A Sweeter Technology

I just returned from five days in London where I performed as part of the SPNM (Society for the Promotion of New Music) Sound Source series, subtitled “The Art of Sampling”. Held at the ultra-new King’s Place in the gentrifying King’s Cross section of London, the evening combined well-known artists, emerging composer/performers, and a number of films.

For a few years now I have been hearing about Ergo Phizmiz, a mad collagist and appropriator whose work has been featured prominently on Do You Speak English?—an “irregularly updated blog dedicated to cool and strange music!” Phizmiz’s work is playful and mischievous, and his sonic arsenal in performance includes a ukulele, a megaphone, a minidisc, toys, drums, squeeze-horns, and other goodies. He seems ultra-prolific, with works that range from “3.5 minute Dadaistic pop songs, 3.5 hour sound-collages, deranged multimedia installations, radio comedy-adventures, improvised and ambient music, solo instrumental compositions, visual collages, and text works in all sorts of contortions.”

From time to time Ergo Phizmiz collaborates with Vicki Bennett, whose nom de sonore is People Like Us, and who likewise works in a number of media. She even produces, from her home base in London, a weekly radio program for U.S. public radio station WFMU (online at wfmu.org). Bennett’s work animates and recontextualizes found footage collages “with an equally witty and dark view of popular culture with a surrealistic edge.” Her latest collaborative CD release with Ergo Phizmiz is titled Rhapsody In Glue, available exclusively on Bleep.com. Irony reigned supreme when their performance began with a sonic giggle-maker, as Vicki played samples of B.J. Thomas’s classic “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” while Phizmiz dropped in quotes from the “Troika Song” from Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kij√© Suite played on a melodica.

My own performance consisted of three pieces that also used appropriated musical materials—the theme of the concert was after all “The Art of Sampling.” Babita uses a haunting duet by a Vietnamese couple as a starting point. L’os a Moelle is a 25-minute seamless set of transformations of a repeating rock riff from the ’60s (available on my Intone CD Al-Noor). And Dinos uses the vocalization of a famous pop diva as a kind of skeleton upon which I apply the skin of other, profoundly unrelated musical materials. A short clip of a performance of Dinos from the Shanghai eArts Festival, taken by someone in the audience, can be found on YouTube. The heading is wrong…as I say, the title of the piece is Dinos, not L’os a Moelle, which I performed later on in the same set. Please take a listen to get an idea of the technique I am talking about.

This technique uses fast Fourier transform (FFT) algorithms that have been harnessed for audio processing which, in metaphorical terms, allows the music of one source to eat away like a parasite at another that serves as its host. In contemporary pop terms I think of it also as a kind of skinning, like what people like to do with favorite software interfaces or even mobile phones, where the body of the program receives the skin (different colors, fonts, images, artifacts, etc.) preserving the structure but radically changing its outward and inward details. A further example can be found on my website, an excerpt from my piece Al-Noor in which a female singer’s voice is systematically replaced by the harmony and spectral content of another song, leaving ambiguity as to which is the body and which is the skin.

I’m quite fascinated with this technique and have been experimenting with bringing it out of the singular shell of my own performance repertoire and adapting it for pieces that I am writing for other performers. Next up is my piano piece, long overdue I am afraid, to Sarah Cahill and her wonderful project, A Sweeter Music, named after a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King’s Nobel Lecture: “We must see that peace represents a sweeter music, a cosmic melody that is far superior to the discords of war.” She’s commissioned 18 composers to write pieces for her on this theme: Meredith Monk, Frederic Rzewski, Terry Riley, Yoko Ono, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Pauline Oliveros, Peter Garland, Kyle Gann, Paul Dresher, Ingram Marshall, Jerome Kitzke, Phil Kline, Mamoru Fujieda, Larry Polansky, Michael Byron, The Residents, Preben Antonsen, and myself, with video projections by John Sanborn. I feel truly honored to be part of this group. I won’t have a piece ready for the series premiere in just a few days at Mills College in California, but I plan to be done by January when the series will be featured as part of the Cal Performances Series at UC Berkeley.

My idea is to use Sarah’s enunciation of a Japanese text—”Subete no buki o gakki ni” (“Turn all weapons into musical instruments”)—while playing piano and speaking slowly into a microphone. The reading is expanded by my mysterious FFT program so that her speech becomes song and blends (gorgeously) with the piano part. Hopefully people will cry.

One issue I face, aside from the composition itself, is building a system that will be easy for a decidedly non-geeky pianist to set up and use. The technology is not particularly exotic (fast laptop computer running my custom-built software, audio interface, microphones) as I want it to be simple and portable enough that Sarah can take it on the road for as many concerts as she chooses to perform it on. But she needs to be able to calibrate the settings for maximum effect, which can take a bit of tweaking in my experience. Anyone else out there have experience building “turnkey” systems for instrumentalists to use? I’d love to get your thoughts, tips, comments—not to mention the usual love letters and advice. Comment early and often. I welcome your responses. See you next time!!

One thought on “A Sweeter Technology

  1. artmusicsouth

    Hey,

    Just want to say I listened to your work you linked. Fantastic! That kind of stuff I find incredibly wonderful. Congrats!!!

    Reply

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