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.

[Click to enlarge]

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

[click to enlarge]

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:

[Click to enlarge]

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”.

[Click to enlarge]

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.

and plays a molecular synthesizer

“Tuesday at Tom’s” is a series of performances in a private home in Berkeley. This past Tuesday I had the opportunity to perform along with other small groups whose performances all took advantage of this informal and intimate setting.

Polly Moller and I performed the “Ode to Steengo.” The piece was originally inspired by spam texts that were forward to the Bay Area New Music list that seemed to describe the adventures of a musician named Steengo – “he is a percussionist and plays a molecular synthesizer.” The texts include a mixture of dialog about a band performing together, and sci-fi and surreal images.

[Photograph by Jennifer Chu. Click to enlarge.]

The performance included live electronic processing of spoken word as well as flute, bells and heatsinks. In addition to looping and effects, I also used a Korg Kaos pad, which has become one of my most reliable live-performance tools, to represent the “molecular synthesizer” as well as other interpretations of phrases in the text.

[Photographs by Jennifer Chu. Click to enlarge.]

The performance was well received , and I did get to hear part of it in videos. The balance and interplay between the synthesizer notes, spoken word, and instruments was very tight – once again practicing does pay off.

We were preceded on the program by New York-based guitarist and sound artist Terrence McManus.

[click to enlarge]

Although his performance centered around the guitar, the instrument served as part of a system for generating abstract sounds with electrical and electronic effects. Musically, the sound ranged from quite noisy to very harmonic and serene, often with gradual shifts. There were sections where McManus did pick up the guitar and play it like a traditional guitar, with delays and other effects; he also at one point used a cell phone in conjunction with the guitar.

Following us was the duo of Johannes Bergmark and Tippi. Bergmark’s homemade instruments are always intriguing, a mixture of found objects, sculpted creations of wood and metal, and contact mic:

[click to enlarge]

By contrast, Tippi’s contribution focused on electronics, including circuit-bent instruments and hardware synthesizers (such as the Nord Micromodular):

[click to enlarge]

Musically, the combination was an intense mixture of sound objects and textures, with lots of strikes and crackles, rich metalic sounds, static and synthesizer noise, and toy sounds. I mostly focused on Bergmark’s performance and his motions with the various toys and appliances and metal constructions.

The final set was the trio RTD3, consisting of Ron Heglin, Tom Nunn and Doug Carrol performing free improvisation.

[click to enlarge]

I found myself focusing quite a a bit on Nunn’s custom electronic instruments, two of which looked like boxes with interesting controls on top, and the third was a series of live metal rods that could be struck or bowed; and Carrol’s rather unusual and theatrical positioning of his cello in some sections. Although there was an electronic component, the music itself sounded “acoustic”, as it was dominated by cello, and Heglin’s trombone (and occasional vocal) performance.