Excursions to the Edge

When do the sounds emanating from a musical instrument cross the boundary of what we call “music” and venture into an unknown territory of mere clatters, dins, and squeaks? Indeed, does such a boundary exist at all? If it does, it is certainly elusive and constantly shifting.

Some of the most interesting music around these days plays in this penumbral region, making excursions into strange and foreign lands, then returning again to the known, the familiar. Some music, on the other hand, blasts off into the superlunary realms and keeps going, never looking back toward home. It is then we might begin to wonder if it still counts as “music” at all, or what it even means to make this judgment.

Questions of this sort were on my mind Thursday night after seeing the ROVA Saxophone Quartet play at El Valenciano. ROVA (an acronym formed from the last initials of founding members, Jon Raskin, Larry Ochs, Andrew Voigt* and Bruce Ackley) has been pushing the definition of music since the late 70’s. Leaders in the world of free jazz/new music, ROVA eschews conventions of rhythm and melody to create a rich landscape of timbres and sounds. The music is complex and interesting and the four saxophones, ranging from soprano to baritone, seem to speak to each other, albeit in a language whose meaning, if it has any, is beyond my ken.

This was my first time seeing ROVA live.

After their set, Sergei Varshavsky, co-founder with his son Peter of the local record label Porto Franco Records, leaned over and asked what I thought. “I really appreciate the incredible skill required to play such difficult and complex music,” I told him, “but I think it pushes against my edge with avant-garde music.” He laughed in agreement. ROVA was probably not anything we would listen to while relaxing at home, though it is certainly fascinating to see them perform live, to witness artists invent new territories, even when these territories lie outside those that we are naturally inclined to frequent.

Following ROVA, the Darren Johnston Quintet, which on Thursday night was Johnston on trumpet, quintet regulars Ben Goldberg on clarinet and Sheldon Brown on saxophone and bass clarinet, and new additions, Hamir Atwal on drums (wow!), and David Ewell on upright bass, played a mixture of brand new compositions and tracks from Johnson’s first quintet album, Edge of the Forest (Clean Feed Records).

While Johnston’s music certainly ventures out there into avant-garde territory, its sojourns never feel too long and the melodies that frame the improvisations echo throughout the unfamiliar terrain enough for me not to feel lost on the journey. The tracks have a kind of structure that, though playful and unpredictable, guide the music in a way that feels “organic and logical,” to use Johnston’s own words. Older tracks, such “Broken” and “Edge of the Forest,” sounded fresh and new, quite different from their previously recorded incarnations.

In conversation afterwards, Johnston admitted the tension he feels between the desire to create avant-garde/experimental music and the desire to create music that is more accessible, music that inspires people to dance or sing along. Playing trumpet with Brass Menazeri, a band whose infectious Balkan rhythms defy anyone in the crowd to stand still, clearly satisfies the latter desire. I can imagine how gratifying it must be for musicians to see fans dancing wildly to their music. But what about the experience of playing this kind of jazz to a small group of people sitting in chairs?

“Concert music,” Johnston said, a category in which he includes both contemporary jazz, chamber and orchestral music, “has been in trouble in this country for a while.” Whereas it is still popular for large foundations and rich patrons to sponsor symphonies, thus ensuring their survival in times of economic downturn, jazz is not so fortunate. In Europe—where, Johnston says, consumers of culture don’t require everything to be “pre-processed and pre-chewed” as they seem to do in the US—the survival of jazz seems more assured.

The number of people in attendance at Thursday night’s Mish-Mash appears to confirm Johnston’s suspicion. While there is so much going on musically in San Francisco (in terms of eclecticism, virtuosity, innovation, and sheer artistry, at least!) there is not always a significant audience to appreciate experimental jazz and new music. This may say more about the marketing and promoting of this kind of music than it does about its accessibility to a broader audience.

Certainly, the Thursday night Mish-Mash at El Valenciano is not on a lot of people’s radar. But I suspect that there’s more to the story than this. While ROVA might be about as far out as I’m willing to go when it comes to avant-garde music, for a lot of people, even straight ahead jazz is too far gone. At the end of the day, all that’s left to offer is some worn-out platitude about how there’s no accounting for taste.

Maybe that’s true, but here’s another platitude: there’s no harm in trying.

The Darren Johnston Chicago Quintet will be releasing a new album, The Big Lift, on Porto Franco Records later this year. You can hear the title track on Porto Franco’s 2011 Sampler, along with some other great local jazz artists including Marcus Shelby and his orchestra, Aaron Novik, Seth Ford-Young (with a gorgeous, shiver-inducing interpretation of Satie’s first Gnossienne), and The Nice Guy Trio, with compositions by Johnston and accordionist Rob Reich.

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Klanging the Farben

Life does not wait to be written about. And books, sadly, don’t read themselves. I returned to work this week and have been a little overwhelmed with the amount of reading I have to stay on top of. I had started writing a blog post about all the incredible shows I saw last weekend and then just didn’t have time during the week to return to it.

Since then, I’ve seen so much more music that I want to write about. I just can’t keep up with myself. The weather has also been gloriously sunny, so it has been truly delightful to be back in my beloved SF.

I have a little bit of time today before heading out to Switchboard Music, an eight-hour festival of eclectic, inventive, genre-bending music featuring some of the Bay Area’s most interesting composers and musicians. I really should be reading Marx, but what the fuck!

Last weekend was a big one, as far as performances go. Since the jetlag wore off, I’ve been packing in as much as possible.

Friday night I went to see Beats Antique at the Fillmore. In the space of just a few years, this Oakland trio has gone from underground sensation in the local electronic music scene to a band of national and international popularity. The music is a tantalizing blend of breaks, hip-hop, dubstep, and glitch layered with Middle and Near Eastern riffs, and contemporary circus music. The sound is part digitally produced and sampled, part acoustic instrumentation.

After many months on the road, the trio returned to the bay for a sold-out performance at San Francisco’s celebrated Fillmore Theater, a “dream come true” for the band, according to David Satori.

Opening the show was The Real Vocal String Quartet, an innovative all-female string quartet that incorporates pop/folk singing to great effect with traditional chamber music. They also provided the string section for several Beats Antique numbers throughout the evening.

The second support act was a young man calling himself The Tailor who wriggled and writhed around onstage in a skinny pair of stripy low-riders and a wife-beater, singing and playing a looping guitar over mostly electronic prerecorded tracks he pulled up on his computer. The music had a danceable groove and was a good choice given the tastes of the audience, though several times I thought he would have been better able to play to the large crowd had he had some musicians accompanying him. There are lots of musicians who play multiple parts when they create and record their own music, but when playing out they get other musicians to take on these parts for a richer live experience. The Tailor could do with that kind of support onstage, especially at such a big venue like the Fillmore.

Beats Antique put on a great show accompanied by RVSQ on strings, as mentioned, Dan Cantrell on accordion, and a horn section that included Sylvain Carton on baritone sax and Peter Jacques on clarinet and trumpet.

A major factor contributing to Beats Antique’s meteoric rise is, no doubt, Zoe Jakes’ sultry tribal belly-dancing, which she performs throughout their shows when she’s not banging on a big drum and grimacing like a rockstar. On Friday, Jakes brought a bunch of friends with her to perform, so the crowd got to see some great dancing that ventured beyond tribal style. At one point, a hot guest dance troupe came out to perform a mixture of belly and hip-hop. Let me tell you, these ladies could shimmy and grind like nobody’s business.

Saturday night I managed to squeeze in two performances, Schick Machine by the Paul Dresher Ensemble, which was definitely the highlight of the weekend, and jazz guitarist Alex Pinto at my favorite local haunt, The Revolution Café.

Schick Machine is a collaboration between Paul Dresher, a well-known local composer and inventor of some of the wildest instruments you’ve ever seen or heard, Daniel Schmidt, another inventor and builder of musical instruments, Matt Heckert, maker of kinetic sculptures, and writer/director Rinde Eckert. The one-man show is performed by Steven Schick, a master percussionist with an astounding ability to extract every texture of sound from objects, be they simple household objects, sparser inventions born of an idiosyncratic mind, or wildly inventive creations that are both visually stunning and rich with sound possibilities.

Schick moves around from station to station in his subterranean (I imagine) sound laboratory that looks almost like the whirring, spinning, grinding internal workings of a giant piano organ. At times he conducts a kind of locomotive symphony between the different parts of the huge machine, at other times he plays a single instrument tenderly and slow, and the playing becomes a kind of meditative dance.

Renowned writer/director Rinde Eckert is known both for the physicality and musicality of his theatrical work and has collaborated with the Paul Dresher Ensemble on projects in the past.

In Schick Machine, an unseen voice introduces the character Lazlo Klangfarben (“klangfarbe” means “timbre” in German), an eccentric and solitary genius whose obsessive creative machinations have brought forth into existence the “Schick Machine,” an innovation that can reconcile the past and future. Lazlo is unsure whether the time is right to unleash his creation on the world, whether humanity is truly ready for such a powerful invention. Lazlo’s own sense of belonging in the world outside of his laboratory is also in question. We learn that connection and intimacy are problematic, that his wife has already left him.

Eckert’s philosophical ponderings through the character of Lazlo punctuate Schick’s virtuosic playing, and add the kind of intellectual depth and emotional poignancy these wild inventions demand. His words capture beautifully the emotional resonance Schick extracts from each instrument and the narrative provides a frame for Schick’s sonic explorations.

After Schick Machine, we headed over to the Rev for Alex Pinto’s CD release party. As always, the tiny venue was packed to the gills. Pinto is an accomplished young jazz guitarist who blends Hindustani classical music with contemporary jazz and indie rock. In addition to his original jazz compositions, he also does a number of very sweet interpretations of some Radiohead songs. He just released his debut album, Inner State. Definitely one to watch out for!

Sunday night it was time for a contemporary dance performance to balance out all the music. The Contact Improv Research Forum, which organizes the annual West Coast Contact Improv Festival, had a curated show at CounterPulse and Sunday was its last night. One of the biggest challenges for improv-based dance performance is to create something that does not look like a contact jam with lights and costumes, especially because the audience at these shows tends to be mostly other CI dancers who probably don’t want to pay three times as much to see what they could see at a regular jam.

This challenge is all the greater when the performance is conceptually heavy, as was the case with the first performance, Kristen Greco’s The Red Door. The piece was inspired by Jung’s Red Book, though I’m not sure if knowing this contributed anything to my appreciation of the dancing. One of the performers, Antonio Alemanno, switched roles between dancer and musician and even did a kind of contact dance with his upright bass, which I enjoyed. There were also some nice solos, most notably, from the Santa Cruz-based dancer Daniel Bear Davis, whom I just love to watch.

The second performance that evening, Sense Object, is a work-in-progress by Miriam Wolodarski with juggler/dancer Zack Bernstein, who often dances with Scott Wells and Dancers. I loved the names of the three scenes: “1. The polite dinner guest always speaks with restraint. 2. Another person is a foreign country. 3. Say something! Can’t you see I’m hiding?” It was a whimsical dance theatre piece that had me laughing out loud several times. A favorite moment was Wolodarski’s contact dance on and with a huge ladder. I look forward to seeing how this piece develops.

While I’ve seen a bunch more performances since then (it’s been a whole week, for God’s sake!), I will write about them later. The Switchboard Music Festival starts in a few minutes and I want to post this before I leave the house for that. More reviews coming soon!!