More Stained Melodies and Gratuitous Noise

Friday 17 August 2007

I was going to put up some new music I’ve been working on, but I’m at that awkward stage where everything’s so close to being finished that it all sounds ghastly. In the meantime, here are mp3s of a few old pieces I still don’t entirely dislike.

Stained Melodies Nos. 3, 11, & 17.

Three more from the series of 24 short piano pieces written a few years back. Each one of these pieces was written using the same method, so they share a similar overall sound and feel, but the method allows each piece to develop its own distinctive character. Number 11 is the emptiest, and most contemplative in the set; whereas Number 17 is the most crowded and frenetic. Number 3 manages to be almost a blues number.


I mentioned before that the flipside to the semi-listenable cassette Disposable Guitar Play Once Throw Away was a guitar piece that did away with guitars altogether. The music on the B-side was created by a crude feedback oscillator made from a chain of borrowed guitar effects pedals. Instead of plugging a guitar into the setup I decided it would be simpler to plug in the last pedal’s output jack, thus making a closed circuit and initiating an continuing quest to systematically rip off every idea David Tudor ever had.
Shortly after recording the cassette (direct to tape in a single, half-hour improvisation) I made a digital copy, divided the track into four sections of equal length and plonked them on top of each other. The resulting arbitrary mashup, with some minor tweaks, became the piece Ola-R, which I think got played once at the old Musicians’ Club in St Kilda, and a few copies popped up in a slightly different form on CD-Rs. Since that time I have been working toward making more sophisticated use of the principles of feedback oscillation, that I first learned when making this crude tape.
This mp3 file keeps the original’s dynamic range and stereo separation, so it may not come across well if you’re listening through built-in computer speakers.

30 years on, Leo Sayer is still alive

Wednesday 15 August 2007

Perhaps it’s the steady rain outside that’s making me more melancholy than usual and thinking about Melbourne, but I kind of wish I was around the Melbourne Cemetery to see what odd little ceremonies the faithful are up to around the Elvis Memorial right about now.
I remember where I was when I heard that Elvis had died. I was at home and my mum mentioned it. I’d never heard of Elvis before so I just mentally substituted the name of the first pop star I could think of.

Placard Condensed

Wednesday 1 August 2007

(Tangentially related, maybe not safe for work: Headphone Phetish.)
As you can see, my Paris gig really knocked people out. This was the first time I’d been able to observe the effect a long version of String Quartet No.2 has on listeners, held more or less captive by their headphones. There’s enough in the piece to hold people’s attention for a long time, and several listeners reported some nice 60s-style hallucinatory effects which, being too close to the source material, I am unable to enjoy. Fortunately, I had access to the tone controls on the mixing desk, which I used to enhance some of the overtones generated during the piece.
My girlfriend said it was nice, but she didn’t understand it.
I’ve made a recording of the long version, which I might upload if there’s enough interest and the file compression doesn’t cruel the details in the sound too much. The short, differently-performed version is here. I think some kind of archive of most of the weekend event is here.
Notes for future reference: if you’re playing a headphone gig, make sure you have access to a pair of the audience’s phones so you know they’re hearing the same thing you’re hearing (several performers over the weekend listening directly to their own kit didn’t realise the broadcast signal was too loud and distorting). Also, if you habitually use a mouse on your laptop and then don’t bother to connect it for a gig, make sure you’ve figured out how to disable the default “tap = click” setting on the keyboard touchpad so you don’t keep clicking random stuff by mistake – unless you happen to like that setting (nobody likes that setting).

Post Placard (one-hour jet lag)

Tuesday 31 July 2007

Frankly, I Would Have Preferred The Sword has a few photos from the Placard gigs on Sunday, including one of me looking fit and active while playing my piece. No time to write up the event right now, so here’s a peformance view of Katharine Neil’s rather awesome Viderunt Omnes 3D.

And, in case you’re wondering what I had to look at on the screen, here’s a screenshot taken during my gig. It’s a very zen-like use of AudioMulch‘s metasurface feature – the fewer knobs and buttons for me to fidget with, the more I can pay attention to the music.

Look here, we’ll draw you a chicken.

Friday 27 July 2007

No more posts for a few days, so in the meantime check out ANABlog, which has been posting even more incredible music lately than they usually do. Two of my favourite pieces, Pauline Oliveros’ I of IV and John Cage’s Indeterminacy are currently available, so hear them while you can. Both are pretty much a perfect union of conceptual cleverness with stunning musical results.
They’ve also just posted some music by the still-underrated Lucia Dlugoszewski, and if you don’t like that, well, they have some Roxette too.
For the past three months I’ve posted nothing to Flickr except Trellick Tower and vans, so here’s a boxing Paul Keating puppet taking on all comers around my former local in Hackney.

Take that Mahathir!

Live from the Rockin’ Air-Laptop World Championship!

Thursday 26 July 2007

First, I want to thank whoever it was who once perfectly described laptop performers as having the stage presence of “bored men checking their email”. This is one of the more important reasons why I have avoided giving live performances with computers – up until now.
Of course, experimental musicians mostly being awkward, poorly-socialised geek boys, your typical undergorund new music gig wasn’t much livelier before computers became affordable, but at least the equipment available at the time enforced a certain minimum of onstage activity.
The role and aesthetics of the theatrical* element of new music performance don’t get discussed much. I was on a panel talk with several other musicians a few years ago, which drifted onto this topic and stayed there for the rest of the session. Nothing much was agreed, except that there are no real models to work off, and everyone has to pretty much work out their own methods for themselves. And, more importantly, that VJs are a blight upon the earth.
What was most interesting to learn was that so many musicians, even though you wouldn’t think it to watch them, are conscious of the visual aspect of their gigs. They may also, however, be at a loss as to what they can do to help it.
Is there a way to be theatrically engaging while using a laptop? I don’t necessarily mean dramatic gestures or histrionics, I’m talking about the performer affirming a physical presence in relation to the audience. This weekend I’m going to make my first attempt at a live, public performance on laptop. Without using any additional equipment, I’m working with a simple interface designed to focus both mine and the audience’s attention away from the screen, onto what performance gestures I might make.
My gestures emphasise how little movement or exertion is needed to play on a computer. My role in the piece is cast more as a listener than as a performer, so my interface setup needs only very small, infrequent actions (any more spoils the music), and has been intentionally saddled with a very slow response time, so that any action I take has to be very deliberate and carefully considered. If I have to sit still for half an hour, I want to imbue that stillness with concentration, not passivity.

* Theatre, not drama.

Explaining all about String Quartet No.2 (Canon in Beta)

Monday 23 July 2007

(A live performance of String Quartet No.2 (Yada Yada Yada) coming up at Le Placard in Paris this weekend. Streaming audio of the whole event at Radio WNE, it seems.)
In a discussion of his theory of radical amateurism, the composer Warren Burt describes his practice of studied incompetence as part of “the tradition of taking objects from the past and putting them through the distorting lens of our technique and producing new objects”. I’ve previously touched on the subject of how technology can be used as an extension of – or a poor substitute for – an idea, so it’s interesting to see Burt quote his sometime collaborator Ron Nagorcka: “the very essence of electronic media is distortion.” I would go further and argue that all creativity is in fact a distortion of a pre-existing model, whether intentional or not. There are small, obvious examples of such distortion through raw incompetence (the sea-coast in Shakespeare’s Bohemia) and a knowing, studied incompetence (the sword held aloft by Kafka’s Statue of Liberty), as there are artworks whose large-scale form is patterned upon those of previous works (your Shakespeare or Austen updated as a high-school comedy, for instance).
Rather than try to be original, I have worked for some time with the idea that each of my works should be consciously modelled on another composer’s works or techniques, and so instead of attempting an original work that unwittingly imitates an older one, I might create an imitative work which, in its divergences from the model, allows some genuine originality to emerge.
The technique of conscious copying of a work seems much rarer in music composition than in the visual arts. This may be because the limited range of compositional methods available in traditional western music has forced a self-conscious emphasis on the need for the unique, for subjective individuality. I can immediately pick from the top of my head more than one artist who works by creatively copying the work of other artists (Sherrie Levine and Imants Tillers, there’s two) or by copying their own work (Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol, there’s another two), but I don’t know any composers who work in these ways. Why have so many ideas about art over the past century bypassed music completely? I can hear the ghost of Morton Feldman muttering, “Is music an artform at all? Or is it just a type of showbiz?”
Although String Quartet No.2 (Canon in Beta) was consciously written as an imitation of Phill Niblock‘s music – based on a description of his music without having heard it – its compositional concerns are completely different. A score for a Niblock composition, Five More String Quartets for example, carefully specifies exact frequencies to be played by the instruments, to produce definite harmonic results. My piece is not designed in this way, or with these specific musical intentions: it is composed purely to adhere as closely as possible to an incomplete understanding of Niblock’s techniques, without regard for harmonic complexity (or lack of it). It exists to be a cheap imitation, reminiscent of something else yet unmistakably itself.

Gig Action! Placard Festival

Sunday 22 July 2007

I’ve had my arm twisted into doing my first public gig in over two years, at the Placard Festival in Paris. So far, I have only a hazy idea of what the festival is about: apparently it involves people sitting round a room listening to headphones or something. I can do that.
Anyway, it runs non-stop for 72 hours starting from Friday 27 July. I’m in the coveted Sunday 2.30 pm slot. There’s probably some streaming of the gigs over the web, but I need someone to explain it to me before I post about it here.
The piece I’m most likely going to play is an extended, live-performance version of String Quartet No.2 (Canon in Beta): this version will be closer to the earlier incarnations of the piece mentioned in the blog post, than the version available for download. In the next day or two I’ll post some more about what’s really going on in this music.

What’s on top of the pile?

Friday 20 July 2007

The Triffids, In The Pines
I’ve just played this for the first time in years and it’s not as worthless as I remember it. Superfluous, yes, but music needs superfluousness. Maybe I’m just homesick.
Pierre Boulez: Répons, Dialogue de l’Ombre Double (Ensemble InterContemporain, Pierre Boulez, Alain Damiens)
Musical institutions are like the military, inasmuch as their use of technology is obsolete by the time it is implemented. Imagine trying to get excited about Herbie Hancock using synths if he released Rockit in 1998, and you pretty much have a shorthand experience of listening to Répons’ interactive electronics. At least its gaucherie makes Boulez seem almost charmingly human for once.
There’s a coupon attached to the cover you could send off for a free CD containing a special headphone mix of the same disc. Any of those left?

(More from the pile)

Disposable Guitar Play Once Throw Away

Wednesday 18 July 2007

I found a digitised copy of that old cassette recording of the plank guitar I previously mentioned. The cassette Disposable Guitar Play Once Throw Away was made in a limited edition of half a dozen or so, as part of a fund-raising group exhibition for a small art space in Melbourne, back in 1999. Each copy was made on a very cheap cassette, with a unique handmade letraset cover (at the time I had a theory that, as it faded into obsolescence, the cassette would replace vinyl as the romanticised fetish medium of choice).
Each side was 30 minutes long. An improvisation on the plank guitar filled up the A side, recorded directly onto cassette through a pair of cheap plastic microphones awkwardly placed on the floor (one mike lead was very short) of a living room in a terrace house in Carlton. The two excerpts given below beautifully capture the sonic limitations of both the recording means and the battery-powered 0.2 watt speaker built into the hollowed-out end of the plank.
I couldn’t find any photos of the guitar, so instead I’ve put up part of a flyer for an in-store gig which featured the guitar, shortly before this recording was made. The B side of the cassette was another half-hour improvisation, but on a different instrument: this was a guitar performance that didn’t use a guitar at all.

Filler By Proxy LIII: New Noise Makers (and more goddamn nostalgia)

Monday 16 July 2007

Of Sound Mind has been making musical instruments: customising toy music boxes, jacking old ferrite bars from radios, and building “self-prepared” electric guitars from a plank of wood. There are audio samples of each instrument.
Why should a guitar be anything but a couple of pickups and some resonating metal, if it is to be used in this form of abstract improvisation? These questions began to form in my mind a “guitar” whose only purpose was to suspend metal “string objects” and amplify them.

Combined, the plank guitar and ferrite bar reminded me of an instrument I played many years ago. The sculptor Andrew Gangoiti also built electric guitars. Once, as an exercise in speed and simplicity, he made a four-string guitar from a plank, no real way of tuning the strings, pickups made from some found magnets wound with however much copper wire he had lying around, connected to a 0.5 watt speaker built into the hollowed-out end of the plank, powered by a 9 volt battery. The moment you turned it on it started to feed back. Pressing your finger against the circuit board for the speaker would short out connections and alter the pitch and tone of the feedback. It was impossible. It was magnificent.

Thanks to a mutual friend, I had a loan of this guitar for several months and gave a few performances with it. There’s a cassette lying around somewhere of this guitar recorded on a cheap plastic mike. At the end of the tape you can hear the circuit board finally go on the fritz. Andrew took the guitar away for repair and I never saw it again.

A long – probably one-sided – conversation about the merits of tubular steel-framed furniture.

Wednesday 11 July 2007

Now I know how the Fonz feels, because I got me a library card; specifically, a reader’s pass to the British Library. I wanted to find out more about John Cage and Ernő Goldfinger, but couldn’t find a copy of Nigel Warburton’s biography of Goldfinger anywhere else.
Warburton takes time to mention Cage’s brief association with the architect, but has nothing more to add than what Cage has already written about the experience, other than the intriguing detail that Goldfinger made his remark about the need for an architects to devote their lives solely to architecture while “preaching to some girlfriends”.
There’s nothing about why Cage’s former professor chose Goldfinger as the man to mentor Cage, but it can be inferred from the rest of the chapter. Goldfinger had quickly established a reputation as something of an enfant terrible since arriving in Paris, making a lot of noise and getting himself introduced to the best and brightest in town. Except for Picasso: Goldfinger refused to meet an artist he suspected would not treat him as an equal.
In fact, the younger Goldfinger could easily be a character out of a Wyndham Lewis novel, judging from Warburton’s book. As well as the harem kept in his offices, “Ernő’s wild spirits even resulted in a challenge to a duel. The source of the insult was his shimmying at a nightclub.” The duel (with sabres) was averted after both parties had their lawyers prepare and exchange “elaborate official apologies”. On another occasion he had “gone on the rampage after one Bal des Quat’z Arts, where there was open hostility between the ateliers, storming off into the night intent on beating up homosexuals.” Just as well Cage didn’t stay around for long.

One last thing I learned at the Venn Festival

Tuesday 10 July 2007

I’m reluctant to discuss the work of people I know personally, but this is a point that goes back to my rant about electroacoustic music. In Bristol I saw a gig by Robin Fox and Anthony Pateras for the first time in over two years. Their standard performance setup is: Fox sits immobile behind his laptop while immediately to his left Pateras thrashes around with a small table full of crap. Regardless how I’m feeling, being at one of their gigs always makes me feel a lot better, but that’s not the point here. In the intervening time since I last saw them, Pateras has added his own laptop to the small table of crap. Their sound has not so much changed as expanded, the new computer acting as a box of hyper-crap. They are pursuing an idea, adding facilitating technology as needed.
Working solo, Fox has spent several years combining electronically generated images and music. At first he patched into his sound system a clapped-out old oscilliscope with a rotary display, showing the frequency of the waveform circling round a still, central point as its zero baseline. The visuals do not accompany the music, nor vice versa: the two are mutually dependent manifestations of the same signal. The image is generated by the sound’s waveform, which is in turn restricted to a range of sounds which produce visually interesting patterns.
These days Fox works with a laser projection system, a more purposefuly-designed piece of equipment operating on much the same principles. His shows with the laser are impressive, even spectacular – it’s not often you get to use that description for a one-man new music gig. However, Fox self-deprecatingly refers to his laser as a gimmick. When he talks about it more, it’s clear he regards it at best as a stopgap piece of technology in a transitional phase of his work. The range of sounds which produce interesting visual patterns is too small for him. He wants to be able to expand his musical vocabulary again, and not be dictated to by the limits of his available technology. The equipment will have to change into something not yet built, or be set aside.

What’s on top of the pile? (blind item)*

Wednesday 27 June 2007

Older readers – you know, Gen X’ers and stuff – will remember experiencing their first David Bowie Moment, endlessly arguing over whether this is a misunderstood masterpiece or a lazy load of bollocks, when it’s really just Not Bad. Wait, I get it now! She’s channelling Patti Smith so it’s supposed to be cringingly bad, but we’re supposed to admire it because of that. Reckon in ten years’ time this will sound atrocious, and then gradually get better again?

(More from the pile)

* I hit ‘post’ before it was finished.

One or two things I learned at the Venn Festival in Bristol

Monday 18 June 2007

I just remembered to write more about the Venn Festival. A couple of things stick in my mind from the weekend, beside the hangovers.
I got up particularly early on Saturday afternoon to go see Goodiepal without fully understanding who he was or what he did, just that the night before a friend had been very insistent I see him. A Faroese man with a fine beard, he was whistling a slow, meandering tune while setting up two large tables covered with small model planets, tiny paintings, music boxes, small vinyl records etched with various patterns. His hour-long set took the form of a lecture, as he explained planetary signals sent back and forth between New York and remote parts of the world, playing his very small records (of whistling, grunting and howling, or other lectures he has given), usually two at a time and talking or singing along with them.
Every now and then he would demonstrate how musical ideas changed in different cultures by giving a quick, vocal demonstrations in gibberish of New York rock bands, Norweigans pretending to be New York rock bands, French rappers, Björk, and offering evidence that every Scandanavian band now sings slow, keening melodies redolent of vast empty spaces.
He produced a small case containing a bird-like theremin under a glass bell, and I remembered where I had heard of him before: Music Thing blogged about this guy in March, linking to video of his appearance on a Danish TV program, under the heading “This Video Will Blow Your Mind“. Later they provided a transcript in English of the interview, where he talks about planetary movements and the interaction of electronics and mechanical music.
In Bristol, he talked for some time about prehistoric sounds being recorded in naturally-occurring magnetic rocks before he ran out of time and had to break it off, allowing audience members to look at the tiny paintings (which had been placed on the table face down) and buy records from him (for which purchasers would a name a price he could not refuse).
It felt like, regardless of whether he was talking, singing, miming or whistling, we had heard the latest instalment in a discussion he had been having with the world for some years now, about what music is, and what it could be.
Much later that night, a Finnish duo were playing a gig in another part of town. They began singing a slow, keening melody redolent of vast empty spaces and I had to leave the room, giggling. Several other people left at the same time. We had all been to see Goodiepal that afternoon.