This is a live set by Dakitanmonkey, aka Tintao, on three machines from the same manufacturer, Elektron. What starts as a sweeping array of low-level textures slowly gains rhythmic activity. (It’s the latest piece I’ve added to my ongoing YouTube playlist of fine “Ambient Performances.”) A place-marker ping is joined by a cycle of sharp static that comes and goes — and, as the half point nears, a steady, downtempo beat kicks in. That beat is enshrouded enough in the thick ambient tones to be perceived as an underlying current rather than a backbeat. Its role is more about taking the pulse of the drone than it is about emphasizing a strict tempo.
Dakitanmonkey describes what he’s up with his three tools (from left to right the Analog Four, the Octatrack, and the Monomachine) to in a brief accompanying note: “Ambient track with deep strings and basses from the Monomachine. Analog four produce only the piano, and the reverb effects for the MnM. Octatrack acts as a mixer, and radical sound change on fader.”
The video, titled “Yellow Pages Tone Cluster,” begins with a humorous touch worthy of John Cage: A few seconds in, the artist Peter Speer places a massive phone book, its front cover ripped off, atop an electric keyboard, and thus sets in motion a broad, dense uber-chord that plays for nearly 11 minutes straight.
“Motion” may not be the right word. What the phone book creates on the keyboard is a multi-octave held chord, quite the opposite of motion. That chord changes only due to the ear’s sensitivity to overtones and waveforms, and Speer’s subsequent small changes. He alters the chord as it proceeds. Specifics aren’t laid out at the video link (the only text is “The lost art of playing a keyboard with a book”), but as it goes the organ tone takes on beading and phase-shifting, glitch wonderment and reduction to a sheer shimmer. And at then end Speer removes the phone book. The ceremonial bow is implied.
One side note: This video is a good example of how the very thing that can make computer music a tough sell in a concert setting works exceptionally well on streaming services like YouTube and Vimeo, where the audience has such GoPro-style proximity (“goproximity”?) to the sort of small gestures that are lost with a live audience. The only way something like this would register in front of a group of people is if there were an effort made to include a properly framed live video projection during the performance — of course, while the scale would make the performer’s movements legible in concert, it would also potentially overstate their gravitas. (I should mention, I’ve seen plenty of shows where this sort of projection occurs but it’s usually for more flamboyant playing styles and often isn’t framed particularly well.)
“System has decided to generate in G.” G is the key, and generative is the mode. That line is one of the many captions that illuminate the software patch in action in this video. You don’t have to fully comprehend, or even read, the text to appreciate the correlation between the virtual patch (signal flows, triggers, and such) and the sounds that emerge as the piece proceeds.
The text and patch, both by Siegfried Mueller, depict the inner workings of GenAura, Mueller’s “Generative Ambient System.” The video is almost half a decade old at this point, and the interface of the toolset, Max/MSP, in which the software was coded has come a long way since then, but the music remains nuanced and entrancing, and Mueller’s concise distillation of process is a great example of how watching a generative tool enact its own decision-making is a form of live performance.
The word “indeterminate” is often associated with generative music because chance is a key factor in many generative systems. The thing to keep in mind is that when it comes to GenAura it can be said that the music is determined — it’s just determined by the decision-making of the software itself, which of course extrapolates decisions built into the DNA of its code by Mueller.
The video posted yesterday by the Lab, the experimental San Francisco arts and performance space, of Ellen Fullman focused on her Long String Instrument’s central quality: its tonal richness. A 50-plus-foot series of parallel strings, Fullman’s creation puts the musician — and to some extent the live audience — inside a massive yet nearly invisible music machine. As a result of dimensions, construction, and situation, the Long String Instrument excels at tonal material that balances harmonic complexity with an aesthetic sparsity.
In yesterday’s video, an excerpt of the piece “Harbors,” Fullman’s instrument was complemented by Theresa Wong’s cello, both live and repurposed thanks to a laptop. In the video posted today, which like yesterday’s is sourced from a month-long residency by Fullman at the Lab at the start of 2016, the music is more song-like, less ethereal, more earthy. This association is less because of the number of additional strings (she plays with four members of the makeshift Box Bow Ensemble, which was assembled specifically for the event), and more to do with the folk-like pacing of the piece.
The first half the video (an excerpt of a longer performance titled “Past the Angels”) rolls along at about 89 beats per minute, slowly varying the same central collaborative musical phrase, like each member is strumming the strings of some gargantuan autoharp. And then it begins to dissolve. One member of the ensemble, Crystal Pascucci, breaks from her Box Bow and strums the Long String Instrument and, later, both her own Box Bow and another. The group plays against each other, taking on a more phase-like scenario, in which the phrase is shifting, the downbeat uncertain, the cyclic nature more hallucinatory.
This description is from a note at the Lab site:
“Past the Angels” is a work for an ensemble of four performing on Fullman’s Long String Instrument using the Box Bow, a hand-held wooden tool used to strike the strings in a percussive manner. Seasoned Bay Area composer/performers Mark Clifford, David Douglas, Ryan Jobes and Crystal Pascucci will play the hocketed box bow parts. In this work, Fullman brings together the ethereal and the folk-inspired possibilities of her instrument.
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.
• 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.