2010 DroneShift – Long Nights Moon Concert

Two weeks ago, I participated in the 2010 edition of the Droneshift at the Luggage Store Gallery here in San Francisco.
The Droneshift has become an annual event, though this year it was part of the Full-Moon Concert Series, approximately coincident with the Long Nights Moon.

Droneshift is a collaborative concert of improvised drone music. Between 15 and 25 musicians will gather to contribute to a continuous 2 hour drone, each adding their acoustic or electronic instruments here and there, and weaving their sounds together to create gradually shifting tapestries of music. The performance will most likely shift back and forth from completely acoustic music to electric ambiance and post-industrial noise.

Basically, the two hour performance is one continuous ever-changing sound. No individual notes, rests, phrases, breaks, etc. That doesn’t mean it is at all monotonous – there are continuous changes in timbre, dynamics and expression, both within individual parts as various musicians enter and exit the sound.

[Rachel Wood-Rome, Rent Romus. Photo: PeterBKaars.com. (Click images to enlarge.)]

There were actually close to (if not more than) 30 performers participating this year. The performers were arranged along periphery of the gallery with the audience situated in the middle looking outward. So between the audience and musicians, things got quite crowded. I was able to stake out some chair space for myself my minimalist setup:

I just had the iPad and an amplifier, and I was primarily running the Smule Magic Fiddle throughout my allotted time. It is a good instrument for droning, as one can linger on the strings pretty much forever, and play subtle pitch and dynamic changes. It’s easy to gradually fade out, and then fade in very slowly another pitch, which will change the overall sound of the performance without causing a distinct note break.

Because the nature of overall drone sound and the large number of participants, it was often difficult to focus on what any one other musician was playing. I mostly shifted between focusing on my own part and getting lost in the overall sound, which was quite meditative at times. I was able to take in some details, such as Matt Davignon’s distinctive glass-vase performance:

[Matt Davignon. Photo: PeterBKaars.com. (Click image to enlarge.)]

David Michalak’s Omnichord and Joe McMahon’s plastic-tube “didgeridoo” were also quite distinctive (particularly because they were sitting near me):

[David Michalak, Joe McMahon. Photo: PeterBKaars.com. (Click images to enlarge.)]

I was sitting across from Adam Fong on upright bass. There were moments when I took cues from him and other string players to re-enter the mix on Magic Fiddle. I was also trying to take cues from purely electronic musicians, such as Kristen Miltner on laptop or Andrew Joron’s theremin:

[Adam Fong, Kristen Miltner. Photo: PeterBKaars.com. (Click images to enlarge.)]

Overall, the instrumentation was quite varied and there was a balance between winds, strings, percussion and electronic, although there were a few moments were it seemed some low-frequency analog electronics were overpowering everything else. It was interesting to hear how the textures and orchestration evolved. Sometimes similar instruments (e.g., strings) would cluster together, sometimes the texture became more scratchy and granular with lots of noise elements – something which is pushing the boundaries of what might be considered a continuous “drone” sound. At times, traditional harmonies emerged, e.g., minor or diminished chords, while at other times the timbres themselves were purely inharmonic. There were very sparse sections with only one or two participants, and others that seemed to include much of the ensemble. All of these elements just happen organically, based on how the musicians hear one another and are inspired to layer on their own parts.

[Ron Heglin, Aurora Josephson. Photo: PeterBKaars.com. (Click images to enlarge.)]

You can listen to a ten-minute excerpt of the full performance in this video, courtesy of Matt Davignon:

As one can hear, the emergency vehicles that inevitably come down Market Street with sirens blaring during Luggage Store Gallery shows became part of the overall tapestry in this performance.

My personal sense of the performance as being meditative, perhaps even more so than previous Droneshifts, was echoed by members of the audience with whom I had spoken.

In addition to reflecting on the music, I would like to call out the photography of Peter B Kaars, which is featured in this article Those who have followed my own interest in photography know I tend to like very sharp, high-contrast black-and-white images. Additionally the monochrome fits with the full-moon theme and overall quality of the music they document. I wish I had space for more, or to call out more individual musicians. A full list of performers appears below:

Tom Bickley – wind controller
CJ Borosque – trumpet
Bob Boster – processed voice
Amar Chaudhary – iThings
Matt Davignon – wine glasses/vessels
Tony Dryer – bass
Adam Fong – bass
Phillip Greenlief – sax/clarinet
Ron Heglin – trombone/trumpet
Jeff Hobbs – bass, clarinet or violin
Travis Johns – electronics
Andrew Joron – theremin
Aurora Josephson – voice
Sebastian Krawczuk – bass
David Leikam – Moog rogue synthesizer
Cheryl Leonard – viola
Brian Lucas – electric bass / tapes
Melissa Margolis – accordion
Bob Marsh – voice
Marianne McDonald – didgeridoo
Chad McKinney – supercollider/guitar
Joe McMahon – didgeridoo
David Michalak – Omnichord
Kristin Miltner – laptop
Ann O’Rourke – bowed cymbal
Ferrara Brain Pan – sopranino saxophone
Rent Romus – sax/tapes
Ellery Royston – harp w/effects
Lx Rudis – electronics
Mark Soden – trumpet
Moe! Staiano – guitar
Errol Stewart – guitar
Lena Strayhorn – tsaaj plaim / wind wand
Zachary Watkins – electronics
Rachel Wood-Rome – french horn
Michael Zelner – analog monophonic synthesizer, iPod Touch

Instagon 543 and Richard Bonnet, Luggage Store Gallery

Last Thursday I participated in Instagon 543 at the Luggage Store Gallery in San Francisco. Instagon is an improvising ensemble where the personnel change every time, i.e., no two performances contain the same group of people. In addition to myself and Lob, the group’s founder, this version included Lena Strayhorn, Mark Wilson (aka “Conure”), Alan Herrick, Martin of Vernian Process, and Blancahillary (aka Hillary Fielding).

I had brought instruments from opposite ends of the size spectrum: the Nord Stage and the iPhone 4, on which I played the Smule Ocarina and Leaf Trombone apps, as well as Bebot and Nlog which I have used in previous performances. Lena Strayhorn had acoustic instruments (to be played into a microphone) including a flute and a large one-of-a-kind kalimba-like instrument. Mark Wilson had a large array of electronic sound sources and effects, Alan Herrick performed via laptop, Martin and Blancahillary played guiltar; and Lob played bass and the main mixing board.

[Photo by Yvette Lucas, via Lob]

Basically, everyone was improvising independently, with Lob controlling levels via the mixing board. As he brought performers in and out of the mix, everyone was (presumably) listening and adapting their performances, which turn may or may not be presented in the mix. Thus there was a complex feedback loop with the live mixing and the instrumental improvisations.

Musically, the overall the theme was “drones and creepy.” As such there were lots of long, drawn-out tones from everyone, with periods of noise and static, heavy distortion or large tone masses. I used the electric piano on the Nord to contribute to the “creepy” theme, with augmented chords and effects that resembled a 1970s horror-film soundtrack. It was in fact hard to sometimes hear who was performing what, although Lena Strayhorn’s acoustic instruments were quite distinctive, and Blancahillary’s guitar playing was more staccato. I found that the Ocarina iPhone app was picking up and responding to the ambient sound from the speakers, so I spent a fair amount of time with it, bring the iPhone closer to the speaker to manipulate the sound. Its output was of course then fed back into the overall mix.

[Photos by Yvette Lucas, via Lob.  Click images to enlarge.]

An additional level of “chaos” was Blancahillary’s “performance” with aluminum foil. She unrolled a large sheet, first using it as an acoustic sound source by shaking and crumpling it. She then tore off pieces which were lobbed at audience members and at other musicians, and finally she fashioned a large piece into a mask (covering her nose and mouth) that matched her silver pants.

As one might expect from a complex non-linear feedback system, there was quite a bit of chaos, relatively controlled chaos. There were many moments there in fact quite loud, and the overall texture was quite dense. But there was still a lot of variation and an overall structure to the set.

At the very end, Lob introduced each of the musicians and provided an opportunity for everyone to play a momentary solo so that the audience could hear his or her contribution to the overall performance.

We were preceded on the program by a solo performance by aris-based guitarist Richard Bonnet.

[Click image to enlarge.]

The first pieces in his set were based on more conventional musical techniques, but very well done. He opened with a series of percussive and harmonic tones that moved between more dissonant (seconds, tritones) and consonant harmonies. He used some delays that produced rhythmic patterns that gradually disintegrated. From these pieces, he built up a big cloud of sound that narrowed to a lone almost pure high tone. The second piece was more virtuosic in terms of finger work. It felt “bluesy” in terms of slide technique and vibrato, but the harmonies were very different from any standard blues. The third piece was more of a minor ballad with lots of melodic material and implied harmonies. It resolved into something that sounded more latin but then suddenly became more abstract with back-and-forth between fingerwork and chords.

In the remainder of the set, Bonnet brought in more experimental techniques. The next piece was darker, with lots of low tones and real-time manipulation of the tuning pegs, and use of an e-Bow for long drones. The overall tone with more “electric” between the use of the e-Bow and distortion. The melodic lines were more abstract and interspersed with sustained lines, timbral effects and harmonies. Some of the sounds seemed more synthesizer-like, but his conventional guitar technique continued at the same time. The piece ended with darker and grainier sounds, a long high note coming out of a dark cloud, and then fading out.

[Click image to enlarge.]

The final piece explored “prepared guitar”, in which various objects are placed in and around the strings to alter the sound and behavior of the instruments. Some of the objects included a bottle, a metal slinky that produced very scratchy sounds, and a chopstick under the strings. This was combined with delays and other electronic effects. The overall sound was eerie and haunting with sliding notes, like an old suspense film, with percussive and scratching sounds that not surprisingly reminded me of a prepared piano. From the delay lines and loop emerged that became a background jazz riff, but some buzzing and other complex sounds. This was probably the most fun piece of the set, and a good conclusion.

More Upcoming Shows: Instagon at the Luggage Store Gallery, and Mini-Woodstockhausen at Camp Happy

No sooner had concluded my recent performance with Reconnaissance Fly at Luna’s Cafe in Sacramento than I find myself with two more shows before next Monday.

Tomorrow, I will be performing with Instagon at the Luggage Store Gallery in San Francisco. Instagon is an interesting group whose membership changes for every performance. In addition to founder and core member Lob Instagon, I will be joined by Mark Wilson (Conure), Lena Strayhorn, Martin from Vernian Process, and Alan Herrick (Nux Vomica). I think this description from the group’s bio sums things up well:

INSTAGON is a term coined to describe the SPONTANEOUS FACTOR, the essence of Chaos Theory… everything that happens in this universe changes instantaneously upon its creation… nothing stays the same… everything changes, and is gone in an instant… hence INSTAGON.

And then on Sunday afternoon (1PM-4PM), it’s off to Boulder Creek in the Santa Cruz mountains for a miniature revival of the Woodstockhausen. Woodstockhausen was the “tiny festival of esoteric music” that took place every year in the Santa Cruz mountains and then at the University of California Santa Cruz until its last year in 2003. We did plan a revival in 2007, which ended up getting rained out. This time we are having a more modest performance as part of the annual Camp Happy Boulder Creek, which will be going all weekend before and after the couple of hours where we take over with our “weird music.”