Food Opera Manifesto

On May 22, 2012, I realized a longstanding dream when I collaborated with local chef Jason Bond (of the widely acclaimed Bondir Restaurant in Cambridge) on a new multimedia composition entitled Food Opera: Four Asparagus Compositions. Chef Bond crafted a four course, asparagus-based tasting menu, and I provided real-time algorithmic accompaniment, responding to cues from diners and servers to score a meal as I would a video game.

We premiered our work at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design’s 40K Studio to invited members of the Harvard community, as part of a program curated Jutta Friedrichs, Elisabeth MacWillie, and Sara Hendren, students (at the time) in the new program in Art, Design and the Public Domain. The event was widely acclaimed in such news outlets as NPR, Grub Street, and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s First Bite, in addition to this nice write up on Harvard’s site.

Food Opera: Four Asparagus Compositions; photos by Melissa Rivard & Andrew Janjigian

(Thanks to Melissa Rivard & Andrew Janjigian for the photos!)

We’ve just announced a second food opera event entitled Sensing Terroir: A Harvest Food Opera on Tuesday, November 13, this time open to the public, and the complete information for that event (including reservation hotline; seating is pretty limited) is over on the Bondir website. This time around we’re partnering with Artists in Context to tell the story of local farming and sustainable food sourcing, incorporating field recordings and interviews with regional suppliers into the emergent soundscape to investigate dining as a communicative medium. The event is once again being produced by the deft and intrepid Jutta Friedrichs, and Stephan Moore (Merce Cunningham’s former soundman, Issue Project Room curator, and accomplished composer in his own right) will also be supporting with sound design and custom speakers.

But before we get into that, I first want to take a moment to pull together some key concepts surrounding this unique project.

Friends can testify that I’ve been talking about this idea for years; the first specific conversation I can pinpoint was sometime in 2006. I’ve long appreciated fine food, and somewhere along the line I realized that enjoying a well-crafted meal was an inherently time-based experience, akin to ballet, music, or film, but tailored to the sense of taste. This is true not only in the succession of courses, but in the way a course evolves, as flavors meld, textures break down, and hot and cold converge to room temperature. Even psychologically, our perception of a new dish changes as we become accustomed to it. Once I acknowledged this, the desire to compose music to accompany a meal, just like a dance or film score, followed naturally.

For a long time I called this concept a “dinner symphony” or “restaurant symphony.” The etymology of the word “symphony” conveys the idea of several elements coming together in a harmonious way. But I came to feel that the primary association of the word is with sound as a unified medium, whereas “opera” (which literally means merely “work”) has more of a multimedia/multisensory association, which more accurately evoked what I was after with this project. Hence, “food opera.” (I’ve noticed, however, that this term causes problems when I’m discussing the idea in Chinese, where the word for opera, 歌剧, explicitly connotes singing; I’m open to suggestions for a less misleading translation.)

Super-caramelized white asparagus; photos by Melissa Rivard & Andrew Janjigian
Super-caramelized white asparagus; photos by Melissa Rivard & Andrew Janjigian

This is perhaps the first time in history that it’s been possible to create a customized, responsive sonic food pairing for each individual diner. This is a new genre that has only recently been possible with any degree of refinement, due to the development of responsive digital systems and advancements in speaker technology. At the heart of this endeavor is the goal of respecting the integrity of the ancient social institution of communal dining. This is fundamentally different from the notion of dinner theater, in which some action is taking place away from the table; instead, in a food opera, the plate is the stage. It’s also very different from having a string quartet sitting next to your table, or a violinist or mariachi band wandering through the restaurant. In order to not impinge on the dining experience, the sound must be electronically mediated; the very presence of a live musician distorts the calculus of the meal to an unacceptable degree.

Instead, diners are free to talk, uninhibited, just as they would at any other meal. Food opera supports spontaneous interaction. In this way, music is on equal footing with the food. Chef Bond talks about how, in his observation, the awareness and appreciation of food happens intermittently, during pauses in the conversation. In our collaboration, music is not foregrounded, and it should absolutely not distract from the rest of the experience. Instead, it has an ambient quality; to quote Brian Eno, it should be as interesting as it is ignorable.

There’s an additional challenge in scoring a meal, one that is different from writing music for film or ballet, but actually quite similar to my work composing video game music over the past sixteen years: the element of indeterminacy. You can’t know in advance how long a diner will take to finish a course, or when the next dish will come. There’s an element of interactivity not only in food consumption rate, but also in the trajectory a diner chooses through the choices on a menu. So the concept from the beginning was to use video game scoring techniques to provide a customized soundtrack for each diner. Here again, the logistical challenges in asking a live performer to provide such nuanced, personalized accompaniment become clear; this experience could not exist without computers and speakers.

I feel that one thing taste and sound have in common is that they’re both inherently abstract, unlike a painting or a sculpture. (Perhaps this is why, as I’ve joked with composer friends in the past, the only thing worse than a bad music review is a bad restaurant review; these experiences are hard to distill into words.) Before the advent of recording technology, representational sound was by far the exception (think of the timpani evoking rolling thunder at the end of “Scène aux champs” in Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique). Most music is about the abstract relationships between pitches and rhythms that add up to melody and harmony, and it’s similarly almost impossible to think of a taste that is about anything other than itself.

Chef Jason Bond and me
Chef Jason Bond and me; photos by Melissa Rivard & Andrew Janjigian

So in this project, our focus is on perception and experience, not on preconception or association. The last thing I’d want to do is to bring out a sea shanty to evoke seafood, for example, or, I don’t know, a polka to evoke Polish sausage. (This kind of ethnic shorthand is in fact the most widespread kind of food/music pairing, and to me the least interesting.) This is why I sought out a collaborator who eschews traditional dishes in favor of exploring new forms and combinations; it would be much less interesting to compose music for something like a Caesar salad, with which most people already have some kinds of context or expectation. Instead, in the course of our first collaboration, Chef Bond and I realized that many of the same abstract structural notions and terminology apply to cooking as well as to music, and we built on such overlapping concepts as texture, color, density, contrast, pungency, development, and form.

For the Harvard show, due to the relatively small scale, servings were fairly synchronized, and all of the activity was mixed down to six channels of sound, spaced along a long, narrow table with about 10 seats on either side. As each new dish was rolled out, there was a gradual crossfade from one dish to the next, as the servers made their way along the table. However for next month, we’re doing something closer to my original conception, which is for each diner to have a unique channel of audio, and for seatings to be unsynchronized, so that different tables are starting and stopping at different times; at any given moment, each table will be at a different point in the overall meal arc. There will be a central computer system that coordinates the music of all tables to a common pulse and key (again, video game techniques to the rescue). It’s a feature of the piece that sound will blend across adjacent tables; the entire restaurant will be transformed into a lush and active soundscape. The plan is to be able to provide diners with a unique recording of their meal after the fact.

Lynette Roth, curator Harvard museum, Jeffrey Schnapp; photos by Melissa Rivard & Andrew Janjigian
Lynette Roth and Jeffrey Schnapp at the first food opera, Harvard GSD, May 2012; photos by Melissa Rivard & Andrew Janjigian

I did a study back in Shanghai in 2010 with my friend the excellent chef Caroline Steger. We planned a three course meal and invited friends to talk about their impressions. There was scallop with wasabi sabayon, pumpkin soup garnished with lime/cumin-toasted seeds, and asparagus with hollandaise sauce. Based on these conversations, I composed several studies, and one page of music for woodwind trio wound up in last May’s event. I basically analyzed the page I had written, then wrote an algorithm to generate endless variations of it. Other sections used different generative, procedural, or algorithmic techniques, continuing indefinitely while avoiding repetition (a key concern in video game composition).

There’s been a lot of recent interest in the overlap of food and the more traditional arts (or perhaps I should say, those arts that are more traditionally considered arts). Just a few examples off the top of my head include the Science and Cooking series at Harvard (through which I first met Chef Bond), Ferran Adrià’s opening El Bulli to guests at Documenta 12, Marina Abramović’s Volcano Flambé (in which her soothing voiceover accompaniment, delivered via iPod, described the textures of the dessert [“crunchy, creamy, cold…”], and which I got to taste at Park Avenue Winter last year, and which may have made me ill), Heston Blumenthal’s Sound of the Sea (also featuring iPod accompaniment), and Paul Pairet’s multimedia tour de force Ultraviolet, which I got to check out when I was back in Shanghai last summer (it was amazing, and I have lots to say about it, but perhaps we should save that for another time). I feel like what we’re doing is part of a larger movement that is reevaluating the aesthetic potential of taste.

Here’s Jutta’s video, documenting the first food opera!

Food Opera – Four Asparagus Compositions from Jutta Friedrichs on Vimeo.

So to bring us back to the present, the next food opera happens on Tuesday, November 13, at Bondir in Cambridge. It’s a five course $125 prix fixe menu with drink pairings. That figure is not out of line for either a five course meal at a fine restaurant or an opera ticket, so you can think of it as two for the price of one!

In case you’re still not sold on this liberal conception of opera, it seems fitting to close with a link to an article entitled “The New Opera,” written by Gavin Borchert almost 10 years ago in the Seattle Weekly, in which he likens video game development to the early days of opera, with composers “exploring untested ways of combining music, story, and visual spectacle.” Sounds about right!

I leave you with the menu from Food Opera: Four Asparagus Compositions last May:

Soft-cooked pullet egg
Smoked asparagus froth, spiced syrup

Hot white asparagus soup
Miso-hazelnuts, nori, togarishi marshmallow

Warm green asparagus gel
Shaved asparagus, bonito, calamondin lime, madura long pepper, black garlic candy, spruce shoots, Okinawa sugar, sea salt, angelica, largo, matcha ice…

Super-caramelized white asparagus
Bran ash, sesame jelly, lemon mousseline, ginger cake

Mignardises asperges

Arcanum at 60

[Update: In addition to the PC Gamer citation, below, Forbes listed Arcanum as one of the 12 best video game soundtracks of all time in September 2012.]

The March 2012 issue of PC Gamer magazine includes their list of the top 100 games of all time, and Arcanum, for which I composed the soundtrack and designed most of the sound effects, came in at #60. Here’s the entire citation:

Arcanum is a thesis in player-character depth. My first trip through, I murdered Virgil the second he showed up, then went lone-wolf as a half-elf magic user with a penchant for cheap harlotry and booze. My second romp: I rolled as a charismatic capitalist gnome, collecting NPCs to do my technological dirty work. Having the Industrial Revolution stirred in with a reactionary, magic-using population is a setting unrivaled in RPGs. And that music…”

I was really thrilled to see the music called out explicitly (emphasis theirs). I think the only other soundtracks that received mention in their list were Peggle (Beethoven’s Ode to Joy) and Homeworld.

The Arcanum soundtrack is the biggest game score I’ve composed, and it’s been great to see the consistent interest the music has generated over the years, from Paul R. Coats’s saxophone transcriptions shortly after the game was released to the Lively Arcanum group that has been performing this music around Moscow and St. Petersburg more recently (I think this is their official website?).

The music has enjoyed a busy second life in the concert hall. I’ve presented the music live in a number of situations, beginning with the first Sound Currents concert in Seattle with odeonquartet in 2003, and later as part of a game audio panel at Cornish College of the Arts (also featuring Marty O’Donnell, Alistair Hirst, and Scott Selfon). I arranged a string orchestra version that was premiered at the Gewandhaus in Leipzig as part of the “Third Symphonic Game Music Concert” 2005, and last November I presented it alongside some of my more recent ambient electronic work at a concert with students at St. Olaf, a pairing that I felt quite complementary. It’s been played on the radio a few times, and I once got a BMI report informing me that it had been played on television in Finland.

I’ve received a steady trickle of fan mail, and one particularly touching note came from a first lieutenant stationed in Afghanistan who wrote about the cathartic role the music played for him. It’s really an honor to feel that my music has impacted people’s lives in this way.

I believe that the main reason for this music’s durability is that it was composed with a clear vision, a direct response to the unique environment conceived by the game’s creators, Tim Cain, Leonard Boyarsky, and Jason Anderson. In Arcanum, a Tolkienesque world of magic has undergone an industrial revolution. To evoke this historical anachronism, I composed music inspired by the modes and contours of early sacred polyphony, but orchestrated it for string quartet, an ensemble that came into its own around the time of the Enlightenment. This decision stood in contrast to the common choice of epic, orchestral music for role-playing games, and I feel its popularity is linked to its unconventionality.

Last week I was talking to some new students about their first writing assignment for the spring semester. Before they composed a note, I asked them to write down on paper their concept for the music. I want to get them thinking about what the music is meant to convey and what means might best convey it, while at the same time to discourage the kinds of habits that are easy to cultivate when writing with the fingers instead of the head. For a game soundtrack as much as for the concert stage, music that endures must have something to say.

If you want the full scoop on the Arcanum soundtrack (including links to recordings and scores), check out my Arcanum soundtrack page. I’ve also compiled other reviews of the Arcanum soundtrack over on my press page for your convenience.

Jay Chou and the Bastion OST

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.)

For more, don’t miss my Best of Jay Chou playlist on Spotify!

New Christmas Music

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!)

Speaking of Spotify, I’m working on a Christmas playlist, if anyone cares to listen in.

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.”

God bless us, everyone!

Meet Yan Jun

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.

Yan Jun at Outpost 186

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.)

YanJun & Ben at Outpost 186

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.

For more on Yan Jun, check out his blog and SoundCloud pages.

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.

Yan Jun, Vic, Atom, Ben @ Whitehaus

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!

Statement of Purpose

At PechaKucha Boston earlier this week I presented the US premiere of my Statement of Purpose. I primarily think of it as a composition, but you might also call it a performance piece. I suppose “multimedia lecture” might be most accurate. It was written in September 2008 for presentation at PechaKucha Shanghai and thus adheres to the PechaKucha format: 20 slides of 20 seconds each. In Boston as in Shanghai, I think it seemed to go over pretty well.

Statement of Purpose is consciously indebted to John Cage’s Lecture on Nothing, one of the pieces collected in his book Silence, which I first read many years ago. The thing that struck me about these early Cage lectures and essays is that, in many cases, the message is in the form of the work, not the content. Rather than just describing his ideas about rhythmic structure, he demonstrates them; you experience them directly.

So in my piece, which I have described as an update of Lecture on Nothing for the digital era, I’ve adopted a mobile structure, as opposed to a linear lecture format. I take great inspiration from Alexander Calder, because in his mobiles, the individual elements are fixed, but the relationships between them are in constant flux. So here my lecture is arranged topically, around nodes of ideas. The main idea-nodes are

Aspects of Music and Audition
Stasis in Sound
Dynamism and Interactivity
The Current State of Videogames
Non-Linear Structure
The Nature of Multimedia

On each of these topics, I wrote a bunch (around six to ten, I think) of one sentence statements, single ideas that could be presented in any order. Then I wrote a program that generates a script by randomly picking one of these idea-nodes, picking some of the ideas associated with it, picking another idea-node, etc. Pauses are added between each statement to vary the density of the lecture over time (using a random walk, aka a “drunk” function or brown noise), in the same way that a tide or a rainstorm has a changing contour over time. Indications about when to clear my throat, gesture to the screen, take a swig of beer, etc. are also algorithmically scattered throughout the script, as a kind of textural element, subverting the ephemera of a typical lecture scenario.

I also interspersed a purely musical element, consisting of a set of low drones plus a set of brief melodies in a higher register (outlining an A mixolydian scale) all sung on a textless “ooh.” It’s pretty arbitrary; I thought the piece could use it, and I like the texture that results. But it also serves to focus attention on the abstract structure of the piece, rather than the content, and to suggest that the piece as a whole may be considered in musical terms.

There’s another type of behavior, too, statistically less likely to occur. While 16 of the 20 slides use the above formulations, the remaining 4 are shuffled riffs on standard salutations and closing statements: “Hello,” “Good evening,” “My name is Ben Houge,” “Thank you for your attention,” “Good night,” etc. The idea is that through repetition and dislocation, these phrases become formal (rather than syntactical) elements; it’s very similar to what I’m doing with radio broadcasts in Radiospace. Having another type of behavior helps vary and articulate the overall form. I also just think it’s funny, and I sensed that the audience was similarly amused. Humor is like music, in that it plays with audience expectations, as when I end my piece with a cordial, “Hello, everyone.”

The slides were generated using very similar techniques to those I employed in my 29 Giraffes series, but substituting text for little chunks of photographs. The colors, in fact, are algorithmically extracted from the same Nanjing Dong Lu source material I used in my Giraffes. Here again, the emphasis is more on the texture that emerges from all this superimposed text, rather than on the text itself; as with the algorithmically generated script, the slides communicate through form, rather than content.

The whole piece has an audio accompaniment, too, one 20 second audio clip per slide. To create this backdrop, I processed a recording of myself reading the text of the piece using a bunch of custom software I had lying around at the time, programs I had developed for other pieces. You can identify bits of Psalmus, Study for Eventual World Domination (my contribution to The Bike Bin Project), Radiospace, and a granular synthesis demo I did as a videogame audio engine prototype. Looking back, the evocations of these pieces that crop up (as of the Giraffes) provide a nice snapshot of my digital workspace in September 2008, which was part of the idea.

To assemble all of these elements, I selected the 20 slides I wanted to use of the many I had generated, then I wrote a program to shuffle them. Same for the 20-second audio segments I generated. In the end, it’s a combination of arbitrary decisions and procedurally generated bits, which is really how just about any artwork comes together, digital or otherwise.

The result is that ideas come and go, freely floating. I’ve referred to a lot of my pieces as “meditations,” and the term is certainly apt here. Ideas recur, sometimes in different media (text from the slides may pop up again in the spoken presentation or recorded backdrop). They “interpenetrate,” to use one of John Cage’s favorite terms. They reinforce each other, and they add up to a way of thinking, which is very much my way of thinking, a network, a web of ideas, all connected.

It’s a good time for me to revisit this piece. Especially in the past year, I’ve been thinking a lot about the meaning that can be conveyed through pure structure. I think this has come to the fore as I’ve been increasingly active in visual media. In music, we take this for granted; you could say that music traditionally conveys meaning through structure alone. Music is the most abstract of the arts; representation or mimesis in the pre-recording era was by far the exception (think of the timpani evoking thunder in the “Scène aux champs” of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique). In some cases you can say what a piece is “about,” because you know something of the circumstances of its composition, or because of a prefatory note by the composer. But principally, music’s meaning is all in the relationships of different frequencies, rhythms, velocities, timbres, etc., and, more importantly, the calculus of how this all changes over time. You would never say that even as abstract a composition as The Art of the Fugue is meaningless.

So coming, as I do, from a background in music, it’s only natural for me to approach my visual art in the same way, applying the same types of structures that I use in my sound work to visual information, and it’s been surprising to see how the conversation unfolds differently. A prominent arts person (don’t worry, no one you know) came to see my show in Suzhou last fall, and I was kind of amazed when she asked me what my piece was trying to convey. A musician would never think to ask such a question. As Elvis Costello said, if I could have written the song with any other words than the words I used in the song, I would have written a different song, wouldn’t I?

Of course there was a bit of a conscious impulse to poke a hole in the sometimes punctilious proceedings of a standard PechaKucha event (I have my Seattle School cohorts to thank for any vestigial confrontational aesthetic). As when I sneakily built an ambient electronic piece from mildly acrimonious pre-show chatter at Opensound a few weeks ago, I like the idea of snapping people into a different state of awareness with some new or unexpected realization. I also like the pacing of it; PechaKucha is usually about people cramming as much as they can into their 6:40, but my script actually includes indications to pause for as long as 10 seconds. But both times I’ve presented this work, the audience seemed to get it and dig it; it’s not just some avant-garde stunt. The message was conveyed.

Statement of Purpose was my first project after leaving Ubisoft at the end of August 2008. The deadline was tight, less than a month, as I recall, and I liked the idea of doing a new piece completely from scratch to emphasize my new trajectory as a full time, independent artist. I remember staying up all night to get it done, with an urgency that had been missing from my corporate gig for quite a while. I consciously wanted to make a statement about the main issues I was setting out to address in my work, my mission, as I considered it (and still do). Check out some documentation from that performance, and a video excerpt below.

I originally wanted to generate my slides and script in real-time using custom software, which I feel is technically still in keeping with the PechaKucha format, but in Boston as well as in Shanghai, the organizers very understandably wanted to stick to a standard set-up for all speakers. This is still something I want to explore, though, particularly the idea of giving cues to a performer on the fly, exploring the idea of real-time score generation (which is exactly what happens in a music videogame like Guitar Hero, and which I’ve already started to explore in pieces like my Zhujiajiao Drinking Game, more commonly referred to as Beer Hero). I’ve been contemplating a revision of this piece for a long time, to include this real-time score idea, write some new modules, add some Chinese text, incorporate multiple screens of real-time generated imagery, and blow past the 6:40 PechaKucha time limit to create a full, hour-long presentation. If anyone would like to sponsor and/or host such an event, please let me know!

EndWar Audio Post-Mortem

For those who are curious, here are the slides from my Boston Post-Mortem presentation last week. It was a conscious affectation to only capitalize the first word of every heading, and I now regret it, but I’m too lazy to go back and change them all. Also, I’m sorry the font size changes so much from slide to slide. (For more on EndWar audio in prose version, check out this EndWar audio page I put up a while back.)

The talk focused mainly on the audio deployment mechanisms we developed for the game, since I think that was some of the most innovative and fun work we did, and hopefully also the most portable to other projects people may be working on. I spent about half of the time going into some detail about our music system, which I feel was one of EndWar’s key audio innovations. It’s a little tricky to share the music demo I did (mocked up in Max/MSP) online, but I found some gameplay footage on YouTube that showcases the same set of music in the final game. (Music composed by Alistair Hirst and Matt Ragan of Omni Audio!)

It’s actually an instant replay of an online match on PS3. This means that, unlike the actual game, the player is controlling the camera movement here. This provides a good opportunity to hear how the music evolves, depending on what’s going on. There are a few sounds that seem to come out of nowhere; they would normally accompany interface events, but in replay mode, the interface is suppressed. Note also the guitar squeals that indicate you or your enemy has lost a unit (depending on the squeal).

Here’s another video of actual gameplay footage on the Xbox.

Note that the volume periodically ducks down quite suddenly; that’s because this person is using the game’s voice command feature to control his or her troops. When you pull the trigger to talk, other sound ducks down for clarity, but of course in this excerpt, you don’t hear the player talking, hence the dropouts.

This video goes from the little intro movie to the main menu music to the loading music to some actual gameplay. The loading music in particular illustrates our music system’s scalability, as this was done with just a few kilobytes of audio data in memory, algorithmically permutated, nothing streaming. Feel free to search for other gameplay excerpts on YouTube, too.

Anyway, the talk went really well, with a big turnout, an attentive crowd, and a lot of interesting conversations afterwards. Thanks to Darius for inviting me to share my work, and thanks to everyone who attended!

Baldessari Sings Kanye West Tweets

So I’m annoyed that my Boston Post-Mortem lecture tomorrow has been postponed due to the forecast snowstorm, so I’m moping about the apartment, thinking about the following:

I just read that the Walker Art Center (one of my favorite places on the planet) has acquired John Baldessari’s 1972 video Baldessari Sings LeWitt. As the Walker tells the story, this video is Baldessari’s riposte to conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth, who had dismissed Baldessari’s “amusing pop paintings” as “not relevant to the discussion” of conceptual art. So Baldessari made this video, in which he sings Sol LeWitt’s 35 Sentences on Conceptual Art to the tune of popular songs, including “The Star-Spangled Banner” and, I think, “Tea for Two.”

He didn’t write the text. He didn’t write the music. He doesn’t perform the results in any compelling interpretation. All he did was pick a text and (unimaginatively) pick some music and (unimaginatively) kind of mash them together.

In short, there’s nothing here that amounts to a great performance, as opposed to really bad music. Even as a performance piece, it’s lazily presented and poorly rehearsed (and please don’t try to assert that rehearsal is somehow irrelevant to performance art). And it doesn’t even enter the conversation of video art; this video is strictly documentation of an event, ignoring the whole set of issues posed by the medium of video.

What advocates of this work completely miss is that the notable “meta-conceptual exercise” Baldessari performs here is nothing more profound than what every composer must consider when setting a text to music. Why do you choose a certain text? What is the text about? How can you support (or subvert) that meaning in sound? To take this idea to its logical terminus is to raise a whole bunch of issues Baldessari completely skirts by lazily appropriating popular tunes (and of course ignoring that appropriation in music has its own rich history and another whole set of issues; see Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia, also Charles Ives, Frederic Rzewski, Peter Maxwell Davies…).

This piece exemplifies what I think is one of the major fallacies of art discourse in the past 50 years or so, which is the idea that sound represents some uncharted new territory for artists to transform into arable aesthetic soil. This attitude seems pervasive, and it strikes me as ignorant and condescending, since there are artists who have in fact been tilling the field of sound since the beginning of recorded history, and those artists are called musicians.

I am consistently surprised at how people working in or writing about the visual arts have so little understanding of what’s going on in new music. For me, the ideas are out there, the zeitgeist, the great conversation with history, and an artist continues the conversation by expressing new ideas in one medium or another, be it painting, sculpture, dance, literature, music, film, video, or whatever. Sure you gain competence and craft the longer you work in one area, but it behooves an artist in any medium to be aware of these conversations that transcend discipline and to address the ideas themselves, whatever their final form.

I don’t mean to suggest that visual or conceptual artists should not venture into sound or performance, but they would save themselves a lot of trouble by paying attention to the work that’s already been done by musicians. Or if it is strictly a conceptual gesture, there’s no reason to actually make the video; just circulate your proposal, “I’mma sing Sol LeWitt’s Statements on Conceptual Art to popular tunes LOL!” (see, it fits into one tweet!), and we’ll all have a good chuckle and get on with our days and certainly not be talking about it in 40 years. (I guess here is where commercial concerns come into play, having a video to hawk; at least in Baldessari’s case, it’s cheap.)

Speaking of Twitter, I am not kidding when I assert that John Groban singing Kanye West tweets is a more successful artistic venture on all fronts.

It’s a lot funnier than Baldessari, and perhaps in spite of itself, it touches on the fragmentation of today’s media landscape and celebrity obsession, all the more effectively since the music, tossed off though it is, fits the words.

I had a great plan a few years ago to set a piece of spam I received to music, for voice and laptop. There were 3 different layers of text in it: a decoy text, the actual ad copy presented as an image, and a bunch of random keywords, to throw off spam filters, I guess. I thought setting it to music presented some interesting structural opportunities, e.g., stratification of the different texts, and could also touch on ideas of alienation and superficiality in the digital era. But alas, I lost the text, and I’ve never found another one as suitable (I guess spam filters have gotten better; I’m not complaining).

But I did get around to setting a bunch of personal ads for voice and piano. What do you think? Is it a conceptual gesture? Or just music?

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…

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!