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Listening to art. Playing with audio. Sounding out technology. Composing in code. Rewinding the soundscape.

Kenneth Goldsmith by way of PDQ Bach, and More

An early (April 2020) pandemic livestream review I wrote for The Wire

Happy Valley Band + Erin Demastes + Repairer of Reputations
Various locations/Twitch

The valley in the name of Happy Valley Band is for Silicon Valley. The happy today, April 18, 2020, is nominal, due to widespread Covid induced seclusion. Happy Valley Band, an AI-arbitered experiment, is headlining a live stream that features noises from Erin Demastes and synth flashbacks from Ryan Page, the latter performing as Repairer of Reputations. The live stream phenomenon, like the coronavirus itself, is still novel.

The concert, held by the experimental promoter Indexical, occurs on Twitch, a platform for watching other people play video games. The Twitch website is correspondingly colorful and antic. For those less engaged in gamer culture, it can also be confusing. Like a waiter missing the hint that you have no interest beyond the club’s minimum drink requirement, Twitch often pesters you about ways to level up, mystifyingly so.

Demastes’ opening set is brightly illuminated, and otherwise a stark contrast to the manic framing of Twitch’s interface. On screen, color fields shift slightly and meaningfully. She is patiently engaged in microsound, in closely miking textiles and other materials. Her audio is at first quiet, so much so that latecomers keep entering the Twitch chat room to ask if the sound is even on. It is. (One good thing about Twitch concerts is that musicians and audience can silence crowd chatter with a click.)

As the volume rises, more sounds are heard as she probes and amplifies things seen through a microscope. These are as curiosity-invoking as they are abrasive. An after-show interview sheds additional light. Demastes lists her tools. These include beads, Styrofoam, and corkboard (that “gross brown stuff,” she reminds us), as well as a Slinky, a lobster fork, and a doorstop.

Happy Valley Band go second. Like the audience, the group’s members have assembled, far and wide, from the comfort of private spaces. They appear in the all too familiar virtual-conference grid of torsos. David Kant, the band’s leader, sets a self-mocking tone: “We’re going to be here for the next … too long, destroying your favorite songs.” What Happy Valley do is play music as heard through artificial intelligence. The musicians — including Kant on tenor sax, Mustafa Walker on bass, Alexander Dupuis on guitar, and Pauline Kim on violin, among too many members to list here — play notation produced by software that listens to pop classics and spits out what the algorithms observe. The Happy Valley Band are Kenneth Goldsmith by way of PDQ Bach: cultural plundering in the service of joking forensic dismemberment. They churn through hits like Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” and James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World.” Much as synthesizers have an easier time inferring pitch from woodwinds than from multi-timbral instruments, the barebones nature of Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” yields the least frantic results of the show: the chords are anything but standard, but do leave space for the ear to focus on individual elements. The bombast of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” however, yields frenzied mush.

Like Demastes, Page performs work where visuals and sounds are inseparable. Throughout his set, the screen fills with ancient cathode-ray images, snatches of what seems like a VHS tape of a forgotten Roger Corman horror flick. The occasional narration reads like the script to a text adventure (“You open the door. … As you enter, you are sure this is your house”). The eeriest thing, nonetheless, is just how period-perfect are the synth-score cues that Page plays to accompany the footage.

There’s some additional context in a post I made when I first announced the article’s publication (“This is the first freelance concert review I have ever written on the same device on which I witnessed the concert”).

This article I wrote originally appeared in the July 2020 issue (number 437) of The Wire.

By Marc Weidenbaum

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