Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Alkem Benefit show

On Saturday, December 17, the DC Improvisers Collective (DCIC) played in a marathon show at Warehouse Next Door to benefit Alkem (the lovely and amazing nonprofit that provides free web-hosting for DCIC, Improv Arts, the DC Sonic Circuits Festival, and many other local artists).

There were seven bands on the bill and things got started late, so the show went (as expected) until very late. We didn't go on until after 1am, and I think our fatigue showed - and it was showing in the audience (what was left of them) as well.

Turnout for the show was very good. We got a pick in the CityPaper's "City Lights" section of weekly critic's picks, and a small write-up in the Post's nightlife column. Dan even got his picture in the CityPaper. Unfortunately, by the time we went on the crowd had thinned considerably. Sarah Azzara mentioned during her set (she was the only one who had to go on later than us) that by that point in the night it was more like the Alkem office party...

Sarah also opened the show with her new trio, Shame Girl. They were followed by Ben Azzara's new band, Pup Tent. The evening was really the Ben & Sarah Azzara variety show, which is a good thing... since they both rock. Other non-Azzara performers included The Antiques and Kohoutek. I hadn't heard John Rickman play drums before, so that was nice. I've only heard him in more "experimental" settings such as his duo EBSK.

As for our set, it was a little disappointing. We were all kinda wiped out before we got on stage, and then we rushed to set up and start playing since it was already so late. After the show, Mike said he felt like free improv really is about realizing the energy in the space - at the time, and we didn't really do that... we did more of a "hurry up and blow" kind of set rather than feeding on the overall mellowing that had occurred by that late hour. I don't feel like we really connected with one another (we all had a hard time hearing Dan's bass), so overall it wasn't so satisfying.

That being said, I'd still rather spend a Saturday night playing with these guys and not realizing our full potential, than almost anything else... and hopefully we raised enough money at the show to cover our web hosting for the next year.

In other news, I'm working on music for a new dance piece with Jane Franklin Dance. The piece is still in the fuzzy stages of development, but since the show is coming up next month I need to get it ironed out soon. Assuming it comes together ok, I'll podcast a draft of it in the next week or so.

Friday, December 09, 2005

DCIC at Black Cat

Here's the final track from our performance last month at the Black Cat. Dan (bass player) couldn't make it, so DCIC was a trio: Mike Sebastian (sax), Ben Azzara (drums) and me. Mike's new horn sounds particularly nice on this track -- and his playing is lyrical and bittersweet. I think this piece has a kind of wintery feel, so a nice choice for a snowy weekend... The rest of the show is posted on our site for free download: http://dcic.alkem.org

Well, not the whole show. I forgot to press record before we started playing, so the recording is missing the first fifteen minutes or so.

We'll be playing next saturday (12/17) at Warehouse Next Door along with The Antiques, Sarah Azzara, Lida Husik (who is coming to sit in at DCIC rehearsal tomorrow... I'm eager to see how that works), Kohoutek, Pup Tent, and Shame Girl. The show is a benefit for Alkem, which provides free web hosting for artists and small arts organizations.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

testing new podcast

I wanna be a podcaster... so I'm figuring out some of the technical stuff now. If this works, you can grab a fresh track from the DC Improvisers Collective from this post and/or by adding my blog feed to your podcast subscriptions... assuming this all works like it's supposed to, I'll be posting more new music on a regular basis. Cool, no?

Monday, November 14, 2005

Dr. James Dorsey

I had an interesting opportunity – last Saturday I performed in a trio with James Dorsey (piano) and Ben Tokarz (percussion) at the Eubie Blake Jazz Institute and Cultural Center in Baltimore.

James wrote a large-scale work that was a very cool (and very well written) blend of jazz and classical styles. The piece was about 60 minutes long, with a very clear structure, very clear themes, and lots of room for improvising. There is a “piano interlude” based on a theme from Chopin that returns several times during the piece, and in between these interludes, there are three different “themes” in different styles. There are a few places with space indicated for “solos” by different performers, and a few instances where the ensemble plays more freely. During this performance, there was one section (marked in the score as “spacey”) where we really took things out into left field – much more so than we did during rehearsal. In fact, Ben and I weren’t exactly sure where we were in the score, but things were going off in a different direction so we just went with it (with interesting results) and then found our place again when James brought the interlude back… Towards the end, James takes the interlude into a blues section, which was also elaborated much more in performance than rehearsal – and I even found myself accompanying his solo with some fragmented blues licks. Very surprising since I don’t really know any blues licks!

I was quite unsure of myself when we started working on the piece – I had to read notes on paper, which isn’t a skill I’ve really cultivated as a guitarist, but I think I did ok. James is a very talented composer and pianist, and I think I’ve learned quite a bit from him just in the short time we’ve been working on this piece. Seeing as my own compositions depend on combining notated / composed materials with improvisation in different ways, it was quite interesting to become familiar with his approach as a performer. This is also great timing, since I’m just starting work on a project with John Kamman and Carl Banner (director of Washington Musica Viva) that will likely explore similar terrain.

Ben Tokarz is an excellent musician as well. It was a treat to perform with him. He laid down some monster grooves with a pair of congas, bass drum, and high-hat. He made some really interesting choices playing with different groupings and subdivisions during a section of the piece that can be counted in four with a triplet feel, or in six. Unfortunately, he’s moving to Norfolk soon, but I hope we’ll have a chance to perform together again soon.

James will also be performing a solo piano piece in a “New Music Salon” event this coming Friday, presented by the American Composers Forum. I hope we’ll be able to find a DC area venue with a nice piano, so we might have a chance to do this piece again.

Photos by Jen. You can see all the pictures she took at the show by clicking here.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

DCIC Rocks the Black Cat

On Tuesday, November 8th, the DC Improvisers Collective played at the Black Cat along with Gestures, a new group featuring Sean Peoples (Hand Fed Babies), Rebecca Mills (The Caution Curves) and Fiona Griffin (ex-Meltdown, Et At It, Horses, etc.).

We performed without our bass player, Dan Barbiero, because (get this) he had a gig that night with a straight-ahead jazz piano trio at a public library in the suburbs. Well, we’ll forgive him for not doing both shows, even though we didn’t go on until 11pm so he probably could have played both. And I guess he should get points for playing at the library. I do love my county library system.

Anyway, Dan’s early-to-bed early-to-rise schedule notwithstanding, we had a grand old time as a trio. Actually, the sax-guitar-drums lineup worked out nicely for a rock club. I brought my laptop so I had some looping, pitch shifting, and other effects at my disposal and I enjoyed being able to take up more space, sonically. Mike spent most of the evening playing tenor sax, although a short excursion on soprano worked out really well too. His new tenor sax is so loud he didn’t need to mic it, even though the guitar amp was mic’ed and Ben hammered the drums at maximum volume quite often. Ben Azzara, our drummer, is no stranger to the Black Cat – he’s there almost monthly with at least one of his various rock bands.

We all had a hard time hearing the guitar on stage – I should have turned my amp up louder, but the audience heard it just fine since it was mic’ed and fed through the house PA. I think the difficulty hearing actually led to really good listening by the three of us. Since we had to make an effort to hear everything, we were really listening closely to one another, and I think that translated into some solid group improvising.

The venue also had some influence on our playing, I think. Being in a rock club made it easy for us to cut loose and play loud (and we did some softer playing as well). We had a nice audience – pretty good turnout for a rainy Tuesday night, certainly. There were many friends in the house, and I think that also encouraged us to take some risks and try some new things since it was essentially an intimate gathering of friends – many of whom have heard DCIC play a few times, so it was nice to give them something a bit different. And before I get off the subject of the venue, I love the Black Cat for several reasons, including: half price food for the bands at the attached vegan-friendly café, Food for Thought (mmmm, BBQ Seitan Sandwich), three free pitchers of cheap beer for the band (also probably helped us cut loose and play loud), and finally and perhaps most important for me: properly grounded outlets! That seems like a funny detail, but my guitar rig can be so noisy thanks to my single coil pickups and my cheap-o audio interface for the laptop. The rig was really quiet, so the power on stage must be really well grounded. What luxury! I wish the same were true in my apartment…

Ok, now about the music… We had a rough outline that was something like this:
1. We open with something energetic and let that go for a good amount of time, 10 – 15 minutes.
2. We do a second piece that opens with a guitar/drum duo – sort of ambient with prepared guitar sounds. After five minutes or so, sax enters, drums exit and we do a lyrical sax/guitar duo. Then we make up some more.

We didn’t actually stick to that game plan – the high energy opening piece got quiet and slow after a few minutes before building back up again, and we went right into the prepared guitar thing without a break distinguishing a second “piece.” All the elements we planned for did get included at one point or another, but we let the music go where it was going and got outside of that structure. Happily, we still did the stuff we said we would… so I can’t complain about any lack of rigor or anything. I’m actually quite happy that we had the flexibility to stay in the moment with the music that appeared – and still find ways to break out into the duos at various points.

During the prepared guitar section, I put the guitar down on a chair and knelt on the floor. I had the usual alligator clips and paperclip on the strings, and played with dulcimer hammers, a paintbrush, and vibrators. Every once in a while, someone in the audience would come up close to see what I was doing and then move back to where they had been standing. That was funny… I’ve been the “guitar nerd” checking out a performer's gear that way so many times, I think this was one of the first times I’ve been on the other side of that transaction.

I forgot to push record on the minidisc before we started the show, but I think I did manage to record about half of it. Hopefully we’ll get that posted on the DCIC website in the next week or so.

If anyone took photos at the show, please let me know – I’d love to post a few here. Thanks to everyone who came out for it! Hope to see you all again soon. And thanks to Gestures for playing with us!

Monday, October 24, 2005

I (heart) Jane Jerardi

Last week, I had the honor / privilege of participating in an event called "Efficiency," directed by Jane Jerardi.

The show featured the world premiere of Jane's multimedia dance piece, "Efficiency," with original music by Scanner. It's an understated and powerful work, and I'm sad that it was shown for one night only.

The program also included a performance of "Heaven and Hell," by Stephen Vitiello and Scanner, with live video by Patrick Power.

At the top of the show, I performed in "Spill No. 3" with Ginger Wagg. This was a re-working of our site-specific piece (directed by Jane and Ginger) that was done at Transformer Gallery and on a parked bus during Arts on Foot. The piece includes crochet sculpture by Agata Olek, and some sound elements by dj milo.

Previous versions of "Spill" played with the boundaries between audience and performers. This presented a particular challenge in a conventional theater space. Ginger and I performed in two small balcony areas, and I set up audio installations in the lobby and in the stairway between the lobby and the theater. Since we were limited in how we could manipulate the space between audience and performers, we chose to also try to play with expectations about timing. For the lobby installation, I made field recordings on the street corner outside the theater a few weeks earlier, and for the stairway I made recordings in the lobby before another show the previous week. The idea was that as you enter the lobby, sounds of the street are present, and then as you move up towards the theater, sounds of the lobby are present -- so previous moments are "spilling" into the present one.

Ginger and I began our "performance" before the house was open, so as the audience entered the space the "show" was already underway. I was playing prepared guitar and laptop, including samples from dj milo's previous work as well as samples I made by rustling the crochet sculpture that was installed for the piece.

When the audience was seated, the house lights gradually dimmed, signifying that the "show" had "officially" begun, and after a few minutes stage lights came up as an enormous piece of crochet "spilled" across the bare stage (thanks to a cranky winch and a stage hand - theater magic!).

It's always a pleasure to improvise with Ginger. She did lots of imaginative work in the balcony, playing with the fact that she was partially obscured from view, so she was able to disappear, or show only her feet above the railing, and occasionally climbing over the railing completely. She also had a piece of the crochet to manipulate, spilling it over the balcony, or taking it away.

Photos: Lani Iacovelli

Monday, October 17, 2005

DC Improv Festival: DCIC

Last night I performed with the DC Improvisers Collective (DCIC) in a show called "BoiledDown," part of the DC International Improvisation Festival. The performance was presented by Improv Arts, Inc. and curated by Daniel Burkholder. The concept was very cool: a wide variety of artists (music, dance, theater, etc) - all performing five minute improv pieces.

Since there was no time for set-up or tear-down, we had to do a piece that would allow us to simply walk on stage, play, and walk off. That meant no drum kit and no electric guitar since we wouldn't be able to set up any gear. So, we put something together for bass, tenor sax, clarinet, and percussion. Ben played bongos (with brushes and hands), I played clarinet. We had some kind of structure pre-determined, but not much. I'll tell you what I can of the piece:

1. The piece opens with the bass playing a sort of drone thing with the bow, Sax plays with the drone. This texture returns at the end. (some other time, when I'm feeling less cynical, I'll write more about my theory of the "bring the beginning stuff back at the end and everything works out" theory)

2. The bass, sax, and clarinet are all playing in different, but related, scales. Dan is playing in a kind of ambiguous D mode, Mike is playing some Chinese scale, in A, and I'm playing some modal stuff in G. Plenty of common tones between us, but also nice possibilities for juicy dissonances (of which there were several during the performance)

3. Rest of the piece we make up while we're playing.

I think it worked out pretty well, and this instrumentation was a really nice change for us as a group. We've been playing for a few months with a straightforward jazz quartet (sax, bass, guitar, drums) and this gave us a chance to try something without any instrument that's playing chords - so we were able to do some much more linear types of interacting.

Our piece was pretty somber but I had assumed that most of the other acts on the program were going to be fast paced and lighter given the compressed time for each piece… I was wrong. Many of the dance pieces were slow, and done in silence. There was some heavy stuff… Jen Stone did a beautiful solo movement piece with no sound and very slow / minimal movement. Andrew Suseno did a dance piece with text about grieving for his father who passed away about a month ago, and a butoh style piece by They Can Never Take Our Crow (which I didn't get to see because it was right after us, so we were backstage. oh well).

There was also some humor in the show… Cyrus Khambatta did a funny (and technically stunning) movement improv, and members of Washington Improv Theater did a short scene.

(photos by Enoch Chan)

Sunday, October 16, 2005

DC Improv Festival: DJ Matis

Last night, I performed in a concert called "Breaking the Sound Barrier" -- part of this year's DC International Improvisation Festival. The program included dance and movement work that incorporated text in various ways.

I am working on a project this season with Jane Franklin Dance that includes work by several local poets. This was the first performance of material from this project -- still very much in-progress. The piece features a poem by Rueben Jackson called "Leroy." I'm not sure that I've made the right choice... it seems too obvious, but the text really seemed to want samples from old soul records, so that's what I've been working with. I made seven loops and then programmed a patch in Audiomulch so I can juggle them with some other signal processing in real-time. This seemed to work out ok, but I'm still not convinced that it's the right approach. Maybe after we start working on some other pieces in the series, I'll see how it feels in context of the larger work.

I also had a last minute surprise, helping out dancer / poet / performance artist / diva, Holly Bass, with her piece. (Holly doesn't appear to have her own website, but for a glimpse at some of her work, try here, here, and here) For her piece in the show, she wanted to use a radio program that was only available as streaming audio - so she enlisted my help to burn it to cd. Ok, no problem. Then at the theater, it was revealed that there were three other sound cues and some crossfades that needed to happen - and the sound system at Joy of Motion wasn't going to cut it (they only have one CD player). So, I put all the cues onto my laptop and threw together another Audiomulch patch... and now I've had the pleasure of doing sound for one of Holly's pieces. The piece is called "America" and includes two poems, one by Lucille Clifton: "Cruelty" (click here and scroll down a bit for the complete text), and "I, too" by Langston Hughes. Sandwiched between these two poems, is a radio piece about the Pledge of Allegiance (you can listen here) cut up with an Aretha Franklin song.

Besides Holly's piece, I thought another stand-out was a text/movement improvisation by Wendy Woodson. This doesn't really tell you anything, but it felt like part Laurie Anderson, part Emo Phillips, part Stephen Wright - kind of a stream of consciousness storytelling - that wasn't about the story, but had a continuous narrative thread (kind of like a Jim Jarmusch movie) - but as a dance piece. Actually, that's probably the worst description ever of her work but anyway, if you have a chance to see her perform it's worth the trip.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Baltimore Composers Forum Fall Concert

Last Monday, I performed my piece, "shut up and listen," in the Baltimore Composers Forum's fall concert. The piece is scored for electric guitar, amplified cello, and laptop. I played with an excellent cellist, Amy Cavanaugh. You can hear a "studio" recording of the piece on my myspace.com page.

I think the performance went fairly well... no screw-ups that would have been noticeable to anyone else. I pressed a wrong button and looped some guitar material that wasn't supposed to be routed to the looping system, but that didn't really cause a problem. The laptop is functioning basically like a collection of delay pedals. The signal processing patch that the piece calls for is pretty simple. Funny that I still messed it up a little bit in performance.

Amy did a great job. She's a good match for the piece, and for my work, in general. She's classically trained, but like me, didn't finish her masters degree and went on to play in bands and other non-classical ensembles. I hope we'll be able to continue developing duo material, but she moved to Baltimore last summer, so it's a long trip for rehearsals. We'll see what happens... She's currently playing in a group called Yeveto, they're performing a live soundtrack to an old silent movie called "The Golem" at the lovely AFI Silver in Silver Spring on October 29 and 30.

The other pieces on the program were an eclectic mix. I particularly liked Kendall Kennison's solo cello piece, and James Brody's serial work based on DNA structures.

Monday, October 10, 2005

More Duo Shows with Daniel Burkholder

This past weekend, Daniel and I performed our short duo improvisation as part of Joy of Motion’s 29th Anniversary Concert. This was the first time we’ve done it since I bought a wireless system for the guitar. Now I have no excuse for staying the corner of the stage while Daniel is dancing all over the place… scary.

From what I can tell, we kinda rocked the house. Now that I’m moving around on stage, I can’t always see what Daniel’s doing, so I don’t really have a clear sense of what the performance looked like to the audience, but it felt good, and we got lots of positive feedback.

I had alligator clips on five out of six strings, so I couldn’t play much pitched material. It was mostly percussive “prepared guitar” sounds, with the guitar loud and distorted. On both nights, I took the strap off the guitar so I could move it around more – mostly to imitate gestures that Daniel was initiating. This also freed up the instrument so Daniel could literally take it away or lead me in one direction or another. While on stage, I have my pockets loaded with the various implements I use for the prepared guitar sounds – like pencils, dulcimer hammers, paintbrush, a metal slide, and the vibrator. During these particular shows, I didn’t have much chance to dig around in my pockets as I was playing so it was mostly slide, dulcimer hammer, and fingers – but I did do some playing with the vibrator both nights. It’s hard to resist; when the guitar is distorted and turned up so loud, it really makes a tremendous grinding wall of sound. Also, it doesn’t require much movement on my part, so I can generate a ton of noise while the movement on stage is winding down.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Hurricane Relief Benefit at Dance Place

Last Sunday, September 18, Daniel Burkholder and I performed a short duo (again) as part of a Hurricane relief benefit event. This is the third time in the last three months that we've done this piece. So far, the "piece" consists of the following determined elements:

1. Daniel and I are both on stage.
2. We perform for 5 to 7 minutes.
3. I play the guitar.

We've got to make up the rest on the spot.

Back in July, Daniel had the great idea of dancing his way over to me and grabbing at the guitar while I'm playing. This worked really nicely, so it happened again when we performed in August. During our tech rehearsal this time, I felt like it was becoming a kind of "schtick" and I wanted to know there was some artistic reason why we were wrestling over the guitar. Daniel's a smart one. He made the piece more about the fact that we're both in the space and interacting with each other – physically, not just in relation between sound and movement. Now that means that my whole body is fair game and not on stage simply to play music, but movement is part of the show too… so this time during the performance we interacted closely, I had to move around quite a bit to avoid certain gestures – for example, Daniel would thrust his arms out just above or below the neck of the guitar so I had to respond in some way. At one point he picked up my leg, and so on… Now I'm hoping we'll find time (and rehearsal space) to work on this further. Of course, I'm totally reluctant to become a movement-based performer (it's enough to try and fool an audience into thinking I can play the guitar!) but I do think if we're going to take this idea further it's going to take some rehearsal.

And by the way, Daniel and I are happy to share that we have a new website for our new joint venture: Improv Arts, Inc.

Arts on Foot

On Saturday September 17, I had a busy day with multiple performances as part of Arts on Foot, thanks to Capital Fringe. The organizers of the upcoming Fringe festival presented loads of free performances and I was lucky enough to be included in two of them…

Ginger Wagg and Jane Jerardi put together a site-specific piece called "Spill." We did this last February at Transformer Gallery, and made a new version for this event, which took place on a parked bus.

We re-used certain elements from the first version, but things were considerably different this time. Originally, visual artist Agata Olek constructed an enormous sculpture made entirely of crocheted balloons, this time we were using different work of hers, made from crocheted plastic, toys, and other materials. Agata made new costumes for Ginger and Jane, and I made some new recorded audio materials using field recordings of the DC subway system plus some samples of public transit in Budapest that I found online… the live elements included dance by Ginger and Jane, and I played clarinet and a few small percussion instruments. There wasn't electricity, so I couldn't play electric guitar. Dave Maddox wrote up a nice review on his blog – so I won't write a redundant description of the performance… but I will tell you that it was a unique performing experience, since the audience was coming and going during the show, and the boundaries between performing space and audience were totally blurred. There were four performances, I played live in two of them.

We're doing this piece again on October 22nd as part of Jane's big show, Efficiency, but that will be in a theater, not on a bus.

I had to miss two Spill shows because I was also scheduled to perform with Jane Franklin Dance. We did a piece called "This Just In…" which includes live music performed by Amber Dunleavy on theremin, and me playing prepared guitar. We've done this piece several times, and I felt like it went pretty smoothly. We were in a vacant store on 7th Street – it was a raw unfinished space, and made for an informal performance environment. I think this led to our own perception that the stakes were low, so it was ok to take some risks. That resulted in a lively performance.

I'm working on a major new project with Jane Franklin Dance for this coming season… some info is online here.

photos: top three by Julianne Brienza, bottom one by Jason Horowitz.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Berkeley visit and recording

Over labor day weekend I was out in California for a cousin's wedding, so I stayed for a few extra days to visit and play music with Tom Bickley and Joe Zitt. Tom, Joe, and I used to play in a quintet called Gray Code, back when they lived in DC. Now that they're out in Berkeley, I don't get to see them much, so it was great to have a chance to visit. Joe was able to get access to a church near the monastery where they live, so we were able to set up some recording gear, and spent a few hours improvising in a really nice sounding space.

We tried a few structured things - some of which worked better than others, as well as some free improvising. I'm not sure what we'll do with the recordings, possibly we'll use them as raw materials for further editing and processing, maybe someday I'll have some time to add additional guitar tracks or something... we'll see. Tom did a few pieces with a "snake bead," a reed instrument that his partner, Nancy, brought back from India. It's very loud and has a remarkably piercing sound. One piece involved Tom walking around the space playing that thing, while I tried to put out a similar amount of sound using the vibrator and a slide simultaneously on the guitar.

Unfortunately, scheduling didn't work out for us to also play with Phillip Greenlief and Jonathan Russell - hopefully next time!

While in the bay area, I did have a chance to eat at Cha Ya, Manzanita, and we stopped for vegan gelato, but I don't remember the name of that place. I also had time for a quick trip to Otsu.

DC Improvisers Collective at True Vine, Baltimore

On August 26, the DC Improvisers Collective (DCIC) performed at a great little record store in Baltimore called TrueVine. To keep their neighbors happy, they have a funny rule that drumsets are not allowed. Our drummer, Ben Azzara, came up with a novel solution that involved a snare drum, one cymbal, bongos, and a variety of shakers and other small hand percussion instruments.

Turn out was, well... let's say it was an "intimate" performance. It was hot that night, and pretty humid in the store. I was pretty unhappy with my own performance, although the rest of the group sounded good. I haven't listened back to the recording yet, but I think I made a mistake that I often am guilty of: playing it safe. I was really reluctant to take risks and try things that I wasn't sure if I could pull off. I think our best work happens when we're all taking chances and simultaneously dealing with the results in real time. Lately, I think that's when free improvisation really works in performance, so I have to remind myself to go ahead and take a leap of faith in performance. It seems that I'm more able to do that in rehearsal, when there's less pressure - if something fails there's no harm done, but on stage... I'm concerned that the audience will figure out that I'm in over my head with this group.

Sunday, July 31, 2005

Duo with Daniel Burkholder: Capital Fringe event

About a week ago (Friday, July 22), I performed another short duo with Daniel Burkholder. This time we were at Flashpoint, the occasion was an event being held for musicians who want to participate in next year's Capital Fringe Festival.

There were two short performances, then an "info-session." Lucas Zarwell played an excellent computer piece, then Daniel and I did a short improv. Once again, he got grabby with the guitar – this time we had more push/pull than last time and I tried to keep playing it as he was trying to pull it away from me. I think it worked out pretty well, as did the rest of the piece (when he left me alone to do my job). I'm enjoying performing without the computer processing, just focusing on the guitar itself, and my collection of "preparations" (alligator clips, paperclips, dental floss sticks with rosin, dulcimer hammers, etc). Daniel is urging me to get a wireless system for the electric guitar so I can be moving around the stage when we perform together… we'll see.

He also has a big idea for us to propose for the Capital Fringe: he wants to create a 50 minute structured improv piece, which we would perform every hour for 25 hours straight, with a ten minute break between each performance. Unfortunately, Damian, one of the Fringe organizers, responded enthusiastically to this idea and I'm afraid it may actually happen. Daniel has lots of big ideas.

Fending + Matis recording session

A few weeks ago (July 14 – 17), I went out to Minneapolis for two and a half days of free studio time at Fur Seal (thanks to ACF… they're trying to develop a program to make the studio available to members).

Percussionist, Brian Fending, traveled from Buffalo to meet me out there. We had a great "rockstar" weekend – jetting in for a recording session and jetting out when it was done. Zipping around Minneapolis in the Kia subcompact rental car, and our dumpy digs at the Homestead Eden Prarie (exurbia outside of Minneapolis) really completed the rockstar effect…

Brian and I used to play together when he lived in DC, but he moved to Buffalo four years ago. We basically haven't played together since. Our last performance was at the Toronto Fringe Jazz festival in 2001. I wasn't sure what to expect since it's been so long since we played together, and I really didn't have any material prepared coming into the session.

Everything worked out beautifully. Brian and I seemed to "click" right away as soon as we started warming up. It felt like we both are a bit more interested in "rocking out" these days, as opposed to what we did four years ago, so the improvisations we came up with certainly have a different feel now, and I was so very relieved after our first evening in the studio: the set up and technical stuff went much faster than I expected, and we even had time to record a few things, with encouraging results. After the first night in the studio we went out for a beer and worked out the rest of the material we wanted to record during our visit.

On day two (our first full-day in the studio) we somehow managed to burn through everything we wanted to record plus several free improvisations. Results were good, and there was only one track that we threw out completely. I had a computer melt-down that morning, so I did the session without any fancy signal processing. That turned out for the best, I think.

Our third (and final) day was spent mixing – which also went much faster than I expected. The house engineer at Fur Seal, Joe Johnson, is brilliant. Everything went so quickly and the audio quality is terrific. He's got golden ears, and he's so fast making edits in Pro Tools my jaw literally dropped.

So, I wasn't sure what would come out of the trip, but it turned out we made a new album (approx. 45 minutes of music) in only 17 hours of studio time. Crazy. Now we have to figure out what to do with it – how or if we should release it commercially, how to promote such a thing, how can we tour and play live given certain obstacles like geography and day-jobs, etc.

Some other random notes about the trip: vegan food is plentiful in Minneapolis. The studio is near a whole strip of Vietnamese restaurants. Spyhouse coffee shop must have some kind of discriminatory employment practice but I'm not complaining. The Wedge co-op is fantastic – including delicious prepared foods to go (even has vegan cookies and baked treats). Also, an ACF staff person told us to stop by a bar over by the University of Minnesota called Triple Rock. Two thumbs up from Fending and Matis… they even have vegan bar food. Hopefully we'll play there during our next visit. The two of us don't really have enough ink in our skin to fit in there, but at least my hair was still kind of blue – so we didn't stand out too badly either.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Joe's Movement Emporium Gala/Concert

Last night, Daniel Burkholder and I performed in the concert part of the Gala/Concert for Joe's Movement Emporium -- an arts facility in Mt. Rainier, Maryland (where Daniel and I will have our office for Improv Arts, Inc.).

It was a really interesting program for us to participate in -- most of the performances were ethnic dance of some kind: African, Thai, Indonesian, etc. There were two companies with outstanding african drumming. We were the only "modern" dance thing on the bill, and it seemed like this was not our usual audience.

The show was at the Kay Theater in the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland. It's a huge stage (compared to places we usually perform in), and a plush venue.

We did a seven-minute totally improvised duo. Before the show, we had 15 - 20 minutes of tech time - most of which was spent on lighting, but we did do a run through. After the run through, Daniel mentioned that he was tempted to make contact with me during the performance. Sure enough, during the show he came over and gave me a good shove, then grabbed at the guitar and slammed his hands around on it for a bit. I had it cranked up loud and distorted, so that made for a nice bit of noisy music.

We got lots of positive feedback at the gala/reception after the show, so I think it was a success. Many people asked me in a whisper, "Were you playing your guitar with a vibrator?" (answer is yes)

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Listening Party at Bar Rouge

I'm back in DC. As a way to say thank you to the "Jon Matis Commissioning Club" I put together a listening party (great idea – thanks to Jane Jerardi) so the club had a chance to hear a recording of the piece they helped commission.

Thanks so much to everyone who stopped by, and thanks to everyone who helped support the project. It was a truly wonderful experience, and I'm so grateful to have had this opportunity – Thanks so much!!! You have all made such a huge difference in my life.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Composers Symposium - final day

The FIREWORKS ensemble must be insane. Two concerts of new music, followed by five hours of workshops reading through more pieces… the guitarist was supposed to arrive two days ago, but flights were cancelled and the schedule got all mixed up. They did an incredible job that required super-human endurance. When it was all over, Mei-Ling, one the University of Oregon graduate students, hosted a party at her house. It was still raging at 3am when I left, had to head for the airport at 4:15am.

It was really difficult saying goodbye to everyone. It's strange and amazing how quickly so many friendships formed and how accustomed we'd become to one another. "Re-entry" in my "normal" life will be challenging at best…

Friday, July 01, 2005

Kronos Quartet

This afternoon, we had a discussion with David Harrington, founder and leader of the Kronos Quartet. He's an incredibly open and generous man. Two notable quotes:
"Each note we get to play is a world of opportunity," and he recounted a story of performing "Howl" at Carnegie Hall with Allen Ginsberg: before the show Ginsberg told him, "I can't wait to say 'cocksucker' in Carnegie Hall." (they weren't invited back for over ten years).

We heard the Kronos concert tonight. Honestly, I didn't like most of the music, but the playing was great. They did a transcription of Hendrix's version of The Star Spangled Banner as their encore, but the lighting was problematic. It's a great transcription, complete with distorted wailing and screeching feedback. Unfortunately, the lights were flashing in all different colors – like a send-up of a rock show. I felt like that made the piece read as a kind of joke. I wish they had brought the house lights up, asked everyone to rise, and then played the national anthem in this transformed way. I think that would have been so powerful people would have been in tears. I'm curious why they stage it like they do? Maybe they have to water it down some to not cause a riot?

Thursday, June 30, 2005

More workshops...

After another day of workshops, we found our way (as we do every night) to a microbrew pub called High Street. Tonight I found myself at a table with Sara, symposium director Robert Kyr, Chris Biggs, and a few other participants. We had a fantastic conversation about teaching peace and cultivating creativity instead of destruction. Robert Kyr leads powerfully by example through incredibly generous listening. It felt great acknowledging that and Sara articulated it perfectly.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

FIREWORKS workshops begin

Today was our first day with the ensemble in residence, FIREWORKS. During the workshops, they spent thirty minutes on each piece, and today's workshop included my new composition, "three meditiations." The players really "got it" right away and did a super job. If I'd known that Taimur Sullivan was such a monster improviser, the piece would've given him more room to cut loose… Hopefully I'll be able to bring them to DC next year for an ACF concert?

Another stand-out piece from today's workshop session was "Poor Warty Bliggens" by Sara Graef, for bass and sax. The players nailed it right away and she got a great reading. It's a character piece, and the "character" is from a poem by Don Marquis, click here for the text: "warty bliggens, the toad"

[pictured: Taimur Sullivan, sax; Brian Coughlin, bass; Julian Molitz, percussion - photos by Sara Graef]

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Day six

Presentations of work by composer / participants continued… one stand-out of the group is Lembit Beecher. I realize that fame and fortune are not awarded on a merit-based system, but if they were we'd be hearing a lot about Lembit Beecher. If you ever have a chance to hear his music, don't miss it. Another participant who blew me away is Tony Lanman.

We had an afternoon session with Robert Levin. He's quite a talker, and a genius musician. Strangely, what I got out of the conversation (well, lecture would be more accurate) was a real sense of how my work totally doesn't fit in the classical music universe.

We've been enjoying several straight days of lunch at Café Yumm. Good stuff.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Composers Symposium - Day Three

Our morning session was a meeting with María Guinand, the director of the Schola Cantorum de Caracas. She was equally as inspiring (maybe more-so?) as our previous meeting with Osvaldo Golijov. In addition to leading her own choral group, she's active in approximately five thousand other projects. I didn't write it all down, so I can't sum it up here… but she must be one of those people who manages to cram 50 hours into every single day. For much of the conversation, she spoke more about being human than music, which was great since she has an incredible perspective as well as a killer track record of unbelievable achievements. So, she was really able to speak in a tangible way about reaching long-term goals (she used the word "dreams" instead). This was just what I needed given my cynical, burnt-out, feelings towards my day-job with the local ACF Chapter. When we got into talking about music, she was no less inspiring, and gave us a glimpse into the technical processes involved in realizing Golijov's "Pasion."

Afternoon was spent with more presentations from participating composers, some humbling, some not so much. I also had a small group lesson with Robert Kyr, the symposium director and chair of the composition program here at the University of Oregon. He's very very encouraging, and is a great example of generous listening. He is somehow able to always be open to really hearing what other people are saying, and has a real gift for respecting a diversity of opinions. He's an interesting "cat" and I hope to have a chance for further conversation with him. I wish we had more time in the lesson, but I did get good feedback and I feel a bit more prepared for upcoming rehearsal with the Fireworks ensemble.

After dinner, it was more presentations. Again, some humbling, some less so. When that session was finally over, it was definitely time to return to the exploration of Oregon microbrews. I discovered that another participant, a composer from Los Angeles named Sara Graef, spent several summers working on a boat in Alaska researching humpback whales. She told me she was in DC recently for a National Marine Mammal Rescue Conference (that's probably not the right title…). Damn, I had no idea there was a Marine Mammal rescue conference in DC. How'd I miss it? I told her about my fondness for pinnipeds, and she actually knew the word "pinniped" already, and mentioned that one of her friends who also attended the conference specializes in pinniped rescues. I'm so jealous.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Lunch with colleagues on day two in Eugene. The Tofu-Veggie Burrito is a winner. (I'm the one behind the camera taking the picture) Posted by Hello

Composers Symposium – day two: a humbling experience

The second day of the symposium began with more presentations by participating composers. Humbling in many ways… I don't have time to make meaningful comments about most of the work I heard, plus it seems ridiculous to go into it since most readers are unlikely to ever have a chance to hear the music? Sad, but true. Anyway, I will mention one composer who kicked my ass to the city limits. John Mayrose is another composer/guitarist, and he is part of an ensemble called pulsoptional. Someday I'll be able to write fast music, and if I'm lucky it will sound like his. Check out his website, you can listen to his piece "trigger" there…

We spent the afternoon in a session with the guest composer, Osvaldo Golijov. He is in town for the performance of his enormous work, La Pasión según San Marcos (St. Mark Passion). Symposium participants got a real treat by having access to a rehearsal, a preview performance, and the big show – so we got to hear the piece live three times. It's quite incredible. There are lots of reviews online so I won't try to describe it, but I will mention that the Schola Cantorum de Caracas (a choir from Caracas, Venezuela) was incredible. The writing and performing added up to, no joke, the most incredible choral singing in the universe. The discussion with Golijov was wide-ranging, and totally inspiring. He has an incredibly healthy perspective about assimilating popular elements in so-called "art music." In fact, when he was asked, "Is it classical music?" He responded by asking, "What's classical?" Then he went on to make the distinction between "popular" and "classical" as residing in the presence of a transformative experience. I'm misquoting, but he basically suggested that what makes a "serious" work is that it changes the listener. You are different at the end of a piece then you were at the beginning, whereas with a pop song, for example, you're pretty much who you were three minutes before. I can easily think of a few exceptions (maybe I'll link to some later if I have time), but I think the gist of what he was saying was right on. It's not about style or genre, it's about content. He recently wrote a collection of songs for Dawn Upshaw, the recording will be released in September. He played some of them for us, and they were pretty incredible. I'm eager to see how that project will be received by critics… The ensemble includes accordion with live processing, and some laptop stuff – even drum loops. They are beautifully put together, and Upshaw's singing is truly wild.

At night, we attended the performance of La Pasion, as well as a post-concert party at the Hilton next to the concert hall. It was a pretty dry affair at first, so a few of us went to a nearby microbrewery instead, we stopped by the Hilton later and found that the percussionists from the concert had taken over the stage from the band, and were providing much more irresistible dance music. After the party, they returned to the University Inn (a slightly retro-fitted dorm where most of us are staying) and the party went on until the wee hours: drumming, singing, dancing… I think they taught us a lesson in how to enjoy life. No joke.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

DC (well, actually Takoma Park) was in the house when I gave my presentation today at the Oregon Bach Festival Composers Symposium. (photo: Sara Graef) Posted by Hello

Wednesday, June 22, 2005


Today was day-one of the Oregon Bach Festival Composers Symposium at the University of Oregon in lovely Eugene, Oregon. It's a super cute college town. I arrived yesterday afternoon and quickly settled in... This morning was spent mostly on administrative details and orientation, but this afternoon we began "presentations." Each participating composer is asked to present some of their work with the group. I was happy to get mine out of the way today, so I don't have to be nervous about it anymore. I shared two pieces: "shut up and listen" and "vision, devotion, grace." They seemed to be well received; I got lots of positive feedback, especially about "shut up and listen." I think those two pieces give a good snapshot of my recent efforts towards combining improvisation and composition in small ensemble settings. I'm really looking forward to rehearsals with Fireworks on my new piece, "three meditations."

The composers attending the symposium are an incredibly diverse group, and I'm looking forward to hearing more of their music. There are participants from around the country, and even one composer who traveled from Brazil. I'm sure we'll be getting to know each other better over the next ten days...

Housing is provided at the University's Inn... kind of a cross between a dorm and a hotel. I have a roommate -- something I haven't experienced in a few years, but that seems to be working out just fine. I'm also delighted that the cafeteria provides vegan options at every meal, including soy milk for the coffee. Very nice!

I had a brief conversation with one of the staff people at the Inn... she asked me about my blue hair and I told her I did it so I wouldn't look like the oldest person at the Symposium. She made my day when she told me I looked like I was 23. Covering up the gray took off 10 years, can you believe it?

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Let me tell you a story

The story of my last name goes like this:
When I got married the first time, my wife and I combined our last names and came up with the hybrid, "Matis." That worked out really well, until we split up. In August 2003, I re-married and changed my name back to my original family name, "Morris." Just to keep things extra confusing, I'm still using "Matis" as a stage name, since that's on my existing CD's and scores.