AMPLIFY 2015: exploratory
Friday, October 30 - 8pm
Taku Unami/Sean Meehan
Olivia Block/Maria Chavez
Graham Lambkin/Michael Pisaro
Saturday, October 31 - 8pm
Michael Pisaro/Ben Owen
Graham Lambkin/Taku Unami
Olivia Block/Jason Lescalleet
Sunday, November 1 - 8pm
Anne Guthrie/Vanessa Rossetto
Taku Unami/ Devin DiSanto
Kevin Drumm/Jason Lescalleet
$20 per night | $55 3-concert pass
In conjunction with Erstwhile Records and Shared Shapes, ISSUE presents AMPLIFY 2015: exploratory. Presented over three evenings at Soho's Fridman Gallery, the ninth edition of this international series features three duo sets each night with performers Olivia Block, Maria Chavez, Anne Guthrie, Devin DiSanto, Kevin Drumm, Graham Lambkin, Jason Lescalleet, Sean Meehan, Ben Owen, Michael Pisaro, Vanessa Rossetto, and Taku Unami.
Mark Flaum, IHM
so this past weekend i traveled down to new york to attend all three nights of the latest erstwhile festival, amplify 2015. it's been a while since i've tried to do a rapid concert summary and i didn't have a hard keyboard while i was there, so this is what i can tell you now that the music is over and i am home.
the venue was a slightly above small gallery on the lower west side called the fridman gallery, currently between exhibits so the only art in the room was the music. there were i think 40 seats, filled every night, with some variation in the amount of standing room/floor sitting occupied. it wasn't a space intended for music but they had neat white speakers set up that felt very much in place, and made the room feel comfortable and bright. the walls were shiftable, i think, which meant there were traps for errant echoes so noisy bits stayed clear and didn't overwhelm.
the first set of the festival was taku unami and sean meehan. they both arrived at the festival intent on following the theme closely, with rigs they had barely used or never performed with before. taku's primary instrument was actually a lighting dimmer board, hooked up to a group of rotating fans and hair dryers sitting in a circle facing inwards, with several trash bags (some inflated, some open, some attached to the hair dryers) and loose papers within. sean's setup was even more strange and unique. two devices, each a sort of double wheel of wood with 5 tibetan bowls screwed down on them in a circle. in the center sat a shaft, with sort of a cross bar on top and tiny metal pellets hanging from each to serve as hammers for the bowls. this central shaft was attached to a motor on the interior of the double wheel, so that when sean flipped a switch hidden between the wheels that caused the spindle to turn and the hammers to strike the bowls. there must have been some sort of current control to determine the speed of the spindle, but i didn't see what it was.
both performers sat on the floor to the side of what was otherwise the performance space, allowing the circle of fans and trash bags to take the center space.
given how unusual the equipment was, there aren't any short cuts to what it sounded like. taku started with two fans that were close enough together as to touch, clicking against each other in an erratic rhythm washed with the hum of the fan blades. eventually the trash bags an papers were agitated and started to rustle. after several cycles featuring more and more fans and the bags growing from gentle to whooshy and noisy, sean carefuly switched on his devices and allowed them to ping gently. after a few moments, he turned them off. taku's work with the fans grew louder and then drifted quieter in irregular intervals, occasionally driving the debris bit by bit out of the circle and off of the sound table. each fan had unique sound, a mix of air sound, motor whine, blade wobble, and click. that allowed taku's sound timbral variation in addition to the pace and timing from his control board. for sean, he adjusted his sound by rotation speed, and by moving hammers out of the way so they wouldn't strike. he also had one crash cymbal which he occasionally played with a mallet to create a gentle airy drone. i can't put events into any sort of order, not just because it's been a couple days but because the focus and patience of both performers made it difficult to retain anything more than what was happening right in the moment. in a sense, this set was mostly about allowing sounds to happen rather than creating sounds, but so much thought and delicacy went into each decision it might well have been the other way around.
the second set of the first night was the duo of two ex-texan ladies, olivia block and maria chavez. maria as always was working with her prepared records and turntable manipulations, and olivia mostly focused on working inside the piano. this was announced as their first duo performance, though the two have shared a bill before so i know they were familiar with each others styles and technique.
olivia was mostly working with textures, though i wasn't in a great position to see what exactly she was doing inside the piano. there was shortwave radio, hammers and small objects, building gradually and disassembling just as gradually. she had one object outside the piano, some sort of wire inside a resonating tube, which she picked up and shook at one point, sort of like a thunder sheet from old theaters. her shortwave seemed to seek out voices, but the distortion from resonating in the piano sometimes left them echoes remainders without the coherence of words.
maria's actions were more discrete than olivias, mostly because there was a pause to select the next prepared record to follow the direction of the improvisation. she started with a bit of a stack, with a square record sitting on top of a standard lp, slapping the needle aggressively and seemingly creating more needle noise than sound from the grooves. this configuration varied for a while, and there was another i've lost to the fog, but one memorable action was slowly, thoughtfully dropping a handful of pebbles onto the record, each striking with a stuttering skip.
once again i'm struggling to describe sounds and losing track of the order of events, but maria's actions have an inherent cycle to them from the rotation that meshed very well with the growing and receding layers from olivia. it did seem, at least from the audience, that maria was far more able to reaction to olivia than vice-versa, largely because working inside the piano facing away prevented olivia from watching her counterpart's activities directly. hard to say if that was a plus, a minus, or if it even affected the music at all.
the last set of the night will be the hardest to describe. michael pisaro had some familiar gear, a metal tray and dry rice and some other object, plus access to the piano. graham lambkin played his cards closer to his chest, not unloading much of his equipment until the lights were out. there was a laptop set up. i think that was the source of the sort of backing of voice mumbles, random sounds, and indistinct field recording. there were seven candles in glass cups, one of which provided enough light for what appeared to be michael reading sheet music from inside the piano, the others where sprinkled around the long table revealing a recorder, a percussion brush, a tape deck, and other less explicable debris.
michael mostly split his time between working with objects in front of one microphone and working at the piano. one key object was the rice fall, more spattery than the composed versions but the same staccato clack followed by a more fluid rustling sound. on the piano, he played spacious tones and slow progressions. i never noticed him touching the laptop (or graham either, for that matter) and there was certainly never any direct indication of reacting to or following graham's actions, excepting when graciously accepting objects pushed into his hands.
graham's activities aren't so easily captured in text, except possibly as a list - partially because he did a lot of different things, but also because a number of them didn't have any obvious connection to the sounds created. he spent some time at the microphone, mumbling or moaning or humming, but it was hard to be sure what came from him and what came from the backing track. likewise the flutes and objects, or playing high notes on the piano while michael played more centrally. the most striking even happened maybe 2/3 of the way through, when graham seemed to decide that the candles no longer had a place in the performance, extinguished them with the percussion brush, then brusquely tossed them off the table to shatter on the floor. later in the performance he was similarly dismissive of a mic stand that got tangled, sending it off almost into the audience. the overall effect was that just as the music grew thick and weird, the atmosphere got tense and energized too. there was only one laughing moment that i recall, something happened and a mic that seemed not to be working got tossed away with a snarl but i'm not sure what exactly it was that happened. oh and graham was patient enough to let michael finish with whatever he needed to see inside the piano before he took the last candle, put it out, and added it to the shards on the floor. a set like that is really hard to assess musically, but as a performance it was spellbinding and raw.
day two began with the duo of michael pisaro and ben owen, who as far as i know have only previously collaborated in the packaging and release of 'black, white, red, green, blue (voyelles)'. michael brought his laptop and guitar, some pedals and a small droning sphere that i couldn't really describe (i imagine it was providing some sort of input to the laptop, but more on that in a bit). ben set up on the floor, with a tape deck, a small speaker, and some effects pedals. both also had their phones out, but i'm pretty sure those were for keeping time.
ben set the ground sound with a scratching whispery drone. he spent his time leaning over the tape deck, adjusting the pedals subtly, with his sound growing into something quite full and loud. michael was more varied, first taking his little sphere in hand and walking slowly around the room, with sound following him but also spreading my attention around the room to a deeper listen. after that tour he returned to his seat in the front and brought out his guitar, playing gentle tones by hand, with a bow, and eventually also an ebow. the guitar stood out clearly from the layered hum and buzz that owen was developing, but it didn't clash or feel bathetic. i was actually reminded of sonic youth by part of it but i wasn't able to convince anyone of the connection.
there was another tour of the room before the end, and then both began slowly dismantling the sound. in the very end ben was unlayering his noise piece by piece and seemed unable to hunt down the last narrow hum, checking his connections and wiring. then michael flipped the switch on that little sphere mentioned above, and the room was quiet.
the second set of day two was the meeting of two completely unpredictable musicians: graham lambkin and taku unami. graham set himself up at a low table, with his gear stowed in two paper grocery bags and a red suitcase i've seen at shows before. taku set himself up in front of the piano bench, with his laptop beside him and a his fans all clustered next to it.
what happened next will be extremely difficult to convey. well, there was a backing track, and the fans clicked and clacked against each other in a windy rise and fall. graham set about opening his suitcase, removing objects. i think the tape player with the backing track was therein, but i'm not certain. there was a bunch of paper and packing material which he waved around and toyed with, but soon replaced in the suitcase which he zipped shut. taku seemed unable to ignore the piano sitting behind him, tentatively reaching up to poke a key or two. then graham pulled a small ball and cup from one of his shopping bags, studied, and replaced it without a sound. taku began to pay more attention to the piano, though without neglecting his fans. graham tried to wrap his slide whistle in paper and still play it, when that failed he abandoned the whistle and tried to play the paper alone. he was not terribly successful with that either, but he did have some hand held toy that made a loud and perhaps satisfying squeak.
at this point taku has revealed a significant sensitivity at the piano, playing slow repeating patterns of interesting chords. graham returned to his bag, withdrew again the ball and cup, and stood. then he sat and return it to the bag. taku's piano developed into a sparse melody, the fans active and now piled with inflated plastic bags and cardboard, but not distracting him from the more traditional instrument. graham withdrew a triangle from his bag, struck it, and returned it to the bag before it had finished sounding. he withdrew again the ball and cup, placed the ball in the cup, studied it, and returned it to the bag. he emptied one of his bags onto the table, revealing paper and plastic bags and other debris. he packed all the contents into a plastic bag, and slowly placed the plastic bag back into the paper one. this all happened, i'm pretty sure. there was more, possibly a lot more, but it's hard to capture the careful and baffling explorations of graham lambkin and the secret musicality of taku unami with this simple play by play.
i can't even guess how this set sounded on its own, so engrossing was the visual aspect. but i have a feeling it would be at least as intriguing without the visuals.
the third set of day three was the duo of jason lescalleet and olivia block. i actually attended their previous duo set, a show at 3S Artspace in new hampshire dedicated to their mutual appreciation for the work of alvin lucier. this time there was to be less specific reference to lucier, and both were working with a narrower range of their potential equipment as well. after spending most of her previous set inside the piano olivia had instead a table full of electronics (oh and the piano too, but less so), and jason was saving his big tape manipulation gear for night 3 and had instead hand-held tape recorders, turntable, and laptop.
the music this set was very gradual. olivia started with lots of lots of texture, i think most of it from her shortwave radio. there was something tonal at the heart of it, though, and i don't know the source of that. she let it grow very slowly, remaining whispery for a lot of the first half of the set. jason started off with run-out groove sounds on his miniature turntable, adding to it some pre-recorded material from the laptop (i think!) and eventually layers of re-recordings from his hand-helds. from the whispery scratchy atmospheres the music grew into a rumbling, textured noise crush and then gradually receded back to calmer tones. unlike the duo set in new hampshire, which was full of clear gestures and time-order, this set swarmed and grew in a way that made it quite difficult to keep track of time, in fact i'd be hard pressed to guess how long the various sections of the performance lasted. olivia did reach back into the piano, but even then there were no clear or obvious tones, just more layers into the growth of the whole piece.
in a way this was the maybe the most classic 'EAI' set of the weekend, focused on enveloping the room in sound without clear gesture or event. it was also very warm and comfortable to me. olivia posted somewhere that she promised spooky halloween noises and maybe that's what they were but i found the whole performance calming. which was really helpful since this was just past the midpoint of the festival and there was a great deal of music left to come.
the last day of the festival began with the duo of vanessa rossetto and anne guthrie, each of whom came equipped with laptop, supplemental objects and electronics, and the instrument of their choice: vanessa a beaten up viola, and anne a french horn.
as the set began, vanessa launched field recorded sounds off her laptop and anne pulled one of the valve tubes from her horn all the way off and began blowing into it, and also triggering some sounds from her laptop. i had the impression she was capturing and adjusting the sounds directly from the horn but i'm not sure that was really the case. vanessa's field recordings passed through a series of environments, some of them clearly urban (i think at least one was a playground) and others seemingly more pastoral. anne moved from playing single valve tubes to playing the horn without mouthpiece to playing the horn entire and then back again. vanessa touched her viola only rarely, seeming dissatisfied by how pleasing it sounded. eventually she elected to draw shells out from a bag on her table and drop them on the viola with stuttering abruptness. the overall effect of the duo was sort of an engaging awkwardness, as if the music had an intimacy beyond politeness and into something more voyeuristic. as if the audience was barely tolerated and the sound was really all there only for itself.
the second set of the final day was somehow the strangest. a first duo performance for taku unami and devin disanto, who had previously collaborated in a trio in japan. taku had his fans and laptop. devin had.. a microphone, a powerpoint presentation with recorded audio, a couple of bells, some other inexplicable object, and a little box that made noise when he turned it on. all necessary things, i'll try to explain.
this was improvised, but in a different way than most performances. devin possesses a large collection of psychological evaluation styled questions in powerpoint format. he apparently randomized a number of these, and his performance was progressing through the slides and performing the actions demanded therein. the instructions included a voice read in many cases, and asked for activities such as image recognition, simple mathematical operations, memorizing a tune, putting tape, bells, or paper on the floor, writing, and a bunch more. the noise box was available to indicate uncertainty - he turned it on when he wasn't able to answer the question. mostly. he mostly sad at a desk where he could see the laptop with instructions (which were also projected on the wall for the audience) and perform most of the actions right there in front of him. he also dressed slightly formally, which is somewhat his habit but in this case made him look like a diligent office worker struggling to complete a normal day of activity.
taku didn't see the slides, and i don't think he was paying too much attention to the voice-over. he was sort of hiding in the corner by the piano again, but away from the keyboard and mostly out of sight. he had two of his fans set up in front of devin wrapped in trash bags, which he used occasionally, but the focus of his work was in triggering sounds from his laptop. a baffling and hilarious array of sounds. clicks, pops. recordings of devin's bells. power metal riffage. squelching noises.
i know this doesn't sound much like an eai set, but to my mind it was really an amazing example of presence, timing, and patience. devin followed his instructions with terrific focus, never slipping into the laughter of the audience. not even holding back laughter, he was on task every moment and let the effort of completing the task overwrite any awareness of performance or sound. so ultimately the sound became a natural part of his activities rather than their result. and taku has ridiculously good timing, not just in the choice of a sample to upturn a tense moment or to bring color to a dry action, but also just putting music exactly in all the places music needed to be. as tight as any soundtrack could hope to be. it was a completely unusual performance, not so much the spectacle as it might sound, but engaging, entertaining, and pleasantly confusing.
and down to the final set. kevin drumm. jason lescalleet. jason had his full loop and reel rig, along with laptop, turntable and accessories. kevin had his laptop and a few more boxes on the table in front of him. none of that matters much because the set will be performed in darkness in front of a projection so i won't really have any idea what's happening to cause the sounds at any moment.
the set began with footsteps. not just any footsteps, but actually the footsteps of lee marvin from the movie point blank. in fact the prologue of the set is a collage of scenes from that movie - a tense approach interspersed with oblivious patience and then suddenly marvin is bursting through one door struggling to the next and boom.
seriously boom. this was a set of big, monstrous and looming noise. heavy and thick bass, textural screeches of high end, crushing and swarming throughout. the gallery held up particularly well for this set, allowing the music to feel the room but with the moving walls damping any reflections so it was really possible to hear the noise as it flooded from the speakers. and the video continued throughout but without any more lee marvin or recognizable sounds. close-up of a fan, panning in and out gently. close up of a heap of garbage bins, panning around slowly and refusing to surrender a full view until late. the result was a video as ambiguous as its audio accompaniment, though to me at least without the same powerful heft.
not easy to say much about this set. it blasted this way, withdrew into a flood of white, and crushed through again in another texture and tone. jason explained afterwards that they had no discussion about what sounds to make, but each watched the video many times in preparation for the show. the sounds did follow the video, obliquely but clearly.
and with that, the festival came to an end. 3 days, 9 sets, a ton of music and a fair bit of non-music too. and pretty much everything was grand. (3/31/2008)
Ben Ratliff, The NY Times
Review: At the Amplify 2015 Festival, a Set Grounded in an Intense Investment
Underneath all music is a nebulous and hard-to-measure quality that might be called intention. It’s the extent to which musicians imply that they have something to do and they are going to do it.
Intention doesn’t define the outward characteristics of music — its stylistic traditions, or the grammar of melody, harmony and rhythm. It doesn’t put musicians into a particular genre or steer them toward a particular listener. And so a musician (or composer, or both) who is strong on intention can produce work that seems categorically different from piece to piece. The electro-acoustic musicians Kevin Drumm and Jason Lescalleet, who played a duo set at Fridman Gallery in the South Village on Sunday night, are two examples.
Back in the late ’90s, Mr. Drumm, who is from Chicago, was an amazingly deft tabletop guitar improviser, working wood-and-string sounds within intricate quick-motion traces of analog electronics. In 2002 he made a record of overdriven, scabrous drones — it was almost impossible to tell what the sound sources were — called “Sheer Hellish Miasma,” one of the most aggressive records you will ever hear. Last year he made “Trouble,” one of the quietest, most subtle records you may ever hear. The level of intentionality is the same for all of it: high. Whatever you may get from these records, you will sense that Mr. Drumm has left pieces of his soul in them.
Mr. Drumm isn’t part of a school or style, but he’s got a kind of cousin in Mr. Lescalleet, who is based in southern Maine. Mr. Lescalleet seems interested in sources, provenance and process; he uses field recordings, found sounds, tape manipulation and feedback, weaving them together through careful editing into a kind of aural theater, structured compositions that play with your sense of time and expectations. (He’s been producing at a steep rate lately, putting up a series of records called “This Is What I Do” once a month on Bandcamp; he’s up to Volume 14.) His work is sometimes loud, sometimes not, sometimes funny, sometimes not. As with Mr. Drumm, the level of his investment is clear. The records are intense. They can burn holes through you.
Sunday night’s concert — part of Amplify 2015: Exploratory, a festival put on by Erstwhile Records and Issue Project Room — also included an improvised set by Anne Guthrie and Vanessa Rossetto, who used a viola and French horn over recordings of urban and metallic sounds, and a carefully composed, dryly funny set by Taku Unami and Devin DiSanto, doing a kind of Fluxus version of a diagnostic test involving memory and pattern recognition. Some stage lights were on for all that; they went black for Mr. Drumm and Mr. Lescalleet, who dove into music from “Busman’s Holiday,” their new album on Erstwhile.
Each sat at his own table, behind a laptop, Mr. Lescalleet also within arm’s reach of a couple of reel-to-reel tape recorders and a cheap portable turntable. The tape recorders shared a single loop of tape; one was recording and one was playing back, and what was being recorded was the sound in the room, through an old paging microphone, the sort used for schoolwide announcements from the principal’s office. (As with “I Am Sitting in a Room,” Alvin Lucier’s late-60s landmark, the initial recording becomes a recording of a recording, and so on, until the sound decays.) The purpose of the garage-sale turntable was mostly the feedback it produced. Sometimes he rattled the old machines or banged his fist on them to make them react more.
It began with found material: the sound (and sight, on an overhead screen) of Lee Marvin’s footsteps moving down a hallway in the film “Point Blank,” with dissonant organ tones lurking in the soundtrack. After a minute of the film, the assault began, with echoes of those organ tones buried in the rumbling density. Some of the sound came from the laptops and some from Mr. Lescalleet’s real-time manipulations, but you were getting it all together in long blocks, through a powerful sound system in a smallish room, including a giant wooden sub-bass cabinet.
It was like an airplane propeller experienced at close range, but also heard as bits and pieces of various instruments mashed together. At intervals the sound trailed off or went into quieter sections, foregrounding the tape loop. Or it stopped to let your hearing catch its breath. (Nov. 2, 2015)