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