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.
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.)
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.
The V Motion Project is a pretty successful motion tracking DJ performance, using a dancer, Kinect technology, and a great big wall to showcase various parameters controlled by the performer’s movements.
The track comes from Joel Little of Kids of 88 and Goodnight Nurse. Below is a track of his from Ko88, which you can download for free here in exchange for a subscription. Goodnight Nurse isn’t nearly as good so I’m not going to bother.
Anyway, the outstanding James Hayday broke Can’t Help Myself down and threw it up on Ableton, where lots of technical stuff happened that is not as complicated as you’d think.
In order to avoid lag, the bane of systems’ like this various existences, they actually ran two simultaneous Kinects tracking two separate aspects of the video input. To eliminate interference, they put a small motor into one to wiggle it constantly, causing info from the other camera to blur and thus be ignored. Cool, right? Here’s a short screen capture video of the Ableton session in action.
The music system works by connecting the Kinect camera to Ableton Live, music sequencing software usually used by Djs and musicians during live performances. Below is a screen capture of our Ableton setup. The interface is full of dials, knobs, switches and buttons. Normally, a musician would use a physical control panel covered with the knobs, dials, and switches to control Ableton’s virtual ones. Paul’s music system works by allowing us to map body movements to Ableton’s controls. For example, when you touch your head with your left hand a certain loop could start. Or you could control the dry/wet filter with the distance between your hands. This ability to map physical motion to actions in Ableton is enormously powerful.
There’s a wealth of information on the technology at the Custom Logic site about the evolution of the air keyboard from being a grid in front of the player to a semicircle around him. It also discusses the lag issue in greater depth and talks more about which specific parameters are controlled. Now that I’ve linked to it, I shall now post from it!
Triggering vox samples, low frequency oscillations a.k.a. dubsteppiness, drum filters, and my favorite “ball of dough” controller. The performer can cycle through various settings for different song sections and parameters like how close his chest is to the ground controlling volume.
Overall, this is a great step toward engaging electronic performance. While we’re still dealing with certain parameters controlled live alongside lots of prerecorded tracks, CPU power is inching toward that stage where we’ll finally have the processing capability to have a live performance on par with what we’ve got in our heads. Or will it never be as engaging as four cats with instruments and microphones? I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.
So hey, I’m getting my masters at a really good art school, at which I am surrounded by many crazy talented folks. Thus I made this page, so anyone can go to one location and see a few projects I’ve done over the years. It took forever and I’d really like you to mosey over and click around.
I’ll also be posting works I’ve done through the school as I obtain records of them, and do my darndest to remember to post about them on this blog. Below are two collaborations with the Sharon Disney Lund School of Dance!
The Next Step is to Go Back, with choreographer/dancer Lindsey Lollie.
The Lamp Piece, with choreographer/dancer Michelle Sagarminaga.
Onyx Ashanti, the inventor and musician who is pioneering a sound he calls beatjazz, recently did a TEDTalk, one of the ones more aptly titled a TEDDon’tTalkJustPlay. He’s got what appears to be an airflow gauge coming out of his mouth, an iPhone strapped to his arm giving him parameter readouts, and a MIDI controller in each hand with some triggers, accelerometers, and other space gizmo goodies that allow him to loop and process live. It’s a pretty engaging form of advanced DJing, and definitely worth a watch/listen.
On a different note, The Glitch Mob have announced that their new album will drop July 12, and have released their first single, called Warrior Concerto. You can listen below, and enter a related contest here, which you totally should!
Having heard legends of the Walt Disney Concert Hall and the flawlessness of its acoustics, I was very excited to see such a fearsome foursome as the Kronos Quartet, Matmos, Mike Einziger, and Terry Riley all in one go.
First off, the WDCH does not disappoint in the slightest. We sat in the cheap seats behind the orchestra. Despite the fact that the performers are facing away from you, these are by far the best seats from which to eavesdrop on an electronic duo’s setup, not to mention hear an organ performance since you’re sitting directly under the pipes. Even given our weird positioning, the sound was so clear that as the orchestra played full tilt alongside 12 guitar amps for Einziger’s piece, we could still hear a lonely cellist turn a page.
The night, which kicked off the West Coast, Left Coast Festival, had a rolling cast. It began with the Kronos Quartet, who performed a piece by Thomas Newman. It involved live electronics and Newman’s trademark melodic rhythmicism, dissonanced up here and there to ensure no one forgot they weren’t listening to a film score. The Kronos Quartet has a sound so free and yet cohesive you’ve got to see it to believe it, and David Harrington is nothing short of a rock star.
Following this, Matmos and the Kronos Quartet performed two pieces, which to me was a highlight of the night. If you’ve read other articles around this site, you’ll know that I’m obsessed with quality reconstruction of electroacoustic music without any prerecorded tracks. Matmos, whose myriad influences date back to tape loops and musique concrète, seamlessly blended their infectious grooves and quirky live sampling with the furious sawing of two violins, a viola and a cello. The quartet dutifully supplied samples to Matmos when required, shaking rattlers, baby bells, and even smacking their own violin with a bright red squeaky hammer. This is how the future of electronic music should sound: masterfully beautiful with a twinkle in its eye. I have had it up to here with contemporary chamber electronica always taking itself so damn seriously.
Matmos then performed two tracks to video. I can understand how such music can be underwhelming to those expecting a more club-oriented electronic duo like Plaid or Autechre, but I was delighted by the freedom inherent in their soundscapes. I felt it was a celebration of sound more than a celebration of themselves, a sentiment too often lacking in musicians the world over.
Next, we had the privilege of hearing Mike Einziger’s Forced Curvature of Reflective Surfaces, a through-composed process piece inspired quite clearly by the shape of the concert hall in which we sat. After an (extremely) short introduction by the ever low key Einziger, the piece began with a series of rises and falls, one side of the orchestra mirroring the other, interspersed with bits of tonality here and there. The guitar amps surrounding the string players like the earth’s crust included that of the composer himself, placed surreptitiously at the end of the row. Suzie Katayama, who conducted his piece End.>vacuum in the past, conducts with an easy, flowing style perfect for such an amorphous composition. At one point, when the song got to the big bulbous part of the building near the center, the incredibly long fall drew chuckles from the audience. Sure, Mike might be the guitarist for the pop alternative band Incubus, but don’t let that get in the way of the brilliance of this infinitely curious and tirelessly humble artist.
Matmos returned and jammed with Mike for a while, then Kronos and Terry Riley joined them for a session that really knocked me out. There I was, watching eight musicians who probably never expected to be so popular or successful, still down to earth and inspired by life, no one soloing wankily over the other, in one of the most acoustically perfect rooms in the world. What a treat! Terry Riley, as the elder, definitely seemed the Patriarch, Wise Man, and Shaman of the session, immediately setting up a bluesy ostinato and running over it, left and right and up and down and across and under and through. The cellist took up the hook and everyone just went off. When Terry Riley began singing a raga a la Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, it really took the performance to a level usually reserved for sex and prayer. I am ever impressed by the voice and to what heights (or depths) it may take us.
Terry Riley then left the stage organ and moved slowly (he is 74) up to the big organ roughly 15 feet to my left. The eccentric woman on my right remarked, “It is a gift to music lovers everywhere that the best seats in the house are the cheapest!” Terry played for one glorious hour, which we believe only involved 3 songs. Some people left, to my shock and horror, and some stayed until he finished at 12:30. Unbeknownst to me, he has been known to play concerts well into the sunrise, which were attended in the old days by acid trippers and families with sleeping bags alike. His music is not for the faint of heart, but to the heart of a thinking person it is undeniably a celebration of life and deserts and oceans and people and an endless stream of universal loveliness. He constantly toyed with rhythm, and not just in the conventional hey-look-5/4 sort of way. Sometimes he’d just skip a beat, so I would often be tapping along for a good bit before I realized I was now on the off beat. He plays music as if life were overwhelming, yet beneath it all is a beat that goes on and on despite the supersaturated humdrum of it all. Which is true… especially in Los Angeles.
Here’s a song by Terry Riley called A Rainbow in Curved Air, which someone synced up to 2001: A Space Odyssey because Youtube is funny like that. Happy Thanksgiving!
It’s half past midnight in Hollywood and the smell of greasy hot dogs follows me to my car. A cool mist fogs my glasses, and I nod to the little lady behind a cart covered with aluminum foil, relish, and fried onions. She’s the same old Latina woman behind every hot dog cart in LA, and she nods back grimly. The wet weather is bad for business.
I first saw Jimmy Edgar in 2006 opening for Jamie Lidell at Troubdour. Jamie always puts on a great show and has really come out since the Multiply single got some play. I remember Jimmy Edgar as having the right idea but lacking in execution.
A few days ago a guitarist friend sends a text saying, “All live electronic music! This Thurs at Knitting Factory! I think u like…” Who could it be but Jimmy Edgar again? Great! He must have pulled a Jamie and gotten a band together, instead of the button mashing and Korg-talking of his last performance! Excitement!
But, no. Come Thursday, it was the same old schtick. A guy with floppy hair behind a lot of gear and wicked gangsta beats paying absolutely no attention to the audience. Occasionally he sang, modding his voice to sound the way he wished it did in high school. He didn’t sing complete songs, so the neat and funky vocal riffs were overshadowed by all the pre-recorded nonsense.
Did he notice when people stopped dancing because he let a naked rhythm go on too long? Did he give any thought to structure, harmonic or lyric? Did he have any stage persona at all, other than a vaguely Prince-in-supsenders outfit? No wonder he hasn’t learned anything in last three years! He never looks at his audience!
So! Here’s a list of rules for aspiring live electronic musicians:
Rule 1 – Excessive looping is boring.
It takes forever to get to the good parts, and it messes up your structure. Looping is a supplemental tool to be used tastefully. It is no basis for an entire track by itself, because nobody wants to listen to the same four bars for five minutes without a break. Also: Beat repeaters and knob-twiddling filters only count as a break the first time. By the twenty-seventh use it gets a little old.
Rule 2 – Pre-recorded music is disappointing.
A good live experience is based on establishing a dynamic between the listeners dancing and the artists creating. Music is simple like that. The mind is simple like that. Adding a step where the mind has to interact with music created somewhere else is distracting, and the mind is never fooled. It knows this pre-recorded schlock could have been created for anyone and the only point of coming to the show was to hear it louder. The mind does not feel special after this and leaves to get a beer.
Rule 3 – A computer screen is not your audience.
The day recording went to 96K was a dark day for tape, because, frankly, 96K sounds great. That happened quite a while ago. Which means everybody and their friggin’ dog listens to music at least recorded and augmented electronically. Hip hop and club pop is nothing but electronic music. In 1998, yes, Americans listening to electro and IDM got a warm, fuzzy future window to carry around in their hearts. Now Muse and Infected Mushroom and Kid A exist, and the glitch vibe is a thing of the past. Listening to electronic music no longer makes you special. Bands now possess the ability to supplement their live act with quality sounding electronic instruments, which means the old one-person-behind-hardware-mountains doesn’t work anymore. We used to watch that because we didn’t have a choice if we wanted to hear the stuff live. Not anymore.
Rule 4 – If you can’t sing, don’t.
This goes out to every new artist out there: You are not Pete Townsend. You are not Daft Punk. You aren’t even Cher, probably. Autotune is not a talkbox. It just makes you sound really stupid.
New album rule! You are only allowed one vocoder-like track per album. The rest you have to sing completely un-pitchcorrected or get a real singer to do it for you. Royksopp is getting better at this. It’s only a matter of time until this production fad backfires anyway, and you want to be the first out the box on that one, don’t you? Rimshot.
Rule 5 – Memorability is a good thing.
“Music is Rotted One Note” is a prime example. As an avid Squarepusher fan I am happy to report I love this album. That doesn’t mean I ever listen to it.
There’s a lot of debate on memorability in music, which in my mind makes it the most important. When I recorded the Sex Pistols, John Lydon told me, “Debate! Always debate. Let the Nazi talk!” He also told me, “All good music is folky, mate!” He would point out the melody in any folk song (Not surprisingly, they all have one. Take note, Jimmy.) and then during an instrumental break he would say, “Can you hear it? It’s still there! They aren’t playing it, but it’s still there, and you can’t wait for it to come back in, can you?”
That’s called a hook, which sounds like marketing, which sounds like sell-out, which is bad. So don’t call it a hook. Call it folky. That’s called integrity. All music we owe to folk, because it was memorable. Don’t ignore thousands of years of songwriting because you’re afraid of being called a sell-out. Be at peace with the way the human brain works or stop complaining about your lousy concert turnouts. It isn’t just about you.
On a final note, let me talk about my friend Lee Noble. He used to play bass and pitchbent toys in a Nashville band called A Poet Named Revolver, and they were awesome. They made one great album and broke up, ignoring the interest from labels it sparked. He has a film degree and now lives in Burbank.
He sometimes performs under the name Conger Eel. His set up, which is usually in dim dive bars that serve more Mexican beer than domestic, involves several tape players, a guitar, illegible vocals and noise, noise, noise. His show is always different and the only genre label that might possibly apply is avant garde. His performances are fearless and without expectation and are to be taken seriously and very flippantly simultaneously.
Knowing that Lee exists gives me great comfort. His Conger Eel project won’t make him any money, but he follows all the rules I’ve just laid out. His loops are created on the spot and never last long un-chopped. There’s no computer screen, because he does this all with hacked tape cassettes. Anything pre-recorded is ironic, like an old M.C. Hammer sample found at a thrift store. And he is a good singer.
My friend Alen is a visual artist from Detroit, and he remembers the experience when I took him to see Lee at the Airliner with a vague sense of awe. That counts. Memorable means genuine, and Lee is most definitely that.
It’s half past midnight and the smell of greasy hot dogs follows me to my car. A cooling mist hangs in the air and fogs my glasses. Maybe the crummy weather explains the sparse crowd at Jimmy Edgar’s show.