Outsound New Music Summit: Guitar Night!

The 2014 Outsound New Music Summit continued last Thursday with night featuring guitars, and only guitars. This was an unusual curation for a concert of new music, and generated some lively and amusing discussion during the pre-concert Q&A.


The concert itself opened with a solo set by Henry Kaiser. He performed on an instrument that he had never used before, or even plugged into an amplifier before the set began.

Henry Kaiser
[Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

He opened with a simple piece directly into the amp that was quite pretty, with lots of harmonic and melodic sounds punctuated by percussive moments. But it was when he added his effects that things because more interesting, with very lush sounds and intricate patterns of delays and loops – not the simple looping harmonies one often hears but complex textures reminiscent of improvising ensembles.

Next up was a duo featuring Sacramento-based guitarists Ross Hammond and Amy Reed.

[Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

Their set featured a wide range of sounds and styles, some quite idiomatic drawing on the artists’ blues and folk roots, some much more experimental with extended sounds techniques, and some quite noisy. Particularly memorable moments includes drones that were interrupted by higher scratchier sounds, and the final acoustic traditional song sung by Reed.

Hammond and Reed were followed by another duo, John Finkbeiner and Noah Phillips. At once one could tell theirs would be a different sound, heavier and a bit more aggressive.

[Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

There was a lot of fast playing and use of percussive and prepared techniques. The music never really settled down, which I suspect was the intention. I liked a lot of the electrical and “beyond guitar” sounds they were able to achieve.

The final set was also a duo, this time bringing Houston-based Sandy Ewen together with Jakob Pek. From the start, this was the most avant-garde of the sets, with both performers placing the guitars in their laps, and bowing or striking the instruments.

[Photos: PeterBKaars.com.]

This was a beautiful and captivating set, with dramatic changes in texture and technique. There mere many long tones but also moments that were very sparse and quiet. They kept the listeners on edge with strange and eerie sounds combining guitar strings with rubber balls, steel wool and other elements, but their gentle intensity also kept us drawn into the performance for the entire duration.

Overall, it was an interesting night, with quite a range of music from a single instrument. All of the artists took us far beyond the typical stereotypes and expectations of the guitar and showed us a lot more of what it can do in the right hands.

NAMM: Visionary Instruments

Oakland-based Visionary Instruments presented their new guitar-based MIDI controller at NAMM. Guitar-controllers are nothing new, but one is quite advanced, going beyond simple conversion of basic guitar fingering to include a wide variety of modern controls, including accelerometers and pressure sensitive pads in addition to an array of knobs, sliders and buttons.

Here we see Moldover demonstrating the basic version of the guitar. (We have reviewed Moldover’s performances in San Francisco in past articles.) You can see a little bit of the guitar in action in this video:

There was also a model with twelve strings and a more traditional finish. That one also had a built-in “e-bow”, which was a nice feature.

In addition to the controller, Visionary Instruments makes “video guitars” with embedded video screens. The main model has a stylized, curving shape, but I particularly liked this metallic retro model:

For those who look at such details, the video is Nigel Tufnel from Spinal Tap.

In addition to the quality of the instruments, it nice to see an innovative company from the Bay Area (and Oakland in particular) represented here.

The Experimental Side of the Y2K-X Live Looping Festival

I have participated in the main Live Looping Festival in Santa Cruz in past years, but this is actually the first time I have attended the satellite event co-produced with Outsound at the Luggage Store Gallery. The performance, and the rest of the festival, took place in mid October.

The evening opened with a solo set by Chris Rainier on guitar. He began with some interesting and rather harsh sounds that through the looping processing grew into minor harmonies. On top of these loops, he layered more percussive, piano-like sounds and then a low bowed tone. The texture gradually got thicker, as often happens in looped music. The next layers of sound featured slide guitar effects reminiscent of old 1960s psychedelic recordings or old sci-fi sound tracks, and a harsh ebow sound that ultimately resolved to a consonance. Overall, Rainier’s performance had a quality reminiscent of a film or an old radio program – but without an overarching plot structure so one could easily get lost in the music (which is a good thing). He was also quite technically adept, switching quickly among several effects as well as guitar techniques.

[Chris Rainer. Photo: PeterBKaars.com]

The next set featured Krispen Hartung on guitar with Rent Romus on saxophone. The performance at first focused entirely on the pairing of the instruments acoustically (I sometimes count electric guitar as an “acoustic instrument”). Indeed the presence of the looping was very subtle at first. Romus’ saxophone runs matched and complemented Hartung’s atonal harmonies on the guitar. Then at times, the music switched into a more tonal and relaxed state reminiscent of older “cool jazz” performances. Here, the sampled loops become more apparent, as the jazz-like sounds were played back out of their original meter and sounding as if off in the distance. The music become quite intricate, with lots of percussive and staccato notes, and moving back and forth between extremely active and extremely sparse moments. The was a splattering of electronic sounds, but still mostly the original instruments, moving into more anxious dissonant harmonies before resolving back into more tonal jazz.

[Rent Romus and Krispen Hartung. Photo: PeterBKaars.com]

In addition to his own musical pursuits, Hartung runs the Boise Experimental Music Festival, which I should attend next time it comes around!

The final set featured Andreas Willers on guitar with guest collaborator Phillip Greenlief on saxophone. It interesting how all three sets featured guitar, and two of three featured guitar-and-saxophone duos (and for more symmetry, in each case it was an out-of-town guitarist paired with a local saxophonist). The set began with shaking and spinning strings, and a whistling sound. Greenlief entered by scraping a mouthpiece cover on the side of the side of his saxophone, and then blowing into the instrument itself without a mouthpiece. The sounds from the guitar were very soft, set against percussive wind sounds on the sax. The loops were quite short, and I did not notice them at first and then only as ambient sounds from the speakers. Gradually, the music become more intense, with lots of extended technique sounds on both instruments. Willers moved from playing the strings with objects to more standard but percussive guitar techniques, with a squeaking saxophone mouthpiece set against perfect forths. The next section had a very rhythmic, almost Flemenco, quality to it, followed by moments of unison between the two instruments where they seemed to stay together even through microtones.

[Andreas Willers and Phillip Greenlief. Photo: PeterBKaars.com]

The second piece began with Willers’ excellent virtuosic guitar playing against Greenlief’s performance whistle tones on the saxophone. This gave way to heavily distorted guitar set against microtonal saxophone notes. Through the looping process, subtle warbling tones were built up into a much larger and richer texture. Then, in the midst of a rather quiet section, Greenlief startled me (and several other audience members) with a rather loud POP! Indeed, the remainder of the piece was quite playful, with key effects and other techniques, and distortion guitar, all processed and represented via looping.

Storm Moon Concert

A little over a week ago, I attend the lastest in the Full Moon Concert series, the Storm Moon, at the Luggage Store Gallery. The Storm Moon concert was all about electric guitars, and featured two very different guitarists with their own interpretations of “gathering and releasing the storm.”

The first set featured guitarist Joshua Churchill in collaboration with filmmaker Paul Clipson. The music began with recorded samples, with changes in pitch and speed. The music in these samples formed a drone of minor chords, against which Churchill sprinkled metallic tones from the edge of the guitar. The overall effect was quite ethereal. With this sound as a backdrop, Clipson’s film began. The film was actually a Super 8mm film (i.e., not a video), which brings with it a certain image quality and style of editing that was does not often see in contemporary live music+visual performances. It started with simple geometric patters of light and shapes, notably rectangles and parallelograms that suggested office windows or overhead lighting. Against these emerging patterns, the music moved to guitar loops and longer tones set against the earlier metallic sounds. This gradually gave way to full chords and drones. Both the movie and the music become more intense, but the building blocks of guitar tones and shapes and light remained.

At one point, the film became entirely patterns of red and green, as the music continued to grow in intensity and fullness. There were sounds reminiscent of wave motion and some trills, but there remained overall a droning quality and a minor tonality. This gave way to beating patterns and a “loud wall of sound.”  As the film progressed, I began to notice more familiar objects and patterns, such as looking through a chain-link fence. As distinct images of urban lights and street scenes emerged, the music became louder, faster and nosier. I was then able to recognize familiar images from New York, the Chrysler Building and some of the bridges. At this point the music came to a loud and noisy climax after which the softer harmonies re-emerged and both the music and movie gradually came to a close.

This interplay of sound, light and image was followed by a solo performance by Peter Kolovos. We had heard his very dextrous and energetic style of performance during his set at last year’s Outsound Music Summit; he brought the same energy and technique to channel the peak of the storm moon’s energies on this particular evening. He began with short blips, scrapes and squeaks. The overall effect was staccato and percussive – quite the opposite of the previous set – and it was quite loud. Even as the notes grew longer, they remained percussive. Kolovos not only moved fast on the guitar itself, but also with his effects, quickly switching between effects such as heavy delays and distortions even within single notes. Gradually, the texture began to include sounds with longer duration, such as feedback and overdriven delay patterns. There were even some harmonic chords in there, though I quite liked his inharmonic sounds on the guitar, with or without effects. As the tones grew longer, the music felt even louder, feeling it more in my entire body than as sound. Then all of sudden, it became software, with percussion and a tone that reminded me more of analog synthesizers. Gradually things became louder again – in one section I heard what seemed like a standard rock chord progression – and then drew to a quick and decisive close.