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.

[Photograph by Jennifer Chu. Click to enlarge.]

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.

Edgetone New Music Summit

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend the Edgetone Music Summit, including the Wednesday night performance SonicLight. All the performances including both musical and visual elements being “performed.” The visuals were as much a live performance element as the music, rather than simply films or videos that were being shown while the music was played.

The first set was a piece by No More Twist! entitled Inquisition for Suspect, Examiner and Audience. No More Twist! is the due of Les Hutchins and Polly Moller, who of course should be quite familiar to regular readers of this site.

The performance involved Polly Moller, as the “Suspect”, being attached to the Glove of Truth, a custom lie-detector that measures vital signs and transmits the data to a computer, where it is interpreted visually and sonically, and used to determine falsehood or truth, as in the sample below:

Audience members were invited to ask yes/no questions to invoke declarations of “true” or “lie.” This is of course especially fun for audience members who may be able to independently verify the answers to their questions. Of course, the most fun for everyone was when the word “lie” would appear on the screen in all its accusatory grandeur.

The next performance was by Kwisp, a duo featuring Walter Funk and Lenny Bove. It featured a variety of elements including a holographic projection that audience members were encouraged to come view at close range (but not too close lest one damage the specialized lens); and custom analog electronics including the tower electronique, displayed to the right.

Musically, Kwisp was closer to the standard “experimental electronics” performances that I perform or attend, with its combination of laptop-based electronics, analogue synthesis and processing, improvisation and noise.

The final performance was a video and live-music set by Thickness/Mono-Layer. The group, which includes John Reily, Eric Steinberg and Charles Kremenak, performed a “power duo” of bass and guitar (with synthesis and processing) against two videos projected on either side of the hall. The videos were incredibly detailed in their editing (several of us commented on the sheer volume of separate clips and cuts and the amount of time it must have taken to put them together). Indeed, I was quite involved in the visuals, that I didn’t spend as much attention on the music, though I did recognize the guitar synthesizer at various moments.

The Edgetone Music Summit is an annual festival in San Francisco that features “Independent artists most of whom are practitioners in music and sound of improvised and or experimental and or exploratory nature.” It began as an event to support the artists of Edgetone Records, an artist operated recording label for improvised and experimental music that includes several of our friends. As part of the summit, I had the opportunity to hear a lecture by Edgetone Records’ founder Rent Romus on the concept of the “Artist Run Label” the night before the SoundLight performance.

The programs provided for the summit each included a “drop card”, which can be used to download music by each of the performers from all events of the festival. We will be listening to, and probably commenting on, some of those tracks soon…