Quote of the Week: Mehta Music

This is Zarin Mehta, executive director of the New York Philharmonic, sharing his “pet peeve” with the New York Times Sunday Magazine, in its July 27 issue:

Going into restaurants or stores and having music on in the background. Music is not background for me. I listen because I want to listen to something.

tangents / s900.net, Apple, Carpark …

Brief Bits: (1) The folks behind PirateTV.net have launched s900.net, “a site devoted to musical experimentation,” and s900.tv, which features live and archival streams. The S900.tv site will reportedly stream video from 8pm to 10pm Greenwich Mean Time every Sunday (“or praps later”). … (2) Apple’s new campaign for its Soundtrack software gives music-making tools to the non-musician. “With Soundtrack,” the advertising copy reads, “you can choose from over 4,000 royalty-free instrument loops and sound effects to create just the right mood for your project. Soundtrack automatically matches key and tempo. If you’d like to squeeze in some samba or tickle your audience with a piano accompaniment, Soundtrack lets you search its library for the right instrument, mood, and genre. With Soundtrack you can also easily create fade ins and fade outs, speed up the tempo or slow things down, increase or decrease volume — all in real time.” For more information, check out the software’s promotional website. … (3) Carpark Records, the New York home to Greg Davis, Jake Mandell, Ogurusu Norihide and others, has launched its newly redesigned website, carparkrecords.com. … (4) Benbecula, the Scottish label, has launched its website, benbecula.com, and promises streaming audio soon from its showcase at the recent Sonar festival in Barcelona, Spain.

Track Meet

SAN FRANCISCO, CA — On the fourth night of this year’s San Francisco Electronic Music Festival, upon entering the concert venue, you were hand-stamped, given a pamphlet, and offered DayGlo-orange earplugs.

The earplugs proved unnecessary, thankfully, but the show otherwise lived up to expectations for an ambitious festival now in its fourth year.

The evening, Saturday, July 26, featured four sets, all electronically mediated, by three solo artists and one small improvising ensemble. Musicians from New York and the Bay Area gathered to flesh out a loose agenda, “East Meets Left,” the title of this year’s festival. Many of the works on Saturday involved digitized mutations of real-world sounds — the human voice, street noise, slot machines — but the range of treatments was much broader than that generalization might suggest. Laptops bearing the Apple logo were a common sight, but there were plenty of other machines involved, including an electric guitar and contemporary Theremins.

Stephen Vitiello, from New York, was the night’s first performer. His untitled piece was over half an hour in length. It began with a rich, reverberating tone that rang out and grew in volume and then settled back, followed by occasional swells. On its own it would have been an achievement. The tone was simultaneously limpid and resolute in its beauty, and Vitiello knew to sustain it before moving on. He worked that sound for some time from a bank of conspicuously wired machines and one laptop. In short order, the ringing sound came to share the room with others: a delicate crackle, a field recording of voices, an occasional 4/4 rhythm. At one point, about midway through, the sounds just stopped, and Vitiello, casually dressed, with the air of an enthusiastic college student, joked from the stage about the dramatic ending. It was the first of three glitches during the evening, none of which significantly affected the event. A note in the program explained that Vitiello was using a small photocell to trigger sounds as a result of light frequencies, and he could be seen throughout the piece moving amid his tools, pointing the photocell at the diodes, laptop screen, and other parts of his equipment, locating signals in that illuminated nest of wires and boxes.

Sean Rooney, a Bay Area musician who is on the festival’s steering committee, came second. He performed two ten-minute pieces on laptop, titled “Slots” and “Pile Driver.” He sat right next to the soundboard, in the center of the audience, perhaps to better situate himself within the space defined by the hall’s speakers. (Amid his small setup was an Emagic 2|6 interface device, which allows for multi-channel output, or surround sound.) As with the Vitiello, a brief program note assisted in locating the provenance of the sounds, but wasn’t necessary to appreciate them. In part this was because both Rooney pieces were built from familiar sources. In “Slots,” percussive noise sat side by side with the ringing of a casino (the pamphlet divulged Circus! Circus! in Reno, Nevada, as the location). It turns out that the “noise” was sounds of a motherboard, and the resulting mental image was pleasing: the active casino overlaid with the circuit-level pinball machine that is the inner workings of a computer. “Pile Driver” was a kind of site-specific work, in that the field recordings on which it was based were recorded a few blocks away at a construction site. The piece was coolly metamorphic, as the common banging of the machines was altered slowly, in real time, by a hunched Rooney, while audience members turned inward for a glimpse of his actions.

During the intermission as much as a fifth of the audience appeared to have left. Perhaps the concert hadn’t lived up to the promise of those orange earplugs, and they’d headed across the bridge to Oakland, where a noise fest was taking place. In any case, the vacaters missed one of the evening’s highlights, which occurred at the end of a set by Elise Kermani.

Kermani, who teaches at Hunter College in Manhattan and runs the IshtarLab Records label, first performed “Floating Bodies,” which came in two segments. She recited text that the night’s pamphlet attributed to Archimedes, her voice affected digitally throughout. She then played back that recording, mixed it with sounds of liquids, which complemented the text (“Let it be supposed / a fluid”), and she sang along, perhaps an octave higher than she had originally. The second Kermani piece, “Meta_morphosis,” involved a dance-like routine that triggered an accompanying video, bars of bright color radiating across the screen at the back of the stage. But shortly into it, a cursor appeared on the screen. A cursor appearing on a screen during a multimedia event is the equivalent of seeing a boom microphone descend into a frame during a movie. The piece faltered and then ended, those color bars on the screen taking on an unintended meaning. We were experiencing technical difficulties. Kermani noted the inopportune malfunction, much as had Vitiello, and moved on. What followed, “Viva,” was wholly musical, with none of the performance or vocal aspects of Kermani’s first two pieces, though all three were attributed to Onadime software. The work was a live remix of a Vivaldi concerto, the various elements strung into something with striking similarities to the minimalism of John Adams and Michael Nyman. Heard during this evening of rangy abstractions, the compact achievement of Kermani’s cut’n’paste arrangement stood out.

Fortunately for the Bay Area trio known as SPL, the night’s final performers, their technical issues were handled in advance of their playing. As David Slusser, Len Paterson and Scott Looney — their initials spell the band’s name — set up on stage, the start of their piece appeared to be delayed by some wiring issue. At one point a cable was suspended between Looney and Paterson like an unwelcome umbilical cord, but in short time it was all sorted out. Each member had a table of gadgets and one main axe. For Looney it was a laptop; for Slusser a pair of Theremins, or Theremin-like devices, tall antennas that responded to his arm motion; and for Paterson an electric guitar. The performance had more in common with European free improvisation than with the works performed earlier in the evening, as the group mixed samples and noise, melodies and rhythms, for a jam-like, open-ended piece.

Previous evenings in this year’s festival included performances by Dan Joseph, who applies electronics to hammer dulcimer; David Wessel, director of UC Berkeley’s Center for New Music and Audio Technologies; J Lesser and Kid606, performing as Disc; and others. One evening was curated by 23 Five Inc., and featured Jim Haynes, the organization’s editorial director. The final evening, on July 27, curated by the New San Francisco Tape Music Center, included premieres of works by Joseph Anderson, Thom Blum, Cliff Caruthers, Kent Jolly and Aaron Ximm, as well as material by Christian Marclay, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Iannis Xenakis and others. The fourth annual San Francisco Electronic Music Festival was held on five consecutive nights, from July 23 through July 27, at the SomArts Cultural Center, at the far end of a neighborhood that had, during the Internet boom, been the city’s nexus of business and technology. Business may have dried up, but the technology continues to blossom.

Related links: The San Francisco Electronic Music Festival's website. Stephen Vitiello's website. Sean Rooney's blog. Elise Kermani's IshtarLab Records website. More information on David Slusser, from the Bay Area Improviser organization. Len Paterson's website. Scott Looney's website. The New San Francisco Tape Music Center's website. 23Five Inc.'s website.

Laptop Folkie

Taking the stage on July 9 at the Mermaid Lounge in New Orleans’s Central Business District, Norihide sat down beside a small desk. Along with his rustic, loosely strung acoustic guitar and a black Apple laptop computer, he had with him a small mixing board, a clarinet, a harmonica and a single drum.

His most valuable asset, though, was a disarmingly intent disposition, which seemed to magically win over the crowd as soon as the club’s piped in music was shut off and he started to strum his guitar. The Mermaid, like most small concert venues, is a place where there’s sure to be people talking at the bar throughout any given show, no matter the dollar amount of the cover charge. But Norihide had no difficulty achieving the level of silence necessary for his music to be heard. “My music is very quiet,” he would say later in the show, “but please enjoy.” By that point, two songs in, almost everyone had long since closed their mouths, and focused on this slight figure on stage, playing simple melodies on an eccentric assortment of simple instruments: an ascetic one-man band.

The evening was billed as night of electronic music. Norihide is supporting his new album, Modern, released earlier this year on the New York-based Carpark record label. Headlining were members of Animal Collective, who are based out of Brooklyn, and also playing was a local innovator named Potpie who specializes in drones and soundscapes.

All three acts make music well under the radar of popular culture. Norihide favors an un-ostentatiously experimental brand of electronica. His Modern album welcomes listeners with familiar sounds — a guitar line, the echo of an acoustic piano, the tinny rap of a drum, the occasional bit of computer-driven percussion — and then re-arranges them in ways that are often surprising. He is adept at setting up certain expectations based on how songs traditionally develop, and then going in unusual directions; though most electronic music emphasizes rhythm and texture, Norihide is also concerned with the shape of his melodies, and with the way some canny repetition and the odd offbeat can alter the listener’s perspective.

The stage at the Mermaid Lounge was anything but barren when Norihide ambled out, close to 11:30pm. Though his own setup was minimal, he was surrounded by the equipment for the other acts playing that evening. The contrast couldn’t have been any greater than when he lifted his worn acoustic guitar to his lap and began to strum; any audience member who ended up at the show entirely by chance might would have been forgiven for mistaking Norihide for a singer-songwriter. Listeners to Modern and to Norihide’s previous collection, Humour (Study and I), however, would have recognized in this opening solo guitar piece the outline of a slowly churning rhythm that is one of his trademarks. The song, though, could just as likely have been an understated, vocal-less cover of the Jam’s “English Rose.”

After a minute or two, Norihide brought his solo guitar piece to a close and popped open his laptop. Bathed in the active-matrix glow, he pressed a button, which triggered a track of guitar playing, very much like the piece he’d just played himself. He joined in, soloing on top of the backing track. He then traded his guitar for a harmonica as a buzz emerged slowly — not feedback, but a thick, lush backdrop.

The initial batch of pieces he played, all between two and five minutes, were marked by their instrumentation. All had a similar, rural feeling; whether on guitar or harmonica, he played hum-able melodies but no indelible, pop-song riffs. For the third song he employed some prerecorded piano, against which he strummed guitar, sometimes purposefully out of synch with the recording. For the fourth he played clarinet against a prerecorded clarinet track. The live clarinet complemented the taped one, sometimes veering into it, sometimes playing something entirely apart. Two minutes in, the piece sped up considerably and then there was a momentary pause. If you were observing Norihide’s face during this brief interim, you saw him watching his laptop screen for a cue, like a first violinist watching for a signal from a conductor.

Throughout the concert, the pieces appeared to be thoroughly pre-arranged. Norihide might improvise atop a prerecorded track, but he wasn’t doing much with the laptop as an instrument, per se. He strummed while his Apple produced wood blocks and castanets, or a tea-kettle wail, or a clarinet line, or a synthesized haze. In contrast with many laptop musicians, he was distinctly not working with a small heap of computer samples and stringing them together; instead there was a predefined sequence to each track, and he played along with it. That said, there was a pronounced intimacy between Norihide and his laptop.

For his penultimate number, Norihide shut his computer and returned to the solo guitar that had opened the show. His strumming, with its intricate finger pattern and manifest repetition, recalled John Fahey’s philosophical brand of acoustic folk music, in particular how Norihide would appear to repeat phrases until they sat right, and only then move on to a variation. There was a freedom in the evening’s few laptop-less songs that wasn’t as evident in the ones where he played along with recorded accompaniment.

At the end of the concert, just before midnight, Norihide told the audience he was about to sing a song in Japanese, which with its sad tone could very well have been a Jonathan Richman tune heard in translation. He invited everyone to sing the “sha la la la” part, breaking the spell he’d cast earlier in the evening when he had requested quiet. As it had earlier, the crowd obliged dutifully.

Related links: Ogurusu Norihide's website. Carpark Records's website.

Different Kinda Vocal Album

Though the vast majority of electronic music is instrumental (that is, vocal-less), some of the best compositions take as their base a snippet of something spoken — be it the loops of Steve Reich’s “It’s Gonna Rain,” the hobo’s hymn in Gavin Bryars’ “Jesus’s Blood Never Failed Me Yet,” the “overheard” dialog of Scanner (ripped from the airwaves), the cut-up speech of Scott Johnson (John Somebody, Patty Hearst) or even the random, canned hip-hop shout-out from the Chemical Brothers. Rapoon is the pseudonym behind which Robin Storey works his studio magic. On I Am a Foreigner (Soleilmoon), various squelched voices, rarely more than a moan, surface amid a variety of textures. On “Via,” the title word is taken, reportedly, from a “Teach Yourself Italian” tape, and what we get is a heavenly choir of disembodied voices above the scratching of a locked-groove vinyl album. On “Horizons Endless,” what seems to be a muted choir, as if heard through a thick church wall, reveals itself to be but a few seconds of sampled vocal sound. As the sample loops, its edge, the point at which the splice is evident, takes on a rhythmic purpose, as if like one of Michael Jackson’s hiccups. And then, bizarrely, the sound is overlaid with what seems to be a Jew’s harp, all bouncy fun, albeit minor-key. Inevitably the voices fade back in, just in time for the whole piece to fade out. Many of the pieces on I Am a Foreigner make similarly peculiar transitions; “Dusk Moon” starts out with reverberating piano, only to be transformed into a Tangerine Dream-style staccato movement. Even on repeated listenings, I Am a Foreigner challenges you to find your place in its mass of found voices and sounds. A background sample from one track becomes the core material of another; tracks change mood at midway points. The result is disorienting, but no one promised it would be easy. If only a “Teach Yourself Rapoon” companion volume were available.