I have to admit I was expecting a duo of Gust on piano and Andrea on her custom piano guts. But perhaps that would have been to obvious? This turned out to be pretty interesting and riskier I think. The sounds were rather cut up with piano samples from Gust (perhaps a record of himself?), a chopped up and frequently cut-off speaker, perhaps a recorded lecture, (couldn’t tell if who was doing this, Gust I suspect) with Andrea initially tapping on the heavily amplified strings which generated a compellingly rich ponging sound. She later worked feedback in various forms, plucked out a little melody on the strings toward the end placed a contact mic on her throat and mixed in some sub-voclizations. At various times throughout the piece there were silences but I have to say these came across as rather forced. The noise floor from Andrea’s setup is pretty high and when you go from that to silence you either let that hum play out or fade it down. She did the later and that I think is what came across as pushing the sounds around. I tend to think it’s best to let it ride but I know there are those who feel that gives a floor upon which the improvisor can rest. Always choices.
Bonnie Jones/Jonathan Way/Naomi Siegel
This trio featured Bonnie Jones playing her usual open circuits but she also has added a small laptop, contact mic’s and percussion elements to her setup. Jonathan Way, of Seattle Phonographers Union fame (and whom I played with in EyeMusic) seemed to be processing field recordings. He stuff was soft and subtle, often sounding as washes or wind and faint environments. Naomi Siegel, whom I don’t recall having seen before, played trombone with and without mutes and recordings via her smart phone. The ensemble did two fairly short pieces. The first featured Bonnie on open circuits most of the time, though she also did some contact mic work. There was this rather tribal-ish percussive bit at one point that could have been Bonnie playing from her laptop though it certainly could have been a field recording from Jonathan. Jonathan primarily seemed to work with processed field recordings, winds and washes and pretty subtle ambient stuff. There was some overlap between his and Bonnies’s sounds at times which nicely layered and merged together and I didn’t expend much energy separating them. Naomi primarily worked with extended techniques on her trombone mostly in the static-y, sputtery realm but she also would drop in these melodic phrases almost like a jazz quotation. At least once she held her smart phone up to her mic and played some recorded sounds of what sounded like crowds, or conversation of some sort. In the main I found she didn’t quite fit with the electronic duo, though sometimes the more abstract and subtle trombone bits mixed in nicely.
Their second piece began with Bonnie playing percussive stuff with two cable ends, banging on the frame of her chair and the table and eventually hitting little bells and metal bowls on her table. Jonathan layered in some wind sounding washes and via her smartphone Naomi dropped in distant vocal samples. This piece was more episodic with silences and near silences between it’s several “movements”. After the initial percussive intro, Bonnie moved open circuits and Naomi returned to the trombone. Later she did more percussive work, tapping around the body of the ‘bone. The piece concluded with a wash of sound that gradually increased in volume and intensity with radio from Bonnie and sputtery trombone from Naomi. Jonathan increased the volume of his wash of sound until they all dropped out and he quickly faded his sound out a moment later. This piece varied a bit in structure and elements from the first, which did have a bit of testing each out to it. While still a bit mixed I definitely enjoyed this one and it was a good ending to this night.
(edit: 05.03.10: replaced the album cover art with better images that Michael sent me: thanks Michael!)
This year I only went to two days of the 2010 Seattle Improvised Music Festival, but one of those days was completely revelatory. The night featured Michael Johnsen from Pennsylvania, whom was described only as playing “electronic devices of his construction”. In my musical exploration subverted, invented, re-purposed, etc electronics has been of high interest to me and considering that there seems to be a certain reticence toward electronics from the SIMF programmers this piqued my interest. Web searching didn’t reveal much: an album of duo material (2) where he seemed to not play much of these self-made electronics and this intriguing blurb from John Berndt’s Odd Instruments page:
Michael Johnsen lives in Pittsburgh and thinks near or beyond the edge of the routine organization of cognition – a true outsider. His work with original electronics, acoustic instruments, unusual film methods, language, and other media, reveals a brilliant mind that confronts phenomena with relatively little of the inherited worldview but with a tremendous amount of poetry. The entrance to Michael’s work is a withdrawal from “meaning” and a focus on aspects of perception and communication that are usually excluded – the rich universe of thoughts we habitually ignore but which are ultimately as palpable as anything else.
But it was this blurb from the label of his aforementioned duo album that made me sit up and take notice:
The first CD by one of the great minds of North American Experimental music, recorded live at High Zero 2003. Michael Johnson is both heir to the crown of David Tudor (for his incredible investigagtions into live performance of non-linear analog brains of his own creation) and also one of the most distinctive and brilliant improvisors on saw, reed, and other varied gambits.
Name checking Tudor will always garner my interest, though rarely is it justified. But a couple of YouTube Videos showcasing his solo electronics proved the comparisons were not without merit.
Watch this short clip of Johnsen performing at Chicago’s Lampo to see what I mean:
Fully intrigued now I made my way to Seattle’s Chapel Performance space on Februrary 19th 2010. When I walked into the hall, Johnsen was still on stage tweaking and adjusting his epic collection of homemade boxes and their corresponding rats nest of connections. He was running a radio broadcast through the setup and it was being heavily gated, creating this chopped up effect, turning the staid broadcast into a completely captivating bit of experimentation. The show had four sets, three with Johnsen, the first of which he performed with local improvisers on the musical saw. While a quite interesting saw performance (it featured little of the beautiful long wavering tones usually associated with the saw) I was dying to see his collection of bespoke electronics in action. I shortly got my chance as the second set was a solo electronics performance.
This sort of abstract electronics performance is hard to describe and especially if one wants to avoid merely creating a catalog of sounds and events. Suffice it to say this performance, which was about twenty-five minutes in length, was very much in the vein of Tudor’s solo electronics work such as Toneburst, Phonemes, Untitled. In fact I’d say that Johnsen’s language wasn’t too much evolved from in Tudors but the performance was all his. To me this has been a missing piece in Tudor’s legacy: if he was creating new instruments, new performance practices and a new form of composition then there has to be others utilizing these tools and practices. There has of course been the Composers Inside Electronics and a few others like Matt Rogalsky who I’d put in this vein but Johnsen is the first I’ve seen who really seemed to try to pick up where Tudor left off. Making his own instruments is certainly a vital aspect; I think a lot of Live Electronics types have tended toward exploring other aspects and not explored this area (as an aside this I think is becoming an increasing vital area as there are a lot more handmade, boutique and original electronics being made and used at this point). Anyway this performance was fantastic: chaotic, disruptive, highly varied, loud at times, spacious at others, it was incredible music and probably the most amazing thing I’ve seen as part of SIMF.
The final set of the night Johnsen played with a couple more local improvisers of which he played the first half on electronics and the second half on saw. This was interesting to see how he’d use his wild and unpredictable setup with other musicians and in fact it worked quite well. He clearly highly restricted what it was doing, in effect utilizing a subset of the whole. He focused on working with radios letting the devices process the thin sounds of static. Every so often he’d let much louder disruptions through, which I thought was great as it kept things varied and broke through what could have been a rather staid performance. When he switched to saw, it was interesting as before, but a lot of energy was lost and I felt a bit superfluous after the first half. Still nice to see the electronics in collaboration.
Afterwards I got a chance to talk to Michael a bit and this was also quite interesting. We mostly talked about Tudor and his legacy and at one point I commentated that it seems like there has been somewhat of an increase in interest in Tudor and exploring some of his ideas and techniques of late. To this he replied (and I’m paraphrasing here) that while Tudor was alive there really wasn’t a lot of space for others to explore this territory and his passing has in effect open this up. This I think makes sense, but also I think the aforementioned interest in diy, hand made, boutique, original electronics had led people back to the source. He was selling three 3″ cd-rs of his solo material, the only source for his solo work as far as I know. I of course picked up all three of these. Each of these 3″ documented a live performance, two from 2009 and one from 2009. They each had a handmade cover, simply two pieces of very fragile paper with a an image on one and text on the other. All three of these utilize a similar suite of sounds and thus have the character of their creator, but as each setup is unique each performance has its own character and sound.
The earliest release from July 27th 2007 was an excerpt from a 45 minute recording and is titled: Live electronic sound made by the tuning & spatial manipulation of two closely spaced portable AM radios having loopstick antennae, the resulting signal undergoing mild output processing, primarily filtering & gating. This piece, whose title describes the process so exacting, seems like it was close to that performance I describe above where he played with the other improvisers. Using two radios, held close together to cause interference, he could adjust the waves of static by moving them and minutely adjusting their tuning. His collection of devices would be left to run on their own, patched in this case to gate and filter the sounds. Sort of like what I saw when I walked in during soundcheck, with the heavily chopped up radio, but in this case without any recognizable speech. It begins with these popping in squeaks, bursts of static, that odd sound made by tuning off a channel, and the occasional almost recognizable bit of radio. Of course readers of this blog will think of Keith Rowe and his brilliant use of the radio but let me tell you this is a completely unique approach to this device. I love Keith’s radio work and its hard to find others using it in a way that distinguishes itself from his technique and Johnsen’s use is definitely one of them. Even the occasional bits that would qualify as “grabs” feel so different, so random that it only reminds you how different and wonderful this is.
The second release, Live Electronic sound recorded 19 Sep 2007 is more typical to the performance I saw, with a stream of little sounds, analog squeaks and bleats, but also lots of space in this one. The beginning of the piece is a cornucopia, of little sounds given plenty of room to breathe, many of them very quiet. The dynamic range of his electronics is impressive as it goes from this barely audible bubbling sounds to ear splitting blasts of over driven electronics. I love the use of space in this piece and the variety, to me this shows an individual response to Tudor’s performance practice as the pacing is clearly all Johnsen’s own. This piece has a real deliberate, exploratory, introverted nature to it as he works these mostly soft textures, manipulating them into different aspects of themselves.
The most recent disc was recorded a year (to the day!) of the show I saw, Live Electronic sound recorded 19 Feb 2009. It begins with a percussive sound, still electronics but sounding like the manipulation of heavy object capture by contact mics. Along with this is this occasional squawk and fizz of electronics, reminding you that this is live electronics. One bit of this recording is super sparse, with sounds almost like those generated by rubbing balloons. Something amongst these soft squeaks and groans was pretty amusing, generating some soft but audible chuckles from the audience. Reminding us again of the limitations of recordings of live music. This recording felt the most like the solo set I saw on this night: a wilder, with incredible dynamic range featuring extreme loud bits and barely audible sections, but also a bit more tentative, more exploratory. There is a lot of space in this music, a feature that I like a lot, letting the sounds be themselves, fully recognized and allowed to stand on their own, but with plenty of variety and texture that can be missed if it is all space. This one probably had my favorite collection of sounds, often fizzing away, chopped up, and incredibly well paced and structured.
One theme that runs through much of our conversation is the idea of pure investigation, a strong curiosity for sounds and events. The appreciation of art does not need to be regulated to gallery walls, but could occur at any point, in any situation. This is an apt description of the sounds emitting from Michael’s large stash of homemade/handmade electronic boxes, filters, etc. Each set is unique. Each venue provides a different set of acoustics to play off, a different number of bodies for the sound to travel through, a number of street sounds ready for response. For those of you who have seen Michael perform, there surely exists a quest for something unheard, a quest that is not without humor, but is surely without pretension.(4)
Upon acquiring these discs I did some more googling around and found this semi-review of the first two discs here as well as information on acquiring them directly from Johnsen. It seems that Metamkine stocks them (though probably more of a sure bet to contact Johnsen directly) and Vital Weekly did a so called “review” of these (though it hardly sounds like they were listened to much, but I suppose thats par for the course for that product). Needless to say I think these are well worth tracking down and anyone who reads this blog will certainly want to hear them. Michael’s email address can be found at that aforementioned review or contact me and I’ll hook you up with it as I’m not comfortable posting it. In closing let me just extend a hearty thanks to the SIMF for bring Michael to Seattle and introducing me to a new, vital voice working right in the area I’m most interested in these days.
This video reminds me the most of his Seattle show, with a bit more chaos and noise:
12pm: Gallery 1412: Panel Discussion with festival Improvisers
While last week I was the only attendee to the round table, I enjoyed it quite a bit so I decided (fairly late actually – I was pretty burnt out by this point) to o again. Once again attendance was pretty sparse though all of the visiting musicians except for Zorn and Thompson were there. We were sitting in a rough circle enjoying fruit and pastries when this older gentleman showed up asking if this was open to the public. It was we assured him and he came in and joined the group. Not too long after this he launched into this epic spiel about his life history, his current interest in music theory and eventually into a “question” about how the musicians deal with the issue of “tritones” in their improvising. While I can’t really explain what he was really getting at the gist of it was that if multiple musicians are improvising on a particular scale and then one of them modulates to another scale, how do you deal with “inevitable” tritones. Now tritones are intervals that span three whole tones (to paraphrase the Wikipedia article, to which I submit you read if interested) and are dissonant. However they are a dissonance that has been address from at least Scheonberg on and I asked the fellow if his music theory study had gotten that far. He said that he hadn’t really gotten to 20th Century Music Theory yet. It was also asked of him if he’d attended any of the festival and how he thought the music performed herein related to the music theory he was studying. He had attended and well he didn’t really answer this, which of course was impossible as none of the music performed was deal with traditional scales. Kai and Michael tried to explain that while they’d start with notated tones they were usually exploring micro-tonalities and were just moving up and down scales.
This led to some other discussion and then after a bit the gentleman again interrupted asking about Woody Guthrie and effectively if we could talk about these concepts of modern composition and also a folkie like Woody Guthrie, that interest in these two disparate (in his mind) poles was possible. It was then asserted that modern music listeners don’t hold much truck with notions of “high” and “low” art and that it wasn’t incompatible at all to be a fan of abstract music, Woody Guthrie and (say) Luigi Nono. He then shifted gears pointing out that (in his mind) merely raising this question had “thrown a tritone” into our conversation. This went on for a bit until Gust basically called the session done and the old fellow headed out to the Y. We then ended up chatting a bit more on such topics as “what the hell was that” and later on creating recordings, ad hoc collaborations and the musical interests of the various participants. All and all a highly entertaining and interesting discussion.
The Japanese Garden in Seattle's Arboretum
After the panel I went to the Essential Bakery and got a sandwich and green tea to go. I went to the Arboretum and had a picnic lunch followed by spending some time in the Japanese Garden there. The Japanese Garden is a lovely little pocket carved out of the Arboretum that, having been to a number of gardens in Japan, does capture a lot of the feeling those gardens are going for. In winter everything was still and it was mostly empty though it was a fairly nice. There were faint signs of spring, with cherry trees beginning to bud and a few early plants with hints of green and even some little flowers. The main entrance of the Garden was being reconstructed in a fashion of little Japanese style houses and shops (similar in matter of fact to those you’d often see at the exit (usually) of many of the temples I visited in Kyoto), which was looking to be a nice addition. It rained while I was there, but in a very spring shower sort of way that I was able to mostly wait out under a wooden shelter. This was a nice relaxing counterpoint to all of the sound and activity of the weekend.
Michael Thieke / Jonathan Zorn duo
Michael Thieke / Jonathan Zorn / Wilson Shook / Tyler Wilcox quartet
Kai Fagaschinski / Rachel Thompson duo
Kai Fagaschinski / Rachel Thompson / Gust Burns / Mara Sedlins quartet;
Jonathan Zorn, Wilson Shook, Tyler Wilcox, Michael Thieke quartet
It was just a few hours later that I was back to the Gallery for the last night of music. I showed up a bit after 7 (nearly all of these shows started around 7:30) and secured a good seat in the second row. The Gallery seemed a bit emptier this week, but for the size of the space it was still a decent crowd. The schema for this night as again different in that the first two sets featured duos of the four remaining guest musicians, who were then joined by two PNW musicians for a quartet. The festival then concludes with the ever popular large group.
The first duo to go up was Thieke and Zorn on electronics and clarinet irrespectively. Thieke as is his wont utilized longer elements, both sustained tones and whispery breathing, some twisted semi-melodic fragments and short sharp breaths on the keys and mouth of the clarinet. Zorn focused on playing with samples this set, these were always manipulated out of recognition: slowed down, sped up, reversed, heavily effected and so on. I wasn’t feeling this at all and felt that there was nothing Thieke could do to cut through the barrage of banality. At one point Zorn was working with a low rumbling tone that he brought up to a fairly high level of intensity as Thieke playing a nice contrasting tone also brought it up to a peak which they both cut off. Basically a perfect ending and Kai who was in front of me pantomimed the start of clapping but alas it was not to be. Zorn wasn’t done and began making sounds again to which Thieke eventually joined. This I think typifies what it is I’ve found I don’t really enjoy about Zorn: a lack of sensitivity. Perhaps there is some sort of subverting of expectations or some such but the results just don’t justify it.
Thieke and Zorn were then joined by Wilson Shook and Tyler Wilcox (replacing Mark Collins) on sax and sax respectively. While I like Shook’s work on the alto quite a bit, especially his extended techniques and I’ve seen several instances where Wilcox’s soprano perfectly complimented the sounds at hand, I felt that these two in this context were not what the group needed. It was now far too reed oriented and even the extended techniques that these three use are very similar. So this became like a horn section with Zorn as the contrasting element and frankly that is not role I found him much of a candidate for. There was in general a bit too much playing a bit too much reinforced similar sounds and then of course Zorn’s incredibly banal sample based playing. Not a set I enjoyed very much, though as always there were moments here and there.
Kai Fagaschinski, Rachel Thompson duo
There was then a break afterwards which was the second set beginning with the duo of Thompson and Fagaschinski. After the previous couple of days I was most anticipating this set out of the three tonight and I have to say that I was not disappointed. Thompsons semi-random scrapes and jittering clangs, matched very well with Fagaschinski’s longer tones, breath-work and occasional blasts. The set was varied and was filled with odd little clashes and conjunctions of sound. The explored a micro-cosm of limited events and wrapped it up well before it had reached exhaustion. A perfectly strange and gripping little set.
The addition of Gust Burns working his dowels and Mara Sedlins on the violin was a case where addition created something new and even better. Thompson and Sedlins are so far apart in their usage of their strings that there wasn’t little if any of the sonic overlap that had occurred in the previous horn heavy set. If anything the dry bowing of Sedlins was more in line with Burn’s dry doweling, but the texture and dynamics of these two techniques are quite distinct. This set began with cracking sounds from Thompson that were much louder then the hushed dry scrapes from Sedlins and the rustling, staccato moans from Burn’s dowel work. Fagaschinski at first added to this with whispery breath-work and later added more tonal parts. What was so gripping in the set to me was the constant shifting between murmuring tones and contrasting elements. Thompson usually was the one to toss sand into the mesh-work but one stunning segment had Burns pulling dowels out from between his string creating a popping reverberant bell like tone. The density was variable as well but it didn’t follow the predictable arcs of many of the sets we’d seen the night before, no they were more shifting and fleeting themselves more elements to add to the whole then structural features. One of the more striking of these featured Burns doweling in the lower register of the piano with the most volume I’ve ever heard him generate with this technique. Fagaschinski after the initial breathy bits was working with long hushed tones at the lower end of the clarinets register, but at one point he interjected a longer louder blast that again added to the overall palette without demanding a sustained response. The set ended with him playing in a slightly more melodic fashion, almost in a coda to the proceedings. This set was fantastic, challenging, unexpected, rich in elements and confounding expectations. One of the very best of the whole festival.
The final set of the night and the festival was a large group made up of all of the evenings performers. I’m sad to say that this one lived up more to the reputation of the large group then the exception to the rule that the very first nights large group proved to be. While that one set a good tone none of the other large groups lived up to its example and I have to retain my established conclusion that little but excess and mud comes from the large group experience. All of them had sublime moments and this one was no exception, bits were various members laid out and there was sensitive interactions between the remaining players, but all too infrequent here. Again as in the first quartet there were “horn section” style group playing that just underscores that cliche when they are all playing one long tone or all breathy sounds. Again Zorn’s elections were pervasive and uninteresting and as is so oft the case it went on far too long. Highlights included a section where Fagaschinski placed his clarinets metal cap on the floor, covered it with the bell of the ‘net and then proceeded to rattle it around the floor by moving the clarinet around. Another part I dug was Burns placing a long dowel between strings and then rotating it in a large circle generating metallic pops and grinding sounds. during one of the more spacious sections a crackling, almost electronic whistling emitted from Shook’s muted sax that was spellbinding. The end was a low density affair that went on and on and on. It kept seeming to almost end but would just keep going. Fagaschkinski and Thieke had set down their clarinets and were waiting it out but it just kept going. Eventually Fagaschinksi got up and walked to the rear of the Gallery, opened the door and left. The group played for a couple of minutes after that and then wrapped it up.
So there it is; one man’s view of the 2009 Seattle Improvised Music Festival. I had a good time this year and enjoyed fully immersing myself into it. As always I think that Seattle Improvised Music, Nonsequitur and especially Gust Burns did a fantastic job setting up and running it all. While all the music wasn’t too my taste it would of course be ridiculous to expect it to be so. In the scale of things there was nothing soul crushingly bad, just things that were better then others and things that weren’t my kind of thing. Yes there were sets that I flat out thought didn’t work or were flawed but I think trying these sorts of experiments do lead to that kind of failure. So I applaud the musicians and organizers and everyone involved and look forward to next years 25th Anniversary affair.
To see all of the pictures I took at this years festival, check out my SIMF 09 set on Flickr.