avantNOIR is a suite of compositions for improvising sextet by bassist and composer Lisa Mezzacappa. The music is inspired by noir genre fiction set in New York City (where Mezzacappa was born and raised) and the San Francisco Bay Area (where she has lived for the past 15 years). avant-NOIR is a musical companion to Paul Auster’s abstract “soft-boiled” crime stories from his New York Trilogy of the 1980s, set in conversation with the West Coast classic hard-boiled 1920s-era detective fiction of Dashiell Hammett. The music progresses like a detective’s case, using clues and imagery from the crime novels such as maps, letters, messages and relationships between characters and places, to create compositions with acoustic and electric sounds and composed and improvised material. The suite has been performed at the California Jazz Conservatory, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts' New Frequencies Festival curated by Myra Melford, the Outsound New Music Summit, SFJAZZ Center, and SFMusic Day. A CD was released January 2017 on Clean Feed Records.
Lisa Mezzacappa is a San Francisco Bay Area composer, bassist, bandleader and producer. Called “one of the most imaginative figures on the Bay Area creative jazz scene” by the San Jose Mercury News and “a Bay Area treasure” by KQED national public radio, she was voted “Rising Star Bassist” in the 2013 and 2014 Downbeat Jazz Critics Polls. Mezzacappa’s activities as a composer and bandleader are diverse, and include ethereal chamber music, electro-acoustic works, avant-garde jazz, music for groups from duo to large ensemble, and collaborations with film, video, sculpture and installation art.
Lisa's notes on avantNOIR:
Several years ago, I was re-reading Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, a deeply absorbing collection of three noir stories set in New York City, and I wondered what a musical companion to these literary works might sound like. Auster’s noir, written in the 1980s, is a postmodern, abstract noir, where little actually happens in terms of plot, and we live as readers in the interior lives of extremely isolated characters. I marveled at how brilliantly he made an iconic genre his own with these stories...and then went back to the source, and read, and re-read, Dashiell Hammett’s genre-defining crime stories and novels from the 1920s, especially the gritty early works featuring the Continental Op, all of which are set in San Francisco. Hammett, by contrast, tells us nothing of his characters’ inner lives—we never have any idea what Sam Spade is thinking, only what he says and does.
avantNOIR was born from an interest in living inside these works, mining them for clues on how they might be scored, following leads in the language, the descriptions of people and places, the contents of a wallet, the route a getaway car takes through a city, to create musical structures for a group of improvisers to navigate. It was especially fun to see New York City, where I grew up, and the San Francisco Bay Area, where I’ve lived for more than 15 years, through the eyes of these characters.
The series of pieces named after San Francisco streets (Fillmore, Green, Army, Montgomery) are musical companions to sites of bank heists, double-crossings and criminal hideouts in Hammett’s The Big Knockover. Things happen fast, nothing is as it seems, and dubious characters disperse throughout the city wreaking havoc. Larrouy’s Bar is a North Beach dive where dozens of out-of-town thugs convene to plot a spectacular double bank robbery. Each of their names—Spider Girrucci, Angel Grace Cardigan, Happy Jim Hacker, The Shivering Kid, Sheeny Holmes, Itchy Maker —inspired short musical themes, which the musicians navigate independently, deciding to start a “conversation” with one or another of these characters, creating an Ives-ian collage of overlapping interactions.
Here’s our first description of the mastermind villain Big Flora:
She stood at least five feet ten in her high-heeled slippers. They were small slippers, and I noticed that her ringless hands were small. The rest of her wasn’t. She was broad-shouldered, deep-bosomed, thick-armed, with a pink throat which for all its smoothness was muscled like a wrestler’s. She was about my age—close to forty— with very curly and very yellow bobbed hair, very pink skin, and a handsome, brutal face. Her deep-set eyes were gray, her thick lips were well shaped, her nose was just broad enough and curved enough to give her a look of strength, and she had chin enough to support it. This Big Flora was no toy. She had the look and the poise of a woman who could have managed the looting and the double-crossing afterward.
Hammett’s 1929 novel The Maltese Falcon, featuring detective Sam Spade, his slippery damsel in distress Brigid O’Shaughnessy, and connivers Joel Cairo and Caspar Gutman, proved irresistible. The musical themes are built on a melody created from mapping the letters S-P-A-D-E onto pitches overlaid onto the letters of the alphabet, and then transformed as Spade interacts with different personalities. The musicians find themselves in a room at the Alexandria Hotel on Kearny Street, where they are encouraged to sit and have a drink with the wily Caspar Gutman, explore various objects and personages in the room, ride the elevator, make a phone call, holler to someone on the street below for help, or get the heck out of there. Auster’s story Ghosts is a masterful work of meta-noir: a crime story with no crime, a thriller without real drama, a private eye who is himself being watched, characters (all named after colors) whose lives stay still as the world around them crumbles. Our detective, Blue, accepts a workaday case that gradually takes its toll, and the music follows his psychological journey from dull daily routine to frustration, anguish and violence. Melodies and rhythms here are derived from mapping the wavelengths of light of different colors, onto the frequencies of musical pitches and note values of different durations.
Quinn’s Serenade explores the three alter egos of our tragic hero Daniel Quinn, from Auster’s wrenching City of Glass. Quinn, a writer of detective stories featuring slick protagonist Max Work, answers a wrong number phone call to his apartment, and decides to play along, assuming the identity of a real-life detective named Paul Auster. Quinn’s life spirals out of control as he obsesses on the case and its characters, losing track of himself as he becomes isolated, penniless and homeless. The number three figures prominently in the structure and rhythmic character of the piece.
In City of Glass, Quinn has been hired to tail a crazy, once-dangerous old man, Peter Stillman, who maniacally walks the streets of Manhattan’s Upper West Side for hours on end, collecting all kinds of discarded debris, with the idea of giving these objects new names. The composition Babel is a series of musical “found objects” that the ensemble pieces together into a whole, metaphorically walking the city streets, trying to make sense out of seemingly-unrelated clues and fragments of information.