Seattle Improvised Music Festival day 5

February 21st

12pm: Gallery 1412

Workshops with festival Improvisers

Saturday SIMF offered a workshop at noon that I attended. I had never managed to make it to the workshops and as I was immersing myself into the festival this year I thought I’d make one of these. The workshop feature Andrew Drury and Gust Burns though Gust mostly guided the actions. Gust does a fair amount of improv workshops here and I imagine that this one is an example of how he typically does those. There was nine of us total and Gust broke us into three trios and had each group play for a bit.  I had brought my little BC-16 syth and a little amp and focused primarily on shorting it out which gives it a sort of open circuit/damaged sine wave sort of sound. I was playing with a guy on acoustic guitar who played it with a balloon and other objects and a clarinet player who mostly did short little runs. The other trios were a trumpeter, a double bass player and Gust on piano and Drury, a girl on djemba and a guy playing cymbals on the ground.  For the second exercise Gust asked us to try to play in a way that we typical avoid. For myself I chose to run filter sweeps on the sine an effect that I find overused in the synth world.  We also in between sets talked a bit about the differences in composition and improv in which my compatriots seemed really hooked on the notion that a composer and go back and edit their composition. I pointed out that an improviser needs to self-edit in real time and not just merely react. This was not really grasped and as I hadn’t wanted to dominate the discussion I let it go. Anyway I chose to display this in the second piece and used very few sounds.  I thought our little group sounded a little better this time, though still not very inspiring. In general things sounded pretty amateurish, interesting to contrast with the improvisers playing the festival who are able to make something (even if not that compelling) out of these ad hoc groups.  There was more discussion following the second time playing though mostly people talking about what they were doing.  After this we had a final “large group” jam which was pretty much total rubbish, all excess and little restraint.  Things wrapped up pretty quickly after this and I headed back home to do some chores before the nights activities.

7pm: Chapel Performance Space, Seattle WA USA

  1. Lê Quan Ninh solo
    Michel Doneda / Andrew Drury / Tari Nelson-Zagar trio
  2. Lê Quan Ninh /  Gust Burns / Michael Thieke trio
    Michel Doneda solo
  3. Kai Fagaschinski solo
    Lê Quan Ninh / Michel Doneda / Rachel Thompson / Jonathan Zorn / Kai Fagaschinski / Michael Thieke sextet

Back to the chapel for what was the most packed and longest night of music of the entire festival. Three solos and three groups in three sets, many of which were overlong as well. The older improvisers in particular I think were much more used to performing for a certain amount of time as opposed to the duration that the music required.  Ninh, the first performer of the night, though excels in solo performance.  As I’ve mentioned before his performance is a dance as he moves between his various objects, always generating sound with them. He moved through a rather typical sonic arc, beginning again with stones in a quieter more subtle sound, gradually increasing in density working the edge of a cymbal into his bass drums head. While watching him perform is a wonderful event it reminds me of a statement that John Cage made in the early sixties as he incorporated more and more theater into his music: “The ear is insufficient”. just watching or listening to Ninh isn’t a complete or very rewarding experience rather it is the combination of the two that compels.

After a short pause as they up set up the trio of Michel Doneda, Andrew Drury and Tari Nelson-Zagar launched right into their set.  More then anything this group reminded me of improv that I used to see in the late nineties/early aughts some of it at earlier iterations of this festival.  It was that scittery style of post EFI improv where all of the players moved from sound to sound adding events into a swirling whole.  Drury was particularly ADD, grabbing tool after tool doing something with it then quickly moving on.  Nelson-Sagar, a violinist, mostly utilized quick short strokes on the strings, usually fragmented melodic elements.  Doneda pretty much ran though the same sequence of sounds he had used the night before: hisses, longer tones, short melodic elements, blasts of sound and so on. He held things a bit longer then the other two but still ran through the bulk of his vocabulary.  Frankly I found this set dull; little communication, no tension, little contrast, a wide variety of sounds but never used in a particularly interesting way. There was a big crowd though for this set, the largest of the night. So large I was unable to take any photos from where I was sitting.

After an actual set break we were presented with our next solo, Michel Doneda. After seeing two sets where he played in about the same way I was curious to see if he’d mix it up but I wasn’t rather expecting him to.  My fears were justified as he pretty much ran through the exact same sequence as he had previously. In fact he ran through it twice.  He began soft with hisses and gradually shifted to techniques ’til he was wailing long tones through his ‘net.  He does this thing (every single time he played of course) where he would move the bell of his clarinet though a huge circle as he played and he worked this at length in this solo. Other gestures that were oft repeated was to burble spit against the reed in a rattly, rather loud sound and the generation of overtones by blowing long, loud notes.  After peaking he dropped to a short silence and basically began the whole process over again. The length of the first part was more then sufficient and this solo was way overlong. After running through his typical arc, he began to walk around the stage eventually walking off. He ended up going through the doors to the foyer and played a bit out there ending the set.  During this set I came to that realization that I’ve mentioned before that Michel is basically using an archaic language.  One that he had developed in the mid 80s and while he developed it for a while at this point he pretty much just runs through the vocabulary.  In a way you can look at it as if you dropped in a Paris cafe and witness a scene that hadn’t changed in years, maybe decades, like an insect trapped in amber, perfectly preserved.

Gust Burns, Michael Thieke, Lê Quan Ninh trio
Gust Burns, Michael Thieke, Lê Quan Ninh trio

This was a set that I had been highly anticipating for this evening given how much I enjoy the individual performers. Burns and Thieke are much more akin to my taste, utilizing a lot more restraint, incorporating silences and generally seeking lower density improv.  Ninh, as he has proven throughout this festival, plays along with what the others are doing and thus fit in well in this context. It was always interesting how he’d be doing his thing and then as the others stop, he’d pause in the midst of his dance and wait until activity resumed, continuing on as if he had never stopped. The set was rather episodic, moving through three distinct phases. And honestly I felt only the middle one worked.  Burns was not playing inside the piano in this case, which personally I think would have gelled better.  He was playing the keyboard in that quirky style he has where he works these clusters of notes. Not loud, or overly dense but a large amount of notes are played in a short time and then left to hang there.  This though I thought overly stood out from the small quiet events that Thieke and Ninh were engaged in, in this first “movement”. Ninh was working the dowel end of a mallet into his drum head generating pops and groans and Thieke was blowing into his clarinet in soft whistling fragments. Burns abandoned the clusters and this signaled the next episode, in which he’d play single notes or broken chords and then cut them off with the damper. Thieke moved to longer lower continuous tones and Ninh did various simpatico percussive events – bowing the drum or cymbals.  This middle part was quite engaging – intricate, stimulating sounds colliding and alternately contrasting or enhancing each other.  This wound down and there was a long pause, long enough that Burns and Ninh were furtively looking up to see if they were done.  But Thieke had other ideas and blowing loudly across the keys of his clarinet he fired things back up.  Thus began the third episode and again this one wasn’t quite as engaging as the middle movement.  Thieke moved from blowing on the clarinet to blowing these odd little melodic figures. Burns returned to his clusters but this time almost working them into fragments of melody. This movement wasn’t too long and things came to a real conclusion a few minutes later, almost more of a coda to the middle section. But in my mind the first ending would have been superior.

There was again a break before the next solo and by the time Kai Fagaschinski made his way on stage it was getting on pretty late.  Fagaschinski though delivered one of the best solos of the festival. It neither went on too long, nor reveled in excess. It explored a few areas in depth and it had a real structure to it. Most impressively it contained unexpected moments and genuine surprises.  Fagaschinski began with quiet explorations and slowly moved through a range of sounds that his clarinet can generate. His explorations were spacious yet not just moving from item to item. He’d reference back to earlier bits, perhaps working with a hissing sound that he’d used before.  At one point, the highlight of the set for me, he generated a long, very loud continuous tone that vibrated my inner ear and created truly interesting psycho-acoustic effects.  He didn’t push this too far either, he did it for a time and then back off, returning to quieter sparser events that in themselves interacted with the aftermath of this ear-drum massage.  After that he did a bit with higher pitched perhaps overtone playing that evoked a theremin in my ears and shortly thereafter wrapped it up.  All in all it wasn’t overly long and it was highly engaging, definitely the best set from this evening.

Rachel Thompson, Jonathan Zorn, Kai Fagaschinski , Michel Doneda, Lê Quan Ninh, Michael Thieke
Rachel Thompson,  Jonathan Zorn, Kai Fagaschinski , Michel Doneda, Lê Quan Ninh, and Michael Thieke sextet

I was really tired by this point and had seriously considered skipping out on the sextet and heading home. In retrospect that would have been the better move as I felt this was one of the least successful performances from the festival.  While it had promising start, with quiet, short events coming and going, it followed the predictable pattern of all of Doneda’s performances and became and exercise in excess.  Zorn again never stopped playing and while Thieke and Fagaschinski would often lay out, whenever they did play Doneda would leap right in, giving us a blasting horn section at times.  Ninh was his usual compatible self, but he did seem to stick with less dense sounds, clearly noting the overal amount of sound already being generated. Thompson was playing unamplified and thus was oft buried amidst the throng, so she also laid out quite often.  It was primarily Zorn and Doneda who were always playing and often aggressively so. While there were a couple of moments where Doneda and Zorn happened to be playing quietly and you could hear Thompson scraping her strings (with the violin actually under her chin) with card stock that were nice, overall this set was a brooding, thick mess.