Junto Profile: Joe McMahon, aka Equinox Deschanel

From West Virginia, now SF Bay Area: welcome imperfection, false dichotomies

This Junto Profile is part of a new series of short Q&As that provide some background on various individuals who participate regularly in the online Disquiet Junto music community.

What’s your name? Joe McMahon, but since there are three of us by that name who are musicians, I use Equinox Deschanel for my musical endeavors. I’ve also performed with a number of groups in collaboration with Mike Metlay: as a part of Team Metlay back in the 1990s and at two of the Different Skies festivals while he was running those at Arcosanti, Arizona, in the early 2000s. (I’m not counting the Chicago cover band in high school.)

Where are you located? I’m based in the San Francisco Bay Area right now, but I’m originally from a small town in the northern panhandle of West Virginia. I moved from there to the Washington, D.C., suburbs, where I worked for NASA for 25 years, and from there out to San Francisco, then Palo Alto, Redwood City, and finally San Jose.

My family was musical — we all sang, my mother played the piano, and my grandfather was a fiddle player. I taught myself piano and learned trumpet in school. My electronic musical life has mostly been an online one; before high-speed internet, I visited Pittsburgh and Tallahassee to collaborate with friends, and occasionally jammed with people in the D.C. area. In S.F.,  I’ve played in a performance of Cardew’s Treatise (sight reading it during the performance — not sure I’d recommend this!) and played in the 2010 Droneshift performance in San Francisco on drainpipe didgeridoo (I do not take myself seriously). 

What is your musical activity? The best way I’ve been able to describe my music is as exploring the fractal edge of planning and coincidence; I like to set up a framework that has a vague direction, but let happenstance and “what happens if I turn this control all the way” take me to interesting places. 

My influences are wildly varied: jazz, musique concrète, ambient music, generative music, “classical” electronic music, prog rock, Spike Jones, Laurie Anderson, Frank Zappa — anything that looks at things a little bit sideways. Or a lot. I like making things that make me happy to listen to, that you can sink into and enjoy, that make you smile, or make you laugh, or make you say, “oh, that was nice.”

I’ve been working seriously at recording and performing music since the mid-1990s, though I played other instruments, sang, and taught myself all my terrible piano habits before my teens. My middle school band teacher led me down the path to jazz and improvisation, and an elective class in college let me learn that I did indeed have a knack for synthesizers and editing (tape splicing FTW!).

I credit my fellow musicians at the 2010 Different Skies festival with encouraging me to actually start releasing my music instead of sitting on it and waiting for it to be exactly right, and the Earth Mantra netlabel for giving me wider exposure.

I’ve most recently been pressed for time, so I’ve been doing generative pieces, in particular learning how to turn Brian Eno’s Scape application into a serious performance instrument. I’m also learning how to use the iOS application AUM to build multi-instrument performances on the iPad, including embedded virtual modular from MiRack, and how to use Ableton Live effectively. I’m concentrating mostly on tools that let me use just one piece of equipment at a time, either the iPad or my laptop. And I’m still planning on getting my trumpet back out again.

Formative moments: 

  • 1962, 5 years old: Telstar, by the Tornadoes.
  • Quincy Jones, Killer Joe on the radio at 10 or so.
  • Timesteps and the main theme from A Clockwork Orange. That phasing bass!…the main theme was the first piece I ever worked out by ear. My parents got really tired of me fumbling my way through a dirge for hours at a time.
  • 90 minutes of playing with an ARP 2600 when I was 15. 
  • Stumbling across Stereo Electronic Music #1, by Bülent Arel, about that same time.
  • Improvising live with no score and no plan and a room full of people for a full half hour, and having it all work, at the Team Metlay recording sessions in 1992.
  • 1/1, Brian Eno, which I didn’t actually hear until 1995!

What is one good musical habit? Learn to accept imperfection. The Junto has in particular reinforced this: there just isn’t time to agonize about every single nuance of performance and conception when you’ve only got a few days to do it in, embracing what comes and making it work. Do it, record it (or not!), release it. It takes many, many snowflakes to make a glacier. Giving yourself this luxury of acceptance is very freeing.

Turn It Loose: Joe McMahon, originally of West Virginia

What are your online locations? Musically, you can find me doing my show on RadioSpiral (spiral.radio) on Monday evenings 6-8PM Pacific time, when I’ll be on the RadioSpiral Discord (radiospiral.chat) and in Second Life; during the rest of the week, I’ll be on the Disquiet Junto Slack, and various TTRPG Discords, particularly The Good Friends of Jackson Elias. I sometimes drop in on Lines (llllllll.co), but I’m not a frequent poster there.

My blog is at pemungkah.com — my old handle that I still use a lot of places because it’s one of my favorite gamelan pieces (which I did indeed do a cover of  at one point).

I’m on Mastodon at @[email protected], though I’m still ramping up on that. I seldom use my Instagram, but will probably port that over to Equinox Deschanel at some later date.

My Bandcamp is at pemungkah.bandcamp.com/; it really should be at equinox-deschanel, but I hadn’t decided on using that until after I set up Bandcamp.

My Soundcloud, with all my Junto tracks, is at soundcloud.com/equinox-deschanel.

What was a particularly meaningful Junto project? There are several — the trio projects from 0429 to 0432 were particularly fun, and so inspiring that I did several tracks in each of those! I was particularly fond of Off Angle, from Junto 0431.

I was incredibly happy with how well the vibe track came out; I felt almost like I was playing live with the rest of the trio.

The solo  track that I think was the most successful was from Junto 0456, Line Up: ”Interpret a painting by Agnes Martin as if it were a graphic score.” I think this is my very best interpretation of a Junto prompt. I got to use a virtual ARP 2600 and Buchla Music Easel (two of my very favorite synthesizers) on the track, and I’m exceptionally proud of the performance I got out of Ableton Live and some very restrained control tweaking. 

What would you say to someone who has trouble understanding how jazz, which can be perceived as improvisatory, can relate to electronic music, which can be perceived as structured?

I think it’s really a false dichotomy – at some timescale, there’s always a choice being made about what the next note is; traditional jazz just turns the dial way up (as I so love to do) to “we have a framework that we’ve agreed upon, but most of the time we’re not going to plan what any of us is going to play until we perform the piece”.

There’s still a lot of structure: this is the “head” – the melody we’ll play as a starting point – and these are the chord changes we’ll use, and these are the cues we’ll use to decide who’s soloing and for how long. It’s just that it’s a different structure.

A tracker piece, for instance, turns the intuition dial way down: every note has to be precisely specified as this note, this long, on this instrument. But that decision of “what note is next?” has to be made before the next set of parameters can be typed: heavy planning, very little coincidence – but there still needs to be an instinctual decision as to what the next thing is, even if it’s going to be set in stone. Or electrons.

But many genres of electronic music absolutely do improvisation, as much as jazz does; they just do it with fewer simultaneous instinctive choices happening. Berlin-school pieces often have a synth solo or guitar solo happening over a repeating background, much like a jazz solo over a set of chord changes. Many, many modular artists set up a framework via an initial patch and then explore where they can go from there. 

For me, this maps right into the same headspace as jazz; it’s just that the kind of improvisation is different. Tweaking knobs, switching cables, and fading things up and down are still instinctual choices in the moment, taking that leap of faith that you know your instrument and have goals in mind, and that you will find them by exploring.

Many of the pieces I’ve done for the Junto have, at their heart, been deeply influenced by jazz, but not necessarily in terms of harmony; but instead in terms of making those instinctual choices during the performance in pursuit of the final piece. 

Sometimes they’ve been improvisations on an extremely stretched time-scale, where I take a set of “notes”, like a series of industrial fan samples, foghorns, or tweaks to a patch, and improvise how and when I play them over a longer period of time. Sometimes they’re “I can hear what would work with this; let me get my hands on the keyboard and find it.” Sometimes it’s “I’ve got these loops, and I know how they sound; I’ll wait and listen and hit the button when it’s time for this one.”

It’s all still jazz, you just have to squint to see it!

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