Seattle Improvised Music Festival day 6

February 22nd

12pm: Gallery 1412: Panel Discussion with festival Improvisers

While last week I was the only attendee to the round table, I enjoyed it quite a bit so I decided (fairly late actually – I was pretty burnt out by this point) to o again.  Once again attendance was pretty sparse though all of the visiting musicians except for Zorn and Thompson were there.  We were sitting in a rough circle enjoying fruit and pastries when this older gentleman showed up asking if this was open to the public.  It was we assured him and he came in and joined the group. Not too long after this he launched into this epic spiel about his life history, his current interest in music theory and eventually into a “question” about how the musicians deal with the issue of “tritones” in their improvising. While I can’t really explain what he was really getting at the gist of it was that if multiple musicians are improvising on a particular scale and then one of them modulates to another scale, how do you deal with “inevitable” tritones.  Now tritones are intervals that span three whole tones (to paraphrase the Wikipedia article, to which I submit you read if interested) and are dissonant.  However they are a dissonance that has been address from at least Scheonberg on and I asked the fellow if his music theory study had gotten that far.  He said that he hadn’t really gotten to 20th Century Music Theory yet.  It was also asked of him if he’d attended any of the festival and how he thought the music performed herein related to the music theory he was studying.  He had attended and well he didn’t really answer this, which of course was impossible as none of the music performed was deal with traditional scales. Kai and Michael tried to explain that while they’d start with notated tones they were usually exploring micro-tonalities and were just moving up and down scales.  

This led to some other discussion and then after a bit the gentleman again interrupted asking about Woody Guthrie and effectively if we could talk about these concepts of modern composition and also a folkie like Woody Guthrie, that interest in these two disparate (in his mind) poles was possible.  It was then asserted that modern music listeners don’t hold much truck with notions of “high” and “low” art and that it wasn’t incompatible at all to be a fan of abstract music, Woody Guthrie and (say) Luigi Nono.  He then shifted gears pointing out that (in his mind) merely raising this question had “thrown a tritone” into our conversation.  This went on for a bit until Gust basically called the session done and the old fellow headed out to the Y.  We then ended up chatting a bit more on such topics as “what the hell was that” and later on creating recordings, ad hoc collaborations and the musical interests of the various participants.  All and all a highly entertaining and interesting discussion.

The Japanese Garden in Seattles Arboretum
The Japanese Garden in Seattle's Arboretum


After the panel I went to the Essential Bakery and got a sandwich and green tea to go. I went to the Arboretum and had a picnic lunch followed by spending some time in the Japanese Garden there. The Japanese Garden is a lovely little pocket carved out of the Arboretum that, having been to a number of gardens in Japan, does capture a lot of the feeling those gardens are going for. In winter everything was still and it was mostly empty though it was a fairly nice.  There were faint signs of spring, with cherry trees beginning to bud and a few early plants with hints of green and even some little flowers.  The main entrance of the Garden was being reconstructed in a fashion of little Japanese style houses and shops (similar in matter of fact to those you’d often see at the exit (usually) of many of the temples I visited in Kyoto), which was looking to be a nice addition. It rained while I was there, but in a very spring shower sort of way that I was able to mostly wait out under a wooden shelter. This was a nice relaxing counterpoint to all of the sound and activity of the weekend.

7pm: Gallery 1412, Seattle WA USA                 

  1. Michael Thieke / Jonathan Zorn duo
    Michael Thieke / Jonathan Zorn / Wilson Shook / Tyler Wilcox quartet
  2. Kai Fagaschinski / Rachel Thompson duo
    Kai Fagaschinski / Rachel Thompson / Gust Burns / Mara Sedlins quartet;
  3. Large Ensemble

Jonathan Zorn, Wilson Shook, Tyler Wilcox, Michael Thieke quartet
Jonathan Zorn, Wilson Shook, Tyler Wilcox, Michael Thieke quartet

It was just a few hours later that I was back to the Gallery for the last night of music. I showed up a bit after 7 (nearly all of these shows started around 7:30) and secured a good seat in the second row. The Gallery seemed a bit emptier this week, but for the size of the space it was still a decent crowd. The schema for this night as again different in that the first two sets featured duos of the four remaining guest musicians, who were then joined by two PNW musicians for a quartet. The festival then concludes with the ever popular large group.  

The first duo to go up was Thieke and Zorn on electronics and clarinet irrespectively. Thieke as is his wont utilized longer elements, both sustained tones and whispery breathing, some twisted semi-melodic fragments and short sharp breaths on the keys and mouth of the clarinet.  Zorn focused on playing with samples this set, these were always manipulated out of recognition: slowed down, sped up, reversed, heavily effected and so on.  I wasn’t feeling this at all and felt that there was nothing Thieke could do to cut through the barrage of banality. At one point Zorn was working with a low rumbling tone that he brought up to a fairly high level of intensity as Thieke playing a nice contrasting tone also brought it up to a peak which they both cut off. Basically a perfect ending and Kai who was in front of me pantomimed the start of clapping but alas it was not to be.  Zorn wasn’t done and began making sounds again to which Thieke eventually joined.  This I think typifies what it is I’ve found I don’t really enjoy about Zorn: a lack of sensitivity. Perhaps there is some sort of subverting of expectations or some such but the results just don’t justify it.

Thieke and Zorn were then joined by Wilson Shook and Tyler Wilcox (replacing Mark Collins) on sax and sax respectively.  While I like Shook’s work on the alto quite a bit, especially his extended techniques and I’ve seen several instances where Wilcox’s soprano perfectly complimented the sounds at hand, I felt that these two in this context were not what the group needed.  It was now far too reed oriented and even the extended techniques that these three use are very similar. So this became like a horn section with Zorn as the contrasting element and frankly that is not role I found him much of a candidate for. There was in general a bit too much playing a bit too much reinforced similar sounds and then of course Zorn’s incredibly banal sample based playing. Not a set I enjoyed very much, though as always there were moments here and there.


Kai Fagaschinski, Rachel Thompson duo
Kai Fagaschinski, Rachel Thompson duo

There was then a break afterwards which was the second set beginning with the duo of Thompson and Fagaschinski.  After the previous couple of days I was most anticipating this set out of the three tonight and I have to say that I was not disappointed.  Thompsons semi-random scrapes and jittering clangs, matched very well with Fagaschinski’s longer tones, breath-work and occasional blasts. The set was varied and was filled with odd little clashes and conjunctions of sound. The explored a micro-cosm of limited events and wrapped it up well before it had reached exhaustion. A perfectly strange and gripping little set.

The addition of Gust Burns working his dowels and Mara Sedlins on the violin was a case where addition created something new and even better.  Thompson and Sedlins are so far apart in their usage of their strings that there wasn’t little if any of the sonic overlap that had occurred in the previous horn heavy set.  If anything the dry bowing of Sedlins was more in line with Burn’s dry doweling, but the texture and dynamics of these two techniques are quite distinct. This set began with cracking sounds from Thompson that were much louder then the hushed dry scrapes from Sedlins and the rustling, staccato moans from Burn’s dowel work. Fagaschinski at first added to this with whispery breath-work and later added more tonal parts. What was so gripping in the set to me was the constant shifting between murmuring tones and contrasting elements.  Thompson usually was the one to toss sand into the mesh-work but one stunning segment had Burns pulling dowels out from between his string creating a popping reverberant bell like tone. The density was variable as well but it didn’t follow the predictable arcs of many of the sets we’d seen the night before, no they were more shifting and fleeting themselves more elements to add to the whole then structural features.  One of the more striking of these featured Burns doweling in the lower register of the piano with the most volume I’ve ever heard him generate with this technique. Fagaschinski after the initial breathy bits was working with long hushed tones at the lower end of the clarinets register, but at one point he interjected a longer louder blast that again added to the overall palette without demanding a sustained response. The set ended with him playing in a slightly more melodic fashion, almost in a coda to the proceedings.  This set was fantastic, challenging, unexpected, rich in elements and confounding expectations. One of the very best of the whole festival.


Large Group
Large Group


The final set of the night and the festival was a large group made up of all of the evenings performers.  I’m sad to say that this one lived up more to the reputation of the large group then the exception to the  rule that the very first nights large group proved to be.  While that one set a good tone none of the other large groups lived up to its example and I have to retain my established conclusion that little but excess and mud comes from the large group experience.  All of them had sublime moments and this one was no exception, bits were various members laid out and there was sensitive interactions between the remaining players, but all too infrequent here.  Again as in the first quartet there were “horn section” style group playing that just underscores that cliche when they are all playing one long tone or all breathy sounds.  Again Zorn’s elections were pervasive and uninteresting and as is so oft the case it went on far too long.  Highlights included a section where Fagaschinski placed his clarinets metal cap on the floor, covered it with the bell of the ‘net and then proceeded to rattle it around the floor by moving the clarinet around. Another part I dug was Burns placing a long dowel between strings and then rotating it in a large circle generating metallic pops and grinding sounds. during one of the more spacious sections a crackling, almost electronic whistling emitted from Shook’s muted sax that was spellbinding.  The end was a low density affair that went on and on and on.  It kept seeming to almost end but would just keep going. Fagaschkinski and Thieke had set down their clarinets and were waiting it out but it just kept going. Eventually Fagaschinksi got up and walked to the rear of the Gallery, opened the door and left. The group played for a couple of minutes after that and then wrapped it up.

So there it is; one man’s view of the 2009 Seattle Improvised Music Festival. I had a good time this year and enjoyed fully immersing myself into it. As always I think that Seattle Improvised Music, Nonsequitur and especially Gust Burns did a fantastic job setting up and running it all.  While all the music wasn’t too my taste it would of course be ridiculous to expect it to be so.  In the scale of things there was nothing soul crushingly bad, just things that were better then others and things that weren’t my kind of thing. Yes there were sets that I flat out thought didn’t work or were flawed but I think trying these sorts of experiments do lead to that kind of failure. So I applaud the musicians and organizers and everyone involved and look forward to next years 25th Anniversary affair.

To see all of the pictures I took at this years festival, check out my SIMF 09 set on Flickr.

2 thoughts on “SIMF 09: day 6

  1. robert, you probably know this, but the tritone isn’t even really considered very dissonant anymore. miles davis was well known for using it, and it’s since become pretty common in jazz and jazz-derivative music. i believe both “maria” from west side story and the simpsons theme use the interval in their title phrases.


  2. Yeah, I didn’t want to belabor it too much be we did try to explain to this dude that the 20th C pretty much erased any concern with the tritone. It’s real power was back when it was considered the devils interval anyway. Good times.


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