Posts Tagged ‘contact microphones’

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.



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