Wednesday, December 22, 2004


"Timepiece" is the first collaborative project of Anne Hege and Heather Heise, artistically known as Sidecar Syndicate. Premiered April 16th, 2004 in Oakland, CA, "Timepiece" is a collage of twentieth-century artsongs and original soundtrack material that creates a world of characters who speak to current events. Compositions by Luciano Berio, Charles Ives, William Bolcom, Hanns Eisler, John Cage and Willie Nelson are sculpted together with electronic tracks to create a single, uninterrupted piece. Heise plays piano, accordion and toy piano in accompaniment to Hege's sweet soprano and incisive electronic compositions.

"Timepiece" opens with the tick, tick, tick of an old metronome and establishes real time, something measured and mechanical, but (because it is heard via the sound system) hints at an "unreal" world. The electronic soundtrack is a backdrop that Hege and Heise play into, with, around, and against; effectively, it runs in counterpoint to the acoustic performance, accentuating dreamy, other-worldliness (the echo track in Percy Grainger's "Early One Morning") or the immediacy of the present (rolled chords from Ives' "Thoreau" chiming repeatedly like a grandfather clock, cuing the next song).

Unbroken by sets, sub-sets, and applause, the through-composed show allows the audience to immerse themselves in an imagined setting. The experience is thus more of "theatre" than of "concert." The selection of musical material, especially the Ives and Eisler, prevents "Timepiece" from becoming a scripted narrative about something concrete. The pieces evoke distinct characters, yes, but these characters seem to have an awfully difficult time interacting with or speaking to each other. Aptly described by Hege as "a web of mirrors," the show indeed captures a feeling of time mercurial, of both a knowing comprehension and a fog of confusion. As a thematic concept, this duality plays out in the performance: the rhythmic insistence of a piece like Ives' "The Cage" (all the more potent in a toy piano rendition), the staged whispering in Berio's Sequenza for voice, and the precise alignment of electronic tracks and acoustic songs are all shards of light in the dreamy cloudscape of John Cage and Alvin Curran piano pieces.

Though its multi-dimensional evocativeness is a nod towards Wagner's concept of total artwork (gesamptkunstwerke), "Timepiece" attempts to depart from the classical models, eschewing the formality of an art-song recital and, in particular, the concert hall as a venue. Rather, Sidecar Syndicate hopes to bring these songs into a local bar or cafe, revealing and juxtaposing the variety of "high" and "low" influences in their creative work while demanding a certain "casually assessing" attentiveness from their audience. It should be fun, but serious fun.

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Sunday, December 19, 2004

The Soundtrack 3

Ravel, Bolero
Bob Dylan, "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right"
Orlando di Lasso, "Resonet in Laudibus"
Beach Boys, "Little Saint Nick"

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Wednesday, December 15, 2004


All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.
At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress' eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon's mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper'd pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

--As You Like It

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Friday, December 10, 2004

In a Corner

Over this past week I performed and rehearsed in four remarkable locations: St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Old First Church, Mission Dolores Basilica, and the Paul Thiebaud Gallery. Jumping so quickly from one venue to the next caused me to consider the influence of setting on a performance. Always running through the back of my mind are the idealized contexts for my own creative work: what space best serves the show, what room effectively suppports, but never intrudes, on the musical piece?

St. Mark's, for example, is austere in that Episcopalian way, all dark wood and polished floor, not cavernous but not really intimate, either. The organ, a Flentrop baroque-style instrument, hearkens back to times long ago. For me this translates to simplicity. There are few stops and no pedal to open and close the swell box. Choices are limited, and I feel a great sense of calm performing on this (not-my-primary) instrument. The organ reflects the space: immediately accessible in its simplicity, easy to manage, and never wanting for more bells and whistles. Two friends at the concert remarked on the hall's excellent acoustics and entertained the idea of a contemporary music concert there. But then one of them said, "people don't want to hear 'modern' music in a church setting." And that was the end of that.

Old First Church, however, does indeed present concerts of all persuasions. Check out their mission statement and its enthusiasm for a broad range of performers and performances. In fact, I performed a chair-gripping rendition of Frederic Rzewski's "Coming Together" there in 2003 (with Ms. Sarah Cahill at the piano). Old First is also rather bare and sparse in terms of religious decoration, and the acoustics, though a bit tricky to initially figure out, favor the musician. Now that it's on my mind, I might agree with my friend at St. Mark's. Choral new music groups will have a much easier "sell" in a religious venue than purely instrumental groups. "Organized" choral music (as opposed, say, to the soloistic voice recital), from any period, plays well in a sacred space. Instrumental music, particularly modern ensemble music, is ill-fit by such a setting. Perhaps it has become ... too profane? Oh my.

Is a church appropriate for Bach but not Morton Feldman? Does this mean we musicians should seek the historic parallel in architecture to "accompany" our programs of music? Does modern music belong in a modern space? In an art museum? A gallery? The instant I stepped into the Paul Thiebaud Gallery in San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood I thought, "what a perfect spot for my show!" (Ok, I admit that the "rehearsing/practicing" done here was entirely mental.) I could envision a piano angled in the back corner, my accordion, toy piano, and other small instruments scattered nearby, and the two about-to-intersect walls as the appropriate backdrop for projected visuals. Imagine three large, ornately carved picture frames on these bare walls--two here, one there--into which I could project "artistic" photos and crudely stitched together video images. 21st century production in a 19th century frame. The long shoe-box space could easily be truncated to accommodate a very small audience. The austerity, even more pronounced than at St. Mark's (blond wood flooring, smooth white walls, a high ceiling) would present no intrusion on the musical production. Never cluttered by furniture or oddly angled stages or a raised or sunken platform, an art gallery bestows importance to any visual component. The "art galleriness" implies that the visuals are specifically and meaningfully chosen.

The opposite trend occurs in most churches, and though I spend much of my working life in these "venues," I do not consider them as possibilities for my own shows. I would never describe Mission Dolores as austere. The Catholics tend to rely too heavily on props for my tastes: statues, stained glass, mosaics, icons, flowers, candles ... maybe even a few relics. And the immensity of the space means that you lose sight of "the corners." I guess this is appropriate for the worshipper who seeks envelopment by an infinite power, but to me it is unsettling. As I described above, I visualize myself performing "in a corner," a corner that gives extra dimension and an additional layer of meaning to an otherwise dreamily imagined bit of theatre. Perhaps it is understandable that in a place like Mission Dolores the corners fade away; the weekly "theatre" avoids becoming too real and acquires more magical overtones.

In my own eclectic way, though, I like putting square pegs in round holes. I like the juxtaposition of avant-garde music and a spiritually grounded space, of classical music in a dive bar. But there are definitely times when I consider the setting with as much importance as costume or character, when the package is made complete by the real edges or shimmering outlines of the performance space.

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Wednesday, December 08, 2004

The Piano Teacher, Knowingly

A little over ten years ago my piano teacher sank deeply into the chair next to her desk, patted her smelly, curly-haired dog on the head, and gazed dreamily over the piano, towards the black and white photo of her "guru." "Yes, you know, it's hard. But when I turned 40...suddenly it all became easy. Things... [meaning, the taming of this zebra monster, the piano] just fell into place." She waved her hand, then fell out of her reverie and smiled at me, amused, I think, knowing that I faced another twenty years of struggle. I didn't know whether or not to believe her. Her statement seemed a little too mythic even for me to take as truth. Lately, although forty is still far off, I find her words describing much of my time on the bench. "Things" that I might have had to spend hours practicing, counting tee and tah, inventing rhythmic, shift-the-barline games, or (sh! don't tell anyone) counting the ledger lines with my pencil now spill effortlessly from mind to finger. I'm sometimes astonished by this ease, afraid it's just a one-night stand, about to make a quiet exit before coffee. Or maybe Anita was really onto something, and it only takes half a lifetime to make sense of the piano.

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Sunday, December 05, 2004

The Soundtrack 2

Bob Dylan, "Shelter from the Storm"
Frederic Rzewski, "Attica"
Devendra Banhart, "At the Hop"
"La Vie en Rose"
Francis Poulenc, Litanies a la Vierge Noir
Bjork, "Birthday"

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Saturday, December 04, 2004

Frith at the Thrust

Words that spring to mind when Fred Frith improvises? Gesture. Texture. Foley artist. Instrument builder. Gimmick. Delicate. Noise. Rhythm. The soundworld he builds is a fortress against cliche. A Fred performance is also a feast for the eyes: necklace-like chains dropping into candy tins; rice falling like rain on the guitar; paintbrushes, shoebrushes, and ragged old cloths plopped, brushed and tossed about, muting, muffling and revealing the open, amplified strings; bright strips of felt pulled taught against the fretboard; drumsticks and chopsticks jammed in between strings, bouncing like boggle-heads stuck in stop-and-go traffic; Fred's bare feet ensnared by various pedals and looping devices; his grounded form a center for it all. Yet remarkably, I do not see Fred as a performer concerned with the aesthetic. His focus is "absolute," about music, about creating a for-this-moment-only soundtrack. Gesture, choreography, and a table full of toys are just means to an aural end. Not all of Fred's created soundworld is to my liking, but I will never cease to admire--with amazement and envy--the total package with which he makes this music. Fred's improvising involves movement, the body, the visual; the only missing element is text. But isn't an avoidance of narrative exactly what the late-romantic era composers championed? Absolute music needed no story. And tonight, in Berkeley, California, a more-salt-than-pepper haired Fred seemed to me a long-lost descendent of that great romantic tradition. Had the Naked City thrash and bass turned soft and sweet? Had the crowd of elementary school parents culled pretty pizzicattos and tonal washes of open fifths? Had visbile "antics" usurped the actual music that called them into play in the first place?

Fred, sitting amidst his guitars, gadgetry and a vast array of floor pedals (amplifiers hidden away backstage), reminded me of an expectant child in the last car of an old wooden rollercoaster. Here's the twist: Mr. Frith drives this instrument, and we, the audience, are the unsuspecting passengers of a sometimes jostling and jarring ride. Oh, we do find respite--in plateaus of beautiful droning tones that stretch on like the horizon line--before careening through messy enjambments and transitions--hairpin corners--with grimaces of incredulity on our faces. Thankfully, there is, more often than not, a solid cushion of sound to lean back against. And always, too, the rhythmic rap-a-trap-trap of the tracks underfoot. I perceive and assess Fred's performance from the perspective of a trained musician and realize that most of what he does could never be notated. Though notation does not validate a musical work, a lack of notation does tend to invalidate a composer. Yet even as I sit there listening with the critical ears of a notation disciple, Fred is able to convince me of its irrelevance. His technique both eschews and outmodes classical music notation, drawing as it does on gesture, physical theatrics, and the use of, yes, props. In this sense, Fred leaves absolute music far, far behind; he commands not just one but a multitude of artistic elements. Sound. Movement. Noise. Dance. Light. Reflection. Electronic. Prickling. Folk. All recognizable derivations, in a way, but of a particular practice--the practice of a lifetime of attentive living, listening and experiencing.

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