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.

Outsound Music Summit: Sonic Foundry Too!

The final concert of this year’s Outsound Music Summit brought together various inventors of new musical instruments under the banner “Sonic Foundry Too!” Rather than each inventor simply presenting his or her work, they performed as pairs. The pairings were selected for musical congruity and brought together people who may have never performed together before. As such, this was truly “experimental music”, with the outcomes uncertain until they unfolded on stage.

As one would expect, the stage setup was quite impressive, with musical contraptions large and small.

This large “bucky ball” was one of the more intriguing from a visual and sculptural perspective. With the holes and vaccuum-cleaner hoses inside, it was not immediately clear what this was supposed to do as a musical instrument.

It turns out to be Terry Berlier’s Percussion Ball, and is played like a hand percussion instrument. The performer taps or slaps the various faces and the hoses provide resonance.

The first pairing featured inventions by Terry Berlier and Bart Hopkin. Berlier was not in attendance, so David Michalak was called upon to learn and perform his instruments, including the aforementioned Percussion Ball. The performance was among the musically strongest of the evening. Michalak appeared from the wings adorned with LEDs and proceeded to the percussion ball, which turns out to be a tuned drum. He began with a an expressive free rhythm exploring the different faces, which became more structured as Hopkin joined in with his own percussion.

[David Michalak on Percussion Ball. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

What ensued was a tight rhythmic drum duet, which reminded me a bit of Japanese drumming. Gradually, Hopkin’s drum sounds grew more electronic, but the strong rhythm persisted. Michalak then tossed a couple of the LEDs into the audience and transitioned to playing a gamelan-like instrument made of metal plates and which produced a bell-like sound. The strong rhythm faded into an ethereal mix of bell and chime sounds. There were several other interesting instruments and musical moments in the remainder of set. A keyboard instrument that looked a bit like a toy piano produced high bell and wind-chime sounds. Hopkin also had an impressive clarinet-like instrument with a ribbon for continuous pitch change.

[Bart Hopkin. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

The next set featured Bob Marsh performing with his new Sonic Suit #1 and Brenda Hutchinson with long tube and gestural controls. We had seen Marsh’s suit in action at the Touch the Gear Expo – it is covered in plastic water bottles, some of which contain sound-generating materials beyond the crunch of the bottles themselves. We have also seen Hutchinson perform with you long tubes before, including at the Outsound benefit dinner – in this case, it was actually a shorter version, about one-third the standard size.

[Brenda Huchinson and Bob Marsh (in Sonic Suit). Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

Hutchinson began with slurping sounds through the tube, accompanied by small rustling and crackling sounds as Marsh began to move slowly. With the addition of electronics, one could hear strong resonances from the tube. The effect was like pouring water, and it seems that the timbre from the bottles on the suit were matching it at times. Marsh increased his motion in the suit, set against a variety of environmental sounds from Hutchinson such as water, fire, air and animal sounds. Eventually he got up and started to dance, moving the arms of the suit in fan patterns, with noisier sounds from both performers.

The following set featured Tom Nunn and Stephen Baker, with David Michalak returning to make a trio. The music started with the sounds of scrapes and bells from multiple sources. some of which emanated from Nunn’s instrument in which the performer ran large cardboard tubes over a metal sheet suspended on top of purple balloons. (Did I mention that almost every night of the summit featured balloons?) Baker’s instrument with metal pegs on a tube was particularly melodious against the brass-like sounds from Nunn’s sheet-metal instrument. The various metal sound sources played off one another for interesting beating effects.

[Tom Numm, Stephen Baker and David Michalak. Photo by Michael Zelner.]

Baker had several other instruments in this theme, including a series of bowls and a long metal arc, both of which contributed to the overall tuned metal sound. By contrast, Michalak’s use of skatch box provided noisier and more percussive sounds that filled in the space in between the long tones. Listening to the longer tones with soft details like beating was quite meditative at moments, enhanced by the low lighting during the set.

Walter Funk and Sasha Leitman immediately distinguished themselves from the previous sets in their use of electronics as a central element. They set themselves up quite minimally on either end of the stage, with a lot of empty space in between. The space was the perfect visual for the beginning of the music, where a repeating metal sound soon revealed itself to be the sound of train. The train gradually morphed into the sound of a human voice. Set against this were subtle low-frequency tones, scraping metal and a steady low rumble. During the set, Walter Funk produced a lasagna pan (which he had mentioned during the pre-concert talk) – this is the first time I had seen a lasagna pan used as a musical instrument in a formal setting. It was used to produce rhythmic scrapes, rumbles and rolling sounds that reminded me of a standard snare drum. What at first sounded like a motor being used to excite the pan was later revealed to be water. Against this were more electronic sounds, something that suggested a granular synthesizer and another that sounded like a distortion pedal for a guitar. At one point, the music shifted to a series of power chords, and a rhythm with delays (i.e., where the echoes of the delay become part of the overall rhythm). The set concluded a series of loud machine noises.

The final set paired Sung Kim on a bowed cello-like instrument with Dan Ake playing a giant towering contraption of poles, wires and metal objects.

[Sung Kim and Dan Ake. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

I had heard Kim perform on his well-crafted string instruments before – in some ways, they were the most “traditional” of the musical inventions in use during the evening in that they were not only shaped and constructed similar to standard string instruments, but were played using traditional techniques of the string family like bowing and plucking. I have also seen Ake’s large architecturally-inspired sound-generating devices as previous Touch The Gear nights. Both began the set with bowing. Ake was slower and more deliberate in bringing out the timbres of the large metal elements. Kim, by contrast, was fast and vigorous, evoking a dramatic cello solo. Ake also had metal claws that he used to tap parts of the tower and pluck wires, as will as a large wire wisk for additional effects. Kim also played his instrument more percussively at times. The timbres of the two instruments matched well and blended at times. The structure and narrative of the performance did not blend quite as strongly as some of the others, though there were great moments where the music grew to a crescendo, a section of a steady plondering rhythm with eighth-note bowing and strumming of odd-harmony chords, and a noisy section of screeching tones that resolved a major harmony.

This set concluded the evening, and the Summit as a whole. In a sense, it was a quiet way to end, without the dramatic musical finishes of previous evenings. But in the sense of each set being an experiment and the opportunity to see and hear something new, it was quite a successful conclusion.

Outsound Music Summit: Touch The Gear Expo

Once again, the Outsound Music Summit opened with Touch The Gear Night this past Sunday, in which the public is invited to come and, well, “touch the gear” and interact directly with many of the festival artists who use technology in their music. “Technology” included software, electronic devices, DIY projects, and mechanical and sculptural instruments.

I attempted to both cover the event for CatSynth and demo some of my own gear, which made for a hectic but fun evening. I kept my demonstration relatively minimal, with my Monome 8×8, the Korg Kaoss Pad and the Dave Smith Evolver:

[click to enlarge]

Basically, this was a subset of the gear I used at the Quickening Moon Concert (which was part of Outsound’s regular Thursday series at the Luggage Store Gallery). The monome was driving a simple software synthesizer, which along with the Evolver was being processed by the Kaos pad. The monome in particular attracted a lot of attention with its clean geometry and texture, and mysterious nature. It’s just an array of lighting buttons with no marking whatsoever, which invites curiosity.

Travis Johns brought a highly portable version of his worms in compost, this time attached to an analog ring modulator and open-source software the implements Slow Scan Television.

[click to enlarge]

One could hear the noise generated by the worms (which was a low-level rumbling static sound) and see the corresponding image generated by the SSTV software projected onto a screen.

Walter Funk presented a variety of instruments and objects, including Phoenix, a metal music object created by Fred the Spaceman. It was attached via contacts to an effect processor and a speaker, and could be struck or shaken to produce a variety of sounds.

[click images to enlarge]

He also had an old Realistic (remember that brand?) variable-speed tape recorder that included a bucket-brigade (BBD) chip which could be used for a variety of pitch and time shift effects. It would be interesting to modify the unit to take live input in addition to recorded tape input, although the use of tape is part of the charm of such a device. Additionally, he had a small custom analog synthesizer made from inexpensive breadboards made by Elemco that were originally designed for test equipment.

Tom Duff demonstrated the Sound Labs Mini-Synth, a DIY synthesizer kit designed by Ray Wilson. It’s a basic subtractive analog synthesizer, a la a Minimoog. More intriguing were the two generations of Bleep Labs Thingamagoop and Thingamagoop 2. The Thingamagoop 2 includes the photocell-and-light control and analog sound-generation from the original, plus an Arduino for digital sound and control. I want one of these! It was also fun to put the two generations of Thingamagoops together to control one another.

Cheryl Leonard brought some musical objects from Antarctica, including flat stones, bones and limpet shells. The stones had a high but short sound when struck or rubbed against one another. These were used in her Antarctica: Music from the Ice project.

The limpet shells had a resonant sound with well defined pitches. I found myself playing a subset of three shells that together produced an interesting set of harmonies and intervals.

Bob Marsh demonstrated Silver Park, a beautiful instrument that started as a proposal for a park in Detroit with metal sculptures and structures.

[click to enlarge]

Marsh sometimes performs with Silver Park as part of his Mr. Mercury project. The instrument version features springs in addition to the original metal objects, which add to its timbre. In a quiet room (unlike the room we were in) it can be played acoustically, but it can also be played with microphones and electronic effects. Whenever I see pieces like this, I am inspired to create one of my own, but also reminded how much work it is to create sculptures with metal, adhesives, etc. I did get some tips on some “baby steps” to work with similar sounds without necessarily committing to a sculptural artifact.

Another visually powerful instrument was Dan Ake’s 12×13, a large box with 1/4″ metal rods and washers. When the box is spun, the washers slide and shake along the rods producing a metallic cacophony of sound and visual motion.

By spinning the box, or leaving it tilted at various angles, one can get the full effect of the falling washers, or freeze them in mid-fall to cut off the sound.

Philip Evert performed with an auto-harp processed by a large series of effects boxes. The control and sound of the effects chain was largely indeterminate, though the demo that I heard began with ring modulation before becoming a more complex mix.

Tom Nunn brought his Skatchboxes for visitors to try out. Here were see T.D. Skatchit demonstrating the main Skatchbox.

[click to enlarge]

He is a virtuoso on this instrument, and we have reviewed his collaborations with Nunn in previous performances.  The Outsound Summit included a demonstration and class on building your own Skatchbox, which sadly I was not able to attend.

Mark Soden (of phog masheeen) demonstrated a chain of effects processors including a Electrix Filter Queen that produced chaotic oscillations when driven with an appropriate sound source. He had a Roland SP-555 to drive the effects, but the more interesting demo was using a trumpet with contact microphones on its body. One could generate sound by blowing, tapping, or otherwise exciting the body of the trumpet which then drove the chaotic effects processing.

Amy X Neuburg demonstrated the two instruments I have seen her use in her live sets. The Blippo Box produces chaotic signals that are compelling and very easy to play – the effect of turning knobs on the sound, even if it was unpredictable, was very smooth. Of course, the challenge is that the instrument is so chaotic that is very difficult to reproduce the same exact sound twice. She also showed her looping setup, which included a drum pad and an Echoplex.

Rick Walker demonstrated his new “Walker Manual Glitch pedal”. It featured both built-in sound generators and live input, and the ability to “glitch” or reply snippets of sound from any of the sources. This seems like it will be a powerful instrument, especially when combined with loops as input or a live improvised performance.

Thanks to Matt Davignon for organizing this event!  He was also a presenter and showed off his drum machines and effects boxes that he has used in many previous live shows.