This video doesn’t quite do justice to the structural, installation-scale, architectural beauty that is Ellen Fullman’s 50-plus-foot Long String Instrument in person. But the recording, made on January 31, 2016, at the Lab in San Francisco, certainly captures the music of the spheres — make that music of the parallel linearities — that is Fullman in concert. And there are four bonus strings, in the form of Theresa Wong’s accompanying cello — actually more than four, because Wong is also working with material captured on her laptop. Fullman’s singular instrument, which she’s been at for decades, fills the room both materially and sonically with overtones amid overtones, all those strings sympathetically beading and droning, influencing each other, seeking a common tonal ground. Wong’s cello lends a through line of gently sawed grounding. The piece is titled “Harbors,” and it was part of a month-long residency that Fullman had at the Lab at the start of 2015. A note at the Lab site sets the stage for the performance:
“Harbors”, is a collaboration with composer and cellist Theresa Wong. Pitch material used in the piece is generated from the harmonic series of each of the open strings of the cello and the tones resulting from pressing a string at a harmonic nodal point. Wong and Fullman researched and mapped this palette, selecting subsets as tonal areas of focus for each movement of the piece. A recurring motif is a simple two-note cello phrase: harmonic, then pressed. Wong captures material using Ableton Live! which she can then play as another instrument, layering harmonic possibilities. “Harbors” draws inspiration from the soundscapes as well as the stories and atmospheres that manifest around such bodies of water that propagate exchange.
Uploaded in 2010, this is something of an artifact, but it’s a beautiful performance, and with barely 5,000 views on YouTube it deserves a broader audience. What it depicts is Copenhagen-based musician Fejld performing three and a half minutes of almost entirely tonal ambient music. It’s the latest piece I’ve added to my ongoing YouTube playlist of fine “Ambient Performances.” Part of what makes this notion of ambient performance so interesting is ambient’s popular association with the idea of stasis, of music that is apart from time rather than something that evidences progression or change over time. Now, affect and action aren’t necessarily directly correlated. It can take effort to achieve a semblance of a lack of effort. In each of the live performances in this ever-growing YouTube playlist, various instruments and techniques are employed to evoke a sense of timelessness: to create an illusion of stasis. In this particular video, Fejld is working on the Monome, a grid instrument that’s the work of musicians Kelli Cain and Brian Crabtree. As in several other videos noted here recently, only part of the musician’s equipment, however, is on screen. Much as Midera’s work on a dance-oriented Korg gadget belied the essential presence of a reverb unit, and two different guitar pieces focused (literally) on roughly half of the guitar/pedal divide, Fejld’s video emphasizes the Monome but doesn’t feature the item the Monome is mediating, a keyboard synthesizer (the Nord Modular G2) whose sine waves are being adjusted live in the performance. In this case that makes sense, because the Monome is doing all the realtime work. The keyboard is simply sitting still somewhere off camera, receiving and emitting signals.
The latest piece I’ve added to my ongoing YouTube playlist of fine “Ambient Performances” is a six-minute video of ambient music on an instrument not largely associated with ambient music: the Korg Electribe EMX1. The EMX1’s combination of drum machine, sequencer, and synthesizer has made it a dance-music favorite. Midera, instead, does away with beats and processes the EMX1’s tones and textures significantly with another instrument, the Eventide Space, a reverb effects unit. In the video, it’s the EMX1 being handled by Midera throughout, though the Eventide, offscreen, is arguably doing much of the heavy lifting — or, in this aesthetic realm, the light lifting. “It’s all in the Eventide Space,” Midera tells one commenter on YouTube, but clarifies in response to another: “The Space is doing a lot of the work, but the simplicity of the EMX makes it fun to write tracks like this.” It’s a flowing performance, threadbare wave forms ebbing from one to another, Midera occasionally adding a bit of drama with some modulation here or a touch of glitchy flare there, all of which has rightly earned the track several comparisons to Vangelis’ Blade Runner score.
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.
• 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.