CCRMA Modulations at SOMArts

A few weeks I go, I attended CCRMA Modulations 2011, an evening of live electronic music and sound installations by CCRMA (the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics at Stanford) and special guests at SOMArts in San Francisco. The event was an eight-hour marathon, though I only stayed for about half the time, seeing many of the installations and most of the live-music performances.

The first part of the evening featured sound sculptures from Trimpin and his students at CCRMA. This particular project, the “Boom Boom Record Player” by Jiffer Harriman stuck with me.

The output from the record player is used to drive the electromechanical instruments on the right. I thought the instruments were well crafted – but I thought it was particularly fitting to have a classic Earth Wind and Fire LP on the record player.

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Trimpin’s offering featured coin-operated robotic percussion where the drums included just about every model of Apple notebook computer going back to an early PowerBook (and even earlier as I think I espied an Apple IIc).

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The live-music portion of the evening with Tweet Dreams by Luke Dahl and Carr Wilkerson. Audience members with Twitter access were encouraged to live-tweet messages to a specific hashtag #modulations. The messages were then analyzed in real time and the data used to affect the music. As I was planning to live tweet from this event anyway via iPhone, I was ready to participate. Of course, inviting audience participation like this is a risky proposition for the artists, as one cannot control what people may say. I will freely admit I can be a bit snarky at times and it came out in some of my tweets. The music was relatively benign, with very harmonic runs of notes – and I exhorted them to “give me something harsh and noisy”. Inspired by another participant, I also quoted lines from the infamous “More Cowbell!” skit from Saturday Night Live, much to the delight of some in the audience. The main changes in the music seemed to be in density, rhythm and some melodic structure, but all within boundaries that kept the sound relatively harmonic and “pleasant.” I would have personally liked to see (as I suggested via Twitter), more complex music, with some noisy elements and more dramatic changes. But the interaction with the music and and the audience was a lot of fun.

The next piece, Sferic by Katharine Hawthorne, featured dance and electronics. It was described as “using radio and movement improvisation to explore the body as an antenna.” The dancers, dressed in black outfits with painted patterns, began the movement to a stream of radio static. The motions were relatively minimalist, and sometimes seemed strained. Gestures included outstretched arms and fingers pointing, with Hawthorne walking slowly as her dance partner Luke Taylor ran more quickly. Rich, harmonic music entered from the rear channels of the hall, and dancers moved to being flat on the ground. The static noise returned, but more crackly with other radio-tuning sounds, then it became a low rumble. The dancers seemed to be trying very hard to get up. Then they started pointing. The music became more anxious, with low percussive elements. The dance became more energetic and active as the piece came to a close.

This was followed by Fernando Lopez-Lezcano performing Dinosaur Skin (Piel de Dinosaurio) a piece for multi-channel sound diffusion, an analog synthesizer and custom computer software. The centerpiece was a custom analog synthesizer “El Dinosaur” that Lopez-Lezcano build from scratch in 1981.

The instrument is monophonic (but like most analog synthesizers, a very rich monophonic), multiplied for the purposes of the performance by audio processing in external software and hardware. The music started very subtly, with sounds like galloping in the distance. The sounds grew high in pitch, then descended and moved across the room – the sense of space in the multichannel presentation was quite strong. More lines of sound emerged, with extreme variations in the pitch, low and high. The timbre, continually changing, grew more liquidy over time, with more complex motion and rotation of elements in the sound space. Then it became more dry and machine like. There was an exceptionally loud burst of sound followed by a series of loud whistles on top of low buzzing. The sounds slowed down and became more percussive (I was reminded as I often am with sounds like this of Stockhausen’s Kontakte (II)). Then another series of harsher whistles and bursts of sound. One sound in particular started the resonant quite strongly in the room. Overall, the sound became steady but inharmonic – the timbre becoming more filtered and “analog-like”.

The final performance in this section of the evening featured Wobbly (aka Jon Leidecker) as a guest artist presenting More Animals, a “hybrid electronic / concrete work” that combined manipulated field records of animals with synthesized sounds. As a result, the piece was filled with sounds that either were actual animals or reminiscent of animal sounds freely mixed. The piece opened with pizzicato glissandi on strings, which became more wailing and plaintive over time. I heard sounds that either were whales and cats, or models of whales and cats. Behind this sounds, pure sine tones emerged and then watery synthesized tones. A series of granular sounds emerged, some of which reminded me of human moaning. The eerie and watery soundscape that grew from these elements was rich and immersive. After a while, there was a sudden abrupt change followed by violent ripping sounds, followed by more natural elements, such as water and bird whistles. These natural elements were blended with AM modulation which sounded a bit like a helicopter. Another abrupt change led to more animal sounds with eerie howling and wind, a strange resonant forest. Gradually the sound moved from natural to more technological with “sci fi” elements, such as descending electrical noises. Another sudden change brought a rhythmic percussion pattern, slow and steady, a latin “3+2+2” with electronic flourishes. Then it stopped, and restarted and grew, with previous elements from the piece becoming part of the rhythm.

After an intermission, the seats were cleared from the hall and the music resumed in a more techno dance-club style and atmosphere, with beat-based electronic music and visuals. Guest artists Sutekh and Nate Boyce opened with Bands of Noise in Four Directions & All Combinations (after Sol LeWitt). Glitchy bursts of noise resounded from the speakers while the screens showed mesmerizing geometric animations that did indeed remind me a bit of Sol LeWitt (you can see some examples of his work in previous posts).

Later in the evening Luke Dahl returned for a solo electronic set. It began calmly with minor chords processed through rhythmic delays, backed by very urban poster-like graphics. Behind this rhythmic motif, filtered percussion and bass sounds emerged, coalescing into a steady house pattern, with stable harmony and undulating filtered timbres. At times the music seemed to reach back beyond house and invoke late 1970s and early 1980s disco elements. Just at it was easy to get lost listening to Wobbly’s environmentally-inspired soundscapes, I was able to become immersed in the rhythms and timbres of this particular style. The graphics showed close-ups of analog synthesizers – I am pretty sure at least some of the images were of a Minimoog. I did find out that these images were independent of the musical performance, and thus we were not looking at instruments being used. I liked hearing Luke’s set in the context of the pieces earlier in the evening, the transition from the multi-channel soundscapes to the glitchy noise and to the house-music and dance elements.

I was unfortunately not able to stay for the remaining sets. But overall it was a good and very full evening of music and technology.

μHausen at Camp Happy

This morning I look back to μHausen (micro-Hausen) at Camp Happy in the Santa Cruz mountains. It was really a “tiny festival within a tiny festival”, as we took over Sunday afternoon with our esoteric and (mostly) electronic music.

I brought a relatively compact and self-contained setup:

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A few “greatest hits”, such as the Evolver which I mix with live performance on prayer bowl; the monome controlling Max/MSP on the MacBook for live sampling and looping of Indian and Chinese folk instruments; the “trusty Kaoss Pad”; the iPhone running the Smule Ocarina (which I had just used two nights earlier at Instagon 543. I also added the iPad for the first time, using the Smule Magic Piano, Curtis granular synthesizer, and an app the simulates a Chinese guzheng.

I packed up and made the long trip from San Francisco to Boulder Creek. Unlike Santa Cruz, which is a straight shot, getting to Boulder Creek in the mountains is a bit of a challenge on winding mountain roads, some of which masquerade as state highways. Look for an upcoming “fun with highways” describing that part of the experience.

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I arrived just in time for the performance. Respectable Citizen, the duo of Bruce Bennet and Michael Zbyszynski, performing keyboard+electronics and saxophone+electronics, respectively. Their set featured fast saxophone riffs and “watery” FM sounds, some loud oversaturated moments, a fast shuffle, urban-landscape sounds, and insect-like sounds, with lots of speed changes and signal processing (e.g., waveshaping).

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Luke Dahl performed a fun piece based on samples from Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Kontakte 2. It is one of my favorite recordings, and Luke’s samples featured one of my favorite moments from it (a sort of descending pulse sound that eventually slows down to become discrete percussive hits). He arranged short samples on a grid that could be triggered independently, to make “improvised Stockhausen.” I got a chance to try it out after his performance.

I was next on the program. I opened with the live sampling and playback controlled by the monome. The light patterns on the device still captured the attention of the audience even in the bright afternoon sun. I think they were also intrigued by my technique of putting the iPhone Ocarina in front of the speaker.

Next up was a live broadcast of the R Duck Show. The opened with the somewhat funky 1970s theme from Sanford and Son, which soon started to glitch and was eventually replaced by freeform noise along with keyboards and guitar. Eventually, a mellow beat emerged (I am pretty this was done with Ableton Live!). Oh, and the program’s host Albert brought chocolate. Really good dark chocolate infused with chilis. Quite tasty.

The program was rounded out with The Stochastics, a trio of Chris Cohn, Leaf Tine and Wayne Jackson.

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The set opened with low rumbling noises, which served as a foundation for Wayne’s circuit bent instruments and Leaf’s vocalizations and performance on an instrument which seemed to be a didgeridoo with a trombone-like bell. Lots of interesting words and incantations and throat singing, and squeaks and squeals and rumbles from the circuit bent instruments. Here is a close-up of the impressive array of circuit bent toys.

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One fun moment was Wayne attempting to create a sub-contra-contra-bass plucked string instrument by stringing duct tape between the microphone on one side of the stage and the speaker stand on the other.