KFJC 50th Anniversary at Flux 53

Last Tuesday I attended performance celebrating the 50th anniversary of KFJC radio at FLUX53 in Oakland.

robair_marsh_dedionyso_cThe evening opened with a trio of Arrington de Dionyso, Gino Robair, and Bob Marsh. The set began with the drone of an electric harmonium, the space was then filled with the chirping of Marsh’s performance on Alesis Airs, Robair’s percussive and chaotic Blippo Box sounds, and de Dionyso’s reed instruments. All the sounds, acoustic and electronic, had a similar quality, and seemed to come together in a pattern I would describe as “yodeling”. This was followed by a combination of low reed tones and bass synthesizer sounds, both of which had complex overtones again masking the separation between acoustic and electronic.

Photo by Michael Zelner
Photo by

During the next portion of the set, de Dionyso performed on a double-reed instrument that I am pretty sure was a nadaswaram, a South Indian instrument similar to the Indian shehnai, but larger. Surprisingly, it sounded more like a saxophone than what I would expect (based on my familiarity with the shehnai and double-reed instruments in general), and was set against bass synth tones and more “liquidy” sounds. The sounds evolved into a drone layered with scratches and bending notes, and then into something more evocative of old space or science-fiction music, with descending synthesizer timbres. From this mixture, a minor harmony eventually emerged.

Photo by Michael Zelner.
Photo by

Robair then brought out his “signature cymbal”, and played bowed metallic resonances against gurgles and whispers. de Dionyso sang into various resonant objects as well, such as a partially filled metal water pitcher, and the detached bell of a bass clarinet.

There was more of the “space harmonies” and drones, groans and static. And vocal syllables against machine-like sounds, softer percussive synthesizers and metallic resonances. The sounds faded out, leaving just the original harmonium droning. Then suddenly there were bells and loud “skronking” (fast-moving loud notes), and then the set was over.


In the intermission, Walter Funk presented the Hologlyphic Funkalizer, an installation that uses a video synthesizer to interpret audio signals and project them onto an oscilloscope. I had actually seen a previous performance at the 2008 Edgetone Music Summit where Funk also played in the duo Kwisp. This time I was treated to a more detailed presentation and explanation of the technical details, including the Max/MSP programs that generated the audio signals and the analog video synthesizer. You can see visual examples at his website.


The LARGE ensemble, which was indeed large, performed a series of conducted improvisations, with Gino Robair and Bob Marsh alternating as conductors. Marsh conducted the piece in dramatic fashion. It began slowly with atonal pitches, squeaks, bends and glissandi on various instruments. The woodwinds began to add more “pointed” notes, with some short runs and phrases. The full ensemble then came to a loud stop followed by silence; then back to more of the longer notes from the beginning, then another loud hit and silence. This repeated a few times. Out of last silence emerged guitar scratches and harmonics set against scraped percussion, eventually joined by plucked string basses with bending notes, then the smaller string instruments. The texture grew dense again with long notes followed by faster runs. The music became loud and energetic and “argumentative”. And then it stopped.

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The next piece, conducted by Robair, had a sparser texture that seemed to focus on individual timbres of the instruments and specific sounds. It started with analog synthesizers and noise generates (Travis Johns) set against fast gurgling trumpet (CJ Borosque). They were soon joined by string bass and guitar also playing faster tones, while the violins faded in with a long steady-state tone. I could envision the ensemble being played as if it was a synthesizer rig rather than a series of separate instruments and performs. The texture grew thick, with some deep bass electronic sounds set against the strings; then it grew sparse again, with drums, trombone and bass clarinet. After some jazz-like runs on the basses, the ending centered around loud multiphonics and overblown tones from the bass clarinet.

The next piece started off like a standard from the 20th century classical repertoire, with detached pitches, atonal harmonies and percussive sounds. The music carried the tension and anxiety of a film score. Eventually the whole ensemble crept in. I also particular liked a section with clanging metal percussion against a very low synthesizer drone.

Robair then introduced the next piece as “Stretched out Xenakis in G.” It very quickly lived up to its name, with very slow pizzicato glissandi, and drones set against percussion scrapes. It was interesting to watch some of the instructional cards being used in the conducting, some had very literal musical meanings like “louder”, “soft”, “sweet”, “fast”, but others had more unusual instructions like “subvert.” Eventually, the ensemble settled into a textural equilibrium with everyone playing at once, and then instrumentals were replaced by voices singing in such a way to keep the existing texture going. The voices and instruments moved towards subtle harmonies or unisons (which I realized were of course all on on near G). Against this harmonic structure I heard the scraping sounds from Tom Nunn’s skatch box. The texture of the music grew more complex, and was then suddenly replaced by a violin solo of a minor melody that sounded quite Eastern European.

At this point, Marsh again took over conducting, and both he and Robair alternated every few minutes while the music continued uninterrupted. There were sections featuring mallet percussion, and squeaks on a soprano saxophone set against Nunn’s scratches, and a big “drum solo”. Later on, the mallet percussion rhythms took on a jazz feel in terms of syncopation and harmonies, an effect that was augmented by the presence of guitar chords. The texture eventually grew noisier again, with noise generators and loud, excited playing by the whole ensemble. The instrumental ensemble again became a chorus of voices, this time sounding a bit drunk. As the music grew software, Marsh held up the final instructional card: “God is in the details.” After this, the music came to a loud finish.

Outsound New Music Summit: Touch the Gear

This is the first of two articles about the Outsound New Music Summit, which took place last week here in San Francisco.

The first night was the Touch the Gear Expo in which the public is invited to try out the musical instruments and equipment of a number of artists from the festival as well as other Outsound events. It was a respectably sized turnout, with a large number of visitors.


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I brought the venerable Wacom Graphics Tablet and PC laptop running Open Sound World for people to play.


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It often gets attention during performances, and did so at this hands-on event as well. Because it uses familiar gestures in a visually intuitive way, many people were able to start right away experimenting with it making music with phrasing and articulation. I provided a simple example using FM synthesis as well as chance for people to play a phrase from my piece Charmer:Firmament (which uses additive synthesis).

Tom Duff also demonstrated his own custom software in combination with a controller, in this case an M-Audio drum-pad array. One thing we observed in his demo was how much computing power is available on a contemporary machine, like a Macbook Pro, and that for many live electronic-music applications there is more than enough. But somehow, many applications seem to grow to fit the available space, especially in our domain.

There were several demonstrations that were decidedly more low-tech, involving minimal or in some cases no electronics. Steven Baker presented a collection of resonant dustbins with contact microphones.


[Photograph by Jennifer Chu. Click to enlarge.]

The dustbins were arranged in such a way as to allow two performers to face each other for interactive performance.

I enjoyed getting to try out the hand-cranked instruments of the Crank Ensemble:


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Basically, one turns the crank which creates a mechanical loop of sounds based on the particular instrument’s materials. I have seen the Crank Ensemble perform on a few occasions, but never got to play one of the instruments myself.

I also finally got to try out Tom Nunn’s skatch boxes, which I had seen at the Skronkathon as well as “Tuesdays at Toms”.


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The body of the instrument is a cardboard box, and one plays it by running a comb over the various metal and plastic elements attached to the box. I spent a few minutes exploring the sounds and textures running different combs over the elements, including other combs. It was very playable and expressive, I could definitely make use of one of these!

Another variation on the theme of amplified acoustic objects was Cheryl Leonard’s demonstration in which one could play sand, water, wood, and other natural elements:

Returning now to electronics, and a different kind of “elemental music.” CJ Borosque presented her use of analog effects boxes with no formal input. Analog circuits do have some low-level noise, which is what she is using as a source for feedback, resonance, distortion and other effects. Ferrara Brain Pan demonstrated an analog oscillator than can handle very low frequencies (i.e., less than 1Hz!).

There are also several other live-performance electronics demonstrations. Bob Marsh presented the Alesis Air Synth (no longer in production). Performers pass their hand over the domed surface to manipulate sounds. Similar to the tablet, this is a very intuitive and rich interface. Rick Walker demonstrated a new powerful instrument for recording and controlling multiple live loops, with the ability to manipulate rhythm and meter. I look forward to hearing him use it in a full performance soon. Thomas Dimuzio showed a full rig for live electronics performance, that I believe he used at the electronics-oriented concert the following week.