Sunday, September 27, 2015


Last night's show went very well. Bigger audience + my birthday + tasty treats. The music was a little different last night. Not better or worse, just different. This is the nature of improvisation: What happened the last time won't necessarily happen the next time. Sometimes that's a good thing, sometimes I miss stuff. Impermanence. So it goes. But what was clear was that the musicians had really found their way into the piece and felt at home in it, which is very gratifying.

Fresh pasteis de nata were provided by Fátima at Luso Food & Wine
Throughout the process of making this piece, I've complained to various people that I wanted it to surprise me, that it felt too familiar. Looking back on it now, there actually were quite a few surprises. As mentioned in an earlier post, I never make things that have a such a strong narrative arc. It's not what I typically think of as being "what I do." Someone else pointed out that my work is usually much more minimal and quiet. That is true — this piece is in no way minimal. It is expansive and boisterous, at times even loud. There is a lot going on, and actually very little empty space. And then there are the live musicians. I've worked with singers in the studio on a couple of installation pieces, but I've never done a soundscape piece with other musicians playing live in a concert setting, and they add a whole other dimension to the work that is very different for me. So it turns out this piece was full of surprises after all.

Composer Steve Scribner has written a nice review on his blog. His one critique is that maybe the last section was unnecessary, and I get his point. The section before has a very natural cadence that sounds like an ending. I almost ended it there, but decided I really had to acknowledge the persistence of the diaspora in the new world, so a final section was added. It might not hurt to shorten that a little, though. I'll see how that feels in the future.

Due to the terms of the grant I received from 4Culture, we'll be presenting this at least once more in 2015. I'm not yet sure where or when that will be exactly, but discussions are in progress. Plus someone just wrote to me about possibly doing it in the Azores next year. I have a fantasy about touring it to Portuguese community halls in California and New England. I'm also working on plans to make a good studio recording with the musicians. So stay tuned!

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Opening Night

photo: Mark Lewin
Perhaps you already read about the saxophone saga? The short version: I hadn't played my grandfather's horn in twenty-five years. I promised him/myself that I'd play it in this piece. I took it in for repairs in February. Six months later, the repair guy said I should take it elsewhere. The new repair guy said he might have it done in time for the show. No promises.

Honestly, I had completely given up on having it back in time to play it in this piece. At this point I was prepared to just be a listener to the performances. But I got the call on the day of the show that the sax would be ready by 3:30 PM. By the time I got over there and home it was 4:30. Then I had to go set up for the show, and by the time I was done with that it was 6:00. The house would open at 7:30. That left me with about 90 minutes to remember what little I ever knew about how a saxophone works. No pressure…

A couple of things happened. One is that, while not quite like riding a bike, it didn't take long to remember my previous level of in-expertise. The lips were totally out of shape; playing long quiet notes was damn hard. Certain things were clearly beyond my capability, so I decided to steer clear of anything I wasn't sure I could pull off. However, playing behind the audience in a dark room with a bunch of other great musicians made it so much easier. I was actually able to enjoy myself, and felt like I played pretty decently, all things considered.

The band nailed the piece, best version so far. I was so pleased. And we had a good audience, about fifty people. Tonight we do it again, and I suspect it will only be better in every way. Did I mention that I love my band? Also, special thanks to Scott Granlund for doing such a beautiful job of restoring my grandpa's saxophone and powering through to get it done for the show. It's a thing of beauty.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Band Rehearsal

The rehearsal process this week has been very exciting for me, because I finally get to hear the piece coming together into its final form. Until now, it was just a bunch of ideas in my head about how it might sound. But now it's becoming real!

Traveling to the Azores and making recordings in the field was of course interesting and fun, but then there was a year spent going through them all, obsessively editing, assembling, mixing, composing, adjusting. All of that is done alone, staring at a computer for many hours, often under headphones. And in fact most of my work is made this way. Technology allows for an amazing amount of control and freedom in making the work (I basically have a recording studio inside my laptop) but it also leads to isolation. I'm a reluctant performer myself, but I love working with musicians, and I often miss the social aspects of music making.

Since 2004 I've played with the Seattle Phonographers Union, a collective that improvises with unprocessed field recordings. That's been enjoyable, but we never work with other musicians. And in my own work I haven't really combined field recordings with live musicians. Likewise, most of my work takes the form of sound installations in galleries or museums; at that point the piece is set in stone and I'm not usually there with the audience. But at nearly an hour long, this piece felt too long to present as an installation and I couldn't think of a suitable venue. Also, several times in the past year I've used field recordings while improvising with other musicians and enjoyed it, and realized how much I missed that interaction. So inviting other musicians into this piece opens it up to a new dimension and other possibilities I can't predict.

Something I learned early on as a composer was that choosing the musicians for a particular piece — not just the instrumentation, but the actual people — is a kind of score in itself. This is especially true when improvisation plays such a major role. Good improvisers have very distinct, individual sensibilities, sounds and techniques, and I absolutely consider that when choosing them. And for me, part of what is exciting is to hear what those unique personalities bring to the project at hand. I feel very fortunate to have such a terrific band helping me out this time: Lesli Dalaba, trumpet; Beth Fleenor, clarinet/bass clarinet; Paul Kikuchi, percussion; Naomi Siegel, trombone; Greg Sinibaldi, tenor sax/bass clarinet.

There are no written out parts or musical notation of any kind, just a timeline for the recorded part so the musicians know when each section starts and ends. Of course, I have some general ideas about what I want them to do in certain sections, but I also want to stay out of their way and let them do what they do best. Each time we run through the piece, they find their way deeper into it and come up with different ways to approach it. I'm acting as a kind of director/editor, letting them know what I think works or doesn't, encouraging them when they do something especially effective and hopefully making helpful suggestions. In this way it's very much a collaboration. The process requires a lot of mutual trust and respect, and an ability to remain open to what arises in the moment without being too stuck on preconceived ideas.

It's been so gratifying to work with this particular group of people, all of whom I greatly admire. Some of them are friends I've known for many years, some I've worked with on other projects, and some are people I've never worked with before. Some of them have played together in other contexts, some haven't. But they are all excellent musicians and composers in their own right, and each of them brings something special to this piece; it would be very different without them.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Experimental Music in the Azores

In addition to researching Azorean folk music, I also wanted to find out what has been done in a more contemporary, experimental vein in the islands. I found a few things, but I suspect there is more out there. If there's anything I missed, please tell me!

The first thing I learned about was the project O Experimentar Na M'Incomoda, introduced to me by my friend Eugénio Viana at CASA tea house and bar in Horta, Faial. Founding member Pedro Lucas of Faial works with venerable (and maybe related?) vocalists Carlos Medeiros and José "Zeca" Medeiros and a team of other musicians to create a mash-up of traditional Azorean songs (foliões, whaler songs, chamarrita) with techno-influenced musical backing. Possibly inspired by projects like David Byrne and Brian Eno's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, they often blur the line between documentary recordings and studio wizardry. I would love to know more about their working methods. It's hard to tell how much they sample or re-purpose old archival recordings, or if they record the singers a capella and then match that to their own music, or if they work with the singers in the studio from the beginning. Or perhaps it's a combination of all of those? You can stream their first album here and their second album here.

And speaking of Zeca Medeiros… While I would not exactly call his music "experimental," he definitely does some adventurous things working within a variety of more popular forms such as fado, cabaret, ballads, folk, jazz, and rock (including this totally over-the-top version of Roxanne by the Police). Medeiros' distinctively gravelly voice can rival Tom Waits. He's a ubiquitous polymath, working not only as a singer and composer, but as a writer and director of theater, film, and television. He was born on São Miguel, but I believe he's currently based in Lisbon.

Violinist/violist, composer, and improviser Ernesto Rodrigues lives in Lisbon but also has a house on Pico and runs the Creative Sources label, which appears to be a great entry point into current Portuguese improvised music. I first encountered him in a video by artist Emanuel Albergaria, improvising with Gianna de Toni, an Italian guitarist and bassist living in Ponta Delgada, São Miguel, where she teaches guitar in the conservatory. She's involved in various musical activities, playing classical guitar, in symphonies and jazz groups, and in a contemporary folk group with Rafael Carvalho (she's also featured in the version of Roxanne mentioned above). Rodrigues and de Toni can be heard together on the CD Trees, an album of beautiful free improvisations with cellist Guilherme Rodrigues, soprano saxophonist Christophe Berthet, and electric bassist Raphael Ortis. Here is a live recording of Rodrigues in a quartet with Guilherme Rodrigues, Jassem Hindi, and Tisha Mukarji.

I feel the need to mention Gianna de Toni's partner, Biagio Verdolini, who is a fantastic vocalist, instrument builder, and visual artist, and probably more that I don't know about. I saw him improvise with a 12-year-old cellist at a party one night and he was amazing. I can't find much of anything about him on the web — links, anyone? Here he is singing with Gianna and Rafael Carvalho, but this is a pretty straight forward folk piece and barely hints at what he is capable of.

Angela da Ponte is a young composer from São Miguel. She's spent the last few years living in the UK, working on a PhD at University of Birmingham. Now she is back in mainland Portugal, living in Porto. Coming from the contemporary classical tradition, she makes very interesting orchestral, chamber, and electroacoustic music. Recently she acquired a viola da terra and has been making pieces with it using extensive electronic treatments. Her music can be heard on her SoundCloud page and her YouTube channel. 21KHz is her electroacoustic duo with Dimitris Andrikopoulos:

Angela told me about Nuno Estrela, another Azorean composer currently living in the UK and working on a PhD at the Univeristy of Bristol. He composes contemporary classical music for acoustic ensembles as well as electronic music.

She also told me about another contemporary composer from Terceira, Duarte P. Dinis Silva, who now lives and teaches in Castelo Branco on the mainland.

What is significant about these younger composers is that none of them still live in the Azores. It is a beautiful place, but small, without much money, and lacking in opportunities. For these and other reasons there is a long history of emigration from the islands, and it continues to this day, with creative people leaving to do their work elsewhere. But this is really not much different than anywhere else. If you grow up in any small town or faceless suburb in the US, you will probably have to leave to find work and other like-minded people.

As I mentioned at the beginning, I suspect there are more people doing interesting and experimental contemporary music in (or from) the Azores who I don't know about, and I would love to hear them. I encourage anyone who wants to educate me to send me some links and I will add them to this post.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

A Música Portuguesa a Gostar Della Própria

Throughout this blog, I've shared a number of videos from A Música Portuguesa a Gostar Della Própria. It's an incredible resource for Portuguese music of all kinds, with over 2000 videos posted so far. I strongly encourage you to investigate the many wonders within.

I was going to suggest searching their site for music from the Azores, but as it turns out the search engine isn't all that helpful unless the search words you use happen to be included in the title of the video. So I've spent the morning digging around there for all of the Azorean music I could find using multiple search terms. I'm sure I probably missed something, but it's a good place to start. I'd post them all here but there are over 50 of them, so it would take forever for this page to load, and I'd rather not do a bunch individual posts.

I thought I'd organize them all into a personal Vimeo channel for you, but after an hour of trying without success it appears that the settings on the videos allow them to be shared in all kinds of ways but not by adding them to a personal channel. Instead, you'll just have to find them in my Likes section, which is easy since they are the only things in there. So go watch them there!

Rafael Carvalho

I've mentioned the wonderful young viola da terra player Rafael Carvalho a few times previously in this blog (here, here, and here). I recorded him in his studio at the conservatory in Ponta Delgada, and he is heard twice in my piece, but with considerable electronic manipulation. This video was recently posted and offers a fine sample of his playing, without any digital mumbo-jumbo (he's the one on the left, in case it isn't obvious). I'm still waiting for his CDs to arrive, hoping we'll have them in time to sell at the shows. I strongly encourage you to check them out.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Finding Form

Platform hanging off of a cliff on Pico, looking out at São Jorge
It's rare that I ever start working on a piece with a predetermined form in mind. That almost never happens. Instead, I usually begin with a vague notion of what the piece is "about," and start collecting bits and pieces that seem relevant. I accumulate piles of material, and then I begin hacking away at it, playing around with the bits and hoping they'll eventually coalesce into something resembling what I was originally thinking about. (In fact, I'm doing it right now; I know what I want to write about in general, but mostly I'm just making it up as I go along.) I suspect this process is familiar to many artists in all disciplines.

So it's always a surprise to see what the thing I'm making actually turns out to be. I may have my own ideas, but each piece has a life of its own, its own agenda. At certain points in the process, tensions arise between what the piece is wanting to become and what I think I want it to be. Sometimes it wants to be something I think I don't like, or don't recognize. Struggles ensue, compromises are made, fits are pitched. I have to discern when to let the work guide me, and when to push back and impose my will. At the same time, I know from experience that if I set out to make something with a clear concept in mind and it turns out exactly as I envisioned it, the results are usually pretty boring. And if all goes well, the piece may lead to something that is new to me. I truly do want to trust the work, but it isn't always so easy. I have to learn this again every time.

Making this piece has been a classic example of that process. Four years ago I began formulating what this project would be about. I went to the Azores with some solid ideas about what I hoped to record, and how those sounds might fit together. But some of that did not materialize, mainly due to the relatively brief time I was there. I returned home with many hours of recordings, a large percentage of which were not what I had anticipated. It was easy enough to log and edit them, discarding some and saving others. But assembling the good ones into a form that is meaningful and beautiful and interesting has been considerably more challenging.

It would have been nice to have a compelling pre-determined structure in mind that could act as an organizing principle. But of course I didn't, and I quickly understood that I could wait a long time for some sort of revelation to come along. In the absence of that, the only way forward was to simply begin: start with a sound, then add another and another, and keep moving forward one step at a time, adjusting along the way and remaining open to any possibilities that arise until it becomes whatever it needs to be. In this case it became something I hadn't exactly anticipated: a surprisingly linear narrative arc with documentary elements, and some occasional odd moments that are more characteristic of my work.

I don't typically think of my work in narrative terms. It's usually amorphous and abstract and doesn't necessarily "go anywhere" or resolve in a tidy conclusion; it certainly doesn't tell a story that moves from A to B to C and ends at a logical destination. Even when I use speaking voices, they don't function in such a linear, literal way. And yet…

The piece begins with the primal, formative sounds of bubbling geothermal pits and sea water gurgling in lava tubes, an allusion to the islands' volcanic origins. This "creation" scene quickly evolves (sorry) into the sounds of the local wildlife, establishing the environmental setting. The sounds of domesticated animals act as a transition from the natural world to human culture in the form of of religious ritual, community celebration, and music. The sounds of the festa and of the past are left behind as we move out to sea on the long voyage to a new land, following the sounds of sperm whales and eventually coming ashore in the present, where the culture has taken root and continued, a little different but still clearly recognizable. And it concludes (of course) in the cemetery where my immigrant ancestors are buried, memory hanging in the air, the local birds mixing with the birds from home.

It's clear that this piece wants to tell a story. Who am I to refuse? Honestly, I could not have devised a more classic linear narrative structure if I'd tried. And thinking back to what I've written about it in the past, I now see that it could hardly have been otherwise. The narrative threads were there all along, waiting to be woven together.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Big Bell

City Hall bell, Ponta Delgada, São Miguel
I love bells. All kinds of bells. Big or small. For me they represent the meeting of musicality and utility. They make beautiful sounds and tell us important things. They tell us the time of day, they summon us to worship and to dinner, they signal festive occasions and funerals and emergencies, they help us keep track of livestock, and lead us into altered states of consciousness… They are found in cultures throughout the world and come in many sizes and interesting shapes. And they are easy to play! In most situations, no musical skills are required (carillons and handbell choirs notwithstanding). But mostly I love them for the timbral variety and richness of their sounds; there's just something about resonant metal that…um, resonates with me…and bells have figured prominently in a few of my pieces (here, here, and here).

I heard plenty of bells in the Azores and this of course made me very happy. I also encountered a style of playing large church bells that I haven't heard before, a kind of "strumming" or "rolling" where the person ringing it strikes the bell repeatedly, very fast, for a long time. I'm not sure if they were doing it with just the clapper, which seems like it would be much too heavy to move that fast, or if they had a pair of hammers or mallets that allowed them to play with both hands. Either way, it was new to me, and quite impressive.

When I attended the mass at the Festa do Emigrante in Lajes das Flores, I was recording the whole thing up in the choir loft (along with assorted videographers, and an old-timer recording with a boombox). At the end of the mass the bell ringer started to do this strumming up in the bell tower, and as I was right next to the tower's stairway I climbed up to record it. I didn't go all the way because I didn't want to distract him, but I was able to hold the recorder about level with the landing at the top of the stairs. It was incredibly loud! Even though the recording levels were low enough to avoid peaking the meters, there is some audible distortion on the recording from all that noise over-driving the microphones themselves. He kept this up for about three full minutes.

I knew I would want to use this recording in the piece, but it presented a challenge: Three minutes is a long time to expect anyone to listen to a really loud bell recorded up close and being struck continuously, with or without traces of distortion. And yet the duration is part of what makes it so cool. I had a hard time making it work. What I like best about it is the intense, visceral feeling of being inside that huge sound, and decided to try enhancing it with electronic signal processing, to turn it into a hyper- version of itself that could sustain interest for the full duration. I came up with something that was not bad, but not entirely satisfying. Then I thought of my pal Josh Parmenter, a local composer who specializes in computer manipulation of acoustic sounds. He's an expert at this stuff, with the software and skills to do it much better than I ever could.

I sent Josh the original recording of the bell with some limited verbal instructions. Basically, that I wanted it to sound like the listener has become very tiny and is walking around inside not only the bell, but inside the actual soundwaves, as if they were huge beams of light. I talked about kaleidoscopes, particles and waves, microscopes and psychedelic experiences. I also sent him this clip from Andrei Tarkovsky's film Stalker.

There is no direct connection to the film's soundtrack (which is very beautiful), or even the imagery itself. This clip is just an example of something I love in Tarkovsky's work — the way a scene that at first seems relatively "normal" suddenly becomes quite surreal, without ever making a big deal out of it. A girl sits alone, drinking tea and reading. We hear a distant train. Then the air fills with little flying particles, she lays her head on the table, and the glasses begin to slide across the table and fall to the floor. Only then does the train come by and rattle the room.

Josh sent me back multiple renderings of the bell sound, all of which were great in their own ways. I was so pleased with them that I ended up using bits of most of them, mixed with some of my original processing. The result is exactly what I was hoping for: the bell slowly and subtly transforms from something familiar into something strange, a world of tones that become quite vivid and almost three-dimensional, a sonic space for your mind to walk around in. And then just as gradually it comes back to "reality," to the normal sound of the bell and the festivities on the street…as if nothing unusual had ever happened.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Madredeus in the Azores

Madredeus is a well-known ensemble from Lisbon that does a kind of fado-influenced chamber folk/new age music. You may know them from the Wim Wenders film Lisbon Story. I just came across this film they did in 1995 with director Rob Rombout in the Azores, when they still had their original singer, Teresa Salgueiro. It's basically an extended music video disguised as a documentary, but shows a lot of local customs that I have spoken about elsewhere. It's all in Portuguese and French, but that isn't too much of a problem.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Música Folclórica

One of the first areas I researched for this project was Azorean folk music, as a doorway into the history and culture. (If you read Portuguese, here is a pretty thorough official primer on Azorean music.)

In terms of historical commercial recordings, I've found surprisingly little. One of the easier items to track down in the US is Songs & Dances of the Azores, a collection of various genres originally released on LP in the 1960s and now available on CD and digital download. Much of that release is drawn from the anthology of historic field recordings collected in the 1960s by the composer and ethnomusicologist Artur Santos: a beautifully remastered 4-CD set of music from São Miguel and a 2-CD set from Santa Maria (Santos also recorded on Terceira, and I hope that will eventually get released as well). Both of those are released by a wonderful label run by Emiliano Toste that specializes in traditional music, as well as some contemporary singer-songwriters. A lot of his huge catalog is recordings by modern folk groups – ranchos, tunas, philharmonic bands, choral groups, and other small groups.

There is also a collection of 78 RPM recordings at the Library of Congress, made in 1939 by Sidney Cowell (wife of the early experimental composer and world music advocate Henry Cowell) with immigrant musicians in Oakland, California.

Contemporary performances are easier to find. There are many regional groups (rancho folclórico) throughout Portugal who perform folk songs and dances in colorful traditional costumes that offer a rather idealized and nostalgic version of "peasant life." These exist in the Azores as well, and they can be seen performing at festivals and other public events. The most well-known and professional singing group seems to be Grupo Belaurora, originally from Capelas on the island of São Miguel.

There are also people who perform older songs on their own, similar to artists in the folk revival of the US and UK on the 1960s and 70s. Two good ones I've discovered from the Azores are Carlos Medeiros and Maria Antónia Esteves.

Perhaps the best place to learn about traditional music, and in fact music of all kinds throughout Portugal, is the amazing and wonderful project A Música Portuguesa a Gostar dela Própria, which is documenting on video a vast array of Portuguese music in every region and style, from the most traditional to current popular and even experimental forms. The genius behind this project is Tiago Pereira, who should be acknowledged as a modern national treasure.

Much of the folk music in the Azores, as in all of Portugal (and most of the world), is directly related to social dancing. Probably the most popular of these dances is the chamarrita, which is something like the "national folk dance" of the Azores and is still done throughout the islands.

But the style of traditional music that most intrigued me and seems most relevant to my own musical interests is called cantigas ao desafío ("challenge songs"). These are "song duels or argumentative discussions that range from the exposition of a topic or story, to the logical debate of a question or series of questions, to the joking exchange of personal criticisms. Two singers usually participate, but under certain circumstances there may be more. Each singer in his turn improvises a quatrain or a sextain, responding to the stanza just improvised by his interlocutor, or relating to the general topic under discussion. Singers (cantadores) are sometimes called repentistas because of their ability to respond quickly. In every duel or desafío (challenge)…a strong sense of competition between the singers also prevails. Even in song duels between close friends, the appearance of conflict and competition is maintained to increase audience interest." (Thomas L. Avery, Structure & Strategy in Azorean-Canadian Song Duels)

Versions of this occur in mainland Portugal as well, but it seems to be particularly associated with the Azores and is also performed frequently in North America (there are hundreds of YouTube videos). They are often performed during religious festas, or on special evenings of food and music (called cantoria) sponsored by a Holy Ghost Society to raise funds for an upcoming festa. The singers are usually older men. One notable exception is 18-year-old Maria Clara Costa, from Terceira, who has been singing desafíos since she was 12. Here she is at age 14, already looking completely self-assured against the much older Ramiro Nunes:

Musically, the structure is pretty basic: a repeated minor/major 2-chord progression, usually played on acoustic guitar plus one or two ornamenting instruments such as viola da terra (Azorean 12-string guitar) and/or guitarra portuguesa (typically associated with fado music); other instruments such as violin or bass are also used on occasion. Sometimes the singers have a quick comeback ready, other times they need a few bars to figure out what they'll do, so even though the music is pretty simple and even boring to play, the musicians have to stay on their toes so they can hit the turnaround whenever the singer is ready. With really good singers, one song can go on for an hour or longer, and it's interesting to observe their intense concentration and active listening, something they have in common with all kinds of improvisers. That focus is obvious in this lengthy duel between Maria Clara and Bruno Oliveira; also, notice how the audience starts off noisy but eventually gets sucked into the drama, cheering the singers after particularly witty stanzas:

This next video shows the cantigas happening in a very different context, much less formal and with multiple singers, one of whom is Bruno Oliveira, who was seen in the video above. This looks less like an official contest, and more like a casual singing session on the street during the festa. The guys are drinking beer and wearing street clothes, and the overall tone is a little rougher and rowdier.

So here we have a style of traditional music that is quite minimal (structurally reductive, repetitive, long duration) and improvisational — qualities that show up in much of my own music, though in very different form. Since my piece doesn't use singers, the improvisational influence from the cantigas ao desafío won't come via words. Instead, in one section of the piece I'm asking the wind players to take turns improvising melodic lines inspired by the desafío melodies, and these will be passed around between the musicians, who will each respond to the melody before them, embellishing and transforming the tune in their own ways.

This will be played over a heavily processed recording I made of Rafael Carvalho playing the decorative viola da terra part of the desafío. He is also heard at the end of the piece, playing a ghostly version of Saudade. Rafael is a fantastic young musician who I met in Ponta Delgada on the island of São Miguel. He's interesting because he is firmly rooted in all styles of traditional music, but he's also very adventurous and is really trying to take the instrument somewhere new in his original music, working with other folk, jazz, and classical players. I hope to be selling his CDs at the performance, and I encourage you to check them out. I would love for him to come play in the US someday.

I also really loved the music of the foliões, groups of men who march in the religious processions and sing beautifully austere praise songs, which reminded me a little of the alabados sung by the Penitente Brothers in New Mexico. The instrumentation varies depending on the circumstance (sometimes they use viola da terra and violin), but I particularly liked the groups that accompany themselves with only minimal percussion — drums, cymbals, tambourines. One of the groups I recorded at the Festa do Emigrante in Lajes das Flores is heard at one point in the piece.

The final Azorean musical influence on my project is the marching/philharmonic bands that seem to be in every major town in the islands. They accompany religious processions at the festas, but then they also play more formal concerts of popular and regional songs. While I haven't made an effort to emulate their actual music in this piece, in the recorded soundscape multiple bands are heard clashing (a nod to composer Charles Ives) and warming up (a nod to my buddy Chris DeLaurenti). They also inspired my choice of instrumentation of brass, woodwinds, and percussion. So just think of our group as a tiny, rag-tag marching band.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Vox Balaenae

As a result of doing this project, I now know far more about whales and whaling than I ever wanted to know. It's a tough subject because I am a whale-loving environmentalist, fundamentally opposed to commercial whaling — which, to be clear, is a brutal, ugly business that has pushed many species to the edge of extinction. And yet, whaling is a crucial part of my family history and how I came to be here. I can talk about Azoreans "following whales around the world," but the truth is they were hunting the whales to supply a market demand.

Oil painting by an anonymous artist dated 1876, showing a scene of sperm whale hunting in the Azores, with subtitle: “On the 30th of March of the year 1876, thanks to the Lord, this whale on my harpoon was struck”. Photograph: Cristina Picanço
In the Azores, I found that there is not such a harsh ideological divide between reverence for whales and reverence for the old whaling culture. Whaling is seen as something noble and dangerous that poor, brave, hard-working men did out of necessity to survive in a place with limited resources. Almost everyone has an ex-whaler in their family, and many of them died at their work. And many others, like my great-great grandfather, left the islands as whalers and never saw their families again. The retired whalers who are still alive are respected as folk heroes, and their knowledge is valued; whale watching companies hire them as spotters, and at least one cetacean researcher I met said he goes to them for advice about how to get up close enough to whales to tag them. I'm sure it's more complex than that, but I found this apparent equanimity refreshing in comparison to the polarization that exists in the US between environmentalists and, say, ranchers, or fishermen, or loggers.

Harpooner Antonio Viera Soares with sperm whale, 1965
So I knew whales would be central to this project, but that presents another set of issues. Ever since biologist Roger Payne and his colleagues Scott McVay and Katharine Payne brought the songs of humpback whales to the attention of the world (thus doing more than anyone to bring about the International Whaling Ban), humpback sounds have become ubiquitous. In fact, Payne made it a point to share his recordings with musicians of all kinds, encouraging people to write music using whale sounds, or inspired by them. This resulted in whale-themed music by (among many others) Paul Horn, Judy Collins, Charlie Haden, Alan Hovhaness, Toru Takemitsu, George Crumb, John Cage, and a thousand new age and ambient techno tracks. To say nothing of Star Trek...

Those sounds truly are beautiful and haunting and easy to love, but they are also easy to anthropomorphize and turn into a cliché. By now there is a ton of music made with whale sounds or imitating them; it's been done. So how to do it yet again, in a way that isn't trite?

I decided to focus on other species of whales whose calls sound less "human," many of which are almost electronic-sounding. I finally chose to use only the sounds of sperm whales, because they were so commonly hunted in the Azores, and because their varied clicks and buzzes were interesting to me — very minimal, and not at all anthropomorphic. I did go whale watching in the Azores and saw sperm whales (yay!), but unfortunately I was not able to record my own whale sounds on this trip, so I had to rely on some online archives and assistance from Kate Stafford at the University of Washington's Applied Physics Lab. I have hopefully used these sounds respectfully, with no attempt to turn them into "music," no electronic effects or manipulation other than volume and placement in the timeline. The musicians have been specifically instructed to avoid overtly imitating these or other whale sounds. We'll soon hear how they approach that!

Close-up of sperm whale's eye; photo: Bryant Austin/studio: cosmos

Thursday, September 10, 2015


I seem to have turned a corner on this project. A week ago it was looking like a disaster. But after trashing that first version and starting over from nearly scratch, the soundscape part of the piece seems to have come together. There are still a few little things to tweak in the mix, but it's basically there and sounds good. At least, it sounds as good as I can make it given my skills, gear, and the materials I have to work with right now. Today I sent it off to the musicians with a score, and I look forward to hearing what they will add to it when we start rehearsals in two weeks.

Soundscape score for Canções Profundas | Deep Songs (click image to enlarge)

Unlike most musical scores, this one doesn't tell anyone exactly what to play. It's more like a map that indicates when certain sounds are heard on the pre-recorded soundscape, a place to jot down ideas. How the musicians will approach it remains largely up to them. We'll work together in rehearsals to decide which parts they should play along with and when they should lay out, and we'll define some parameters for improvisation – the general kinds of things they might do in each section. I have a few ideas, but I know from experience that it's best to trust improvisers and not impose too much on them up front.

One thing I am encouraging them not to do is to imitate the sounds they hear. There may be some sections where that is appropriate, but in general that feels like a cliché that should be avoided. I'm very curious to hear what their alternatives to that might be, and trust in their collective genius to arrive at some elegant solutions. More info about me and my work here.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Antepassados (Ancestors)

It's time to meet the Portuguese relatives!

Caetano Freitas (aka "Caton Frates," my great-great grandfather) was born on Ilha das Flores, Azores on August 5, 1845.* The story in the family was that he was a "stowaway" on an American whaling ship, a very common trope in Azorean genealogy circles. It's doubtful that he actually sneaked on board without the captain's knowledge. Whaling ships were seen as a way out of the harsh poverty, unemployment, and military conscription in the islands, so it was not unusual for young men and teenage boys to get hired on. But they were leaving the country illegally as draft dodgers, and would often row out to the ships at night to avoid being caught by the military. The work was brutal and dangerous, and the pay was terrible; these guys often worked for nothing more than their passage. They could be at sea for years before they finally landed in North America and jumped off, settling mainly in eastern Canada, New England, and California.

We don't know when Caetano left Flores or for how long he was at sea. We don't know if he landed on the east coast and made his way west (the Transcontinental Railroad wasn't completed until 1869), or if he landed in San Francisco (more likely), or why he settled in the Avila Beach/Arroyo Grande area (he had lots of Portuguese neighbors, so maybe he knew someone or had relatives there; there was also a shore whaling station there). According to the 1900 US Census: he arrived in 1865, the year our Civil War ended; he could not read or write but he could speak English; he worked as a warehouse laborer and had not yet become a US citizen. By 1910 he had become naturalized and had learned to read and write — but it says he did not speak English! I wonder if maybe that box on the census was referring to the person's first language?

Caetano got married in 1882 at age 37 to Maria Isabel Avellar, though I seriously doubt he was single for the entire 17 years before that. This makes me wonder if there could have been a first wife and other children. His death certificate says he was born on Flores in 1845 and was a retired fisherman (whaler?); he died on March 22, 1919 in Avila Beach at age 73 of myocarditis, and is buried with his wife in the Old Mission Cemetery in San Luis Obispo.

[* The census says Caetano was born in 1837, but his death certificate says 1845; if he was born in 1837 he would have been pretty old to ship out on a whaler, so I lean towards the later date. On the other hand, the 1900 census and 1910 census are consistent as to his age, so they can't be discounted. And there's no telling how long it took him to get here. It's possible he could have left when he was 20 and landed in California eight years later. If the census date is correct, then he was 45 when he got married and 81 when he died.]

Maria Isabel Avellar (aka "Mary Frates," my great-great grandmother) was born February 7, 1855*, probably also on Flores. We don't know when she arrived in the US, or how she got to California. She may have met Caetano there, or she may have been promised to him ("engaged" as a child) before he left the Azores and then came over when she was an adult and he could afford it (this was not uncommon). Or she may have been a mail order bride, arranged via relatives or friends in the islands. We'll probably never know. All the official records tell us is that she married Caetano in 1882 at age 27 (depending on which of his birth years you believe, she was either ten years or eighteen years his junior). She could not read, write, or speak English. She and Caetano had seven children: Mary (1883-1952), Manuel (1884-1949), Caton Jr. (1885-?), Julia (1887-1965), Antone (1891-1950), Virginia (1893-1974), and Francisco (1895, died at 6 months of whooping cough). She died on July 9, 1908 at age 53*, thrown from a wagon when the horse got spooked and backed it into a ditch near Pismo Beach. Caetano suffered a broken leg in the accident.

[* Her death certificate says she was 56; if that is true she would have been born in 1852, which puts her birth year on the census into question. It also spells her last name the normal Portuguese way, Freitas; the newspaper reports about the wagon accident spell it as Fratis.]

Manuel Fraetis, date unknown
Caetano and Maria's son, my great-grandfather Manuel Sylvester Fraetis (note the different spelling), was born October 4, 1884 in Avila Beach. In 1907 at age 23, he married Elaine Van Orman, who was nine years his senior (born January 13, 1875 in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin). The story is that they met when a cruise ship Elaine was on broke down in Avila Beach, and she had to hang around for a few days while they waited for it to be repaired.

Three years earlier Elaine had divorced her first husband, John Tolle, with whom she had three children: Frances (aka "Thelma," 1894-1977), Clarence (1896-1945), and Nadine (1898-1976). After the divorce she left her kids to be raised by her parents, and I can imagine there may have been a certain amount of scandal around this. Elaine had supposedly been a "concert pianist," though there is nothing to indicate how professional she was. Maybe she was playing piano on the ship that broke down in Avila? In any case, she had three more children with Manuel: Mary (1907-1982), my grandfather Francis (1909-1983), and Virginia (1912-1995). Notice that Elaine and Manuel were married in 1907 (date unknown) and their first child, Mary, was born on May 4 of that year. Clearly, they had a "modern" relationship.

Elaine van Orman in 1895, age 20
The 1910 census shows them living at 607 West Cypress St. in Santa Maria, where Manuel was working as a foreman of some kind. In 1920 they were living at 2615 E. 55th St. in San Antonio Township (which later became Huntington Park), where Manuel was working as a foreman in a "chipping room" (lumber mill?). In 1924 he was working as a laborer for Union Oil. In 1930, after the Great Depression hit, they were living at 2209 Walter St., also in San Antonio, with all three of their kids plus a son-in-law and two grandchildren; Manuel was working as a longshoreman, and Elaine was working in a tailor shop. In 1940 they were living at 2465 E. 126th St. in Compton with their youngest daughter Virginia, who was divorced by then. At that time Manuel was working in a lumber yard. He died on September 22, 1949, just ten years before I was born. Elaine died less than seven months later on April 9, 1950. They both died in Compton, but I'm not sure where they are buried.

My mother and aunt have fond memories of Manuel and "Lainie," who apparently had a happy marriage and were quite playful with each other. They remember that he used to call her "kiddo."

[Interesting aside: It is through Elaine's mother, Mary Elizabeth Garland, that I am distantly related to my friend and fellow composer Peter Garland; we had known each other for many years before I found out he is my eighth cousin.]

Manuel, Elaine, and my grandfather Francis, 1934
The family history gets a bit more complicated with my grandfather, Francis Garland Fraetis (born July 5, 1909 in Avila Beach). I knew him and adored him as my grandpa. He was very sweet to me, and I always regretted that I didn't get to spend much time with him because we lived so far away. He was known to be able to play all kinds of instruments, and in the 1940s he had a little dance band in San Francisco called the Serenaders. He loved Bix Beiderbecke and Benny Goodman. I have his alto saxophone, his wedding ring, and a point on my left ear that I inherited from him and my mom.

But Francis was also kind of a black sheep, to put it diplomatically. To be more blunt, he was a criminal, at least during certain periods in his life. In 1927, during the Prohibition era, he was arrested at age 17 for possession of liquor and got one year, though that was possibly probation; my mother and aunt were not aware of this incident. In 1930 he was convicted of armed robbery with a sentence of five years to life, and did four years in San Quentin. He claimed that he was just driving the car when his buddies had him pull into a gas station (grocery store?) and robbed it. I don't think anyone in our family believes that.

Francis Fraetis age 20, San Quentin
Francis got out of San Quentin in 1934 and married my grandmother, Evelyn Wohlfarth (1908-1990). They had met in Los Angeles and when he went to prison she moved to Marin County to be near him, I suppose so she could visit him in the big house. That sounds rather romantic of her, which is a little hard to imagine given how unhappy their marriage was and how bitter Evelyn remained about it for the rest of her life. Nevertheless, they were married on New Year's Eve 1934 in Fullerton, where Evelyn's family lived, but returned north to Marin to live in Fairfax and San Anselmo. They had two kids, my aunt Sandra (born 1936) and my mother Renée (born 1938). Evelyn had some mental health issues and was institutionalized multiple times and supposedly underwent electroshock therapy. Her illness must have been significant because when they divorced (year?), my grandfather — the convicted felon! — got custody of the kids. It was unheard of in the 1940s for a mother to be denied custody, and I know my grandfather was very strict with the girls so that there would be no trouble and they would not be taken away from him.

Francis Fraetis & Evelyn Wohlfarth, 1930
In 1952 Francis got remarried to Carmen Caiati (1921-2012) and things were pretty good for a while. Unfortunately, he got into trouble again when the girls were teenagers. He was selling insurance and was caught keeping his clients' premiums rather than applying the funds to their accounts. This time he went to Marin County Jail. I'm not sure what year that was (1954? '55?) or how long he was inside, but he missed my mother's wedding in 1958 and my aunt's wedding in April 1959. However, he was out in time to be at the hospital when I was born that September. As far as we know, he stayed out of trouble for the rest of his life, although it seems likely that he took some secrets to the grave. When he died in February 1983 of complications from an allergic reaction to medication, they found a wallet in his desk with a whole other set of identification… He was cremated and his ashes were scattered in San Francisco Bay.

Me & Grandpa Fran, my 2nd birthday
My grandmother Evelyn died at 82 after refusing treatment for colon cancer, even though her doctors claimed it would be easy to cure. Carmen died suddenly at 91, having complained of a stomach ache after eating Thanksgiving dinner with the family; we don't know the actual cause of death. She claimed she had never been to a doctor or a dentist in her life.

My mother and aunt are both still living in northern California. Out of respect for their privacy I won't go into any detail about them here. But last Mother's Day I took them to their first Espirito Santo festa at the Portuguese Hall in Sausalito for a hit of their Azorean roots, and I think they enjoyed it.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

The Heritage Thing

Os Emigrantes (1926) by Domingos Robelo (1891-1975) - Museu Carlos Machado in Ponta Delgada, São Miguel
I remember very clearly when I was 5 or 6 years old having a discussion with my mother in which she explained the heritage thing to me. It never occurred to me that I might be anything other than "American," but I now learned that I was a mutt, made up of foreign bits and pieces: mostly German, but also British, Dutch, and Portuguese. I knew what the first three meant, but what was Portuguese? Even at that young age, it struck me as exotic and mysterious, and whenever the neighbor kids talked about their heritage (mostly Italian and Irish) I always led with Portuguese. For some reason that was the piece I latched onto, and it really hasn't changed over the years.

At some point, my aunt (mom's sister) and uncle got into genealogy and did a lot of research back in the dark days before the internet, when it was much harder to find this information without actually going to the places that had the documents. When I was in my 20s they started sending me updated charts of the family tree, which took my grandfather's lineage back to his grandparents, who came from the Azores. For a long time I assumed that was a mountain range in Portugal. Years later I looked at the chart again and looked up the Azores (now on the internet) and was amazed to learn about these islands out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Now I was really intrigued.

As I got older I began to notice certain mannerisms or patterns of behavior that I've inherited from my parents. I may have put my own spin on them, but they were essentially hand-me-down personality traits, as strong as any physical resemblance. I then realized that my parents had probably inherited some of those same traits from their parents, who inherited them from their parents, etc. And it struck me: Who are all these people I'm unknowingly carrying around with me? Would they recognize themselves in me? I began to explore those origins and fantasized about going to the islands. In 2011 I did a Binaural artist residency in mainland Portugal, and decided to make a quick side trip to the Azores since I was in the neighborhood. I only visited Faial and Pico for four days total, but it was very moving to be there and I knew I had to go back. I began developing this project, went back for three weeks in 2014, and here we are.

Of course, I can't really claim to be Portuguese-American, culturally or otherwise. I'm only 1/8th Portuguese, and everyone was thoroughly assimilated by the time I was born. There was no language, food, music, or religion, no identification with Azorean culture or knowledge of the Azores at all. My grandfather claimed that his people came from the island of Pico, but I later learned they were from Flores. So even the little bit we thought we knew was wrong.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Obstacles (Art Is Hard)

"Try again. Fail again. Fail better." — Samuel Beckett

We start rehearsals in three weeks, with the performances on September 25 and 26. So for the past several weeks I've been working like crazy in the studio to get this thing finished. That involves going through the many hours of field recordings I made in the Azores, deciding which parts to use, then meticulously editing and assembling them into some kind of form that makes sense musically. It would be great if I had some brilliant compositional scheme in mind, but the truth is I'm just making it up as I go. I've been waiting for something exciting to emerge, something new that I've never done before, some epiphany; the reality is that it's just one step and then another and then another, slogging towards…whatever it will become.

I originally thought this would be a sound installation in a gallery. That still might happen someday, but the more I've worked on it, the more it seemed to be turning into a concert piece. So I've invited some musicians to improvise along with the soundscape I'm constructing, the idea being to have a tiny mirror version of the marching bands that are common in the Azores. I asked them months ago, knowing how people get booked up. Last week I checked in to confirm the rehearsal schedule and discovered that two of the musicians are now unable to do it. Mad dash to replace them! It looks like the band will be Lesli Dalaba (trumpet), Beth Fleenor (clarinets), Paul Kikuchi (percussion), Naomi Siegel (trombone), and Greg Sinibaldi (tenor sax) – all great players who I admire and feel lucky to have on board. And I might play my grandfather's alto sax, if it gets fixed in time and I remember how to play it (see previous post).

My short-term goal is to have the recorded soundscape finished after Labor Day weekend, so I can give it to the musicians and they can start thinking about how they might want to approach it. So last week I put in some long studio days and by Friday all of the chunks were basically in place. There was of course some tweaking to do, but the compositional part was there. I was feeling so good about it that I took the weekend off to step back and approach the mixing later with fresh ears.

On Monday night I started mixing it in the Chapel, where it will be performed. This is important because it allows me to hear how it will really sound in that space and on those speakers, and adjust accordingly. After a couple hours of dealing with equipment headaches, I quickly discovered that it sounded like crap! This is not just me being neurotic. It really sounded terrible, and I'm pretty sure that any of my colleagues would confirm this if they heard it.

For one thing, all of the volume levels were much too loud. This can be fixed easily enough – that's basically what mixing is about – but it is quite time-consuming and in this case particularly so, as the levels were just ridiculous. That's what I get for mixing in the studio at low volume out of consideration for my neighbors.

I also discovered that a lot of the sound files were in drastic need of equalization (balancing out the crispy high frequencies, the warm middles, and the beefy lows). Or maybe they'd had too much bad equalization? For some reason, everything sounded like it was recorded with the mics placed inside of a cardboard box. I'm not sure if this is an issue with the original recordings, the speakers in my studio, or my ears. But it was bad. Really bad.

I had conceived of this as a six-channel surround piece – a pair of speakers in front of the audience, a pair behind them, and a pair in the middle on the sides, plus a subwoofer to handle the low frequencies. I don't have that kind of set-up in my studio, so I've been mixing in stereo and trying to imagine how it will sound once it is distributed over all those speakers in a big room. I now know that it sounds like a muddy, cluttered train wreck. The middle speakers actually detract from the sense of space created by the front and rear speakers; filling in the middle just turns it all to muck. And those beefy low frequencies that the sub is supposed to handle? Where are they?

I went home that night feeling completely dejected and, frankly, rather freaked out, wondering how to save this thing from being a total disaster. Somehow I managed to get to sleep, and when I woke up (way too early) it was clear what has to happen: I need to scrap that first version and start over.

So that's what I've been doing this week. I'm able to use the old version as a kind of map, so at least I know what bits go where and I don't have to spend so much time making all of the compositional decisions again. And there are a few parts from the old version that I can re-use. But for the most part I've been going back to the original recordings and re-editing and re-equalizing them, reassembling the whole piece bit by bit and making necessary changes along the way. The new version is for four channels rather than six, which should help with the clutter and open things up, leaving more space for the live musicians to fill in.

I think it's improving, but I won't really know until I get back in the Chapel to mix again next week. Until then, I'm in total studio lockdown mode. Just leave some food outside the door for me, knock, and go.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Saxophone Saga

My grandparents Francis & Evelyn Fraetis with my aunt Sandra, 1937

Certain people have been surprised to learn that I used to play the saxophone. I've never referred to myself as a "saxophonist," because I'm not one; I never had a lesson, and if asked to play a specific note other than open E-flat, I can't. But there was a time when I played fairly often and could sound as if I kind of maybe knew what I was doing.

It started when I was in college in Olympia. I was studying composition and getting interested in the sounds of various instruments. I was also beginning to explore free improvisation, through the influence of guitarists like Fred Frith, Derek Bailey, and Davey Williams, which led to other improvisers, like saxophonists Evan Parker, and Jeffrey Morgan in Olympia. There was also a minor trend for using skronky free jazz-inspired sax in arty underground rock bands at the time, like Allen Ravenstine in Pere Ubu, James Chance in the Contortions, Steven Brown in Tuxedomoon, and Jim Anderson in the Beakers.

I had a girlfriend who had an alto sax that she rarely played, so I started honking on it. We broke up and the sax went with her, but a couple of years later my grandfather died and left me his alto and a C-melody, both old Beuscher instruments from the 1920s. The C-melody was unplayable, but I used the alto in the bands I was in then, Customer Service and Tiny Holes. I also used to play with Jeffrey Morgan in a big parking garage on campus, and in other improvised situations. That continued when I later moved to NYC and became involved in the improvisation scene there. I was never very "good," but I managed to find ways to play it that weren't totally embarrassing (though they might be in retrospect). That culminated in a saxophone duo gig at A Mica Bunker with my old college buddy Joe Halajian that was actually one of the best shows I ever played during my time in New York. I left there in 1988 and pretty much stopped being a free improviser and soon quit playing the sax.

Fast forward to 2014. The saxophones have made several moves with me across the country and mostly sat unplayed in closets or in the basement. Since this project revolves around my grandfather's grandparents, I thought it would be nice to get his saxophone fixed up and play it in this piece. It needed a major overhaul: new pads, new cork, springs, etc. And thus begins the saga...

My woodwind-playing friends in Seattle all told me that Scott Granlund is the best repair guy in town, but also that he is consequently very busy and can take a long time. I felt like I wanted to have as much time to reacquaint myself with the instrument as possible, so I opted to take it to another guy I knew of at a music store near my house that specializes in band instruments. That was last fall, their busy time, so he suggested I bring it back in the winter, when things were slower. I brought it back to him in February 2015, and he said it should be done in 4-5 weeks and would cost about $400 - $500. I sold the C-melody to local saxophonist Jacob Zimmerman, and sold some old mouthpieces on eBay, and raised most of the money for the overhaul of the alto, which it turns out is a very fancy gold-plated model.

I checked back in with the repair guy maybe six weeks later, and he said he thought it would be done in another week or two. This went on and on: it would be ready tomorrow, Monday, next Friday, etc. Lots of apologies, excuses, shame, promises, etc. – which I'm sure were all sincere but did not result in the horn getting repaired. Finally, more than six months after I brought it in, he called to say that he didn't know when he'd be able to finish it and I should take it to (wait for it...) Scott Granlund, and that he would pay for Scott to finish it. I went to pick it up, and he apologized again and suggested that "You should never take your horn to a music shop to get fixed," the wisdom being that they are too busy fixing their rental instruments to do any serious outside work. That would have been really helpful advice six months ago!

So now the sax is with Scott. He says it might be ready by the week of the performance, which leaves me no time to regain whatever pitiful "chops" I may have once had. He says it will cost at least $500 just to fix all the stuff that the first guy did poorly. So I may or may not be playing it in this performance as planned. But I will have a very nice, shiny, expensive, fully restored family heirloom saxophone. Time to start playing again...