IT’S HARD TO SUM UP the rich and varied Bay Area new music scene. It could be time to cite some of the many artists deserving wider attention like electronic musicians/voice shamans Alexandra Buschman and Danishta Rivero Castro (and their band, Las Soucias), or percussion wizard Karen Stackpole. I could highlight the behind-the-scenes organizing work of Rent Romus, a composer/improviser and saxophonist who somehow finds the time to run two series—the Luggage Store New Music Series (the longest running creative music series in the Bay), and the SIMM Series at the Musician’s Union Hall—his label Edgetone Records, and the Outsound New Music Summit.
Or I could celebrate Tom Nunn, an instrument builder and improviser who encouraged and influenced countless musicians and embodied the welcoming attitude that defines our scene. He invented more than a hundred percussion instruments that look as beautiful as they sound. He explored microtonality and was fascinated with vibrating surfaces. He arranged ongoing sessions, eagerly invited anyone over to play, and offered concerts in his home studio/garage. He attended the shows of his peers and mentees and approached you with a smile after your gig to praise or ask questions. Nunn passed away on June 19, and his loss continues to be felt throughout the community and beyond. The day after his passing, I posted a short tribute on social media and improvisers from all over the world paid their respects with glowing commentary.
Spearheaded and led by Romus, the Outsound New Music Summit shares the spirit that Nunn possessed and more, offering performances that skate the parameters of post jazz, electro-acoustic improvisation, instrument builders forging new sound languages, and out-rock. Since I moved here in the fall of 1979, I have come to think of this scene as a supportive and encouraging environment that resists genre boundaries, and has created resources like BayImproviser—a directory of players, venues, labels, and more—while organizations like Jazz in the Neighborhood have worked to ensure that more venues are paying musicians a living wage.
This summer welcomed Outsound’s nineteenth iteration and brought the Bay’s brand of maverick new music to the soulful Finnish Hall in Berkeley, presenting eight groups over four nights, two of which boasted maximum-capacity crowds. Opening night featured Rob Ewing’s Long Tone Sally, a fourteen-piece ensemble of excellent trombonists (one bass, thirteen tenors) playing a composition of the same name divided into four parts with interludes featuring freely improvising quartets. In the principal sections, the players sustained a single note in unison, straying for short sequences to explore timbre, muted sounds, vibrato, or intervals that created shimmering vibrations arising from the upper partials (overtones). I am reluctant to assign a narrative to open works, or to music in general, but I couldn’t help but think of Ewing’s foundation pitches as the deteriorating pillars of institutional structures. (See the demise of Mills College and the San Francisco Art Institute for two of the latest infrastructural failures to rock the Bay Area art scene.)
That same evening, the ROVA Saxophone Quartet, a group that I have been following for more than forty years, played their demanding scores with virtuosic attention to the subtleties of their sound language. The group features Bruce Ackley (soprano saxophone), Steve Adams (alto), Larry Ochs (tenor) and Jon Raskin (baritone), and its members have been active in pushing the boundaries of their composition systems since the band formed in 1978. Quality of attention is everything, and the five works—including a free improvisation to set things in motion, a study in gestural sounds—introduced an encyclopedia of improvising strategies and intuitive transitions. The intensity of their listening set each new section in motion, sans cues.
On Saturday night, instrument builder and sound artist Krys Bobrowski and percussionist Karen Stackpole offered a journey through cloud masses of vibrating glass and metals. Bobrowski performed on kelphorn—a wind instrument made of dried sea kelp—and her newest invention, Gliss Glass, a set of three glass beakers mounted on stands, each connected to a tube outfitted with a valve. Raising and lowering the beakers or adjusting the valves allows different amounts of water to enter the containers. Bobrowski then glides her fingers along the rim or strikes the sides with rubber mallets or her hands, achieving percussive sounds that create glissandos (pitches that slowly rise or fall) relative to the fluctuating water levels. Stackpole played in tandem on several gongs from her extensive collection with hands, mallets, wooden sticks, metal rods, and rubber balls, creating impressions of the metal being tickled, caressed, or erupting like lava. When players have their level of sensitivity and can deliver deeply nuanced communication, the audience’s sense of time, not measured by pulse or a beat, spreads out like sets of waves.
The second set featured composer Ven Voisey’s Scaffold, which he performed with Danishta Rivero Castro, Alexandra Buschman, and David Lim—all on live electronics and voice. When writing for improvisers, how much control should a composer impose? The piece’s sections—the program states Scaffold has four, I counted six—offered a silence before each cue sounded (muffled voices through megaphones, a drone, a pulsating pitch), urging the players to thicken the sound layers, resulting in crescendos that returned to silence before starting again. The result of the sound language parameters set by Voisey was that these exceptional improvisers were overly restricted. The element of surprise, a valuable asset in improvisation, was stunted by the composition’s repetitive structure.
Sunday night brought us ZBUG, an improvising ensemble led by David Leikam featuring saxophonist Patrick Cress, trumpeter Doug Ellington, and drummer Timothy Orr, accompanied by Christina Braun, a dancer from the Butoh tradition who has chops and a mind of her own. She skirted the boundaries of the players, dancing into their midst with humor and agility as the players began by marking their territory and roles until the midway point when things achieved coherence, real flow, and active interplay. The chance to hear both a seasoned group like ROVA and ZBUG, a group that intentionally shifts personnel in every performance, gave this listener the sense of an arc that begins with a first meeting and reflects the rewards ensembles achieve with forty years of hard work and dedication. It’s also indicative of Romus’s intention to provide listeners with the full breadth of the improvised music experience.
Sunday night also offered a tribute to Nunn, who had been scheduled to perform with collaborator David Michalak in Nunn’s T.D. Scatchit and Company, a group that routinely invited revolving collaborators. The eponymous scatch-boxes are a series of instruments made by Nunn of found items mounted on cardboard boxes with contact mics attached. Michalak improvised on a few of the instruments with Ackley on soprano saxophone, Aurora Josephson singing, and Stackpole on percussion—all longtime friends and collaborators of Nunn’s. I’m glad we have his instruments, his recordings, and his book, Wisdom of the Impulse (1998), which illustrates how improvisation works. With its thorough cataloging of practices, historical backgrounds, and references, it does what Nunn always did: let people into and allow them to better understand this music of the moment. Still, I wish we’d been given a tribute that more fully celebrated the man.
On the final evening, Tri-Cornered Tent Show—Philip Everette behind a table teeming with Moog boxes and devices, Ray Schaeffer on electric basses, and Anthony Flores on drums—slayed us with unruly electronics accompanied by beefy beats. Their sound peeled the paint and took no prisoners. Moira Scar’s set was a Dark Wave picnic in hell accompanied by circus soundtracks imagined by Bela Lugosi. Lulu Gamma Ray (trombone, synthesizer, voice), Roxy Monoxide (saxophone, guitar, voice), and Bil Bowman (drums) evoked early Stooges-era punk that dissolved into industrial noise and out of the wreckage came throbbing synth sounds that would make Siouxsie’s banshees blush. The post-rock crew served it up just the way I like it, and my face hurt from smiling as I left the building.
The Outsound Music Summit was held from July 29–August 1 in Berkeley, California. Recordings of the performances can be streamed on Youtube.