December 10, 1999
(An evening of improvisations by synthesists Tim Perkis, Chris Brown, John Bischoff, and Scott Gresham-Lancaster with trombonist Abbie Conant, and percussionist Tom Nunn.)
by William Osborne
Published in 20th Century Music (February 2000)
Art Rattan is a loft in a former furniture factory located in a scruffy area of the Oakland harbor--a region of chain link fences and razor wire, the concrete monoliths of expressway overpasses, the rusting, semi-abandoned industrial junk of by-gone prosperity, the shabby little businesses that feed off the cycles of poverty--the American inner-city landscape where the nations avant-garde artists share its outcast, discarded status, and have long since become a part of the sad and mindless economic desolation of cowboy social Darwinism. These "ghettos" often have an interesting culture of their own, but only because their residents defy the poverty, violence, and dehumanizing ugliness that surrounds them. When I arrived for the concert, I heard someone asking around for the owner of a Ford Mercury whose back window had been smashed in for a robbery before the performance had even begun.
Art Rattan is one such dot of civilization, an open space harboring some of the most interesting culture in the Bay Area. It is also the owner's home--a pool table in one corner, an office dedicated to the arts, a bed along one wall, a simple kitchen behind a screen. A child's box next to the entrance held a great collection of toy instruments. I simply couldn't resist picking up the intricately detailed plastic sax. I thought I heard the voice of a young man say, "Its my boy's favorite ax." I looked up and it was the loft owner. His face had a courageous look of hanging on. I hope he does.
The concert, entitled "Live Electronic Stalwarts", featured some of the oldest and most revered names in the Bay Area digital avant-garde. Four were members of the legendary ensemble "The Hub", which in the early 80's was the first group to use a "digital network" for composing and improvisation. The event was advertised to begin at a digitally exact "8:49 PM", but when that moment arrived I was peering at one of the performer's instruments. He looked at me, then at the public of about 30 bohemians, most of whom were standing around a wine table chatting with that curious camaraderie of the underground--a joyous rendezvous of souls who search for ecstasies in sonic exploration.
About 20 minutes later, Tim Perkis, who had organized the event, called the public to their seats, and the show took off with a duo between him and John Bischoff. It was easy to hear each musician's contribution, because all but one had brought along his own sound system. These consisted of single electric guitar speakers with built in amps, except for Brown who had a stereo rig. This gave the evening an intimate character like chamber music--each performer's sound came from where he or she was sitting.
In this first duo there was a marked contrast between Bischoff, whose only instrument was a MAC G3 laptop running MAX, and Perkis, who used two small synths (a Yamaha TX81z and a Nord MicroModular.) Perkis controlled his synths with an exotically ancient laptop he had programmed to function as a sort of keyboard, along with the help of some MIDI sliders and pedals. He also wore a headphone mic which allowed him to make interesting alterations of his voice and whispers through the Nord. The result was a combination of long, bright, constantly transforming digital washes from Bishoff's ingenious MAX programming, punctuated by Perkis' short, spontaneous gestures created by analog style knob twisting, whispering into the mic, and typing on the PC--the combination of which had the charm of an old Moog.
There was also an unusual contrast between the rather virtuosic sounding music, with all its speeding, intricate detail, and the sight of two middle aged men sitting quietly, pushing buttons. Bishoff's performance consisted of moving his mouse finger and occasionally typing a few letters. His eyes never left his screen. He was the intellectual, the sound only performer, while Perkis' lower tech setup was somehow more personable, alive and humorous, allowing him to be more spontaneous and responsive to the moment. In the tradition of computer nerds, the music was a work of the mind more than the body--at least in comparison to the acrobatics of traditional performance. And in contrast to the usual concert of 200 year old music celebrating aristocratic power and glory, Perkis and Gresham-Lancaster were wearing clothes the average suburbanite wouldn't use to wash his car with--though Brown, Bishoff, and Conant, were slightly more spiffy. There's no sense wearing a tux to the ghetto.
The second improvisation was a trio consisting of trombonist, Abbie Conant, who joined Perkis, and synthesist, Chris Brown. Brown was using a desktop Mac containing a large collection of samples he and Conant had made a couple weeks earlier. These samples included normal trombone, dozens of trombone special effects, and Conant reciting passages of Mina Loy's poetry. Brown frantically moved between his MIDI keyboard controller, a set of Peavey MIDI sliders, and two foot pedals to manipulate these samples using the software, Super Collider. He used granular synthesis, for example, to stretch out Conant's words or tones without changing the pitch. The effects were striking and eerie as trombone glissandi made body-defying bends, and the consonants of Conant's words became universes of sounds in themselves. At the same time Perkis was sending Conant's live trombone playing through the Nord, using effects such as ring modulation and extreme filtering to alter her sound in ways that would honor any techno-rave concert. To this was added Conant's wild, live gyrations. The result was a trombone being manipulated in about every way the law and public decency currently allow, an astounding collage of live trombone, live digital interaction, and the high tech alteration of pre-recorded samples.
For the next improvisation, Perkis and Brown were joined by a third synthesist, Scott Gresham-Lancaster, to form a "new all-electronic improv trio" called "Fuzzy Bunny"--though no rabbits were involved. Brown, a highly trained keyboard player who left behind recitals of Beethoven Sonatas for avant-garde nights in lofts, charged the evening with his intense rhythmic verve. In contrast to Bischoff's motionless, Zen-like composure, Brown rocks around on stage, wildly working an array of gadgets like a mad scientist trying to stop his lab from blowing up. It's not often you see traditional keyboard chops burning up technology, and it's especially amusing how he looks up at the other performers with the glee of a child in a toy shop. Gresham-Lancaster joined with his old, beat-up, red, electric guitar hooked to a Fairlight pitch-to-MIDI converter running an Oberheim synth--all decidedly vintage instruments played by a man who whose career evolved right along with them.
This was thus by no means a purely high tech evening. Brown's Super Collider setup is cutting edge, but these musicians helped start the Bay Area digital music scene back in the 70s and have been at this work for years, hence the array of irreplaceable, older instruments that are no longer made. (Before the concert I saw Gresham-Lancaster and Conant drooling over the now defunct Fairlight converter.) Gresham-Lancaster is known for his loud, intense performances, but tonight he was more reflective, quietly studying the effects of running an Oberheim with a guitar--something he had never tried before. The timbreal material was nothing like a guitar, though the pitches reflected the guitar's particular brand of chordal bias. Broad, arpeggiated chords of synth sound thus joined Brown's driving keyboard rhythms, while Perkis added witty interjections reflecting the warm, analog techno style of his Nord MicroModular. The music was a consistently dense fabric wrapping us in blankets of sound, a rich tapestry of electronic detail sometimes sounding like a video arcade from hell. The music seldom opened to thinner textures that might have allowed for a more intimate dialog. I wanted to hear more of Perkis and was left longing to hear him do a solo, not only because of his curiously eccentric setup, but also because of his innate musicality and unusual personality.
Earlier in the evening, snoopy as ever, I had seen this odd, scuffed up thing lying on the floor at the back of the loft, and I couldn't figure out what it was. I concluded it might be an old science project made by the loft owner's child. As it turned out, it was Tom Nunn's instrument for the evening. He used it to join Brown in an ecstatically wild duo. (I also later found out that I had misunderstood the owner--there are no children in the building, and the toy instruments near the door are part of a huge collection of sound-makers he keeps on hand, including everything from toy saxes to brake drums and saw blades.)
To create his instrument, which he calls the "T-rodimba," Nunn took lengths of quarter inch threaded rod, tuned them with a belt sander to an octatonic scale (a set of half and whole tones creating eight notes to the octave), bent the rods to 90 degree angles, and bolted them in holes drilled in a sheet of black-painted plywood about the size of a card table. The rods form three V patterns on the board, and by complex criss-cross patterns not even Harry Partch could understand, allow for playing in all keys. The tone is somewhere between a kalimba and a steel drum. Along the bottom he hammered an array of nails that are strummed like a picket fence, and at the top are three "zing trees," a heavy gauge wire bent into a cluster without ever touching back on itself, which when struck sounds like a cross between a tubular chime and a gong. It's hard to believe your ears. On the back of the plywood sheet he attached several contact mics which run to a guitar amp. He not only virtuosically drums on this instrument with some homemade mallets whose heads are wrapped string, he also bows and scrapes it with additional constructions of his own manufacture.
For this duo, Brown programmed his synth with metallic sounds similar to Nunn's T-rodimba, which counted for some subtle and fascinating interplay. It quickly became apparent that these two have played together for 20 years--ever since they moved to the Bay Area in the late 70s. And in Nunn, Brown met his match for rhythmic intensity. For about the first ten minutes there was little or no contrast in dynamics, texture, or structure. The music was consistently loud and dense, displaying a wild, running rhythmic virtuosity that was very engaging for those with the stamina to stay on the ride. Toward the end they became softer and slower for a moment, as if contemplating darker thoughts, then decided silence was preferable.
For the last number all six musicians went on stage. Before the concert I had noticed a little sheet of paper sitting on Perkis' synth, which listed the last improv with the title "Blow Out." After the concert the musicians told me that is what they expected, but as is the nature of extemporaneous music, the expected is not what happened. Using a harmon mute in her trombone, Conant began with a soft, soulful, languid figure that seemed to follow the end of the previous duo. For the first time of the evening the texture was thin and tenuous, allowing a more intimate dialog between the musicians. Perhaps the responsiveness and listening evolved because there were more unknowns than at any other time in the evening. The other improvisations had been partially discussed or planned. There was an old familiarity between the musicians, but this combination was entirely new. The musicians -had- to listen to each other. There was a drawing together and genuine searching that characterizes the best of free improvisation.
There was also a unique quality in the expressiveness of the music. After having lived the last 20 years in the cold climes of central Europe, there is something about the Bay Area that seems to me almost unfathomably light. My years in Germany gave me the sense that music often tends toward exploring and expressing our darker existential nature, and yet that seems so alien and even unnecessary here in eternally mild weather, pacific calmness, and palm lined streets nine time zones away from the bloody, strife-torn history that shaped our musical heritage. But in this improvisation I heard darker musings. The synth players created wonderfully varied textural accompaniments, given pulse by Nunn's T-rodimba, while Conant (who spent 13 years as first trombonist of the Munich Philharmonic before she too dove into the avant-garde) gave the music a profound and soulful melodic element that had not happened before. She also created vocal and multiphonic effects which had the uncanny ability to sound as electronic as the synths. There was something about her playing, shaped by muscle and vibrating flesh, that seem to infect the more impersonal, digital world of the other players. The music began to build with an emotional intensity. At its high point one of Nunn's mallets slipped out of his hand and flew about 20 feet across the room, slid between my feet, and came to rest under the couch I was sitting on. The musicians let go, found a place within themselves, and shared a more personal vision.
After the concert they were talking about what happened. Conant jokingly commented, "You all seemed so quiet and deferential, like you aren't used to playing with a girl." Bischoff said, "That's because no girls will play with us!" Glancing over at Gresham-Lancaster's seedy T-shirt, I figured that wasn't just a clever retort. But still, I couldn't help but think that other Bay Area techno whizzes like Pamela Z and Latitia Sonomi would jump at a chance to play with these old stalwarts. Putting together Brown and Z's rhythmic senses would rock anyone. And the subtlety and wit of Perkis and Sonomi could make a fabulous duo--they both know the art of cogent statements dotting the silence. Through the special human magic of men and women coming together, digital music may reinvent the body-electric. The Bay Area's digital musicians and researchers have already altered the history of music, and it seems much is yet to come.