Saturday, April 28, 2012

David Lowery vs. The Internet

The Trichordist has posted David Lowery's recent talk at the SF Music Tech Summit.

It's about the effect of the internet on the music industry, and it's called "Meet The New Boss, Worse Than The Old Boss?As you might guess from the title, Lowery is highly skeptical.

"I was like all of you. I believed in the promise of the Internet to liberate, empower and even enrich artists. I still do but I’m less sure of it than I once was... the music business never transformed into the vibrant marketplace where small stakeholders could compete with multinational conglomerates on an even playing field...

We are no longer searching for a 'new' digital model it's here. It's been stable for 6 years. It sucks. Too little revenue goes to the content creators. And that share appears to be shrinking..."

Lowery's whole presentation is posted (including slides), and it is quite long. However, it's worth reading, especially if you are a musician.

In the meantime, here's my personal favorite Cracker song:

Monday, April 23, 2012

Bob Ostertag's Motormouth

Last July, Bob Ostertag released an album called Motormouth, which was made entirely with the Buchla 200E. Being familiar with his noisier and more frenetic music, I was taken aback at how low-key this album is (i.e. I could potentially play it while my girlfriend is in the room). It was a pleasant surprise, and the sounds here feel both dated and timeless.

You can listen to or download Motormouth for free from Soundcloud or the Free Music Archive


There seems to be a resurgence of interest in these old modular synths. I remember Morton Subotnick talking about the post-McLuhan 70's desire to reinvent the interface and metaphors of music. Thus, the Buchla came into being. The popularity of Wendy Carlos and the Moog helped derail that goal by linking the new electronic sounds of synthesis to the old metaphors and interface of the piano keyboard. I think that the popularity of Max/MSP is to blame for this renewal of interest, as it's interface and metaphors are basically modelled after those of modular synthesis.

It seems that Ostertag's work is always on the technological edge in some way. While musicians like RadioheadSaul Williams, and Nine Inch Nails were very publicly re-imagining the role of the internet in music consumption, Ostertag was thinking along similar lines. In 2006, he put all of his recordings on archive.orgFree Music Archive, and/or Soundcloud for free download with a Creative Commons License. He also wrote a great essay about why he did it, called The Professional Suicide of a Recording Musician.

My personal favorite Bob Ostertag recording is Sooner or Later:

"The sounds in this piece come from a recording of a young boy in El Salvador burying his father, who had been killed by the National Guard. There is the sound of the boy's voice, the shovel digging the grave, and a fly buzzing nearby. In Part 2, there is an additional sound from a 3-scond sample of the guitar playing of Fred Frith..." 
from the original program notes

Monday, April 16, 2012

CD Review: Heavy by ETHEL

Heavy is a beautiful CD. Even the package itself is quite stunning, if not misleading. For a moment I thought the oversized package held a 7" within, but instead it was a CD filled with string quartets by contemporary New York composers, performed by string quartet ETHEL.

ETHEL gives vibrant performances of each piece on this album, including music by Don Byron, John Halle, Julia Wolfe, John King, Raz Mesinai, David Lang, Kenji Bunch, and Marcelo Zarvos. You can tell that the ensemble is in its natural habitat here.

My favorite performance here is of John King's No Nickel Blues. It is so easy for classical ensembles playing bluesy music to sound endlessly square. ETHEL doesn't fall into that trap, thankfully, and they even make it swing.

Don Byron's Four Thoughts on Marvin Gaye is like Marvin Gaye seen through the filter of early Ruth Crawford Seeger. Julia Wolfe's Early That Summer shoots out of the gate with the bombast I often associate with her music. Many people will recognize David Lang's Wed from his recent youTube competition, which had pianists from all over the world posting themselves playing the piano version of the piece. While hearing Raz Mesinai's La Citadelle, I imagined it as the soundtrack to a Flash animated remount of Knight Rider. In String Circle No. 1, composer Kenji Bunch sits in and jams with through group. John Halle's Spheres and Marcelo Zarvos' Rounds almost come off as opposite sides of a post-minimal coin.

All in all, Heavy a very exciting CD, full of exuberant performances of New York music by "America’s premier postclassical string quartet."

Heavy will be released on April 24 by Innova Records. In the meantime, you can stream it on ETHEL's website.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

What Is Next.

The lively What's Next? Ensemble, directed by Vimbayi Kaziboni and John Stulz, performed "2 Operas" at Royal/T on Friday night. The show consisted of two pieces: Shaun Naidoo's Nigerian Spam Email and Michael Gordon's Van Gogh.

While listening to Nigerian Spam Email, I imagined a twisted new version of Berio's Sinfonia: quoting not Mahler, but Cage's Second ConstructionGhanian drumming, and the daydreams of Spambots. The piece, written for solo percussion and pre-recorded audio, takes it's "libretto" from those absurdly worded spam emails we've all gotten. This topical text is spoken by layers of computer voices which sound like the ones that come with any Apple computer (and which I love the sound of).

While these digital voices pleaded with you to send them a check in US dollars to save a king/uncle/pack of wild orphans, percussionist Nick Terry flailed away at his multi-percussion setup. Terry's array of brake drums, metal objects, cymbal, and African drums was augmented by pre-recorded layers of those same instruments played back through the speakers - a neat trick that created the effect of a cyborg percussion ensemble.

The connection between the voices and instruments wasn't always transparent, but every now and then things would line up and make a well-coordinated transition or phrase.  Terry's final musical gesture even knocked over one of his drums (accidentally, I think), a surprisingly timely gesture which did nothing to diminish the excitement of an exuberant performance.

For the second half of the concert, the ensemble gave a solid interpretation of Gordon's Van Gogh, conducted by Vimbayi Kaziboni. The piece is a musical setting of letters from Vincent to his brother, Theo. The ensemble deftly navigated Gordon's music, nary a noticeable beat out of place. Soprano Angie Engelbart, tenor Matthew Miles, and baritone Adrian Rosales shone in this performance, and the well-balanced (hiding their drumset behind plexiglass sound baffles) ensemble supported them solidly.

The music itself was a veritable catalogue of Bang On A Can effects and affects. There were Glass-inflected demi-ostinatos, rambunctious percussion, distorted guitar, pandiatonic processes, etc. I noted that whenever I hear scraped brake drums, I immediately think of David Lang's Little Eye. I wondered if this was a deliberate reference, as the corresponding text spoke of "a new man has arrived who is so worked up that he smashes everything and shouts day and night..." Gordon's use of repetition and spoken text also brought Einstein on the Beach to mind, but such is the burden of post-minimalism (or post-anything): to be oriented primarily by the presence of a larger entity (minimalism proper in this case - which is not to say BoaC's post-minimal oeuvre is any small small feat).

Overall it was an exciting performance by a strong young ensemble dedicated to new music. I look forward to hearing more.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Music Machine

Arthur C. Clarke said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." With that in mind, Samsara, by the Karmetik Machine Orchestra, probably has a little bit of magic for everybody. Directed by Ajay Kapur and Michael Darling, it runs one more night at REDCAT.

Here's their promo video:

The first thing to notice is the robots playing live instruments, being controlled by modified Monomes. Other highlights include a "lion" in a sparkly gold outfit and wig that Rum Tum Tugger would die for - that same lion is equipped with accelerometer/gyroscope sensors, reminiscent of Pamela Z, and speakers on her body. There are North Indian instruments blending with the mechanical orchestra. There is also animation by Jason Jahnke, which I would describe as a cool blend of Ron HaysJohn Whitney, Sita Sings the Blues, and Tron.

If nothing else, Trimpin is in the house. TRIMPIN:


At times I imagined a collaboration between Laxmikant Pyarelal and Kraftwerk. Four electronic musicians stood above three sitting musicians playing live Indian instruments, accompanied by one lonely bass player, exiled to his own tiny riser island. There were so many glowing Macbook logos on stage (everyone had their own, one musician even double-fisting them), that I felt an Apple or Monome sponsorship should be in order.

I also thought several times of Tabla Beat Science, Bill Laswell's collaboration with amazing Indian musicians like Zakir Hussain and Trilok GurtuWalter Kitundu also came to mind. Lazily cataloguing other mixtures of Indian music and electronica, I immediately thought of Dan the Automator's Bombay the Hard Way and Madlib's Beat Konducta in India. I'm sure there are much more appropriate examples, but I'm blanking right now.

In terms of robotic music, a comparable project might be Pat Metheny's Orchestrion (though Karmetik's is stylistically different and less egomaniacal):

or Chris Cunningham's "Monkey Drummer" video, which is fake, made with video magic. Karmetic's is live and real. That makes it even more enticing to watch - a startling array of various solenoids and motors making a plethora of sounds that blend seamlessly with electronics and live (human-operated) instruments. No matter how novel these robotics are, it is notable that they almost never feel like mere novelty. There was definite care taken to integrate them into the performance, visually and sonically. I only wished there were some live video close-ups of the machines in actions.

Having come in just before the music began, I didn't get a chance to read the program beforehand. I felt it would have helped to latch onto what snippets of linear narrative there were. I was able to follow the storylines only when the silhouetted video narrator made her rare appearances, and only when she spoke in English (half the time?). The animation, though very nice, only rarely defined a narrative, and the live dance did little to help.

Nonetheless, it was a great experience. If nothing else, it's worth going to see all of the machines do their magic.

Friday, April 6, 2012


Our evolving relationship to information is bringing a new artistry to collage work. The internet is ripe for collage. The existence of surrealism necessitates an overabundance of reality, and YouTube is definitely over-ripe with that (as is film history, as Christian Marclay's recent video pieces point out). The internet video itself is a fledgeling medium, let alone bricolaged art constructed from it.

Brian Walsh played me the following video the other day and I found it hilarious:

The video was "assembled from clips which were discovered by a Facebook group called "The Lick". Join the group and post your own finds!"

A pieces like this is where the potential in the Internet is evident. Effectively crowdsourced, the online world can be more than just an avenue for porn or trolls, but a tool for creating an elevated equivalent of a collective consciousness. Another example is the Slashdot post, "Gamers Outdo Computers at DNA Sequence Alignments."

The artistic potential for online crowdsourcing is being thoroughly explored through projects like the Youtube Symphony Orchestra, Eric Whitacre's Virtual Choir, or the Johnny Cash Project. David Lang and Hilary Hahn recently had similar but unrelated online competitions. Of course, Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead were doing these things ages ago, as were Bjork and The Residents... and there are lots more. Anyway, here's Whitacre's Virtual Choir:

Interesting collages have been assembled by individuals too, things that would be considered crowdsourced if the original artists had been a part of the process. Like this video, collaged together from various people covering Radiohead's Paranoid Android and posting themselves on YouTube. It's a surprisingly cohesive collage, with the original song pretty convincingly intact:

Or this video of over 100 Simpsons openings playing at once:

Or even this video compilation of "window scenes" from the 60's Batman TV show:

Things get darker too, depending on your outlook. Companies like Dell and MTV have also used crowdsourcing to their marketing advantage, creating online video campaigns from youTube submissions. So have countless other groups. In a testament to the transformative power of the digital mob, crowdfunding site Kickstarter is expected to "provide more funds to the arts than the NEA" this year.

Christopher R Weingarten has a nice rant from the 2009 140 Characters Conference about the potentially negative influence of the crowdsourced internet on music culture, saying "it's not the music that's the best, it's the music that the most people CAN STAND... if you let the people decide, then nothing truly adventurous ever gets out."

And finally, there's YouTube comments. God bless them. Check out Stupid YouTube Comments for affirmation of the idiocy of the human spirit.

Good or bad, Kevin Kelly sums it up in his 2007 TED Talk on the next 5,000 days of the world wide web. We are looking through windows into the machine, and these are it's dreams of us.