Seattle Improvised Music Festival Fundraiser
December 4, 2005
The original concept of one minute improvised solos by 40 musicians fascinated me from the first time I saw the fliers, certainly an intriguing idea. How in the world that many players could fit into Gallery 1412 was a question that sprang to mind, as the space is smaller than many folks' living rooms. There didn't turn out to be quite 40 performers in attendance, but it was darned close. My count was 30-ish. Hmmm... Was I the only audience member who didn't play? You know, I'm still wondering about that! No, let's see, there were at least three others, maybe four...
Because this was an event raising funds for the SIMF and (almost) all of the music/sounds/visuals were improvised, this review should be too. So, please humor me if a word or two is invented, inverted or subverted as we go along, kind of scream of consciousness.
Being able to make a lasting impression in the relatively infinitesimal snippet of time allotted must be quite a challenge. Some of the performers reached out and grabbed me emotionally in their circumscribed time,some didn't, but then that's part of the fun in improvised music: you never know what to expect. Living in the here-and-now and not having expectations or preconceptions comes with the territory. Music = life. Life = change. Change = improvisation.
Each segment was a discrete entity; some were discreet, some not. Oh, and only one person used a watch to time themselves, so there were minutes, uh, longer than others. And some were probably closer to 30 seconds. If anyone was counting they definitely didn't have a hook to drag people offstage like in the vaudeville days. Concision can be golden, as numerous gem-like solos in vintage jazz recordings from the 78-rpm disc era prove (think Ben Webster on Mr. Ellington's "Cottontail for instance.)
Comprovisation took the fore with Jim Knodle's opening muted trumpet. He wryly noted that because it was a fundraiser for improvised music he should read something. It turned out to be one of the highlights of the evening, great sound and a nice balance of intellect and viscera.
Dave Knott's voice spot reminded me of some of the things David Moss has done over the years. If you were going to devise a language, would it include plenty of glottal and guttural sounds? Would it be sepulchral and/or simple?
Brad Hawkins was the only musician present dressed in a suit and tie, but his 'cello solo was anything but businesslike. His playing was passionately direct and at times whimsical.
Gust Burns gave new meaning to the term "cocktail piano, inserting a swizzle-stick with a shot of rosin between the strings of the soundboard and stroking it with his fingers, producing a lovely, ethereal, almost Theremin-like sound. Do you suppose an olive or a cocktail onion would work as a mute? Other aural and visual images conjured up included the glass harmonica and a certain similarity, albeit an oblique one, with the technique used to play the Brazilian cuica, a drum that has a balsa stick inserted through the head, and is played not by striking it, but by moving a small piece of wetted cloth up and down the stick.
Jesse Canterbury played clarinet with a rich, thick sonority, using long tones (well, relatively long tones) most effectively.
Fancifully costumed, Sheri Brown tiptoed, tromped and stomped through the tulips in a bit of performance art that succeeded in eliciting several moods in a brief amount of time. It was poignant, then hilarious and finally more than a little bit scary. Discrete yes, discreet no. Voice and visuals took us on a brisk jaunt through a batch of emotions. Dorothy takes a break from her walk on the yellow brick road to enjoy, then dismember, the flowers? Tiny Tim on steroids?
The performance art aspect of the evening continued in a way with John Seman, clad in bulky topcoat and a hat, playing his tiny guitar in jocose fashion.
Then there was a break to set-up the stage for the electronics of several players. Matt Carlson was first on a vintage ARP Odyssey. He layered some engaging rhythms and came up with a batch of absorbing ideas that even got developed in his minute: a very gregarious performance. Shin Yamada and his Apple notebook seemed a bit tame to these analog ears after Carlson, but my auricular appendages are more attuned to jazz rooted free improv than to state-of-the-art electronics.
The old cliché "you can't tell the players without a scorecard applied at this point. Although there was a program listing the performers in order, last minute changes tended to make it more of an outline than a map and the majority of the participants didn't identify themselves. There were two more segments of notebook fueled electronics, one with a barrage of high frequency noise at close to pain threshold that was less than enjoyable. Interesting, perhaps. Pleasant, no.
A vignette featuring a bullhorn perched atop a drum and some wildly crashing cymbals was played out from a little cubbyhole high up on the wall behind the stage. Noisily merry and a very cool effect with the bulldrum. Who was that masked man?
Clarinetist Rosalyn Deroos brought melody back into the proceedings with a thoughtful and nicely paced improvisation.
Vocalist Amy Denio has remarkable control of her instrument. She, at least on this occasion, remained quite high in the soprano range, and the purity of her sound was delightful: one of the most compelling minutes in the evening.
Two more bright moments followed, with percussionist James R. Cobb III introducing his daughter, cellist Lillian, and mentioning that he's not from Seattle, "so I don't know the rules. The evening's only duo was communication and deep listening personified. He utilized a pair of beautiful cupped cymbals, almost gong-like in their timbre and appearance, and the interaction with her deftly articulated playing was exemplary.
Then one of the senior masters of the improvised music scene in Seattle and elsewhere, Stuart Dempster, played his trombone into the piano, as he often does, eliciting the floating sympathetic vibrations and vaporous overtones engendered by this technique. In a way, this was also a duo, but with only one musician. Radiant.
Cristin Miller's use of controlled feedback, using her voice and a plastic toy karoake machine, was a hoot.
Schraepfer Harvey sculpted some percussion at a stripped-down drum set, becoming almost three-dimensional in an auditory way, particularly the airbrush segments (sweeping his brushes through the air producing swishing, swooping sounds.)
Flautist Wendi Martin obviously has a developed "traditional technique, but also subtly explored the combination of humming/vocalizing pioneered by Rahsaan Roland Kirk toward the end of a very likable solo.
Beth Fleener, playing, I believe, an alto clarinet, also performed with emotional immediacy and good humor. Her tone was vibrant and full-bodied, and her ideas fertile.
There were two more cellists on the program, Lori Goldston and then Julie Ives. The former played pizzicato in a rhythmically assured fashion; the latter col arco with rhapsodically romantic (small "r ) verve. These back-to-back segments provided excellent contrast and shading.
Organizer Gust Burns announced that Wayne Horvitz was unable to attend, but he wanted us to listen to his contribution from where we were, so a minute of "silence followed. Ambient room sounds and those from the street, plus a baby crying, provided his performance. John Cage would have loved the idea.
My apologies to the musicians whom I did not credit by name. The Seattle improvised and experimental music community is definitely alive and well, and all of the participants deserve a resounding "thank you for helping keep things vital and creative. This evening was never boring or predictable, that's for sure.
The 21st Annual Seattle Improvised Music Festival is scheduled for February 8-12, 2006 at Gallery 1412.
Visit Seattle Improvised Music Festival on the web.