Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Open Ears 2009: Tuesday April 28

Sunday was my mother's birthday and I had to work on Monday night, so I missed a few minor things...but Tuesday appeared to be the REAL beginning of OE'09.

Jesse Stewart, Improvisations for Solo Waterphone

You want to hear a waterphone in action? Jesse's your man!

But wait, what the heck is a waterphone? It's a very cool, extremely resonant instrument that looks like a cross between a footstool and a sexed-up porcupine. You can tap it, scrape it, pluck it, shake it, then fill it up with water and do it all over again!

Stewart's approach seemed a bit like "A Young Person's Guide to the Waterphone" -- trying every technique once, then moving on to the next one -- but I quickly realized that the effect was infinitely richer if I closed my eyes. With open eyes I found myself intellectualizing in an extremely mundane way ("Now he's rubbing it with something soft...now he's rubbing it the other way!"). But when I was unable to see what he was doing the sounds became rich and mysterious. They became an improvisational composition instead of a demonstration of technique.

I seriously think that Stewart should do this with his back to the audience.

Incidentally, if you've ever heard the soundtrack for "The Hunger," you may have wondered how they made all those wonderful atmospheric noises. Now I can tell you with absolute certainty that they were rubbing a violin bow across the waterphone's spikes. Tell your friends.


They're the winners of this year's "Stinky Ears" award! (unless something worse comes along, God forbid).

During the endless show -- which made me think of a warm glass of milk growing steadily more tepid beside a collection of videos by The Parachute Club -- I thought of two dozen vicious, evil, absolutely CRUEL things to say about their performance. But I want to be nice about this, because the tranSpectra people are human beings with families and feelings, and there was one exceptionally good moment (see below).

So instead of writing a snarky list of everything I thought was terrible about their show, let me briefly describe what it takes to win a Stinky Ears award. It's open season on whether or not tranSpectra were guilty of these things...you don't have to do ALL of them to win, you lucky devils.
  1. Interesting, complex subjects applied in a pedestrian, "yearbook poetry" way.
  2. The subjects must have already been "done to death" -- and done much better -- at least ten years ago, preferably twenty. Bonus points for ecology, poverty, physics, mathematics, warfare, and thinly-veiled guilt at one's own social privilege.
  3. Total, single-minded pretention. Nobody can crack a smile. The sopranos -- if there be sopranos -- must look stern and sing in a verrrr-eeee seeee-reeee-ussss waaaaaay.
  4. Sloppiness. It looks and sounds like a rehearsal. The performers appear to be amazed they're getting away with it.
  5. Far too long. Awkward pauses.
  6. No empathy with the audience.
  7. Over-hyped techniques which fall far short of expectations.
  8. Musical instruments which fail to mesh together and simply sound ill-conceived or poorly executed. Granular synthesis is a plus, as are boopy keyboards.
  9. Dirty ears (not necessary).
Tonight's only exception was "Calypso," which rose above everything else with wit, style, skill, and -- for once -- tip-top execution. It had life, and not just in comparison to the totally bloodless pieces which surrounded it...it positively BOUNDED!

At the end, after the hernia-inducing "Deaths of Children Update," I was just rising to leave when the tranSpectra creatures announced that they were GOING TO CONTINUE. This was like being told by an executioner that more children were scheduled for death, and I must watch until the end. I couldn't take it. I left.

So yeah, all-in-all a pretty grim night, but I DO feel the need to point out that the very capable dancer was Yvonne Ng, who I instantly recognized as the freaky baby from "Silent Hill." I almost stuck around to ask her about it but I wasn't sure if it's the way she'd want to be remembered. In the featurette she talked about how difficult it was to pee.


tranSpectra said...

As coordinator of the tranSpectra concert, I'm sorry that you did not enjoy the performance. Everyone is entitled to their opinion but I am curious as to why you feel the need to be so malicious. The concert was the culmination of several years of hard work and effort by many people and was highly praised by other audience members.

As your comments are unsubtantiated and full of inaccuracies, I wonder if you even attended the entire performance. At the end of the concert, no one announced that we would continue and nothing was performed after the final piece listed on the programme. The “endless show,” as you refer to it, consisted of less than an hour of music and contained plenty of variety including dance, video, humorous theatrics, electronics, as well as variation of instrumentation in each piece – enough to keep even a restless child amused! Despite the wide range of instruments and equipment used, the stage set-up was carefully planned to keep the movement of items on the stage as minimal as possible. The slight movement that was necessary, was coordinated to overlap with someone speaking briefly (three times) so there would be no disruption to the flow of the performance.

No where in your diatribe did you provide the reader with any factual information about the concert. An important and fundamental item that was absent was that all the music performed by tranSpectra was based on an alternative scale. (Bohlen-Pierce). Four new compositions and several new instruments built on this scale were premiered in this concert, a major achievement in itself! Instruments such as the clarinets and “tritavophone” (percussion instrument) were built by internationally renowned instrument makers and meticulously tuned to the pitches of the scale. The “stredici” (large string instrument) was built by university architecture and engineering students who worked many long hours to complete and tune it prior to the concert. Had you joined other interested audience members who came onto the stage to take a closer look at the instruments after the performance, you would have seen the high level of skill of the students and intricate detail on the interior of the stredici.

A considerable amount of preparation, work, and planning went into the tranSpectra concert by highly respected composers, instrument makers, and musicians. To post such flippant and callous remarks on the internet at the expense of the reputation of my colleagues, shows not only an extreme lack of knowledge and awareness, but seems to indicate a malevolent intent.

Tilly Kooyman

Adam Thornton said...


"To post such flippant and callous remarks on the internet at the expense of the reputation of my colleagues, shows not only an extreme lack of knowledge and awareness, but seems to indicate a malevolent intent."

I thought your show was terrible -- inexcusably terrible -- and I said so. If I thought it was any less bad I would have tempered my comments. There was no maliciousness intended other than the amazed disbelief of watching what one considers to be an abrasive, inept, over-hyped, and self-congratulatory waste of an otherwise fine evening, and the desire to express that disbelief.

As the reputation of you and your colleagues is dependent upon your performances (as opposed to your intentions or preparation time, see below), my extremely negative review stands as my honest opinion of your show. If people go searching for tranSpectra reviews, and if they find positive ones online, they can choose which reviews to believe and thus your "reputation" is formed. The sad truth of public exposure is that the public passes the ultimate judgement. I'm one member of that public, obviously.

I deliberately avoided picking apart the minutae of the performance because -- as I said in the review -- I was aware that the performers might read it. I wanted to express my disbelief at the show itself, without trashing its individual contributors. You all might be wonderful in various combinations, or at a different show, or at a different time. Who knows?

I did indeed sit through until the end of "Dead Children Update." Then somebody (you perhaps) got up to speak, and the people behind you started to bring out the music stands into the middle of the floor, and you said something like "Oh, I guess we're playing something else?" That's when I left, to protect my sanity. I heard a few days later that the show didn't continue after all, but by that time -- of course --I was already gone.

You talk a lot about the ideas behind the show (Bohlen-Pierce tuning), the preparation involved, the fact that new pieces were commissioned, the building of the instruments by students...but what has that got to do with anything in the face of the actual show? None of that matters unless the result is a successful one. In my opinion it wasn't. Far from it. If you played all the instruments upside-down and hanging by your toes for a week, I'd still pan the show if I thought it was rotten.

I understand why you'd dislike with and disagree with my review. Consider it one person's very strong opinion, and decide whether or not tranSpectra should appeal to me. If so, then something went wrong. If not, then I'm an ignorant and rude yokel.

Marion "serious soprano" said...

Of course, everyone is entitled to their own opinion of a show and obviously this show induced a strong reaction in you which is also valuable and interesting to note. Often, when our "western" ear is exposed to a new style of tuning, or in fact a new style of writing it can make us very uncomfortable which sometimes has a lot more to do with the new way of listening that our ear has to adapt to, than the actual pieces themselves.
I also wanted to note that in your initial review you did complain about personal performances, despite your assurance that " I wanted to express my disbelief at the show itself, without trashing its individual contributors." You complained that the singers were; "The sopranos -- if there be sopranos -- must look stern and sing in a verrrr-eeee seeee-reeee-ussss waaaaaay." Interesting that there should have been expectations of the sopranos to smile and sing in an uplifting way while they were singing some very bleak and moving poetry about the deaths of millions of children from HIV/AIDS in Africa. Obviously, you missed the point of that poetry completely. Perhaps it would be an interesting experiment for you to research some Bohlen-Pierce music and see if it was the performance you disliked or the alternate tuning system?

Adam Thornton said...

Marion, you're right, I DID pick on the sopranos...but as a general problem with such self-absorbed compositions. That's why it's in the list of "Stinky Ears" qualifications. Serious sopranoism is rampant! But let me clarify.

I agree that sopranos (or anybody) probably shouldn't grin while singing about deathly serious subjects. Serious sopranos alone do not a terrible show make. It's when they're singing trite poetry that I cringe, and I certainly classify the "Deaths of Children" poetry as trite: a poor, lazy distillation and presentation of a subject which deserves so much better.

The combination of a super-serious subject, converted into awful poetry, which is then sung with utter conviction by a soprano -- and I single out sopranos here because the writers of such poetry ALWAYS seem to think that a soprano adds gravitas and therefore must sing it -- comes across as empty and self-absorbed. Serious sopranos themselves are of course NOT a problem if they aren't singing awful poetry. Sadly they're usually the default choice for this sort of thing. "My poetry makes me cry? Bring me a soprano!"

As for the Bohlen-Pierce tuning, the tuning of the music was hardly my beef, though whenever both clarinets played together it DID sound like one of them was slightly off (the guy next to me kept covering his ears in apparent pain), and I suspect that clash had less to do with B-P than it did with the instruments themselves.

I can see a wealth of interest in ANY sort of tuning experiment, but in order for it to appreciated it must be presented in a way that "works." The tranSpectra show seemed like a bunch of poor ideas, (generally) poorly composed, (generally) poorly executed...oh yeah, "with Bohlen-Pierce tuning and don't you forget it."

Annette Urbschat said...

I attended the concert and was lucky enough to sit front and center- in direct line of the vibration on the waterphone.After the filling of the instrument with water I had transcendental experiences with opening of all my chakras. Very cool!

Since a lot of the performers are my friends and collegues, it is hard for me to be objective. I did not find the tuning at all jarring or even different- perhaps I have listened to enough new music to have developed 'flexible'ears? Some of the harmonies reminded me of middle eastern tonalities.

I was very impressed with the diversity of the program and the multi-media aspects.A lot of variety. There should have been something for everyone....Yvonne's dancing was excellent.

Can't wait to see the next installment of this ambitious project.

Adam Thornton said...

Thanks for your POV, Annette!

If we all saw things the same way the world would be a very boring place. Plus there's be no point in my spouting off, because we'd all just be spouting off together.

Jon said...

As a member of the general public, I did not have any expectations when I attended the tranSpectra show but I thoroughly enjoyed it.   With limited knowledge about music, I have to admit that I didn't really notice that the tuning sounded much different.  I look for opportunities to see different types of performances whenever I can and try to come with an open mind.   

We must have been sitting on opposite sides of the theatre because my perception of the show was very different!  From my seat, I saw a polished performance by talented artists.  I enjoyed the variety of art forms that were incorporated with the music which kept me engaged and interested throughout the show.   The comments made by the performers to the audience enhanced my understanding of the music and overall enjoyment of the show.

I  look forward to the Open Ears festival because it broadens my scope of musical experiences.  I appreciate the opportunity to attend the new and exciting events that they bring to the community, and the Jesse Stewart/tranSpectra show was no exception.

Adam Thornton said...

Jon said:

"I look for opportunities to see different types of performances whenever I can and try to come with an open mind."

So do I, and that's why I love "Open Ears." I was excited about the tranSpectra show (alternative tuning, handmade instruments, new compositions) and managed to stay open minded until the second half. That's when I was forced to admit that what I was watching was mostly crap.

Here's to the next festival and all the opportunities for goodness -- and badness -- it brings!

Anonymous said...

Congratulations to Muffy for being brave enough and honest enough to offer opinions that break the pretension of "new music" performance. Also pointing out that a good idea, such as a new tuning system, and the explorations of new techniques need not be done in public. The contrived exploration of new sounds is not necessarily, but often is, performed by those who cannot play beautiful music and are arrogant enough to think it is incumbent on them to expose these new techniques that will change the face of music. Tuning systems and extended techniques will evolve naturally over time without having to shove it down the unsuspecting audience members throat.

Viagra Online said...

Well I guess it deppends because personally I don't care what people said about me, but if I made stupid interviews ask stupid question or stupid speeches, of course people it's not gonna talk good about me, I guess it deppends how interesting it's your show, it's like your blog on internet, I don't even know why I'm leaving a comment to you, I don't care about this crap.

Anonymous said...

I realize this review is two years old, but I just found it today while researching this year's Open Ears Festival...but I remember this show very well. I agree with the reviewer completely. I feel badly about it because I wanted this show to be amazing as I know it took a lot of effort to make it happen - it was obvious by seeing the instruments on the stage. However, the reviewer is right....all the great intention in the world does not make a great performance. And this was not a great performance. I stayed for the entire thing, but I saw a lot of people around me leave continually throughout the concert. The other audience members I spoke to about it felt very much the same way about it that I did - the reviewer is not in the minority at all.

Anyway, regardless, I think the TransSpectra idea is a very interesting one. I just think they need to re-work their show, their repertoire, and maybe their performers too. It's worth exploring further...this show in particular just wasn't a success in my eyes.