The Tomb of the Grammarian Lysias

[Note: this little essay was originally published on April 24, 2015, FWIW.]

One of my primary compositional projects of 2014 was a setting of Constantine P. Cavafy’s poem The Tomb of the Grammarian Lysias for voice and audience members’ mobile devices. Cavafy has been described as first great modernist poet of Greece, and he wrote this poem sometime between 1905 and 1915 while living in Alexandria. I premiered my setting at the joint International Computer Music Conference/Sound and Music Computing Conference in Athens last September and performed it again at the Beijing Central Conservatory of Music’s MusicAcoustica festival in October. Then in January I presented it in a new Web Audio version at the first Web Audio Conference in Paris, co-hosted by IRCAM and Mozilla.

Soundcheck at the University of Athens. Photo by Charles Nichols.
Soundcheck at the University of Athens. Photo by Charles Nichols.

The soloist sings without amplification, and the accompaniment of the piece consists entirely of fragments of his (i.e., my) voice deployed algorithmically from the mobile devices of the audience. As the voice of the soloist (singing in Greek) is recorded and transmitted to the phones and tablets of audience members, a heterophonous, chant-like texture emerges. In works like this, I explore crowd-deployed speaker networks as a highly flexible and portable alternative to traditional electro-acoustic sound reinforcement infrastructure. This underexplored configuration, which I have been investigating in the App Choir ensemble I founded here at Berklee’s Valencia campus, allows engaged audience members to enable the performance of a piece in a way that is somewhere between active participant and passive listener, and an unexpected intimacy results as the sound of a performer’s sung voice emerges from a listener’s very personal device. After the Paris performance, someone commented that this was one of the rare concerts at which the audience wasn’t fiddling with their phones and tweeting or texting, since they were actually using their phones to allow the music to happen.

The audience during my performance at the Web Audio Conference (Mozilla headquarters). The sound man is bored, since he had nothing to do during my piece. Image by Paul Adenot.

The audience during my performance at the Web Audio Conference (Mozilla headquarters). The sound man is bored, since he had nothing to do during my piece. Image by Paul Adenot.

I started composing this setting simply because I was inspired by the poem and recent circumstances, and I was also curious to explore this unique format, with no particular performance prospect in mind. When I saw the call for scores for the International Computer Music Conference in Athens on the theme of “From Digital Echoes to Virtual Ethos,” it seemed such a perfect match: my setting was in Greek, based on a tuning system first articulated by Ptolemy in the second century AD, consisting entirely of digital echoes of a soloist’s voice on audience members’ mobile devices. My piece was accepted and included in the opening concert of the conference on September 14, 2014, in the historic Ceremonial Hall of the University of Athens.

The poem might seem an odd choice, but I was drawn to it for several reasons. It describes a space, variably navigable, and presents a non-prioritized list of different types of writings, which, together with the Greek term γραφές that has been translated as “variant readings,” suggested an intriguing approach to text setting that incorporates some kind of variable, real-time process, such as I often employ in my work.

I just received word that a paper I co-authored with Javier Sanchez (who helped tremendously with the code architecture) describing this composition has been accepted to the ISEA 2015 conference in Vancouver this August, so I’ll save the technical discussion for then. [Update: You can read that paper here!] For now I’d like to share a bit about the particular constellation of personal associations that kept this text in my mind as 2013 drew to a close.

In French, a bachelor party is an “enterrement de vie de garçon:” the burial of the carefree life of a young man. While it’s an amusing term, the funerary imagery underscores what a dramatic transition the nuptial proceedings represent. (Although since Jutta and I had just a short time with friends in Berlin before our wedding in August 2013, we ended up simply combining our bachelor and bachelorette parties into a group dinner.) We honeymooned in Greece, the first visit for both of us. On the island of Santorini, we bought books of Greek poetry at Atlantis Books in Oia, following the recommendations of the proprietor. We watched the sun set from the roof of the bookstore and drank assyrtiko, and I read Constantine P. Cavafy’s Ithaca to a small group of tourists.

The caldera of Santorini. That's Oia off to the right.
The caldera of Santorini. That’s Oia off to the right.

Then on November 22, my grandfather died. In all of his 106 years, it is unlikely anyone ever referred to him as a grammarian. But I was reminded of something Laurie Anderson said, that when her father died, it was like a whole library burned down. Art Houge was of 100% Norwegian stock, and I’m pretty sure he had never been to Greece, maybe not even to Europe. But I had recently read an article about the exceptional longevity of people living on certain Greek islands, and I thought of the photographs we saw adorning cremation boxes in an isolated chapel on the hills of Amorgos.

A cemetery on Amorgos
A cemetery on Amorgos

I probably read “The Tomb of the Grammarian Lysias” for the first time on Amorgos, or if not, shortly after. I can’t remember if it immediately struck me as well suited to a musical setting, but at some point the commemorative aspect of the poem became associated with a recording of Greek Orthodox music I bought at the Nikos Xilouris shop in Athens on the final leg of our trip. I decided to set it in the original Greek, so I asked my student Niko to read the poem for me to record, and I wrote a simple app to play individual phrases at the touch of a button, which I used to practice reciting the text on my twenty-minute walk to work every day, gradually getting a sense of the inflections and formulating a melody.

In my video game work and sound installations, I explore sound as a landscape, rather than a narrative, or maybe landscape as a kind of narrative. This poem describes a space, a library within a city, with indications of the relative positions of things. There’s a description of the kinds of texts found in the library, listed in an arbitrary order, as though selected from browsing the stacks. Lists, like a litany or a mantra, can evoke a kind of interior landscape, a state or mood. I remember Psalm 150, which I set for The Esoterics using similar techniques in 2004, in which the psalmist exhorts us to praise the Lord with a long list of instruments, but I’m sure we’re not intended to follow the instructions sequentially.

The poem provides a space that is a memorial, a place you come to remember, as books and writing are ways of remembering. I consider my setting, composed at a time of significant life transition and dedicated to the memory of my grandfather, as a way to pass among these books.

Λυσίου Γραμματικού Tάφος
Κωνσταντίνος Π. Καβάφης

Πλησιέστατα, δεξιά που μπαίνεις, στην βιβλιοθήκη
της Βηρυτού θάψαμε τον σοφό Λυσία,
γραμματικόν. Ο χώρος κάλλιστα προσήκει.
Τον θέσαμε κοντά σ’ αυτά του που θυμάται
ίσως κ’ εκεί — σχόλια, κείμενα, τεχνολογία,
γραφές, εις τεύχη ελληνισμών πολλή ερμηνεία.
Κ’ επίσης έτσι από μας θα βλέπεται και θα τιμάται
ο τάφος του, όταν που περνούμε στα βιβλία.

The Tomb of the Grammarian Lysias
Constantine P. Cavafy

Very near to the right of the entrance to the library
of Beirut, we buried wise Lysias,
a grammarian. The spot is very well suited.
We placed him near to those things that he may
still remember there – commentaries, texts, technologies,
variant readings, volumes filled with Hellenistic studies.
And also this way, his tomb will be seen and honored
by us, when we pass by the books.

Translated by Niko Paterakis and reproduced with kind permission.



He’s Away on a Business Trip in Düsseldorf

[Note: my virtual garage sale is still going on! Don’t miss out on these amazing bargains!]

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!

Justin Sebastian & Ben Houge, Chingachgook(s)
Justin Sebastian & Ben Houge, Chingachgook(s)

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!

Ben, Jutta, Cologne Cathedral, Museum Ludwig
Jutta, Ben, Cologne Cathedral, Museum Ludwig

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).

Schweinshaxe as Big as My Head at Gilden im Zims (note empty glass of Gilden Kölsch)
Schweinshaxe as big as my head at Gilden im Zims (note glass of Gilden Kölsch)

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.

At Karlheinz-Stockhausen-Platz in Kürten
At Karlheinz-Stockhausen-Platz in Kürten

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.)

Justin & Ben Live in Düsseldorf
Justin & Ben Live in Düsseldorf

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?

Justin Live im Haus Friedrichs
Justin Live im Haus Friedrichs

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.

To be continued…

Act Like You Got Some Sense

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.

This oven could be yours!
This oven could be yours!

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!

These DVD's could be yours!
These DVD

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!

This amp and transformer could be yours!
This amp and transformer could be yours!

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).

This TV stand could be yours (glass top not pictured)!
This TV stand could be yours!

One Big Black Bookshelf: 200 RMB
Classic square design, 3 shelves, pretty darned convenient.

This bookshelf could be yours!
This bookshelf could be yours!

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).

These custom tables could be yours!
These custom tables could be yours!

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!

This file cabinet could be yours!
This file cabinet could be yours!

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!

This suspended drawer thing could be yours!
This suspended drawer thing could be yours!

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.

This squash paraphernalia could be yours!
This squash paraphernalia could be yours!

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!

I have lots of high quality digital art prints for sale as well, the fruits of my art hobo year! Check out Study for Insomnia, Transportation Is Getting a New Look, Shanghai Traces, and 29 Giraffes. You can talk to me or to the galleries that have presented these works; contact me, and I’ll point you in the right direction.

Please forward this list to friends!

P.S. Don’t worry about me not having a PS2 or Xbox anymore; I’ve got another set in storage in Seattle. (Um, why?)

P.P.S. I just saw that Wikipedia defines “fire sale” as “the sale of goods at extremely discounted prices, typically when the seller faces bankruptcy or other impending distress.” Apt indeed.

Self-Portrait, Dusk, at the Point of Departure

Hey, wow, new video! This piece is a bit quirky and personal, so I should probably fill in a bit of context. But first, imagine that you are viewing this piece on a huge bank of 24 TV screens, the sole light source in a huge, black warehouse, which is how I would ideally like to present it. [Note that you can turn HD on/off in the video below; it will load faster with HD off, but if you’re up for it, turn HD on, click the icon to the right of the play bar to make it full screen, and turn scaling off.]

Self-Portrait, Dusk, at the Point of Departure from Ben Houge on Vimeo.

I find myself constantly refuting the notion that art made with computers is somehow cold, impersonal, rational, unfeeling, etc., etc. In general, I refute the idea of absolutes in art, that a work must be, for example, either rational or emotional. In my work, both elements are present, and this one swings perhaps farther than most to the emotional side.

All art (including digital art) has some kind of inspiration, and in this case I was inspired during my trip to St. Paul, MN, last winter by the intricate patterns formed by barren tree branches, and how those patterns would shift with just the slightest change in perspective or movement of the branches. I think the first time I consciously started paying attention to tree branch patterns, I was looking out the window of Famous Dave’s on 7th in St. Paul, where I was having lunch with my parents, my brother, my sister-in-law, and my two little nieces. Later I noticed that the same kinds of patterns were occurring right outside my brother’s living room window. I spent a lot of time, last winter in St. Paul, sitting in the stuffed chair of my brother’s living room, working on my computer, opposite this window (to the point that the chair came to be referred to as “Uncle Ben’s office”), and as I gazed at the branches outside, I kind of started to identify a bit with this tangled mess of branches and what they might represent.

I was working on a couple of video projects during my two months in St. Paul, notably Shanghai Traces, and also collecting source material for my foolhardedly ambitious plan to produce backdrop videos for my live pop show. I really wanted to capture some of the unique topographical features of winter in St. Paul (i.e., snow), but I could never seem to find just the right combination of meteorological conditions and presence of mind to go out and actually tape them. So in the end I spent the last 10 minutes of my St. Paul visit standing in my brother’s snow-covered front lawn, videotaping those branches as the sun was setting, just before I hugged everyone goodbye and my brother drove me to the airport.

So my new video installation takes those ten minutes and makes them last forever. A lot of still art can be said to freeze a moment in time, but that’s not the same thing as prolonging a moment indefinitely. In a photograph, for example, whatever was happening at the moment when the photograph was taken is not happening anymore; it’s been stopped. But here, the moment is still happening, and it will never stop happening. It’s not the same thing as looping a video segment, either. In a loop, it would happen repeatedly, which is not the same thing as happening continuously. As in Shanghai Traces, I think this is a really good pairing of subject and medium.

How is this miraculous feat accomplished? By using the same techniques I’ve developed to make sound continue indefinitely in videogames over the past thirteen years or so: shuffling, staggering, offsetting, layering. These techniques are some of the most fundamental in my toolbox, but they’re endlessly applicable to a wide range of real-time organizational challenges. In this piece, each of the 24 screens is independently picking a section of the video to play for a certain amount of time, then picking a new section to play, and so on. The duration and position in the original video are not completely random, but constrained by previous behavior, so that the overall distribution of images across all 24 channels is constantly shifting. It’s very similar to the granular synthesis techniques I’ve used in my audio works, mixing together little chunks of a larger sound to kind of homogenize it into a steady texture (see the sustained textures in Radiospace for a good example).

As is quite obvious, the original video was shot without a tripod, which gives the piece a performative element (not that the world needs another flimsy performance video document). The unsteadiness in my hand as I’m holding the camera is the other subject of the piece, creating motion and the subtle changes of perspective that (in addition to passing breezes) animate the primary subject matter. It focuses attention back on the person holding the camera and the minor endurance test of holding the camera still for 10 minutes in below freezing weather. This idea of endurance echoes comments by Richard Karpen and Mike Min (that the drama of a performance arises from the struggle of a person pushing against his or her limitations). In other words, the motion of the camera in the video is a visualization of my own failure to hold it still, despite my best efforts, which you are free to view as a metaphor for the attempt to hold back time itself.

The end result displays all kinds of interesting formal and textural qualities, byproducts of the same behavior being multiplied across 24 screens. The original video was shot at dusk, so there’s a gradual transition from yellow to blue hues; as my piece runs, the various screens are constantly changing their position along the spectrum, forming new groups and contrasts. The motion of the different screens prompts a different organizational tendency, a kind of counterpoint, sometimes seeming to move together, at other times in contrary motion. When screens pop to a new image, a rhythmic texture emerges as well. The eye is drawn to the sudden popping of a screen to a new point in the source video, but because the new image shares the same perspective as the previous one, it can create a kind of paradox; you know something’s changed, but you’re not sure what. The eye and brain are constantly engaged (although on this small video rendering it may be hard to tell; again, think of a big bank of TV monitors), as the viewer is constantly challenged to re-evaluate what’s the same and what’s different as groups form and dissolve.

The audio for the piece is basically just the audio from each of the 24 individual screens mixed together. It happens to include the sounds of several different transportation mechanisms, which nicely underscores the idea of imminent departure. Occasionally you’ll notice the audio cutting out or in at the same time as one of the screens popping to a new image, reinforcing the structure of the piece. I wasn’t completely happy with the sound I captured on the camera’s little built in microphones, so I wanted to filter it a bit, and once I got into filtering, I really liked the mood I got by notching certain harmonic sets of frequencies. But I also really liked the neutrality of the unfiltered sound, and I couldn’t decide if this was too much meddling or not, so in the end I have it both ways, with the notch filters algorithmically fading in and out. The filters’ base frequency changes at longer intervals, which gives the piece a higher level structure and periodically refreshes the ears by establishing a new tonal center. For a public installation, I would revisit the filtering behavior; ideally, if I could present this piece in the big warehouse I’m dreaming of, I’d tune the piece to the room’s resonances.

I have no idea when I’ll actually have a chance to mount this as a public installation. Ideally, it should be displayed on a big bank of 24 TV screens mounted in an 8 x 3 array in a huge, dark, empty space. (If it strikes you that such a bank of TV’s would resemble the banks of monitors displaying airline departure times at an airport, you might be interested to know that in fact I did the first draft of this software while waiting overnight at Dulles International Airport in Washington, DC, for my connecting flight to Nairobi last January 29, seated across from just such a bank of monitors.) I like the idea of encountering it first from a distance, the images gradually coming into focus as you approach, with the bank of screens generating the only light in a room so big and dark you can’t see the walls. There should be a bench in front of the screens, or pillows, so people can hang out for a while, or maybe some stuffed armchairs, like at my brother’s place!

This is kind of the worst possible combination for a digital installation: expensive, but subtle. Typically, if someone invests in a big, 24-screen video wall, I guess they want something big and flashy, not quiet and contemplative like this. But if anyone would like to be the first to present it, that honor is yours for the taking!

I’d like to dedicate this piece to the Minnesota Houges, with love and gratitude.

My Qanun Lesson

One of the first things to catch my attention when I started boning up on Zanzibar was the Dhow Countries Music Academy. This very hip and active organization was established in 2001 to provide musical education to Zanzibar’s residents and visitors, and to preserve and perpetuate the island’s unique musical traditions.

Principal among these is taarab, the island’s most distinctive musical genre, reflecting Zanzibar’s long history as a crossroads of Arabic, African, and Indian cultures. The standard instrumentation closely resembles an Arabic orchestra, with a choir of violins playing mostly in unison, double bass, oud (a kind of lute, predecessor of the guitar), and qanun (about which more in a bit), tabla, and tambourine, but with the addition of some skin drums from the African mainland, plus a soloist and a choir singing responses.

Qanun master Rajab Suleiman
Qanun master Rajab Suleiman

Jutta got it in her head that she’d like to take a drumming lesson. Though I took a year of djembe lessons back in Seattle, I’m still a lousy djembe player, and I didn’t figure one more hand drumming lesson was going to push me over the edge to proficiency. So I opted instead for an instrument about which I knew next to nothing, and whose name I even had a hard time remembering: the qanun. What follows is my report.

My qanun professor was Rajab Suleiman, who plays qanun with one of Zanzibar’s two most respected taarab ensembles, the Culture Musical Club. He’s also an active collaborator: the Dhow Countries Music Academy has published a Baladna Taarab CD featuring him and Palestinian oud player Habib Shehadeh Hanna, and during the Sauti za Busara festival (which we had timed our visit to catch, a fantastic four days of African music under African skies), he was all over, including a set with Norwegian Sámi artist Mari Boine. He is not only an extremely accomplished musician, but in interacting with him and observing him at a several performances during our stay in Zanzibar, he was friendly and gregarious with everyone he spoke to.

Rajab told me that the qanun was originally from Cairo and is now found all over the Arab world, including Morocco, Tunisia, and Turkey (although he said the Turks have a slightly different variation of the instrument). In one forty-five minute lesson I didn’t expect to learn to play much at all; my objective was to get my hands on the instrument, to get to know how it works and what it can do. After Rajab first set the qanun on my lap he had to leave the room, so I set about counting strings and taking copious notes:

-The qanun would be classified as a zither, with strings stretched parallel across a soundboard and not extending beyond it (as opposed to the harp family, in which the strings run perpendicular to and emanate directly from the soundboard).
-The soundboard is a flat, hollow box about 3 inches thick, in which the sound from the strings resonates, and with (in this case, at least) three decoratively carved holes to let the sound out.
-The soundboard is in the shape of a right trapezoid; the right side runs perpendicular to the bottom of the instrument (as you’re looking down at it), and at the left the instrument tapers from bottom to top as the strings get shorter.
-On the left are the tuning pegs (Rajab said he spends more time tuning than playing). On the right is a bridge.
-The qanun has twenty-six sets of three strings, which span the gamut of three and a half octaves (going up to a re on top, and down to a sol at the bottom). There are seven strings to the octave.
-Most strings on the instrument I played were nylon, except the lowest four sets, which were metal.
-For each set of three strings, on the left near the tuning pegs, are five metal switches. These allow the player to effectively shorten the length of each set of strings to raise the pitch and obtain different scales. If all switches are off, the pitch is a double flat (i.e., unison with the string below it).
-As Rajab pointed out to me, the five switches per string allow the instrument to be tuned to Arabic scales involving quarter tones.

Strings are plucked or strummed with the fingers of both hands. The player attaches a plectrum to each forefinger, but all fingers can be used. The right hand should move only up and down, parallel to the bridge, but the left hand should move left and right as well, following the length of the strings.

I told Rajab about my musical background, and he suggested I just poke around a bit on the thing and try to play something. He had tuned the qanun to a major scale, so I started picking out Burt Bacharach’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence,” which has perhaps a slightly ambitious range for a first time player. When he saw I was merely hunting around for notes, he reigned me in to “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” and after a bit we moved on to the traditional East African tune “Malaika (Angel)” (I first heard this tune when I recorded the Mungano National Choir of Kenya’s performance at St. Olaf College in 1996 or so, but I have no idea if it’s Kenyan or Tanzanian or what, and I don’t care to enter the debate; we’ve picked up on a bit of Kenya/Tanzania rivalry during our travels).

Towards the end of my lesson, Rajab asked if I’d like to just hear what the thing could do, which is what I was hoping for, and he let her rip. Melodies doubled at the octave, chords, arpeggiated patterns, he was all over the soundboard, and the density of sound was really amazing. Tremolos were very effective, plucking the same set of strings repeatedly with one or more fingers. To bend tones he would occasionally push down on the string on the far side of the bridge, similar to how Chinese guzheng players bend their tones. I asked if he ever played harmonics on the strings, and he said seldom.

I was amazed to realize that all of the metal tuning switches could be manipulated on the fly with great facility, which means the qanun is not just a diatonic instrument, but really should be considered to have thirty-five tones per octave (six tones per string, although some are enharmonics), all readily accessible. I guess I shouldn’t have been so surprised; this is not so different from what Western harpists, for example, do with their pedals. But to see the agility with which he flicked those switches while playing, not only to obtain notes out of the diatonic scale, but also flicking back and forth for trills, was really breathtaking.

An excellent way to spend an afternoon, at the Dhow Countries Music Academy, along the waterfront in Zanzibar’s Stone Town, learning a thing or two about Zanzibari music. In my book, that’s the kind of thing that makes a good vacation!

Qanun master Rajab Suleiman in action!
Qanun master Rajab Suleiman in action!