Archive for June, 2007

Taking Chance.

June 24, 2007

(Though the following is not directly related to music, I think it has some relevance in it’s relation to my life, I hope you find it at least mildly amusing.)

Montague: You studied Zen Buddhism in the 1940s and ’50s, which had a great influence on you. How much does the I Ching govern your life? Do you throw the I Ching each morning?

Cage: My life, as you can imagine from what I said earlier, is not governed. And certainly not by the I Ching. I attempt to move according to circumstances. I now have 200 plants, and when I’m home, they have first priority. I spend the first two hours of each day without the I Ching taking care of them. I use the I Ching when it is useful, just as I turn on the water faucet when I want a drink. I find the I Ching useful to answer questions, and when I have questions, I use it. Then the answers, instead of coming from my likes and dislikes, come from chance operations, and that has the effect of opening me to possibilities that I hadn’t considered. Chance-determined answers will open my mind to the world around.

The above is an excerpt of an interview with John Cage by Stephen Montague. I found this recently while searching for information on the I Ching, and this portion in particular struck a chord with me. I have thought a lot about this tendency we have to run our brains needlessly in the attempt to make the simplest decisions… which restaurant to go to, what movie to watch, whether to stay or go to an event. None of these are “crucial” decisions. Sure, if I choose to go to an event, It may change the course of my life, but so can staying home. In the end I don’t really know, so my decision is arbitrary. Neither here, nor there. So why not subject it to chance?

All of us have weird little preferences that don’t have a whole lot of rationale behind them. We stay within our little area of experience and shun certain other areas for no apparent reason. For instance, I myself have weird preferences with movies. There are certain genres that I never want to see. War movies for instance. I hate violence, especially when it is done in a close-to-life manner, so due to this, I avoid movies such as war movies because I’m afraid they will be violent. Now, is violence all a war movie has to offer? Of course not. There are some very brilliant and meaningful war movies that could have the potential to expand my mind… but with my preferences unchecked, I’ll never see them.

I was talking to a close friend about this not long ago and he made the brilliant observation that in a lot of these decisions, the criteria amounts to “no data”. If I have decided to see a movie at a respectable movie watching establishment, where almost anything will be of some “literary” value at least, and yet I am not familiar with any of the movies, how then do I base my decision? In most cases I look at a website that has a small photo and a crappy review. So my decision is based on the recommendation of a person whom I do not know, (and who probably has countless prejudices of their own) and a small photo. How could this be an accurate description of my possible experience with this film? There is NO DATA! So why not subject it to chance?

I decided it was time to answer this question for myself. So with the support of a patient (but also intrigued) wife, I embarked upon what I am jokingly referring to as “chance month”. Starting this past wednesday, all of our evening entertainment options (within certain limitations) will be decided by chance. We have a real problem of plopping down in front of the tv every available night and this seems like the perfect opportunity to subvert that. Now of course as John Cage states above, it has to be within reason. For instance, I’m not going to turn down dinner with a good friend because the dice told me to watch a movie instead. I feel like that would be an infringement on one of the richer aspects of my life. But for those countless nights when my wife and I are determining the evenings plans, post work and tired and are probably going to end up veging in front of the TV, chance will be the deciding factor.

Here’s how it has worked thus far. While making dinner (I’d subject that to chance if we had the cash to go out more often) I stop for a moment and roll a dice 3 times. One for movie/tv, one for reading, one for projects… high number wins. From there on out other decisions can be made by chance as well, but are not required in our simplified model. For instance, lets say the dice says to read a book. Well, I always have the one I am currently reading, but I have many other books (art books, photo books, encyclopedias, atlases…) I could look at as well, so I may choose to flip a coin to decide if I am to read my current book or explore some of the others. The same could work for many other scenarios as well. This area isn’t strictly chance based, but chance being in the air, if a decision comes up chance is most likely how it will be solved.
Now I realize that this is a fairly narrow grouping of options. One could argue that I could add a few more things to the initial chance list. Of course! But one has to start somewhere. I am sure we will modify this as time goes on, but even if it remains this simple, I am still optimistic about it’s potential to move me into activities I may not choose otherwise. Thus far it has been a few days and I am loving it. It has helped me to be both open minded and motivated. Who knows this may last more than one month…

The improvisation shall continue.

June 22, 2007

The recording setup

Based on the OBVIOUS (haha) success of the first improv sesh, Al and I have decided to continue our explorations together on a somewhat weekly basis. And of course as is my custom, it will all be released here for you to listen to, should you be of the sort that actually listens to mp3s on blogs. There is also talk of “releasing” (if you thought- like a dove?- you are correct) the second one in some kind of physical format with “art” and whatnot, so if that is the sort of thing that interests you, let me know. Otherwise you can just download it below and make your own “art”.

I have to say that this thing we have been doing together is really a revelation for me. Especially since after my last band split, I had no interest in playing with anyone for a long time. (this had nothing to do with the band really, just bands in general) In the wake of that I did a lot of different things on my own. As this blog is evidence, I explored a lot. In many ways there are certain seeming paradoxes about the sounds and ideas that resonate with me that I could never figure out. I like synths and circuit-bending, but I also like ancient and primitive instruments… I like things most people would think are weird (the shop-girl at the local hardware store gave me a hard time the other day for doing “crafts” for fun! what?) but i have no interest in “weirdness”… I’m pretty much attracted to anything that makes a noise, but until recently I wasn’t sure for what. Somehow the improvising I have been doing lately has made it all sensical. Somehow everything I thought was out of place, now seems to fit. I like it.

In other news, I recently fixed my busted bell piano, so that will factor into this weeks jam, I circuit-bent one of Al’s toys (I’ll post samples at some point) and I’m sure that will find it’s way in, and I’m almost done building a bowed lamellophone out of a coconut I bought a few weeks ago (sound samples and photos soon). I will also start work on a pre-prepared “guitar” (a bunch of metal stuff and a pickup) and a hurdy-gurdy style drone box… more on those soon.

And now the last session… Implements used in this recording: whistle, nyatiti, bat repeller, boss rv-2, clava, a curled xylophone, frog childrens toy, flute, mini thumb piano, loop station, air organ, ocarina, plastic saxophone, chimes, bells, cymbals, chainring gong, silver platter, spring reverb unit, cigar box guitar, tape machines, looping cassettes, tongue drum, shakers, chihuahua, appalachian mouth bow, harmonica, toy accordion, and probably more stuff i am forgetting now.

Equipped for gapless playback… enjoy!

– Part 1
– Part 2
– Part 3
– Part 4
– Part 5
– Part 6

My first time collaborating on improvised music

June 6, 2007

For all the things I have tried musically, there is was a very obvious one which I had not… until recently that is. I have of late become aquainted with a friend of a friend who is now my friend; Al. Al and I have some similar musical tastes and ideas, and it was suggested to us and we agreed that we should try making some music together. After a few missed connections we were finally able to hang out, talk music, and listen to records (he had an especially interesting set of 50’s vocabulary records which kept us occupied and laughing out loud for a good while). I also got to check out some of his various instruments, a kora like instrument, a synth, an electric kalimba (!) etc. and it was abundantly clear, we were at least of a very similar bent. We decided the best way for us to go about making music was to sit down to improvise, so we started making plans.

After missing a few more connections, we were finally able to get together to actually make music this week. Al met me at my house this time, so he could check out my laboratory and see what my noisemaker stash had to offer, and after pulling out a number of devices, a little impromptu jam just sort of happened from us tooling around on various things, so I grabbed a bunch of instruments, amps, mics, cables etc. and set up a little recording area in the living room. I decided the easiest way to capture this initial session was to just mic the room so I set up a pair of condenser mics, one for each of our approximate areas.

We ended up improvising for 76 minutes straight. I think that is the longest I have ever played anything. We probably would have made it to two full hours if we the mics didn’t start shorting out. (I really need to check that out) The session was great. We managed to create a sort of space where we could really do pretty much anything. And the resultant overall feeling was really cohesive. For the first session, I was really pretty surprised how much of a unified “vibe” we were able to generate for most of the performance.

One interesting part of the overall outcome was accepted more than planned. Due to the thin-ness of my walls and the fact that i’m constantly hassling my neighbor for blasting modern rock radio, we had to keep the volume way down. In fact one of the amps we are using for the electronic instruments is about six inches square, and it still competes admirably with the 10 inch Ibanez that the kalimba was running through. This also meant that none of my acoustic instruments or cassette recorders needed to be miced. As a byproduct of this, every movement we made was audible in the recording, from me shuffling through cassettes to Al thunking his kalimba down on the coffee table. The unexpected part is that it somehow works. In listening back to it, I thought some of the noises were intentional and successful, and then later realized that I couldn’t really even tell if some were intentional or not. The line had completely blurred. The unintentional sounds being made by our “playing” had not only become an aleatoric musical component in the performance, but one of my favorite parts.

For those of you who care, here’s the rundown…

Personnel: Al B & ET (me)
Implements: Cassette recorders, home made “lute”, various modified and unmodified children’s toys, kalimba, silvertone acoustic, boss reverb pedal, boss loop station, bells, chainwheel gong, loop cassettes, transistor radio, playing cards, cappuccino foamer, cardboard “costume” guitar, voices, found answering machine tapes, harmonica, random household items, and probably more stuff I can’t remember.

I cut the performance into 6 parts, based on what felt like individual movements within the session. I have cut them off directly, so they can be played gapless. The end fades out due to technical difficulties in the final 15 or so minutes. Enjoy!

– Session 1, 06/03/07, Part 1
– Session 1, 06/03/07, Part 2
– Session 1, 06/03/07, Part 3
– Session 1, 06/03/07, Part 4
– Session 1, 06/03/07, Part 5
– Session 1, 06/03/07, Part 6