january 19, 2005.

The fine French zine Octopus, dedicated aux musiques libres et inventives - formerly off-, now exclusively online - this month organized the second edition of its festival. This year's theme: Inventeurs d'instruments, instrumentists inventifs - inventors of instruments, inventive instrumentalists. The three part event started off with an evening at the Point Ephémère, precisely one week ago, on wednesday january 12th.

As an introduction to the evening's three performances, a short film was screened in which the three performers explained what later on they would be doing on stage, and showed and talked about their 'instruments'. I enjoyed that. Simple, well done, to the point and very informative.

In the documentary Emmanuel Ferrand demonstrated bits of his 'metal ware' based constructions, and explained his interest in the creation of 'sonic objects' that permit the generation of 'clouds', of 'masses of sound'. Once set in motion, he will try to control his 'objects', his 'instrument' (as in: means to an end), and lead them along - even though necessarily many of the parameters involved will remain largely out of his control; a lot of what is going to happen once things are on their way is guided by pure chance. But that, of course, is part of the adventure upon which in each new performance he embarks.

I have had the pleasure of seeing and hearing Emmanuel perform on several occasions already. During the gaité lyrique placard, for instance; somewhat later again in a bar/gallery in the rue Saint Honoré; and last month in the informal setting of the k-lounge, on a boat on the Seine opposite the Notre Dame, where - on acoustic piano - I joined him and Eric Houzet in an improvised 'sonic illustration' of one of their 'scientific lectures'.

Emmanuel is a veritable 'microscopist' of sound; the tiny 'clouds' of sounds emanating from his small builds are potentially rich in subtle detail and (s)u(r)p-rising inter-actions. A universe of micro-sound-ings that do merit the listener's attention and concentration; attention and concentration that in the intimate setting of placard-style 'low volume' events are easily and willingly given, but which, in their open- and unobtrusiveness, they fail to command. And they indeed did fail to do so in the relatively large and crowded hall of the Point Ephémère, with an audience watching and listening standing up, ensemble being another - opposing - sort of 'noisy cloud'... which was undoubtedly one of the reasons why, after a fine start, in the course of his set Emmanuel betook himself to an excessive use of delay and repeat, effects, often giving way to some sort of an 'easy beat' that drowned a lot of the micro-sonic wealth of his actions, and thus, unfortunately, this time very much 'flattened' his universe.

The second performance was by Rafaël Toral (Portugal). In the section of the documentary film dedicated to him, he explained the functioning of the 'feedback' system he would be using in his part of the show: a microphone with a penlight / photocell control, inserted into a small customized pocket-amplifier, allowing for a certain amount of mastery over the well known feeding back of the sound captured by a mike through an amp. Like many others, surely, I used a comparable, though non-customized, feedback system in the very first primitive recordings I did in the mid-1970's, using a portable cassette-radio as an amplifier. I remember how fascinated I was both by the 'pureness' of the sounds produced, and the surprising amount of control that one was able to exert on this simple 'circuit' by changing angle and distance of the microphone with respect to the loudspeaker, and by just varying the 'amp's' output volume. It indeed is a thing that one could learn to play. (Maybe one might compare the techniques needed a bit to those a player uses when playing a Theremin: it all boils down to controlling space and body movements... A feedback system, feedback instrument (f.b.i.), though will always remain unpredictable to a certain degree, while there's of course nothing unpredictable about the way a Theremin reacts.)
Rafaël's custom adaptations increase the possibility of control by the player even further, as well as the range of sounds that the system may produce.

It is a funny little contraption to watch while it's being handled on stage with the small penlight shining - as if searching, hesitating - in the near dark ... Also, the sort of movements that by the very way and nature of the f.b.i.'s functioning are demanded of its mani-pul-ator, made this solo performance very much into something of a theatre of gestures. The 'code name' Rafaël uses for this and similar performance work, Space, is a more than appropriate label. And it did manage to capture my attention in the beginning. But just for a short while. Is this theatre? Well, it did look like it, but then quickly failed to continue to grasp me like theatre should have. This crossed my mind: "Why doesn't the guy tuck his shirt in his trousers?" Admittedly, this is a bizarre phrase de critique, and right on, go ahead, kill me for it. But it did cross my mind, very, very early on in the performance. Followed by something like "His shoes are not bad, though ..." All this shouldn't have crossed my mind, which I would have want to be captured by the sounds and the mime. As it was, Rafaël seemed to be wandering somewhat at random up there. Seeking sounds. He didn't investigate that relatively vast space, let alone master it. Most of the time he appeared to be somewhat lost up there. And whereas the whole setting all but cried out for his gestures to be primary to the sounds, it were the sounds that were primary to his gestures: Rafaël was making certain types and series of movements because he obviously knew what sounds would result. This made his this evening's performance actually into but very little more than the demonstration of a gadget. For the 'catalogue' of the f.b.i.'s sounds, and the necessarily monophonic sonic discourse resulting from its use as a solo instrument, in and by itself, is rather thin. Listening back to parts of the dictaphone recording that I made of the event, the really interesting sonic events actually were due to a couple of lucky chance duets between the sounds of the f.b.i. and the longish shrieking of the doors, leading from the concert space to the Point Ephémère's cafe/restaurant, opening and closing while people came in and/or went out, creating snippets of polyphonic relief ...
To sum up: lots of - at this particular event unrealized - potential, first of all theatrically for sure, but also musically - for I do imagine a possible and very more interesting role for the f.b.i. in the larger context of an ensemble; and, indeed, why not an ensemble of f.b.i.'s?

It was up to the American born and usually labeled 'minimalist composer' Arnold Dreyblatt, who moved to Europe in 1984 and is living and working in Berlin, to make this evening - through his first ever performance in France - into a memorable rather than a merely anecdotal one.

I think he succeeded.

Dreyblatt's longstanding fascination is with the series of natural overtones (harmonics), that ever since the early 1970's he has continued to explore within and through his sound works, in several ways, including of course dedicated, on the natural harmonics based, tunings.
The first of the two pieces he played at the Point Ephémère used a such tuning in the setting of a relatively recent electronic work, presented as a laptop performance. Well, maybe in the case of an electronic work one should rather speak of the 'range of frequencies used' rather than 'tuning'. The piece consisted in fields of sound that were gradually built up and developped around an E-core, and within which ever changing rhythmic patterns of beatings continue to evolve.

inverted apple logo

[Btw, during the performance of this piece I noticed something odd which has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the music we were hearing. It was that Dreyblatt used a Mac laptop, one of the older black G3 models, and it suddenly occurred to me that the brightly illuminated Apple logo in the laptop's cover appears upside down when being opened and looked at from an audience's point of view; which at that moment, with the machine so centrally exposed, in the spotlight on a stand, one of the protagonists there on that stage, actually struck me as being nothing short of a design error :-) ; which meanwhile, in the newer models, indeed appears to have been corrected. ]

dreyblatt and bass

Arnold Dreyblatt probably is best known for his adaptations and modifications of string instruments, notably the double bass. The second part of his performance was a 're-creation' of an early piece from 1979, Nodal excitation, here performed ("for the first time in 25 years," he told us) as a solo on the adapted 'excited strings bass', a double bass on which he replaced the usual, 'wound', bass strings by piano strings.
"I became attracted to the [double bass] for its large resonating box and the long speaking length of its strings," Dreyblatt writes (in 'Music' [pdf-file]), "which makes possible the production of the higher overtones. I attached some of the piano wire which I had recently ordered to restring the miniature piano. The unwound wire raised the fundamental a number of octaves and made possible the production of extremely high upper overtones. The thinner diameter of this relatively long string (42 inches) enabled the wire to vibrate in the shorter and shorter lengths representing the higher vibrational modes. I began working with the bow, striking and bowing in isolated attacks upon this one string, moving closer and farther away from the bridge. I marked the nodal points on the finger board and occasionally isolated overtones with the fingers of my left hand. [...] I developed a repertoire of isolated percussive and bowed attacks, and these evolved into a continuous rhythmic technique in which I [...] excite chords of overtones above the fundamental. This technique is a combination of bowing and striking, in which a short portion of the bow is brought into contact with the string in a forward and backward motion. If the striking aspect is emphasized, the inharmonic nature of the attack overwhelms the sound and little resonance is excited. If a long section of bow hair is brought into contact with the string, the resulting sound is lacking in resonance. In daily practice over a two month period, I gradually learned to make fine adjustments, bringing specific harmonics in and out of the foreground, as times touching a nodal point with my left hand. The instrument is amplified with contact piezo microphones in performance."

Dreyblatt's performance of the very rhythmic piece was as energetic as it was a sonic feast. After an introductory slow and softly relaxed bowing of the open strings (C) - both a welcome and a preparation - the piece continued to be driven along by a continuous up-tempo, four beat, percussive hitting of them, which gave it the organic, natural feel and pace of an early morning jog in the park, with the ongoing shifting and ringing of the overtones much like the dazzling stream of clear light and bright color sweeping by in the periphery of a runner's field of vision. In built-up and structure this Nodal Excitation was - surely not so surprising - reminiscent of Charlemagne Palestine's 'Bösendorfer' trip, somewhat less than a year ago in the Instants Chavirés. Palestine's hammering run along the piano's well-tempered harp there brought forth clouds of bursting, clashing and ever intertwining harmonies, impressive in their inextricable density and complexity, like the smoke rising above a battlefield. Here, on the contrary, the but four strings accounted for a crystal c-clearness and an immense tonal transparency. Absolutely a classic of sorts. (Even though I think this is a music that one can only fully experience in a 'live'-setting, for those that are interested in a 'boxed' taste of it: you can listen to and/or download recordings of performances of this and related Dreyblatt pieces at his web site.)

[I missed the second evening of the Octopus festival, which took place the next day, on thursday 13th, in the Centre Pompidou. It featured performances by Gert Jan Prins, Gavin Russom & Delia Gonzales, and Maywa Denki. Also the third and final event related to festival, on saturday the 15th in the Palais de Tokyo, eventually had to do without my presence. That was sort of unfortunate - not so much for the festival, though, I presume, as it was for me. Due to an instrument related hold-up, actually, but hardly an invented one: I just got stuck in the early saturday evening traffic jams on the Parisian ring way while transporting a very nice & classical harp from one end of town to the other ...]

[ Next related SB entry: ride, buggy, ride ...! (festival Octopus 2006) ]

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