Amy Winehouse Tribute with Con Brio this Wednesday

For a long time I knew the name “Amy Winehouse” without really knowing anything about her music. I knew that she was famous and that she frequently got into trouble because of her drug and alcohol habits. I wasn’t really interested. I assumed she was some talentless wannabe like Paris Hilton who just wanted attention at any cost.

The Immortal Amy Winehouse

What I didn’t realize was that I was already a fan of her music. I had just not yet made the connection between the name and the music.

It was not actually that long ago that I finally made the connection. I was in a bar in Chiang Mai last year and there was a TV hanging from the ceiling broadcasting some live performance. I recognized the music and started paying attention.

Then the ball dropped. “Wait. That’s Amy Winehouse??” I thought. Another surprise–she was white! I had mistakenly assumed the singer of these songs I had heard and loved was black because of her incredible contralto vocals. But no, it turns out, there are some white folks who got soul and Amy was definitely one of them.

In her short but stellar musical career, she released two critically-acclaimed albums, Frank (2003) and Back to Black (2006), the second of which won several Grammies, including Best New Artist, Album of the Year, and Song of the Year. Back to Black features the Dap-Kings, a band that has been playing funk and soul since the early sixties. If you’ve never listened to Amy Winehouse because, like me, you’d been put off by her notoriety, give this album a listen and be prepared to have your all your prejudices shattered. It really is a masterpiece.

Sadly, Amy died a month ago at age 27 from what many assume to be a drug overdose, though there has been no official verdict on that. Her death was not a huge surprise, given the inexorably self-destructive path she seemed to be on, but a profound tragedy nonetheless.

I had just started booking music for Viracocha, a local antiques store/subterranean music venue, when Amy died. Upon news of her death, the idea to do a tribute show honoring Amy and her astounding musical talent immediately occurred to me. The obvious choice to lead that effort was local soul/funk/blues band Con Brio, a band that has quickly gone from playing in tiny venues like the Revolution Cafe to much larger venues like the Great American Music Hall. Give them a few more years and I think they’ll be selling out stadiums!

Xandra Corpora, lead singer and guitarist for Con Brio, has an incredible voice that will blow you away. Joining Xandra and Con Brio will be a whole host of guest singers, each singing one or two of Amy’s songs.

I can’t tell you how excited I am about this show! Full details are available on Facebook (though there will also be a few surprises in store too!). Tickets are almost sold-out, but at the time of publishing this, there are still a few left. You can buy them here. Don’t miss this!!

Kihlstedt’s Monstrous Success

Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings, an extensive taxonomy of fantastical creatures from various folklores and mythologies, is the inspiration for Carla Kihlstedt’s latest project, Necessary Monsters, a staged song cycle that recently premiered at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

Kihlstedt, a highly-regarded violinist, singer, composer, and bandleader who spent seventeen years working and performing in Bay Area, just recently transplanted to the East Coast to take up a position teaching Contemporary Improvisation at the New England Conservatory. She is best known for her work with experimental rock band Sleepytime Gorilla Museum as well as with the acoustic composers’ collective Tin Hat.

Necessary Monsters, a collaboration with poet/lyricist Rafael Osés, is Kihlstedt’s most ambitious project to date. The song cycle is staged for seven musicians and one actor. Each performer plays a different character, each one selectively culled from Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings. While Kihlstedt’s Necessary Monsters has existed in various forms for a number of years, this most recent incarnation is co-directed by Rinde Eckert, a writer/performer/director renowned for an ouevre that integrates musical and physical theater with philosophical musings that penetrate deep into the human soul.

Monsters opens with Kihlstedt sitting alone atop a ladder at the back of the stage while Denmo Ibrahim, the actor who plays The Collector—part zoologist, part Master of Ceremonies—carries nondescript white boxes onto the stage and arranges them in front of the elevated platforms where all the instruments are positioned. Dotted around the stage are ragged-looking signs indicating the various characters’ names. The scene is somehow reminiscent of Yeats’ foul rag and bone shop of the heart from “The Circus Animals’ Desertion.”

The musicians, each one decked out in idiosyncratic style to reflect their characters’ specific traits, trickle onstage and take up their respective stations. It is The Collector’s job to introduce the characters in turn, giving each both its common and Latin name, its usual habitat, and its distinctive features and proclivities.

While each of the fanciful beings—with names like “The Squonk,” “The One-Eyed Being,” and “The Lamed Wufnik”—has bizarre and exotic qualities, it becomes clear that each represents different aspects of humanity, and indeed, different aspects of a single, albeit fragmented self. Osés poetic script and libretto poignantly capture the frailties and foibles of each character, extracting, often with humor, the right emotional resonance while avoiding even a hint of hackneyed sentimentality, and Eckert’s theatrical direction adds a level of physicality needed to bring the various monsters to life onstage.

The seven musicians involved in the project are outrageously talented virtuosos and multi-instrumentalists. Many, like Michael Mellender (also of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum), move from percussive instruments to strings, then to brass with such ease you’d think they were simply changing their shoes. Add to the mix Kihlstedt’s singing, which at once embodies something earthly and fragile, and also something superlunary, something transcendent, the combined effect is utterly captivating.

Despite Eckert’s welcome directorial input, at times I felt like the staging was a little static. I wanted more physicality, more movement. The musicians, particularly Kihlstedt, do move around onstage, and who could forget multi-instrumentalist Freddi Price, who almost steals the show, as The One-Eyed Being is wont to do, with his hilarious song and dance routine?

Perhaps it is an inevitable consequence for that monstrous half-breed, the staged song cycle. It’s not quite a play, not quite a concert, but has essential elements of each. Striking exactly the right balance, no doubt, is difficult to achieve, especially with the challenge of having many cumbersome instruments that need to be positioned in a particular place, which naturally leads to the performers tending to maintain a fixed position. But having seen some of Eckert’s previous work, I think Monsters can move a little more in the theatrical direction without detracting from what makes it work musically.

Interestingly, a number of people I spoke to afterwards mentioned that they could have done without Denmo Ibrahim’s performance as The Collector. Granted, these comments came from composers, who might be more likely to find the one actor in the production dispensable (an unnecessary monster, perhaps?). One commented that her delivery was too much like slam poetry, an assessment for which I have no real experience to judge.

However, there was something about Ibrahim’s delivery that made her seem more Master of Ceremonies than monster. She does not embody a character in the same way that the various musicians do, which is odd, given that she is the only actor in the bunch. Her role as collector of these imaginary beings is obviously distinct; she is not supposed to be a monster in quite the same way. Yet, surely The Collector is a meta-monster of sorts—the narrating self, if you will—the self that chooses which of the other identities to amplify in a given situation. That conceit, it seemed, was lost in the production.

I also found it curious that after Friday’s premiere, I couldn’t remember a single tune I had heard that night. Contrast that with my Saturday night, when I attended Stravinsky’s Les Noces and afterwards repeatedly found myself singing its melodies to myself. It was pointed out to me, by someone who had also attended both shows that weekend and had noticed a similar phenomenon, that we had both previously heard Les Noces, which, to be fair, was not the case for Kihlstedt’s Monsters.

Still, given how engaged I was during the performance, I would have expected some melody or other to have stuck, but that was not the case. And while there could be no doubt in anybody’s mind who attended Friday’s performance that we were watching musicians of the highest caliber, there were times when it felt like this was a fact more known to me from past experience than perceived directly on the night.

Take Rob Reich (also from Tin Hat) or Dina Maccabee, for example, both sickeningly talented and versatile musicians. I would have liked to see them be given more room to shine in this production as I know they surely can. I’m not sure if it was Kihlstedt’s musical compositions or her own dominating stage presence that gave me the impression that not all of her musicians were being fully utilized, but it was an impression others who know how good these musicians are shared with me.

Quibbles aside, Necessary Monsters was a stunning success for such an ambitious project and I’m sure it will see many more successes in the future. YBCA’s Novellus Theater is quite large, so it made sense that there were only two shows in this opening run. However, given the nature of this particular beast, it would make sense to have a more extended run, which would provide sufficient time to allow some of the creases from opening night to be ironed out.

Stravinsky’s Les Noces Reworked for Five Voices and Four Hands

Toward the end of Stravinsky’s “Russian” period, before he dove into Neo-Classism and twelve-tone music, he wrote a rather unusual non-symphonic piece for four pianos, percussion, and a full chorus. Like Stravinsky’s The Rite of SpringLes Noces (translated as The Wedding) was composed for the Ballets Russes. It premiered in the Parisian Théâtre de la Gaîté with choreography by Bronislava Nijinska in 1923, though Stravinsky had been working on different versions of the cantata since as early as 1913.

Looking for a new and ambitious project, local composers Dominique Leone, Kanoko Nishi, and Regina Schaffer decided they were going to tackle Les Noces and make a difficult work even more difficult by arranging it for just two pianos and five voices. Their goal was to stay as true as possible to Stravinsky’s score and capture the fullness of the original arrangement with a much paired-down ensemble.

The results?

We’ll find out this weekend when the ten-piece Ensemble Épouser premieres Les Noces at Berkeley’s Maybeck House. Meanwhile, take a listen to this remarkable recording with Nishi and Schaffer on piano and Leone doing all the choral parts, including the soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, and bass soloist parts.

In case you’re wondering how that was possible, Leone uses a computer pitch shifter to reach all the high and low octaves that are outside his natural range. He also uses voice amplification pedals to double or triple the voice and thus give the effect of a chorus.

The recording is all the more remarkable once you understand the circumstances under which it came into existence.

“Dominique actually tricked us into doing the recording!” says Nishi with a laugh. While she and Schaffer were still just learning the grueling piano parts, Leone spent a month recording them, often only eight bars at a time, apparently for “a demo” to help him learn all the vocal parts.

“It was a very arduous process of stopping and starting and stopping and starting,” says Leone, who later edited all the piano parts together and then recorded the voice parts over them. After Nishi’s initial surprise when Leone released the recording, she was very pleased with the results.

However arduous recording Les Noces may have been, this weekend’s live performance of the piece presents its own set of challenges. As Leone explains, the five singers will be continuously switching in and out of different choral and solo parts with no rest, like they would normally expect to have in a choral performance. They will also have to deal with a lot of the same kind of technology Leone used in the recording, which presents somewhat of an onstage logistical quandary.

Another major challenge for the small ensemble they have put together, says Nishi, is “trying to embody the power of the piece as it’s written originally for a bigger ensemble, trying to accommodate that.”

Her approach to adapting the eight-handed piano for four hands has mostly been to choose what seem to be the most essential parts in each movement. But she also has broken up the different piano parts so that at a given time one pianist may be playing one hand from one piano part, and the other hand will be playing from a different part. Blithely summarizing her approach, she says, “I just try to make it convincing when I play that it’s written for four pianos somehow, so I can get people to believe it and hypnotize them.”

The biggest challenge of all, though, is simply Stravinsky’s score in itself, independently of the way in which it is being adapted for this particular performance. “It is a very very hard piece to start with,” Nishi says, laughing again. “So, that’s been the main challenge, more than the fact that we are doing a different version of it. The parts are just very hard for every single player.”

Leone agrees. “Stravinsky is a very difficult composer for singers,” he says. “He wrote some but not a lot of choral music. He is much more of a instrumental composer. For the singers, that means they have a lot of very tricky lines, a lot of very tricky rhythms, big leaps, lyrics that don’t really seem like they go with the melody that you’re singing. So, it’s kind of odd. You always think that something’s wrong and you never can quite feel it. So, that’s really difficult.”

This, of course, is all part and parcel of what attracts these music adventurers to such a formidable project. While Leone has been a fan of Les Noces for many years, Nishi was unfamiliar with Stravinsky’s choral work till Leone proposed the collaboration. When she first hear it, she too immediately liked it.

“It sounded so contemporary, the way he used the voice in relation to the crazy orchestration he has,” she says, adding, “His writing for piano is just always really amazing. And the idea of having four pianos I thought was really cool.”

Friday and Saturday’s performance of Les Noces will be conducted by Kate McLoughlin with Diana Pray (soprano), Elise Cumberland (mezzo-soprano), Danishta Rivero (alto), Dominique Leone (tenor), Alexandra Buschman (bass), Kanoko Nishi and Regina Schaffer (pianos), Jordan Glenn (percussion), Jason Hoopes (bass), and Mark Clifford (mallets).

Stravinsky’s Les Noces by Dominique Leone, Kanoko Nishi, and Regina Schaffer will be performed at 8pm on July 29 & 30 at the historical Maybeck House in Berkeley. Advance tickets can be purchased here.

Outsound New Music Summit Celebrates 10 Years

The annual Outsound New Music Summit, possibly the best kept secret in local music festivals, is celebrating its tenth year of showcasing the most exciting new music, experimental jazz, sonic gadgetry, electronics, and noise art from the Bay Area and beyond.

Inventor Walter Funk will be performing on Saturday's "Sonic Foundry Too!" finale event.

This year’s festival, which runs July 17-23, promises to be full of surprises, both for the uninitiated and for summit veterans. Taking place in the San Francisco Community Music Center in the heart of the Mission District, each evening’s events are organized around a different theme.

Starting things off on Sunday night is the aptly named “Touch the Gear” expo, a free event that attracts kids of all ages. This is a unique chance to play with lots of different one-of-a-kind gadgets and inventions, acoustic and electronic instruments, and effects pedals of various sorts. And yes, you can push the buttons.

Monday night’s panel discussion, which is also free, features four local composers in conversation with Outsound’s Polly Moller. Despite the scary-sounding title of the event—”Elements of Non-idiomatic Compositional Strategies”—Moller assures us it will be an informal conversation, not too cerebral or stuffy. Imagine hanging out with your composer friends over a couple of drinks and quizzing them about their creative processes. Later in the week, you can hear world premieres from the four featured composers.

You can see bran(...)pos perform at Wednesday's "Face Music"

After a break on Tuesday, the summit returns with Wednesday’s “Face Music,” an extraordinary-sounding event that features Theresa Wong, Joseph Rosenzweig, Aurora Josephson, and bran(…)pos (AKA Jake Rodriguez), four musicians who all use their faces in weird and wonderful ways to create a variety of sounds and textures. Don’t be surprised to see mics being put in places you never thought you’d see a mic! As summit and Outsound Presents director Rent Romus says of this event, “You never know what to expect…”

Thursday night’s “The Freedom of Sound” performance is focused on non-idiomatic, free improvisational music. There will be three very different performances ranging from operatic avant-rock to free jazz, with Tri-Cornered Tent Show, Positive Knowledge, and Grosse Abfahrt performing. Apart from the poem libretto in the first performance, everything will be freely improvised.

Krys Bobrowski's metal pipes and balloons

“The Art of Composition” on Friday night premieres new works from the summit’s four featured composers, Krys Bobrowski, Andrew Raffo Dewar, Kanoko Nishi, and Gino Robair. Each piece has been composed especially for the event. Some of the descriptions of these new works sound very intriguing, like Bobrowski’s—a “series of short pieces exploring the sonic properties of metal pipes and plates and the use of balloons as resonators.” Can’t wait to see what that’s all about!

Saturday night’s big finale “Sonic Foundry Too!” co-presented by Thingamajigs, brings together ten sonic inventors—one for each year of the summit—to collaborate on five different performances. The ten inventors are Tom Nunn, Steven Baker, Bob Marsh, Dan Ake, Sung Kim, Brenda Hutchinson, Sasha Leitman, Bart Hopkins, Terry Berlier, and Walter Funk. None of the paired collaborators have worked together before, so it should prove to be an interesting performance.

Dan Ake is one of the inventors featured in Saturday's Summit Finale

For anybody who is just a little curious about checking out the festival but not sure which evening to attend, Saturday night may well be the winner. Not only will you be exposed to cutting-edge sound installations and novel instruments made from metal, wood, string, plastic, rubber, and paper, but the display itself will also be visually stunning. One of the invented instruments that will be unveiled that night, for example, is over 12 foot tall! The evening promises to be an architectural and sonic treat, the likes of which you’ve never seen or heard before.

The danger, of course, of waiting till Saturday’s finale to attend, is that then you’d have to wait a whole year to have another chance to see such wild inventiveness and creativity in action.

Perhaps you’re more curious than you thought?

The 10th Annual Outsound New Music Summit (July 17-18 & 20-23) takes place at the San Francisco Community Music Center, 544 Capp Street @ 21st, San Francisco.

Dance in Dublin II

Having now seen my one and only contemporary dance performance in Dublin, I feel like I should say something about it. The performance, consisting of three works, was called Fast Portraits, presented by Rex Levitates Dance Company and choreographed by Artistic Director Liz Roche.

The first piece was “These Two People” for eight dancers—two trios, one all-male in black, the other all-female in white, and a male-female duo in grey—the eight forming a sort of B&W picture together. At times, both the male and female trios acted almost as single entities so that their interactions with one another gave the impression that we were, in fact, watching just two couples oddly mirroring one another. While there were some Contact Improv techniques used in the choreography, very little involved large-scale manipulation of bodies through space. Instead, a lot of staccato impulses briefly propelled limbs into motion and hindered or shifted the core direction of the dancers’ movement, all while maintaining a level of flow and integrity in the group. The dancers also played a lot in the negative spaces and in each other’s kinespheres. We saw a lot of impulses transmitted without actual contact.

The second piece was “Solo Portrait” with director of photography Kate McCullough, whose beautifully shot short film of Roche moving whilst seated on a clear plastic chair formed the backdrop to the live dancer, who sat onstage with her back to the audience, faithfully mirroring the movements we watched onscreen. I like the use of props in dance and, for some reason, furniture in particular, but Roche’s use of the chair was not especially interesting to me. For example, there was no exploration of the various movement possibilities afforded by the chair. Rather, in typical postmodern style, Roche’s slow and deliberate gestures were more a meditation on the pedestrian. This fits with the description of the piece, “somewhere between performance and reality.” Call me old-fashioned, but as a member of an audience, I’m more interested in a dancer’s performance than her reality.

The last piece, “Fast Portraits,” picked up on the chair motif from Roche’s solo. Six dancers repeatedly displaced one another from a chair and shifted in and out of fast-moving, ever-changing trios. A lot of the techniques we saw in the first piece were utilized in the second piece, so although structurally different from one another, the two pieces felt too similar to one another. The dancers also spoke occasionally in this last piece, repeating mundane things like “Okay,” but I wasn’t sure what the point of that was. It also felt lacking in direction to me.

I had hoped for something “different and interesting” and, although I did enjoy the dancing, I would not have chosen either of these terms to describe the performance. I am happy there are dancers making work like this in Dublin, and that audiences there have a chance to see contemporary dance, but for a seasoned and vaguely jaded spectator such as myself, there was not much I felt like I hadn’t seen before.

Dance in Dublin

I’m searching my memory to recall if I’ve ever been to a dance performance in Dublin. Okay, there was that one time in primary school when we were on a school trip that included going to my very first ballet, but all that I remember about it was that some sticky drink I had been given for this special occasion spilled all over my lap in the dark theatre. I got very upset and tried to get help from my teacher, but she was just annoyed by my crying, which upset me even more. No wonder I never went to another dance performance here after that!

Since I left Dublin seventeen years ago, my interest in dance has evolved a great deal. First, I discovered Argentine Tango and became obsessed with it for several years, but whenever I returned to Dublin on visits, I could never get my dance fix. Tango had not yet made it here. On my visits in the last eight years, I’ve looked for Contact Improvisation, my current passion, but that too was always missing, though by then, there were regular milongas (Argentine Tango social dances). A little too late for me. Me and the city were just always out of sync with one another.

Last summer at the Seattle Festival of Dance Improvisation, I met some Contact Improv dancers from Dublin and was so happy to discover that now there is indeed CI here. I resolved to make it to a jam on my next visit home. Alas, the circumstances under which I’m visiting this time have prevented me from making it to a jam so far. With less than a week left in Dublin, I have one opportunity left—on my last night—to go to a CI class. We’ll see if I make it.

But, I just discovered today that there is a contemporary dance performance happening this week by a leading Irish choreographer and I’m going to go! I’m really curious to check out the contemporary dance scene here. Hopefully, I will find something different and interesting.

The Riot of Spring, 2011

A strange thing happened recently. On Sunday June 5th, after writing Zero Point (a post, in part, about avant-garde art and the challenges audiences may face in “getting it”), I attended a concert at the Royce Gallery, a small venue in the Mission District. It was an evening dedicated to the much-neglected viola—or, perhaps, to the much-maligned violist—curated and produced by experimental composer/performer Pamela Z. This particular installment of Z’s “ROOM: Avant-Chamber” series was called “Longer Burning.”

In case you didn’t get it, the title of the event comes from the punchline to a joke that starts, “Why is the viola better than the violin?” Yeah. . . because the viola burns longer. Get it? The Facebook page advertising the event used a photo of a viola sitting on top of some burning logs in a fireplace, though Pamela Z assured us in a comment on the event page’s wall that “No violas will be harmed in the making of this concert!”

This, for better or worse, was not to be the case.

Starting the program was Charlton Lee, violist and founder of Del Sol String Quartet. He performed three solo pieces, the first of which—Edmond Campion’s “Melt Me So”—was written for solo cello, violin, or viola with a live interactive computer accompanist. The computer takes input, in this case from Lee’s viola, and analyzes it to enhance “temporal, spectral and gestural details of the performance.” (Program Notes) It was fascinating to watch this novel interaction between musician and computer.

Lee’s second piece, the charming “Calligraphy “by Iranian composer Reza Vali, Lee explained, explored Persian tuning, rhythm, and form. His third, local composer Matthew Cmiel’s “Insistence,” was a thoroughly modern piece, though nothing that ventured too far “out” there. In the program notes for this last piece, Cmiel (presumably) writes: “It is really fun to ask someone to go insane for you on stage in front of an audience. This piece comes from Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony portrait of Stalin, from Mozart’s Queen of the Night Aria in The Magic Flute, Berg’s title character throughout Wozzeck, and Stravinsky’s elders in The Rite of Spring.”

It would not be the only time Stravinsky’s Rite would be referred to that evening.

The second solo violist to perform that evening was JHNO (pronounced juh-no) AKA John Eichenseer, who describes himself as “a nomadic musician, recording artist, and music technologist.” He has written music software for Bjork, Laurie Anderson, Brian Eno, and Thomas Dolby and has performed with Todd Sickafoose, Scott Amendola and Nels Cline, amongst others.

I had never heard of him before this event. Charlton Lee of Del Sol and Kronos Quartet’s violist Hank Dutt, who was performing in the second half, were the main attractions for me that evening. The program did not give much information about JHNO’s piece, other than it was “Untitled” for viola and electronics.

When the performance began, a viola sat on the floor while Eichenseer, a tall, long-haired young man, fiddled around on a computer. It’s difficult to remember much, given what unfolded afterwards, but there was some kind of amplified feedback system between computer and viola and the effect that was generated was more soundscape than music per se. (I say this recognizing, of course, that what counts as “music” is a complex question, especially when the avant-garde is concerned.)

While it seems to be unpopular to say this now, I was not especially enjoying Eichenseer’s performance. I worried a little about my friends, one of whom had just arrived the day before from Thailand. I had dragged them to this concert, so I felt some responsibility for their enjoyment and I guessed that they were most likely not enjoying this piece much either.

Not long into the performance, an elderly couple in the front row (I was sitting behind them in the third) started to become visibly agitated. Eichenseer had picked up the viola by this point, but he was still not “playing” it, in any traditional sense of the word. Its movement in space and Eichenseer’s occasional plucking seemed to affect the noise that the computer was generating. The old woman in the front row fussed with her purse and the couple looked like they were about to walk out. But they didn’t.

Instead, the old man began to applaude loudly, shouting, “Bravo! Bravo!” It was clear he was trying to stop the performance, perhaps hoping that others in the audience would follow his daring lead. But nobody did. The protest eventually stopped and the performance continued.

A member of staff approached the couple, whispering something to the old woman. Audience members looked around at one another with vaguely amused faces. While many of the performances I attend—both dance and music, it seems—involve at least one person in the audience walking out, I had never been to a concert where someone had actually tried to stop the performance because he didn’t like what he was hearing. It was bizarre, to say the least. I wondered again what my friends must be thinking of it all.

Now Eichenseer had the viola tucked under his chin and was playing it with a bow. After a short time, the old man raised his hands for the second time and began to applaud, repeating his shouts of “Bravo! Bravo!” Eichenseer seemed to increase the intensity of the sounds he was making in response to the heckling. Tension in the room mounted. My sense was that people wanted this old dude to shut up, but nobody knew what to do.

As the old man’s heckling continued, Eichenseer suddenly stopped playing and, like a petulant teenager, threw his viola to the ground and attempted to storm off the stage, though he got tangled in the black curtains that covered the side door. After a few seconds negotiating the curtains, he disappeared. A loud slamming was heard and we all sat there completely stunned by what we had just witnessed.

Meanwhile, the amplified feedback from the viola continued. I and others had to cover our ears, such were the noise levels. Eventually a member of the audience—a local musician and friend of Eichenseer—walked on stage, knelt down and slowly turned over the mangled viola, finally ending the feedback. That image is indelibly etched in my memory. The broken viola, the mess of strings, the horrible sound, the palpable tension in the room. I had never seen a musician destroy his own instrument and I never expected it would be a viola at a chamber concert. It was a very sad moment, indeed.

Another member of the audience, a young man, got up from his seat, announced that he was also a violist, and called for a “real round of applause for the performance” we had just heard. In solidarity with the artist whose performance had been so rudely and abruptly brought to and end by this old geezer in the front, the audience clapped and clapped. Pamela Z announced that this was the end of the first half and requested we return after an intermission.

A chorus from the audience then started to confront the old couple, telling them they ought to leave, that they had destroyed everyone’s else enjoyment, that if they didn’t like something they could just go. The elderly man defended himself, saying, “I am a violist and this was not music. It was a desecration!” One man in the audience responded to this, repeatedly telling the old man that he was nothing more than “an asshole.” Again, the old man defended himself, restating that he was, in fact, a violist, to which one woman, possibly Joan Jeanrenaud, rebutted, “Violists can be assholes too!”

The couple was not moved in the slightest by any of this and stayed, unapologetic, for the second part of the performance. I exited to the lobby to drink some wine and calm my nerves a bit. Discussion with the couple apparently continued inside.

Outside, others had the same idea as me. We were definitely grateful for the wine that was being served liberally. People tried to make light of the situation and joked around with one another to relieve the stress we all felt. My Thai friend, who was feeling quite upset by what she had just seen, was assured that this was not normal for performances in San Francisco.

Already by this point references were being made to the 1913 opening night of the Ballets Russes’ The Rite of Spring, where a riot broke out in the theater in response to Stravinsky’s score and (what these music folks never seem to remember) Nijinsky’s groundbreaking choreography. Let me make it clear: what we had just witnessed was nothing compared to that, either in terms of the artistic innovation of the performance or the violance (pardon the spelling!) of the reactions, but it was as close as any of us had ever gotten to it and probably ever would.

We returned to the house for the second half, which featured Hank Dutt playing three pieces, the first a solo piece by Nils Bultmann inspired by Bach’s cello suites, the second a classical Hindustani composition by Ram Narayan, and the third, “Waiting” by Jeanrenaud, a multi-layered solo composition, originally written for cello, created using live looping. Eichenseer, to his credit, reappeared onstage to accompany Dutt in the Narayan piece, this time playing a droning tambura with Z on shruti box (something akin to a harmonium).

Z then did a mesmerizing solo performance using voice, samples, and MIDI processing. The finale was a group improvisation for voice, electronics, and violas with everyone except Eichenseer, who could not participate for obvious reasons.

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The next day, everywhere I went friends were talking about the “Viola Riot.” The story got told and retold and I heard many versions from people who had not actually been there themselves. I started to record exclusively second-hand versions of the so-called “riot,” including, most notably, Brian Rosen’s account. Rosen, a composer himself, is responsible for coining the term “ViolaGate” in his blog piece about the incident he also calls a “mini-riot.”

A few days after Rosen’s post, which got a lot of attention in the music community, the New York Times picked up the story, calling it “an artistic melee more appropriate for a Metallica show.” In the Times’ story, Pamela Z is quoted making the comparison with The Rite of Spring premiere.

So, what is it about this minor kerfuffle that has ignited passions and sparked such controversy? And why is it that the incident, dramatic and upsetting as it was at the time, is so often described in hyperbolic terms? Some of these overwrought descriptions are clearly intended to be facetious, but some seem like they are meant to be taken seriously.

No doubt, part of what has attracted so much attention to the story is the identity of the old geezer, who, as it turns out, happens to be a well-known and respected eighty-five year-old violist, Bernard Zaslav. To get his side of the story, see the considerable comments section of Rosen’s post, where Zaslav alleges the “desecration” was to his sensitive hearing, and not to his aesthetic sensibility, which, by all accounts, is surprisingly forward-looking. For what it’s worth, I don’t buy it, and neither did a number of others who were also in attendance and witnessed the events first-hand.

Certainly, the high drama, the unexpectedness and (it must be said) childishness of Eichenseer’s response to Zaslav’s equally childish heckling makes for a great story. Even before the heckler’s identity was revealed, people were already talking and tweeting voluminously about the episode.

In one second-hand version of the story I recorded, the storyteller, a local composer, is interrupted at the point when Eichenseer has thrown his viola to the ground, breaking it “into a million pieces,” and is storming off stage.

“That sounds awesome!” another local musician/composer interjects.

“Yeah,” our storyteller continues, “It sounds fucking awesome!” They both wished they had been there to witness the drama for themselves.

In another version, the storyteller, also a local musician, has little sympathy for either party:

And then the viola motherfucker apparently, like, who doesn’t even—I heard he doesn’t even play viola, so that fact that he gets away with “out” music when he doesn’t even necessarily know how to play “in” music anymore is pretentious as fuck anyway. And so, because his artistic integrity was insulted so much by some old fucking beyotch, he broke his viola instead of giving it to somebody who would actually play it. Yeah, they can all kiss my fucking ass. That’s the version I heard.

It is curious to behold mythologies in the making.

With all the additions and exaggerations that inevitably come with subsequent retellings, combined with the many allusions to The Rite of Spring, I began to wonder how we distinguish myth from history, even after only a short amount of time has elapsed since the episode.

Then I began to wonder about the events of Paris, 1913. What in the accounts now familiar to us was fact and what was fiction? And how, almost 100 years later, might we ever pull those two apart?

According to music scholar, Richard Taruskin, author of “A Myth of the Twentieth Century: The Rite of Spring, the Tradition of the New, and ‘The Music Itself'”:

As early as the 1920s (the time, as I say, of the real “breaks”), Stravinsky was busily revising the history of The Rite and erasing its past. It was in 1920 that he first told an interviewer that the first inspiration for the ballet had been not a vision of its final dance (as he had previously stated) but a musical theme, and that consequently he had written “une oeuvre architectonique et non anecdotique” (an architectonic and not an anecdotal work).

Taruskin’s point is that this revisionist history, which many music scholars seem to follow without question, mistakenly relegates Nijinsky’s choreography, as well as the interdisciplinary conditions under which Stravinsky’s score was composed, to history’s backseat. We now know very little of Nijinsky’s original choreography for The Rite—it was lost, some say deliberately suppressed, after its last performance in 1914—though it was, disputably, “reconstructed” by Millicent Hodson in 1987 for the Joffrey Ballet.

Stravinsky’s score, on the other hand—”the music itself”—was, of course, preserved, though interestingly, the score was not published till 1921. Both extant score and lost choreography now have reputations of mythic proportions, due, in large part, to the ballet’s infamous opening night. But, according to Taruskin:

It took a long while for the score to achieve the awesome reputation we now assume it possessed from the beginning. In 1913 it was not the primary object of attention. The most cursory perusal of the Paris reviews of the original production, conveniently collected in Truman C. Bullard’s dissertation, reveals that it was the now-forgotten Nijinsky choreography, far more than Stravinsky’s music, that fomented the famous “riot” at the premiere. Many if not most reviews fail to deal with Stravinsky’s contribution at all beyond naming him as composer.

Indeed, the noise levels were so high in the Paris theater, the music was mostly inaudible. It is said that Nijinsky had to shout musical counts to his dancers from the wings, such was the racket in the theater.

It is ironic that Zaslav now claims it was not “the music itself” but the decibel level in the small theater in San Francisco that compelled him to so rudely disrupt Eichenseer’s performance. While I don’t doubt, as some apparently do, that noise levels contributed to his irascibility, it was obvious to all present that there was more to the story than this.

For Eichenseer, an unknown young composer catapulted from obscurity into the limelight, the results couldn’t be better. Like Stravinsky, the fact that his composition ultimately went unheard on its debut has not prevented him from receiving ample attention for it. On the contrary, it is precisely because his music ultimately went unheard that it has gained such notoriety. History, or mythology, whatever the difference is, will eventually reveal whether or not he will be known for anything more than this, his smashing debut.

Zero Point

I should just stop going to see dance. That’s, at least, what I concluded the other night after attending Zeropoint, yet another underwhelming (though aptly titled) dance performance.

While I don’t want to place the entire burden for my feelings on this most recent performance—it was, after all, just one in a series of disappointments—it certainly put a nail in the proverbial coffin for me. And it reaffirmed the growing disillusionment I’ve been experiencing lately with regards to dance, particularly contemporary or postmodern performances, which is the kind I tend to see most often.

So, what’s the problem? Why is it that while I enjoy most of the live music I attend these days, which is remarkable, given how many times a week I attend such performances, I’m routinely bored out of my mind when watching dance, which happens only a few times a month?

If dance were simply not up my alley, that would be one thing. But I actually love dance and have loved it for as long as I can remember. Back in the day when I lived with a TV, I would watch any piece of crap that had dance in it. I’m not embarrassed to admit that I watched the movie You Got Served not once, but twice, just because of its incredible dance scenes. That’s how much I love dance.

What’s the point?

The point is . . . well, the point is that it’s beginning to seem like there just is no point. I’m not “getting it” anymore. I don’t know why these dance works I’ve been seeing are being created, what, if anything the choreographer wants to communicate through the work, and what I’m supposed to take away from it.

Or, if the point is clear, then I can’t seem to figure out what the point in making that particular point is, why anybody is supposed to find it interesting, or, at least, interesting enough to pay money and sit for over an hour just to be hit over the head with it.

Part of the problem, I suspect, is that a lot of the work I see tends toward the avant-garde, or has obvious pretensions in that direction. I choose to see these kinds of works because I’m looking to be challenged in some way. I’m looking for a more active engagement with the piece. I want to be stimulated, provoked, surprised. I’m not interested, for example, in watching some anorexic ballet dancer perform a series of technically perfect movements that a thousand other dancers have performed a thousand other times in precisely the same way. Yawn.

The danger with avant-garde works, though, is that they can go too far in the opposite direction, eschewing so many of the traditional conventions of their respective art form that they become abstruse and inaccessible.

As Tyrus Miller, in his essay “Avant-Garde and Theory: A Misunderstood Relation” says, many people simply don’t understand avant-garde art:

In their perplexity before a painting with a goat’s head sticking out of it, or a recording that seems to consist mostly of shrieks and vaguely erotic grunts, or a poem that seems to have been written either by a moron or some sort of highly intelligent space alien, they may feel outrage, contempt, or just indifference. A slightly more servile response—from the person who knows it is supposed to be art, but still doesn’t get it—may be to fall back on a kind of low-level theory of the avant-garde: it’s avant-garde, it’s not supposed to mean anything. A more tutored response, perhaps shored up by literature or art history courses at the university, might be: the artist must be demonstrating a theory. None of these responses, I want to underscore, is foolish, but the last of our hypothetical art-consumers—the one who thinks a theory must be behind it all—is certainly more in tune with the tone of many of the current claims made by artists and by their publicists, apologists, and detractors alike.

The artist is demonstrating a theory. I can buy that, but here’s my problem with it. The artist may not be entirely clear on what precise theory she is trying to demonstrate. Or, she might know what her theory is but not know how to communicate it to an audience. Or, the theory might just be boring, obvious, and not very well thought out. And, good God, I came to see a dance performance! Is this really the medium in which to be demonstrating your theories? Write a goddamn book, or something.

It’s possible, of course, that the artist is not trying to demonstrate a theory at all, but rather is trying to provoke a reaction. Maybe I’m supposed to feel bored, confused, or alienated because the artist is making some commentary on how boring, confusing, or alienating life is. Or I’m supposed to reflect on my own boredom, confusion, and alienation, discover its source within, and somehow find that interesting enough to pay to see the show?

It could also be that the artist just doesn’t give a shit what the audience thinks or feels, if they “get it” or not. It certainly seems that way sometimes.

According to the description of this last performance I attended, the “part dance, part video, part radical social experiment” piece was supposed to tackle “questions of nuclear meltdown, multidimensional perception, and transformational world healing.”

What I got out of it was that both the choreographer and video artist have progressive politics and think that mainstream “news reporting” in the US is a joke. Great! Me too!! I think it’s safe to say that 99.9% of the artsy-fartsy audience in this hip Mission District theater also have progressive politics and hold similar views on the news media. Isn’t it so wonderful that we can all come together and share like this?

I would have found it a little more interesting had there been some new insight offered, something to challenge or subvert my own assumptions. If there was, then I didn’t get it.

As for the dancing itself, while there were enjoyable moments, as there usually are at these performances, I rarely see anything I haven’t seen before. With performances that utilize improvisational techniques a lot, the problem is that they can start to look like a Contact Improvisation jam with lights and costumes. I love to watch my friends play and dance together, but in a contact jam I’m able to join in or leave, manners intact, whenever I feel like it. And it costs a lot less money.

So, I find myself frustrated and disillusioned. I don’t want to subject myself to any more of this pointlessness. I want to be amused, thrilled even. I want to leave the performance with unforgettable images stamped in my mind. I want to find myself returning again and again to these images and to the thoughts and associations they have ignited in me. I want it to resonate in my body. I want it to inspire me.

Maybe the next one will be better.

A Little Pre-Rapture Rapture

Last night, the night before the Rapture officially hits the fan (at something like 6pm today, if I’m not mistaken), I had considered staying home and praying. But then I saw that Amendola vs. Blades were playing in the Mission and I thought, fuck that shit.

So, off I went to the Red Poppy Art House, a tiny little venue on the corner of 23rd and Folsom that has some of the best music concerts you’re likely to hear in this city. Amendola vs. Blades promised a night of “sonic deity conjuring” and the duo did not disappoint.

Amendola vs. Blades is jazz drummer Scott Amendola and Hammond B3 organ player Wil Blades. As composers and bandleaders, Amendola plays with the likes of Nels Cline, Jeff Parker, Larry Ochs, Ben Goldberg, and Devin Hoff, and Blades with New Orleans drummer Stanton Moore, Billy Martin from Medeski, Martin, & Wood, and legendary jazz drummer Idris Muhammad, amongst many others.

The two have been playing together for five years, though they first started collaborating musically back in 2003. In the Spring of 2006, Amendola undertook a project to adapt the 1966 Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn Far East Suite, making an arrangement for drums and organ. Naturally, he thought of rising star Wil Blades for the organ part and since then, the two have been creating a buzz around town as Amendola vs. Blades.

Many of tunes they started with in 2006, like “Blue Pepper” and “Tourist Point of View” from the Ellington/Strayhorn suite, are still on the repertoire these days, as well as some Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk interpretations, and a lot of original compositions by both Amendola and Blades.

The duo glides seamlessly between tracks that range from straight ahead jazz and grooving funk to more experimental pieces, some sounding closer to glitch or IDM than jazz, music that Amendola describes as “almost post-electronic.”

Despite being packed into the Red Poppy like sardines, it was obvious from watching how bodies were moving in their seats that everyone was loving the musical journey. Indeed, one friend (a fellow dancer) was having great difficulty sitting still beside me. “This is torture,” he groaned. “I want to dance!!”

God was obviously punishing us by making us sit in such cramped quarters while this amazing music was being played. We did attempt an inconspicuous chair dance together, but when a piece of art work was almost knocked off the wall, we returned to a more contained rhythmic head-nodding and resisted further temptation.

Whatever about the audience, the performers certainly have no problem playing in such an intimate venue.

“There’s just something about having everyone right on top of you,” says Blades. “We’ve played shows here where it’s even more packed than this. There was one particular show that was just crazy. People were literally right up against the organ and all around us and behind us against that piano.”

The Red Poppy Art House is definitely a favorite place for the duo to play. “It’s a really comfortable, friendly, fun environment,” says Amendola. “Easily, we’ve had some of our best shows here,” adds Blades.

“Playing small venues, for our music, gives us—gives the music—so much more room to breathe,”Amendola continues. “There’s so many more possibilities. . . This place is just really special.”

This night too was really special, and not merely because it was quite possibly our last. It’s hard to convey how rich and full a sound the two musicians are able to create together. At times Blades’ organ makes you think you’re listening to a bass and guitar with Amendola’s drums, at other times the two manage to conjure the impression that the whole Ellington orchestra is present. With lots of improvised tempo changes and playful exchanges between the two, their manifest joy playing this music together is easily transferred to the audience.

At one point in the evening, I felt myself possessed by the Holy Spirit and thought the ascension to Heaven had come a day early. But then I remembered I was probably amongst the damned. Good thing I had not wasted my last night at home praying.

The coming Rapture has not deterred the duo from making plans for the future, however. With an Amendola vs. Blades album in the works—they will be starting to work on that this Summer—and more gigs lined up, there are, in theory at least, more opportunities to see the two play together soon.

Blades, especially, seemed confident of his own post-Rapture chances. “I play organ,” he reminded us with a smile. “I actually play at a church every Sunday. . .  I’ve been playing hymns almost every Sunday that I’ve been in town for the last six years. I’m good.”

Amendola vs. Blades are playing tomorrow, God willing, at Blades’s weekly residence at the Madrone Lounge in San Francisco, which each Sunday features Blades and a rotating cast of local musicians. You can also catch Amendola vs. Blades on July 7th at the Starry Plough in Berkeley.

Too Many Irons (and Other Recipes)

Some of my fondest memories from Dublin in the mid-eighties involve me spending vast amounts of time in the kitchen pretending to do homework while listening to Capitol Radio, an alternative radio station broadcast from various shifting locations in the city.

My favorite show by far was Tony Gahan’s 20th Century Promised Land. It was through Tony that I was introduced to some of the best punk and new-wave music from the late seventies and eighties, bands such as Joy Division, The Only Ones, Magazine, The Chameleons, Ciccone Youth, This Mortal Coil, and Bauhaus.

It was devastating to those of us who religiously listened to Capitol, and particularly 20th Century Promised Land, when the government cracked down on all pirate radio stations in the country, shutting them down permanently on December 31, 1988. I distinctly remember how depressed we all were on New Year’s Eve at the Capitol Radio closing party. We solemnly counted down the seconds to 1989 and, just like that, on the stroke of midnight, a significant musical education ended for me and many others of my generation.

Fast forward more than twenty-two years later to the Mission District in San Francisco. A friend is telling me about an upcoming benefit show he’s doing. “We’re all doing covers of Cardiacs’ songs. You’ve probably never heard of Cardiacs. Hardly anybody over here has heard of them.”

Cardiacs? Yes. The name is definitely familiar. Cardiacs? How do I know that name? What did they sing again?

I go home, do a youtube seach, and discover the answer. “There’s Too Many Irons in the Fire.”

Bingo! Mr. Gahan had been especially fond of this 1987 song, or maybe it’s just the Cardiacs’ song I remember best from his radio show. How exciting it was to rediscover a forgotten piece of my youth! And how exciting it was that a bunch of local musicians were going to be paying tribute to this unique, iconoclastic band all these years later.

Little did I know that since the eighties and until fairly recently, Cardiacs have been continuing to make incredible music that has evolved from the early punk music I would have heard back in the day to more of a progressive, though none the less idiosyncratic, sound.

Ironically, a few years ago, Cardiacs’ composer and lead singer, Tim Smith, suffered a heart attack, followed by a number of strokes that have left him physically incapacitated. He is currently undergoing the protracted process of neurological rehabilitation.

Two Bay Area experimental musicians, Moe Staiano and Dominique Leone, both big Cardiacs fans for some years, decided they wanted to help out Tim Smith by organizing a benefit concert featuring a bunch of different local bands covering Cardiacs’ songs. In addition to raising money for Smith, the aim was also to expose more people to the music they loved so much.

Performing on Sunday’s benefit at Cafe du Nord, were a whole host of local music innovaters: Amy X Neuburg, Wiener Kids, Grex, Inner Ear Brigade, Dominique Leone, and a Cardiacs’ tribute band, ReCardiacs Fly, which included organizer Moe Staiano on drums and members of Reconnaissance Fly.

Most of the musicians had never heard of Cardiacs before organizers Staiano and Leone introduced them to it. But in the process of doing this show, all of them have become huge fans.

So, what is it about the music that inspires people, once they finally discover the band, to become such “obsessive fans,” as Leone says?

Bill Wolter, who leads progressive rock band Inner Ear Brigade, sums up the music in a single word: “transcendent.”

“The structure is complex and beautiful,” says Amy X Neuburg, who opened the show with a solo performance of two Tim Smith songs. There are “beautiful chord patterns that take twists and turns that are unexpected. It’s like art music. . . The compositions are classical in nature.”

Echoing this view, guitarist Marc Laspina of ReCardiacs Fly says, “Musically it’s like opening God’s cookbook. . . The melodies, the time changes, the energy. It’s completely unique!”

Laspina’s bandmate Polly Moller, who was introduced to Cardiacs by Staiano about a year ago, wonders, “How did I live this long and not know this band?”

Staiano himself says, “It’s like nothing else, and it’s very intense and energetic, and very well written and really thought out. There’s not very much music I’ve heard like that.”

But none of these descriptions can truly capture the music. You can talk about the incredible energy, the theatricality of the band’s performances, the weird time signatures, the sometimes spastic phrasing, the unique chord progressions, the distinctness of Tim Smith’s voice.

“But,” as Leone says, “it doesn’t even begin to sum up what they sound like, which is why so many people are surprised when they first hear them.”

Although all the musicians who performed at Sunday’s show have obvious technical chops, they still found it a challenge to recreate Smith’s music. Because Cardiacs are not especially well known, you can’t find tablatures for their songs on the web or, indeed, reliable lyrics sheets, so it was up to each band to piece together and notate the songs by themselves. In addition to the sheer complexity of the music, there were also other challenges.

Bassist Tim Walters of ReCardiacs Fly said that on some of the songs he couldn’t always hear the bass, so there was a lot of guessing and filling in the gaps involved.

On a similar note, interrupting her own performance, Neuburg issued a wry disclaimer about the accuracy of her lyrics. When you figure out what words Smith is singing, the lyrics are often pretty bizarre, so it’s hard to tell if you’ve really gotten them right.

None of this detracted from anybody’s fun. On the contrary, it was an evening of stellar performances that, by all accounts, left everybody wanting more, more, more.

My own personal favorite performance of the night was ReCardiacs Fly’s. With the longest set—doing four songs, all from the mid-eighties—there was really time to settle in with the music. Three songs were from Cardiacs’ 1984 album, The Seaside, and the other, which I was especially excited about, was (you guessed it) their 1987 single, “There’s Too Many Irons in the Fire,” the one song I actually knew some lyrics to.

ReCardiacs gave a spirited, high energy performance in full Cardiacs costume and face paint (white faces with red lipstick smeared willy nilly in the general vicinity of the mouth!). Lead singer Polly Moller played Tim Smith next to saxophonist Chris Broderick’s Sarah Smith, Smith’s then wife. Broderick with his golden curls bounced around onstage in a black dress and tiara, while Moller, in a mod suit complete with vintage eighties tie, twitched and grimaced, and smiled maniacally.

What a blast! All that was missing was a good ol’ eighties mosh pit, which probably would not have been that difficult to instigate.

The night ended with Leone and his band performing his favorite, “Dirty Boy” from the 1995 double album, Sing to God, a song, according to Leone, “so epic in every possible respect, pushing every kind of button that Cardiacs push for me, and doing it to the nth degree.” It certainly was an epic ending to an epic evening.

All the of musicians who performed on Sunday are excited to incorporate Cardiacs’ music into future performances with their respective bands. All of them, it seems, have become diehard fans. Leone was very encouraged to hear that audience and performers alike came away wanting more. Maybe another such benefit for Smith will happen again soon.

In the meantime, Leone’s message to those thirsty to hear Cardiacs’ music, and especially those who would like to help Tim Smith on the road to recovery?

“Go to iTunes and buy Cardiacs’ music.” It’s that simple.