Weather Duo @ Stumpfest. photo: Kyle Pfister
It's very trendy these days to find 'unconventional' venues, it seems. Performers and lovers of 'high art' music (things like classical music and jazz--you know, the ones no one listens to?) are worried that their art is dying out. Greg Sandow has a blog devoted to the future of classical music, that addresses some concerns, and groups like Classical Revolution are devoted to revitalizing an audience base for an art form that can come off as stuffy.
I'd like to point out some people in Madison, WI, that are popping out of the woodwork on this issue. There is now a Madison branch of Classical Revolution, which hopes to bring classical music to interesting venues, and for the last year or so, a collective called Surrounded by Reality has been programming events that bring interesting music to, well, any venue that'll have it. Another group, which bills itself as a contemporary music ensemble, called New Muse, has formed with the mission to perform new music in site-specific performances. It will be very cool to see where this group goes, methinks. Their first undertaking was a flash-mob performance of Barber's Adagio for Strings as a 9/11 memorial at the Madison farmer's market. Now, I wouldn't consider Barber to be contemporary music (um, dead) but I have a stricter definition of this than some. The piece was pretty perfect for the mood, also--I wish I could have made it to the event itself.
This past week, I've had the opportunity to perform in a variety of interesting venues myself, with my group the Weather Duo. The nature of this group, wherein we play improvised music with electronics, and a new/contemporary classical vibe, has led us to perform with all sorts of different folks. There's not really a scene for what we do in Madison, so this has allowed us to sort of be musical spies, traveling in and out of different genre cliques. We've performed under the guise of a 'free jazz' group, we've been the house band for spoken-word open mics, we've played living room concerts with folk groups, we've done rock club shows with indie bands, and we've performed with string quartets and the like. I've coined the term 'post-contemporary chamber music' for what we do. This was originally meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but the more we perform, it seems increasingly apt.
On Thursday, we performed at a bar called the Argus with pop-rock sensation Tom Teslik, who followed us with very pleasant minimalist/rock guitar loops and drums under the name Nasty Thom and the Dirty Husbands, and our pals Pushmi-Pullyu, who play adorable electro-pop on computers and synths. Tom chronicled this night in his blog, which you should read, if only because he's a super nice guy.
On Friday, we played as a part of Stumpfest, which was an all-day outdoor acoustic improvised music festival that was organized by Patrick Breiner of Surrounded by Reality. The festival was itself an installation project as a part of the [Park it!] event that was an art festival to celebrate National Parking day. A bunch of parking stalls at Schenk's Corners on Atwood street were covered with sod, and converted to a temporary park. A bunch of awesome improvisers performed throughout the day. Artist Kyle Pfister made a nice little video of Stumpfest:
Weather Duo at Magnus. Photo: Tom Caw
Later on Friday, we performed a pretty remarkable gig at Restaurant Magnus. Magnus is an upscale restaurant that has music often--usually jazz. Last week, composer and DJ Gabriel Prokofiev was in Wisconsin for the American Premiere of his Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra. Gabriel runs a record label called Nonclassical, which in his home city of London, hosts club nights of contemporary classical music. A friend of his in Madison helped to set up a Nonclassical night at Magnus, Friday the 17th. A call was put out to find performers of contemporary music, and this filtered down to the Weather Duo, and we were happy to take the call. Also, two string quartets were arranged by Classical Revolution, and Madison Native, the talented flautist Joanna Messer performed. The Weather Duo did two sets, one at the beginning of the night, and one at the end. Gabriel Prokofiev hosted the event. Magnus was PACKED. I've never seen that place so full. It really created a lot of excitement for us performers and lovers of 'high art' music, because it showed that there really is an interest in it in Madison. Hopefully, we will be able to find enough space for it in Madison, since Magnus will soon be closing. Time will tell if the new place will serve as a place for interesting music, or degenerate into a hipster haven.
Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately in regards to my own playing is the role of control. I recently listened to an episode of the New Yorker: Fiction podcast in which Salvatore Scibona was discussing the fiction of Denis Johnson (I confess to not being at all familiar with either of these authors before hearing the podcast) and, in describing the flowing, free way Johnson’s prose comes off--coming off so well that it seems to be extremely well planned--Scibona quoted a writing teacher of his as saying “Control is what produces the illusion of freedom.”
For musicians, it is often a goal to play in a manner that seems effortless, free, uninhibited. To appear as though we play with ease. There are certain pieces for which this is not a goal--Andriessen’s Workers Union and Rzewski’s Coming Together come to mind. (An aspect that I really love about both of these pieces is that they’re designed to make the musicians struggle, and for my tastes, an effective performance of either requires the players to be beating themselves to shit.)
This is why performances of the Bach cello suites on double bass are never truly effective--because they require so much struggle (excess shifting, awkward double-stop positions), even the best players can’t help but sound like they’re working hard. That’s not to say they should stop trying--I sure won’t--but I’m waiting for someone to prove me wrong.
Playing in an effortless, free style ironically requires an extreme amount of grueling practice to be done successfully.
This is a concept that I can’t help but apply generally to the notion of “free improvisation.” Of course, effective free improvisations require an extreme amount of control on the part of the performers, especially since often they will utilize a great deal of extended techniques, and need to use a great deal of ear power if playing with other musicians.
Partially in exploration of this, I’ve done a guided improvisation, very creatively titled ‘Open A,’ wherein I play with the notion of control. By creating a set of guidelines, and using techniques that I’ve been working on for some time (I like to think that they’re hard, at least) I’ve tried to create a piece that sounds flowing and loose, while at the same time, working fairly hard for it. I’m not going to say if I’ve succeeded or not, but I will provide two different takes of this, that will hopefully work to illustrate these ideas.
I’ve uploaded the first take as a video, and the second take as audio. This, I think, will help to separate them in terms of judgement, creating two different sorts of experience so that they can’t be as directly compared to each other. Here’s the first take, as a video:
Open A from Ben Willis on Vimeo.
I’ve also described my guidelines in greater detail on the Vimeo site.
Here’s the second take, audio only:
You may notice, if you’ve read the rules, I break more of my own rules in the second take. I’m not sure if this makes the performance more or less effective.
Many thanks to Anna Weisling for her help in making the recordings and the video.
I send emails occasionally about upcoming performances. They're very cordial.
mine, all mine! records
Surrounded by Reality