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Sample Battle MP3s

Following up on yesterday’s Kracfive.com entry, the collective’s latest “Iron Chef of Music” contest has been posted on the site. It’s a “global” battle, meaning it took place remotely (“from afar, over the internet from multiple kitchens”). “Local” battles, in contrast, take place “in person, face to face; all contestants used the same kitchen.” Each Iron Chef of Music calls upon a bunch of musicians to make a song based on a common sample; according to the contest’s F.A.Q., they have two hours to accomplish the task. Past mystery ingredients have included a Bruce Haack soundtrack snippet, the Lord of the Rings trailer, and the sound of ice rattling around in a glass.

The latest battle (#23, “Casio Scone,” recorded December 10, 2004) provided perhaps the contest’s shortest sample yet, a three-second Casio riff. A Casio SK-1, to be more specific: a low-budget, mid-’80s sampling keyboard; an 8-bit monophonic artifact. Run in a loop, the spare sample has a nice jittery beat, like a funky guy nursing a knee injury. That sample, all 74 KB of it, and the three completed entries are available for download (here). Khonnor‘s “Iron Chef” slows the sample until it sounds like a Phantom of the Opera organ on the fritz (that’s Claude Rains’ Phantom, not Joel Schumacher and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s). The subject of Lipid‘s “Winning Game” appears to be pachinko, gauging by its musty-arcade vibe. Proswell‘s “Whyy” is the most radio-friendly, with a groovy beat and some understated changes. The winner? Well, it may be something of a tie — by default, my iPod sequenced them in alphabetical order by artist, and Lipid’s track happens to close with a little call out (some dude saying “Heh” or “Hit it” or something like that), which leads just perfectly into Proswell’s opening rhythm. Between the two of them is a recipe worth revisiting.

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Pastoral Kettel MP3

There’s yet to be a Matador of netlabels, a Sub Pop, a Factory, a Def Jam — a place that, for some period of time, dependably, with a mix of pop magic and monocular focus, produces must-hear recordings one after another after another. There are, however, several key online collectives, loosely associated and often geographically dispersed groups of musicians who between them produce material that, while varied, has some sense of a core, shared ideal, and that keeps you coming back to see what’s new. Kracfive.com, home to the occasional “Iron Chef of Music” contests, is such a collective, thanks to contributions by folks like Colongib, Ipagos and Kettel, people who manage to sound playful and folksy, irreverent and craft-oriented, all at once, musicians unafraid of a melody, but uncommitted to songs. Kettle produced the latest entry in the site’s “MP3 Rotor” download section. The pastoral “Poire Test” (MP3) is little more than a bird chip above a low and slow mix of glitchy percussion and beading synthesis, but combined those elements are as peaceful as a Saturday afternoon when your bills are paid, your email inbox is empty and you’ve managed to forget all your cares, at least for the track’s three and a half minutes. Spring arrived a little early this year, thanks to “Poire Test.” More on Kettel (aka Reimer Eising) at kracfive.com/kettel.

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Year-End Catch-Up MP3s

It’s pointless to try to close a year of Disquiet Downstream entries with a bang. When you traffic in understated music, as this site has for eight years, what are you going to do? Break ranks by linking to a high-decibel field recording of explosives, and scare everyone away? Well, maybe. But in light of yesterday’s entry (here), which touched on how the World Wide Web helps illuminate the connections between dispersed artists, the last day of 2004 seems like a good opportunity to check back in on, if not tie off, a small handful of loose ends:

1. Back in March (here), the Ninja Tune label announced a contest in which you could remix the raw materials from which the Wroclaw, Poland-based group Skalpel produced its song “Break In,” a cinematic mix of fusoid jazz and electronic exotica from their self-titled debut album. The “Break In” elements consisted of 27 bits and pieces, ranging from drum tracks to background noise. The label chose a winner from over a hundred entries, and posted it, along with three runners-up and seven short-listed entrants. The champions, a duo consisting of Jeff Bruce Hay and Rob Quickenden, emphasized the loungey atmosphere of the original. All 11 winners, plus the original track, are downloadable at ninjatune.net.

2. Speaking of music competitions, it’s been a while since checking in with the kracfive.com crew and, especially, its Iron Chef of Music challenges. The most recent one, dating from October 22, features Logreybeam, Colongib, Noah and Relative Q mixing up some wacky-robot clips by music-for-kids innovator Bruce Haack. Check ’em out kracfive.com. Also available: results of an October 9 contest based on Robocop and an August 8 contest built from a Lord of the Rings trailer.

3. For a long time, Keith Fullerton Whitman (aka Hrvatski) put up monthly free MP3 files of his music on his reckankomplex.com site, and many of them were Downstream entries. Earlier this year he pretty much stopped, in favor of a cool “radio” tool that, at last count, featured 75 streaming tracks. This doesn’t mean, though, that KFW downloads are gone for good. In November, for instance, the British music magazine The Wire posted on its download page (thewire.co.uk) a delicate, nearly 20-minute solo “guitar/computer” performance recorded at the Adventures in Modern Music festival held in Chicago this past September.

4. One subject of the December 8 entry (here), William Fowler Collins, is, like many electronic musicians, also a graphic designer. He just announced the launch of the website he produced for an acclaimed San Francisco Bay area musical figure, John Bischoff: johnbischoff.com. Bischoff’s new web home includes four segments from his Aperture CD (on the 23Five label), each of which investigates the trebly upper reaches of the ear’s capacity for sound, with internecine clicking and whirring.

OK, that should cover it for 2004. I want to take the opportunity to thank everyone for their correspondence, their listening suggestions and their general feedback on the Disquiet.com website. See you next year — or, that is, in less than 12 hours.

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Plug Ugly

SAN FRANCISCO, CA — They came for the music, but they stayed for the Y2K jokes. The Laptop Battle in San Francisco on Sunday, April 18, promised an evening of competitive electronica. But while the individual performances were occasionally inspired, and the concert’s format intriguing in theory, the night was plagued by technical difficulties.

The Laptop Battle crew has been touring the country, promoting events at which electronic musicians vie for the approval of judges and audience alike. To keep the playing field relatively level, the rules are simple: only laptops are allowed. That means, according to the laptopbattle.org website, no “external controllers,” like keyboards and mixers. And you have only three minutes in which to prove yourself.

By the time they got to San Francisco, the battle’s organizers had sponsored events in Seattle, Portland and Vancouver. Next up was a gig in Los Angeles at the Knitting Factory, later in the week. The setting in San Francisco was more 8 Mile than American Idol, a long, dank basement named Club Six just south of Market Street. Though it was a Sunday night, the floor was fairly packed by the time the show began. Of course, having 16 acts on the bill provides a lot of opportunity for friends and family of performers to fill the house.

First up came CIA (which stands for “Copyright Infringement Agency”), who played a Hare Krishna-ish chant over a drum pattern. He was pitted against Rydub, who followed with an extended bit of dubby club music, into which he secreted breaks of ska. Some in the audience expressed surprise when the judges awarded Rydub the first win of the night, but CIA’s good-humored track didn’t really do much in its third minute that it hadn’t already done in its second minute — or, for that matter, its first. Had Rydub benefited from a proper sound system (more on that later), the superiority of his performance would have been more self-evident.

DJ Aneurysm appealed to noise fans with a loud opening burst of static and a random assortment of samples, while his unfortunate opponent, named Terrac, had to start his piece several times, so faulty was the sound. Stream723, done up like a Matrix supporting character, danced in place while his laptop emitted poppy music that could have been a Berlin B-side (Berlin the new-wave band, not the techno Mecca). When the tune seemed to stop suddenly, someone quipped that Stream723 had broken a string. Such jokes kept the crowd busy, and in good spirits, during the many long stretches between performances. Y2K references proved particularly popular. A bumper sticker at the front of the stage that read “Vinyl Is Heavy” became less viable as a piece of propaganda as the night went on.

The periodic breaks due to technical troubles also provided opportunity for Sunday-night quarterbacking. One sticking point was that the wide variety of genres being presented — from abstract microsonics to deep techno — made judging almost impossible. A number of people, both at the event and online, have suggested that the series would be improved if the competitors all had to construct their songs, or sets, from a shared set of samples. It’s a cool idea, along the lines of the “Iron Chef of Music” contest run by the kracfive.com website, but it ignores the fact that the Laptop Battle is about performance, not composition.

Winning against Stream 723 was Phiber Optics, who followed the Beastie Boys’ lead by opening with a heaving Led Zeppelin drum sample. His set was plagued with problems, and he was forced to start over, which diminished the initial impact of that Zeppelin quote.

Two hours after the concert began, only eight acts had performed. Allowing the allotted three minutes per performer, this means less than a quarter of that time involved actual competition. The rest was tech support. Another eight musicians were on deck, though much of the audience had already gone home. (I soon followed.)

A post the next day on a blog linked to from the laptopbattle.org website owned up to the event’s failings: “Sunday nights show at Club Six was a humbling experience,” wrote Kris Moon, one of the battle’s co-producers. “Throwing a laptop battle takes alot of organization and synchronization among a large # of people. … We fucked up by not having the mixer there on time and i apologize to the contestants in those first 3 rounds, and anyone else who wasn’t patient enough to enjoy the smokey hallway or just have another beer.” Copyediting aside, Moon’s post explained that the gig’s appointed mixer didn’t arrive until 11pm. It also complained about the grungy neighborhood and noted that it was a Sunday night. But, as Moon wrote, “those are just excuses.”

Liz Dizon, identified as the night’s local promoter, wrote from the unknown8bit.org site, “[W]e’re all new to this touring laptop battle bidness,” noting the absence of backup plans and equipment. Ironically, for an event about cutting-edge music-making, the sound issues had nothing to do with buggy software or overextended computer chips.

No matter who is to blame, one thing is clear: the musicians weren’t. Perhaps the worst thing about the night was that this wasn’t always made clear to the audience. As a result, it took a while for folks to stop blaming the individual musicians for the problems, and to start recognizing that the fault lay entirely with the concert organizers.

A fellow named T. Machine reportedly won the San Francisco contest, which gets him a spot at the inaugural national laptop battle at Decibel Festival, a planned four-day event in Seattle in late September of this year. As for whether or not that’s a prize — well, you’d have to ask the San Francisco battle participants what they think.

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Three Chef MP3s

THREE CHEFS MP3S: The Kracfive collective has posted the results of another of its Iron Chef of Music events, the ninth overall. Kracfive’s series, which began in June, is based on the Iron Chef TV show, in which star chefs are given a set amount of time during which to produce meals in front of a live studio audience. In each Iron Chef episode, there’s a surprise ingredient, a mystery meat (or vegetable, etc.). The resulting entrees and appetizers are judged by a panel of guests.

Kracfive’s conceit is cheeky, to be sure, but it’s yielded some great listening. For Kracfive’s musical version of Iron Chef, unedited sound samples are provided to participating electronica whizzes, who have two hours in which to convert the raw material into a composition. In the past, source recordings have included a Charles Mingus jazz tune and a closely miked chess match. The seventh Iron Chef of Music, based on ice rattling and dice being thrown, was the subject of Disquiet’s Downstream on October 25 (here).

For the ninth Iron Chef of Music, which took place on October 28, three acts were provided with a 36-second recording of two people passing time in a kitchen. Kracfive posts the raw sample as well as the resulting compositions, so the listener can hear not only the contestants’ works, but the unadulterated recording from which they grew. (See the Kracfive “battle” archive, here.) On this occasion, the source material (file here) begins with a piano piece trailing off, after which someone starts whistling; conversation and kitchen noise ensue. Between the source’s opening piano segment and the sounds of kitchen work, it’s hard not to think of Erik Satie’s theoretical “furniture music,” music composed to mingle with the sounds of a dinner party.

Three acts contributed their takes on this bit of household ambience. Colongib apparently loved that bit of whistling, which in its version, “Popsy Police” (file here), is extended and repeated, like something out of an Ennio Morricone spaghetti western film score. In contrast, the original was more Andy Griffith whimsical than Clint Eastwood epic. Colongib also slurs the sound of plates in the sink, with a turntablist’s ear for stretched audio. (The actual source of a given sound is mostly guesswork. The event’s official name is: “Reimer and Stephen Prepare Cheese with Gherkins.”) Mr. Numan’s “Ik Hou Van Deken” (file here) turns the kitchen sounds into percussion, occasionally pitching them, and putting the voices through a filter that has an effect similar to helium.

Noah’s piece, “Servant Cabine” (file here), is the most traditionally melodic of the three. He uses the source recording for his own purposes, in contrast with Colongib and Numan, who use composition as a window on the original material, allowing the listener to hear the voices and other sounds in new ways, but keeping them easily recognizable. On “Servant Cabine,” the melody appears to be a richly processed version of the whistling, that offhand whisp of a moment transformed into a proper lead instrument, a thick pure, singular line.

All three tracks are among the most polished of the Iron Chef of Music series so far. The best way to listen to them is to do so in tandem with the source material. The pleasure is less in any given end result than in each composer’s wily acts of extrapolation.

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