¶ Deaf Gaming: Interesting anecdote from a recent gamasutra.com piece on the late video game creator Kenji Eno, written by Brandon Sheffield. The “Eno” in this is, of course, Kenji (not Brian), and the Saturn is the Sega game console from the mid-1990s:
“For his next game, Sega wanted to make it an exclusive — whatever it was. Eno had recently met with some sight-impaired folks who liked to play action games, and he asked himself, “What if you made a game that the blind and the sighted could play equally?” So he created the game Real Sound, which is an audio-only retail game, and made Sega promise that if he made the game exclusive to them, they would donate 1,000 Saturns to blind people, and he would supply 1,000 copies of the game. Again, this was an unusual idea for 1996, but he felt the stagnancy of the industry, and went to great lengths to shake it up.”
Surround Sound: The Tank is a 60’ x 30′ vessel — a “rusted steel water tank” in the words of its caretaker, Bruce Odland, who has made use of its inherent 40-second reverb since 1976. He’s set up a kickstarter.com campaign to ensure its future use:
The campaign ends March 31, 2013. More on the project at kickstarter.com. (Thanks for the tip go to Joshua Izenberg, whose filmSlomo just won the Documentary Short prize among the Short Film Jury Awards at the 2013 SXSW festival. Jeremiah Moore, the sound designer on Slomo, is apparently also involved in this Tank project.)
¶ Electretymologies: There’s a hair’s-breadth matter of word choice in today’s “playlist” by Jon Pareles in the New York Times. In a single column he reviews six records. For Suuns’ Images du Futur he mentions “the repeating synthesizer tones of early electro.” For How to Destroy Angels’ Welcome Oblivion he mentions both “dank electronic sounds” and how “the electronics mostly give way to the acoustic.” And for Draco Rosa’s Vida he mentions “dipping into new wave, Caribbean styles, electronica and, at the end, hard-rock blasts.” The emphasis is mine. Those are four distinct terms, all variations on a core root prefix, all used in close proximity: electro, electronic, electronics, and electronica.
¶ Twang Bar Theory: This is pretty great. Over at youtube.com, Adrian Belew (King Crimson, Talking Heads, Nine Inch Nails) as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival back in 2011, discussing the “history and future of guitar noise”:
¶ Docusound Platform: Promotional video for the site docusound.org, “a platform for producing and distributing audio documentaries”:
¶ Sonifying Auckland: Sound designer Tim Prebble, along with filmmaker Denise Batchelor, is a 2013 artist in residence of the Auckland regional parks system. Details at scoop.co.nz. Here is description from the announcement: “He’ll record local native birdcalls, slow the recordings to allow notation and then ‘play with this as the DNA of music’, embellishing and orchestrating it. On completion, his music will be played at a local venue and a CD, tentatively called The Bird Song Preludes, will be available after his residency.” More from Prebble at musicofsound.co.nz.
¶ Celluloid Heroes: The first of two parts of a documentary about Celluloid Records, over at youtube.com, featuring among others Bill Laswell, DXT (formerly Grand Mixer DST), and label founder Jean Karakos:
¶ Re-scanning: Great interview at thequietus.com with Scanner, aka Robin Rimbaud, about his range of activities. He goes project by project, talking about his early work with the technology from which he took his name (“The scanner was connected directly into a tape deck the whole time. This was ’91, ’92, this was anticipating an idea of the internet, there was no access to this kind of networked world that we’re so comfortable with today. These voices and accessing them suddenly took you into a very private place that you could never otherwise be in.”), collaborating with filmmaker Derek Jarman and artist Mike Kelley, and “re-soundtrack[ing]” the final two minutes of Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’eclisse, and much more.
¶ In Brief: There’s a 30-part audio documentary titled Noise: A Human History being presented starting tomorrow, March 18, on BBC 4 by David Hendy of the School of Media, Film and Music at the University of Sussex: bbc.co.uk (via bl.uk). ¶ The palmsounds.net provides a brief overview of a talk Rob Thomas (of Reality Jockey) gave in London about mobile music. ¶ In the Field: The Art of Field Recording is a new book containing interviews with artists whose work employs field recordings. Among those are Andrea Polli, Christina Kubisch, Francisco López, Hildegard Westerkamp, Jez Riley French, and Lasse-Marc Riek. (Thanks for the tip, John Kannenberg.) ¶ “Why Do People Use ‘Nope’ Even Though ‘No’ Is Shorter?” (at slate.com, via Quora). The short version is that “no” may have half as many letters but the hard stop at the end of “nope” arguably makes it more succinct. The author, Marc Ettlinger, has other theories as well, including an informative bit on “sound symbolism.” ¶ Robert Henke, aka Monolake, is coming to the San Francisco Bay Area as a visiting instructor at CCRMA, the computer music department at Stanford University. In a warm-welcome gesture, the department made the page announcing his course look just like a page from Henke’s own monolake.de website. ¶ That White House petition to make unlocking cellphones legal, mentioned here recently, has gained President Obama’s support. ¶ The 62nd Disquiet Junto project had 44 participants, each making music from three sine waves. ¶ Here’s a recording of Steve Reich’s “Radio Rewrite,” his new adaptation of Radiohead’s “Jigsaw Falling Into Place” and “Everything in Its Right Place”: youtube.com. (Note, it’s audio only. Found via the indispensable rgable.typepad.com.)
“Nightly No.1″ by melynabarzdis plays with jazz components in a fascinating manner. Foregrounded is a slow piano line that seems to leave a synthesized vapor haze wherever the melody takes it, a haze of smokey aura that deep in the distance reconstitutes in the form of a reflective saxophone solo. The combined effort is a duet of sorts, but a duet as if between two musicians on either side of a massive courtyard who find themselves collaborating long after dark, when they’re both surprised to find the other exists, let alone is awake. As for the tiny little pixel-damage modulations that shift the notes up and down, side to side, at unexpected moments, they lend a broader frame, suggesting this as incidental music to some sort of neo-noir, all overcoats and tricorders.
The great Stones Throw record label has shared an MP3 teaser of the debut full-length from longtime sideman and producer Karriem Riggins, whose CV is absurd in its breadth, from support as a drummer to Diana Krall, Mulgrew Miller, and Ray Brown, to production work for the Roots, Slum Village, and Common. Those jazz and hip-hop threads have overlapped at times, notably in his projects with Madlib. The forthcoming Riggins album, Alone Together, will be a set of hip-hop instrumentals. The advance taste is titled “Moogy Foog It,” a bit of downtempo martial-drumming arts, the beat a flangy percussive riff, above which an 8bit snake charm melody noodles around lazily. The track ends quite suddenly, suggesting it will merge with the subsequent song when the full album appears.
More on the release at stonesthrow.com. The notes on the album page are a little confusing, in that they list October 23 as the release date but state “Vinyl and digital will be released in two-parts over summer and fall 2012.” Perhaps this MP3 comprises the “digital” part of that release.
And for additional context, here’s Chet Baker covering the jazz standard, by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz, from which the Riggins album takes its name:
The classical compositions of Liza White often employ standard repertory instrumentation in the exploration of motives, textures, and elements from such realms as jazz, hip-hop, and electronic music. She’s also known to invoke some of those elements directly, working LP static and electronic percussion in amid more immediately recognizable instrumentation. Her piece “Step!” absorbs hip-hop and the synchronized form from which it takes its name, her “Ballad of the Mean Angry Jazz Hater Monster!” likewise draws from the genere claimed by its title, and her elegant “Groove” series suggests a melodically incisive derivation of minimalism — all accomplished with an acquisitiveness that is refreshingly lacking in quotation marks.
White’s work has been performed by JACK Quartet, members of Fifth House Ensemble, and the Charlestown Symphony Orchestra Brass Quintet, just to name a few, and may be familiar to readers of this site thanks to a recommendation of her “Step!” (in a live performance by Alarm Will Sound) back in February (“When a Chamber Ensemble Sounds Like a Jazz Ensemble Sounds Like Breakbeat”).
White generously assented to the following interview, in which she talks about her compositional technique, her ongoing musical education, and her exploration in deriving classical compositions from digital sounds.
Marc Weidenbaum: You don’t compose purely electronic music, but it plays a role in various of your works: the LP static in “Ballad of the Mean Angry Jazz Hater Monster!” and the electronic percussion in “Let It Begin With Me,” for example. What is your connection — educationally and personally, as a composer — to the equipment and techniques associated with electronic music?
Liza White: For me, using electronic sound is just one of the possible ways in which I can try to achieve whatever it is I’m trying to achieve with a piece. In “Ballad”, the LP static, played from an actual LP onstage, is used to distinguish the parts of the piece depicting “jazz” — in the form of fragments of fake standards, played on the piano — from the parts depicting the irate jazz-hating monster. Then at the end, we hear the monster’s voice on the LP, which the pianist accompanies. The use of the LP fits well with the theatrical nature of the piece, and the sound helps to create the contrast that is needed. In “Let It Begin With Me” the electronic percussion is supposed to evoke a harsh urban environment in which a person is trying to assert him/herself. The sounds are made from saxophone key clicks, broken glass, and acoustic and electronic percussion sounds and are triggered through a Max/MSP patch by a percussionist playing a MIDI drum kit. It was important to me to have synthesized percussion sounds in this piece, but I also wanted the audience to see a player striking drums forcefully and to witness the interplay between the percussion and saxophone parts as created by two people onstage.
I tend not to write purely electronic music because I really thrive on working with performers, but technology is a big influence on the way I treat material, regardless of the sound source. I like to loop, offset, and fragment motives. I’m also interested in emulating electronic sounds with acoustic instruments and seeing how accurately I can capture their character.
Weidenbaum: The idea of the electronic as an influence on your composition is particularly intriguing — that you might, through more traditional instrumentation and notation, emulate something that largely post-dates those tools. Could you give an example of such an effect, like looping, and how you went about accomplishing it.
White: Sure. One of the more interesting examples might be using acoustic instruments to make a sound that resembles an electronically synthesized one. In “Step!,” there’s a sound that happens several times that combines a muffled bass drum hit with a downward glissando played by the bass. A lot of hip-hop beats have this sort of characteristic in their bass drum hits — there’s often some pitch in there that slides down a little at the end. There are three or four variations of that sound in “Step!,” but every time it occurs, it’s an exact reiteration of one of them, as if it’s a sound being played from a sample.
Last year, I did a lot of work with Reason, the production software program, trying to emulate songs I know and to figure out what goes into that. I spent a lot of time comparing really similar sounds against each other and playing with different parameters to determine what gives each sound its character. That experience has helped me start to learn to detail acoustic sounds in an electronic-sounding way. It’s definitely a work in progress, but it can be done convincingly, and I’m getting better and better at it.
Weidenbaum: I hear a lot of things in “Step!” — I hear hip-hop, I hear Sousa, I hear exposed parallels between marching bands and chamber orchestras. What I don’t hear, which is interesting, is Ives, who was sort of synonymous with classical interpolation of marching bands. Was it difficult at all the shed that influence?
White: Actually, it hadn’t occurred to me to think about Ives while composing the piece. And he is one of my favorite composers. I also hadn’t consciously thought about marching bands. The musical influences that I actively considered were step team routines and hip-hop. And then, of course, I was writing for a large ensemble of classical instruments, each with its own historic/stylistic associations. The resulting mix, I think, can evoke a lot of different musical ground. Jazz is another association that people bring up, for example, which I wasn’t thinking about when I wrote the piece, although I love jazz.
I do think there’s a lot of intersection between marching band and step, though, in that both involve synchronized motion, and both center around a team and are about rallying spirit. Marching band probably was a factor in the development of stepping. One piece of music that assimilates marching band music, and that in turn influenced this piece, is Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl.” If you listen to the song and watch the music video, it’s all about that intersection: there is clapping and stomping on bleachers that evoke stepping and high school sports culture, and people waving trumpets and sousaphones, and synth brass loops, and also this sort of “step off” mentality to the lyrics. That may be where some of the marching band material you’re hearing comes from.
Ives’ interpolation of marching bands into classical music is different than mine, I think, because for him it was about contrast: two bands in different keys, a band showing up in the middle of an orchestral tone poem, etc. And in his time, combination of classical music with other styles was much more provocative. For me, I was simply trying to write a piece that, although the influences were disparate, was a musically economical pursuit of a single idea.
Weidenbaum: Your reference to “Hollaback Girl” makes me envious. I have still-fresh memories of the early days of Bang on a Can, and of the rise of terms like “avant-pop” and “post-rock” and, more recently, “post-classical” to refer to efforts by composers to acknowledge, make use of, or otherwise absorb so-termed pop culture. I feel like those genre-politics concerns are increasingly a thing of the past, and you and your work benefit from having it behind you. Was this approach of yours well respected in your education, or are there still battles being waged?
White: Hmmm…. well, I’m currently finishing my ninth year of higher education in music, including time at Boston University, the New England Conservatory, UC Berkeley, and now Northwestern, where I’m working on my DM [Doctor of Music]. I think that if you spend that much time in school studying composition, no matter what your style is, you’ll encounter people who don’t like or understand what you’re trying to do, and my experience is no exception. But the best teachers figure out what your objectives are and how to help you serve them better. I’m lucky to have had a lot of really great teachers. It’s true that pop-culture influence can be a lightning rod. But if you approach your craft with dedication and skill, I think in most cases it earns respect, if not admiration, regardless of what anyone’s interests are.
Weidenbaum: Please talk a little about your “Groove” series. There’s something especially textural about its repetition, and exploration, of a downtempo motif.
White: The first “Groove” was the last movement of a piece called “Four Sketches for Piano” that I wrote when I was in college. Each of the sketches was about two minutes or less. My compositional style had been fairly traditional up until that point, but “Groove” helped me recognize my fascination with repetition and the evolution of small changes within a repetitive texture. I developed the courage to see how far I could stretch the motive, and I wrote “Groove Excursion.” Later, after this type of composition had become more usual for me, I followed with “Groove II” and “Groove III.”
I love music where you know generally what’s going to happen, and the emphasis is on how or when it will happen. With popular music or jazz, I tend to focus in on whatever patterns are looped, and follow the small alterations that happen within their structure. There’s also something really exhilarating about music challenging its own framework. Like when a beat-based song surprises you with silence on a downbeat. These are ideas that the “Groove” pieces helped me explore. Additionally, with them, I was using a musical motive as a found object and examining it in different ways, to show what’s really at work in the material. The pieces expose the changing color of those three piano chords as they reverberate and decay, and the resultant sound of a bass clarinet and a cello blending seamlessly, and the difference between F#4 on a cello and on a flute, and those kinds of sonic details.
Weidenbaum: You have mentioned jazz, and I wanted to ask about the role that improvisation plays in your musical worldview. I ask in part because there is a — largely mistaken — impression, I think, among general listeners, that if there’s anything electronic music and classical music have in common, it’s an antipathy toward improvised performance.
White: Wow, that’s interesting. I’ve always taken it for granted that improvisation is important in both electronic and classical music.
I don’t normally create structures in which performers improvise. I do it sometimes, especially when a piece has theatrical qualities, like “Babylon” and “Ballad of the Mean Angry Jazz Hater Monster!,” but it’s not the way I usually work. It is definitely part of my “musical worldview,” though. The string quartet that I just finished, “Zin zin zin zin,” which was read and recorded by the JACK Quartet recently, is inspired by the vocal heterophony you get in hip-hop songs with more than one MC. There is improvisation inherent when rappers deliver the same lyric at the same time but not in the same way, and the piece deals with moments like these. It also deals with group rap’s frequent sense of moving in and out of improvisation, such as when a lyric is arrived at in unison at the end of semi-simultaneous individual flow. The preoccupation with repeating musical figures that I described earlier is similar; I love following repetitive material and listening to how it gets varied by a player — or a producer or DJ. That interest has influenced the “Groove” pieces, “Boston Night Prayer,” and others. So, improvisation is an important model for me.
Weidenbaum: Are there specific references or models for you in terms of how you notate things on the more unusual side, or how specific you get in terms of which electronic drums should be employed or the sound or quality of the vinyl surface noise.
White: I look at a wide variety of references for notation. I’m always studying scores to see approaches different composers have taken, as well as consulting with performers to find out what kind of explanation and visual representation will work best for them for the situation at hand. When I’m notating a sound that’s unique, I generally wouldn’t just use a pre-existing notation without modifying it to make it optimal for the desired result. But my current teacher, Hans Thomalla, has given me a lot of good notation ideas, and I’ve also recently taken ideas from scores by Derek Bermel, Helmut Lachenmann, Eric Whitacre, and Chris Fisher-Lochhead — a fellow Northwestern student — just to name a very diverse few.
“Let It Begin With Me” is my only piece that uses electronic percussion sounds, and I built those sounds carefully. None of them are purely canned sounds from drum machine software, although I did use some of those sounds in the synthesis, along with saxophone noises and recorded acoustic percussion instruments and broken glass. The sounds are organized into pools connected to each drum pad, so that hitting the pad plays a random sound from the pool, and controls are built in to further randomize pitch and other variables on a micro level. Each pad represents a different category — “bass drums” with broken glass, key clicks, metals, higher metals, etc. — but the randomization keeps the sounds new, to serve the narrative of the piece; the sounds resist familiarity and are continually oppressive in new ways. But I’m not really happy with the electronic sounds from that piece yet, honestly — I’ll probably revise them soon.
With the vinyl surface noise in “Ballad,” I was also quite specific. I wanted a smooth but characteristic sound in a higher register, so as not to get in the way of the singing and piano, and I went through a lot of samples before finding — and further modifying — the right one. I liked the idea of having it actually play from a record in concert, but I opted to have the sound file recorded onto the LP, rather than just dirtying and scratching a record. This let me blend the sound into the piece better and have more control over it.
I see this kind of specificity as simply how a good composer works: we make sure that everything we do is a conscious decision in support of a piece’s purpose. But I could cite a few models that have inspired me in applying this kind of thinking to electronics. Conversations I’ve had with Mason Bates about how he builds his sounds have been really influential. I also learned a lot from being around the UC Berkeley Center for New Music and Audio Technology while I was a student there.
Weidenbaum: This question is a little off the subject of electronics, but: As a composer building a portfolio of compositions, how do you balance the work and avenues you desire to pursue with the work and avenues that are determined by commissions and available musicians and ensembles?
White: Balancing creative desires with available players and forums is tough for a lot of composers, but I’m pretty lucky. I usually have a mixture of opportunities available, including works for festivals and commissions that I win through an application process, chances to write for musicians that visit or are affiliated with school, and collaborations with friends that either they or I might initiate. Within all this, there’s room to apply for things that seem to be a good fit for me and to choose projects that I most want to focus on at a given time. I also like to stretch myself in terms of what instruments I write for and what the strengths of the players are, which means that I’m willing to write in a lot of different situations. It’s a fun challenge to try and be myself successfully under different constraints, and to figure out how to explore whatever my interests are in the context of a project.
The trio of Mathieu Werchowski (violin), Fabien Duscombs (drums), and Heddy Boubaker (electric bass) don’t have a prominent digital presence between them, except perhaps for some unannotated processing, but the result of their music — a tensile free improvisation — will appeal to electronically informed ears. For the first half of this live performance recording, there is little in the way of a beat; instead there are three semi-distinct sounds moving slowly around each other in the voluminous haze of the instruments’ collective sonic vapor trail. In time, these contrasting rhythmic impulses coalesce, eventually building to something meaty and insistent. That drive, which rocks fairly hard, can be difficult to trace back to where it came from. The pleasure in the track is listening, again, and witnessing the fragile sounds accumulate and consolidate.
Track originally posted at soundcloud.com/hbbk. Also available are the first and third parts of the performance. Audio recorded and mastered by Mathieu Werchowski.
Spring 2013: The Disquiet Junto is assisting Geoff Manaugh in a course he is teaching at Columbia University's GSAPP, "San Andreas: Architecture for the Fault." Details at bldgblog.blogspot.com.
February 26: I'm giving a three-hour guest lecture about listening to a class on writing for radio productions at the Academy of Art in San Francisco.
May 15, 2013: Last day of 15-week course I'm teaching about sound in the media landscape at the Academy of Art in San Francisco, California.
Ongoing: In January 2013 I became part of the SoundCloud Heroes project, more on which in the near future. In the short term, full disclosure, I was gifted the top-level account, Pro Plus. Initial post here: "What I'm Up To."
Ongoing: The film The Children Next Door (2012), on which I served as music supervisor and collaborated with Taylor Deupree on sound design, is currently touring festivals. It won a special jury prize at DOC NYC and has also played at the Denver and Hamptons festivals. Directed by Doug Block, produced by Lynda A. Hansen. More at thechildrennextdoor.com.
Down the Pike: Concerts in the Disquiet Junto series are in various stages of planning for London, England; Portland, Oregon; and elsewhere.