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.

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

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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:

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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”.

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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.

room: PIPES

On Sunday, I attended the room: PIPES featuring Polly Moller, Pamela Z and Jane Rigler. The Room chambre series, hosted an produced by Pamela Z, take place in the Royce Gallery, an “intimate performance gallery” in the Mission District of San Francisco. The room: PIPES performance featured performances that incorporated flutes.

Before the start of the performance, we were treated to a welcome by “Ellie”, the freight elevator in the building that houses the Royce Gallery. While some music purists might be appalled to have a freight elevator included in a performance, I found it quite charming to incorporate an element of the industrial setting.

Polly Moller presented a new work, Three of Swords. The performance included an arrangement of Tarot cards, a timer and a series of candles to mark sections of the piece. In each selection, a card was drawn, and the music was an improvisation based on that card. The music focused on extended flute techniques; for example, the first draw led to an improvisation with the head of a bass flute using microtones, overblowing, whistles, clicks and other inspiring sounds. The one section of the performance that stood apart from the others was the drawing of the Three of Swords, illustrated to the right, which launched a very detailed but very expressive description of the human heart.

Pamela Z‘s playful and energetic performance did not feature flutes, but instead focus on voice. It began with live looping of tonal and harmonic singing (look up “live looping” here on CatSynth for a primer if you’re not familiar with the technique), and gradually moved to more extended vocal techniques, including clicks, screeches (with electronic processing), whispers, etc. The video in the background displayed an interior of an old industrial or loft space, empty except for a trunk that appeared and disappeared at various times. Sometimes it was open, to reveal drawers and messy clothes.

Jane Rigler opened her set with a virtuosic flute and electronics piece and the welcoming statement “Do not fear the microphone and piccolo.” She then performed her piece A la pintura, inspired by Robert Motherwell’s paintings, which were in turn a response to Spanish poet Rafael Alberti’s poems celebrating painting. Motherwell’s paintings, both as stills and as animations, were projected during the performance, and there were also moments where text was projected, presumably excerpts from Alberti’s poems. Motherwell’s paintings are quite abstract, focusing on textual elements and geometry. To have these images along with strong flute-and-electronics music (a favorite instrumental combination of mine) was a treat.

The performance concluded with a trio improvisation of all three performers. In addition to the flutes and voice, Polly Moller broke out her “tone nut” (doughnut-shaped wind instrument), and Pamela Z played the popular Ocarina iPhone instrument. It’s always interesting to hear how such disparate musicians play off of one another, and this group improvisation could have kept going on for a bit longer…

ICMC late concert on election night

Imagine yourself an ordinary New Orleans bus driver, doing your normal night route on St. Charles. Just two or three passengers, quiet. Maybe even a little quieter than usual given that many people are home watching election returns. Then suddenly you come to stop where twenty or so weird people with laptops and beeds get on the bus. That’s what happened to a bus driver last night when participants at the ICMC conference boarded to attend the offsite late-nite performance at the aptly named Columns Hotel.

The election so far went as well as one could expect at 11PM, with headlines suggesting things are about to change for the better – a takeover of the House, Virginia is the new Florida (with George “macaca” Allen trailing), and social conservatives (i.e., the littering religious right) lost a trifecta on abortion, stem cells and gay marriage. Plus, I get to watch all of this from the home (and district) of William “Frozen Assets” Jefferson.

So what better way to celebrate than with experimental electronic improv music in an old hotel parlor? First on the program was Pink Canoes, who hail from the Bay Area. I was acquainted with several members of the group by name only (and vice versa), so it was quite ironic to meet in person in New Orleans. Musically, they played free improvisation with guitars, effects pedals, analog synths and circuit-bend instruments, similar to some of the group improvisations I have done with friends in Santa Cruz. I get the sense that many of the academics at the conference hadn’t heard much of this sub-genre of electronic music. Personally I would like to see more hybridization among free electronic improv, traditional computer music, and even things like the jazz duo that was also playing in the hotel at the same time.

Pink Canoe was followed by the due Andre Castro + Martin Aeserud, featuring laptop and “prepared” acoustic guitar. I found the guitar quite interesting to watch as well as listen to, and gives me some ideas for projects with the guitar that’s sitting in pieces on the floor back home.

More on the conference later.

Weekend in New Orleans Part 1: Zip visits the French Quarter

Before the start of the ICMC Conference today, I spent the weekend exploring a bit of New Orleans. Zip of course came along for the ride and photo ops.

In this first article of several, we make the obligatory trip to the French Quarter. This area largely survived the devastation last year and was quick to reopen as the “adult Disneyland” that people associate with New Orleans. Just outside the quarter on Canal Street, damaged downtown buildings being repaired and closed businesses are a common sight – a little eerie in spots. but inside things have the appearance of being back to normal. The bars and restaurants are mostly open, music and neon lights are everywhere. Tourists are in abundance (perhaps not as many as before, I have no way to gauge this), and there were plenty of people and vendors around the major sites, such as Jackson square and the cathedral(?) of St. Louis:

Churches are fine, but there are also monuments a plenty to one of the town’s real religions: jazz. Here Zip poses with famed jazz clarinetist Pete Fountain:

We also took in some live jazz at the New Orleans Jazz national park in the French Market along the rivier:

The famed architecture of the quarter is exactly as one would expect:

Again, most places seem to have weathered the storm or been repaired quickly, and many that are not hotels or business are up for sale as condos. There are still plenty of signs of the last year’s events, such as ubiquitous blue dog, here decked out for Mardi Gras (or pretty much any day here, it seems):

A few pleasant breaks from the stereotypical tourist fare could be found in some of the small specialty shops sprinkled throughout the neighborhood, including a rather intruiging shop dealing in occult products, including “black cat fur.” No cats were harmed in the collection of this fur, one hopes… Also some craft stores, a modern art gallery that didn’t give in to insipid tourist tastes, and a cool little shop that used the mason’s “Pyramonster” as it’s logo.

Another welcome addition to the day was a performance art troupe Wild Animus, who performed part of their piece on the riverfront near Jackson Square:

Apparently, the artists responsible are part of a San Francisco art collective, go figure. Several performers were handing out free DVDs, which I have yet to review, but I am curious about this work.

There was a particularly surreal moment as a wedding processing, complete with Dixieland-style band crossed paths with Wild Animus. I have a little bit of that on a video, which I will post as soon as I get a chance.

Having had enough of the French Quarter, I went in search of what is apparently one of post-hurricane New Orlean’s best kept secrets: where to get tour passes for the bus system. After several attempts, I finally found a tourist info agent who pointed me in the direction of a kiosk in one of the shopping centers, but when I got there I was met only with a sign that said “Back 30 minutes after the hour.” I believe it was about 2:45 at this time. A little annoyed, I headed back to Canal Street anyway to catch a streetcar (and pay full fare) towards the city park, where the city’s main art museum and sculpture garden is located. Of course, the streetcar would be out of order when I got there, and the busses running in its place were nowhere to be seen. The changes of making it out to the park before the garden closed to visitors at 4pm seemed pretty slim. But instead of stewing in my frustration, I headed with Zip back into the quarter for a more local kind of stew and a local brew:

This is definitely following the traveler’s rule “When in Rome…” In addition to gumbo, we sampled some of the ever popular oysters, cooked in this case:

And with this, the first of many tasty meals and refreshing beverages to come (too many?), we conclude this part of the story.

Be nice or leave.