Outsound Music Summit: Sonic Foundry Too!

The final concert of this year’s Outsound Music Summit brought together various inventors of new musical instruments under the banner “Sonic Foundry Too!” Rather than each inventor simply presenting his or her work, they performed as pairs. The pairings were selected for musical congruity and brought together people who may have never performed together before. As such, this was truly “experimental music”, with the outcomes uncertain until they unfolded on stage.

As one would expect, the stage setup was quite impressive, with musical contraptions large and small.

This large “bucky ball” was one of the more intriguing from a visual and sculptural perspective. With the holes and vaccuum-cleaner hoses inside, it was not immediately clear what this was supposed to do as a musical instrument.

It turns out to be Terry Berlier’s Percussion Ball, and is played like a hand percussion instrument. The performer taps or slaps the various faces and the hoses provide resonance.

The first pairing featured inventions by Terry Berlier and Bart Hopkin. Berlier was not in attendance, so David Michalak was called upon to learn and perform his instruments, including the aforementioned Percussion Ball. The performance was among the musically strongest of the evening. Michalak appeared from the wings adorned with LEDs and proceeded to the percussion ball, which turns out to be a tuned drum. He began with a an expressive free rhythm exploring the different faces, which became more structured as Hopkin joined in with his own percussion.


[David Michalak on Percussion Ball. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

What ensued was a tight rhythmic drum duet, which reminded me a bit of Japanese drumming. Gradually, Hopkin’s drum sounds grew more electronic, but the strong rhythm persisted. Michalak then tossed a couple of the LEDs into the audience and transitioned to playing a gamelan-like instrument made of metal plates and which produced a bell-like sound. The strong rhythm faded into an ethereal mix of bell and chime sounds. There were several other interesting instruments and musical moments in the remainder of set. A keyboard instrument that looked a bit like a toy piano produced high bell and wind-chime sounds. Hopkin also had an impressive clarinet-like instrument with a ribbon for continuous pitch change.


[Bart Hopkin. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

The next set featured Bob Marsh performing with his new Sonic Suit #1 and Brenda Hutchinson with long tube and gestural controls. We had seen Marsh’s suit in action at the Touch the Gear Expo – it is covered in plastic water bottles, some of which contain sound-generating materials beyond the crunch of the bottles themselves. We have also seen Hutchinson perform with you long tubes before, including at the Outsound benefit dinner – in this case, it was actually a shorter version, about one-third the standard size.


[Brenda Huchinson and Bob Marsh (in Sonic Suit). Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

Hutchinson began with slurping sounds through the tube, accompanied by small rustling and crackling sounds as Marsh began to move slowly. With the addition of electronics, one could hear strong resonances from the tube. The effect was like pouring water, and it seems that the timbre from the bottles on the suit were matching it at times. Marsh increased his motion in the suit, set against a variety of environmental sounds from Hutchinson such as water, fire, air and animal sounds. Eventually he got up and started to dance, moving the arms of the suit in fan patterns, with noisier sounds from both performers.

The following set featured Tom Nunn and Stephen Baker, with David Michalak returning to make a trio. The music started with the sounds of scrapes and bells from multiple sources. some of which emanated from Nunn’s instrument in which the performer ran large cardboard tubes over a metal sheet suspended on top of purple balloons. (Did I mention that almost every night of the summit featured balloons?) Baker’s instrument with metal pegs on a tube was particularly melodious against the brass-like sounds from Nunn’s sheet-metal instrument. The various metal sound sources played off one another for interesting beating effects.


[Tom Numm, Stephen Baker and David Michalak. Photo by Michael Zelner.]

Baker had several other instruments in this theme, including a series of bowls and a long metal arc, both of which contributed to the overall tuned metal sound. By contrast, Michalak’s use of skatch box provided noisier and more percussive sounds that filled in the space in between the long tones. Listening to the longer tones with soft details like beating was quite meditative at moments, enhanced by the low lighting during the set.

Walter Funk and Sasha Leitman immediately distinguished themselves from the previous sets in their use of electronics as a central element. They set themselves up quite minimally on either end of the stage, with a lot of empty space in between. The space was the perfect visual for the beginning of the music, where a repeating metal sound soon revealed itself to be the sound of train. The train gradually morphed into the sound of a human voice. Set against this were subtle low-frequency tones, scraping metal and a steady low rumble. During the set, Walter Funk produced a lasagna pan (which he had mentioned during the pre-concert talk) – this is the first time I had seen a lasagna pan used as a musical instrument in a formal setting. It was used to produce rhythmic scrapes, rumbles and rolling sounds that reminded me of a standard snare drum. What at first sounded like a motor being used to excite the pan was later revealed to be water. Against this were more electronic sounds, something that suggested a granular synthesizer and another that sounded like a distortion pedal for a guitar. At one point, the music shifted to a series of power chords, and a rhythm with delays (i.e., where the echoes of the delay become part of the overall rhythm). The set concluded a series of loud machine noises.

The final set paired Sung Kim on a bowed cello-like instrument with Dan Ake playing a giant towering contraption of poles, wires and metal objects.


[Sung Kim and Dan Ake. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

I had heard Kim perform on his well-crafted string instruments before – in some ways, they were the most “traditional” of the musical inventions in use during the evening in that they were not only shaped and constructed similar to standard string instruments, but were played using traditional techniques of the string family like bowing and plucking. I have also seen Ake’s large architecturally-inspired sound-generating devices as previous Touch The Gear nights. Both began the set with bowing. Ake was slower and more deliberate in bringing out the timbres of the large metal elements. Kim, by contrast, was fast and vigorous, evoking a dramatic cello solo. Ake also had metal claws that he used to tap parts of the tower and pluck wires, as will as a large wire wisk for additional effects. Kim also played his instrument more percussively at times. The timbres of the two instruments matched well and blended at times. The structure and narrative of the performance did not blend quite as strongly as some of the others, though there were great moments where the music grew to a crescendo, a section of a steady plondering rhythm with eighth-note bowing and strumming of odd-harmony chords, and a noisy section of screeching tones that resolved a major harmony.

This set concluded the evening, and the Summit as a whole. In a sense, it was a quiet way to end, without the dramatic musical finishes of previous evenings. But in the sense of each set being an experiment and the opportunity to see and hear something new, it was quite a successful conclusion.

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One Response to “Outsound Music Summit: Sonic Foundry Too!”

  1. Tom Emmons Says:

    Great article. It must have been a kick to see!