From Graphic to Sonic: New Works at Outsound 2012

Starting tomorrow, Sunday, at the Community Music Center in the Mission is the week-long Outsound New Music Summit, an annual festival, now in its 11th year, showcasing the best from the avant garde and new music scene in the Bay.

Like last year’s summit, this year opens with the (free) “Touch the Gear” expo, a chance for you to wander around and play with all kinds of sound-making gear, everything “from oscillators to planks of wood with strings attached.” Monday night is the (also free) “Composers Symposium” where John Shiurba, Christina Stanley, Benjamin Ethan Tinker, and Matthew Goodheart, four composers who will premiere works at this year’s festival, talk about their various composition techniques and creative processes. Three of the four featured composers will be presenting their work at Thursday night’s “The Composer’s Muse,” an evening curated by flautist, composer, and Outsound organizer, Polly Moller.

I talked with Polly about her curatorial choices and what to expect that night.

Christina Stanley, Matthew Goodheart, John Shiurba

“I picked composers whose work I had experienced before and who I was confident anything new they did for this festival would be really interesting, deep, and accessible and engaging,” she says. Of the three new works being performed, Moller has heard just one piece—John Shiurba’s—and that is only because she is performing in it. The other two will be complete surprises, though as Moller says, “I have faith in these artists.”

The evening opens with composer, violinist, and vocalist Christina Stanley, who will present two graphic scores, both 40×40 oil and charcoal on canvas. One will be performed by her Skadi Quartet, the other a duet for cello and violin.

“Christina Stanley is a fairly recent Mills graduate,” Moller says, “and I had the opportunity to see her work performed at their Signal Flow annual festival of student work. I made note of her at that time because she had this beautiful, large graphic score and she was playing violin and singing as part of the ensemble. The visual aspect combined with the beauty of what was being played made me remember her.”

Next up is sound artist Matthew Goodheart, who combines unusual piano techniques with sonified metal percussion. Moller chose to include a piece by Goodheart because “he has impeccable academic credentials and I’ve always admired the sheer intelligence and complexity, and yet just sonorousness of his work.” She asked him to create new work for this year’s festival and he said that “he would evolve and elaborate on his amplified symbol works. So, this is what we’ll be getting this time around.”

Headlining the evening is composer and guitarist John Shiurba with his 9:9, a suite of nine pieces to be performed and interpreted by nine musicians, including Moller, though lest anyone thinks otherwise, “it was after I confirmed with him that he would present this work that he asked me to be a part of it. The two are not connected!” His 9:9 follows a previous suite he did using a number matrix called 5:5. You can read an interview Moller did with Shiurba about his work earlier this month.

Like Stanley, Shiurba’s work also involves a significant graphic element. As Moller explains, “Some of the music is written out in standard notation and some of the music is written out on musical staves but using numbers instead of notation. And the graphic score part of it is small cut-outs from newspapers, and graphs and charts from newspapers, but with all their captions removed so they can be interpreted musically. There are also small cut-outs from the comic pages.” Laughing she adds, “There’s one of Garfield and the musicians have been arguing about who gets to play Garfield.”
The very idea of a graphic score is something I find fascinating. Until recently (specifically at last year’s Outsound New Music Summit), I had never heard of this technique. Without a doubt, the highlight of last year’s festival for me was a performance by Italian guitarist IOIOI (Cristiana Fraticelli) who performed an unseen (by the audience, that is) and rather mysterious graphic score by Kanoko Nishi. I was so blown away by that performance that I awarded it a Live ‘n’ Local Completely Non-Arbitrary, Totally Objective, and Fully Informed 2011 Music Award!
I was glad to hear from Moller that for Stanley, unlike Nishi last year, “it’s an essential part of her artistry [for the audience] to see the graphic score.” I’m hoping I might develop a better understanding of the curious process involved in musically interpreting a non-standard visual. I asked Moller, as a musician, how she works with graphic scores.

“The graphic score is used to convey instructions to the performers in a way that standard notation can’t get across,” she says. “This is a more organic and more abstract way to communicate composer to performer. And when I’m given a graphic score to perform with, as I’m doing in John Shiruba’s piece, I take the composer’s instructions about it very seriously. But ultimately the picture that’s there is connecting with my musicianship on a non-verbal level, on an improvisatory level, and it’s cuing me in the moment to do something. And I decide what that is based on color and form and just inspiration in the moment.”

In an interview Moller did with Stanley, the composer explains how the various visual components—different media, colors, and shapes—come to have significance for the musician performing her work.

“Each shape has a technical or timbal meaning for the performer,” Stanley says. “Intensity of color always translates into intensity of sound, but the color itself is up to the performer to interpret. I personally don’t have synesthesia, but color has an extreme emotional impact on me, much like music itself. The gradations of the color in the score are relative to gradation in dynamic or timbre, or both. I usually create a key for performers, and though some forms are consistently interpreted throughout multiple scores, they do change and new ones are introduced.”

Of the other nights of the festival, Moller says she is most curious about Friday’s percussion night, “Twack! Bome! Chime!” She elaborates: “I have a lot of faith in Pete Martin’s ear as a curator, and I’m interested in a whole concert made up of percussion, because I know what diverse timbres and sounds can come out of that. And I’ve never heard most of the artists, so I’m looking forward to that one.”

Wednesday night’s performance, “Sonic Poetry,” will present three distinct collaborations between some of the Bay Area’s leading poets and music improvisers, the first of which features one of my personal favorites, percussionist Jordan Glenn. For an in-depth look at the collaborative work of Wednesday night’s headliners, composer Jon Raskin and poet Carla Harryman, check out the Wedge Radio blog.

The final blow-out on Saturday night, “Fire & Energy,” features four different free improv-inspired ensembles.

All the details for each night can be found on the festival schedule.

Meanwhile, Moller has just started a regular radio slot called DJ Post-Pink’s Inner World, which you can hear Tuesdays from 3am to 6am on KUSF-In-Exile and also archived later on her blog. Explaining where she got the title, she says, “It came about because Amar [Chaudhary], when he’s writing his blog, he often has auto-correct errors, and he was writing about something and was trying to say ‘post-punk’ and instead it came out ‘post-pink’.”

And I had thought Moller was making a feminist statement! Turns out, she was. She liked the auto-correct error for that very reason. “That’s exactly what I mean by it, because I detest the color pink and its anti-feminist implications. So I am saying: I am DJ Post-Pink.”

Now, there’s a graphic waiting to be sonically interpreted!

Polly “Post-Pink” Moller will be presenting “The Composer’s Muse” on Thursday July 18 at the Outsound New Music Summit at the Community Music Center, 544 Capp Street, San Francisco. The evening will begin at 7:15pm with a Q&A with the three composers, followed by the performances, which start at 8:15pm.