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Electro-Acoustic MP3s

For all the evening’s sonic ingenuity, the harmonica took top honors. Two Fridays back, on August 5, Seamus Cater played as half a laptop duo with Roddy Schrock. It was part of an extensive bill held by the Drum Machine Museum some four or five stories up in a brick building in San Francisco’s always colorful Tenderloin District. In addition to Cater-Schrock, there were performances by Lx Rudis and Beau Casey (for which I arrived too late), and by another duo, Christopher Fleeger and Marielle Jakobsons. In between, DJ Guanaco spun. Jakobsons is a violinist, and her set with Fleeger had her not so much trading fours with his laptop, but feeding bits of riffs into it, which he’d process and shoot back at her. Though they’d only apparently played together once previously, they had a good collaborative feel, especially when Jackobsons emphasized the strings’ textural quality, and when Fleeger met the violin halfway, by trying out gestural melodic elements.

Anyhow, the harmonica is what Cater used to open his set with Schrock. He played a short warm hum, which was immediately processed into a rumble of minimal techno. What distinguished his and Schrock’s work together was, once you got past the harmonica, how difficult it was to sort out who was playing what. Whereas most duos perform as individuals, they were producing a singular sound. Not surprisingly, they’ve collaborated for some time, both in concert and online.

Two of their group efforts are available on Schrock’s website, fundamentallysound.org, both artifacts of their file trading. “Reset Artclock” (MP3) reportedly originated as a computer improv, and was subsequently treated with field recordings by Remi Gerard-Marchant; it’s considerably more sparse and enigmatic than anything they emitted at the Tenderloin gig, a mysterious assemblage of tiny sounds, all light clutter, water drops, distant whir. An untitled piece (MP3) will satisfy anyone still wondering about that harmonica mentioned up top. It presents Cater’s harmonica processed by Schrock, who creates a kind of monastic zone-out realm, with overlapping patterns of round tones that echo Terry Riley’s minimalist mysticism.

Cater has another project that combines acoustic and electronic elements, his trio Hills not Skyscrapers, which teams him with Missy Mazzoli and Tom Parkinson. They’ve put three segments from their just finished album, Highwires, up on their site (seacater.com/hns), and though they’ve drawn on a wide range of instruments (“We play pianos, harmonicas, guitars, basses, melodicas, sinewaves, tiny toy instruments and computers”), each of the tracks is sedate and spare. “Rushed Girl” (MP3) is introduced with what sounds like a muted piano transcription of “When I Wish Upon a Star” played above knee-smacked spoons. “Trilingual” (MP3) opens the piano up for something more free and improvisatory, amid spacey strings; those spoons, or perhaps castanets, reappear, but more as sound effects than rhythmic engines. “Orrizonte” (MP3) may be the real keeper. It locates Mazzoli’s wide piano chords within steady cicada sine waves. The three tracks are apparently excerpts of longer pieces, but the Hills not Skyscrapers folks have done listeners the favor of closing each MP3 file with a slow fade, so as not to disturb an otherwise elegant listening experience.

By Marc Weidenbaum

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  • Marc Weidenbaum founded the website Disquiet.com in 1996 at the intersection of sound, art, and technology, and since 2012 has moderated the Disquiet Junto, an active online community of weekly music/sonic projects. He has written for Nature, Boing Boing, The Wire, Pitchfork, and NewMusicBox, among other periodicals. He is the author of the 33 1⁄3 book on Aphex Twin’s classic album Selected Ambient Works Volume II. Read more about his sonic consultancy, teaching, sound art, and work in film, comics, and other media

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