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!

Mobile 4

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.

Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber
Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber

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.


* * * * *

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.

Mobile 4 Setup

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.

More Mobile 4 Setup

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.


* * * * *

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.

Ben and the other Alexander

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!

Jennifer Steinkamp “Madame Curie” at MCASD from lemon verbena on Vimeo.

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!


* * * * *

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!

What US Airways Did to my Accordion

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!

Act Like You Got Some Sense

As many of you, my faithful readers and spambots, already know, I moved out of my Shanghai apartment last December, and since then I’ve been leading a nomadic existence as an international art hobo, first in the US, then in Kenya, back in Shanghai and Suzhou for a bit, and most recently in Germany. I originally expected that at the end of my sojourns I would ultimately find a new flat in Shanghai, and so I carefully packed away every duvet, cocktail shaker, and gaming console. Circumstances have since conspired, however, such that my next “permanent address” (this phrase always makes me giggle) will be in scenic Somerville, MA, USA, a place I’ve never visited, but about which I hear wonderful things. (No, I am not being deported, though I won’t let that stop me from relentlessly plugging my artwork that was confiscated by the Chinese government earlier this year.)

But in the immortal words of Big Boi, “Greyhound don’t float on water.” Experience has taught me that when you make a big move, you have your choice of three options for losing money: lose money by shipping your junk, lose money by storing your junk indefinitely (e.g., to date, the upwards of five grand for storing I don’t even remember what, some old Duran Duran records and a djembe, I think, in Seattle), or lose money by giving your junk away at a small fraction of what you paid for it. Dear friends and spambots, I have chosen the third option. To wit…

Ben Houge’s 35th Annual “New Year, New Address” Fire Sale

I am selling the following items at the following rock bottom prices. I’m attempting to sell things as bundles, to try to get rid of as much stuff as quickly as possible. Prices are negotiable, everything must go!

Oven: 500 RMB
Was over 1000 RMB new. I’d been holding this for some dufus who, two weeks after he told me he’d pick it up, called to say he didn’t want it after all. So if you’re one of the several other folks who inquired, feel free to inquire again; it’s still available! Relatively sizeable for a standalone, tabletop unit, big enough for roasting chickens and ducks (sequentially) or Beef Wellington, but doesn’t take up too much space, also handy for bruschetta, etc.

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

Box o’ DVD’s: 300 RMB
It’s a medium sized box, mostly full of DVD’s in absolutely no order. Over six years of Shanghai DVD hoarding has resulted in a substantial collection. The catch: it’s all or nothing; if you want ‘em, you gotta buy the whole box. I don’t know what all’s in there, but it skews a bit towards European and Chinese “art films.” That means you take the Antonioni and Bergman along with the Die Hard and Rambo. The Police Story pentalogy and Infernal Affairs trilogy are included, plus I think both Hulk films, House of Flying Daggers (x2, I think), Curse of the Golden Flower, you get the idea… All cinema, no TV series. Act now, and I’ll throw in Monty Python’s Flying Circus!

These DVD's could be yours!
These DVD

1000 Watt Step Down Voltage Converter (220V to 110V): 250 RMB
Bought this, works fine, except 1000 watts was insufficient for my vast array of US synthesizers and music gear!

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

TV Stand: 200 RMB
Sleek, small, but sturdy, glass and metal, supported a 50” TV (not included) for the past four years, ably and with aplomb. Two open shelves underneath used to house a big amp/receiver, an Xbox 360, an Xbox, a PS2, and a Game Cube (not included).

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

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

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

Two Big Black Tables: 100 RMB each
Before I met Jutta, I also tried my hand at furniture design: I had these custom made for my studio equipment (who knows when I’ll ever set that all up again, sigh) about five years ago, still in pretty good shape. Very simple design, very versatile, somewhat idiosyncratic design (long and narrow) and a little bit low, designed to be ergonomic for typing and/or playing a keyboard (i.e., elbows at 90 degrees, no awkward wrist bending).

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

Black, Wooden, Two-Drawer File Cabinet: 100 RMB
Also my original design. The drawers have runners along the inside, fits standard Ikea hanging folders. The ornate brass-ish handle on the lower drawer has come off, but that’s easily repaired!

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

White Hanging Drawer Thing: 120 RMB
This was Jutta’s, so you know it’s classy. It’s like got these suspended cloth drawer things, six of them, arranged vertically, about a meter and a half tall, lots of storage taking up relatively little floor space. On wheels! Kinda like this, but with six drawers instead of four, and already assembled!

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

PS2 + Xbox: 1200 RMB SOLD!
If you want only the Xbox, we can talk, but if you only want the PS2, sorry, chump, you gotta buy both! That’s the deal! Comes with 2 controllers for each and a handful of games (more for Xbox than PS2, including Crimson Skies, Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, and Jade Empire), and 2 Sing Star mics (for the PS2)! The PS2 has a rare and exquisite metallic light blue finish, and the Xbox is some kind of limited edition crystal something or other (i.e., clear case).

Two Squash Rackets and Balls: 200 RMB SOLD!
Nice ones, from Decathlon, barely used (like 3x), to my chagrin.

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

Johnson Amp: 50 RMB SOLD!
Small and super cheap, but perfect if you’re a beginner guitarist or maybe into chip bending.

Dish Bundle: 100 RMB SOLD!
Big plates, little plates, some bowls, mostly of Ikea provenance.

Glassware Bundle: 100 RMB SOLD!
Water glasses, some odd wine glasses, a bunch of martini glasses, some mugs, a cocktail shaker and strainer.

Cutlery Bundle: 100 RMB SOLD!
Two full sets of cutlery, in fact, including chopsticks and cutting boards and a handy little tray in which to store it all.

Toaster 50 RMB SOLD!
It is green.

Rice Cooker: 50 RMB SOLD!
It cooks rice. Might have two of these, actually.

And I would be a poor salesperson (or a much more successful artist than I am) if I neglected to remind you that I still have an ample supply of my own CD’s available for sale: Radiospace (40 RMB) and 3 Heart-Shaped Cookies (20 RMB), plus my new one, Chingachgook(s) (50 RMB, come on, I made them by hand!). Tell you what: if you buy something, I’ll give you 3 Heart-Shaped Cookies for free!

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

Please forward this list to friends!

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

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

Self-Portrait, Dusk, at the Point of Departure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A One-week Slice of Hong Kong Art Life

Circumstances conspired to land me in Hong Kong from September 28 through October 5, and I enjoyed a remarkably fun and eventful visit.

The night before I left Shanghai, I had dinner with Junky (from Torturing Nurse), Li Jianhong 李剑鸿, and Zbigniew Karkowski, who had just performed a very loud, very sparsely attended set at the 0093 rehearsal space a block from my apartment. Karkowski commented that in his often outspoken opinion, Hong Kong was overtaking mainland China as a hub for creativity activity, at least in the sonic arts. So it was a good time for me to go and make some assessments of my own.

My friend Nana Seo Eun-A had been encouraging me to come down to visit for a while. She works for Videotage, the 23-year-old Hong Kong-based new media center, but she always seems to be anywhere there’s cool stuff going on in Asian art. I met her in Beijing last April, when my and Chen Hangfeng’s 陈航峰 Kaleidoscope installation was up at the Today Art Museum (coinciding with the China International Gallery Exposition, just up the road), and she stopped by my workspace on a recent visit to Shanghai for the SH Contemporary. When I told her I might be swinging through Hong Kong, she encouraged me to extend my visit long enough to check out the beginning of the October Contemporary festival (October 2-31, 2009). Lots of other events were going on to coincide with the festival, too, so it was a great time to be in town. Nana has her finger on the pulse; she seems to know everyone and everything that’s going on in the arts, the result of a simple, sincere love for art, artists, and creativity that I truly admire.

Among her many welcoming gestures, when I sent an email to Nana asking about budget accommodation in Hong Kong, she wrote back almost immediately saying I had a reservation at ACO Air in Wan Chai (super centrally located on Hong Kong Island). ACO stands for Art and Culture Outreach, and their mission encompasses an affordable, short-term living space for visiting artists on the fourteenth floor of the Foo Tak Building (which also houses a number of arts organizations and artist studios, including those of Samson Young and João Vasco, about whom I will write more shortly), in addition to a wonderful bookstore and reading room on the first floor. As they would like it to be known, the operation of ACO 藝鴶 is largely supported by the Dawei Charitable Foundation Limited 達微慈善基金有限公司, and I would like to extend my heartiest thanks to them, and to their gracious manager Kobe, for supporting my arts investigation in Hong Kong; it was a fantastic place to stay, clean, central, with a nice view, and lots of opportunities to bump into other creative folks..

Monday

This was my second trip to Hong Kong; the first trip was exactly four years earlier, also during China’s national holiday. It felt familiar in a lot of regards. Getting from the airport to ACO was super convenient on the Airport Express and subway. Everywhere I looked, the obsession with cleanliness, especially in the swine flu era, was in full effect. Last time I visited, I was impressed with the orderliness of people queueing up to get on or off the subway; this time that impression was significantly less pronounced. Coming from ultraflat Shanghai, the vistas of mountain and ocean that would sneak up on me between buildings were a continual delight.

After Kobe got me settled in at ACO, I ventured out into the typhoon warning to meet up with Nana and her boyfriend Emmanuele (who goes by his old tagger name, Mine [pronounced Mee-nay]) for a fantastic vegetarian Indian dinner in Kowloon, at a little place called Branlo, I think. As I scribbled furious notes, the two of them gave me a very thorough itinerary of all the shows and galleries and openings and performances I was required to check out while I was in town.

Tuesday

Heading out on Tuesday, an old maxim was again validated; when looking for a restaurant, find the longest line and get in it! Fantastic barbecue pork with rice on Fleming, between Lockhart and Hennessy.

We had made plans for me to swing by Videotage on Tuesday afternoon, so I thought I’d stop by Osage Gallery, whose main branch is also on the Kowloon side, on the way there. When Nana told me about Nipan Oranniwesna’s City of Ghost installation, a sprawling city map rendered in baby powder, it didn’t sound like much, but when I walked into the space and caught sight of the work, I think I gasped audibly at the size, detail, and ephemerality of the undertaking. Also on view were a photo series called Hong Kong Intervenion by mainland artists Sun Yuan 孙原 and Peng Yu 彭禹 on the city’s large Filipino population, and Singaporean artist Cheo Chai-Hiang’s 蒋才雄 Story of Money installation, consisting of luxury suitcases containing Chinese characters in which the “bei 贝” radicals (etymologically indicating “money,” or literally, “cowry”) were replaced by actual cowries, a kind of clever comment on the deep roots of contemporary Chinese consumer culture.

In the elevator on the way down, I chatted with Wilson Kwan, who works for Osage, and handed him a Radiospace CD, which sparked a conversation about the gallery’s upcoming (last) intervention show (Oct 10-Nov 29), part of October Contemporary, featuring the work of Samson Young and Kingsley Ng, “two of Hong Kong’s emerging generation of tech-savvy multi-disciplinarians.” In addition to the gallery show, on the 17th Samson Young will be leading Urban Palimpsest: A Twilight Sound-Walk, a tour through the gallery’s Kwun Tong neighborhood, augmented by portable electronics. Sounds super cool; wish I was in town for that.

From Osage, I proceeded to get hopelessly lost in Kowloon. I thought I’d be able to find my way to Videotage using public transportation, too vain a world traveler to hail a cab. First I went two stops on the subway before I got Nana’s message that the only way to get there was a to take a bus, then it took another 45 minutes to find the right bus stop, then I went the wrong way on the bus (all the way to the terminus), until someone motioned for me to get on another bus, which randomly turned off its engine at another bus stop, at which point I was motioned into another bus with a different number, which never stopped at the stop I was looking for…I eventually got out and hailed a cab anyway. Nana latter laughed when I told her where I’d been, saying I’d managed to completely traverse Kowloon from east to west.

Anyway, I finally found Videotage, nestled into the Cattle Depot Artist Village, alongside 1a Space, On and On Theater, and other arts organizations. They didn’t have an exhibit up at the moment, but I got a presentation on the history of Videotage from Nana and her colleague Hilda Chan. They’re preparing an upcoming show called 20/20, which pairs work by artists currently in their 20’s with artists who were working at Videotage when it was founded over 20 years ago. Nana’s also planning a big event called Night Light Graffiti for the closing of October Contemporary on October 31. And just three days ago, they hosted Zbigniew Karkowski, Dickson Dee, and Sin:Ned on their Staticizer Tour, which I’m sad I had to miss, as I was already back in Shanghai. I was impressed by their clever Videotage business cards, cut at different intervals from those at which they were printed, so each one is unique!

My getting lost put us a bit behind schedule, so Nana and I had to rush off back to Wan Chai for a very tasty Cantonese seafood dinner with Ellen Pau and Alvis Choi, colleagues from Videotage who are also involved in the upcoming Microwave Festival of new media art this November. We had a fascinating discussion comparing the Hong Kong and Shanghai art landscapes, and as we were talking about art apps for iPhones, the topic of granular synthesis came up, which is about as good an invitation as I can think of for me to present some of my work. I happened to have my laptop handy, so I pulled out the EZGranulator app I had developed in Max/MSP a while ago as a demo for colleagues at Ubisoft, and also showed a bunch of my giraffe images, which I think of as a kind of visual granular synthesis.

Wednesday

Wednesday morning I set out for the Hong Kong Arts Center, a quick walk from ACO. Nana had recommended the show at the Goethe Institut on the 14th floor, which documents with photographs, transcribed interviews, and architectural renderings the illegal, temporary shelters that have been built on the roofs of dilapidated buildings in some of Hong Kong’s poorer neighborhoods, one of which happens to be across the street from Videotage. It was an interesting show, and while there I poked my head into their library, a minor treasure trove of German culture. I took the opportunity to get acquainted with Stockhausen’s Zyklus for solo percussion (1959) and took in the view of the Victoria Harbor land reclamation project (which I have often used as a metaphor for how I’ve sought to structure my daily schedule). In reading about the composer, I noticed that Stockhausen also had a policy of providing all of his own equipment at shows to ensure quality, further reinforcing a principle I’ve learned from experience.

From there I went downstairs to the Pau Gallery (no relation to Ellen) on the 4th floor. The show Cities of Desire, ostensibly a dialog between artists working in Viennese and Hong Kong, struck me as a bit scruffy and haphazard (Artforum liked it better), but it provided a chance to hear some of Cedric Maridet’s beautiful ambisonic sound work, which folks had been telling me I needed to check out.

It had been raining off and on since my arrival in Hong Kong, but on Tuesday the floodgates were truly loosed. My original plan had been to check out a bunch of galleries Nana had recommended in the afternoon, but I was sopping after a mere dash to the nearest covered walkway from the Hong Kong Art Center. I spent some time watching the rain and traffic (which throughout my trip continuously brought to mind Tarkovsky’s Solaris; only after I got back did research reveal the driving scenes were shot in Tokyo, not Hong Kong), deciding whether to venture to the nearest subway stop or the nearest pub, and eventually decided to head back to the dry Goethe Institut library, where I checked out Wolfgang Rihm’s Die Hamletmaschine, a pretty wacky piece of music theater that is probably not best served by an audio recording, especially without an accompanying translation.

On top of the weather, my phone was out of wack, so I was unable to reach Nana, but I thought we had made plans to hear a performance at the Hong Kong Cultural Center (on the Kowloon side of the harbor) featuring Alok Leung, the sound artist/musician and Lona Records founder who’s long been a Facebook friend, but whom I’d never met in person, as part of a show called Architecture is Discourse with Music (I’m leaving out the gratuitous ellipses). So I made it through the rain to the ferry and caught the show, and only realized later that the plan had actually been to catch the same show the following night. The program featured three artists—KWC, Alok Leung, and Aenon Loo—in audiovisual laptop performances, followed by a Power Point presentation by mainland Chinese architect Liu Jiakun 刘家琨.

In fact, there was no discourse between architecture and music whatsoever. A generous reading of the laptop artists’ performances would suggest a sensitivity to the structural issues of architecture, and the videos contained images of architecture, but the architect himself made no mention of music, and in fact at no point did the musicians and architect even share the stage. Mr. Liu’s presentation was interesting for the most part, until he ended by showing a long, ridiculously self-aggrandizing video documentary of the memorial he designed and financed for Sichuan earthquake victim Hu Huishan 胡慧姗. I’m not interested in anyone who has to show a video of a bereft woman bowing down to him to reinforce his benevolence.

Afterwards I had a chance to chat very briefly with the musicians as they were packing up their stuff, but the talk had gone on quite long, and they understandably seemed to be in a bit of a hurry to leave.

And the Hong Kong Cultural Center has free government wi-fi! Thanks, government!

Thursday

So I thought that on Thursday I would head out early and try to catch some of the galleries that I missed the day before. Of course, I knew it was the Chinese National Holiday, but I figured that for galleries that would be a good day to catch people who were off work and about town (it seems Hong Kong only took the one day off, as opposed to the week or more in mainland China). So I took the subway to Sheung Wan, two stops down from where I was staying (so convenient!) and walked through the stalls of exotic Chinese medicinal ingredients to Art Hub Asia, where I had to present identification and sign in before being allowed up to the 11th floor to discover that they were indeed closed for the holiday. The same was true of Tang Contemporary downstairs and Parasite across the street and Amelia Johnson Contemporary and Art Statements down the road. I gave up before trying Gallery Exit; Aenon Loo had told me the night before he’d be there, but I assumed he had forgotten about the holiday. Turns out he probably was there after all, since he runs the place. Whoops!

At least the Man Mo 文武 Temple was open, just around the corner, so I popped in for a look, although even that felt a bit like a failure, as it is currently undergoing renovation.

So I gave up on galleries and set out for the ferry station, wandering down a stretch of the Mid-Levels escalator, which serves as a gathering point for the city’s Filipina population on holidays, a lively and convivial atmosphere (and the subject of Cedric Maridet’s sound installation Filipina Heterotopia that I had just seen at Pau Gallery the day before).

Once on the Kowloon side, I headed to HMV for a happy hour or two of CD shopping. It’s really hard to get new music in China. Most CD’s that get official release here are pop garbage, and you can only get local underground stuff at shows for the most part. In my flush Ubisoft days, I used to order a lot of CD’s from Amazon, but I can’t really justify the cost of that anymore. And I’m a lousy pirate. So, despite HMV’s abysmal classical/jazz collection (they share a room, along with country and easy listening), I seized the chance to pick up the new Jim O’Rourke CD, La Roux, the Beatles’ remastered Rubber Soul, Flaming Lips’ At War with the Mystics in 5.1 (since their 5.1 Yoshimi was so excellently mixed) and two old Pet Shop Boys albums (2 for 1 sale, and good reference for my recent synth-pop productions).

I was supposed to meet Nana at a housewarming party for the new Shanghai Street Artspace, but I was a bit early, so I walked from HMV north through Kowloon Park, and actually way farther than I needed to go on Shanghai Street. I stopped at a place called I Love Cake and bought mooncake molds and heart-shaped cookie cutters, then found a bar in a mall celebrating Belgian beer week with Kronenbourg on tap (let’s not quibble), where I could rest my weary feet and start making my way through the liner notes of my recent purchases.

At the appointed time, I headed back down to Shanghai Street Artspace. It wasn’t an exhibition, just an open house. As I understand it, there had been a call for people to submit proposals for the space, and the winners invited all the other applicants over to have a discussion about what they envisioned for the place as a community art hub. Gotta say, I didn’t get much out of it, as the discussion was in Cantonese, but one friendly guy named Jasper pulled me aside and filled me in. Things livened up a bit after Nana arrived, and some of us started playing ping pong. Later I spilled some kind of lychee gelatin on the purse of someone I later identified as Phoebe Wong from Asia Art Archive. Sorry again!

From there Nana took me by Kubrick Bookstore Café, an amazing store for books and DVD’s and film soundtracks, but I only had a quick chance to peek inside (and to inquire whether they had the soundtrack for L’Odeur de la papaya verte, and to strike out yet again), before heading out to dinner with some of Nana’s friends, including the artist Nadim Abbas, who’s in a band with Alok called A Roller Control and was one of the artists included in the recent Louis Vuitton show at the Hong Kong Museum of Art.

I actually wasn’t planning on checking out the Architecture Is Discourse with Music show again, since it was the same line up as the night before, but when we left the restaurant, the streets were all cordoned off for the National Day fireworks over the harbor (on my previous trip to Hong Kong I had watched the fireworks from the nearby 28th floor restaurant Hutong, which I’ve just discovered has a super annoying web page), so only be explaining that we were on our way to the show could we get through. I wouldn’t have been able to see the fireworks or even get to the ferry, so I just stuck with the group, which turned out to be a good move, because afterwards folks were more relaxed, and we all repaired to a bar called Phonograph for beer and conversation. I got to chat with Alok at length, and also with Nana and Mine and lots of other folks. (The non-discourse this time was with Beijing architect Zhu Xiaodi 朱小地, who showed an awful lot of pictures of some luxury bar complex he had designed, certainly swank and easy on the eyes, but representative of a kind of lulling, complacency-inducing architectural riff on traditional Chinese forms that I view somewhat suspectly.)

Friday

I scheduled lunch on Friday with Edwin Lo, another Facebook friend whom I’d never met in person, sound artist and recent graduate of the City University of Hong Kong’s School of Creative Media. (You can read an interview with French musician Yannick Dauby that he did for the Sound Pocket website, which I stumbled upon rather at random; can’t seem to link to it directly, so happy exploring!) Nana joined us, too. Edwin suggested a beef curry place not far from ACO that was ridiculously tasty, in a kind of Hong Kong food court, but where everything was handmade, on the third floor of a building into which I would otherwise never have ventured. So tasty!

We had a good chat about sound in Hong Kong, and planned an amble over to nearby White Noise Records, a Hong Kong institution I had visited on my list trip through town, still going strong. But we got there too early; on Fridays they only open at two. So we parted ways, and Edwin slipped me a 3 inch CD he’d done called “In The Memory Of…,” released on the Little Sound label, a slow, elegiac montage of field recordings, quite nice.

On my way back to Sheung Wan, amid all the Chinese medicine shops, I stopped at one of these funky little herbal tea stands for some 夏枯草, labeled “Prunella Vulgaris” in English. No idea what that is, but it was sufficiently cool and refreshing. Then, finally on the third attempt, I had some success on my Hong Kong gallery crawl.

I spent over an hour at the Asia Art Archive, and I could have spent much longer. Like the Goethe Institut, it’s a place I could see myself visiting often if I lived in Hong Kong. My friend Amy Wood, who works there, was out of town, but her colleague Clara Cheung gave me a comprehensive tour of the facility. I also bumped into Phoebe , to whom I apologized again for spilling that lychee goop on her bag. Their collection runs a little slim on the sonic art front, but they’re open tp submissions, so feel free to send ‘em stuff! I did a search for Yan Jun 颜峻 and up popped an event called Around from earlier this year, organized by Yang Yeung 楊陽, Sound Pocket founder and another person people had been telling me I should meet; they had a catalog from the show in the collection, so I looked it up and read all about it. I found out I’m also in the database as a collaborator with Yan Jun at last year’s eArts Festival, and before I left I gave them a Radiospace CD, so now I’m in there twice! Do your own search here, there’s lot of fun stuff.

In fact, Parasite, Tang Contemporary, and Art Statements were all closed to prepare new shows, but I got to talk with folks briefly at the first two places. (In fact, the same was true of Parasite four years ago when I tried to visit; strike two!) I had peeked in the window at the Art Statements show earlier to see some of the controversial logo graffiti pieces that caused a furor around the time of the Louis Vuitton show at the Hong Kong Museum of Art, but they were closed to set up a new show by Danish artist Troels Wörsel.

Gotta say, I was a bit bored at Amelia Johnson Gallery; I’m really not much for those kind of personal family history unearthed as artistic narrative kinds of series you see a lot, and the title of Dinu Li’s The Mother of All Journeys can only be taken as a bad pun. Some pretty photos, though.

Kwan Sheung Chi’s 關尚智 show No Matter. Try Again. Fail Again. at Gallery Exit cracked me up, though. Not all of the pieces were well executed, and the typical problems of presenting video in a gallery context were all manifest, but sometimes there’s a fine line behind between a good conceptual artist and someone who’s just fun to have at a party. One of the pieces documented him and his friends performing a drinking game/endurance test during one of Hong Kong’s annual art walk events, and another piece showed him trying to recreate the performance by drinking the same amount of alcohol in the same time frame alone in his studio. I’ve been arguing for a while that intoxication is an underutilized parameter in performance.

After leaving, I stopped at a nearby crossroads, trying to get my bearings, and Phoebe Wong once again materialized and pointed me towards the Input/Output Gallery, just up the hill from Hong Kong’s notorious Lan Kwai Fong bar street (with an opportunity to grab a schwarma at the same schwarma stand where I grabbed one four years ago, yum!). Nana had emphasized this event, the official kick off of the October Contemporary, and it was probably the best party of the week. (Input/Output is owned by Teddy Leow, who currently has an interesting piece—from a technology perspective, at least—at MOCA Shanghai, a flashing LED panel that creates creepy afterimages in your retina when you look away.) Most notably, I got to meet my newest two best friends, Rachel and Paul, who are so cool, smart, friendly, and funny. Rachel is the manager of Input/Output, and it turns out she had actually seen my performance at Art+Shanghai when my 路口 installation opened. I enjoyed talking with Jessica, who also works at the gallery, since she doesn’t shy from asking very direct and difficult questions about why artists are doing what they’re doing. Then when someone introduced Cedric Marinet, and after hearing his installations and having people tell me all week that I needed to meet him, I was so excited that I greeted him with a big hug, to which he responded, “Who are you?” We talked for a long time about our respective practices and background and the exigencies of sound art, a very sharp and thoughtful fellow. I also spoke at length with Yang Yeung of Sound Pocket (who organized the aforementioned show with Yan Jun); she was interested in my thoughts on what made a good artists’ residency program, and I gave her an earful. Ellen Pau was there, too, and lots of other people…an excellent time.

I talked at length with all three artists in the show: Evan Roth, Desmond Leung, and Cho Yiu Cheng. Desmond had a really beautiful digital animation showing on two panels, abstract, but evoking flowing water, which reminded me a lot of Cindy Ng’s video that’s running next to my sound installation at Art+ Shanghai right now, although his is in color and hers is in black and white (which I think goes better with the theme of the Art+ show, as well as with my piece). Cho Yiu Cheng’s piece was a little more conceptual, images of peoples’ faces with bright lights being flashed in their eyes, blown up to fill a whole wall, and with an accompanying flashbulb soundtrack, should you decide to don headphones. Both pieces loop, but they’re dramatically flat to the point that the loops are pretty inconspicuous; you could still come or go at any point and get a taste of the work, which for me is an important criterion of video installation.

Cho Yiu Cheng

Evan Roth’s work probably had the most resonance for me, as someone working in the digital domain. He’s written a program to digitally sample people’s writing on a glass screen, then store these gestures in a database and visualize them using custom software on a screen in the gallery. He was inspired by watching graffiti artists working, the choreography of their writing styles, and he makes overt connections between this practice and Chinese calligraphy. He’s committed to keeping this an open source project, and I was struck by the countless possibilities contained in his database of digital tags; it’s wide open for all kinds of mapping in the visual and aural domains. I’m also grateful to him for turning me on to the Open Frameworks libraries for C++, which I plan to dive into soon.

Check out Evan’s video of the opening, into which a certain hatted, bearded man features prominently.

When the party started to wind down, a large group of artists, arts organization workers, and hangers on like me ventured out for Thai food. They were selling bunny ears in Lan Kwai Fong, since the Mid-Autumn Festival was nearly upon us, and I bought a pair. After dinner, we went to a homely little joint called Club 71, which was overrun by art folks. Here I made the acquaintance of Adrian Wong (another artist featured in the Louis Vuitton show), and we chatted for a good long while.

Afterwards, Rachel and Paul and I headed out for another schwarma, before finally calling it a night. An awesome evening!

Saturday

I asked Kobe at ACO if she could recommend a nearby place for dim sum, and she came through with the Lung Moon Restaurant 龙门大酒楼 near the Wan Chai subway stop. I arranged to meet a pal from my Ubisoft days, Kevin Lau, who had contracted for Ubisoft on EndWar to do a whole ton video work for marketing and PR purposes, so he had spent quite a bit of time in Shanghai. He brought a friend of his, Simon, and I invited my neighbor from ACO, Matt Gano, a fellow Seattleite, who was in town teaching poetry at the Hong Kong Creative School. Matt’s also an accomplished slam poet and hip hop artist; listen to some of his stuff!

We had a lovely meal, and then Simon suggested heading over to Page One books in Times Square, not far from ACO, where I think I managed to bore them all completely looking for the perfect present to bring back to Jutta in Shanghai. From there, Kevin and Simon had to leave, but Matt and I pressed on to White Noise Records.

Heading up the stairs to White Noise, I noticed that the guy walking in front of us had long hair, rock star pants, and what looked like a silver case for music equipment, so I wondered if there was going to be some kind of in-store performance. When we got in, I started to introduce myself to the proprietor, Gary (with whom I had chatted four years earlier, but who had no reason to remember me), but when I said my name, the musician-looking guy, who had been bending over his case, stood up and said, “Oh, Ben’s a busy guy in Shanghai,” and I recognized him as Christiaan Virant, half of the Beijing-based experimental duo FM3, best known for their wildly successful Buddha Machines. He was in town working on the getting the third Buddha Machine, a collaboration with Throbbing Gristle (dubbed “Gristleism”), produced, and I got to hear the only prototype in existence. He says the original Buddha Machine alone has sold about 80,000 units, pretty impressive.

We chatted for about half an hour about his work, the Buddha Machines, Chinese factories, generative music, iPhone applications (there’s a Buddha Machine for iPhone, if you don’t have it already!) and such.

After he left I chatted with Gary a bit more, and I walked out of there with Christopher WillitsSurf Boundaries (truly excellent), a compilation of Moondog’s years in Germany (alternately mesmerizing and dully noodling, as you’d expect), and Nosaj Thing (quite dull; btw, “Jason” spelled backwards is supposed to be pronounced “no such,” which I don’t think works at all).

I dropped off my loot at ACO, then took the ferry over to the Hong Kong Cultural Center for one last Architecture/Discourse/Music show, this time featuring Portuguese transplant João Vasco (see some of his video stuff here), whom I had met 2 years prior when he performed at Li Jianhong’s 2Pi Festival in Hangzhou (which is unfortunately not being held again this year, as Li Jianhong confirmed over dinner the night before I left for Hong Kong). João performed a mesmerizing sneak preview of an upcoming audiovisual installation he’s working on, comprised of slow moving videos constructed of time-lapse images of Hong Kong cityscapes, with lush, slow-moving audio generated from the images. I’m really curious to hear those segments in the context of an installation, where the different segments can interact and interpenetrate in a non-linear context. This performance had an increased clarity and focus over what I remember from his 2007 performance; it’s really thrilling to be able to observe an artist’s evolution. On the same bill were Sin:Ned and Pun Tak Shu 潘德恕, who also delivered riveting sets. The architect this time was Zhang Lei 张雷 from Nanjing, who showed some interesting photos, but he had an incredibly annoying tendency to replace the simplest words of his Mandarin lecture with their English equivalents; to give just one example, “gui 贵” is one of the first words most foreigners learn, for its usefulness in bargaining, but I guess he felt “expensive” sounded more luxurious, since it has more syllables, or maybe because it’s foreign and exotic (by contrast, he did not replace “pianyi 便宜” with “cheap”).

After the show, a large group of us went out for a fantastic Indian meal at Chungking Mansions nearby, and then it was realized that in fact there was a party on the roof of the Foo Tak building (where ACO is located, and where João also has his studio), so we all headed over. It wasn’t just an ordinary Saturday night; it was the Mid-Autumn Festival, the second most important traditional festival on the Chinese calendar (hmm, wouldn’t that make a great subject for a song?), which people traditionally celebrate by eating mooncakes and holding moon appreciation sessions. We had a fantastic view of the moon and surrounding buildings, as well as a glimpse of the harbor, and folks had brought lanterns, mooncakes, and beer. Later in the evening, I played my newly finished song “Mid-Autumn Moon” on a small portable sound system someone had brought. There was great conversation with Nana and other new friends late into the night, and João and I had a particularly interesting exchange on the intersection of music and architecture, perhaps the first real discourse of the festival. His perspective (and his original proposal for his performance that night, which the organizers vetoed) was to set up some kind of feedback system to probe the acoustics of the room, for him the truest sonic equivalent of architecture, whereas I was more interested in abstract forms and the non-linear potential suggested by a space, which is only activated when a person actually navigates it.

All week everyone had been telling me that I have to meet Samson Young (the guy with the upcoming Osage show), and on the roof of the Foo Tak building, I finally had my chance, since his studio is also in the building. He’s quite a sharp and accomplished fellow, with an impressive resume of interesting projects and performances (and a PhD from Princeton, where he got to work with Paul Lansky, whose music I’ve long dug). He shared with me about his RPG Triptych to be featured at the upcoming Osage show, which uses an off the shelf RPG game engine (I forget which) to present what sounds like a humorously surreal virtual experience. If I understood correctly, there will be three independent games running in the gallery, non-networked, but if everyone happens to be in the same room at the same time, the music is composed to that the layers will fit together in a harmonious way.

Sunday

After such a late Mid-Autumn Festival celebration, it took a bit of effort, but I made it back to Input/Output for a 1pm panel discussion with the artists (I arrived nearer to 2pm), a fairly open Q&A on new media art. In the lively discussion, I found an improved way to phrase one of my longstanding observations about video installation: if you author a piece to have a beginning, middle, and end, you need to also present it in such a way that the audience walking into the gallery experiences it as beginning, middle, and end. If someone walks in halfway through, your middle just became their beginning, and the dramatic trajectory of the piece is compromised. I’ll pontificate further on this point in the future.

After a lively discussion, I set off with Rachel & Paul to meet Nana at another opening, way up in Kowloon, but first we stopped off for a plein air meal of fresh seafood on Temple St. The opening was at C&G gallery, which several people mentioned has been particularly successful in cultivating a community hub atmosphere. The show was called “No Money for Art vs. No Time for Art,” featuring stop-motion animation. Several artists, including Clara Cheung, whom I had met earlier at Asia Art Archive, had just returned from an artist residency in Puck, Poland, and they were sharing about their experience, and also sharing some fancy Polish vodka and cookies. I chatted at length with a new friend named John from the British Council, and we put a fair dent in the vodka supply.

From there we headed over to see Chopsticks, just around the corner, which is in fact where I was supposed to be the afternoon the typhoon rained me in at the Goethe Institut. Chopsticks is spearheaded by Patricia Choi (who had been at the Foo Tak moon appreciation session and was also present at C&G), and her concept is that the gallery actually has no permanent location, setting up events wherever there happens to be some unused space at the time. The current show was a modest photography exhibit with some nice images; Patricia opened the space just for us and phoned the artists, who popped over to say hello. She also plans to open a hostel somewhere in the neighborhood.

From there we finally made it over to see the new space where Robin Peckham, who joined the party back at C&G, has been working. He and I met last April in Beijing, back when he was working for Boers Li Gallery, and in the intervening months he’s relocated to Hong Kong to set up the Society for Experimental Cultural Production. We’d been trying to find a good time for me to see his new space all week, and we finally made it happen the day before my departure. For now, he shares space with some active musicians, and it’s hard to imagine a better hang out spot, with old tiles and a big balcony evoking some idealized “old Hong Kong” fantasy. Fill that place up with interesting folks and beer, and you’ve got one heck of a party! It’ll be very interesting to see where a man of Robin’s capabilities takes this endeavor in the months ahead.

Monday

On my last day in town, there was just one man left to see: bassist extraordinaire Peter Scherr. Peter’s been based in Hong Kong for a long time, and we’ve met up several times in Shanghai over the years. Perhaps the first time was when he brought his group Headache (including NYC musicians Jim Black, Seattle-transplant Briggan Krauss, and Peter’s brother Tony on guitar) to the now defunct Number Five on the Bund…back in early 2006, I think? Since then I’ve seen him come through town with a number of groups, all top notch, and every time I threaten to come down to Hong Kong to pay him a visit. So after packing up and checking out of ACO, I hopped on the MTR and set out for relatively remote Sai Kung way up north in the New Territories.

Once I got off the bus at the terminus I could see why someone would want to settle down here. The bus stop was right next to a beautiful bay, full of boats and islands and sunshine, verdant mountains all around. Peter picked me up in his car, and we headed back to his house, with a quick stop at another nearby bay to take in the breathtaking view.

I pride myself on my CD collection (I don’t enjoy listening to music on my computer or iPhone), with probably about 600 disks I brought over from the US, and easily another 600 that I’ve accumulated in the five years since, but Peter’s collection puts me to shame. Since so much of this stuff is so hard to find, he let me rip a bunch of it to my computer, some Eyvind Kang, some Marc Ribot, some Stockhausen, some Ornette Coleman, and a bunch of the newly remastered Beatles mono recordings from the new boxed set (the only way to get ‘em). In exchange I offered what I had on me (like Jim O’Rourke and, um, Pet Shop Boys), and a wide swath of my own tunes.

He showed me his amazing studio, as breathtaking as the surrounding scenery. I took some iPhone snaps of his studio, but they don’t do it justice the way his own webpage does. I plunked around on his beautiful Yamaha C3 piano for a bit; he picked up his bass, and we noodled over some simple changes, and once again I wished I spent more time developing my improv chops. It was a lovely afternoon just shooting the musical breeze, talking about music we like and our various projects, before he drove me around the backside of the peninsula, providing another perspective on the beautiful Hong Kong landscape, to the airport, where he happened to be picking up another musician friend that same night.

I stopped at the Heineken Bar in Terminal 2, where they had Murphy’s Irish Stout on tap and, I thought, quite passable jalapeno poppers (one of the rarest foods in Asia). The airport also offered free wi-fi (thanks, government!).

My whirlwind visit left me with a very favorable impression of Hong Kong. There seem to be lots of people doing really interesting, creative things. The food was great, and every morning when I walked out of my building, the glimpses of mountains and ocean exhilarated me. I was there during an eventful week, but there’s much more on the horizon that I would have liked to stick around for: Dickson Dee’s concert with Zbigniew Karkowski at Videotage a few days ago, a performance at Input/Output on October 14th, Samson and Kingsley’s installation at Osage, a concert by friends Yao Dajuin 姚大均 and Xu Cheng 徐程 on October 17-18 (another part of the architecture festival), the rest of the October Contemporary and Nana’s closing Night Light Graffiti event, and the Microwave festival that’s kicking off in November. There seems to be much more institutional support for the arts than on the Chinese mainland, and most of the people I talked to in the arts had a higher level of arts education (perhaps a by-product of the high concentration of universities in Hong Kong); the flip side that was mentioned to me by a couple of artists I spoke to was a kind of superficiality or pretention that kept relationships from going deep and inhibits healthy criticism.

Perhaps there’s a bit of the “grass is always greener” phenomenon at work, but one thing this visit reminded me is that Hong Kong’s not all that far away. I hope to be back soon! Thanks again, Nana!

The Most Relaxing Blog Post…Ever!

I visited my favorite massage parlor, 龍之道, yesterday. I’m not sure I want to publicize the address, as I generally prefer to be the only bloated foreigner in the joint, but they provide rigorous Chinese massage, medically sound, with skilled practitioners, and the whole array of treatments (incl. hot cups) available as necessary, none of this froofy Dragonfly shizznit.

The only problem was the music. I think they must hand out a complimentary CD of English language adult contemporary dreck when you pick up your business license in Shanghai. Those who have been here a while can fill in this list on their own, but all the classics were in full effect during our hour and a half visit:

The Eagles, Hotel California
Phil Collins, Another Day in Paradise
Whitney Houston, I Will Always Love You
Celine Dion, The Power of Love
Simon & Garfunkel, The Sound of Silence [actually, I like this one]
Michael Bolton, When a Man Loves a Woman
Bryan Adams, Everything I Do (I Do It for You)

We made a little game of guessing the next tune, and I was afraid I’d lose until they played Richard Marx’s “Right Here Waiting” as we walked out. (I never heard “My Heart Will Go On,” but I did doze off for a bit.)

I’ve long thought that a massage parlor is an ideal place to implement some of my ideas for indefinitely continuing music (just like in a videogame), totally ambient (no pre-rendered dramatic climaxes), non-looping, real-time deployed. It’s still a back burner project, but I’ve been hoarding ideas for Project Dragonfly for at least a year now. Stay tuned; it’s gonna be absolutely, unequivocally gorgeous.

Compiling this list reminded me that way back when I did that interview with Morgan for SmartShanghai, I shared my Chinese experimental music starter kit, which didn’t make the final edit of the already exhaustively comprehensive interview (I’m still so impressed that Morgan took the time to transcribe all that babbling).

So here ya go, my Chinese underground/experimental music starter kit (which admittedly betrays a marked ambient bent):

Li Jianhong 李剑鸿 + 10, See You New World (2Pi)
718, An (Kwanyin)
Lin Zhiying 林志英, [I actually can’t tell what the title of this thing is; might be “II,” and the label might be “21 Floor;” album art is B&W photo of a lot of people going over a bridge with umbrellas and a TV in a vacant lot]
Wang Changcun 王长存, Parallel Universe (Post-Concrete)
AITAR II, B6 and MHP (Isolation Music)
V.A., Music for Shopping Malls (Kwanyin) [featuring Zafka, Yan Jun 颜峻, and 718, and Eric Satie]
V.A., Landscape 2 (Shanshui)
V.A., The Sound of Silence Project (Reconfiguration)
And one of Torturing Nurse’s 9,382,521 CD’s; I’ve given out the one they did with Tokyo-based Polish noise artist Zbigniew Karkowski and Hong Kong-based Dickson Dee a few times as gifts, “Penetration” (PACrec)

Now the bad news: last time I was at Sugar Jar in Beijing, I wanted to pick a bunch of these up as a gift for a friend of mine (the fine composer Kevin Siegfried), and most of them are now out of print. So if you ever see ‘em, snag ‘em!

BTW, when I read that SmartShanghai interview for the first time, I had a mad impulse to annotate and expand and fill in some of the gaps, but I resisted, seeking to preserve the integrity of the barroom ramble it was. Now that some time has elapsed, in an effort to wring more mileage out of it in the time-honored tradition of the director’s cut, I would offer the following additional comments:

I got distracted by some other idea and totally skirted the question about being proud of my work on EndWar, but yes, I am quite proud of my work on that game. I think it’s a great game, and I think it includes some technological innovations in the sound department that hold great relevance for the industry at large. Hurrah for EndWar!

I started to answer the question about what exactly I was doing at Ubisoft with a long answer about how my previous roles led up to my most recent role, but then I got lost my train of thought. But the short answer would be that I was the lead audio guy on the project, and my job was to convey and support the primary vision for the game in sound. Read all about it here.

I might have clarified that the original lead singer of Petra, Greg Hough, lasted only one and a half albums, soon to be replaced by Greg X. Volz.

Had I considered the question a little more closely, I probably would have said that classical music is the midpoint between Christian rock and Torturing Nurse, rather than INXS, and then I would have blabbed on about extracting the creative impulse from its varying manifestations and achieving some kind of enlightenment that encompasses all sound as music or some such drivel. I also feel bad that I didn’t give Depeche Mode appropriate props as an influence in this interview, and perhaps also Michael W. Smith.

And I flubbed the details of my frustration with those damn Elvis Costello reissues. The first reissues (of all the pre-Warner Bros. stuff, during which time he was handled differently in the UK and the US) were done by Rykodisc, as single disks with bonus tracks appended. Then Rhino did 2 CD remastered editions (which also included his Warner Bros. releases), and now Universal is re-re-re-releasing all the pre-Warners stuff. I have This Year’s Model on cassette, LP, and Rykodisc CD, not to mention the Warner Bros. release of All This Useless Beauty as well as the Rhino reissue. In general all the bonus material consists of rough demos, too, which in most cases only tarnish the final versions. There are not nearly enough rare B-sides, especially from Mighty Like a Rose. And can you even get “A Drunken Man’s Praise of Sobriety” anywhere anymore? Although I would love to get my hands on that short, live, promotional EP he did with the Brodsky Quartet following The Juliet Letters, which had a Beach Boys tune and some Tom Waits, I believe. What was the question again?

Song and Me

I’m getting all the boring singer/songwriter patter out of the way here, where it’s easy to ignore, so I won’t bore everyone at this Sunday’s gig. If you want, just skip to the end of this post for a peek at Sunday’s set list. Don’t forget the details: this March 22, 2009, Yu Yin Tang, 1731 Yan’an Xi Lu (near Kaixuan Lu), 8pm, 30 RMB, opening for 10!

I’ve been writing pop songs since about 6th grade. That would be around 1986, when I was about 11. My first song was called “Blue Eyes,” co-written with fellow missionary kid Andy Laesch. We had a band we called Center of the Earth, which we, as pious MK’s, eventually decided had infernal undertones, so we renamed our duo Outer Space. We wrote a bunch of songs of which I could still hum a few bars, with titles like “Electricity” and “Midnight Spooks,” and we recorded them into a little boom box, doubling up on vocal duties, with me accompanying on the little Casiotone keyboard I got for my 9th birthday, shortly after my family moved to Liberia.

I saw it one day—blue eyes
I knew it right away—blue eyes
So clear from the start—blue eyes
It brought love to my heart—blue eyes

Oh, oh, blue eyes
Oh, oh, blue eyes
Blue eyes

Even before that, I remember putting together an instrumental, auto-chord extravaganza, featuring such titles as, “Just Noise???” now lost to the ages.

I kept writing songs in junior high and high school, while attending the International Christian Academy in Bouaké, Côte d’Ivoire, switching to Christian themes, along the lines of the Petra, Michael W. Smith, Steve Taylor, Benny Hester, Steve Camp, White Heart, and Randy Stonehill cassettes I was listening to at the time. By far the standout hit of those boarding school years was “Rainbow,” co-written with “Guitar Man” Dan Pinkston (who now has a DMA in music and teaches at Simpson College). We performed this snappy tune with our band The Utensils (which at times also included staff members Kurt Werner and Brad Trosen on bass) around our school campus, in chapel, or just for pals.

My songwriting hit a new apex with “Epilogue,” mostly composed on the plane trip from Africa back to the US in the summer of 1990, following my 10th grade year. I spent my last two years of high school in Seward, NE, and I would often play my little songs on my friend Kathryn’s piano (much more often, in fact, than I actually had a willing audience). “Epilogue” was generally the most warmly received (unless I tossed in some Richard Marx).

I got my first synthesizer in the summer of 1990, the mighty Roland D-20 workstation (with a built-in 8 track sequencer + drum machine), and I set about sequencing synth-pop arrangements of my tunes, producing the better part of two “albums” in these two years. You will never hear them. The first, Nine Generic Love Songs, included “Epilogue” and was written during my junior year for the girl for whom I yet pined back at boarding school. The second was pulled together during my sophomore year of college and was eventually entitled Titled Untitled, comprising 17 songs mostly written during my senior year of high school, although two songs dated from my boarding school years (including a synth-pop version of “Rainbow”), and a few newer tunes also slipped in. While working on the first master in January 1994, I felt embarrassed that I was spending so much time on such ancient material, and that my college girlfriend was unrepresented, so I added the track “I Tell Her Everything,” by far the best thing on the album.

I did some really wacky stuff in high school, digging deep into the synthesis potential of my Roland D-20 and experimenting with odd meters, sudden harmonic shifts to distantly related key areas, microtonality, polytonality, even random procedures, a sign of things to come, I guess, as in the instrumental track “Genevieve” (the middle name of a girl I smooched at show choir camp), which dates from late 1991. The percussion tracks were recorded as a series of overdubs with the volume turned off, so I didn’t know where I was playing in relation to the beat or previous takes, an idea I think I got from a Keyboard magazine article.

At first I recorded my sequences and overdubs on a little cassette 4-track I borrowed from my high school band teacher. Later in college I bought a second-hand Tascam 238 Syncaset 8-track tape recorder and made new recordings; I continued to remix and rerecord these songs for quite a while, eventually bolstering Nine Generic Love Songs with four thematically related “outtakes,” and finally producing a digital master after moving to Seattle in 1996. Good practice, I guess.

I continued to write songs after commencing studies at St. Olaf College, but as a composition major, I was also starting to branch out into other kinds of writing. I would often try to slip some of the new ideas I was learning in music theory class into my songs, such as a German augmented sixth chord in “One-sided” (written as a homework assignment) and common tone modulation by way of an augmented chord in “The Verge of a Girlfriend.” The instrumental track “Jim/James” was the result of a homework assignment to write a minuet and trio (co-written by classmate JP Moninger, my partner on the assignment), and also snuck onto Titled Untitled. Most of my new songs were for my college sweetheart, with a few exceptions. I once wrote a grunge song for the cover band in which I played, Dirty Bath, entitled “Kill Fred,” a hateful diatribe against an incompetent sound engineer we had at one gig.

Put a gun to his head
Kill Fred
Make him bleed; it’s so red
Kill Fred

It was actually kind of a funny song (in Phrygian mode, which we had recently been studying).

After college, I moved to Seattle, and I kept writing songs, almost exclusively, and perhaps somewhat neurotically, about the college girlfriend who broke my heart in the end. Eventually I started to write about other people, but almost invariably the subjects would revolve around my striking out with girls, though I tried to maintain a modicum of wit about it. One happy exception was “First Dance,” composed for the wedding of Cheryl (my former French teacher from boarding school) and James Cloyd.

At any point since high school, if you had asked me what my next album was going to be called, I would have been able to tell you. After Titled Untitled, I had planned a sprawling quadruple album entitled Our Unique Culture, which would bring me totally up to date with everything worthwhile I’d ever written, or even started to write. In college, I was working on an album called Whatever, which later became Stark Originality. I’m sure there were others album titles I’ve forgotten. At one point I planned a rock album. Then in the early Seattle years, it was a 12-song concept album about the aforementioned college sweetheart entitled, I’ll Never Make the Same Mistake Twice Again (hmmm, bitter much?). Then I thought I’d better just sweep everything I had into one collection and move on to something new; at first I was going to polish and rerecord everything and call the compilation Jot Down a Quick Note, later shortened to Jot Quicky. But in the end, I just burned CD-R’s of whatever half-baked demos I had laying around for friends, christening the 15-song compilation Dumb Songs and Demos.

After a while, somewhere around 2000, I just stopped writing songs. I’d gotten busy composing the string quartet soundtrack to the computer game Arcanum (2001), which took me most of 2000 to complete. I was also writing a lot of choral music for the church choir I was in. I’d continue to have ideas for songs, but I’d never flesh them out or record them. At the time I felt demoralized by indifference, but in retrospect, I was doing almost nothing to get my songs heard by anyone outside the circle of my immediate acquaintances. The last song I wrote in Seattle was “Kiss Locally,” sparked by the way my pal Mike was able to breathe new life into some of my older tunes with killer rock arrangements. (And these arrangements are finally seeing the light of day as 3 Heart-Shaped Cookies, available now!)

In retrospect, my last year or two in Seattle was ripe for a pop renaissance. I had finally assembled a perfect little computer-based home studio, my longstanding goal since moving to Seattle, rounded out by the acquisition of the Roland JP-8000 and JV-2080 that I was able to retain from my studio at Sierra when they finally shuttered their Bellevue office. And I was starting to perform regularly in a new band, Subpoenaed Lemur, at the instigation of my dear pal Korby; I don’t know if I can truthfully say we were garnering a following, but we were playing around town quite a bit and having a blast. But at the same time I was in the throes of my master’s degree in composition at UW, while continuing to work full time in the games biz, leaving little time for pop dalliances. It’s an irony of history that just as the last pieces of my home studio fell into place, I had shifted focus almost entirely to doing computer music in Max/MSP. And to this day I feel shame that I never pulled my weight in the band; continued respect to Korby for doing all the booking, preparing all our backing tracks, and running all the rehearsals.

When I decided to move to China in 2004, I had to figure out what to do with my studio gear, and each option seemed like a losing proposition. I could sell it all and lose money and regret it later; I could pay to store it as its value steadily declined; or I could pay to ship everything over to China. In the end I brought it all with me to Shanghai, where it languished in unopened boxes for about 3 years, as I continued to focus on computer music.

I guess what got me writing songs again was a trip to Vietnam with Jutta in October 2007. It sounds silly and cliché, but it was a time of intense emotion, and I didn’t know how else to express what I was feeling than in a song. By the time we returned to Shanghai, “My Heart is a River in Flood” was pretty much sketched out, though it took a few more months to work out some harmonic details and record it. In the meantime I had started writing “EndWar,” which despite its commercial provenance was genuinely the result of good, old fashioned passion and inspiration (working on one game for 3.5 years will do that to you). And “Jessica’s Scissors” ensued shortly from a brazen bar boast; our friend Jessica, an instructor at the Vidal Sassoon academy, was celebrating her birthday at Logo, and I offered to write her a song in exchange for a free haircut, perhaps not the best bargain I’ve ever struck. All of this was enough to finally pull my studio gear out of mothballs and wire everything up.

And so pop songwriting has once again finally come to the fore. I’ve had this idea of doing an album about my experience living in Shanghai ever since I got here, but it’s languished on the back burner for years. But now I’m committed to finishing it in 2009; once I’m back from setting up this installation in Beijing next month, I will be all about Shanghai Travelogue. All the new songs I’ve been writing recently (two are already lined up and ready to record) are going towards that release.

Despite this long history of pop songcraft, I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve performed a set of my pop songs in public (excluding the songs we did with Subpoenaed Lemur: “Love on TV,” “Kiss Locally,” “Late Life,” and “Our Newfound Skill”). I did a short ½ hour set on some festival line-up in college, a few tunes at another open mic night in college, 3 more at an open mic night shortly after moving to Seattle at the Art Bar on 2nd…maybe that’s it? (After the Art Bar performance, the host, who I think may have been Ted Narcotic, afterwards commented, “Hmm, you’ve got kind of a Tiny Tim/John Tesh thing going on there, don’t you?”)

So perhaps this Sunday will be my first full gig of original pop songs ever. Took me long enough!

Here’s the set list, with approximate dates of composition. If a song title is highlighted, click on it to listen!

Love on TV* (1997)
Our Newfound Skill (1998)
Late Life* (~1999)
I Tell Her Everything (1994)
Like Vaseline (~1999)
Kiss Locally* (2003)
Cold (2009)
I and My Neurosis (~1999)
First Dance (~1998)
My Heart is a River in Flood (2007)
I’m Not Drinking Alone (When I’m Thinking of You) (~1997)
Jessica’s Scissors (2008)
EndWar (2008)

* included in the brand new rock’n’roll EP 3 Heart-Shaped Cookies

This show will be “quasi-acoustic,” meaning that I’ll be singing and accompanying myself on a keyboard with no computer trickery. It would have been fully acoustic if Yu Yin Tang had a piano. Later this year I’m planning to make the leap to full-fledged synth-pop performances. I always felt ashamed to be performing alone with only sequenced accompaniment (despite the fact that Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails have made quite profitable careers based on this approach). Now that I’ve witnessed the “electronica” revolution of 1999, followed by my discovery of China’s karaoke culture, I think it’s time for me to overcome those old reservations.

Wow, what a long, boring post. Thank you very much for listening. Good night. Enjoy your steak.

Silence or Brainwave Communication or Sneak Preview?

Here’s a quick preview of what I’m going to be presenting at this Sunday’s “Silence or Silence or Brainwave Communication” show, which you should totally attend (details here).

I’m currently working on a collaborative project with my pal Chen Hangfeng 陈航峰, an installation for the Today Art Museum in Beijing, going up next month; he’s doing the visual part, and I’m doing the audio part. The point of departure was the notion of a kaleidoscope, which fragments and transforms the world around you into something unexpected, strange, and beautiful. To achieve the same kind of effect in sound, I’m writing a program in Max/MSP that will take a live audio signal coming from a microphone positioned around the gallery and manipulate it in funky ways. In the end it will have four different behaviors (what I’m calling “scenes”) that can be deployed independently on the two speakers in the little room we’re building. I’m planning to preview two of these at my performance this Sunday.

The basic sound production method is to use resonant filters to emphasize certain very specific frequencies present in the original signal. When the incoming signal includes one of the frequencies I’m looking for (and in the kind of noisy, ambient sound I’m pumping into the computer, this is quite likely), the filter will be excited, and you’ll hear a tone at that frequency that also retains the amplitude contour of the signal going into it. It’s not a particularly new or difficult idea—I think Jean-Claude Risset was one of the first do put this idea to musical use in the 60’s—but it’s still effective.

Setting up the filters (six of them, referencing the hexagon forms seen in kaleidoscopes) is pretty straightforward; the guts of the piece are in how and when I set those frequencies.

I’ve got an overarching harmonic plan based on just intonation that’s a bit complicated, but it basically involves picking a new scale for each “scene change.” I’ve got 5 scales to choose from. Different scales imbue the changing scenes with different moods or feelings. A fundamental pitch is selected from the chosen scale. Then each of the filters picks a multiple of that fundamental pitch (based on the scale) as its base pitch. Then it does these shorter volleys of some behavior (the specifics of which vary from scene to scene), which involve choosing another multiple (still based on the same scale) from that pitch. So you’ve got a scale degree multiplied by a scale degree multiplied by a scale degree, which is kind of analogous to the way images are reflected back and forth in the mirrors of a kaleidoscope.

I’ll be previewing two of these scene behaviors this Sunday. One is a kind of swooping, sustained thing, where each of the filters are behaving independently, coming in and out at different times, hovering around different octave offsets, very mellow and ambient. The number of swoops per volley, time of the sustain, time of the sweep, time between volleys are all controlled algorithmically, slowly changing over time. The other behavior is a more rhythmic thing, different patterns pulsing on the different filters, playing off each other, with gradually changing patterns, density, tempo multipliers, pauses also controlled algorithmically. Still mellow and ambient, but with a beat!

I’ve done a couple of pieces exploring this notion of algorithmically generated rhythmic patterns, and my first efforts were pretty unsatisfactory, notably in a piece called “Study for Eventual World Domination,” which I did at the 2Pi Festival in Hangzhou in 2006. Some of the patterns were interesting, but they kept coming out in a stream that became boring after a while, homogonous in its constant randomness, since it lacked any mid-level coherence. So I’ve come up with a system that will still generate algorithmic patterns, but store them in a list, so that they can recur and play off of other patterns, and so far this method is proving much more satisfactory. It’s actually a cross between the way I’m storing radio signals in buffers in Radiospace (randomly choosing one of the six buffers to rewrite every 20 seconds, allowing for this same kind of mid-level coherence) and how I was choosing cells to play and juxtapose in the EndWar music system.

To hear the other two scene behaviors, you’ll have to come to Beijing next month and check out the installation! The show opens April 17. I’ll post more about all the specific details later. In the meantime, see you Sunday, 8pm, Yu Yin Tang!