Posts by Elliott Goldkind

Scot Ray and Vicki Ray: Yar

Vicki Ray and Scot Ray

Vicki Ray and Scot Ray

Is Yar perhaps a word, in some other language unbeknownst to me, that means “delicious sonic experience”? After listening to the new album, Yar, by siblings Scot and Vicki Ray, that’s what it means to me.

Neither Ms. Ray nor her excellent playing is new to me. She has been an impressive fixture on LA’s new (and not so new) music scene for many years. She plays or has played with an impressive litany of our best ensembles and players. Her recitals with the PianoSpheres series are always a joy. I confess to being unaware of her brother Scot. He was, I learned from the liner notes of their new release, originally a brass player. And not just any brass player but one who was in the thick of LA’s modern jazz scene. But while still very much enjoying a successful, vibrant, jazz career he uprooted himself, and moved back to his (and Ms. Ray’s) home state of Montana and decided to focus on the guitar. Listening to him play, in various guises and styles, including a lot of slide, would have me think he was a guitarist from the beginning.

Yar is a generous offering, a full 73 minutes of music. It uses that length brilliantly, exploiting a great variety of styles and timbres yet somehow managing to make the record, as a whole, feel cohesive, integral, and logical. But it is more than just a triumph of logic, to be sure. There is a synthesis of the modal and atonal, the consonant and dissonant, the timbrally delicate and harsh, sharp-edged noise. As I said, above, it’s truly a delicious sonic experience.

Only one of the album’s nine tracks comes in under 5 minutes (For Harry, at 4:47). Each piece is a substantial music journey on its own. Thematic elements are present, as is some notion of development and evolution of those elements. Every piece feels complete, fully realized and, by its end, satisfying.

Each one of Yar’s compositions present a unique territory, great fodder for one’s visual imagination. I see the players, surrounded in the detritus of musical instruments, cables, microphones and other electronic paraphernalia, yet I close my mind’s eye and I’m wandering in a new, delicious, hitherto unknown land of visual and auditory oddities. Some are more pleasant than others. But each one is enticing in its own way.

Listening to Yar, from start to finish, is like taking a beautiful tour of the artists the Rays have loved and been influenced by. Was this by design? Was this of primary importance to them? I can’t say. But to this listener, it is the aural equivalent of a challenging but ultimately rewarding scavenger hunt. The musics evoke many great composers and players. Some references are more explicit, some subtly hinted at. There are the helpful ghosts of so many great musical predecessors as well as various industrial machines and devices, perhaps angry with their lot in life, plotting to overtake their human overlords.

Anamorphosis, (the second track on Yar) according to my dictionary is defined as such:

1. a distorted projection or drawing that appears normal when viewed from a particular point or with a suitable mirror or lens.

  • the process by which anamorphic images are produced.

2. Biology

  • a gradual, ascending progression or change of form to a higher type.

I cite this definition here because, a) you might not be familiar with the word, (I wasn’t), and, b) taken together, both of these definitions do a wonderful, if abstract job, of explaining the work by this name. There are low drones which are then combined with slow-attack sounds fading in and out. Then comes a staccato, stutter-edit treatment of a plaintive vocal track or sample. It more than flirts with Middle Eastern modes and nasal double-reed-implying timbres. It’s cool, sure, but honestly, it earns its place not because of its treatment of what it’s referencing, but rather how it manages to mangle it, turn it into something all its own, unique, and yet somehow perfectly at home amid the other compositions.

Zero Doesn’t Exist is quite restrained but still a vehicle for Scot’s rather blistering solo. He doesn’t expose his technique often, but when he does, it’s impressive. I hear a lot of my guitar heroes from NYC’s Downtown scene, people I’d see in the first Knitting Factory iteration. Ray’s guitar playing pierces, and floats high above randomly recurring noises, from piano wires to other harsh metallic sounds, all above a quite unobtrusive, spacious electric bass ostinato.

I think it a fair assumption that For Harry is inspired by, perhaps a tribute to, Harry Partch. Ms. Ray is no stranger to the prepared piano, and she uses it here to approximate the more percussive elements of Partch’s music (Barstow, among others) while other sounds, from both Rays, fill out the would-be ensemble. Scot’s plucked strings are reminiscent of Partch’s adapted guitar, and these instruments combined with overdubbed percussive elements create a wonderful Partch-a-rama. It made me yearn for Partch’s strict 43-tone octave, but I’ll forgive the absence.

Thrice Ephemeral Journey was inspired by For Marcel Duchamp by John Cage. Cage’s prepared piano is easy enough to hear, and its tribute to his Sonatas and Interludes is clear and explicit enough, and beautifully executed. But Thrice adds another layer or two. In a soft but creepy, lurking percussive woodblock of sorts I hear PIL’s Under The House. And then Bill Frisell walks in, plugs into his volume pedal, and jams along. I’d like to think that Cage would be pleased. (When wasn’t he pleased by sounds like these?!)

In Fear of the Wind I hear something reminiscent of Stockhausen’s Kontakte, or perhaps some of David Tudor’s realizations of Cage’s later works. (Electrified cactus, perhaps?) It’s like a spinning top bouncing on a table while some odd servo-motored device churns in the backgroup, while outside a group of evil aliens play recorders! Demonic voices enter, and then a blistering quasi-rock guitar solo. And maybe that’s Bill Laswell on the bass?

I’m struck by the gorgeous evolution in The Highline, how it develops and unfolds the way Eno’s Ambient music might, but with decidedly less delicate timbres. It invokes the drama and tension of a tightrope walker’s wire, perhaps Philippe Petit’s line across the Twin Towers, tight yet buckling across that distant span, so many feet up in the air, shifting with the weight of its passenger, colored by the winds. Vertigo translated into sound. I much prefer it this way.

Among the many things to like on Yar is its great mix of beauty and noise. This is manifested movingly in Cortege. A cortege is a solemn funereal procession. As we hear the rattles in irregular staccato rhythms against the bell-like, slow-metronomic pulses, one can imagine the casket slowly, religiously carried by the pallbearers through the streets of a dark, eerily desolate town.

Just a few tracks in, and I start to wonder, “What is their compositional process?” And the more I listen, the more this delicious music turns this musing into a burning question. There are obviously real-time duets, but also other overdubs, layers, loops. The formal structures at work here warrant my curiosity, so I continue to wonder: how much of each track is pre-arranged, how much is improvised, how much is added and/or edited after the initial “basic tracks” are laid down?

Of course, how something is made is often not a satisfying question. (In certain situations, it can even be counter-satisfying.) You don’t need to wonder, or ascertain the “compositional process” of Yar. What matters, ultimately, is what we are left with. What is this music, and how does it make us hear, how does it make us feel? It delights with improvisational constructions, austere sonic fields that define their own territories, by way of harmonic language, timbral depth, and instrumental content.

This is a record that you can listen to passively or actively. I usually hate the idea of “background music” (and I hope that Yar isn’t used as such) but I find it to be equally satisfying both in “deep listening” (to borrow Pauline Oliveros’ term) or just having it be part of a more passive, meditative background.

I am genuinely fascinated by the creative process invoked here that resulted in the wealth of musical coolness that is Yar. For all my references to other composers and players, the payoff, the legitimacy, the wonder, all stem from my understanding of these works as not merely a collection of representations of their influences, but somehow some dialectical syntheses of the siblings’ collective musical instincts and influences into something quite unique, quite marvelous and quite beautiful.

To its great credit, despite the very wide-ranging sounds, Yar is devoid of irony, not at all anything resembling a postmodern commentary on anything. But that is not to say that it is always entirely serious or completely devoid of humor. It is, rather, a sincere and genuine exploration of a wide range of sonic possibilities. A collection that isn’t afraid to embrace beauty or ugliness, alone or in combination, without any faux-clever attempt to subvert or invert such subjective classifications. This, like so much of the music itself, is refreshing and extremely rewarding.

Yar is available from Orenda Records at orendarecords.com/orenda0040, and from most music retailers.

Synchromy + HOCKET present Crusoe at LACC

Composer/pianist/HOCKET member Sarah Gibson emptying out a treasure chest during Synchromy's performance of Rzewski's Crusoe.

Composer/pianist/HOCKET member Sarah Gibson emptying out a treasure chest during Synchromy’s performance of Rzewski’s Crusoe. Photo by Adam Borecki.

If there were any doubts that the LA new-music scene is in the midst of a surfeit of musical and aesthetic diversity, Synchromy and HOCKET’s evening of music, titled Crusoe, on November 5 should certainly quell them. The playing, centering on Sarah Gibson and Thomas Kotcheff of the piano duo HOCKET, and later adding a larger ensemble, was truly exceptional: precise, expressive, virtuosic where needed, yet playful, even comedic where possible.

The concert’s first half was comprised of four compositions for piano-four-hands by four local, living LA composers.

Alexander Elliott Miller’s Clock Smasher made for a striking and auspicious beginning. As its title might suggest, the opening motif, in four hands in ascent, burst open a vivid sonic palette that would traverse and transmogrify in interesting and musically satisfying ways.

Composer Alexander Elliott Miller, here playing guitar with Linnea Powell, viola, on Synchromy's performance of Crusoe. Photo by Adam Borecki.

Composer Alexander Elliott Miller, here playing guitar with Linnea Powell, viola, on Synchromy’s performance of Crusoe. Photo by Adam Borecki.

In his program note Miller makes mention of the “… polyrhythms, many of which do have a sort of ‘tick-tock’ quality, like a room full of out-of-sync clocks.” This is most certainly accurate but it only begins to suggest the variety and vitality of harmonic and gestural realms it creates and explores. Clock Smasher teases us at first with a metronomic, pulsed music which evolves into something ominously hovering, then interrupted by syncopated rhythms infused with quasi-jazz harmonies. Even the mention of the “J Word” is sometimes frowned upon – personally, I don’t frown upon it – but regardless of what that might suggest to you, this is certainly not a jazz composition. But that isn’t to say that it doesn’t flirt with tonality, some very lovely melodies and, at times, even hints at something Bill Evans might have mused about at the keyboard.   This music, as Miller’s notes suggest, does subvert its own idiomatic tendencies with those irregular rhythms, to my ear something of a this-is-definitely-NOT-jazz insistence, which then somehow, artfully evolves into a spacious, airy coda, punctuated by big, long and spacious chords. A poignant, striking work.

The next piece on the program was Marc EvansOne Wandering Night. This piece was for a slightly varied configuration of HOCKET in that Ms. Gibson remained on the piano while Mr. Kotcheff moved to an electric keyboard and they were augmented by the addition of two melodicas (played by the composer and Nick Norton).

Fun fact: I went to a Joe Jackson concert when I was a kid, probably around 1980. He whipped out a melodica and declared it “The Instrument of the Future!” Perhaps he was right. I do hear a lot of melodica at new music concerts these days.

Evans’ piece was inspired by Bartok and that came through clearly enough. There is always the danger of being on the wrong side of the line separating homage from uninspired imitation. Fortunately, One Wandering Night falls decidedly on the right side of that line. While the melodicas played a sort of wheezing Eastern European Bartokian ostinato, definitely and pleasantly reminiscent of Bartok’s own take on modal folk melody, the piano and electric keyboard sputtered and interjected their own contrasting bits. I found this particularly satisfying as it reminded me, on a simple level, of Bartok’s own 2-handed piano trickery, where the two hands remain, stubbornly, in their own domain (key, mode, register) despite any discord that stubborn autonomy might produce. And on a more complex level, it reminded me of one of my very favorite pieces of music, Messiaen’s jardin du sommeil d’amour, a movement from his Turangalîla-Symphonie. While the melodic and harmonic technique is quite different in Messiaen’s masterpiece, a similar bifurcation and their disorienting affect is in play.

L to R: Marc Evans, Sarah Gibson, Nick Norton, and Thomas Kotcheff perform Evans' One Wandering Night.

L to R: Marc Evans, Sarah Gibson, Nick Norton, and Thomas Kotcheff perform Evans’ One Wandering Night.

And playful it is. As the piece progresses, the tempo of the melodicas’ pumping melody increases and the interjections become more intense until, like a tired Hungarian hiker on the banks of the Danube, all four instruments slow down until they reach total repose. I must admit to being completely unfamiliary with Evans’ work but if this piece is at all representative of his musical sensibilities, then I definitely want to hear more.

Nick Norton told us from the stage that his Mirror Smasher was a number of things. He said it was “minimalisty” (and as such, “easy to write”), loud, and a work in progress. This piece was, again, for the four deft hands of HOCKET, and in fact even the pitch material itself was produced and ordered by them. The unordered (or, to quote the program, “played about a zillion different ways, as if looking at it in a broken mirror”) pitch set is:

H O C K E T = B G C D E F#

Yet again, HOCKET played beautifully. The piece begins with a clear tonal center, pulsing along as “minimalisty” pieces often do. But not long into the playing, a pre-recorded track of electronic sounds makes its presence known.

Norton’s choice of electronic sounds – both their timbre and idiomatic qualities – were a highlight for me. The combination of the smooth, hypnotic four-handed piano combined with the somewhat Kraftwerky buzzes, gently evolving into higher pitched electronic sounds reminiscent of some of the organ work in Einstein on the Beach really made for a powerful electro-acoustic marriage.

About halfway into Mirror Smasher the volume cranks up significantly. (The composer warned us of this before the performance. There will be no lawsuits.) If there was a hint of Einstein before the knob was turned, now the Einsteinian character felt married to something more like Heavy Metal, even Rock Opera. (Norton’s program note says that the title is a nod to Alex Miller’s Clock Smasher but I couldn’t help wonder if it might, even subconsciously, have any connection to The Who’s Do I Smash The Mirror, from Tommy. OK, probably not, but still…) OK, Rock Opera is misleading at best, demeaning at worst. But Mirror Smasher’s loud second half is formidable, powerful, and I could easily imagine it, as the composer suggested, being extended into a much longer Minimalist work. While different in pitched/melodic material, it reminded me, in a very good way, of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music in its powerful, gyrating and relentless sonic attack.

The program’s first half concluded with Jason Barabba’s The Distance of the Moon. The piece takes its title from a story in Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics of the same name. Calvino’s work is a collection of clever, fanciful tales, sometimes mischievous, sometimes romantic and nostalgic, often subverting our expectations if not the laws of nature as we’ve come to understand them. Calvino’s Distance of the Moon is a story about the moon, which, once upon a time, existed but a hop away from the Earth, but is now gradually moving farther and farther away. As the two spheres continue to distance themselves from each other, the inhabitants abandon the moon for the Earth. All but one of them, who decides to remain, forever, stranded alone on the moon.

Barabba’s musical interpretation of the story is itself a clever, fanciful tale. But unlike the rather light quality of the short story, it is a significant, weighty work. This is not to say that it isn’t imbued with moments of lightness – it is! – but it is not a mere bagatelle, but rather a significant musical and pianistic undertaking. Distance of the Moon was originally composed for a single pianist (presumably the two-handed kind) but as such it was almost impossible to play. I can all too easily believe this. Even in its two-person version, it is quite challenging.

Stylistically, it manages to explore a number of moods and idiomatic gestures yet still most definitely feel like a coherent, unified work. Moments of romantic, almost tonal passages intermingle deftly with strong, almost Schoenbergian dissonances. Lugubrious night music passages transition into stumbling, irregular rhythms with almost-BeBop melodic lines.

In the end, analogous to the story on which its based, Distance makes us feel the separation, the yearning, the tension hoping, however in vain, for a resolution. It ends, fragile and sparse, in a delicate and beautiful diad. Two notes at either end of the piano keyboard. A deep work, and one that I suspect would definitely reward repeat hearings and analysis.

Then came an intermission. If this had been a meal, I would have felt not full but satisfied. This was a chunk of concert that delivered four works of diverse character yet not, as a whole, illogically incongruent. But wait, there’s more…

The second half began with Mayke NasDiGiT #2.  (For the curious, I don’t think there’s a DiGiT #1.)  For those who don’t know (I didn’t), Ms. Nas is a Dutch composer, born in 1972. I don’t know how her work wound up on this program but it was a perfect palette cleanser. DiGiT is, to my ear, entirely devoid of a single specified pitch for any of the four hands, or four forearms, or two foreheads that activate the piano keys. It is, to be clear, a humorous bit of performance, perhaps a commentary on what we consider to be “high art.” It also allows a piano duo to highlight a different take on virtuosity.

DiGiT centers itself around a variation of our childhood schoolyard hand jive or clapping game that involves an intricate collaborative clapping between two people (usually young girls), while simultaneously singing a rhyme. (Shimmy Shimmy Cocoa Pop! was the one the Black girls bussed into my Queens elementary school taught me). DiGiT, however, is inspired by another favorite, Oh Little Playmate. It is not only a charming work – one that HOCKET obviously enjoyed immensely – but even a virtuosic one, albeit in a very different way. Piano keys are only played in clusters, but other sounds arise from the intricate interplay of the two pianists’ strikes against the palms, arms, and thighs of themselves and each other. The rhythms are at times satisfyingly smooth, even evoking soft shoe dance moves in their elegance and grace. It’s very much a performance piece, and, if you like, you can see an older performance of it (not by HOCKET, but by eighth blackbird, here:

The concert itself was billed under the title of CRUSOE. The grand finale, so to speak, was Frederic Rzewski’s composition of that name. Rzewski, born in 1938, is seen as a somewhat enigmatic figure of the 20th century avant-garde, someone who studied with “Uptown” and Princeton figures (Babbitt, et al.) yet whose own musical output butterflied effortlessly among genres widely, from serialism to minimalism. His works are coherent and easy to describe in and of themselves. But to describe what a “Rzewski piece” might be is near impossible.

Isaac Schankler, Thomas Kotcheff, and Nick Norton performing Rzewski's Crusoe. Photo by Adam Borecki.

Isaac Schankler, Thomas Kotcheff, and Nick Norton performing Rzewski’s Crusoe. Photo by Adam Borecki.

As for Crusoe, where to begin? First of all, it was a delight! Which is not to say that it was necessarily such a delight on the page, but Synchromy upped the dose for our viewing pleasure. The stage was adorned with a backdrop of a deserted island, inflatable palm trees and beach balls. A large ensemble adorned themselves a la Castaway, with everything from light headgear to a stuffed parrot on a shoulder to, in the case of one player (Mr. Norton, on guitar) a full-on shark suit! It was most definitely an aesthetic choice, not one dictated by the score, and I found it to be a wise one which bore much (tropical?) fruit.

Crusoe employs a performing force of unspecified instruments, requires its players to sing and chant various lines about Robinson Crusoe, play percussion instruments, and do other things that might make a Musicians Union bristle. The vocal sections are interspersed among bright, quite lovely pointillistic instrumental episodes. As such, Crusoe is reminiscent at times of some of Harry Partch’s better works, albeit without the microtonal schema.

Soprano Justine Aronson performing Rzewski's Crusoe with Synchromy and HOCKET. Photo by Adam Borecki.

Soprano Justine Aronson performing Rzewski’s Crusoe with Synchromy and HOCKET. Photo by Adam Borecki.

After various chants, instrumental interludes, spilling of doubloons, breaking of branches, dusting off of hands, tinkling of toy pianos, swords whirred as they are raised in the air, heads patted, feet stomped, the Narrator (sung by Justine Aronson) comes forth to chant the last line. At which point she is pelted by the ensemble with beach balls. The End! (I won’t call the Union if you don’t.)

As I said, Rzewski is enigmatic. And Crusoe is no less an enigma. Did this performance, and this piece, provide any insight into the tale of Robinson Crusoe? No, not really. Did it give me a sense of what Rzewski’s compositional voice was? Well, kinda sorta, inasmuch as only one of his pieces might. But more importantly, it was a perfect end to Synchromy’s ambitious concert, a perfect counterweight to an already diverse and profound selection of our community’s musical wealth.