Outsound New Music Summit: Electro-Plate

The third night of the Outsound New Music Summit featured three sets that spanned a wide range of electronic music history, from analog modular synthesizers to digital laptops and an eclectic mix of technologies in between.

First up was a “power trio” on Serge Modular synthesizers featuring LX Rudis, Doug Lynner and Dmitri SFC.

Serge synthesizer trio
[Photo PeterBKaars.com.]

I have heard all three perform of Serge synthesizers before, but never together in this way. The result combined their very different performance styles, with intricate and meticulous musical details from Doug Lynner and driving beats from Dmitri SFC. There were also a variety of drones, noise hits and other sonic elements throughout the performance, which consisted of a single 40-minute improvisation.

Next up Instagon with edition 684 of Lob’s long-running project. This all-electronic mixer set featured Andrew Wayne, Tim White, Thomas Dimuzio, Marc Schneider, Mark Pino and Jack Hertz.

Instagon
[Photo PeterBKaars.com.]

As with most Instagon mixer sets, each of the performed improvised freely in his instruments, with Lob conducting and sculpting the performance in real time on a mixer. The result is at times chaotic and cacophonic, but appropriately so and mixed with sparser moments where the details of a particular playing were brought out. One of the unifying elements was recorded text that appeared at various times before being obscured beneath the noise.

The final set was a digital laptop trio featuring Thea Farhadian, Aaron Oppenheim and Tim Perkis. This was an ensemble formed specifically for this concert.

Thea Farhadian, Tim Perkis, Aaron Oppenheim
[Photo PeterBKaars.com.]

For a while it was rather common to see musicians performing solo or in ensembles exclusively with laptops and digital-processing software. It seems to be less common at the moment with the resurgence of hardware synthesizers, and it is becoming more common to see electronic musicians including analog synthesizers like the classic Serge modulars from the first set. This transition is something I have myself participated in as a performing electronic musician. But the trio on this night reminded me of some of the unique sounds that digital systems can create, with access to samples, jumps, and signal processing that takes advantage of artifacts and computation, such as FM and granular synthesis. There was also more subtlety in the music for this set, with some very quiet moments. Unlike the previous sets, this one was broken up into a few distinct compositions.

Overall, it was interesting to hear the different strains of disciplines within electronic music juxtaposed as they were on this evening. Perhaps an interesting follow up would be to pair a modular synth performer with a digital laptop performer in a future concert.

Godwaffle Noise Pancakes (March 3, 2013)

Pancakes and noise music may not be the first combination one thinks of for a Sunday brunch. But that is precisely what is offered at Godwaffle Noise Pancakes, a monthly noontime show organized by Grux at The Lab in San Francisco. I had the opportunity to perform at the most recent event on March 3.

I opted for a “purple theme” revolving around the purple Monorocket case I have for my Eurorack modular system. I selected an outfit and hair to match, and even found an old toy keyboard that was purple.


[Photo by Michael Zelner.]

The performance itself was on the subtle side, attempting to dial in on specific sounds and module combinations. It was an exercise in managing unpredictability and finding musical structures and phrases even in the noisiest of situations. You can see the performance in the video below.

Godwaffle Noise Pancakes live performance, March 3, 2013 from CatSynth on Vimeo.

The hall was quite dark during the set and my attempts to lighten the video resulted in a lot of artifacts. But it does complement the sound in a way. One take-a-way for future performances with the instrument is to be mindful of how one adapts the output of the small Eurorack jacks to standard live-sound systems. Investing in some strong audio adapters for the modular itself will cut down on some of those unpredictable pops. But overall I was quite happy with the set, and got a lot of positive feedback (about the visual as well as the aural).

The next performance featured Abyss of Fathomless Light featuring Bert Bergen. His fast moving performance combined vocal recordings on a series of cassette players with analog electronics into a thick and fast moving soundscape. He was followed by fslux, whose performance moved between longer more mellifluous sounds featuring her vocals and harsh electrical output from effects pedals.


[Photo by Michael Zelner.]

The performance by J. Soliday (Jason Soliday) was undoubtedly the loudest and noisiest of this noise-based show. There were long sequences of repeated loud glitches that required a bit of effort to listen to, but also a few gaps and pauses with space for quieter detail.

The final performance featured a collaboration by Wobbly and Thomas Dimuzio. I have seen them perform together before, but this was the first time with the technological combo of Dimuzio on analog modular and Wobbly on iPad and other digital synths.


[Photo by Michael Zelner.]

This was the longest performance of the afternoon (all the others including mine were quite short), but also the most captivating. They were able to create enveloping soundscapes that at times felt otherworldly and at others more meditative. The overall texture was lush, but there were dry moments with more staccato details from both the analog and digital instruments.

Overall, it was a fun afternoon of music. I am glad I was able to participate and hope to do so again soon.

2012 Outsound Music Summit Benefit Dinner, June 11

The 2012 Outsound Music Summit begins on July 15, less than two months away. And thus is it time for our annual Outsound Benefit Dinner. It looks to be a great evening of food and music, and this year it will be in the “CatSynth HQ neighborhood” of San Francisco, otherwise known as South of Market.

Once again, we will be treated to a culinary experience from chef Miles Ake.

The menu is still to-be-announced. And our music will be provided experimental electronic musician Thomas Dimuzio!

San Francisco-based Dimuzio is one of those unsung artistic figures whose influence and abilities have substantially outstripped his visibility. Composer, multi-instrumentalist, sound designer, experimental electronic musician, collaborator and mastering engineer – Dimuzio has been busy doing his thing(s) since the late 1980’s, but is still only known to a small circle of electronic music enthusiasts. A true sonic alchemist who can seemingly create music events out of almost anything, Dimuzio’s listed sound sources on his various releases include everything from “modified 10 speed bicycle” and “resonating water pipe” to short-wave radios, field recordings, loops, samplers and even normal instruments such as clarinet and trumpet. And while his wide range of musical interests make it impossible to pin a label on him, Dimuzio clearly has an insider’s knowledge of older experimental musical forms such as musique concrete and electroacoustic, as well as more current dark ambient, industrial, noise and post-techno styles.

We know that many who read this site love and support new music. Those in the Bay Area who would like to attend this benefit event can register here. If the benefit dinner is not an option, Outsound of course welcomes donations of any size to help make the Summit a success.

The 2010 Annual Transbay Skronkathon

As summer drew to a close, much of the Bay Area new music community gathered at 21 Grand for our annual ritual of live musical performance, socializing and tasty barbecued treats known as the Annual Transbay Skronkathon. The Skronkathon is also a benefit for the Transbay Creative Music Calendar, a free print publication that serves the creative music community here with event listings and articles (including several from this site).

I had been planning my own part in this ritual since, well, last year’s Skronkathon when Polly Moller discovered that my CatSynth review had been reposted in “spammogrified form” by another website. That became the basis for this years performance, which featured a reading of the spammogrified text and the inexplicable repeated phrase as a dominate. Another thing that was different this year was our “live tweeting team” of myself, Polly Moller and Tom Duff. It sort of happened spontaneously. It seems a bit difficult to search for the past #skonkathon posts via Twitter, but I have collected them all and will sprinkle a few throughout this article. (Look for the @ signs.)

[Live tweeting.  Photo by Suki O’kane. (Click to enlarge.)]

In fact, one of Tom’s live tweets described the duo of Ann O’Rourke and Carlos Jennings as “a disco remix of Berio’s Visage”. I am sorry I did not arrive earlier – it’s hard to pass up something with a description like that.

Rachel Wood-Rome. Photo by Michael Zelner.

I did arrive in time to see Rachel Wood-Rome’s performance for solo horn. Her melodic performance seemed like a snippet from a 19th or early 20th century concerto, minus the orchestra. However, in listening I started to fill in an orchestral part myself. She then presented a sing-along of a piece with lyrics by Max Gutmann. It included this refrain song with a minor melody in 5/8 time:

Our librarian is Miss Marion
she is scary an’ very old
pause and pity us
’cause she’s hideous
very hairy an’ likes to scold

Wood-Rome was followed by Respectable Citizen. Usually the duo of Bruce Bennet and Michael Zbyszynski, they were actually a trio on this occasion with the guest appearance of Jeff Ridenour on violone. For those not familiar with the violone, it is a large bowed stringed instrument with frets, closer to the viols used in Renaissance and baroque music than to the modern orchestral string family. The set started off softly with flute, picking on the violone, and stringy ethereal sounds.

[Respectable Citizen.  Photo by Michael Zelner.  (Click to enlarge.)]

The next piece featured more noise and distortion, with scratching sounds on the violone and a particularly interesting moment with the keyboard resonated together with squeaking sounds from the saxophone. There was also a section of “loungy free jazz” – which is certainly fun for me – mixed with some FM-like sounds.

as a dominate

Respectable Citizen was followed T.T.F.W.’z. If I had to describe their performance, it would be “punk skronking”, with loud, fast, driving rhythms and noisy squawks, squeaks and long strings of notes. And they had their own fan section doing 1990s-style jumping-up-and-down dancing. Given the loudness, I opted to enjoy their set from the alley, and even relive a bit of my youth by briefly demonstrating this form of dance to some of my musical colleagues.

The next set was one I was quite looking forward to: a duo of Matt Davignon with “a table full of junk” (as Tom Duff delicately described it) and Eric Glick Rieman on prepared electric piano. I am quite fond of electric piano (e.g., Fender Rhodes) and interested in prepared acoustic piano, but this was first time I had seen and heard the two concepts together.


[The prepared electric piano. (Click to enlarge.)]

The sounds of the Rieman’s instrument and Matt’s drum machines and effects ranged from high and tinny, to scratchy, glitchy, or sometimes more bell-like. The piano certainly made some unique sounds: boings. bell-like scratching and other effects that made the purely electronic sounds seem tame by comparison On occasion, the instrument’s piano-like quality would stand out, and one could hear the tines that are characteristic of electric pianos. At other times it was more aggressive and percussive. Rieman’s playing style brought out this quality, and I found myself watching the mechanics of the instrument as I was listening to the music. There was moment that seemed like film music, with long piano notes set against “squishy sounds” from Matt Davignon’s electronic effects. And then a sound that reminded me of marbles. There were anxious harmonies, and rhythms on top of rhythms in samples.

[Matt Davignon and Eric Glick Reiman.  Photo by Michael Zelner. (Click to enlarge.)]

Next up was blipvert (aka Will Northlich-Redmond). Standing behind a table with an Alesis Air and a Pioneer DJ controller, he launched into an intense and frenetic blast of music and choreography (@TomDuff He doesn’t *act* like a guy in cargo pants & a black teeshirt). The electronics were all controlled by his voice or other live sounds and gestures, so when he shouted or snapped or spun around or fell and the floor only to spring back up moments later, it would trigger a new sound or change in the sonic process. The hits and squeaks and thuds and sample loops and retro-1980s synthesizer sounds were perfectly timed to his over-the-top theatrics and choreography. It is clear that he spent a lot of time practicing and perfecting this. And it was definitely a fun performance to watch! Just when it seemed he was running out of energy and about to collapse from exhaustion, he got back up with a shout and launched into the next one. It is difficult to describe in words, but you can get a flavor from his videos from other performances. And the videos do not give the full sense of the energy.

[Blipvert.  Shared by @TomDuff on twitter.  (Click to see original post.)]

Blipvert was followed by Blowout Preventer (@TomDuff fresh from their gig at Deepwater Horizon), a clarinet quartet featuring Philip Greenlief, Dan Plonsey, Ceylan Yagmur and Michael Zelner. I am always intrigued by clarinet ensembles, having played the instrument in the past and written a piece for clarinet quartet. This performance began with whaling sounds that sounded like sirens, and then suddenly became quiet and harmonic and even contrapuntal. An intricate rhythm emerged in the sum of the four parts – even though each part seemed relatively simple, the interaction was complex. There was also a section with long growling tones, followed by more harmonic sounds; scraping of mouthpieces set against multiphonics; and a waltz that was interrupted.

Next up was Kattt and Ron, a duo of Kattt Atchley on Ron Heglin on vocals with electronics. Their set began with long electronic drones with beating patterns. Heglin began his vocal incantations in this backdrop, with his words soft and purposefully hard to discern. The drone, which was slowly but continually changing, had a generally minor harmony, but with inharmonic tones and continued beating patterns. The overall effect was very meditative. There were some odd facial expressions as the vocals became more noisy. By this time, both Atchley and Heglin were performing with voice, gradually becoming more harmonic and moving between unisons and perfect intervals. I was able to hear the voices both as a single unit and as individuals, the male and female contrast. The sounds gradually faded to a single beating tone at the end with a sprinkle of more percussive vocalizations.


[Kattt Atchley and Ron Heglin. Photo by Michael Zelner.]

As always happens at Skronkathon, I miss the set right before my own as I set up and prepare. In this, the set featured Bob Marsh on classical guitar, CJ Borosque on pedals an turntable, and Sandra Yolles on electronic percussion.

This is as good a time to mention the work of art that served as a backdrop for the performances, perhaps the most beautiful that I have seen at 21 Grand. The piece is by Dina Rubiolo and is titled 13th Ave. It features 8500 35mm slides arranged into the shape of a building facade and backlit. (@pollymoller Stage area has a striking backdrop: a proscenium arch made of backlit photographic slides.)

It was then time for our performance. I recited the entirety of the spammogrified text (you can see a copy here), while Polly performed the refrain “as a dominate” as it appeared within the text, complete with props and choreography. It was interesting to both read (and hear) how my text was affected by the various translators and other processes that may have been used. Certain phrases kept popping out, such as “plum sonorous” and “plum decorous” – I think “plum” was the retranslated equivalent of “rather” or “quite”, which I often use in my writing. Soft instruments or musical passes were re-worded as “sissified”, and several people seemed to enjoy the phrase “sissified trombone” – and some people also had fun hearing their own names of those of their friends and colleagues appear in the middle of the barely comprehensible narrative.

[Amar and Polly.  Photo by Michael Zelner.  (Click to enlarge.)]

In terms of technology and instrumental accompaniment, I kept things rather sparse. I opted to only use the iPad, running the Smule Magic Piano and the a granular synthesis app called Curtis. As source material, I used some pre-recorded passes of myself reciting the text.

(@TomDuff Decourous as a notwithstanding. #skronkathon(Amar and Polly.). As a dominate)

We were followed by RTD3, with Doug Carrol on cello, Tom Nunn on his invented instruments, Ron Heglin on trombone and voice. They are always a fun group to watch. (@catsynth Scraping sounds percussive cello trombone and vocal blah blah. Some particularly interesting moments included all three instruments making percussive scraping sounds, Carrol performing the cello like a guitar and also upside-down, and a moment whether the tone of bowed cello and the skatch box and the two blended together. There were some very soft moments, such as soft staccato trombone tones, and a low drone-like rumble from the ensemble. There was also a series of sounds that conjured up the image of a scampering mouse.

Next was a trio of Matt Ingalls on clarinet, Tom Scandura on percussion, and Thomas Dimuzio on Moog guitar. This was the first time I had heard a Moog guitar in a live performance setting. Knowing the musicians involved, I knew in advance this was going to be a loud set (@catsynth Scandura, Ingalls and Dimuzio trio will definitely not be sissified). The music started off with a dramatic film-like drone, with the clarinet coming though on top. The drums gradually got louder and started to match. From this point, there was mixture of fast runs and loud notes, some sections that sounded like 1960s free jazz and others that seemed to follow a more Middle Eastern scale. At some point, both the clarinet and the electronic guitar become more inharmonic and the drums got wilder and louder. Then suddenly a beat entered into the music, a bit of a slow rock shuffle or rock ballad overlaid with dark ambient guitar sounds. Matt Ingalls switched the violin at one point during the set. As the music started to feel more relaxed, it suddenly get loud again with FM-like sounds and acoustic drum, and then it got “super loud”. Even within the loudness, one could hear interesting details, such as a latin beat and a phrygian scale, and a really loud high-pitched squeak.

The contrast to the next set, a duo of Philip Greenlief and David Boyce, was rather dramatic. Although it was full of fast virtuosic runs, it was relatively quiet and spacious. There were moments where the seemed to go into unison, or where the rhythm seemed to stand still, before returning to the fast and complex runs. There were also a variety of interesting breathing sounds, mouthpiece effects, and other extended techniques. At one point, it sounded like a bird or a creature that was “laughing”.

[Greenlief and Boyce in front of Dina Rubiolo’s artowrk.  (Click to visit original post.)]

The combination of the relative calm of the set and the time of the evening made this one that truly took advantage of the backdrop provided by Rubiolo’s artwork. I featured this image of Greenlief and Boyce in front of it in a previous Wordless Wednesday.

They were followed by another duo, Gino Robair and John Shiurba under the name G / J. Robair was billed as playing “voltage made painful”, and incorporated a Blippo Box, as well as a drum machine, effects boxes and a device for pre-recorded samples into the mix. Shiurba played guitar with a variety of extended techniques, including using a superball to excite the strings. The were lots of fast cuts and cartoonish moments, with boinks and slaps and machine noises. The Blippo Box had a liquidy organic sound that contrasted with finger-picking on the guitar. At one point in the performance, Robair set in motion a rather funky rhythm loop that sounded for a bit, then came in and out and decayed into grains of sound (@catsynth I want Gino to keep that funky rhythm background going longer. As a dominate.). There were moments that were a bit more aggressive, with loud piercing sounds, but then others that were…well, “plum sonorous” and featured minor harmonies.

[G / J in front of the wall of beauty.  Photo shared on twitter by @TomDuff. (Click to visit original post.)]

Next up was Wormses, a trio of Jacob Felix Heule (percussion), Tony Dryer (bass) and Bobby Adams (electronics). The set started with a low rumble and hum, with the bass soon coming on top of scratchy electronic sounds and Heule playing a cymbal against a bass drum. The music became more anxious and busy over time, with some electronic insect-like sounds coming in above the other parts. Then all of a sudden things got very soft. A rhythm emerged in the background, but barely audible behind the bass and cymbal. As the set continued, a walking bass line came out of nowhere, then lots of swells and glissandi. Gradually, the music built back up to a rather loud level, a couple sounds that were like clipping and feedback, and ultimately ending with the sounding of the bass drum.

I think that was where I walked out to the alley for another break. There was lasagna!

The final set featured Ghost in the House, with Karen Stackpole (percussion), Tom Nunn (invented musical instruments), David Michalak (lap-steel guitar) and Andrew Voigt (who was sitting in for Kyle Bruckman on winds). I had heard them previously at the Wind Moon Concert back in April, and their sound is quite ethereal and airy, even for the percussion and lap-steel guitar. As with the previous performance, they began with a procession, of elemental instruments. The room was dark, except for the light from the 35mm slides in front. The performers then took their places for the remainder of the performance. The sounds were quite subtle at times, slightly minor, and sometimes like old film or radio soundtracks with eerie wind sounds mixed in. The metal instruments (primarily Stackpole’s gongs on Nunn’s instruments) served as a foundation, with the sounds of the wind instruments floating above. In addition to the long atonal sounds, there were moments with high squeaks and east-Asian harmonies and timbres. In the final piece, Stackpole played on an interesting metal-tube instrument and also used a vinyl record as percussion. Michalak’s lap-steel guitar featured prominently in this piece as well. The overall effect sounded electronic, even though the ensemble was purely acoustic instruments. The night concluded with the ensembles recessional from the room, still appropriately dark.

(@casynth #skonkathon concludes. Good night)

As a dominate

Garden of Memory 2010

This past Monday on the Summer Solstice I once again attended the annual Garden of Memory at the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland. This year, I was going not just as an audience member and reviewer, but also to participate with the Cornelius Cardew Choir, and also ended up playing in an impromptu electronic improvisation.

Being practical, I first crossed the building to where the choir was located to check in and drop off a few things. On the way I encountered Randy Porter’s “one man orchestra” featuring prepared guitar, brass instruments and tubing. This was a fun performance to watch, and it did not escape me that there were a lot of kids watching him, too.

After dropping off my stuff, I wandered around the corner following some strong bass tones that echoed around the hallway. In one of the side chambers, Beth Custer was performing clarinet. She produced a variety of standard and extended-technique tones. I was wondering if she also was going to perform using the array of other wind instruments behind her. I continued to follow the resonant bass sounds and in a side room found Thomas Dimuzio performing dronelike sounds with guitar and effects. This section of his performance had long tones with heavy distortion and bass undertones that were the source of resonances in the main hallway. I sat to listen for a few minutes as his tone gradually moved away from distortion towards something more pure sounding. Nearby was an outdoor patio, where Orchestra Nostalgico was playing minor-key jazzy music that reminded me a bit of klezmer.


[Schocker, Ueno and Fong. (Click to enlarge)]

One of my favorite new performances this year was the trio of Ken Ueno, Adam Fong and Edward Schocker. Ueno’s expressive and virtuosic vocals, which focus on a variety of extended techniques, blended well with Schocker’s performance on glasses and Fong’s bass. For example, Ueno’s vocals used techniques like throat singing with strong resonances, which complement harmonics on the bass. The sounds were more delicate at times, but the performance an aggressive, harder sound overall which I found welcome. It is interesting to note that they were situated in the Chapel of Tenderness.

Maggie Payne had an installation in the same room as last year, once again making use of the fountain and other elements of the room. Next door was the Crank Ensemble, who were getting started with a new piece as I arrived. The instruments cover a wide range of sound-generation techniques and timbres, but they are all hand cranked. As such, they tend to produce regular rhythms of repeating notes and different rates. The piece began with some slow patterns of metallic and plucked sounds, but as more performers came in it got increasingly complex, with faster rhythms and more variety. One thing that is always readily apparent is how much physical effort it must take to operate some of those instruments, especially given the repetitive nature.

An equally rhythmic but very different performance was unfolding in the Chapel of Eternal Wisdom. Laura Inserra performed on an instrument called a hang, a large tuned metal pod set against a percussionist with three tablas (as opposed to the standard two). The duo quickly built up complex but meditative rhythms. Interestingly, there was another hang performance nearby (I am not sure which group this was, however).


[Laura Inserra. Hang and tabla performance. (Click to enlarge)]

In the columbarium, a heard a performance of Gino Robair’s opera I Norton. I had seen a large production of the piece at least year’s San Francisco Electronic Music Festival. This performance once again featured Tom Duff in the role of Norton I, “Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.” Robair performed with a small custom electronic instrument alongside a Bleep Labs Thingamagoop (I do want to get one of these at some point), with small portable speakers and taking advantage of the acoustics of the stone room. This performance also featured dance elements, and the two dancers also provided theatrical supporting vocals.


[Scenes from Gino Robair’s I Norton. (Click images to enlarge.)]

Wandering back I heard Theresa Wong performing cello while singing a blues song. I have heard her perform cello both solo and in ensembles on many occasions, but had not heard her sing blues before. I then walked by another performance featuring cello. Albert Behar and the Movement combined cello with electronics to produce ambient music that sounded like a score for a film.

I passed by a trio with our friends Tom Djll, Karen Stackpole and Ron Heglin. The combination of brass (Djll and Heglin) with Stackpole’s trademark gongs seemed like it would be quite a contrast, but at this particular moment, the short tones on the gongs and the bursts from the trumpet and trombone seemed to match in overall contour if not in timbre.


[Cornelius Cardew Choir. (Click image to enlarge)]

It was then time for my first shift with the Cornelius Cardew Choir. We were performing a four-hour version of Pauline Oliveros’ The Heart Chant, in which performers enter and exit a circle, and while joined with others sing long tones on a steady pitch in between breaths. This turns out to require a lot of energy, singing a series of long tones for about ten minutes, especially for someone who does not do a lot of singing. I did my best, and also simultaneously listened to the sounds of the other voices and the overall harmonies. My favorite moment was when the harmony evolved organically into a steady perfect fifth. The overall quality, while very focused on the body and breadth, was meditative and calming. The piece is supposed to be one of healing, and I used the opportunity of this performance to send healing vibes to someone who needs them.

At sundown, around 8:30PM, we led the annual ringing of bells, as part of Brenda Hutchinson’s Daily Bell project, which started in 2008 but continues every year. At 8:32PM bells started ringing throughout the main hall, gradually getting louder as more people joined in; and then a minute later, it came to an end.

After sunset, I wandered down to the Sanctuary, a small dark room, where Sylvia Matheus and Thomas Miley were performing a large and richly textured electronic improvisation with a mixture of synthesized sounds and vocal samples. Gino Robair had joined in with the instrument he had used in I Norton, and at Matheus’ invitation I joined in as well, using several iPhone instruments such as the Bebot and Smule Ocarina. This spontaneous performance was a welcome coda to this long evening of music.

Outsound Music Summit: Part 2

This is the second part of my report on the Outsound Music Summit, focusing on the first two concerts. For those who missed it, the first part described the Touch the Gear Expo on the Sunday before the formal concerts began.

The first concert, which was titled “Free Improvisation | Free Composition” began the way I often begin my own performances these days: with the ringing of a prayer bowl. This signified the start of Sacred Unit, the duo of Alicia Mangan on saxophones and the percussionist Spirit. Overall, this set consisted of free improvisation that blended avant-gard and more idiomatic jazz techniques with other folk and world traditions. I did find myself paying most attention to Spirit’s drumming and use of other elements for percussion, including his body and voice.


[click to enlarge]

The Rova Saxophone Quartet performed a new, set-length performance piece created especially for the Summit titled The Contours of the Glass Head. This is one of those pieces where it is difficult to tell where composition ends and improvisation begins. The group describes it as “the intersection of improvisation and composition, using improvisational games and strategies.” The members of the quartet demonstrated their powerful technical and musical skills as an ensemble and as four very strong players working together. At times one could focus on an individual solo or line from one performer, while at others the timbres and harmonies of the four saxophones seemed to act as one. As with some of the electronic performances the following night, there were sections of long drawn-out notes, and some very quiet subtle moments, which were interrupted by flurries of fast notes and punctuated phrases. Even if it was largely improvised, one could follow an imaged narrative to go along with the music.

Throughout the evening, I couldn’t help but notice the rather large wind instruments on the right side of the stage:


[click to enlarge]

In this photo, we see a bass saxophone, a tubax, and a contrabass flute. These were all instruments used by Vinny Golia in the final set of the evening. Golia performed solo and group Compositions for Woodwinds together with Thollem Mcdonas (piano), Damon Smith (bass), Rent Romus (saxophone, electronics), Garth Powell (percussion), and Noah Philips (guitar).


[click to enlarge]

The lively and energetic performances centered on free jazz , with free improvisation and interaction among the performers, but showcasing the unique aspects of each musician and instrument. In addition to Golia’s virtuosic performance wind instruments large and small, I also noticed prepared piano sounds from Mcdonas, and hard driving guitar and percussion from Philips and Powel, respectively, and Smith’s ever present and versatile bass.


The second program, “Industrial Soundscapes”, opened with Ferrara Brain Pan’s Form of Things Unknown. Long droning oscillators served as the foundation, on top of which he layered various shakers, bowls and other sounds, processed electronically. Ferrara Brain Pan is also an accomplished wind player, and incorporated bass clarinet into the set, which complemented the low-frequency oscillators. Sometimes they matched precisely, while other moments were as a counterpoint. Perhaps more than any of the other sets, this one matched my own current style of electronic music performance.


[click to enlarge]

Guitarist Peter Kolovos was introduced as having “surgical precision”. And it was an apt description. The staccato articulation of the guitar as well as the frequent changes of effects were very precise. There was never a moment where the sound was not changing, and changing quickly. At times it was quite loud and the effects quite heavy, but his dextrous performance was great to watch.

Conure focused on analog and digital noise, with lots of distortion, feedback, delays and lo-fi effects. There were sections of steady-state noise, but what most stood out were the moments with interesting transitions and glitches. I realized that Conure and I had crossed paths at an Outsound event last year.

Hans Fjellestad presented Slimspor Cosmonau, a short video with improvised electronic sound accompaniment. I actually wasn’t sure whether or not the music was scored out precisely to match the film, but I was assured by the artist that was entirely improvised, which is possible if one is intimately familiar with the visual material. The film appears as a computer screen, with controls around a central video area depicting lunar and astronomical images as well as biological and anatomical scenes.


[click to enlarge]

Late in the piece, I recognized a distinctive squeak that I thought might be a Metasonix effects box, and inspecting his setup after the performance confirmed that he did have one of these infamous boxes. Indeed, Fjellestad’s performance featured an eclectic mix of analog instruments – fitting for creator of the 2004 documentary MOOG.

Thomas Dimuzio concluded the program with his complex electronics and timbrally rich and evolving soundscape. Dimuzio uses a variety of technologies, including live sampling and looping, feedback and modulated effects. The piece started quite simply with a relatively harmonic chord, and the overall effect was very calm but also metallic. Then a swell, and metal resonances. The overall motion of the set was very slow, a strong contrast to Kolovos’ set earlier in the evening. This is not to say that there weren’t discrete textures and details within the music, but it was more like the details one would focus on while examining a natural scene, or perhaps the industrial urban landscapes where I enjoy walking. With it’s gradual place and close, this was an apt conclusion to the “industrial soundscapes” evening.

Outsound New Music Summit: Touch the Gear

This is the first of two articles about the Outsound New Music Summit, which took place last week here in San Francisco.

The first night was the Touch the Gear Expo in which the public is invited to try out the musical instruments and equipment of a number of artists from the festival as well as other Outsound events. It was a respectably sized turnout, with a large number of visitors.


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I brought the venerable Wacom Graphics Tablet and PC laptop running Open Sound World for people to play.


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It often gets attention during performances, and did so at this hands-on event as well. Because it uses familiar gestures in a visually intuitive way, many people were able to start right away experimenting with it making music with phrasing and articulation. I provided a simple example using FM synthesis as well as chance for people to play a phrase from my piece Charmer:Firmament (which uses additive synthesis).

Tom Duff also demonstrated his own custom software in combination with a controller, in this case an M-Audio drum-pad array. One thing we observed in his demo was how much computing power is available on a contemporary machine, like a Macbook Pro, and that for many live electronic-music applications there is more than enough. But somehow, many applications seem to grow to fit the available space, especially in our domain.

There were several demonstrations that were decidedly more low-tech, involving minimal or in some cases no electronics. Steven Baker presented a collection of resonant dustbins with contact microphones.


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The dustbins were arranged in such a way as to allow two performers to face each other for interactive performance.

I enjoyed getting to try out the hand-cranked instruments of the Crank Ensemble:


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Basically, one turns the crank which creates a mechanical loop of sounds based on the particular instrument’s materials. I have seen the Crank Ensemble perform on a few occasions, but never got to play one of the instruments myself.

I also finally got to try out Tom Nunn’s skatch boxes, which I had seen at the Skronkathon as well as “Tuesdays at Toms”.


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The body of the instrument is a cardboard box, and one plays it by running a comb over the various metal and plastic elements attached to the box. I spent a few minutes exploring the sounds and textures running different combs over the elements, including other combs. It was very playable and expressive, I could definitely make use of one of these!

Another variation on the theme of amplified acoustic objects was Cheryl Leonard’s demonstration in which one could play sand, water, wood, and other natural elements:

Returning now to electronics, and a different kind of “elemental music.” CJ Borosque presented her use of analog effects boxes with no formal input. Analog circuits do have some low-level noise, which is what she is using as a source for feedback, resonance, distortion and other effects. Ferrara Brain Pan demonstrated an analog oscillator than can handle very low frequencies (i.e., less than 1Hz!).

There are also several other live-performance electronics demonstrations. Bob Marsh presented the Alesis Air Synth (no longer in production). Performers pass their hand over the domed surface to manipulate sounds. Similar to the tablet, this is a very intuitive and rich interface. Rick Walker demonstrated a new powerful instrument for recording and controlling multiple live loops, with the ability to manipulate rhythm and meter. I look forward to hearing him use it in a full performance soon. Thomas Dimuzio showed a full rig for live electronics performance, that I believe he used at the electronics-oriented concert the following week.

Garden of Memory 2009

We passed another summer solstice a couple of weeks ago, and once again I marked the occasion by attending the Garden of Memory performance at the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland.

For more views of the Chapel of the Chimes itself, please visit the review from last year. It is full of light and a mixture of large and intimate spaces, and a really interesting place to wander and hear different sounds.

The size of the event itself can be a bit overwhelming, with so many performers and galleries throughout the complex. One approach is simply to wander and discover the different spaces and music. But I tend more towards trying to go through the entire space systematically and see as much as possible, which I did with some success (I did unfortunately miss several performances).

Just like last year, I was greeted at the entrance by a performance by Jaroba and Byron Blackburn. Jaroba again had a gopichand in his collection of instruments.

In the main chapel, I saw performances by Sarah Cahill and the William Winant Percussion Group. I thought the latter sounded a bit like Philip Glass with its repetitive patterns, pentatonic scales and harmonies, and marimba rhythms. At the end of the performance, I found out it was in fact a piece by Philip Glass.

The more electronic “stage acts” were in the Julia Morgan Chapel at the other end of the building. Amy X Neuburg gave another of her charismatic and very tight performances that we at CatSynth have reviewed in the past. This was followed by Paul Dresher and Joel Davel, whose performance featured a marimba lumina as well as a large and intriguing bowed string instrument:

Musically, the performance began with repeated undulating tones, minor modal harmonies, and syncopated rhythms, with expressive bowing on the large instrument throughout. Gradually the performance become more “electronic” – even though the entire performance involved electronics from what I could tell, the sounds became more characteristic of electronic music – with more effects, noises and hits as the rhythmic pattern faded out. There was a “surprise note” followed by more percussive computer-like tones, bends and glissandi on the stringed instrument, looping and effects. The instrument was also “prepared” with metal objects during this part of the performance. Eventually the rhythmic patterns returned, but they seemed “darker.”

Matthew Goodhart’s installation in the Chapel of Patience (I really like the names of the different chapels and halls there) featured cymbals with transducers, producing long metallic tones and visual effects and they reflected the light:

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Leaving the cymbals, I then followed the sound of Gino Robair’s bowed gongs to find his performance along with Polly Moller and Tom Duff:


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My favorite moment during their performance involved Tom Duff singing God Save the Queen set against cymbal resonances and a perfect fourth by a tone tube (I forget the formal name) and Polly on bass flute.

In the previous two photos for the Goodhart installation and Gino Robair’s ensemble, one can truly get a sense of the setting. Each of the squares in the grids represents the location of cremated remains, someone’s final resting place.

I tend to be drawn to metallic sounds, so a next followed the hall to an installation Loving Kindness by John Bischoff. Although this was a computer-controlled electromechanical piece, with motors affecting the sound-making objects, it reminded me musically of Stockhausen’s Kontakte (a favorite piece of mine).

From metal we then move to strings, with Larnie Fox and the Crank Ensemble. The plethora of plucked string tones fit perfectly with the visuals of the musicians moving around a large square of cable. It was held in place by some of the performers while one moved around:

I did also notice the “live knitting”, which was an integral component of the performance.

Tucked away in a small chamber and easy to miss was an installation by Joel Colley featuring a macabre set of animal skulls atop stones, with ambient sounds in the background.

Over the course of four hours, it is not surprising that some performers will need to take breaks. It did mean I missed a couple of interesting performances which did not publish specific times. Pamela Z did publish performance times, so I did get to see part of her performance with the iPhone Ocarina application.

Michael Zbyszynski performed more traditional wind instruments, flute and saxophone, but with modern extended techniques mixed with jazz idioms, in the Chapel of Resignation.

Nearby, in one corner of the main atrium, Thomas Dimuzio and Wobbly performed on guitar and live electronics, respectively. The music unfolded as long ethereal sounds with strong resonances, and some bowed metal sounds as well.

Maggi Payne presented this cool-looking installation founded that blended quite well into the permanent elements of the room:

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In a nearby room was a performance by the ensemble Vorticella. We previously reviewed Vorticella, which consists of Krystyna Bobrowski on horns, Erin Espeland on cello, Brenda Hutchinson on aluminum tube and vocals, and Karen Stackpole on percussion, as part of the Flower Moon concert. Once again, the four very different performances produce a rich and complex music.

In the next room was a duo of Svetlana Voronina and Joe Straub with glockenspiel and electronics. Before hearing them perform, I wandered over during one of their breaks, and found their setup visually interesting:

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Upstairs, I caught part of a performance by the ensemble Natto, which featured electronics, flutes, strings and a Chinese lute (I believe it was a pipa). The music consisted of heavy strumming, electronic “wipes”, harmonics on the wind instruments and resonances and delays used for pitch effects.

In the upstairs section of the main atrium was a continuous vocal performance by the Cornelius Cardew Choir of Pauline Oliveros’ Heart Chant. The audience was invited to participate.

The upstairs of the atrium is also the place to arrive during the climactic moment of the evening at sundown. As sundown approaches, everyone is invited to ring bells – many people rang keychains. There was an interesting timbral and spatial juxtaposition of the sunset bell-ringing and Dimuzio’s and Wobbly’s drone sounds on the lower level.

The theme of bells and metal sounds continued as I left after sunset, passing a set of large chimes that seemed to mark the end of the event.