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Wednesday March 7, 2007

Subtropics: Fluxus Day, FIU New Music Ensemble, and Jan Williams

Subtropics: Fluxus Day

Subtropics: Fluxus Day

Subtropics: Fluxus Day

Subtropics: Fluxus Day

Fluxus Eve was lots of fun. Clockwise from top right: George Brecht, Motor Vehicle Sundown Event (for John Cage), Larry Miller, Remote Music (for Keyboard), fire piece (not sure of title), and Alison Knowles, Onion Skin Song. Most of these pieces are around 50 years old, and Knowles and Miller were on hand to perform their compositions and add some character (not to mention gravitas) to the performance — both were great. Note that they have these corridors that run through the Carnival Center that are wide enough to drive a car through — and they did!! Also, the highlight of the evening was when Knowles took off one of her shoes, explained where she got it and why she liked it, and invited audience members to share about their shoes. Tigertail’s Mary Luft: “These are Birkenstocks. I’ve never liked Birkenstocks, and I only bought these because they match my silver toenail polish.” Yeah!

Subtropics: FIU New Music Ensemble

I saw the FIU New Music Ensemble a couple of years ago performing the music of James Tenney and Christian Wolff at the Wolfsonian, and remembered being extremely impressed, so I had misplaced expectations of greatness for their Subtropics performance. Maybe the Earle Brown pieces were intended to sound hesitant, creaky, and atonal, but even if so I’m convinced that the performers enhanced those qualities with their natural tendencies (re. which: “Sit up!”). Yes, they’re students. But I’m not going easy on them — someone obviously thought it was a good idea to include them in the festival, and people paid the same money to see them.

Their musical director apologized because they couldn’t perform the first movement of Lou Harrison’s Varied Trio (because of a “missing microphone” — wtf??), but didn’t see fit to mention anything about a missing clarinet player that is listed for the two of the pieces which thus became quartets instead of quintets. Pianist Marta Milosevic showed the most promise out of the group, but her solo performance, of a propulsive John Cage prepared piano piece, was marred by sloppy page turning — she actually had to pause because fool turned two pages at once.

Subtropics: Jan Williams

Jan Williams performing Pickup Sticks by Gustavo Matamoros (1998). The snare drum is microphoned and connected to a Powerbook, triggering digital sound/noise sequences whenever the player makes a mistake and disturbs the snare head. So yes, the point is to make as little sound as possible, and Williams looked genuinely frustrated whenever he messed up (but he was probably pretending). Another composition consisted of whole notes played on a muted gong for what I seriously estimate was 45 minutes and nothing else. This was more interesting then it sounds, but only slightly. I didn’t realize it was a La Monte Young young piece, and I think if I had I’d have heard it differently.

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Wednesday February 28, 2007

Subtropics: Helena Bugallo and Amy Williams, and Joan LaBarbara

Subtropics: Helena Bugallo and Amy Williams

I didn’t quite know what to make of these two during the group pieces the other night. Their contribution was wispy and ethereal, and most difficult to register of the group. But when Helena Bugallo and Amy Williams took the stage, it was obvious from the first notes that they are a powerhouse. They opened with a set of pieces by Conlon Nancarrow written for the player piano. That’s right — they performed music written to be played by a machine. These pieces often involve simultaneous lines at different speeds, notes played together very close to each other on the keyboard, and a general cacophony of piano. Imagine the trip from Keith Jarrett to Cecil Taylor, and then go again as far in the same direction, or imagine ten schoolchildren hitting keys at random on a single keyboard, but then imagine that notated note for note . . . well, it sounds unplayable because it is unplayable, and if I hadn’t seen Bugallo and Williams do it I’d not believe that it was possible.

They actually somehow made it look effortless, too. Working almost as a single being at one piano (the picture above was taken during a later piece by a different composer), their hands frequently crossing and overlapped in bizarre configurations (sometimes all four hands in the space of one keyboard octave), taking turns turning the pages of the score, and hitting each jarring note exactly dead on. It was simply breathtaking.

Bugallo and Williams took a break from Nancarrow to perform three longer compositions by other composers, most notably the Sonata for Two Pianos by Salvatore Sciarrino. From the Subtropics site:

The two performers must simultaneously operate in two mindsets: one characterized by a great deal of indeterminacy (no precise rhythms, pitches, dynamics, or tempi are specified) and the other dominated by extremely precise ornamentation (black and/or white note glissandi of varying lengths, no less than fourteen different types of trills, and a wide range of clusters). The gesture of ornamentation is brought to the forefront.

They’re not kidding. The performance was a romp through ultra-fast repeating patterns on the upper range of the pianos, full of the aforementioned glissandi and trills, and it was positively dazzling. I think iSAW has been recording the whole festival, and this piece belongs on any collection of highlights.

Subtropics: Joan LaBarbara

What’s surprising about the work of Joan LaBarbara is actually how unique it is. Voice is such a primal component of the human experience, yet we spend so little time considering its possibilities beyond utilitarian speech and a still relatively conservative approach to “singing.” LaBarbara has been exploring the other possibilities of vocal performance in the 1970s, and remains one of the very few artists working in this mode. Trained as a classical singer, LaBarbara began toward the end of her training to gravitate towards the extended vocal techniques and an experimental approach out of a desire to work with living (read: avant-garde) composers, and hasn’t looked back since. I cherish my copy of Voice is the Original Instrument, and I was blown away by seeing her live.

She performed an all-Cage concert, suitable to the theme of the festival but highlighting her (considerable) talents as a traditional singer more so then her “extended technique.” But the material was impeccably chosen, and we did get a taste — a piece where LaBarbara dueted with a pre-recorded version of herself (synchronized with a stopwatch — see the photo!), hissing, yelping, and . . . actually nevermind, verbal descriptions will never do this music justice. Suffice it to say that it’s transportative in a way that nothing else is. She also performed a piece with short phrases interspersed with long silences (Cage trademark), which was the height of drama (at least until someone’s cell phone went off).

I could go on and on about Joan LaBarbara, but suffice it to say that she’s a legend, and it was a privilege to see her perform.

Tonight: The Subtropics Marathon! (7 pm, $10)

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Tuesday February 27, 2007

Subtropics: Graphic Music

Subtropics: Graphic Music

Last night, a group performance by some of the biggest names in contemporary avant-garde music, in town for Subtropics. From left: Christian Wolff behind the upright piano, Joan LaBarbara on the microphone, Helena Bugallo and Amy Williams on the grand piano, Gustavo Matamoros on saw, Jan Williams on percussion and Robert Black on bass.

They performed two stunning pieces as a group which were synchronized to preset points by the powerbook in the foreground, as well as a few pieces in smaller groups and solo. LaBarbara was fantastic. Black did a great little silent pantomime performance on the bass. But probably the best moment was a Wolff composition, performed with Black and Williams, a long weaving melody traded between the instruments, each note played by a different player at a different articulation. After the show I bumped to Wolff waiting for the bus (me, not him), so at least I got a chance to thank him for coming to Miami, ‘cause the attendance was not in line with the excellence of the performance (then again, 2 to 3 concerts a day for 9 days in a row is tough for anyone).

Tonight: Solo performances by Joan LaBarbara at 7 pm and Helena Bugallo and Amy Williams (performing the player piano pieces of Conlon Nancarrow) at 9:30 pm.

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Sunday February 25, 2007

Subtropics day 1: Takehisa Kosugi and Christian Wolff

Takehisa Kosugi at Subtropics

Takehisa Kosugi at Subtropics

Takehisa Kosugi at Subtropics

Takehisa Kosugi at Subtropics

Subtropics kicked off last night with concerts by two masters. Takehisa Kosugi went first, opening with a piece that used his own breath as a sound source. Two tubes with attached transducers fed into a tangled web of signal processors, including guitar pedals, a motion sensor, and several custom built boxes (here is the rig). The sound was distorted and pitch shifted, mostly loosing its connection to human breathing — and, occasionally, hints of singing — but retaining its organic musical quality. Probably most surprising about this piece was how naturally it moved from delicate quiet moments to dense, swirling rushes of sound.

Many of the effects in that first piece were simple distortion and delay, but Kosugi put to rest the impression that his electronics arsenal was primitive with his second, all electronics-based piece. Nice, but it lacked the visceral impact of the breathing music. Then he moved to an extended piece for the violin, which fed into a multi-pitched ring modulator.

That all would have been enough, but Kosugi had one more trick up his sleeve. He dramatically unrolled a large piece of paper that had stood behind him throughout the performance and walked to a previously unused floor microphone. He caressed the mic with the paper, then slowly and deliberately crumpled the sheet into a ball around it (this all sounded exactly like you’d think, except much lower in pitch (perhaps because the paper was unusually thin?)). Then proceeded a long solo performance by the paper ball, producing an unlikely symphony of low-pitched thuds and pops as the crumples settled themselves.

During this Kosugi sat at his table, still and contemplative, while the light gradually crossfaded from his table to the microphone. When the paper was finished, so was the concert. Spectacular.

Christian Wolff at Subtropics

Takehisa Kosugi’s performance was all body, instinct, and drama, and Christian Wolff is in some ways the the polar opposite, his manner much more casual and his music much more cerebral. He opened with a perfect little piece for prepared piano, all quirky phrases with lots of space in between. The photo above is of him “un-preparing” the piano afterwards (incompletely as it turned out — in the second half of his set he suddenly stopped in the middle of a piece, bent over the piano, and found one last little object he’d missed before!). He played a collection of short pieces for the piano, with a little set of melodica pieces in the middle.

Wolff’s music is at its best when it’s at its most angular, so it works great on the piano. All of his music has an internal logic, but it takes lots of concentration to get into that logic for each piece. When the listener’s concentration fails, the music can come across as meandering, and it’s open to debate whether the composer should share in the blame for this. As is the case with this sort of music, there was no big finale — Wolff simply announced he was about to perform his last piece, and proceeded, with whatever the antithesis of bombast is, to delicately tear the roof off the place.

A killer start to Subtropics, which goes almost every day until March 4th. Bring your ears.

A note about the photos: I’m trying to minimize the annoyance to my fellow audience members with my clacking shutter. Kosugi’s performance had plenty of loud moments where I could safely snap away, but it simply wasn’t worth disturbing Wolff’s piano pieces. Plus, the piano manipulation is the better image anyway (though I wish I’d framed it better).

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Wednesday February 21, 2007

A rundown of the upcoming Subtropics festival, including an interview with Subtropics’ founder, Gustavo Matamoros. “Miami has been a big failure at trying to be like New York. This is because to be like New York one must start with the subway.”

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