Eye Music: An Ensemble With No Patience for Notes

There are more intriguing ways to chart sound, they've found.

"Don't mutilate trees or shrubbery" is a caveat not often found in the scores of, say, Brahms, but it's an important aspect of Christian Wolff's Sticks. In this 1971 piece, the composer asks musicians to play, yes, only sticks, using them as sound-makers in whatever way their imaginations can devise. "It's a campfire piece," says Eric Lanzillotta, and tonight he and the eight others in his contemporary-music ensemble, Eye Music, are rehearsing it. Robert Kirkpatrick peels the bark off his twig, audibly; Esther Sugai swishes hers through the air. Jay Hamilton sets a handful of sticks on his cello and lets them roll off, then bounces one on the strings. Lanzillotta has a bow for a small psaltery, or lap-harp: Can he bow his stick with it? Yes, and the sound it makes is haunting, a high, airy, just-audible whistle. A campfire is exactly the milieu evoked by the piece's scattering of tiny, woody sounds—not only the crackling of a fire, but the creepy mystery of a twig stepped on and snapped in a dark forest. After about 10 minutes, everyone intuits that the sounds should die down and the performance should end. The scratch of my note-taking pen becomes the loudest noise in the room. The group then discusses how to deploy themselves in Wallingford's Chapel Performance Space to play Sticks on their concert this Friday night. Should they spread out and surround the listeners? Stay close to better hear and react to each other? Or perhaps move as they play? Lanzillotta started Eye Music in 2006 to perform pieces written in non-traditional musical notation, either verbal or graphic. Starting in the '50s, Wolff and composers like John Cage and Earle Brown experimented with new ways to symbolize sound and communicate musical intention, creating frameworks for improvisation that soft-pedaled the composer's authority and offered performers unprecedented freedom—and the responsibility of decoding scores that are different for every work. For instance, the "sheet music" for Clifford Burke's 96, also on Friday's concert, is a deck of cards. Cut-up sections of a 9' x 36' piece of visual art, black paint on a white canvas, were reproduced onto 6" x 8" cards printed with musical staves, with a different pattern of ink swashes and spatters on each. Burke gives very little indication, though, of what to do with the cards, beyond the most basic equations: black space = sound, white space = silence. Some players opt to "read" the score as if the ink blots on the staves represent notes; their musical ideas come out more linear, even melodic. Others try to translate the gestures of Burke's hand-held brush into analogous sonic gestures; their sounds are sweeping, theatrical, even manic. Lanzillotta came at this music from the outside. Rather than starting with a conventional school band/orchestra upbringing and expanding from there, he was a teenage discophile who hung out and worked in record stores, drawn to the unusual from the start. This led to his founding of the label Anomalous Records (1991–2004) and, in 2008, Dissonant Plane—a boutique outlet for recordings from Wolff and Cage to black metal to Indonesian pop on cassette, everything obscure and defiantly non-commercial, nestled on the upper floor of Resolution Audio in Ballard. Yet after not quite two years, the store is shutting down on Sept. 26, with, as a wake, an in-store performance by Rob Millis, half of the experimental-music duo Climax Golden Twins. The double blow of a bad economy and online music retailing, currently afflicting even the largest chains, sunk Dissonant Plane, with even its regulars, Lanzillotta says, fading away: "People who came in every week were leaving town and moving to cheaper cities." But Eye Music thrives. Launching it only as a gathering of like-minded musicians, Lanzillotta at first had no plans to perform publicly. But now, with an Artist Support grant from the Jack Straw Foundation, Eye Music plans its first recording; Friday's concert will include the CD's intended repertory. Membership has been flexible, with musicians (among them adventurous trombonist Stuart Dempster and saxophonist Amy Denio) rotating in and out as their schedules allow. Subsets of Eye Music will play Oct. 9 at Collins Pub, on the avant-music series curated by Paul Hoskin—chamber music as opposed to orchestral, so to speak. And one possible realization of a work in the group's repertory doesn't require any performers at all. To create the watery sounds called for in Drip Music by George Brecht, an artist in the pioneering Fluxus movement, Lanzillotta and the ensemble are considering simply bringing an ice sculpture to the Chapel and allowing it to melt onto something sonorous, setting it up to run its solitary musical course throughout the evening. gborchert@seattleweekly.com

 
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