Offside 2×5: Klaxon Mutant Allstars & These Are Our Hours

Earlier this year I embarked on a major adventure with Alex Pinto—SF Offside—a three-night festival showcasing some of the best from the local jazz/creative music scene. While we are already working hard toward next year’s festival, I wasn’t quite ready to let go of this year’s incredible experience. In particular, I wanted to bring together the two quintets that debuted at the festival into one night of awesomeness called Offside 2×5.

These Are Our Hours is one of many projects led by composer, saxophonist, and clarinetist Aram Shelton, and includes members of the Oakland Active Orchestra. Alex and I had originally invited OAO to close out the first night of the festival, but given the significant size of that collective, the logistics didn’t work out. We kept talking with Aram about possibilities, however, which ultimately resulted in him putting together this quintet to perform all new compositions, specially written for the festival. And thus was born These Are Our Hours.

TAOH making their debut at SF Offside 2012
Photo by Roger Kim

In addition to Shelton on alto sax, TAOH features one of my current favorites, the very talented Mark Clifford on vibes, highlighted to great effect in Shelton’s arrangements, as well as Theo Padouvas on trumpet, Kim Cass on bass, and Sam Ospovat or Shaun Lowecki on drums—a crew of young and talented players. Since their debut at Offside in May, they’ve been building a strong body of work playing a monthly at Bar 355 in Oakland. One Tuesday recently, I got to see them play the Uptown in Oakland with Alex Pinto’s trio opening, part of the ongoing Active Music Series. That was a great evening of music with a surprisingly full house for a Tuesday night, so I’m excited to hear TAOH play again, particularly at Viracocha, where the sound is so good. They will be playing the first set of the evening.

Meanwhile, check out this nice article in the San Francisco Chronicle about Shelton, whose Chicago quartet recently performed at the Monterey Jazz Festival.

Klaxon Mutant Allstars is an intergalactic confederacy of Bay Area players—trumpeter Henry Hung, saxophonist Kasey Knudsen, keyboard player Colin Hogan, bassist George-Ban Weiss, and drummer Eric Garland—that emerged from the Amnesia Wednesday night jazz jam. While all five write for the ensemble, Hung and Garland do the bulk of the composing. The story of how KMA came to play the third night of Offside is not a whole lot different from the TAOH story. I was talking with George Ban-Weiss about Atomic Roger, his trio with Eric Garland and guitarist extraordinaire Mike Abraham (these three also play together in violinist Mads Tolling’s Grammy Award-winning quartet). Abraham, who took over the Wednesday night jam when Mitch Marcus moved to NY, has since moved to LA, so logistically it didn’t work out for them to play the festival.

KMA playing at Viracocha on the last night of Offside
Photo by Hernando Buitrago

George told me about a new group he, Garland (who now leads the Wednesday jam), and some others had formed, but at that point they did not yet have a name. I knew all the players involved and was already really impressed with Garland as a composer, not to mention bad-ass drummer. So, we invited the group to play at SF Offside, they promptly came up with a name for themselves, then performed an appropriately stellar (or interstellar?) set on the last night of the festival.

We were very lucky to have Bay Taper in attendance that night, so the entire evening was documented. Craig from Wedge Radio also covered the show on his blog.

For a little taste of what’s to come in November, listen to this Bay Taper recording of Klaxon playing a delightful Hung composition called “Jamie Moyer” (Wedge Radio explains the joke for those of us that don’t get sports references). The group also recently spent some time in the studio, so their debut recording will be released some time in the new year.

I’m very excited to be presenting these two quintets in one show. While different stylistically, both have mastered that fine balancing act between structure, melody, and rhythm on the one hand, and openness, improvisation, and inventiveness on the other. The music is accessible while also full of surprises. So, please, save the date!

Offside 2×5: KLAXON MUTANT ALLSTARS & THESE ARE OUR HOURS          Friday November 9th at Viracocha. Doors at 8pm, show at 8:30pm.

It’s going to be a night of ridiculously good, fresh new music.

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.