The alertness to possibilities

The alertness to possibilities

Tone Åse in collaboration with Pamela Z and Sten Sandell, spring 2019

(In conversation with Andreas Aase)

How the project came about

My first meeting with Swedish pianist Sten Sandell gave me a chance to perform at the 2018 edition of the Other Minds festival in San Francisco. This festival has been essential to the development of modern American music for more than 25 years now, and I found myself surrounded by artists, composers and producers I had known about for a long time, but never interacted with. The director, composer and radio producer Charles Amirkhanian was one of Laurie Anderson´s early inspirations, some of the performers had done vocal work for Meredith Monk, and you would see people like Pamela Z and Amy X Neuburg in the audience as well as on stage. The community turned out to be open and friendly, and I settled in quickly.

Leading up to my visit there, I travelled to Stockholm to work through one of Sandell’s open compositions and a few improvisations, and it felt like home right away. Although he is a pianist working in the European free jazz idiom, he also relates to the Swedish sound poetry tradition (ljudpoesi), which in turn relates to futurism, Dadaism, and more. His performances combine piano, voice and (sometimes distorted) recitation, and he focuses on topics such as transforming and dissolving the meaning of words through focusing on their sonic properties – occasionally feeding piano textures “sideways” into the timbre of his voice.

Sten Sandell solo from concert at Dokkhuset :

The theme at Other Minds 2018 was Sound Poetry- The Wages of Syntax. As part of their rich program they conducted communal listening sessions of old recordings in this compositional vein, as well as performances of older compositions. These listening sessions demonstrated unequivocally how a lot of contemporary experimental vocalists base their work on the early pioneers. A lot of people in the audience were veterans on the avant-garde scene, and were familiar with, for example, the works of Kurt Schwitters, John Cage, Hugo Ball, and Tommaso Marinetti. Another important artist in this field is Jaap Blonk, who performed Schwitters’ Ursonata on this particular occasion, but who also composes pieces of his own. Blonk dissolves language completely in his performances, either staying close to it in the way he shapes his vocal sounds, or extending the language in ways that are sometimes quite extreme. A truly unique performer whom it was a pleasure to meet.

As has often been the case, Sweden arrived at these ideas of liberation – not just artistically, but sometimes also politically – much earlier than the other Scandinavian countries. Collaborations between the artist collective Fylkingen, EMS (Electroacoustic Music Studio), and SR (Swedish public radio) in Stockholm resulted in works that are historically important.    The fact that this work has a place in the international history of sound poetry was recognized by the Other Minds festival, where acousmatic pieces by Swedish composers Sten Hanson and Åke Hodell were presented.

Something else this festival reminded me of was how the experimentation with words, voice and sounds has always been a political act. I’ve always nurtured an interest in the political potential of lyrics, next to my focus on the sonic qualities of words and language.  I’ve tried my hand at it in a few solo performances, and I think it’s hard – very hard. As a consequence, I often end up with just one, or a few, sentences as points of departure for a structured improvisation:

‘It could have been you

I work with sound, voice and text in both conventional and abstract/deconstructed forms, and I perceive it as playing with different levels of meaning. For example, defined words carrying clear intent have a potential for very significant impact when you move in an otherwise abstract sonic landscape. This is something I addressed as a research fellow in my work with ‘Lydnovellen’ (‘Short story of sound’) combining storytelling, sound and music into a solo piece. I try to to reach the convergence point between these different paths to meaning more frequently;  sometimes I include a defined, language-based mode of expression. My solo performance in the project with Pamela Z and Sten Sandell explored these processes:

Excerpt from solo performance, concert at Dokkhuset, Trondheim

When I look at Pamela Z, whose background as for example an experimental music DJ at a radio station makes her extremely knowledgeable in her field, I experience her as very  free – there’s a healthy disregard for the past (I think) in the way she heads directly for the core of any new project she undertakes. She operates in a cross-section between music, performance art and visual art. She is a pioneer, also in the sense of being one of the few female composer-performers using music technology in the way that she does, and as an artist who initiates development of new musical interfaces for live performances. Meeting Pamela in the Other Minds Festival audience over several days confirmed that she walks it like she talks it, often emphasizing how important it is to take part in and build communities, and to expose yourself to other people’s work. When we had a conversation after my performance with Sten Sandell, I jumped at the chance to invite them both to Norway – with an eye to a possible collaboration. We were able to organize a short residency in April 2019, working with several institutions.

Excerpt from Pamela Z’s solo performance, Trondheim, Dokkhuset:

The technology

Actually I find it a bit strange that- apparently – rather few vocalists use gesture-controlled electronics on a long term basis. In Europe, two performers stand out in this experimental field: German Alex Nowitz with his Strophonions, and Franziska Baumann from Switzerland with her glove, combined with other sensor controllers. They are doing groundbreaking work, both artistically and through taking part in the development of new technology and instruments, just as Pamela does. ( There are of course other projects around, including splendid people, that I’m not aware of. ) Pamela’s setup allows her to live-sample, loop and process her voice, and it gives her access to pre-record ed material for live processing and other forms of manipulation by her gesture controllers. To a certain degree, our setups are related – I also have a set of sounds available in the shape of presets to work from in my improvisations, in addition to the live sampling and live processing possibility. But the only gesture-controlled technology I have in my setup for now is a conventional infrared device that controls filters – that is, which frequencies are emphasized, or de-emphasized, in my sounds. Though this technology is commercially available going on at least ten years, and it is a rather simple function compared to Pamela’s custom-made devices, people still remark on it as a standout feature in my setup. And it does give you a different approach to performing electronic music from just using a sliding fader and a button. I considered implementing sensor controllers  while doing my Ph.D.-level artistic research, inspired by Pamela’s and Alex Nowitz’ work,  but I found it hard to combine with the fact that interaction with other musicians was my main area of investigation at that time (not that this would be impossible with a new setup , but there was simply not enough time to do both). Now, however, I’m considering introducing gesture controllers more into my performances, in part because Pamela demonstrated solutions and possibilities that I did not think of earlier. Specifically, I’ve been stuck in an “either/or” pattern of thinking, where the infrared controller has been sort of isolated to one side of the setup, and where I’ve been thinking that I have to choose between working in either Ableton Live or moving the whole setup to Max MSP (which is an advanced programming application).  I now realize that I can integrate the Max MSP in the setup I already have, and also that I don’t have to spend years learning it – it’s fully possible to commission sounds and patches that fit with my ideas, from someone else.

Methods

The human mind keeps coming up with ideas and dreams about what kind of technology should be developed next, and how we imagine it can be used. We’re a long way down the line from digital instruments simply being used to imitate acoustic ones. However, I’m still connected to music I grew up with. Grooves in pop music is one example: though I will not try to produce that kind of grooves in my music, there is always some element in my performances that reaches for that kind of rhythmic function, though I tend to make it abstract and, on occasion, non-repetitive. Another example: I think about bass as a general musical component rather than a defined instrument: If I transpose my voice down an octave electronically, it sounds lame to my ears. To go two octaves down is better, especially if there’s a touch of reverb, and if I can chop up the sound – granulate it – and shuffle little pieces of it around, I suddenly have a bigger sonic room in which I can move up, down and sideways. Electronic performance gives us the opportunity to answer, and prolong, functions in more conventional music. It also provides a wonderful potential for openness, in the sense that real-time debates with yourself about decision-making can take place. Say, for instance, I find myself moving along a one-note looped pattern. I can filter it, I can turn it up and down, and I can combine it with something else. At that point, a voice in my head will have to say “Enough. This works. Let it go on for a while”, and I might have to suppress my other instinct, for virtuosity and resolution, and let myself go with the flow instead. Another example of how I’ll answer or prolong mechanisms from conventional music is to do something intensely rhythmic that fills the space of a fast groove, but doesn’t add up in even time signatures, it never settles in so you can tap your feet to it.  Someone I know called it “beatboxing with fever cramps” – I like to call it my rhythm will. I’ll sometimes use technology for the same thing and granulate sounds so the machine feeds back rhythmic information that’s busy, irregular and dense.

I don’t gather my concepts in alphabetical lists or strict dogmas, but I recognize that I’ve established a handful of working methods with (extended) sounds and improvisation. To work with roles and functions that resemble or mirror more conventional roles in music, is one strategy, as mentioned. Another example of a strategy is to think and act in relation to frequencies and sound qualities: to take in the whole sonic picture and then seek out a totally different function than what’s going on around you, but without creating fracture: If there’s a lot of slow, low-pitched stuff going on around you, there’s a good chance you can fit in something bright, short and dry, thus creating a new layer and movement, adding on and opening up for new responses. In this kind of abstract soundscape, a need for something more concrete may arise, like a word, a lyric, a melody, or a rhythm. The soundscape might need a preparation, an introduction, or a transformation from something/into something if you don’t want breaks and fractures.  Another simple, but very useful strategy, is imitation; one example is ‘follow singing’, as we call it in (electronic/improvising vocal ensemble) Trondheim Voices: you can sing an improvised melody line together with someone, if you just follow them closely. As a result of this you also get a ‘human delay’ effect which can be interesting in itself. I’ll use many of the same concepts in various constellations, and also when I teach improvisation. We talk a lot about it in Trondheim Voices: what kind of role do you assume? Don’t send sound into a sonic area if you don’t have anything to say there. Wait and see if another area opens up – or be quiet until you sense an interesting place you want to go to. Find the right balance where you don’t enforce anything, but where you can take responsibility and initiate things. Don’t be passive – stay alert to possibilities. And let go of the need to know in advance everything that’s going to happen. These are general issues in all improvised music, and while they’re not exactly revolutionary thoughts, we still need to remind ourselves from time to time about the importance of focusing, executing and evaluating methodically, over time. Improvisation may be perceived as almost a magic phenomenon to some listeners, it’s usually the result of systematically exploring various ways to encounter, and develop, musical opportunities real-time.

I think electronic instruments can lock us into fixed tonal and rhythmic zones. The whole looping technology seems connected to the aesthetics of 20th-century composers like Steve Reich – but repetition has always been present in music and human life. With technology, though, you are no longer limited to the physical performance of repeated patterns. The repetitiveness of the machinery can be magical and seductive, but the loop/drone combination can also become a trap, where you create something that’s hard to change. How do you stop it, or how do you develop it further? Perhaps the answers are simple: You can work with strategies for stopping a loop: if you’re worried that there’s going to be a dramatic break when you stop it, you may want to make a different sound at the same time – to cover the break and create musical meaning. If it feels natural, you can turn the loop back on, then off, then create a game of on-and-off with it. And then you can lay it off completely. Another strategy: Your loop can contain several gaps. If it does, you can easily stop it in one of those gaps. Also, you can pitch it down, while at the same time altering the effect it’s sent through before you stop, or you can change the loop into sounding like something else through processes like granular synthesis or filtering. There’s a lot of possibilities, and it’s been important for me to recognize and practice these rather simple strategies in order to avoid getting ‘trapped’.

We seem to have arrived – for the time being – at a general aesthetic where much of the electronic, experimental and improvised music involving (live) sampling doesn’t open up to a lot of harmonic activity and abrupt changes. I think the technological boundaries and the aesthetic choices are intertwined in the reasons for this. When timbre is a focus in itself, repetition and patience is necessary in order to guide the performer and the listener’s ear towards the sonic quality. Once you change a chord, it creates a different focus and you change the material’s quality as merely sound/texture. The technology of the electronic music era, starting with the gramophone and the magnetic tape, opened up for this kind of sonic focus. It also shaped the music itself, in the same way as every instrument and technology forms our human behavior (just think about the smartphone). The controller, the interface, is important. As an example, I find that the use of a small drum sampler with electronic pads helps me create something busy and fast in my music – with pads I can play short, choppy sounds and pit them against each other. The tactility in the pads represents an invitation for me to do this, so this function of the controller is definitely forming the way I play.

The notion of fast can be a challenge in live processing. The path from input to experienced result is often more complex than in acoustic music. It takes time. We have discussed this in our research with NNTU- based ensemble T-EMP. We sometimes reach a point where we simply can’t process and react as fast as we want to – or would be able to do with an acoustic instrument. This is especially obvious when it comes to making fast improvised changes together as an ensemble. In the project ‘Cross Adaptive processing as musical intervention’[1] at NTNU, we research technology that enables each musician to intervene in the sound made by the others- through the way they play. This turn creates a whole new situation, and «fast» is often something you need to agree on and plan for in the setup.

I introduced the computer into my setup about ten years ago, after using outboard gear exclusively for a long time. Four years ago, I expanded the computer-based setup and abandoned most of my outboard equipment (except the drum sampler.) From time to time I can still miss parts of my old equipment, but I find joy and creative impulses in making do with what is, relatively speaking, a very simple and agile rig. As in all other jobs, you’ll learn something in one place that you can use in another – an example would be the small Maccatrol[2] controller we use in Trondheim voices, which has led my instincts as a solo performer towards some efficient and pragmatic technical solutions. 

Improvised conversations

‘Ny Musikk Trondheim’ (Association of Contemporary Music) set up the concert at Dokkhuset, Trondheim, with Pamela Z, Sten Sandell and me in April of 2019. We each did a solo set, Sten Sandell and I did a duo set, and we closed the performance with all three of us on stage. The concert was called ‘Voices in between’, reflecting our common ground, which is our relation to voice and language as material for transformation and abstraction[3].  When I work in open and improvised music I don’t tend to change my approach fundamentally, be it in a setting like this, or in Trondheim Voices, playing solo, or in my duo with jazz drummer Thomas Strønen. The resulting music, however, comes out differently. For example, Sten works with a kind of transparency and organic transformation between ideas that are very clear and very open at the same time, and sometimes he changes things up rather rapidly, but still the ideas seem connected. It’s like a speech, or rather a conversation, with himself, the instrument, and me. That makes it easy to pick up the ball from what he does and respond, while at the same time I’ll stay alert to any change he might introduce – or maybe I’ll be the one introducing something new. When I play with him, things seem, in a way, to happen faster than with any other collaborator. I experience this as connected to his acoustic flexibility, his totally free musical approach, and not least his way of ‘speaking’ with the piano and voice, which has been his field of research for years, and also the topic of exploration in his artistic PhD[4]. Language and dialogue are often used as metaphors when we talk about music – in Sten’s case his relation to language represents a passion, a method and a direct source of artistic material and techniques. He makes it easy for me to enter the dialogue.

Duo performance , Trondheim :

Pamela’s approach is in many ways rather different from Sten’s, and from mine. At the same time, though, the voice and language as musical and meaningful material works as a common ground that we approach from different angles. As collective improvisors we found places to meet, and even some moments where we blended seamlessly. When I listen back to the recording of the concert, sounds will appear that make me wonder if it’s me singing a note, if it’s Sten hitting a piano key, or if it’s one of Pamela’s gestures triggering a sample.

Excerpt from trio improvisation, Dokkhuset, Trondheim:

Listening back, I hear the trio improvisation as a kind of conversation, with several themes visited along the way, approached differently by each performer. Sometimes our differing (expanded) voices function in unison. At a later juncture, it would be really interesting to explore something that could develop over a longer stretch of time. I really like how we ended in a more meditative state, ‘breathing’ together. And, if we think in models and metaphors for improvisation: Perhaps the immersion in sound, the hypnotic repetition and the longer developments could be thought of (in relation to the idea of ‘conversation’) more as silence, as breathing and listening – still communicating, but not necessarily talking.  Which is also an interesting thing to do. This actually resembles two different approaches in my solo work.  Sometimes I conduct an active, driving dialogue with myself and the technological instrument. Other times I take more of a listening position to see where the sound leads me. In both cases, and in all the in-between variations, the technological instrument is not just an extension of my voice, but also a partner in the interplay, presenting new possibilities.

            References :

Sten Sandell website: http://stensandell.com/

Other Minds Festival website: https://www.otherminds.org/

Jaap Blonk at Other Minds festival: https://vimeo.com/276686311

Pamela Z website: http://www.pamelaz.com/

Alex Nowitz PhD project ‘Monsters I love – on multivocal arts’ : https://www.researchcatalogue.net/view/492687/559795

Tone Åse’s Ph.D.-level artistic research project “The Voice And The Machine And The Voice In The Machine – Now You See Me, Now You Don’t” (Research Catalogue, 2015): https://www.researchcatalogue.net/view/108003/108004

Trondheim Voices website: http://www.trondheimvoices.no/

“T-EMP: Communication And Interplay In An Electronically Based Ensemble” (Research Catalogue, 2015): https://www.researchcatalogue.net/view/48123/48124

Cross Adaptive processing as Musical intervention , NTNU (http://crossadaptive.hf.ntnu.no/index.html)

Sandell, Sten: «På innsidan av tystnaden,» Doktoravhandling, Göteborgs universitet, Konstnärliga fakultetskansliet, Gøteborg 2013

Pamela Z: «Sound gestures», installation (2008): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VDVy89nwVMc

The project was made possible by:

WoNoMute, NTNU, Trondheim
VoxLab, Oslo
Fond for Lyd og Bilde
UiO
NMH
Ny Musikk Trondheim
TEKS  (Trondheim Electronic art center)


[1] http://crossadaptive.hf.ntnu.no/index.html)

[2] Maccatrol™ is developed by Trondheim Voices’ sound engineer Asle Karstad and his son Arnvid Lau Karstad. (https://vimeo.com/202418687)

[3] The project was also performed at Vox lab Spring Festival in Oslo, but unfortunately Sten had to cancel on short notice, so this was the only version with the three of us together.

[4] Sandell, Sten: «På innsidan av tystnaden,» Doktoravhandling, Göteborgs universitet, Konstnärliga fakultetskansliet, Gøteborg 2013