ALBUM REVIEW: ‘No Answer’ by Steve Layton

by Michael Schell

Steve Layton is a noted creator, producer and journalist of new music. He edits the Sequenza 21 website, and stands as one of the foremost figures in Seattle’s busy electronic music scene. His proficient studio chops are showcased on No Answer, a new collection of 17 short solo tracks available on Bandcamp.

The general tone for the album is set right at the outset with Bullfrog, an uptempo, beat-driven affair, quirky enough with its polyrhythms that it comes “with no guarantee you’ll be able to dance to it.” Other pieces, like The Moment of Equinox, contrast this with a darker, more drony feel. And for novelty value there’s the title track, whose source material comes from the telephone answering machine of Charlotte Moorman (1933–1991): cellist, producer, and frequently risqué collaborator of Nam June Paik and other avant-gardists. Altogether, the set makes a worthy introduction to Layton’s prolific output.

No Answer by Steve Layton

CONCERT PREVIEW: The Space Between Us: Q&A with David Jaffe

by Jill Kimball

David Jaffe

What happens when a composer is also a programmer? He creates pieces that are at once surprising, mathematical and superhuman.

In almost all of his work, San Francisco composer David A. Jaffe marries music and math. He’s been experimenting with computer music since the late 1970s, years before most of us owned computers or understood what they were. In what has to be one of the greatest life hacks of all time, Jaffe and fellow composer Andrew Schloss used the sensing mechanism inside a three-dimensional mouse developed at Bell Labs to create a computerized instrument. They called it the radiodrum.

On Saturday, March 5 at Seattle’s Good Shepherd Center, audiences will be able to hear strategically-placed instruments created by Seattle artist Trimpin and controlled by the radiodrum in “The Space Between Us,” a landmark work Jaffe premiered in 2011 that also features eight (human) string players. Also on the program is Jaffe’s “Impossible Animals,” where violin riffs come together with computerized birdsong, Jaffe’s bluegrass-inspired “Cluck Old Hen Variations,” English composer Rebecca Clark’s “Poem,” and Shostakovich’s magnificent String Quartet No. 9. Joining Jaffe and Schloss onstage are the members of the Victoria, B.C.-based Lafayette String Quartet.

In advance of the concert, we chatted with Jaffe to find out how he worked with Schloss and Trimpin to create “The Space Between Us,” how he sits down (or doesn’t) to compose, and how he’s beaten the odds to keep on making music.

Jill Kimball: How was “The Space Between Us” born?

David Jaffe: Several different threads came together to make this piece. The first thread was the radiodrum. For years i’ve been collaborating with Andrew Schloss, who saw the musical potential of that 3-D mouse. If you have a pair of snare sticks, say, you can add wires and make them radio transmitters, each with their own frequency, so the device can know the difference between the two sticks. The drum is a radio receiver, and when you hit the drum with the stick or even just move it above the surface, the sound that comes out is completely up to the composer…it reads anything you code and interprets your gestures however you want it to. 

Another thread was my interest in the work of Trimpin. I love his aesthetic, his nuts-and-bolts funky and sophisticated art. I wanted to work with him on a radiodrum piece for the Other Minds Festival in San Francisco. It was all coming together.

And then, in 2008, my mentor [and Pulitzer Prize-winning spatial composer] Henry Brant passed away. He was one of the first American composers to use space as an essential aspect of his composition—it’s just as important as pitch and rhythm and timbre. He left me a bunch of vintage percussion instruments from all over the world in his will. I went down to his home in Santa Barbara to pick up and ship these instruments. Then as I was at UPS, I had an idea. I called Trimpin and said, “Can I just ship these directly to you?” 

I started working with Trimpin on transforming these vintage percussion instruments into a set of robotic orchestral chimes, a robotic xylophone sawed in half and a robotic glockenspiel. I had previously worked with Andrew Schloss on transforming a Yamaha piano and I included that as well. And I also decided to bring in two string quartets.

JK: Why is the piece called “The Space Between Us”?

DJ: Partially because it’s written in homage to Henry Brant, who was so interested in spatial writing. “The Space Between Us” refers to my relationship with Henry and kind of conveys the idea that he’s gone but somehow still present.

There’s also the element of physical space between instruments. I’ve scattered the instruments all around the hall, which means I couldn’t write music where all the instruments play together—the speed of sound is too slow. The piece has a lot to do with making connections across space. The instruments begin together, wander off and converge again. Because of the location of the instruments, everybody in the audience hears their own piece.

I also thought a lot about the concept of six degrees of separation. Whether it’s true or not, I was interested in the ways people bridge distances between each other and connect.

David Jaffe with Trimpin

David Jaffe with Trimpin.

JK: In this piece, you connect the ideas of two very different composers, Henry Brant and Trimpin. How did you find similarities between them?

DJ: Henry and Trimpin were interested in collaborating, but they never got to do so before Henry died. To me, the collaboration would have made a lot of sense. Brant was not at all a straight-laced academic. He broke a lot of rules, but he was also extremely practical. He worked in Hollywood, and back then he could get whatever instruments he wanted–Four contra-bassoons? No problem!–so he was able to experiment with different combinations of instruments. Trimpin is like that, too. He’s his own artist. And like Brant, he has an attraction to old junk. They both inhabit the same funky, artistic, creative, non-academic, imaginative world. I’d like to believe that i also inhabit that world. In reviews about me, people have said things like, “I don’t know what to make of him, but he’s definitely original.”


JK: It sounds like originality is really important to you.

DJ: It’s sort of the only way, as I see it. It’s hard enough to be a composer. The financial rewards are limited…the only reason to do it is because you absolutely believe in what you’re doing. I want to reach people in my music, but I want to make it accessible without compromising…without making it elevator music. I want to be really clear about what I’m expressing, whether it has to do with birdwatching, kung fu, or the craziness of having two kids under 3.

 

JK: Do you have a composition process? What does it look like?

I have a very definite process, and I can credit Henry Brant for that. When I started composing, I tended to start at the beginning of the piece, with the “once upon a time.” But Brant taught me to think of it like being on an airplane. You start at 39,000 feet, where you look down and see the general layout of the world, and as the plane starts to descend, you see a few more details. Then, finally, when you get to the ground you see each blade of grass.

I usually start by allocating some amount of time for free association, like a week or so. I write everything i have on index cards or a little notebook. It could be inspired by politics, history, looking at books at a bookstore or being in nature. There could also be musical ideas in there, some little riff or motive or orchestration idea or texture. Then—this is the hardest part—I lay all these ideas in front of me and find connections. I throw away things that don’t work. Eventually i start to get the view from 39,000 feet. I can lay out the piece on a single piece of paper. Then I’ll do another version that’s a little more detailed and takes three or four pieces of paper. I look at the part that seems most well defined in my mind and I write the other parts based on that. It’s sort of like Sudoku. 

I don’t know how I’d compose without a structure and schedule like this. I’m usually working on a deadline, and at the same time I have a job doing music software at Universal Audio, so I only have a finite amount of free time.


JK: What’s your biggest musical accomplishment to date?

DJ: That’s like asking me to choose a favorite child, but I do tend to think about my bigger projects when I think about accomplishments. I did a 70-minute concerto for Schloss and his radiodrum, accompanied by an orchestra of plucked strings, where each of the seven movements was about a different wonder of the ancient world. “The Space Between Us,” frankly, is something I’m really proud of.

I think my biggest achievement is that I’m still composing after all these years and following my own musical path. Once I was sitting in a classroom of composers, and Karel Husa told us, “In 20 years, only a fraction of you will still be composing.” I’m happy I’m one of them. Sometimes I think of composing as a curse, because it’s so much work. But if I wasn’t composing, I’d have a huge emptiness in my life. It’s the most rewarding thing I do.

The Space Between Us, for 8 strings, and robotic percussion instruments was supported by New Music USA. To follow the project as it unfolds, visit the project page.

ALBUM REVIEW: Mason Bates’ Mothership featuring Gil Rose/Boston Modern Orchestra Project

by Geoffrey Larson

BMOP throws down orchestral music of Composer-DJ Mason Bates

Sydney Exterior

Ever since the extravaganza of the YouTube Symphony’s premiere of Mason Bates’ Mothership at the Sydney Opera House in 2011, the piece has taken off (sorry), popping up in the programs of major orchestras across the US and abroad. Mothership is perhaps the most direct and largest-scale representation of Bates’ style as an ensemble composer, which blends contemporary American classical composition with jazz and electronic sounds. Its driving, grooving feel is positively addictive, like Short Ride in a Fast Machine seen through a smoky jazz/electronic kaleidoscope. A slightly more introspective middle section relies on the talents of improvisers, making no two performances the same – and some borderline EDM-style beats and electronics provided by a laptop-driven synth setup or the keypad-operating composer himself drive the pace of the music. It’s totally fun, and totally infectious.

I was already hooked after seeing the YouTube performance of Mothership, but after witnessing excellent performances by the Pittsburgh Symphony of this work and others such as Desert Transport during Mason’s time as PSO Composer in Residence, I was a full-blown addict. Where’s the recording??, I muttered to myself through sleepless nights. So, a very heartfelt thank-you goes out to Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project for satisfying (and abetting) my addiction with a full album of Mason’s orchestral music.

(available now from BMOP/sound)

For the listener, this release pulls no punches. We are first launched into space with Mothership, then glide along the gossamer textures of Sea-Blue Circuitry, are blasted by the orchestral fanfares of Attack Decay Sustain Release, and are then enchanted by the humid, electronic-cicada-filled ambience of Rusty Air in Carolina before being flung across the desert in a helicopter in Desert Transport. Modern classical albums that feature only one composer are rarely listenable all the way through; not so with this one. It’s unmistakably Bates throughout, but the deep variety of orchestral sounds, augmented with electronic wizardry from the composer’s club DJ side, never succeed in exhausting the ear.

NWS1Mason2 copy

As for the performance, BMOP is in their usual excellent form, with ensemble playing that is tightly coordinated in the midst of rapid-fire passages and a brass section that is strikingly powerful in its attacks and beautifully in tune. In the midst of synthesized textures, the orchestral layers come through crystal-clear. In Mothership, we even get an improvisation from Su Chang, the virtuoso guzheng player from the work’s premiere performance, together with Jason Moran on FM Rhodes synth. Rose’s highly accurate treatment of dynamics takes the ensemble to a beautifully evocative place in Rusty Air in Carolina, and adds appropriate shaping and punch in the other works. We should be very relieved that Rose and BMOP aren’t afraid to really let it rip in this music’s most powerful moments.

bates-1

Part of what makes this music great is its versatility: it’s at home in so many different settings, from the venerated orchestral concert hall, to the sweaty dance club, to your living room on a Tuesday night. This album is a keeper, then, but not without a major drawback: The B-Sides, Bates’ moody set of orchestral vignettes, is disappointingly absent. Did they run out of room? Is there a follow-up? It’s ok, I’ll wait.

 

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Orchestra Underground: Tech & Techno

by Maggie Stapleton

Founded back in 1977, the NYC-based American Composers Orchestra is dedicated to the creation, performance, preservation, and promulgation of music by American composers by way of concerts, commissions, recordings, educational programs, and new music reading sessions.  With an esteemed leadership of Derek Bermel, Artistic Director; George Manahan, Music Director; Dennis Russell Davies, Conductor Laureate; and Robert Beaser, Artistic Advisor Laureate this organization is in amazing hands.

Orchestra Underground: Tech & Techno is the fifth digital album from ACO.   Each piece was commissioned or premiered by ACO for Orchestra Underground, “a series stretching the definition of, and possibilities for the orchestra.  The series challenges conventional notions about symphonic music, embracing multidisciplinary and collaborative work, novel instrumental and spatial orientations of musicians, new technologies and multimedia.”  Orchestra Underground just celebrated its 10th anniversary season in 2013-14 and what better way to celebrate than with this collection of live recordings by Mason Bates, Edmund Campion, Anna Clyne, Justin Messina, and Neil Rolnick.

This release busts out of the gate with Edmund Campion’s Practice, a full-blasted introduction of orchestral forces, cresting and blending seamlessly into an electronic, computer generated outro in Campion’s cheeky musical response to the age-old question, “How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall?” Appropriate, seeing as most of the music on this album was recorded in Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall which seeks to host the latest contemporary sounds from classical, pop, jazz, and world music artists.

Like all of the music on this CD, the fusion of traditional orchestral instruments with electronic forces is brilliantly executed in Justin Messina’s Abandon.  This work is played to an electronic soundtrack Detroit techno from the early ‘90s during which they experienced a musical rebirth in the underground clubs.

Tender Hooks, by Anna Clyne features a pair of laptops operated by Jeremy Flower and Joshue Ott, which transmit and receive live data from the orchestra.  Each element of this recording combines standard notation, written instructions and graphic representation.  It also pays homage to one of the earliest electronic instruments, the Theremin!

Neil Rolnick collaborates with violinist Todd Reynolds, to present their instrument creation, the iFiddle.  As Rolnick puts it this is “not just a concerto for violin, but a concerto for a cyborg violin that has been intimately joined to a computer.”  This union definitely displays both elements of a traditional violin, and yes, I think cyborg describes it best.  This piece is strikingly accessible, with catchy violin melodies throughout.

The opening of Omnivorous Furniture by Mason Bates has the feel of “do your best robot dance,” inspired by down-tempo electronic music which soon leads way to full on dance party/funkadelic triptastic.  Mason Bates uses computer and drum pad with the orchestra in this work heavily influenced with British hip-hop.

If you’re looking for a gateway into electronically inspired orchestral music, this is a great disc!  If you’d like to purchase the collection, you can visit iTunes, Amazon, or the American Composers Orchestra.