Seattle Improvised Music Festival day 1 

February 13th
Chapel Performance Space, Seattle WA  USA

1) Greg Kelley / Doug Theriault / Kelvin Pittman trio
Christine Sehnaoui solo

2) Greg Kelley / Gust Burns / Mara Sedlins / Mark Collins / Wilson Shook quintet
Andrew Drury solo

3) Liz Tonne solo
large ensemble

One of the changes from previous SIMFs is the 7pm start time, which for this working stiff made it tough to get to on time. Thanks to leaving work early and eating leftover pizza while sitting in rush hour traffic I managed to make it to the venue with enough time to swing by Starbucks and pick up a green tea. Arriving at the venue five minutes or so before the advertised start time I was able to secure a seat near the front and then check out the merch.  I was familiar with most of the items there, though there was a DVD I hadn’t seen before and of course being unfamiliar with Christine Sehnaoui’s work her discs were all new to me. Nothing immediately tempted me but, not having had enough time to acquire cash beforehand it was a moot proposition anyway.  We shall see what remains on the table tonight. In the remaining minutes before the festival properly began I spent talking with various musicians and friends I hadn’t seen in a while. It truly is one of the nicest aspects of music festivals is that they bring out the local musicians and audients along with the guest musicians so they always are a reunion of sort. It began to seem like things were about to start around 7:15-ish so I took my seat and took a glance at the program noting that there’d been a swap in the positions of Liz Tonne and Christine Sehnaoui’s solos which is reflected in the list above.  There was some adjustment of the lights (actually brought UP instead of the usual dimming) and Greg Kelley, Doug Theriault, Kelvin Pittman wandered onto stage settled themselves and began playing.

Greg Kelley / Doug Theriault / Kelvin Pittman
Greg Kelley / Doug Theriault / Kelvin Pittman


I always find it interesting how ad hoc groups begin to play. There is often a hesitance to be the one to start playing and there can be an uncomfortable silence until someone takes the plunge. Among musicians who play out a lot I’ve noticed that there are a few that have no truck with this hesitancy and just start right up. Jeffery Allport is one whom I’ve oft noted takes this stance. Greg Kelley it turns out is another and he jumped right in with some low hissing sounds on his trumpet. Still there was an initial tentativeness, in a feeling each out sort of way as the musicians worked out the boundaries of their collaboration.  Theriault is playing a (custom?) midi-guitar laid flat on a table that seems to be mostly used as a controller for a patch on his PowerBook. His sounds were in a what I’d think of as digital modeling of basic analog components, granular synthesis and some processing of the guitar itself.  His sounds seemed rather disjunct with the austere minimalism of Pittman and Kelley: overly loud and neither fitting in, nor contrasting in an interesting way with them.  Pittman began by playing with a sax mouthpiece and his sounds were faint and often buried by Kelley’s, whom it should be noted was his usual subdued self.  Theriault was the odd man out but it didn’t strike me as a disruptive move designed to push his collaborators so much as his setup not lending itself well to these parameters.  He settled down after a bit and there was a very nice section in the middle where he mostly worked with modulated white noise at a very low level. This fit in well with Kelley’s metal on trumpet and Pittmans clacking of his sax mouthpieces valve.  The piece ended with Theriault returning to more aggressive, digitally sounding squiggles that again seemed out of place. A mixed set, but the middle section was gripping.

Also new this year is that most sets are made up of two parts: a group piece and a solo improvisation from another musician.  A lot of the sets in previous years, especially the solos, would turn out to be quite short so I think this was a way to get each night closer to three hours with breaks.  This worked out pretty well, though I was feeling pretty tired by about the fourth piece. The first of these was Christine Sehnaoui an idiosyncratic alto sax player from Beirut by way of France. I was wholly unfamiliar with her playing prior to this festival which is always an exciting proposition. Her playing is certainly unique and quite interesting, but as a solo set fell into the frequently observed “catalogue of techniques”. She would work with each technique for a while though, which while giving each technique some depth still did not add up to a structured piece. These techniques were impressive though, very electro-mechanical sounding with a combination of circular-breathing techniques and most often blowing across the sax’s mouthpiece-less opening.  One technique involved placing a waterbottle into the saxes bell, which combined with the blowing technique generated a pervasive buzz.

Gust Burns, Mark Collins, Wilson Shook, Mara Sedlins, Greg Kelley
Gust Burns, Mark Collins, Wilson Shook, Mara Sedlins, Greg Kelley

After a short break the next group made their way to the stage, a quintet of the Gust Burns Quartet along with Greg Kelley. I’ve seen the Gust Burns Quartet several times prior to this and I anticipated Greg Kelley being a great fit with them. I was not disappointed and this sparse, tentative set was the highlight of the evening for me. The sounds were uniformly dry and quiet with lots of interesting and compelling overlapping sections. Kelley did some great playing where he would rub a bit of sheet metal against his horns body throwing some metallic sand into the uniformly dry works. Some of the best sounds came from Shook’s sax during a point in which he had stuffed some paper cups into the bell. Very electronic sounding, but in a damaged open circuits vein. Combined with the wheezes from Gusts dowels and the dry scrapes of Sedlins and Collins bowing there was a wealth of tiny events combining with longer more continuous sounds. Gripping music.

Following this set was the second solo, NYC based percussionist Andrew Drury. Like the previous solo, there was a feeling of a technique run through, but he developed them much further, really exploring each technique. There was a rudimentary structure as it smoothly flowed from micro events to louder more denser occurrences but overall I didn’t find it too gripping; I was bored about half way through.  There was some fantastic sounds, the best from blowing and sucking through what looked like solid metal bell placed on the drums surface. He fully explored the possibilities of a thin, skewer sized dowel, rubbing it on the drums surface which he’d modify via metal objects. His final technique involved a metal dust pan which he bowed, struck and rubbed across the drum head.  This is definitely another case were I was impressed by his technique and control and expect his collaborations to be a lot more interesting.

Breaking the group/solo ordering observed so far, was Liz Tonne solo. As I’ve mentioned before I am incredibly picky with the vocalists that I like and in abstract vocalizations even more so. In fact I can’t really think of anyone I like besides Ami Yoshida.  i’ve heard Liz on a maybe four-five recordings and I’ve never been able to get fully behind it. There’d be moments that’s I’d enjoy, usually rather Ami-esque in character, but then there’d be silly glossolalia, donald duck sounds, ironic operatic snatches and the like that would either leave me cold or cringing.  This pretty much describes this nights performance.  However there was one element that raised the interest factor for me quite a bit.  Just a few minutes into the set a single, piercing tone was heard from somewhere in the distance. Not too loud and it seemed rather chaotic, that is it’d come on beep for a while and then stop. It was irregular enough that I wondered if it was a device of Liz that she was gripping in a closed hand.  About ten minutes before the end of her performance it settled into a continuous beeping and it became clear it was not part of the performance. But it added a lot and there were clearly a few times where Liz tried to work with it. Those were probably the highlight of the performance for me. The rest of the audience was not as pleased with the alarm.

The final set of the night (after the alarm was finally silenced that is) was all ten performers plus Tyler Wilcox on Sopranino Saxophone.  I’m always rather skeptical of the ‘Large Group’ as in most contexts it becomes muddy, chaotic, boringly dense and overly loud.  But, as Gust would say to me later, tonight there were no “bad actors” and it was almost like a doubled version of the earlier Quintet. An even wider variety of small sounds coming in and out with many intriguing collisions.  There were two distinct swells in density, providing a nice dynamic structure while not becoming a wall of sound at either point.  There were times were there where too many similar sounds – at one point all five horn players were doing breathy, airy sounds, at another the string players were dryly bowing away as Gust doweled and Andrew rubbed his drum head.  The most interesting aspect of this for me was getting to hear Sehnaoui and Drury in a group context, in which as I speculated during each of their solos, I felt they’d be more interesting. I was right about this, both of them made tasteful additions and fit in well with all of the other players.  Sehnaoui’s insectile buzzings contrasted nicely with the dominating aesthetic and differed (mostly) from the other brass instruments.  Drury laid out a lot and when he did add sounds they were always well placed and added to the whole. Again I look forward to the upcoming smaller combinations.  One other thing worth mentioning is that Theriault never cut through as he had during his earlier set. Perhaps just a better adjustment in his amplification or perhaps a better choice of material, but either way his additions were all positive.

This was a very solid and enjoyable opener to the six night festival.  In the main I found the three groups a lot more engaging then the solos but they all had their interesting aspects. The Quintet was the highlight for me and probably the only one of the sets I’d like to hear again. Looking forward to the rest of the weekend for sure.

See all of my SIMF photos in my SIMF 09 Flickr gallery.