‘Extradition’ review: difficult on purpose

Creative Music Guild concert embraces experimental, aleatoric, multiphonic, ritualistic, electronic and ultimately rewarding sounds

Story, photos and video by MATTHEW ANDREWS

Below you’ll find an extended video recap of some highlights of this show. Read this before watching the video, or afterwards, or both, or at the same time, or not at all. In case of confusion, consult the I Ching, the Tarot, a sack of runes, or your pineal gland—whichever is closer at hand.

When John Cage is the most mainstream composer on the program, you know you’re in for something out of the ordinary. When Creative Music Guild is putting on the show, you know it’s really going to be something you haven’t heard before. And when it’s Portland percussionist and experimental music impresario Matt Hannafin’s Extradition Series doing their quarterly show, then it’s time to put away all your expectations, get comfortable, take whatever drugs or do whatever meditation exercises you need to, and open your ears for the most exigent listening experience you’re likely to have this season.

Last time I covered an Extradition concert, Hannafin and his crew ended a two and a half hour concert with rocks in their hands, rubbing and clacking them periodically with sine tone and pink noise accompaniment over the course of something like 30 minutes (Michael Pisaro’s Six Stones)… and this was the conclusion of a concert already overflowing with very slow, sparse music. It was mesmerizing, and haunting, and to be honest it was a little hard to sit through (or stand through, in my case, since I was filming). Ultimately, though, it was totally worth it.

Extradition’s April 22 concert was just as demanding and even more rewarding, as the community of CMG regulars and guest artists worked their way through experimental works by Cage, Alvin Lucier (the second-most “mainstream” name on the bill), G. Douglas Barrett, and two Japanese composers: Takehisa Kosugi and Toshi Ichiyanagi.

As with Extradition’s fall concert, this time, the music started well before the performance, Tim Westcott’s ambient sound art filling the little Northeast Portland Lutheran/multi-faith church with sparse squeaks and creaks as the audience filtered in, chatting and murmuring, sipping tea and admiring Leaven Community’s cozy, colorful sanctuary.

Barrett’s Two Voices opened the show, and the audience immediately heard the reason for the program’s advisory note: “several pieces in this program contain extended silences, during which we ask that the audience also remains silent.” Barrett’s graphic score, nothing more than 27 pairs of horizontal lines and a set of instructions, calls for performers to sustain a “tone, sound, action, or noise” for durations that are open to interpretation.

Tenor saxophonist John Gross literally wrote the book on saxophone multiphonics, and altoist Reed Wallsmith has performed and recorded extensively with local post-jazz group Blue Cranes: this was not your grandfather’s sax duet (which I guess would be Coltrane and Cannonball). It’s hard to separate tones from one another when listening to multiphonic sax playing, but I’m pretty sure I heard some six-note chords floating out of those two ostensibly monophonic instruments. The pair would rest at frequent intervals to let the complex sound shimmer around in the air and in our echoic memories, giving our ears a moment to process and their embouchures a moment to prepare for the next round. This went on for a good twelve minutes, and put us in the right headspace for the rest of the concert.

Evan Spacht and his trombone were a perfect pairing for the next piece, Alvin Lucier’s Wind Shadows. Most of us know Lucier from his electroacoustic classic I Am Sitting in a Room, and Wind Shadows was a similar essay in acoustic complexity and, as the program noted, “the physical behavior of sound itself.” Against a pure sine-wave drone, Spacht played long (and I mean long) sustained tones in unison and very near unison, summoning and banishing super-rich beating patterns like Enochian spirits. Music of this sort relies on a different sense of cadence and harmonic rhythm to give it shape; Lucier’s and Spacht’s sophisticated handling of this acoustic tension and relaxation made for a very engaging performance indeed.

Takehisa Kosugi’s graphic score for +/-, “rigid in structure but open in possibility,” is a big grid full of symbols (a typical graphic score, in other words). For this quartet version, the CMG crew rotated the score to create four parts at 90 degree angles from each other. Each of the four players—Matt Carlson, Christi Denton, Branic Howard, and Jesse Mejía—carefully followed their parts, turning their various sounds on and off accordingly.

The result was way more interesting than it should have been, and for this piece in particular, the visual/concert component really sold it (Pierre Schaeffer’s “acousmatic situation” be damned). No recording (not even a video) can capture the enigmatic joy of experiencing four experienced electronic-music performers using their impressive array of old and new electronics, working everything from an electric bass run through a MacBook (Denton) to an old reel-to-reel tape machine (Howard) and everything in between. Carlton and Mejía both had tabletop rigs that looked like those old DIY electronics kits you could order from Boy’s Life magazine, colored wires running every which way like something out of Pauline Oliveros’ bathroom studio (rest in peace, O Pioneer).

The real highlight of the concert, for me, was the Cage piece—or rather, pieces. Anyone who’s ever felt Cage’s music didn’t have enough going on (you’re doing it wrong, by the way) would have loved CMG’s elegant approach: they performed two of his compositions at the same time. The familiar trio of Hannafin, Howard, and Loren Chasse (whom last we encountered coaxing music from stones) took their places around the stage, playing a scattering of “plant material” like a cadre of serious children for Cage’s “nature piece” Branches. You may have seen this old video of The Man Himself playing an amplified cactus with a feather; this was that, but a bunch of them (and actual branches and lot more planty stuff besides).

As with so many of Cage’s later pieces, the compositional directions are determined by the I Ching, in an aleatoric (but absolutely not improvisatory) manner: the performers created their own score ahead of time following “a complicated, time-consuming procedure by which musicians consult the I Ching to determine alternating durations of sound and silence and instrument choices within the sounded sections.” In other words, there is a deliberate chance element at work: it’s a focused randomness, not just pure chaos. Hannafin describes this as “difficult on purpose,” like the ordeals that religious initiates once had to undergo to prove their dedication to The Work. Although I tend to side with Cage’s pal Lou Harrison on this point (“I’d rather chance a choice than choose a chance”), I have to respect their attention and dedication, virtues all too often overlooked in evaluations of contemporary aleatoric music.

Simultaneous with Branches, we heard Cage’s mesmerizing Song No. 85, composed around the same time (to wit, the Seventies) at the intersection of Thoreau and Satie. The song’s text is all syllables deconstructed out of Thoreau’s journals; the melody came from Cage’s superimposition of “an outsized staff” over Satie’s Douze Petits Chorals, putting the notes between the notes and turning the solo piano original into a new bit of microtonal monody.

I can think of no one better to sing such a marvel of weirdness than Michael Stirling, disciple of Pandit Pran Nath and one of Portland’s magnificent local treasures. Here’s a little clip of Stirling singing in Ashland, for those who have not taken classes with him or attended one of the scads of Indian classical concerts he has facilitated through Kalakendra and his own Kirtana West.

I’d never heard Stirling sing anything other than raga, and was pleased with how well the extreme mental focus and vocal control required for Hindustani singing translated to Cage’s microtonal melody. Stirling seemed pretty pleased himself, and with good reason: he and the three percussionists sounded amazing. I’ve literally never heard anything quite like it.

I love it when a concert closes with a big number. Performers from every earlier piece (except Stirling, who probably needed a hot chai and a spa day after all those vocal acrobatics) joined local educator and bass virtuoso Andre St. James to perform Toshi Ichiyanagi’s The Field. Ichiyanagi, a student of Cage and early member of Fluxus, considered this whole world of graphic scores and performance interpretations “an avenue through which performers can spontaneously liberate sound, and in the process liberate the human spirit.” Fitting, then, that these end-of-show brouhahas always remind me of the Wedding Feast of the Apocalypse, when all the saints of all the eras of all the world join together to celebrate their liberation from this world’s woes. (I may be an unrepentant atheist, but I know a Good Myth when I see one.)

Because each of the earlier pieces involved the performers themselves so heavily in their interpretation, bringing the players together at the end also sounded a lot like bringing the composers together. Where the Branches/Song No. 85 mashup was a Cage Match between Cage and Cage, Ichiyanagi’s piece was more like Barrett versus Lucier versus Kosugi versus Cage versus Cage (with more than a little Ornette Coleman and Charlie Haden thrown in for good measure, thanks to the dazzling interplay between Gross and St. James). Matt Carlson’s piano brought an extra layer of weird—it was the only time the Big Bad Old Romantic instrument made its voice heard, and Carlson’s creepy, Babbittesque twinklings provided just the right amount of ordered pitch. I couldn’t help thinking about those famous photos of John Cage meeting Sun Ra, or the ones of Cage with Ichiyanagi’s wife Yoko Ono and fellow Fluxus artist Nam June Paik… not bad for a breezy Saturday night in a northeast Portland church.

John Cage, Yoko Ono, Nam Jun Paik.

Creative Music Guild’s next show is coming right up! Be sure to catch “bassist turned vagabond” C.J. Boyd and synth/guitar/drum duo Coordination (Lisa Schonberg and Anthony Brisson)on Wednesday June 7 for CMG’s Outset Series at Turn Turn Turn in North Portland. If that sounds too much like Normal Music to you, stick around for Extradition’s summer concert on July 22nd, featuring music by Samuel Vriezen, Anastassis Philippakopoulos, Giacinto Scelsi, Taylor Brook, and Branic Howard.

Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer and percussionist at Portland State University. He and his music can be reached at http://composerswatch.proscenia.net/Andrews_Matthew_Neil.htm.

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One Response.

  1. wndfrm says:

    hey there! great review, however i did not play any of my material at the april show, as far as i can remember.. feel free to ask anytime, as far as background music! there is wide diaspora represented in the performers involved, it may very well represent someone there, or like-minded recordings. thanks so much for attending and listening closely 🙂

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