It’s been a little over a week since the 2019 Outsound New Music Summit and it seems a good time to look back over all five nights of adventurous musical programming. If you haven’t already seen our summary video with highlights from all ten acts, please check it out.
The concert series kicked off with a performance by the duo B Experimental Band, a large project led by Lisa Mezzacappa (bass) and Jason Levis (drums). They have been performing as a duo for a long time, taking on different challenges as their musical relationship has evolved. The latest is bringing their improvisational focus to a large group, i.e., maintaining spontaneity and musicality of improvisation while herding cats.
What I most noticed about this set was how sparse and spacious it was. In the first piece, space played an important visual as well as musical role, with different pairs of performers scattered around the concert hall. And towards the end, the full group thinned out to a single solo line from Polly Moller Springhorn on flute. The complete ensemble also included Bruce Ackley, Randy McKean, Cory Wright, and Joshua Marshall on woodwinds; Theo Padouvas and Rob Ewing on brass; and Gabby Fluke-Mogul (violin), Murray Campbell (octave violin), Shanna Sordahl (cello), and Kjell Nordeson on percussion.
By contrast, the second set featuring saxophone quartet Social Stutter was densely packed with rich harmonies and melodies. Composer and bandleader Beth Schenck makes the quartet – which also includes Phillip Greenlief, Cory Wright, and Casey Knudsen – function as a single instrument with some exquisitely beautiful chords and melodic lines. There was also space for each of the members to shine individually, with Knudsen’s fast runs, Greenlief’s unique timbres and keywork, and Wright solidly holding down the foundation on baritone sax. I was quite taken by this performance and now inspired to write my own compositions for saxophone quartet.
We always aim for a diversity of styles of music and instrumentation throughout the week, loosely categorized into nightly themes. For example, both of the bands that could be characterized as “rock music” were on the same night, but the two groups were still quite contrasting. Gentleman Surfer, a trio featuring Jon Bafus (drums), Barry McDaniel (guitar), and Zack Bissell (synthesizers) delivered a hard-driving set – my favorite moments were those where all three played unison syncopated rhythms complete with silences that were as intense as the sounds.
By contrast, Vegan Butcher’s set had a more plaintive, cerebral quality, due in large part to composer and bandleader John Shiurba’s “January Scale” and lyrics taken from his dream state just before waking up. The scale removes C-sharp, A-sharp, and F-sharp from the available twelve tones. This provides some interesting musical challenges. For example, a song centered in the “key” of F would have to avoid B-flat (A-sharp), and some keys like D become challenging indeed! The selection of chords to work around these gives the band’s music the plaintive sound. Their final song was particularly memorable, especially the section where rhythmic chords undergird the lyrics “I’m coming down from my stilts now, baby!” I found myself singing that for days afterward.
The next night again featured two contrasting sets. First was a very spare improvisation featuring Francis Wong on saxophone and Lenora Lee on dance/movement. Wong and Lee are longtime collaborators and have been working on both improvised and larger-scale compositions for two decades.
This performance, which made use of the space around the hall as well as the stage, was extraordinarily subtle and quiet as both the sound and movement bounced off the silent space – but at the same time forceful in the message it delivered, decrying all forms of violence and discrimination against immigrants and refugees from the Chinese Exclusion Act and the internment center on Angel Island to the images of mistreated children out our southern border today.
As with duo B and Social Stutter, the sparse nature of Wong and Lee’s performance was in sharp contrast to the lush landscapes of Andrea Centazzo’s solo set, with live percussion – drums, gongs, and his signature stacks of cymbals – set against both live and recorded electronics.
Centazzo’s solo performances often involve multimedia projections with the music. Sadly, this was not able to happen for this concert, but one could still “hear the images” of nature and remote places in his sounds, from the initial thundering drums to the gong array set against what sounded like singing monks.
The next night brought Polly Moller Springhorn’s much-anticipated Tomography Fortunae to the Outsound stage, or more specifically to the floor in the middle of the hall as the audience looked on from the edges. Her composition combines a variety of sounds with ritualistic movement and concept, all codified in a graphic score. The most unique element was the fact that all performers had to be named “Tom.” This comes from a longstanding observation that many of the musicians in the Bay Area new-music scene happen to be named Tom (or Matt, or David). The Toms on this occasion were Tom Djll, Tom Dimuzio, Tom Duff, Tom Dambly, Tom Nunn, Tom Scandura, and Tom Weeks.
The piece unfolded as a series of three movements, each with more elaborate patterns of motion, ritualistic drawings, and numerical interplace. Most of the music was improvised within that framework, often bringing together pairs or trios of Toms for humorous interplay leading a loud and raucous finale with everyone playing. The whole experience was fascinating and fun.
The next set brought together percussionist William Winant with Zachary James Watkins on guitar and electronics. The two had performed together before, but I still did not know what to expect. The set opened with Winant on pine cone and drum, with Watkins gradually building up high-pitched noisy sounds to fill the spaces in between. The guitar soon emerged with stronger electronic sounds as Winant shifted to his gongs and metal percussion.
The sounds are fascinating but quite loud (especially for those of us who have maintained our high-frequency hearing) – and this was perhaps the most challenging moment of the entire festival. But things settled down again into a cloud of sound mixing percussion and electronics where the two became entangled.
The final night brought two veterans of the summit and of experimental jazz to the stage. Rent Romus (also the executive director of Outsound and the festival) teamed up with fellow woodwind multi-instrumentalist Keith Kelly for Deciduous, a set that unfolded as a collection of short stories, complete with characters, magic, and mischief. They were joined by Nava Dunkelman on percussion, HeikkiKoskinen on e-trumpet, Gabby Fluke-Mogul on violin and Lisa Mezzacappa on bass.
The final set brought back Vinny Golia and his wild collection of wind instruments to the Outsound Stage. In addition the more conventional baritone saxophone and bass clarinet, he also had a contrabass flute, a sopranino saxophone, and a rare G Mezzo-Soprano saxophone (which he describes in our preview video).
Golia was joined by Miller Wren on bass and Clint Dodson (drums). Originally, our friend Steve Adams was going to join them on saxophones but was unfortunately unable to make it for medical reasons. Fortunately, he appears to be much better and back to performing since then, and we wish him the best.
It’s particularly interesting to be present all nights and hear how the different artists and styles of music follow one another on the same stage. And I am glad to have been a part of it again this year both as a listener and part of the organizing committee.
After a couple of months away from live performance, I found myself playing two shows in one weekend, both in the Mission District of San Francisco. They were an exercise in contrasts artistically, but both were delightful in different ways.
Word Performances is a “variety show” of poets, musicians, and dancers produced by Cybele Zufolo Siegel and Todd Siegel. The latest incarnation took place at the Lost Church, a favorite venue of mine for its cozy theater and visual vibe reminiscent of David Lynch.
Like any good variety show, it features a staple of regular players that includes both Cybele and Todd, but also Pitta of the Mind as a recurring act. There were of course new participants as well, especially among the poets. You can see a bit of everyone in our video from the evening.
As is clear from the short excerpts, there was a diversity of styles and subject-matter. There were the spartan settings of the readings by Rose Heredia, Jon Sindell, Crystal Jo Reiss, and William Taylor, Jr. Todd and Cybele also gave readings, but with violin accompaniment provided by Hannah Glass. And flamenco Dancer Damian Alvarez stole the show with his tightly choreographed dance to the music of James Brown.
For Pitta of the Mind – myself and poet Maw Shein Win – we performed a brand new set with new poems, and a new color theme of green. The instruments were the same as for our previous performances, combining the Nord Stage, Prophet 12, and modular synthesizers. The consistency in structure and instrumentation helps in our ability to quickly come up with a new set.
Other than my psychedelic lights not working as expected, it was a solid set overall, and we are always happy to be part of the Word Performances shows.
If Word Performances provided a diversity of styles and media, the show later that weekend was very focused on invented instruments, unusual sounds, and the birthday of our friend David Michalak. You can see a bit of everyone in our CatSynth TV video (with David giving the valedictory tag).
This was the first time I performed as a duo with Scott Looney, but I was quite happy with the results. We are both skilled improvisers and were able to blend our sounds and ideas together seamlessly, with my performing on an Arturia MiniBrute 2 and Scott on a custom string instrument with various preparations.
Our set as well as the one that followed us featuring Tom Nunn, David Michalak, and Aurora Josephson had a similar texture: a lot of wisps, scrapes, and staccato elements. It was interesting to see how much musically David could get out of a flat piece of cardboard! The opening set with Tom Nunn on skatchbox and Ron Heglin on voice also had a very pointed and sparse texture.
The final set featuring Ghost in the House had a softer, longer, and more liquidy quality. This time David Michalak was performing with a processed harmonica and lap steel guitar, with long tones matched by Polly Moller Springhorn on bass flute and Cindy Webster on musical saw – and this was no ordinary musical saw, it seemed built specifically for music.
Overall, it was a fun show, and of high quality musically. It’s a shame more people weren’t able to hear it live – it was a private event – but the video captures much of the experience in a compact form.
The 2017 Outsound New Music Summit kicked off this Sunday with the annual Touch the Gear event. As always, there were several musicians and instrument-makers were on hand to demonstrate their setups or inventions.
Above we see Alphastare demonstrating his setup for processing of synthesized and recorded sounds that he uses in his live shows. Below, CDP bandmate Tom Djll shows his analog modular synthesizer setup with sundry external boxes for expressive control of sound.
I opted to show my modular synth as well this year, along with the Moog Theremini.
The theremin is always a popular item at this event.
Kim Nucci demonstrated some custom modules alongside a Korg MS-20 mini and a DIY metal instrument with sensors.
I have always found metal plus electronics a musically interesting combination.
Among the more unusual and surprising instruments this year was Dania Luck’s musical chessboard. It contained sensors for the magnetic chess pieces, with each square of the board triggering a different synthesizer in a SuperCollider patch.
This wasn’t the only SuperCollider program being shown, as our friend Tim Walters demonstrated his patch and controller setup. It is the setup he will use as part of Usufruct in the opening concert for the Summit.
Tim Thompson was on hand with the latest incarnation of his electronic-music instrument, the Space Palette Pro.
[Tim Thompson demonstrates the Space Palette Pro to Outsound director Rent Romus.]
It uses the same software as previous versions of the Space Palette, but with a new more compact interface based on new touch-sensitive pads from Sensel Morph. These pads are quite impressive in both response and feel, and we at CatSynth will definitely be looking into them.
Not all the demos included electronics. There were several acoustic instruments demonstrated by the Pet the Tiger collective (David Samas, Ian Saxton, Tom Nunn, Derek Drudge), including this beautiful kalimba tuned to 31edo.
I would love to write a piece for it one of these days. There was also a large metalophone with a deep resonant tone, interesting tuning, and some satellite “bass” notes.
Back inside the hall, Motoko Honda demonstrated a network of electronic devices processing voice, along with a fun circuit-bent instrument.
Matt Davignon brought his setup for expressive manipulation and processing of samples and other pre-recorded sound materials.
We would also like to thank Matt for his efforts organizing this event every year! We would also like to thank the folks at VAMP for co-presenting and bringing a pop-up shop of records and sundry vintage and musical items.
It was a fun afternoon as always, and it was great to see families in attendance. And there were multiple things to inspire me musically and technologically. We will see where that goes. Next up, the concerts…
I have been busily preparing for tonight’s solo set at The Lab here in San Francisco. As usually happens, I initially plan to simplify the setup, but then as I work on the set musically, more instruments and equipment end up part of the rig. And this one may be one of the largest to date.
In addition to the Nord Stage (aka “The Big Red Keyboard”), there is the newly reconfigured modular synth, the Prophet 12, the Moog Mother 32, Casio SK-1, and iPad. The modular path features multiple voices, including some processing external audio from the Nord and the SK-1, respectively.
Why so big? Well, it comes out the current musical direction, which mixes jazz and funk with experimental electronics. That means a full-size keyboard is always present. And the electronics has to provide rhythmic and harmonic support in addition to timbral support. This always adds significant complexity, but provides for a richer musical experience.
Here are the details on the show, including the other acts. I am excited to have a group improv with my friends Joshua Marshall, Jaroba, and Christina Stanley. And the evening will begin with an orchestra of invented instruments from Pet The Tiger (David Samas, Tom Nunn et al.) with dance by Christina Braun. If you are in the Bay Area tonight, please consider joining us.
Thursday, June 22, 8PM
2948 16th St SF
A special evening of funky and noisy sounds, invented instruments, whimsy, and more 😺 🎶
8:00PM Pet The Tiger Inventors Collective performs Arc Weld
8:40PM Amanda Chaudhary solo. Funky and experimental electronics
9:20PM Amanda Chaudhary with collaborators Joshua Marshall, Jaroba, and Christina Stanley
That event marked the debut of one of my new bands, Census Designated Place (or CDP). For this set, I was joined by Mark Pino on drums and Rent Romus on alto sax. The concept for this group is to combine my increased focus on jazz and funk with experimental sounds and ideas. We did two compositions of mine, plus an improvisation based on a graphical score painted by Mark. You can see and hear our full performance in this video.
Overall I was quite pleased with the set, and we all had a lot of fun. There is still some work to do tightening up the tunes (particularly White Wine), but that will come with time and practice. We were at our best with the rhythmic and idiomatic improvisation sections in all three pieces, especially the straight-eighth jazz and “disco” sections. And Rent did a tremendous job sitting in with the group, bringing a unique sound and style that I hope to continue in future performances.
All three of us also participated in the Lingua Incognita Session a project conceived by Mika Pontecorvo that also debuted at this event. The large ensemble featured two bassists (Eli Pontecorvo and Robert Kehlmann ), two drummers (Mark Pino and Aaron Levin, four wind players (Rent Romus, Kersti Abrams, Jaroba and Joshua Marshal, trumpet (Tony Passarell), keyboard (myself), and experimental electronics (Jack Hertz).
This was quite a cast of characters to put together in a single group, let alone a purely improvisational group that had not rehearsed together before. And it could have pure cacophony, but everyone did their part to make this work. We started with a concept based on A Love Supreme, with different performers moving in and out of the texture, which moved between sections of rhythmic jamming and more abstract tones. I know I had a lot of fun, as did others, and we hope to do this again sometime.
The day began quite a bit earlier with Shiva X, which featured Tony Passarell on tenor saxophone and Robert Kehlmann – both of whom were part of the Lingua Incognito set – along with Jim Frink on drums.
This group has some conceptual similarities with CDP, combining noisy elements with steady rhythmic drums and bass, but with a more freeform upper layer provided by Passarell’s saxophone. My favorite moments were when things converged on a groove.
Shiva X was followed by Trois Chapeaux. The group featured Jaroba, Kevin Corcoran and Jorge Bachmann (with regular member Tania Chen absent on this occasion).
This was a much more abstract sound, combining both small electronics and acoustic elements along with Bachmann on modular synth. Recognizable sounds and fragments came in and out of focus throughout the set, while clouds of noise and complexity coalesced and then dissipated.
Jack Hertz was next with a solo electronic performance. Sitting alone and unassuming at the from the room, he brought forth a variety of sounds from synthesizers, recordings, and other sources into a continuous force of music and noise. There were some soft but still delightfully crunchy moments in there as well.
The following set shifted from electronic to acoustic, but in such a way that many of the same sonic elements were preserved. There is probably few acoustic duos that sound as “electronic” as T.D. Skatchit, featuring Tom Nunn and David Michalak on sketch boxes.
The sounds of the sketch box are quite unique, and particularly tuned with the musicians who play it the moment. But there is still a tremendous variety.
Then it was time for Reconnaissance Fly, featuring the new lineup that now includes Brett Carson on keyboards along with Polly Moller (flute, guitar, voice), Tim Walters (bass), Rich Lesnick (winds) and Larry-the-O (drums).
The played a variety familiar tunes from the band’s catalog, including a couple from the first album, the recent regular rotation, and a couple of brand new songs. The overall sound of the group has coalesced into something that has strong jazz elements also quite whimsical and esoteric.
After CDP was v’Maa, a “drone band based upon Sami shamanism and spider mythology” (as described on Mark Pino’s blog). The group featured video and music with Mika Pontecorvo, Eli Pontecorvo, Kersti Abrams and Mark Pino. They were joined on this occasion by Lau Nau on voice.
After the intensity of many of the previous sets (including CDP), there was a more subdued quality, a bit more floating and meditative. The swells and ebbs in the overall texture worked will with the changes in the video; and it was a great way to relax musically after performing.
Next up was the “Bill Wolter Project”, featuring Bill Wolter on guitar, Moe! Staiano on percussion, Ivor Holloway on horns, and Ron Gruesbeck on synth.
The entire set, which was shrouded in mystery ahead of the evening, focused on made-up tunings anchored by Bill on fretless guitar. The music unfolded truly as an experiment, as the performers moved in out of various sounds within the confines of the new tuning.
The Bill Wolter Project was followed by Earspray, featuring Ann O’Rourke, Carlos Jennings and Mark Pino, who is definitely the hardest working man in the new music scene.
The set was a full explosion of noise, lights and video, made more stark by the performers’ lab coats. The sounds were a mixture of samples, synthesis and drums.
The final set of the evening was Tri-Cornered Tent Show. The current line-up for band features Philip Everett, Ray Shaeffer, Anthony Flores and Valentina O.
As with previous times I have heard the group, there was a foundation of explosive electronics and drum phases and free improvisation that moved between disparate rhythms and melodic lines. And there is a theatricality to the performance. But this performance with Valentina O was more cabaret style with humor and a certain intimacy. Between vocals, drum hits, and electronic sounds from Everett there were bits of quiet and silence perfectly timed for the theater of of the set.
This was an exhausting day of music, both as a performer and an audience member, but a rewarding one. I’m glad we stayed around for the entire day to hear everyone and the wide variety of sounds and styles. Thanks again to Mika Pontecorvo and Eli Pontecovro for putting on this evening, bring together so many musicians for a good cause.
There is never a shortage of music and art festivals in the Bay Area in the fall, and one can’t see them all, especially while also being a participant. But I was fortunate to catch the final show of the Music for People & Thingamajigs festival on October 14 at Berkeley Arts. For those who are not familiar with Thingamjigs, they focus on music and educational programs using “made/found materials and alternate tuning systems.” Both of these concepts were integral parts of the performances on this evening.
The show opened with an ensemble led by Dennis Aman. The stage was populated by a variety of instruments, including a tuba with a rotating leslie mute, and modified/re-created toy xylophones with alternate tunings.
The music varied considerably. I enjoyed the more esoteric pieces that showcased the instruments and way experienced musicians play them. The toy percussion and electronics worked particularly well. There were also some more conventional pieces, including one that sounded like a typical celtic folk tune, that did not particularly work for me in context of the darker, more percussive sounds of the other pieces.
The second half featured the premier of Symphony in Sea by David Samas. Rather than simply a piece inspired by the sea, Samas took the concept rather literally, with instruments of his own creation as well as contributions from Tom Nunn. The stage was set up with a variety of aquatic themes both natural an artificial, with a beach lounge as well as pirate apocrypha.
[Photo by Bryan Day.]
The piece unfolded over several movements, each related to a well-known phrase about the sea. Different combinations of instruments and vocal techniques were used to evoke different environmental qualities of life in or around the sea.
[Photo by Bryan Day.]
During the early movements, the music was more abstract, with room to listen to the timbral details of the various instruments. However, the later movements were more idiomatic, and even a bit tongue-in-cheek, such as a rousing pirate shanty.
Things did take a turn for the darker with a dance segment featuring Bob Marsh as a sea monster.
In the end, it was a fun performance to attend, both musically and visually. Thingamajigs has several other programs coming up. Please visit their website for more information.
The 12th Annual Outsound Music Summit began this past Sunday, opening as always with the Touch the Gear Expo. Musicians and sound artists from the Bay Area and beyond were on hand with their musical devices and inventions for the public to observe and try out. I participated this year with two technological extremes: soft synths on an iPad, and a full two rows of Eurorack format analog modules.
Both offerings were quite popular, eliciting curiosity from visitors of all ages.
One of the more intriguing analog synths I encountered was this creation by Andy Puls.
The circular pattern represents a step sequencer controlling an internal sound generator. Conductive pegs can be moved around on the bars to change pitches and other parameters. There are also knobs as well. The overall geometry, control design and lights made this a visually appealing instrument.
Nick Wang also demonstrated some custom analog boxes with controllers, oscillators and a VCF.
Fernando Lopez-Lezcano demonstrated his elaborate homemade analog synthesizer. I have had the privilege of hearing him play it in a formal performance.
Matt Davignon demonstrated his devices for working with fixed-media sources, a bit of a preview of what we can expect for Friday night’s PMOCOTAT performance.
Acoustic creations, in particular sounds from natural sources, were a common theme this year as well. Cheryl Leonard demonstrated her expertly tuned instruments made from stones, bones, shells and wood gathered at the extremes of the earth. She also demonstrated her virtuosity with using these elements together, such as generating rhythms from a series of bones passed over the shells.
David Samas was also on hand with his musical creations from natural sources found here in northern California.
Missing from the picture above is his tuned aluminum rod, from which one can get quite a powerful sound with a well-rosined hand. I had the opportunity to try it out myself.
Bryan Day presented his instruments made from found objects, including the tape measures featured prominently in the image below. Other sources included springs and metal rods. His creations are quite ergonomic and easily to play, putting unusual sources into compact and intuitive arrangements.
Horaflora combined acoustics and small electronics in a couple of lively offerings, including drum heads excited by magnets. I heard him play this in a program several months ago.
Horaflora also demonstrated exciting natural acoustic elements atop a subwoofer connected to an iPhone synth. You can see and hear a bit of my attempting to demonstrate these elements together with him in the following video:
David Molina (aka “Transient”) also blended acoustic and electronic ideas. He had a variety of small instruments and sound sources on hand, which he used to generate source material for complex loops and textures controlled in real time via Albeton live.
In his own words, this was only “about half of what he will be using in his performance on Friday.”
Tom Nunn, a prolific inventor whom I interviewed in 2012, was once again presenting his creations. This time it was an exceptionally colorful set of his Skatchboxes.
There were others presenting as well, and unfortunately, I did not have time to see everyone and also attend to me own station. But I hope to see more of all the participants in more musical settings.
The Outsound Music Summit continues on Wednesday night with the first of the formal concerts, you can see a full schedule here. And of course, you can always follow along with @catsynth on Twitter if you can’t attend in person.
The 2012 Outsound Music Summit began this Sunday with the annual Touch the Gear Expo. Visitors have a chance to see and try out the equipment used by musicians and sound artists. Although we had fewer presenters this year, we had a variety of instruments and devices, and a fairly sizable crowd of visitors.
In the above image, we see Matt Davignon presenting effects pedals driven using a Casio keyboard, and Joe Lasquo presenting laptop-based programs with Max/MSP.
One of the fun aspects of Touch the Gear is getting one’s hands on instruments that one only sees on stage. For me, one of those opportunities came when I got to play the Arp 2600 that Benjamin Ethan Tinker brought to the event. It was only a little over a week earlier that I heard him play it at the Luggage Store Gallery.
But it there is the discovery of new and never-before seen musical creations. The most unusual for me was this creation by Omer Gal:
The organic head-like element contained several mechanical and optical sensors that one could touch or put ones hands near to affect the sound. A second part of the installation included a mechanical “robot” that played a set of strings with a pickup. The performer can affect the operation of the robot and the sound through electronic controls.
Other unusual electro-acoustic instruments were presented by Walter Funk and Dan Ake. Walter Funk’s metallic instrument called Ulysses offered opportunities to explore different resonances and timbres through sheets of metal, rods and springs arrayed throughout its body. Dan Ake’s invention was a series of gridded metal inside a large wooden box, than one could excite with a variety of objects, such as bows, rods and a glove with long wooden fingertips.
I was presenting at this event as well. I always try to bring something a little different each year. This year, I decided to go with two ends of the technology spectrum: an iPad running Animoog and iMS-20, and a Eurorack modular system with a Metasonx R53, Make Noise Echophon, Malekko Heavy Industry Anti-Oscillator, and several others. Both technologies caught people’s attention, with some more excited about the analog modular system with its physical knobs and cables, and others gravitating towards the iPad.
Andrew Wayne presented a very tangible set of objects containing unpopped popcorn kernels in aluminum trays and other contains, augmented with contact microphones and electronic effects. He assembled his own contact mics to use with these acoustic sources.
Other participants included CJ Borosque with an Alesis Air, Laurie Amat with vocal and ambient sources into a Line 6, and a surface by April-Jeanie Tang with rubber-ball mallets. Through contact miss, the action of the rubber mallets and the surface and transmitted to effects processors for a deep, haunting sound. Tom Duff presented a series of software processes that could be randomly controlled from a MIDI controller. Despite the randomness, it was quite expressive after playing with it and dialing in on particular processes. He also had a couple of critters from Bleep Labs.
Long-time participants Tom Nunn and David Michalak were back again with the most recent incarnations of the sketch box. You can read an interview with Tun Nunn and discussion of his musical inventions here on CatSynth.
And finally, Bob Marsh was back with his intriguing and “charismatic” metal creations.
I do tend to gravitate towards metallic sounds when looking for new material, something which seems to be common among those who are looking for invention and discovery in musical sound.
On Monday night, the summit continued with the Composers Symposium, a panel discussion featuring four of the composers in this year’s festival: John Shiurba, Christina Stanley, Benjamin Ethan Tinker, and Matthew Goodheart were on hand to discuss their work. And as a first this year, I acted as the moderator for the evening. It was a great experience, and I did not have to do very much besides seeding the discussion with a few questions. From those starting points, a lively discussion ensued among the composers as well as dialog with the audience. We talked about the role of notation in each of the composers’ music, such as Stanley’s use of paintings as her scores and Shiurba’s use of graphical elements derived from print newspapers (a major theme of his piece this year); and the dual role that these artists played as both composers and performers. One of the things that made this panel work was the variety of musical disciplines, styles and backgrounds among the participants, as well as the interest that the audience brought to the discussion with their numerous questions. Everyone had criticisms of the terms “new music” and “experimental music” that are often used as blanket designations for the music featured in the summit and indeed much of the music reviewed here on CatSynth, but that was to be expected. The two hours of the discussion went by rather quickly, and I’d like to think everyone on the panel and in the audience found the experience enjoyable and illuminating. I would definitely like to do more of these at events in the future.
Today we review the Music of Invention: A Concert Celebrating Tom Nunn’s Inventions which recently took place the Community Music Center in San Francisco. This retrospective concert brought together not only many of Tom Nunn’s musical inventions from the past decades, but many of his closest musical collaborators as well. The evening was divided into several miniature sets, some with established ensembles as well as individual collaborations. Most of the names on the program were quite familiar, and I recalled from my interview with Nunn his describing the “master players” he has been fortunate to work with over the years.
The concert opened with a “inventors’ duo” as Tom Nunn performed alongside music-instrument maker Bart Hopkin. The first sounds were scratchy and metallic, primarily from Nunn’s instrument, the crab. Hopkin’s instrumental performance started out quite percussive as well but soon settled into a more tonal marimba-like state, albeit a tonality with an odd scale. The crab seemed to have two types of sound and texture that reflected the different types of rods, one louder and more metallic, and another more quick and watery. They settled into a pattern with quick rhythmic textures from the watery sounds and bass notes, with a steady rhythm forming and then breaking apart and then forming again. Hopkin switched to one of his other instruments, the ‘Moe, a clarinet-like instrument with a continuous pitch control. Although the sound was unmistakably that of a clarinet, the rapid pitch bends sometimes made it sound more like an analog synthesizer (with a square wave, of course). Against this, Nunn generated a musical “waterfall” from the crab that concluded with a harp-like arpeggio.
This was followed by a performance of Allan Crossman‘s piece Plasticity. This was one of the only fully composed pieces on the program (the other being Skatchbox Blues). Originally for Sonoglyph and orchestra, on this occasion it was reduced to Sonoglyph performed by Nunn and piano performed by Crossman. The music began with metallic watery sounds from the Sonoglyph and anxious harmonies on the piano. The overall effect was quite dreamlike, and I had the impression throughout the piece of being a well-crafted children’s movie with a richly detailed imaginary world. The instrumental sounds ranged from resonant and chime-like to more scratchy and noisy. There were sections with traditional contrapuntal textures, humorous phrases, and even something that brought to mind a march or procession.
The next set featured the Octatonic T-Rodimba, a pitched instrument tuned to three separate octatonic scales. Nunn was joined for this set by guitarists Gary Knowlton and Michael Knowlton. From the start, it was a clash of timbres between the guitars and the T-Rodimba, with slow chords against fast runs. Over time, the guitars became more melodic and all three performers settled into a jazz-like feel. The rhythms were all separate at first, with scratchy guitar sounds providing percussion, but coalesced into a single unit with repeated phrases. Certainly, the octatonic scales were part of the music, but not a distinct part to be heard separately. With the rhythms aligned, the tonalities of the different instruments blended together. The music became louder and more percussive before concluding with a guitar drone and effects from the green Line 6 pedal many of us know and love.
[Tom Nunn on Lukie Tubes and Paul Winstanley on prepared bass. Photos: PeterBKaars.com.]
The following set introduced the Lukie Tubes, an instrument with a resonant metal plate suspended on balloons that excited using a series of cardboard tubes. Nunn was joined by Paul Winstanley performing on “prepared electric bass”. He performed by bowing on the bass, which had several rods inserted between the strings and the neck for a variety of sounds that were enhanced by additional electronic effects. The bass blended will with the Lukie Tubes as the set began with a long metallic drone on both instruments with different resonances coming in and out of focus. The overall effect was a lush but eerie landscape, punctuated with bits of static and shorter tones. The were moments that brought to mind whales and others reminiscent of Central Asian throat singing. In addition to the acoustic strength of Lukie Tubes, Winstanley used another Line 6 pedal to build up energy. The loud sounds gave way to softer higher tones and then a quiet but more percussive conclusion.
The final set of the first half featured RTD3, a trio of Ron Heglin, Tom Nunn and Doug Caroll. I have heard RTD3 on several occasions in the past. For this performance, Caroll was on cello as usual, Heglin was performing only on voice (i.e., no trombone), and Tom Nunn was on Skatchbox. In particular, this was the debut of one of the “perfect” Skatchboxes that I had seen during the interview. Musically, things start of softly with voice a percussive cello. Heglin’s vocals featured a wide variety of effects, groans, gurgles and rumbles, along with incantations on unknown (and perhaps unknowable) words. The vocals filled the space in between the cello and the distinctive comb noises of the Skatchbox. Nunn switched to Lukie tubes during the performance, and then to another instrument called the Techphonic plate. During this time Caroll’s cello performance moved from traditional practice (pitched bowed tones) to more plucking and percussive techniques, and finally to extended techniques such as using a cork on the strings and scratching on the back of the instrument. All three performs came together for a final drone that ended with a minor modal harmony.
The second half opened with a live performance of “Skatchbox Blues”, which was released as a single in conjunction with the concert. It was a lighthearted departure from the other sets with a traditional “country blues” feel provided by Gary Knowlton and Michael Knowlton on guitars, and Aurora Josephson on voice. The Skatchbox itself as played by David Michalak was a purely percussion instrument in the context of this piece, with the grinding and buzzing sounds working together with the guitar to provide the familiar traditional rhythm. The lyrics were a humorous send-off of the experience of building and playing a Skatchbox, with the repeated cadence “treasures in the trash.”
The next set featured Ed Herrmann on the Octatonic T-Rodimba with Nun on the Crab. Here, the tonality and timbre of the T-Rodimba was used to full effect, with Hermann performing rhythmic phrases and switching among different types of mallets. Between the two metal instruments and rhythmic texture, this set was particularly “gamelan-like”, with call-and-response between the two performers and moments of synchronicity. There were moments of slower movement and empty space as well. During the set, I heard something from hall which I dubbed at the time “unexplained bass”, a series disembodied low bowed tones. It turns out the Doug Caroll was had quietly slipped into the audience with his cello and joined into the mix. The acoustics of the hall helped to give his addition a more surprising and disorienting quality. But overall, it did add a supporting quality to the music and a contrast to the more metallic sounds. The overall effect reminded me quite a bit of the music of Harry Parch.
TD Skatchit, the Skatchbox duo of Tom Nunn and David Michalak, made its official appearance with a pair of mini-sets, each with a guest soloist. The first featured Rent Romus on saxophones. The result was a delightfully noisy set the requisite squeaks, squaws and other effects, punctuated by more jazz-like tonal phrases. Nunn and Michalak provided a rhythm trading notes on the Skatchboxes. The tones were more of the continuous scratches and rumbles, but after a grand pause, Nunn produced a more rhythmic sound from one element of his Skatchbox with a repeated beat that reminded me a bit of rumble strips. The music gradually grew louder, with more complex and intricate jazz runs. Ultimately, Romus pulled out both an alto and soprano sax to play simultaneously in a loud and intense final run.
Aurora Josephson returned to perform in the second set with TD Skatchit. It was clear from the start that this was going to be different from her traditional blues vocals only a few minutes earlier, as she took a large swig of water from a bottle and began to vocalize with subtle squeaks and wiggles as well as louder gurgles. Her percussive sounds blended well with the Skatchboxes, which responded with squeakier timbres. The performance was visually and aurally quite humorous and small bursts of laughter could be heard from the audience – to me, this seemed perfectly appropriate and acceptable for such a performance. At times, she seemed to be a third percussion instrument as she traded short notes with Nunn and Michalak. There were a few messy (i.e., wet) moments, but Josephson reminded us, “It’s just water.”
The final performance featured Ghost in the House, with Nunn and Michalak joined by regular group members Karen Stackpole on metal percussion and John Ingle on saxophone, and guest Bart Hopkin. Like RTD3, I have seen Ghost in the House a few times before. This time they did not do their usual ritualistic procession into the hall, probably because of the logistics involved, but they appeared on stage bathed in eerie blue light punctuated by candles. The opening sounds were quite resonant and featured rich harmonics. Nunn’s instrument, the Crustacean, blends quite well with Karen Stackpole’s gongs, and a rhythm emerged in the beating patterns between the instrument. Layered in between was Michalak’s lap-steel guitar, which always seems to have a melancholy sound. Bart Hopkin’s instrument, called the Disorderly Tumbling, provided a cascade of high bell sounds that lingered above the other timbres. In a performance like this I find myself listening for the details such as these. Others that caught my attention in this section of the performance were Stackpole’s row of keys, Ingle’s swelling saxophone town, and intense sound of the bowed Crustacean. Over time, the texture became more sparse and glitchy, including mouthpiece noises on the saxophone, striking of metal bowls, and short notes on the Techphonic plate. The music then moved into an eerie phase with lap steel drones, toy-like sounds and the Lukie tubes that reminded me of an old radio or classic science fiction soundtrack. The tones became richer and darker, with long tones and wiggling metal sheets, saxophone multiphonics and glissandi; and finally more rhythmic, with bouncing high tones and the cascading bells, matched by saxophone and gong.
The concert was well received, and there was quite a long moment of mutual appreciation between Tom Nunn and the audience. This was clearly a special occasion for him, for the musicians and those in attendance. There was also a warm recognition of David Michalak, who was primarily responsible for proposing this concert and making it happen as well as it did. It was quite a logistical feat to have so many sets with large and unusual instruments.
We conclude with what I believe is the smallest invention of the evening. Nunn had made several limited-edition mini-Skatchboxes to commemorate the evening. One of them went home with me and waits to be used in a future musical project inspired by what I heard at this concert.
This past Monday, I visited the studio of musical instrument inventor Tom Nunn to talk ahead of his upcoming retrospective performance at the Community Music Center in San Francisco on Friday February 17. The full interview appears below.
Tom Nunn with the Lukie Tube
AC: So why go through the trouble of invention? Why invent a new instrument versus learning existing instruments?
TN: To me, they create a more interesting compositional format, or forum, I should say. They open up possibilities that traditional instruments can’t, because of tradition. Traditional instruments come with tradition, that’s why they call them that. That means that that’s a whole set of expectations that are historically and culturally determined before you even start saying anything. So, in experimental and improvised music, what I get from traditional instrumentalists is that they are trying to get beyond the traditional instrument. So they use different techniques and they use, you know, very imaginative ways of looking at the instrument as a sound-making device. Well, that’s what I am doing with found objects and then ultimately constructions out of found objects. So, we’re all on the same path. What we’re trying to do is, and what all artists and creators have tried to do is, extend and evolve tradition, not simply represent it. And it’s no disrespect to tradition because we wouldn’t be here without it. So I’m doing the same thing that Philip Greenlief or John Butcher or any of the rest of them are doing. It just happens to be with these things instead of those things. We have the same language, we have the same orientation to sound, and we bring to that an expression through phrasing and proportion that represent classical training and sensitivities.
AC: OK, so we can go from the “why” to the “how.” So if you were to begin a new instrument, or a new invented instrument, how do you begin that? Does it start with a particular set of materials or objects, or a process, or a particular musical or sonic idea?
TN: I think it starts with the material that you discover. You discover something about material or some combination of material or use of material that is sonically interesting, and then you see what you can do to shape that material to see if it’s musically interesting. And then you see what is involved in shaping that material and start focusing on that evolution from the sound of the material to the understanding of the material and its relationship to how you make it work, the techniques you use on it; and then finding the best designs for those techniques to accommodate those techniques.
AC: Yes, so what was your first invented instrument that was used in a performance or a recording?
TN: Oh, that’s difficult to say, because I got into this when I was a graduate student at UCSD, and we were doing outside of the class outside of the university a pro-active socialism with music. And so we would go to a park and set up found objects and get the public involved in that. And I was interested in both the sociology of that and the composition of that. But the main thing was that it’s just an evolution of these materials and circumstances they exist in. So what I was getting at is I guess it was hard to say what the first was. Maybe the first was a gas bottle. Maybe the first was a certain way of using some material. The first constructed instrument that I called and have stuck with and keep to this day is the Crustacean. It was about 1977. And again, we had already discovered that rods work with plates and plates sit on balloons so it was a refinement already.
[The Crustacean. (Click image to enlarge.)]
AC: OK, and then presumably since that time there’s been more refinement learning from previous ones. So what sort of things have changed since this early instrument, or since those early performances? What sort of things have you learned that have been put to use in the latest instruments?
TN: Well, it was not so much a linear evolution in one direction. Those plates on balloons with rods, space plates I call them, that was one way, and actually didn’t go very far beyond that. What I got into were electro-acoustic percussion boards and that’s like the Bug and the Crab and these things on the wall here, Techphonic Plates, and ultimately the T-Rodimba. So it was basically hardware devices attached to plywood with a contact mic on the board. That was it. You play them with different things in different ways. But I used combs in that. And ultimately over the years, over many years, I got to the point of realizing that the combs were wearing in a certain way and how would I accentuate that because they seemed to be getting better. Therefore, because of the shape they were better. What if I started experimenting with shapes of combs or what if I started experimenting with things I put the combs on? So in a sense it was an evolution from electro-acoustic percussion boards and the technique of using combs into the creation of the Skatchbox, which was a new thing. 2008.
AC: OK, so actually I was going to ask about the Skatchbox. Visually, it seems a little bit different from the other ones and it’s more “reproducible.” And even though each one is unique and there are quite a few of them – there was the workshop we had at Outsound a couple of years ago. And even looking around the room there is almost like you would have with saxophones, like a soprano and a bass. So just a little bit more about the evolution of the Skatchbox and the different varieties and the different ways it can go?
TN: Yeah. Well, it started with the implement, oddly enough. It was almost like inventing a stringed instrument because you happened to have a bow. So that’s how that instrument evolved. It evolved out of the implement and to a certain extent technique because what I started with was a blank cardboard box. A big huge box that I found on the sidewalk that I put aside saying “I must be able to use this. It’s much too neat.” So I tried the combs over it because I had incidentally scraped a box that was full of National Geographic magazines, so it should have been really dead. But it wasn’t. It was very alive, resonant, as long as I was making the sound and when I stopped making the sound it stopped. And so I thought, “Hmmm. Wow.” So I started experimenting with how I pushed the comb across that cardboard box. Then I tried it on the big empty box on a keyboard stand. And then I started taping objects down to that to see what that does. And then like a silly goose I put a contact mic on the other side of the box and said “Well, that doesn’t work.” (And I said, “Well, maybe that’s a good thing”). But then I realized, no, put the contact mic on the inside of the top just like you would the plywood sheet and I did and it was like “Oh my god!”. It was like “God, this is five times more efficient than plywood.” Ten times. It was incredible. So I had a kind of “articulation instrument” that I had always wanted and never had. I always felt in recordings my instruments sounded like they were in the next room compared to everybody else, especially electronics. So this now has the presence and dynamics and articulation of electronics. I can take on any electronics with this. So that’s how I developed into these things and I just tried different layouts and designs of stuff and evolved different materials that I put on them and different techniques for putting them onto the box from tape to glue. And then it became more specific and more prototypical and more evolutionary…until I got these two which are perfect.
AC: OK, we’ll take a look at the perfect ones.
AC: Alright. That actually leads to one of the next questions that I had, which is that when I have been hearing the performances over the last few years, I am often struck by how the timbres remind of electronically generated sounds. I know there are the contact mics and the electro-acoustic aspect through that, but it is still coupled with acoustic sources. And in designing or evaluating the sound, is the relationship between electronics or the mathematics of sound?
TN: Not really, not really the mathematics at all. The closest thing I have to anything like that would be – well it’s not even mathematics, it’s scale-wise. The only scalar instrument is the Octatonic T-Rodimba. It has octatonic scales on G, G sharp and A, overlapping, and it’s definitely a pitch instrument. It’s sounds something like a marimba. So other than that, what I have done is, really, and on purpose, create elements, or use elements, which are somewhat random and themselves improvised as the building of the instrument happens. So that when I have the instrument, it’s not so much an instrument that represents a system, it’s an instrument that represents a kind of territory to explore. So for me I like the idea that an instrument has a character, a life of its own, and it speaks to us as we play it. We have an interaction between one another as we’re playing together. And I think that happens naturally with all instruments and players anyway, ultimately, when they’re improvising at least. But I’m sure otherwise, too. So, it’s again the same thing that all musicians feel and sense and experience in relationship to their instrument.
[Tom Nunn demonstrating the Octatonic T-Rodimba.]
AC: Yeah, especially looking around [the studio], thinking of the visual aspects of the instrument. So how do the visual aesthetics play in. So how much of the design of a particular instrument is visuals versus sound quality versus playability? Sort of, the physical aspects?
TN: Well, if I were to order them in priority, I would say first is sound. And that then mandates technique, and technique mandates design. And once you get the design, you can decorate it however you want. But you need to get that essential design that works to get that essential sound that works, because of that essential action that makes the object sound like that. So beyond that, since you’re building something, you might as well make something attractive, interesting, fun, curious. So if you are going to have rods why not bend them and make antennae? And as you’re doing that visual thing, you’re also gaining some kind of acoustic thing because you’re changing the harmonics of the rod. It’s different than a rod that was straight. So like for the Crab, I have three bends in the rod, or two bends in the rod, and they look like little crab feet. But they also create a very distinct acoustic sound because of that. They have a high sound and a very low sound. When I got the Lukie Tubes that was because I had these plates that had been sanded for looks only. But had they not been sanded, the tubes wouldn’t have worked. So sometimes the decoration leads to actual new designs for acoustic reasons.
AC: So in terms of being able to play the instruments, how does one “master” one of these instruments? Is there a discipline for learning how to play them and for practicing?
TN: Well, it’s a lot of hours of practicing. But as you’re practicing, you’re doing two things. You’re getting familiar with the instrument, but you’re also practicing improvisation, you’re also practicing composition. And you’re practicing composition and improvisation in the context of that instrument with that format and those techniques. So you’re working always on two things – that’s the way I work. Maybe somebody could more objectify it but it’s hard for me to separate the work on the instrument alone from the work on the instrument as a compositional device.
AC: So is that process a little bit different when it’s having somebody else play one of the instruments?
TN: Well, when somebody else plays one, I see different things happening, I hear different things happening. I see different orientations, different approaches. Sure. I’m just an individual. I’m not a prototype, or a metatype, or whatever. Every time I’ve seen people play my instruments they come up with ideas I hadn’t thought of, or approaches or sounds or styles or all kinds of stuff they come up with on their own. Including what kids do.
AC: So, thinking about the performance coming up where there are also a lot of guests that are also using traditional instruments, what is the process for working with performers who are using standard instruments? Is it more about working with the individual performers who were invited, or is it about trying to pair instruments?
TN: It’s more the relationship with the performers who happen to have those instruments but also happen to have a history of playing with me. And so I’ve played innumerable hours with everybody that is going to be on this program. So we all know each other very well. And that’s a really nice thing if you’re doing free improvisation, which most of it will be. But these are master players, master improvisers, and I’m just damn lucky to have a situation where I can call on people like that. So many of them, and such a diversity! And that’s what we discovered with the TD Skatchit project. And that was David’s idea and it just was spot-on in terms of connecting with his culture and bringing the boxes into that. In this particular performance, it’s going to be people I’ve always played with, but I’ve always played with people who play traditional instruments. It’s actually easier for me to play with people who play traditional instruments than people who play experimental instruments. Actually much easier.
AC: So you were mentioning that there is going to be a lot of free improvisation. Has there been a lot of work with formal composition with your instruments?
TN: Yes, the second piece on the program, Plasticity, is written by Allan Crossman, a good friend of mine, who is a retired teacher from Concordia in Montreal. And he is an active composer. He wrote this piece for the Soniglyph and orchestra, and we got it performed by the San Francisco Composers Chamber Orchestra. And we had about four or five rehearsals of that and then did it live and I have a recording of that. But we are going to be doing a piano and Soniglyph version of that piece. That’s the most formal piece, the most absolutely composed piece. But still within that, the composition is about what parts of the instrument I’m playing and what techniques I might be using but not exactly what I’m playing. Whereas what he has, some places are very specific and some are quasi-improvised.
AC: Following up on that, any thoughts on how one would notate for your instruments?
TN: [Laughter] One of the big reasons I got into improvisation with these things! I mean, they [composition and improvisation] happened at the same time, but, my god, what a nightmare trying to notate for this.
AC: I figure it would be an interesting challenge, actually…
TN: Especially the boxes. Good damn luck with that. It’s like notating electronic music. For one thing, what’s the point? As if somebody is going to one: learn how to read it; two: learn how to play it with that notation, with those techniques; and three: get even remotely close to what you were thinking. So no, you know the thing about experimental instrument and stuff is trying to push the envelope of what music is. Part of that is getting away from the idea that everything is compositionally controlled. But it isn’t, like, burning your bridges. We still have relationships to composers and compositions. It’s just that we sit around the same table now and they take into account what we thrive on and vice versa. It’s great.
AC: So in the context of that newer relationship between composers and performers, would you like to see more compositions?
TN: If they’re good.
AC: And then, anything thoughts on how your instruments have affected people in this community or beyond who think about music, whether they’re performers or listeners?
TN: It would be difficult to say what effect I have on anything. That part is kind of a hope and a prayer that maybe there would be some influence that is positive in somebody’s life and just let it go at that. I’ve given away a lot of instruments. I’ve given away a lot of CDs. It’s my inclination to give things away rather than sell them when it comes to music anyway. To me it’s like this is food for the soul and so how can we put a price on that. So yeah, I end up giving away a lot of instruments. And that is, I think, an appropriate way to dispense with this stuff. If somebody says, “well I can do that”, then go home and do it. Rent [Romus of Outsound Presents] went home, and he and CJ each made a box, after [the workshop at the 2010 Outsound Music Summit]. Great! It’s kind of like that. If teachers saw what the potential of the Skatchbox was for elementary school kids or junior-high school kids, kids that hadn’t gotten the big dose of cynicism that’s going to come down the line yet. So that they don’t see it as silly or stupid or not cool or whatever. But that they see it as just interesting. Which is the virtue of kids.