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Sounding out technology.
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Monthly Archives: May 2005

Sci-Fi MP3 EP

Kurrel the Raven‘s Aechyrs to Aechyrs, on the Nishi netlabel, is utter space music. There’s no ifs, ands or buts about a four-track EP that includes one titled “Captain K-Bird Encounters the Far-Out Space Owls,” especially not when the song is almost 11 minutes from start to finish and moves from gentle Martian new wave to extravagantly flanged mind warps before fading out for what feels longer than many entire songs by like-minded galaxy pilots. Sensitive to the trips of its listeners, Kurrel closes on the quiet “Way Out,” a brief signoff that shifts from the music of the spheres to a heartbeat in less than three minutes. Lacking the audacity of the EP’s “Blissblaster,” an overclocked white-noise rock anthem, the title cut is the one real keeper here: a sedate montage of sonic texture maps waiting to serve as sound design for a science-fiction TV show that’s not yet a twinkle in its future producer’s eye. Check out the EP at notype.com/nishi.

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Mexican Abstract Hip-Hop MP3 EP

The website for the bilingual, Mexico-based netlabel Filtro, filtro.com.mx, says it’s still in beta, but the music is fully functional. The eighth and latest entry in Filtro’s steady release of free downloads is an EP of what it calls “abstract laptop-hip hop” (or, in Spanish, “abstract laptop-hip hop”): Kampion‘s four-track Invisible. A pseudonym for Guillermo Guevara, of the Duopandamix team on Static Discos, Kampion knows how to keep things simple. His music is almost entirely rhythmic, chops of sound that dance and shuffle like a debonair robot. For those seeking a specifically “.mx” spin on instrumental hip-hop, “Routes” is the key track on Invisible, in that it’s the most evidently Latin, with percussion samples that suggest an old Command Classics stereo-demonstration album, cut’n’spliced for the early 21st century. With Kampion’s terse samples bounding between your speakers, you can just about picture the Josef Albers cover art.

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The Sound of Visual Art at SFMOMA

When the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art decided to show Winchester, three short films by artist Jeremy Blake, it knew where to display them: in the same long, velvety dark room that housed Christian Marclay’s “Video Quartet” in the past. The question was how? In one long sequence (they’re each between 10 and 20 minutes in playing time) — or, as was ultimately decided, side by side?

By turning the trilogy into a triptych, SFMOMA emphasized how we absorb visuals and sound differently. Blake’s three films are derived from the Winchester Mystery House, a tourist trap in nearby San Jose that was once, in the late 1800s, the home of the heiress to the Winchester Rifle fortune. Story has it that she feared the ghosts of people killed by her family’s flagship product, and thus kept up construction on the building throughout her lifetime, creating architectural oddities — hallways to nowhere, circuitous loops, trap doors — to confuse her spiritual stalkers. Blake, perhaps most widely known for his digital acid sequences in director Paul Thomas Anderson’s film Punch-Drunk Love and his album art for Beck’s Sea Change, created video odes to the sights, sounds and figments of Winchester. The most recent of the three films has the same overripe colors as Punch-Drunk Love, but the other two emphasize the house’s sepia-tone decay. Each film has its own soundtrack, of period music and/or illustrative noises, like creaks and the flutter of film stock. Whether you sit on a bench in front of any one of the films, or on the floor with your back against the wall to take them all in, they remain individual works, but the sounds combine into a collective score, which varies continuously, due to their differing lengths.

Now, one doesn’t ever take in a single exhibit without it playing off the other exhibits in the same museum. Much as the sound from each Blake screen mixed with that of its two counterparts, other sound-related art at SFMOMA seeped in metaphorically from around the building. Down in the permanent collection were two Robert Rauschenberg pieces: the mixed-media “Trophy IV (For John Cage)” sculpture from 1961, and one of the stark white canvases (“White Painting [Three Panels],” 1951) from the series that informed composer Cage’s famous “silent” work, 4’33”.

An enormous temporary exhibit of video installations by Gary Hill included pieces like “Cut Pipe” (1992), two long cylinders, one of them showing the image of hands gently molesting a speaker cone; “Crossbow “(1999), a three-screen video of Hill working at his desk and occasionally taking a break to blow a sho, a Japanese mouth organ with bamboo pipes; and “Circular Breathing” (1994), which projected large-scale side-by-side moving images, with resulting overlays of on-screen sound. The informative text descriptions of the individual pieces were mostly written by the artist himself (something museums should do more often). Of the sho, Hill explained, “It makes one steady, long sound, a clearing to begin again.” And of “Circular Breathing,” he wrote, “Erik Satie’s ‘Vexations’ comes and goes throughout, adding to the sense of endless subterranean emotion.”

Part of the museum’s permanent collection, “Cyclorama,” by Marco Brambilla, sets in an eye-level semicircle nine video monitors showing moving images shot from rotating rooftop dining rooms in Montreal, New York, New Orleans, St. Louis, Toronto, Dallas, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Seattle. Carefully synchronized, the visuals suggest a heady, warped zone in which traffic flows from the Mississippi River Bridge through St. Louis’ Gateway Arch, and the sun rises and sets throughout North America in one simultaneous instance. Like Jeremy Blake, Brambilla has credits in Hollywood, having directed such B-movies as Excess Baggage and Demolition Man (for both of which, it’s worth mentioning, he employed first-rate composers: John Lurie and Elliot Goldenthal, respectively). The quietly enveloping sound design in “Cyclorama” (by, I believe, tomandandy, who contributed to the scores of Oliver Stone’s JFK and Natural Born Killers, and who have collaborated with artists Jenny Holzer and the Starn Brothers) may have benefited from the power of visual suggestion, but it made my ears pop.

Blake’s Winchester shows through October 10, 2005. Image, Body, Text: Selected Works by Gary Hill closes today (May 30, 2005). More info on some of the various organizations and artists: SFMOMA (sfmoma.com), Jeremy Blake (link), Gary Hill (link), the Winchester Mystery House (winchestermysteryhouse.com).

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Blectum, Willits @ Om Brink Series in S.F.

On Wednesday, May 25, Blevin Blectum and Christopher Willits, two of San Francisco’s most charismatic and accomplished electronic-music performers, shared a double bill in a small back room at a bar in the city’s Tenderloin district. Blectum, whose laptop often dives headlong into cacophony, fiddled with numerous samples that would be suitable to a nightclub, though she didn’t chew on any given soundbite for longer than a few seconds. Willits, an electric guitarist who filters his playing through custom software, invited a guest vocalist on stage for two songs, which gave them the feel of a breathy trip-hop affair, and a drummer for his fifth and final piece, supplying a solid back beat he often intentionally avoids.

That the two co-headliners each played particularly accessible sets was welcome, if a bit of a surprise, given the sponsor if not the locale, the Hemlock Tavern. The show was part of a new monthly series called Brink, organized by Other Minds, which has held an annual Bay Area festival of outward-bound composition since 1993. Brink is planned to bridge the year-long gap between Other Minds fests, and also perhaps as an outreach program to a broader (feel free to read that as younger) audience.

The night began with a birthday sing-a-long for Other Minds board member Jim Newman (producer of Sun Ra’s Space Is the Place). Blectum, looking like she’d stepped out of a Vermeer painting, took the stage to play a solid half hour of seamless maneuvers between snippets of drum patterns, with occasional lapses into what felt like silence but was, in fact, a thick muffle of noise. She repeatedly suckered you into thinking that the moment’s given rhythm would be around a while, and then just as you got comfortable — heck, just when you got comfortable with the possibility of getting comfortable — she shot off in another direction. This didn’t keep folks from trying to bob their heads along, though it frustrated those it didn’t delight. If you think about Charles Ives’ relationship with John Philip Sousa, you have some sense of what Blectum does with the raw materials of drum’n’bass and other dance music. Toward the end of her piece, what sounded like birdsong entered the mix, and she tinkered with the natural melodies until they came to resemble pure oscillating waves.

Willits divided his set into five pieces, between about four and twelve minutes each. Wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the sort of wolf’s head you’d see on a black-light painting, he fingered figures on his guitar and then worked his laptop magic, sometimes opting for his characteristic abstract cascades of notes, and generally constructing song-like arcs of tension and release. One of the many pleasures in seeing Willits live is the disconnect between his motion on stage and the groove of the music that gets heard; he bobs and weaves, wearing his headphones in the style of a DJ (over one ear) to allow him to hear both his mid-process sound, and the post-processed sound that the audience experiences. For two of his shortest pieces that evening, the second and third, he invited singer Latrice Barnett to join him, and though her voice, a subtle haze of soul, provided a soft backdrop, it wasn’t amplified properly to have much presence. For the final piece, he called up a drummer (Gabriel Coan, of the band Continental), who suggested a strict, if swinging, framework.

Here’s hoping that Other Minds will post the recordings at archive.org, alongside the free downloads from its many festivals. More info on the various organizations and participants at the following addresses: Blevin Blectum (blevin.lsr1.com), Christopher Willits (christopherwillits.com), Other Minds (otherminds.org), Hemlock Tavern (hemlocktavern.com), Latrice Barnett (latricebarnett.com), Continental (thecontinentalwebsite.com).

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Tangents (Robotspeak, Roc-a-Fella, Grateful)

Quick Links: (1) Robotspeak, the next-generation computer-music store on Haight near Fillmore in San Francisco (and which carries Chachi Jones‘ bent Speak & Spells) has launched its own print magazine: robotspeakmagazine.com. How will it distinguish itself? Says the website, “Our business plan involves sucking less and costing nothing.” … (2) Among the planning grants awarded by Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative this year, “Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia ($20,000) for the development of Sounding Site: Revisiting Historic Sites through Sound and Light Installation, in which sonic installations will be placed in under-known historic sites throughout the region” (link). … (3) Leonardo Music Journal, edited by Nicolas Collins, has put out a call for papers “on the expanded role of sound in art, science, business and everyday life” (link). … (4 – 8) Five via boingboing.net: how humpback whales play variations on each other’s songs (link); the sound of “solar wind termination shock” recorded as NASA’s Voyager 1 prepares to leave our solar system (link); two websites of communities that remix video-game music (vgmix.com, ocremix.org); a scientific study on listening to music as a sedative during surgery, “Music and Ambient Operating Room Noise in Patients Undergoing Spinal Anesthesia” (link) … (9) Among those awarded in this year’s Prix Ars Electronica international competition for “cyberarts”: Maryanne Amache, for TEO!, a sonic sculpture, conceived as a sound installation for the Esplanade des Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City; John Oswald, for a CD collection spanning his work from 1969 through 1996; and Finish duo Pan Sonic for their Kesto album. Among the honorable mentions in “digital musics”: Haco, Mike Cooper, Nicholas Bussmann and Martin Brandlmayr, skoltz_kolgen, Paul DeMarinis, Gilles Gobeil, Louis-Philippe Demers, Scott Arford, Jens Brand, Kateryna Zavoloka (Nexsound), Yoshimitsu Ichiraku and artificiel (Alexandre Burton, Julien Roy and Jimmy Lakatos). More info at aec.at. … (10) There are three volumes of 12″s derived from the Motown Remixed album, labeled “hiphop,” “chill” and “club.” The “hiphop” one includes a 2:20 track of “bonus beats” from Z-Trip‘s version of the Jackson 5‘s “I Want You Back” (motownremixed.com).

New Releases: Among new releases due out this week: (1) Hazardous Materials (Consumers Research and Development) features tracks and mixes by Miles Tilmann, Atom Heart, Made, Cepia, Mr. Projectile, Single Minded Pros, Tstewart, Innerstance Beatbox and others (consumerslabel.net). … (2) Alio Die and Jack or Jive‘s Mei-Jyu (Projekt) is a collaboration between Italian producer Stefano Musso, aka Alio Die, and Japanese pair Chako and Makoto Hattori, aka Jack or Jive (projekt.com). … More new-release info at brainwashed.com/releases. … Commute Blues: On the morning bus ride, an increasingly common sight is impatient iPod Shuffle users pumping their gum-package-size MP3 players, thus resembling hospital patients self-administering morphine.

Heavy Rotation: (1) Current hip-hop production macher Kanye West‘s “Breathe In Breathe Out (Instrumental)” (Roc-a-Fella) … (2) Amon Tobin‘s cinematic video-game score, Chaos Theory Splinter Cell 3 Soundtrack (Ninja Tune) … (3) AFRA‘s digitally enhanced human beatbox EP, Digital Breath (W+K Tokyo Lab) … (4) Various artists’s The Relay Project, a “magazine that you listen to” (therelayproject.com). … (5) Michael Nyman‘s pointilist three-piano Manhatta (Downstream entry on May 9, 2005).

Quote of the Week: “What was new, of course, was electricity: Amplification of instruments and voices enabled nuances that once would have been lost in the noise floor to be clearly heard and developed further in a seemingly infinite progression.” That’s Phil Lesh writing in a purposefully comma-free stream in his new autobiography, Searching for the Sound (Little, Brown), of the night that changed his life, watching the Warlocks play in 1965; soon after he would join the group, which would become the Grateful Dead. Lots of interesting stuff early on in this book, notably on his work and studies with composer Luciano Berio at Mills College, where he pursued a course in composition, and his participation, with classmate Steve Reich, on musical direction for a local anarchist theater group.

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