I’ve been playing a lot of Bastion lately, the indie game by Supergiant that has popped up on a whole bunch of Best of 2011 year-end lists. One of the music tracks has a lick in it that sounded oddly familiar, but I couldn’t place it at first. Then suddenly one day it hit me: Taiwanese pop superstar Jay Chou 周杰伦.
Regular visitors to my website probably know of my marginally unseemly fixation on Jay Chou; I even wrote an article for Time Out Shanghai in 2010 entitled “Why I Love Jay Chou.” He’s a trans-media pop star (as all the biggest ones seem to be these days), recording albums, starring in movies, hawking toothpaste and motorcycles (at $6 million, a record endorsement for an Asian artist). Western audiences who missed him in foreign fare such as Curse of the Golden Flower 满城尽带黄金甲 might know him best for his Hollywood debut as Kato in Michel Gondry’s Green Hornet last year. Studying the lyrics to his songs was my primary method for learning Mandarin, and I still harbor dreams of releasing a tribute CD one of these days. He was even the subject of my first ever post on this blog.
Check out this video for the second track on his November’s Chopin 十一月的萧邦 album from 2005, “蓝色风暴” (Blue Storm). (Note that Chopin is more commonly rendered 肖邦 in mainland China, but 萧邦 seems to work too, as discussed here.) Pay particular attention to the closing moments, from about 4:36.
Now check out this track from the Bastion soundtrack, by Darren Korb, starting around 0:26.
I don’t think the odds are so slim that I might be the first person to notice this, given the slender overlap between Jay Chou and Bastion’s respective fan bases. Clearly, both artists are using the same loop from some sample library. I have no idea which library, but after conferring with some of my Berklee colleagues, the consensus is that the instrument in question is most likely a bouzouki, a fretted Greek lute.
I’m straining to remember, but I don’t think I’ve ever used a canned loop in one of my compositions. (I may have used some stock phrases on King’s Quest back in 1998, but slowed way, way down beyond recognition to create an ominous background texture.) I’m totally down with the idea of creating a meta composition out of several streams of patterns or recorded material, the way that Charles Ives or Luciano Berio or David Shea might weave a larger fabric out of existing sounds; in fact, I think this is pretty much the job description for a video game audio lead. But using a stock loop out of a sample library just takes all the fun out of it. At the very least, if you want to keep it fresh, roll your own loops. Moreover, when creating a composition out of layered loops, it’s too easy to ignore the contrapuntal interactions between the different layers; you can miss the chance to think through all the alternate configurations of notes that might make your musical point more purposefully.
Most critically, there’s a regularity and periodicity that really feels anathema to the subtle irregularities of human performance, and it’s too common to come up with something artificial and rigid, chopped up evenly along the bar lines: every eight beats (or whatever) another layer comes in or out. And when a layer stops, it stops abruptly, with none of the resonance or decay of a natural sound, since it must be truncated precisely on the bar line, in order to seamlessly connect back to the beginning of the phrase. When I was fielding composer demos back at Ubisoft, this characteristic was grounds for immediate rejection.
The same objection applies on a macro scale, too, in game music implementations that simply loop a piece of music indefinitely (Bastion‘s primary mode of musical organization). At best, this kind of repetition can lead gamers to tune out the music, reducing its impact, and at worst, it leads to active irritation. In any event, the power of music to support the emerging drama of a narrative is lost. In fact, the desire to eliminate loops and fades (two of the most common signifiers that you’re listening to a game soundtrack) was a guiding impetus behind the design of the EndWar music system.
At least for Jay, the bouzouki sample is only a minor flourish, in a fairly ridiculous duet with DTMF touch tones, almost a punch line at the end of an eclectic song that started with Gregorian chant.
But anyway, let’s get back to my Jay fetish. Here’s a clip of me sitting in with the house band at Harry’s Bar in Suzhou on a few very loose renditions of Jay tunes towards the end of 2010. (Be patient; you’ve got to breach the Great Firewall for this clip.)
I just got back about three weeks ago from a wonderful, inspiring, and very successful visit to San Diego. I was in town at the invitation of the San Diego Museum of Art to premiere my new piece Mobile 4 at the museum’s Summer Salon Series. While I was in the neighborhood, I also had the opportunity to sample some of the energy and diversity of the city’s eclectic arts community. And I learned what a California Burrito is.
Mobile 4 is a cross between a sound installation and a chamber music piece, scored for ten channels of real-time electronic sound plus a Laotian mouth organ called a khaen (performed by Christopher Adler), guitar (Colin McAllister), and accordion (me). It was designed to be an ambient experience in a gallery, with musicians and speakers scattered throughout the room, rather than as a concert with a beginning and end. There was no central stage to serve as a focal point; instead listeners were free to come and go. The electronic sound was continuous throughout the evening, and for about 45 minutes, we three musicians joined in, adding a living layer to the installation. Then as we finished in gradual succession, we all just got up and wandered away, perusing the paintings.
The walls of SDMA’s Gallery 16 are lined with Renaissance and Baroque Spanish art, providing an ideal setting: El Greco, Bermejo, Hieronymus Bosch’s Christ Taken Captive, Francisco de Zurbarán’s Agnus Dei (~1640), and my favorite, Juan Sánchez Cotán’s Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber (~1602), with which I feel Mobile 4 demonstrates a particular aesthetic affinity.
Specifically, I was in town at the invitation of Alexander Jarman, curator of the museum’s Summer Salon Series. (Alexander is also an accomplished artist in his own right; while I was in town I got to see some of his collages-in-progress, beautiful stuff!) I met Alexander while he and his colleague Paul were in Suzhou last year for the opening of an exhibition of works from the San Diego Museum of Art’s collection at the Suzhou Museum (as reported here). I was just finishing up my residency at the True Color Museum in Suzhou, and the museum director invited them over for an evening of traditional Chinese music, tea, and conversation, over the course of which they also had a chance to check out my Point of Departure show. After I moved to Boston last November, Alexander and I kept in touch, and as this year’s Summer Salon Series was coming together, he invited me to present a new work.
We were a pick-up ensemble for this performance; Christopher is a friend of a friend of my good friend the writer Lisa Movius from Shanghai, so I dropped him a line after I read on his website about the interesting work he’s doing. Christopher has spent a good deal of time in Southeast Asia mastering the khaen, a rich and resonant instrument in traditional music of the region; check out his webpage for more information and some videos and recordings of his performing. The khaen struck me as a good match for the reedy sound of my accordion, and Christopher recommended his frequent collaborator Colin to round out our ensemble.
I was super pleased with how everything went, and I’ll try to get some documentation up online soon. I had my back to the gallery entrance, but I was informed that there were a lot of people pressing to get in while we were performing. The piece seemed particularly well-suited to a gallery setting; I almost wished we hadn’t distributed so many chairs, so that people would have been more encouraged to walk around during the piece and look at paintings.
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Mobile 4 was a milestone for me on three fronts: new investigations into mobile structure, a real-time score display, and ten channels of algorithmic sound.
On the structural side, there are two primary behaviors in the piece: one is a sustained tone/drone that is kind of brushed in and out, Morton Feldman style; the other is a set of algorithmic melodies that is constantly being updated. The drones are simply chosen randomly from the notes of the current scale. Melodies are chosen from a table of available melodies algorithmically generated from the notes of the current scale. There are five melodies available at any given time. Periodically the program will replace one of the old melodies with a new one (randomly choosing from available pitches and durations, with the maximum melody length and the time between melodies varying according to a random walk).
Each sound source (instrument or speaker) behaves independently, but all are aligned to the same rhythmic pulse, and the global statistical balance between the melody and drone behaviors varies according to another random walk. If we happen to venture too far over on the drone side, we enter a transition phase, in which all sound sources gradually converge onto one of the tones in the current scale, which then becomes a pivot tone, allowing for a common tone modulation to a new, algorithmically-generated scale.
The khaen is a diatonic instrument, so Christopher brought three different instruments (G minor, A minor, and Bb minor), allowing access to the full chromatic scale over the course of the performance, though only one diatonic scale at a time. This limitation was built into the structure of the piece; when it’s time to transition to a new key area, first we decide if we want to transition to a new khaen, and then we pick a pentatonic subset of the available diatonic scale. (These aren’t standard pentatonic scales, by the way, but any 5-note subset of the diatonic scale is fair game, creating a lot of interesting variety, sometimes with a major feel, sometimes minor, sometimes with a prominent tritone, etc.). New scales tend to happen every 3-6 minutes (if we go more than 5 minutes without a transition, I start to nudge one to be more likely to occur). This has the effect of kind of “cleaning out the ear,” similar to what we did in main menu music of EndWar.
The cool thing is that the three live performers plus all of the electronic sound are coordinated, even though the melodic and scalar material is being generated on the fly. We’re all keeping a common pulse, playing from the same scales, from the same pool of melodies, with the same density of musical material, all converging to the same common tones and modulating together. The result is that musical material is passed all around the room, allowing for a nice, mid-level coherence that keeps the piece from sounding too random or arbitrary. Accomplishing this kind of coordination is difficult in a traditional open form piece, where the musical material is written out in advance, and even harder to accomplish when there are real-time processes generating new material all the time.
So the centerpiece of this new work was a system for disseminating algorithmically generated melodic content to acoustic performers. This was accomplished by means of a Jitter patch I wrote that displays the notes to play in a scrolling musical notation, similar to Guitar Hero, but using traditional notation, scrolling right to left. Using a computer display to guide acoustic performers is something I’ve been mulling over for years; it’s always seemed a clear opportunity to apply design concepts from video games to issues of open form classical composition. My first practical investigation was when I performed Christian Marclay’s video piece Screen Play the Shanghai eArts Festival in 2008 (you can read about that experience in greater detail here). I fleshed out this idea further in my Zhujiajiao Drinking Game (2009), which provides indications to performers when they should blow on beer bottles (to produce sound), and when they should drink from them (to change the pitch). Traditional music notation was a logical next step, and I have plans to expand and apply this system to some piano studies as well as larger ensemble pieces.
Ten channels of real-time, coordinated sound is a new milestone for me. Previously, six channels was my maximum, in my installations Breaking New Ground (2008) and Kaleidoscope Music (2009, and coming soon to Axiom Center in Boston). Well, technically, under the hood, my Self-Portrait, Dusk, at the Point of Departure (2010) incorporates 36 channels of audio, but it all gets mixed down to 4 channels before being sent out the speakers. The exciting thing about having ten channels of sound is that you can really start to articulate a spatial texture, where a listener is not parsing individual signals coming from specific points in space, but there’s a spatial density that emerges, a real sense of depth, kind of like what I was exploring in my 18 channel video piece.
This idea of coordinated multiplicity is really important to my work. In this piece the electronic sound was generated by very basic synthesis, triangle waves for the most part. I chose them because the timbres blended well with the reedy tones of the accordion and khaen; the overtones would sometimes fuse into a larger aggregate sound, but then fracture off into different points in space. If you’re wondering, we used the Anchor AN-1000X speakers, which worked well for this piece in a gallery setting.
As the title suggest, Mobile 4 is the fourth in a series of pieces exploring mobile form. The title refers to the mobile sculptures of Alexander Calder, an important touchstone for my video game audio work. A system like the music engine I designed for EndWar is analogous to a mobile sculpture, in that the individual elements of the composition are fixed (the short snippets of recorded phrases), but the relationship between them is in constant flux. The first of my Mobile pieces was composed in 2004 for flute, cello, piano, and soprano, premiered by the Ensemble Sorelle at the Seattle Art Museum. The second piece is very open ended, for any number of instruments, based on the cries of street vendors who used to pass through my first Shanghai neighborhood. Mobile 3 was premiered at the 2Pi Festival in Hangzhou, a laptop composition based on recordings of traditional Chinese percussion instruments plus electric guitar. In fact, these days most of my pieces contain some element of mobile structure, and I’m not particularly strict about which pieces earn the “Mobile” moniker; I thought long and hard about whether my Zhujiajiao Drinking Game should be titled Mobile 4, but in the end I decided that the social game aspects of that piece were more predominant.
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In the process of preparing my performance/installation, I had ample opportunity to explore SDMA, located in the heart of San Diego’s gorgeous Balboa Park (which I’m told is the largest urban park in the US, including several museums in addition to the SDMA, the San Diego Zoo, the world’s largest outdoor pipe organ, and a lovely cactus garden), and I’ve become quite a fan! In addition to the pieces mentioned above, I found Samuel van Hoogstraten’s Feigned Letter Rack with Writing Implements particularly revelatory, a seventeenth century Dutch work with a flatness and painterly self-awareness that to me seemed to presage cubism and Magritte (respectively). It also brought to mind this amazing sequence from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker.
Another work that caught my eye was Jean Hélion’s Composition in Color (1934), evoking as it does the kinds of mobile structures I mentioned above. And speaking of Calder, there’s a great one near the entrance of the SDMA, which I took as an opportunity for a photo op.
I also really dug the Rubén Ortiz-Torres show, the big From El Greco to Dalí exhibition (where I made the happy acquaintance of Spanish Impressionist Joaquín Sorolla), and the work of Gustav Stickley, whose furniture exhibition provoked the question addressed by this year’s Summer Salon Series: “What does a city need?”
In between rehearsals, Alexander was my tireless tour guide to San Diego’s busy arts scene. We checked out Double Break, a new art gallery and shop, not far from Balboa Park. I also got to meet super friendly and passionate Jfre from Disclosed Unlocation (we enjoyed a long, whiskey-fueled rap, together with my friend Ellen, closing down the charming dive bar Nunu’s following my performance), David from Agit Prop, and the busy folks at SD Space 4 Art (a live/work space where we got to check out a dance rehearsal in progress). There’s a lot of great energy in San Diego’s arts community, and it felt fantastic to be part of it, if only for one fleeting week. And everyone with whom I spoke was full of praise for the enthusiasm and imagination that Alexander brings to the scene, through the Summer Salon Series as well as his other diverse efforts. I heartily join my voice to the throng!
I also popped in (on Alexander’s recommendation) to the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art’s aptly titled Phenomenal show, featuring works exploring light and perception by James Turrell, Robert Irwin, Craig Kauffman, Mary Corse, and Larry Bell. And I was totally floored by Jennifer Steinkamp’s absolutely jaw-droppingly wondrous Madame Curie, a huge, seven-channel algorithmic (pre-rendered) video installation, commissioned by MCASD specifically for their space, a tour de force, impeccably executed. I dig it for its formal beauty, the layering of the digital branches and their gentle algorithmic swaying, the fixed perspective that allows for the evocation of a larger virtual space, the sheer scale of the thing, all in addition to the sly and ominous allusion to Marie Curie’s research into radiation. Digital video done right!
To round out my visit, I made my first visit to the San Diego Zoo since I was quite young. Having been on safari numerous times on visits to my parents in Kenya, I couldn’t muster much enthusiasm for large animals in contained spaces, but I really enjoyed the aviaries, and kept thinking of Messiaen notating birdsong. I also really enjoyed the lemurs.
While I was in town, it was great to meet up with my high school pal Ellen, who I met at show choir camp near Estes Park, CO, in the summer of 1991. For the ten or so people in the world who have my Titled Untitled cassette from 1993, the song “Missing Ellen” was written for her (read more about such juvenilia here). We seem to meet up every five years or so like clockwork; the previous visit had been in San Francisco during the Game Developers Conference in 2003 or so, until we met for dinner in Boston last month, and suddenly three weeks later our paths crossed again in San Diego! I’m grateful to her for showing me around Seaport Village and Old Town and generously driving me to/from the airport.
The fantastic last day of my visit ended with a visit to the house of a friend of Alexander’s on Mission Beach, frisbee on the sand, a swim in the chilly Pacific Ocean at dusk, a roller coaster ride, a burrito, and the fireworks from Sea World over Mission Bay, followed up by a bonus second dinner of Vietnamese food. Can’t wait to go back!
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A big thank you to Alexander, Brittany, Greg, and everyone else at the museum for their help and support with this project. Also a big shout out to Ferino’s Music for repairing my accordion, severely damaged in transit, in time for the gig. If US Airways ever assures you that their Gate Valet service is safe for musical instruments, don’t you believe them!
As previously posted, I had the pleasure of doing some shows with my friend Yan Jun 颜峻 from Beijing recently. As I was digging up some links to introduce him to Boston area friends, I found this clip of a performance we did, together with Beijing-based Bruce Gremo, at the 2008 Shanghai eArts Festival (shot by Amsterdam-based artist Emile Zile, who I met after the concert; read his account here). We performed at the gracious invitation of Defne Ayas and Davide Quadrio of Arthub Asia, who curated the Final Cut section of the eArts Festival, which transpired in and around Xujiahui Park in Shanghai and also featured performances by B6, Aaajiao, Feng Mengbo 冯梦波, Dead J, Alizia Borsari, and Elliott Sharp, among others (Elliott Sharp is featured in the second half of this clip).
Here we’re performing a video score by Christian Marclay entitled Screen Play, which consists of a bunch of black and white footage from old movies, mostly evocative of sound in some way (telephones, slamming doors, ocean waves, dancers, phonograph records, etc.), overlaid with simple, abstract shapes in bright colors. The piece is about half an hour long. There are no clear indications how the score should be interpreted; rather, it serves as an inspiration, a framework for improvisation.
As I watch this clip now, my first reaction is, “Wow, it worked!” It’s become something of an established practice to do these kinds of live, improvised accompaniments to new video or old films, but in my observation, there’s one problem inherent in the format: synchronization. No matter how skilled the performer, it takes a certain amount of time to register changes in the video and interpret them as sound. So in preparing for this performance, I specifically set myself the task of finding a solution, and reviewing our work two and a half years later, I’m pretty pleased with the results.
Synchronization requires anticipation. This was one of my primary lessons when I studied conducting back at St. Olaf. In 4/4 time, if you want the orchestra to come in loud on the one, you need to make a big gesture on four of the previous measure; you need to stay a beat ahead. In traditional music notation, sound is represented on a grid in which the x axis is time and the y axis is pitch, so it’s easy to peek ahead on the timeline. Or in waveform representations, x is time and y is amplitude. But a video, unlike a graphic representation of sound on a page, is a time-based medium, and x and y can’t help you; time is time! There’s no way to look ahead and prepare for what’s coming next.
To address this issue, I took a tip from some of my favorite videogames, Frequency, Amplitude, Guitar Hero, and Rock Band, developed by Harmonix Music Systems (just up the road here in Cambridge, MA, in fact; I just gave a talk there last month). In these games, as I imagine anyone reading this is already well aware, notes are represented by little colored dots coming towards you on the screen, and when they get to a certain point towards the bottom of the screen, you hit a button on your controller to sound the note. Notes are coming at you on a timeline, so it’s easy to look ahead and prepare for new notes to come, just like in traditional sheet music. This is a true video score.
To approximate this kind of prescience in Christian Marclay’s piece, I wrote a Jitter patch (the first time I used Jitter for a project, in fact) that plays back the movie in 4 separate windows, each window offset by one second. So I was able to see every event in the film coming from three seconds away and count down to activation: 3-2-1-play!
The window in my Jitter patch that displays the largest image (the actual current time) also doubled as my control surface for generating sound. To play along with the video, I was literally drawing on it with my mouse. The timbres I was playing employed very simple synthesis techniques, lots of bright cross modulation, and a bit of granular synthesis. The idea was that my buzzy tones would correspond to the bright, abstract graphics in the score, whereas Bruce (performing on his amazing homemade digital flute controller, the Cilia) would evoke the representational black and white clips, and Yan Jun (working with lo-fi electronics and voice) was more of a moody glue, bridging the two worlds.
I’m a big fan of Christian Marclay. His solo show at the Seattle Art Museum in 2004 is one of the best exhibitions I’ve ever seen, a fecund amalgamation of wit, inventiveness, historical awareness. He represents the full range of what a sound artist can be. He makes sound, of course, in performances, recordings, and installations. But he also makes silent pieces about sound, or about the ephemera surrounding contemporary sound production, and he also makes video pieces that suggest the contours of sound in another medium.
This playfulness is evident in Screen Play in the choice of images, their clever editing, and their relationship to the abstract graphics. He’s clearly toying with different ideas of sonic representation in the way these graphics are deployed, at times stretching five lines across the screen to evoke a music staff, at times drawing a waveform as on an oscilloscope, at times merging into the underlying scene (as when a bright yellow ball becomes attached to a man’s spoon as he’s slurping soup).
I realize that for Christian Marclay, this synchronization issue is probably not a problem at all. Screen Play was conceived for the kind of freely improvising musician exemplified by downtown New Yorkers like Elliott Sharp. For a certain type of resourceful performer, the video is a way to nudge the music along, to create an overall contour and form that may not have otherwise emerged, and which provides the potential for greater large scale contrast and recurrence than an unmediated free improv jam. It’s kind of like a time-based version of a graphic score, such as Earle Brown’s December 1952, Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise, or Christian Wolff’s Edges.
However, there are a few sudden transitions in Screen Play, in particular a sequence that alternates a slamming door with a full screen of saturated color, that strike me as contrary to this ethos. That bit, and a few others like it, seem to call out for big contrasts and tight synchronization, and I think at these moments one could legitimately criticize the score for setting up an expectation that the performer cannot fulfill. But I’m happy to report that, by applying a simple technique from videogame design, we nonetheless nailed it.
Using my Jitter patch to perform this score actually felt a lot like playing a videogame. It gets at what I consider to be the heart of gaming: to develop a skill and apply it to new challenges. This aspect of gaming is very much like performing music; from a certain point of view, any musical performance can be considered a game. I’d estimate that this modified approach to performing Screen Play lies somewhere near the midpoint between downtown New York free improvisation and Guitar Hero, and I think there’s a lot more interesting work to be done along this continuum.
Thanks to Defne Ayas and Mathieu Borysevicz, I think, for the pics. And thanks to Arthub Asia for the invitation to participate!
I was so pleased to have a good friend from China, the Beijing-based sound artist Yan Jun 颜峻, visiting us in Boston for a few days last week. He had stayed with me before in Shanghai, and I think he’s about the sweetest houseguest I’ve ever had. He’s in the US for a few months doing a residency in New York and a bunch of other shows across the nation, and he had a few days to pop up to Boston to perform with me at Outpost 186 (part of the Living Room Music series organized by saxophonist Michael Dobiel) and Whitehaus Family Record. Some documentation is up on Flickr.
You can check out Yan Jun’s busy concert itinerary on his blog. He recently played a bunch of shows in the Bay Area with the likes of Fred Frith (they had previously played together at the Sally Can’t Dance festival at Beijing’s D-22 last year) and Bob Ostertag. Next month he heads to Illinois and Ohio, where he’ll be joined two other veteran experimental Chinese artists on select dates. Li Jianhong 李剑鸿 is the organizer of the 2Pi Festival in Hangzhou, which I played in 2006 (and I am always happy to draw attention to the arduous translation I did of his account of his 2006 Japan tour). Wang Fan 王凡, one of Chinese underground experimental music’s earliest pioneers, was part of the Fuzhou leg of the Mini Midi Festival in which I also participated last May.
Afterall recently published this interview with Yan Jun, describing him as “the invisible glue holding together the Chinese experimental music scene,” and I’d say that’s pretty apt. In addition to his own performing, he’s an active organizer of events (at venues including UCCA, D-22, the long-running Waterland Kwanyin weekly event at 2 Kolegas, and the Mini Midi experimental stage of Beijing’s sprawling annual Midi Festival) and publisher of CD’s (Waterland Kwanyin, Subjam). He’s also an accomplished writer, with several books of poetry and a fair amount of criticism to his credit. He used to write about experimental music for Rolling Stone in China; a long time ago, to help me with my Chinese study, I set myself the task of translating his review of a new Ronez CD, and I developed a firsthand appreciation for his dense and literary style. (My post also includes my brief history of Rolling Stone magazine in China, if you’re curious.)
These days he often plays with feedback in his live sets, pointing a shotgun mic at small speakers with objects placed on them, running the signal through an array of stompboxes. I’ve also seen him incorporate spoken word, field recordings, and found objects into his performances and recordings. He’s done a bunch of installation work, too, including a piece called Wormhole Trip at The Shop in Beijing about a year ago (discussed in this Wire article), which involved contact micing all the pipes and ventilation in the space, with rich, resonant results. While he was in Boston, he gave me some of his new music, including a beautiful group recording called Big Can 大罐 made in a huge, abandoned cistern in Zhujiajiao (just outside of Shanghai), Deep Listening Band style, featuring Yan Jun, Hong Qile 洪启乐, Otomo Yoshihide 大友良英, Sachiko M, Yang Ge 杨戈, Xiao Qiang 小强 (Yang Ge’s wife), GOGOJ, Zhao Junyuan 照骏园 and others.
I think I first met Yan Jun at the 2Pi Festival in 2005, the same time I met Marqido (now of 10), Li Jianhong, and my good pal Yang Ge, among others. I don’t actually remember if Yan Jun performed that year, but I do remember that when we all went out to dinner afterwards, he was the natural leader, ordering food for two tables (note that ordering food for a large group of people is as refined an art form in China as calligraphy), and providing my first opportunity to taste warm Chinese yellow wine with ginger slices. As I recall, the first time we ever performed together was in early 2008, when we were both attending a NOIShanghai show at the now defunct Live Bar in Shanghai. Organizer Junky (of Torturing Nurse) asked if we wanted to do something, so we responded with an impromptu vocal duet, partially documented below. Since then we’ve collaborated on a performance of Christian Marclay’s Screen Play at the Shanghai eArts Festival, and Yan Jun invited me to join in the 2010 Mini Midi Festival tour he organized in Shanghai, Zhujiajiao, and around Fujian province.
Both shows last week were musically successful and a lot of fun, with good audience turnouts to boot. At Outpost we set up a 4 channel system so that I could present Lukou 路口 and the concert debut of the audio component of my Self-Portrait installation. To keep people on their toes, I also did two Jay Chou 周杰伦 songs, with Michael Dobiel joining in on saxophone. Yan Jun and I also reprised our vocal improv duet, which has become a staple of ours whenever we do a show together.
Veteran Boston area performer Vic Rawlings (cello and electronics) joined us for the Whitehaus show, and his duo set with Yan Jun was the week’s highlight for me, a perfect combination, subtle, austere, serene. Whitehaus resident Atom opened with four miniatures involving spinning jar lids, harmonica, coins, and bowed metal. I presented Kaleidoscope Music, probably the best rendition I’ve ever done live; wish I had recorded it! The original installation version uses a live microphone feed, but I generally find that problematic in live performance due to the risk of feedback, so here (as at Opensound last month) my solution has been to record some sounds from around the venue prior to the show and use that as the basis for my real-time filtering. In this case I captured some pre-show chatter about Stockhausen’s late work, and my set ended with my voice pronouncing the word “awesome” in sextuplicate.
It was also wonderful spending time with Yan Jun between gigs. I’ve barely been in Somerville four months now, and this was my first chance to play tour guide in my new environs. We checked out the Olafur Eliasson show going up at Harvard GSD (where Jutta’s working on her master’s; I’m not sure if I’ve made this clear in previous posts) and browsed various Harvard Square book and CD shops (I restrained myself from making any purchases, but Yan Jun picked up Ligeti’s string quartets, part of that Sony Classical series). I took him to see John Luther Adams’s Veils and Vesper sound installation at Harvard’s Arts @ Garden 29, the fantastic Stan Vanderbeek show at the MIT Media Lab (he picked up Nic Collins and John Cage books at the MIT Press bookstore), and then we hopped across the river to the ICA (unfortunately the fantastic Mark Bradford show had just closed, but there was enough of their collection on display, plus Gabriel Kuri, to keep our attention, not to mention the fine Diller Scofidio + Renfro building itself, on a fine, cusp of spring day). For our hardcore sonic diversion one evening we checked out one of the fine, free NEC concerts, a program of Britten, Nielsen, and Sibelius. I cooked him burritos and Brussels sprouts and omelets. But mostly it was just good to catch up, to hear what our friends are up to, to kick the tires on my Chinese, and to see a familiar face from my former home of six years. Who knows where, but I hope our paths cross again soon!
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
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!
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?
It’s my largest installation to date, and to a greater extent than any previous piece, it relies on a large space for its full effect, so the experience of watching a small, single channel video can’t describe the impact of the piece on-site. When you’re there in the very reverberant room, you’re enveloped by resonant sound. The screens are spaced out such that you can’t easily take them all in at once. You have to kind of unhinge your eyes a bit, so that you’re not looking at the image on any particular screen so much as the relationships and changes across screens; this multiplicity is an integral aspect of the piece. In addition to the technical breakthroughs (at least for me), which included a real-time color correction system and a scheme for networked troubleshooting and balancing, this piece marks a milestone in my use of video as a sculptural element in a larger composition, rather than serving as the totality of the canvas itself.
Most of my pieces are of an experimental nature (“What is the nature of an experimental action? It is simply an action the outcome of which is not foreseen.” –John Cage), which means they necessarily evolve quite a bit from original idea to final outcome. What’s striking to me about this piece is how close it turned out to my original conception, below.
In the process of escorting the piece from concept to final installation, some additional ideas and associations emerged. One is the format of the piece, originally intended to evoke the banks of departure monitors at an airport, but which of course also evokes a bank of security monitors, all somewhat unsettlingly trained on the same subject. Feeling the piece in its final form, I was really struck at how much it really creates a portal to another space, like there’s a magical wormhole connecting southern Suzhou and suburban St. Paul. A visiting artist friend also pointed out that the tree branches standing in stark silhouette cannot help but evoke traditional Chinese ink painting in a city with a history like Suzhou’s, where the many gardens are full of literati in training, sketching away.
The exhibition’s opening event went great. Basically, I invited all the musicians I wanted to hear one last time before leaving the country (Yao Dajuin 姚大钧 performing his rich, slowly cresting Dream Reverberations; Wang Changcun 王长存, with a masterful set of algorithmic counterpoint; and Xu Cheng 徐程, exploring modulating oscillators), and they all played exceptional sets. The same day, there was an opening at the I. M. Pei-designed Suzhou Museum of works on loan from the San Diego Museum of Art (a fine show I had a chance to check out a few days later; John Sennhauser’s Syncrophormic #18-Horizontal Duo blew me away!), but the museum chairman Chen Hanxing 陈翰星 said that the turnout at our show was better!
It’s possible that I will look back on this time in Suzhou as some of the happiest days of my life. For years I’d been longing for just the kind of hermetic retreat this residency afforded me, to be isolated in an environment where I could focus on work and study. In addition to putting this show together and constructing my Self-Portrait installation, I worked on songs for my upcoming CD release Shanghai Travelogue (next step: taking the stems to my pal Mike’s place near Seattle in early 2011 to mix!), getting caught up on Chinese study (now I’m just shy of 3000 characters), and other miscellaneous writing, reading, composing (sketches for at least two future pieces), and documentation. It was a productive, peaceful, and idyllic time; if anything, I wish I could have taken better advantage of the situation, without having to pop into Shanghai so often or taking most of the month of August to tour Germany.
Here’s a very informal tour of the museum and my exhibition that I recorded in the fleeting moments before I left Suzhou:
My friend Maya Kramer was the first foreign artist to do a residency at True Color (and I am in awe of her fortitude; she came in cold from the US, first time in China, not speaking a lick of Chinese, immediately sequestered to the outskirts of Suzhou, and totally thrived). She warned me that it would be lonely sometimes, but I remember several weekend evenings realizing that I was the only person in this huge building, and feeling nothing but contentment in my rooftop retreat. The only kink was when, about halfway through my residency, the cook who had been providing me with 3 square (if somewhat homogenous) meals/day got fired, and from that point on foraging for food became a challenge in this remote location; for the last 3 months of my residency, I subsisted on bananas, mooncakes (the Chinese equivalent of fruitcake, very solid food), and green tea.
The museum’s commitment to art is serious. The previous big group show last summer at the museum was vast, and really good. I don’t know how many people saw it, but almost certainly fewer than should have. The show was called “中国性 Nature of China: Contemporary Art Documenta.” Maybe it’s a little goofy to review a show that’s already been taken down, but I thought I’d go ahead and post my notes from that exhibition, quick blurbs about artists whose work I dug, or who at least provoked me in some way.
王岩 Wang Yan
Big, polluted, industrial landscapes
Dark and Kieferesque
施慧 Shi Hui
Big papier-mâché (or some such technique) stools/drums
Nice environmental installation, with a dialog between some drums arranged haphazardly on the ground and others suspended from the ceiling
马晗 Ma Han
Went to construction sites and ground sand from various kinds of rubble
Affixed this sand to canvas to make earth-hued, Barnett Newman-style horizontal zips, nice texture
Sand was also lined up in jars, perhaps overly documented with photographs, but gets the idea across
Same artist also did a huge flock of starched black and white shirts hanging from the ceiling
Also did these weird candied bonsai trees, dripping, lumpy texture, lit from beneath, all made out of tiny people and rice
贺丹 He Dan
Several large paintings, depicting throngs of people in realistic detail, contrasting the stark formal composition of the canvases
Big plane was my favorite, looming ominously and menacingly over the crowd, an alienating display of power and technology
Another painting of crowds carrying red flags was less effective, perhaps a bit jingoistic? Or maybe that was the point
马良 Ma Liang
B&W photographs of miniature figures in fantastical pastoral scenes, evoking historical painting
Incorporating dead fish and chicken, surreal, decay
Chinese calligraphy inscriptions
王强 Wang Qiang
Hollow, woven, suspended clouds, nice effect
Not sure what these were made out of, but some super light material that traced the clouds’ outline
I had a nice view of this piece through the skylight from my quarters upstairs
梁绍基 Liang Shaoji
听蚕 Listening to the Silk Worms
A big dark room that housed several incubators in which silk worms lived their life cycles
Additional pillows with headphones to listen to them, and some videos near the roof, as I recall
Great sound and smell, sad they tossed it after a few days
郑达 Zheng Da
OK, this was the one piece I hated; if you’re going to do a piece that evokes videogames in any sense and fails to achieve excellence, prepare to incur my wrath!
Everything about this was poor
Concept was dumb and blunt: you run around a virtual world with your avatar and click on the things you “want” (material goods, big assumptions), and they explode
Explosions only make sound part of the time, and the sounds are terrible
Explosions are ugly, particles don’t disappear, just hang in space
No life in environment, just some easy flowing water
There’s no game here, it just arbitrarily ends after a while
Bad ergonomics/interface (mouse on a low table in the dark, makes your wrist hurt after a minute)
Bad music loop
王剑 Wang Jian
欲象 Phenomenon of Desire
Abstracted grayscale paintings, bodily forms, ephemeral, evocative
I’m told this guy used to have my studio!
幸鑫 Xing Xin
吾与浮冰 Meditation on Floating Ice
Performance event, commenting on carbon emissions, among other things
Head to a glacier at the head of the Yangtze River near Tibet
Collect a piece of ice and take it to the East China Sea to melt
“We hope the audience could try to understand such boring guys like us!”
Car plate issue (had to bypass Shanghai, one of the many ridiculous restrictions on Shanghai life imposed by the Expo)
Accompanying video of him floating down the Yangtze on a bed is cool, though!
More at http://blog.artintern.net/xingxin
杨福东 Yang Fudong
Videos of guys in suits leading donkeys through canyons
Nice, elegiac, typical Yang Fudong
BTW, like me, Yang Fudong also used to work for Ubisoft Shanghai!
Huge sculptures outside
隋建国 Sui Jianguo’s big suspended metal block
Also a car with a rock garden in its hood; didn’t see who that was by
金锋 Jin Feng
Printed scrolls of etched graffiti
Same guy I exhibited with at OV Gallery’s “Make Over” show earlier this year!
刘建华 Liu Jianhua’s large sheets of blank paper, slightly bent, that turn out to be porcelain upon closer inspection
These were super cool
孟涛 Meng Tao’s big canvas of peacocks are striking
He hired some master silk embroiderers to reproduce his painting and suspended them side by side, very nice presentation, stretched out on a loom
Performative documentation unnecessary, as is the fact that he did the original painting in one 24 hour session
(like that Icelandic guy at the Venice biennale…when did painting become performance? Why can’t it just be a practice or a discipline? Are painters feeling so marginalized that they feel they must subject themselves to this awkward artistic rebranding?)
汪建伟 Wang Jianwei
Not sure about his big video: 时间•剧场•展览
This was the weird historical thing, period costumes, bunch of scenes, no dialog, odd nonsequiturs very theatrical (no real set, just presented in a big, dark, black box type space)
But it was projected on a heck of a projector, which I was happy to later use for my Transportation video!
曾晓峰 Zeng Xiaofeng
Creepy dark portraits, faces of animals, weird pseudo-scientific scribbles and props
Composer and digital media artist Ben Houge presents the culmination of his six-month residency at Suzhou’s True Color Museum with a solo show entitled “The Point of Departure.” The focal point of this exhibition is a new, real-time 18-channel video installation entitled Self-Portrait, Dusk, at the Point of Departure, an ambient work that applies concepts from videogame design and granular synthesis to video, to make a poignant moment last forever. Also included in the show are selected videos and digital prints providing a survey of Ben’s visual output over the past two years.
An afternoon-long digital music festival will celebrate the opening of the exhibition on Saturday, November 6, from 1pm until 7pm. The lineup includes performances by Hangzhou-based digital artists Yao Dajuin 姚大钧 and Wang Changcun 王长存, as well as Shanghai’s Xu Cheng 徐程 (of Torturing Nurse). Ben’s live performances are known to vary widely in style, and he will celebrate this diversity by performing three different sets of music: an ambient electronic set, a synth-pop set of original songs, and an acoustic set of favorite tunes by artists including John Cage and Jay Chou 周杰伦.
Long active in new music circles in China and the US, Ben Houge has been increasingly visible in galleries in recent years, with work exhibited at Art+Shanghai Gallery, OV Gallery, and [the studio] in Shanghai, as well as at the Today Art Museum in Beijing. His video Shanghai Traces, originally exhibited at OV Gallery’s Make Over show last spring, was shortlisted for the Guggenheim’s YouTube Play Biennial and has recently been acquired for permanent installation at Shanghai’s Glamour Bar. Ben has performed around eastern China and at all of Shanghai’s primary live music venues, as well as at the Shanghai eArts Festival, the Mini Midi Festival, Hangzhou’s 2Pi Festival, the Zendai Museum of Modern Art, the Shanghai Conservatory, the South River Art Center, and several NOIShanghai events. This summer he toured Germany with trumpet player Justin Sebastian. Prior to embarking on a full-time career as an artist, Ben spent twelve years designing audio for videogames, most recently serving as audio director of Tom Clancy’s EndWar (Xbox 360/PS3) at Ubisoft Shanghai. The concepts of non-linear, real-time, algorithmic and procedural structure he honed as a videogame developer serve as the point of departure for his more recent work in a broader cultural arena. Much more information about Ben is on his website: http://www.benhouge.com.
This exhibition and music festival mark Ben’s final public appearances in Shanghai for the immediate future, as he relocates to the USA for much of 2011. The artist would also like point out that a train from Shanghai to Suzhou takes less than half an hour these days, and a round trip ticket is less than 100 RMB. So don’t miss this unique opportunity to experience the various facets of Ben Houge’s evolving oeuvre in one idyllic setting!
In an ancient city renowned for its cultural heritage, True Color Museum is Suzhou’s key destination for contemporary art. Founded by the intrepid music business entrepreneur Chen Hanxing 陈翰星 in 2008 as one of the leading privately owned art museums in China, True Color Museum has exhibited artwork by leading artists from China and around the world, most recently in the acclaimed “Nature of China: Contemporary Art Documenta” exhibition last summer and in Taiwan’s Hsiau Jungching 萧荣庆 solo show (ongoing through November 11). The beautiful museum compound, designed by Chen Hanxing, is a destination in itself, and the museum’s active artist residency program has nurtured the careers of many established and emerging artists. Additional information is available on the museum’s website: http://www.truecolormuseum.org/.
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.
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!
I’ve been asked to perform at a “Non-academic Style Electroacoustic Music” concert at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music as part of The 2009 Shanghai International Electroacoustic Music Week. The concert’s being put together by Zhao Junyuan 昭骏园, also featuring Wang Changcun 王长存, Torturing Nurse, Mai Mai, and Junyuan’s band Power Wood Quality 木电质. Our concert occurs on the afternoon of October 21 from 2pm-5pm (discussion included) in the Conservatory’s Reporting Hall, 20 Fenyang Lu (near Fuxing Lu). I plan to present a concert version of Kaleidoscope Music.
The festival runs October 19-23 (plus workshops extending on either side), and the whole week should be fun. There’s lots of other good stuff on the program, including another visit to Shanghai from Neil Rolnick, and a performance by Bang on a Can All-Stars of works by Conlon Nancarrow, Steve Reich, Julia Wolfe, Tan Dun 谭盾, and others. Check out the complete schedule.
I’m looking forward to seeing Neil Rolnick again. He’s a computer music pioneer, and I remember listening to his A Robert Johnson Sampler as an undergrad at St. Olaf in the mid-90’s. He was in China last year for a show at the Central Conservatory in Beijing, and he stopped by Shanghai to play at a NOIShanghai event at Live Bar. We had a fascinating chat over Hunan food; he’s got interesting stories about everyone in music. (You can download A Robert Johnson Sampler and other works on his music page.)
I got to say, I’ve criticized the Shanghai Conservatory in the past for being insular and not taking a leading role in the city’s cultural life, but I have to publicly eat my words. It’s a really great gesture for them to invite other parts of Shanghai’s active new music community to come participate in this event. Good on ya, Shanghai Conservatory!
In preparation for the concert, I was asked to respond to the following questions.
1. your definition to electronic music?
I don’t know if electronic music has a useful definition anymore. Everything we listen to now is electronic. Most music is produced on a computer, even if it starts off as an acoustic recording. And almost all music we listen to is coming from an electronic device, a CD player, an iPod, a television, etc. Even most acoustic performances, other than strictly traditional classical performances, are usually amplified, with sound coming from speakers that are plugged in.
2. your opinion on “electronic music and noise; sound equipment, multimedia, new media”?
Probably the most worthless of those terms is “new media.” To me that just means, “We’ll think of a better term for this later.” All media was new at some point. Even so, I find myself using this term as an umbrella term out of convenience sometimes, to indicate recent art involving electricity that doesn’t fall into a clearer category.
“Noise” isn’t very useful either. The most useful definition of noise is something unpredictable, a series in which there’s no relationship between what’s happening now and what’s come before. In a computer, a stream of random numbers sent to the sound card is a literal definition of white noise. “Noise” has come to mean something harsh and anarchic and aggressive, but in fact, noise is a component of almost all sound. The lulling sound of waves on the shore or wind in the trees is noise, but it doesn’t come across as angry; it’s just nature.
I usually use “digital art” to describe my work, since a lot of it can only be done in the digital domain, using a computer. But I suppose if you really wanted, you could find analog ways to do a lot of what I’m doing.
3. please briefly describe the future of electronic music
Coming from a background in videogames, I fervently believe that interactivity and real-time algorithmic procedures are going to play an increasing role in how we experience music. People like me have been talking about this for a long time, but I don’t think it’s a failed vision of utopia; it’s just that there’s a lot of work left to do. On one hand, it’s the future of the CD, not as a physical medium, but a digital format. It’s also the proliferation of sound installation-like artworks in virtual spaces. Some things will be interactive, some things will non-interactive but ever-changing, and some things will continue to be linear experiences; it depends on what’s right for the idea the artist is trying to convey. We need to devise new formats and new experiences for these formats, rather than to try to retrofit existing, linear music into non-linear formats.
I’d like to think multi-channel sound will play a prominent role in the future of music, but I’m somewhat less optimistic on this front, given that most people can’t properly set up a 5.1 system in their living rooms. But we can hope. And of course, there needs to be compelling content authored for multi-channel formats to encourage people to configure their systems properly. When we finally get to the point where we can beam music directly into peoples’ brains, then this problem will finally go away.
4. please recommend a electronic music work, and your comment on it?
A piece I’ve been talking about a lot lately is Brian Eno’s 77 Million Paintings (2006). It comes very close to the idea of a virtual, portable audiovisual installation. It’s not a CD or DVD, but a program you install on your computer, and every time you run it, it generates a new version of the piece; hence the 77 million paintings of the title. The audio and visual components are not synthesized, but prepared in advance, which gives them a rough, natural, hand-manipulated quality. But the juxtapositions are determined in real-time by the program, so that you never see and hear the same thing twice. The images change very slowly, to the point that you’re not sure if the images are changing or if your eyes are simply adjusting to the color. I think that’s part of the genius of Brian Eno, a quality shared by his iPhone application Bloom, operating on the edge of perception.
I think the piece is almost perfect, but it’s still got a problem regarding the forum in which it is appreciated. Since you’ve got to install the program on your computer, you’re probably experiencing it on a computer monitor, sitting in an office chair, with your face several inches from the screen, alone, listening to the sound on poor quality computer monitors. It lacks a sense of space. The ideal forum for a piece like this is a living room. If the program could be run on a game console such as an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3, you could watch it on your HDTV, listen to it in 5.1 on high quality speakers, while lounging on your couch with friends. The game console is the closest thing we have to a distribution platform for sound installations.
5. what’s the foundation to learn electronic music? is it necessary to learn classic music first?
If classical music is well taught, there is no difference. Music is sound organized in time. Digital sound synthesis is music theory. Composers have always tried to organize sound with the tools at their disposal. In order to create more sophisticated structures, systems were created, rules were established. Rules and systems must serve the music. Common Practice Era harmony is one possible outcome of this line of thinking, but there are others, and thinking evolves over time. In music, as with the other arts, we are in a continual conversation with history, as artists have always been, and a responsible artist questions what is received from history before putting it to use.
I have very little patience for arguments that there’s some inherent difference between music and sound. This usually stems from some poor or incomplete musical training; people think that if something can’t be played on a piano or written on a five-line staff, it can’t be music.
6. please talk about electronic, compute, hearing, technology and perception
One observation I’d make is that all music is indeterminate in some regard (and no music is indeterminate in every regard). A group of musicians performing a piece of acoustic music will play it slightly differently each time, with subtle inconsistencies in phrasing, volume, articulation, intonation, etc. In fact, these inconsistencies are often desirable, resulting in what we call “warmth” or “richness” in a performance. Even purely electronic pieces vary from performance to performance, depending on the playback equipment, the acoustical environment, and the audience’s position in it. And even if every other parameter could be fixed, the listener’s psychological state would be different at each listening, if for no other reason than the very fact of having heard the piece one more time.
Having acknowledged this, I find it useful to explore indeterminacy as an overt parameter of my music, to write music that encompasses all possible permutations, and to try to quantify what these permutations might mean.
7. please let us know your personal understanding of electronic music.
I’m interested in using electronics exploring non-linear structures. If you define a structure that has some variability built into it, a computer is the most efficient tool to quickly examine and evaluate all possible permutations of that structure. I think this is a unique aspect of modern existence, with which everyone must grapple, consciously or not. So much of what we encounter everyday is non-linear, web pages for example, and mediated by technology. The sheer volume of information coming at us is so much greater than any previous generation has encountered, and we need tools to navigate it. Our lives have become tangled up in technology, which creates new challenges, but in understanding technology we can find new perspectives on the world around us.