Apple II Part II: George Lewis in 1984

George LewisRainbow Family (Carrier, 2020; recorded 1984)

Three years ago, I wrote about a 1984 experiment in computer-driven improvisation. George Lewis, then researching at France’s IRCAM, presented a concert of top-notch improvisers — Douglas Ewart, Joelle Leandre, Derek Bailey, and Steve Lacy — performing with three networked Apple II computers that controlled Yamaha synths.

The concert is now available as an album on France’s Carrier label. It’s a valuable document of this early moment in the history of computer music. You have to excuse the limitations of computer sound at the time (try not to think of Tom Baker-era Doctor Who) but the computer element does work. Or, maybe it’s that the high-caliber musicians — Joëlle Léandre, Douglas Ewart, Derek Bailey, and Steve Lacy — are able to make it work.

The three Apple IIs don’t just bleep randomly. Lewis programmed them to take the (analog) musicians’ choices as input and make digital decisions to create output, including an option to add some randomness (i.e., to play freely). The source code Lewis used is lost, unfortunately, but his recollections of the strategies provide some useful insight in the CD liner notes. The programs did have a way to create a chunk of music from scratch, without inputs, and Lewis infers that this is how some of the pieces start.

Whether real or perceived, the computers manage to create some sublime moments of communication. Léandre’s duet includes a nice stretch where she’s calmly following the computers’ cues, but when she takes control, the machines respond with an anthemic burst.

Lewis had conceived of the three computers developing distinct personalities. What he found, though, was that the human musicians kept thinking of their bandmates as “The” computer. Same here, I have to admit. (See how I just called Léandre’s piece a “duet.”) It’s an interesting test of human perception.

Of course, the humans’ personalities and choices lead to specific characteristics for some of the pieces. Ewart produces a piece that is both forceful and calm, drifting like a Calder mobile and creating some of the most neatly matched improvising of the album. Bailey’s low-key piece features a stretch of harmonics that tease out some pleasant tone-tinkering from the computers.

The album culminates with a group session — all four humans, all three computers. It starts at a cautious pace, with the humans avoiding the “spew” factor that a group of this size can create. As the activity builds up, the computers seem to know to sometimes stay out of the way. Here’s a particularly noisy section with the humans taking the lead; the Apple IIs slip into the mix with small chimes and shimmers that get more assertive as the humans back down. It feels organic. Whether that’s excellent foresight on the part of Lewis the coder or just a lucky happenstance, we’ll never know — but Lewis’ knowledge and experience certainly increased the probability of these kind of moments.

You can sample and purchase the album on Bandcamp. I’m especially partial to Douglas Ewart’s piece.

Back Pages #8: Through the Hill

Andy Partridge and Harold BuddThrough the Hill (Gyroscope/All Saints, 1994)

The Back Pages series was supposed to track music that had a particular story for me, mostly from the timeframe when I began earnestly delving into creative music. I don’t have much of a story for this one. But after the recent passing of Harold Budd, I started thinking about Through the Hill for the first time in years, and I realized this album taught me fundamental things about my passion for discovering and collecting music.

The album follows Budd’s aesthetic of lingering beauty, maybe with brighter melody and faster tempos. It’s a true collaboration, with Budd and Partridge (XTC guitarist whose fantastic pop songwriting includes some creative outer-ring stuff) sharing composing duties. The music is keyboard-based, with acoustic or electric guitars popping up here and there. Partridge adds occasional wordless vocals. On three tracks, Budd recites short poetry pieces written by Partridge.

What I loved, though, was the organization and the packaging. If you remember my geeking out about the structure and symmetry of Kris Davis’ Duopoly album, I had the same kind of reaction to Through the Hill.

The album’s 16 pieces are organized into three units: Geography, Structures, and Artifacts — with four “Hand” pieces acting as the joints between them, like Robert Wilson’s Knee Plays. Each song title is a vaguely mystical reference to an imagined place, building, or object.

Through the Hill, back cover.

The groupings resemble the chapters in Italo Calvino’s Imaginary Cities (which itself was apparently influenced by Georges Perec and the Oulipo writing/mathematics social collective, and here I’m reaching my limit of literary knowledge).

Inside the CD case, each of the three units gets a fold-out card, with each piece represented by an image from J.G. Heck’s The Complete Encyclopedia of Illustration. Taken from antiquity, the pictures add to the abstract, mystical “story” the album seems to outline, and the general lack of human figures suggests empty spaces suitable for this quiet, blanketing music.

“Through the Hill” [from “Geography”]

I studied this album, in the sense that I listened by imagining that these “chapters” had meaning, with themes revealed in the music itself. I didn’t really expect to find anything; even the Hand pieces don’t seem to have a common thread. But it made the music into a journey, and it drew the physical album’s organization and presentation into the listening experience.

“The Place of Odd Glances” [from “Structures”]

And I just savored those titles. “Missing Pieces to the Game of Salt and Onyx” is not my favorite track musically — it’s based on a slow acoustic guitar riff that’s appropriately quirky but not enough to grab me — but… that title!

The CD wasn’t available for long, and therein lies my story. My first reaction at seeing it in the store, being familiar with both Partridge and Budd, was, “Well, I wonder what that even is.” Seeing it on multiple trips to the store spurred another thought: “When that thing’s gone, you might never hear of it again.”

“Bronze Coins Showing Genitals” [from “Artifacts,” featuring Budd’s voice]

I took a chance. Through the Hill would not make my Top 10 list musically, but it’s one of the prized gems in my collection. It was the beginning of the lesson that vinyl records and even CDs are physical souvenirs, collectables, just like baseball cards other trinkets. Much as I’m not proud of caring about physical objects, I have to admit that owning albums makes me happy. I certainly can’t afford to grab up every souvenir I come across — but that’s part of the fun: being discriminating, making choices, taking the occasional leap of faith. My mom loves to duck into antique stores, and it frustrated us as kinds, especially since she never seemed to buy anything. Now I can relate.

What’s changed for me since the ’80s and ’90s is that I now know the emotion that comes from owning something for a long time. My high school and college-era records are filled with trapped memories — not just the music, but also the flow of everything else happening in my life at the time. There are some records that I love and will never play until some major life event puts me in need of healing or reminiscing. Because just as playing vinyl wears down the grooves, opening and admiring and hearing those records will wear down those memories and mix them with the present. What matters isn’t the permanence of the object, but the threads of history clinging to it.

Circles Within Circles Within Denman Maroney’s Head

Denman MaroneyMartingale (self-released, 2020)

I’m familiar with Denman Maroney through his work with hyperpiano — prepared piano that adds a dynamic element, such as applying a metal bowl as a “slide” on the strings. Martingale employs a different kind of tinkering. It uses jazz composition as its starting point, in an upbeat quartet format, but things are awry. It’s dis-aligned jazz.

The underlying complexity comes from polyrhythms — or what Maroney calls temporal harmony, with instruments tracking different rhythmic cycles, such as three-over-two or five-over-four. The foundation is often single-note rhythms rather than chords, and while I found myself craving the jazzy sound of chords, their absence builds a lightness (as in, the opposite of density) that helps my ears track the multiple cycles spooling out. Even on a casual listen, you can feel a geometry in the music, and Maroney provides enough room to take a peek at the schematic, revealing the cycles within cycles.

The thickest stack of time layers — six of them, apparently — is in the title track, which opens the album. “Martingale” takes a patient approach, building energy while maintaining enough space to discern the rhythms.

The album doesn’t come across as mathematical. “New One Two” builds from what sounds like a simple keyboard riff, except its repetitions are constantly shifting — an innocent rhythm, bouncing like a tumbleweed. Then there’s “Sea Set Wheat” (a play on words: six, sept, huit would be 6:7:8 in French), which coaxes a swinging rhythm out of polyrhythmic cycles. Players then break off into a free improvisation, and it’s tempting to think that they might be staying in their respective polyrhythmic times while doing so. (I don’t actually believe this, but it’s fun to imagine.)

I feel like I also have to mention “Off Centerpiece,” which takes the skeleton of the jazz standard “Centerpiece” and disjoints it.

For another taste of polyrhythms, the band Kronomorfic has a sound even more deeply steeped in conventional free jazz (now there’s an oxymoron). Their 2010 release features a sextet including vibraphone and sax. And in 2015, the not-so-conventional piano trio Dawn of Midi released Dysnomia, a through-composed album based on hypnotically chill cycles. I got to see them perform it live. The piano’s minimal, chordless touch — essentially becoming a percussion instrument — combined with acoustic bass and drums made for a spellbinding set.

Kyle Bruckmann, Live from CNMAT

Some weeks back, CNMAT live-streamed a solo Kyle Bruckmann concert — oboe, English horn, and/or electronics — performed at their studio in Berkeley. With multiple camera angles and video cards that provide the program notes, it’s a professionally produced set that made for a satisfying afternoon show — one you can relive on YouTube.

Bruckmann played five pieces in the experimental/avant-classical vein, including two of his own, including a world premiere.

Linda Bouchard’s “DROP” (2018) magnified the sound of air through the tube of the oboe (or English horn; I didn’t try hard enough to discern them), turning a whispery sound source into an avalanche. The piece progressed into a cavalcade of extended technique — lots of circular breathing, buzzing rows of notes, and klaxon blares — creating a space full of urgency, a voice a rush to speak.

A quick dose of more conventional oboe playing was featured in “Arachne” (2013) by Helen Grime. The composition follows the Greek myth of a woman eventually turned into a spider, and it appropriately ended with a scurrying of small high notes.

Bruckmann’s own “A Spurious Autobiography for John Barth” (2015), which appears on his Triptych album, produced the concert’s first full dose of electronics, with an overhead camera capturing the view of Bruckmann’s pedals and wires. The piece addresses the pitfalls of solo improvisation — falling into “the same damn things over and over again,” as Bruckmann writes in the program notes, by having a computer spit back fragments of Bruckmann’s 2000 solo album, entymology. His job is to react.

It’s fun watching this kind of “game” play out in real time. The oboe fragments came out in processed form, sometimes chopped up, sometimes blurred or smeared, sometimes spotty like a radio drifting out of range. Bruckmann built a rushed chaos out of it all, ending with a calm finish and a touch of “pure” unadulterated oboe sound.

The first of the premiere pieces was Hannah A. Barnes’ “Dis/inte/gration,” based on electronics playing back the oboe “through a phase vocodor at (impossibly) slow speeds.” That meant long tones occasionally coming back like long-ago echoes, ghostly and ringing. As Bruckmann sped up the pace, the feedback started feeling more like an urgent dialogue with voices from some other plane.

One of the on-screen cards that served as program notes.

For his own premiere composition “Proximity,” Bruckmann disassembled the oboe, removing the mouthpiece and blocking the other end with his hand. With the help of electronics, he built a narrative of sounds — deep didjeridoo tones and ultra-high hearing-test notes in unison, followed by successive plateaus of mood ranging from electronic scribbles to calm, slow brushstrokes of air. Apparently inspired by our current “gerbil ball” state of existence (Bruckmann’s phrase, and a good one), “Proximity” felt intimate, full of close, small gestures.

Deeper in the CNMAT archives is another of Bruckmann’s solo concerts, this time from 2017 with a live audience. You can view that one here.