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Saturday, May 17, 2014

Concert Review: Anne LaBerge and Tom Baker at the Chapel

Wow, it's been too long since I wrote. I have plenty of excuses: new dayjobs that take up time, sick family that needed my care, a broken toe that subsequently got infected and was almost amputated...but that shouldn't stop the SEMR!

So in that vein, it's been almost two months since I saw two wonderful people put on a concert of wonderful music. On March 24, 2014, I sat with a small audience in the wonderful Wallingford space with pretty high expectations. These are two powerhouse world-class improvisers who have a relatively short history of playing together. They have evolved a pretty cool duo and it's very exciting to hear them play together.

Most of us Seattleites are familiar with Tom Baker. He's one of the big anchors in the Seattle new music scene. The founder of the Seattle Composer's Salon, the Seattle EXperimental Opera, Seattle Creative Orchestra, the Present Sounds record label....Tom may be, more than any other individual, the central figure to new music in Seattle. (EDIT: Tom brought to my attention that he wasn't a founder of the seattle Creative Orchestra, just a commissioned composer. Also, he isn't the founder of the other organizations, but a co-founder. Apologies for the error) Tom blends his musical voice in two worlds: composition and performance. As a composer, Tom has a voice built out of an academic tradition. With a doctorate in music composition, Tom has a skill with composition that is not easily matched. As a performer, Tom is a fantastic guitarist (standard as well as fretless guitar) with an experimental and jazz background. Though it's realistically impossible to completely separate these musical voices, Tom is one individual whose performance sounds very different than his composition. I'll make it clear: I love both voices that come from Tom. His compositions are almost understated and pastoral. His improvisations on guitar are sometimes bombastic and always unpredictable. I think we very much miss his quartet appearing more often (with Jesse Canterbury living in San Francisco, it's hard to know when they'll play), and Triptet also has a member who is not local. So the opportunity to see Tom improvise in a new setting is very exciting.

What can I say about Anne LaBerge? She was my mentor. She is my absolute favorite flutist alive today. I spent three years living in Amsterdam studying with her, and the experience was so incredible, I haven't fully recovered from it almost seven years later. Anne is the only flutist I'm aware of who has a very strong background in traditional flute performance who has been able to completely remove herself from it while she improvises in order to create art. When Anne plays the flute, she plays more like a drummer. Her rhythmic playing and use of percussive techniques transcends experimental flute playing, and it surpasses the new proliferation of beatbox flute playing (something Anne has been doing probably thirty years before its popularity). Anne, more than any other musician or teacher has made me the musician I am today. I hope soon I can surpass my current state and really make her proud.

For this performance, both Anne and Tom were playing with live electronics. Tom was playing his electric fretless guitar, a processed theramin, and his laptop running Reason. Anne had her flute, alto flute, and piccolo as well as her laptop running Max/MSP and a Kyma signal processor. The two players decided to position the speakers on the floor behind them, and this had the effect of blending their sounds much more than if the speakers had been on stands facing the audience. This has made me think of how I will present my own electronic music. With the speakers on the floor, it was like having a garage band with amps sitting on the floor. It felt much more informal and raw.

Anne has been incorporating text in her music for a number of years, and she has always had a strong feminist voice. In one of my first lessons with her, she related many of the struggles women have being composers in Europe. Even though Europe, and the Netherlands in particular, is a bastion of progressive politics, they seem to have a very long way to go in cultural gender equality. The prejudice is that men are on the vangard of art and music. Women don't really have a place as composers or jazz musicians or experimental improvisers. Obviously, this prejudice is awful, and it sickens me to think that this world where my own daughter was born still clings to archaeic and sexist thoughts.

The textual material Anne used was about two groups of women that are nowadays almost forgotten: The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, and the World War II Soviet Union pilots named the Nachthexen. The stories were wondeful recounting the very talented baseball players and pilots that were shattering glass ceilings during the same decade. Baseball was linked to the overall performance through a Max/MSP patch that had the two players play a musical baseball game.

One thing that I have almost never seen happen with a performance by Anne LaBerge is an awkward interaction with her technology. She inspired me to become a computer musician, and even though I constantly stumbled over my equipment and technology, I was always impressed by her perfection. Strangely, this night seemed to have an element that may have confused her. Using a snowball mouse, Anne pushed buttons and made gestures to trigger audio files. The expression on her face relayed a playful confusion that I couldn't tell if it was intentional or not. Strangely, I found this refreshing since I have never experienced a performance by her that wasn't perfect.

Overall, this was an absolutely stellar performance by two very creative and fantastic musicians. Anyone who ever has a chance to see either of these two play should really make sure they head out and see it.

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