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Sounding out technology.
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tag: modular

Liner Notes on Early Carl Stone

From Electronic Music from the Seventies and Eighties, forthcoming from Unseen Worlds

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Carl Stone invited me to write liner notes to a forthcoming release of some of his early music, Electronic Music from the Seventies and Eighties. That is to say, early in his career; it’s not archaic woodwinds and pre-polyphony singing.The album is due out September 30 from the label Unseen Worlds (more at unseenworlds.com). The release will also include liner notes from Stone himself, and from Richard Gehr and Jonathan Gold.

The pieces I wrote about are described as follows: “The earliest works of this collection, ‘LIM’ and ‘Chao Praya,’ realized on the Buchla 200, date to the early 1970s while Stone was a student of James Tenney and Morton Subotnick at CalArts.”

The album is due out September 30 as a three-LP set. Here are my liner notes:

The composer Carl Stone is often associated with multi-channel work that immerses the listener in a spatial sonic zone, and with aggressive sample manipulation that explores its source audio from the inside. The two early Stone pieces, LIM and Chao Praya, are neither. Conceptualized and recorded between 1972 and 1974, they are elegant, built from limited resources. They may play with the stereo spectrum, but their intended breadth is reserved.

They are student work, in the sense that they were recorded while Stone was an undergraduate at CalArts in Los Angeles. The early 1970s were an especially heady time at CalArts. The composers Ingram Marshall and Charlemagne Palestine were graduate students there while Stone, an L.A. native, was earning his bachelor’s degree, Barry Schrader was among the school’s instructors, and Buchla synthesizers were available if not abundant.

They are student work, in terms of when Stone committed them to tape, but they are fully realized performances, in the sense that four-plus decades later they are compelling, consuming listening experiences.

Chao Praya has at its heart the tingling wavering associated with a prayer bowl, or perhaps a police helicopter. It undulates, and in turn its various procedural wave forms reveal their constituent parts. Shades take on greater emphasis as increased volume brings details into focus.

LIM, in contrast with Chao Praya, often plays at higher registers and with greater variance. Here there are space ships rather than helicopters overhead. Here tonal shifts launch slow-motion cascades of moiré patterns. At even a modest volume, the results have a physical effect, playing with the ear. They tease at the nexus where sounds venture beyond human recognition.

Morton Subotnick, one of Stone’s teachers at CalArts, speaks of how he was drawn to electronic music when he began to dream music that an orchestra was not capable of producing. Stone’s is such music. This isn’t to say this work is opposed to the classical tradition. Quite the contrary, with their relatively compact length — barely 20 minutes combined — and economical contents, these two pieces have the air of études, of compositions that set out to explore a terrain, to map out combinations and permutations, the repercussions of resonances, and to set them down for study.

It is all too easy with the rise of digital media to credit the blank slate of streaming audio and the frictionless playback of solid-state drives with the level of nuance we experience in today’s sound design and audio recordings. Certainly these newfound comfort levels with quietude have created opportunities for musicians to nurse and adopt ambient proclivities. But the re-release of Chao Praya and LIM evidence that there are composers, Carl Stone key among them, who were working these elds from the beginning, who recognized at the start that new instruments would yield new forms.

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The Generative Patch as Fixed Recording

A live video by Flohr of Atlanta, Georgia

Like yesterday’s featured video, this video pushes the legibility of live filmed performance. Yesterday’s technically involved multiple live takes overlaid, each obscuring the others, and the ambient quality of it having less to do with any individual performance in the first place and more with the chance correlations that occurred as a result of the post-production act of accrual. Today’s video, by Flohr, is too murky and unidentifiable to ever be mistaken as a tutorial. And, of course, any modular synthesizer piece, such as this, that employs self-generating patches thus involves little if any human interaction. The hand comes down from above, the scale and surprise a bit like a Monty Python animation, a couple times, but by and large, this is really a live performance as fixed document — a patch playing out in realtime as something set in stone nonetheless, or in this case set in plastic and metal. The piece, “Spring Reverb Feedback Paths” by Flohr, is a shiny, rapidly cycling shimmer worth putting on repeat.

Flohr is Eric Flohr Reynolds of Atlanta, Georgia. More from him at soundcloud.com/flohr and ericflohrreynolds.bandcamp.com.

It’s the latest piece I’ve added to my ongoing YouTube playlist of fine “Ambient Performances.”

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One Synthesizer, Multiple Voices

A work for modular synth by Fastus

Different musicians have different audiences. The thing that distinguishes SoundCloud from most music services is how people use it to post half-done pieces, sometimes with their “listener” audience in mind, often with their “peer” audience, the latter meaning other musicians, who are, of course, often listeners themselves. On video sites, “unboxing” and intro “tutorial” or “overview” clips let new owners share some of their consumerist energy, and occasionally even some tips. On SoundCloud, the closest comparison might be “first try” or “first take” audio, when musicians post a very early attempt to use a new piece of equipment. That subset of audio is followed by instrument-centric recordings, like this piece by Fastus, in which the equipment may not necessarily be new, but it still has the spotlight. “Isolation,” as it’s called, is a modular synthesizer piece that, per the very brief (eight-word) liner note, is based around a single item of equipment, the Telharmonic (from the company Make Noise), which came out a little under a year ago. It’s a remarkable recording, multiple voices moving throughout, cycling and echoing each other, built largely from organ-like tones and a rhythm that sounds like steam pipes opening and closing.

Track originally posted at soundcloud.com/fastus. Fastus is Ian O’Brien of Jersey City, New Jersey. More from him at twitter.com/FastusMusic.

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A Click Here, a Tone There

The "blind" recording process of ioflow (aka Joshua Saddler)

Joshua Saddler, who records as ioflow, takes delicate sounds in this short, eminently loopable track, and from them ekes out plaintive, elegant mixes of texture and tone, of gentle percussives and subdued tension. The piece is titled “Clouds and Wind, Shifting,” and it very much has an elemental feel to it. It follows a pace of sorts, but there’s nothing trenchant about the beat or pulse of it. It just proceeds, a click here, a tone there, sometimes overlapping, sometimes left on their own, preceded by silence or followed by a sudden, yet still quite intimate and fragile, convergence.

Saddler recently expanded his instrument collection with the start of a modular synthesizer, and this track is his first ever recording with that equipment. The full list of equipment is: lap harp, ebow, field recordings, pedals, and modular effects. He employed what he described as a “‘blind’ recording process,” which involves recording several tracks separately and only hearing them back in unison when they’re all complete.

Track originally posted at soundcloud.com/ioflow. More from ioflow/Saddler, who is based in San Diego, California, at ioflow.bandcamp.com, twitter.com/ioflow, vimeo.com/ioflow, and instagram.com/ioflow.

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What the Creators of the Monome Sound Like as Live Performers

Kelli Cain and Brian Crabtree recorded live in San Francisco (February 2016)

Update (April 3, 2016): The SoundCloud account of half of the Monome duo mentioned below, Kelli Cain, today uploaded a higher-quality recording of the same concert:

The original post appears below.

The developers of the Monome have shepherded not just a series of refined devices, including their namesake grid and a growing number of synthesizer modules, but a community that makes music with them and software for them.

That Monome community largely gathers at llllllll.co, a discussion site, but occasionally there are opportunities to meet up in person. About a month back, on February 19, Monome’s Kelli Cain and Brian Crabtree, who are based in upstate New York, performed as a duo at a tiny shop in San Francisco’s Outer Richmond neighborhood. The audio for that set is now available as a free download from shop’s SoundCloud account (soundcloud.com/betterforliving).

I was at the show, and can confirm the audio captures the songs well. It’s a series of gentle, folktronic pieces, each with a trance-like quality. Certainly there in the mix are the soft looping synthesizer sounds often associated with the Monome, but there’s also a sweet vocal thread, the pair harmonizing like adjunct members of Low or of Iron and Wine. The acoustic shaker heard early on in this half-hour set is one of several that come out of Cain’s work in ceramics (see: kellicain.com).

At the show Crabtree had several of the shakers on the table. He’d shake one for awhile, and then pass it to someone in the audience to continue the pattern. Each person became an extension of what Crabtree had started, but then altered it a little, whether through the conscious decision to contribute a musical idea, or simply because their sense of rhythm differed from his. Either way, the passing around of the shakers was a masterful example of the real (that is, physical) world reflecting something intrinsic to electronic culture (looping), all occurring in the context of a makeshift community (in this case the few dozen attendees).

Here are two shots I took at the time and that I posted the day after the show at llllllll.co:

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Track originally posted at soundcloud.com/betterforliving. More on the Monome, Cain, and Crabtree at monome.org.

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