Sunday, January 15, 2017

A Night in Entropics with Henry Kaiser and Friends at C4NM

Last night the Center for New Music (C4NM) hosted guitarist Henry Kaiser, performing with his frequent colleague Scott R. Looney behind a piano keyboard and Scott Amendola sitting at a table filled with electronic modules, almost all of which were controlled by analog potentiometers. In response to an informal poll of the audience, the trio played a single set that ran for about 75 minutes and covered about half a dozen improvised pieces. Kaiser played a different guitar for each of those pieces. The first was an acoustic instrument, while all of the other guitars were connected to another diverse bank of electronics, which he controlled with his feet. At least some of Kaiser’s gear involved sampling and playback.

At the end of the set, Kaiser remarked that the group may have set a record with the number notes they had played. Indeed, it would be fair to say that all of those notes were the focus of attention, almost as if the group wanted the listeners to be aware of every one of them as its own point of energy source. Any conventional sense of phrasing gave way to the more general perspective of domains of activity, each domain involving focused attention on a single source of sonorities.

From that point of view, it was useful for those not familiar with this approach to music-making that Kaiser started off with his acoustic instrument. This was actually an extended instrument, a harp guitar that suggested a six-string guitar aspiring to be an archlute. In addition to those six strings over the fretboard, there was an auxiliary bank of open strings spanning the space above that fretboard. Kaiser, of course, had his own ways of playing both banks of strings, which alternated between using a pick and using his fingers. All this provided a first taste of a rhetoric of dense pointillism that would pervade the entire set, reinforced in the remaining pieces by sampling technology.

Note that phrase “behind a keyboard” in the first paragraph. Looney himself was confined to a relatively limited space, but his performance was not limited by the keyboard. Much of his time was spent in direct contact with the piano strings, often mediated by objects, most of which could not be seen but were diverse enough to elicit a wide variety of sonorities. He also had a table of additional gear to his right, including a zither-like frame housing about two dozen open strings, each with its own pickup. Looney was just as imaginative in his approach to those strings as he was to the interior of his piano. Here, again, the technique was highly pointillist, while the rhetoric was that of Brownian motion.

Finally, Amendola had his own bank of “concrete objects” supplementing his electronic gear. Much of what he did involved getting different sounds out of those objects that were then picked up by a microphone and fed to his electronic equipment. There also seemed to be at least one device controlled by a photocell. However, this was another one of those cases in which the functionality of the equipment made it difficult for the listener to be aware of underlying causal relationships between the actions of performance and the sounds that resulted.

Taken as a whole, this was an evening of intense activity. Indeed, the visual experience of just sitting there and watching “men at work” tended to be as absorbing and the sonorous by-products of that “work.” These were activities that ventured far beyond the usual denotations and connotations of “jamming,” even in the “progressive” domain of free jazz. Mind you, the sonorities that emerged were anything but incidental to all of that intensely urgent activity; but this was definitely an evening in which the “making” aspect of music-making carried just as much signification as the resulting “by-products.” If memory recalls little more than the resulting flood of entropy, then one should take comfort in the possibility that entropy was actually the raison d’être behind the occasion.

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