Posts Tagged ‘location recording’

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.

enjoy!

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Christian Marclay’s “Ensemble” at the ICA

November 17, 2007

ensemble

I recently had the pleasure of seeing and hearing the sound installation “Ensemble” curated by Christian Marclay. Here’s the rundown from the ICA:

The Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) is pleased to present “Ensemble,” a group exhibition of works that make sound, guest curated by artist and musician Christian Marclay. Marclay has been selected as the inaugural curator of the Katherine Stein Sachs CW’69 and Keith L. Sachs W’67 Guest Curator Program, a new initiative designed to bring outside points of view to ICA. Marclay is a leading figure in the worlds of performance, visual art and experimental music.

Likening his approach to that of a composer, Marclay has chosen a variety of sculpture and installations based on their sound quality and compatibility to sonically inhabit the same large first floor gallery. Visitors are invited to interact with some of the works, others are triggered by motion detectors, or set on timers. The installation will create an ambient sound environment, intermittently producing a wide range of sounds, from the very quiet notes of a music box to the loud ringing of a bronze bell. They have been selected so that they can share the same resonant space and interact like the various instruments of a musical ensemble. It will include iconic works by artists such as Harry Bertoia, Yoko Ono, and Michelangelo Pistoletto, as well as new works by the current generation.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect based on the description, these kinds of things can take a myriad of shapes, but what was in my mind wound up being fairly close in nature to what i experienced at the show. This is a very dynamic sound landscape. Almost unrelenting at times. During some of the denser moments it’s almost claustrophobic due to the resonance of the space. As the descritpion says, pieces range from very quiet to very loud. While this was sometimes interesting, I found the louder pieces to be almost oppressive at times and they were in general the least thought out, volume seeming to be a concept in and of itself. While there is certainly something to be said on both sides of this arguement, I felt that the quiet pieces were so much more powerful and so much more enjoyable that the loud ones, and unfortunately kept getting drowned out.

This however did not hamper my enjoyment very much at all, and there were moments when it was quiet enough to hear all of the small stuff, which for the most part was a real treat. My absolute favorite of all the exhibits, was also one of the simplest. A pool, filled with dishes and bowls that was being “stirred” constantly by a compressor.

ensemble

The resultant sound is as delicate and wonderfully aimless as windchimes, but with an almost gamelan-like sound. I could have sat and listened to this for hours. In fact, part of my wants to build a replica of it for my house. Smaller of course.

Other pieces of notice were; a tongue drum table which was shaped like and acoustic guitar body and had 5 seperately tuned sets of tonuges (I want this for my dining room… in my dreams), a set of three metronomes, set to different timings (mini Steve Reich), and a system of dangling bits of china, agitated by spinning record players.

ensemble

Aside from some overly loud sounds (why a siren?) and some pieces that were either broken or too hard to figure out to keep interest, it was a really wonderful show. It was great just to be in a gallery full of clamor afterall, considering most art shows sonically have the same quality as funerals. It was exciting and envigorating to be so immersed in such an experience of sound, and to just walk around and hear the “mix” of sounds shift as you went.

The show runs through december (more details on the ICA site) so if you are near philly you should certainly go. If you are not and you can’t, you are in luck, as I recorded a walkthrough of the space for you to hear. I have to appologize for the sound quality as there is some hiss in the background… I was having problems with my MD that day. For the most part all of the talking has been cut out, so it is basically a theater of sound for you to sink in to. I like the recording very much, I hope you will too.

– Ensemble

LATRALMAGOG Sessions IV & V and some philosophical rambling.

July 28, 2007

I think about music a lot as you can (i’m sure) imagine. While thinking about my recent activities as half of latralmagog, I have realised that in a lot of ways, it is an answer to some philosophical problems I have been tossing about in my head for some time. I supposed that makes perfect sense, and I imagine this progression from thought to action is normal for most people if at most times completely unconscious. However for me, it seems to have taken place on opposite ends of the same track where now there is a meeting at the center in latralmagog. On one end is my (seemingly inate) desire to make “difficult” music, and on the other are my philosophies about the personal/social politics of music and the making of music. When I started, both the making of music and the thinking about music were still very young, and so distant were they, that I did not really see them as connected, or as an answer to one-another yet. Here are two of the questions, and the thoughts (not to be seen as “answers” in an absolute sense) behind them.

First a quick caveat… I’m thinking outloud here. I don’t really know how to write, and I modify my position all the time, as I grow and change. This is here to encourage thought, not to get you to agree with me. Hopefully you will think, and come to your own conclusions. In the meantime, I hope you at least find my rambling entertaining. 🙂 Oh, and I also didn’t feel like editing this, so you know…

What is music?
Way to start with an easy one huh? Well, from what I have been able to mete out in a combination of my own thoughts and the illuminations of others, it is whatever you think it is. Which is almost an alarmingly simple answer, but it’s almost a stupid question when you think about it, that it’s amazing how it has dogged so many BIG thinkers. When it comes down to it, “Music” is just a word… and like all words that define or deliniate space, its boundaries are only solid in inverse proportion to how much they are being attacked. Thanks to John Cage, the most formidable (in my experience) of the attackers, the word “music” is all but meaningless. In order for it to have any meaning at all, each individual must put their own restrictions on it, but don’t be fool enough to think that anyone will agree with you.

In my personal point of view I differ from Cage. He sought to prove that every sound can be music if you are willing to view it as an aesthetic occurance. He often referenced Rauchenberg’s ready-mades as a parallel in the visual art world, stating that the art he liked best directed you to the beauty that exists outside the artwork itself. So that in Cage’s world, all sound is music, all matter is art, and all experience is theater (and all these naturally overlap, a fact in which he took great pleasure). But this point of view maintains that art is everything you can appreciate aesthetically, and this is where I depart from Cage. I still maintain that art needs the artist. Not the Artist (with a capital A) that Cage deplored, but the finger pointing to the stars. The curator of the aesthetic. Why? Because people are as beautiful, curious and interesting as nature and while you can call their likes, dislikes, preduduces, etc., weaknesses, they are weaknesses which I feel are too tied to our human experience to sever. They like us together is a kind of maladjusted mutual sympathy that I think is ipmortant, even though it can lead to various ills that I have not time to get into now.

Now here’s where Cage’s idea and mine only really differ semantically (oh how useless language really is!). He says everything is art, I say art is whatever you think it is, but everything is beautiful. See Cage views the aesthetic appreciation of an object as a declaration of it’s existence as art, whereas I don’t link aesthetics and art at all. Art is what you say it is, but everything is beautiful. I guess this is beacuse I view art as a construct not a continuum. Art is the domain of the artist, and you can take it or leave it really, because beauty is everywhere if you choose to accept it.

In music this idea means that 1) I can still be a curator of sound if I want to because human experience is important 2) Music is whatever I say it is 3) Not everything I present for aesthetic consideration within the confines of a recording has to be “music” or considered by me as such. This philosophy produces nearly the same effect as Cage’s, but where Cage says the artist must be elliminated so that there is no artist/non artist dichotomy, I say, everyone is an artist if they think they are. (Which is funny because I refuse to call myself one, I guess that is because my philosophy exists in the utopia of my mind (like Cage’s) wheras, I live in a sad state of reality-by-commitee) Like I’ve said many times before, the only difference between me and anyone else is that I have the balls to say that what I do is “art”.

What is the relationship between the medium, availability and value of music?
Why is music pressed on records and why do we buy it? Why do we collect it, own it, etc.? Why do we have record labels? Do they serve a purpose other than fronting money for the production of “art” in order to (hopefully) make an ROI? Does the medium in which a work of “art” is presented affect the way in which it is perceived and how does that relationship function with “musical” “art”? Has our construction of a marketplace for art served us for the better and how?

Edit: Now that I’ve gotten flack for some of these statements, let me be more clear. I believe the art marketplace can be a good thing. If it wasn’t for some very giving souls who decided to use their money to bring the art they valued to light, we may all be bereft of some works we value highly. However, as I’m sure anyone can protest, this situation of money for art is extremely dangerous and that danger is not confined to the “mainstream” world.

I’m not going to answer all of those questions, but I do find myself asking them and stewing about them frequently. Especially in our current climate where we are basically innundated with high quality free music, most often in digital form. There are countless out of print record blogs where one could easily obtain for free, (a digital copy of the audio content of) a record that previously commanded prices of $5,000 on ebay! The value of music is changing, but exactly how remains to be seen. Personally I see the value going down, but I’m not sure we can be so black and white about that.

Is a piece of music put on record because it is valueable, or is it valuable because it was put on record? I’d say a little bit of both. I think it’s put on record because someone valued it and somehow because of the value they placed upon it, it then becomes valuable to others because they value it as well or value the person who deemed it valuable in the first place. But does it have any intrinsic value over and above everything else? Maybe not, I’m not sure I can say, it would depend upon how you define value. I have to say though that after hearing large qualities of amazing records by unknowns that easily rival records by our societal golden calves, it is hard to look at the art market as anything other than a spotlight. Am I alone in having heard steaming piles of crap on reputable lables, that become gems as they are accepted by the easily lead? Is the value of what I do directly linked to who else thinks it’s valuable? Well? Yes, but only if that is what I believe.

(Note: I’m omitting the questions about specific media that were here, because I don’t want to take the time to mede it out and it only distracts from the poit anyhow.)

Or we could ask a similar but different question. What’s more valuable to witness; The Velvet Underground live in the 70’s, or the music made in ones own family? (don’t answer too quickly now 🙂 ) I think a lot of these questions are taking on the dichotomy existing in the world now, of the “art star” and “art star” infrastructure, versus the personal and communal. And why does this exist? Because we buy it. These people, concepts and objects are only more important than others because we have agreed that it is so. So where is value in all of this? It’s wherever you think it is. In this stage in the game relying on any definition of value other than your own pleasure in “art” is just asking to be lead off a cliff.

Now if these things are only of at their hieght in valuable because we buy them, what happens if we stop? What happens if we have so much fantastic music that we can’t even keep track of it and it is all free. We have so much that every record only gets one listen. What happens when even what was previously considered to be “the best” is so common we don’t need it any more? How does it effect how we place value on “art”, or how we approach our own? I would say it evens the playing field somewhat don’t you think? I think it has the potential to take us out of the fog of commercialism and offers us the chance to see, choose and make for ourselves. (Not that all music that is sold is commercial, but that ugly culture does exist.)

Edit: (The paragraph here previously was an ill thought-out rant that actually did more to confuse my point than make it. It is being replaced with something I think is more the point. I can’t stand by any of those previous statements.)

These ideas have definitely shaped latralmagog. These questions in part affirm my decision to improvise. For me, improvisation confronts fleeting value by being instant, commercialism and style by being amorphous, and the question of the definition of “music” by being an exploration.

In a way I feel like there was a time I was tying to cram what I really wanted to do into a box that I thought would be more easily palateable to others, and resisting the real impulse I had toward something less defined. I felt as if I was trying to train myself to make what was essentially other people’s music. Why? Because I guess in a way I thought it would be more “credible”. When I finally thought about it, I realized that I had been improvising for some time, but I had been casting it off because it didn’t fit with what I for some reason thought I ought to do. Once I opened up however, I realized how fun and fulfilling it was to give myself over to all of the ideas and feelings I had pushed aside for so long.

I realize after some of the comments below, that a lot of what I say above can be very easily misconstrued. I wish I were better at expressing my thoughts. I think the bottom line though is that everyone should feel free to do and think as they like about art, theirs or anyone else’s, no matter what the established art world thinks, or what trend it is worshiping today. There is no intrinsic value in anything, we bestow value, so feel free to cast yours wherever you like.

I also want to make it clear that I am NOT saying improvised music is better or cooler than any other kind of music, only that is better suits a certain set of ideas that are occupying me presently than anything else.

LATRALMAGOG, Session IV
– Part 1
– Part 2
– Part 3
– Part 4
– Part 5
– Part 6
– Part 7

LATRALMAGOG, Session V
– Part 1
– Part 2
– Part 3
– Part 4
– Part 5
– Part 6

Indeterminate composition techniques

May 31, 2007

In the music I make, for some reason, I am always persuaded to incorporate a certain amount of chance. In a way, I want the music as an experience to remain somewhat “new” to me when I first listen back to it, even though I made it. I also seek in some ways to make music that doesn’t sound like it is being “played”, but instead appears as though it just is. I guess in a way I am looking for a sort of lightness of hand. I think this is why in some ways I am attracted to the theories of John Cage. He believed in separating the self from music as much as possible in order to let something more subtle and natural come in to view, something unburdened by popular culture or personal intent. While I don’t take these concepts as seriously as Cage, I do firmly believe that no matter what we do, no matter how mundane, there is a piece of our personality fingerprint on all of it. No matter how far we stand back, no matter what we use to block it or smudge it, it is there, naked for anyone with the sense to look. What they see is the unconscious mind, the true self.

Unfortunately the conscious and unconscious minds are at constant war with one-another. The conscious mind has all of the emotional needs, paranoias, hang-ups, ego, etc. that we turn about in our heads daily to seek even the most basic understanding of our place in the world. It is a jungle of frauds and misperceptions that must be constantly unravelled like a ball of string that has been left in a junk drawer for too long, if we are to be of use to ourselves or anyone else for that matter. This fact makes it extremely difficult for us to do anything truly genuine. The network of opposing influences, misconceptions, misperceptions, hopes, needs, oversights, crutches, etc. etc. etc. that we must sort through to make any form of creative decision is so dense that most people will never manage to cut through it. This does not mean of course that we cannot make anything pleasing with our creative minds, but it will always be somewhat addled by the burden of consciousness.

One way to avoid the trappings of the consciousness, is to utilize chance, randomness, or generative processes to dampen it. Probably the most familiar form of this process is the cut-up, brought to some prominence by William S. Burroughs and popularized by David Bowie and later Kurt Cobain. While these techniques on the surface may seem “cold” or “scientific”, this assumption is in ignorance of an important point. As I stated above; we are never free from our unconscious mind, so that all the decisions we make in selecting and deploying our randomness techniques are governed by our innermost self and therefore, no matter how abstract, still form an image of ourselves. This image, expressly because it is so unconscious I believe, is the truest form of expression we have of who we are and in creativity, our overarching aesthetic sensibility.

In my personal musical explorations, this idea of “randomness” has taken many different shapes. the following are a few of the techniques I often employ:

Field recording and the use of physical spaces as a randomness field
I consider these to be one in the same as it applies to my music. I carry around a mini-disc recorder most of the time and at home I have a beat up, but no less sublime Marantz Field Recorder. Whenever sounds strike me as interesting or somehow meaningful, I record them and save them for later, usually with no real idea of how they will be used. When I have a need for something, I go through my recordings and select something I think will work, drop it into my composition somewhat randomly and listen to the results. At times I use it straight, at times I take pieces of it, and at times I process it somehow. Almost always this is done with some form of respect for randomness, so I try not to edit too much.

The use of spaces as a randomness field, is the idea of recording in some form of unstable environment (like a room with a window open to the street) so as to capture the juxtaposition of played and ambient sound and to inform the music with a sense of place in a direct manner.

Blind Overdubbing
This is the practice of overdubbing by recording a new track within a composition without listening to playback while doing so. This frees one from having any idea of time or composition and so the final result often contrasts with the rest of the piece in an unpredictable and interesting way.

Improvising with elastic time
This is simply allowing yourself to speed up or slowdown time in your playing at will. I often find that in doing so, more complex rhythmic structures emerge which I am not aware of at the time, but am always surprised by on playback.

Cut-ups
Similar to Burroughs technique but with music. Parts are recorded and either cut up pseudo-randomly and placed back together, or, cut up based on some kind of rule, and reassembled by numbering and drawing.

Back to consciousness
All of these techniques can produce either wonderful or horrific results, and this is where the conscious mind comes back, but ultimately in a much more sober state, to make some kind of aesthetic sense of the mess. This is of course a fine line. With the advent of digital music editors (I use protools ironically enough) it could be very easy to edit everything into oblivion and destroy any of the piece’s subtler characteristics. Lets just say I try not to let myself get out of hand.

The ironic thing about all of this, is in order to communicate it here, I am forced to use language and descriptive techniques that inherently make this all sound very boring and intellectual. This is a shame, because in practice it is much more like playing a game. You have your strategies, but when push comes to shove, you are playing the game to have fun. Part of the fun of employing these techniques is seeing what kinds of interesting things come of them. It can be really cool to hear the result of a process for the first time, or the result of a blind overdub. And when something interesting or compelling does happen its very exciting.

The piece I am posting today was made with a few of the above techniques and I am quite pleased with it. With each new piece I apply these techniques to, they become more refined and my aesthetic for their use becomes sharper. In a way I feel like I am inventing my own form of music, even if that feeling is a complete illusion. Either way it is exciting, and a lot of fun.

– Birds, Bells, and Barnacles

Ideas on location specific sound exploration

April 9, 2007

Edit: My original title sucked, so I made it (if only slightly) better 🙂

Recently I have been downloading a lot of obscure out of print records from various record collector blogs. This of course has become a sort of obsession for me. It’s as if a dam has burst and all of what I at one point had hoped I’d find, has come rushing in at me. What I love about these blogs is that they constantly introduce me to new music. I could download 20 records a day and not be able to keep up. Of course now finding the time to listen to it all is the problem. I try to give everything an open mind, but since downloads are usually restricted in some way, I tend to be sort of picky about what I get.

Every so often something shows up and I just have to jump on it. It either sounds so good or just so weird I have to hear it. One such record is “Ligeliahorn” by Metgumbnerbone. In the notes that I read on the record it was mentioned that the band recorded exclusively on location is various abandoned buildings, or other such odd places, citing that the influence of the space informed the music and made the whole experience more fulfilling. There is a definite ritual quality about this record that allows it to trancend the realm of pretense. It is as if true exploration is taking place. Almost in the way one would explore a cave. Going in slowly, being very aware of your surroundings, making sure you can back out if you need to, but at no time letting all of that dampen the excitement of your quest.

The location concept really stuck with me for the next couple of days. I kept thinking about the idea of this dual exploration. On one hand you are exploring the space as a space, but in another way you are exploring it’s musicality. Of course these two things are really one, and that is what I think makes this so interesting to me. Especially since from the time I can remember, I have always loved to explore. I spent a decent portion of my youth in abandonned buildings and following train tracks to various other bombed out locations. For me, as a city boy, it was a welcome escape from the stress of the fast paced, on edge day to day life, to a place where I created (or rather was free to interpret) my environment.

In thinking all of this over I began to imagine the concept of a group of individuals exploring a space both experiencially and sonically, by bringing nothing in terms of instruments into the space, but instead using only what the space provided as a means to excite sound. An alternative to this means which I think also has decent potential, would be to allow only tools which could be used to excite the necessary vibrations from the objects contained within the space, but only if they could not serve as instruments within themselves. Objects in this category would merely be extensions of the players. Items such as bows, drum sticks, mallets, or even clamps, could serve well in this purpose.

While I could certainly wax intellectual about the significance or potential of an activity such as this, I think it would only serve to diminish what I think could be it’s primary focus and strength… IT WOULD BE FUN!!!! Think of it… a bunch of friends, some beers, some tools, a recording device and hearing a decaying old building come alive with sound! Seems like a good way to spend an afternoon to me. I may enlist some cohorts to try this out sometime. If nothing else, it is just a good opportunity to spend some time together doing something that most people would never even consider. I especially feel that for all time, these kinds of activities that break our normal modes and bring us into communion with things primordial, are vital. Not to mention that interacting with sound outside of strictly “musical” contexts is something I always find rewarding.

Take a listen Metgumbnerbone and next time you find yourself in an acoustically interesting space, bang on something, yell something, take a moment to interact with that space and most of all HAVE FUN!

side note: If anyone knows of any group that has done what I have outlined above, let me know, I’d love to hear/read about them. And if you go out and do it yourself, record it and send it to me, i’d love to hear it.