Live Electronics

Micheal Johnsen's setup at the Chapel

(edit: 05.03.10: replaced the album cover art with better images that Michael sent me:  thanks Michael!)

This year I only went to two days of the 2010 Seattle Improvised Music Festival, but one of those days was completely revelatory. The night featured Michael Johnsen from Pennsylvania, whom was described only as playing “electronic devices of his construction”. In my musical exploration subverted, invented, re-purposed, etc electronics has been of high interest to me and considering that there seems to be a certain reticence toward electronics from the SIMF programmers this piqued my interest. Web searching didn’t reveal much: an album of duo material (2) where he seemed to not play much of these self-made electronics and this intriguing blurb from John Berndt’s Odd Instruments page:

Michael Johnsen lives in Pittsburgh and thinks near or beyond the edge of the routine organization of cognition – a true outsider. His work with original electronics, acoustic instruments, unusual film methods, language, and other media, reveals a brilliant mind that confronts phenomena with relatively little of the inherited worldview but with a tremendous amount of poetry. The entrance to Michael’s work is a withdrawal from “meaning” and a focus on aspects of perception and communication that are usually excluded – the rich universe of thoughts we habitually ignore but which are ultimately as palpable as anything else.

But it was this blurb from the label of his aforementioned duo album that made me sit up and take notice:

The first CD by one of the great minds of North American Experimental music, recorded live at High Zero 2003. Michael Johnson is both heir to the crown of David Tudor (for his incredible investigagtions into live performance of non-linear analog brains of his own creation) and also one of the most distinctive and brilliant improvisors on saw, reed, and other varied gambits.

Name checking Tudor will always garner my interest, though rarely is it justified. But a couple of YouTube Videos showcasing his solo electronics proved the comparisons were not without merit.

Watch this short clip of Johnsen performing at Chicago’s Lampo to see what I mean:

Fully intrigued now I made my way to Seattle’s Chapel Performance space on Februrary 19th 2010. When I walked into the hall, Johnsen was still on stage tweaking and adjusting his epic collection of homemade boxes and their corresponding rats nest of connections. He was running a radio broadcast through the setup and it was being heavily gated, creating this chopped up effect, turning the staid broadcast into a completely captivating bit of experimentation. The show had four sets, three with Johnsen, the first of which he performed with local improvisers on the musical saw. While a quite interesting saw performance (it featured little of the beautiful long wavering tones usually associated with the saw) I was dying to see his collection of bespoke electronics in action. I shortly got my chance as the second set was a solo electronics performance.

This sort of abstract electronics performance is hard to describe and especially if one wants to avoid merely creating a catalog of sounds and events.  Suffice it to say this performance, which was about twenty-five minutes in length, was very much in the vein of Tudor’s solo electronics work such as Toneburst, Phonemes, Untitled.  In fact I’d say that Johnsen’s language wasn’t too much evolved from in Tudors but the performance was all his. To me this has been a missing piece in Tudor’s legacy: if he was creating new instruments, new performance practices and a new form of composition then there has to be others utilizing these tools and practices. There has of course been the Composers Inside Electronics and a few others like Matt Rogalsky who I’d put in this vein but Johnsen is the first I’ve seen who really seemed to try to pick up where Tudor left off. Making his own instruments is certainly a vital aspect; I think a lot of Live Electronics types have tended toward exploring other aspects and not explored this area (as an aside this I think is becoming an increasing vital area as there are a lot more handmade, boutique and original electronics being made and used at this point). Anyway this performance was fantastic: chaotic, disruptive, highly varied, loud at times, spacious at others, it was incredible music and probably the most amazing thing I’ve seen as part of  SIMF.

Micheal Johnsen's setup at the Chapel Performance Space

The final set of the night Johnsen played with a couple more local improvisers of which he played the first half on electronics and the second half on saw. This was interesting to see how he’d use his wild and unpredictable setup with other musicians and in fact it worked quite well. He clearly highly restricted what it was doing, in effect utilizing a subset of the whole. He focused on working with radios letting the devices process the thin sounds of static. Every so often he’d let much louder disruptions through, which I thought was great as it kept things varied and broke through what could have been a rather staid performance. When he switched to saw, it was interesting as before, but a lot of energy was lost and I felt a bit superfluous after the first half. Still nice to see the electronics in collaboration.

Afterwards I got a chance to talk to Michael a bit and this was also quite interesting. We mostly talked about Tudor and his legacy and at one point I commentated that it seems like there has been somewhat of an increase in interest in Tudor and exploring some of his ideas and techniques of late. To this he replied (and I’m paraphrasing here) that while Tudor was alive there really wasn’t a lot of space for others to explore this territory and his passing has in effect open this up. This I think makes sense, but also I think the aforementioned interest in diy, hand made, boutique, original electronics had led people back to the source. He was selling three 3″ cd-rs of his solo material, the only source for his solo work as far as I know. I of course picked up all three of these. Each of these 3″ documented a live performance, two from 2009 and one from 2009. They each had a handmade cover, simply two pieces of very fragile paper with a an image on one and text on the other. All three of these utilize a similar suite of sounds and thus have the character of their creator, but as each setup is unique each performance has its own character and sound.

Michael Johnsen 27 July 2007The earliest release from July 27th 2007 was an excerpt from a 45 minute recording and is titled: Live electronic sound made by the tuning & spatial manipulation of two closely spaced portable AM radios having loopstick antennae, the resulting signal undergoing mild output processing, primarily filtering & gating. This piece, whose title describes the process so exacting, seems like it was close to that performance I describe above where he played with the other improvisers. Using two radios, held close together to cause interference, he could adjust the waves of static by moving them and minutely adjusting their tuning. His collection of devices would be left to run on their own, patched in this case to gate and filter the sounds.  Sort of like what I saw when I walked in during soundcheck, with the heavily chopped up radio, but in this case without any recognizable speech. It begins with these popping in squeaks, bursts of static, that odd sound made by tuning off a channel, and the occasional almost recognizable bit of radio. Of course readers of this blog will think of Keith Rowe and his brilliant use of the radio but let me tell you this is a completely unique approach to this device. I love Keith’s radio work and its hard to find others using it in a way that distinguishes itself from his technique and Johnsen’s use is definitely one of them. Even the occasional bits that would qualify as “grabs” feel so different, so random that it only reminds you how different and wonderful this is.

Michael Johnsen 19 Sep 2007The second release, Live Electronic sound recorded 19 Sep 2007 is more typical to the performance I saw, with a stream of little sounds, analog squeaks and bleats, but also lots of space in this one. The beginning of the piece is a cornucopia, of little sounds given plenty of room to breathe, many of them very quiet. The dynamic range of his electronics is impressive as it goes from this barely audible bubbling sounds to ear splitting blasts of over driven electronics. I love the use of space in this piece and the variety, to me this shows an individual response to Tudor’s performance practice as the pacing is clearly all Johnsen’s own. This piece has a real deliberate, exploratory, introverted nature to it as he works these mostly soft textures, manipulating them into different aspects of themselves.

Michael Johnsen 19 Feb 2009The most recent disc was recorded a year (to the day!) of the show I saw,  Live Electronic sound recorded 19 Feb 2009. It begins with a percussive sound, still electronics but sounding like the manipulation of heavy object capture by contact mics. Along with this is this occasional squawk and fizz of electronics, reminding you that this is live electronics. One bit of this recording is super sparse, with sounds almost like those generated by rubbing balloons. Something amongst these soft squeaks and groans was pretty amusing, generating some soft but audible chuckles from the audience. Reminding us again of the limitations of recordings of live music. This recording felt the most like the solo set I saw on this night: a wilder, with incredible dynamic range featuring extreme loud bits and barely audible sections, but also a bit more tentative, more exploratory. There is a lot of space in this music, a feature that I like a lot, letting the sounds be themselves, fully recognized and allowed to stand on their own, but with plenty of variety and texture that can be missed if it is all space. This one probably had my favorite collection of sounds, often fizzing away, chopped up, and incredibly well paced and structured.

One theme that runs through much of our conversation is the idea of pure investigation, a strong curiosity for sounds and events. The appreciation of art does not need to be regulated to gallery walls, but could occur at any point, in any situation. This is an apt description of the sounds emitting from Michael’s large stash of homemade/handmade electronic boxes, filters, etc. Each set is unique. Each venue provides a different set of acoustics to play off, a different number of bodies for the sound to travel through, a number of street sounds ready for response. For those of you who have seen Michael perform, there surely exists a quest for something unheard, a quest that is not without humor, but is surely without pretension.(4)

Upon acquiring these discs I did some more googling around and found this semi-review of the first two discs here as well as information on acquiring them directly from Johnsen. It seems that Metamkine stocks them (though probably more of a sure bet to contact Johnsen directly) and Vital Weekly did a so called “review” of these (though it hardly sounds like they were listened to much, but I suppose thats par for the course for that product). Needless to say I think these are well worth tracking down and anyone who reads this blog will certainly want to hear them. Michael’s email address can be found at that aforementioned review or contact me and I’ll hook you up with it as I’m not comfortable posting it. In closing let me just extend a hearty thanks to the SIMF for bring Michael to Seattle and introducing me to a new, vital voice working right in the area I’m most interested in these days.

This video reminds me the most of his Seattle show, with a bit more chaos and noise:

1) John Berndt’s Odd Instruments
2)  Adam Strohm Patience Tryouts review at FakeJazz
3) Micheal Johnsen Patience Tryouts from Recorded
4) Thoughts generated from an interview with Pittsburgh’s Michael Johnsen, David Bernab, Pittsburgh New Music Net

I just got back from the second night of Keith Rowe in Seattle. Once again, I got there about a half an hour early to find Chris and a friend of his outside. Again we get seats in the front row and talk to Keith for a good bit before the show. Another really great conversation with Keith, this time talking quite a bit about treatise. He had brought with him a notated version of page 54 that he had mentioned the day before. This was generated from a performance that he had done in Houston a few years previous. In this he has thoroughly notated what he is going to play and how for each segment of the score. He even has it pretty well laid out the time scale upon which he is going to play it. I asked him how rigorously he sticks to that time scale and he said pretty well, sometimes faster and rarely any longer the the time which was about 12 minutes. This conversation was immensely valuable to me as Cardew always seemed to hedge on using the score for directed improv and playing it as a score. He seemed to talk it up as an structured improv, but always came back to playing it as a score which means that your reactions are your own but they should be consistent. I brought up this issue of consistency and Keith pointed out how if you take the score as a whole that consistency becomes very hard. At about this point the organizers suggested the show should start so we ended the discussion here.

Keith Rowe/Gregory Reynolds/Leif Sundstrom
The night was two trios with Keith as the common element. He was setup with table of gear on the platform and in front and to the right of the stage was the piano (though not to be played in this set). In front of the stage on the floor was Sundstrom’s Gear: a floor tom and some electronics including one of those cheap record players with integrated radio. On stage to the left of Keith’s table was Reynolds sax and a small collection of objects including a number of beer cans.

In this set Keith more or less was pretty far in the background with low washes and rumbles of sound. Leif had a contact mic on his floor tom and he tended to worked in the amplified texture territory. He scraped things across the head of the drum, pressed on it, rubbed things against its surface and side. He also used the record player in various ways (though never with records) including rubbing it, putting a bowl under the needle and in one nice point he used the build in radio. Gregory began with breathy fluttering sounds on the sax and he often worked with longer tones in the “saxophone feedback” realm. Butcher like but generally more sedate. There were a number of segments where longer sustained tones from him gelled really well with tones from Keith or Leif. However he made the common young improviser error of not laying out enough and of not sticking with a technique long enough. A like a lot of his playing and at times it worked well but overall was a bit unsatisfying. Leif’s playing was generally great and I thought worked well with Keith. I had grabbed the GOD cd before the show and I am definitely looking forward to spinning it.

Keith Rowe/Gust Burns/Jeffrey Allport
Leif’s floor tom and electronics was replaced with Allport’s floor tom and assorted percussion gear. Gust Burns placed a large number of small stick like objects in his piano and this trio was pretty much ready to go. A fairly long silence at the beginning and then Keith put in a bit of static. Jeffrey began with scrapping the surface of his tom as Gust began to stick his small dowels in between strings of the piano. After he had put in a couple he began to rub them basically in the same technique as Sean Meehan’s dowel on cymbal technique. Even with the piano amplifying this, this was very subtle and short lived sounds. Keith never built up his “typical” droning sound, always working the volume pedal and working with shorter tones in a wider variety of sounds. Jeffery worked through a wide array of techniques, but they all were so quiet and so subtle that it didn’t feel at all like a run through of techniques. They worked as a continuation of the same space of sounds. This set was very sparse, delicate and sensitive. Gust played entirely inside the piano mostly with the dowel technique, but at one point rubbing the strings and at another plucking the strings with the dowels. This later technique had a nice prepared piano sound. Jeffrey worked the “Meehan” technique with the the dowels directly on the floor tom head which created a groaning rustling sound. He also did a number of actions with small cymbals on the drum surface from blowing into one, to gentle striking another one whilst rubbing the surface. Throughout this Keith mixed in washes, buzzes, file strings, spronging sounds and short radio clips. Twice during the set the brought it down to near silence – just amplifier hum, but each time Keith brought it back and Gust and Jeffery would both delicately return to dropping sounds into the space. Both of these musicians was comfortable and willing with laying out, not playing a sound unless they were sure that it was the right thing to do. Eventually Gust and Jeffrey stopped, Gust’s head still in the piano. Keith took a good bit of time slowly shutting things down. There was a long, long pause before the audience decided it was over. I really liked this set, it was very different from all of the Keith sets I’ve seen lately and it was fully engaging and musically rich.

Afterward we talked to Keith just a bit more, mainly thanking him and eventually taking our leave. In the last 10 days we have seen 7 Keith sets and a varied bunch of sets they have been. All entertaining and all with interesting and engaging musical elements. Additionally the long talks with Keith have been great from the very informative Treatise information to geeking over stereo equipment. Its been a hell of a September, one I’ll remember for a long time.

Tuder and Mumma cover David Tudor & Gordon Mumma
(New World Records)

David Tudor was the mid twentieth century avant garde’s favorite pianist, often called upon by such greats as Stockhausen, Boulez and Cage to perform works that demanded incredible skill. In his work with Cage, he was increasingly called upon to use the electronics of the day and he became a maestro at coaxing the most from these primitive circuits. Cartridges, amplifiers, contact microphones, simple oscillators and filters were the materials they had to work with and Tudor was a master at pushing these just to the point before they would harshly feedback, distort or otherwise produce sounds out of the range called for. Eventually he began to assemble his own circuits, combing the simple elements they had into novel and unique devices that he would often house in soap holders. As he became more of a collaborator then an interpreter he was asked to compose works for various people and in 1968 Merce Cunningham commissioned music for a dance based on Colin Turnbull’s The Forest People called Rainforest.


On hearing the proposed title for this Cunningham dance, Tudor remarked, “Well I’ll be sure to use lots of raindrops”. Instead of any sort of practical technique or taped based method, he chose to use pure electronics for his recreation of the sounds of the rainforest. For the initial version of this piece (which Tudor would perform and expand throughout his career), his interest was in the sounds of amplifiers in and of themselves. “The basic notion, which is a technical one, was the idea that the loudspeaker should have a voice which was unique and not just an instrument of reproduction, but an instrument unto itself.” (1) He utilized small sounds amplified via phonograph cartridges (a technique that he had used on Cages Cartridge Music) then fed into a multi channel speaker array. These sounds were designed to emulate the sound of rain, of wind in the trees, the repetitive calls of birds and the screeches of unseen animals. “In the first version, I made objects which I could travel with. The objects were so small, however, that they didn’t have any sounding presence in the space, so I then amplified the outputs with the use of contact microphones. Then for the second version, I wanted to have a different kind of input”¦ because for the first I had used oscillators that made animal and bird-like sounds. “ (2) The first version of Rainforest was performed in South America during the 1968 Merce Cunningham dance company’s world tour. This new release from New World Records documents Rainforest from this first tour as well as a much longer version from concert in Ithaca New York. Nicely breaking up the two performances are several short piano works by Gordon Mumma also from around this same period.

The first track on the disc is a twenty-minute version of Rainforest from July 30th, 1968, performed in Rio de Janeiro Brazil. A low thrumming sound opens the piece with some audience noise audible in the background. Things then really take off with a distant rattle followed by a persistent clicking sound as of a disturbingly large insect somewhere deep in the forest. This is followed by an oscillating whine as that initial thrum fades away only to be replaced by a rather electrical sounding buzz. Tocks, irregularly repeated, a scratchy moan and feedback with oscillators creating these birdlike calls. Toward the conclusion, there is a persistent bit of feedback and then things wrap up with this cranking sound and then applause and shouts from the audience.

From this very first take on the piece, you can hear that Tudor’s intent was genuinely realized. It truly does capture the sounds of a rainforest as anyone who has heard field recordings from the Amazon or a seen a nature show that allows for some unmediated sound (or I’d image actually being in the Amazonian rainforest). The sounds don’t quite seem natural, their electronic nature obvious and yet played at a low volume or in another room you would swear that someone was playing “sounds of the rainforest”.


This earliest version of Rainforest is followed by six pieces by Gordon Mumma for two pianos that range from fifteen seconds to six minutes in length. Mographs and Gestures are the pieces in question and there are four of the former and two of the later. Both of these works are for two pianists who, as with the rest of the music on this album, are Tudor and Mumma. The Mographs were “derived from seismographic recorded P-waves and S-waves of earthquakes and underground nuclear explosions”(3) and for the most part are quick little bursts at the piano. The sounds are of fragmented arpeggiations, quick chords, spaces and the occasional single note. Often small sections will be repeated the same or with minor variations which as anyone who has seen a seismograph recording can see how that would have developed. The Gestures were a more structurally complicated composition that used different techniques in each of the different numbered section. Section X was a game piece with a very limited range and Section 7 was through composed piece that spanned the range of both pianos. These short little pieces may seem at first listen to be slight little extravagances, but I found them to be a nice interlude between the two versions of Rainforest that additionally I found would hold my attention each time. Simple sounding but with interesting structures and an almost fractal nature in that they seem to be so self similar but are continuously varying.


Following the piano excursions is the second and much longer version of Rainforest. Definitely the centerpiece of the disc, this version takes the concepts and systems of the earlier performance to the limit. It begins with a skittering oscillation and an almost liquid rubbing sound that is shortly followed by a repeated chittering and a gentle wash of static. Out of this arises some bird like chirpings with an electronic edge and a low textural roaring sound that comes in and out, in and out but soon replaced by a low oscillation. A chirping begins, following a rising pattern, which repeats a number of times until transforming into a solid line. Added to this are an oscillating low tone and a very gentle quiet tweeting, soon disrupted by some relatively loud grating feedback. Nothing in the piece, as in the forest last long and this quickly fades out and we return to a more static sound field. Eventually a much louder grinding, stuttering sound comes in, as of a much larger bird closer by. And things continue in this way as this piece captures the effect of spending forty minutes in the rainforest with the variety of sounds that you would expect. Much more varied then the first version this one adds those pulsing, ticking and pounding sounds that one so often hears in rainforest recordings as well as more ambient sounds made up of the low rumble of feedback, warbly hums and bursts of static. Sounds that could have come from a woodpecker, the scream of a large cat, cicada like insect noises and those unidentifiable tocks, screeches and projector like sounds are all found here. It is a rich world of sound and nothing less then what one would expect from such an environment. That it was created with such simple elements ably demonstrates David Tudor’s creativity and how closely he must have listened to the sounds around him. For out of merely amplifying normal sounds and some simple electronics he has created a complete sound world.

The album concludes with a very short solo piano piece that Gordon Mumma created on hearing of the death of David Tudor. Song without Words is a melancholy, almost romantic meander across the keyboard made up of little spaces, single notes and simple chording. You can feel the emotion that just poured out of Mumma and onto the keys, formless as ones thoughts can be at these times and as he titled the piece, wordless.

Rainforest holds up well and can be performed as it always has been with or without the use of new technologies. This autumn I witnessed Gordon Mumma and Matt Rogalsky perform this piece at the Vancouver New Music Silence: John Cage festival (my review here). The performance was stunning and was what drove me to investigate this album. I cannot express how happy I am that I did, as this is one of those rare albums that hold both historical significance and fantastic music. So much of the early electronic music was merely evolutionary, composers playing with new toys and developing new techniques at the cost of the music. Tudor seemed far more interested in using the tools at hand to create the sounds in his head and in this case with complete success. This compact disc exists beyond the mere documentation of an important development in electronic music it is a musical sound world and one of the best listens I’ve had this year.

(1) from an interview by Teddy Hultberg in Dusseldorf May 17th and 18th 1988.
(2) from an interview by John Fullemann October 12th 1985.
(3) from the accompanying liner notes by Gordon Mumma, page 18.

Originally published at Bagatellan

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