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.

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.

KFJC 50th Anniversary at Flux 53

Last Tuesday I attended performance celebrating the 50th anniversary of KFJC radio at FLUX53 in Oakland.

robair_marsh_dedionyso_cThe evening opened with a trio of Arrington de Dionyso, Gino Robair, and Bob Marsh. The set began with the drone of an electric harmonium, the space was then filled with the chirping of Marsh’s performance on Alesis Airs, Robair’s percussive and chaotic Blippo Box sounds, and de Dionyso’s reed instruments. All the sounds, acoustic and electronic, had a similar quality, and seemed to come together in a pattern I would describe as “yodeling”. This was followed by a combination of low reed tones and bass synthesizer sounds, both of which had complex overtones again masking the separation between acoustic and electronic.

Photo by Michael Zelner
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During the next portion of the set, de Dionyso performed on a double-reed instrument that I am pretty sure was a nadaswaram, a South Indian instrument similar to the Indian shehnai, but larger. Surprisingly, it sounded more like a saxophone than what I would expect (based on my familiarity with the shehnai and double-reed instruments in general), and was set against bass synth tones and more “liquidy” sounds. The sounds evolved into a drone layered with scratches and bending notes, and then into something more evocative of old space or science-fiction music, with descending synthesizer timbres. From this mixture, a minor harmony eventually emerged.

Photo by Michael Zelner.
Photo by

Robair then brought out his “signature cymbal”, and played bowed metallic resonances against gurgles and whispers. de Dionyso sang into various resonant objects as well, such as a partially filled metal water pitcher, and the detached bell of a bass clarinet.

There was more of the “space harmonies” and drones, groans and static. And vocal syllables against machine-like sounds, softer percussive synthesizers and metallic resonances. The sounds faded out, leaving just the original harmonium droning. Then suddenly there were bells and loud “skronking” (fast-moving loud notes), and then the set was over.

In the intermission, Walter Funk presented the Hologlyphic Funkalizer, an installation that uses a video synthesizer to interpret audio signals and project them onto an oscilloscope. I had actually seen a previous performance at the 2008 Edgetone Music Summit where Funk also played in the duo Kwisp. This time I was treated to a more detailed presentation and explanation of the technical details, including the Max/MSP programs that generated the audio signals and the analog video synthesizer. You can see visual examples at his website.

The LARGE ensemble, which was indeed large, performed a series of conducted improvisations, with Gino Robair and Bob Marsh alternating as conductors. Marsh conducted the piece in dramatic fashion. It began slowly with atonal pitches, squeaks, bends and glissandi on various instruments. The woodwinds began to add more “pointed” notes, with some short runs and phrases. The full ensemble then came to a loud stop followed by silence; then back to more of the longer notes from the beginning, then another loud hit and silence. This repeated a few times. Out of last silence emerged guitar scratches and harmonics set against scraped percussion, eventually joined by plucked string basses with bending notes, then the smaller string instruments. The texture grew dense again with long notes followed by faster runs. The music became loud and energetic and “argumentative”. And then it stopped.


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The next piece, conducted by Robair, had a sparser texture that seemed to focus on individual timbres of the instruments and specific sounds. It started with analog synthesizers and noise generates (Travis Johns) set against fast gurgling trumpet (CJ Borosque). They were soon joined by string bass and guitar also playing faster tones, while the violins faded in with a long steady-state tone. I could envision the ensemble being played as if it was a synthesizer rig rather than a series of separate instruments and performs. The texture grew thick, with some deep bass electronic sounds set against the strings; then it grew sparse again, with drums, trombone and bass clarinet. After some jazz-like runs on the basses, the ending centered around loud multiphonics and overblown tones from the bass clarinet.

The next piece started off like a standard from the 20th century classical repertoire, with detached pitches, atonal harmonies and percussive sounds. The music carried the tension and anxiety of a film score. Eventually the whole ensemble crept in. I also particular liked a section with clanging metal percussion against a very low synthesizer drone.

Robair then introduced the next piece as “Stretched out Xenakis in G.” It very quickly lived up to its name, with very slow pizzicato glissandi, and drones set against percussion scrapes. It was interesting to watch some of the instructional cards being used in the conducting, some had very literal musical meanings like “louder”, “soft”, “sweet”, “fast”, but others had more unusual instructions like “subvert.” Eventually, the ensemble settled into a textural equilibrium with everyone playing at once, and then instrumentals were replaced by voices singing in such a way to keep the existing texture going. The voices and instruments moved towards subtle harmonies or unisons (which I realized were of course all on on near G). Against this harmonic structure I heard the scraping sounds from Tom Nunn’s skatch box. The texture of the music grew more complex, and was then suddenly replaced by a violin solo of a minor melody that sounded quite Eastern European.

At this point, Marsh again took over conducting, and both he and Robair alternated every few minutes while the music continued uninterrupted. There were sections featuring mallet percussion, and squeaks on a soprano saxophone set against Nunn’s scratches, and a big “drum solo”. Later on, the mallet percussion rhythms took on a jazz feel in terms of syncopation and harmonies, an effect that was augmented by the presence of guitar chords. The texture eventually grew noisier again, with noise generators and loud, excited playing by the whole ensemble. The instrumental ensemble again became a chorus of voices, this time sounding a bit drunk. As the music grew software, Marsh held up the final instructional card: “God is in the details.” After this, the music came to a loud finish.

Edgetone New Music Summit

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend the Edgetone Music Summit, including the Wednesday night performance SonicLight. All the performances including both musical and visual elements being “performed.” The visuals were as much a live performance element as the music, rather than simply films or videos that were being shown while the music was played.

The first set was a piece by No More Twist! entitled Inquisition for Suspect, Examiner and Audience. No More Twist! is the due of Les Hutchins and Polly Moller, who of course should be quite familiar to regular readers of this site.

The performance involved Polly Moller, as the “Suspect”, being attached to the Glove of Truth, a custom lie-detector that measures vital signs and transmits the data to a computer, where it is interpreted visually and sonically, and used to determine falsehood or truth, as in the sample below:

Audience members were invited to ask yes/no questions to invoke declarations of “true” or “lie.” This is of course especially fun for audience members who may be able to independently verify the answers to their questions. Of course, the most fun for everyone was when the word “lie” would appear on the screen in all its accusatory grandeur.

The next performance was by Kwisp, a duo featuring Walter Funk and Lenny Bove. It featured a variety of elements including a holographic projection that audience members were encouraged to come view at close range (but not too close lest one damage the specialized lens); and custom analog electronics including the tower electronique, displayed to the right.

Musically, Kwisp was closer to the standard “experimental electronics” performances that I perform or attend, with its combination of laptop-based electronics, analogue synthesis and processing, improvisation and noise.

The final performance was a video and live-music set by Thickness/Mono-Layer. The group, which includes John Reily, Eric Steinberg and Charles Kremenak, performed a “power duo” of bass and guitar (with synthesis and processing) against two videos projected on either side of the hall. The videos were incredibly detailed in their editing (several of us commented on the sheer volume of separate clips and cuts and the amount of time it must have taken to put them together). Indeed, I was quite involved in the visuals, that I didn’t spend as much attention on the music, though I did recognize the guitar synthesizer at various moments.

The Edgetone Music Summit is an annual festival in San Francisco that features “Independent artists most of whom are practitioners in music and sound of improvised and or experimental and or exploratory nature.” It began as an event to support the artists of Edgetone Records, an artist operated recording label for improvised and experimental music that includes several of our friends. As part of the summit, I had the opportunity to hear a lecture by Edgetone Records’ founder Rent Romus on the concept of the “Artist Run Label” the night before the SoundLight performance.

The programs provided for the summit each included a “drop card”, which can be used to download music by each of the performers from all events of the festival. We will be listening to, and probably commenting on, some of those tracks soon…