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Music Production: Comprovisations & Impositions
04/06/2006 Comprovisations & Impositions: WRCT: A Live Show

It's that time again--time for another set of large group structured improvisations. The last one yielded some really successful pieces...totalling 15 minutes in length, so I've been working on my randomizing conductor Javascripts, and we now have so many potential combinations that it would take centuries to go through them all...yet we only have an hour. Expect plenty of guitars, a few non-guitars, and some surprises--hey, we'll be surprised, too.

Currently, the lineup:

Altos: the inescapable Mr. Funky (also playing keyboards) and Pittsburgh music luminary Sam Matthews. Tenors: Glenn Branca Ensemble members Taichi Nakatani and aesthetic troublemaker Maurice Rickard. Bass: Avant-gardiste-about-town-and-elsewhere Stephen Pellegrino. Drums/percussion: master drummer/SCLF member Ryan Sigesmund and percussion innovator James Gyer. What sampling kids are doing with Acid and Frootyloops, these guys are doing with sheer muscle and raw nerve.

Listen, and be elevated by hairpin turns of sudden invention and interpretation. Bask in the Outer Radiance of your mode of music consumption! On the other hand, miss it, and be one of those people 15 years from now lying about how you were there in the studio, and wasn't it great, maaaan, while the acidity of deception eats away at your blackened core. Or, y'know, just have something else to do. The choice is yours--and yet there is no delta of marginal utility! How can you lose?

Thursday April 6. http://www.wrct.org/ or 88.3 FM Pittsburgh, 9-10 PM EDT (GMT - 5).

This one was...difficult. In some ways, the difficulty started weeks before, with a significant work load, which (along with parenthood) left me little time to prepare additional scores, and also a set of complex performer schedules which meant there wouldn't be any rehearsal. An even greater difficulty presented itself two days before the show, when I broke the little finger on my right hand.

I was shopping (for baby food), and knocked a baby food jar off the shelf at the store. Lunging to catch it, I somehow jammed my little finger right into the shelving unit. At that instant, I kind of wondered what the hell had happened: my finger felt wrong, had a blood blister on the tip, and I had a couple bloody knuckles. It ended up being three weeks before I learned it was actually broken (the swelling went down, finally, and the tip...wiggled...in a way the others didn't). But for the meantime, it was a throbbing bag of blood on the end of my hand. Guitar playing--particularly double-strumming--would be a challenge. For the time being, I kept it taped up.

To maximize the scores I could generate in the limited time I had, I decided to go with the Javascript conductor for the new pieces, which required in some cases extensive revision to the conductor I'd been using. This on top of regular work, and all without the usual typing speed (semicolon and quotes keys were rather awkward for me).

The evening of the show I collected my gear and Mr. Funky, and we went down to the studio, meeting up with the others, though our drummers were a bit late. During sound check I went over the Javascript conductor behavior with this group (Ryan and Steve would know the drill here, but not necessarily the others.) We did get our drummers, of course, and were in good shape to go. "Rest" was good, as always, if a little less loud than I'd like. In fact, the conventionally scored pieces worked well in general, but we did have some problems.

The lack of rehearsal hurt us with the Javascript, in that--even as I'd programmed in rests--there was a tendency for people to play anyway if they saw their name up, even if there was a rest indicated. Also, in cases where the note wasn't specified (and in a few cases where it was), there was a tendency to double-strum (even with note patterns indicated), or to make noise. Mr. Funky pointed out that this was likely a limitation of the tuning, since one couldn't just play what one heard in the open improv piece. This was particularly the case in the very highly compressed every-ensemble piece, which went four seconds between changes. The biggest problem there was that there was no room for anyone to develop something, although there was the bonus of the tension resulting from people having to be on their toes the whole time.

What did it sound like? Throughout the hour, it was pretty much moments that seemed pretty wanky, followed by moments of almost-gelling, or the reverse. I liked the energy of some of the pieces, but the Javascript stuff was wrong for this collection of instruments and this tuning (octave unison)...and in any case it certainly requires more rehearsal. Another lesson learned is that I really need to take more control of things in this context after having set up the initial criteria. Also interesting was that the graphic score didn't work, unlike the previous performance. So that piece may now be dead, too.

Ultimately, this was an experiment that resulted in good data (mainly, don't do what I did for this one), but less than pleasing aesthetic results. Mr. Funky, Ryan, James, and I repaired to the Sharp Edge to discuss things, which was pleasant, though I still had that whiff of unsuccessful project about me. Well, lots to think about for the next time, at least. And despite my issues, many thanks to the industrious players who helped to make this happen.

09/25/2004 Comprovisations & Impositions: Live at the Watercolors Gallery

It's been a while since the last show, so what have I been doing with my time? This. I'm launching what (I hope) is the first performance in a new series, Comprovisations & Impositions. It's a series of rule- and score-based improvisations for large ensemble. Who's playing? Me (scores, conducting, guitar), Dave Bernabo (guitar), Eric Fox (guitar), Mr. Funky (guitar), Kerry Lee Hinkson (guitar), Mr$ Funky (bass), and Ryan Sigesmund (drums, percussion).

A band this large doing improvs? Sure. And not only that--we'll be set up around the edges of the room, with the audience in the middle. Hearing protection and open-mindedness are strongly encouraged. The pieces:

* "Rest," an asynchronous investigation of the harmonic series in five keys
* "Stacks (for TM)," involving sustained tones in fourths and major seconds
* "Double Intrusion," a graphical score--let's see what everyone does with this one!
* "Tone Beating," an old favorite arranged for ensemble
* "Suspend," a torrent of suspended chords which I last did at Rob's "Guitar Guitar Guitar Guitar Guitar," and which ironically foreshadows a certain musical activity of mine in the coming weeks.

7PM to 8PM, although I wouldn't be averse to another set if there are enough people. All ages. $6. Be there, or lie to your friends years later, and just tell them that you were.

Watercolors Gallery 901A Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15222 (downtown).

The germ of this idea goes back to an episode over the summer, in which I saw a certain long-lived experimental band, and found them boring. Not boring enough to leave, but boring enough that my mind wandered, and I started thinking of other kinds of pieces to perform collaboratively. I developed some concepts, pursued grant money (to no result), and when a date came up, figured what the hell, why not do the show on the cheap. Then I had to write the concepts out so that they could actually be played. A huge help in this regard is Myriad Online's Melody Assistant, which let me preview how it would print, automatically generate tablature, tweak any number of things, and also make sure that my notation was indicating what I wanted it to. I also used it to write some kinds of things I as a guitar player ordinarily wouldn't (like the "Stacks" piece).

"Rest" and "Stacks" were new, and relied largely on what I could now do with Melody Assistant. I was a bit worried in writing that "Stacks" would get too cloying or obvious, as what began as an exercise in parallel fourths quickly got pulled into major second Thelonious Monk territory. In the event, my rules for how to play it (synchronization not required), would mean that I wouldn't have to worry. "Suspend" was an old piece I'd come up with for Guitar Guitar Guitar Guitar, and could be taught to people in 30 seconds, but it seemed worth notating. "Tone Beating" was always a very loose piece when I did it solo, and it was difficult for me to decide how I wanted to do it; ultimately I ended up picking some landmarks during rehearsal. "Double Intrusion" was maybe the oldest piece here--sometime in the early-mid 90s I had written out some graphic patterns that might serve as the basis of arranging something on four-track, but never got around to realizing them. This was the most interesting pattern, and I augmented it for a larger group...with no instructions on how to interpret the graphics.

I'd lined up an ensemble back when I was writing the grants, but life has a way of intervening, and the lineup changed several times before the event itself. Ryan couldn't make it, and I knew Mike Yaklich of Dragging the Stone would be able to do it. A few days before the show, it looked like we'd have about seven people, and then Steve Pellegrino and his son Leo said they could make it, so we'd have nine. Some of the more uncertain members of the ensemble wanted to rehearse, so the Wednesday before, Mr. & Mr$ Funky graciously made their place available. We had the Funkies, Mike, and Kerry Lee, and the rehearsals were quite promising. There was, to be sure, some uncertainty, but it would gel.

The day itself was a bit hectic--I had some work I was doing in advance of an October 1 site launch, and we had a family commitment, which had come up after I'd set up the show. We decided I'd put in a brief appearance and then cut out to the show, which I did. No time to eat dinner, or come back home to change (so I removed my tie and declared that I was in my composer's outfit), so I loaded the car beforehand, went out to the formal event, and then headed straight downtown. I'd not had a look at the space before (big mistake on my part), and it was very narrow--to the point that it would be difficult to surround the audience as I'd wanted (we'd do it anyway). The Funkies and Mike were in the house early, and then Kerry Lee joined us. I'd heard from Steve and Leo, suggesting that the wedding they were attending was running too long, so I had figured we'd be back down to seven. Then Leslie came by to tell me that Eric was suffering from the flu or something, so we were now down to six. OK, I'd work with that. Happily, Dave Bernabo arrived, so we were good to go. We did collect a bit of an audience, and arranged the chairs in rows of two.

A brief check, I set up the MiniDisc, mic pre, and mics, and off we went with "Rest." This piece was very sparse and slow with single notes and long gaps between them. As simple as it was (and being the composer) I still got a bit lost from time to time (although Rob and Jacque played their parts flawlessly), and I ended up losing count of the number of repeats. Duh. Still Mike's drumming, in particular, was very subtle and mysterious. Overall this performance had a "Music for Airports" quality to it, and suspended time nicely. I'm sure some of the audience was bored nearly to tears.

"Stacks" was going to be difficult. In rehearsal, I'd had the ebow, but in this performance it would be better for Kerry Lee to use it, playing an amplified acoustic as she was, and not being able to rely on feedback. So I went for the feedback, as did Jacque (to great effect!), while Dave used his ebow, and Rob got some nice sustain from doing glissando with a beer bottle. I'd been concerned that this one might have an over-obvious harmonic movement, but the additional feedback frequencies and the out-of-sync performance rule resulted in something mysterious like the first piece, yet menacing. Two successes.

Things headed downhill, however, with the graphical score. At times it came together, but just as often was indistinguishable from noodling. The problem here was my lack of direction to others, as well as presenting something that was too dense and, well, cluttered to have interesting results. If I'm going to have people work from a graphic score in the future, it'll have to be sparser. And perhaps it'll have to be broken into individual pieces--I think showing everyone all the parts proved to be a distraction here. Well, it was an experiment, and I've learned that I designed this piece poorly. Better might ber to use it as a seed for conventional notation...we'll see what happens with it.

"Tone Beating" was frustrating for me due to my not having the ebow. I'd prefer a smooth ascent or descent, but the glissando bowing method wasn't working for me, largely because I have my guitar's action set low. Other people did better with it, but I was letting the piece down. "Suspend" was a similar letdown--the first time I'd done it, the piece was loud, driving, overwhelming, which is what I wanted, but the room was too small, and we felt too restrained to turn up. In a similar lack of leadership, I'd not provided the rock energy for this one, just assuming that people would play it the way I wanted. In the event, it was too polite, bordering on a cliche, and not as joyous as I wanted. I'd devised a system of switching parts around to make it more enjoyable to play, but this added a level of confusion, and our diminished numbers meant that there were going to be holes in the sound.

We were done early, so we went for a group improv which worked well in places, and largely was a musical conversation between me and Rob. Still, there were some other contributions, which were surprising and at times pleasing.

So we had mixed results. No walkouts, but then we were evenly matched with the audience. People said they'd liked it, but to me only the first two pieces really accomplished something. We made $12, which it was decided would be put toward pizza and beer for those who wanted to hang out. This ended up being the Funkies and kids, Kerry Lee and her boyfriend, and me, so we repaired to chez Funky, where I transferred the evening off MiniDisc, onto the PowerBook, and burnt CDs for the participants. Given my string of less than satisfying gigs this year, I'll take two successful pieces, and work on tightening this concept up for next time.


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Live at Black Forge, January 2, 2016
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Live, November 5, 2015
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live at the Garfield Artworks, July 27, 2014
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snwv: impulse
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Live at the Thunderbird Cafe, November 9, 2011
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Wave Space, Cleveland OH, September 16, 2011 4?:?34 PM?-?5?:?37 PM
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snwv: snwv
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Music for Dance
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Tell Ya One Thing And Then Some
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Death Pig (Live, July 2, 2003)
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Circuits of Steel Tour 2003: Chicago, St. Louis, Muncie
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Guitar Clouds
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