Posts Tagged ‘blippo box’

Outsound Music Summit: Sonic Poetry

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The concert series of the Outsound Music Summit began this Wednesday with Sonic Poetry, a night combining poetry and live improvised music. This was a first for the summit, with three leading Bay Area poets collaborating with local improvising musicians. Each of the sets featured a different style of poetry, which was reflected in the music and performances.

The first set featured Ronald Sauer, a leading figure in the North Beach poetry scene. His poetry was infused with social satire and provocative imagery, and his reading style had that driving tumbling-forward energy reminiscent of earlier poets of that scene. In this performance he was joined by percussionists Jacob Felix Huele and Jordan Glenn.


[Ronald Sauer, Jacob Felix Huele and Jordan Glenn. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

The music began with deep ambient sounds and resonances as Heule rubbed a cymbal on a bass drum and Glenn struck metal bowls atop a set drum. Sauer then launched in a humorous poem whose lines poked fun at different poet stereotypes. The music moved into rich textures with mallets, stick hits, vocal sounds and buzzing – the latter occurred as the words alluded to mosquitoes. The next poem, a gentler piece about garnering, was accompanied by soft rattling sounds and resonant metallic rods. Tuned percussion and inharmonic timbres supported Sauer’s “romantic” poem that was featured rather intense sexual language and imagery – and which prompted the evening’s lead curator Robert Anbian to exclaim “Now Ron, don’t hold back!” One of final poems of the set featured the memorable line “The life of an artist is an elegant suicide.”

The next set was a duo featuring poet and performer rAmu Aki with musician Karl Evangelista on guitar and electronics. rAmu Aki’s poetry is deeply rooted in the landscape and culture of San Francisco’s Tenderloin (“TL”) neighborhood where he lives, and by his own declaration was inspired “by the voices inside his head.” He also wore an impressive blue feathered headdress.


[rAmu Aki. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

Alongside Aki’s fast rhythmic words, Evangelista began with an anxious chromatic guitar line. Phrases like “City of Light” and “English Harassment” were followed by sounds with distortion and other effects, and looping to produce contrapuntal textures. The poetry was full of references to the Tenderloin, some of which like the street names, were familiar, others less so. There were light chords against angrier words, surf tone and more distorted guitar moaning. During a break, there was a rather pretty guitar solo on top of which followed a gentler and prettier poem. A jazzier and more rhythmic section of music accompanied the poem “Grove and Laguna Sunset.” Overall, the duo has a strong musical rapport, with rhythmically tight starts and stops to phrases, and pauses that allowed the music to come through clearly.

The final set featured poet Carla Haryman and musician John Raskin on saxophone and other instruments, joined by Gino Robair on percussion and prepared piano. Unlike the other collaborations in this concert, Haryman and Raskin have worked together for a while, and I was quite looking forward to hearing their performance.


[Carla Haryman. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

The music began with the sound of bowed metal followed by soft staccato tones on the saxophone. Haryman’s words were also quite staccato and worked well with the sparse percussive texture of the music. Indeed, I was quite drawn to her more abstract poetry, and I found myself listening to individual words as if they were percussion instruments mixed in with the other parts of the music. There were more metal ringing sounds against a longer and more melodious saxophone line, and some electronic sounds that reminded me of old video games. Raskin also recited words at various times, either independently or in sync with Haryman. Gino Robair’s Blippo Box provided its usual liquidy percussive sounds that blended with the saxophone and words. One particular line that stuck with me, and stuck together as a full phrase, was “why is it that some afternoons turn into Miles Davis events?”


[Jon Raskin. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

The next piece was from a larger work in which the text of a lecture by musicologist and critic Theodor Adorno was processed into a new poetic form and recited by Haryman while Robair performed on prepared piano. Raskin also participated in reciting the text, helping turn parts in a dialogue that included the lament that we “cling to the term new music” unlike visual art which doesn’t hold on to an equivalent overarching term (though one could argue that “modern art” is an equivalent). The overall effect was quite humorous, especially in an audience steeped in experiencing and talking about new music. The piece entitled “Orgasm” was more frenetic, with electronic noises and Raskin employing electronic and electromechanical devices inside a large brass-instrument mute. The final piece featured Raskin playing a squeeze box and Haryman reciting phrases that felt more narrative than the individual words of the earlier pieces, and visual imagery such as “waking hours shiver under glass.”

My experience with poetry is that it tends to be far denser than standard language. As such, it can be a challenge to listen to in sets that are 30 minutes long or more. The rhythmic musicality and phrasing employed by rAmu Aki and the sparse abstract texture of Carla Haryman’s poetry made them work particularly well in the longer setting of a musical performance.

The evening was well attended, with many unfamiliar faces who followed the work of the featured poets but may have been experiencing new-music concerts for the first time. Overall, it was a very strong and dynamic opening concert for the Summit.

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Gino Robair and Andrea Centazzo, with Trevor Dunn and Travis Laplante, Luggage Store Gallery

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The first Thursday of this month featured an impressive performance by Andrea Centazzo together with Gino Robair at the Luggage Store Gallery in San Francisco. I had missed an earlier performance of theirs at another Bay Area venue earlier the week, but glad I was able to make this one.

The evening opened with solo sets by Trevor Dunn on upright bass and Travis Laplante on saxophone. Dunn’s set unfolded as a single piece, which had just started when I arrived. It was a combination of long bowed notes that are part of traditional bass practice along with timbral effects and more percussive extended techniques. The low tones filled the room nicely and provided a more meditative start to the evening.

Laplante’s solo saxophone set was quite a contrast in terms of energy and dynamics. It was nearly all extended technique with fast runs of notes. And it was quite loud. Given the acoustically active nature of the Luggage Store Gallery, this made for some interesting effects. I think the combination of the two sets worked well. Dunn and Laplante were touring the west coast of the United States and Canada together, so I suspect their contrasting styles played into their other performances as well.

Afterwards, the audience shifted 90 degrees towards the front of the gallery, where two tables festooned with a variety of percussion and electronic gear awaited the start of the second set. Andrea Centazzo’s table was dominated by the MalletKAT, a marimba-like electronic controller.

He also had a variety of small acoustic percussion, as well as this toy that he said was from a previous visit to San Francisco in the 1980s.

Gino Robair had his usual assortment of percussion, noisemakers and electronics, including the Blippo Box and his signature broken cymbals.

The set began in either a dramatic fashion, nor in an especially subtle way. It was well timed and well balanced and drew one quickly into the music. As I have said on previous occasions, a masterly improvisation performance will balance rhythm, dynamics and timbres into a cohesive whole, and this performance was no exception. Even with the “noisy” source instrumentation, I felt like the interaction of the performers created a harmonic structure of sorts to go along with the rhythms. And the electronic and acoustic elements blended well in this context. You can hear a short excerpt in this video:

Overall, this was a great performance, and I sat quietly and intently in full absorption of the music, foregoing the note-taking I sometimes do during experimental-music concerts. And it was a perfect conclusion to what had been a long day of not only experimental music but art-gallery openings. But that is another story.

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December 1 Electronic Music at the Luggage Store Gallery, San Francisco

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The December 1 show at the Luggage Store Gallery in San Francisco marked my official curatorial debut for the long-running Outsound Presents’ series. The show featured three solo performances with electronics, all very different in terms of musical style and technologies. But while all featured and celebrated different facets of electronic-music technology, there were strong connections to the acoustic and natural environment.

The evening opened with a set by Headboggle (aka Derek Gedalecia) with an array of analog electronics, including a Blippo Box. The sounds and possibilities of analog electronics were paired sounds of nature as recorded in the Yosemite Valley. The music began with a rhythmic pattern of high-pitched sounds against longer machine noises and clear presentation of the nature recordings. Gradually, the two sonic strains collided and mixed together.

As with previous Headboggle performances (such as the set at the 2010 Outsound Music Summit), this one was full of energy and stage theater, with head banging, dropping of the stage furniture, and even a moment where he tossed shakers down the Luggage Store Gallery’s stairwell. The music also became more dramatic and percussive, with more glitches, percussive hits and bursts of noise, but all set against the continuing presence of the nature sounds. The harsher electronic sounds gave way to a more rarefied tone over time, with longer periods of harmonic oscillator sounds fading into a quieter single tone. After another percussive period that included lifting and dropping the table holding the care, the environmental sounds took center stage. Between the stereo speakers and the acoustics of the gallery, the leaves and other sounds were strongly spatialized and felt present.

Thea Farhadian followed with a set for violin and computer running Max/MSP. In some sections of her performance, the violin was more of a traditional chamber-music instrument, with its familiar timbres augmented by electronic samples and processing. In others, it was more of a controller, with pizzicato notes triggering long runs of notes from the computer or other purely electronic events. The set started out with solo violin, with the electronics emerging slowly like the orchestra in a concerto. The music continued to unfold as interplay between the violin and electronics. As the texture changed to more pizzicato notes with electronic responses of backward tones, the music grew more anxious, channeling the anxious moments of countless films. I also was reminded of works by Penderecki and Xenakis. A large barrage of electronic pizzicato sounds started to take on a drone-like quality with its density. In both the melodic and percussive sections, the music was harmonically a very strong, a brought in electronic orchestration that suggestion the presence of a cello or bass off stage. Other effects included fast glissandi and electronic pitch changes such as one might achieve by changing the speed of a tape.

Farhadian’s performance was divided into a series of short movements, and some had very different character. In one, short pizzicato notes on the violin acted as triggered for long runs of electronic notes and processing, with various speed, pitch and timbral changes applied. In another, a very lyrical string melody was set against fluttering sounds and dramatic low tones. In yet another, she used “prepared violin”, with bits of foil and other items placed against the strings for percussive effects. The electronic accompaniment was equally scratchy and inharmonic. And in one of the final sections, repeated rhythmic phrases and echoes perfectly aligned.

The final set featured Later Days (aka Wayne Jackson) with a variety of circuit-bent instruments, acoustic and electronic noisemakers, and a laptop running his custom Cambrian Suite audio softsynth with both hand-designed and algorithmically evolved patches. If Farhadian’s performance was all about software-based manipulation and Headboggle was focused on analog hardware, Later Days combined both.

The space was quickly filled with an ocean of electronic sounds, glitches, bleeps, rumbles, short loops and echoes. At one point, everything became extremely quiet, with a few lo-fi distortion sounds and high squeaky analog sounds. The new sampling and looping capabilities of the software were showcased with repeated loops of circuit-bent sounds, a solo on a photo-sensitive oscillator, a car horn and recordings from a microphone dangled out the window onto busy Market Street. The loops built up to a frenzy and the slowed down to almost nothing. The sounds picked up again in pitch and energy, with feedback loops providing an edgy and unpredictable quality. A metallic rhythm emerged, and the faded a single feedback loop. A flurry of “little loud bits” formed an odd harmony of their own. After a series of machine-like noises and a more elemental wind-like sound, the music slowed down once again and came to a watery end.

Over all it was a great concert with a rich variety of music. Indeed, the three artists fit together sequentially even better than I had anticipated. And fortunately, the logistics and technical requirements (e.g., soundchecking) were not that challenging, so I was able to enjoy the show along with the audience.

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Outsound Music Summit: The Freedom of Sound

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The Outsound Music Summit continued on Thursday night with a concert titled “The Freedom of Sound”. It is a rather lofty title that can mean many things – in this case it describes ensembles that have explored and perfected musical improvisation through many years of playing together. The emphasis on experience and discipline is a reminder that “freedom” is a double-edge sword, in music, in politics or any area of life. During the artist Q&A before the concert, Tom Djll of Grosse Abfahrt lamented that bad improvised music can just be “mush” – and any of us who have been immersed in improvisation for an extended period have experienced the mush. But the examples of free musical expression on display this night were very articulate, structured, with musicality and narrative.

Tri-Cornered Tent Show opened the evening with an “operatic improvisational song cycle.” In the Q&A, composer Philip Everett talked about the influence of the Vietnam War and legacy leading up to the seeming perpetual war of today in his piece. The subject was hard to miss as guest vocalist Dina Emerson sang the lines “After war came the barking of dogs” and “After the war came another” among others, allusions to the unending series of wars we have found ourselves in over the past few decades. Behind Emerson’s singing, regular group members Philip Everett, Ray Schaeffer and Anthony Flores provided a foundation of static noise, explosive synthesizer and drum phases and free improvisation that moved between disparate rhythms and lines to a single unified tone. In listening to performance, I was reminded of the traditional oratorio, with the theatrical operatic vocal performance with the dramatics and emotion but without the staging and costumes.


[Tri-Cornered Tent Show, with Dina Emerson. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

There were particular moments that I liked, such as the emergence of a funky bass-driven riff with percussion and harmonic support that went on for some time, while some of the electronics remained asynchronous. And then there was the movement of the piece where Emerson’s voice was front and center channeling the sound of a Southern blues or spiritual singer with minimal instrumental sounds, mostly strings and delay effects, and later metallic resonances.

Next up was Positive Knowledge, the duo of Oluyemi Thomas and Ijeoma Thomas. opened with free improvisation with bass clarinet and voice. They were able to make their disparate instruments sound quite a like a times, and if I wasn’t watching the performance I could have mistaken them for a saxophone duo. The unity diverged a bit as Ijeoma Thomas moved from free vocals to poetry. In the gaps between lines of the text, the clarinet provided squeaks, growls and other noisy sounds.


[Positive Knowledge. Photo: PeterBKaars.com. ]

The instrumentation shifted throughout the performance, with recorder and whistle, expressive pentatonic humming, a walking gong, and poetry set against metallic percussion. The shifts in timbre and texture and movement between words and abstract sounds gave the sense of a story unfolding.

The final performance of the evening, featured Grosse Abfahrt. Regular ensemble members were joined by guest artist Kyle Bruckman. It began with a large balloon, which Tom Djll inflated and then placed over the mouthpiece of a trumpet. The resulting squeaky but steady sound served as a basis for the first part of the performance, and given the size of the balloon continued for quite a while. Kyle Bruckman on oboe matched the pitch of the balloon and trumpet quite closely, but with enough imprecision to leave interesting beating and timbral effects. The other performers entered into the mix, complementing the tone of the balloon and filling in the void when it finally expired. Tom Djll provided a number of creative noisy tones on the trumpet as well as other custom one instruments: a purple hose that could be played like a brass instrument but also spun around like a whirly. He also had a pair of long orange pipes that looked like didgeridoos and were played both trumpet-like and with air canister that is usually used for cleaning keyboards. Gino Robair continued percussion sounds such his signature oddly-shaped bowed cymbal and chaotic electronic sounds from the blippo box. Tim Perkis’ electronic sounds had a delightful liquidy quality that added a lot of fullness to the ensemble. John Shiurba’s guitar and effects pedals rounded things out with a harder sound closer to Djll’s trumpet than to the other electronics.


[Grosse Abfahrt, with giant yellow balloon. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

After all the performers joined in, the music gradually built into a thick noisy metallic texture – mostly a drone but with different shorter sounds in front. Then things shifted to softer, staccato sounds. I liked the empty space in which I could hear details like the distinctive timbre of the blippo box. There were other moments of soft, uniform tones among all the performers, register movement between high and low, wind noises and scratches, tiny sounds and loud drones. It was a powerful, energetic performance that went by rather quickly.

In total, it was a strong show, with three very different ensembles and styles that nonetheless fit together musically beyond simply the theme of free improvisation.

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John Butcher, Bill Hsu and Gino Robair at Artist Television Access

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live visuals by Bill Hsu

Two Sundays ago, I attended a performance at Artist Television Access featuring electro-acoustic audio-visual improvisations with John Butcher, Bill Hsu and Gino Robair. Bill Hsu provided the visual elements of the performance using the visualization environment Processing. (I have been interested in Processing for a while, and used it in the abstract graphics in my video piece featuring Luna.) Gino Robair had an array of electronic devices, including a Blippo Box and an Alesis effects unit, and acoustic percussion for a variety of sounds. John Butcher provided the low-tech counterpoint on saxophone.

I arrived late to an already pitch-black room as the first piece was concluding. (I was late because I was looking for a parking spot, which in the Mission is usually an ordeal. and I rarely drive there, but I had to on this night because of other obligations.) The next piece began in darkness, with small colored dots and a very sparse musical texture. The sound primarily consisted of electronic drones and long saxophone tones. As the the dots began to expand, so did the music. It became more active and featured more percussive sounds from Robair. As the graphics grew more complex, with swells and streaks, the music veered from discrete sounds to outright skronking with long runs of fast notes from both performers.

The next piece featured graphics that reminded me a bit of finite-element simulations with large numbers of particles forming in and out of patters. At first the particles seemed to form glyphs or characters of a written language, but then dissolved into smoke. This was set against sparse music, featuring bowed metal. (It was too dark to see, but I am pretty sure this was Gino Robair’s signature cracked cymbal.) The graphics shifted gradually over time, sometimes it seemed more like water, sometimes more like sand. Towards the end, the music (both saxophones and percussion) moved towards rather piercing high tones.

After a brief intermission, the performance resumed with the now familiar sound of the Blippo Box. It is interesting how despite having chaotic processes, this instrument has a very distinctive set of timbres and contours that are quickly recognizable. I did find out after the performance that the Blippo Box was being used in conjunction with an Alesis effects unit, which added more dimensions to the sound without changing its inherent character. Butcher attempted to match the sound on his saxophone, coming into unisons on the steady-state pitches, but then moving in chaotic runs of fast notes are growling timbres during the more turbulent output from synthesizer. The graphics during this piece focused on two closed elements, one yellow and one purple. They were mostly round shapes that curved in on themselves, but they occasionally coalesced into representational objects, such as a complex cross shape with sub-bars on the end (a bit like an Eastern Orthodox crucifix), and vague outlines of human figures.

The next piece was a sharp contrast musically, with drum samples and live percussion set against percussive saxophone effects, such as key clicks and tonguing. The graphics featured a red star with a roiling plasma surface that expanded over time.

The graphics in the final piece connected most strongly with my own visual aesthetics. It featured patterns of vertical bars overlaid periodically with large dots. The patterns started out simple, focusing on just a few elements on colors, but got more complex and richly colored over time. The music set against these visuals again featured the Blippo Box and its constantly changing but distinctive sound palette. But rather than attempting to match it, Butcher’s saxophone provided a counterpoint. He wove together active lines and melodies that on occasion were distinctively jazz-like, and then moving back and forth between long runs and series of loud inharmonic tones.

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Outsound Music Summit: MultiVox

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Today we at CatSynth conclude our series from the recent Outsound Music Summit with my own report from the MultiVox program that featured Reconnaissance Fly, the Cornelius Cardew Choir, and Amy X Neuburg. We did feature a guest review by Joe McMahon last week, which covers the same show from an outside perspective. My own perspective is anything but outside, given that I was in two of the three groups performing at night.

This was a professional show, with formal load-ins, sound checks, and staging. Reconnaissance Fly features a full rhythm section, so we had a lot of equipment to set up:

[click image to enlarge]

On the left is Tim Walters’ bass and Macbook running SuperCollider. In the middle is Moe! Staiano’s drum set, and on the right is my own keyboard+electronics setup featuring the Nord Stage, the trusty Korg Kaoss Pad, and the little stuffed cat for good luck. Here is another perspective with more detail:

[click image to enlarge]

The Evolver was actually for the Cardew Choir, but I set up everything at once. One can also see Moe!’s toys and other support percussion instruments.

Onto the show itself. Here is the full band on stage, with myself, Polly Moller (flute/vocals), Tim Walters (bass), Moe! Staiano as our special guest “concussionist”.

[Photo by Michael Zelner.  Click image to enlarge.]

We performed a full nine-piece set from Flower Futures, our “spong cycle” featuring music set to spam poetry. The set now has an eclectic mix of styles, from experimental avant-garde to prog rock, along with latin and jazz influences. We as always with Small Chinese Gong and ended with An Empty Rectangle – we always like playing that last one, but it’s even better with Moe!’s drums! I particularly enjoyed playing the medley of Electric Rock Like a Cat and Sanse is Credenza – the end of the first piece, with free-improvisation on flute set against B-diminished chords, elides into an early 1970s jazz fusion jam on the same chord (think “Chameleon” from Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters album). This is a relatively high-energy and somewhat challenging piece, and while it was fun to play, it also felt good to then return to the relative calmness of Oh Goldfinch Cage, which featured samples of “human calls” for training birds to speak, with phrases like “Hello, how are you?” and “pretty bird”, processed with ring modulation and turntable effects.

[Photo by Bill Wolter.  Click image to enlarge.]

Overall, it was a great performance with a lot of energy. It’s easy to lose sight of that in the midst of playing, where one focuses on mistakes and challenges – personally, I forgot to check that patches for the Nord were all queued up at the start of the performance, and the heat from the lighting and large crowd added unexpected challenges. But it was received well by the audience (a full house), and it seemed like they were asking us for an encore!

The Cornelius Cardew Choir was a stark contrast to Reconnaissance Fly in terms of form and energy. Our first piece, Joe Zitt’s “That Alphabet Thing” was a cappella with a freeform structure. Basically, it unfolds by each singer intoning the sounds of the letters of the alphabet, starting with A and gradually working his or her way to Z. Everyone moves at a separate pace but mindful of others not to get too far ahead or behind, and there were a lot of fun moments of interplay among different choir members, such as back-and-forth with “Hi!” for H-I or “why?” for Y.

[Photo by Michael Zelner.  Click image to enlarge.]

We wear white lab coats.

This was followed by “El Morro” by choir director and co-founder Tom Bickley. The piece was inspired by a trip to the El Morro monument in New Mexico and featured the text from inscriptions on a rock spanning carved messages from two centuries of Spanish, Mexican and American passers by, soldiers as well as other travelers. Each of us had a set of inscriptions to recite on a single pitch per inscription, set against an electronic background of rocks, birds of prey and highly processed vocal incantations. This was a rather complex piece conceptually, though not difficult to perform. Because we were so involved in the performance and the conceptual nature, it is hard to know how it was received in the audience.

The set concluded with a performance of Polly Moller’s Genesis. We had seen a previous performance of Genesis at the Quickening Moon Concert. The previous performance was entirely instrumental. This time, the parts of the spatial and higher dimensions were voice. I performed part of “universal time”, using the sequencer on the Evolver as the time-keeper and performed various modulations of the tempo and timbre. Polly played the role of the “new universe” with a flute solo featuring multiphonics and other techniques. Tom Bickley conducted the piece by walking around the stage and carrying chimes.

[Photo by Michael Zelner.  Click image to enlarge.]

This was a very meditative performance, with the chimes, the flute multiphonics, the ever changing electronic rhythm and timbre, and the vocalists singing their respective dimension numbers in different languages.

The final set of the evening featured Amy X Neuburg. As always, her “avant cabaret” set was very polished and spoke well to both her technical expertise with her instruments and her versatility as a performer. She employs several styles of singing, often in a single piece, moving from classical to cabaret/jazz to experimental vocalizations. Her synchronization with looping electronics is very tight, seemlessly adding and subtracting samples and recordings within the rhythms and phrasings of the song.

[click image to enlarge]

There were pieces familiar from past performances, such as “Life Stepped In” where she deftly mixes looping technology and theatrical vocals. She also did a few improvisational pieces, the first of which featured the Blippo Box. This is an instrument with chaotic oscillators that never quite sounds the same twice, but she always manages to control it quite well – in this performance she made it sound like a voice, to which she responded with her own voice. She also performed an improvisation with a Skatch Box which she made at the “build your own Skatch Box” presentation earlier in the week (and which I unfortunately missed). It’s hard to make a skatch box sound like a voice, but she could make her voice sound like the growls and scrapes that it produced.

[Photo by Michael Zelner.  Click image to enlarge.]

She ended her set with a tribute to Kim Flint, who was very active in the looping and electronic-music communities, and the founder of Loopers Delight, and who passed away after a tragic accident in Berkeley in June. He was someone I knew as well from both music and social events. Amy’s tribute was a performance of the first piece she ever created using the Echoplex, which he co-invented.

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Guest post: Friday at Outsound: Reconnaissance Fly, Cornelius Cardew Choir, Amy X Neuburg

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[While I work on the reviews for the Friday and Saturday shows at the Outsound Music Summit, we have a guest review from Joe McMahon, ambient music/soundscapes - pemungkah.com. Given that I was a performer in two groups on Friday, his review provides an interesting outside perspective.]

Friday at Outsound: Reconnaissance Fly, Cornelius Cardew Choir, Amy X Neuburg

An interesting evening of word (and other vocalization) related music. Reconnaissance Fly led off with their songs based on “spam poetry” – the sometimes strangely numinous texts randomly generated to try to evade spam filters. RF can, and does, play in a massive variety of styles, from samba and tango through pop, prog rock, and jazz, all the way to full-on avante-garde improv. These wildly disparate styles and surreal text are combined in pop song structures into catchily mind-bending conceptual smoothies. It appeared that the audience was ready for an encore, but time was short. The piece which included what seemed to be samples from a “teach your bird to talk” record and Polly Moller’s exceptional flute multiphonics and extended techniques was particularly fascinating, and Moe!’s drumming lent serious propulsion and quirky humor as well.

The Cornelius Cardew Choir did three pieces: the first was based on the alphabet and reminded me a bit of “In C”, as the choir started at “A”, both reciting the letters and making their sounds, the individual members determining the speed at which they moved through the alphabet. Charming and fun. The second piece was based on rock inscriptions; very dense and almost surflike; I had a little trouble spotting a structure in this one, but that’s probably more the result of a long day on my part. The last piece added electronics and flute; a very evocative, ritualistic piece – fascinating textures and quite wonderful.

Last on the bill was Amy X Neuburg, who wowed the crowd as always, performing, among others, several pieces from her _Residue_ album; her performances of these have evolved interestingly. In addition, she improvised a new piece on the spot using her Blippo Box and her just-built Scatchbox, and a tribute to Kim Flint the late founder of the Looper’s Delight mailing list.

A very enjoyable evening; looking forward to hearing more from all the performers.

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KFJC 50th Anniversary at Flux 53

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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.

LARGE_ensemble_c

[click to en-LARGE]

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.

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2009 San Francisco Electronic Music Festival

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This September was the 10th anniversary of the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival, and I had the opportunity to attend two of the performances. To mark the occasion, many of the original participants in the first festival ten years ago came back to perform.

The festival began with a piece by Miya Masaoka (whom Pamela Z jokingly referred to as the “mother of SFEMF” in her introduction). The LED Kimono project not surprisingly featured a kimono with LEDs, worn by dancer Mariko Masaoka-Drew. The dress itself was very pretty and simple, with a large LED array on the right-hand sleeve. Throughout the performance, different patterns were featured on the LEDa, sometimes very subtle with only a few active, and at other times large oscillating rectangular patterns.

The music began with a very traditional koto performance. There some delay, sampling and pitch-shift effects in the background. The koto was mostly struck or plucked, and occasionally bowed. During the section of the performance, there was almost no dance movement. Over time, more electronics came in, initially low, dronaning, and with overtones that sounded vaguely FM or inharmonic, almost like electrical noise.

As more electronic sounds came in, the dancer began to move, very slowly and subtly. Indeed, most of the movement throughout the piece was very subtle and slow, and did not clearly map to the musical material. On the other hand, the LEDs on the dress did match the rhythms and timbral changes. The first came on during and electronic arpeggio that sounded like classic FM synthesis. There were some dramatic swells with the higher FM-like sounds. The music primarily moved between the elements described, with the long drones and then the fast arpeggiation. But the physical movement of the dancer remained slow. As a result, I found myself mostly focused on the LEDs and the dress.

And the end, I stayed to watch the process of Masaoka-Drew being “unplugged” from the dress, and to fully observe the amount of electronics (and wiring) that were required for it to function.

The second set featured Lukas Ligeti performing his own compositions on the marimba lumina. He began slowly, with very low tones, one so low that the amplitude modulation itself became and audible rhythm. He then layered other sounds over these tones, including some vocal samples that sounded like chatters or whispers. Overall , I would describe his music as a cross between classic minimalism, world music, and electronic music. He described what we was doing as using the marimba lumina to play “samples and funny synths” on his laptop, with a focus on samples were collected from his world travels. One could definitely hear some of the instruments and voices from various places around the world, particularly Africa, in his performance.

The final performance of the evening was by Amy X Neuberg. Her performance was a combination of her “electronic cabaret”, which we have heard several times before and reviewed here at CatSynth; and a new work entitled “The Dude Trilogy”, a series of abstract poems for voice and the Blippo Box. The Blippo Box employs chaotic oscillators and modulation, and can be very difficult to control in a predictable way. However, Neuberg manages to perform it in a very poetic way, and more remarkably is able to match her voice to the sounds of the synthesizer. Rapidly changing vowel sounds matched a fast chaotic filter modulation, the rhythms of spoken word material matching the sequences. At other times her high sung tones followed the unstable high electronic pitches. During the piece, a video camera recorded and projected close-ups of her hands manipulating the instrument, including its theremin-like antenna.

Several of her electronic cabaret pieces were familiar from previous programs. They always are very tight and solid, combining voice, electronics and theatre. She did close with one song I had not heard before. It began with her striking the electronic drum pad repeatedly to produce a “banging piano-chord” pattern, which was matched by her vocals. It ended with a solo and fade-out on the Blippo Box, which almost seemed like a spontaneous moment.


The location of the festival, the restored Brava Theater in the Mission District of San Francisco, was itself an attraction. Besides the large theater space and lobby, the deliberately weathered foyer housed the installation The Exchange by Dukoro, the duo of Agnes Szelag and The Normal Conquest. This installation with subtly placed speakers and sounds generated interactively by visitors, complemented the architecture.


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The Saturday performance opened with [ruidobello], aka Jorge Bachmann performing his piece Coleoptera_0909 for electronics and video. The piece centered around beetles, or scarabs, who are members of the biological order Coleoptera. Videos of scarabs were projected onto the screen. Some were crawling on skin, some were in dishes, a couple were on a corrugated cadrboard surface that resembled a Q-bert board. Initially the beetles were solitary, but then they started to appear in groups. One particular scene involved one poor scarab being madly chased and grabbed at by another (one can only speculate what was going on here). The sounds were based on recordings of natural sounds from scarabs. In the early part of the piece, the relation to the insect noises was quite transparent (i.e., it “sounded like insects”). Later on, the connection between the performed sounds and the original material became more abstract, and sounded like thick pads with delays, time-stretching and pitch-shifting effects. The piece ended with a scarab taking off in flight, and the sound following suit with an ascending glissando.

[ruidobello] was followed by an electronic performance of Gino Robair’s opera I ,Norton. It is an improvisational piece based on the writings of Norton I, “Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico”, and a famous character from San Francisco history. In 1859, Joshua Abraham Norton declared himself Emperor Norton I of the United States, and began to issue a series of decrees, including the dissolution of the United States Congress. The opera is based on the text from these decrees, but in an “open-ended structure [that] allows it to be assembled differently for each performance.”

In this version, Tom Duff played Norton I and read from his various edicts, while the spoken words are processed by three electronic performers Chris Brown, Kristin Miltner and Wobbly. Indeed. all the electronic sounds were based on Tom Duff’s voice. At first, the electronic manipulations kept the words intact through various delay, pitch and time effects; but over time the electronics became more complex, with delay lines or samples short enough for the snippets from the original voice to form completely different timbres, and as such became more detached from the stage performance. I found myself focusing heavily on the video work of Tim Thompson along with the theatrical performance, and the electronic sounds became part of the background. One particularly strong visual moment was when Tom Duff/Norton I built a small “city” out of colored translucent cubes and shining flashlights through them. This illuminated construction was then picked up by the video and projected onto the screen. There was a middle section in which our protagonist appeared to go to sleep (perhaps dreaming) and the electronic music became the focus, with the video playing against the sounds (which were still entirely based on previously sampled vocal material). There was an overall calm pace to the entire opera performance, punctuated by the dramatic proclamations and occasional abrupt shifts in timbre or visuals; and one simply became immersed in the whole experience.

Pamela Z concluded the festival with what she described as an “old-new sandwich” with several short pieces. The first “older” pieces included looped rhythms layered with rich vocal textures and harmonies, with one featuring a dramatic simulation of a manual typewriter complete with carriage return. There was a performance of a piece I had originally seen her perform at room: PIPES back in May. The next piece was the “new” part, a work in progress entitled Baggage Allowance. It opened with a video of a baggage carousel, with various people reciting the contents of their luggage (clothing, toiletries, books, etc.). The contents became a little more unusual over time, as people described confiscated items and even an attempt to hide a knife at LAX. A simulated x-ray of a bag included strange objects like a frog and a gun (actually, I suppose I gun isn’t all that strange). This was set against live electronic processing of vocals as well as other sounds such as the popping of bubble wrap. The final piece was another older work involving delays and dramatic harmonic vocals (it was originally done years ago with hardware effects boxes before being ported to modern laptop computers); as a representation of classic electronic music being redone with modern technology, it was a fitting conclusion to the festival.

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Dieb13, Djll, Greenlief, Robair, and Ueno at CNMAT

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Last Thursday, I found myself back at my old “stomping ground”, the Center for New Music and Audio Technologies (CNMAT) to hear an evening of improvised music.

Dieb13 (aka Dieter Kovacic) opened with a solo set for multiple turntables. It started with a single turntable producing noise/static sounds, and gradually incorporated electrical hums and synthesizer sounds, along with complex repeated rhythms. The rhythmic patterns were sometimes metric, sometimes more stuttering. With three turntables going at once, Kovacic’s performance seemed more “synthesizer” and less “DJ.”

Dieb31 was then joined by Tom Djll (trumpet and electronics), Philip Greenlief (saxophone), Gino Robair (percussion and electronics) and Kenn Ueno (extended vocal techniques). The set began with “scraping sounds”, Robair blowing a small horn against a drum and Greenlief scraping a mouthpiece cover along his tenor sax. Indeed, the acoustic instruments as noise sources dominated the first section of this extended improvisation, before the Blippo Box, the other electronic instruments and Dieb31′s turntables entered. It was interesting to hear how the sounds from the turntables an Ueno’s vocal techniques matched the acoustic instruments, and it was a challenge at times to tell which sounds were acoustic and which sounds were electronic.

Another notable confluence was Ueno’s throat singing set against low-frequency sounds from the turntable and the Blippo Box. There were also contrasting sections with percussive short notes on all the instruments (trumpet, electronics, sax, voice, turntable, percussion) in rapid succession. There was a very soft section with saxophone multiphonics (we have commented on Greenlief’s expertise with multiphonics in the past), vocal whispers, low-level electrical sounds, and a resonant tube; and very loud moments, screeching, high-pitched. One very rhythmic section featured Gino running fan against cymbals and Tom Dill running a similar fan against his trumpet. Greenlief joined in running keys against his sax. The piece ended with loud notes that came to a sudden stop.

This was followed by a much shorter “encore” improvisation, whose memorable moments were the variety of sounds from the turntable, which included an excerpt from a bebop recording and a toilet flushing.

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