Mutable Depths: Remembering Matt Shoemaker

by Michael Schell

Second Inversion bids a reluctant farewell to Matt Shoemaker (1974–2017), an admired member of Seattle’s vibrant electronic music scene. A native of the Pacific Northwest whose sensibilities were also formed by extended stays in the Bay Area and Indonesia, Shoemaker plied his craft here for many years, performing with Gamelan Pacifica, presenting “electroacoustic soundscapes” using a laptop and amplified objects, and releasing several solo albums in various formats. His most characteristic music falls under the dark ambient genre: extended pieces built from natural and synthetic sounds woven into a complex and slowly-changing timbral environment.

 

Mutable Depths, available from Bandcamp or as an EP from Ferns Recordings, is my favorite Shoemaker concoction. It begins with the sounds of water and wind, joined by a diverse poltergeist of thumps and creaks. There’s an odd premonition to this combination, as though we’re watching the opening scene of a horror movie. At 3:45 the texture (plot?) thickens to include a continuous crackle that’s soon joined by a squeaky “melody” that seems to be narrating a saga in some sort of extraterrestrial pseudo-avian language. (Shoemaker, like Messiaen, liked to use musical lines that imitate bird calls, and he once spent several weeks in the Amazon recording the songs of tropical birds.)

At 6:00 we start to hear an irregular pounding sound, but it and the squeaky obbligato soon give way to a rich composite texture that’s so typical of dark ambient: static overall, but constantly changing and evolving at the micro level. Whatever strange world has been dialed up is now fully upon us. Feedback sounds begin to come in from various directions, and the crackling sound returns more animated than before. But what might have seemed ominous at first passes over us peacefully. After a while, the feedback drifts away, and by 19:00 most of the bottom has dropped out of the soundscape, leaving the crackle to dissipate alone into the distance.

I enjoy listening to this music at bedtime—beautiful, relaxing, with no distracting drumbeat or isolated loud sounds, it’s a thinking person’s modern lullaby. What sets it apart from most ambient and drone music is the skill and complexity of the sonic layering, and the sense that a narrative is unfolding that’s open-ended enough to accommodate the projections of our own imagination.

You can read more about Shoemaker in memoirs published by The Stranger and Tiny Mix Tapes. And in the deal of the century, one of his record labels, Helen Scarsdale Agency, is offering two of his CDs (Spots in the Sun and Erosion of the Analogous Eye) for only the cost of shipping. Take advantage of this while their stock lasts, and listen to his music with both regret for a career prematurely silenced and gratitude for its highlights that remain available for us to enjoy.

ALBUM REVIEW: Gaslight by James Maloney

by Maggie Molloy

There’s a striking intimacy to solo piano music—a uniquely calm, quiet sense of introspection that only comes from sitting alone at the keyboard for hours on end.

Composer James Maloney takes you right up to the piano bench in his debut solo album Gaslight, out now on Moderna Records. Conceived as a reaction to the fast pace and noisy streets of city life, the album takes an introspective look inward to the music that emerges on the quietest of nights, alone at the keyboard and surrounded by glowing twilight.

Composed late at night on an old piano with microphones placed impossibly close to the hammers, the effect is that of being right there in the room on a rainy evening, surrounded not just by the quiet melodies but also the creaking wood and antique inner-workings of an old piano. The resulting album is a collection of ten ambient and introspective works for solo piano woven together with delicate details of trumpet, vibraphone, glockenspiel, and electronics.

Gaslight opens with a quiet wash of sound: “Seascape” is a short piano prelude that alternates layers of sparkling melodies with long stretches of serene silence, setting the scene for the minimamlist musings to come. “Blink” takes this image one step further, filling the silent spaces with softly circling piano melodies that flicker and flutter like fireflies above a solemn stepwise bass line.

The album’s title track illuminates more gradually, the melodies unfolding at such a slow pace that they almost seem to halt time itself, each note lingering in the air amid the crackling white noise of the surrounding room. The pace picks up only slightly for pieces like “Intertwine” and “Afterglow,” both fleeting piano nocturnes filled with melodies that sparkle sweetly, climbing ever-upward toward the stars above. The music drifts solemnly back to earth in “Lament,” its harmonies strung together through block chords that echo softly above a twinkling glockenspiel backdrop.

The instrumentation shifts for “Gambetta,” a shimmering metallic soundscape comprised almost entirely of glockenspiel and vibraphone melodies that swirl and twirl around long-breathed trumpet lines. Layers of electronic clicks and clatters are interwoven into delicate piano tremors for “Full Colour,” while “Rise Slowly” explores the soft dissonances and atmospheric silences that echo between pensive chords.

The album closes with “Angel Wings,” its sleepy and slowly meandering melodies drawing the midnight concert to a close, bidding the piano goodnight, and ascending into a beautiful dream.

ALBUM REVIEW: The Debussy Effect from Kathleen Supové

by Maggie Molloy

Debussy’s music has a certain effect on people—a quiet way of enveloping the listener in its chromatic waves and cloudy washes of color. It’s a captivation that is difficult to put into words exactly; it’s almost as though his music softens the surrounding world and transports its listener into a hazy memory.

kathleen-supove-400x400

New York-based pianist and performance artist Kathleen Supové explores our collective fascination with Debussy in her newest album, The Debussy Effect. No stranger to new music, Supové has carved out a name for herself in New York and far beyond as an artist who is continuously pushing the boundaries of creation, composition, and even costume in classical music.

Perhaps best known for her performing enterprise the Exploding Piano, Supové’s performances consistently feature cutting-edge new music paired with electronics, video, costumes and theatrical elements, visuals, speaking, and even choreography. The Debussy Effect, though perhaps more introspective and impressionistic in nature, boasts every bit as much personality.

ks5_robin-holland

For this two-disc album Supové enlisted the talents of six composers to create brand new works inspired by Debussy and written for solo piano or piano with electronics. The resulting music spans the gamut from Gamelan to ragtime, bowed piano to ambient atmospheres, musique concrète to sound paintings, a sprinkle of stride piano—and a whole lot of sparkling virtuosity.

 

The album opens with Joan La Barbara’s “Storefront Diva, A Dreamscape,” inspired not only by Debussy but also by journals of artist and sculptor Joseph Cornell. Scored for piano and sonic atmosphere, the piece unfolds like an oceanfront dream, the hazy piano melodies twinkling amidst a tangle of bells, breath, chirping birds, ocean waves, Tibetan cymbals, and surreal storm clouds. Short flurries of bowed and plucked piano string embellishments blend the raw timbres of the piano right into the natural world around it.

It’s followed by a more cinematic (but no less dreamlike) take on Debussy: Matt Marks’ “Dr. Gradus vs. Rev. Powell.” The piece is a duel, of sorts, between Debussy’s virtuosic “Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum” and the 1955 film noir The Night of the Hunter. Lofty piano melodies dance amidst patches of Debussy’s harmonies and time-stretched clips of Robert Mitchum with Lillian Gish singing “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.”

Eric Kenneth Malcolm Clark’s “Layerings 3” evokes the living, breathing nature of Debussy’s works: the piece layers a number of different recordings of Supové performing and interpreting the piece in full—and never the same way twice. When superimposed on one another, these distinctive recordings blend into an entire kaleidoscope of sound, the piano melodies ringing and reverberating in ever-changing harmonies and rhythmic textures.

Randall Woolf’s “What Remains of a Rembrandt” explores the elusiveness of Debussy’s music—the way it floats dreamily from one idea to the next, drawing from sources as wide-ranging as Indonesian Gamelan, early jazz, and in this case, ambient electronica. Supové’s nimble fingers dance up and down the piano keyboard in gorgeous washes of sound which valiantly defy all traditional Western notions of structure and musical form.

An electroacoustic storm gathers in Annie Gosfield’s four-movement “Shattered Apparitions of the Western Wind,” a piece which combines fragments of Debussy’s dramatic piano prelude “What the West Wind Saw” with musique concrète recordings of Hurricane Sandy, which struck New York while Gosfield was composing the work. The two sound sources are intertwined and electronically morphed, creating an eerie soundscape that oscillates between tumultuous winds and ghostly silences.

Daniel Felsenfeld’s “Cakewalking (Sorry Claude)” takes a more lighthearted approach: in three short movements he deconstructs Debussy’s famous Children’s Corner classic, “Golliwog’s Cakewalk,” and turns it into a brand new swirling, twirling jazz tune with cheeky references to the original.

The album draws to a close with Jacob Cooper’s “La plus que plus que lente,” a twinkling dreamscape which incorporates time-stretched fragments of Debussy’s dazzling waltz “La plus que lente.” Supové’s fingers glide effortlessly across the densely textured piano melodies, each note sparkling like a star amidst a glittering night sky.

In fact, the whole album glistens. Supové brings personality, precision, charisma, and boundless creativity to each work, crafting a distinctly 21st century dialogue with the unforgettable work of Debussy. Equally at home in the soothing, calming color washes as she is amidst the stormy, chromatic chaos, Supové pays tribute to Impressionist master while also exploring the furthest reaches of his musical influence.

The effect Debussy has on listeners is difficult to describe—but this pianist just may have put her finger on it.

fcr170_cover-750x0

ALBUM REVIEW: Balter/Saunier by Deerhoof and Ensemble Dal Niente

by Jill Kimball

baltersaunier

We live in a world where musical groups of every genre often craft signature sounds in order to make themselves more marketable. That’s all well and good for those who find one band’s sound and fall in love with it. But for those of us who prefer unpredictable music, it gets monotonous.

If you fall into the latter group, you probably appreciate the rare but always exciting cross-genre partnership—that glorious moment when two musical groups from different realms team up and produce something truly original. Sometimes it happens with Sufjan Stevens and yMusic. Other times, genres cross within the same family, as has happened with classical pianist Jeffrey Kahane and his more indie-inclined son, Gabriel.

This time around, the collaboration is a jointly-produced full album by the Chicago-based chamber collective Ensemble Dal Niente and the San Francisco avant-rock band Deerhoof. The two groups had an unlikely meeting in 2012 and found common musical ground immediately…so together they set to work on a recording project with Brazilian-American composer Marcos Balter. The result is an album that is by turns ambient and avant-garde, rocking and bebop-ing, lilting and crazed…in a good way.

deerhoof

Deerhoof.

The centerpiece of the album is Balter’s “MeltDown Upshot,” an incredible mashup of musical genres from across the globe. In other hands, this piece might sound overwhelming, but Deerhoof and Dal Niente are just chill enough to make it work.

The first two movements of “MeltDown Upshot” could be classified as ambient, but don’t mistake the word “ambient” for “boring.” The dreamy opening, “Credo,” spills seamlessly into “Parallel Spaces,” still floaty but with a tinge of sinister foreshadowing. “Ready,” with its frenetic Chick Corea-like jazziness, erratic meter and hazy lyrics (“I dream of sound in color / I dream of light in sounds”) is a sonic outlier in this piece and seems to represent the meltdown at its manic climax. A more organized mania comes in “True-False,” a fast-paced, string-plucking homage to Philip Glass-style repetition. The piece calms down again with “Home,” a delightfully indie take on João Gilberto’s Brazilian bossa nova. The last two movements take us back to the strange, dreamy vibes of the beginning. The sixth movement, “Cherubim,” is the clear highlight of the piece, somehow gathering all of Balter’s jazz, pop, rock and avant-garde influences together into three minutes of pure indie-rock bliss. With its driving percussion, earnest and unpolished vocals and wholly unique instrumentation, I have no doubt university radio hosts all over the country will be clamoring to get their hands on the single.

Ensemble Dal Niente.

Ensemble Dal Niente.

Balter’s other piece on the album, “Pois Que Nada Que Dure, Ou Que Durando,” is set to text by Ricardo Reis (one of the many pseudonyms of Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa). It’s a simultaneously gloomy and carefree ode to the transience of life, a proclamation that it’s worthless to focus on the uncertain future and much better to live in the moment. In this piece, we’re transported back to the creepy ambience that bookends “MeltDown Upshot” with despondent, ghostly vocals and minimal instrumentation.

The album closes with a 20-minute suite called “Deerhoof Chamber Variations” by the band’s drummer, Greg Saunier. It seems to pull together a few elements of Balter’s major piece—there are some repeated pizzicato sections and moments of sinister dissonance—while also referencing melodic themes from Deerhoof’s more well-known songs. It’s really fun to hear their music reworked with harp, brass and strings; it lends the music a whole different, albeit mellower and more ethereal than usual, edge.

It’s such a treat to hear two very different musical groups jam together and take rare sonic risks. Based on the quality and depth of the music heard on Balter/Saunier, I don’t think this will be the last we hear of the Deerhoof/Dal Niente collective.

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Bill Seaman and John Supko’s “s_traits”

by Maggie Molloy

sFuYQlHnjCWkbkPZ0ZlLN6gZwuGSmE-STxxFahgo9qINWuFUtqCFaMpOjud0xHq2eXbXn5aaY2TqQx9Ea_XWrg

In a world where you are constantly being bombarded by new styles of computer music, it can be tricky to get your bearings. Electro, electronica, electroacoustic—the list goes on and on. At times the possibilities are so overwhelming that you just wish you had a computer program to sift through all the countless sounds and styles and bring you something truly innovative.

John Supko created a music program to do just that. Supko’s bearings_traits is a generative music engine which is capable of creating new music from an enormous database of audio source material. Supko designed the program in order to sift through over 110 hours of music and sounds which he and media artist Bill Seaman compiled over the past three years.

The duo’s database included field recordings, analog and digital noise, acoustic and electronic instruments, old cassettes from Supko’s juvenilia, recordings of Seaman and Supko playing the piano (both inside and out), and documentary soundtracks from the 60s and 70s. Supko’s newly developed software then selected audio samples of varying lengths from the database and combined them in different ways to create new aleatoric, multitrack compositions.

Seaman and Supko took 26 of these computer-generated “first drafts” and transformed them into an ambient, otherworldly album titled “s_traits.” One artist shaped all of the odd-numbered tracks and the other shaped all of the even-numbered tracks—but they’ll never tell who worked on which.

“On its own, bearings_traits came up with things that were totally charming and strange and wonderful, but sometimes a bit too mechanical or impassive,” Supko said. “Our approach was to keep the computer’s crazy inventiveness but to refine it in ways only a human (at least for the moment) can. So, for instance, if I heard something that had some emotional attraction for me, I would enhance the effect. If I heard a ghostly melody, I’d try to support it in the texture. If there was potential for a dramatic moment of attack or climax, I’d try to bring it out.”

Another more human element they added to the album was a text written by Seaman. The full text appears on the CD cover, and each track opens with Seaman reciting a few words from it. These text fragments were assigned randomly by bearings_traits, and function as both an introduction and a title for each of the pieces.

The fragmented texts perfectly echo the album’s ethereal and experimental tone, at times even helping to shape the listener’s perception of the distinctive musical textures. Despite the vast range of acoustic and electronic audio clips incorporated into this musical project, overall the album is very cohesive in its wistful and contemplative soundscapes.

“The computer did things we would probably never do, because it was able to search vast amounts of music very quickly, and put together many fragments in ways that would have taken us many months to try out ourselves,” Supko said. “The results are both unpredictable—since it’s impossible to know which fragments from the 110 hours of material the computer will select and spin into melodies, rhythms, and harmonic accompaniments—and yet oddly coherent.”

The result is a collection of whimsical sound waves and ethereal static which washes over the listener and immerses them in the depths of mesmerizing new acoustic and electronic timbres.

Still, the exploratory nature of the ambient melodies and ghostly static give these pieces a distinctly human quality. The skeletons of these works may have been crafted by a computer, but the melodic and harmonic polishes that bring these pieces to life could only have been created by humans.