In grad school, at least in my grad school, they did their best to, as politely as they could, shove world music down your throat. This has interesting consequences. As hard to believe as this is, not all world music is good. In fact, most of it is bad. Because the phrase “world music” covers, like, 90% of music. It would be really weird if all of it was good.
Maybe because I grew up listening mostly to some strange combination of jazz, Arabic music, and my school bus driver’s favorite R&B top 40, I don’t tend to go nuts for music just because it has a world beat. Great, this uses maksum, how awesome. It’s still just another bad rap track. I mean, don’t get me wrong, the very first time I heard Big Pimpin I flipped out, but a young half-Syrian kid can only handle so much.
What I’m saying is that it’s easy to write off world music as something kitschy, or some kind of gimmick, and sometimes you’d be right. This happens even in the world of academic chamber music… but not even remotely in the case of Rhein Percussion. Rhein means “to flow”, and they seriously do. This album grooves, regardless of how uneven the meter might look on paper, and it does so in a natural, authentic-but-super-fresh manner. They flow seamlessly between improvisation, complex tala and electronics, sometimes combining all three at once.
These guys played on my recital, and many have since said their performance was a highlight. Rhein Percussion consists of a core group of CalArts drummers, with a rotating cast of collaborators. The tracks on their self-titled debut are all composed, mixed, and recorded by ensemble members and friends. Their signature sound combines world rhythms and instrumentation with drum set, and some truly profound soundscapes emerge. Amir Oosman, as I’ve said before on this blog, is a master kit player. Dan Ogrodnik’s knowledge of hand drumming styles knows no bounds. Josh Carro, it’s been rumored, must now carry around an extra set of tablas because the ones he’s playing sometimes spontaneously burst into flames of ecstasy.
On two tracks, Brian Foreman‘s unique brand of electronics and live processing casts the group’s already modern sound into a deep, dark future filled with buzzy beats and rhythmic surprises that modern live electronic production so often lacks. Other collaborators who should blow your mind just by seeing them all on one album: Matthew Clough-Hunter on gamelan, drummers Sean Fitzpatrick and Etienne Rivera, and Ryan Bancroft, Rusty Kennedy, and Andrew Rowan on conch shell. How cool is that?
I am part of an experimental theater performance at Highways Theater in Santa Monica. The final show is tonight at 8:30 p.m. and runs about an hour. I beat box and take part in various other silly and entertaining things. Last night was a great success, and tonight is sold out. But I wanted to give a shoutout for anyone interested in rush tickets.
“New Shoes 3 is the third installment in an ongoing series of new dance and physical theater works by Southern California-based artists. Annabel Movement Ensemble’s Tumultuous explores the archetypes in Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Making connections between office workers and athletes, Hanna Kovenock, Julia Marasa and Paige Tighe play with the idea of breaking out of the constraints of capitalist culture in LABOR-ation. Deena Selenow, Paul Fraser and Genevieve Gearhart’s Katastrofi merges Sophocles’ tragedy The Women of Trachis with Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River.” In The Day I Met Anne Frank, Winter Dance Theater uses Frank’s story as a jumping off point for a piece featuring dance, theater and song.”
I am currently listening to Niyomkarn’s new headphones album, Hue. It was produced on the open source program SuperCollider and is entirely in 3D audio (hence the requirement for headphones). I’m now about halfway through the third track, 28 [FISH], and suddenly we’ve gone from the sound of oily fingers on alien glass to a softly rising sun with TV static, then back to the alien glass except now there’s bugs on it.
There are parts of this album that make my ears and brain very uncomfortable in the most pleasant of ways. Other moments are so delicately constructed, especially in terms of panning, that I had to lie down and close my eyes. Between the chaotically rhythmic blips, beeps, drones, noise, static and sirens is an introspective silence from Niyomkarn, an insistent, calm little plea to listen closely. This is my favorite kind of message in music, and some would say it’s the only message.
Too often, composers compose for a purpose. I know I am very guilty of this, if “guilty” is the right word. But some music adamantly exists merely to point out that sound is awesome. That’s what Hue is. An electronic painting of nothing the eyes can see. It’s full of surprises in a genre that often encounters the problem of being so unpredictable, everything is predictable. Maybe in Hue’s case, this is achieved with the three-dimensional mix. The sounds will parade about inside your head, like a fairy circle if the fairies were surrounded by totally rad forcefields and constantly zapping between superpositions.
I’m now on If and Only If, the center track. Two soundscapes faded back and forth, as if vying for attention, giving way to a massively dead center full-spectrum pulse tone called Drops. This drops into (it’s an accurate title) an Indian Rag-esque tabla jam, and it works so well here. Maybe going to CalArts prepares you to be ready for itinerant rag-esque tabla jams popping out at you from every direction. But Jason Guthrie’s drums are soaked in electronics. They feel utterly appropriate. The live performance of this music is really apparent here.
On the other side of If and Only If, we are faced with music that has discovered sampling, harmony and rhythm, but it has unearthed these strange objects on its own and so come to us as hints and dream-thoughts. The effect is palpable. Theory II is a paramecium rave, leading then into lush swaths of harmonic and vocal sampling in Hers.
And this ending. This ending right here. I won’t spoil it, but I can safely say Hue is a journey I’m glad I took. Though the music may scare you at first, I’m here to tell you that music is supposed to do that. It’s supposed too make you uncomfortable in a way that refuses to let you go.
Find Niyomkarn’s album on Bandcamp. Listen there or via the player below.
LA filmmaker Thomas MacVicar has put together a 10-minute mini-documentary about the so-called “beat scene” of Los Angeles, which first gained steam at the Airliner with Low End Theory and slowly becoming, like, a thing, man. Features excellent music and interviews from artists such as Daedelus, Shlohmo, Co.Fee, and Mndsgn.
Here is an awesome, awesome video from Soundcheck of Kimbra (the best part of that Gotye song) performing Settle Down and live looping on a TC-Helicon VoiceLive FX box. The VoiceLive is a simplified version of what I do when I’m creating weirdo vocal edits and layering in a studio, except prepackaged in a box with a really swift interface. What I’m saying here is that I really, really want one.
When I first started performing live looping in the mid-1800s, I had to buy a micro-amp and a bunch of guitar pedals to plug a microphone into. People first started to take notice when KT Tunstall hit with her JamMan on Black Horse and a Cherry Tree, but that was still originally meant for a guitar. Now the very existence of the VoiceLive is proof that people like Kimbra are becoming more and more common. We’ve come a long way since the days of fretted strings and a rock kit, and I couldn’t be happier.
The term “supergroup” gets bandied about a lot I feel, and I suppose it kind of depends on how you look at it. If I were to go up to the average radio listener and say:
“Holy shit, Excision, Downlink, and KJ Sawka formed a live band together! Can you freaking believe that?”
Rather than get a real answer, they would try to figure out if I wanted their money and then quietly walk on. But if you went up to the average EDM-head asking the same question, they’d freak. Because it’s pretty damn exciting.
I’m in no way dubstep’s biggest fan. It’s true, I did gush about Skrillex on this blog a few years ago because I obtained a copy of his EP before the term “brostep” even existed, and I was (and still am) very excited about the new palette dubstep gave popular music culture. But due largely to its mainstream commercial success, the dubstep fad has passed, and thank god, because maybe it (or its derivatives) might actually get good again.
Point being, in that realm, Excision is a huge name, and Downlink is relatively popular as well. And KJ Sawka is the drummer for a little band called Pendulum, which I’ve also written about before on this blog, because they were pioneers in providing live electronic dance music using no prerecorded tracks. I’ll just leave this right here:
Destroid is electronic dance music delivered in a fairly novel way. They come armed with what appear to be modded Ztar MIDI controllers and a mythology so steeped in mystery half their fans don’t even know who’s in the band. They dressed up in alien robot suits, released a comic book, and released a series of viral videos of aliens invading the Earth using modulated bass synths, which is hilarious if you stop and think about it. They’ve now performed two or three shows around America this summer to enthusiastic reviews from the heads who were searching for something with kinda the same punch but on the next level. Destroid seems poised to bring that do the EDM scene, and I think it’s pretty badass.
(PS, in the course of writing this article, I discovered the pseudopop trash Pendulum became seemingly overnight about three years ago, and it hurts my heart. Okay, enjoy the video.)
What I have linked for you here, friends, is one of the coolest, sexiest songs to land in a long time. Banks is a Los Angeles native and self-taught pianist/singer/songwriter whose track “Before I Ever Met You” has been gaining popularity and radio airplay since it first dropped a few months ago. Her voice is sultry yet powerful, evoking the same raw feminine power you’d get from Lykke Li, Fionna Apple, or Beth Gibbons. It’s certainly in the tradition of trip hop, in this new electropop-crossover-revival-thing that’s been slowly gaining steam.
You can believe that I’m doing everything I can to find out who produced the track. Maybe she did it herself? Who knows? She’s been keeping herself completely removed from the limelight. Most other blogs, tumblrs, buzz sites, etc. are all full of conjecture and searching for adjectives or references to fill the void, just like this one. We need more Banks!
She has released three tracks to date, which have been enjoying a bevy of online attention and remixes. The two others have videos now, the most recent being for “Warm Water”, a track produced by Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs with a video by Dylan Knight. It’s a softer song, showing the versatility of the artist’s expressive and unique voice (I mean that literally in addition to the overarching meaning of “voice”).
And this next video shows, among other things, the incredible expressivity of her upper range. Banks, ladies and gentlemen, can fucking wail. I get chills listening to it.
The production is simple, rhythmic, and very effective. The songwriting is natural and has the feel of a real tune that would work just as well as a solo in front of a piano as it would in an electronic setting such as this. The organically repeating refrains make for wonderful songwriting. As long as the attention that will be lavished upon Banks in the coming months/years/forever doesn’t overwhelm her, we will be seeing massive things from this new artist.
I have always had an interesting relationship with Björk’s music. When I was very young, her melodic content often struck me as too non-sequitur. At the time I listened almost exclusively to electronic music, so the fact that I wasn’t head-over-heels for Björk was always a point of contention with my group of friends.
I was introduced to her music videos in 1999, and that was the beginning of a slow descent into fandom that has taken about fifteen years to culminate (which reached its inevitable conclusion two nights ago at the Hollywood Palladium). I always loved Human Behavior because of the groove and Michel Gondry’s signature quirkiness, and of course when I first saw/heard her collaboration with Chris Cunningham in All Is Full of Love I was just as affected by it as anyone else. But I have to admit, I listened more to the Plaid remix, because at about 2:10 it starts to sound like some electronic Baroque symphony, and also because I used to be crazy for anything having to do with Warp Records.
It was a girl I knew in Tennessee who introduced me to Vespertine. It was a summer thing, a friend of a friend, and she was a beautiful blonde Buddhist in the Bible Belt, and we clicked. One night I confessed that I appreciated Björk but didn’t listen to her much. Vespertine had just come out, and my friend insisted that we drive around one foggy night and listen to it in my car. It opens up with Hidden Place, and as soon as the choral swell came in I knew it was a different sort of album. The spectacle of her previous incarnations had always had the feeling of searching to me, not quite settled. But Vespertine was thoughtful, quieter, more complex, and to me more aurally holistic. I was hearing the live-sampled nature of the source material, the shufflings and cracklings helped along by Matmos. For once, it was as if, rather than being shouted at to come over! get to know me!, instead I was being intimately invited into another’s sanctuary, maybe some warmly lit hollowed-out tree, and told to please keep my voice down because she’s got something very private to say.
It was a wonderful gift my friend had given. And I was aghast to discover that so many reviews, though favorable, still compared it diminutively to earlier albums like Homogenic. I remember being particularly livid when I heard Vespertine described as “too feminine”. I suspected then that the majority of her fans sexualized the massive beats in a strange way, as if they were only allowed to like to like a woman’s electronic music because it came across in what they interpreted as some oddly androgynous masculinity. It has certainly always put Björk in a strange position, because it seems so hard for people to realize that she could quite possibly maybe even a little bit be producing her own damn beats. Vespertine was new and honest in a way electronic music rarely is, and hearing it changed my life.
It was about five or six months later, I don’t remember how long exactly. I was a sophomore in college, as was my Vespertine friend at a different school about two hours away. I remember our last conversation on the phone. I had wanted to attend a music festival she was working at, but I didn’t have enough money to make the drive back to Nashville to see her. She said she was disappointed, but she understood. A month after that conversation, she walked off the top of a tall building, ending her own life. I’ve never told anyone about that phone conversation before this post, and not going to Nashville to see her that day is one of the only true regrets I have in life. There’s no way I could have known, but I will never forgive myself for it anyway.
I’ve never been able to make it through Vespertine since. I just tried tonight, actually, but found it’s hard to type when your vision’s all blurry. Apparently, even just typing about it I’m running into the same problem. Suicide is a horrible thing, and it leaves behind scars on the souls of the living that never go away. So please don’t do it. Okay.
The Hollywood Palladium, at first [insert word like “glance” but with your ears], was not my cup of tea. I later discovered there’s a reason I’d never been to it before: electronic acts tend not to play there because it’s got a notoriously mucky sound. It turns out, however, that this is only true if the performance actually takes place on the stage. Björk had set herself up in the round, with chairs to one side of the floor but allowing audience members to wander and enjoy from any angle they’d like. To top it off, my friends and I spent most of our time about fifteen feet from the Tesla coils, and man those suckers are loud. The show sounded fabulous. Palladium promoters, take note.
In addition to his signature hang drums, Manu played an elaborate, mostly electronic drumset. The samples were triggered by a drum brain, which were also sometimes channelled to Matt Robertson, who ran numerous controllers from his station, including a Novation Launchpad, a Reaktable, and what I believe was a Lemur, all run through Ableton Live. Matt was processing most of the audio input channels, as far as I could tell, but his live manipulation of Manu’s playing was particularly striking.
She had several keyboard-like instruments done up to accept MIDI information, including a bespoke pipe organ and a gameleste, arguing once again that portmanteau is the highest form of semantic expression. Also, the stage was practically littered with iPads. There was a harpist as well, and of course the lovely Icelandic female choir Graduale Nobili, whom I had the good fortune to get to know a little after the concert (also check out Lyrika!). Everyone was very down to earth and grateful for the opportunity to work with Björk for such a good cause.
The Tesla coil was important to me, because it’s an electronic instrument that doesn’t have a bitrate. It requires no post-amplification or line out. It just is. It’s what electricity sounds like to the naked ear. But after a conversation with one of my friends, I came to agree that the gravity harp was the instrument that most accurately communicated the intention of the residency. Watch it playing during her performance of Solstice below:
Controlled by resident pendulologist Frank Arthur Cassata, designed by Andy Cavatorta and interfaced by James Patten, the gravity harp is four giant robot pendulums outfitted with tuned, rotating sleeves sporting eleven strings each. As the pendulums naturally swing back and forth, a fixed guitar pick plucks the string closest to it. As the pendulum swings out again, the sleeve can stay on the note, rotate to another, or rotate fully to create a rest. The motion of the pendulums is controlled mostly by the simple interaction of mass and gravity. It’s never quite regular, creating a hauntingly near-human cadence that stays with you long after the performance has finished. My brother actually uses an inverted pendulum model in his PhD studies on human walking, and in our talks about his work I’ve come to realize what fascinatingly elegant and endlessly inspiring machines they are.
All this sonic geekery is well and good. It’s a thorough and thoughtful production, both educational and forward-thinking. But at the center of it all, of course, is Björk and her powerful voice, her poetic lyrics, her spritely dancing, and the music. I’ve seen so many sound installations in my day, especially since attending grad school at a place like CalArts. But no matter how elaborate your machines, or how clever your interfaces, in the end it means nothing without the music and a personality like Björk’s to tie it all together.
And, as it turns out, a large part of this tour involves songs from Vespertine. When she launched into Hidden Place, and that gorgeous live choir swelled, ladies and gentleman, I lost it. I went back to a time before I lost my friend, driving through a light fog in the hills of Tennessee, and I cried. And her ability to elicit that kind of emotional response out of electronic music, singing about scientific themes and techy installations, and to have that effect on someone who took over a decade to finally get around to admitting it… that’s what makes Björk one of the most important musicians and performers of our time. I’m so grateful I had a chance to see this show, and if it is even remotely possible, go and see her festival set at the Hollywood Bowl today. I promise, you won’t regret it.