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Experimental Music, Part 3

Last summer I attended one day of the NMASS 2016 new music festival at the Salvage Vanguard Theater in east Austin. NMASS is an event presented by The Church of the Friendly Ghost (COTFG), a local organization “dedicated to the proliferation of creative musics, future-minded expressions and experiments in sound.”  I wasn’t able to attend every performance that day, but I attended enough to know that the festival was consistent with the purpose of COTFG.

          Where do you compose? Where do you                       prefer to compose?

The first event I attended was a talk-back session and performance by Graham Lambkin. He is an audio and video artist, originally from the United Kingdom, living in upstate New York. He led a band in the 1990s, The Shadow Ring, described on allmusic.com as “avant-rock minimalists.”  Along his path from The Shadow Ring to NMASS 2016, Lambkin has become an established visual artist as well, with several published books and shows of his art under his belt. In spite of his record of accomplishments, what stood out the most to me in the talk-back session was his stated preference for composing in his car! Questions for anyone reading this: Where do you compose? Where do you prefer to compose?

During performance of Lambkin’s music, where three people joined him at different stations on stage and made sounds with a variety of instruments and other things, I had two thoughts that made it to my notes. The first was “play anything with a bow.” This really is something that I see quite often at experimental music events. What can I say? It’s a useful way to make things vibrate and emit soundwaves. The second was actually more than one thought. It was a conversation sparked in my head about whether what I was hearing was “music” or not. Look for a separate blog post about “What is Music?” sometime.

The next performance I saw that day was a collaboration by François Minaux and Laura Brackney. Their collaborations, now known as Leaf Chimes, include tape/recordings, flute, flute with glissando headjoint (Yes! It slides so the hole position varies!), unprepared piano, and vocals. Based in Austin, they have been working on projects together since 2014. The piece presented at NMASS 2016 sought to explore the relationship between innocence and violence and to represent them with sound, and they were quite successful at it, presenting a moving and evocative piece.

I Speak Machine came to Austin as part of some pretty extensive touring in the U.S. and the U.K. in 2016. This duo, Maf Lewis, filmmaker, and Tara Busch, vocalist and composer, creates sci-fi/horror films  with live soundtracks. The presentation was interesting and entertaining, even intriguing with live vocals included. While the music was appropriate for the film, the method reminded me a lot of silent movies in the early 20th century, and the music was just too loud for me at times. Yes, I have an image in my head of Huey Lewis’s character in Back To The Future saying, “I’m afraid you’re just too darned loud.”

The next performance I saw was by the Brent Fariss Ensemble, a string trio (violin, viola, contrabass) with narrator. I have heard other works by Brent Fariss and find his music to be engaging, inviting thoughtfulness. This piece explores a mysterious Interpol meeting that took place in 1977 regarding copyright piracy. Performance included theatrics and inclusion of “stolen musical fragments” to make a point about an issue that was almost certainly relevant to everyone in the room.

The following performance was a very moving presentation by Corey Dargel, voice, and Steven Parker, trombone and electronics, called “Everyone But Jones.” It includes recording that was found of cult members preparing to die in the Jonestown mass suicide led by Jim Jones. His preachings were removed, hence the name of the piece. Recording included synthetic instruments, and the trombone solo was live, reflecting feelings that might have been experienced by the cult members. This was a very moving piece.

Next up was a performance by Sarah Hennies and Stine Janvin Motland. This was some amazing musicianship, with Hennies playing phenomenal percussion and Motland Fake Synthetic Music with her voice. Truly amazing.

After a taco break with my friends Stinson and Laura I got to hear Bardo:Basho, the performance I had been looking forward to all day. Unfortunately, the beginning of the performance was tripped up by sound problems in the large theater, but the music that ensued was as wonderful as I had hoped. Again, it was live vocals with laptop-generated electronics. Bardo:Basho is Kristen Thom, a Seattle musician and teacher.

The final performance of the evening that I saw (there were several more after I left) was Dana Lyn, Kyle Sanna, and Alon Ilsar performing Cephalon, for guitar, violin, and airsticks, where Ilsar moves motion capture devices through the air to create and manipulate computer-generated sounds. A video of the piece is available here.

I had a good time at NMASS 2016 and I learned a lot. The notes I took for myself that day are a bit sketchy. Still, they do display the kinds of thoughts and ideas that show up in my brain when I attend events such as this.
-how do you start your own record label?
-create and/or modify instruments; use them in a different way
-asking myself, “Is this music?” and arguing with myself about it
-play anything with a bow
-loud volume does not equal climactic (several things too loud for me)
-kitchen sounds
-learn enough to generate some visual art via computer or with pastels
-Lilypond — it’s free
-Logic — it’s not free and is Apple-only
Ableton Live
-record practice marimba

Several presentations were too loud for me, and the sound quality in the larger theater was sometimes so poor it was very distracting from a given performance, even irritating. My notes for myself include a reminder that loud volume does not equal climactic. The sound issues might be a reflection of the counterculture aspects of a lot of experimental music presentation and/or the need or desire for a shoestring budget. The sound problems didn’t ruin my overall experience that day at all, but they were there.

For continuity’s sake I would like to repeat the definition with which I began this 3-part blog:

-relating to a scientific experiment or to scientific experiments in general (replace scientific with technology)
-using a new way of doing or thinking about something
-made or done in order to see how well something works

I would say that the music I heard at NMASS 2016 definitely fit within these definitions of experimental. Almost all performances relied on technology. The one that did not, mimicked technology. All pieces demonstrated new ways of approaching a concept or explored new ways of expression. Overall, the day was exactly what I hoped it would be: intellectually and emotionally energizing. I came away with a lot of specific thoughts and ideas, some new information, and a bucket full of excitement, knowing that anything is possible.

Let me sum up this 3-part exploration of experimental music. By the end of part 1, I had decided that technology-based music is more of a subset of experimental music, and not required. By the end of part 2, I had realized that, to me, when experiencing experimental music, I am seeking to be challenged to think about music in a different way. Here at the end of part 3, I would add that I am also seeking to be moved by the music I hear, and new techniques, while not required (Barber’s Adagio for Strings) can accomplish that quite successfully. It is worth remembering that lovely quote I hear sometimes on KMFA: All music was once new.

Permanent link to this article: https://ashleyhkraft.com/experimental-music-part-3/

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