Containment Scenario: FUEL, Luggage Store Gallery

This performance, entitled FUEL, was part of the Containment Scenario performance series “which explores the current environmental situation through the lens of improvisational music-dance-theater.” This was the third part of a five-part series adopted from the book Containment Scenario: DisloInter MedTextId entCation: Horse Medicine by M. Mara-Ann, who also directed this performance.

This was a multimedia piece with voice, text, instruments, dance and reactive video (Luke Selden). It began with the vocal leads (M. Mara Ann and Sarah Elena Palmer) sitting down in the front of the stage with computer printouts, loudly ruffling and connecting them up with packing tape. As video of bucolic grass scenes and a close-up of a human are projected on the walls behind them (and onto their reflective white dresses), we hear their voices come in, speaking words disjointed and percussively. The voices gradually become more melodic, but all the while the “paperwork” continues. The other performs move slowly onto the stage, all wearing white shirts. As they take their positions, first the guitar (Noah Phillips), then the electronics (Travis Johns), then violin (Emily Packard) and percussion (Anantha R. Krishnan) all came in.

Musically the texture remained very gradual, interspersed with vocals, though the words became clearer and louder over time. This was aided by the fact that the text (presumably from the Containment Scenario source) became synchronously part of the music and the projected media. Text scrolling by on the right video projection was recited in various musical styles, harmonic, percussive, expressive, while the vocalists took turns typing their words into a laptop that would project onto the other screen, sometimes mixed with other videos. During this section, the instrumental music was much more sparse, often silent as the written and spoken words became the focus.

Later textual recitations returned from the video to the computer printouts. At times the words came out as whispers, sometimes more melodically, with the instrumentals returning into the mix. As the performers moved around the stage, there were dramatic visual moments where they became part of the video projection, their white shirts and dresses becoming screens on which the video was reflected and distorted and combined with the flat background.

The dancers (Julie Binkley and Rebecca Wilson) eventually took the printouts used for the back screen and began to wrap each of the musicians in a cocoon of paper. First Travis Johns on electronics was encased, then the each of the others in succession, eventually binding the two vocal leads into a bundle of their own printouts. The piece concluded with the dancers bringing out large number signs (I’m not sure what these were about), and handing them to the vocalists, after which the sounds and words gradually stopped.

The performance of Containment Scenario: FUEL was preceded by two fun sets of improvisational music.

The first set was by Drew Ceccato, playing an electronic valve instrument (EVI) by Steiner and an analog synth by Crumar – a beautiful and intriguing instrument. The set began with a low rumbling, which joined with “watery” sounds and pitch modulation expressively controlled by the EVI to create a subtle rhythm. Over time, this become louder, with wider pitch modulations, beating, percussive sounds before returning to the low rumbling. The music then changed completely for more traditional “analog sounds” with traditional pitched notes, like a conventional wind instrument, though with extremely high pitches at times. It was a very brief, and very intense set, without a moment wasted.

Ceccato was followed by a duo of Gino Robair and Christopher Riggs who was playing “guitar and a box of cool looking stuff”. Of course, Gino Robair had his collection of cool stuff as well, analog synthesizers along with metallic resonant objects and various means of exciting them. It started with a metallic roar, which I believe was created by Riggs’ rubbing the guitar strings. This was combined with the chaotic sound of the Blippo Box and other synths. The two performers appeared to come to an equilibrium of sorts, with sounds repeated and played off one another. Indeed, it was sometimes hard to tell who was playing what sound – and this is a good thing. Robair moved on from the synths to cymbals, with loud dramatic resonances set against the guitar rhythms. I heard a plaintive brass synth set against a more “chattery” guitar; a styrofoam instrument that was “insect-like” in both its appearance and sound; a funny voice vaguely like throat singing made with a tube and a coffee can; and more metal objects excited by motorized fans crawling along the floor. After a climx with angry resonances and a metal on metal thud, lots of motion, convulsing and fast scraping, the sounds faded out.

The turnout for this particular evening was quite impressive, it seemed that all the seats were filled, even the extra “kiddie seats” that the folks at the Luggage Store often put out.

Thoughts on last night's performance

In this article I review my performance last night at the plug:dos headphone festival in San Francisco.

First, the venue itself. 5lowershop is in a warehouse near the junction of highways 280 and 101 in San Francisco. It’s at the edge of the Bernal Heights neighborhood.

The venue and its surroundings have that seedy edge-of-the-city feel that I probably wouldn’t want to live in but nonetheless often find intriguing and romantic. It’s just another part of the quintessentially “modern” world.

The interior matches the exterior, a jumble of areas within the warehouse, including the main performance area. The space is quite porous with the outside, and I noticed several cats wander though, including the grey fellow and a small black-and-white kitten. They were presumably feral cats attracted by the warmth, activity and possibility of food. Feral cats are an inevitable part of urban environments, but it’s still heartbreaking to see them this way. I was also concerned for them because of the dogs that were present, fortunately the dogs seemed to be pets and quite mellow.

The atmosphere of people crowded in a warehouse listening to headphones was quite unusual to say the least. Some of the performances were quite interesting, including a serinate for voice and hammer-dulcimer, and of course several acts mixing guitar, analog synthesizers and turntable. The analog synths didn’t strike me as a good fit for headphone performance, and thus avoided them myself (as described in my article on the preparation), but they did a good job of keeping the sound within a reasonable range.

Despite the best efforts of the organizers, whom I liked and thought did a good job overall, things tended to run rather late, and I ended up going on 9:40PM, two hours after my scheduled performance. But I think it went well musically, pretty much meeting my expectations for mixing ambient and rhythmic/punctuated material while keeping things mellow for the headphones. I did bounce around and repeat elements more than I expected, but such is the nature of improvisation, reacting as things unfold.

The equipment (Dell Laptop, Emulator X, E-MU 1616m, E-MU Xboard 25) performed flawlessly. I did make a direct recording on the laptop, and will be posting that shortly. I am also planning to make that the first release in my planned podcast series.

UPDATE: you can now listen to the audio from this performance. Enjoy!

Preparing for tomorrow's performance

My upcoming performance at the the plug.dos headphone festival provides some special challenges. Because the audience, both at the venue and online, will be using headphones, I need make sure my sounds and processes are headphone-safe, i.e., low volume with no clipping, glitching or large volume-spikes. More positively, I can take advantage of a uniform stereo listening environment with deliberate pan and positioning effects.

The need for steady volume and stability rules out the use of feedback and high-resonance filtering that I use in a lot of my recent music. Thus, the Evolver is out. Many of my Open Sound World patches are probably not approrpriate, though stable-volume patches are certainly doable.

I am focusing on Emulator X controlled with a MIDI keyboard (E-MU Xboard25). Thus, my preparations have focused on selecting existing sounds from the E-MU sound library that meet my technical and aesthetic requirements, and creating some new sounds. One preset that I spent a lot of time building is a modification of my additive synthesizer for Emulator X, consisting of eight independently controllable sinewaves. In addition to MIDI control of amplitude and frequency, I use a function generator to add amplitude modulations do the sinewave components of the timbre. Additionally, each “note” played has an independent pan position, spreading the sound across in the stereo field. I have also modified some existing sounds to include stable amplitude-modulation effects. The end result is a highly-controllable pallete of sounds from which I plan to make an ambient but punctuated sound scape, with a few rhythmic elements for good measure.

Logistically, this will be a very simple performance to travel and set up, just my laptop, the E-MU 1616m sound module, and the keyboard. I am looking forward to a relaxed, simple and enjoyable experience.

I'm not posting any advance examples, so you'll have to listen online to the show to hear what I'm describing. Hopefully I will be able to post a recording after the fact.


getting ready for tomorrow's performance, part 1

Well, it's time to stop fooling around with pictures and get back to using Open Sound World for what is was intendend, making sound. In preparation for my performance tomorrow at the Skronkathon, I have selected a couple of patches that have worked well for me in the past. They are quite robust, and provide a variety of musical gestures and timbres that complement the sound generated by Ron Lettuce on his PVC wind instrument.

First there is my sinusoidal timbre space based on bifurcation diagrams from classic chaotic functions, controlled using my Wacom graphics tablet. If that sounds really complicated and weird, just accept for the moment that it sounds really cool, and that I will post a more in-depth article about it along with sound clips in the near future. The second patch uses a WX7 wind controller to control a set of resonance models and the excitations used to drive them – essentially, a metallic chamber that one plays like a wind instrument (clarinet, saxophone, etc.). Both of these programs were used in my performances with ELSA Productions last year.

Before today, I had been a bit worried about using my Dell laptop for the performance, as it had a tendency to start running the fan at full blast and slowing to a crawl, especially when running a CPU-intensive program like OSW or Emulator X2. Things would get even worse running a program like Poser or Bryce that is both CPU and graphics intensive. I installed the fan control software and cleaned out the internal fans and heat sink as described in this article and others, and while this has helped, it hasn't cured the problem, particularly with respect to graphics. I fear the root cause of the problem is simply that the laptop, which is nearly three years old, is simply nearing retirement.

In any case, I am also the planning to use the Evolver and the feedback+filter technique I described in a previous article. I generally have both a hardware synth and computer running simultaneously during live performances, so that if the computer and software crash I still have something to play. This has paid off on numerous occasions.

And that's pretty much it. It doesn't sound like a lot, a couple of very focused synthesis techniques, but by listening and playing them like traditional instruments, I expect to get a ful musical performance – I often advise such a “simple” approach to live electronic performance when asked by other musicians.

So that's it for now. I'm off to San Francisco for my one “rehearsal,” taking a leisurely trip up Highway 1 to Half Moon Bay and then cutting over to get to the city. More later.

DSI Evolver legal again in Kansas public schools

After the recent electoral defeats of Creationists on the Kansas school board, students are now free again to use the Evolver synthesizer from Dave Smith Instruments. Was the Evolver an unintended victim of the continuing assault on the theory of evolution and scientific reason, or part of an orchestrated effort to eliminate all electronic music in Kansas except for the DX7 electric piano patch used by wedding and bar-mitzvah bands?

Speaking of music spawned by the devil, I have been experimenting a lot lately with the use of feedback as the primary sound source for the filters instead of the starndard oscillators. The instability combined with the filters and multiple conversions between analog and digital in the signal path make for some very interesting results. I have posted an example here for your listening pleasure. Be forwarned, there are a lot of harsh high frequencies in this example, though the MP3 compression does help soften them a bit. Enjoy!