Chance Meeting on a Dissecting Table of a Rhythm Section and a Laptop: solo works from Brian Chase and Carl Testa

The history of early electronic music stayed in close alignment with "classical" music circles for many decades--the sounds were new and otherworldly, dovetailing nicely with New Music innovations from serialism to indeterminacy, and from a practical perspective, building and maintaining the first generation of synths took the kind of money one rarely finds in musicians' hands outside of academia. As time went on, and electronic instruments became both portable and affordable, they increasingly became go-to instruments in rock and pop music circles, and as we all know, the popular music of the last several generations is constructed from mountains of silicon and electricity.

As pop music took over the Moogs and the hard drives, though, the classical music world slowly shuffled its feet backwards toward the exit doors. With a few notable exceptions, most of the contemporary classical folks whose work I've admired over the years have quietly but pretty thoroughly avoided electronics, other than the occasional amplified acoustic instrument. You can see the same kind of trend in jazz music as well: other than basic amplification needs, you have to go all the way back to the 70s to find a really active period of electronics in jazz.

But as electronic instruments evolve from hardware to software, I think we're due for an invigorating electronic revival in New Music of both composed and improvised disciplines. To an extent, it seems inevitable: if you're 40 or younger, you've lived at least half of your life within the "computer age," after all. When computers are an ordinary fact of life, moving from towers in home offices to handheld devices on nightstands, it's only natural that they're going to be integrated into a wider variety of musical activities than ever before. It's a total non-issue for the youngest generation coming up: living with computers is just living.

With that in mind, here are a couple of exceptional records integrating acoustic instruments and software manipulations. Both of these records create sonic environments that remind me of "classic" eras in electronic composition and improvisation, though the primary sounds within each are triggered by activities on acoustic instruments.

Carl Testa - Iris
A phenomenal upright bass player and composer, Carl Testa's "Iris" is a document of live solo bass/electronics improvisations. Playing bass while writing live code into a SuperCollider-based software environment, these pieces outstretch into chamber group-sized acoustical spaces with an unpredictable timbral variety--a surprisingly melodic brand of electroacoustic improvisation.

Opening track "At Early Bright" is a great introduction to the concept, as it features some of the most harmonically simple bass playing on the album, against which you can develop a feel for a few of the ways this software interacts with the live-sampled fragments of sound. Working mostly with variations on a tritone-based figure (which amusingly sounds like a Black Sabbath riff early in the piece), crystalline tones four and five octaves above the source material fall into melodic patterns and shimmer in quickly-repeating delays. As the synthesized fragments continue to unwind, Testa adds more complexity into the bass parts, with some walking lines and some harsh tremolo-bowed passages. In this piece, at least, he keeps vibrato to a minimum, locking tightly into tune and working each note for pure tone.

There is some beautiful, emotive vibrato in alternating bowed/plucked passages in the next piece, "When Scattered," from which a few relatively unaffected loops are retained to build tense passages with close-voiced dissonances that would be difficult or impossible to play as doublestops. The SuperCollider setup doesn't start to have a noticeable role until halfway into the piece, where it picks up textural clouds of sound from a section of particularly bristly extended technique shredding, with fast bowing scrapes and col legno, ect. This is followed by "Diffracted," which is the most texturally-focused piece here, closer to "classic" eai with little concern for harmonic development.

My favorite track is the final piece, "And Engulfed," which evolves slowly to incorporate large aggregations of beautiful high-pitched synth chords that glisten and whirl around one another. Toward the end, it takes on somber tones that wouldn't be entirely out of place in the denouement of a Godspeed tune--amazing that all of this sound can be produced can controlled from humble bass tones with live manipulation.

It's a great-sounding record regardless of how these sounds are produced, but if you're interested in seeing a bit of Testa's setup, here's a video of him tweaking a live synth module in SuperCollider:

Edit 7/9/13: Testa has uploaded a great, informative video showing the process behind "Iris" here:

"Iris" will be released on July 16th, and you can pick it up via LockStep Records. There will be a 5.1 DVD audio mix that you can buy and download, as well as CD and mp3 formats. I only have a stereo setup, myself, but I imagine that the many fragments of granular sound manipulation would sound really amazing in full surround.

Brian Chase - Drums & Drones
As drummer in the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Brian Chase is probably the most commercially successful musician whose music I've profiled here. But he's been a long-time participant in avant-garde circles, too, playing with scores of folks on the NYC downtown scene, including some seriously wicked drumming on Jeremiah Cymerman's "Fire Sign" album that I reviewed a while ago. Through a series of events that are fully detailed in the liner notes, Chase has been developing a compositional process for filtering and effecting the sounds of drums to tease out the overtones, creating electronic-sounding music in just intonation.

These liner notes deserve a mention all their own--they're the most extensive notes I've seen in quite some time, fully elucidating both the personal and technical developments that led to this music. At times they get quite confessional, and in reading these elaborate notes, listening to the album many times, and watching the DVD, I kind of feel like I know the guy. And I like him. Chase has created a mini-site for the record here, which has some meaty excerpts of the liner notes and a lot of additional information and samples. Very much worth checking that out.

So I'm not going to delve into heavy technical details here--the liner notes have all of the information you could hope to find about how each track was made, as well as a narrative describing the three-phase evolution of this concept over several years. Instead, I'm going to try to describe how this music sounds, and how I'd suggest listening to it at first:

The basic physics that make this music possible are pretty straightforward. When someone strikes a drum, we're all trained to think of it as a rhythmic event in which the first moment of articulation is "the money." But after the initial hit, the drum continues to resonate for quite some time, and it contains a complicated set of interlocking frequencies, partially dependent on the main resonant frequencies of the drum shell, but also quite variable depending on the tuning of the drum head.

As Chase uses a number of filtering/effect strategies to attenuate various pitches within the set of natural overtones, pure sine waves are brought into the foreground. And a lot of these waves are very, very high pitches. When you consider that the fundamental pitches of many drums are already quite high, and the lowest overtones start sounding an octave above their fundamental pitches and head toward the stratosphere from there, a lot of the most interesting melodic stuff in this music happens in the upper ranges of your hearing, approaching and sometimes crossing into the territory usually reserved for hearing test tones.

Though the track sequencing of the album is really nice on repeated listening, I would recommend starting your experience with this music on track 4, the "Bass Drum Drone." As one might expect from the low fundamental pitches of a bass drum, a lot of these overtones sit in the midrange of your hearing, making really nice washes of pure chords and rhythms that are easy on the ear. A bit of feedback finds its way into this piece at times, and it ends on a high note--literally--but I find that I get a bit of hearing fatigue jumping right into some of the pieces that start in super high pitch ranges.

Here's another weird thing about listening to high-frequency compositions: when there are moments of complex high-frequency density, you can make your own melodies simply by moving around the room or sometimes even subtly moving your head. I first became aware of how much you can control this as a listener at a Jason Zeh show last year, where he creates really rich fields of high-frequency sound with modified cassette players. Moving around in sweet spots between the cranked PA speakers, even a tilt of your head would bring out different pitches, as those tiny waves react in wildly complex and functionally unpredictable ways to volume levels, speaker placement, and the proportions and variety of reflective surfaces of the room you're in.

That's part of the big-picture challenge with getting the most out of just-intonation music: if you have the opportunity, it's nice to figure out what the strongest resonant frequencies are in whatever room you're using with the music, and then if it's possible to tweak the tuning of the music to work with those frequencies, it's a way more powerful experience with lots more sympathetic vibrations erupting into the room. For this reason, I slightly disagree with Chase's liner note recommendation to listen to this album on stereo speakers versus headphones or computer speakers. If you want to hear it "how the artist intended," I think a really good set of headphones is worth trying with this album. But you'll want to try it multiple ways. When you pump it through a stereo, experiment with variations in speaker placement if it's possible, and you'll be able to get all kinds of sounds out of this album, from crazy hornlike sounds in the middle of "Snare Brush Drone," or a perfect storm of complex pitches to try that head-tilting trick with in "Drone State of Mind, V 1."

What I'm ultimately saying is that while this is essentially a drone album, and the influence of and affinity with other kinds of just-intonation drone music is definitely present, don't expect "In C" bumped up a few octaves. This is its own thing altogether, and you have to live with it in a very unique way.

There's a great DVD of mostly black and white visuals that comes with the disc, too. Produced by Ursula Scherrer and Erik Zajaceskowski, I found it fun to play around with the album as a purely audio experience a bunch of times, trying different setups, and then checking out the video. And if you get a chance, see this live! From the couple of videos floating around online, it looks like seeing this performed with the videos projected would be an intense, beautiful experience. You can check out a couple of live videos here. Pick up the CD/DVD/liner note epic from Pogus Productions.

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