SIMF #24 – 2009

The 24th Seattle Improvised Music Festival took place over two weekends on February 13-15 and 20-22, 2009, presented by Seattle Improvised Music and Nonsequitur with support from 4Culture, Seattle Office of Arts & Culture, and Goethe Institute. Friday and Saturday evening concerts were held at Good Shepherd Center Chapel in Wallingford; Sunday concerts and workshops were held at Gallery 1412 on Capitol Hill. The festival was curated by Gust Burns and Tyler Wilcox.

Participating artists:

Gust Burns, piano; Mark Collins, bass; Michel Doneda, saxophone (Paris); Andrew Drury, percussion (Brooklyn); Kai Fagaschinski, clarinet (Berlin); Greg Kelley, trumpet (Boston); Lê Quan Ninh, percussion (Paris); Tari Nelson-Zagar, violin; Kelvin Pittman, sax; Mara Sedlins, viola; Christine Sehnaoui, alto sax (Paris); Wilson Shook, alto sax; Wally Shoup, sax; Doug Theriault, guitar (Portland); Michael Thieke, clarinet (Berlin); Rachel Thompson, violin (Richmond, VA); Liz Tonne, voice (Boston); Jonathan Zorn, bass (Richmond, VA)

Friday, February 13
Trio – Greg Kelley, Kelvin Pittman, Doug Theriault
Solo – Christine Sehnaoui
Quintet – Gust Burns, Mark Collins, Greg Kelley, Mara Sedlins, Wilson Shook
Solo – Andrew Drury
Solo – Liz Tonne
Large Ensemble

(Spiral Cage blog review)

Saturday, February 14
Solo – Greg Kelley
Duo – Christine Sehnaoui, Liz Tonne duo
Solo – Kelvin Pittman
Trio – Andrew Drury, Greg Kelley, Wally Shoup
Solo – Doug Theriault
Large Ensemble

(Spiral Cage blog review)

Sunday, February 15
Panel discussion
Duo – Andrew Dury, Kelvin Pittman
Quartet – Gust Burns, Greg Kelley, Christine Sehnaoui, Doug Theriault
Large Ensemble

(Spiral Cage blog review)

Friday, February 20
Duo – Kai Fagaschinski, Michael Thieke
Duo – Rachel Thompson, Jonathan Zorn
Duo – Michel Doneda, Lê Quan Ninh

(Spiral Cage blog review)

Saturday, February 21
Solo – Lê Quan Ninh
Trio – Michel Doneda, Andrew Drury, Tari Nelson-Zagar
Trio – Gust Burns, Lê Quan Ninh, Michael Thieke
Solo – Michel Doneda
Sextet – Michel Doneda, Kai Fagaschinski, Lê Quan Ninh, Michael Thieke, Rachel Thompson, Jonathan Zorn

(Spiral Cage blog review)

Sunday, February 22
Duo – Michael Thieke, Jonathan Zorn duo
Quartet – Wilson Shook, Michael Thieke, Tyler Wilcox, Jonathan Zorn
Duo – Kai Fagaschinski, Rachel Thompson
Quartet – Gust Burns, Kai Fagaschinski, Mara Sedlins, Rachel Thompson
Large Ensemble

(Spiral Cage blog review)

Preview by Hugo Kugiya in Seattle Times, February 13, 2009:

Improvised music is made for listening

While all jazz is improvised music, not all improvised music is jazz. And that is about as good a place to start a discussion about the experimental art form collectively called “improvised music.”

Starting tonight and continuing for two consecutive weekends, the Seattle Improvised Music Festival will feature a dozen musicians in various combinations, performing one of the most-difficult-to-describe forms of modern music. There are several saxophone players (Wilson Shook, Wally Shoup, Kelvin Pittman), keyboard players (Gust Burns and Jonathan Zorn — not to be confused with avant-garde composer John Zorn), a trumpet player (Greg Kelley), even a singer (Liz Tonne) — many of whom perform with sophisticated, electronic effects.

“I see it as a tangled core of different strands of music that developed out of jazz and free jazz in the ’60s and ’70s,” said Burns, director of the festival, whose history goes back 24 years.

“It’s also heavily experimental, electronic music that has nothing to do with jazz. It doesn’t have swing; it doesn’t have a groove. Then, there’s a post-rock, post-Sonic Youth spirit, noise music. It’s kind of a tangled mess that has an improvisational and experimental core.”

That is about as practical a definition that exists for what audiences will hear at the Chapel Performance Space in Wallingford’s Good Shepherd Center, where the Friday and Saturday concerts — including tonight’s — will take place. The Sunday concerts will be at Gallery 1412 on Capitol Hill.The musicians are a mix of local performers and musicians from the Northeast and from Europe, where, Burns said, funding for avant-garde music tends to be more generous.

“Improvised music is not music for entertainment per se,” said Burns, 30. “It can be entertaining, but it’s not going to a club and dancing. It demands actual listening. It’s just like going to an art gallery, or contemporary art show.

“You have to try to wipe clean your preconceptions of what it should be and just let it speak to you the way that it wants to. Instead of asking, ‘Where is that ride cymbal?’ or ‘Where is the frontman? … ‘ It’s not
about that. It’s about listening to the sounds.”

Improvised music, by definition, is not for everyday consumption, and the opportunities to hear a comprehensive repertoire are limited. The Seattle Improvised Music Festival, which features both solo and ensemble performances, also includes two Saturday workshops and two Sunday panel discussions, all taking place at Gallery 1412.

“If there’s a defining characteristic of the music,” explained Burns, “it’s that there’s an interest in
sound and how the sound is structured and what the sound means, rather than in the notes. Implicit
in that … is sound as a physical phenomenon, a shift away from harmony and melody, to texture
and timbre and space.”

Burns grew up in Seattle listening to grunge and hip-hop. In high school he learned jazz piano while listening to punk rock. He studied jazz piano in college while honing an interest in noise music, which utilizes unconventional elements like dissonance, atonality and cacophony. Most of the overlap between improvised music and jazz is perhaps found in the musicianship.

“We might be doing different things musically,” Burns said. “But there’s often a lot of camaraderie with musicians because of what we’re doing with our instruments. A jazz bassist might hear a bass player who is not a jazz player, but he’s just a phenomenal instrumentalist. Maybe he’s not swinging, but he’s an incredible bass player.”

Review by Bill White, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 19, 2009:


A festival of improvised music can be as turbulent as a wind tunnel filled with panicking birds or as boring as watching snow melt.

Last weekend, 11 musicians performed in 12 configurations over the first two nights of the 24th Annual Seattle Improvised Festival, filling the Chapel Performance Space with sounds of festivity, serenity, anxiety, ennui and joy.

Greg Kelley (trumpet), Doug Theriault (laptop) and Kelvin Pittman (saxophone) established the tone with an opening set Friday that sounded like electrons dancing to the inflation of balloons. The audience listened acutely to the subtlest sonic shifts as Kelley and Pittman blew air into their brass and reed instruments while Theriault drew metal machine tones from his laptop. Aside from two short notes that leapt out of the saxophone and two sustained notes on the trumpet, the performance was all breath and buzz. But the trio rewarded deep listening with auditory revelations such as the difference between a muted and an unmuted trumpet even when no note was being played.

Those returning Saturday night were treated to solo sets from each of these musicians, with Kelley in particular displaying a broader range. His improvisation, based on a single note, included a fascinating passage in which he harmonized the tones originating from inside and outside the horn. Although the musical content over the weekend was minimal, Kelley and the other performers took more care with tonal manipulation than do most conventional musicians.

A quintet led by Gust Burns was Friday’s centerpiece. Placing dowels of various lengths and widths on different parts of the piano’s soundboard, either on or between the strings, Burns created a series of primary tones around which the horns and strings scampered like mice. The piece slowly intensified with a growing sense of unease as the silence between passages increased, and the question of whether the music would conclude or continue created an anxiety of expectation versus fulfillment.

The large ensemble performance that concluded the evening was an extension of the quintet’s effort. The 11 musicians improvising on such a minimal scale were challenged by the scarcity of free space in the aurally dense field. French-Lebanese saxophonist Christine Sehnaoui, who had captivated the audience with an earlier solo performance in which she trapped air inside the horn and let it out in gusts and gurgles that climaxed in an array of stacked notes that approached and receded in various tonal combinations, was less impressive in the large group context. Vocalist Liz Tonne, who earlier had offered a frightening display of technique by simulating a barnyard of neighing and crackling creatures inside her voice box, managed on occasion to rise above the din.

On Saturday, Tonne and Shenaoiu performed a duet that was a classic example of the art of spontaneous composition. It began as a struggle between the fleshly and the ethereal, Shenaoiu’s Caliban contrasting with Tonne’s Ariel. Eventually, when the bestial grunts and celestial birdsongs found an alliance in the purgatorial middle ground, the interweaving sounds unlocked new possibilities, with each musician inhabiting a unique place in the other’s musical vocabulary.

Alto saxophonist Wally Shoup broke the silence that reigned over much of the weekend with an old-school set of fiery extroversion. The physical energy was a contrast to the lighter, more cerebral sounds that had come before. Drummer Andrew Drury and trumpeter Kelley provided able support, but it might have been more interesting to hear Shoup enter their world rather than they his.

Expect something completely different this weekend, when violin and electronics duo Rachel
Thompson and Jonathan Zorn, and The International Nothing, a clarinet duo from Berlin, join Burns and others Friday and Saturday at the Chapel and a final blow-out Sunday at Gallery 1412 on Capitol Hill.

Zorn and Thompson have been together for over five years, creating a group instrument from
Thompson’s violin and Zorn’s electro-acoustic use of double bass, voice, modular synthesizer and self-designed computer instruments.

The International Nothing is a clarinet duo that, having improvised for some time in quiet and noise-based styles, began to look beyond the delicate pleasures of the conventional duo. In 2002, they began focusing on a pipe-organ style, blending the clarinets into the sound of one or using multiphonics to multiply the voices.

Several unnamed guests also are slated to appear this weekend, including a French percussionist who has been a major organizer and participant on the European improvisational front since 1986.

Music runs from 7 to 10 each night, with six improvisations per program, each running about 20 minutes.