Last night at the SFJAZZ Center, Other Minds presented the second of the three concerts prepared for its 21st festival of avant-garde music. There was a fair share of diversity in the programming. However, two composers were featured, one of whom was also present to perform his own music.
That composer was Larry Polansky, who has composed extensively for guitar and is himself an impressive performer on that instrument. One of his major sources of inspiration as a composer is the exploration of alternative tuning systems, with a particular interest in intervals based on integer ratios. Guitarist Elliot Simpson performed three of the songs from Polansky’s collection Songs and ’Toods. The whole set was written for John Schneider in 2006 to perform on a Lou Harrison Just Intonation Resonator guitar. The first of the songs was a Shaker hymn and the other two were folk tunes from the pioneer times of the United States and the indigenous communities of the Arctic, respectively. This made for a decided preference for perfect fifths and major thirds, but Polansky can take adventurous approaches to modulation. So his approach to Harrison’s instrument involved some very striking approaches to key changing, often at unexpected times. Simpson sang along with his playing. However, this served primarily as a point of reference back to the folk sources; and the real action was in the guitar work.
Polansky also has a great interest in retuning the guitar while playing it. This was evident in the other two works on the program. He calls “34 Chords,” which he wrote in 1995, an “orchestration” of “Christian Wolff in Cambridge,” a piece for a cappella chorus that Morton Feldman wrote in 1963. Polansky playfully gave the piece the subtitle “Christian Wolff in Hanover and Royalton,” referring to the time they spent together at Dartmouth College. The original was one of Feldman’s few vocal works and had a stunning rhetoric of quietude; and that spirit was just as evident in Polansky’s performance of his “response” to Feldman’s “call.”
Real-time retuning was much more evident in “ii-v-I,” a duet that Polansky performed with Giacomo Fiore. As the title suggests, this is a study in basic harmonic progression; but the progression is subjected to continuous modulation. This requires shifts in the tuning of all twelve strings on the two guitars being played. Since these were electric guitars, the attentive listener could easily pick up on that sense of continuity and the ambiguity it imposed on one of the first progressions taught in harmony courses.
The first half of the program devoted most of its attention to Canadian composer John Oswald. Back in the Nineties Oswald attracted the attention of Wired magazine with his approach to collage and transformation that he called plunderphonics. (The title of one of his albums is Grayfolded, in which he uses tapes of the Grateful Dead as source material for his approach to transformation of appropriation.)
Two of his pieces last night were world premieres, and “Palimpia” is the latest generation of Oswald’s plunderphonics thinking. He now refers to this body of his work as a “rascali klepitoire;” and this time the source is the opening C major prelude (BWV 846a) in the first book of Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier. “Palimpia” is in six movements, each of which involves a different approach to real-time interaction between a pianist (Eve Egoyan) and a player piano (a Yamaha Disklavier). The sense of Bach having been “plundered” emerges gradually, first through a few significant notes in the bass line and subsequently through more familiar rhythms and progressions. Most of the veils are then stripped away during the final movement, making the piece as a whole a rather diverting shaggy-dog story.
The other world premiere was a new version of “Homonymy,” originally composed for chamber orchestra in 1998. The new version combines a recording of the original version with Egoyan both speaking and playing prepared piano. The heart of the composition, however, is a projection of words in both English and French. (The original version was first performed in Quebec.) As the title suggests, the piece is a study in how sounds recur in words that can differ widely in meaning. (Oswald’s love of homonyms was already evident when he called his “Grateful Dead album” Grayfolded.) Since the projected words are constantly in motion, the visuals tend to overwhelm the auditory experience, particularly when they are saturated with throw-away gags. Those who know how to pronounce the French word for “five” will appreciate the “sinking” image of the numeral 5, even if that is an old joke that goes back to B. Kliban’s Cat book.
A rather intriguing use of film was the final Oswald piece, “invaria.” In this case Oswald “plundered” a recording of Glenn Gould playing the theme of Bach’s BWV 988 (“Goldberg”) keyboard variations. This performance had been faithfully transcribed into MIDI for performance on a Yamaha Disklavier similar to the Yamaha instrument Gould had played. Oswald than transformed the MIDI to create a strict inversion of the source and then aligned the music with a video of Gould playing the original theme (complete with humming on the soundtrack). This, too, was a bit of a shaggy-dog story; but it certainly made for an amusing way to watch a document of Gould doing his thing.
Egoyan also performed the world premiere of “The David Lynch Études” by Nicole Lizée, another piece based on projected images. In this case the images came from the film and television work of David Lynch, in which fragments were extracted and repeated. Lynch had a talent for making even the most ordinary look grotesque; so the idea of extracting and the looping a particular grotesquerie went right to the edge of overdoing things (and then probably crossed it). In all likelihood, David Lynch (sometimes with assistance from composer Angelo Badalamenti) is probably the only creative artist capable of outdoing David Lynch; and Lizée’s attempt came off as weak, if not ill-conceived. In a similar manner Bill Morrison’s distortions of an old silent film never quite seemed to fit with Michael Gordon’s violin solo “Light is Calling,” performed by Kate Stenberg; but at least one could appreciate that, as a composer, Gordon felt a need to document the personal feeling of living close to Ground Zero on September 11, 2001.
The entire evening closed out with “Stick,” an improvisation by Oliver Lake involving both soprano and alto saxophones (and Lake chanting while changing instruments). One could recognize the energy that Lake put into his work, but the listening experience was a fragmented one. Lake is a serious jazzman with impressive credentials, but he is apparently more in his element when jamming with other jazz players. His solo work gave the impression of searching without ever establishing if his search had any objective.