Outsound New Music Summit: Touch the Gear

The 2017 Outsound New Music Summit kicked off this Sunday with the annual Touch the Gear event. As always, there were several musicians and instrument-makers were on hand to demonstrate their setups or inventions.

alphastare

Above we see Alphastare demonstrating his setup for processing of synthesized and recorded sounds that he uses in his live shows. Below, CDP bandmate Tom Djll shows his analog modular synthesizer setup with sundry external boxes for expressive control of sound.

Tom Djll

I opted to show my modular synth as well this year, along with the Moog Theremini.

CatSynth setup at Touch the Gear, with Modular and Moog Theremini

The theremin is always a popular item at this event.

Kim Nucci demonstrated some custom modules alongside a Korg MS-20 mini and a DIY metal instrument with sensors.

Kim Nucci

I have always found metal plus electronics a musically interesting combination.

Among the more unusual and surprising instruments this year was Dania Luck’s musical chessboard. It contained sensors for the magnetic chess pieces, with each square of the board triggering a different synthesizer in a SuperCollider patch.

Dania Luck.  Chess board and SuperCollider patch.

This wasn’t the only SuperCollider program being shown, as our friend Tim Walters demonstrated his patch and controller setup. It is the setup he will use as part of Usufruct in the opening concert for the Summit.

Tim Walters.  SuperCollider and controller.

Tim Thompson was on hand with the latest incarnation of his electronic-music instrument, the Space Palette Pro.

Tim Thompson.  Space Palette Pro
[Tim Thompson demonstrates the Space Palette Pro to Outsound director Rent Romus.]

It uses the same software as previous versions of the Space Palette, but with a new more compact interface based on new touch-sensitive pads from Sensel Morph. These pads are quite impressive in both response and feel, and we at CatSynth will definitely be looking into them.

Not all the demos included electronics. There were several acoustic instruments demonstrated by the Pet the Tiger collective (David Samas, Ian Saxton, Tom Nunn, Derek Drudge), including this beautiful kalimba tuned to 31edo.

Kalimba with 31edo tuning.  Pet the Tiger

I would love to write a piece for it one of these days. There was also a large metalophone with a deep resonant tone, interesting tuning, and some satellite “bass” notes.

Pet the Tiger.  Metalophone.

Back inside the hall, Motoko Honda demonstrated a network of electronic devices processing voice, along with a fun circuit-bent instrument.

Motoko Honda

Matt Davignon brought his setup for expressive manipulation and processing of samples and other pre-recorded sound materials.

Matt Davignon

We would also like to thank Matt for his efforts organizing this event every year! We would also like to thank the folks at VAMP for co-presenting and bringing a pop-up shop of records and sundry vintage and musical items.

It was a fun afternoon as always, and it was great to see families in attendance. And there were multiple things to inspire me musically and technologically. We will see where that goes. Next up, the concerts…

Preparing for Tonight’s Show at The Lab

I have been busily preparing for tonight’s solo set at The Lab here in San Francisco. As usually happens, I initially plan to simplify the setup, but then as I work on the set musically, more instruments and equipment end up part of the rig. And this one may be one of the largest to date.

In addition to the Nord Stage (aka “The Big Red Keyboard”), there is the newly reconfigured modular synth, the Prophet 12, the Moog Mother 32, Casio SK-1, and iPad. The modular path features multiple voices, including some processing external audio from the Nord and the SK-1, respectively.

Why so big? Well, it comes out the current musical direction, which mixes jazz and funk with experimental electronics. That means a full-size keyboard is always present. And the electronics has to provide rhythmic and harmonic support in addition to timbral support. This always adds significant complexity, but provides for a richer musical experience.


Here are the details on the show, including the other acts. I am excited to have a group improv with my friends Joshua Marshall, Jaroba, and Christina Stanley. And the evening will begin with an orchestra of invented instruments from Pet The Tiger (David Samas, Tom Nunn et al.) with dance by Christina Braun. If you are in the Bay Area tonight, please consider joining us.

Thursday, June 22, 8PM
The Lab
2948 16th St SF

A special evening of funky and noisy sounds, invented instruments, whimsy, and more 😺 🎶

8:00PM Pet The Tiger Inventors Collective performs Arc Weld
8:40PM Amanda Chaudhary solo. Funky and experimental electronics
9:20PM Amanda Chaudhary with collaborators Joshua Marshall, Jaroba, and Christina Stanley

door: $5-10

Additional info on BayImproviser.

CDP and Lingua Incognita Session at All Tomorrow’s After Parties

Last week we reported on the the first night of NextNow Presents All Tomorrow’s After Parties that featured a performance by Vacuum Tree Head. Today we look at the next night of that festival, which took place on June 4 in Berkeley.

CDP Trio

That event marked the debut of one of my new bands, Census Designated Place (or CDP). For this set, I was joined by Mark Pino on drums and Rent Romus on alto sax. The concept for this group is to combine my increased focus on jazz and funk with experimental sounds and ideas. We did two compositions of mine, plus an improvisation based on a graphical score painted by Mark. You can see and hear our full performance in this video.

CDP at Berkeley Arts, June 2016 from CatSynth on Vimeo.

Overall I was quite pleased with the set, and we all had a lot of fun. There is still some work to do tightening up the tunes (particularly White Wine), but that will come with time and practice. We were at our best with the rhythmic and idiomatic improvisation sections in all three pieces, especially the straight-eighth jazz and “disco” sections. And Rent did a tremendous job sitting in with the group, bringing a unique sound and style that I hope to continue in future performances.

All three of us also participated in the Lingua Incognita Session a project conceived by Mika Pontecorvo that also debuted at this event. The large ensemble featured two bassists (Eli Pontecorvo and Robert Kehlmann ), two drummers (Mark Pino and Aaron Levin, four wind players (Rent Romus, Kersti Abrams, Jaroba and Joshua Marshal, trumpet (Tony Passarell), keyboard (myself), and experimental electronics (Jack Hertz).

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This was quite a cast of characters to put together in a single group, let alone a purely improvisational group that had not rehearsed together before. And it could have pure cacophony, but everyone did their part to make this work. We started with a concept based on A Love Supreme, with different performers moving in and out of the texture, which moved between sections of rhythmic jamming and more abstract tones. I know I had a lot of fun, as did others, and we hope to do this again sometime.


The day began quite a bit earlier with Shiva X, which featured Tony Passarell on tenor saxophone and Robert Kehlmann – both of whom were part of the Lingua Incognito set – along with Jim Frink on drums.

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This group has some conceptual similarities with CDP, combining noisy elements with steady rhythmic drums and bass, but with a more freeform upper layer provided by Passarell’s saxophone. My favorite moments were when things converged on a groove.

Shiva X was followed by Trois Chapeaux. The group featured Jaroba, Kevin Corcoran and Jorge Bachmann (with regular member Tania Chen absent on this occasion).

Trois Chapeaux

This was a much more abstract sound, combining both small electronics and acoustic elements along with Bachmann on modular synth. Recognizable sounds and fragments came in and out of focus throughout the set, while clouds of noise and complexity coalesced and then dissipated.

Jack Hertz was next with a solo electronic performance. Sitting alone and unassuming at the from the room, he brought forth a variety of sounds from synthesizers, recordings, and other sources into a continuous force of music and noise. There were some soft but still delightfully crunchy moments in there as well.

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The following set shifted from electronic to acoustic, but in such a way that many of the same sonic elements were preserved. There is probably few acoustic duos that sound as “electronic” as T.D. Skatchit, featuring Tom Nunn and David Michalak on sketch boxes.

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The sounds of the sketch box are quite unique, and particularly tuned with the musicians who play it the moment. But there is still a tremendous variety.

Then it was time for Reconnaissance Fly, featuring the new lineup that now includes Brett Carson on keyboards along with Polly Moller (flute, guitar, voice), Tim Walters (bass), Rich Lesnick (winds) and Larry-the-O (drums).

Reconnaissance Fly

The played a variety familiar tunes from the band’s catalog, including a couple from the first album, the recent regular rotation, and a couple of brand new songs. The overall sound of the group has coalesced into something that has strong jazz elements also quite whimsical and esoteric.


After CDP was v’Maa, a “drone band based upon Sami shamanism and spider mythology” (as described on Mark Pino’s blog). The group featured video and music with Mika Pontecorvo, Eli Pontecorvo, Kersti Abrams and Mark Pino. They were joined on this occasion by Lau Nau on voice.

v'Maa

After the intensity of many of the previous sets (including CDP), there was a more subdued quality, a bit more floating and meditative. The swells and ebbs in the overall texture worked will with the changes in the video; and it was a great way to relax musically after performing.

Next up was the “Bill Wolter Project”, featuring Bill Wolter on guitar, Moe! Staiano on percussion, Ivor Holloway on horns, and Ron Gruesbeck on synth.

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The entire set, which was shrouded in mystery ahead of the evening, focused on made-up tunings anchored by Bill on fretless guitar. The music unfolded truly as an experiment, as the performers moved in out of various sounds within the confines of the new tuning.

The Bill Wolter Project was followed by Earspray, featuring Ann O’Rourke, Carlos Jennings and Mark Pino, who is definitely the hardest working man in the new music scene.

Earspray

The set was a full explosion of noise, lights and video, made more stark by the performers’ lab coats. The sounds were a mixture of samples, synthesis and drums.

The final set of the evening was Tri-Cornered Tent Show. The current line-up for band features Philip Everett, Ray Shaeffer, Anthony Flores and Valentina O.

Tri Cornered Tent Show

As with previous times I have heard the group, there was a foundation of explosive electronics and drum phases and free improvisation that moved between disparate rhythms and melodic lines. And there is a theatricality to the performance. But this performance with Valentina O was more cabaret style with humor and a certain intimacy. Between vocals, drum hits, and electronic sounds from Everett there were bits of quiet and silence perfectly timed for the theater of of the set.

This was an exhausting day of music, both as a performer and an audience member, but a rewarding one. I’m glad we stayed around for the entire day to hear everyone and the wide variety of sounds and styles. Thanks again to Mika Pontecorvo and Eli Pontecovro for putting on this evening, bring together so many musicians for a good cause.

Music For People & Thingamajigs Festival Closing Night

There is never a shortage of music and art festivals in the Bay Area in the fall, and one can’t see them all, especially while also being a participant. But I was fortunate to catch the final show of the Music for People & Thingamajigs festival on October 14 at Berkeley Arts. For those who are not familiar with Thingamjigs, they focus on music and educational programs using “made/found materials and alternate tuning systems.” Both of these concepts were integral parts of the performances on this evening.

The show opened with an ensemble led by Dennis Aman. The stage was populated by a variety of instruments, including a tuba with a rotating leslie mute, and modified/re-created toy xylophones with alternate tunings.

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The music varied considerably. I enjoyed the more esoteric pieces that showcased the instruments and way experienced musicians play them. The toy percussion and electronics worked particularly well. There were also some more conventional pieces, including one that sounded like a typical celtic folk tune, that did not particularly work for me in context of the darker, more percussive sounds of the other pieces.

The second half featured the premier of Symphony in Sea by David Samas. Rather than simply a piece inspired by the sea, Samas took the concept rather literally, with instruments of his own creation as well as contributions from Tom Nunn. The stage was set up with a variety of aquatic themes both natural an artificial, with a beach lounge as well as pirate apocrypha.

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[Photo by Bryan Day.]

The piece unfolded over several movements, each related to a well-known phrase about the sea. Different combinations of instruments and vocal techniques were used to evoke different environmental qualities of life in or around the sea.

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[Photo by Bryan Day.]

During the early movements, the music was more abstract, with room to listen to the timbral details of the various instruments. However, the later movements were more idiomatic, and even a bit tongue-in-cheek, such as a rousing pirate shanty.

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Things did take a turn for the darker with a dance segment featuring Bob Marsh as a sea monster.

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In the end, it was a fun performance to attend, both musically and visually. Thingamajigs has several other programs coming up. Please visit their website for more information.

Outsound Music Summit: Touch the Gear Expo

The 12th Annual Outsound Music Summit began this past Sunday, opening as always with the Touch the Gear Expo. Musicians and sound artists from the Bay Area and beyond were on hand with their musical devices and inventions for the public to observe and try out. I participated this year with two technological extremes: soft synths on an iPad, and a full two rows of Eurorack format analog modules.

iPad and Eurorack modular

Both offerings were quite popular, eliciting curiosity from visitors of all ages.

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[Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

There were quite a few analog synthesizers on hand, including a vintage Serge modular courtesy of Synthesizerman (aka Doug Linner).

Synthesizerman and Serge Modular
[Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

One of the more intriguing analog synths I encountered was this creation by Andy Puls.

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The circular pattern represents a step sequencer controlling an internal sound generator. Conductive pegs can be moved around on the bars to change pitches and other parameters. There are also knobs as well. The overall geometry, control design and lights made this a visually appealing instrument.

Nick Wang also demonstrated some custom analog boxes with controllers, oscillators and a VCF.

Nick Wang synth demo

Fernando Lopez-Lezcano demonstrated his elaborate homemade analog synthesizer. I have had the privilege of hearing him play it in a formal performance.

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[Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

Matt Davignon demonstrated his devices for working with fixed-media sources, a bit of a preview of what we can expect for Friday night’s PMOCOTAT performance.

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Acoustic creations, in particular sounds from natural sources, were a common theme this year as well. Cheryl Leonard demonstrated her expertly tuned instruments made from stones, bones, shells and wood gathered at the extremes of the earth. She also demonstrated her virtuosity with using these elements together, such as generating rhythms from a series of bones passed over the shells.

Cheryl Leonard
[Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

David Samas was also on hand with his musical creations from natural sources found here in northern California.

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Missing from the picture above is his tuned aluminum rod, from which one can get quite a powerful sound with a well-rosined hand. I had the opportunity to try it out myself.

Bryan Day presented his instruments made from found objects, including the tape measures featured prominently in the image below. Other sources included springs and metal rods. His creations are quite ergonomic and easily to play, putting unusual sources into compact and intuitive arrangements.

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Horaflora combined acoustics and small electronics in a couple of lively offerings, including drum heads excited by magnets. I heard him play this in a program several months ago.

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Horaflora also demonstrated exciting natural acoustic elements atop a subwoofer connected to an iPhone synth. You can see and hear a bit of my attempting to demonstrate these elements together with him in the following video:


David Molina (aka “Transient”) also blended acoustic and electronic ideas. He had a variety of small instruments and sound sources on hand, which he used to generate source material for complex loops and textures controlled in real time via Albeton live.

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In his own words, this was only “about half of what he will be using in his performance on Friday.”

Tom Nunn, a prolific inventor whom I interviewed in 2012, was once again presenting his creations. This time it was an exceptionally colorful set of his Skatchboxes.

Tom Nunn skatchboxes
[Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

There were others presenting as well, and unfortunately, I did not have time to see everyone and also attend to me own station. But I hope to see more of all the participants in more musical settings.

The Outsound Music Summit continues on Wednesday night with the first of the formal concerts, you can see a full schedule here. And of course, you can always follow along with @catsynth on Twitter if you can’t attend in person.

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.

Music of Invention: A Concert Celebrating Tom Nunn’s Invention

Today we review the Music of Invention: A Concert Celebrating Tom Nunn’s Inventions which recently took place the Community Music Center in San Francisco. This retrospective concert brought together not only many of Tom Nunn’s musical inventions from the past decades, but many of his closest musical collaborators as well. The evening was divided into several miniature sets, some with established ensembles as well as individual collaborations. Most of the names on the program were quite familiar, and I recalled from my interview with Nunn his describing the “master players” he has been fortunate to work with over the years.


[Bart Hopkin and Tom Nunn. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

The concert opened with a “inventors’ duo” as Tom Nunn performed alongside music-instrument maker Bart Hopkin. The first sounds were scratchy and metallic, primarily from Nunn’s instrument, the crab. Hopkin’s instrumental performance started out quite percussive as well but soon settled into a more tonal marimba-like state, albeit a tonality with an odd scale. The crab seemed to have two types of sound and texture that reflected the different types of rods, one louder and more metallic, and another more quick and watery. They settled into a pattern with quick rhythmic textures from the watery sounds and bass notes, with a steady rhythm forming and then breaking apart and then forming again. Hopkin switched to one of his other instruments, the ‘Moe, a clarinet-like instrument with a continuous pitch control. Although the sound was unmistakably that of a clarinet, the rapid pitch bends sometimes made it sound more like an analog synthesizer (with a square wave, of course). Against this, Nunn generated a musical “waterfall” from the crab that concluded with a harp-like arpeggio.


[Bart Hopikin on ‘Moe. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

This was followed by a performance of Allan Crossman‘s piece Plasticity. This was one of the only fully composed pieces on the program (the other being Skatchbox Blues). Originally for Sonoglyph and orchestra, on this occasion it was reduced to Sonoglyph performed by Nunn and piano performed by Crossman. The music began with metallic watery sounds from the Sonoglyph and anxious harmonies on the piano. The overall effect was quite dreamlike, and I had the impression throughout the piece of being a well-crafted children’s movie with a richly detailed imaginary world. The instrumental sounds ranged from resonant and chime-like to more scratchy and noisy. There were sections with traditional contrapuntal textures, humorous phrases, and even something that brought to mind a march or procession.

The next set featured the Octatonic T-Rodimba, a pitched instrument tuned to three separate octatonic scales. Nunn was joined for this set by guitarists Gary Knowlton and Michael Knowlton. From the start, it was a clash of timbres between the guitars and the T-Rodimba, with slow chords against fast runs. Over time, the guitars became more melodic and all three performers settled into a jazz-like feel. The rhythms were all separate at first, with scratchy guitar sounds providing percussion, but coalesced into a single unit with repeated phrases. Certainly, the octatonic scales were part of the music, but not a distinct part to be heard separately. With the rhythms aligned, the tonalities of the different instruments blended together. The music became louder and more percussive before concluding with a guitar drone and effects from the green Line 6 pedal many of us know and love.


[Tom Nunn on Lukie Tubes and Paul Winstanley on prepared bass. Photos: PeterBKaars.com.]

The following set introduced the Lukie Tubes, an instrument with a resonant metal plate suspended on balloons that excited using a series of cardboard tubes. Nunn was joined by Paul Winstanley performing on “prepared electric bass”. He performed by bowing on the bass, which had several rods inserted between the strings and the neck for a variety of sounds that were enhanced by additional electronic effects. The bass blended will with the Lukie Tubes as the set began with a long metallic drone on both instruments with different resonances coming in and out of focus. The overall effect was a lush but eerie landscape, punctuated with bits of static and shorter tones. The were moments that brought to mind whales and others reminiscent of Central Asian throat singing. In addition to the acoustic strength of Lukie Tubes, Winstanley used another Line 6 pedal to build up energy. The loud sounds gave way to softer higher tones and then a quiet but more percussive conclusion.


[RTD3. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

The final set of the first half featured RTD3, a trio of Ron Heglin, Tom Nunn and Doug Caroll. I have heard RTD3 on several occasions in the past. For this performance, Caroll was on cello as usual, Heglin was performing only on voice (i.e., no trombone), and Tom Nunn was on Skatchbox. In particular, this was the debut of one of the “perfect” Skatchboxes that I had seen during the interview. Musically, things start of softly with voice a percussive cello. Heglin’s vocals featured a wide variety of effects, groans, gurgles and rumbles, along with incantations on unknown (and perhaps unknowable) words. The vocals filled the space in between the cello and the distinctive comb noises of the Skatchbox. Nunn switched to Lukie tubes during the performance, and then to another instrument called the Techphonic plate. During this time Caroll’s cello performance moved from traditional practice (pitched bowed tones) to more plucking and percussive techniques, and finally to extended techniques such as using a cork on the strings and scratching on the back of the instrument. All three performs came together for a final drone that ended with a minor modal harmony.


The second half opened with a live performance of “Skatchbox Blues”, which was released as a single in conjunction with the concert. It was a lighthearted departure from the other sets with a traditional “country blues” feel provided by Gary Knowlton and Michael Knowlton on guitars, and Aurora Josephson on voice. The Skatchbox itself as played by David Michalak was a purely percussion instrument in the context of this piece, with the grinding and buzzing sounds working together with the guitar to provide the familiar traditional rhythm. The lyrics were a humorous send-off of the experience of building and playing a Skatchbox, with the repeated cadence “treasures in the trash.”

[Skatchbox Blues. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

The next set featured Ed Herrmann on the Octatonic T-Rodimba with Nun on the Crab. Here, the tonality and timbre of the T-Rodimba was used to full effect, with Hermann performing rhythmic phrases and switching among different types of mallets. Between the two metal instruments and rhythmic texture, this set was particularly “gamelan-like”, with call-and-response between the two performers and moments of synchronicity. There were moments of slower movement and empty space as well. During the set, I heard something from hall which I dubbed at the time “unexplained bass”, a series disembodied low bowed tones. It turns out the Doug Caroll was had quietly slipped into the audience with his cello and joined into the mix. The acoustics of the hall helped to give his addition a more surprising and disorienting quality. But overall, it did add a supporting quality to the music and a contrast to the more metallic sounds. The overall effect reminded me quite a bit of the music of Harry Parch.


[Rent Romus and Tom Nunn. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

TD Skatchit, the Skatchbox duo of Tom Nunn and David Michalak, made its official appearance with a pair of mini-sets, each with a guest soloist. The first featured Rent Romus on saxophones. The result was a delightfully noisy set the requisite squeaks, squaws and other effects, punctuated by more jazz-like tonal phrases. Nunn and Michalak provided a rhythm trading notes on the Skatchboxes. The tones were more of the continuous scratches and rumbles, but after a grand pause, Nunn produced a more rhythmic sound from one element of his Skatchbox with a repeated beat that reminded me a bit of rumble strips. The music gradually grew louder, with more complex and intricate jazz runs. Ultimately, Romus pulled out both an alto and soprano sax to play simultaneously in a loud and intense final run.


[Aurora Josephson with TD Skatchit. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

Aurora Josephson returned to perform in the second set with TD Skatchit. It was clear from the start that this was going to be different from her traditional blues vocals only a few minutes earlier, as she took a large swig of water from a bottle and began to vocalize with subtle squeaks and wiggles as well as louder gurgles. Her percussive sounds blended well with the Skatchboxes, which responded with squeakier timbres. The performance was visually and aurally quite humorous and small bursts of laughter could be heard from the audience – to me, this seemed perfectly appropriate and acceptable for such a performance. At times, she seemed to be a third percussion instrument as she traded short notes with Nunn and Michalak. There were a few messy (i.e., wet) moments, but Josephson reminded us, “It’s just water.”


[Ghost in the House. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

The final performance featured Ghost in the House, with Nunn and Michalak joined by regular group members Karen Stackpole on metal percussion and John Ingle on saxophone, and guest Bart Hopkin. Like RTD3, I have seen Ghost in the House a few times before. This time they did not do their usual ritualistic procession into the hall, probably because of the logistics involved, but they appeared on stage bathed in eerie blue light punctuated by candles. The opening sounds were quite resonant and featured rich harmonics. Nunn’s instrument, the Crustacean, blends quite well with Karen Stackpole’s gongs, and a rhythm emerged in the beating patterns between the instrument. Layered in between was Michalak’s lap-steel guitar, which always seems to have a melancholy sound. Bart Hopkin’s instrument, called the Disorderly Tumbling, provided a cascade of high bell sounds that lingered above the other timbres. In a performance like this I find myself listening for the details such as these. Others that caught my attention in this section of the performance were Stackpole’s row of keys, Ingle’s swelling saxophone town, and intense sound of the bowed Crustacean. Over time, the texture became more sparse and glitchy, including mouthpiece noises on the saxophone, striking of metal bowls, and short notes on the Techphonic plate. The music then moved into an eerie phase with lap steel drones, toy-like sounds and the Lukie tubes that reminded me of an old radio or classic science fiction soundtrack. The tones became richer and darker, with long tones and wiggling metal sheets, saxophone multiphonics and glissandi; and finally more rhythmic, with bouncing high tones and the cascading bells, matched by saxophone and gong.


[Karen Stackpole and Tom Nunn. Photos: PeterBKaars.com.]


The concert was well received, and there was quite a long moment of mutual appreciation between Tom Nunn and the audience. This was clearly a special occasion for him, for the musicians and those in attendance. There was also a warm recognition of David Michalak, who was primarily responsible for proposing this concert and making it happen as well as it did. It was quite a logistical feat to have so many sets with large and unusual instruments.

We conclude with what I believe is the smallest invention of the evening. Nunn had made several limited-edition mini-Skatchboxes to commemorate the evening. One of them went home with me and waits to be used in a future musical project inspired by what I heard at this concert.

Interview with Tom Nunn

This past Monday, I visited the studio of musical instrument inventor Tom Nunn to talk ahead of his upcoming retrospective performance at the Community Music Center in San Francisco on Friday February 17. The full interview appears below.

Tom Nunn with the Lukie Tube

AC: So why go through the trouble of invention? Why invent a new instrument versus learning existing instruments?

TN: To me, they create a more interesting compositional format, or forum, I should say.  They open up possibilities that traditional instruments can’t, because of tradition.  Traditional instruments come with tradition, that’s why they call them that.  That means that that’s a whole set of expectations that are historically and culturally determined before you even start saying anything.  So, in experimental and improvised music, what I get from traditional instrumentalists is that they are trying to get beyond the traditional instrument.  So they use different techniques and they use, you know, very imaginative ways of looking at the instrument as a sound-making device. Well, that’s what I am doing with found objects and then ultimately constructions out of found objects. So, we’re all on the same path.  What we’re trying to do is, and what all artists and creators have tried to do is, extend and evolve tradition, not simply represent it. And it’s no disrespect to tradition because we wouldn’t be here without it.  So I’m doing the same thing that Philip Greenlief or John Butcher or any of the rest of them are doing.  It just happens to be with these things instead of those things.  We have the same language, we have the same orientation to sound, and we bring to that an expression through phrasing and proportion that represent classical training and sensitivities.

AC: OK, so we can go from the “why” to the “how.”  So if you were to begin a new instrument, or a new invented instrument, how do you begin that? Does it start with a particular set of materials or objects, or a process, or a particular musical or sonic idea?

TN:  I think it starts with the material that you discover.  You discover something about material or some combination of material or use of material that is sonically interesting, and then you see what you can do to shape that material to see if it’s musically interesting.  And then you see what is involved in shaping that material and start focusing on that evolution from the sound of the material to the understanding of the material and its relationship to how you make it work, the techniques you use on it; and then finding the best designs for those techniques to accommodate those techniques.

Tom Nunn, Lukie Tube from CatSynth on Vimeo.

AC: Yes, so what was your first invented instrument that was used in a performance or a recording?

TN: Oh, that’s difficult to say, because I got into this when I was a graduate student at UCSD, and we were doing outside of the class outside of the university a pro-active socialism with music.  And so we would go to a park and set up found objects and get the public involved in that.  And I was interested in both the sociology of that and the composition of that.  But the main thing was that it’s just an evolution of these materials and circumstances they exist in.  So what I was getting at is I guess it was hard to say what the first was.  Maybe the first was a gas bottle. Maybe the first was a certain way of using some material.  The first constructed instrument that I called and have stuck with and keep to this day is the Crustacean.  It was about 1977.  And again, we had already discovered that rods work with plates and plates sit on balloons so it was a refinement already.  


[The Crustacean. (Click image to enlarge.)]

AC:  OK, and then presumably since that time there’s been more refinement learning from previous ones.  So what sort of things have changed since this early instrument, or since those early performances?  What sort of things have you learned that have been put to use in the latest instruments?

TN:  Well, it was not so much a linear evolution in one direction.   Those plates on balloons with rods, space plates I call them, that was one way, and actually didn’t go very far beyond that.  What I got into were electro-acoustic percussion boards and that’s like the Bug and the Crab and these things on the wall here, Techphonic Plates, and ultimately the T-Rodimba.  So it was basically hardware devices attached to plywood with a contact mic on the board.  That was it.  You play them with different things in different ways.   But I used combs in that.  And ultimately over the years, over many years, I got to the point of realizing that the combs were wearing in a certain way and how would I accentuate that because they seemed to be getting better.  Therefore, because of the shape they were better.   What if I started experimenting with shapes of combs or what if I started experimenting with things I put the combs on?  So in a sense it was an evolution from electro-acoustic percussion boards and the technique of using combs into the creation of the Skatchbox, which was a new thing.  2008.


[Skatchboxes]

AC:  OK, so actually I was going to ask about the Skatchbox. Visually, it seems a little bit different from the other ones and it’s more “reproducible.”  And even though each one is unique and there are quite a few of them – there was the workshop we had at Outsound a couple of years ago.  And even looking around the room there is almost like you would have with saxophones, like a soprano and a bass.  So just a little bit more about the evolution of the Skatchbox and the different varieties and the different ways it can go?

TN: Yeah.  Well, it started with the implement, oddly enough.  It was almost like inventing a stringed instrument because you happened to have a bow. So that’s how that instrument evolved.  It evolved out of the implement and to a certain extent technique because what I started with was a blank cardboard box.  A big huge box that I found on the sidewalk that I put aside saying “I must be able to use this.  It’s much too neat.”  So I tried the combs over it because I had incidentally scraped a box that was full of National Geographic magazines, so it should have been really dead.  But it wasn’t.  It was very alive, resonant, as long as I was making the sound and when I stopped making the sound it stopped.  And so I thought, “Hmmm.  Wow.”  So I started experimenting with how I pushed the comb across that cardboard box.   Then I tried it on the big empty box on a keyboard stand.   And then I started taping objects down to that to see what that does.  And then like a silly goose I put a contact mic on the other side of the box and said “Well, that doesn’t work.” (And I said, “Well, maybe that’s a good thing”).  But then I realized, no, put the contact mic on the inside of the top just like you would the plywood sheet and I did and it was like “Oh my god!”.  It was like “God, this is five times more efficient than plywood.”  Ten times.  It was incredible.  So I had a kind of “articulation instrument” that I had always wanted and never had.  I always felt in recordings my instruments sounded like they were in the next room compared to everybody else, especially electronics.  So this now has the presence and dynamics and articulation of electronics.  I can take on any electronics with this.  So that’s how I developed into these things and I just tried different layouts and designs of stuff and evolved different materials that I put on them and different techniques for putting them onto the box from tape to glue.  And then it became more specific and more prototypical and more evolutionary…until I got these two which are perfect.

AC: OK, we’ll take a look at the perfect ones.

TN: Yes.


[“Perfect” Skatchboxes]

AC:  Alright.  That actually leads to one of the next questions that I had, which is that when I have been hearing the performances over the last few years, I am often struck by how the timbres remind of electronically generated sounds. I know there are the contact mics and the electro-acoustic aspect through that, but it is still coupled with acoustic sources.  And in designing or evaluating the sound, is the relationship between electronics or the mathematics of sound?

TN:  Not really, not really the mathematics at all.   The closest thing I have to anything like that would be – well it’s not even mathematics, it’s scale-wise.  The only scalar instrument is the Octatonic T-Rodimba.  It has octatonic scales on G, G sharp and A, overlapping, and it’s definitely a pitch instrument. It’s sounds something like a marimba.  So other than that, what I have done is, really, and on purpose, create elements, or use elements, which are somewhat random and themselves improvised as the building of the instrument happens.  So that when I have the instrument, it’s not so much an instrument that represents a system, it’s an instrument that represents a kind of territory to explore.  So for me I like the idea that an instrument has a character, a life of its own, and it speaks to us as we play it.  We have an interaction between one another as we’re playing together.  And I think that happens naturally with all instruments and players anyway, ultimately, when they’re improvising at least.  But I’m sure otherwise, too.  So, it’s again the same thing that all musicians feel and sense and experience in relationship to their instrument.  


[Tom Nunn demonstrating the Octatonic T-Rodimba.]

AC: Yeah, especially looking around [the studio], thinking of the visual aspects of the instrument.  So how do the visual aesthetics play in.  So how much of the design of a particular instrument is visuals versus sound quality versus playability?  Sort of, the physical aspects? 

TN:  Well, if I were to order them in priority, I would say first is sound.  And that then mandates technique, and technique mandates design.  And once you get the design, you can decorate it however you want.  But you need to get that essential design that works to get that essential sound that works, because of that essential action that makes the object sound like that.  So beyond that, since you’re building something, you might as well make something attractive, interesting, fun, curious.  So if you are going to have rods why not bend them and make antennae?  And as you’re doing that visual thing, you’re also gaining some kind of acoustic thing because you’re changing the harmonics of the rod.  It’s different than a rod that was straight.  So like for the Crab, I have three bends in the rod, or two bends in the rod, and they look like little crab feet.  But they also create a very distinct acoustic sound because of that.  They have a high sound and a very low sound.  When I got the Lukie Tubes that was because I had these plates that had been sanded for looks only.  But had they not been sanded, the tubes wouldn’t have worked.  So sometimes the decoration leads to actual new designs for acoustic reasons.


[The Crab]

AC:  So in terms of being able to play the instruments, how does one “master” one of these instruments?  Is there a discipline for learning how to play them and for practicing?

TN:  Well, it’s a lot of hours of practicing.  But as you’re practicing, you’re doing two things.  You’re getting familiar with the instrument, but you’re also practicing improvisation, you’re also practicing composition.  And you’re practicing composition and improvisation in the context of that instrument with that format and those techniques.   So you’re working always on two things – that’s the way I work.  Maybe somebody could more objectify it but it’s hard for me to separate the work on the instrument alone from the work on the instrument as a compositional device.  

AC:  So is that process a little bit different when it’s having somebody else play one of the instruments?

TN:  Well, when somebody else plays one, I see different things happening, I hear different things happening.  I see different orientations, different approaches. Sure.  I’m just an individual.  I’m not a prototype, or a metatype, or whatever.  Every time I’ve seen people play my instruments they come up with ideas I hadn’t thought of, or approaches or sounds or styles or all kinds of stuff they come up with on their own.  Including what kids do.

AC:  So, thinking about the performance coming up where there are also a lot of guests that are also using traditional instruments, what is the process for working with performers who are using standard instruments?  Is it more about working with the individual performers who were invited, or is it about trying to pair instruments?

TN:  It’s more the relationship with the performers who happen to have those instruments but also happen to have a history of playing with me.  And so I’ve played innumerable hours with everybody that is going to be on this program.  So we all know each other very well.  And that’s a really nice thing if you’re doing free improvisation, which most of it will be. But these are master players, master improvisers, and I’m just damn lucky to have a situation where I can call on people like that.  So many of them, and such a diversity!  And that’s what we discovered with the TD Skatchit project.  And that was David’s idea and it just was spot-on in terms of connecting with his culture and bringing the boxes into that.  In this particular performance, it’s going to be people I’ve always played with, but I’ve always played with people who play traditional instruments.  It’s actually easier for me to play with people who play traditional instruments than people who play experimental instruments.  Actually much easier.

AC:  So you were mentioning that there is going to be a lot of free improvisation.  Has there been a lot of work with formal composition with your instruments?  

TN:  Yes, the second piece on the program, Plasticity, is written by Allan Crossman, a good friend of mine, who is a retired teacher from Concordia in Montreal.  And he is an active composer.  He wrote this piece for the Soniglyph and orchestra, and we got it performed by the San Francisco Composers Chamber Orchestra.  And we had about four or five rehearsals of that and then did it live and I have a recording of that.  But we are going to be doing a piano and Soniglyph version of that piece.  That’s the most formal piece, the most absolutely composed piece.  But still within that, the composition is about what parts of the instrument I’m playing and what techniques I might be using but not exactly what I’m playing.  Whereas what he has,  some places are very specific and some are quasi-improvised.  

AC:  Following up on that, any thoughts on how one would notate for your instruments?

TN:  [Laughter] One of the big reasons I got into improvisation with these things!  I mean, they [composition and improvisation] happened at the same time, but, my god, what a nightmare trying to notate for this.

AC:  I figure it would be an interesting challenge, actually…

TN:  Especially the boxes.  Good damn luck with that.   It’s like notating electronic music.  For one thing, what’s the point?  As if somebody is going to one: learn how to read it; two: learn how to play it with that notation, with those techniques; and three: get even remotely close to what you were thinking.  So no, you know the thing about experimental instrument and stuff is trying to push the envelope of what music is.  Part of that is getting away from the idea that everything is compositionally controlled.  But it isn’t, like, burning your bridges. We still have relationships to composers and compositions.  It’s just that we sit around the same table now and they take into account what we thrive on and vice versa.  It’s great.

AC:  So in the context of that newer relationship between composers and performers, would you like to see more compositions? 

TN: If they’re good.

AC:  And then, anything thoughts on how your instruments have affected people in this community or beyond who think about music, whether they’re performers or listeners?

TN: It would be difficult to say what effect I have on anything.  That part is kind of a hope and a prayer that maybe there would be some influence that is positive in somebody’s life and just let it go at that.  I’ve given away a lot of instruments.  I’ve given away a lot of CDs.  It’s my inclination to give things away rather than sell them when it comes to music anyway.  To me it’s like this is food for the soul and so how can we put a price on that.  So yeah, I end up giving away a lot of instruments.  And that is, I think, an appropriate way to dispense with this stuff.  If somebody says, “well I can do that”, then go home and do it.  Rent [Romus of Outsound Presents] went home, and he and CJ each made a box, after [the workshop at the 2010 Outsound Music Summit].  Great!  It’s kind of like that.  If teachers saw what the potential of the Skatchbox was for elementary school kids or junior-high school kids, kids that hadn’t gotten the big dose of cynicism that’s going to come down the line yet.  So that they don’t see it as silly or stupid or not cool or whatever.  But that they see it as just interesting.  Which is the virtue of kids.

The 2010 Annual Transbay Skronkathon

As summer drew to a close, much of the Bay Area new music community gathered at 21 Grand for our annual ritual of live musical performance, socializing and tasty barbecued treats known as the Annual Transbay Skronkathon. The Skronkathon is also a benefit for the Transbay Creative Music Calendar, a free print publication that serves the creative music community here with event listings and articles (including several from this site).

I had been planning my own part in this ritual since, well, last year’s Skronkathon when Polly Moller discovered that my CatSynth review had been reposted in “spammogrified form” by another website. That became the basis for this years performance, which featured a reading of the spammogrified text and the inexplicable repeated phrase as a dominate. Another thing that was different this year was our “live tweeting team” of myself, Polly Moller and Tom Duff. It sort of happened spontaneously. It seems a bit difficult to search for the past #skonkathon posts via Twitter, but I have collected them all and will sprinkle a few throughout this article. (Look for the @ signs.)

[Live tweeting.  Photo by Suki O’kane. (Click to enlarge.)]

In fact, one of Tom’s live tweets described the duo of Ann O’Rourke and Carlos Jennings as “a disco remix of Berio’s Visage”. I am sorry I did not arrive earlier – it’s hard to pass up something with a description like that.

Rachel Wood-Rome. Photo by Michael Zelner.

I did arrive in time to see Rachel Wood-Rome’s performance for solo horn. Her melodic performance seemed like a snippet from a 19th or early 20th century concerto, minus the orchestra. However, in listening I started to fill in an orchestral part myself. She then presented a sing-along of a piece with lyrics by Max Gutmann. It included this refrain song with a minor melody in 5/8 time:

Our librarian is Miss Marion
she is scary an’ very old
pause and pity us
’cause she’s hideous
very hairy an’ likes to scold

Wood-Rome was followed by Respectable Citizen. Usually the duo of Bruce Bennet and Michael Zbyszynski, they were actually a trio on this occasion with the guest appearance of Jeff Ridenour on violone. For those not familiar with the violone, it is a large bowed stringed instrument with frets, closer to the viols used in Renaissance and baroque music than to the modern orchestral string family. The set started off softly with flute, picking on the violone, and stringy ethereal sounds.

[Respectable Citizen.  Photo by Michael Zelner.  (Click to enlarge.)]

The next piece featured more noise and distortion, with scratching sounds on the violone and a particularly interesting moment with the keyboard resonated together with squeaking sounds from the saxophone. There was also a section of “loungy free jazz” – which is certainly fun for me – mixed with some FM-like sounds.

as a dominate

Respectable Citizen was followed T.T.F.W.’z. If I had to describe their performance, it would be “punk skronking”, with loud, fast, driving rhythms and noisy squawks, squeaks and long strings of notes. And they had their own fan section doing 1990s-style jumping-up-and-down dancing. Given the loudness, I opted to enjoy their set from the alley, and even relive a bit of my youth by briefly demonstrating this form of dance to some of my musical colleagues.

The next set was one I was quite looking forward to: a duo of Matt Davignon with “a table full of junk” (as Tom Duff delicately described it) and Eric Glick Rieman on prepared electric piano. I am quite fond of electric piano (e.g., Fender Rhodes) and interested in prepared acoustic piano, but this was first time I had seen and heard the two concepts together.


[The prepared electric piano. (Click to enlarge.)]

The sounds of the Rieman’s instrument and Matt’s drum machines and effects ranged from high and tinny, to scratchy, glitchy, or sometimes more bell-like. The piano certainly made some unique sounds: boings. bell-like scratching and other effects that made the purely electronic sounds seem tame by comparison On occasion, the instrument’s piano-like quality would stand out, and one could hear the tines that are characteristic of electric pianos. At other times it was more aggressive and percussive. Rieman’s playing style brought out this quality, and I found myself watching the mechanics of the instrument as I was listening to the music. There was moment that seemed like film music, with long piano notes set against “squishy sounds” from Matt Davignon’s electronic effects. And then a sound that reminded me of marbles. There were anxious harmonies, and rhythms on top of rhythms in samples.

[Matt Davignon and Eric Glick Reiman.  Photo by Michael Zelner. (Click to enlarge.)]

Next up was blipvert (aka Will Northlich-Redmond). Standing behind a table with an Alesis Air and a Pioneer DJ controller, he launched into an intense and frenetic blast of music and choreography (@TomDuff He doesn’t *act* like a guy in cargo pants & a black teeshirt). The electronics were all controlled by his voice or other live sounds and gestures, so when he shouted or snapped or spun around or fell and the floor only to spring back up moments later, it would trigger a new sound or change in the sonic process. The hits and squeaks and thuds and sample loops and retro-1980s synthesizer sounds were perfectly timed to his over-the-top theatrics and choreography. It is clear that he spent a lot of time practicing and perfecting this. And it was definitely a fun performance to watch! Just when it seemed he was running out of energy and about to collapse from exhaustion, he got back up with a shout and launched into the next one. It is difficult to describe in words, but you can get a flavor from his videos from other performances. And the videos do not give the full sense of the energy.

[Blipvert.  Shared by @TomDuff on twitter.  (Click to see original post.)]

Blipvert was followed by Blowout Preventer (@TomDuff fresh from their gig at Deepwater Horizon), a clarinet quartet featuring Philip Greenlief, Dan Plonsey, Ceylan Yagmur and Michael Zelner. I am always intrigued by clarinet ensembles, having played the instrument in the past and written a piece for clarinet quartet. This performance began with whaling sounds that sounded like sirens, and then suddenly became quiet and harmonic and even contrapuntal. An intricate rhythm emerged in the sum of the four parts – even though each part seemed relatively simple, the interaction was complex. There was also a section with long growling tones, followed by more harmonic sounds; scraping of mouthpieces set against multiphonics; and a waltz that was interrupted.

Next up was Kattt and Ron, a duo of Kattt Atchley on Ron Heglin on vocals with electronics. Their set began with long electronic drones with beating patterns. Heglin began his vocal incantations in this backdrop, with his words soft and purposefully hard to discern. The drone, which was slowly but continually changing, had a generally minor harmony, but with inharmonic tones and continued beating patterns. The overall effect was very meditative. There were some odd facial expressions as the vocals became more noisy. By this time, both Atchley and Heglin were performing with voice, gradually becoming more harmonic and moving between unisons and perfect intervals. I was able to hear the voices both as a single unit and as individuals, the male and female contrast. The sounds gradually faded to a single beating tone at the end with a sprinkle of more percussive vocalizations.


[Kattt Atchley and Ron Heglin. Photo by Michael Zelner.]

As always happens at Skronkathon, I miss the set right before my own as I set up and prepare. In this, the set featured Bob Marsh on classical guitar, CJ Borosque on pedals an turntable, and Sandra Yolles on electronic percussion.

This is as good a time to mention the work of art that served as a backdrop for the performances, perhaps the most beautiful that I have seen at 21 Grand. The piece is by Dina Rubiolo and is titled 13th Ave. It features 8500 35mm slides arranged into the shape of a building facade and backlit. (@pollymoller Stage area has a striking backdrop: a proscenium arch made of backlit photographic slides.)

It was then time for our performance. I recited the entirety of the spammogrified text (you can see a copy here), while Polly performed the refrain “as a dominate” as it appeared within the text, complete with props and choreography. It was interesting to both read (and hear) how my text was affected by the various translators and other processes that may have been used. Certain phrases kept popping out, such as “plum sonorous” and “plum decorous” – I think “plum” was the retranslated equivalent of “rather” or “quite”, which I often use in my writing. Soft instruments or musical passes were re-worded as “sissified”, and several people seemed to enjoy the phrase “sissified trombone” – and some people also had fun hearing their own names of those of their friends and colleagues appear in the middle of the barely comprehensible narrative.

[Amar and Polly.  Photo by Michael Zelner.  (Click to enlarge.)]

In terms of technology and instrumental accompaniment, I kept things rather sparse. I opted to only use the iPad, running the Smule Magic Piano and the a granular synthesis app called Curtis. As source material, I used some pre-recorded passes of myself reciting the text.

(@TomDuff Decourous as a notwithstanding. #skronkathon(Amar and Polly.). As a dominate)

We were followed by RTD3, with Doug Carrol on cello, Tom Nunn on his invented instruments, Ron Heglin on trombone and voice. They are always a fun group to watch. (@catsynth Scraping sounds percussive cello trombone and vocal blah blah. Some particularly interesting moments included all three instruments making percussive scraping sounds, Carrol performing the cello like a guitar and also upside-down, and a moment whether the tone of bowed cello and the skatch box and the two blended together. There were some very soft moments, such as soft staccato trombone tones, and a low drone-like rumble from the ensemble. There was also a series of sounds that conjured up the image of a scampering mouse.

Next was a trio of Matt Ingalls on clarinet, Tom Scandura on percussion, and Thomas Dimuzio on Moog guitar. This was the first time I had heard a Moog guitar in a live performance setting. Knowing the musicians involved, I knew in advance this was going to be a loud set (@catsynth Scandura, Ingalls and Dimuzio trio will definitely not be sissified). The music started off with a dramatic film-like drone, with the clarinet coming though on top. The drums gradually got louder and started to match. From this point, there was mixture of fast runs and loud notes, some sections that sounded like 1960s free jazz and others that seemed to follow a more Middle Eastern scale. At some point, both the clarinet and the electronic guitar become more inharmonic and the drums got wilder and louder. Then suddenly a beat entered into the music, a bit of a slow rock shuffle or rock ballad overlaid with dark ambient guitar sounds. Matt Ingalls switched the violin at one point during the set. As the music started to feel more relaxed, it suddenly get loud again with FM-like sounds and acoustic drum, and then it got “super loud”. Even within the loudness, one could hear interesting details, such as a latin beat and a phrygian scale, and a really loud high-pitched squeak.

The contrast to the next set, a duo of Philip Greenlief and David Boyce, was rather dramatic. Although it was full of fast virtuosic runs, it was relatively quiet and spacious. There were moments where the seemed to go into unison, or where the rhythm seemed to stand still, before returning to the fast and complex runs. There were also a variety of interesting breathing sounds, mouthpiece effects, and other extended techniques. At one point, it sounded like a bird or a creature that was “laughing”.

[Greenlief and Boyce in front of Dina Rubiolo’s artowrk.  (Click to visit original post.)]

The combination of the relative calm of the set and the time of the evening made this one that truly took advantage of the backdrop provided by Rubiolo’s artwork. I featured this image of Greenlief and Boyce in front of it in a previous Wordless Wednesday.

They were followed by another duo, Gino Robair and John Shiurba under the name G / J. Robair was billed as playing “voltage made painful”, and incorporated a Blippo Box, as well as a drum machine, effects boxes and a device for pre-recorded samples into the mix. Shiurba played guitar with a variety of extended techniques, including using a superball to excite the strings. The were lots of fast cuts and cartoonish moments, with boinks and slaps and machine noises. The Blippo Box had a liquidy organic sound that contrasted with finger-picking on the guitar. At one point in the performance, Robair set in motion a rather funky rhythm loop that sounded for a bit, then came in and out and decayed into grains of sound (@catsynth I want Gino to keep that funky rhythm background going longer. As a dominate.). There were moments that were a bit more aggressive, with loud piercing sounds, but then others that were…well, “plum sonorous” and featured minor harmonies.

[G / J in front of the wall of beauty.  Photo shared on twitter by @TomDuff. (Click to visit original post.)]

Next up was Wormses, a trio of Jacob Felix Heule (percussion), Tony Dryer (bass) and Bobby Adams (electronics). The set started with a low rumble and hum, with the bass soon coming on top of scratchy electronic sounds and Heule playing a cymbal against a bass drum. The music became more anxious and busy over time, with some electronic insect-like sounds coming in above the other parts. Then all of a sudden things got very soft. A rhythm emerged in the background, but barely audible behind the bass and cymbal. As the set continued, a walking bass line came out of nowhere, then lots of swells and glissandi. Gradually, the music built back up to a rather loud level, a couple sounds that were like clipping and feedback, and ultimately ending with the sounding of the bass drum.

I think that was where I walked out to the alley for another break. There was lasagna!

The final set featured Ghost in the House, with Karen Stackpole (percussion), Tom Nunn (invented musical instruments), David Michalak (lap-steel guitar) and Andrew Voigt (who was sitting in for Kyle Bruckman on winds). I had heard them previously at the Wind Moon Concert back in April, and their sound is quite ethereal and airy, even for the percussion and lap-steel guitar. As with the previous performance, they began with a procession, of elemental instruments. The room was dark, except for the light from the 35mm slides in front. The performers then took their places for the remainder of the performance. The sounds were quite subtle at times, slightly minor, and sometimes like old film or radio soundtracks with eerie wind sounds mixed in. The metal instruments (primarily Stackpole’s gongs on Nunn’s instruments) served as a foundation, with the sounds of the wind instruments floating above. In addition to the long atonal sounds, there were moments with high squeaks and east-Asian harmonies and timbres. In the final piece, Stackpole played on an interesting metal-tube instrument and also used a vinyl record as percussion. Michalak’s lap-steel guitar featured prominently in this piece as well. The overall effect sounded electronic, even though the ensemble was purely acoustic instruments. The night concluded with the ensembles recessional from the room, still appropriately dark.

(@casynth #skonkathon concludes. Good night)

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.