Fresh Sounds from the Bay

There’s a tremendous amount of musical activity in the San Francisco Bay Area right now, more than one person can keep up with.

On a recent Saturday evening, while Evan Parker appeared with pianist Greg Goodman in Berkeley at the opening of a series of performances celebrating thirty years of Woody Woodman’s Finger Palace, the “XXXth WoodTenniel,” across town in Oakland there was a new presentation of Tom Djll’s “politically expedient musical” Mockracy featuring no less than twenty stellar local improvisers.

On the following evening, while I was joining the trio Wiggwaum for a show at San Francisco’s Hemlock Tavern, Mockracy continued in Oakland, and Gino Robair mounted an encore performance of his opera I, Norton at SF’s Community Music Center. There were also performances at the Musicians Union Hall in San Francisco presented by Rent Romus and Outsound and at Studio 1510 in Oakland.

Two days later, when guests Paul Lytton and Nate Wooley joined Mills composer-in-residence Fred Frith for a collaboration at Oakland’s 21 Grand, the show was followed by an after-hours event at the nearby Uptown Club by the quartet that appears on the CD Jus.

This is all to say that while my intention is to alert you to some of the wonderfully fresh sounds happening in the Bay Area, what I have to share with you is by no means exclusive.

Poor School / Wiggwaum (Killertree Records) is a first release by two distinctive trios in a combination LP and CD. Poor School is Bryan Ramirez – electric guitar, Nathan Hoyme – reeds, John Niekrasz – drums. Wiggwaum is Randy Lee Sutherland – drums, Douglas Katelus – Fender Rhodes electric piano, Loren Means – amplified trombone, flute, and voice. One continuous side of the LP is Poor School, the other Wiggwaum; the enclosed CD features the LP material in digital format along with an additional track by each group.

The playing is high-intensity throughout, though there are fundamental differences in each group’s musical approach. I’ve come to think of their respective approaches as symbolic of something like post-nuclear morning and evening ragas.

Poor School will wake you up and not take you down. Their modal and thickly drone-based song is awash in a sea of harmonics. Their music seems like a throwback at first, but it’s only that there’s a timelessness at the spiritual core of it. Ramirez’s high-strung electric guitar pyrotechnics most often take the lead in the trio’s rock-solid amalgam of ecstatic psychedelic jazz.

Wiggwaum shapes sound inside a nebulous cone of white noise from outer space. Their music might change your evening or your life. While its particles are made up of “real” sounds derived from real instruments, it is pushed to such a level of intensity that only a massive sound entity remains.

Randy Sutherland’s drums loosely thrash, crash, explode, and dryly implode within the sonic mush. From Doug Katelus’ Fender Rhodes come jangly runs of Ra-like “cosmic tones” or warbly layers of static-y stratospheric dis-chords that shatter and whir upon terrestrial re-entry.

At the center of the maelstrom are the distorted voice, feedback flute, and mutant trombone of Loren Means. You might recall Loren’s playing from Henry Kaiser’s Ice Death (Parachute 005). Loren’s new brass sound is like nothing you’ve heard, a muffled foghorn to guide approaching aliens. Combining crescendo-ing and decrescendo-ing globs of sound with Martian voice and Theremin-like feedback, Loren’s playing gives shapeless shape to Wiggwaum’s edgy next-age noise music.

Jus (Balance Point Acoustics) is a quartet with Jacob Lindsay – clarinets, Ava Mendoza – guitar, Damon Smith – ergo string bass and lloop software, Weasel Walter –drums. Walter’s presence on the CD, along with enclosed instruction to play it “at high volume” has one thinking that this might be another high-propulsion free jazz blowout. But Jus offers music of another sort, something unique to itself.

It is music that is continually probing beneath its own surface, extracting unassuming yet purposeful sonic core samples from its oceanic depths. The sounds are low-level, deliberately dynamically uneven, but occasionally something hard is struck, and there are loud explosive bursts and eruptions.

If there is an antecedent for Jus’s musical approach, you might find it on “Translucency” where, at its most active, the music calls to mind that of the Music Improvisation Company of the early 1970s.

Jus undertakes a total group approach to improvisation. Save for Jacob Lindsay’s short Giuffre-like clarinet lead that stands in high relief on “Discrete Flavor Symmetry,” there is little in the way of individual motivic development. Yet the music engages us because despite its lack of linearity, there is held tension in the lack of line itself, in the multiple little dramas that emerge in its intervallic spaces.

The Jon Raskin Quartet (Rastscan) features Liz Albee – trumpet and percussion, George Cremaschi – bass and electronics, Gino Robair – percussion and electronics, Jon Raskin – saxophones. There are twelve pieces of music, several based on specific-to-open graphic scores created by Raskin, others completely improvised.

Of the compositions, Raskin writes: “The scores are an ongoing attempt for the musical ideas and inspirations to be on the page rather than an abstract road map….Each work has a unique set of sounds, strategies and ideas given to the visual elements. Some of the elements in the score are composer defined while others are what I call ‘self composing’ where the musician decides on the material for the performance. The intent is to give shape and consistency of form for the ensemble while leaving open the path for individual language and perspective.”

The musicians are well chosen for that task and for their adeptness at collective improvisation. In fact, there are no real solos in this music, only continually evolving group interplay of the highest order. Individual virtuosity is fundamental to the quartet’s contrapuntal improvisational approach, but it is tempered by musical necessity. What we hear in the music are lines and riffs, weight shifts, and textural openings. Any player may stand out at this moment or that, but the integrity of the music as a whole is what we hear.

I also found myself thinking of certain music of Roscoe Mitchell’s or that of the early Art Ensemble of Chicago while listening to this CD, in the way the music devolves from line to pure sound and back again. It is interesting that in this context Gino Robair’s “deconstructivist” approach to percussion frequently leads directly back to the “little instrument” sounds of Mitchell and the AEC.

There are equally compelling contributions from Jon Raskin himself whose manner of understatement or of tonal pivoting can remind one of Mitchell; from the undersung George Cremaschi whose bold fibrous bass tone holds the music’s firm center; and from Liz Albee whose trumpet first conjures up Don Cherry, then whispers, growls, purrs, or can sound like an aggregate of children’s squeeze toys.

Zen Kaiju is an intriguing new CD featuring Kiku Day – ji-nashi shakuhachi, and Henry Kaiser – electric and acoustic guitars.

When Henry handed me this CD, he told me he thought this was one of his best recordings ever of pure free improvisation.

But what is at the core of free improvisation, and how are we to judge it? After all, free improvisation is only one method among many for creating music. But it is the most open method, one that suggests that while it is possible to play almost anything, what that “anything” is will be determined in the moment of musical transaction. The self that enters into and surrenders to such a methodology will not likely be the same self who comes out of it at the end. For what is built into that open way of creating is an inherent propensity for change, an opportunity on each and every occasion to renew and rediscover the self and the self in relation to others. The idea is not simply that the players should engage as musical chameleons but as full, present, and evolving selves.

That is what Henry Kaiser and Kiku Day do masterfully on Zen Kaiju.

Kiku Day takes that most ancient of Japanese flutes, the shakuhachi, into new dimensions. Mindful of the still center of the instrument, she merges its traditional plaintive call with seeming electronic slivers of high-pitched sound, dynamic whooshes, breathy and growly wisps, mouth noises, strange percussive tongueings and tappings.

Henry Kaiser’s post-Bailey guitar slows down, becomes charged and evocative. He bends and alters his phrases, strums successions of stringy, twangy slack tones, flicks quick starry clusters of notes into incongruous orbit. On electric guitar, he holds in place big chunky motorboat chords; he sustains into infinity loud wavery-to-pure tones, cries, and wails that at times mimic Day’s shakuhachi.

Henry Kaiser and Kiku Day — between them emerge moments of interactive clarity that reveal the essence of their musical personas. Their mastery of free improvisation is revealed.

Henry Kuntz (November 2008)
(Thanks to Martha Winneker for editorial assistance.)

noisy people | improvising a musical life – a film by tim perkis ( dvd)


NOISY PEOPLE: Improvising a Musical Life – A Film by Tim Perkis ( DVD)
Featuring: George Cremaschi, Tom Djll, Greg Goodman, Phillip Greenlief, Cheryl Leonard, Dan Plonsey, Gino Robair, Damon Smith; also Kenneth Atchley, Laetitia Sonami.

Noisy People is a new feature length video documentary, presenting portraits of eight sound artists and musicians in the San Francisco Bay Area. Tim Perkis says about his film: “At first I thought I was simply stepping in to do a job I wished someone else had done, documenting a little-known musical scene with an interesting story. But it soon became clear that the film also touched upon a more basic question: what is the nature of a creative life, and how can one live it?”


Tim takes his camera and gets up close and personal. He follows each artist into their world. The age-old question of how one fashions a creative life is answered not only through the musicians’ words but in the way they choose to live their lives.

The musicians profiled are, interestingly, neither professionals – in the sense of making a living from playing music; nor amateurs – in the sense that they are only just learning to play their instruments, or playing music as a sideline. Indeed, several of the players – Robair, Plonsey, Djll, Leonard, Greenlief; as well as Atchley & Sonami (whose portraits are included in two separate short films on the Noisy People DVD) – have undergone professional music training, but have used it as a stepping stone to their own craft and creativity rather than as a tool to build careers with.

Some tried taking jobs as professional musicians, but couldn’t stand it. Saxophonist and composer Phillip Greenlief relates how he took a job for a time – making $600 to $700 a day – formulating music for an exercise video. He says “I hated the music!” And he tells us that all the people he knew who were professional musicians “hated music,” that the last thing any of them wanted to talk about in any meaningful way at the end of the day was music.

To Phillip – who makes reference to his Seminole heritage – music is a “sacred thing,” something to be offered and shared with people around you. That touches on one of the central themes that the players in this film articulate, namely that music, as Dan Plonsey puts it, is “a high calling;” Gino Robair says it is “a spiritual matter that informs your whole life.” George Cremaschi, who divides his time between Oakland and Tábor, Czech Republic (where he is an artist in residence), is emphatic in stating that his music serves a greater purpose than simply being the next fill-in-the-space “channel change.”

Other players speak of the music in more political terms. Staunchly outspoken bassist Damon Smith quotes legendary bassist Red Mitchell as saying that all improvisation is a political negotiation, that one cannot be too “selfish” or too “groupish” in playing but must find a balance between the two. Tom Djll’s orchestral music reflects his belief that it is the process of music and not its structure that is politically important; his orchestra is made up of pre-existing groups who may independently shape and set the music’s course as it is played. What these players’ music reflects is the type of democratically and consensually governed society they (and we) would like to live in.

While none of the players’ music is well known by big media, the inherently communal aspect of playing it and presenting it is fundamental to the musicians’ own appraisal of its cultural importance. You quickly glimpse that communal feeling when you see Tom Djll’s orchestra performing his ‘Mockracy, or see Gino Robair’s 40-piece ensemble playing and improvising his “opera in real time,” I, Norton.

Although not featured in Noisy People, equally important to the Bay Area community has been Moe Staiano’s Moe!kestra. Moe!’s gargantuan orchestral events have amounted to amazingly cohesive urban rituals that work, like the film’s highlighted gatherings, to cement ties between musicians who might otherwise never play together, and between them and the community they live in.

Dan Plonsey, in speaking of the aesthetic bent of his own occasional large ensemble, the singularly tuned Daniel Popsicle, relates that for him creating music is “more to encourage other people to create than it is about making things to listen to.” That, I would imagine, is as about as community oriented as one could get; to continually expand the grand circle of creativity until we are all finally standing in it together.

There is also a strong exploratory and experimental bent to each of the players’ work. For some, that starts right at the level of instrumentation. We see Tom Djll, for example, reinventing his trumpet to simulate electronic feedback; Gino Robair deconstructing and reconstructing everything he has ever learned about percussion; and Cheryl Leonard approaching the organic materials (like pine cones) she uses as “instruments” with the detached demeanor of an occult scientist.

Laetitia Sonami, in one of the separate short films that accompany Noisy People, relates how, out of an innate sense of curiosity, she is constantly reformulating everything. For her, it is working with a self-created black Lycra lady’s glove embedded with sensors that connect to a computer that generates sounds; the glove allows her a modicum of physical relation to the sounds she is making (approaching dance) rather than simply working motionless at a keyboard. Her goal is to use sound to create what she refers to as an “anti-space” that the audience may fill according to their own wishes and possibilities.

But one person’s “anti-space” is another’s physical space. That would be Greg Goodman’s (“Woody Woodman’s”) Finger Palace, the Bay Area’s longest running (since 1978) presenter of avant-garde music and theatre, where $25 might get you a banana for a “ticket” and a “something-close-to-tinker-bell” down-the-rabbit-hole experience. You might also catch the brilliant Goodman playing “unprepared” piano!

The pursuit of artistic originality rather than a defined musical career might be considered either “passion or pathology,” as sound, video, and installation artist Kenneth Atchley puts it. But whether or not most people have any empathy for or awareness of this type of activity, Sonami flatly states that it is “what is keeping society breathing.”

Noisy People, as well as being the “love letter to the Bay Area music community” that Tim Perkis envisioned, is an uplifting tribute to musicians and sound artists everywhere who are intently exploring the edges of sonic reality.

Henry Kuntz, June 2007


(Thanks to Martha Winneker for editorial assistance.)

Also available are DVD copies of the film, a CD of music and sound clips from the film, digital images and an essay on the filmmaker here… or click below on the Noisy People banner.

Musicians profiled in Noisy People:

gc_thum.jpgGeorge Cremaschi was born in New York City, and studied jazz at Jazzmobile in Harlem, composition at Greenwich House Music School in Greenwich Village, and improvisation at countless Downtown dives. Recent years have seen many performances and collaborations in the US and Europe with such renowned musicians as Evan Parker, Marshall Allen, Andrea Parkins, Gert-Jan Prins, Mats Gustafsson, Paul Lovens, Nels Cline and Saadet Türköz among others. As a composer, he has written nearly 100 pieces for chamber groups, small ensembles, solo contrabass, electronics, cinema, spoken word, dance and theater. He divides his time between Oakland and Tábor, Czech Republic, where he is an artist in residence, curator and administrator at Cesta, an international arts and cultural residency center.

td_thum.jpgTom Djll, born Indiana, 1957. Studied music at Berklee School of Music, the Colorado College, the Creative Music Studio, and Mills College with Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, Karl Berger, Lester Bowie, Leo Smith, George Lewis, Pauline Oliveros, Alvin Curran, and many others. Tom has spent over twenty years (ab)using the trumpet as an analog flesh synthesizer. He has made a lifelong study of the art of improvised music, and has been performing since age seventeen. He has performed with Natsuki Tamura, Andrew Voigt, Biggi Vinkeloe, Chris Brown, Gianni Gebbia, Steve Adams, Fred Frith, and many many others. Tom Djll also writes about music for The Wire, Signal To Noise and other publications. Please visit Tom Djll’s web site here…

gg_thum.jpgGreg Goodman is one of America’s most distinguished improvising pianists. He is just as distinguished when he is in Europe. He was also very distinguished when he was in the Soviet Union in 1989, but it is still not clear whether or not Russia is part of Europe, or if it should be. This ordinarily would not affect Greg Goodman, or his distinguished career; at least, not in his opinion. For the purposes of this biography, Greg Goodman has worked with many of the world’s leading improvisers, including John Cage, Nicolas Slonimsky, and his Mother; he has also worked with many who did not lead. When not working, he is the proprietor of Woody Woodman’s Finger Palace, the San Francisco Bay Area’s longest running (since 1978) presenter of avant-garde music and theater. He also runs (from) the famous Beak Doctor Records. Currently, he is writing this sentence. Please visit Greg Goodman’s web site here…

pg_thum.jpgPhillip Greenlief, since 1982, Saxophonist/Composer. He has performed internationally in a variety of settings. Greenlief’s recordings and performances have received critical acclaim in many national jazz publications (Down Beat, Jazz Times, 5/4, Cadence, Modern Saxophone, All About Jazz, The Los Angeles Times, etc.), as well as residing on many Critics Top 10 lists. His duo recordings of improvised music with bassist Trevor Dunn and drummer Scott Amendola received 5 stars in the 1999 Music Hound Jazz Essential Album Guide. Phillip is the founder of Evander Music, an independent record label that presents original composition, improvised music and new jazz. Please visit Phillip Greenlief’s web site here…

cl_thum.jpgCheryl Leonard. Glass shards and pinecones, glaciers, boxspring mattresses, a flock of accordions, circular saw blades, viola, the erhu, hyenas and whales and elk, Cheryl E. Leonard’s works explore subtle textures and intricacies in sounds not generally considered musical. These investigations often include the creation of instruments, primarily from found materials. She has been awarded residencies at the Djerassi Resident Artist Program, Engine 27, Villa Montalvo, and The Lab (with RK Corral), and has been honored in New Langton Art’s Bay Area Awards Show. Recordings of her music are available from Ubuibi, Great Hoary Marmot Music, Pax Recordings, Apraxia Records, 23 Five Inc, Old Gold Records and The Lab. In addition to her musical endeavours Leonard is a mountaineer, studies aikido and Chinese landscape painting, and collects pinecones with handles. Please visit Cheryl Leonard’s web site here…

dp_thum.jpgDan Plonsey is known as a composer, saxophonist, concert presenter and teacher of mathematics at Berkeley High School. He has written music for the Bang on a Can All-Stars, Toychestra & Fred Frith, Santa Cruz New Music Works and the Berkeley Symphony, but most of his music has been for his own ensembles, as documented on a dozen CDs. He has performed and recorded with Anthony Braxton, Eugene Chadbourne and Tom Waits, but more frequently with local greats John Schott, John Shiurba, Robert Horton and many others. Plonsey is currently at work on an opera, in collaboration with Harvey Pekar (of American Splendor fame.) Please visit Dan Plonsey’s web site here…

gr_thum.jpgGino Robair is a percussionist, music journalist, and published composer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Gino frequently tours North America and Europe as a soloist and often improvises in ad-hoc groups. He has performed and/or recorded with Anthony Braxton, Tom Waits, John Butcher, LaDonna Smith, Otomo Yoshihide, Eugene Chadbourne, John Zorn, Nina Hagen, Thinking Fellers Union Local 282, Myra Melford, ROVA Saxophone Quartet, The Club Foot Orchestra, and he is a founding member of the Splatter Trio. Please visit Gino Robair’s Rastascan web site here…

ds_thum.jpgDamon Smith, born Damon Jesse Smith on oct. 17th, 1972 in Spokane, WA. Did “freestyle bmx” bicycle riding (a much more dangerous forshadow to “freestyle” music!) from age 13 to 23. Started music in 1991, under the influence of Mike Watt (Firehose & The Minutemen) on fender bass. Lead several punk/art rock combos until 1994. Upon receiving Peter Kowald’s landmark lp “Duos;Europa,” Damon sold the fender bass and concentrated solely on double bass and free music. Damon’s music is rooted in the tradition of “free jazz”, and has worked with many of the leading voices in that idiom, including Cecil Taylor, Peter Brötzmann, Frank Gratkowski and Joëlle Léandre. Please visit Damon Smith’s web site here…

Musicians profiled in DVD bonus films

ka_thum.jpgKenneth Atchley is a sound, video, and installation artist who fashions and performs works ranging from pure-tone and noise hymns to distortion-studded, richly harmonic, electro-acoustic devotionals. Since 1997, his work has included the use of fountains as sound-sources, objects, environmental and metaphorical elements. His work continues to be informed by and abstract that work and study. Atchley’s music and installations have been featured in venues ranging from U.S. hardcore-noise dungeons and New York dance lofts, to art galleries and performance cellar circuits of Europe. Atchley’s CD of solo, electro-acoustic-noise works Fountains was released by Auscultare Research. His duet with John Bischoff has been released on Bischoff’s 23Five CD “Aperture”. profile of his work was included in the June, 2005 issue of The Wire (#256). Please visit Kenneth Atchley’s web site here…

ls_thum.jpgLaetitia Sonami was born in France and settled in the United States in 1975 to pursue her interest in the emerging field of electronic music. Since 1991 she has developed and adapted new gestural controllers to musical performance and composed works with these materials. Her unique instrument, the lady’s glove , is made out of black lycra and is embedded with sensors which track the slightest motion of each finger, the hand and the arm. The performance thus becomes a small dance where the movements shape the music. he has been performing in numerous festivals across the United States, Canada, Europe and Japan, among which the Ars Electronica Festival in Linz, the Bourges Music Festival in France, the Sonambiente Festival in Berlin, and the Interlink festival in Japan. She lives in Oakland, California and is currently guest lecturer at the San Francisco Art Institute, and Milton Avery Summer program at Bard college. Please visit Laetitia Sonami’s web site here…