This live performance is something of a complement to a live video I posted last week. Both are ambient works that employ pedals to eke atmospheres from electric guitars. In the previous video, a cover of the Boards of Canada miniature “Over the Horizon Radar,” all you see is the guitar. In this one, almost all you see is the pedals. The guitar edges in from the bottom of the screen, but it’s seen from the guitarist’s perspective, so you view little more than the depth of its wooden body and fretboard, with occasional glimpses of the strings. You’re not here to just to watch the hands. You’re here to watch the feet as well, which do double duty on the various pedals. It’s a live improvisation that employs multiple filters and delays, and a single looper, to create layers of tones with just a hint of melodic momentum. Brief sequences of notes draw the listener in, but the piece is far more a triumph of texture than of song form — and that’s very much to its credit.
It’s not common to post the same audio here twice, but I’m making an exception for the half-hour concert by Kelli Cain and Brian Crabtree, developers of the Monome grid music interface. Back in March I linked to the SoundCloud file of the live performance (“What the Creators of the Monome Sound Like as Live Performers”), and updated that page in April when a higher grade recording went up. But now there’s full, affectionately edited video of the set. It’s at vimeo.com. I attended the concert, which was held at a small shop, Better, out on Balboa Street in San Francisco’s Richmond District, and in the review I mention in particular this social component of Crabtree’s employment of handheld shakers: “He’d shake one for awhile, and then pass it to someone in the audience to continue the pattern. Each person became an extension of what Crabtree had started, but then altered it a little, whether through the conscious decision to contribute a musical idea, or simply because their sense of rhythm differed from his.” That occurs about two minutes into this footage.
The MPC series, from the electronics manufacturer Akai, is best known for its employment in hip-hop, but tools have purposes beyond their initial intention, even beyond their general use. In the hands of Sander van Dijck, of the Netherlands, the beat machine becomes a trigger system for percolating ambient music. This is a performance video not a tutorial, so it doesn’t begin to document the preparation that went into the sounds we hear. The guitar and keyboard in the background hint at some of the origin points, and in addition there are snatches of spoken information that balance the music’s dreaminess with a certain amount of portent. The beauty of a performance video like this is correlating the movement with the sound. So much is happening in the service of such a placid affect, the individual cues eventually lost in the full mix of activity. The track is credited to van Dijck’s Casilofi moniker, and is titled “SNDSKP” (that is, “soundscape”).
It’s the latest piece I’ve added to my ongoing YouTube playlist of fine “Ambient Performances.” Entries in the Disquiet Downstream post series are usually of recent vintage but as I’ve been fleshing out the Ambient Performances material I’ve let the time restriction relax; this video is dated almost four years ago, to July 14, 2016, though the image filter suggests it’s from the 1970s.
While he skips the backward-masky quality of the original, SineRider’s electric-guitar cover of the Boards of Canada miniature “Over the Horizon Radar,” not even a minute and a half in length, is true to the source material’s pacing and mood. The video was recorded live, and the gap between what is seen and what is heard is worth reflecting on. The notes are plucked, but the sound really owes its quality to the (unspecified) guitar pedals that are, like the musician’s head, offscreen. A given pluck happens noticeable split seconds — we need another term for “split seconds,” as it suggests speed when what is in fact meant is a discernible gap — before the full impact of the playing is felt.
The video’s reveal comes 33 seconds in. Up until that point the camera has been slowly gazing around traditional Kyoto, Japan: the vaulted roofs, the red gateways, the concrete structures, the sculptured foliage, the constructed waterways. The wide-angle, perfect geometry of the shots, and the slow motion in which they appear, at first have the feel of a video-game cutscene, but for all the perfection, this is real. This is Kyoto, in all its preserved beauty. The stroll is accompanied by a beat, the heady semi-swagger of solid instrumental hip-hop, the way instrumental hip-hop can be tinged with nostalgia. The nostalgia of instrumental hip-hop may often be for the very early 1990s, and the nostalgia of Kyoto may be for several centuries earlier, but they pair well. Hip-hop and Japan have a longstanding relationship, a sense of mutual regard, so the matchup makes sense. And then at 33 seconds, into view comes British producer Ally Mobbs, propped up on the edge of low wall, pounding gently if insistently on an MPC 500, the portable beat machine, his head bobbing. He’s as lost in the music as we are. The difference is, he’s making the music. We get barely five seconds before he disappears from view, the camera wandering back on its own way. At 51 seconds he appears again, and remains in view, until the very end (the video is 1:34 long, but the music is over at about 1:28). There is no sound besides the music, no footsteps or birds. The headspace of the music is the headspace of Mobbs himself, who’s performing the track — recording the track — live while the camera is filming.
• November 9, 2015: A short essay I wrote ("Bassel K") will appear in the book The Cost of Freedom, dedicated to Bassel Khartabil, who's been detained in Syria since March 15, 2012. Details at costoffreedom.cc.
• November 21, 2015: Start of semi-annual social-media absentia (through January 4, 2016).
• Early December 2015: Jeff Kolar's album Doorbells will be released by the label Panospria. I wrote the liner notes. In the meanwhile you can listen to his previous album, Smoke Detector.
• December 13, 2015: The 19th anniversary of Disquiet.com.
• January 4, 2016: End of semi-annual social-media absentia (started November 21, 2015).
• February 3, 2016: First class session of the 15-week course I teach at the San Francisco Academy of Art on the role of sound in the media landscape.
• May 18, 2016: Final class session of the 15-week course I teach at the San Francisco Academy of Art on the role of sound in the media landscape.
• 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: soundcloud.com.
• 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.