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“In the Pocket” — new release

Check it out on ArtifactRecordings !
As it has for so many other musicians, the pandemic provided me with the opportunity to listen back in time through my catalog of recorded performances to rediscover some music that never previously made it into circulation. I’m very happy to announce the release of In the Pocket, an album of interactive polyrhythmic music composed and performed between 1997 and 2010.

The phrase “in the pocket” describes the feeling of being in the right relationship to the beat in music that has a strong and lively pulse. The tracks on this CD are recordings of me and a few friends playing along with computer generated polyrhythms. The computer is nothing if not a hyper-precision clock, so generating complex beats is much easier for it than playing in unpredictable ways that also keep “good” time — to make that happen I programmed it to analyze what we play in relationship to its beats, and to make live variations in response. Those of you who know my “Talking Drum” CD from the1990s might recognize some of the grooves that here become a foil for improvisation on various instruments including my gazamba electric prepared piano, an acoustic piano in 13-limit just intonation, a berimbau monochord, and more.

Check it out on the ArtifactRecordings site, where the whole album can be downloaded for $7 or purchased on CD for $12 in a beautiful package designed by Johanna Poethig from her Hubcap Mandalas paintings. And while you are there browse through other recent releases from the Artifact catalog including Synergy Signals featuring improvisations by the quartet of Jon Raskin, sax and voice; Chris Brown, piano, Jason Hoopes, electric bass, and the great Lithuanian drummer Vladimir Tarasov, and Aliquots, with Tim Perkis, electronics and Carter Scholz, piano.

(US) Going Under

(US) Going Under is my 2020 piece for 6 flat-gongs (gangsa) based on data mapping the numbers of Covid-19 infections during the first three months of the pandemic in 6 US states. A video of its first performance earlier this month in Oakland, CA has just been released online as part of the “Composite By the Numbers” series curated by Dayang Yraola in Metro-Manila, Philippines.

While its structure involves a sonification of clinical data, the twenty-minute piece is a meditation on the passing away of human lives we have been living through during this pandemic, and a sonic ritual focusing attention on the healing qualities of time and nature.

Thanks to all my collaborators on the piece: Johanna Poethig, Philip Perkins, Anne Perez, Brenda Hutchinson, Suddhu Tewari, Carly McLane, Brendan Glasson, and especially Dayang Yraola.

Chris Brown: Models Are Never Complete

Despite his fascination with extremely dense structures, California-based composer Chris Brown is surprisingly tolerant about loosely interpreting them. Chalk it up to being realistic about expectations, or a musical career that has been equally devoted to composing and improvising, but to Brown “the loose comes with the tight.” That seemingly contradictory dichotomy informs everything he creates, whether it’s designing elaborate electronic feedback systems that respond to live performances and transform them in real time or—for his solo piano tour-de-force Six Primes—calculating a complete integration of pitch and meter involving 13-limit just intonation and a corresponding polyrhythm of, say, 13 against 7.

Read the article online


Gratkowski-Brown-Winant Trio

Frank Gratkowski, clarinet, bass clarinet, alto sax
Chris Brown, piano and live electronics
William Winant, vibraphone and percussion

video:  live performance at ROULETTE, NYC, 2014
audio: excerpt from Vermilion Traces, Leo Records, double-CD

The main focus of the Gratkowski-Brown-Winant trio is the process of instant composing. All three musicians have extensive backgrounds in both composed and improvised music, which allows them to compose pieces with a clear inner structure collectively on the fly. Besides clarinets, saxophone, piano and vibraphone, the trio also features live interactive electronic processing and percussion instruments like gongs, tam tams, bells and tympani. Sometimes the instruments are used with extended techniques to blend into a sound-world which makes it hard to tell who is playing what.About the trio’s debut CD Wake (Red Toucan, 2008) Nic Jones of AllAboutJazz wrote “At all times this is music that holds the attention, even while it makes demands of the listener… the music is in thrall to the moment, even while it’s outside the measure of time.” The trio was featured on the 2009 Donaueschinger Musiktage in Germany, one of the oldest and  important festivals in the world for contemporary music.  Their double-CD Vermilion Traces (Leo Records, 2012) documents this performance along with recordings at the famed SWR radio studio in Baden-Baden made in advance of the festival .

Bios:Frank Gratkowski was born in Hamburg in1963, started playing the saxophone at age 16 and studied at the Hamburg and Cologne Conservatories of Music. His saxophone teachers included Charlie Mariano, Sal Nistico and Steve Lacy.   His first solo CD Artikulationen was the 1991 prizewinner in the Musik Kreative contest. Since 1992 he has been working in a duo with the pianist Georg Graewe, often extended through the participation of additional musicians such as drummer Paul Lovens and bassist John Lindberg. In 1995 he founded the Frank Gratkowski Trio with Dieter Manderscheid (Germany), bass, and Gerry Hemingway (USA), drums. In 2000 the trio was joined by Dutch trombonist Wolter Wierbos. Since 2003 the quartet began appearing as a Double Quartet with the addition Tobi Delius, Herb Robertson, Wilbert DeJoode and Michael Vatcher. In 2005 Gratkowski was awarded the SWR Jazzprize. He has played on numerous international Jazz and New Music Festivals including Vancouver, Toronto, Chicago, New York, Seattle, Quebec, Barcelona, Madrid, Lithuania, Warsaw, Zagreb, Prague, Bratislava, Sofia, Bucharest, Odessa, Belgrad, Huddersfield, London and Roma.  He has taught saxophone and ensemble workshops at the Cologne, Berlin and Arnhem Conservatories of Music. He has released more than 20 CDs under his own name. http://www.gratkowski.com

Chris Brown, composer, pianist, and electronic musician, creates music for acoustic instruments with interactive electronics, for computer networks, and for improvising ensembles. Collaboration and improvisation are consistent themes in his work, along with the invention and performance of new electronic instruments and software. These range from electro-acoustic instruments (“Gazamba”, 1982), to acoustic instrument transformation systems (“Lava”, 1992), and audience interactive FM radio installations (“Transmissions”, 2004). He is a founding member of The HUB, the pioneering network music ensemble, and has composed many interactive works for the percussionist William Winant (Iconicities, New World Records.) His most recent music explores microtonal tunings, including 6Primes, for piano in 13-limit just intonation, Arcade for string quartet, and Ragamala Chiaroscuro, for wind trio. As a performer he has recorded music by Henry Cowell, Luc Ferrari, José Maceda, John Zorn, David Rosenboom, Larry Ochs, Glenn Spearman, and Wadada Leo Smith; as an improvisor he has recorded with Pauline Oliveros, Fred Frith, Rova Saxophone Quartet, Ikue Mori, Biggi Vinkeloe, Don Robinson, and Van-Anh Vo, among many others. Recordings are available on New World, Tzadik, Pogus, Intakt, Rastascan, Ecstatic Peace, Red Toucan, SIRR, Leo, and Artifact labels. He is a Professor of Music at Mills College and Co-Director of the Center for Contemporary Music (CCM).  https://cbmuse.com
William Winant has performed with some of the most innovative and creative musicians of our time, including John Cage, Iannis Xenakis, Keith Jarrett, Anthony Braxton, James Tenney, Cecil Taylor, George Lewis, Steve Reich and Musicians, Jean-Philippe Collard, Frederic Rzewski, Ursula Oppens, Joan LaBarbara, Oingo Boingo, and the Kronos String Quartet.  He is principal percussionist with the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players and the John Zorn Chamber Ensemble. Since 1995 he has been the percussionist with the avant-rock band Mr. Bungle, has made two recordings (“Disco Volante” and “California” on Warner Brothers), and has toured throughout the world with the group. In March of 1997 he participated in the world premiere of Lou Harrison’s quintet “Rhymes with Silver” featuring cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the Mark Morris Dance Group, and has toured the piece throughout the United States and Great Britain. He has made over 130 recordings, covering a wide variety of genres, including music by Earle Brown, John Zorn, Pauline Oliveros, Luc Ferrari, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Danny Elfman (“Batman Returns”), Souxie and the Banshees, The Ex, Han Bennink, White Out with Jim O’Rourke, Thurston Moore, and Mike Patton. His recording of Lou Harrison’s “La Koro Sutro” (which he produced for New Albion Records) was the New York Times Critic’s Choice for best contemporary recording of 1988. In 1999 he produced a recording of 20th-century avant-garde composers with the influential rock band Sonic Youth; “Goodbye 20th-Century” (SYR4) was hailed by both The Los Angeles Times and New York’s Village Voice as one of the best compendiums of this type of music ever recorded.  Many composers have written works for him, including John Cage, Lou Harrison, John Zorn, Peter Garland, Alvin Curran, Chris Brown, David Rosenboom, Larry Polansky, Gordon Mumma, Alvin Lucier, Terry Riley, Fred Frith, Somei Satoh, and Wadada Leo Smith. Mr. Winant has been featured as a guest artist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic (under the direction of Pierre Boulez), the San Francisco Symphony, and the Berkeley Symphony, as well as at Cabrillo Festival, Ravinia Festival, Salzburg Festival, Holland Festival, Ojai Festival, All Tomorrow’s Parties, Taklos, Other Minds, Lincoln Center, Royal Festival Hall, Library of Congress, The Barbican, and Brooklyn Academy of Music. He teaches at the University of California at Santa Cruz and Berkeley, and  at Mills College in Oakland. For eight years Mr. Winant was Artist-in-Residence at Mills College with the critically acclaimed Abel-Steinberg-Winant Trio. Formed in 1984, the ASW Trio premiered over 25 new works for violin, piano, and percussion at major festivals and recitals throughout the world. Their recordings can be heard on the New Albion, Tzadik, and CRI/New World labels.

Interview: Chris Brown, by Gino Robair, Keyboard Magazine, January 2017

“My interest in new musical resources has changed from being based on timbre, rhythm and interactive electronics to pitch relations. I came to that with the skills I acquired tuning pianos in equal temperament for many years, and wanting to push past that.”

As a composer, pianist and computer programmer, Chris Brown integrates a mixture of modern musical resources, such as interactive electronics, real-time digital-signal processing, musical-instrument design and improvisation in his works. In addition to being a member of the pioneering interactive-computer-network ensemble, The Hub, Brown is a professor of music at Mills College and co-director of its Center for Contemporary Music for over two decades.

Consequently, when he began composing his concert-length, solo piano work, Six Primes, he originally imagined it with an electronic element. “I have an interactive sequencer that I designed, and I was trying to teach myself to play the polyrhythms using it. But in the end, I decided it would be more interesting for me as an acoustic piece than as an electro-acoustic one.”

Brown says the decision to focus on acoustic piano came out of a desire to return to his piano-tuning practice. “By the time I got to Mills, I had been supporting myself as a piano tuner in San Francisco for about 10 or 15 years,” he explains. “Of course, I was aware of just intonation when I was there and Lou [Harrison] was around, but it felt too narrow for me at that point. I was more interested in timbre, noise, and electronics, and it seemed like just intonation was a step backwards because there was a fascination with intervals being pure, and that was not what I was interested in—and I still am not. For me, it’s about hearing interval relationships and how we can extend our ability to perceive new kinds of relationships in the higher-prime area of the harmonic series.”

Nearly every aspect of Six Primes is derived from the whole-number ratios in a scale given to Brown by composer Ellen Fullman. Based on prime numbers up to 13 (or 13-limit), the scale is restricted to 12 notes per octave, repeated across the entire piano keyboard.

“A lot of theorists say 13-limit is as far as we can hear, but I wondered what would happen if I set just a few of those relationships on a piano. I spent the first year getting used to the tuning and trying different subsets of it.”

Although the scale is made up primarily of consonant, low-number ratios, such as the harmonically perfect fourth and fifth, Brown devised a way to introduce intervals that gradually increased in complexity.

“A big step in the composing process was the realization that I needed to know what every possible interval was, not just what the primary ratios.” The result is a matrix that shows every pitch relationship that can be derived from the original scale.

“This gave me alternatives for every scale degree that we are used to, in terms of 12-tones-per-octave equal temperament. For example, I have different versions of the major and minor third and the major and minor sixth. However, I didn’t want to write a piece that sounded like it had just one tonal center, so I tried to give all of the interval relationships equal time using processes that are more common in atonal music (such as set theory), but imposing them onto a tuning that’s based on a single fundamental and the hierarchies that derive from it.”

With so much material to consider, Brown decided to restrict his compositional choices by creating six subsets of the 13-limit’s prime number series—2, 3, 5, 7, 11, and 13. The title of each movement indicates which numbers were used.

“The first piece, ‘13-7-6-4,’ uses the primes 13, 7, 3 and 2. The numbers 6 and 4 correspond to the primes 3 and 2, respectively, because, as I translated those numbers into rhythms, I used 4-beats to the measure against 6 beats, against 7 beats, and against 13 beats. Next, each section is derived from permutations of those four numbers. So I have a section with only 13 and 7, a section with only 13 and 6, and so on. Then I used sets of three—13, 7, and 6, or 13, 7, and 4. Eventually, I worked out all the permutations for the four numbers.”

He also used this system to determine the number of measures he had to work with. “If it was 13 and 7, the section would be 20 measures long. If it was 13, 7, and 6, it would be 26 bars. Once I had it all laid out, I could compose intuitively inside those boundaries.”

Considering his professional background, I wondered if Brown was able to tune the intervals for this piece solely by ear. “On the piano, I can use harmonics from the low strings to tune it, and I’ll reference an electronic tuner when I need to. But it’s still pretty hard for me to tune a 13-limit interval. It depends on where in the pitch scale it is. It’s a fairly high harmonic relation, and it’s difficult to do by ear, but it can be done once you get used to it.”

One of the hurdles in performing Six Primes is finding producers who will allow the intonation of their piano to be altered. A major concern is whether a tuning such as this will have a negative impact on the instrument.

“It doesn’t change the tension, overall,” he explains. “I think that’s the critical thing from the point of view of the tuner. Only a couple of the pitches are off by 50 cents from their equal-temperament counterpart—the 11/6 and 11/8 are nearly quarter-tone relationships. But the 9/8, 4/3, and 3/2 are very close to equal temperament. Of course, all of the pitches are off to a certain extent, and when you change things that much it does require a couple of tunings. But it’s not so radical that it’ll be hard for the piano to recover from it. It certainly won’t damage the instrument.”

In his most recent work, First Light (based on a poem by Jackson MacLow), Brown continues his tuning explorations in a chamber ensemble setting. Inspired by Harry Partch’s “Seventeen Lyrics of Li Po,” Brown scored the piece for oboist Kyle Bruckmann, cellist/singer Theresa Wong, and himself, utilizing Partch’s unique 43-tone scale. His 88-key controller serves the same purpose as Partch’s Chromelodeon by providing reference pitches for the performers to use as they tune each note by ear.

“In many instances, I play a pitch and they supply the intervals in relationship. If we hit a chord that’s not quite right, there is a moment of adjustment as the players find the sound. You often get these gorgeous beat frequencies, which I think of as an integral part of the music. You can’t expect musicians to hit all of these intervals immediately, and it’s beautiful to hear them come into focus. So why shouldn’t that be part of the music?”

But doesn’t that defeat the purpose of using such precise intervals? “Perfection is never possible,” he explains. “As a piano tuner, you realize that you could work forever on a tuning, whether it’s in equal temperament or just intonation, and it’ll never be perfect, because perfection is not part of the physical plane. In fact, it’s more beautiful to hear a little bit of this out-of-tuneness. You quickly realize that when something is slightly out of tune, it shows you what it really means to be in tune.”

Chris Brown’s album Six Primes is available on New World Records (newworldrecords.org). Learn more about his music at cbmuse.com.

upcoming events

(US) Going Under is my 2020 piece for 6 flat-gongs (gangsa) based on data mapping the numbers of Covid-19 infections during the first three months of the pandemic in 6 US states. A video of its first performance earlier this month in Oakland, CA has just been released online as part of the “Composite By the Numbers” series curated by Dayang Yraola in Metro-Manila, Philippines.

While its structure involves a sonification of clinical data, the twenty-minute piece is a meditation on the passing away of human lives we have been living through during this pandemic, and a sonic ritual focusing attention on the healing qualities of time and nature.

Thanks to all my collaborators on the piece: Johanna Poethig, Philip Perkins, Anne Perez, Brenda Hutchinson, Suddhu Tewari, Carly McLane, Brendan Glasson, and especially Dayang Yraola..