Posts Tagged ‘avant garde’

Indeterminate Improvisation

December 9, 2008

One of the issues with improvisation that i have been (and doubtless will be) grappling with, is the issue of non-intention, and indeterminacy. As a bit of a Cage devotee, I of course, find these things to be very important in the kind of music I make, but there is always the question of how and why they are utilized. Initially I think my instinct in music making was toward picking up instruments with which I had no relationship, and exploring the sounds they made as a total novice. While this approach can certainly be effective, even very effective at times, I found that it never ended up growing a real relationship with the instrument that continued past the initial novelty. At some point, the stumbling about as indeterminacy, wears thin, as you become more familiar and therefore more determinate in your playing. You either have to resist this, or become more focussed in your approach, and there are plenty of arguments for both sides (but that’s not what I want to get into here).

I suppose then, that this may be a good explanation, for why I appreciate accidental sound sequences so much. They get to be so fresh and sometimes so beguiling, with no effort to remain true to any praxis, and no overanalyzation. The sounds don’t worry about themselves.

This interest has lead me to experimenting with various strategies for incedental sound making and recording. One device i have been using a bit of late, is the utilization of contact microphones to pick up the sounds of othwise mundane activity. An example of this technique could be contact micing your dinner table, while you and a friend have dinner, thus transforming all of the incedental movements you make into a sequence of pseudo-random sound. Sometimes these techniques work surprisingly well on their own, but often times they really work well, when combined with other sound sequences, so that the sounds “collaborate” in interesting ways.

Here are a couple of examples I think work particularly well, and that I have found very enjoyable to listen to:

Accidentals 1 (4:34)
Stereo contact mic recording of myself working on the computer/Stereo contact mic recording of myself unloading dishes from the dishwasher.

This piece is full of interesting moments. The space between sounds becomes very charged at times, and may be intereupted by forceful and precise bursts of sound. I find this piece to have a delightfully in-human sense of space and timing. It upsets my expectations still after multiple listens, something I have been appreciating a lot recently. I also like how small each “instrument’s” pallette is. There is a relatively small variety of sounds, and yet somehow this restriction works as more an asset than a drawback.

Accidentals 2 (6:08)
Edited stereo field recording/Shortwave radio scan

While the first piece is thick with charged silence, this piece has none. The shortwave scanning is constant, and was not initially intended to be an improvisation. It was recorded up at a friend’s cabin in the Poconos, as I searched for interesting signals. The field recording is assembled from incedental sounds resulting from the disassembly of an oil tank and the silences that surround them. Sometimes the sounds are gentle, sometimes not. The radio here forms a range of sounds from soft pads of detailed texture, to blasts of unruly static, distant voices, and contaminated music. While the field recording plays agitator with unpredictable pin pricks of sounds and occasional sheet-metal roars.



Dictaphone cassette collage part 2

September 28, 2008

So, it’s been nearly a year since I first mentioned this technique, and since then, I’ve been in quite a few places and recorded a ton of audio snippets. Funny thing is, I’m still not even near filling up a tape, and at this point, I’m in no rush. I have however, ripped what i’ve done so far and edited it some, and i really like it. It’s strange listening back now, and not remembering what half of it even is. It’s a delightfully screwed-up ride through the past year of my life.

Once I was done, I wanted to hear it in stereo, so i chopped the track exactly in half and made a stereo file. This one is particularly enjoyable. I love the random sonic collisions that take place. Sometimes the placement of sounds is so perfect, I wonder if I some how composed it intuitively, but I know that’s just not possible.

So, now that i’ve gone and done this, I feel like I have finally gotten it out of my system, and I don’t really need to do it anymore. The funny thing is, that I can’t stop recording sounds! I may go back to the loop cassettes and start building a sound catalog, but I can’t help thinking I’ll wind up back on the same old tape, in exactly the place i left off, continuing the journey.

– Dictaphone Cassette Collage Mono

– Dictaphone Cassette Collage Stereo

Mystery audio from second-hand tapes

August 10, 2008

I’m a total thrift store and flea-market junkie as you can well imagine from the contents of this blog. I can’t keep myself from any place that brings the world of second-hand audio junk closer to me. From time to time Al and I head out to one place or another and scour the shelves for noise-makers. On one such trip recently, we discovered a booth in a local flea market that was loaded with vintage audio toys. A stack of portable record players here, a stack of recording devices there, amps and speakers and mics everywhere, it was quite a find. Amongst other things, we both walked away that day with cool mini reel to reel players.

Als mini reel to ree

Al's mini reel to reel

I was excited to find another one that was so similar to one I owned already. My thought of course was to use it to make long tape loops during sound performances. Something i’ve been meaning to do for a long time. And of course, I’m still out of luck, because sadly, the one I bought does not work. I can get it to transport the tape, but it doesn’t make a sound, not even static, which is always a bad sign. I’ll probably end up using it for scrap.

Al had similar woes, as his worked, but did not transport at an even rate. It seemed like whatever was moving the tape was slipping intermittently, which while it was a cool effect, it was not what Al was looking for. It moved enough though for us to hear that the tape on it had been used, something that always excites me, because it means a weird audio snapshot of someone’s life is on there, just waiting to be released.

Since Al’s tape machine was working after a fashion, I took it to see if I could fix it. Often these old tape machines used some kind of oil that overtime becomes more glue-like than oil-like, and opening them and carefully oiling the moving parts can revive them, and sure enough it was the case here. Although this tape machine had the oddest transport system I have even seen. It had no belts and was driven only by friction, which of course means that it doesn’t transport very evenly to begin with. Actually a really cool effect, as you will hear later.

Once I got the machine running, I rewound the tape, and listened. It never ceases to amaze me the fantastic audio artifacts that can be stored on these things. It seems to me that pretty much the same fate befell them all. They were bought and a tape was installed, and a series of people recorded fragments of whatever on them, full in the red. Then when the tape ran out, they were put away and never taken out again. While this is sad if you are the type to anthropomorphize tape machines, it produces amazing audio collages. Wholly unpredictable sounds strung together… bits of history, amateur radio announcing, random unidentifiable noise, etc. This particular example starts with a birthday dedication (I imagine for the recipient of the recorder) and proceeds through television commercials, junk drum improvisations (!!!), a faux mission impossible message, and some badly sung Beatles. To me, it’s excitingly unpredictable, and oddly poetic. Almost like an accidental Williams Mix

Having such fantastic luck with that tape, I decided to encode the tape from my defunct reel to reel as well. Not quite as profound, more just plain funny, my tape was filled with a joke telling hessian! I imagine, one of the fellows who sold me the device to begin with (a somewhat magical thought in and of itself). That being said, there are (as usual with these tapes) so interesting accidental audio fragments that are fairly aesthetically pleasing to me. The first minute or so are on regular speed, the rest is slowed down considerably. I can barely make out the jokes, because as per usual, they are recorded full in the red for the most part. I have however, sped the tape up, so you can hear the second part properly. Enjoy!

– Al’s mystery tape

– My mystery tape

Everyday field recording with baby monitors

August 2, 2008


I have been working a lot with field recordings lately, especially the idea of sampling the space in which one is playing and using it in performance. A couple weeks ago, it occured to me that I could use a baby monitor, strategically placed, to pull in at will, sounds happening outside the performance space. I almost immediately went on ebay and purchased a Sony BabyCall monitor.

I selected this model because I’ve had good luck with being able to mod Sony’s products in the past, and because this model was supposedly battery opperated, and thus, I figured, I could plant the transmitter anywhere I wanted without having to worry about power. But the listing was misleading and it ended up having a battery opperated receiver, and an AC opperated transmitter. A bit of a bummer, yes, but I think I might be able to mod it eventually.

The other night I got the idea to plant it in by back yard over night, and record the output on my computer upstairs. I quickly mounted an output with a switch inside the receiver and got to setting it up before bed. I put the transmitter outside and connected the receiver to my laptop. I set up Sound Studio to auto record when the input went above background noise level and went to bed.

The sounds that awaited me in the morning were great fun. Planes, busses, and car horns, dominated the soundscape, but the monitor warps everything in such a way that even these fairly plain sounds sounded magical to me.

I decided to set it up again, this time while i was at work, to capture the sounds in my backyard during the day. The sounds were much more of the same, cars, airplanes, trolleys, the occasional dog bark, some frequency disturbance of some kind, etc, but more frequent and louder i think. There was even some random talking that appeared (probably my neighbor). The one other thing that wound up on the recording, was my wife throwing some bottles and stuff in the recycling bin. This part was particularly interesting to me for it’s haphazard percussive effect. 

So far, this has been great fun. I think my next step is either to successfully mod my monitor so that it can be placed further from my house, or build one of these. 

I am anxious to try these techniques in performance. I’m hoping when i do, it will be a nice source of random sounds, and i really like the idea that I’m interjecting something both real-time and random into the set. Enjoy the samples.

– Domesticity

– This is a back yard

While my ipod gently weeps

May 23, 2008

I’m travelling and don’t have time for a full post, but I recorded this a couple days ago and wanted to get it up. I rather enjoy it. I hope you do too. More on when I get back.

– Untitled


So in case you hadn’t guessed by the mp3 filename, this track was assembled in real-time, or as I implied, improvised by my ipod. I selected three sound files to use as material and chopped them up into individual sound events.  I also gave a similar treatment to about four minutes of absolute silence. I took the sounds and the silence and made a playlist on my ipod containing all of those fragments. I then set my ipod to play the playlist at random, and began recording. I did this twice, hence the stereo version above.

The sound sources were:
– The ambience and chatter preceding a musical performance I recently recorded.
– The sounds of my dogs wrestling, which i fed through noise removal software
– the sounds of an overtone sax thing i made 

I’m pretty impressed by the results, and I think I may be working in this way more in the future. I’m always intrigued when I hear sound events happening without the burden of the human perception of time. There can never be any real “groove” or “vibe” or “flow” to random sound, so you never get into a scenario of sound events being predictable, and i like this element of surprise.

I’m going to do another one of these soon, but with four tracks, each one a different instrument. I’m looking forward to hearing the outcome of that.

ATTACK! (for 5 skilled or unskilled performers)

May 7, 2008

Performers should select acoustic instruments or objects that can be struck, plucked, or otherwise sounded in such a way as to not produce a constant tone, but a clear attack and decay.

Instructions for performers:
– play one sound at a time and let it die out completely before making another one
– don’t play if anyone else is playing
– play as often as possible
– if two or more start at the same time, all but one must stifle their sound
– you may observe, but do not communiacte with the other performers
– play either for a predetermined amount of time, or until it is time to stop

Music for four performers and four laptops

May 4, 2008

All performers should be male, and should be selected because they have completed Mario Brothers previously. The four performers should perform in a rectangular (preferably square) room, with each performer positioned in each corner, facing inward.

Performers are to be outfitted with laptops (make and model up to what is available). Laptops are to be equipped with an emulator running “Mario Brothers”. A contact mic is to be placed on each laptop so as to pick up keystrokes as loudly as possible, and connected to an amplifier, pointing toward the center of the room. (sounds from the game itself are not to be included, performers may only use the computer keyboard for gameplay) 

Performers are to be to be instructed to race to successfully complete the game first. The piece is over when someone does, and their prize is whatever the take from the door is.

Possible visuals: images of the four player’s screens, projected on top of one another.

Improvisation for speakers, vessels and contact microphones

March 22, 2008

Well, I have to say it’s almost a little embarrassing to be back after such a long, unannounced hiatus. I think that the time has come again to shift gears slightly to keep this blog going and relevant, as my experimentation is becoming a bit less frequent due to an overall increase in the complexity of the work. More on that in a future post.

In the past months as I have mentioned I have been increasingly interested in the possibilities of kind of free improvisation. As I have been reading and thinking and opening my ears this past year, I have come to a nearly complete acceptance of all sounds. I am finding music everywhere now. Just being alive and walking around has become a new and exciting experience, as now I’m always looking for interesting sounds. Of course, now I’m tempted to carry a recording device constantly to try to capture these things, but I’m wary of the obsession that could become, and the possibly frustrating results.

In thinking recently about what makes sounds acceptable to myself and others, I have been fascinated by people’s approach to feedback. Well deployed feedback during the swell to crescendo in a rock show, can make people ecstatic, whilst the unintentional feedback of a microphone on a stage at a seminar, can make people recoil – and even think the speaker a hack for somehow not being able to control the main tool of his trade!

I think what makes most people adverse to, or even afraid of feedback, is what excites me about it – it’s unpredictable behavior. In a way, working with feedback is like sculpting. There’s a real physical component to it that can be shaped and manipulated if one is careful… but there is always the danger of it collapsing in on itself into uncontrollable high-pitched squeal. But is the squeal so bad really? Or are we just convinced to think that it’s bad by the behavior of those around us in response to it.

I decided last saturday, that I was going to set up a stereo-feedback system and record myself basically wrestling with it. Sometimes trying to control it, but other times letting it loose and then dealing with the results. I set up two amps about four feet apart, facing eachother. I connected two contact mics one to a thin brass bowl, one to a cup made of tin-foil, and plugged them into a couple overdrive pedals and to my mixer. I ran lines out of the mixer, left and right, one to each amp, and another set, out to my recording device. I hit record and started grappling. Through the course of the improvisation, I tested various movements, treatments, etc. Due to the system being stereo, I had the option of panning feedback between the two amplifiers. With the fuzz boxes, I had various levels of overdrive to experiment with. So I played, and tested, and pushed, and pulled, and waved my arms around, feeling the sounds actually bouncing off my hands, shaping them by redirecting sounds with other vessels or body parts.

Most importantly for me, I faced the squeal head on. Sometimes I would sit there and let it burn my ears for a minute, like hot sauce on the tongue, looking inside it for some kind of aspect I had missed before. Looking for what was bad about it, and what was good.

The improvisation lasted around 25 minutes, which was a surprise to me, as I would have guessed more like 10 minutes if you’d asked. The results range from droney, to gurgling, to ear-cleaningly shrill, but there’s something else. I don’t know if it’s my continued intrigue with this substance, but I can’t stop listening to this recording. In fact, I think I may actually release it in some form. I have been thinking about starting some kind of net-label, and this may be a good first release.

Anyway, for now, you get it for free (and probably for the foreseeable future, as I’m not at all into the idea of depriving people of experience). Play this loud and on a stereo if you can, at least for the first go. There are some pretty beautiful timbres and sonorities in here if you are willing to look. The sound is physical, so walk about in the room while you listen, It enhances your interaction with the piece. Please enjoy!

– A spear through the purple indefinite 

Primer: Pitch-Bending a Walkman

January 24, 2008

Welcome to the first in a series of posts where I will highlight a specific technique I have learned and instruct you on how to to the same yourself. This first one is on pitch-bending tape recorders. There a couple ways to go about this, but i’m just going to outline my preferred method here. Firstly though, here’s a list of what you will need to do this project.

    1) A soldering iron/solder and some experience in using it. Radioshat ones are ok, but usually have a very large tip, all will be much easier if you get a nicer pencil tip iron from one of your many friendly online electronic parts dealers.2) A cheap walkman. The one pictured cost 5 bucks. Go to your thrift store. The early nineties models are great and really simple.

    3) Some hook-up wire. Either get it at Radioshat, or if you like scavenging stuff, buy and old parallel printer cable, cut off the ends, slice ‘er open and harvest the wire. It’s typically multi-colored, stranded, and thin, all good things. Plus you can get like 36 yards of it from one cable, that costs fifty cents at the thrift store. Not bad.

    4) A potentiometer, or pot for short. This is a bit more difficult. If you are not already an electronics nerd like me, you probably don’t have 100 different kinds of these just laying about, so you will need to get one. Hopefully you have something better than Radioshat near you and you can go and get a few different types for cheap, or, search for grab-bags on ebay. If you are anything like me, this will not be the last electronic project you do, so the leftovers will come in handy. The unfortunate thing about this project is that the pot you will need is entirely dependent on the walkman you have. The general range I have seen in pot values between walkmen, is anywhere from 2k to 10k. If you can’t find out, I’d go for 5k and hope for the best. Or if you happen to have an multimeter, you can measure what size you will need.

    5) Some kind of drill. A dremel would be best as they tend to have a bunch of bits, which is handy, but you could get by with a regular drill.

    6) Wire strippers/cutters. You can get by without these, but it will be easier with them.

    7) A desoldering system of some sort. I use a solder-sucker from Ratshat, but you can use whatever you like.

Ok, lets get started. Firstly, you will need to open your walkman. If you chose your subject well, removing the back panel from the walkman will expose the circuit board, solder side up, like the drawing below.

walkman with the circuit exposed

Once you have exposed the circuit board, look for a pattern resembling the three solder points (yellow dots on the image) in the highlighted area above. They will always have a hole in the center of them, as shown, and if you look through the hole you will see an object with a small slot, the size of a mini screwdriver blade in it. This is a miniature trimmer pot. Those three points are it’s three legs, which correspond to the three legs on a full-size pot.

potentiometertrimmer potentiometer

Desolder the mini-pot and remove it from the board. You will most likely need to remove the circuit board to do so, so be careful that in doing so you don’t dislodge any important components. Once you have dislodged the mini-pot, examine it closely to see if it has any indication of it’s resistance printed or stamped on it. This marking could be extremely small, so look close. If you do happen to find a marking, take note of it, and if you can, buy the same value for your new full-size pot.

Now you will have three empty solder pads on your circuit board. Cut three 5 inch or so, pieces of wire and strip an eight of an inch or so of the shielding from either end. Twist the ends some to “braid” them tight, and then coat them in solder. This will ensure a solid connection to the board. Now, insert the end of one of the bits of wire into one of the holes and solder it to the pad. Repeat this for the remainder of the wires. You should now have three bits of five inch wire sticking up from your circuit board. Take note, or mark the wire that connects to the furthest of the three solder pads from the others, this will be the middle lug of your pot.

Side note: Sometimes one of the solder pads has a resistor connected to it. If your walkman has one of these, test bypassing that resistor and soldering in front of it in the series, instead of directly to the corresponding solder pad. On walkmen that have had this feature, I have found it to greatly increase the pitch range of this mod. I’ve had some that had a speed range from nearly “fast-forward” speed to barely moving.

Now that we have established connections to the board for your pot, we need to find a good place to mount it. This can be quite tricky depending on what walkman you have. I have found that often the cheaper the walkman, the less sophisticated the circuitry, the more room under the hood. You may have to get creative with your pot placement, but be careful to check that when the pot is in place it is not inhibiting any of the other functions of the walkman. I can’t tell you how many times i have installed pots and then realized that once they are in there the case can’t be closed. Trust me, it’s a bummer.

Once you have made a place for the pot, solder the three wires to the three legs of the pot. It will help to make a solid connection, if you first coat each leg of the pot with solder. remember, that the wire coming from the furthest solder pad from the rest (the furthest right in my image) gets connected to the center leg of the pot. The others can be connected as you like, but i usually like to make it so that when i turn the pot right the motor speeds up and when left, it slows.

Now that your pot is connected and functioning, mount it in the spot you made for it, and seal the walkman up. Congratulations, you just pitch modded a walkman!

For even more fun, you can do the same mod, but instead of using a mechanical pot to replace the trimmer pot, you can use a photoelectric cell. If you have never heard of one before, they are potentiometers that look like very small solar panels and react to light. They sell these as grab bags at Radioshat. If you’d like to try this, it’s a bit easier that modding with a mechanical pot.

photoelectric cell

To use a photocell, just connect one leg of the photocell to the solder pad furthest from the others in the pic I posted and the other leg to one of the other of the three points i highlighted. Only one will work, and it depends on your walkman which it is, but there are only two options, so I’m sure you’ll figure it out. This kind of mod makes a sort of tape driven phototheremin. Record some tape loops of drones and play it by using your hand to shade the photocell.

This concludes our first Primer, I hope someone out there finds this useful. Please feel free to ask questions in the comments if something’s not clear.

Oh, and of course there has to be a sound sample! This is a few tracks of various tapes being played on the pitch-bent walkman that I layered up. Enjoy!

– Pitch-bent walkman

More prepared guitar

January 20, 2008

For some reason the idea of using a bicycle spoke as a guitar preparation entered my head yesterday, so i decided to sit down and record some improvisation. i was going to just stereo mic the guitar, but as i was watching the spoke vibrate like crazy whenever i hit a low note, i thought… why don’t i mic that? So I dug out two of my contact mics and put one on the body of the guitar and one on the spoke. This was a lot of fun, within a couple minutes I had found a few different ways of getting the spoke vibration to “accompany” my guitar playing, and as I continued to record, I found it quite easy and fun to utilize the spoke in various ways.

Recently, as I’m sure is evidenced by the way this blog has been of late, I have really been enjoying improvisation. I always sort of improvised. I could never really play anything in the classical sense and there’s very little that i’d want to play, that I actually could. So at some point, I sort of decided that if I were to continue to play the guitar, I had to come up with an approach and stick with it. I have always liked the idea of slow playing. Like Harold Budd but with a guitar and not as “pretty” or Derek Bailey, but painfully slow, and later as I would find out… Loren Connors at his least “traditional”. But I didn’t really want to play like any of those people really. I would just sit leaned back with the guitar and randomly pluck strings, bending them into tune and pulling rattley drones off with my thumb. Putting the guitar in odd tunings, just by ear, and almost never tuning it proper.

Of course, for the most part this was all a bit of fooling around. Some nice self amusement when I was bored. There was a point though when I began to really like that, and I was afraid to tell people, that I LIKED that. That I would record it and listen back to it myself for pleasure. I sort of made excuses for it… hid it. My mind was still sort of locked in this idea that “music” was supposed to be a certain way, and it was for other people to say that it was good and worth-while and nobody was going say that about what I did. But since I’ve started this blog and joined forces with Al, I’ve sort of gotten over that, and since then I have really been falling for Improvisation. I find it as difficult as learning to play “right”, but in a different way, and every time I play that way, I feel like I learn something. It’s also very freeing and fun… almost a serious form of fooling around. Anyhow, enough babbling…

This was recorded with two contact mics, direct to protools. No edits were made. reverb was added; 400ms at 25%. Enjoy!

– Woke up In a Strange Place