Today we look back at this year’s μHausen, a “micro-festival” of experimental electronics that takes place every summer deep at a secure undisclosed location in the Santa Cruz Mountains. It was the subject of our most recent CatSynth TV episode.
As suggested in the video, I was thinking a lot about our natural surroundings as we made music with our thoroughly artificial electronic instruments. The trees, the air, the light, all seemed to be of a piece with the music at times. I also thought about the fact that I had not been able to attend the last three installments. In 2015 and 2016 I had to cancel or decline because of medical issues, and I’m not sure what happened in 2017. But I was back now and was great to see and hear everyone.
First up was Peter Elsea, recently retired from his longtime position as a professor of electronic music at UC Santa Cruz. On this occasion, he performed with a small rig that included a modular synthesizer and an electronic wind instrument.
His set featured tones that were timbrally rich and often noisy, but still pitched. This worked well with the wind controller which allowed the noisy tones to swell and fade musically. But there were also some beautiful moments of quiet pure tones that evoked the natural surroundings.
Next up was Later Days, a project featuring Wayne Jackson with his iOS-based evolutionary synth MendelTone, which allows patches to “breed” and evolve.
There was an urgent “machine-like” quality to the music, with low drones oms mixing with high swirls of sound and various percussive hits. Wayne is also the founder of this event and often its leader, but this year he ceded organizing duties to R Duck (of the R Duck Show), who performed next.
[Photo by Later Days (Wayne Jackson)]
The first segment of his set featured beautiful drones of processed guitar. There were quick runs, but they were absorbed into the overall sound. Over time, the tone and structure darkened, with more complex timbres and harmonies set against slow but anxious guitar riffs. He also teamed up with Later Days to deliver his perennial incantation featuring chocolate. (Did I mention that we at CatSynth love chocolate?)
Next up was synthesizer virtuoso Doug Lynner, who performed on a Eurorack-based Serge modular synthesizer.
[Photo by Later Days (Wayne Jackson)]
I have long come to expect very complex and intricate sounds from Doug, often set in a very sparse texture where one can clearly hear the details. That was certainly the case in this performance, which opened with light sounds reminiscent of birds and whale songs. It could have come from the surrounding woods rather than the synthesizer on stage (OK, the bird sounds could have, probably not the whale sounds). After a period of rapid modulation, the music settled into a different pattern, with a contrapuntal texture of long ascending tones reminiscent of sirens.
Lynner was followed by Paul Nicholson who had a large Korg-centric rig that included both a Minilogue, an MS-20 and an SQ-1 sequencer among other instruments.
His opening piece was more traditionally harmonic compared to the preceding sets, with slowly changing harmonic patterns that evoked late-20th-century minimalism (think Steve Reich and John Adams). The second portion of the set featured some harsher sounds and noise centered around Nicholson’s modular synth.
Then it was time for me to take the stage. I brought a rig that included the large 9U modular, a Casio SK-1 and my trusty Moog Theremini.
[Photo by R Duck]
As with most of my recent solo work, I select one of my more formal compositions as a point of departure. In this case, it was “White Wine”, with the melody set against one of the SK-1’s drum beats. This them morphed into a broken and complex break of sound and eventually to a pure improvisation with the modular and theremin, though the beats never really disappeared. As I was when listening to the other sets, I was thinking about the natural surroundings – in my case being the “city girl” mastering my place in space and sound, even if just for a few brief minutes.
The final set featured Lemon DeGeorge on harmonica and electronics.
The harmonicas (like a true player of the instrument, he had more than one) added a unique dimension to the music, and the electronics followed with long breathy tones. The sounds appeared to build up layers upon layers into something heavy and enveloping, but never overwhelming. Compared to Nicholson’s sounds, DeGeorge’s lone tones and patterns were thoroughly inharmonic but no less beautiful or musical.
Overall it was a fine afternoon of weird electronic music in the woods, and not just for the music itself but for the fellowship with friends who I don’t get to see that often. I remained in the mind space of the show, the environment, and the sounds for a while on the drive back, at least until reaching I-880 and heading first into Oakland and later home to San Francisco, where I snapped back into my everyday urban life.
While preparing for today’s μ-hausen at Camp Happy performance in the Santa Cruz Mountains, I snapped this Hipstamatic iPhone photo of the custom noise synth created by Travis Johns that I will be using.
I think the noisy and somewhat unpredictable quality of some of the Hipstamatic algorithims fits perfectly with this instrument. (Though I do wish the Hipstamatic did a better job of focusing.)
Also in use will be the Wicks Looper, the DSI Evolver, the iPad and the monome.
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.