Gray Wisps of Sound

Divided StateSpurious Emissions (Edgetone, 2019)

dividedstate-spuriousThis is synthesizer-driven noise in a gentler vein, a hovering fog. It’s built from understated, patient sounds, an aesthetic close to ambient but with more motion. The backgrounds are built from field recordings and distorted samples — ghost images resembling distorted birdsong, crunchy footfalls, a ghostly railroad crossing, or sparse record-vinyl static.

“Synthesizer” is a loaded word that suggests all manner of dated sounds, but Spurious Emissions doesn’t come across as campy. The occasional sci-fi noises don’t appear as laser blasts. They’re more like pensive, sustained notes, mixing with the gray wisps of the sampled sounds.

“Arboreal Metaphor” turns up the echoing, resonant effects for a broad-landscape view before coalescing into a language of content, scribbled sounds. Most tracks, though, are more in the vein of “Shaman of Static Motion,” which hovers ghostlike, a toneless ambience colored by the occasional electronic buzz.

Divided State is the duo of Andre Custodio, who performs solo noise music under the name Nihil Communication, and Leroy Clark. Both contribute to the synths and the sampled sounds. 

Day of Noise 2019 Video

KZSU’s Day of Noise — 24 hours of live on-air performances in the studios of Stanford’s college radio station — came and went last month, but you can see and hear the whole thing. Jin, who’s videoed and photographed the event for the past several years, went all-out this time, with two cameras per studio and lighting filters to boot. The full 24 hours were streamed live in two 12-hour segments (YouTube sets a 12-hour limit on streams) that are available now.

Bonus: That’s my voice at the start or Part 2. I was asked to stall for time, to make sure no music got lost as we made the transition between video streams.

Smurph, who handled sound engineering for all 24 hours, made an audio recording of each act separately, and you can find those files on KZSU’s Day of Noise web page.

Usufruct, a Harvest of Sound

UsufructWindfall (VF Industrial, 2018)

Usufruct performs at the Luggage Store Gallery (1007 Market St., San Francisco) on Thursday, January 10.

From the joyous prog rock of Reconnaissance Fly, Polly Moller and Tim Walters have staked new turf in the realm of pensive electronics and austere set pieces.

Windfall paints a spare landscape where silence is a primary color. Moller’s voice and flute are foundational sound sources, both organically and in digitally twisted forms, and Walter adds electronics like small, bright creatures darting across a shadowy geometric plane.

“Usufruct” is a real word, referring to “the right of the people to harvest the fruits of common property.” In that spirit, the band harvests found texts, read by Moller. “Only a Test” borrows from what might be a military handbook, with Moller and Walters barking out disconnected proclamations and lists of words. “Donzerly” cuts up the lyrics to the Star Spangled Banner, backed by swirling, buzzing electronics that sound aggressive but feel solitary.

When the flute is unadulterated, Moller draws forth a sense of color and stillness, augmented by trilling or tilted embouchure. On “Upside Down Wedding,” Walters plays back the melodic lines  to create an intertwining vine climbing through the ether.

Here’s Usufruct performing at the 2018 Outsound New Music Festival:

George Lewis and the Apple II in 1984

takingthestageHere’s a nice slice of history. In the 1980s, IRCAM, the French institute for music, sound, and science, hosted a series of concerts called “Écoutez Votre Siècle,” and one of the installments was an early presentation of George Lewis‘ work with computer-generated sound.

A bit of that concert survives on the web, part of a 26-minute TV documentary that IRCAM produced. While we don’t get to hear the whole concert, the real treasure might be the interviews and rehearsal footage, which offer a look at the state of computer music in 1984.

Lewis’ piece, “Rainbow Family,” was created for a combination of human and computer players interacting. He assembled quite a team for it: Douglas Ewart (saxophone), Joëlle Léandre (bass), Steve Lacy (soprano sax), and Derek Bailey (guitar).

Lewis manned the computers and coordinated the rehearsals, during which the human players got acquainted with the tendencies of Lewis’ programs, much like feeling out another musician they’ve met for the first time.

lewis computers 80It’s fun watching Lewis work with fellow musical giants. I’ve known about Ewart but haven’t heard much of his playing; getting to know the man a little bit, while also hearing bits of his music, was enjoyable. He has some keen insights — noting, for example, that one strategy would be to consider the computer “an improviser who might not have the seasoning that we do.”

I’ve never heard Steve Lacy speak, something that didn’t occur to me until watching his video. His voice has an east-coast hip-cat lilt — which shouldn’t have been such a surprise, considering he comes from exactly that era.

Lewis himself is interviewed at length, mostly in French; he seems nearly fluent in the language. (Again, maybe I shouldn’t be so blown away. “Never mind that he’s a trombone great, an AACM biographer, and a computer-music pioneer — the dude speaks French!”)

hands and apple ii 80

Early in the show, Lewis switches to English to explain that his work is the barest glimmer of what artificial intelligence should eventually be capable of. He knew that his then-exciting technology was still a limiting factor; 1984 was a long way off from Tim Perkis’ real-time laptop musicianship. Still, the sounds Lewis wrests from the Apple II aren’t as dated as I was expecting. In the end, it does sound like the players found a rapport with the machines.

Interestingly, the documentary ends with the sound of trains — found sound, another type of sonic experimentation.

You can find the half-hour mini-documentary, along with others in the “Écoutez Votre Siècle” series, here.

Hat tip: Andrew Raffo Dewar on Twitter.

Celebrating Pauline Oliveros

oliveros-tape
Source: wongbear on Pixabay.

The annual San Francisco Tape Music Festival, which begins tonight at the Victoria Theater, cleared out its Sunday night calendar to devote the evening to Pauline Oliveros. That’s pretty cool.

The Festival will present four other full sets of music across three evenings, including an 11:00 p.m. set on Saturday. But Sunday, Jan. 8, will be a retrospective of Oliveros’ tape-music works.

The Tape Music Festival presents what we nowadays call electronic music — experimental and computerized stuff, but pre-recorded rather than performed live. Back in the 1950s, this stuff would be presented by playing reel-to-reel tapes, hence the festival’s name.

What sets the SF festival apart is that the music is played in the dark and the sound setup surrounds the audience with speakers. So it’s better than sitting at home tracking down these pieces on YouTube — and it would also be a nice shared experience as a way to commemorate Oliveros’ life and career.

Here’s the program for Sunday night:

  • Time Perspectives (1961)
  • Bye Bye Butterfly (1965)
  • Rock Symphony (excerpted) (1965)
  • Big Mother Is Watching You (1966)
  • Alien Bog (1967)
  • Lion’s Tale (excerpted) (1989)
  • Sayonara Sirenade 20/21 (2000)

There will be another Oliveros celebration on Friday, Jan. 27, this time at the Uptown Nightclub (1928 Telegraph Ave., Oakland). That could be interesting, because it will pit Oliveros’ quiet aesthetic against a bar atmosphere. The Uptown has hosted creative music for years, so they must have an inkling what they’re getting into. It’s a pleasant surprise to see them give a Friday night to this kind of music.

For the dedicated fan, Important Records packaged 12 CDs’ worth of Oliveros’ early electronic works. It’s available in physical and digital forms.

Tender Buttons

tender-buttons-studio-grand
From a YouTube video by Ann O’Roarke
From the “need to get out more” file: Two of the local musicans whom I’ve known the longest have been part of an interesting electronics trio for quite some time, and I never noticed.

Tender Buttons performs electronic/computer noise (plus keyboard, frequently) with an aesthetic that seems to emphasize smooth flow. At even-handed volume, they’ll amass sounds, some comforting, some abrasive, and it seems so placid until you realize it’s gained enough momentum to border on harsh. And then they’ll shift back down to a smaller mode.

I’ve seen Gino Robair and Tom Djll play in many contexts, including electronics. I’m not as familiar with Tania Chen, but she’s a KZSU Day of Noise veteran.

Here’s the trio in action:


Here’s another performance, from March. This one gets into rougher textures, and you can see Robair, in silhouette, using bows, sticks, and other non-electronic objects.

There’s more to be had on Djll’s YouTube playlist, or you could see/hear the band live very soon.

Tender Buttons is playing a show on Friday, Oct. 28, at Turquoise Yantra Grotto (32 Turquoise Way, San Francisco), and they’re performing live on KFJC-FM on Oct. 29 at 3:00 p.m.

SFEMF: Electronic Animals and Painted Deserts

img_2479-tujurikkuja-cropMy daughter and I compared notes after seeing Madalyn Merkey and Tujurikkuja, two acts that were helping to close out the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival.

I felt that Merkey’s piece had more activity, while Tujurikkuja’s was more about drones and walls of sound. In terms of volume, I could deal with Merkey’s piece but wished for earplugs during Tujurikkuja’s.

My daughter had the opposite reaction: Her ears had a harder time with Merkey. And between the two pieces, she found Tujurikkuja’s drones more fascinating, while I’d thought Merkey’s piece was the richer experience. It just goes to show how differently music can be perceived.

Merkey’s piece, “Stained Air,” was a stroll through forests of different individual sounds, a journey tied together by a recurring element of a tone that would rise in pitch gradually — not the same tone every time, but the same concept of a “revving-up” sound. (Since this was the first Sunday of the NFL season, it was hard not to think of kickoffs.)

According to the program notes, the bulk of the piece was built of tones that were changing, according to pre-set rules, during the course of the piece. The music did seem to move in phases, clustering certain “types” of noises while also never overlapping too many at once. One phase I remember in particular had springy, squelching sounds like small electronic animals making their puzzled way around the landscape.

Markey built the piece for a 4.2-speaker setup to create some stereo effects — side-to-side swooshes, for instance. Being over to the side, we lost some of the effect, but we could still catch the sense of an added dimension.

Tujurikkuja (the J’s are pronounced like H’s, Spanish-style) put a descriptive poem in the program described a scorching hot desert (First clue: The opening line, “It is hot.”) But my daughter and I found the music evoking wide, dark caverns and glassy walls of sound — it felt cold, not in an emotional sense but in a literal sense.

Either way, theirs was a more drone-based set, although there was plenty of sound-shifting, with new elements coming and going. They ended it by simply walking off the stage, allowing the final droney buzz to continue on its own, in darkness, until they cut it off remotely.

These were two thoughtful and contrasting pieces and made for a good program. My daughter admitted she wouldn’t seek out this kind of music, but she paid attention through both pieces, and we talked about both of them quite a bit afterwards. Therein lies the real power of music and the arts.

SFEMF 2017

sfemf2016posterThe San Francisco Electronic Music Festival returns this week, starting with a Thursday show at the Exploratorium and ending with a change of pace that might draw a bit of a crossover crowd.

Most of the shows are at the Brava Theater Center (2781 24th Street, San Francisco). Check the full schedule for more details.

Thursday, Sept. 8: The kickoff show, held at the Exploratorium, will feature Gen Ken Montgomery performing a Cassette CONcert, an idea developed by the late German musician Conrad Schnitzler beginning in the late ’60s. It’s an intriguing spin on the idea of tape music, the preconfigured electronic-music pieces that became an art form in the ’50s. In this case, Schnitzler provides a series of tapes, and it’s up to the musician which ones to play and when.

This means the concert can take variable form and length (Montgomery reports of one concert that lasted 50 hours). It’s a very Cageian idea, this reconfigurable composing; it also makes me think of Pierre Boulez’s Domaines, the modular piece performed by sfSound in July.

That Thursday show also includes the percussion-electronics duo IMA, who just came off a successful performance at the Outsound New Music Summit.

MajaAndHC
Photo: Jonas Adolfsen

Friday, Sept. 9: This show includes composer Maja S.K. Ratkje, the Norweigan noise artist who also travels in classical-music circles. Her recently released Crepuscular Hour, a piece that includes three choirs, noise musicians, and a church organ, “seeps through the liminal cracks between light and dark, the spiritual gloaming during which living bodies and minds change their patterns of behaviour,” as The Quietus describes it. Performance photos on Ratkje’s website are stunning.

Saturday, Sept. 10, 4:00 p.m.:  There’s a Saturday evening show at Brava, which will include local violin-and-electronics artist Thea Farhadian. In the afternoon, though, there’s a tribute to Contrad Schnitzler happening in the Brava neighborhood. Gen Ken Montgomery will host a “participatory” Cassette CONcert, where you’re welcome to bring a cassette deck and become part of the performance. Elsewhere, there’s going to be a small exhibition of Schnitzler’s archives.

These are happening at Explorist International and Adobe Books — 3174 and 3130 24th St., respectively. I don’t know which event is at which location, but Adobe Books has hosted small concerts in the past, so it might be the CONcert venue.

Not to sell Farhadian short. She has a new album coming out on Creative Sources in November and is a KZSU Day of Noise alum. Here’s a sample:


Sunday, Sept. 11: The SMEMF guest likely to draw the most attention is an East Bay native: Daveed Diggs, performing with the L.A. rap trio clipping. (the period is part of the name). Diggs is better known for less experimental work, being one of the original stars of the Hamilton musical. As the Marquis de Lafayette, he performs some impossibly fast raps in a French accent. With clipping., the speed and energy are there, but in a darker vein — a sinister vibe with lots of F-words and some sharp political messages.

The connection to SFEMF is that the backing music consists of spare, noise-based electronic rhythms — which, for me, is a refreshing change from rap’s usual course of mindless nostalgia samples and weak elementary jazz riffs. For rap fans, it’s a different sound — and for SFEMF, it’s a very experimental turn and a bit of a risk.

Read more about the festival (and about clipping.) at San Francisco Classical Voice.

The OKO Leap of Faith

OKOI Love You Computer Mountain (Diatribe, 2014)

oko-loveBack in March, Tim Berne got invited to Dublin to play with the electronica band OKO. Asked by the Irish Times about his musical plans for the gigs, he said he had no idea. OKO hadn’t revealed a strategy, and it sounded like Berne had been given only surface details about what the band even sounded like.

But the Irish Times article dropped a few hints. Oko plays with electronic and acoustic instruments. They’re experimental and cross-genre — well, yeah, the press loves to put those labels on bands that turn out to be bland and monochromatic.

Ah, what the heck. In the spirit of the Berne concert, I downloaded I Love You Computer Mountain and gave it a shot.

Turns out the Irish Times wasn’t far off.

okoposter“Shoehorns & Axelgrease” opens the album with a nine-minute tour of the quartet’s collective digs. It starts mysteriously, with cavernous gloopy noises accompanying light ambient chords and faint electronic blips. The music eventually surges into a sprawling, cymbal-splashing slow groove, then takes a sharp turn into a kind of prog-jazz jam of electric piano, snappy rhythmic bass, and colorful drumming.

“Under Over” brings a madcap beat lead by rubbery bass, over which Darragh O’Kelly jabs out some funky electric piano before switching into a scrambling, odd-time-signature riff. We’ve gone from oh-so-hip electronics to a good old prog/fusion festival.

You could describe the overall album as “chill,” but it gets a lot of mileage out of some hard-driven bass and drums. The former comes from Shane Latimer on eight-string guitar — a compelling, lively sound, even when he’s playing in linear eighth-note pulses. Shane O’Donovan lays down solid beats and colorful fills on the drum kit.

O’Kelly’s keyboards, principally electric piano, provide the lead voice and are responsible for defining mood. It’s all augmented by samples and whatnot from DJackulate for a touch of hip atmosphere.

Tracks transition neatly into one another for a kind of cerebral dancehall experience. You travel from room to room like one of those amusement park rides — through the reggae-infused cooldown of “Axelgrease;” the impossibly slow fog of “Oblong,” with Latimer laying down some other-wordly guitar against blurry gray backgrounds; and the snappy yet low-key yet spastic “Magnet Paste.” It winds down sublimely with a pretty tune called “Unbelievable Sushi.”

Tim Berne would be an obvious match for the more abstract tracks, but I’d bet it was amazing to hear him on the more locked-in and composed pieces as well. He’s no stranger to more conventional music, after all — check out his work with bassist Hugo Carvalhais’ band a few years ago. If you happened to catch any of the shows, I’d love to hear what you thought.

Return to The Hub

Topology of The Hub. Source: perkis.comA laptop ensemble seems novel but not all that impossible these days. Last year, I even wrote about the laptop orchestra that’s a college course at Santa Clara.

But laptops used to be relatively expensive and exotic little beasts, back when personal computers’ capabilities were much more limited. And computer networking was even more primitive — in fact, the very act of “networking” your computer wasn’t something to take for granted.

That was the environment in the late 1980s when The Hub pioneered the idea of a computerized music ensemble, not only performing with the machines but networking them together as well.

The Hub hasn’t quit, either. They put out a 3-CD set on Tzadik six years ago. And they’re making a live appearance Tuesday, April 22, at the Center for New Music in San Francisco.

It’s fascinating to read Tim Perkis‘ notes about The Hub’s operation back in the day. Some of the technological limitations actually sound more intriguing than frustrating.

At first, they used a home-built networking hub. Later, they used MIDI, which was indeed intended to connect computerized machines to musical instruments but didn’t have the flexibility we’d take for granted today. For example, MIDI expected information in the form of musical notes. The metallic screeching and shattered-glass sounds we expect in laptop music today wouldn’t be so easy to convey.

The Hub rose to the challenge by composing for these limitations. Perkis describes a sparse composition of his titled “Waxlips:”

Each player is requested to make his program have the following simple behavior: he had to be able to receive requests to play one note. When the request was received he should play the note, and then send a request to someone else in the group to play one note. This outgoing request must be computed from the incoming one in such a way that the same request in always generates the same request out. For example, any time I asked John Bischoff to play a C#, that would always cause him to issue a request to Chris Brown, say, to play an Ab. The mapping must be deterministic, and static. Every now and then I would send out another special message that meant “change your mapping”, along with a pitch set of allowable pitches to request. I would also start the process off, and jump start it again when necessary by spraying new notes into the network.

This piece always came out very different each time it was played: usually we would end the piece when it fell into a simple loop of some kind; sometimes, if one of the players wasn’t working properly there would be a leak and all the notes would keep dribbling out.

That’s part of a detailed 1999 article Perkis wrote for Electronic Musician magazine. You can read the article on his web site and get a lot of insight not only into how The Hub’s technology but into some of its strategies for composing. Those strategies would still be valid under today’s richer forms of computer networking — although I’d be interested to see how The Hub might be stretching its boundaries. It’s worth a look Tuesday night.