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.
- 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.
“Is that 8-bit game music?” My boyfriend asked, overhearing the song Karina Kallas. His question was surprisingly apt. Alexander Noice’s Music Made With Voices, published by Orenda Records, features eight pieces created out of the same eight voices singing the same note. As there are exactly eight elements, it is indeed, in a sense, 8-bit. The songs showcase characterizing traits of eponymous friends and family through only their voices.
Noice manipulates the pitch, attack, decay, and so on, and layers these modifed sonic elements into melodies, harmonies, and rhythms. Human ears fail to recognize sound as a voice if it has been altered by more than a major third (the span of the first two notes in Kumbaya). Since most of the notes are indeed outside that range from the original pitch, it is nearly impossible to recognize the sounds as vocal. Depending on the timbre of the individual singer, and the manner in which Noice alters the voice, they can sound like an electronic beep, a shawm, a kazoo, or an electric bass. Noice orchestrates according to each voice’s unique properties, and presumably according to the singer’s personality.
Some works, like Frank Noice, sound relatively more acoustic; it could probably be done with a choir of shawms and sackbuts (if you don’t know what a sackbut is, it’s as funny as it sounds. Google it). In other words, though it does not sound like a choir, it does sound instrumental. Others, like Masatoshi Sato, sound more electronic. The third category is, of course, those that retain their voice. Ihui Wu is a clever mix of female voices whooping out a melody while other voices chirp and thrum like old-school synths.
This technique is ingenious in itself, but it requires a certain skill to pull off such intricate polyphony with it. Here, Noice’s expertise with ensemble work shines through. Every track exhibits novel rhythms, interesting harmonies, a clear and unique melody, and a variety of textures. This is especially impressive given his minimal source material of a single note. Then again, a single note in a digital audio workspace contains infinite potential. Making the right choices to concoct a series of engaging pieces is the real challenge, over which Noice triumphs.
Noice uses technology to chop, warp, bend, stop, drop, and roll, cha cha real smooth. You get the picture. Software turns the original sound clip into something almost-but-not-quite-completely different. And that was his inspiration. “[Music Made With Voices] parallels our modern relationships and interactions, both with communication, and the cherry-picking portrayal of our daily lives through texting, Facebook, Twitter, etc. At times it’s hard to get a fully realistic, honest view of people with our relationships are so filtered through digital outlets,” Noice explains. This is a keen insight to our 21st century culture. Many adults miss the days of communicating by voice instead of text, as many believe actual talking breeds deeper connection. Some people believe a voice is the most honest part of any person; some cultures believe the soul resides in the throat, not the heart or the brain, for exactly this reason. By digitally afflicting the voice, Noice transforms this human essence into art, thus destroying the very thing that made it human.
At the same time, he creates a community. The voices were recorded alone, and Noice joins them in an ensemble. Say what you will about technology filtering interaction, it does have the wonderful power to bring people and voices together. Though transformed, the essence remains, and now the voices interact. In continuing the parallel to cyber interactions, Noice succeeds in uniquely uniting eight people for the sake of art.
Noice has created a thought-provoking and aurally stimulating album. Each song proves again and again his prowess with intricate ensemble work, a sense of interesting melody, and his understanding of the subject’s personality. As reliant on digital effects as this album is, it exhibits a rare organicism. Music Made With Voices encapsulates creativity, humanity, and the digital age.
Groovy. Every track on this record has a characteristic groove, mood, and personality. The album, which comes with a poem inspired by it by Steve Shelton, is about coming and going and changing and curving and accelerating. Such themes are scattered like so many constellations in the tracks, which seem to wander, march, or race.
A quartet comprised of drummer Grant Calvin Weston, percussionist Jonathan Saxon, bassist Steuart Liebig, and keyboardist Wayne Peet, Weston/Saxon Groove Assembly meld together a unique sound. Astoundingly, the four did not play all together; Grant recorded in Philadelphia, and the other three recorded in LA. The sound is so well mixed both as individual tracks and compared to the others that nothing ever feels missed, but each piece feels balanced.
The first track, “Take it to the streets,” is atmospheric at the beginning, then adds a tribal beat with a sci fi groove strongly reminiscent of N64 racing games. “Stutter step” is an upbeat, organ-strong piece with dissonant suspensions over constant cymbals, descending into madness and suddenly resolving back to its tonal, upbeat groove. “Third Floor” is relatively barebones, and again reminds me of N64 soundtracks, which lends it a nostalgia factor, though I somehow doubt that was really the intention. At track four we reach the title track: drones and claves build the Twilight Zone-esque atmosphere, and the emptiness of the sound makes it expansive in space, like a rift in reality. “Road trip to Downey” was the song that kicked off the idea for this album as a percussion duet – it starts with a pleasing groove and adds in more instruments until a sudden acceleration, and then instruments phase out, an effect deemed ‘classic’ for good reason.
“Juno” is perhaps my favorite track, opening with a piano solo reminiscent of Debussy’s style, and the stereo hocketting percussion throughout the piece quite simply made me feel happy. “All systems go” opens with an electric mbira solo and adds in other-worldly distortion. I’ve hinted at it and now I’ll say it: the album either evokes nostalgia for something it may not have thought to intend, or is very science fiction. The eighth and final track, “Observations at dawn,” is the most sci-fi of all. Drones, tapping percussion, and foley sound effects from Jonathan acutely evoke dawn as you’ve never seen or heard it before.
If you like jazz, atmospheric, or electronic music, this album is sure to tantalize and please. It gives a little something for everyone, and the eight unique songs blend into one exhilarating album.
Diamond Pulses, the new electronic album by Daniel Corral, released on Orenda Records and available September 12, is an odd duck. How could it be otherwise, as by Corral’s admission, it “started as a mockup for a microtonal Plinko game/sound-installation.” The Plinko element is referenced on the album artwork, as a glowing grid interacting with a drifting abstract background. There’s a clue.
On the surface of the single, 32-minute track, everything seems perfectly transparent, maybe even grid-like. Insistent, hopped-up Plinko polyrhythms braid together in a dense patchwork of minimalist activity, while oceanic noise waxes and wanes. Or it’s pop electronica, but more desperate, more worldly, shamelessly reverbed. Minimalist motivic transitions speed the texture through harmonic and registral shifts, while rhythm remains constant. Corral knows exactly what he wants us to hear, at what pace, and moody swells of noise give us enough respite to fool us into thinking we’ve made our own choices. Robert Ashley said that music either comes from speech, or it comes from dance. Diamond Pulses is unconditionally from the dance. There are no words here at all.
But there is something else, tugging. What is it? Why the Feldman quote in the liner notes, “Sound is all our dreams of music. Noise is music’s dreams of us.”? The rhythms aren’t just insistent, they’re rabid. Transitions aren’t just inevitable, they’re eerily prescribed. Electronic ephemera churn in atonal relation to pretty guitar-ish licks. Noise swells aren’t just a contrast; they undermine with a mysteriously undercooked autonomy. Things are not as diatonic as they seem.
The piece is not really diatonic, after all. It slowly transforms into an 11-limit tuning system, the middle of the piece swimming in shades of microtonal subtlety. Taken together, the whole is perplexingly different than the sum of its parts. Nothing here quite matches up, as Corral notes, “making it impossible to focus on the endless business of trying to square an imperfect circle.” Grappling with alternative tuning systems has a tendency to bring these kinds of cracks to the fore. Things don’t fit. The illusion of the joints of reality being flush is demolished. That’s the interest in this album; we don’t realize it, but the incongruities here turn us inside-out.
Take a few listens, and see if you notice the flip-flop. Maybe don’t listen to this, despite temptation, while driving. Listen at home, with dedicated ears, to this strangely rigid dance meditation, a fervent solipsism with a disturbingly wild, encroaching reality. Consciously intended or not, Diamond Pulses evokes Los Angeles.
We asked Daniel a few questions about the album:
You mention that the album grew out of an experiment for a Plinko installation. Can you talk a little more about that process of development?
I was at a residency when I sketched out that original Plinko installation idea. I had a great studio right near the beach, and you might be able to hear a cheap imitation of those ocean sounds in the noisy washes that fade in and out during Diamond Pulses. That studio was quite large, and allowed me to imagine what installations might fit inside it. I really like Trimpin’s work, and I think his whimsicality comes out in my music box installations. I was trying to imagine similarly playful sound installations that also have a more conceptually sound footing. I sketched out a just intonation Plinko game on some graph paper, and started thinking about how that might be translated into a performable piece. At the same time, I had a 4-channel audio setup there with which I made quite a few quadraphonic electronic pieces with a tunable sampler. These streams of thought smashed together into Diamond Pulses. Perhaps it is a bit more serious than the original game show-inspired idea, but hopefully still enjoyable.
What specifically made you think that these materials would work as an album-length piece, rather than as an installation?
There are two big factors in the decision to turn Diamond Pulses into an album-length piece: accessibility and space. An installation has a specific time and place in which it can be appreciated, and that unique experience is part of what makes it so magical. On the other hand, an album can find its way all over the world via the internet. Also, live performances of it are solo, so it’s easy to plan and schedule. When my residency ended, I returned back to LA and realized that it would be ridiculous to try and put more installation-type pieces in my small house. But, I could develop the performable electronic piece practically anywhere. For example – I did a lot of programming for it on my laptop during a long Bolt Bus ride with Timur and the Dime Museum. After the first performance of Diamond Pulses at Battery Books, I decided that it would be worth trying to make an album of it. I knew that Orenda Records had put out some fantastic albums of adventurous music, so I reached out to them. I am grateful that they were interested, and they have been great to work with as I developed the piece into what’s on the album!
Is this whole piece in 11-limit temperament? Could you give a little more information for readers who may not be familiar with alternative tuning systems?
It’s hard to come to a succinct explanation of tuning, but I’ll give it a try! Most musicians using microtonality do so with systems based on ratios, often with some sort of fundamental pitch as the denominator. A ratio with a lower numerator and denominator is usually considered more consonant, while higher numbers are more complex and dissonant. “Limits” bound the available pitches to a certain level of complexity (EX: a system with a 3-limit will likely sound less complex than a system with a 5-limit). Basically, Diamond Pulses starts super simple, gets more complex, and returns to simplicity in a sort of ternary form. It starts with just one note and very gradually moves to a limit of 3, then, 5, 7, 9, and 11. After reaching a limit of 11, it gradually contracts back to the single note it started with, which is the fundamental that all of the tuning ratios relate to. Because Diamond Pulses starts with just one note and slowly increases it’s limit, the available intervals get more complex as well. When it decreases it’s limit back to one fundamental pitch, it’s kind of like a symphony ending on a big V-I – at least that’s how I imagine it. I put an image of the “score” on my website here, if anyone is interested: spinalfrog.com/projects/diamond-pulses
I’ve spent a fair amount of time with people and works that use microtonality with great skill and musicality, and have long been a bit too intimidated to really share any of my own. Diamond Pulses is the first piece of mine built around a tuning system that I feel comfortable putting out in the world.
If there is one thing you’d want people to listen for in this piece, what is it?
I never have one universal thing that I want all people to listen for in my music. Rather, I hope that Diamond Pulses has multiple levels on which it can be experienced. Someone that has trained his/her ears to hear the tuned intervals might enjoy doing so, while someone else with no knowledge of or interest in that might just like the spacey rhythmic grooves. I want listeners to engage with Diamond Pulses in whatever capacity they see fit.
Check out the official CD release show this Saturday, with special guests Danny Holt and Mike Robbins:
Saturday, September 12, 8pm and 10pm
504 Chung King Court
Los Angeles CA 90012
• Workers Union, performed by Danny Holt and Mike Robbins
• Diamond Pulses, performed by Daniel Corral
• Two Pages, performed by Danny Holt
• Diamond Pulses, performed by Daniel Corral
But tickets online here: