May 292013

The Living Earth Show is guitarist Travis John Andrews and percussionist Andrew Meyerson. They play diverse works for guitar (clean or processed… plucked/tapped/E-bow’d… and occasionally microtonal), live and pre-recorded electronics, harmonica, melodica, and percussive allsorts (struck/bowed vibes, struck/bowed cymbals, drums, glockenspiel, mixing bowls, disposable electric toothbrushes, &c.).

They cover vast sonic territory, and they take the stage with neither safety net to catch ’em nor sheet music to consult… yet they manage to play (unison and counterpoint) with seemingly-telepathic ease. This is no mean feat considering the complexity of the six pieces they played at the fifth and final concert of Tribeca New Music‘s Festival 2013, held in The Cell, Chelsea’s most intimate home for the performing arts.

I have included HD video of one of these pieces — “Double Happiness” by composer Chris Cerrone — at the end of this post. The program also included works by Brian Ferneyhough, Samuel Carl Adams, Luciano Chessa, Timo Andres and Adrian Knight.

For “Double Happiness,” Travis John Andrews played electric guitar (whose sound was modified, live, with reverb and resonant filters) and harmonica:

Andrew Meyerson deftly handled three-sometimes-four mallets and a melodica, all the while maintaining an organic connection with the guitar parts:

Myerson’s timing and technique were impeccable. In one section of “Double Happiness,” the occasional metal disc accent hit with the gold-tipped mallet never caused him to break the ostinato pattern being played on the ‘excerpted’ glockenspiel with the two red-tipped mallets:

They played against a backdrop of sound assembled and reproduced live via a patch created in Max/MSP, a modular visual programming language used by artists of all stripes to create bespoke multimedia software that is equally suitable for static installation and live performance settings.

In the words of composer Christopher Cerrone:

I wrote Double Happiness in the fall of 2012 in New York, though much of the piece was inspired by a summer spent in Italy while I was a fellow at the Civitella Ranieri Foundation’s castle in Umbria. I spent a lot of my time in Italy collecting field recordings of the Italian countryside: the sounds of church bells, train stations, and rainstorms. With these, I constructed an emotional narrative that eventually became Double Happiness. The title of the work comes from an eponymous collection of short stories by my friend Mary-Beth Hughes. Mary-Beth’s stories often create works of sustained melancholy that seems to ring very closely with the piece as I began writing it.

Double Happiness consists of three large movements connected by two nearly identical interludes. The first movement, “Self Portrait, Part 1,” explores the simple yet obsessive repetition of four melancholic notes. The guitar, which is detuned throughout the entire piece, plays out of tune harmonics against the gentle sustained notes in the vibraphone. Both are paired with ambient noises and simple sustaining drones that hover in and around theses pitches and maintain the static mood. The movement ends optimistically, as the four repeated notes slowly transform into a descending chorale that leads inexorably to a celebratory D major chord.

The mood of the first movement cuts off quickly, like the hot dry summer in Umbria that abruptly ended with a long and extreme rainstorm. I used the sound of this rainstorm to create the same effect in my interludes in Double Happiness. The first interlude features the rainstorm and two gentle chords in the guitar and the vibraphone-my transcription of four church bells heard ringing asynchronously in the distance. If the first Self Portrait explores extremes of melancholy, the third movement, “Self Portrait, Part II,” is a study in ecstatic joy that comes from the feeling of artistic creation, which can feel as uncontrollable as melancholy. The movement features a field recording of a rhythmic train station bell. This sound is coupled with a persistent rhythmic melody played on glockenspiel, crotales, and constructed metal pipes, and is augmented with resonant and microtonal electronics that produce a brilliant metallic sheen.

The third movement cuts off as quickly as the first and leads directly into the next interlude. This second interlude is more austere than the first: the rainstorm underscores a transcription of a simple and extraordinarily resonant church bell ringing against the chords of the guitar. The final movement, ‘New Year’s Song (for Sarah),” is a place of repose between the two extremes. The performers play a simple song comprised of long and sustained melodies against sustained chords on a melodica and a harmonica. A brief moment of electronics features the composer himself playing violin and accordion. The movement ends gently, peacefully, and happily.

The Living Earth Show, performing Chris Cerrone’s “Double Happiness”:

 Posted by at 6:31 pm
May 212013

In Concert #1 of the Tribeca New Music Festival 2013, held in Chelsea’s beloved intimate home for the performing arts The Cell, composer and wind instrumentalist Michael Lowenstern made a convincing case for the undersung’s bass clarinet’s place in the rock idiom.

He played four pieces that night, all of which I filmed — You’ll get to see/hear two of them in just a few minutes.

For worse or for worse, rock/pop music simply doesn’t showcase the bass clarinet.

Jazz aficionados have many opportunities to relish the bass clarinet in its full power and glory, thanks to the capacious lungs and capable hands of Eric Dolphy, Bennie Maupin, Herbie Mann, Michel Pilz and others…

But rock has only offered the slimmest of pickings. You can get a novelty/nostalgia taste in The Beatles’ When I’m Sixty-Four, and there’s that declicious moody dirge from 4:15 to 5:15 in King Crimson’s Epitaph but, in both instances, the bass clarinet is merely used to add some texture to the B♭ clarinet parts.

Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica 2LP features two bass clarinet players, (the Cap’n and Victor Hayden), but the instrument is generally featured only in fragmentary bursts.

The greatest and most consistent source of bass clarinet (and contrabass clarinet) in rock music (jazz-tinged or otherwise) was Frank Zappa, whose Mothers of Invention featured the bold low tones of Bunk Gardner (see, e.g., here and here), as well as Mike Altschul, John Rotella, David Ocker, and Kurt McGettrick. Of course, posthumous releases aside, there hasn’t been any new FZ music since 1988.

As far as I can tell, the bass clarinet has made no further inroads to metal than this (decidedly righteous) Cannibal Corpse play-along.

But in just four short pieces, Michael Lowenstern demonstrated that the bass clarinet has an important place in today’s music — not just as a textural base or a bit of tone color, but as the center of attention.

The first piece, “Trip,” was a jaunty travelogue for bass clarinet, more bass clarinet, Korg Kaossilator, &c., complete with its own mellow techno “filtered synth pad” break:

“Trip” is the opening track on his 2010 album “Spin Cycle,” which can be purchased via iTunes, Amazon, CDBaby and elsewhere.

Next, he pulled XX and XY volunteers from the audience to help him perform “Lost in Translation,” an hysterical recontextualization of British English phrasebook lesson snippets. While he created a one-man Latin dance party in the background (using a Native Instruments Maschine, sampled shaker, and mini keyboard), the volunteers alternated triggering phrases with His and Her iPhones. While none of the actual utterances were off-colo(u)r, the resulting “conversation” was dripping with abstract, physically-as-well-as-syntactically-improbable innuendo:


“Lost in Translation”

In the third number, “My Mouth,” Lowenstern wrought jazz, blues and gospel out of his bass clarinet and blues-harp, against the slow Boom-Bap of pre-assembled bass and percussion samples:


“My Mouth”

The fourth piece, “What’d I Say,” opened with a virtuosic-yet-funky solo for Akai EWI 4000s MIDI Wind Controller. Lowenstern used his Maschine to hammer out loops of bombastic distorted e-piano, funky drums, and the disembodied voice of a certain soul giant… He set the sampled loops a-rolling, and then solo’d over the whole thing, much to the audience’s protracted delight:

What Michael Lowenstern proved, beyond the shadow of a doubt, is that the bass clarinet holds tremendous potential as a featured instrument in a rock/funk/blues/hip-hop context. It’s unique sound, capable of conveying humor, sorrow or malevolence by turns, just needs more people to rise to the challenge and build up their chops and their repertoires.

 Posted by at 1:23 am