Outsound Presents is a non-profit organization whose mission (as it says on their home page) is “to encourage experimental musical composition, improvisational performance, and the invention and use of new musical instruments by presenting public performance, co-op promotion, and education.” Last night they offered their final concert of the year at the Luggage Store Gallery with two decidedly experimental sets of free improvisation, one involving new instruments and the other supplemented with real-time video design. Since the Luggage Story overlooks Market Street from a third-floor height, ambient street sounds, particularly those of the trolleys, tend to add to the mix, often with highly compatible results.
The invented instruments of the evening came from Tom Nunn, the “T” of the free improvisation trio RTD3, whose other members are Ron Heglin (trombone and voice) and Doug Carroll (cello). Nunn filled about half of the performing area with a generous collection of both pitched and non-pitched objects to be struck and stroked. This included a Skatch Box, a flat surface to which a variety of small objects of different materials and textures were fastened, “played” as a single instrument with a pair of plastic knives. (Unless I am mistaken, Nunn used both the serrated and smooth ends.) Nunn has built Skatch Boxes in various sizes, and a smaller version appeared in the photograph I included with my preview piece for this concert. However, the one in that photograph is about half the size of the version Nunn played last night.
Nunn also set up two metallic installations, each involving a flat surface resting on four inflated balloons. One of these was simply a thunder sheet. However, while Nunn would occasionally strike it gently, most of the performance involved stroking it with the ends of sticks and tubes. Those who have studied a bit of physics know that a simple metal plate can support a wide variety of standing waves, and the purpose of stroking involved finding different locations on the plate that would induce different wave forms. Some of these were amazingly simple, not unlike the “glass harmonica” effect of stroking the rim of a wine glass. Others were far more complex, providing a “colored noise” effect of frequencies in dissonant conflict. At least one of those effects was evocative to the metallic sound of a New York City subway going around a tight curve.
The other metallic instrument consisted of a rigid plate supporting a configuration of vertical metallic rods of different lengths, most of which were straight but a few of which formed spring-like spirals. This seemed to be a variation on one of Nunn’s earlier instruments, which he called The Crab, depicted in the photograph above. Nunn stroked these rods with a pair of short bows. Each sound reverberated for an impressively long time, allowing him to create intriguing harmonies by bowing a sequence of rods in quick succession. These sonorities of relative harmonic purity contrasted sharply with the standing waves on the thunder sheet and the “object percussion” sounds created with Nunn’s plastic knives.
For each of the improvised pieces, the contributions from Heglin and Carroll were relatively minimal. This was very much in-the-moment music in which a single tone could carry significant import. In addition, Carroll would occasionally provide his own percussion through techniques such as stroking the bridge of his cello with his bow. The result was a highly focused set of takes, all quite compatible with that street ambience and one of which even encouraged the audience to allow for cell phone interruptions. Thus, for all the intense focus of these performances, there was also an adequate share of good humor, very much in the tradition of the activity-based compositions by John Cage.
The second set consisted of a laptop performance by Joe Lasqo, accompanied by Rent Romus on soprano saxophone. Lasqo tends to call his pieces ragas, generalizing the Indian concept of a predefined pattern of sonorities around which improvisation can unfold. Through the laptop those improvisations can emerge from different approaches to generative software, many of which go back to the linguistic foundations of Noam Chomsky and the effort to extrapolate those foundations into music by Fred Lerdahl and Ray Jackendoff (the former a composer and the latter one of Chomsky’s students).
Last night’s generative results were accompanied by real-time “image-jamming” by multimedia artist Warren Stringer. Stringer’s software has its own grammatical foundations based on cellular automata; but it also involves real-time control, using a pen-based tablet as a device to provide the parameterization of multiple degrees of freedom. The images were almost entirely restricted to gray-scale, to the point where what seemed like a brief streak of blue may actually have been an optical illusion, induced by the modulation of frequencies in the visual range.
Stringer’s images filled the screen behind the performing area (created by the window shades). They were usually fascinating, but they could also be overwhelming. On several occasions I realized that I had to close my eyes to be more aware of what Lasquo was synthesizing and how Romus was improvising around it. The overall intention amounted to that of complementing one source of complexity (in the theoretical sense of the word) with another; but the effect was more one of summation, rather than complementation. The whole then emerged as more that the simple sum of the parts; and, at least on this particular occasion, that turned out to be a bit more than mind could apprehend.