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Music Production: Comprovisations & Impositions
11/20/2004 Comprovisations & Impositions: No. 2, at 937 Liberty


Saturday, 11/20/2004, at 937 Liberty Avenue, Downtown, it's the return of Comprovisations & Impositions!

Fresh from having joined the Glenn Branca Ensemble for the recording of Branca's Symphony No. 13, I'll be taking a more aggressive edge with these large-group pieces. Hear more open strings! Hear louder amps! Use hearing protection so you can hear things the next day! (I have a 200 count box on the way, but bring yours just in case.)

The lineup: Mr. & Mr$ Funky return on guitar and bass, and I'll be playing and conducting. Otherwise, it's an entirely new band! Joining us will be drumming powerhouse Ryan Sigesmund, and on guitar, fellow Branca ensemble member Taichi Nakatani, Steve Pellegrino (possibly his first show on guitar), technical metal brain surgeon Karl Franklin, and Pittsburgh music luminary Sam Matthews (Feral Family, zillions more.). And there will be new, never-heard-before pieces! How can you lose?

But that's not all! Cultural interdimensional explorer and master performance artist Steve Pellegrino will start us off with a solo looping set, based on his recent inspirations and on Pittsburgh's radio history, and it oughta be quite a blast. So come on down and build up some calluses on your brain before it gets all soft from Thanksgiving.

937 Liberty Avenue, Downtown, 8pm, all ages, FREE. Directions at http://tinyurl.com/5jzb5

Surprisingly awesome. I wasn't sure how it would go, given the way the last one was unsatisfying to me, but this one was strong, even with some defects.

To deal with the problems of the last one (too quiet, nonoptimal performance of the graphic score, unsatisfying performance of the "Suspend" piece), I wanted to work the scores over in advance, and also have people play more open strings, using the octave unison tunings I'd picked up as part of the Branca ensemble. Right off, then, there were two complications: while I was doing a lot of design and programming work, I was also remaking these scores and working on one new score; in addition, one of my players didn't want to restring and another's guitar disappeared, so I'd be buying instruments for them.

A few weeks in advance of the show, I took a tour of the local guitar shops, finding (at the end of the day) a little black CMI electric, a pseudo-offset body, two single-coil pickups, and a stained pine fingerboard for all of $50. Excellent! One down. They tried to talk me out of it at first, as the pickups would be microphonic if the guitar was going through a fuzztone. I figured that we'd be playing clean, so I went ahead with it. As I was paying for it, one of the people in the store said, "You're not going to smash it, are you?" which I wasn't--I don't believe in smashing instruments. It was nearly ready for performing, although I had to shim the neck, tweak the truss rod, and grind off the bridge posts, which extended rather far above the bridge itself and posed a hazard to the player.

The second guitar came via ebay, a Heit DeLuxe with some rather loud single-coils. I had to shim this one and let out the truss rod (a previous owner had tightened it as far as it would go), and glue down the fingerboard. Alas, there are some bad fret buzzes with these low frets, so I had to raise the bridge.

I also bought strings, and distributed them to Karl and Sam, with Rob's and Steve's strings taken care of by the instruments I'd be buying. That left me and Taichi, and I figured he'd might leave his guitar in the tenor tuning, while I decided to use my Univox Hi-Flyer, as I'd not gigged with it before (in the...geez...20 years of owning it), so why not. And I didn't want to mess up the setup of the Kalamazoo.

I kept working on the pieces late at night after full days of programming, which had me courting eye fatigue as well as sleep deprivation. I made edits to the existing pieces, generally lengthening them and adding fermata so that we could all catch up with each other, although the graphic score ("Double Intrusion") doesn't lend itself to lengthening and had other problems. For it, I assigned lines through it to the players, instead of having them choose, and I also added detailed instructions encouraging the use of rests and space, as the last performance was too noodly. And I made it clear that everyone was to work together on this one--we needed to listen to each other.

I'd been thinking of doing two new pieces to replace "Suspend," which worked a few years ago but didn't work this most recent time. Also, it would be nearly impossible to play in the new tunings, so it was time to retire this one, at least for a while. The first new piece would be based on the octatonic scale (alternating major and minor seconds), giving the piece an uneasy dissonance.

I struggled with this one. While it had a reasonable form (introduce octatonic dissonance, then cloud up into chromaticism with stacked minor seconds, building to a big cluster, and then condensing these into different consonances to end), actually enacting that moment to moment was difficult. Since there were to be long sustained notes in the piece, I previewed it with the OS's built-in MIDI sounds. The piano sound's better, but I needed the sustain and went with the organ, which had the disadvantage of sounding cheesily bad-horror-movie creepy. Pretty much all the way through the thing I was afraid it was going to suck, but I kept pushing on. It consumed too much time for me to write yet another new one, so that'll have to wait until next time.

Another difference in this performance was that I produced scores for each player--that way each player wouldn't have to worry about which staff to follow, and could be read much more easily. One of the many nice features of Melody Assistant. I also took care of one last detail the week before the show--I expected that this would be a loud show so I could start experimenting with standing waves and interferences in the room, but I didn't want to deafen the audience, so I bought a 200-count box of pairs of foam hearing protectors. Happily, it arrived on-time, so I'd have those on-hand.

As this was the weekend before Patricia's birthday--and the birthday of Mr$ Funky--we thought to combine the show with a party. Since our only rehearsal would be before the show, it also seemed reasonable to feed the band. We knew the room had a kitchen and fridge in the backstage area, so this was feasible.

I spent the day finally getting my own rehearsal in, and in the process, discovered that a lot was missing from the Octatonic piece. A lot of the dissonant section was just plain gone. Apparently sometime during the editing process, I deleted a big chunk of work, which was disappointing, but we were just a few hours to rehearsal and showtime, quite clearly too late to reconstruct. So what to do? Put repeats around the dissonant section we had, and around the consonant section at the end. Considering that we'd likely get out of sync anyway, each of these repetitions would be somewhat different. It'd have to do. I also learned that my hand had become used to the thicker neck of the Kalamazoo, and the thin neck of the Univox was a bit uncomfortable for this kind of playing. Too late to change the axe, though, so I'd soldier on.

In addition, we lost a player. I'd been a bit concerned to see that Karl had only downloaded one of the scores, so I called him and left a message. He called back, pointing out that his life had developed some complications which would keep him from the gig. Unfortunate, as I'd written these parts for six guitarists, and he'd seemed into the concept the last few times we'd talked about it...but in a way it was a relief, as I'd known that all the other players had downloaded and gone through their parts, so we were all on the same footing with these pieces.

We drove down to the space at about 4:45, bringing all my gear and the food for the band. Steve and his family were in the house, and we shortly gained the Funkies, Sam, and Taichi. Ryan showed up, partially assembled his kit, and we got to rehearsing and soundchecking. I wanted to run through all the pieces to get everyone in the same conceptual space, and we also made a few last-minute decisions on how to play pieces, most notably the new repeats on "Octatonic." I wasn't sure if I wanted people to go through these sections twice or more--I was leaning toward three, which is a natural "joke" structure--but thought maybe we should go for concision. Rob voiced a strong preference for three, which was good enough for me. So it'd be three times through each section.

Soundchecking was a bit fraught at first, with the wide variety of levels: Sam had perhaps the lowest output guitar, but was coming in quite loud through Steve's accordion amp, while I had trouble getting Taichi's guitar to the exact level I wanted--it seemed like we were always overshooting, and Steve hit us with a blast from the Heit, when we kept turning him up and hearing no sound, only to realize that both pickup switches were off. Before the show, Steve (a keyboard genius, but not someone who regularly plays guitar) had also mentioned that the staircase chords were difficult for him to finger, so I said that he could just play the root note straight across, and not worry about the minor seconds. We'd have enough dissonance in the house.

Frank Ferraro and his family showed up as well, and the rest of us moved to the kitchen to get a bite to eat before the show, as well as get the different players bonding a bit. Ryan and I also discussed playing strategy on these pieces--of all the players, he'd have the most freedom, as I didn't write anything out for him, but I did have some ideas in mind. Steve set up his rig, Frank set up his, and we waited for the audience to appear.

Eventually, we had at least a few people showing up (free show, and we got a writeup from Chris Rawson at the Post-Gazette, so you'd think there'd be more people...but no), so Frank got started with his personal history with radio. It began very evocatively, with several sampled sounds being played over his micro-radio transmitter, that was broadcasting to a transistor radio placed on a podium and lit with the only light in the house. Very nice. He then talked about his relationship to radio, which was also interesting, although I liked the sampled section of the piece so much that I'd like to hear the whole talk interwoven with it.

Steve's "Calling Mr. Conrad" was actually not the piece I was expecting--he'd borrowed my Line6 DL4 and Ryan's Yamaha keyboard for it, so I assumed he was going to do some keyboard looping. In this realization, he was mainly using the DL4 for the simulated echo pedal, and instead of looping, he had Mr. Funky come up to play a pedal tone while he soloed on melodica and sang some sections. Quite interesting, even as I'd had to adjust to this conception of the piece. I'd like to hear a fuller arrangement of this one, as we get closer to the large piece he wants to do in the summer.

For my section of the evening, I started with an announcement about the hearing protection and passed them out to the audience. I explained the first piece (a mistake--I should have explained the pieces first before having people put the protection in), and we got rolling. "Rest" was again the first piece, and this one sounded good with the unison strings. As we got into the denser section at the end, Ryan kicked in the aggressive drumming (as we'd discussed), and it took the piece to a higher energy level. Very nice. And much condensed from the last show--this one clocked in at just over five minutes.

"Stacked Fourths" didn't fare so well, as we'd ended the previous piece on constant double-strumming, so this realization of it with double-strumming all the way through got kind of tedious. Next time, I'll go back to the old instructions for the piece, which rely on sustaining notes through other means, which should give the piece the breathing room it needs. I brought this one to an end after two and a half minutes.

"Double Intrusion," the graphic score, was next, and unlike the last time worked very, very well. One of our rehearsal discussions was whether or not to select a key, and I thought that the best approach would be not to--start playing, be forced to listen to each other, and then arrive at a key. It worked--we began quite compatibly, and the piece built from there. I stuck to harmonics in much of my section, although I did hit a few staircase chords as well. Regrettably, I wasn't fully satisfied with my tone, but worked with it as I could. Sam really laid into his parts, as did Taichi, and Jacque and Ryan developed some good grooves in places (although in rehearsal they said to each other that they thought I wouldn't go for that...but in truth, the grooves are good!). Rob discovered an interesting technique with the CMI--kicking in his Tube Screamer as a way of getting howling microphonic feedback at will, and he used this in exactly the right places. Perhaps because Sam's tone was cutting through aggressively, I had a hard time picking Steve's parts out from the general din, but the overall texture was working. Also, Ryan's drumming gave a real shape to this piece, helping it build, giving it a climax, and a resolution. He was essential to its success. Another five-minute piece.

In continuing the up-down nature of the show, "Tone Beating" once again failed to work in the large group, like "Stacked Fourths" a victim of the relentless double-strumming. Ideally, this piece should float, and the different guitar tones should create interference patterns, but this can't happen with the strumming. Either everyone needs an ebow or a violin bow, or something. This, too, ended under the three-minute mark; at this point I don't recall if we'd all reached the end (not being as leisurely as I wanted), or if I threw in the towel--probably some of each. Maybe I should just do this as a home recorded piece for demonstration next time--I'm not giving good signals to the band.

So with a two and two record we headed into the final, the octatonic piece. It began a bit leaden, as I'd asked Ryan to keep a slow beat on the bass drum to help us not drift so much, but a better request would have been hi-hat or a rimshot to keep the piece from being so doomy at first. This piece has combinations of long tones and short ones, giving it more variety than the less-successful pieces, and there's an interweaving of the different parts that works. In retrospect, the call-and-response sections worked well, although I shouldn't be afraid of repetition. As we moved into it, Ryan really kicked us into high gear and somehow found a groove in this, and Rob laid down some great feedback howls in addition to his written part. Jacque's bass started heavy with the bass drum (and some clunky writing on my part), but as the piece moved on and our sync drifted, she supported us well. The consonant part emerged gradually from the more dissonant middle section, and Rob and Taichi in particular had some very good tone here. Sam kept things spiky and aggressive, and Steve provided a good filling texture for us. Again, I was less happy with my own tone here, but it's a lesson for the future. This one was another five-minute piece, oddly.

And we were done! Some people came up to me to point out that they liked the set, which was good to hear. I learned from Patricia that the bulk hearing protectors I bought were apparently shop-rated and not audio-rated--they blocked out all kinds of things, and at least a few people pulled them part way out, so they could hear the overtones. Still, they were necessary, as Frank measured us on his SPL meter at 113dB. One audient observed to me that he thought the pieces would work better if there were no visuals (we'd had the house lights up), so maybe in the future a darkened stage with music stand lights might be the way to go...although I'd still need to be able to signal people effectively.

We packed up, Patricia headed home in advance of our guests, and I snagged a ride with the Funkies. Sam and Taichi opted not to join us, but everyone else came by for the afterparty. It was nice to unwind with people, although unfortunately I learned that there was a problem with the MiniDisc recording of the show, and it was full of dropouts (bad media? problem with the recorder itself?), so I spent much of the next afternoon going through and removing them. It would have been nice, though, to get the whole thing, and not have all these little cuts. Again, a lesson for next time--go straight to hard disk, or use all new media. Maybe both.

Many thanks are, of course, due to the band for bringing this off as well as possible, and for Steve for setting up the show. With any luck, there will be more in the coming year.


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