Archive for May, 2009

Yesterday I was at the New Museum on the Bowery in the all-white (from seats to walls) auditorium downstairs, enjoying the sounds of Nick Hallet’s Whispering Exercises which staged four singers and a harpist (all young women) as if sitting on a cloud, surrounded by quickly evolving and contrasting light projections all around the theater’s inviting walls. With some of the tunes, one felt surrounded by nearly angelic sounds but there was an edge in the occasional slight dissonance, or the directness and simplicity of the vocal work, or the constrasting passages where the roar of an old analog synth or quietly cycling arpeggiator brought a man-machine element. In Nick Hallett’s through-composed world, the sweetness and the rumble get along and share the same universe, which adds a spiritual dimension to the statement; and one is aurally delighted and comfortable within a clearly defined, accessible esthetic. The piece, a work in progress to be completed by next year and presented at The Kitchen, weaves the stasis of whispers and breathing sounds that recur throughout, with short tunes with tonal vocal harmonies, sometimes reminiscent of early music, but beyond the purity of the voices there was the memory of rock music. The performers, Daisy Press, Rachel Henry, Katie Eastburn, and Rachel Mason (voices) and harpist Shelley Burgon were compelling and so were the visuals created by Seth Kirby and Brock Monroe. The music was wonderfully refreshing and reaching for its very own language beyond tonal minimalism.

Nick Hallett is continuing his residency at the New Museum for one more week with Voice and Light Systems Part Four: Auroville on Thursday May 28 at 7pm, a multimedia “ritual” inspired by Sri Aurobindo featuring Seth Kirby and Ana Matronic.

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Legend: top to bottom: Terpstra, Bikelophone, OrbiTouch, FingeRing (hand), Jankó keyboard, Bowafridgeaphone (right).

People have been inventing new instruments ever since the beginning of time, but it is almost frightening how lately people are thinking up alternatives to the ever-present keyboards we use: the piano keyboard and the QWERTY keyboard.

The OrbiTouch is a “keyless” keyboard that integrates the mouse and the keyboard According to the manufacturer, ““The orbiTouch creates a keystroke when you slide the two domes into one of their eight respective positions. You type the different characters by sliding the domes to create letters and numbers. The orbiTouch also has an integrated mouse, so moving the domes gives you full mouse and keyboard capability!”

The FingeRing is a wireless wearable keyboard invented by NIT Human Interface Laboratories in Japan. It is the prototype of a full-time wearable device for the input of commands and characters. A small accelerometer is worn on the base of each finger to detect the typing shocks generated by tapping the finger on any typing surface such as the thigh, knee or desk (called “finger-tip typing”). Commands and characters are generated from combinations of finger-tip typing actions. Each accelerometer is small and the finger-tip is not covered so they can be worn continuously in everyday life without trouble. In addition, no take-up action is needed for use, so immediate start of operation is possible.

I also found some weird musical instruments interesting: for the Bowafridgeaphone, instrument maker Iner Souster used refrigerator grates, violin bows, a broken old speaker, a cake pan, a metal salad bowl, and the few other spare pieces of metal. There are 36 strings along the body to help with its resonance, and pick up a few sympathetic tones; the Bikelophone, originally constructed in 1995, is a palette of sonic exploration, with magnetic pickups attached to amplify the sound, anything connected to the bike becomes amplified. The current configuration includes bass strings, scrap wood and metal, metal bowls, telephone bells, a mechanical foot pedal and a touch sensitive tone generator.Using a loop-based recording system and outboard signal processors (reverbs, delays, pitch shifts, etc.), sound compositions can include acoustics and electronics.

The Terpstra keyboard, brainchild of engineers/designers Dylan Horvath and Siemen Terpstra (in collaboration with artistic director Garnet Willis, advisor Joel Mandelbaum and executive director Reinhard) has been out of the box for a couple of years now, a full-capacity microtonal keyboard with a non-piano interface, i.e. 280 velocity-sensitive keys that can be assigned various micro-tunings with a maximum of 55 notes per octave. It is a control surface for microtonal music which requires a) software to run the tuning (such as Scala) but also b) a timbre module or sampler or sound library. I had a chance to play the Terpstra once and enjoyed the keyboard action as I didn’t find it difficult to adapt to the key layout and got some entertaining sounds out of it even though they weren’t pre-planned – you kind of have to move the hands vertically as well as horizontally.

For a keyboardist though it is a question of losing virtuosity at the piano keyboard in exchange for acquiring virtuosity on this unusual keyboard. Will the Terpstra, despite its undeniable creative possibilities and microtonal options, take off or will it be rejected by the players as was the Paul Jankó keyboard at the beginning of the 20th century – it offered a stack of six keyboards one above the other, which changed the entire action to make it more accessible to play with less of a stretch for the hand. And that was actually truly brilliant because for some people especially women with smaller hands, the stretch of the hand which barely goes to the 10th, precludes from playing material that requires very extensive chords as in Liszt, Scriabin, Rachmaninoff, etc.

The Terpstra has already found its enthusiasts: Aubrun Schect says “When a key is depressed, the entire change in position is monitored and translated to a very accurate and nuanced velocity by the time the key hits the bottom. Every key is easily re-mappable and if mapped to a continuous controller, then slowly depressing any re-mapped key sends out continuous data like a fader in real time. It does all of this with no latency.” Meanwhile, The Gizmodo web site calls the Terpstra “an instrument for musicians from another planet”. We’ll see what the future holds, but I am eager to hear some of these new sounds.

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Shamelessly retreating from a beautiful sunny day I spent Saturday afternoon watching the new and newsworthy of the Reason 4 software, presented by its makers, Propellerhead. The event took place at Clinton Studio on 10th Ave. According to an informal survey of the participants, most users of this production tool are in advertising, television and film, hip hop, country, rock – but not in experimental or classical music although in my experience it works just as well in these styles.

I got hold of an earlier software package by Propellerhead as early as 2003 and before Finale had the capability to play back with the Garritan sound library, I used to export my Finale midi files into Reason to demo and mix the orchestral tracks. Reason has come a long way since then.

The current Reason 4 package works in a similar fashion as a modular synthesizer to offer powerful desktop production possibilities in sampling, synthesis, sequencing, with particularly efficient drum programming tools. The new “Thor” virtual synthesizer seems to offer infinite flexibility because any of its various modules can be routed to control another, in other words allows the users to practically build their own virtual synths. In addition, as was demonstrated at the workshop, the multiple effects in Reason can be combined to afford mastering-level precision.

The only thing that Reason does not do is: audio recording… but all you have to do is get the latest Pro-Tools (version 7 and 8) and from that program choose the Reason plug-in and both programs can be used simultaneously.

I really enjoyed the unpretentious and informative presentation by producer Chris Petti, who is about to start a New York Users Group for Reason… something to follow closely; Also presenting were Chris Griffin, Aaron Albanoand Ben Weinman. I hope we can get more of these events in New York.

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On Thursday evening at the AC [Institute Direct Chapel] (sic), a gallery in Chelsea, I watched, along with a few privileged viewers, the unfolding of Openings by Richard Kostelanetz. In this time of mainstream predominance, it is refreshing to see an informal event in a gallery setting, without any of the expected performance parameters; when the piece started Richard was sitting on the floor near the performer and I didn’t know if he was going to be in the piece or if that was his participation to the performance, which actually did not matter. It was just very relaxed.

I own two books by Richard, signed by him, and they are among my favorites: John Cage and Soho: The Rise and Fall of an Artist Colony. Born in New York, he has written for hundreds of magazines and published over fifty books. He ironically calls himself “Earl of Wordship”, but the remarkable fact is that he also creates equally valuable pieces as a composer, filmmaker and holographer.

Openings – inasmuch as I am able to comprehend – is an experiment in performed text, a very oblique reading, where four women, one after the other, improvise with voice and/or musical instruments and choreography; then a male trio, two musicians and a visual artist doing live projections, present a free-form interpretation of his text.

Laura Barger, Holly Crawford, Margaret Lancaster and Paige H. Taggart were all really involved and interesting to watch; through the performances, the meaning of the text was somehow made purposely chaotic and possible hidden or unintelligible, in other words, as far as possible from a television commercial. The trio included flutist Robert Dick playing wild textures with an added vocal microphone and electronic musician Morgan Packard working from his laptop, facing Joshue Ott also with a laptop creating moving shapes in sober hues following the music, projected on the gallery wall.

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