Being in New York in the third month of Occupy Wall Street, I of course had to visit Zuccotti Park, the symbolic and initial geographical center of the movement. And I did visit for a while on Saturday.
This is of course coming a little less than a week after the major raid on Zuccotti Park, so things were a bit sparse, indeed less active than some of the events I have attended in San Francisco. The ban on tents was in full force, with not a single tent in sight. I had also heard about a ban on musical instruments. So here I am playing the Smule Magic Piano on the iPhone in defiance.
Zuccotti park is in fact not much of a park at all. It’s a paved plaza with lights in between some of the stones. A few of the planted trees in the space were festooned with holiday lights. It’s the sort of modern public space one often sees near commercial buildings. If it wasn’t a protest site and rather cold, it would be a perfectly nice spot for lunch. I did of course get to see the “weird red thing”, aka Joie de Vivre by Mark di Suvero.
At the time I arrived, many of the leaflets and signs were in fact not about the core issues of the Occupy movement, such as income inequality and accountability of the financial institutions and their leaders, but rather a mix of 9-11 conspiracy theories (though I should not be surprised as we were just over a block from the World Trade Center site). I was disappointed to see that, as I place very little credence in such conspiracies and think of it as a detraction. But fortunately, a large march of people came back from the direction of the actual Wall Street and seemed to be more on message. I was even able to get from them a copy of the “Occupy Wall Street Journal”:
There was one tense moment when there were rumblings about police entering into the main area of the plaza. A quick look around confirmed this to be the case. As one speaker got up to address the crowd and remind everyone to be civil and not to repeat the mistakes of previous encounters, the police suddenly swooped in on one person, whom the arrested and carried out of the perimeter. It was all over quite quickly, and without any confrontations – there were additional calls to those assembled not to do anything provocative. But there was a lot of confusion, and no one seemed to know exactly why this one person was arrested. But it seemed to be connected to disrupting the putting up of holiday lights by the park’s owners.
Other than that, it was relatively calm and quiet visit to Occupy Wall Street…and a very cold one. The sparseness in comparison to recent west-coast events and the cold further suggests that the movement has to morph into something else beyond camps and marches.
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.
I still have that Novation keyboard, though it does not get used as often of late. Luna of course still is very territorial about that beanbag chair. Times have changed a bit, here is an iconic photo of Luna from this past year, this time with an iPad app (in this case, the Smule Magic Piano):
Another quirky way we like to celebrate is with statistics. First the basics:
1559 posts. 0.85 posts per day. 8784 comments. 5.63 comments per post. 476 posts featuring cats and synthesizers. 195 reviews (and gig reports). 381,735 visitors.
Even after five years, people from around the world continue to send us pictures of cats and music gear. These days most of those come via our Facebook, which together with twitter has become a major way people engage with this site.
From Google Analytics (which we finally got working properly over the past year), here is an overview of where our visitors come from around the world.
By far and away most of our visitors are from the United States, followed by the United Kingdom, Canada, India, Australia, France and Germany. I’m gratified to see so many visitors from India, though I’m curious why we never receive any comments from there…
It’s also interesting to look at cities.
Not surprisingly, the top cities are San Francisco and New York. In Google, it’s SF followed by NYC, while in Facebook, New York is the top city.
Thanks to all our friends (in time zones earlier than U.S. Pacific Daylight Time) who already sent in comments for the anniversary, and to the Cat Blogosphere for their anniversary shout-out!
And while we will continue to keep doing what we do, it has been more of a challenge over this past year to keep up with posts, especially the longer-form reviews. There is a trade between doing music and art, and writing about people doing music and art. But I still love doing everything here, and will find a way…
Two weeks ago, I participated in the 2010 edition of the Droneshift at the Luggage Store Gallery here in San Francisco.
The Droneshift has become an annual event, though this year it was part of the Full-Moon Concert Series, approximately coincident with the Long Nights Moon.
Droneshift is a collaborative concert of improvised drone music. Between 15 and 25 musicians will gather to contribute to a continuous 2 hour drone, each adding their acoustic or electronic instruments here and there, and weaving their sounds together to create gradually shifting tapestries of music. The performance will most likely shift back and forth from completely acoustic music to electric ambiance and post-industrial noise.
Basically, the two hour performance is one continuous ever-changing sound. No individual notes, rests, phrases, breaks, etc. That doesn’t mean it is at all monotonous – there are continuous changes in timbre, dynamics and expression, both within individual parts as various musicians enter and exit the sound.
There were actually close to (if not more than) 30 performers participating this year. The performers were arranged along periphery of the gallery with the audience situated in the middle looking outward. So between the audience and musicians, things got quite crowded. I was able to stake out some chair space for myself my minimalist setup:
I just had the iPad and an amplifier, and I was primarily running the Smule Magic Fiddle throughout my allotted time. It is a good instrument for droning, as one can linger on the strings pretty much forever, and play subtle pitch and dynamic changes. It’s easy to gradually fade out, and then fade in very slowly another pitch, which will change the overall sound of the performance without causing a distinct note break.
Because the nature of overall drone sound and the large number of participants, it was often difficult to focus on what any one other musician was playing. I mostly shifted between focusing on my own part and getting lost in the overall sound, which was quite meditative at times. I was able to take in some details, such as Matt Davignon’s distinctive glass-vase performance:
I was sitting across from Adam Fong on upright bass. There were moments when I took cues from him and other string players to re-enter the mix on Magic Fiddle. I was also trying to take cues from purely electronic musicians, such as Kristen Miltner on laptop or Andrew Joron’s theremin:
Overall, the instrumentation was quite varied and there was a balance between winds, strings, percussion and electronic, although there were a few moments were it seemed some low-frequency analog electronics were overpowering everything else. It was interesting to hear how the textures and orchestration evolved. Sometimes similar instruments (e.g., strings) would cluster together, sometimes the texture became more scratchy and granular with lots of noise elements – something which is pushing the boundaries of what might be considered a continuous “drone” sound. At times, traditional harmonies emerged, e.g., minor or diminished chords, while at other times the timbres themselves were purely inharmonic. There were very sparse sections with only one or two participants, and others that seemed to include much of the ensemble. All of these elements just happen organically, based on how the musicians hear one another and are inspired to layer on their own parts.
You can listen to a ten-minute excerpt of the full performance in this video, courtesy of Matt Davignon:
As one can hear, the emergency vehicles that inevitably come down Market Street with sirens blaring during Luggage Store Gallery shows became part of the overall tapestry in this performance.
My personal sense of the performance as being meditative, perhaps even more so than previous Droneshifts, was echoed by members of the audience with whom I had spoken.
In addition to reflecting on the music, I would like to call out the photography of Peter B Kaars, which is featured in this article Those who have followed my own interest in photography know I tend to like very sharp, high-contrast black-and-white images. Additionally the monochrome fits with the full-moon theme and overall quality of the music they document. I wish I had space for more, or to call out more individual musicians. A full list of performers appears below:
Tom Bickley – wind controller
CJ Borosque – trumpet
Bob Boster – processed voice
Amar Chaudhary – iThings
Matt Davignon – wine glasses/vessels
Tony Dryer – bass
Adam Fong – bass
Phillip Greenlief – sax/clarinet
Ron Heglin – trombone/trumpet
Jeff Hobbs – bass, clarinet or violin
Travis Johns – electronics
Andrew Joron – theremin
Aurora Josephson – voice
Sebastian Krawczuk – bass
David Leikam – Moog rogue synthesizer
Cheryl Leonard – viola
Brian Lucas – electric bass / tapes
Melissa Margolis – accordion
Bob Marsh – voice
Marianne McDonald – didgeridoo
Chad McKinney – supercollider/guitar
Joe McMahon – didgeridoo
David Michalak – Omnichord
Kristin Miltner – laptop
Ann O’Rourke – bowed cymbal
Ferrara Brain Pan – sopranino saxophone
Rent Romus – sax/tapes
Ellery Royston – harp w/effects
Lx Rudis – electronics
Mark Soden – trumpet
Moe! Staiano – guitar
Errol Stewart – guitar
Lena Strayhorn – tsaaj plaim / wind wand
Zachary Watkins – electronics
Rachel Wood-Rome – french horn
Michael Zelner – analog monophonic synthesizer, iPod Touch
Today we look back at a busy Thursday back in November. In the early evening, after spending the afternoon with the folks at Smule busking around San Francisco with the newly released Magic Fiddle, I met up with members of the Cornelius Cardew Choir at the Powell BART station to perform several pieces for voice, motion and interaction with the environment.
We performed two pieces by Bob Marsh and Tom Bickley, respectively, in the sunken plaza next to the station. Both pieces were very meditative, even as one moved about the plaza, and the relatively soft and sparse nature allowed one to also listen to sounds of the city as the evening commute tapered off. A few onlookers stopped to see what we were doing and listen in, but mostly we were on our own. We then began a piece by Rachel Wood-Rome that combined live voice with prerecorded material. However, as we were bat to start, a rather enthusiastic individual came over and asked to sing with us and forthwith began his rendition of “The Love I Lost”, a minor disco hit by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. As if on cue, at the end of his song a young man on a skateboard wiped out at the base of the staircase. I wish I had captured this moment on film. We then continued with our performance, in which four participants listened to pre-recorded material on iPods and headphones and then sang their parts for the others to follow.
Later on, several of us made our way to the Luggage Store Gallery for Outsound’sSoundspeak Series, a “series presenting pairings of sound and voice artists.”
The first set featured Hugh Behm-Steinberg with Matt Davignon. Rather than just a recitation of poetry with music, the performance featured both live voice and pre-recorded readings that we played back in combination with live electronic sounds. The first piece, “Sea Monster”, featured electronic sounds by Davignon that sounded very aquatic, like wind and waves. Behm-Steinberg’s pre-recorded spoken lines were separated with large spaces in which to hear the other material. Various loud metallic sounds emerged as the words become more fragmented. Eventually, the words seemed to disintegrate completely and were obscured by harsh resonances from the electronics. Overall, however, the piece maintained an undulating motion. A couple of lines from the text that stuck with me were “to be a girl in her 50s shoes” and “Don’t pay attention to modern literature.”
[Hugh Behm-Steinberg and Matt Davignon.]
The next piece began with metallic sounds that were almost FM-like in timbre, and the texture of the music was more choppy with individual events. The words started out more fragmented as well, and were rendered with a variety of voice qualities. Not only differences in tone, but differences in spatial perception as sometimes the voice seemed more distant. The electronic sounds became more liquidy sounds came in against percussive sounds, and gradually became more “gargly”. The voice began to shift pitches, up and down, against bits of liquidy bells. More glitch noises emerged, and words spread further out to the point of a single word per timbral event. I remember something about “fish bodies”.
The final piece, “Teeth”, was more of a monologue and quite humorous. It began with the line “Suppose you see a tooth” set against very percussive music reminiscent of tablas and other South Asian drums, played more in clusters than continuous rhythmic patterns. The imagery of the text was quite vivid, describing “infinite amounts of teeth” as the drums became more electronic. The text moved on to other topics, but then came back to teeth. As the piece continued on, more layers of electronic percussion emerged, however, the rhythm remained focused on clusters.
The second set featured Rent Romus on saxophone and electronics with CJ Borosque reciting poems from her new blog The Cloud Journals. One piece, “Love is a needle in the ass” was quite memorable both for some of the lines in the poem such as “white is the color of death and evil” and “the drum circle was fun, though” and its combination with Romus’ lively saxophone improvisation and live cassette-player performance.
The next piece “American Hunger”…or “Staving off Hunger (an American Diatribe)” dealt with issues around both hunger and consumption and how one can be both consuming massive amounts of food and other resources while still being “hungry” in some way. The line “where’s my beer” in the middle of the diatribe particularly stuck out for me, perhaps how it was set against the music. Sonically, the music featured warbling tones and chirping, glitches and loops, and effects from a Line 6 variable delay.
The piece “roads and wishes” featured the particularly memorable line “season to season, jam session to jam session” which resonated with me as a musician and as someone who has been quite busy with a great many things in these past few seasons. The poem was set against a variety of string tones: pedaled strings, bending blue tones, and others, and then gave way to more flute tones. The final piece “what if the world ended” featured more saxophone performance and string tones. And while these were not the final lines of the poem, they did once again connect to music and to being at the performance: Music is your muse, I am your butterfly, And your dragonfly, And your sword.
The Omega Sound Fix gets underway tonight at the Alfa Art Gallery in New Brunswick, New Jersey. I am planning to be present tonight as well as tomorrow and as with other larger music and events I will be probably be live tweeting @catsynth.
I have been busily preparing for the performance (along with everything else one does for a long-distance trip). The basic setup features the iPhone, iPad, MacBook, monome, DSI Evolver and Korg Kaoss Pad.
[Click to enlarge.]
The iPhone will primarily be running Smule Ocarina, while the iPad will be used for the new Smule Magic Fiddle, the Korg iMS-20 (pictured) above, the Bebot, and sundry other instruments.
One thing I have noticed is that although the main musical items have shrunk in size, the entire rig remains large, primarily because of the ancillary elements such as cables, stands, etc., so it ends up still being quite cumbersome and heavy, especially when loading it into airline-friendly suitcases. I ran into similar challenges with previous performances in New York as well as the one in Shanghai last year.
Musically, I will be doing three pieces. I will reprise the music-plus-video piece featuring Luna that I did at the Quickening Moon concert in February, but using the iPad with Magic Fiddle and the iMS-20 to replace the Octave CAT (which I will not take on the road). I will also perform a couple of the other current standard solo pieces, such as the prayer bowl with Evolver plus Smule Ocarina, and the live-sampling piece featuring the monome and a variety of Indian and Chinese folk instruments. I have two new Indian instruments to use tomorrow:
The first is a dotara. Although the name implies two strings, this instrument actually has five. I have not played it before, so we will see what happens. The second is a new gophichand. My other gopichands are fine, but it’s nice to have a few (if only as spares, as they are quite delicate). I will be freely mixing them with Chinese percussion instruments as well as my iPad-based model of a Chinese guzheng that I first used at the Luggage Store Gallery in September. I like the idea of mixing elements from different traditions together into something new.
For those interested in attending for following, here is the full info on the Omega Sound Fix festval:
Sonic Architecture Unveiled by Electronic Composers and Human-Robot Band at Underground Music Venue Electronic Music Festival resonates in New Brunswick art gallery
Over twenty innovative international and local musicians will perform at the bleeding edge of sound on Nov. 20 & 21 at Omega Sound Fix. Headlining performers have performed with the likes of John Cage, David Tudor, Steve Reich, Lydia Lunch, Faust, and Throbbing Gristle and are exploring new territory this fall.
Richard Lainhart is an award-winning composer, author, and filmmaker renowned for his individual work and collaborations with John Cage, David Tudor, and Steve Reich. His compositions have been performed worldwide with his earliest sonic forays predating Brian Eno’s ventures into ambience.
Philippe Petit of Marseilles, France is an innovative composer, who considers himself a “musical travel agent,” and assembles “sound-images” with turn tables and digital wizardry. He has performed across Europe and the Americas with Lydia Lunch, Faust, and Throbbing Gristle.
Octant, a one-man and multi-robot band, will plumb the depths of cybernetic accompaniment on Sunday, Nov. 21. Mathew Steinke serves as the band’s Gepetto and sole human member. “I would go out of my way to see an Octant show…” writes CMJ magazine.
Tickets are $6 for one day, $10 for a two-day pass. Doors open at 6 p.m. on Saturday and 4 p.m. on Sunday.
About Omega Sound Fix:
Local musicians, Mike Durek and Mark Weinberg, spawned the idea of an innovative and eclectic music festival during a mini-golf match last summer. Durek and Weinberg expressed frustration with the lack of a new music scene in New Brunswick and sought to fill the void with innovative sounds and talented performers. Click here for more info.
UPDATED List of Performers:
Day 1: Saturday 11.20.10 @ 6:30pm
Pots and Powercells
Today we look back at my solo performance at the Luggage Store Gallery in San Francisco two weeks ago. This was part of the regular Outsound music series every Thursday, and on this night featured two very contrasting sets: my solo electronic work, and then an acoustic horn trio.
We being with a view of the setup:
My solo rig has slowly turned into a table from an Apple store, with an iPhone, iPad, and MacBook all in use. At the same time, I continue to blend old and new technology with the presence of the traditional Indian instruments, such as the ektar and gopichand, and Chinese instruments. I set up the monomer to mostly face the audience and provide interesting displays on the grid, unless I specifically needed to interact with it.
[Click image to enlarge]
From my perspective, as well as a couple of people I talked to in the audience, the most successful piece was the new string-centric piece that combined the guzheng model on the iPad with live sampling of the ektar and gopichand. This piece mixed traditional instruments of two cultures with advanced technology. In addition to the iPad, this piece used the mlr application with the monome for sample playback and looping. Most importantly, however, was how it came together musically with the harmonies and timbres of the instruments standing on their own to create a meditative soundscape.
The other piece that worked well was my update of the meditation with prayer bowl and DSI evolver, which also incorporated the Smule Ocarina on the iPhone. I used the feedback technique again where the iPhone is placed in front of a speaker and starts to play itself. Here is a video excerpt:
Overall, it was a good performance and provided an opportunity to try out new things. It was nowhere near as tight and polished as my set at the Quickening Moon Concert back in February, though (or as well attended).
I was followed on the program by the horn trio of Darren Johnston, Matt Nelson, and Cory Wright. Their improvised music moved back and forth freely between rhythmic avant-garde jazz, long drones and all-out skronking.
Although it was a completely different instrumentation and format, there were a few similarities between the trio and my set, particularly towards the beginning. The opened with a series of complex rhythms with pauses and odd time relations that reminded me a bit of the piece I did with the monome+mlr. Every so often, the rhythms came together into a uniform pattern and then into long notes that formed perfect intervals or occasional consonances with thirds. Then the drone broke apart. On the opposite end, there were noise elements, especially on the trumpet and more atonal harmonies. At one point, the sound was reduced to very soft breath noises, followed by a swell with staccato notes and warbles, getting ever busier and louder.
The next segment began with solo muted trumpet. While listening, I was thinking how muted trumpet always sounds “jazzy” no matter the style of music being played. The jazz feel was sustained as the other performers came in, building a texture that was both elaborate and nostalgic. The jazz feel gave way to more percussive sounds, such as rubbing the headjoint of the soxophone on the body of the instruments. The mutes themselves became percussion instruments, as did a beer bottle. The percussion sounds were loud and resonant, set against clarinet and saxophone headjoint.
The final piece opened with a nice strong baritone saxophone solo. At the same time, the other performers began dropping and throwing objects on the ground. Then everyone came in again on horns with fast and loud notes. The saxophone in particular kept the percussive quality going.
It was a short set, but overall quite good and kept my attention throughout.
I have been busily preparing for tonight’s solo performance at the Luggage Store Gallery.
Because of all the other things going on in my life and the limited time to prepare, I had to scale back a bit and keep things simple.
On the bottom row is a custom analog noise synth with chaotic elements created by Travis Johns, the iPad running Smule Magic Piano, and the monome. Above this row, there is the Dave Smith Instruments Evolver, one of my Chinese metal bells, the iPhone running a looping app that I often use called TTW2, and the MacBook running “mlr2″ and other programs with the monome. I am using a few other apps that are not in the photo, including the Smule Ocarina on the iPhone, and SoundThingy and a guzheng simulator on the iPad. This may still sound complex, but each device is small and self contained, and the interconnectivity is kept to a minimum. I can pick each one up and play it while others run independently.
I am organizing the set into three major pieces. The first mixes purely electronic sounds with an old NBC broadcast of Count Basie from the 1950s. The second features the guzheng simulator with some rhythmic elements and sample loops, set against the Indian string instruments (ektar and gopichand). The third mixes the Evolver with the Ocarina on the iPhone.
One thing that I have revived after not using them for a while is the “Big Band Remotes” recordings from the Internet Music Archive. I still have a recording project I want to finish that uses them, but it also “felt right” to incorporate them into this performance.
As she often does, Luna sat down on the beanbag chair to supervise the goings on.
At night, she tends to be even more camouflaged than usual. The beanbag chair seems to slowly roll over itself over the course of time in a geological manner. The label from the bottom is starting to show at the top.
For those in the area who wish to attend the show tonight, it is at 8PM at the Luggage Store Gallery, 1007 Market Street (near 6th) in San Francisco.
Last Thursday I participated in Instagon 543 at the Luggage Store Gallery in San Francisco. Instagon is an improvising ensemble where the personnel change every time, i.e., no two performances contain the same group of people. In addition to myself and Lob, the group’s founder, this version included Lena Strayhorn, Mark Wilson (aka “Conure”), Alan Herrick, Martin of Vernian Process, and Blancahillary (aka Hillary Fielding).
I had brought instruments from opposite ends of the size spectrum: the Nord Stage and the iPhone 4, on which I played the Smule Ocarina and Leaf Trombone apps, as well as Bebot and Nlog which I have used in previous performances. Lena Strayhorn had acoustic instruments (to be played into a microphone) including a flute and a large one-of-a-kind kalimba-like instrument. Mark Wilson had a large array of electronic sound sources and effects, Alan Herrick performed via laptop, Martin and Blancahillary played guiltar; and Lob played bass and the main mixing board.
[Photo by Yvette Lucas, via Lob]
Basically, everyone was improvising independently, with Lob controlling levels via the mixing board. As he brought performers in and out of the mix, everyone was (presumably) listening and adapting their performances, which turn may or may not be presented in the mix. Thus there was a complex feedback loop with the live mixing and the instrumental improvisations.
Musically, the overall the theme was “drones and creepy.” As such there were lots of long, drawn-out tones from everyone, with periods of noise and static, heavy distortion or large tone masses. I used the electric piano on the Nord to contribute to the “creepy” theme, with augmented chords and effects that resembled a 1970s horror-film soundtrack. It was in fact hard to sometimes hear who was performing what, although Lena Strayhorn’s acoustic instruments were quite distinctive, and Blancahillary’s guitar playing was more staccato. I found that the Ocarina iPhone app was picking up and responding to the ambient sound from the speakers, so I spent a fair amount of time with it, bring the iPhone closer to the speaker to manipulate the sound. Its output was of course then fed back into the overall mix.
[Photos by Yvette Lucas, via Lob. Click images to enlarge.]
An additional level of “chaos” was Blancahillary’s “performance” with aluminum foil. She unrolled a large sheet, first using it as an acoustic sound source by shaking and crumpling it. She then tore off pieces which were lobbed at audience members and at other musicians, and finally she fashioned a large piece into a mask (covering her nose and mouth) that matched her silver pants.
As one might expect from a complex non-linear feedback system, there was quite a bit of chaos, relatively controlled chaos. There were many moments there in fact quite loud, and the overall texture was quite dense. But there was still a lot of variation and an overall structure to the set.
At the very end, Lob introduced each of the musicians and provided an opportunity for everyone to play a momentary solo so that the audience could hear his or her contribution to the overall performance.
We were preceded on the program by a solo performance by aris-based guitarist Richard Bonnet.
[Click image to enlarge.]
The first pieces in his set were based on more conventional musical techniques, but very well done. He opened with a series of percussive and harmonic tones that moved between more dissonant (seconds, tritones) and consonant harmonies. He used some delays that produced rhythmic patterns that gradually disintegrated. From these pieces, he built up a big cloud of sound that narrowed to a lone almost pure high tone. The second piece was more virtuosic in terms of finger work. It felt “bluesy” in terms of slide technique and vibrato, but the harmonies were very different from any standard blues. The third piece was more of a minor ballad with lots of melodic material and implied harmonies. It resolved into something that sounded more latin but then suddenly became more abstract with back-and-forth between fingerwork and chords.
In the remainder of the set, Bonnet brought in more experimental techniques. The next piece was darker, with lots of low tones and real-time manipulation of the tuning pegs, and use of an e-Bow for long drones. The overall tone with more “electric” between the use of the e-Bow and distortion. The melodic lines were more abstract and interspersed with sustained lines, timbral effects and harmonies. Some of the sounds seemed more synthesizer-like, but his conventional guitar technique continued at the same time. The piece ended with darker and grainier sounds, a long high note coming out of a dark cloud, and then fading out.
[Click image to enlarge.]
The final piece explored “prepared guitar”, in which various objects are placed in and around the strings to alter the sound and behavior of the instruments. Some of the objects included a bottle, a metal slinky that produced very scratchy sounds, and a chopstick under the strings. This was combined with delays and other electronic effects. The overall sound was eerie and haunting with sliding notes, like an old suspense film, with percussive and scratching sounds that not surprisingly reminded me of a prepared piano. From the delay lines and loop emerged that became a background jazz riff, but some buzzing and other complex sounds. This was probably the most fun piece of the set, and a good conclusion.