Outsound Music Summit: SoundScapes

We resume our reports from the 2010 Outsound Music Summit after a brief break. In this article I review the last night of the festival, titled “SoundScapes” and featured musicians whose music focuses on noise and sound textures. While this is often from electronic sound sources such as effects pedals or DIY synthesizers, many were from acoustic sources such as metal objects or conventional instruments like piano.

The evening was framed by the theatrical announcements of the artists by guest emcee Cy Thoth, a regular DJ on KFJC 89.7 FM.

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The concert began with Phog Masheeen, a trio featuring Mark Soden, Jr, Dr. Francene Laplan and William Almas. They presented a single large-scale work for electronic and acoustic sound plus video called “Anthroscopic Tourism.” I was not quite sure how the medical term “anthroscopic” related to the sounds and images in the piece, which focused on the interplay of Kaplan’s pots and pans set against electronic sounds and loops and Soden’s electronically enhanced performance on trumpet and a large pipe from a Yamaha motorcycle. Soden had demonstrated some of the techniques he was using with the trumpet during the Touch the Gear event. But he added to the the performance techniques Soden used with his instruments rubbing dry ice against them. As most readers know, dry ice is extremely cold (and difficult to handle); and this it can have a strong effect on the shape and behavior of metal tubes. At one point, he smashed a block of dry ice before picking up pieces to use. He also had a blowtorch. The music often involved loops (sample based or otherwise) against which Kaplan played rhythms and timbres on the pots and pans – this was offset by the more freeform sections with Soden’s trumpet and pipe. Almas’ visuals included a variety of urban and industrial scenes, text, and footage of old musicians, which were mixed with live video of Soden’s performance.

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Next up was Headboggle (aka Derek Gedalecia). The tone was set from the beginning both in terms of sound and slapstick comedy by his stepping on bubble wrap that happened to be placed behind the table with his electronics, and then slipping on the way to the grand piano. Actually, the comedic timing of his various slips, slides, tripping over his own feet and double-takes was expertly done, as in an old silent film or Vaudeville act. There was a bit of a scare for several of us in the audience when it appeared he had broken the bench of the piano, but I was assured this was all part of the act, this particular bench was found broken, and that no pianos were actually harmed in the making of this performance. Musically, he combined chaotic oscillators from Ciat Lombarde synthesizer – a reminder to finally put together my Ciat Lombarde kit – with classical and ragtime piano phrases, loops and deep bass sounds from a Micromoog. The piano and electronics are of course quite contrasting, but every so often the sounds and phrases (and physical humor) converged quite well.

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Headboggle was followed by Kadet Kuhne, who presented video and live-music piece Fight or Flight, described by our emcee Cy Thoth as “space madness.” In fact, it was a very polished live electronic performance, very dark and ambient (although interestingly Kadet Kuhne talked in the pre-concert Q&A session about her desire to perform “lighter” ambient music). It began with low frequency sounds and a rumbling buzz, and included doors opening and closing and various sounds of machinery, with electric hums, blips and glitches. It was quite captivating and easy to get lost in. At one point, arpeggios and then beats emerged from the combination of noise percussion and more harmonic sounds, which got progressively louder as the piece built up to a climax and then faded to nothingness. The music was set against a video that focused entirely on a cloth-encased figure suspended in mid-air. It wasn’t clear at first whether this was a cloth figure or an actual person, though as the video progressed it became clear that it was the latter. The frequent shot and angle changes gave the video a glitchy quality which matched many of the electronic sounds in the music.

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The final set featured Chen Santa Maria, the duo of Steve Santa Maria and George Chen. Both members of the group played electric guitar and a variety of electronic effects. The set began with a guitar drone set against high squeaking humming sounds. These sounds were soon joined by full guitar chords with heavy distortion and undulating raspy sounds from synthesizers or effects units. There were bursts of noise distortion and high shrieking. This was definitely a loud set. But there were still details to listen to (with appropriate ear protection). The harmonic patterns of the distorted guitars created rhythms, which was set against a more formal triplet rhythm from the electronic sound sources. This rhythmic pattern essentially continued for the remainder of the set, with periods of driving guitar, bursts of noise and more high shrieking tones which then decayed into a low rumbling noise. As the set drew to a close, the sounds became more “digital” with lots of blips and choppy sounds, but then this was replaced by a loud square wave. The square wave started out at a moderate pitch, but got lower and lower until it became a series of audibly distinct pulses, and then came to an abrupt stop.

Although this was the last performance of the festival, I will be presenting one more article, where I return to the MultiVox night which included my own performance with Reconnaissance Fly and the Cornelius Cardew Choir…

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.