SIMF 2014 day 3

SIMF 2014 day 3 - Andrea Neumann and Bonnie Jones

Andrea Neumann & Bonnie Jones preparing to play

Last night was the final night of  the 29th edition of the Seattle Improvised Music Festival at the Chapel Performance Space in the Wallingford neighborhood of Seattle WA. I headed to Wallingford earlier than I did yesterday as recent Vancouver transplant Joda Clémant had come down to see the Bonnie Jones/Andrea Neumann duo again (and planned to followed them Dead-Head style to Portland). Snow had been threatening all day and it was a cold, bleak trip featuring missed busses and other low comedy.  I met up with Joda at the Chapel and as we walked the couple of blocks to 45th where the restaurants and such are a very light snow began to fall. After vegetarian Thai and beers in Wallingford we returned to the venue and it had clearly snowed throughout dinner and we were trudging through a half inch or so with no sign of the snow ceasing. We made it to seats at the front left about two minutes before the first set.

SIMF 2014 Day 3 (02.08.14)

SIMF 2014 day 3 - Andrea Neumann and Bonnie Jones

Andrea Neumann & Bonnie Jones beginning their set
Bonnie Jones/Andrea Neumann
The duo of Bonnie Jones and Andrea Neumann was what I (and Joda for that matter) were there to see. Happily they’d placed them in the lead off position which means they would a) have an actual soundcheck and b) I’d be able to take off at any point afterwards as I knew the snow was going to mess things up. As I noted yesterday I’ve seen Andrea and Bonnie in various combinations but had only heard their duo from their CD green just as I could see on Erstwhile Records. They were setup on a single table Bonnie with her collection of electronics and various objects at the end of the table stage left. Behind the table on the stage right end Andrea was setup with her autoharp, mixer, preparations and other electronics and objects.  There was short introductions and then they came out to play.

SIMF 2014 day 3 - Andrea Neumann and Bonnie Jones

Andrea Neumann & Bonnie Jones

The set began with Bonnie picking up pedals and connecting them together while Andrea sorted through her preparations and began to work the autoharp. What followed was a engaging approximately thirty minute continuous improvisation. It was quite a diverse set that flowed though a variety of techniques and approaches to the duo’s instruments revealing a wide array of interpenetrating sounds.   Andrea early on used eBow on the strings of the zither creating a very pure tone, agited the strings with little metal mallets creating a wash of sounds which she then muted with a rubber object (looked like a sandpaper holder but could be ink printing related),  brought out a fan which she hovered over the strings exciting the pickups, a return to the eBow toward the end and even some plucked out notes. Bonnie as noted began with putting her kit together in a deliberate, sound generating fashion eventually moving on to manipulating her open circuits. In front of their table was red plastic keg cup which turned out to have a speaker in it, which Bonnie picked up and manipulated during the set. At one point she picked up her little singing bowls and bells and dropped them on the floor, picking them up and dropping them again. She also did further percussive work with the cable ends that she uses on the exposed circuits of her pedals.   Later in the set she moved the cup out into the audience and returned to more aggressive static outbursts from the pedals now emerging from the speakers behind the duo and the cup out among the seats. Two times during the set she played vocal samples, the first of what sounded like a teenage girl recounting something like a dream or from a diary or perhaps a report to an authority figure; flat, unaffected and tense. The second was much more heavily processed and it was a choir, or chanting but with enough reverb and echo and maybe multracked that it was more of a wash. This more solemn sample was playing at the end which was a sort of deconstruction with Bonnie vigorously moving things about and Andrea creating a more wall of sound with feedback and such.  A strong ending with the contrast between this seemingly less focused playing and this created sound with it’s pointing toward the profound.
A really excellent set all around and I’m really glad I braved the weather to see it.  In many ways these two work with sounds that have become quite standard material in this particular tiny corner of the improv world.  Many of the techniques and processes used could be heavily associated with various musicians and isolated moments would be difficult to ascribe to a particular individual. But it just goes to show that what this music is about is not actually the material, it is the intentionality behind these sounds, the choices that are made, both beforehand and in the moment. There is an understanding of structure, that even if little of that is worked out beforehand, but that intuitively knows that you can move between events in a certain way, relaying upon a compatible partner to do the same and that it is the interpenetration of this disparate events, that are assembled in the heads of the audience that really creates the music.
SIMF 2014 day 3 - Gust Burns, Jacob Zimmerman and Joe Morris

Gust Burns, Jacob Zimmerman and Joe Morris

Joe Morris/Jacob Zimmerman/Gust Burns
It had continued to snow and I’d planned to just head out after the duo but based on the previous night I knew there would be another set without much of a break and then a short intermission before the third. So I figured I’d just check out the second group and head out at the break. Less disruptive and I could make farewells on my way out.  So this set was guitar/alto sax/piano (respectively) and was much more free improv of the the older school. Based on Joe’s performance the day before this wasn’t a surprise and while Gust often works in more experimental areas I’ve seen him several times in these more traditional free improv type ensembles. Jacob  Zimmerman was new to me but apparently he is a local boy having come from Seattle Garfield High which is famous for it’s jazz programs.  I really don’t have the vocabulary to talk about this kind of music – it really has never been my thing and while I’ve seen a number of examples I don’t really have much to say about it.  It went on way to long – five individual pieces adding up to nearly an hour of performance. Which is quite unheard of at these shows – last night for instance all three sets was about an hour and half. The most interesting playing was from Gust I thought who generally does a kind Cecil Taylor-ish type playing in these settings.  But quite often tonight he would play super quietly which at least the first time he did it brought the playing of his compatriots way down, becoming much softer and less aggressive.  But overall with the length and such I found this set tiring and so headed home afterwards missing the third set of Matt Ingalls, Greg Campbell and Paul Kikuchi.

There was a pretty good spread of snow out there now, perhaps as much as two inches. I talked a bit with Joda at the entrance to the Chapel and it turned out that the venue that Bonnie and Andrea were going to play in Portland had suffered from burst pipes and the show was canceled. They were looking to line up a house show or something, but from what I’ve seen PDX seems pretty shutdown. Eventually I made my farewells and walked to the bus. The bus kept being delayed (I could see this on the fantastic One Bus Away app) so I kept walking between stops. Eventually I was at a stop in the U-District where I had a couple of options to catch busses up Capitol Hill and I just waited it out. Eventually got on one that made it about 2/3rds of the way up the hill and then encountered a virtual bus graveyard – a steep section that had buses parked all along it and toward the top a jackknifed bus completely blocking the road. Ended up walking home from there on the icy roads. Lot’s of walking in the cold and snow but I think it was all worth it.

SIMF 2014 day 3 - Walking Home

Walking home
Photos from SIMF day 3: SIMF 2014 day 3
Check out all of my photos from SIMF 2014: SIMF 2014



SIMF 2014 day 2

SIMF 2014 day 2 -

Last weekend was the 29th edition of the Seattle Improvised Music Festival held as it has been for years now at the Chapel Performance Space in the Wallingford Neighborhood of Seattle WA. This year among others they invited Bonnie Jones and Andrea Neumann whose work I’ve enjoyed for quite some time. Bonnie of course plays in the excellent duo English with Joe Foster and Andrea has been a stalwart of the Berlin scene performing on numerous great albums. They’ve been playing as this duo for some time now and of course put out the excellent green just as I could see on Erstwhile Records. So even though it’s been so cold and it constantly threatens to snow I made out Wallingford to see them perform. They played days two and three of the festival, their duo on the third day and in combinations with Seattle based improvisors on the second.

SIMF 2014 Day 2 (02.07.14)

SIMF 2014 day 2 - Joe Morris closeup


Joe Morris solo
Joe was playing a hollow body electric guitar run through a simple amp with minimal (or no) effects. He played three short improvisations, generally favoring a pretty continuous stream of sound with a mix of melodic and more abstract elements. The first was sort of harmonic Fahey-ish bits interspersed with Bailey-esque angular bits. The second piece, which I found the most interesting, was based around continuously strumming a few strings which generated a really un-guitar-like metallic high pitched effect. This he moderated by chording high on the neck and the interactions of this created some odd tones and lingering overtones. The last piece seemed to be the longest and it again explored more melodic territory.  It seemed pretty wandering and not much of it really stuck in my mind except the ending which was with a harmonic that seemed to surprise Joe a bit and which he immediately recognized as a sign to end. A nice ending to a set that was very well done for what it was, though what it was isn’t necessarily my thing.

SIMF 2014 day 2 - Andrea Neumann, Gust Burns

Andrea Neumann/Gust Burns
Andrea on autoharp, electronics, Gust on seemingly on turntable. I have to admit I was expecting a duo of Gust on piano and Andrea on her custom piano guts.  But perhaps that would have been to obvious?  This turned out to be pretty interesting and riskier I think. The sounds were rather cut up with piano samples from Gust (perhaps a record of himself?), a chopped up and frequently cut-off speaker, perhaps a recorded lecture, (couldn’t tell if who was doing this, Gust I suspect) with Andrea initially tapping on the heavily amplified strings which generated a compellingly rich ponging sound.   She later worked feedback in various forms, plucked out a little melody on the strings toward the end placed a contact mic on her throat and mixed in some sub-voclizations. At various times throughout the piece there were silences but I have to say these came across as rather forced. The noise floor from Andrea’s setup is pretty high and when you go from that to silence you either let that hum play out or fade it down. She did the later and that I think is what came across as pushing the sounds around. I tend to think it’s best to let it ride but I know there are those who feel that gives a floor upon which the improvisor can rest. Always choices.


SIMF 2014 day 2 - Day 2, set II:  Naomi Siegel, Bonnie Jones, Jonathan Way

Bonnie Jones/Jonathan Way/Naomi Siegel
This trio featured Bonnie Jones playing her usual open circuits but she also has added a small laptop, contact mic’s and percussion elements to her setup. Jonathan Way, of Seattle Phonographers Union fame (and whom I played with in EyeMusic) seemed to be processing field recordings. He stuff was soft and subtle, often sounding as washes or wind and faint environments. Naomi Siegel, whom I don’t recall having seen before, played trombone with and without mutes and recordings via her smart phone.  The ensemble did two fairly short pieces. The first featured Bonnie  on open circuits most of the time, though she also did some contact mic work. There was this rather tribal-ish percussive bit at one point that could have been Bonnie playing from her laptop though it certainly could have been a field recording from Jonathan.  Jonathan primarily seemed to work with  processed field recordings, winds and washes and pretty subtle ambient stuff. There was some overlap between his and Bonnies’s sounds at times which nicely layered and merged together and I didn’t expend much energy separating them. Naomi primarily worked with extended techniques on her trombone mostly in the static-y, sputtery realm but she also would drop in these melodic phrases almost like a jazz quotation. At least once she held her smart phone up to her mic and played some recorded sounds of what sounded like crowds, or conversation of some sort.  In the main I found she didn’t quite fit with the electronic duo, though sometimes the more abstract and subtle trombone bits mixed in nicely.


Their second piece began with Bonnie playing percussive stuff with two cable ends, banging on the frame of her chair and the table and eventually hitting little bells and metal bowls on her table. Jonathan layered in some wind sounding washes and via her smartphone Naomi dropped in distant vocal samples. This piece was more episodic with silences and near silences between it’s several “movements”. After the initial percussive intro, Bonnie moved open circuits and Naomi returned to the trombone.  Later she did more percussive work, tapping around the body of the ‘bone. The piece concluded with a wash of sound that gradually increased in volume and intensity with radio from Bonnie and sputtery trombone from Naomi.  Jonathan increased the volume of his wash of sound until they all dropped out and he quickly faded his sound out a moment later.  This piece varied a bit in structure and elements from the first, which did have a bit of testing each out to it.  While still a bit mixed I definitely enjoyed this one and it was a good ending to this night.



Photos from SIMF day 2: SIMF 2014 day 2
Check out all of my photos from SIMF 2014: SIMF 2014

Taku Sugimoto at SIMF

This year the Seattle Improvised Music Festival brought in Taku Sugimoto from Japan. Regular readers of this blog will know that I’ve been a long time follower of Sugimoto’s work though certainly have not followed him everywhere he’s gone. Regardless of the end product, the journey has always been fascinating and it’s always been worthwhile to keep up with his current activities.  I’ve managed to see nearly all of the musicians in the small modern improv scene that has dominated my interests over the last decade but Taku Sugimoto has always managed to slip out of my grasp. So I was particularly pleased that SIMF brought him by this year.

Empty Bass

Taku Sugimoto wasn’t the only non-Pacific Northwester that SIMF brought in this year, and they did do sixteen sets over four days all told.  I’ve really moved into a space where I try to not over consume music, both in buying of physical objects but also in how much I hear. I’ve come to find it a lot more valuable to let music that I find really compelling to sink in, to not immediately overwhelm it with another piece. So I only saw nine of those sixteen sets and even that was too much in my mind.  Each night that I went I’d come home and put up a short report onto Google+ of the Sugimoto set from that night. I’m going to collect those here, perhaps slightly expanded and with a couple more photos. I should not that the lighting was low and overall my photos were fairly bad.

Mark Collins, Mara Sedlins, Taku Sugimoto, John Teske

Thursday February 9th, apart from being my birthday, was also the second night of SIMF 2012 and the first of three nights with sets featuring Taku Sugimoto.  On this night we had a world premier Taku Sugimoto composition: Two Contrabasses, Viola and Guitar. The performers were  Mark Collins and John Teske handling the contrabasses, Mara Sedlins playing the viola and Taku Sugimoto handling the guitar. I really enjoyed the piece, it was mostly long bowed tones from the strings and Sugimoto cycling through eBow, muted plucked strings, chords and then open plucked single notes. Dynamics were low throughout and stayed in a single register giving it a kind of Feldman-ish feel. The string players almost always seemed to bow in one direction which I assume was for a particular timing or sound. The slow, soft bowing the the occasionally dry percussive elements of Sugimoto’s playing also made me think of Jacob Ullman’s A Catalog of Sounds. Good piece, afterwards I had to leave without seeing the next two sets as I wanted to let this one settle through me.

Taku Sugimoto and John Teske

Friday February 10th featured a solo performance by Taku Sugimoto. This was of course going to be interesting as Sugimoto solo has gone anywhere from him continuously playing scales, to playing only a handful of notes over the duration.  Tonight though he stuck with his recent practice of sticking to composition and  performed Michael Pisaro’s Melody, Silence. This was a nice piece like most of Pisaro’s compositions. It was made up of single plucked tones that were sometimes allowed to fully decay, other times strung into simple near melodies. These different modes of operation cycled and between then they were interspersed with short segments on the eBow. There wasn’t a ton of silence, the longest sections when he’d pick up the eBow. In that regard it reminded me more of how John Cage would use silences in the number pieces which were mainly short (though still longer than you’d normally find in a “classical” piece) and seem more about allowing each sound to be allowed to breathe. Taku’s touch on the guitar is really quite good, he’d gently pluck the strings giving a rich, full tone that was really compelling in and of itself.  The hollow body guitar he uses has a particularly nice sound for what he does. The piece wasn’t too long, I’d say maybe twenty minutes and it definitely kept me captivated throughout.

Taku Sugimoto performs Michael Pisaro’s Melody, Silence

Saturday February 12th was the final night of the festival and the only night that Taku Sugimoto engaged in improvisation playing in a quartet with Gust Burns, Jeph Jerman and Tyler Wilcox. As they were setting up Taku put stools on either side of the rear stage with (at least on my side) a wine bottle on it. He poured out a glass of this wine into a styrofoam cup. On stage Jeph scatted about his collection of items: a small zither, some mallets, a radio, small speakers, rocks and twigs. Gust opened the lid of the grand piano but had none of his usual dowels (perhaps he is post-dowel now). Tyler simply had a chair and his sopranino sax. Wilson Shook came on stage to announce the group and that the lights would be turned off.

Jeph Jerman, Gust Burns and Tyler Wilcox

The group played in the near darkness with only the exit signs and the light through the chapel stained glass windows coming in. Playing in the darkness seems to always lead to even more hushed music than normal and it was very low dynamics throughout. Jeph rattled things and tapped on the floor, Tyler emitted very quiet mostly short tones and Gust held back for quite a while. Taku wandered around and shined lights on things. At first seemingly just on the crowd but then on a mic stand with his hat on it. Later he had a shoe on the mic stand. Jeph placed an eBow on his zither and let it run for some time, first high, then low then high again. Tyler would match this for brief intervals creating sections of beating tones that was quite nice. Gust began playing single notes, fairly high and usually damped fairly quickly. Taku walked to my side of the stage and place a blinking green light that was shaped like a glow stick into the bottle of wine. At this point a regular beeping sound began, but if this was something of Taku’s or one of Jeph’s little toys I don’t know. It beeped for a while as Taku was behind the rear stage curtain playing with a white light.

Wine bottle, stool

Taku also had a red light in his belt and eventually he made his way to the opposite side of the stage and set it up (presumably also in a bottle). So on either side of the stage a red and green light was blinking away. Jeph finally removed the ebow and seem to focus more on rustling sounds and wobbling rocks. Gust was still just playing the occasional single note, now more mid-range. Tyler was doing a bit more hissing sounds at this point. Taku shined his light on the back of the heads of the audience a bit but then made his way to the back where he returned to the show on the mic stand. He placed his flashlight in another mic stand and proceeded to manipulate the shoe for a bit, slow lowering it and then rotating it. This was cast as a huge shadow on the screen that is behind the stage curtain. This was the climax so to speak and after he cut that light I think he only projected lights once more for a short time. The musicians were slowly winding down as well, though of course it had never gotten more intense then the eBowed zither. At the end they just sat in the dark for a bit making no sounds. Eventually Tyler said thanks and it was done.

Great performance, I really enjoyed it. While the theatrical stuff was really engaging what I think made it completely compelling was that there was great music throughout.

April Music

Micheal Johnsen's setup at the Chapel

(edit: 05.03.10: replaced the album cover art with better images that Michael sent me:  thanks Michael!)

This year I only went to two days of the 2010 Seattle Improvised Music Festival, but one of those days was completely revelatory. The night featured Michael Johnsen from Pennsylvania, whom was described only as playing “electronic devices of his construction”. In my musical exploration subverted, invented, re-purposed, etc electronics has been of high interest to me and considering that there seems to be a certain reticence toward electronics from the SIMF programmers this piqued my interest. Web searching didn’t reveal much: an album of duo material (2) where he seemed to not play much of these self-made electronics and this intriguing blurb from John Berndt’s Odd Instruments page:

Michael Johnsen lives in Pittsburgh and thinks near or beyond the edge of the routine organization of cognition – a true outsider. His work with original electronics, acoustic instruments, unusual film methods, language, and other media, reveals a brilliant mind that confronts phenomena with relatively little of the inherited worldview but with a tremendous amount of poetry. The entrance to Michael’s work is a withdrawal from “meaning” and a focus on aspects of perception and communication that are usually excluded – the rich universe of thoughts we habitually ignore but which are ultimately as palpable as anything else.

But it was this blurb from the label of his aforementioned duo album that made me sit up and take notice:

The first CD by one of the great minds of North American Experimental music, recorded live at High Zero 2003. Michael Johnson is both heir to the crown of David Tudor (for his incredible investigagtions into live performance of non-linear analog brains of his own creation) and also one of the most distinctive and brilliant improvisors on saw, reed, and other varied gambits.

Name checking Tudor will always garner my interest, though rarely is it justified. But a couple of YouTube Videos showcasing his solo electronics proved the comparisons were not without merit.

Watch this short clip of Johnsen performing at Chicago’s Lampo to see what I mean:

Fully intrigued now I made my way to Seattle’s Chapel Performance space on Februrary 19th 2010. When I walked into the hall, Johnsen was still on stage tweaking and adjusting his epic collection of homemade boxes and their corresponding rats nest of connections. He was running a radio broadcast through the setup and it was being heavily gated, creating this chopped up effect, turning the staid broadcast into a completely captivating bit of experimentation. The show had four sets, three with Johnsen, the first of which he performed with local improvisers on the musical saw. While a quite interesting saw performance (it featured little of the beautiful long wavering tones usually associated with the saw) I was dying to see his collection of bespoke electronics in action. I shortly got my chance as the second set was a solo electronics performance.

This sort of abstract electronics performance is hard to describe and especially if one wants to avoid merely creating a catalog of sounds and events.  Suffice it to say this performance, which was about twenty-five minutes in length, was very much in the vein of Tudor’s solo electronics work such as Toneburst, Phonemes, Untitled.  In fact I’d say that Johnsen’s language wasn’t too much evolved from in Tudors but the performance was all his. To me this has been a missing piece in Tudor’s legacy: if he was creating new instruments, new performance practices and a new form of composition then there has to be others utilizing these tools and practices. There has of course been the Composers Inside Electronics and a few others like Matt Rogalsky who I’d put in this vein but Johnsen is the first I’ve seen who really seemed to try to pick up where Tudor left off. Making his own instruments is certainly a vital aspect; I think a lot of Live Electronics types have tended toward exploring other aspects and not explored this area (as an aside this I think is becoming an increasing vital area as there are a lot more handmade, boutique and original electronics being made and used at this point). Anyway this performance was fantastic: chaotic, disruptive, highly varied, loud at times, spacious at others, it was incredible music and probably the most amazing thing I’ve seen as part of  SIMF.

Micheal Johnsen's setup at the Chapel Performance Space

The final set of the night Johnsen played with a couple more local improvisers of which he played the first half on electronics and the second half on saw. This was interesting to see how he’d use his wild and unpredictable setup with other musicians and in fact it worked quite well. He clearly highly restricted what it was doing, in effect utilizing a subset of the whole. He focused on working with radios letting the devices process the thin sounds of static. Every so often he’d let much louder disruptions through, which I thought was great as it kept things varied and broke through what could have been a rather staid performance. When he switched to saw, it was interesting as before, but a lot of energy was lost and I felt a bit superfluous after the first half. Still nice to see the electronics in collaboration.

Afterwards I got a chance to talk to Michael a bit and this was also quite interesting. We mostly talked about Tudor and his legacy and at one point I commentated that it seems like there has been somewhat of an increase in interest in Tudor and exploring some of his ideas and techniques of late. To this he replied (and I’m paraphrasing here) that while Tudor was alive there really wasn’t a lot of space for others to explore this territory and his passing has in effect open this up. This I think makes sense, but also I think the aforementioned interest in diy, hand made, boutique, original electronics had led people back to the source. He was selling three 3″ cd-rs of his solo material, the only source for his solo work as far as I know. I of course picked up all three of these. Each of these 3″ documented a live performance, two from 2009 and one from 2009. They each had a handmade cover, simply two pieces of very fragile paper with a an image on one and text on the other. All three of these utilize a similar suite of sounds and thus have the character of their creator, but as each setup is unique each performance has its own character and sound.

Michael Johnsen 27 July 2007The earliest release from July 27th 2007 was an excerpt from a 45 minute recording and is titled: Live electronic sound made by the tuning & spatial manipulation of two closely spaced portable AM radios having loopstick antennae, the resulting signal undergoing mild output processing, primarily filtering & gating. This piece, whose title describes the process so exacting, seems like it was close to that performance I describe above where he played with the other improvisers. Using two radios, held close together to cause interference, he could adjust the waves of static by moving them and minutely adjusting their tuning. His collection of devices would be left to run on their own, patched in this case to gate and filter the sounds.  Sort of like what I saw when I walked in during soundcheck, with the heavily chopped up radio, but in this case without any recognizable speech. It begins with these popping in squeaks, bursts of static, that odd sound made by tuning off a channel, and the occasional almost recognizable bit of radio. Of course readers of this blog will think of Keith Rowe and his brilliant use of the radio but let me tell you this is a completely unique approach to this device. I love Keith’s radio work and its hard to find others using it in a way that distinguishes itself from his technique and Johnsen’s use is definitely one of them. Even the occasional bits that would qualify as “grabs” feel so different, so random that it only reminds you how different and wonderful this is.

Michael Johnsen 19 Sep 2007The second release, Live Electronic sound recorded 19 Sep 2007 is more typical to the performance I saw, with a stream of little sounds, analog squeaks and bleats, but also lots of space in this one. The beginning of the piece is a cornucopia, of little sounds given plenty of room to breathe, many of them very quiet. The dynamic range of his electronics is impressive as it goes from this barely audible bubbling sounds to ear splitting blasts of over driven electronics. I love the use of space in this piece and the variety, to me this shows an individual response to Tudor’s performance practice as the pacing is clearly all Johnsen’s own. This piece has a real deliberate, exploratory, introverted nature to it as he works these mostly soft textures, manipulating them into different aspects of themselves.

Michael Johnsen 19 Feb 2009The most recent disc was recorded a year (to the day!) of the show I saw,  Live Electronic sound recorded 19 Feb 2009. It begins with a percussive sound, still electronics but sounding like the manipulation of heavy object capture by contact mics. Along with this is this occasional squawk and fizz of electronics, reminding you that this is live electronics. One bit of this recording is super sparse, with sounds almost like those generated by rubbing balloons. Something amongst these soft squeaks and groans was pretty amusing, generating some soft but audible chuckles from the audience. Reminding us again of the limitations of recordings of live music. This recording felt the most like the solo set I saw on this night: a wilder, with incredible dynamic range featuring extreme loud bits and barely audible sections, but also a bit more tentative, more exploratory. There is a lot of space in this music, a feature that I like a lot, letting the sounds be themselves, fully recognized and allowed to stand on their own, but with plenty of variety and texture that can be missed if it is all space. This one probably had my favorite collection of sounds, often fizzing away, chopped up, and incredibly well paced and structured.

One theme that runs through much of our conversation is the idea of pure investigation, a strong curiosity for sounds and events. The appreciation of art does not need to be regulated to gallery walls, but could occur at any point, in any situation. This is an apt description of the sounds emitting from Michael’s large stash of homemade/handmade electronic boxes, filters, etc. Each set is unique. Each venue provides a different set of acoustics to play off, a different number of bodies for the sound to travel through, a number of street sounds ready for response. For those of you who have seen Michael perform, there surely exists a quest for something unheard, a quest that is not without humor, but is surely without pretension.(4)

Upon acquiring these discs I did some more googling around and found this semi-review of the first two discs here as well as information on acquiring them directly from Johnsen. It seems that Metamkine stocks them (though probably more of a sure bet to contact Johnsen directly) and Vital Weekly did a so called “review” of these (though it hardly sounds like they were listened to much, but I suppose thats par for the course for that product). Needless to say I think these are well worth tracking down and anyone who reads this blog will certainly want to hear them. Michael’s email address can be found at that aforementioned review or contact me and I’ll hook you up with it as I’m not comfortable posting it. In closing let me just extend a hearty thanks to the SIMF for bring Michael to Seattle and introducing me to a new, vital voice working right in the area I’m most interested in these days.

This video reminds me the most of his Seattle show, with a bit more chaos and noise:

1) John Berndt’s Odd Instruments
2)  Adam Strohm Patience Tryouts review at FakeJazz
3) Micheal Johnsen Patience Tryouts from Recorded
4) Thoughts generated from an interview with Pittsburgh’s Michael Johnsen, David Bernab, Pittsburgh New Music Net

SIMF 09: day 6

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.

SIMF 09: day 5

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.

SIMF 09: day 4

Seattle Improvised Music Festival day 4

February 20th
Chapel Performance Space, Seattle WA USA

  1. International Nothing (Kai Fagaschinski & Michael Thieke) duo
  2. Rachel Thompson / Jonathan Zorn duo
  3. Lê Quan Ninh & Michel Doneda duo
The International Nothing
The International Nothing

Returning to the Chapel for the first night of the second half of this years SIMF, brought new visiting musicians and a new format. The first night would be three established duos from the visiting musicians. The first of these was The International Nothing, who in lieu of an official introduction explained to us that this project was for composed music and that they’d be playing six compositions tonight. Kai expressed some amusement in playing composed music at an Improvised Music festival.  Kai also explained that part of the theory behind the group was to work out pieces in such a way that it the sounds would work together as a whole. The six pieces spanned the entire history of the group, with the first being (I’m fairly certain) the opening track on their album Mainstream. The pieces are usually long held tones that weave in and out from the two clarinets and do create this effect of a single instrument, like a pump organ say, with a key held and then another pressed, then the first released and so on. Really hypnotic and fascinating, though my experience with the album was that the tunes in this vein felt a lot alike.  In this set though only the two oldest tunes had exactly this structure the other four, two of which were quite new and untitled varied in ways from this formula to provide a lot of interest. The second piece worked in a lot of natural gaps, nice incorporating the sounds from in and outside the chapel. A later piece featured “lyrics” in Morse Code, that one of them would create with small short (and long!) events over the sustained tones of the other. Another piece was only a couple of minutes long and was made up of short alternating melodic fragments. The final piece, titled Sleep, was long overlapping stretched out melodic elements that really evoked its name, though it’d be an uneasy sleep. I really enjoyed this set and it was one that I was initially uncertain about as I’d found their album a bit mixed.

Rachel Thompson / Jonathan Zorn duo
Rachel Thompson / Jonathan Zorn duo

The next set was Rachel Thompson and Jonathan Zorn from New York City, whom I’d only heard to date on a couple of CDs.  One of these recordings, ALBERTJZ, features five concerts on an audio DVD, two of which I found quite amazing. I’m probably the most interested in this wave of improvisers right now as the music seems a lot more risky. It doesn’t work possibly most of the time but there is an energy and excitement that I don’t really find as much in the preceding generation. As an aside this evening features the last three waves of improvisers and while I think that the middle wave (Fagaschinski and Thieke) was the most successful it pretty much broke down as I expected. Fagaschinski and Thieke were able to seemingly effortlessly create interesting if rather familiar music, Doneda and Ninh followed predictable patterns that have become rigid and rarely interesting and Thompson and Zorn were unpredictable, energetic and usually unsuccessful. The duo is made up of Thompson on viola with various preparations that she plays in an inherently aleatoric manner.  She seems to utilize purposeful lack of control, or perhaps intentionality as if the sounds that arise are almost incidental to the gestures that she makes. Reminds me a bit of Annette Krebs, especially her older stuff where she seemed as surprised by what her guitar would do as the audience.  Zorn was engaged both in live processing Thompsons sounds as well as generating some of his own.  This was generally the unsuccessful part for me, his overuse of echo effects, stereo panning and the like was frankly cheesy. His own sounds tended toward low rumbles and basic synth sounds, which sometimes work and sometimes seemed a bit hackneyed.  There were a few fantastic moments, one that especially gripped me was when Thompson was bowing a thin piece of sheet metal that she had placed under her strings as Zorn gently transformed it into this alien sound as of metal shearing away from some inexplicable stress. When he kept his processing on her sounds subtle it work this best, but alas that was too infrequent an occurrence. The conclusion of their set was unsure, with them stopping and then Zorn coming back in for a couple of minutes of more minimal synth work.  Ineffective but on the other hand I’ve found the way that most sets in improvised music music rather stereotyped at this point, so definitely some points for not just slowly stopping and looking sidewise at everyone ’til they are sure they are done.

Lê Quan Ninh & Michel Doneda duo
Lê Quan Ninh & Michel Doneda duo

The final duo was percussionist Lê Quan Ninh and soprano saxophonist Michel Doneda from France.  I had seen Ninh solo at the 2005 SIMF and it was an impressive and high enjoyable set.  Doneda I am only familiar with from a couple of recordings, I am far from familiar with his discography.  This is primarily because I was never that into to what I had heard, which was always a bit too predictably structured for my taste.  I was quite curious to see how Ninh worked in collaboration as his solo was so complete, with no wasted movements as he produced a continuous, though varied, set of sounds.  Well it turns out that he plays well with others but in a wholly deferential way. When it’s quiet he is quiet, when its more active he ramps it up, if there is a silence he joins it.  His sounds always fit in perfectly and complimented his compatriots but it rarely drove things forward, created tension or that delicious frisson of uncomplimentary sounds.  Doneda tonight followed a structure that he would use in all of the sets that I was to see him play. He’d began with very quiet delicate sounds, hisses on this occasion, he would slowly morph that into increasingly tonal elements and eventually be up to full on blasts of sound.  The beginning part of this tonight was fantastic with Ninh first playing two stones against each other and then on the drum which worked right in with Doneda’s hisses and breathy tones.  But as things built up more and more the restraint seemed to fall away.  The piece followed a wave format, starting quiet and building up then falling to silence and repeating. Doneda switched to a sopranino sax for one of this and mostly just quietly blew spittle through it as Ninh scrapped pine cones across the floor. Again this was quite engaging but again it just built up in a (now) predictable fashion, with Doneda quickly swapping out the sopranino so he could get some real blasts of volume in.  So while this had some nice moments, its structure was hackneyed and the bulk of the sounds tired and of little interest to me. I’d say if this was the only set that Doneda was playing it would have been different – a varied mix of sounds in a rather tired structure. However the three other sets Doneda played colored this one along with them.

See all of my pictures from this night and the rest of the festival in my SIMF 09 Flickr set.

SIMF 2009 Preview: part 2

Seattle Improvised Music Festival 2009

The second weekend for this years SIMF begins tonight and as of right now the sites haven’t been updated with the visiting performers due to issues with custom agents Googling musicians for performances. A sad state of affairs but times being what they are understandable. However from what I understand the schedule should be pretty close to what was on their site (and the Chapel site) originally and this is what we will take a look at here today.

February 20th

7pm: Chapel Performance Space

  1. International Nothing (Kai Fagaschinski & Michael Thieke) duo
  2. Rachel Thompson / Jonathan Zorn duo
  3. Lê Quan Ninh & Michel Doneda duo

February 21st

12pm: Gallery 1412

Workshops with festival Improvisers

7pm: Chapel Performance Space

  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

February 22nd

12pm: Gallery 1412

Panel Discussion with festival Improvisers

7pm: Gallery 1412

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

The first night features several musicians I have seen before (Ninh and Fagaschinski) but in pairings that I haven’t seen before. The International Nothing put out an album a couple of years back on Ftarri that I felt was pretty mixed. However the strongest material on the disc featured just Kai Fagaschinski and Michael Thieke whose overlapping clarinets generated intriguing beating tones.  Lê Quan Ninh was last in Seattle in 2005 for that years SIMF, performing a stunning solo. I haven’t seen him perform in collaboration before so I am quite looking forward to seeing how he adapts his style toward that. Michel Doneda, with whom he is playing tonight I have yet to see perform and while I have heard a number of recordings of his work is not one I’m very familiar with. Finally the middle set of Rachel Thompson and Jonathan Zorn, two performers whom I have not heard at all. They are fairly frequent collaborators within the Rasbluitto axis and I have heard them on several recordings. I am definitely looking forward to all of the various combos they’ll be in this weekend.

While the first night was all combinations of visiting musicians, the following night mixes in a couple of the local performers. Tari Nelson-Zagar being new for this half. A violinist whom has been somewhat of a stalwart of the local scene, but not one whom I’ve intersected with too often. Strings are often underrepresented in this festival (with perhaps an overemphasis on woodwinds) so it is good to see another player in the mix. Andrew Drury returns for one last set in a trio with Tari and Michel Doneda which is an intriguing combination. Almost mirroring this set is the trio of Burns, Ninh and Thieke which again I think has a lot of possibilities for nice combinations of sounds. The large group from this night is all the visiting musicians in a sextet which with this groups of musicians I expect to avoid the pitfalls of a large group. The solos for this night are Ninh and Doneda of which I know for sure the Ninh will be entertaining. Doneda is of course a long playing well regarded musicians and I’m sure will also deliver.

The final night at the Gallery features and interesting setup of two sets featuring a duo that is then joined by two others for a quartet and the ubiquitous large group. The duos are made up from the pool of visiting musicians and the quartet adds two local musicians to the mix. The locals are the four members of the Gust Burns Quartet, this time divided in half for each set and not playing as a group with an addition as per the previous week. These are all fairly intriguing groups and I like the concept of addition.

Additionally at the Gallery there will be the workshops and round tables on Saturday and Sunday as per last week. Another packed weekend and this time we don’t get the Monday off afterward to recover. All in all it looks like another strong weekend for the SIMF.

SIMF 09: day 3

Seattle Improvised Music Festival day 3

February 15th
Chapel Performance Space, Seattle WA USA

  1. Wilson Shook / Andrew Drury duo
  2. Greg Kelley / Christine Sehnaoui / Gust Burns / Doug Theriault quartet
  3. Large group
The final day of the first have of SIMF 09, included a roundtable with the musicians along with waffles!  Turned out that I was the only person to show up beyond musicians and staff but we had a good time discussing the music scenes in the different cities we were all from. Afterwards I went to the Seattle Asian Art Museum as it was in the neighborhood and I hadn’t gone in a long time. They had an interesting exhibit on the court paintings of Jodhpur but the most striking piece I saw there was a photo (seen to the left) taken by the Chinese street artist Zhang Dali. The Museum closed at five pm and I spent an hour or so ’til dark wandering around Volunteer park (in which SAAM is set) and then I went to Teapot Vegetarian House, one of my favorite restaurants in Capitol Hill. Having managed to kill the time from the round table to the starting of the show I then returned to the gallery which had a nice crowd already there. I took a seat near the back, but later moved to the second row to sit with a friend. I’d arrived a bit after 7 so it start pretty much right as I was switching seats.

The opening set was originally planned to be the duo of Kelvin Pittman and Andrew Drury, but Kelvin had to return to Portland early so his spot was ably taken by Wlson Shook. Drury was in his more restless mode, moving from item to item, more aggressive and louder. Shook I think tried to work with and played a bit differently then he had on previous days. A bit more tonal, working more with extended tones and also a bit louder and more active. There were several really nice moments where everything hooked up well but in the main I felt that Drury wasn’t really trying to play with Shook he seemed to be doing his thing and letting him play along with him. This worked best during one long segment that Shook was working long, slightly buzzy tone while Drury switched from item after item dropping a variety of percussive events into the bedwork. A set that had it’s moments but never gelled into a whole I thought.

Gust Burns, Christine Sehnaoui, Doug Theriault Quartet
Gust Burns, Greg Kelley, Christine Sehnaoui, Doug Theriault Quartet

Gust Burns was using his home made piano guts instrument for this show, amplified via contact mics. Dowling on this instrument, has a somewhat different tone then on the piano as it lacks the resonance and the overtones from the wide degree of sympathetic resonance.  With amplification it’s character is different, more hollow and dryer coming across as a bit more electronic. This, along with Theriault’s straight up electronics and the alien horn work of Sehnaoui and Kelley created a fanastic combination of sounds. It began with a soft hissing sound from Kelley and at first there were few sounds, each playing placing one into the space and then pausing. This created a somewhat tentative seeming atmosphere, but it didn’t seem to be so much a feeling each other out as a desire to preserve its fragile nature.  This set was by far the best from Theriault, his levels seemed more in line with the whole group and his louder interjections were well placed to push the group and to contrast nicely with the proceedings.  The character of the set was highly varied, but its development was organic. I did not follow any predictable loud-soft arc, but it did increase in density at various points and there were several moments where one or more members would use volume to effect. One of these louder moments was from Sehnaoui who expelled bursts of air into her horn creating a blasting sound for a moment that should repeated a number of times at breath timed intervals.  The set was texture rich, with long bass drones from Theriault, layered on Burns’ dry rustling dowel work. Burns also used a wad of tinfoil on his strings in concert with the dowels to create a more electo-mechanical sound. The set had a number of movements, broken up by well placed gaps but had constant forward movement. It was a good length, probably over thirty minutes and constantly engaging. My favorite set of this half of the festival.

The final set of this half of the festival was the traditional large group, that included Mark Collins on bass.  While not as scatter-shot as the previous nights it didn’t quite come together as well as the first nights either.  It began well, a swirling miasma of tiny events, spaces and interesting collisions of sounds.  Drury then kicked it up a notch, brutally assaulting his drumhead with the edge of a cymbal. It never seem to recover from this point and included a festival low point of all the musicians playing at once generating the stereotypical large group muddiness that had heretofore been avoided.  There was one complete and sudden stop early on that was quite impressive as it seemed completely uncoordinated.  There was also several points where it seemed to have concluded only to be brought back from the dead from a musician who didn’t want to stop. Overall not a very compelling set of music, but there were moments here and there especially the first ten minutes or so.

SIMF 09: day 2

Seattle Improvised Music Festival day 2

February 14th
Chapel Performance Space, Seattle WA  USA

  1. Greg Kelley solo
    Christine Sehnaoui / Liz Tonne duo
  2. Kelvin Pittman solo
    Wally Shoup / Greg Kelley / Andrew Drury trio
  3. Doug Theriault solo
    large ensemble

The second day of the SIMF again brought me to the Chapel at 7pm.  In contrast to the previous night I managed to get into the city early enough to visit one of my favorite Pho restaurants and enjoy a nice bowl of noodles prior to the event. At the chapel I remedied my lack of CD acquisitions and picked up that DVD that I mentioned earlier, plus a hand labeled (minutes before!) CD-R of Andrew Drury, Andrea Neumann and Wade Matthews.   Completing my transaction I went in and found a seat again a few rows back. The audience seemed a bit smaller then the night before, perhaps due to Valentine’s Day. Not too long after I found my seat the lights were dimmed and the show began.

The opening act was Greg Kelley solo which was one of the most anticipated sets of the festival for yours truly. Greg didn’t disappoint, crafty a finely structured series of small events that organically flowed from one to the other. Time and space was given to all of the sounds, which while generally low volume varied enough in dynamics to keep things interesting. While Kelley did explore a number of techniques and sounds, it was the natural way that he moved between them, sometimes returning to an earlier, sometimes with a pause but always flowing.  This organic approach i think is what separates this from the catalog of techniques that we’ve witnessed in the earlier solos. It is not that the sound is continuous, on the contrary this approach fully allows and accepts pauses and near silence, but it is that the events aren’t discrete, separate from each other. Of the six solos that I witnessed in this festival, it was this difference that marked the successful, from the less interesting sets.

Christine Sehnaoui / Liz Tonne duo
Christine Sehnaoui / Liz Tonne duo


After Gregs solo was the first of the nights three groups, the duo of Liz Tonne and Christine Sehnaoui. Not surprisingly I wasn’t that into this set. Even trying to look at it objectively I didn’t find all the much interaction between the two performers.  Christine ran through several of her techniques and Liz through several of hers and while they overlapped fine didn’t really seem to go much beyond that. There were a few moments where Liz was emulating the rhythmic patterns that Christine’s techniques were generating which were probably the most interesting.

After a short break Kelvin Pittman made his way to the stage for his solo which I was incredibly curious about after how nearly silent he was the night before.  Not surprisingly he began incredibly soft with just the faintest, pops and clicks audible in between long pauses. There was also a slightly theatrical element to his performance, for instance at one point he stopped playing and wiped his mouth and the continued to do so in an obviously exaggerated fashion. At another point he deliberately drank his cup of water at us.  While mostly working with these small, quiet events he did mix things up a bit at one point with a longer, louder (though not loud) sustained tone. At another with some more dramatic pops. After maybe 15-20 minutes with a humorous sort of shrugging gesture he indicated it was over.  A really enjoyable solo.

Wally Shoup / Greg Kelley / Andrew Drury trio

Following Kelvin was the nights next group, the trio of Wally Shoup, Greg Kelley and Andrew Drur. Shoup is a northwest stalwart and long time SIMF supporter who has brought his brand of fire music to countless concerts over many decades.  While this type of high energy, high ego performance is not really the kind of music I like to sit around and listen to, live on rare occasions it can be a nice palette cleanser.  And I was curious to see Kelley in this context. It started of a bit tentatively, for maybe a minute and thrity seconds and then Shoup was blasting away whilst Drury attacked his drums with a panoply of objects. And Kelley rose to the challenge with blasts of rattly noise.  In free jazz the structure is always roller coaster with the softer bits serving merely to highlight the excesses of the louder bits and this followed that to a tee. There was definitely nice sounds in this softer bits; Kelley used his mutes and metal to good effect and Drury worked though some of his softer events at this point. One amusing point featured Shoup and Kelley harmonizing on a tonal center that was only a few changes away from fitting in on Sketches of Spain!  Overall a bit of high energy fun if nothing to write home about.

The final solo of the night was Doug Theriault with his guitar and electronics. Doug mainly seems to use the guitar as a controller and sound source for use with the Nord G2 Modular.  He has a custom looking Midi Interface with interacts with the guitar and contains a good dozen knobs to interface with the his patch.  While an intriguing setup and one that produce a wide range of interesting sounds, as a solo I didn’t think it worked very well. He primarily seemed to press a button on his interface then touch his guitar to trigger a sound, then seeming displeased with the results repeat this procedure. He worked with pretty basic elements at first, white noise, simple feedback, pure tones, but not seeming to get those to work how he wanted eventually layered in a thicker deeper drone. This he let run for a while as he layered various elements on it, some of them coming from a device he’d hold over the guitar pickups somewhat sounding like Keith Rowe’s blue tooth interference. He used a few other objects to manipulate the guitar but it was almost exclusively electronically prepared not prepared with objects.  He ended abruptly and announced he’d just stay one stage as the large group joined him. This solo had its moments and from a pure sound perspective a lot of intriguing events, but alas there was just no there there.

As per usual the night concluded with a Large Group made up of all of the nights performers. This night wasn’t as successful as the previous nights in my opinion, it seemed less deliberate, straying more toward excess. It began with a burst of solo glossolalia from Liz and from this auspicious start moved through a roller-coaster of density and volume. While it had moments that gelled well, as various players laid out,  it seemed a bit more dominated by higher energy moments.  Though it never quite reaching the most egregious excesses that large groups so often achieve it certainly didn’t reach many sublime moments either.