I’ve been playing a lot of Bastion lately, the indie game by Supergiant that has popped up on a whole bunch of Best of 2011 year-end lists. One of the music tracks has a lick in it that sounded oddly familiar, but I couldn’t place it at first. Then suddenly one day it hit me: Taiwanese pop superstar Jay Chou 周杰伦.
Regular visitors to my website probably know of my marginally unseemly fixation on Jay Chou; I even wrote an article for Time Out Shanghai in 2010 entitled “Why I Love Jay Chou.” He’s a trans-media pop star (as all the biggest ones seem to be these days), recording albums, starring in movies, hawking toothpaste and motorcycles (at $6 million, a record endorsement for an Asian artist). Western audiences who missed him in foreign fare such as Curse of the Golden Flower 满城尽带黄金甲 might know him best for his Hollywood debut as Kato in Michel Gondry’s Green Hornet last year. Studying the lyrics to his songs was my primary method for learning Mandarin, and I still harbor dreams of releasing a tribute CD one of these days. He was even the subject of my first ever post on this blog.
Check out this video for the second track on his November’s Chopin 十一月的萧邦 album from 2005, “蓝色风暴” (Blue Storm). (Note that Chopin is more commonly rendered 肖邦 in mainland China, but 萧邦 seems to work too, as discussed here.) Pay particular attention to the closing moments, from about 4:36.
Now check out this track from the Bastion soundtrack, by Darren Korb, starting around 0:26.
I don’t think the odds are so slim that I might be the first person to notice this, given the slender overlap between Jay Chou and Bastion’s respective fan bases. Clearly, both artists are using the same loop from some sample library. I have no idea which library, but after conferring with some of my Berklee colleagues, the consensus is that the instrument in question is most likely a bouzouki, a fretted Greek lute.
I’m straining to remember, but I don’t think I’ve ever used a canned loop in one of my compositions. (I may have used some stock phrases on King’s Quest back in 1998, but slowed way, way down beyond recognition to create an ominous background texture.) I’m totally down with the idea of creating a meta composition out of several streams of patterns or recorded material, the way that Charles Ives or Luciano Berio or David Shea might weave a larger fabric out of existing sounds; in fact, I think this is pretty much the job description for a video game audio lead. But using a stock loop out of a sample library just takes all the fun out of it. At the very least, if you want to keep it fresh, roll your own loops. Moreover, when creating a composition out of layered loops, it’s too easy to ignore the contrapuntal interactions between the different layers; you can miss the chance to think through all the alternate configurations of notes that might make your musical point more purposefully.
Most critically, there’s a regularity and periodicity that really feels anathema to the subtle irregularities of human performance, and it’s too common to come up with something artificial and rigid, chopped up evenly along the bar lines: every eight beats (or whatever) another layer comes in or out. And when a layer stops, it stops abruptly, with none of the resonance or decay of a natural sound, since it must be truncated precisely on the bar line, in order to seamlessly connect back to the beginning of the phrase. When I was fielding composer demos back at Ubisoft, this characteristic was grounds for immediate rejection.
The same objection applies on a macro scale, too, in game music implementations that simply loop a piece of music indefinitely (Bastion‘s primary mode of musical organization). At best, this kind of repetition can lead gamers to tune out the music, reducing its impact, and at worst, it leads to active irritation. In any event, the power of music to support the emerging drama of a narrative is lost. In fact, the desire to eliminate loops and fades (two of the most common signifiers that you’re listening to a game soundtrack) was a guiding impetus behind the design of the EndWar music system.
At least for Jay, the bouzouki sample is only a minor flourish, in a fairly ridiculous duet with DTMF touch tones, almost a punch line at the end of an eclectic song that started with Gregorian chant.
But anyway, let’s get back to my Jay fetish. Here’s a clip of me sitting in with the house band at Harry’s Bar in Suzhou on a few very loose renditions of Jay tunes towards the end of 2010. (Be patient; you’ve got to breach the Great Firewall for this clip.)
I had a whole essay planned about this, but I don’t think I’m going to get around to it in time to do anyone any good this year, so for now let me simply post my list of somewhat obscure Christmas music that I’ve been casually researching over the years. Thanks to my pal Andrew Sempere for encouraging me to share this! Beginning in the late 90’s, I had the idea to pick up a new album of new (to me) Christmas music every year, and here’s where it’s led me.
Olivier Messiaen, Vingt Regards sur l’‘enfant-Jésus. If I could pick only one Christmas CD for the rest of my days, it would be Pierre Laurent Aimard’s masterful recording of this masterpiece (cheating really; it’s a double CD set), running the gamut from serene to ecstatic. I don’t listen to much solo piano music, but this piece and this performance are so kaleidoscopic, it might as well be an orchestra or a synthesizer. John Adams, El Niño. Combining traditional Christmas texts with Latin American poetry and stories from apocryphal gospels (e.g., St. Thomas), filling in the story with details like Joseph’s reaction when he came home and found his fiancée great with child. Fantastic recording with Dawn Upshaw and the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. Tallis Scholars, Christmas Carols and Motets. In Dulce Jubilo, Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming, and other, lesser known early Christmas music. Michael Praetorius and friends, Mass for Christmas Morning. A Lutheran mass as it might have sounded around 1620, with music mostly by Praetorius, but a bit of music by Martin Luther himself. A fascinating speculation, although the dynamic range of this recording is extreme, and the loud bits are a bit distorted. Hector Berlioz, L’Enfance du Christ. Turning the traditional story into the stuff of opera, in true Romantic fashion, full of political intrigue in the court of Herod and a beguiling trio for two flutes and harp. George Crumb, A Little Suite for Christmas, A.D. 1979. In the vein of Macrocosmos, and “Lully Lullay, Thou Little Tiny Child” gets a treatment similar to “Death and the Maiden” in Black Angels. Olivier Messiaen, La Nativite du Seigneur. A relatively early work by Messiaen, a suite for organ. One of these pieces was how I met my good friend Erik Floan; take it from me, evangelical pastors: Messiaen gets butts in pews! Dale Warland Singers, December Stillness. One of the finest choral CD’s I’ve ever heard, impeccably sung and pristinely recorded. Too much gorgeousness to sum up, with Stravinsky, Penderecki, Paulus, Poulenc, Rachmaninov, though the best pieces are probably by folks you’ve never heard of. Handel’s Messiah. One year I figured I had to break down and buy it, overplayed as it is (I even sang it a few years in Shanghai with the International Festival Chorus, billed as “Concert of Classical Favorites by Handel” to avoid alerting the censors, who nonetheless called off the show one year). I like Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s recording, although it’s also a bit fuzzy on the loud parts. J. S. Bach, Advent Cantatas BWV 36, 61, 62. This CD is also pure gorgeousness. BWV 61 and 62 are both based on the chorale tune Nun Komm, Der Heiden Heiland, and BWV 61 holds a special place in my heart, as I sang the bass recitative “Siehe, ich stehe vor der Tür” when we did this cantata at Holy Trinity on Mercer Island (under the direction of the aforementioned Erik Floan). J. S. Bach, Christmas Oratorio. Masterpiece! Again I go with Sir John, also featuring Anne Sophie von Otter! Ralph Vaughan Williams, Hodie. I actually never bought this one, but I checked it out from the library; a late work, been thinking I need to give it another go. Benjamin Britten, Ceremony of Carols. This was last year’s choice, and it wasn’t really new to me, as I’ve sung some of it, and I’ve heard “This Little Babe” sung several times quite masterfully by St. Olaf’s Manitou Singers (including on this year’s Christmas at St. Olaf live simulcast). I got the recording with King’s College Choir and Stephen Cleobury, and I can’t say I’m overly taken with it; I’m tempted to conclude that it’s simply too tricky for children to sing (especially those quick licks in “Wulcom Yole!”).
Oh, and I would be remiss to exclude the various St. Olaf Christmas Festival CD’s to which I have returned over the years.
Spotify makes this whole endeavor less of an adventure, and I’m actually in the middle of an existential crisis about what it means to own a recording. But anyway, here are a couple of new discoveries that I’m in the process of exploring this year: John Harbison, The Flight into Egypt. Did you know that a Christmas cantata won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for music? John Harbison, Christmas Vespers
Hugo Distler, Kleine Adventsmusik Krzysztof Penderecki, Symphony No 2 “Christmas,” based on Silent Night (!)
(I’ve been on a bit of a Harbison kick lately, hearing him lecture at MIT a few weeks ago, then bumping into him on the subway a few days later; looking forward to his sixth symphony premiere by the BSO in January!)
And a couple of pop tunes to round things out. Aimee Mann, One More Drifter in the Snow. Not just a good Christmas album, but a good Aimee Mann album, including a new song by Mann and one by hubby Michael Penn. Amy Grant, A Christmas Album. This has been a Houge family Christmas tradition for about as long as I can remembering paying attention, so it seems uncharitable to omit it here. Elvis Presley, Blue Christmas. I get a mild, perverse pleasure out of this. It contains the theologically inscrutable lines, “Santa knows that we’re God’s children/That makes everything right/So say your prayers to the Lord above/Because Santa Claus comes tonight.” Steve Taylor, “Winter Wonderland.” Mariachi style! Prince, “Another Lonely Christmas.” The B-side to “I Would Die 4 U,” this is a pretty stupid song about a guy whose girl died on Christmas, but a pretty ridiculously intense performance. Erasure, “She Won’t Be Home.” Don’t judge me. They Might Be Giants, “Santa’s Beard.” “I saw my baby wearing Santa’s beard/I wish he would go, he’s breaking up my home.”
I just got back about three weeks ago from a wonderful, inspiring, and very successful visit to San Diego. I was in town at the invitation of the San Diego Museum of Art to premiere my new piece Mobile 4 at the museum’s Summer Salon Series. While I was in the neighborhood, I also had the opportunity to sample some of the energy and diversity of the city’s eclectic arts community. And I learned what a California Burrito is.
Mobile 4 is a cross between a sound installation and a chamber music piece, scored for ten channels of real-time electronic sound plus a Laotian mouth organ called a khaen (performed by Christopher Adler), guitar (Colin McAllister), and accordion (me). It was designed to be an ambient experience in a gallery, with musicians and speakers scattered throughout the room, rather than as a concert with a beginning and end. There was no central stage to serve as a focal point; instead listeners were free to come and go. The electronic sound was continuous throughout the evening, and for about 45 minutes, we three musicians joined in, adding a living layer to the installation. Then as we finished in gradual succession, we all just got up and wandered away, perusing the paintings.
The walls of SDMA’s Gallery 16 are lined with Renaissance and Baroque Spanish art, providing an ideal setting: El Greco, Bermejo, Hieronymus Bosch’s Christ Taken Captive, Francisco de Zurbarán’s Agnus Dei (~1640), and my favorite, Juan Sánchez Cotán’s Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber (~1602), with which I feel Mobile 4 demonstrates a particular aesthetic affinity.
Specifically, I was in town at the invitation of Alexander Jarman, curator of the museum’s Summer Salon Series. (Alexander is also an accomplished artist in his own right; while I was in town I got to see some of his collages-in-progress, beautiful stuff!) I met Alexander while he and his colleague Paul were in Suzhou last year for the opening of an exhibition of works from the San Diego Museum of Art’s collection at the Suzhou Museum (as reported here). I was just finishing up my residency at the True Color Museum in Suzhou, and the museum director invited them over for an evening of traditional Chinese music, tea, and conversation, over the course of which they also had a chance to check out my Point of Departure show. After I moved to Boston last November, Alexander and I kept in touch, and as this year’s Summer Salon Series was coming together, he invited me to present a new work.
We were a pick-up ensemble for this performance; Christopher is a friend of a friend of my good friend the writer Lisa Movius from Shanghai, so I dropped him a line after I read on his website about the interesting work he’s doing. Christopher has spent a good deal of time in Southeast Asia mastering the khaen, a rich and resonant instrument in traditional music of the region; check out his webpage for more information and some videos and recordings of his performing. The khaen struck me as a good match for the reedy sound of my accordion, and Christopher recommended his frequent collaborator Colin to round out our ensemble.
I was super pleased with how everything went, and I’ll try to get some documentation up online soon. I had my back to the gallery entrance, but I was informed that there were a lot of people pressing to get in while we were performing. The piece seemed particularly well-suited to a gallery setting; I almost wished we hadn’t distributed so many chairs, so that people would have been more encouraged to walk around during the piece and look at paintings.
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Mobile 4 was a milestone for me on three fronts: new investigations into mobile structure, a real-time score display, and ten channels of algorithmic sound.
On the structural side, there are two primary behaviors in the piece: one is a sustained tone/drone that is kind of brushed in and out, Morton Feldman style; the other is a set of algorithmic melodies that is constantly being updated. The drones are simply chosen randomly from the notes of the current scale. Melodies are chosen from a table of available melodies algorithmically generated from the notes of the current scale. There are five melodies available at any given time. Periodically the program will replace one of the old melodies with a new one (randomly choosing from available pitches and durations, with the maximum melody length and the time between melodies varying according to a random walk).
Each sound source (instrument or speaker) behaves independently, but all are aligned to the same rhythmic pulse, and the global statistical balance between the melody and drone behaviors varies according to another random walk. If we happen to venture too far over on the drone side, we enter a transition phase, in which all sound sources gradually converge onto one of the tones in the current scale, which then becomes a pivot tone, allowing for a common tone modulation to a new, algorithmically-generated scale.
The khaen is a diatonic instrument, so Christopher brought three different instruments (G minor, A minor, and Bb minor), allowing access to the full chromatic scale over the course of the performance, though only one diatonic scale at a time. This limitation was built into the structure of the piece; when it’s time to transition to a new key area, first we decide if we want to transition to a new khaen, and then we pick a pentatonic subset of the available diatonic scale. (These aren’t standard pentatonic scales, by the way, but any 5-note subset of the diatonic scale is fair game, creating a lot of interesting variety, sometimes with a major feel, sometimes minor, sometimes with a prominent tritone, etc.). New scales tend to happen every 3-6 minutes (if we go more than 5 minutes without a transition, I start to nudge one to be more likely to occur). This has the effect of kind of “cleaning out the ear,” similar to what we did in main menu music of EndWar.
The cool thing is that the three live performers plus all of the electronic sound are coordinated, even though the melodic and scalar material is being generated on the fly. We’re all keeping a common pulse, playing from the same scales, from the same pool of melodies, with the same density of musical material, all converging to the same common tones and modulating together. The result is that musical material is passed all around the room, allowing for a nice, mid-level coherence that keeps the piece from sounding too random or arbitrary. Accomplishing this kind of coordination is difficult in a traditional open form piece, where the musical material is written out in advance, and even harder to accomplish when there are real-time processes generating new material all the time.
So the centerpiece of this new work was a system for disseminating algorithmically generated melodic content to acoustic performers. This was accomplished by means of a Jitter patch I wrote that displays the notes to play in a scrolling musical notation, similar to Guitar Hero, but using traditional notation, scrolling right to left. Using a computer display to guide acoustic performers is something I’ve been mulling over for years; it’s always seemed a clear opportunity to apply design concepts from video games to issues of open form classical composition. My first practical investigation was when I performed Christian Marclay’s video piece Screen Play the Shanghai eArts Festival in 2008 (you can read about that experience in greater detail here). I fleshed out this idea further in my Zhujiajiao Drinking Game (2009), which provides indications to performers when they should blow on beer bottles (to produce sound), and when they should drink from them (to change the pitch). Traditional music notation was a logical next step, and I have plans to expand and apply this system to some piano studies as well as larger ensemble pieces.
Ten channels of real-time, coordinated sound is a new milestone for me. Previously, six channels was my maximum, in my installations Breaking New Ground (2008) and Kaleidoscope Music (2009, and coming soon to Axiom Center in Boston). Well, technically, under the hood, my Self-Portrait, Dusk, at the Point of Departure (2010) incorporates 36 channels of audio, but it all gets mixed down to 4 channels before being sent out the speakers. The exciting thing about having ten channels of sound is that you can really start to articulate a spatial texture, where a listener is not parsing individual signals coming from specific points in space, but there’s a spatial density that emerges, a real sense of depth, kind of like what I was exploring in my 18 channel video piece.
This idea of coordinated multiplicity is really important to my work. In this piece the electronic sound was generated by very basic synthesis, triangle waves for the most part. I chose them because the timbres blended well with the reedy tones of the accordion and khaen; the overtones would sometimes fuse into a larger aggregate sound, but then fracture off into different points in space. If you’re wondering, we used the Anchor AN-1000X speakers, which worked well for this piece in a gallery setting.
As the title suggest, Mobile 4 is the fourth in a series of pieces exploring mobile form. The title refers to the mobile sculptures of Alexander Calder, an important touchstone for my video game audio work. A system like the music engine I designed for EndWar is analogous to a mobile sculpture, in that the individual elements of the composition are fixed (the short snippets of recorded phrases), but the relationship between them is in constant flux. The first of my Mobile pieces was composed in 2004 for flute, cello, piano, and soprano, premiered by the Ensemble Sorelle at the Seattle Art Museum. The second piece is very open ended, for any number of instruments, based on the cries of street vendors who used to pass through my first Shanghai neighborhood. Mobile 3 was premiered at the 2Pi Festival in Hangzhou, a laptop composition based on recordings of traditional Chinese percussion instruments plus electric guitar. In fact, these days most of my pieces contain some element of mobile structure, and I’m not particularly strict about which pieces earn the “Mobile” moniker; I thought long and hard about whether my Zhujiajiao Drinking Game should be titled Mobile 4, but in the end I decided that the social game aspects of that piece were more predominant.
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In the process of preparing my performance/installation, I had ample opportunity to explore SDMA, located in the heart of San Diego’s gorgeous Balboa Park (which I’m told is the largest urban park in the US, including several museums in addition to the SDMA, the San Diego Zoo, the world’s largest outdoor pipe organ, and a lovely cactus garden), and I’ve become quite a fan! In addition to the pieces mentioned above, I found Samuel van Hoogstraten’s Feigned Letter Rack with Writing Implements particularly revelatory, a seventeenth century Dutch work with a flatness and painterly self-awareness that to me seemed to presage cubism and Magritte (respectively). It also brought to mind this amazing sequence from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker.
Another work that caught my eye was Jean Hélion’s Composition in Color (1934), evoking as it does the kinds of mobile structures I mentioned above. And speaking of Calder, there’s a great one near the entrance of the SDMA, which I took as an opportunity for a photo op.
I also really dug the Rubén Ortiz-Torres show, the big From El Greco to Dalí exhibition (where I made the happy acquaintance of Spanish Impressionist Joaquín Sorolla), and the work of Gustav Stickley, whose furniture exhibition provoked the question addressed by this year’s Summer Salon Series: “What does a city need?”
In between rehearsals, Alexander was my tireless tour guide to San Diego’s busy arts scene. We checked out Double Break, a new art gallery and shop, not far from Balboa Park. I also got to meet super friendly and passionate Jfre from Disclosed Unlocation (we enjoyed a long, whiskey-fueled rap, together with my friend Ellen, closing down the charming dive bar Nunu’s following my performance), David from Agit Prop, and the busy folks at SD Space 4 Art (a live/work space where we got to check out a dance rehearsal in progress). There’s a lot of great energy in San Diego’s arts community, and it felt fantastic to be part of it, if only for one fleeting week. And everyone with whom I spoke was full of praise for the enthusiasm and imagination that Alexander brings to the scene, through the Summer Salon Series as well as his other diverse efforts. I heartily join my voice to the throng!
I also popped in (on Alexander’s recommendation) to the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art’s aptly titled Phenomenal show, featuring works exploring light and perception by James Turrell, Robert Irwin, Craig Kauffman, Mary Corse, and Larry Bell. And I was totally floored by Jennifer Steinkamp’s absolutely jaw-droppingly wondrous Madame Curie, a huge, seven-channel algorithmic (pre-rendered) video installation, commissioned by MCASD specifically for their space, a tour de force, impeccably executed. I dig it for its formal beauty, the layering of the digital branches and their gentle algorithmic swaying, the fixed perspective that allows for the evocation of a larger virtual space, the sheer scale of the thing, all in addition to the sly and ominous allusion to Marie Curie’s research into radiation. Digital video done right!
To round out my visit, I made my first visit to the San Diego Zoo since I was quite young. Having been on safari numerous times on visits to my parents in Kenya, I couldn’t muster much enthusiasm for large animals in contained spaces, but I really enjoyed the aviaries, and kept thinking of Messiaen notating birdsong. I also really enjoyed the lemurs.
While I was in town, it was great to meet up with my high school pal Ellen, who I met at show choir camp near Estes Park, CO, in the summer of 1991. For the ten or so people in the world who have my Titled Untitled cassette from 1993, the song “Missing Ellen” was written for her (read more about such juvenilia here). We seem to meet up every five years or so like clockwork; the previous visit had been in San Francisco during the Game Developers Conference in 2003 or so, until we met for dinner in Boston last month, and suddenly three weeks later our paths crossed again in San Diego! I’m grateful to her for showing me around Seaport Village and Old Town and generously driving me to/from the airport.
The fantastic last day of my visit ended with a visit to the house of a friend of Alexander’s on Mission Beach, frisbee on the sand, a swim in the chilly Pacific Ocean at dusk, a roller coaster ride, a burrito, and the fireworks from Sea World over Mission Bay, followed up by a bonus second dinner of Vietnamese food. Can’t wait to go back!
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A big thank you to Alexander, Brittany, Greg, and everyone else at the museum for their help and support with this project. Also a big shout out to Ferino’s Music for repairing my accordion, severely damaged in transit, in time for the gig. If US Airways ever assures you that their Gate Valet service is safe for musical instruments, don’t you believe them!
As previously posted, I had the pleasure of doing some shows with my friend Yan Jun 颜峻 from Beijing recently. As I was digging up some links to introduce him to Boston area friends, I found this clip of a performance we did, together with Beijing-based Bruce Gremo, at the 2008 Shanghai eArts Festival (shot by Amsterdam-based artist Emile Zile, who I met after the concert; read his account here). We performed at the gracious invitation of Defne Ayas and Davide Quadrio of Arthub Asia, who curated the Final Cut section of the eArts Festival, which transpired in and around Xujiahui Park in Shanghai and also featured performances by B6, Aaajiao, Feng Mengbo 冯梦波, Dead J, Alizia Borsari, and Elliott Sharp, among others (Elliott Sharp is featured in the second half of this clip).
Here we’re performing a video score by Christian Marclay entitled Screen Play, which consists of a bunch of black and white footage from old movies, mostly evocative of sound in some way (telephones, slamming doors, ocean waves, dancers, phonograph records, etc.), overlaid with simple, abstract shapes in bright colors. The piece is about half an hour long. There are no clear indications how the score should be interpreted; rather, it serves as an inspiration, a framework for improvisation.
As I watch this clip now, my first reaction is, “Wow, it worked!” It’s become something of an established practice to do these kinds of live, improvised accompaniments to new video or old films, but in my observation, there’s one problem inherent in the format: synchronization. No matter how skilled the performer, it takes a certain amount of time to register changes in the video and interpret them as sound. So in preparing for this performance, I specifically set myself the task of finding a solution, and reviewing our work two and a half years later, I’m pretty pleased with the results.
Synchronization requires anticipation. This was one of my primary lessons when I studied conducting back at St. Olaf. In 4/4 time, if you want the orchestra to come in loud on the one, you need to make a big gesture on four of the previous measure; you need to stay a beat ahead. In traditional music notation, sound is represented on a grid in which the x axis is time and the y axis is pitch, so it’s easy to peek ahead on the timeline. Or in waveform representations, x is time and y is amplitude. But a video, unlike a graphic representation of sound on a page, is a time-based medium, and x and y can’t help you; time is time! There’s no way to look ahead and prepare for what’s coming next.
To address this issue, I took a tip from some of my favorite videogames, Frequency, Amplitude, Guitar Hero, and Rock Band, developed by Harmonix Music Systems (just up the road here in Cambridge, MA, in fact; I just gave a talk there last month). In these games, as I imagine anyone reading this is already well aware, notes are represented by little colored dots coming towards you on the screen, and when they get to a certain point towards the bottom of the screen, you hit a button on your controller to sound the note. Notes are coming at you on a timeline, so it’s easy to look ahead and prepare for new notes to come, just like in traditional sheet music. This is a true video score.
To approximate this kind of prescience in Christian Marclay’s piece, I wrote a Jitter patch (the first time I used Jitter for a project, in fact) that plays back the movie in 4 separate windows, each window offset by one second. So I was able to see every event in the film coming from three seconds away and count down to activation: 3-2-1-play!
The window in my Jitter patch that displays the largest image (the actual current time) also doubled as my control surface for generating sound. To play along with the video, I was literally drawing on it with my mouse. The timbres I was playing employed very simple synthesis techniques, lots of bright cross modulation, and a bit of granular synthesis. The idea was that my buzzy tones would correspond to the bright, abstract graphics in the score, whereas Bruce (performing on his amazing homemade digital flute controller, the Cilia) would evoke the representational black and white clips, and Yan Jun (working with lo-fi electronics and voice) was more of a moody glue, bridging the two worlds.
I’m a big fan of Christian Marclay. His solo show at the Seattle Art Museum in 2004 is one of the best exhibitions I’ve ever seen, a fecund amalgamation of wit, inventiveness, historical awareness. He represents the full range of what a sound artist can be. He makes sound, of course, in performances, recordings, and installations. But he also makes silent pieces about sound, or about the ephemera surrounding contemporary sound production, and he also makes video pieces that suggest the contours of sound in another medium.
This playfulness is evident in Screen Play in the choice of images, their clever editing, and their relationship to the abstract graphics. He’s clearly toying with different ideas of sonic representation in the way these graphics are deployed, at times stretching five lines across the screen to evoke a music staff, at times drawing a waveform as on an oscilloscope, at times merging into the underlying scene (as when a bright yellow ball becomes attached to a man’s spoon as he’s slurping soup).
I realize that for Christian Marclay, this synchronization issue is probably not a problem at all. Screen Play was conceived for the kind of freely improvising musician exemplified by downtown New Yorkers like Elliott Sharp. For a certain type of resourceful performer, the video is a way to nudge the music along, to create an overall contour and form that may not have otherwise emerged, and which provides the potential for greater large scale contrast and recurrence than an unmediated free improv jam. It’s kind of like a time-based version of a graphic score, such as Earle Brown’s December 1952, Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise, or Christian Wolff’s Edges.
However, there are a few sudden transitions in Screen Play, in particular a sequence that alternates a slamming door with a full screen of saturated color, that strike me as contrary to this ethos. That bit, and a few others like it, seem to call out for big contrasts and tight synchronization, and I think at these moments one could legitimately criticize the score for setting up an expectation that the performer cannot fulfill. But I’m happy to report that, by applying a simple technique from videogame design, we nonetheless nailed it.
Using my Jitter patch to perform this score actually felt a lot like playing a videogame. It gets at what I consider to be the heart of gaming: to develop a skill and apply it to new challenges. This aspect of gaming is very much like performing music; from a certain point of view, any musical performance can be considered a game. I’d estimate that this modified approach to performing Screen Play lies somewhere near the midpoint between downtown New York free improvisation and Guitar Hero, and I think there’s a lot more interesting work to be done along this continuum.
Thanks to Defne Ayas and Mathieu Borysevicz, I think, for the pics. And thanks to Arthub Asia for the invitation to participate!
I was so pleased to have a good friend from China, the Beijing-based sound artist Yan Jun 颜峻, visiting us in Boston for a few days last week. He had stayed with me before in Shanghai, and I think he’s about the sweetest houseguest I’ve ever had. He’s in the US for a few months doing a residency in New York and a bunch of other shows across the nation, and he had a few days to pop up to Boston to perform with me at Outpost 186 (part of the Living Room Music series organized by saxophonist Michael Dobiel) and Whitehaus Family Record. Some documentation is up on Flickr.
You can check out Yan Jun’s busy concert itinerary on his blog. He recently played a bunch of shows in the Bay Area with the likes of Fred Frith (they had previously played together at the Sally Can’t Dance festival at Beijing’s D-22 last year) and Bob Ostertag. Next month he heads to Illinois and Ohio, where he’ll be joined two other veteran experimental Chinese artists on select dates. Li Jianhong 李剑鸿 is the organizer of the 2Pi Festival in Hangzhou, which I played in 2006 (and I am always happy to draw attention to the arduous translation I did of his account of his 2006 Japan tour). Wang Fan 王凡, one of Chinese underground experimental music’s earliest pioneers, was part of the Fuzhou leg of the Mini Midi Festival in which I also participated last May.
Afterall recently published this interview with Yan Jun, describing him as “the invisible glue holding together the Chinese experimental music scene,” and I’d say that’s pretty apt. In addition to his own performing, he’s an active organizer of events (at venues including UCCA, D-22, the long-running Waterland Kwanyin weekly event at 2 Kolegas, and the Mini Midi experimental stage of Beijing’s sprawling annual Midi Festival) and publisher of CD’s (Waterland Kwanyin, Subjam). He’s also an accomplished writer, with several books of poetry and a fair amount of criticism to his credit. He used to write about experimental music for Rolling Stone in China; a long time ago, to help me with my Chinese study, I set myself the task of translating his review of a new Ronez CD, and I developed a firsthand appreciation for his dense and literary style. (My post also includes my brief history of Rolling Stone magazine in China, if you’re curious.)
These days he often plays with feedback in his live sets, pointing a shotgun mic at small speakers with objects placed on them, running the signal through an array of stompboxes. I’ve also seen him incorporate spoken word, field recordings, and found objects into his performances and recordings. He’s done a bunch of installation work, too, including a piece called Wormhole Trip at The Shop in Beijing about a year ago (discussed in this Wire article), which involved contact micing all the pipes and ventilation in the space, with rich, resonant results. While he was in Boston, he gave me some of his new music, including a beautiful group recording called Big Can 大罐 made in a huge, abandoned cistern in Zhujiajiao (just outside of Shanghai), Deep Listening Band style, featuring Yan Jun, Hong Qile 洪启乐, Otomo Yoshihide 大友良英, Sachiko M, Yang Ge 杨戈, Xiao Qiang 小强 (Yang Ge’s wife), GOGOJ, Zhao Junyuan 照骏园 and others.
I think I first met Yan Jun at the 2Pi Festival in 2005, the same time I met Marqido (now of 10), Li Jianhong, and my good pal Yang Ge, among others. I don’t actually remember if Yan Jun performed that year, but I do remember that when we all went out to dinner afterwards, he was the natural leader, ordering food for two tables (note that ordering food for a large group of people is as refined an art form in China as calligraphy), and providing my first opportunity to taste warm Chinese yellow wine with ginger slices. As I recall, the first time we ever performed together was in early 2008, when we were both attending a NOIShanghai show at the now defunct Live Bar in Shanghai. Organizer Junky (of Torturing Nurse) asked if we wanted to do something, so we responded with an impromptu vocal duet, partially documented below. Since then we’ve collaborated on a performance of Christian Marclay’s Screen Play at the Shanghai eArts Festival, and Yan Jun invited me to join in the 2010 Mini Midi Festival tour he organized in Shanghai, Zhujiajiao, and around Fujian province.
Both shows last week were musically successful and a lot of fun, with good audience turnouts to boot. At Outpost we set up a 4 channel system so that I could present Lukou 路口 and the concert debut of the audio component of my Self-Portrait installation. To keep people on their toes, I also did two Jay Chou 周杰伦 songs, with Michael Dobiel joining in on saxophone. Yan Jun and I also reprised our vocal improv duet, which has become a staple of ours whenever we do a show together.
Veteran Boston area performer Vic Rawlings (cello and electronics) joined us for the Whitehaus show, and his duo set with Yan Jun was the week’s highlight for me, a perfect combination, subtle, austere, serene. Whitehaus resident Atom opened with four miniatures involving spinning jar lids, harmonica, coins, and bowed metal. I presented Kaleidoscope Music, probably the best rendition I’ve ever done live; wish I had recorded it! The original installation version uses a live microphone feed, but I generally find that problematic in live performance due to the risk of feedback, so here (as at Opensound last month) my solution has been to record some sounds from around the venue prior to the show and use that as the basis for my real-time filtering. In this case I captured some pre-show chatter about Stockhausen’s late work, and my set ended with my voice pronouncing the word “awesome” in sextuplicate.
It was also wonderful spending time with Yan Jun between gigs. I’ve barely been in Somerville four months now, and this was my first chance to play tour guide in my new environs. We checked out the Olafur Eliasson show going up at Harvard GSD (where Jutta’s working on her master’s; I’m not sure if I’ve made this clear in previous posts) and browsed various Harvard Square book and CD shops (I restrained myself from making any purchases, but Yan Jun picked up Ligeti’s string quartets, part of that Sony Classical series). I took him to see John Luther Adams’s Veils and Vesper sound installation at Harvard’s Arts @ Garden 29, the fantastic Stan Vanderbeek show at the MIT Media Lab (he picked up Nic Collins and John Cage books at the MIT Press bookstore), and then we hopped across the river to the ICA (unfortunately the fantastic Mark Bradford show had just closed, but there was enough of their collection on display, plus Gabriel Kuri, to keep our attention, not to mention the fine Diller Scofidio + Renfro building itself, on a fine, cusp of spring day). For our hardcore sonic diversion one evening we checked out one of the fine, free NEC concerts, a program of Britten, Nielsen, and Sibelius. I cooked him burritos and Brussels sprouts and omelets. But mostly it was just good to catch up, to hear what our friends are up to, to kick the tires on my Chinese, and to see a familiar face from my former home of six years. Who knows where, but I hope our paths cross again soon!
It’s not connected at all with my upcoming exhibition, but last night as I was practicing the piano for my performance at the show opening (Nov. 6!), I finally solved the puzzle of the harmony of the middle section of this song, which has been nagging at me for months. So I ran out and grabbed my H4 Zoom audio recorder and got it down quick, and I love the idea of something being available for download about 12 hours after it’s finished, so here you go. If you want a setting, imagine a dark auditorium (I don’t know how to turn on the lights in there, but I really don’t mind playing piano in the dark, although it wasn’t so practical for recording, but I managed) on the top floor of the True Color Museum, big windows onto the quiet outskirts of Suzhou, about 10:30pm at night.
I started this song about six years ago. It’s becoming an unfortunate pattern for me to work on a song for five or six years. The last one was “Go,” which I posted on NeoCha about a year ago, and the next one is “Cross Ocean,” which is about half recorded, pending completion of an unnecessarily complex algorithmic breakdown section. (Most of my songs, including “Go,” were posted on Chinese social networking site NeoCha, which despite my unflagging support was shut down a few weeks back, which is a bit annoying, so I currently have a lot of broken links on my site. If you need an interim fix, check out my Last.fm page, or NeoCha’s hardier competitor, Douban.)
Anyway, the title and main hook just came to me, as these things do, about six years ago, as I was getting accustomed to life in Shanghai. At the beginning I was simply amused by the incongruity of such a dark lyric with what I imagined to be a bouncy, Burt Bacharach style musical setting (the melody and irregular phrasing certainly have some Bacharachian countours, if it’s not too immodest of me to say so). I always planned, and still do, I guess, to arrange this for chamber orchestra; there’s an intro/outro flugelhorn figure in my head, not represented in this recording.
So for a long time I just had this title/lyric and few other ideas that started to casually conglomerate around it usually while walking or biking around Shanghai. But after I’d been dating Jutta for a while, a more complex narrative started to emerge, associated with this idea that basically the more you start to care for someone, the more you worry about them; the two come hand in hand. And Jutta bikes like a maniac, and there have been times when her phone’s been out of battery or she doesn’t pick up and I’ve found myself rather distraught. It’s a little bit of the idea from the film What About Bob, where if you walk down the street yelling things like “turkey tits!” pretending to have Tourette syndrome, you must not actually have it. By imagining the worst, somehow the worst feels less likely.
I was trying to finish this song as a birthday present to Jutta in 2009, but this has proven to be one of the trickiest songs I’ve ever written. I almost completed it in time for her birthday this year, finishing the last lyrics on the train from Frankfurt to meet her in Cologne last August, but these last tricky chords still eluded me. I was trying to convey the idea of working oneself into a worried frenzy, imagining increasingly implausible scenarios, and I found this difficult to reconcile harmonically with the rest of the song.
Here’s the solution. The bridge pops down a whole step to a new, but closely related key area, signifying a new mental perspective. It starts out with a simple pattern (though also ambiguous, hovering mostly on the subdominant), twice transposed through a little twist up a minor third (F-Ab-B), getting higher and louder, then an irrational leap up another minor third (skipping ahead in the twist) to D, then this alternation of Bb minor 7 (implying melodic minor, raised sixth scale degree) with an octatonic scale also based on Bb (starting Bb-Cb-Db), trying out different scale degrees as a root (D, G, and F, kind of directionless pacing or flailing, not leading to harmonic resolution), before finally using F to slip into a FmM7 as a weird kind of resolution to something that’s still not quite settled, then eventually continuing through a more conventional cadence, gm7, d9, then to a kind of BM7 (which I voice as just an F with a Bb in the bass, although I guess I stuck a D in there, too, so whatever you want to call it). Then slipping into this thinner, ambiguous quartal set of G-A-C-D, which, since A is in the bass, allows us to fall, exhausted, back into our familiar e minor in a kind of plagal fashion. It took me many, many drafts to arrive at this! BTW, the high notes that I’m not quite hitting 3 times in this recording are Ab’s, way out of my range, but hopefully fitting in the context of the song.
OK, interlude over, I’m testing some computer configurations for my installation this morning, then I’m off to Shanghai to tackle printing for my show. I guess if I were more marketing/branding-attuned, I would, you know, stay more on message through Nov. 6, but such is the fickle nature of inspiration. Get it while it’s hot!
Composer and digital media artist Ben Houge presents the culmination of his six-month residency at Suzhou’s True Color Museum with a solo show entitled “The Point of Departure.” The focal point of this exhibition is a new, real-time 18-channel video installation entitled Self-Portrait, Dusk, at the Point of Departure, an ambient work that applies concepts from videogame design and granular synthesis to video, to make a poignant moment last forever. Also included in the show are selected videos and digital prints providing a survey of Ben’s visual output over the past two years.
An afternoon-long digital music festival will celebrate the opening of the exhibition on Saturday, November 6, from 1pm until 7pm. The lineup includes performances by Hangzhou-based digital artists Yao Dajuin 姚大钧 and Wang Changcun 王长存, as well as Shanghai’s Xu Cheng 徐程 (of Torturing Nurse). Ben’s live performances are known to vary widely in style, and he will celebrate this diversity by performing three different sets of music: an ambient electronic set, a synth-pop set of original songs, and an acoustic set of favorite tunes by artists including John Cage and Jay Chou 周杰伦.
Long active in new music circles in China and the US, Ben Houge has been increasingly visible in galleries in recent years, with work exhibited at Art+Shanghai Gallery, OV Gallery, and [the studio] in Shanghai, as well as at the Today Art Museum in Beijing. His video Shanghai Traces, originally exhibited at OV Gallery’s Make Over show last spring, was shortlisted for the Guggenheim’s YouTube Play Biennial and has recently been acquired for permanent installation at Shanghai’s Glamour Bar. Ben has performed around eastern China and at all of Shanghai’s primary live music venues, as well as at the Shanghai eArts Festival, the Mini Midi Festival, Hangzhou’s 2Pi Festival, the Zendai Museum of Modern Art, the Shanghai Conservatory, the South River Art Center, and several NOIShanghai events. This summer he toured Germany with trumpet player Justin Sebastian. Prior to embarking on a full-time career as an artist, Ben spent twelve years designing audio for videogames, most recently serving as audio director of Tom Clancy’s EndWar (Xbox 360/PS3) at Ubisoft Shanghai. The concepts of non-linear, real-time, algorithmic and procedural structure he honed as a videogame developer serve as the point of departure for his more recent work in a broader cultural arena. Much more information about Ben is on his website: http://www.benhouge.com.
This exhibition and music festival mark Ben’s final public appearances in Shanghai for the immediate future, as he relocates to the USA for much of 2011. The artist would also like point out that a train from Shanghai to Suzhou takes less than half an hour these days, and a round trip ticket is less than 100 RMB. So don’t miss this unique opportunity to experience the various facets of Ben Houge’s evolving oeuvre in one idyllic setting!
In an ancient city renowned for its cultural heritage, True Color Museum is Suzhou’s key destination for contemporary art. Founded by the intrepid music business entrepreneur Chen Hanxing 陈翰星 in 2008 as one of the leading privately owned art museums in China, True Color Museum has exhibited artwork by leading artists from China and around the world, most recently in the acclaimed “Nature of China: Contemporary Art Documenta” exhibition last summer and in Taiwan’s Hsiau Jungching 萧荣庆 solo show (ongoing through November 11). The beautiful museum compound, designed by Chen Hanxing, is a destination in itself, and the museum’s active artist residency program has nurtured the careers of many established and emerging artists. Additional information is available on the museum’s website: http://www.truecolormuseum.org/.
Two super exciting bits of news about my Shanghai Traces video!
I’m pleased to announce that Shanghai Traces has made the shortlist for YouTube Play, the Guggenheim’s new Biennial for Creative Video. Here’s the full press release. The entire YouTube Play shortlist is on display at http://www.youtube.com/play (keep an eye out for AleaBoy!), as well as at kiosks in the Guggenheim Museums in New York, Berlin, Bilbao, and Venice, through October 21.
I also just realized that I am already at liberty to announce that Shanghai Traces has been selected to be screened at Seattle’s e4c Gallery early next year! Check out their announcement. I’m going to adapt the piece to run across four monitors at 4Culture‘s innovative downtown storefront gallery for digital art, and once it’s up, it will be in rotation for a full year! I’m also planning some Seattle performances around that time; when it’s all nailed down, you’ll be the first to know.
Here’s the video in question:
(Read more about the genesis of Shanghai Traceshere.)
The Guggenheim says they received over 23,000 entries from 91 countries for YouTube Play, which they eventually narrowed down to 125 for the shortlist (and, yes, they promise they watched them all). For more info, be sure to check out YouTube Play’s companion blog The Take.
The next step is adjudication by a celebrity panel comprised of Laurie Anderson (a longtime hero of mine), Animal Collective, Darren Aronofsky (I hope he digs up my glowing twitter review of The Fountain from a year or two ago), Douglas Gordon, Ryan McGinley (whose work I just saw at UCCA in Beijing a few months ago), Marilyn Minter, Takashi Murakami, Shirin Neshat, Stefan Sagmeister, Apichatpong Weerasethakul (who film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives just won the Palme d’Or at Cannes; can’t wait to see it!), and Nancy Spector from the Guggenheim. The jury will select up to 20 of their faves to be presented at a special event at the Guggenheim New York on Oct. 21.
I’m particularly stoked about the prospect of Laurie Anderson spending a few minutes getting to know my work, after all the time I’ve spent getting to know hers. I attribute her, in a roundabout way, to connecting in my brain the world of classical music that I was studying in college with the world of pop music to which I’d been listening (and which I’d been writing) growing up. She was also the reason for my only visit to New York so far, to catch Songs and Stories from Moby Dick at BAM in 1999. Though I wonder how she’s going to find time for all this adjudication with her new performance piece in full swing.
Anyway, wish me luck!
And of course any day now Shanghai Traces should be up at Glamour Bar on Shanghai’s historic riverfront. Since they wanted to show it on a big 42” screen, I obligingly created a high resolution version of the piece, which you can view below (click the four arrows icon in the lower right corner to go full screen).
For probably three or four years now I’ve had the idea of a European tour in the back of my head. During my time in Shanghai, I’ve met lots of folks from Europe who are active in some kind of new and/or underground music, many of whom have performed at one of Torturing Nurse’s NOIShanghai shows, sometimes sharing a bill with me. So for a while I’d been thinking of calling them up and trying to line up some gigs out west. After learning that my trumpet playing pal Justin Sebastian, with whom I performed several times around Shanghai earlier this year, was moving back to Düsseldorf in August, which happened to be the same time that Jutta was already planning to be visiting home in Cologne, the stars suddenly aligned, and I started sending emails.
From probably thirty or more inquiries regarding performance opportunities, the answer I received was a resounding, “The entire continent of Europe heads off on vacation in August, and only a total knucklehead would try to organize a tour at this time.” Lots of folks would be out of town, lots of regular experimental music series, sometimes even entire music venues, would be closed for the month, and even if we could get a gig somewhere, folks wouldn’t come, and they certainly wouldn’t pay a cover charge.
Nonetheless, our knuckleheadedness prevailed, and by working a few connections and reducing our scope a bit, we were able to put together a respectable if modest five date itinerary. This also provided a fine opportunity to execute a plan Justin and I had been discussing for a while: to release a CD of our live recording from the Mini Midi Festival organized by Yan Jun 颜峻 in Shanghai last May. I went a different route with this CD than for my last two; rather than having someone print me 1000 of them, I printed a small batch myself, cut them with a razor, and glued them together by hand, for which painstaking effort I hope you will not begrudge me 50 RMB. If you want one, drop me a line!
I got to Cologne before Justin, so I had a few days to acclimate. Jutta was already there at her parents’ place. Within four hours of my arrival, I got a Krakauer sausage, a Kölsch beer, and a new pair of Birkenstocks: I had been Germanized!
While getting my Germany legs, we checked out some obligatory cultural sights. First stop was the Museum Ludwig for a show of Roy Lichtenstein’s art history riffs that are more amusing than great, plus a great Wade Guyton installation, a nice little Malevich show (interesting to me, since he was an inspiration for Transportation Is Getting a New Look), and the rich permanent collection. Right next door is the amazing Cologne Cathedral with its new Gerhard Richter stained glass window (which rather unimaginatively resembles a bunch of pixilated noise, but fits in pretty well). We caught a great organ recital there one night by Sophie-Véronique Cauchefer-Choplin, who is the #2 organist at Saint Sulpice in Paris, including Widor’s toccata and an amazing improvisation on Lobe den Herren. There was also a really silly Mondrian show at the Museum of Applied Art (one painting, then lots of T-shirts, bags, that Studio Line from L’Oréal hair gel from the early 90’s, and a bunch of toys and junk, as though anything ever done with primary colors is a Mondrian tribute).
Jutta’s dad helped me get better acquainted with one of the fair city’s finest achievements: Kölsch beer. Legend has it that when President Clinton was visiting Cologne, he pulled a JFK; instead of announcing himself to be a jelly donut, he proclaimed, “Ich bin ein Kölsch,” or, “I am a beer.” There are twenty-some Kölsch brewed in the region, available only in a roughly 30 km radius around Cologne, not extending to Düsseldorf. Kölsch tends to be clear and snappy, maltier and less yeasty than what you find down the road in Bavaria. Every bar is affiliated with one of the breweries, and the traditional serving method is in tall, cylindrical 2dl glasses from surly waitstaff who won’t ask if you need another one; they just keep them coming until you cover your glass with your coaster. My gateway Kölsch on this visit was a Gaffel, and from there it quickly becomes a blur…favorites were Früh and Reissdorf (Jutta’s favorite), with Gilden and Sion also near the top of the list, and we also tried Päffgen, Peters, Mühlen, and Pfaffen. Everyone advised me not to bother with Dom. Another wondrous beer from the region, though not a Kölsch, is Eifeler Landbier. As I have often stated, one of the great hardships of living in China is lack of access to great beer (although the situation has ameliorated dramatically over the past six years), so I must admit that on this trip I exercised no restraint when it came to beer sampling.
I happened to arrive in Germany just at the start of the annual Stockhausen courses in the Cologne suburb of Kürten, Stockhausen’s home town, just down the road from where Jutta grew up in Bergisch Gladbach. Of course, Karlheinz Stockhausen died over two years ago (read my eulogy here), but the courses are still going strong, and there are concerts every night, rigorously overseen by the tight-knit group of disciples he left behind. This year’s theme was “Learning Without Limits.”
I was only able to attend two of the performances (I had my own performances to attend to, after all), but they were utterly fascinating. They focused on his late work, which for twenty-seven years involved in the creation of a massive opera cycle entitled Licht (Light), organized around the seven days of the week. After completing this in 2004, he started a new series entitled Klang (Sound), organized around the twenty-four hours of the day. He completed the first twenty-one hours before he died, and we got to hear hours two (for two harps), four (a theatrical piece for a percussionist, a door, and a little girl), and sixteen (for basset horn and electronic music). This work is much less well known than his revolutionary earlier pieces, so it was a rare treat to hear it performed live by performers closely associated with the composer.
My favorites were “Chuchulainn” (“Monday Scent,” Sunday from Light), a brief piece for costumed soprano, synthesizer, and incense, immaculately performed by Barbara Zanichelli and Benjamin Kobler; and the 2nd Hour from Klang, “Joy,” for two harpists who also had tricky, interlocking vocal parts (on a Pentecost text) to deploy, an ecstatic, forty minute tour de force performance by Marianne Smit and Ester Kooi. Another highlight was “Intensität” from 1968’s Aus den Sieben Tagen, the entire score of which reads as follows:
play single sounds
with such dedication
until you feel the warmth
that radiates from you
play on and sustain it
as long as you can
This was a total about-face from the very tightly organized pieces that precede it in Stockhausen’s canon, very much part of the late sixties zeitgeist that begat it. But of course there’s a performance practice for this type of music, termed “intuitive music” by Stockhausen, who worked closely with the performers to get the sound and vibe he was aiming for, which informed this performance by the Ensemble für Intuitive Musik Weimar as well, and the results were numinous. Also on the programs we caught were 24 Türin (for door, Japanese rin, and speaker), Mittwoch-Formel (for three percussionists), and the first five of Stockhausen’s influential Klavierstücke from 1952/1953.
I had Jutta take my photo in Karlheinz Stockhausen Platz on our way out of town.
I thought it was a great way to kick off our tour, a kind of benediction from the old master. The theme for next year’s courses was announced as “Learning for Eternity;” sign up now!
But hang on, whose concert tour is this, anyway? So Justin arrived in Germany on Wednesday, and we played our first gig on Thursday, August 5, in Düsseldorf. That’s Justin’s old stomping grounds, so he got us a gig at Salon des Amateurs, a bar connected to the Kunstverein, across the street from the Kunsthalle. This was my first time in Düsseldorf, and I learned that the city is known for its gallery scene and also for its Japanese food, with the largest Japanese population in Europe. Jutta and I got there early, so we poked around a few nearby galleries (including Schuebbe Projects at the recommendation of my pal Martin from Art Labor in Shanghai, where it seems the inadvisability of dropping in on a gallery unannounced and distributing work samples was confirmed [although we did write in advance and attempt to make an appointment]).
We also popped into the Kunsthalle, and I was really blown away by their collection, lots of pieces I’d previously only known from books. They also had a temporary installation by the ubiquitous Olafur Eliasson. The receptionist drew our attention to it from the entryway, where it looked like just a few puffs of smoke, and I thought that perhaps I had encountered my first Eliasson clunker, but no, when viewed it from the window upstairs, it was awesome. This guy’s medium really is atmosphere, and the subtle perceptual shifts he affects in the three pieces I’ve seen in person (at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and UCCA in Beijing) are arresting.
We grabbed dinner before the show just around the corner at the fantastic Brauerei Füchschen, where I enjoyed a fine Gekochtes Ochsenfleisch in Meerrettichsauce, and I was schooled in the difference between Düsseldorf’s traditional Altbier and Kölsch, Alt tending to be darker, but still incredibly tasty and refreshing.
And the show went great, with an enthusiastic crowd more numerous than my meager expectations, and a lot of Justin’s friends came down to show their support! Before we went on, they screened the film Step Across the Border, about guitarist Fred Frith, so it was kind of like he was opening for us. Afterwards we hung around chatting with people until we had to catch the train back to Bergisch Gladbach, a warm and friendly evening that set the tone for the rest of our performances. (More pictures on my Flickr page.)
Our second gig was super exclusive: a surprise performance at Jutta’s mom’s birthday party the following Saturday. During the festivities (organized into three shifts of revelers, in good German form), Jutta casually mentioned to her mom that her friend Justin and his girlfriend Ursula happened to be in the neighborhood, and that she had invited them to pop by for a convivial glass of sekt. Justin’s trumpet case accompanied him in undetected, as I surreptitiously plugged my laptop into the living room stereo system. Jutta decided against making any opening remarks; Justin simply began to play the low, muted, opening tones of our piece, and soon we had the room’s attention. Some of the guests took the occasion to migrate outside for a smoke, but most remained attentively inside, and Jutta’s mother was completely delighted by the surprise gift. How’s that for taking experimental trumpet and electronics out of the new music ghetto?
We had Sunday for party cleanup, additional cavorting about Cologne, and the second of our Stockhausen concerts (the final show of the festival, ending with Michael’s Farewell, performed by five trumpet players on the roofs of five buildings outside the performance hall). Monday we were off to Berlin for the second leg of our Germany tour.
As many of you, my faithful readers and spambots, already know, I moved out of my Shanghai apartment last December, and since then I’ve been leading a nomadic existence as an international art hobo, first in the US, then in Kenya, back in Shanghai and Suzhou for a bit, and most recently in Germany. I originally expected that at the end of my sojourns I would ultimately find a new flat in Shanghai, and so I carefully packed away every duvet, cocktail shaker, and gaming console. Circumstances have since conspired, however, such that my next “permanent address” (this phrase always makes me giggle) will be in scenic Somerville, MA, USA, a place I’ve never visited, but about which I hear wonderful things. (No, I am not being deported, though I won’t let that stop me from relentlessly plugging my artwork that was confiscated by the Chinese government earlier this year.)
But in the immortal words of Big Boi, “Greyhound don’t float on water.” Experience has taught me that when you make a big move, you have your choice of three options for losing money: lose money by shipping your junk, lose money by storing your junk indefinitely (e.g., to date, the upwards of five grand for storing I don’t even remember what, some old Duran Duran records and a djembe, I think, in Seattle), or lose money by giving your junk away at a small fraction of what you paid for it. Dear friends and spambots, I have chosen the third option. To wit…
Ben Houge’s 35th Annual “New Year, New Address” Fire Sale
I am selling the following items at the following rock bottom prices. I’m attempting to sell things as bundles, to try to get rid of as much stuff as quickly as possible. Prices are negotiable, everything must go!
Oven: 500 RMB
Was over 1000 RMB new. I’d been holding this for some dufus who, two weeks after he told me he’d pick it up, called to say he didn’t want it after all. So if you’re one of the several other folks who inquired, feel free to inquire again; it’s still available! Relatively sizeable for a standalone, tabletop unit, big enough for roasting chickens and ducks (sequentially) or Beef Wellington, but doesn’t take up too much space, also handy for bruschetta, etc.
Box o’ DVD’s: 300 RMB
It’s a medium sized box, mostly full of DVD’s in absolutely no order. Over six years of Shanghai DVD hoarding has resulted in a substantial collection. The catch: it’s all or nothing; if you want ‘em, you gotta buy the whole box. I don’t know what all’s in there, but it skews a bit towards European and Chinese “art films.” That means you take the Antonioni and Bergman along with the Die Hard and Rambo. The Police Story pentalogy and Infernal Affairs trilogy are included, plus I think both Hulk films, House of Flying Daggers (x2, I think), Curse of the Golden Flower, you get the idea… All cinema, no TV series. Act now, and I’ll throw in Monty Python’s Flying Circus!
1000 Watt Step Down Voltage Converter (220V to 110V): 250 RMB
Bought this, works fine, except 1000 watts was insufficient for my vast array of US synthesizers and music gear!
TV Stand: 200 RMB
Sleek, small, but sturdy, glass and metal, supported a 50” TV (not included) for the past four years, ably and with aplomb. Two open shelves underneath used to house a big amp/receiver, an Xbox 360, an Xbox, a PS2, and a Game Cube (not included).
One Big Black Bookshelf: 200 RMB
Classic square design, 3 shelves, pretty darned convenient.
Two Big Black Tables: 100 RMB each
Before I met Jutta, I also tried my hand at furniture design: I had these custom made for my studio equipment (who knows when I’ll ever set that all up again, sigh) about five years ago, still in pretty good shape. Very simple design, very versatile, somewhat idiosyncratic design (long and narrow) and a little bit low, designed to be ergonomic for typing and/or playing a keyboard (i.e., elbows at 90 degrees, no awkward wrist bending).
Black, Wooden, Two-Drawer File Cabinet: 100 RMB
Also my original design. The drawers have runners along the inside, fits standard Ikea hanging folders. The ornate brass-ish handle on the lower drawer has come off, but that’s easily repaired!
White Hanging Drawer Thing: 120 RMB
This was Jutta’s, so you know it’s classy. It’s like got these suspended cloth drawer things, six of them, arranged vertically, about a meter and a half tall, lots of storage taking up relatively little floor space. On wheels! Kinda like this, but with six drawers instead of four, and already assembled!
PS2 + Xbox: 1200 RMB SOLD!
If you want only the Xbox, we can talk, but if you only want the PS2, sorry, chump, you gotta buy both! That’s the deal! Comes with 2 controllers for each and a handful of games (more for Xbox than PS2, including Crimson Skies, Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, and Jade Empire), and 2 Sing Star mics (for the PS2)! The PS2 has a rare and exquisite metallic light blue finish, and the Xbox is some kind of limited edition crystal something or other (i.e., clear case).
Two Squash Rackets and Balls: 200 RMB SOLD!
Nice ones, from Decathlon, barely used (like 3x), to my chagrin.
Johnson Amp: 50 RMB SOLD!
Small and super cheap, but perfect if you’re a beginner guitarist or maybe into chip bending.
Dish Bundle: 100 RMB SOLD!
Big plates, little plates, some bowls, mostly of Ikea provenance.
Glassware Bundle: 100 RMB SOLD!
Water glasses, some odd wine glasses, a bunch of martini glasses, some mugs, a cocktail shaker and strainer.
Cutlery Bundle: 100 RMB SOLD!
Two full sets of cutlery, in fact, including chopsticks and cutting boards and a handy little tray in which to store it all.
Toaster 50 RMB SOLD!
It is green.
Rice Cooker: 50 RMB SOLD!
It cooks rice. Might have two of these, actually.
And I would be a poor salesperson (or a much more successful artist than I am) if I neglected to remind you that I still have an ample supply of my own CD’s available for sale: Radiospace (40 RMB) and 3 Heart-Shaped Cookies (20 RMB), plus my new one, Chingachgook(s) (50 RMB, come on, I made them by hand!). Tell you what: if you buy something, I’ll give you 3 Heart-Shaped Cookies for free!