Tuneful Tones of Drum Machines

Matt Davignon — Living Things (Edgetone, 2010)

Performing live on Friday, Feb. 5 at Studio 1510 … 1510 8th St., Oakland
… Along with Reconnaissance Fly; more about them here.

Matt Davignon makes strange, elastic sounds out of a drum machine.  It’s an interesting transformation — instead of dry clicks and snaps, you get long, gloopy tunes, a more liquidy and organic sound than I’d associate with the phrase “drum machine.”

I’d never even seen a drum machine before getting a hands-on demonstration from Davignon.  It was at the first “Touch the Gear” exhibition (held as part of the annual event now called the Outsound New Music Summit), the idea being that you could talk to artists about the computers, pedals, and blinky-light machines that make all these abstract sounds.

(Very highly recommended event, btw; I’m really hoping to bring my kids if they do it again.)

And YOU can get a hands-on demo, virtually, thanks to YouTube. Davignon has set up a video series called “Rigs!” that’s well worth checking out. Here’s his Drum Machine demo, part 1.

The gist: He starts with drum machines, including some that produce tuned beats, runs them through reverb, looping, sampling, and other effects, and comes out with odd new sounds.  It’s a process that allows for lots of spontaneous adapting, as you might imagine; Davignon even talks about adjusting pitches on the fly to match the keys of other instruments.

The results are interesting little soundscapes, as shown on his earlier albums Bwoo and SoftWetFish. But on the new Living Things, the idea takes a new turn.

It’s not pop at all, but Davignon builds some of these pieces around overt melody and rhythm that you’d associate with pop.

Take the six-minute “Mold.”  It follows a stompy little beat with a rattly sound that’s got a trace of melody to it — something The Residents would be proud to play.  Then he gets into some soloing — a murky, swampy path of synthlike tunes that keeps up the mysterious mood that’s developed.

“Markhor” is more of a wanderer, presenting a melody of slow, sliding tones. “Saguaro” builds a steady, slowish riff, then undocks for a solo of spacey, floating tones.

There’s plenty of abstract territory covered here, too. “Blind Cave Tetra” is a series of rattly, echoing sounds like — well, like a cave, at least a radio-theater version of one.

Should I admit I’m an old D&D geek?  Davignon’s creations have always made me thing of gelatinous cubes and similarly blobby, formless creatures.  (Or — wait — jellyfish. Next time, I’m gonna be less geeky and just say “jellyfish.”) That trend doesn’t stop with Living Things, but the heavier concentration on melody adds a relaxing touch and gives the music a stamp that’s different from the previous albums.

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