Thu 12 Nov 2009
It’s probably no surprise to anyone who has been following my blog for any length of time that its been a bit neglected of late. I can’t deny that my passion for writing these posts is not what it once was. As matter of fact my passion for many things that have really driven me for most of the last decade is at rather a low ebb. Sort of ironically my interest in my own creative endeavors is actually at an all time high. So going forward I’m going to focus this blog more in that direction. I still probably will write about things that excite me as I’m compelled to, but my focus will probably be more on why I’m compelled to more then anything else in these cases. But what I really want to do is focus more on music making (in particular) and presenting it here.
I want to present some history here, mainly because it’s important to me, but also because it will explain some things about what I’ve been doing and where I’m going. I was led to the music that I’ve been championing and discussing for the last 10 years or so from the music I was making. Around 1999/2000 I got my first real job and being able to finally afford some of the things I wanted began buying musical instruments. Analog synthesizers were my initial passion and I pretty quickly picked up a Nord Micro-Modular and a Korg MS-10. I also became interested at this point in assembling what I was calling the “junk synth” which would be like a modular synthesizer made out of components like test oscillators, home made filters, reel-to-reels used as delays and the like. I made droney music at this time, fragmented experiments, layered sounds and rough ambient-ish stuff. I wasn’t particularly trying to replicate anything in specific though I was inspired in the tape looping by Robert Fripp’s Let the Power Fall. But Ive always been one for researching and I found probably in 2000 the Zorn list. This turned me on to more music and I became interested in increasingly abstract sounds, basically stuff that lent itself well to the hodge-podge of gear that I’d assembled. At the time the most abstract stuff was just referred to as “Sine Wave Music” and its relation to musics that most Z-Listers was into was a constant point of contention.
A bit after I’d begun working with synths and tape loops I got a wire strung harp. The harp has always been an important instrument to me, something I’ve wanted to play since I was about 10. I finally in my late twenties had the resources and time to do it. At this point I fully intended to use it in an experimental context but I also felt that if one understood how an instrument was traditionally played then one would have greater insight into how to play it in an extended fashion. So I took some initial lessons and in the course of that, got hooked on the traditional music. I was lucky that I’d chosen the Wire Strung harp which is an actual traditional instrument with a thousand year history. The much more common modern nylon strung folk harp only has about a 100 year history which is almost entirely steeped in nostalgia and mischaracterization of a lost tradition. This is too big a topic to really go into, but my point is that I was just really getting into “early music” at this time and the wire strung harp tradition is much closer to that and is a rich, fascinating and beguiling instrument. It also is pretty unique sounding, not very much played, difficult to play and absolutely beautiful when played well. The upshot of this is that for years I studied and practiced traditional Irish and Scottish music and immersed myself in the surviving traditions as part of absorbing the vital aspects of the sound. I also at this time became pretty captivated with an aspect of the Great Highland Bagpipe tradition that is related to the mostly lost bardic harp tradition.
So for maybe five years or so I was immersed in traditional Irish/Scottish/Welsh music on the one hand and increasingly austere, spare and wholly abstract experimental music on the other . Due to this dual interest I was never hearing 100% of everything that was going on in what we were now calling EAI nor engaging in the level of travel that would be necessary to experience most of the major events. The experimental music that I was making at this time was my no-mind project which combined a number of threads I was interested in: abstract music without the trappings of what your average person thinks of as music, computer interaction, a complete removal of the notions of performer, indeterminacy and so on (more here). A lot of these ideas had a long history, most of which I was pretty ignorant of at this time. My basic notion was something like the Residents Theory of Obscurity in that there would be no set ensemble for this music and those who played in any instance would never be promoted. While I never managed to assemble a no-mind ensemble I stayed true to this notion in that the CDs I made and the websites I set up never had any biographical information and I never named any names. The music I was making at this time mainly involved what I referred to as the feedback synthesizer. This was my Nord Micro-Modular with a feedback loop setup that I’d use instead of oscillators. The rest of the patch would be traditional synth components and maybe I’d mix in a sinewave but the feedback would be the main sound source. The rest of it would be parts of the junk synthesizer: reverb tanks, test oscillators and the few digital devices I had, namely delays that replaced the unreliable tape looping setups I’d been using. I also would usually mix in my wire strung harp and use it to add an additional layer, or incidental sounds atop the electronics. The music came from what I called “state exploration” in which I’d setup a set of initial conditions and alter it until it became interesting. From that point I ‘d continue to tweak it until it fell apart. My first releases were three 3″ cd-rs that I made at the request of some friends who were curious about what I was doing. Only they got actual physical copies of these releases but I immediately had setup a section on my website to host these and they were available to be freely downloaded.
This was the winter of 2002 that I put out these first documents of music that I’d made throughout 2001. Around this time the Zorn List imploded and a lot of the more interesting people left or cut way back on posting. I found the i hate music message board around this time. I lurked for a bit but decided to join when they put out a call for the first compilation of music from i hate music members. I picked my favorite of the pieces from my newly released cd-rs (possibly this was before I’d even put them out, I’m not quite sure) and submitted it to the comp. I began posting at this time almost always trying to add actual content of the type I appreciated. Reviews of movies I’d seen, albums I’d listened to, books I’d read and shows I’d seen. My particular interest at this point was in talking about live shows since I was really into live music. My interests were quite wide and the amount of music that the members of IHM were interested in was even wider. I learned a lot about things I didn’t know much about and discovered vast amounts of good music. The board was diverse at this time and there were tons of massive threads outside of my areas of interest, as I’m sure it was for everyone. The board always had a sort of ironic detachment but it was filled with people in love with and immersed in music. It was posting here that led to what I began in this blog: writing about music for the benefit of others. For me it was never really about myself, what I wanted really was reports on music from a world wide scene that I couldn’t possibly experience. In kind I’d return the favor. This is why show reports have always been the basis of what I’ve done, everything else being treated somewhat differently. With the rise of filesharing networks album reviews don’t really have utility anymore, it is more a pure expression of someones taste and is in many cases a sort of attempt to involve oneself in a music making community. Really it has basically come to the point where one could just download something and form ones own opinion on it. If ones interest are incredibly wide (perhaps insanely so) one could use reviews as a filtering system prior to downloaded, but that strikes me as symptoms of an unhealthy obsession as opposed to a justification to write reviews. Everything else is pretty much marketing.
So I began hearing a lot more music at this point. I began learning a lot more as well. My own music making both suffered and benefited from all of this. Certain things I’d stumbled onto turned out to be pretty well trod territory and as I learned the history couldn’t find much room for further exploration. In other cases I simply became curious about how certain things were done and would try to work out how to do them myself. I’d try new tools just to see how I could put them to use (radios, phonograph cartridges, etc) and my music took on a more experimental bent. That is to say I was really experimenting, seeing how something would work in certain circumstances or with certain sets of restrictions. This I think led to more opaque music, that is I found the results of these experiments interesting but without detailing what I was trying to do that may not be so obvious and the aspect that I was exploring may even sound derivative. One of the common features of music obsessives is to catalog things and to assign “ownership” of things to certain people. The No Input Mixing Board is a good example, it is “owned” by Toshimaru Nakamura and anyone else who uses it is more or less automatically derivative. In a way these criticisms are akin to calling anyone who plays the violin as derivative of whomever is considered the current master, that is to say it takes away its status as an instrument. Anyway during this phase I created two albums both based on simple concepts, Every Day a New Year, in which I made a piece in each season and Winter Layers in which I recorded a piece in each of the three months of winter. By the end of this process I felt I had run the course of the no-mind project. I put out two followup pieces to Winter Layers and then ended the project.
Toward the end of this time I had also become pretty obsessed with Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise and other graphic scores and really wanted to put together something like the Scratch Orchestra to explore these. I got a half dozen of my friends and colleagues together and we began working through some of this material. This group, the Seattle Improv Meeting, quickly coalesced into just four of us (and three regulars by the end) but over four years we explored many different forms of structured improvisations, abstract scores and pure improvisation. We played historical scores and created our own and these two aspects drove most of my musical interests in the last four years. The historical music of John Cage, Christian Wolff, Cornelius Cardew, Earle Brown, Morton Feldman, David Tudor, Toshi Ichyangi and so on has really been the most interesting of the music I’ve been exploring of the last few years. Writing pieces for the group has led me to an increased interest in structured improvisation which I’ve come to realize is what I like to play the best. In 2006 I ended the no-mind project and began a two year project that culminated in my book of symbolic scores, The Book of Musical Patterns. I also during the course of the SIM had rather lost interest in solo playing: I liked playing with other people and I wanted to work with people in the vein that I was interested in exploring. This has yet to really occur but all of this is why I released very little music from 2006-2008.
I first began using Soulseek in 2004 in an attempt to find a bootleg of a duo of Keith Rowe and John Tilbury on pipe organ. I got into the IHM room which at the time seemed to fluctuate between 4 to 12 members. Often I’d log in and there’d be long conversations in French. Few of the people that came to be thought of as regulars were there at the time, though of course some were. Over time much of the more “gossipy” type conversation, the type that could get you in trouble in public, would be made there and never openly discussed. As many of the principles involved in the best discussion on i hate music and other boards migrated there, less and less discussion would actually happen on the board. While SLSK is a poor interface for reasoned discussion, it is better for a quick back and forth. And yet the more in-depth topics would come up there be worked out to some degree and then never make it to the boards. i hate music began to decline as more and more of the vital discussion took place there and elsewhere. It also had rather creaky foundations as part of the Bagatellen site and in the fall of 2006 it went down for almost a week. At this time I realized how much content I’d put there that I didn’t want to lose so I began actively using the blog I’d setup on my website a year or two earlier. When i hate music came back up I pulled all my best posts from the archives and saved them into my blog (My initial post. It starts at #2 as I’d put up a test blog years before this and never had anything beyond a test post, which I deleted). SLSK had already pretty much taken its toll and boards can’t maintain their character for long anyway: eventually the regulars get tired of the same old stories, the new people aren’t as invested in original intents and it evolves. Sometimes for the best sometimes for the worst. In IHM‘s case the most interesting posters moved on or became somewhat bitter or mostly just did SLSK. IHM was never as interesting afterthe move from the Bags sever though really it was well into decline by then.
I mostly began to write for my blog and I really tried to write in what I think of as an article style. That is a sense of objectivity with less of the typical self focused blog style. I still primarily wrote show reviews and covered a lot of the local Seattle scene. But I’d also begun traveling for shows in the last few years and thus wrote about shows from San Francisco to New York to Tokyo. For the last couple of years while I worked on the Book of Musical Patterns I mostly was seen in public as a music blogger. I put out pieces on subsequent i hate music comps (including the first public BoMP piece) but that was about all. Things were changing everywhere though. There became a lot of dissatisfaction among a lot of regulars, there was a lot of retreating everywhere. SLSK became increasingly quiet as a lot of people seemed to feel we’d talked about it all. It also increasingly fragmented with people making rooms for increasingly smaller subsets of the community. I participated in that myself to some degree but the more we restricted the participants the less there was to talk about. Eventually I too fell victim to the fragmentation and was driven away. I’d almost stopped posting on i hate music at this point as it was at a pretty low point in terms of commentators. I focused on the blog and the blogs of other IHM ex-pats.
I believe that honesty is the only coin of the blogger. At least for what I was doing. There are no ads here, I get no promos, I don’t get into shows for free, nobody buys me drinks. I don’t want any of that, but it is important to stress that there is no quid pro quo here and there never will be. As a reader I always take that into consideration and think that everyone should when they read pretty much anything. But there are other considerations to take into account besides those that can be considered pay-for-play: the personal. This mainly comes up in two ways: fanboyism and deference to friends. FanBoys will give their heroes a pass, the benefit of the doubt and so on. With friends you don’t want to seem harsh, in fact you may want to support them. I also eschewed these considerations always stating how I felt something is. It is perhaps a byproduct of online life or just the times we live in, but it is the case that sometimes things are bad. IMO it is worth saying so without equivocating. The notion that if one person likes something it isn’t bad is ludicrous. People like bad things. I like bad things. It is liberating as a human to realize this. All of the online “fights” about music (et al) comes from this issue. People identify themselves too much with their taste. If I hate X and you love X that doesn’t mean I’m saying I hate you. That is a logical fallacy that people fall for over and over again. At the same time, there are many reasons people like music and they rarely examine them. If you do that you can understand why you like something that may be bad. There are definitely things from my youth that mean a lot to me, that I fully recognize as being cheesy, stupid or bad in myriad other ways. But they have something that means a lot to me. But I don’t expect anyone else to necessarily understand that, that is just ridiculous. Of course there are those that deride people who don’t like what they like regardless, but this is an inherently childish behavior and really shouldn’t alter ones own perspective. This has been my stance and philosophy for a long time I tend to operate as if everyone takes this stance (this is certainly a mistake, but I’m an inherently rational guy and I have to operate that way). This of course has gotten me into a lot of trouble.
I’ve written a lot about music in the Pacific NW and while those I write about never (and I mean never) engage in discussion on these reviews it turns out that it is pretty widely read by those here (including this presumably). While I certainly am glad for all readership the reader I was actually writing for was the hardened IHM member. As I’ve said I wanted to read about other shows people were seeing around the world and I was returning the favor. Alas there was only maybe two-three others writing about their local scenes but still that was my whole intent. I had to be totally honest, forthcoming and direct because this global audience needed it to be that way if they are going to get any sort of sense of what’s happening here. And its what I wanted from them. The music I’ve been into for the last decade is global and each scene there may only be a couple of musicians that can be thought of as part of this global scene. But they are of course embedded in their local scene (some choose not to do this, but many do). I began playing occasionally with members of the local scene two-three years ago and that’s when I began to really realize that it wasn’t just IHM members reading here but local musicians and even the visiting musicians. There are music writers who try to use their writing as an “in” into playing with other musicians but as I’ve said, that is not something I can even consider. It would be a disservice for whom I think my real audience was and frankly for myself. And yet it was becoming increasingly uncomfortable to write about these people I was playing with or hanging out with. The fact of the matter is that I’m NOT a music writer, what I was doing was being part of a global community of listeners. I feel that to participate in something like i hate music you have to contribute in kind. Also of course I wanted to read similar things. I think if my style had been more “bloggy” this would be less of an issue, but like I’ve said, I try to write what I like to read.
The Seattle Improv Meeting came to an end as both my remaining regulars had babies within a month of each other. Coincidentally a few years after we started the group another ensemble was formed to also explore graphic scores. This became known as the Eye Music ensemble of which I joined for a performance of Treatise with Keith Rowe. For about the last year of the SIM, I was playing in both groups and was playing more music then ever. Playing with a wider group of people was great and these musicians were also mostly outside of the group of those I’d been writing about. This was a great time but as the SIM ended, Eye Music also went into hiatus as the founder and host went on to open the excellent local music store Dissonant Plane. Now I was in a place where I was mostly interested in playing with other people and all my outlets for that had evaporated. I also am no longer so interested in what have no become cliches in current improv and have been struggling to move past them. As I hear these cliches so much now in what has become an increasing amount of released music I find my interest waning in that music as well. Thus all of the things that have really been driving me for years have fallen away: IHM, SLSK, EAI, SIM, The blog, EyeMusic and so on. 2009 has been incredibly depressing for me, with none of the usual things that reinvigorates me (of course I had to go to Japan in 2008 to get recharged).
So where now? Well like I said way back at the beginning I’ve (somewhat surprisingly) become more interested in making my own music. It’s in flux as I’m abandoning a lot of the tropes I’d been perfecting but that in itself is exciting. And Eye Music has had a bit of a resurgence with a show coming up in December that we’ve been semi-regularly practicing for. I’ve also been getting increasingly more into modern and contemporary art which has also been influencing my activities. I’ve still been listening to a lot of music, I’ve just become a lot more selective w/r/t the contemporary improv I listen to. EAI has entered its “Third Wave” now (which are those who never really knew a time when it didn’t exist) and there is way less exploration and way more chaff. But it is of course a mistake to just stick with the original innovators as many of them are just spinning their wheels now. No, one needs to pay more attention then ever and put in some effort to just hear that which is interesting. Hearing less of what other people are doing also makes ones own experiments easier as well, it leaves more room to try something even if you pass it by. Mostly though I’ve been listening to classical music, both contemporary as well as the early music I love so much plus a bit of revisiting and deeper exploration of the classic classical composers that I loved so in my youth.
As for writing, well I’m going to direct it as an extension of my other creative projects. I’m going to work through some of my experiments in public, with some explanations of what they are trying to do. I’ve always (and I mean from release 1) had an online component and I’m going to stress that more, work with the medium more. The (probably rare) general music writing I’ll do, will be that which has really inspired me, but will be more focused on that aspect. A few of my projects that still interest me such as my explorations of AMM, Cardew and the like will also continue, though at a pretty slow pace. This new direction may not be so interesting to many reading this and fair enough. Its going to be more a record and archive of my activities and will be useful for me in that regard even if it went unread. But I hope that there will be those interested in these experiments, who will check them out and offer their opinions. Things will continue to be slow for the rest of this year due to work obligations, but expect these new posts to begin in the new year.
(apologies for the length, once I started writing this I wanted to include a lot. Of course I still left out tons but I tried to focus it a bit to the blog at hand here.)
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