Outsound Music Summit: Thwack! Bome! Chime!

Today we continue our reviews of the Outsound Music Summit with Thwack! Bome! Chime!, an evening of modern percussion performances. There was quite a bit of Thwack! and more than a couple of Chimes. But I am not quite sure about the Bome! part.

The concert opened with a solo set by David Douglas performing with acoustic percussion, MIDI controllers and a laptop running Max/MSP. His approach, visually, physically and musically, is to integrate the traditional drums, cymbals and acoustic noisemakers with the electronics in a single unit.

[David Douglas. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

I had last seen Douglas perform at the Luggage Store Gallery before Reconnaissance Fly. I recalled that performance being richly textured, but his setup and musical performance on this night was more varied and sophisticated. He began with short taps on a drum with granular and pitch effects cascading out of the percussion sounds. These gradually evolved into more complex rhythms and drum rolls augmented with tonal pitches. The acoustic sources expanded from the drum to percussive hits with sticks and other implements, with more pitched elements and eventually faster more rhythmic playing. As the set unfolded, there more complex polyrhythms as well as very subtle quiet sections, and sounds that were further afield from traditional percussion, with long electrical drones. There was an abrupt shift the cymbals with gliding pitch shifts and long tones. He also used lights and a mobile device to control electronic elements. At one point during the set, the music became more like techno/electronica, with repeated rhythmic patterns and in-time delays and hits. His performance continued as a single, continuously changing improvisation for the duration of the set.

The next set featured Falkortet, a local percussion ensemble that composes pieces for itself in a variety of styles. Members of the ensemble include Lydia Martin, Ed Garcia, Timothy Black and Josh Mellinger.

[Falkortet. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

The ensemble entered from the rear in the hall in a slow procession, with metal percussion and led by Martin on a conch shell. The scene and sound reminded me of a wedding or celebration band that one might find in South Asia or the Middle East. The performers took their seats at various points of the stage and the rhythm steadied into a syncopated pattern with a bit of a swing. It grew louder and more complex over time and then all at once soft.

The remainder of Falkortet’s set featured a series of short compositions in a variety of idioms and was quite a contrast to Douglas’ single abstract improvisation. There was a piece with three standard drum sets and a piano that included both loud drumming and a section that was jazz or tango-like. Another piece featured a marimba, a large hand drum and bells that reminded me of gamelan instruments, especially as the music unfolded first a single unison phrase that splinted into more complex polyrhythms and variations. After the piece, they explained that the bell instruments were in fact prototypes for an “American gamelan.”, and that many of their instruments were made from found objects or recycled materials.

[Falkortet. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

A couple of other pieces that particularly caught my attention was a marimba quartet with soft chords and subtle changes at different rates. It was quite meditative. The last couple of pieces with vibraphone, marimba and drums had a more jazzy feel, with familiar minor chords, blues scales and even a bit of a funky vibe at times. It was a fun way to close the set.

The final set featured the premier of Seems Like An Eternity, a new composition by Benjamin Ethan Tinker for percussion and electronics. Tinker, who performed in the piece on Arp 2600 and an Echoplex, was joined by Lydia Martin and Tim Black from the Falkortet, as well as Shani Aviram on kalimba, and April-Jeanie Tang and Daniel Steffey from Touch-the-Gear night.

[Benjamin Ethan Tinker and ensemble members. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

I was quite interested in hearing this piece after learning about it during the Composers’ Forum earlier in the week, and was glad to see that most of the audience stayed to support the performance as well even though it was already 11PM. It had a very elemental theme “evoking the desert night sky”. On a more technical level, it subverted the usual character of percussion by avoiding discrete sounds and instead using the instruments to generate drones. It unfolded with long tones with pitch variations, some of which reminded me of whale songs. A cymbal roll added both grown and higher-frequency content, while rubbing on timpani drums and rubber mallets on a wood surface added a thick middle-frequency drone. It was not purely drone, however, as bits of crackly sound came and went,. There were also empty spaces in the sound. I did find myself listening for the Arp within the soundscape, and identified some very noisy sounds and wobbly arpeggios from the instrument. At one point there was a very elemental loud metal shake evocative of a thunderstorm. Again, the overall drone was broken up by the sounds of small metal pitched percussion. The sound grew softer and lower in frequency, with the electronics moving into a subsonic realm where the waveform became a chain of discrete percussive sounds. After an electronic solo, the other instruments returned in, converging on a single tone. The sound became crunchier and more varied in timbre, with granular elements and then grew into a series of loud swells towards the end of the piece.

This was a long concert, and some ways a bit of endurance test. But it was rewarding to fully experience all three sets their entirety, as it is not that often one gets to hear an entire concert dedicated to percussion like this.

Outsound Music Summit: Touch the Gear and Composers’ Forum

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.