Future Shock

a column by
Kevin Patton

Andy Sheppard
Joel Ryan                                                                                                              Courtesy of Joel Ryan

Zips, cracks, dings, blips, zaps, screeches and scratches – but that is only one side of the story; long, elegant, just-pierced silences rising into a swarm of cicada hovering over layers of crumbling concrete, rebar exposed, slouching towards mayhem and growling through speakers … These dense, synthetic, and complex sound worlds have a way of suggesting dramatic, imagined landscapes with the quick, sharp, gestural sounds becoming strides across that strange terrain. Textures and gestures collide, creating layers and obscuring any one player's voice, until this undulating mass gives way to silence. 

"I always liked what Andrew Pickering referred to in 'The Mangle of Practice.' That science does not proceed from the head alone, but requires an intervention in nature, a mangle," says musician Joel Ryan of the way he thinks about the software instruments he designs and uses with the Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble. "I don’t think music can emerge from the head alone, either. You constantly make and apply new tools but this feeds back to change the very nature of the thing you were to get a hold of. After numbers became electric, music could never be the same. And this is nothing new, bronze and the science of measure surely altered radically the possibilities sound and music for our ancestors"

Coming to music from a philosophically informed physics perspective (with degrees in each), Ryan musically came of age in late sixties California where his live musical experiences ranged from Jimi Hendrix to John Cage, John Coltrane to Harry Partch. He eventually enrolled in Mills College in Oakland and became a part of the emerging community of artist hackers in Silicon Valley. For the last fifteen years Ryan has lived in Amsterdam where he is closely associated with STEIM, the Dutch institute for electro-instrumental performance art. Joel has performed with composers and artists such as Evan Parker, George Lewis, Bill Forsythe, FM Uitti, Steina Vasulka, Jerry Hunt, Michel Waisvisz and ArtAngel.

Music at the edge of physics might be one way to describe his practice, but for me the technological extension of acoustic instruments creates a fundamental structural difference from acoustic improvisation. The voice of one player, in this case Evan Parker, is being driven through the voice of another, that of Joel Ryan. Ryan guides the way the computer listens to Parker and moves the computer through different configurations of response. Ryan's programs adjust its response to the audio input of Parker through a real-time interactive computer music model that operates as a prosthetic of sorts to Parker's horn. On stage, Parker stands in front of a microphone while Ryan is manning a table of equipment using a MIDI controller for controlling aspects of his programs. Ryan uses a platform called SuperCollider, a text based, object oriented, open-source interactive computer music language. They are very connected to the tradition of live electronics and improvisation pioneered by Musica Elettronica Viva, AMM and others in the late 1960s. 

The phenomenological encounter with this duet is that of a single texture. Despite the source separation and a man standing behind a table of gear, we are hearing the result of a single sound interacting with a computer that is dicing it, moving it, transposing it, and delaying it. "I tend to think of my instruments as more like a pinball machine or an atom smasher," says Ryan. Ryan is well known for using different granular techniques, where a small grain, on the order of milliseconds, of the incoming sound is sampled. These grains can be transposed or delayed, become clouds or echoes. This is experienced as a series of returns of the input sounds, for the saxophone is never lost, and the composite sound is generated from its acoustic input. 

Another way to think about this structural alteration is in terms of musical autonomy. In an acoustic setting the roles and the presence, timbre, and register of each instrument help prescribe the interactivity of group (although surely not define it completely). A trumpet and a bass are not competing for space, if you will. Furthermore, from the audience perspective these instruments, no matter how altered with extended techniques, still retain much of their original character. With the digital alteration of the signal comes access to the entire frequency range and timbre can vary wildly. Ryan, when playing, describes developing a timbral approach that "is complicated and delicate so it has the richness of acoustic sound but comes from a different place." But structurally, each performer is not quite in total control. Because the computer processing is input dependant, Parker has most of the control; but he is ceding important parts of his sound to the computer, and the way in which Ryan designs the interaction. "In my case, the control is all expressed within the sound stream; the player has direct control of the reaction between his instrument and the virtual one," Ryan explains. The response and the control create a hybridized, cyborg Evan Parker that subverts traditional virtuosity because of this different paradigm for instrumental interaction. 

Parker often uses the technique of circular breathing; by breathing in through the nose while exerting pressure through the mouth, he can create a continuous tone, and play without audibly breathing. It is interesting to note this, not because breathing is a fundamental element of the concept of melody (as that concept traces its roots back to vocal music), but because Parker, through a particular athleticism, is able to sound not quite human. The other striking aspect of his solo improvisational style is the use of multiphonics and repetitive, unarticulated arpeggios resulting in unusual and striking timbres; he plays so quickly he creates a “sheets of sound” effect. A host of other extended techniques are used, but the primary strategy is clearly this combination of continuity and timbre. Ryan said, "When you listen to Evan with his amazing extended technique you are aware how things are blowing up. It pushes against the very notion of technique.... We are in a dialogue with technique." 

In an excellent analysis of his solo works, David Borgo likens the complexity, density, and dissonance of Parker’s approach to chaos theory. But I see sculpture and landscape as more appropriate metonymies especially when analyzing this structural alteration. In duet, Ryan and Parker, create so many complex structural linkages between their two voices that they generate a sculptural or architectural presence comparable to Santiago Calatrava's vast, dynamic, and self-altering structures. Calatrava's breakthrough was the invention of load-bearing but reconfigurable structures. (Check out his doctoral dissertation “On the Foldability of Frames.” Not to mention he has made some of the most beautiful, elegant, and unique bridges in the world.) If in duet we have a dynamic sculpture, with the Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble we have an entire city. A place where there are so many architectural and interpersonal connections that it becomes a complexity seemingly to the point of anonymity. Of the 14 musicians featured on The Moment’s Energy, the Ensemble’s new ECM album, half are manipulating computers, MIDI controllers and other devices. Because so many have the potential to control such large areas of frequency, the frequency space must be negotiated, shared, and timbral identity is in question from the start – it is in fact a subject of the improvisation. But anonymity is a red herring, for each individual musician's contribution is clearly present, and there are moments on each recording with delicate soliloquies and cantankerous blasting. Ryan says, "During the larger or tutti sections I look for a strategy which will both locate sonic niches as well support the bigger idea. And when the mix is being made the multi-tracking of each player and each parallel stream of signal processing affords a maximizing of great synergies." 

But perhaps what is so moving about these reconfigurable structural developments when combined with improvisation on a large group scale is that “synergy” requires balance, restraint, and civility. One must permit their voice to be literally subsumed into another's and because this practice creates space for challenges, collisions and resolutions, it can posit a Utopian notion of a pluralistic multi-voiced city where voices are linked through an architectural structure (or Dystopian, depending on your perspective). With dynamic software instruments where one musician's voice is, if you will, genetically combined with another, assumptions about the nature of an instrument as common as a saxophone cease to function, and all things seem possible – even if they are not. Structural integration changes the equation. Of course, this argument about reading some kind of societal metaphor into the structure of a particular approach to electroacoustic improvisation says nothing about how it might sound, which is, in fact, the strongest argument for listening to a piece of music. But these ideas matter. Listening to and thinking about music like this gives us clues to negotiating our own voice when faced with the potential of a complexity threatening anonymity.

And – oh yeah – the music kicks ass.

Kevin Patton©2009

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