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

SoundSpeak, Luggage Store Gallery, and Cornelius Cardew Choir

Today we look back at a busy Thursday back in November. In the early evening, after spending the afternoon with the folks at Smule busking around San Francisco with the newly released Magic Fiddle, I met up with members of the Cornelius Cardew Choir at the Powell BART station to perform several pieces for voice, motion and interaction with the environment.

We performed two pieces by Bob Marsh and Tom Bickley, respectively, in the sunken plaza next to the station. Both pieces were very meditative, even as one moved about the plaza, and the relatively soft and sparse nature allowed one to also listen to sounds of the city as the evening commute tapered off. A few onlookers stopped to see what we were doing and listen in, but mostly we were on our own. We then began a piece by Rachel Wood-Rome that combined live voice with prerecorded material. However, as we were bat to start, a rather enthusiastic individual came over and asked to sing with us and forthwith began his rendition of “The Love I Lost”, a minor disco hit by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. As if on cue, at the end of his song a young man on a skateboard wiped out at the base of the staircase. I wish I had captured this moment on film. We then continued with our performance, in which four participants listened to pre-recorded material on iPods and headphones and then sang their parts for the others to follow.

Later on, several of us made our way to the Luggage Store Gallery for Outsound’s Soundspeak Series, a “series presenting pairings of sound and voice artists.”

The first set featured Hugh Behm-Steinberg with Matt Davignon. Rather than just a recitation of poetry with music, the performance featured both live voice and pre-recorded readings that we played back in combination with live electronic sounds. The first piece, “Sea Monster”, featured electronic sounds by Davignon that sounded very aquatic, like wind and waves. Behm-Steinberg’s pre-recorded spoken lines were separated with large spaces in which to hear the other material. Various loud metallic sounds emerged as the words become more fragmented. Eventually, the words seemed to disintegrate completely and were obscured by harsh resonances from the electronics. Overall, however, the piece maintained an undulating motion. A couple of lines from the text that stuck with me were “to be a girl in her 50s shoes” and “Don’t pay attention to modern literature.”

[Hugh Behm-Steinberg and Matt Davignon.]

The next piece began with metallic sounds that were almost FM-like in timbre, and the texture of the music was more choppy with individual events. The words started out more fragmented as well, and were rendered with a variety of voice qualities. Not only differences in tone, but differences in spatial perception as sometimes the voice seemed more distant. The electronic sounds became more liquidy sounds came in against percussive sounds, and gradually became more “gargly”. The voice began to shift pitches, up and down, against bits of liquidy bells. More glitch noises emerged, and words spread further out to the point of a single word per timbral event. I remember something about “fish bodies”.

The final piece, “Teeth”, was more of a monologue and quite humorous. It began with the line “Suppose you see a tooth” set against very percussive music reminiscent of tablas and other South Asian drums, played more in clusters than continuous rhythmic patterns. The imagery of the text was quite vivid, describing “infinite amounts of teeth” as the drums became more electronic. The text moved on to other topics, but then came back to teeth. As the piece continued on, more layers of electronic percussion emerged, however, the rhythm remained focused on clusters.

The second set featured Rent Romus on saxophone and electronics with CJ Borosque reciting poems from her new blog The Cloud Journals. One piece, “Love is a needle in the ass” was quite memorable both for some of the lines in the poem such as “white is the color of death and evil” and “the drum circle was fun, though” and its combination with Romus’ lively saxophone improvisation and live cassette-player performance.

The next piece “American Hunger”…or “Staving off Hunger (an American Diatribe)” dealt with issues around both hunger and consumption and how one can be both consuming massive amounts of food and other resources while still being “hungry” in some way. The line “where’s my beer” in the middle of the diatribe particularly stuck out for me, perhaps how it was set against the music. Sonically, the music featured warbling tones and chirping, glitches and loops, and effects from a Line 6 variable delay.

The piece “roads and wishes” featured the particularly memorable line “season to season, jam session to jam session” which resonated with me as a musician and as someone who has been quite busy with a great many things in these past few seasons. The poem was set against a variety of string tones: pedaled strings, bending blue tones, and others, and then gave way to more flute tones. The final piece “what if the world ended” featured more saxophone performance and string tones. And while these were not the final lines of the poem, they did once again connect to music and to being at the performance: Music is your muse, I am your butterfly, And your dragonfly, And your sword.

Outsound Music Summit: MultiVox

Today we at CatSynth conclude our series from the recent Outsound Music Summit with my own report from the MultiVox program that featured Reconnaissance Fly, the Cornelius Cardew Choir, and Amy X Neuburg. We did feature a guest review by Joe McMahon last week, which covers the same show from an outside perspective. My own perspective is anything but outside, given that I was in two of the three groups performing at night.

This was a professional show, with formal load-ins, sound checks, and staging. Reconnaissance Fly features a full rhythm section, so we had a lot of equipment to set up:

[click image to enlarge]

On the left is Tim Walters’ bass and Macbook running SuperCollider. In the middle is Moe! Staiano’s drum set, and on the right is my own keyboard+electronics setup featuring the Nord Stage, the trusty Korg Kaoss Pad, and the little stuffed cat for good luck. Here is another perspective with more detail:

[click image to enlarge]

The Evolver was actually for the Cardew Choir, but I set up everything at once. One can also see Moe!’s toys and other support percussion instruments.

Onto the show itself. Here is the full band on stage, with myself, Polly Moller (flute/vocals), Tim Walters (bass), Moe! Staiano as our special guest “concussionist”.

[Photo by Michael Zelner.  Click image to enlarge.]

We performed a full nine-piece set from Flower Futures, our “spong cycle” featuring music set to spam poetry. The set now has an eclectic mix of styles, from experimental avant-garde to prog rock, along with latin and jazz influences. We as always with Small Chinese Gong and ended with An Empty Rectangle – we always like playing that last one, but it’s even better with Moe!’s drums! I particularly enjoyed playing the medley of Electric Rock Like a Cat and Sanse is Credenza – the end of the first piece, with free-improvisation on flute set against B-diminished chords, elides into an early 1970s jazz fusion jam on the same chord (think “Chameleon” from Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters album). This is a relatively high-energy and somewhat challenging piece, and while it was fun to play, it also felt good to then return to the relative calmness of Oh Goldfinch Cage, which featured samples of “human calls” for training birds to speak, with phrases like “Hello, how are you?” and “pretty bird”, processed with ring modulation and turntable effects.

[Photo by Bill Wolter.  Click image to enlarge.]

Overall, it was a great performance with a lot of energy. It’s easy to lose sight of that in the midst of playing, where one focuses on mistakes and challenges – personally, I forgot to check that patches for the Nord were all queued up at the start of the performance, and the heat from the lighting and large crowd added unexpected challenges. But it was received well by the audience (a full house), and it seemed like they were asking us for an encore!

The Cornelius Cardew Choir was a stark contrast to Reconnaissance Fly in terms of form and energy. Our first piece, Joe Zitt’s “That Alphabet Thing” was a cappella with a freeform structure. Basically, it unfolds by each singer intoning the sounds of the letters of the alphabet, starting with A and gradually working his or her way to Z. Everyone moves at a separate pace but mindful of others not to get too far ahead or behind, and there were a lot of fun moments of interplay among different choir members, such as back-and-forth with “Hi!” for H-I or “why?” for Y.

[Photo by Michael Zelner.  Click image to enlarge.]

We wear white lab coats.

This was followed by “El Morro” by choir director and co-founder Tom Bickley. The piece was inspired by a trip to the El Morro monument in New Mexico and featured the text from inscriptions on a rock spanning carved messages from two centuries of Spanish, Mexican and American passers by, soldiers as well as other travelers. Each of us had a set of inscriptions to recite on a single pitch per inscription, set against an electronic background of rocks, birds of prey and highly processed vocal incantations. This was a rather complex piece conceptually, though not difficult to perform. Because we were so involved in the performance and the conceptual nature, it is hard to know how it was received in the audience.

The set concluded with a performance of Polly Moller’s Genesis. We had seen a previous performance of Genesis at the Quickening Moon Concert. The previous performance was entirely instrumental. This time, the parts of the spatial and higher dimensions were voice. I performed part of “universal time”, using the sequencer on the Evolver as the time-keeper and performed various modulations of the tempo and timbre. Polly played the role of the “new universe” with a flute solo featuring multiphonics and other techniques. Tom Bickley conducted the piece by walking around the stage and carrying chimes.

[Photo by Michael Zelner.  Click image to enlarge.]

This was a very meditative performance, with the chimes, the flute multiphonics, the ever changing electronic rhythm and timbre, and the vocalists singing their respective dimension numbers in different languages.

The final set of the evening featured Amy X Neuburg. As always, her “avant cabaret” set was very polished and spoke well to both her technical expertise with her instruments and her versatility as a performer. She employs several styles of singing, often in a single piece, moving from classical to cabaret/jazz to experimental vocalizations. Her synchronization with looping electronics is very tight, seemlessly adding and subtracting samples and recordings within the rhythms and phrasings of the song.

[click image to enlarge]

There were pieces familiar from past performances, such as “Life Stepped In” where she deftly mixes looping technology and theatrical vocals. She also did a few improvisational pieces, the first of which featured the Blippo Box. This is an instrument with chaotic oscillators that never quite sounds the same twice, but she always manages to control it quite well – in this performance she made it sound like a voice, to which she responded with her own voice. She also performed an improvisation with a Skatch Box which she made at the “build your own Skatch Box” presentation earlier in the week (and which I unfortunately missed). It’s hard to make a skatch box sound like a voice, but she could make her voice sound like the growls and scrapes that it produced.

[Photo by Michael Zelner.  Click image to enlarge.]

She ended her set with a tribute to Kim Flint, who was very active in the looping and electronic-music communities, and the founder of Loopers Delight, and who passed away after a tragic accident in Berkeley in June. He was someone I knew as well from both music and social events. Amy’s tribute was a performance of the first piece she ever created using the Echoplex, which he co-invented.

Outsound Presents Conduct Your Own Orchestra Night

Last Thursday, I participated in another round of “Outsound Music Presents Conduct Your Own Orchestra Night”. I played iPhone and Kaoss Pad in the “orchestra” along with Tom Bickley (recorder), John Hanes (percussion), Simon Hanes (bass), Carlos Jennings (synthesizers), Bob Marsh (guitar), Marianne McDonand (harp), Ann O’Rourke (percussion), and Rent Romus (saxophone). The event was organized by Matt Davignon.

I also signed up once again for one of the slots as a conductor. I used my graphical symbols, giving different symbols to different musicians throughout the course of the 10-minute piece. Each performer interpreted the assigned symbols as he or she saw fit, while listening to what others were doing. Ann O’Rourke had her metal cat-shaped CD holder again, which as perfect for the “cat” symbol. I also added a lot of direct pitch instructions to this performance, i.e., having specific musicians play a “C” or an “E” for a period of time, to build up unisons and harmonies and provide more variety to the texture. I was actually quite happy with the range of sounds and musical phrasing that resulted.

John Hanes conducted a rather minimal piece, where everyone was instructed to play only the pitch “F” (if one had a pitch-capable instrument) and eighth notes. Within this He built of a minimal texture with a fair amount of dynamic range by having people enter and exit on his cue. For his piece, Tom Bickley gave us the basic concept of choosing a number between 5 and 10, and then repeat a pattern of counting up to that number and sounding a short staccato note The results was a sparse pointed texture, with various clusterings and the different performers moved in and out of phase. In the middle of his piece, Bob Marsh added his voice and words, and gradually moved away from the stage towards the back of the room as the piece drew to a close.

One issue that has become apparent is that my iPhone has performed far worse as a musical instrument since I upgraded to OS 4.0. It runs slow and some applications quit unexpectedly – this did happen once when I was cued for a solo note, leading to a somewhat amusing but somewhat embarrassing moment. Fortunately, for a small and friendly show like this it is easy to laugh off.

Conduct Your Own Orchestra Night

Last Thursday, I participated in Outsound Presents Conduct Your Own Orchestra Night at the Luggage Store Gallery. During the course of the evening, several conductors took turns conducting an “orchestra” of improvising musicians for ten minutes. Each conductor took a very different approach, using a variety of gestures, instructions and symbols to guide the performers.

[Bob Marsh conducts the orchestra.]

As with other recent guided-improvisation pieces, I used a graphical score for my conducting. The performers were each given a set of 16 graphical symbols. During the course of the performance, I held up large cards each containing one of the symbols, directed either at individuals, groups or the ensemble as a whole.

You can see some of the symbols below:

[Click to enlarge.]

This is the second page of the 16 available symbols, generally these were the more complex. Viewers might notice that symbol 12 is a cat. Like other symbols, I expected to be interpreted relatively freely – but by coincidence percussionist Ann O’Rourke had a cat-shaped metal CD rack as an instrument, so it became a very obvious cue for her to play the “cat.”

Ann O’Rourke’s piece was based entirely on pairings of words, such as “fearful/choppy” and “fearful/flowing” or “hesitant/slow” and “confident/fast”. The orchestra was divided in half, with one side receiving one pairing and the other side receiving the other pairing.

Brandan Landis’ conducting was more physical/body-oriented. He did not use any visual cues (textual or graphical), but instead used dramatic body movements to guide the orchestra. Some of these were rather intense and the piece ended with his collapsing on the floor.

Mark Briggs used short rhythmic patterns and cues to individual performers to build up a complex rhythmic texture. I was given a very simple repeated pattern to perform, which allowed me to remain immersed in the overall rhythm of the piece.

Tom Bickley led the orchestra in a very sparse and beautiful piece with individual sounds from cued performance set against silence. It was the sparse texture that made this among my favorite pieces of the evening, musically speaking.

Bob Marsh used his own instructional cards and gestures to conduct the orchestra, and contributed his own vocal performance on top.

Other conductors included CJ Borosque and Matt Davignon, who used a combination of instructional cards, including one that instructed a performer to make a loud sound when Matt pointed a finger gun and shot him/her.