One of our CatSynth TV episodes this week featured a close-up demonstration of the Wicks Looper by Rarebeasts, a tiny musical instrument that can make beats, loops, and all sorts of noises. We also added a Korg Delay Monotron for filtering and delay effects in the last portion of the demo.
The Wicks Looper is a fun instrument that I have used in several live performances, though less so lately. Its audio jack is a bit fussy at times, but as long as I remember I know how to make it work reliably. Both it and the Monotron should see more use again this year as I plan out new ideas for solo performances. And we still love that cat logo that looks so much like our dear Luna. But there is also a (non-black) Luna who lives with the human who created the instrument, a fact involved in our discovering it in the first place.
Rarebeasts has moved on to newer custom electronic instruments that are quite sculptural in nature. You can see their work at their Etsy shop.
As has become a tradition here at CatSynth, we present our end-of-year image.
[Click to enlarge.]
It was a bit of a challenge to decide what to put in, as there were so many this time. But I think these are particularly representative. And it’s also significant that it is more colorful than previous end-of-year images.
The first few days of this year were quiet and a bit dark. That changed quickly, with tumultuous events around the world, and new experiences close to home. It’s the year I finally had a photography show, and by the end of the year I had several. There were new surprising types of performances and the costumes to go with them. I deepened my connections back in New York with friends, music, art and the landscape. And I no idea what I would have the chance to participate in something like the Occupy movement . There were many sad moments as well, with the loss of friends.
In all, 2011 has been particularly rich and productive, if sometimes a bit chaotic. If one had told me at the end of 2007 or 2008 (or 2001 for that matter) that this is what life would be like now, I would have been pleasantly surprised. There is a sense, however, that the patterns of this past year are not sustainable. This will have to be part of the plan for 2012, in particular getting organized, staying healthy and trying to make good choices. We will see how that unfolds as the new year progresses…
Happy New Year and thank you for all the support and warmth from those who read these pages!
Today we look back at the second of my November performances in New York. This one took place at Theater Lab in Manhattan in one of the venue’s stark white studios that served as both performance venue and blank canvas. There were several now-familar faces from east coast shows, as well as new artists that I heard for the first time.
The show opened with an acoustic performance by PAS, featuring Robert L. Pepper, Amber Brien, Michael Durek and John “Vomit” Worthley with guest Carlo Altomare (one of the founders of TheaterLab) on piano. The acoustic instruments included a wide variety of percussion, strings and winds, as well as DIY combinations of objects (buckets, balloons, etc.) to produce other sounds. In this way, they played acoustic instruments as if they were synthesizers.
[PAS. (Click images to enlarge.)]
The performance moved between gradually evolving by strongly rhythmic material and more freeform noise textures, all expressive and performed with a wide dynamic range. At various times, the performers moved around the space, among the audience and up into the loft, which added a theatrical element as well as spatialization. You can see and hear for yourself in this video:
The particular combination of instruments and idiomatic playing gave portions of the performance an Asian feel (particularly at the beginning of the video), but even there the piano provides an avant-gard counterpoint and the overall texture moves to something more reminiscent of Henry Cowell before moving into a more experimental dramatic mode featuring Altomare soloing on piano and Pepper repeatedly chanting “Piano Man!” I like how they were able to move so easily between the different timbres and textures and rhythms without stopping, except of course for the silences that occurred in response to the instruction “Silence!” In all, a great set that set a confident tone for the entire evening.
The film was beautiful and mesmerizing, though I did find myself also watching the Buchla to see and hear what was happening. In general, the synth performance was subtle and blended well with the string sounds to produce an overall ambient texture, with occasional metallic and inharmonic swells. The eerie and slowly moving sound fit the abstract video, with frequently changing clips overlaid with digital effects that simulated paint and chemical treatment. At times, the harmonies and timbres seemed to approach an acoustic orchestra and choir, as one might hear in a science fiction film, while others seemed to channel the sounds of bowed metal and glass.
This was followed by a trio featuring Jay Pluck on piano, Julia Violet on vocals, and Michael Durek returning, this time on theremin.
[Jay Pluck, Julia Violet, and Michael Durek. Photos by Michael Zelner. (Click to enlarge.)]
This was the most traditional and idiomatic of any set during the show. The songs were songs, quite lyrical and featuring traditional harmonies and melodic lines for voice and theremin. The introduction featured a theremin solo – Durek is quite good at getting standard pitching and phrasings from the instrument – set against gently rolling arpeggios of romantic chords on the piano. As Violet’s vocals enter, the music takes on a light cabaret feel, but the theremin backed with Mini-Kaoss Pad effects, continues to give it a somewhat otherworldly quality. The second song, which featured more major harmonies, had a bit of a 1960s rock quality to it, as if it was it was a song from a popular album rescored for piano and voice. Here the theremin had a bit of a darker tone.
After that it was time to take the stage. It was basically the same setup as a few nights earlier at the AvantElectroExpectroExtravaganza in Brooklyn, but with a few musical differences. I opened with a newly programmed piece that featured timbres based on the Bohlen 833 scale in which I could call up individual pitches and harmonics via the monome and iPad working together. The end result was a somewhat an ambient piece that was relaxed but with anxious undertones.
[Click to enlarge, if you must.]
I did reprise my Wicks Looper and Korg Monotron improvisation that had worked well at the previous performance, as well as another another piece featuring additive synthesis in which iPad-controlled tone clouds are set against short percussive tones. At the end of the set, I was joined by Robert L. Pepper from PAS for a duo improvisation featuring acoustic instruments and electronics. We started with a steady pattern on the dotara and large drum, gradually bringing in some electronic sounds controlled by the monome and other acoustic instruments and effects. Overall, we meshed very well musically despite this being our first time ever playing together! I particularly liked the moment where we were both playing string instruments, as it felt particular aligned and expressive. This gave way to a finale with dotara and drums that approached traditional folk music and a well-defined final note. You can hear the full solo and duo in this video:
The final set featured Richard Lainhart’s film The History of the Future with a live soundtrack performed by the “Orchestra of the Future”, an ad hoc ensemble featuring many of us who had performed in the previous four sets. The film featured clips and images from old educational and demonstration films featuring depictions of possible feature technologies. It’s a snapshot of “what the future used to be” in previous eras.
[Orchestra of the Future.]
The improvised soundtrack, which featured a variety of acoustic and electronic instruments, was rich in texture and dynamism and dramatic moments. Everyone did a good job of watching what was happening on the screen and listening to each other. There were moments where it seemed like the relative volumes of instruments were off, but that was a minor issue. It was a great way to end the evening (and a bit of a relief to be in the large ensemble after performing solo).
We had a decently sized audience for the show and a very positive response both during the event itself and in talking to people at the small reception afterwards. It was interesting that although this event was in New York, there were Bay Area connections both among the performers and the audience. This year has been a good one for bi-coastal collaboration and I look forward to more of it next year.
Today we look back at the first of my two performances in New York, the appropriately named “AvantElectroExpectroExtravaganza” with a diverse collection of experimental electronic musicians. It was a small an intimate space nestled in a building in an industrial section of Brooklyn, east of Williamsburg. But we had a decently large stage and good sound reinforcement, and a small but attentive audience. And the industrial setting was one conducive to both my playing and enjoyment of art and music.
The performance began with a procession by members of the SK Orchestra improvising to sampled phrases “Hi” and “How are you doing”. For those who are not familiar with the Casia SK-1, it was a small sampling keyboard from the mid 1980s which allowed users to record and manipulate live sounds in addition to standard consumer keyboard features. The low fidelity and ease of use now makes them coveted items for many experimental electronic musicians. There were no fewer than five of them in the ensemble this evening.
[SK Orchestra. (Click image to enlarge.)]
As they sat down for the main part of the set, the sampled sounds grew more fragmented and processed, mixed with lots of dynamic swells and analog-filter-like sounds. Combined with a wide array of effects, the sounds were quick thick ranging from harmonic pads to noise to moments that could be best described as “space jam music.” I was particularly watching articulation with a Morley pedal and how it timbrally and rhythmically informed the sound. Taking advantage of the live-sampling capabilities of the SK-1, they resampled the output from the amps and PA and fed that back into the performance for a slow motion feedback loop that grew ever noisier and more forceful. The rhythms got more steady over time, with a driving beat set against the phrase “Holy Jesus!”, and eventually moved into a steady bass rhythm and pattern.
Rhythm was the main theme of the next set featuring Loop B. His theatrical and technically adept performance featured tight rhythmic patterns on found metal objects with playful choreography and beat-based electronic accompaniment. In the first piece, he performed on a large piece of metal salvaged from a vehicle with syncopated rhythms set against an electronic track. This was followed by a piece in which he donned a metal helmet, which he played against more Latin accompaniment.
[Loop B. (Click image to enlarge.)]
Other metal instruments included a wearable tube, as featured in this video clip.
And a return to the original car metal, but with a power drill.
The rhythmic character of the different pieces seemed to alternate between driving electronica and Latin elements, but this was secondary to the spectacle of the live playing. It was a unique and well-executed performance, and fun to witness. It would be interesting to hear what he could do in an ensemble setting with musicians with an equally tight sense of rhythm.
Loop B’s energetic and dynamic performance was followed by a very contrasting set by Badmitten (aka Damien Olsen). It began with eerie, ambient sounds that soon coalesced around watery elements. It gave me the sense of sitting near an alien sea shore. Pitch-bent tones were layered on top of this, and eventually noises and glitches that deliberately interrupted the ambience. A low-frequeny rhythm emerged along with a slow bass line. It seemed that music was moving from the sea to a forest.
[Badmitten. (Click image to enlarge.)]
The sounds were quite full and luscious, with guitar chords and synth pads. Over time it became darker, with modulated filter sounds and strong hits. Seemingly out of nowhere, a voice speaking in French emerged (which amused French speakers in the audience). The various sounds coalesced into a more steady monotone rhythm with minor harmonies, which started to come apart and become more chaotic. The set concluded with an electric piano solo.
It was then time to take the stage. Fortunately, we had quite a bit of time and space to set up before the show, so most everything was in place and I was able to get underway quickly after checking that the local wi-fi network between the iPad and the MacBook Pro (running Open Sound World) was working. I opened with a new version of the piece Spin Cycle / Control Freak that used the iPad in lieu of the Wacom Tablet from the original version 11 years prior. It worked quite well considering the limitations of the interface – and indeed the more rhythmic elements were easier to do in this case. This was then followed by a stereo version of the piece I composed for eight-channel surround and the dodecahedron speaker at CNMAT back in March. The timbres and expression still worked well, but I think it loses something without the advanced sound spatialization.
[Click image to enlarge.]
Perhaps the best piece of the set was the one with the simplest technology: I connected the output of the Wicks Looper to the input of the Korg Monotron for a pocket-sized but sonically intense improvisation, which you can see in the video below:
I concluded with a performance of Charmer:Firmament from my 2005 CD Aquatic.
The final set of the evening was Doom Trumpet, which did not feature a trumpet. Rather, artist David Smith performed improvised music with guitar and effects set against a video compiled from obscure science-fiction movies. I found myself focused on the visuals, and particularly liked how he opened many of the clips with a highly-processed version of the MGM lion. Musically, he layered samples and loops with live guitar performance through a variety of effects. The combination of the music and visuals (which seemed to be dated from the late 1960s through early 1980s based on costumes and hairstyles) kept things appropriately dislocated from the source material and more abstract.
[Doom Trumpet. (Click image to enlarge).]
Overall, it was a great night of music, which I was glad to be a part of. A few participants will be part of my next New York show at TheatreLab this coming Saturday, but I certainly hope to cross paths with everyone at concerts in the future.
The 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. We had a a diverse group of participants this year, and this short video gives a good overview of some of the sound and visuals that one would have encountered:
We had a decently sized turnout for the event, and the evening went by quickly. While not at my own station, I did my best to see others work, but did not get to everyone. For those who followed my live tweets from the event, the remainder of article might seem redundant, but I do provide more detail.
I brought a small rig that reflects my recent solo work, with an iPad as both a synthesizer and controller for software on the laptop, a monome, the Wicks Looper and a Korg Mini-Kaoss Pad.
The iPad was primarily running TouchOSC, controlling a version of my piece Charmer:Firmament running in Open Sound World on the laptop, as well as a few popular instruments like the Smule Magic Fiddle and Bebot. The monome was controlling sample loops, and the Wicks Looper was feeding into the Kaoss Pad.
Next me, Matt Davignon presented a turntable and effects pedals that was quite popular with visitors. There is still something compelling about a tactile and intuitive interface such as a turntable that compels people to want to play it. In contrast, the monome in particularly seemed to intimidate people.
There were many non-electronic offerings as well, including the quartz cantabile by Todd Larew. Who needs electronics when you have fire as your primarily technology!
Bob Marsh wandered the hall in a suit covered in plastic water bottles, some containing mechanical sound generating elements, and was quite a presence throughout the evening.
He also brought several other articles of sonic clothing for people to try on and play.
Tim Thompson brought his space palette, a large wall-sized controller in which one controls sound and visuals by moving in the various spaces in the panel.
I had seen him perform with the space palette before, but this my first opportunity to try it out myself.
Another original instrument, the Ernestophone, featured one main string and several sympathetic strings, and a very rich sonic palette of overtones.
Phogmasheen presented an instrument made from pick heads and cake pans.
One strikes the metal elements with mallets or sticks, and then pickups process the output electronically.
This is not the first time I have seen a classic 1950’s HP oscillator at Touch the Gear, but it’s the first time I have seen one paired with a Peerless transistor radio, for a very retro noise experience.
Noise rigs are a common theme, particularly chains of effects pedals and mixers that operate solely on the noise inherent in electronic circuits but then amplify and shape it through non-linear processes of the effects change into rich and chaotic sound palettes. One example is this colorful rig from CJ Borosque. I was able to get subtle an expressive control of the sound by focusing on only a couple of knobs.
Other participants included Tom Nunn presenting one of his sonic inventions, Rick Walker demonstrating high virtuosic use of live-looping hardware and Laurie Amat getting rather humorous results from the sound of the crowd in the hall processed through a classic green Line6 delay pedal.
The panel discussion on Monday night, entitled “Elements of non-idiomatic compositional strategies” was quite a contrast to Touch the Gear Night. Four composers, Kanoko Nishi, Andrew Raffo Dewar, Krystyna Bobrowski, and Gino Robair engaged in a discussion moderated by Polly Moller about their music, influences and views on composition in front of an intimate audience with plentiful wine, cheese and dark chocolate.
One of the interesting questions was whether each of the composers began their ideas with sound, or a focus on sound. Not surprisingly, the answer was no – although sound was the medium of creativity, the source ideas can come from anywhere. In speaking about his piece for the Friday concert at the summit, he described how the work was influenced very directly by paintings by the Argentine artist Eduardo Serón. Gino Robair similar painted a very visual and conceptual influence for his suite based on the engravings of Jose Guadalupe Posada of late19th -and early 20th-century life in Mexico, and the skeletons and skulls in particular. Kanoko Nishi referred “music completely devoid of symbols”; and Krystyna Bobrowski described her work with her created instruments as a “sonic bloom of resonance”, perhaps my favorite phrase of the evening.
Other topics discussed included composing for instruments or sounds versus composing for particular musicians, i.e., “instead of preparing the piano, prepare the pianist” (as I pianist, I am not sure how I feel about being prepared), and questions about the rewards of composing experimental music – because it was accepted by panelists and audience alike that their are neither financial nor sexual riches to be gained by this pursuit. Perhaps the response that rang most true to me was that composing music is an obsessive-compulsive activity that some of us just have to do whether we like it or not.
For those who not familiar with the terms, think of idiomatic music as music that falls into recognizable patterns and genres that one can readily identify, so non-idiomatic music is music that attempts to defy such categorization. However, I often find the dichotomy not particularly useful. I sympathize with the composers’ desire to two work that transcends past categorization, and I often strive to do the same thing – but we can’t help but be influenced by the music and sounds around us, and shouldn’t necessarily fear the appearance of these influences in music that we call “new”. It was also interesting how much all four panelists distanced themselves from mathematics, even while acknowledging the deep and longstanding interconnection with music.
Today we look back on my solo concert at the Center for New Music Technologies (CNMAT) at U.C. Berkeley back in early March. It was part of my U.C. Regents Lecturer appointment this year, which also included technical talks and guest lectures for classes.
This is one of the more elaborate concerts I have done. Not only did I have an entire program to fill on my own, but I specifically wanted to showcase various technologies related to my past research at CNMAT and some of their current work, such as advanced multi-channel speaker systems. I spent a fair amount of time onsite earlier in the week to do some programming, and arrived early on the day of the show to get things set up. Here is the iPad with CNMAT’s dodecahedron speaker – each face of the dodecahedron is a separate speaker driven by its own audio channel.
[click image for larger view.]
Here is the Wicks Looper (which I had recently acquired) along with the dotara, an Indian string instrument often used in folk music.
[click image for larger view.]
I organized the concert such that the first half was more focused on showcasing music technologies, and the second half on more theatrical live performance. This does not imply that there wasn’t strong musicality in the first half or a lack of technological sophistication in the second, but rather which theme was central to the particular pieces.
After a very generous introduction by David Wessel, I launched into one of my standard improvisational pieces. Each one is different, but I do incorporate a set of elements that get reused. This one began with the Count Basie “Big Band Remote” recording and made use of various looping and resampling techniques with the Indian and Chinese instruments (controlled by monome), the Dave Smith Instruments Evolver, and various iPad apps.
The concert included the premier of a new piece that was specifically composed for CNMAT’s impressive loudspeaker resources, the dodecahedron as well as the 8-channel surround system. In the main surround speakers, I created complex “clouds” of partials in an additive synthesizer that could be panned between different speakers for a rich immersive sound. I had short percussive sounds emitted from various speakers on the dodecahedron. I though the effect was quite strong, with the point sounds very localized and spatially separated from the more ambient sounds. In the video, it is hard to get the full effect, but here it is nonetheless:
The piece was implemented in Open Sound World – the new version that primarily uses Python scripts (or any OSC-enabled scripting language) instead of the old graphical user interface. I used TouchOSC on the iPad for real-time control.
I then moved from rather complex experimental technology to a simple and very self-contained instrument, the Wicks Looper, in this improvised piece. It had a very different sound from the software-based pieces in this part of the concert, and I liked the contrast.
The first half of the concert also featured two pieces from my CD Aquatic: Neptune Prelude to Xi and Charmer:Firmament. The original live versions of these pieces used a Wacom graphics tablet controlling OSW patches. I reimplemented them to use TouchOSC on the iPad.
The second half of the concert opened with a duo of myself and Polly Moller on concert and bass flutes. We used one of my graphical score sets – here we went on order from one to the next and interpreted each symbol.
The cat one was particular fun, as Polly emulated the sound of a cat purring. It was a great piece, but unfortunately I do not have a video of this one to share. So we will have to perform it again sometime.
I performed the piece 月伸1 featuring the video of Luna. Each of the previous performances, at the Quickening Moon concert and Omega Sound Fix last year, used different electronic instruments. This time I performed the musical accompaniment exclusively on acoustic grand piano. In some ways, I think it is the strongest of the three performances, with more emotion and musicality. The humor came through as well, though a bit more subtle than in the original Quickening Moon performance.
The one unfortunate part of the evening came in the final piece. I had originally done Spin Cycle / Control Freak at a series of exchange concerts between CNMAT and CCRMA at Stanford in 2000. I redid the programming for this performance to use the latest version of OSW and TouchOSC on the iPad as the control surface. However, at this point in the evening I could not get the iPad and the MacBook to lock onto a single network together. The iPad could not find the MacBook’s private wireless network, even after multiple reboots of both devices. In my mind, this is actually the biggest problem with using an iPad as a control surface – it requires wireless networking, which seems to be very shaky at times on Apple hardware. It would be nice if they allowed one to use a wired connection via the USB cable. I suppose I should be grateful that this problem did not occur until the final piece, but was still a bit of an embarrassment and gives me pause about using iPad/TouchOSC until I know how to make it more reliable.
On balance, it was a great evening of music even with the misfire at the end. I was quite happy with the audience turnout and the warm reception and feedback afterwards. It was a chance to look back on solo work from the past ten years, and look forward to new musical and technological adventures in the future.