Today we look back at this year’s μHausen, a “micro-festival” of experimental electronics that takes place every summer deep at a secure undisclosed location in the Santa Cruz Mountains. It was the subject of our most recent CatSynth TV episode.
As suggested in the video, I was thinking a lot about our natural surroundings as we made music with our thoroughly artificial electronic instruments. The trees, the air, the light, all seemed to be of a piece with the music at times. I also thought about the fact that I had not been able to attend the last three installments. In 2015 and 2016 I had to cancel or decline because of medical issues, and I’m not sure what happened in 2017. But I was back now and was great to see and hear everyone.
First up was Peter Elsea, recently retired from his longtime position as a professor of electronic music at UC Santa Cruz. On this occasion, he performed with a small rig that included a modular synthesizer and an electronic wind instrument.
His set featured tones that were timbrally rich and often noisy, but still pitched. This worked well with the wind controller which allowed the noisy tones to swell and fade musically. But there were also some beautiful moments of quiet pure tones that evoked the natural surroundings.
Next up was Later Days, a project featuring Wayne Jackson with his iOS-based evolutionary synth MendelTone, which allows patches to “breed” and evolve.
There was an urgent “machine-like” quality to the music, with low drones oms mixing with high swirls of sound and various percussive hits. Wayne is also the founder of this event and often its leader, but this year he ceded organizing duties to R Duck (of the R Duck Show), who performed next.
[Photo by Later Days (Wayne Jackson)]
The first segment of his set featured beautiful drones of processed guitar. There were quick runs, but they were absorbed into the overall sound. Over time, the tone and structure darkened, with more complex timbres and harmonies set against slow but anxious guitar riffs. He also teamed up with Later Days to deliver his perennial incantation featuring chocolate. (Did I mention that we at CatSynth love chocolate?)
Next up was synthesizer virtuoso Doug Lynner, who performed on a Eurorack-based Serge modular synthesizer.
[Photo by Later Days (Wayne Jackson)]
I have long come to expect very complex and intricate sounds from Doug, often set in a very sparse texture where one can clearly hear the details. That was certainly the case in this performance, which opened with light sounds reminiscent of birds and whale songs. It could have come from the surrounding woods rather than the synthesizer on stage (OK, the bird sounds could have, probably not the whale sounds). After a period of rapid modulation, the music settled into a different pattern, with a contrapuntal texture of long ascending tones reminiscent of sirens.
Lynner was followed by Paul Nicholson who had a large Korg-centric rig that included both a Minilogue, an MS-20 and an SQ-1 sequencer among other instruments.
His opening piece was more traditionally harmonic compared to the preceding sets, with slowly changing harmonic patterns that evoked late-20th-century minimalism (think Steve Reich and John Adams). The second portion of the set featured some harsher sounds and noise centered around Nicholson’s modular synth.
Then it was time for me to take the stage. I brought a rig that included the large 9U modular, a Casio SK-1 and my trusty Moog Theremini.
[Photo by R Duck]
As with most of my recent solo work, I select one of my more formal compositions as a point of departure. In this case, it was “White Wine”, with the melody set against one of the SK-1’s drum beats. This them morphed into a broken and complex break of sound and eventually to a pure improvisation with the modular and theremin, though the beats never really disappeared. As I was when listening to the other sets, I was thinking about the natural surroundings – in my case being the “city girl” mastering my place in space and sound, even if just for a few brief minutes.
The final set featured Lemon DeGeorge on harmonica and electronics.
The harmonicas (like a true player of the instrument, he had more than one) added a unique dimension to the music, and the electronics followed with long breathy tones. The sounds appeared to build up layers upon layers into something heavy and enveloping, but never overwhelming. Compared to Nicholson’s sounds, DeGeorge’s lone tones and patterns were thoroughly inharmonic but no less beautiful or musical.
Overall it was a fine afternoon of weird electronic music in the woods, and not just for the music itself but for the fellowship with friends who I don’t get to see that often. I remained in the mind space of the show, the environment, and the sounds for a while on the drive back, at least until reaching I-880 and heading first into Oakland and later home to San Francisco, where I snapped back into my everyday urban life.
The December 1 show at the Luggage Store Gallery in San Francisco marked my official curatorial debut for the long-running Outsound Presents’ series. The show featured three solo performances with electronics, all very different in terms of musical style and technologies. But while all featured and celebrated different facets of electronic-music technology, there were strong connections to the acoustic and natural environment.
The evening opened with a set by Headboggle (aka Derek Gedalecia) with an array of analog electronics, including a Blippo Box. The sounds and possibilities of analog electronics were paired sounds of nature as recorded in the Yosemite Valley. The music began with a rhythmic pattern of high-pitched sounds against longer machine noises and clear presentation of the nature recordings. Gradually, the two sonic strains collided and mixed together.
As with previous Headboggle performances (such as the set at the 2010 Outsound Music Summit), this one was full of energy and stage theater, with head banging, dropping of the stage furniture, and even a moment where he tossed shakers down the Luggage Store Gallery’s stairwell. The music also became more dramatic and percussive, with more glitches, percussive hits and bursts of noise, but all set against the continuing presence of the nature sounds. The harsher electronic sounds gave way to a more rarefied tone over time, with longer periods of harmonic oscillator sounds fading into a quieter single tone. After another percussive period that included lifting and dropping the table holding the care, the environmental sounds took center stage. Between the stereo speakers and the acoustics of the gallery, the leaves and other sounds were strongly spatialized and felt present.
Thea Farhadian followed with a set for violin and computer running Max/MSP. In some sections of her performance, the violin was more of a traditional chamber-music instrument, with its familiar timbres augmented by electronic samples and processing. In others, it was more of a controller, with pizzicato notes triggering long runs of notes from the computer or other purely electronic events. The set started out with solo violin, with the electronics emerging slowly like the orchestra in a concerto. The music continued to unfold as interplay between the violin and electronics. As the texture changed to more pizzicato notes with electronic responses of backward tones, the music grew more anxious, channeling the anxious moments of countless films. I also was reminded of works by Penderecki and Xenakis. A large barrage of electronic pizzicato sounds started to take on a drone-like quality with its density. In both the melodic and percussive sections, the music was harmonically a very strong, a brought in electronic orchestration that suggestion the presence of a cello or bass off stage. Other effects included fast glissandi and electronic pitch changes such as one might achieve by changing the speed of a tape.
Farhadian’s performance was divided into a series of short movements, and some had very different character. In one, short pizzicato notes on the violin acted as triggered for long runs of electronic notes and processing, with various speed, pitch and timbral changes applied. In another, a very lyrical string melody was set against fluttering sounds and dramatic low tones. In yet another, she used “prepared violin”, with bits of foil and other items placed against the strings for percussive effects. The electronic accompaniment was equally scratchy and inharmonic. And in one of the final sections, repeated rhythmic phrases and echoes perfectly aligned.
The final set featured Later Days (aka Wayne Jackson) with a variety of circuit-bent instruments, acoustic and electronic noisemakers, and a laptop running his custom Cambrian Suite audio softsynth with both hand-designed and algorithmically evolved patches. If Farhadian’s performance was all about software-based manipulation and Headboggle was focused on analog hardware, Later Days combined both.
The space was quickly filled with an ocean of electronic sounds, glitches, bleeps, rumbles, short loops and echoes. At one point, everything became extremely quiet, with a few lo-fi distortion sounds and high squeaky analog sounds. The new sampling and looping capabilities of the software were showcased with repeated loops of circuit-bent sounds, a solo on a photo-sensitive oscillator, a car horn and recordings from a microphone dangled out the window onto busy Market Street. The loops built up to a frenzy and the slowed down to almost nothing. The sounds picked up again in pitch and energy, with feedback loops providing an edgy and unpredictable quality. A metallic rhythm emerged, and the faded a single feedback loop. A flurry of “little loud bits” formed an odd harmony of their own. After a series of machine-like noises and a more elemental wind-like sound, the music slowed down once again and came to a watery end.
Over all it was a great concert with a rich variety of music. Indeed, the three artists fit together sequentially even better than I had anticipated. And fortunately, the logistics and technical requirements (e.g., soundchecking) were not that challenging, so I was able to enjoy the show along with the audience.