January 24, 2005
The direction, is sound...

I've been, quite happily, playing a LOT of shows of improvised music as "manDrum", which I think is really cool (I've been improvising my entire life, so this seems to be a reasonable thing for me). I want to discuss here a few interesting things that have cropped up as a result of creating so much music "on the fly":

1. Performance
When I'm performing, I'm manipulating time and perception as best I can in the moment - my eyes are closed, my ears are open and the fact that there's an audience feels like something that just happens to have happened. I feel that I'm doing something very inwardly focused and people just happen to be there. If I look up and they're dancing, I'm usually surprised - (sometimes if I look up and see people I'm surprised) I think it's really cool when I see it, and I like that, but as often they're just watching, which is fine. I have a tendency to get lost in the moment, and when I do I am at my most free.

And that's when I think the results are best.

Make no mistake: I want people to enjoy what I'm doing, but I can only do what I can. I look at it this way:

Even if you ARE one in a million, then THERE ARE ABOUT SIX THOUSAND PEOPLE JUST LIKE YOU...

So, simply: If you do what you think is interesting, cool and satisfying, others will agree.

2. Creation vs. criticism
You can't realistically create and critique at the same time: (with apologies to Heidi Klum)You're either "in" (the situation) or "out" (observing it), but you can't really be both. As it's happening, I have a sense that the direction is sound (in every sense), but that's kind of it. (This is beyond the fact that it's often hard to hear well what's going on at shows...)

3. Ąż(I did) what (did I do)?!
I forget most of what I've done as soon as I've done it (which is why I obsessively record everything). I worry about essentially playing the same "improvised" set over and over again (I believe we have a finite capacity for invention in any specific moment, even if it's ∞ -1, and that we shape our directions by our actions. There are definitely interval sets, harmonies and rhythms I favor in the manDrum context. There are vocal and rhythmic limitations I have. And, really, I can no more ALWAYS make something up I've NEVER thought about than I can re-learn english as a toddler). Also, I wonder what of value in retrospect should be pulled out of what's happened spontaneously (during a show) and turned into something else - something more fully realized and finished (if that should happen at all in the context of manDrum - I should point out that this is how I make all other music: I improvise, I (obsessively) pore over recordings and find stuff I like and refine it. Repeat until dead).

I find it ironic that the goal of all of my improvisation seems to be the extemporaneous creation of completely realized musical thoughts. (What's that mean? Well, I'm either satisfied with my instantaneous and unpremeditated manipulation of time and timbre as a fully executed moment on the continuum of an evening, or I'm not. That's what composers do; they manipulate time and timbre. Sometimes they can do it in such a way that the listener is emotionally connected with something greater than the experience of mere frequencies and amplitudes over time. Anyway...)

This "goal oriented improvisation" is, on it's face, kind of funny, since what's the point of that (other than virtuosic showmanship)? I'm only asking questions. I have no real answers.

4. Get with the program(ing)
How relevant to the end result (the actual music created) is the knowledge that I'm creating all of this stuff in real-time, as it's happening? That the only loops are loops I'm playing and looping in front of everyone? How important is this knowledge of the performance. If I were a DJ, playing this performance from a record, would it have the same impact? (I imagine listeners would be a LOT less forgiving). If I performed behind an obscuring sheet or a wall, would it diminish the music? Does anyone care about this other than me?

Does any of this matter?

These are somewhat important (if wholly unanswerable) questions because a large part of what I'm doing revolves around the impact of performance in a music. This is a gateway to a much larger discussion, but I believe that one of the unintended impacts of DJ culture is the fact that outside of bands (and I think there are many fewer bands than DJs today), the typical music enjoyer has very little contact or experience with live performative aspects of musicmaking. To this, you may be compelled to say "so what?", to which I would reply "exactly!".

So, as far as performance is concerned, from my new experience, people don't care too much if it's not there, but are pretty damn interested if it is.

Which is fine. We can all coexist. Nice.

(To wrap up this gateway to Pandora for the moment, I want to be clear: I'm not saying turntablists don't perform or aren't virtuosic. I have tremendous respect for their abilities and pioneering ways. I can't think of any other thing that changed the execution, paradigm and idioms of cultural expression so fully in the last 25 years. I will say this: I think it's almost impossible for a typical person to get a sense of what a DJ's doing based on watching their hands and hearing the result. This is in large part to the fact that they manipulate entire soundscapes with one scratch or fader move or EQ change or kill switch. And DJing is kind of only like DJing - maybe a bit like conducting, but again, a different animal. Anyway - more on this somewhen)

Another thing of note to myself: I've been playing shows not only alone but sometimes with others sitting in (on bass or percussion). It is, honestly, a little easier to play with a friend or two because it takes a little pressure off of me to make everything happen. (It also feels a little less lonely up there with a pal).

(That's a little funny to admit, since I started this manDrum thing, in part, to focus on myself and to purposefully do a new, live, "performance-based electronic music: from scratch (which, I suppose, I am doing anyhow))

Here are a few more things I've learned, re-learned, or thought about over the past few months:

5. Rules (...allow for straight lines)
I came to this conclusion a long time ago: Dogmatic rigor without any balancing factor still sucks. (Ahem - Idealistic devotion to the conceptual may yield suboptimal results, unless your goal is idealistic devotion. Then you've got it all sewn up, I guess.)

Things happen because people do things. Then other people come along and try to explain what's been done. This is NOT a "chicken and egg" scenario. This is an "I dropped the pen and it hit the floor" scenario.

When I started this, I thought that everything I was doing had to be "electronic" (which as a definitive term is rendered meaningless by the diffusion of musics in that shadow), had to come from me playing the manDrum and had to somehow be divorced from whatever I would naturally do with musical tools I've used before (i.e not related to playing "on my body" - I wouldn't play guitar in a manDrum set as an example, although that's pretty dogmatic as well) This became an obvious stumbling block when, almost immediately after returning from STEIM, I had the opportunity to play an hour-long set in late september (opening for my band Telesma - another story) which, in a nutshell, kind of sucked. For the following reasons:

6. Randomness alone is kind of hw idyua bdo0ghd kud ha diy9y 8qy.

Now, there's randomness and there's randomness - in my case, I put together a system where playing the pads in certain ways yields bass lines and chords - I'm not (at this point) interested in emulating a person playing, so the bass lines are built on random numbers bounded by my playing and bounded again by mathematics - these random basslines inform a chord producing algorithm I built, so the chords, which are only heard when I play the manDrum a certain way, relate directly to the bass note(s).

When you first see this, it's cool. It's magical. It sounds a lot like extremely chromatic jazz. Then, quickly, it's a trick whose magic is no more and it instantaneously enters some strange realm. Perhaps the result IS the music of the future - a music where the only repetition is rhythmic, and the harmonic and melodic constructs aren't as important as the density and the ability to keep awkward silence at bay. For a short while I clung to this, even as my wife (one of the smartest people I know) was saying "I don't like it. It doesn't go anywhere... it has nothing to lock onto" I would say - "well wait. I'm just getting started"

So, I did that show, and it was kind of painful.

And it reinforced this: Randomness is cool. But cool like lemon juice in an apple pie, not like a big glass of lemon juice. Like anything else, w/out some balancing factor, it gets kind of dull quickly - the randomness becomes repetitive!

So, I opened up my old friend my voice, started doing loops and stuff with it, harmonizing with myself etc, and it was much more fulfilling.

There's also the fact that I didn't feel like using anything "off the shelf" (in part because I like to make things myself and in part because it's not cheap). So I've been doing a lot with my voice, drum sounds, sine waves and loops made of those things. Also, I can build whatever I want in MAX/MSP as long as i'm patient and steadfast enough.

7. poof!
Along with performance comes drama, and the art of the magical gesture.
I am, as of a few days ago an "official" beta tester for STEIM - I mention this because this chapter started with my work on the manDrum there in August and September. This relates to the DJ thing again. It's cool to throw your hands up. It's even cooler to throw your hands up and make the room quake like its been struck by lightning, to move your hand and have sound move around the room - to move your index finger and hear the vowel of a singing voice change...

of course it is.

So, I'm interested in dramatic gestures that directly transform events VERY obviously. I'm also interested in extending that sort of capability to the audience, whether or not their aware of it. They figure it out soon enough.

So, there's more; how could a guy with this many parenthetical comments actually stop, but things stop, and so do I. If you've made it this far, thanks for your tenacity. More to come.

BTW - I've had to disable comments bc of comment spam. If you want to contact me about this post, write me at "mandra at defdumbandbass.com"

Posted by mandra at January 24, 2005 04:55 PM | TrackBack