Story and photos by MATTHEW ANDREWS
The music started before the doors were even open. As the audience filtered in to Leaven Center and got seated, we could hear the sounds of forests, rivers, trains, windy canyons, and the complex sounds of the Oregon coast. Sound artist Tim Westcott’s recent quadrophonic piece A Land of Falling Waters emerged from four speakers positioned throughout the sanctuary.
Westcott’s was the first of many examples at this late October Creative Music Guild concert of how the ambient, improvised electroacoustic music presented at this and other CMG shows requires a different kind of listening than a typical concert.
There is the exotic technology; the extreme repetition; the use of drones, sparse textures, and long stretches of silence; indeed, there is often very little that is recognizably musical (i.e., distinct rhythms or hummable melodies). Some CMG performers even shun the ‘musician’ label altogether, preferring terms like “sound artist” as better descriptors of their craft. None of that should scare anyone away from CMG and its scene. Here’s a newcomer’s guide.
“destroying the frame”
One goal of electroacoustic music is the elimination of traditional distinctions between music and sound, between audience and performer, between natural and artificial, between intentional and accidental, and so on. Westcott’s piece, drawn from his own field recordings made around his native Cascadia, floated out from its four speakers to drift around the building, natural sounds electronically altered yet recognizably organic.
The venue itself contributes to breaking these barriers. Most of us are accustomed to very different concert-going experiences, where we sit (or stand) and view the show across an unbreachable divide. Not so with a CMG concert. This concert took place in a church—and not just any church. The Leaven Community in Northeast Portland looks like an ordinary Lutheran church, but it is also a true community center, complete with garden and tool library, and its meditative atmosphere is perfect for this different sort of listening experience.
“unconventional sound sources”
Derek Ecklund’s A Dip in the Columbia followed Westcott’s with a totally different approach to soundscape, using many of the same types of sound. Ecklund, using his laptop and synthesizer, sampled and processed material from his ongoing online installation, which “uses field recordings and geotagging to create an interactive map of sound along the Columbia’s 1,243-mile course.” The low hum of moving trains underscored the sound of sea lions barking; Ecklund layered train-horn sound on his keyboard in a way which was … well, to be honest, in this context it was almost too musical.
Dutch composer and Wandelweiser Group co-founder Antoine Beuger’s Three Drops of Rain / East Wind / Ocean, based on a haiku by poet-painter Fukuda Kodojin, was perhaps the most challenging piece of the evening. Seventeen pages containing 21 notes each comprise the entire score, which calls only for “one decaying and one sustaining instrument” playing “very soft single sounds” with “some (or a lot of) silence in between.” Listening to this music—and, more importantly, seeing it performed—is an exercise in patience for listener and performer alike.
In this performance, pianist Pauline Theriault and electric guitarist Doug Theriault traded single notes, sometimes leaving entire minutes of silence hanging in the air between them. Many audience members closed their eyes and relaxed down into their seats, as if drugged or in prayer. By the end, “time” as we normally understand it had begun to lose its meaning. I could barely walk straight afterwards.
After a much-needed intermission, a group of about a dozen people detached itself from the audience and went up on stage to sing Audra Wolowiec’s semaphore. Conductor Jesse Mejía was credited as co-composer, and it was easy to see why. The choir receives a written set of directions created by Wolowiec using data from University of Oregon’s Santiago Jaramillo Neuroscience Lab — the “score” (pictured below) — which Mejía then uses to create a unique live performance piece. The choir kept their eyes on Mejía, who “conducted” using semaphore and other gestures to designate changes in the music. Whispers turned into moans with a gesture; a second gesture added clicks and buzzes; a third gesture changed everything into ooo’s and aaaaaa’s.
“space as sound, sound as space”
The concert ended with a performance of Six Stones by Michael Pisaro, a professor at CalArts and another member of Wandelweiser. Originally titled Two Stones and scored for one performer playing a pair of resonant stones, Six Stones was performed by Matt Hannafin, Loren Chasse, and Branic Howard. The music progressed at a glacial pace, not unlike the earlier Beuger piece. Standing at their microphones, the three, er, stoners, clicked their stones together, rubbed them resonantly against one another, and often fell silent for extended periods. All of this was backed by electronic accompaniment created by the composer, and the result was another sparse, atmospheric, meditative piece of electroacoustic music.
I must confess, I wouldn’t want to do this every day. But as a once-in-awhile experience, unhooking the brain from its usual expectations and putting it into a sound environment both familiar and bizarre, both relaxing and challenging, both abstract and totally embodied … well, once or twice can be pretty good for the soul.
Creative Music Guild’s upcoming shows include concerts on Wednesday November 16th, featuring conceptual artist John Krausbauer and multi-instrumentalist Indira Valey, and on Saturday November 26th, featuring JP Jenkins, Danielle Ross, Mike Gamble, Claire Barrera, and DB Amorin.