Earlier this month, I participated in a show at the Luggage Store Gallery in San Francisco called Space Music Night that turned out to be quite memorable. So what exactly is “space music”? It is not straightforward to come up with a definitive answer, except that it should reflect some sense of “outer space” as one might imagine it. Or, perhaps more accurately, as people might have imagined it in the 1960s and 1970s. The music that we performed that evoke “space rock” that one might associate with early Pink Floyd or Gong, but also more freeform ambient soundscapes. The latter comes closer to ambient music one might hear on NPR’s “Hearts of Space” program but without crossing over that dangerous line into New Age. The music was certainly contemplative at times, but retained an edge to it and often veered back to rock and jam idioms, and moved back and forth between defined harmonies and more abstract timbres. The “space” effect was also heightened by having a dark room with abstract video projections by Tim Thompson.
The show was divided into two sets with four musicians each. Although many of us were familiar to one another, this was the first each each set of four played together as a group. The first set featured Matt Davignon on drum machines and effects, Kristen Miltner on electronics, Karl Evangelista on guitar, and Andrew Joron on theremin. Musically, this set had a very thick electronic texture with a soft beat from the drum machines that came in and out of presence. The electronics and heavily processed guitar provided anxious harmonies, and the theremin seemed to be narrating a space story with warbles and slides that approached the rhythm of human speech. At moments, the rhythm dropped out altogether, while at others it came closer to an extended jam. You can hear a bit of the set in the following video:
In the second set, I performed with iPad and the Dave Smith Evolver, along with David Leikam, Sheila Bosco on drums, and Steve Abbate on guitar. Perhaps it was the instrumentation of the set, or the musical leanings of the performers (including myself) towards strong rhythm, but we very quickly gelled into a steady rock jam rhythm that extended for most of the length of the set except for avery deliberate breaks. I mostly used Sunrizer on the iPad to provide ethereal harmonies to set again Leikam’s Moog Rogue and his “electric bass cello” and provide structure for melodic improvisation. This was definitely approaching the “space rock” idiom that inspired the evening.
I was quite happy with how well we able to play together despite having not played together before, and indeed a few people afterwards expressed some surprise that we hadn’t. But perhaps we will get a chance to play again.
Two weeks ago, I participated in the 2010 edition of the Droneshift at the Luggage Store Gallery here in San Francisco.
The Droneshift has become an annual event, though this year it was part of the Full-Moon Concert Series, approximately coincident with the Long Nights Moon.
Droneshift is a collaborative concert of improvised drone music. Between 15 and 25 musicians will gather to contribute to a continuous 2 hour drone, each adding their acoustic or electronic instruments here and there, and weaving their sounds together to create gradually shifting tapestries of music. The performance will most likely shift back and forth from completely acoustic music to electric ambiance and post-industrial noise.
Basically, the two hour performance is one continuous ever-changing sound. No individual notes, rests, phrases, breaks, etc. That doesn’t mean it is at all monotonous – there are continuous changes in timbre, dynamics and expression, both within individual parts as various musicians enter and exit the sound.
There were actually close to (if not more than) 30 performers participating this year. The performers were arranged along periphery of the gallery with the audience situated in the middle looking outward. So between the audience and musicians, things got quite crowded. I was able to stake out some chair space for myself my minimalist setup:
I just had the iPad and an amplifier, and I was primarily running the Smule Magic Fiddle throughout my allotted time. It is a good instrument for droning, as one can linger on the strings pretty much forever, and play subtle pitch and dynamic changes. It’s easy to gradually fade out, and then fade in very slowly another pitch, which will change the overall sound of the performance without causing a distinct note break.
Because the nature of overall drone sound and the large number of participants, it was often difficult to focus on what any one other musician was playing. I mostly shifted between focusing on my own part and getting lost in the overall sound, which was quite meditative at times. I was able to take in some details, such as Matt Davignon’s distinctive glass-vase performance:
I was sitting across from Adam Fong on upright bass. There were moments when I took cues from him and other string players to re-enter the mix on Magic Fiddle. I was also trying to take cues from purely electronic musicians, such as Kristen Miltner on laptop or Andrew Joron’s theremin:
Overall, the instrumentation was quite varied and there was a balance between winds, strings, percussion and electronic, although there were a few moments were it seemed some low-frequency analog electronics were overpowering everything else. It was interesting to hear how the textures and orchestration evolved. Sometimes similar instruments (e.g., strings) would cluster together, sometimes the texture became more scratchy and granular with lots of noise elements – something which is pushing the boundaries of what might be considered a continuous “drone” sound. At times, traditional harmonies emerged, e.g., minor or diminished chords, while at other times the timbres themselves were purely inharmonic. There were very sparse sections with only one or two participants, and others that seemed to include much of the ensemble. All of these elements just happen organically, based on how the musicians hear one another and are inspired to layer on their own parts.
You can listen to a ten-minute excerpt of the full performance in this video, courtesy of Matt Davignon:
As one can hear, the emergency vehicles that inevitably come down Market Street with sirens blaring during Luggage Store Gallery shows became part of the overall tapestry in this performance.
My personal sense of the performance as being meditative, perhaps even more so than previous Droneshifts, was echoed by members of the audience with whom I had spoken.
In addition to reflecting on the music, I would like to call out the photography of Peter B Kaars, which is featured in this article Those who have followed my own interest in photography know I tend to like very sharp, high-contrast black-and-white images. Additionally the monochrome fits with the full-moon theme and overall quality of the music they document. I wish I had space for more, or to call out more individual musicians. A full list of performers appears below:
Tom Bickley – wind controller
CJ Borosque – trumpet
Bob Boster – processed voice
Amar Chaudhary – iThings
Matt Davignon – wine glasses/vessels
Tony Dryer – bass
Adam Fong – bass
Phillip Greenlief – sax/clarinet
Ron Heglin – trombone/trumpet
Jeff Hobbs – bass, clarinet or violin
Travis Johns – electronics
Andrew Joron – theremin
Aurora Josephson – voice
Sebastian Krawczuk – bass
David Leikam – Moog rogue synthesizer
Cheryl Leonard – viola
Brian Lucas – electric bass / tapes
Melissa Margolis – accordion
Bob Marsh – voice
Marianne McDonald – didgeridoo
Chad McKinney – supercollider/guitar
Joe McMahon – didgeridoo
David Michalak – Omnichord
Kristin Miltner – laptop
Ann O’Rourke – bowed cymbal
Ferrara Brain Pan – sopranino saxophone
Rent Romus – sax/tapes
Ellery Royston – harp w/effects
Lx Rudis – electronics
Mark Soden – trumpet
Moe! Staiano – guitar
Errol Stewart – guitar
Lena Strayhorn – tsaaj plaim / wind wand
Zachary Watkins – electronics
Rachel Wood-Rome – french horn
Michael Zelner – analog monophonic synthesizer, iPod Touch