As part of my wanderings around New York this past week, I had the opportunity to hear an evening of experimental music produced by Issue Project Room. The concert, at the Actors Fund Arts Center in Brooklyn, featured two ensembles that were quite different in terms of music and instrumentation.
The evening began with a performance by the Brooklyn-based Ashcan Orchestra. The group is a project of composer p. spadine and involved a variety of colorful toy instruments.
Through the set of four pieces, the members of the ensemble rotated around the instruments, beginning with a piece for an ensemble of toy bells. The bells were actually quite sonorous, and one would be hard pressed to recognize this as a piece performed with toy instruments if only listening and not observing the bright colors. The colors were nonetheless an important part of the presentation and even part of the musical score.
As the performers rotated, the orchestration and timbres became more varied and complex, including more drums and other louder instruments, giving the impression martial music (ableit martial music with toys). In the end, however, they rotated back to the bells for one final piece. The music and presentation was a lot of fun, and I thought they could have easily done another piece. But the set as it was had a good structure. It was nice to hear the ensembles treatments of traditional harmony and ideas reminiscent of early-twentieth century music.
The second half the concert featured a collaboration of Mind Over Mirrors, the project of resident artist Jaime Fennelly, and the ensemble Zelienople. Fenelly’s work involves the use of harmoniums together with electronics. The combination was impressive to look at.
At least one member of Zelienople also used a combination of harmonium and electronics, while others used guitars and other instruments to produce music similar to droning or “space rock” that we have discussed on this site before.
[Mind Over Mirrors and Zelienople.]
In this case, the music was performed as a soundtrack to Gone, a film by Donald Prokop. The film appeared to be winter suburban scenes familiar to any of us who grew up around New York City, with bare trees, ranch houses, and white snow. A lone figure occasionally appeared, walking or entering and exiting a car, and occasionally the scenes dissolved into wintery abstract color contours. Throughout, the music remained based on long drones, but veered between moderate pads and loud dramatic flourishes. The structure of the music and the film both added to a sense of listlessness and disorientation – this was an experience to simply lose oneself in.
Overall it was a strong evening of music, and the performance was well attended. I hope that I can continue to hear programs from Issue Project Room during my visits to New York.
What do you see in this picture?
Well, since it is Weekend Cat Blogging, one would expect to see a cat. And indeed there is a wild cat sleeping well camouflaged amongst the rocks. This is Pallas’ Cat, native to the high-altitude grasslands of Central Asia including Mongolia, western China, and parts of Russia and Afghanistan.
This particular individual was not in Central Asia, but rather at the zoo in Prospect Park in Brooklyn.
Pallas’ cat has a nice thick fur coat and, unlike the writer of this article, is well suited to colder climates.
They are similar in size to larger domestic cats, and of course have many of the same characteristics. They hunt, tend to be solitary, and spend a decent amount of time sleeping. But despite the similar appearance, there is a lot of question about how closely they are related to other cats. They are currently not part of the genus Felis with domestic cats and related wild cats, but part of the separate Otocolobus (though this is subject to discussion).
Pallas’ Cat is not on the endangered list at this time, but is listed as “near threatened” primarily due to habitat loss and illicit hunting and trade (one can only imagine that an animal with such a fur coat could be easily threatened by illegal hunting). There are efforts underway to help preserve these cats in their native territories, including programs in Russia and Mongolia. Follow the links for information on these efforts.
Today we look back at the first of my two performances in New York, the appropriately named “AvantElectroExpectroExtravaganza” with a diverse collection of experimental electronic musicians. It was a small an intimate space nestled in a building in an industrial section of Brooklyn, east of Williamsburg. But we had a decently large stage and good sound reinforcement, and a small but attentive audience. And the industrial setting was one conducive to both my playing and enjoyment of art and music.
The performance began with a procession by members of the SK Orchestra improvising to sampled phrases “Hi” and “How are you doing”. For those who are not familiar with the Casia SK-1, it was a small sampling keyboard from the mid 1980s which allowed users to record and manipulate live sounds in addition to standard consumer keyboard features. The low fidelity and ease of use now makes them coveted items for many experimental electronic musicians. There were no fewer than five of them in the ensemble this evening.
As they sat down for the main part of the set, the sampled sounds grew more fragmented and processed, mixed with lots of dynamic swells and analog-filter-like sounds. Combined with a wide array of effects, the sounds were quick thick ranging from harmonic pads to noise to moments that could be best described as “space jam music.” I was particularly watching articulation with a Morley pedal and how it timbrally and rhythmically informed the sound. Taking advantage of the live-sampling capabilities of the SK-1, they resampled the output from the amps and PA and fed that back into the performance for a slow motion feedback loop that grew ever noisier and more forceful. The rhythms got more steady over time, with a driving beat set against the phrase “Holy Jesus!”, and eventually moved into a steady bass rhythm and pattern.
Rhythm was the main theme of the next set featuring Loop B. His theatrical and technically adept performance featured tight rhythmic patterns on found metal objects with playful choreography and beat-based electronic accompaniment. In the first piece, he performed on a large piece of metal salvaged from a vehicle with syncopated rhythms set against an electronic track. This was followed by a piece in which he donned a metal helmet, which he played against more Latin accompaniment.
Other metal instruments included a wearable tube, as featured in this video clip.
And a return to the original car metal, but with a power drill.
The rhythmic character of the different pieces seemed to alternate between driving electronica and Latin elements, but this was secondary to the spectacle of the live playing. It was a unique and well-executed performance, and fun to witness. It would be interesting to hear what he could do in an ensemble setting with musicians with an equally tight sense of rhythm.
Loop B’s energetic and dynamic performance was followed by a very contrasting set by Badmitten (aka Damien Olsen). It began with eerie, ambient sounds that soon coalesced around watery elements. It gave me the sense of sitting near an alien sea shore. Pitch-bent tones were layered on top of this, and eventually noises and glitches that deliberately interrupted the ambience. A low-frequeny rhythm emerged along with a slow bass line. It seemed that music was moving from the sea to a forest.
The sounds were quite full and luscious, with guitar chords and synth pads. Over time it became darker, with modulated filter sounds and strong hits. Seemingly out of nowhere, a voice speaking in French emerged (which amused French speakers in the audience). The various sounds coalesced into a more steady monotone rhythm with minor harmonies, which started to come apart and become more chaotic. The set concluded with an electric piano solo.
It was then time to take the stage. Fortunately, we had quite a bit of time and space to set up before the show, so most everything was in place and I was able to get underway quickly after checking that the local wi-fi network between the iPad and the MacBook Pro (running Open Sound World) was working. I opened with a new version of the piece Spin Cycle / Control Freak that used the iPad in lieu of the Wacom Tablet from the original version 11 years prior. It worked quite well considering the limitations of the interface – and indeed the more rhythmic elements were easier to do in this case. This was then followed by a stereo version of the piece I composed for eight-channel surround and the dodecahedron speaker at CNMAT back in March. The timbres and expression still worked well, but I think it loses something without the advanced sound spatialization.
Perhaps the best piece of the set was the one with the simplest technology: I connected the output of the Wicks Looper to the input of the Korg Monotron for a pocket-sized but sonically intense improvisation, which you can see in the video below:
I concluded with a performance of Charmer:Firmament from my 2005 CD Aquatic.
The final set of the evening was Doom Trumpet, which did not feature a trumpet. Rather, artist David Smith performed improvised music with guitar and effects set against a video compiled from obscure science-fiction movies. I found myself focused on the visuals, and particularly liked how he opened many of the clips with a highly-processed version of the MGM lion. Musically, he layered samples and loops with live guitar performance through a variety of effects. The combination of the music and visuals (which seemed to be dated from the late 1960s through early 1980s based on costumes and hairstyles) kept things appropriately dislocated from the source material and more abstract.
Overall, it was a great night of music, which I was glad to be a part of. A few participants will be part of my next New York show at TheatreLab this coming Saturday, but I certainly hope to cross paths with everyone at concerts in the future.
On Saturday, I went a couple of very different performances in various neighborhoods of Brooklyn, ranging from poetry reading and performance art to experimental jazz and pop. At Central Booking in the DUMBO section of Brooklyn, I saw a performance by the Sk Orchestra, which uses Casio SK-1 sampling keyboards as their main instrument. The SK-1 is a very playable instrument for low-fi real-time sampling and lends itself well to live performance. On this evening, the orchestra was more of “chamber ensemble”, with two SK-1 performers plus a third performer playing an old-style hand-cranked telephone. The SK-1s were used for live sampling in a “call-and-response” style, with one player sampling a phrase in his own voice, and the other providing a sampled response. The back-and-forth of samples at different rates of attack and pitches got increasingly confrontational as the performance went on, even approaching “fake violence” as the players hid behind a screen from which screaming sounds could be heard.
The performance was actually part of a release party for the book Antibodies, a collaboration of the interdisciplinary artist and musician Brandstifter and the word-and-sound artist Dirk huelsTrunk. The art book was based on found text and images from German medical textbooks. The authors performed a live reading from the book, reading lines once in German, once in English and the sung in both languages simultaneously. The performances featured a wide variety of musical and theatrical styles, from popular to more subdued to noisy/avant garde.
At the Music Hall of Williamsburg, I saw a show featuring the Toronto-based band Do Make Say Think. Their music combined rock and pop with jazz and experimental elements, moving seamlessly from a driving rock rhythm to a rhythmless section of extended delay lines and analog-synthesizer drones to an acoustic chorale of trumpets and saxophone. They were able to blend the timbres of the core instruments (guitar, bass, drums, keyboard) with the large horn section and their rather impressive array of electronics – each performer appeared to have a large collection of dedicated pedals. The overall show had a lot of energy and seemed to move forwarded from one song to another without stopping (hence the joke towards the end of the set that they were “now going to play their second song), and resonated with the full but not claustrophobic audience.
Beforehand, a subset of Do Make Say Think performed as Happiness Project, an intriguing set based on recordings made by bassist and lead Charles Spearin of his neighbors. He was intrigued by the prosody of the spoken words, with their wide variety of intonations, rhythms and phrases, and created several musical pieces that followed five of the neighbors’ recordings. We heard an old Jamaican woman’s voice followed by closely by saxophone’ Spearin’s daughter’s complaints interpreted by a violin against a minor-key jam; a very moving speech by a woman who was deaf until the age of 30, and her melodic description of what is was like to hear for the first time; a rather amusing repeated phrase from a six-year old girl as funky brass hits against a latin rhythm; and a duo of a bass and the words of a old Caribbean man. I have certainly seen musical performances before that attempt to capture the pitches and rhythms of speech closely, though this project worked quite well, and was certainly memorable. And it gives me something to think about for future pieces…