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.
This weekend was the third iteration of the yearly Substrata Festival of which I attended the final night. The festival has always been held at the Chapel Performance Space in conjunction with Wayward Music and being on their mailing list I’ve been aware of it from it’s conception but this was my first time attending. Every year there has been one or two acts I’d have been interested in seeing, but being a festival that would of course mean sitting through the rest, some of which were distinctly not to my taste. These festivals are put on by the ambient musician Rafael Anton Irisarri and have proven to be popular enough that they sell out fairly quickly which considering the space is certain to lead to a hot crowded experience. This years festival, which has been expanded to three days, was no exception except that the third day wasn’t sold out when last I got a mailing from Wayward Music and Kim Cascone was closing the festival. I haven’t really kept up with Cascone’s work, but back in the early days of my interest in various experimental forms he had a number of releases I was pretty into. I also have been aware that his recent work is more along the lines of acoustic experiments utilizing beating patterns and acoustical phenomenon which is certainly something I find fascinating if not a primary interest of mine. Since I could secure a ticket online and the other performers on this night, neither of whom I’d heard of, sounded at least interesting I went for it.
Of course the other thing worth mentioning is that this festival is basically ambient music and while I’m not adverse to the form, there really are few outstanding examples of it. The festival is driven by Irisarri’s tastes and has grown to include post-minimalsim as well as an eclectic mix of electronica and hybrid compositions. The materials provided by the festival read rather like an ‘artists statement’ (with all the connotations that implies):
Our goal is to create an immersive weekend experience that engages the audience in a dialog with the artists that goes beyond the constrains of traditional performer/listener interactions. Each showcase is curated to distinctly portrait different takes of the potency of minimalism, varying between weighty combinations of tonalities used to sculpt out atmospheric ambiance, or powerful dynamic structures made up of the subtlest filigree of sonic building materials. By creating compositional spaces dealing with a sense of mass, along with openness of structure, the perspective of scale and the listener’s place in relation is shifted to allow for greater a sense of place beyond the environ of the performance in the interplay of the moment and physics of the larger world. In all, Substrata is an event that fosters appreciation for our natural surroundings and creates meaningful interaction between artists/participants while exploring a new locality.
As the name substrata implies, it is about subtle aesthetics that go beneath the surface and into deeper aural territories.
Saturday July 20th was as nice an evening as can only be found in the Pacific NW. A beautiful sunny day with temps in the uppers 70s (F) by the time I arrived at the Chapel the sun was beginning to dip behind the Olympic Mountains. There was a lot of people here and the wait for the doors to open in the lobby was a hot and sweaty, though happily short, experience. Once we were all inside the Chapel itself wasn’t completely packed and it wasn’t oppressive it at all, especially with the cooling air blowing in from all the open windows. I got a seat a few rows back by a pillar that created a gap that allowed for an easy escape if that proved necessary and was relatively centered. I would have liked to have sat by the windows as I think that would have added greatly to the experience but felt that for the Cascone piece I’d want to be inside the surround sound setup. They had very defined times for each act and apart from starting a bit late maintained that schedule fairly closely.
1) Christina Vantzou
Christina Vantzou is a an American multimedia artist/composer who is now based in Brussels. She introduced the string trio and harpist who would be playing the numerous mostly short (unidentified) pieces on this evenings program and then returnign to her laptop kicked things off with a loud, overbearing synth pad. The pieces were almost all constructed of her playing multitrack recordings on her MackBook while the string trio and harpist played along. The tracks she trigged mostly consisted of rather loud pads and washes plus the occasional sustained vocals worked into multitrack choirs. The musicians were pretty good and several of the pieces where they were more dominate I thought were the more engaging. Their playing was usually fairly long sustained, usually unaffected tones. Even the harpist bowed her instrument in the first piece though after that she played mostly rather staccato notes. Vantzou also “conducted” these pieces, sort of “dancing” around doing rather Butch Morris-esque conducting.
Along with this there was also rather cliched video such as a slowed down candle flame and slow pans of a girl in a church and so on. This it appears was done by an unrelated “video artist” and accompanied most of the performance in the festival.
2) Michal Jacaszek
Michal Jacaszek is a Polish “electro-acoustic composer” who for this show at least appeared to be laptop DJ-ing along with a harpsichord (Kelly Weyse) and clarinets (“Crystal” Beth Fleenor). Rather Saule like in his DJ-ing though with perhaps not quite as good of choices. He used lots of acoustic instrument samples and was perhaps processing and sampling the two live instruments but it did seem that barring improvisation from the instrumentalists (which did not seem to be the case) he could have just played their contributions along with multitude of other elements he was utilizing. Often fairly loud and dense each peice always had a point (or two) were everything dropped out to a bare minimum and then rebuilt in a different direction. Overall fine with some nice moments, typically involving the harpsichord and bass clarinet interacting with the more worn way, fractured less beat-driven samples.
The video that was played along with Jacaszek included lots of slowed down water images and some forests shots but also some bad cg effects and cartoony figures with Afteraffects fliters applied to them.
3) Kim Cascone
In the booklet that accompanied the festical was a good four pages of bio and rumination from Kim Cascone. In it he goes through his history with meditation and developing “heightened awareness” especially w/r/t listening. It even includes a series of exercises for you the listener to go through. I have to say that while I’m sympathetic to his goals here I can’t help but wonder if it is perhaps not better to just let the listener find one’s own way there? It didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the performance, though this, along with his introduction of the piece as “aural meditation”, did add a ponderousness to it that I do not think is inherent to the sounds. Cascone sat in the very middle of the surround sound speaker setup which also included a huge sub-woofer right in the middle of the room. Equipped with just a laptop and mixer he played for about 30 minutes in the dark with no video playing. We were instructed to sit with our eyes closed and focus on our breath which I did. He also told us that since this wasn’t really music there was no need to applaud at the end. The sounds were all beating tones at first pretty intense and then of varying intensities as the sounds shifted. Typically he’d pick a pattern, which all resolved itself in your head into hyper-rythmic oscillations, sometimes with higher pitched stuff seeming to swirl about at an upper level, other times just a single repeated sound. This he’d let play out for a decent amount of time, at least five minutes I’d say – this would be about six different sounds over the thirty minutes which seems about right. There was definitely those interesting physical sensations of vibrating in the ear that you get with these acoustic experiments. I agree with his assessment that it’s not really music per se – that is he was more or less just presenting one acoustical phenomenon after another – but it was fascinating and completely engaging. It just being thirty minutes was also a wise choice; too much might get tedious and this seemed just the right amount to keep one interested and engaged the whole time. Good stuff and while not a very effective aid to meditation IMO (the highly rhythmic nature tends to force you into a pattern that is contrary to natural breathing, which rather undermines the “focus on breath” aspect) it was a good focusing experience. It probably would have been aurally interesting to have been able to walk around during the performance but I certainly respected his setting of the events parameters.