Composer/Performer Cage Match: sfSound and Outsound Presents
The centenary of Woody Guthrie’s birth on July 14 coincided with one of sfSound’s concerts celebrating the centenary of Guthrie’s almost exact contemporary, John Cage. Part of a year-long festival titled The Music of ChAnGEs, the full 11-concert series is itself conceived as a large-scale realization of Cage’s indeterminate Variations II, with performances taking place in a variety of Bay Area locations. (There are also a number of “unpublicized performances” of 4’33″, concert organizer and performer Matt Ingalls noted during his pre-concert remarks). This most recent concert featured works by Cage spanning over half a century, and included a new Cage-inspired piece by Monica Scott who, like the other members of sfSoundGroup, is both a composer and a performer.
sfSound often performs in the main theater on the ODC Dance Company’s campus in the Mission, but this concert took place in one of the large dance rehearsal studios across the street in the ODC Dance Commons, which opened in 2005. The capacity crowd had nearly filled the 100 or so seats by the time I arrived, and additional chairs had to be brought in.
The evening’s program alternated between works for small groups or solo player, such as the microtonal Ten (1991) for ten instruments and Imaginary Landscape No. 1 (1939), for muted piano, cymbal, and two variable-speed phono turntables (which were replaced in this performance with an iPad). Particularly memorable was a quietly virtuosic and mesmerizing performance of The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs (1942) by Hadley McCarroll, in which she both sang the simple, three-note, folksong-like vocal line and played the contrasting piano part, which involved tapping out complex rhythms at various places on a closed grand piano.
Appropriately for Cage’s centenary, the full ensemble performed a piece Cage had written in honor of Jean Arp’s centenary, But what about the noise of crumpling paper which he used to do in order to paint the series of “Papiers froisses” or tearing up paper to make “Papiers dechires?” Arp was stimulated by water (sea, lake, and flowing waters like rivers), forests (1985). A work for three to ten percussionists who “may be stationed around the audience, or among them, or on stage,” this realization had ten players placed all around the dance space—standing, in chairs, and seated on the floor. Among the “slightly resonant instruments” selected for this performance were a trombone mute, a water cooler container, a coffee cup, and a pleasantly burbling bong. “Other unidentified sounds” came from a set of keys being tossed in the air, a newspaper being rustled, and water being poured from a pitcher. An oddly compelling and unexpected melody occasionally emerged from this amalgam of activity, and the unpredictability of where the next sound would emerge from given the spatial placement added to the effectiveness of the performance.
The new work on the program, Scott’s (h)ear age:C, was in two movements, scored for six instruments in the first and a separate quartet in the second, with assistance from a corresponding quartet of audience members. Prior to the performance of the work, Scott went out into the audience and handed four people small placards, each with one letter written on it. When the quartet of violin, piano, clarinet, and trumpet emerged for the second movement, each musician was positioned so that one of the placards would be visible to him or her. The premise of the movement was simple: each instrumentalist improvised sounds and noises—putting air through the trumpet without playing notes, for example—until an audience member held up the corresponding placard, which spelled out C–A–G–E. The instrumentalist sustained the note indicated on the placard until the sign went down, and then returned to improvisation. Open fifths and triads revealed themselves from time to time amongst the “unidentified sounds” of the improvisation, and the work proved to be an entertaining and fitting counterpoint to Cage’s But what about the noise.
The following week, the experimental music collective Outsound Presents, led by founder and saxophonist Rent Romus, took a break from presenting the weekly performance series at the Luggage Store Gallery (tagline: “We don’t sell luggage”) to come to the Mission’s Community Music Center for the annual Outsound New Music Summit. Now in its eleventh year, the festival spans a full week and includes four evening performances, as well as workshops, a symposium, artist discussions, and even a free gear expo for lovers of sound art and sonic exploration. (The full schedule can be found here.)
I was able to attend most of the final two performances on July 20 and 21, which highlighted percussion music and improvised music, respectively. The evening of improvisation began with eerily plangent, wailing solo works by saxophonist Jack Wright, using a wide array of extended techniques, from vocalizations while playing to pitch bending with the bell of the horn against his thigh and calf. The energy ramped up with increasingly larger ensembles: Dave Bryant’s piano trio, the Vinny Golia Sextet, and concluding with Tony Passarell’s Thin Air Orchestra).
The highlight of the percussion evening for me was a young Oakland-based quartet called Falkortet, who began their set with Why Not Cross the Rubicon, a meditative, ritualistic procession from the courtyard into the hall, using a conch shell and Chinese cymbals to transform the space. The piece was composed by Lydia Martín, one of the members of the group; all of the works they performed were written by either current or former members. The players spoke from the stage about their common ties to percussionist William Winant and their shared aesthetic interest in Lou Harrison, gamelan, and instrument building. Falkortet’s set included solos, duos, and trios, but the most compelling music happened when all four came together: in Paul Heiman’s What are the odds, they all approached one vibraphone as though it were a communal table, each musician playing a melodic fragment on it with a mallet in one hand, and a rhythmic fragment on their own individual drum with the other hand. During the course of the piece, each player individually slowly came into relief, as some sounds came to the fore while others receded, but always present was a sense of the ensemble’s pulse beating in unison.
There are four more concerts in sfSound’s Cage series in the next couple of months; details can be found here. Outsound has weekly performances at the Luggage Store Gallery and a biweekly series at the Musicians Union Hall; the full calendar is at outsound.org.