Monday, July 03, 2006

Electro-Music 2006 and Brian Eno and Will Wright: A Discussion

I started this month with a cross-country trip to attend an electronic music conference in Philadelphia, and last night, June 26, back in San Francisco, I attended a chat between Brian Eno and Will Wright. I’m using these last couple June days to sort through these experiences, and see what’s left in my pocket. is an online community “dedicated to experimental electro-acoustic and electronic music”. The community was started by Howard Moscovitz, an electrical engineer who began composing electronic music in the 1960s. Howard wanted:

“ become a member of a community of musicians much like the Impressionist painters had in France in the 1890s, or the Serialists and Expressionists had in the early 20th Germany and Austria. I couldn't find anything that was appropriate so I decided to start an online community myself, since I had some programming chops.”

The site has grown quickly, providing 1.5 million page views in June 2006, and growing between 10% to 20% per month.

In 2005, Howard held the first Electro-Music conference just outside Philadelphia. Electro-Music 2006 (EM-06), then, was a second annual event.

Most of the music at the conference was—as advertised—somehow shaped by electronics. There were acoustic instruments played into microphones—something that would get an “unplugged” rating on some cable stations. There were musicians who played electronic instruments, or who played acoustic instruments that were modified by electronic modules, or people who played into, through, or from laptop computers.

I heard compositional strategies ranging from scores that were notated on paper to scores that were saved as digital audio or MIDI files on hard disks, to sounds without definite pitch thrown into an improvised brew pit shared by 3-4 other co-improvisers, to people re-modulating scores as quickly as they could play them live. There was an installation wall of printed bar codes and a hand-held scanner that would play them.

The conference provided three days of music from 12 noon to 12 midnight, often with multiple performances and jams happening in parallel.

The audience at EM-06 was attracted to what people brought to the table that was unique. Fuck the phrase “He’s just being different.” You ever try to be different? Ever try to do something that is fundamentally other than what other people are doing? “Just being different…” as if it’s a left turn at the pre-paved crossroads, ready for your slot car to be pulled around, finding the easy way forward. Well, anyone with a breath of honesty who has tried to do something different knows that it’s almost impossible. So to find a cluster of people who are working toward that goal, and who appreciate it in others, is great. Especially where everyone isn’t wearing black…

If I hand you a flute, you know about what to do with it. Or a guitar. You pick up, and probably hold it fairly correctly, even if you’ve never picked one up before.

But with electronic instruments: whadaya do with ‘em? Sit down at a granular synthesis program, and what do you do? What should you do? How do you know when you’re doing it right? The ‘60’s heard Switched on Bach but ya know, it probably did more to miscast electronic music than even Disney did when he calcified the development of animation. Just pulled in the cash by doing the wrong thing publicly and successfully at the most crucial time. And like so many crucial moments of the last 40 years, the opportunity for sustaining ambiguity passed. The measure for success was established, and the art form that could have developed was replaced with the simple model of the craftsman wrestling the instrument’s interface into playback that best matches the notation. This would eventually lead to Yes and the triumph of persistence over patch cords. But the interesting stuff was pushed away from sight and understanding.

Give a man a hammer and everything becomes a nail. But give Duchamp a bicycle wheel and it becomes a sculpture. Or Picasso bicycle handlebars and it becomes a bull. And so what do you do with a ring modulator? With a Buddhist electronic prayer-box? When asked to play with a bunch of musicians when you haven’t agreed on a key, scale, tempo, or which way to face?

Found in a situation in which one is abandoned, one makes a gesture, and that gesture becomes the form of the art. The art form. Kip Rosser gestures in front of the theremin and it becomes a Japanese brush of audio-ink. The programmer links his objects to behaviors and they become rows of music-houses, awaiting habitation by the musician’s playing. OK, we’re streaming, lights come down, Hi, I’m Robert, thanks for inviting me to perform here…

Here is Jonn Serrie playing Hollywood’s take on ambient music. Here’s Vostek changing tempo every couple of measures—wonderful music, but I’d never ride in a car he’s driving.... Here’s Ace Paradise cranking downtown music. Project Ruori with clips of great music separated with ‘70s-ish performance discourse. Astrogenic Hallucinauting pushing electrons through a shell-collectors eclectic tabletop of dozens of chewing-tobacco-sized boxes…and in the background and against the walls, Hong Waltzer and Doctor T interpret much of the music as it’s played, anticipating and empathizing.

With the “electro” consistent across the performers, the approaches to composing and performing varied greatly at Electro-music 2006. Following a post-avant garde aesthetic, all approaches were welcomed, with enthusiasm and encouragement. Whereas Boulez had suggested that each piece of music should have its own unique orchestration, this was in fact the case here: I don’t remember any two performances with the same setups. When this is the case, with a conference of this size and density, there is basically something else going on. If there is no single instrumental teleology to triangulate for perspective, and the variety of technical architectures insisting on as wide a variety of compositional strategies, what happens is that the event parses into its own present.

It’s not that there is no history that applies—no one is that naive. But this is not the music school with hallways of practice rooms, each with a piano. Nor is it a pop stage with Fender electric guitars. Each performer/instrument interface basically differs from the others, and this fundamental eclecticism insists that this is a different game. As each performer approaches his/her instrument, there exists no history of playing it. And so for each, there is the decision of what other musical tradition s/he brings along. Will it be one involving perceivable pitches, or one of music concrete, or one of patch cords real or virtual? The choice that is made in each case determines whether the performer is trying to wrestle the instrument into duplicating an established model, or exploring it to have it deliver sonic experiences previously unprovoked.

And so now I’m transitioning to San Francisco, on June 26, to a conversation presented at Herbst Theater by The Long Now Foundation ( Will Wright (Producer of the computer simulation games “Sim City” and “The Sims”) and Brian Eno (producer of albums “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts” and “Music for Airports”) are talking about compression, about creating smaller and smaller algorithms that in turn produce longer and longer experiences. And with those long experiences, the inability to anticipate their form. Eno speaks of pieces that will generate unexpected sonic patterns for thousands of years into the future, and Wright speaks of the computer game of Life. The evening metaphor is that the artist creates a seed and then is an audience for what grows, instead of constructing and perfecting a short composition and then presenting it to an audience of others. In this way, art is a process for generating what the artist does not know, or would not think to generate, through the standardized approaches of craft.

I don’t remember either Eno or Wright mentioning John Cage. Eno probably assumed that there was no need to mention a name that would be familiar to so many. Instead, Eno mentioned Steve Reich’s tape-looped “It’s Gonna Rain” as his starting point. A simple system (two duplicate tape loops starting together but phasing out of time as they play asynchronously) that produced unexpected audio phenomena.

While Reich may have been the one to spark Eno’s imagination, the compositional strategies Eno presented this evening seemed more reflective of Cage’s approach. With Reich’s early phase works, one knew the system that was playing out, and in hearing the piece could jump from experience to perception, in that you could understand what was generating the sonic phenomena through listening to it. Cage’s work, on the other hand, remained experiential, with the generative principles not available through the sonic material.

In this way Eno’s work was also closer to Cage’s than to Wright’s. Sim City starts with your data fed into blank fields provided by the game engine. When you’d entered all the data you wanted to enter, you turned the engine on. The game engine then processed your values and fed them to its city rules, leading to growth or ruin. While the aesthetic was much more conceptual than sensual, you could open windows at any time and read the status of the city, perhaps coming to understand how your values locked in the simulation’s fate. And you could make changes as you go, reacting to the patterns you saw, in efforts to ward off failure or accelerate success.

Both events were future-facing. Positioned as they are after the fin-de-siecle, they are also still in the shadow of the 20th century, force-animated by the overwhelming flood of creative strategies codified in the performances, compositions and documentation of that period. Searching for a barrier-present that will block the stream from the past, the artist finds new technologies, and formulates new algorithms.

For just a moment, as the artist sits at the new tool…s/he doesn’t know what to do. For this brief moment, as the world churns just a step away, the artist is failingly human. For this moment, the artist sees self and other, feels the past and begins to synthesize the present. The tool parses the past according to its new architecture, and as the artist continues to gesture and paint—sounds and colors, dancing and sculpting—a new form is cut from the old, and a new portrait is produced where the blade hits the past.