Björn Bommersheim posted this seven-minute synthesizer performance, which he describes as a “self generative eurorack modular patch,” which is to say it’s an instrument that plays itself. This isn’t to say the synth is entirely self-sufficient. Putting aside the necessity of someone (Bommersheim, that is) to conceive of and implement the patch —
“patch” meaning the various connections between various modules, and the various settings of those modules — there are numerous instances throughout “Chtou | Eurorack Ambient Soundscape” when the author is physically present. Bommersheim is seen adjusting knobs early on to set the piece in motion, and moving up and down between the levels of modules to nudge the piece in a desired direction at various instances. For the duration of the sedate, welcomingly distracting performance, rich swells of cloudy waveforms come and go, and whispy, playful, slurpy smaller tones make themselves heard.
It’s saying something when the wafts of stage smoke evidence more motion than does the performer. Such is, on this occasion, the painstaking, thoughtful, and introspective work of Sarah Davachi. This solemnly paced video went live late last year, coincident with the November 25, 2016, release of Davachi’s excellent Vergers album on the Important Records label, and yet it’s had oddly few viewings, at least according to YouTube’s accounting. It’s a gorgeous performance. The first half is an encompassing drone, settling into a heavy mid-range and dense with a slow boil of quarter-step commotion. Then enters what sounds like a patiently bowed violin, given to layering, its steadiness allowing for exploration of its gracefully bleak textures.
In related news, Davachi has been filling out her back catalog. Two EPs that predate Vergers appeared on her Bandcamp today: Qualities of Bodies Permanent and neustadt / altstadt EP, both dating from March 2015.
Update (February 16, 2017): I got a note from Rick of Shasta Cults that the Important Records video had previously been posted on the Shasta YouTube channel, and that it was shot “at Kunstencentrum Vooruit, Eastern Dayz festival in Ghent.”
This Helicopter Quartet isn’t four Stockhausen-annointed violinists in their own individual whirlybirds. This Helicopter Quartet is two musicians — Chrissie Caulfield on violin and Michael Capstick on guitar, and he appears to play a theremin app on a smartphone toward the end of this video — along with a floor full of guitar pedals. The pedals more than fill out the billing, though the duo together strive to eke out as subtle a space as possible. This piece is called “Quiet,” appropriate for a work that for all its myriad constituent parts sounds like one person working alone with a limited toolset, if not a limited palette. It’s all slow, arching tones, looped and layered, the seesaw of a slow lapping of water against a pier, the mood as calm as the deepest recesses of the night.
Oberlin’s TIMARA school has exactly one video on its YouTube page, and it was uploaded this past week. What it shows is the early synthesizer the Alles Machine, named for Hal Alles, who built the instrument while at Bell Labs in the 1970s. Computer music pioneer Max Matthews also contributed to the Alles Machine’s development. The video is a performance from 2016 by TIMARA undergraduate Judy Jackson.
The Alles Machine has been in TIMARA’s collection since the early 1980s. This is from a TIMARA blog post on January 30, 2017: “[T]he instrument was donated to the TIMARA Department, although it was barely functioning and lay dormant till recently. TIMARA engineer, John Talbert, has repurposed the machine for future generations of TIMARA composers.” Talbert is one of the half dozen faculty at TIMARA, which stands for Technology in Music and Related Arts, and counts among its alumni the classical critic and composer Kyle Gann, electronic musician Bob Ostertag, and playful digital-media artist Cory Arcangel.
The original deployment of the Alles Machine involved a Digital Equipment Corporation’s LSI-11, a sibling of the PDP-11. An article from a 1983 publication of the International Computer Music Association by Talbert and his TIMARA colleague Gary Nelson describes (see: umich.edu) how Max Matthews visited Oberlin during the 1979-1980 school year, and that led to the TIMARA acquisition of the Alles Machine. Nelson and Talbert traveled to Bell Labs in June 1980: “After several weeks of asking questions and taking notes,” they write, “we gathered up technical documentation, circuit diagrams, and the machine itself and headed back to Ohio to begin a challenging but rewarding period of what the seal of Oberlin College calls ‘learning and labor.'” (And if you want to go wayback, here’s a PDF of the 1979 PDP-11 Processor Handbook.)
It’s unclear when and for how long the Alles was mothballed, presumably decades, but a 2016 document from Talbert, linked to from the TIMARA site, details how the Alles Machine was recently disconnected from the antiquated LSI-11 and now functions thanks to a Mac Mini (“loaded with programs such such as the MPIDE Programming Environment, Max/MSP and Steim’s junXion”). Here’s a shot of the Max/MSP interface:
Jackson is a senior at Oberlin, where she is pursuing dual majors, one of them in computer science, the other at TIMARA. Her performance with the refurbished Alles Machine opens with brittle static, the white noise of a failing radio signal from which slowly emerges random, more softly tonal elements, which in turn give way to a warping sing wave. Jackson proceeds to work with these elements, eventually ushering in ever more raucous waveforms. It may be my imagination, but she appears to have opted for an outfit that resembles the one worn by Laurie Spiegel in this widely viewed video of a 1977 Alles Machine performance:
Marcus Fischer is currently participating in an artist residency at the Rauschenberg Foundation on Captiva Island off the Florida coast. His Instagram feed is filling up with images and brief videos captured during his time there: Sugimoto-like pictures of the sea and a studio as white as a Rauschenberg painting. He’s suspending tape loops from the ceiling and quoting his fellow residents about the changes afoot in American politics.
A photo posted by marcus fischer (@marcusfischer) on
The Instagram materials constitute beautiful slivers of his goings-on, but fortunately Datachoir is filling the void with a 17-minute video of Fischer alone in his Portland, Oregon, home studio — one continuous solo performance for electric guitar, synthesizer, pine cones, and other tools. The constituent parts are far more than the sum total of the sounds. He takes near-silent textures and generates light dustings from them. He strokes the guitar once, and then transforms the chord into something muted yet majestic. And while he plays, the videographer tours his studio, focusing in on his instruments, on a matrix routers and additional guitars, on cabling and boxes of spare parts.
I’ve worked on several projects with Fischer myself, and I recall an instance where someone we were newly working with asked what his primary instrument is. I struggled to explain there wasn’t a single focus of his music-making imagination. That studio is his instrument, and watching him employ it at length is a true pleasure.
• October 13, 2016: This day marks the start of the 250th weekly Disquiet Junto project.
• November 16, 2016: I'll be sharing the mic at Adobe Books in San Francisco with my fellow 33 1/3 author Evie Nagy for an evening hosted, from 7pm to 10pm, by Marc Kate (facebook.com).
• December 1, 2016: A likely speaking engagement. Details to come.
• December 13, 2016: This day marks the 20th anniversary of Disquiet.com.
• January 5, 2017: This day marks the 5th anniversary of the Disquiet Junto.
• Ongoing: The Disquiet Junto series of weekly communal music projects explore constraints as a springboard for creativity and productivity. There is a new project each Thursday afternoon (California time), and it is due the following Monday at 11:59pm: disquiet.com/junto.
• My book on Aphex Twin's landmark 1994 album, Selected Ambient Works Vol. II, published as part of the 33 1/3 series, an imprint of Bloomsbury, is now in its second printing. It can be purchased at amazon.com, among other places.