Posts Tagged ‘music commentary’

The continued evolution of this blog | Some recent inspiration

July 3, 2009

This blog started out initially with an idea, but no real plan. And as I’ve carried on, things have changed and the initial idea, no longer really suits me. I think about this blog all the time. It seems every weekend almost, I plan to write but I hardly do. I’m less interested in some of what I used to do, and more interested in other things. I’m busier. I got promoted at my job, and my wife and I bought a new house and moved into it. All the time though, I think of this blog and how I can post better and more often.

A perceived need to continue on in the initial spirit of this blog is one of the things that made it so hard to come back. For one, almost every post in the past contained something I had recently recorded. While I still plan on dropping the occasional random recording on here, my focus in recording has gotten much more specific. I have also slowed down in my production/collection of new gadgets for reasons I have addressed before. This can no longer really be the blog of random happy sounds that it used to be.

While it seems like I may have stopped doing a bunch of things (and this is true) my musical pursuits have gained in other ways. I have become interested in a lot of new music and have been seeing some great shows. I have also met some new people whose ideas have influenced mine for the better (I hope). Since I’ve been gone a while, here’s a little list of the things that have been on/in my mind for the past few months.

The Watchful Ear – This is the blog of Richard Pinnell. A far more ambitious blogger than myself, he writes about music every day, and his blog is something I come back to almost as often. Richard has the fortune of finding himself sat right on top (or perhaps just to the side) of one of the most fertile improvised music communities anywhere these days. And he writes about it in such wonderfully thoughtful detail, it makes me want to catch the first plane to London. He also does a ton of reviews. Over the last few months he has saved me a bunch of money, as due to the quality and quantity of his reviews, there is no real reason to purchase the WIRE anymore (ok, I’m kinda joking). Really, I think his blog is one of the things people in the future will look back on, and say wow thank God for that.

Dotolim – Dotolim is (from what I understand) and improvised music series in Seoul,  Korea. It is organized by Jin Sangtae and seems to take place about once a month. It features mainly musicians from Seoul, but there are occasionally guests from Japan and the states. The best thing (for someone not based in Seoul) is that they video record, almost every set, and they are available on youtube. In a grenre of music that seems for some reason relatively distant from the benefits of modern internet technology, this is a real treat.

The format is relatively simple. Each night there are 2 – 3 sets featuring different combinations of players, and occasional solos. Since the Seoul scene is relatively small there are a few recurring players, and it has been interesting seeing how there approach changes with different partners or playing devices. Overall a great window into a scene that is very exciting right now.

Philly Sound Forum – PSF is an improvised and experimental music series that takes place in Philadelphia and is curated by Jesse Kudler and Ian Fraser. We had talked on occasion about how there were opportunities for very exciting musicians to play Philadelphia, that were not being taken advantage of by some of the other music series in the area. And how there were some smaller scenes in the surrounding areas that were worth attention as well, and yet not getting much. So Jesse and Ian got together to just do it themselves, and thus far it has been great. Based on some inspiration from dotolim, they also have made an effort to put as much documentary content about each show on the website that they can, and there is some excellent music and video offered there for free. I’m always looking forward to new PSF show announcements.

Another thing we have been discussing is some form of improvised music workshop, which hopefully will come to pass within the next few months. While we are still working out the details, I will say that the general idea is to 1) allow more opportunities for improvising musicians in the area to play 2) to open communication between musicians in the area and encourage dialogs that will help us hone our craft. 3) ?????…. we are still figuring it out, but keep coming back, I will be posting about it as it takes shape.

I could go on here, but I’ve already run on longer than I wanted to. I will continue in the next month of this blog to highlight things that have made an impact on me. They may just be mentions and urls, and they may be full reviews. More in a while…

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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

Tibetan protest field recording

June 11, 2008

Tibetan protesters at the National Constitution CenterA couple of weekends ago, I got a call from my friend Al, informing me that there was some kind of Tibetan protest down at the National Constitution Center, and that they were doing some chanting he thought I might like to record. I had some time so I rolled down to see what was going on. I can’t really say I know much about the situation in Tibet, so for the purposes of this post, I’m not going to talk about the political significance of this event.

When I got down there, I heard them before I saw them. A low drone perking up from beneath the din of city traffic. When I got to the National Constitution Center, there they were, sitting one after the other in a line facing the street, holding flags and chanting a harmonic drone that I found quite pleasing. They had a PA set up and two of them were chanting (maybe intoning is a better word?) what sounded like one base repetitive chant, with an improvised chant over it, but I’m just guessing. (If anyone knows what it is that they are chanting, I’d love to know.) They also had a stringed instrument, which they never ended up playing unfortunately for me.

The group was fairly loud, but I knew I’d end up with lots of other stuff on my recording like the passing cars or idling trucks behind me. Not to mention the very high wind that day. So at some point I decided not to try to avoid any of that, but to allow it to in a way be an indeterminate instrument playing along with them.

I’ve been fascinated recently with this kind of change of perspective that alters how one perceives sound. This had a great effect on my appreciation of this recording, when I finally encoded it. Instead of being annoyed at all of the sounds encroaching upon what I wanted to hear, I now can appreciate fully, all of the wonderful and mysterious background accompaniment that appears on this recording. And in many cases, it is quite wonderful. I especially like when my mic and the mics of the performers are both being overloaded by the wind at one point.

Tibetan Protest music vs. Market St.

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

So Do You Think the Future of Music is Dead?

January 6, 2008

Hahaha, made you groan! Ok, so this is kind of ridiculous, but I had to do it for the sake of… well, ridiculousness! A friend of mine turned me on to the above video the other day (1st part of like a 5 or so part series). It’s an interview with Mike Patton from like ’92 or something. It is HYSTERICAL! It goes something like this… Interviewer asks dumb question, Patton gives dumb answer in between bites of a really gross looking sandwich. It’s brilliant! At one point (after Patton says a series of really disparaging things about the state of music today) the interviewer asks if Patton thinks the future of music is dead. 

I’m just going to let you stew in the brilliance of the question for a moment…  

aaaaand we’re back. So Patton then gives one of the best answers to that question I think possible. Anyway, I was laughing my head off. So for some reason this exchange inspired me to make the following rip off of “It’s Gonna Rain” with the question and response. If you can actually listen to this whole track you deserve an award. I have to say though, if you do… at about the 3 minute mark your brain will start doing really weird things with you perception of time, it’s quite strange. Anyway, here it is… 

The worst thing about music…

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

Short Wave Music Rocks!

September 14, 2007

As usual I’m awaiting a solid 3 or 4 hour block of time in which to do my next post, which seem to be fewer and farther between. For now however, I want to just drop a quick note for you to check out a wonderful blog I stumbled across today.

I have been looking into getting a shortwave radio as I am fascinated with radio noises to begin with and shortwave is the mountain to AM/FM/TVs mole-hill so to speak. Right now, I’m mired in radio-purchasing research land (someone just point me to a cheap one already!) and I have been purusing many sites looking for info. During a quick blog search today I discovered ShortWaveMusic a great blog by Myke Weiskopf, featuring recordings he’s made of various indigenous musics he’s captured on shortwave, complete with technical, historical, and sociopolitical commentary. So far, It has been music to my ears and a great read too.

It’s funny to find someone out there doing pretty much what I had intended do do with my shortwave explorations, and great to find someone doing it so well.

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

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

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