NEW WORK: From Elemental Singularities to Unified Complexities: a microcosmic journey…

Last year, Ensemble Decipher was invited to be Ensemble-in-Residence at New Music for Strings in Denmark this year. As part of the programming that would be presented at the festival, the festival’s artistic-director and founder, Anne Sophie Andersen and I were to co-compose a new work for electronics, violin and cello. I would be manning the live-electronics part, and would serve as one of the artists-in-residence for the festival. After half a year of collaboration, the piece has a ‘final bar-line’ so to speak! The instructions are extensive, and the codebase for the automated score GUI is 1000s of line long, while the live-electronics part, which I am coding completely from scratch in SuperCollider, is still being built and tested. I’ll have more to write on the specifics of this compositional process at a later point, but after several collaborative projects that involved developing (cybernetic) systems to support co-creative and open processes, I’ve found the result both creatively and politically satisfying, especially when contextualized in response to the creatively hegemonic world of classical composition.

Climate Exquis

In the fall of 2019, Yris Apsit, Tillo Spreng and I got together and developed a ‘game’ of sorts, that was predicated on the concept of the exquisite corpse, where an artist would begin a piece, and then subsequent artists would add sections to the work, resulting in a completed work. A main component of our game was how information was received (and given), transformed and then given to another person. Further, the work we constructed was interested in questions on the ‘lossiness’ of translation given the reality of no extant metalanguage. This effect is amplified when translating between different artistic media.


To achieve this goal, we took the earlier mentioned idea of the exquisite corpse a step further, by creating a multi-media work whose added-segment order would be carried through each possible permutation of the three participants (i.e Tillo-Yris-Eric, or Eric-Yris-Tillo). Because there were three participants, there were six possible permutations of the order in which the participants’ segments could be added. The game’s rules were as follows 1) An artist would record some part of a collocal space through their background medium for ten minutes, resulting in one minute’s worth of documentation (e.g. Tillo would have ten minutes to choose shots and shoot film resulting in a minute of footage). 2) The artist would then send the last segment of their documentation to the next artist (e.g. Yris would send the last clause of what she wrote, or last few coherent words to Eric). 3) The resulting ‘chain’ would be assembled together, as a single, subtitled film with recorded audio. Because there are six different ordering configurations for the passing of media, we created six different exquisite corpses. 4) The six minute-long exquisite corpses were uploaded to youtube as a playlist and could be set to be played back in random orders, resulting 720 different possible six minute videos that represent the essence of the space. In this particular case, that was Helvitiaplatz in Zürich and through our own experiences and capture, we mapped a moment and a space.

Screencap from Motif_Helvitiaplatz

After working through this process once, the group applied for and won the ZHdK-AVINA Stiftung Projektfonds to conduct a broader project across Switzerland that has unfortunately been put on hold, and I have posted about already on this site. However, this past summer Yris and I were able to take part in the Eco Art Lab at NEA Summer School: Climate and the city (I also already posted a little bit about it, but not the outcome). Unfortunately, Tillo couldn’t join us at this workshop because he was having his first kid! Nevertheless, the workshop was geared towards pairing artists with environmental scientists to “jointly develop new formats of knowledge production through artistic research and transdisciplinary perspectives.” This was appealing to Yris and I, because we thought it would give us a chance to think through and gain new perspectives on our project as it relates to the Hyperobject we wanted to address in the AVINA funded project we would ultimately conduct with Tillo.

At the Eco Art Lab, we ended up working with two excellent artists, Soraya Thashima Rutschmann, who often works in visual and conceptual mediums and Nina Calderone, an animator and film maker. For this collaboration, Soraya painted in watercolors and Nina shot film, with Soraya’s paintings adding an extra medial layer to the composite work. We also reconfigured the project in an interesting way. Because we had four people instead of three, we would have had to do 24 iterations of ordering if we did the permutational ordering as Tillo, Yris and I had done before. Considering the amount of time we had to work, this would have been impossible. Instead, we did a tree-like passing (rhizomes anyone?), where each person got to act as a seed. After producing/recording this initial unit, we would then send the last section of our media—or in Soraya’s case, a crop of the image—to the rest of the group, at which point the rest would work in parallel. Another significant difference between this run of the project and the initial one, was that we were not collocated in this project, instead we worked individually in separate locations of our own choosing.

Branching was kind of like this….

One sequence, then, would result in four composite clips. However, we did three iterations of the project this time, since we had decided to do a full run of this new rule set based on each of the three areas that are commonly thought of as critical to addressing anthropogenic climate change: nutrition, mobility and habitation. Therefore, we ended up with twelve one-minute clips, which results in 12! (479,001,600) possible orderings.

After creating Climate Exquis, there were a few interesting things that I am noticing about the rule set that produces the work. First, the work is very transdisciplinary. However, in certain regards all the parts get subsumed under the artistic domain of film—obviously because film often folds multiple forms of media into itself and the ultimate work is presented as a film. Second, the project that results from these rules, whether in the original format or in this latest iteration tend to be quite coherent, even with so much information lost upon transference and, in the case of Climate Exquis, even when we are no longer in the same space/place. The resiliency of the ruleset, even when shifting topicality, location and personnel is quite impressive. Finally, I am noticing that it is easy for the recordings I create to be too similar, or that I insert my voice too often into the sonic narrative. I worked quite a bit on the technical aspect of recording over elements I had already recorded, which is quite fun and interesting. I do believe that I need to turn my documentation device’s (my cell phone) attention to more various kinds of sounds—although I feel that there are limitations that are outside my control, since the quality of the microphone is so low. To me, it seems like this rule set is an excellent way to produce something coherent and interesting quickly—although perhaps if I am being critical (or self-conscious?) of the result, there may also be a ceiling since editing and revision is banned outside of the ‘working period’.

Climate Exquis

Das Land Und Die Forschung

Mist Burning Off Alps
Mist Burning Off Alps

There are many advantages to being in Switzerland, but some of the best are the absolutely stunning vistas. When you need a break, or have a bit of wanderlust, it’s not far, and not too expensive to see some radical landscapes—if the weather cooperates. A few weeks ago I went to Interlaken with a few of the other Fulbrighters here in Switzerland after an event at the Embassy. It was fairly rainy and cloudy and the views were obscured quite a bit by the cloud cover. There were some moments, though, where the clouds cleared out a little and we were treated to some beautiful views.

Bachalpsee Above First

R&R is great and all, but I’m really here to see and make art right? There have been some really cool events at ZHdK that I have had the pleasure to attend. The first I wanted to mention was REFRESH #2, which was an experimental art and design conference/workshop. It was hosted by the Immersive Arts Lab, which is this insane space in the basement of ZHdK with motion-capture systems, an ambisonics system, and various augmented and virtual reality systems. A colleague of mine, Melody Chua, who I was first introduced to by Howie Kenty when I was applying for the Fulbright, presented a couple pieces that she had written. Both had fun visuals accompanying the excellent music. I got a boomerang, but you can check out her website for actual audio.

ZHdK also has installations for different projects being put up all the time through the school. One such project I saw recently was a very cool NIME (New interface for musical expression), which allowed people to control what is essentially a player piano. Instead of controlling the hammers internally, like the standard player piano, there were 88 felt tipped hammers situated above the keys themselves, and the control was executed from two touch-screen computers off to the side. The NIME was made possible by a research team at the ICST, which was led by Phillip Kocher. This particular presentation was titled “Pianospiel”, but the broader research project is called “Klavierautomat”. (Sound on below!)


Back to work, I’ll leave you with a nice pic of Zürich from the Grossmünster and from the rooftop of ETH.

Zürich Landing

The past few weeks have been quite a rush, running from here to there, getting registered with the cantonal authorities, getting registered with the Swiss authorities, attending mandatory orientation events, attending non-mandatory orientation events, meeting people, hustling, avoiding writing a paper that is due to a journal next week. All this is to say that I sadly haven’t been able to do much music making. That said, I have had the opportunity to hear and see some amazing music making.

Theodor and Joel in one of the Telematic nodes during the final performance.

First, I got to sit in and view several days of a Telematic music course hosted by the Transdisciplinary Program, which is my ‘home-base’ here at Zürcher Hochschule der Künste during my Fulbright. Led by Patrick Müller and Matthias Ziegler alongside a few assistants who were also drawn from the Transdisciplinary program, a small group of students explored the medium in a somewhat ‘local’ setting. I say local, because the latency that so defines Telematic music (and more generally much Networked Musics), was still present even as they were only transferring data between different rooms within ZHdK.

Matthias Ziegler, Germán Toro-Pérez and Peter Färber preparing Luigi Nono’s Das Atmende Klarsein

After meeting Matthias for the first time during the course, he told me that he was working on Nono’s Das Atmende Klarsein (for Bass Flute, Children’s Choir and Electronics) and had a rehearsal that evening. I kindly invited myself along because it seemed like it would be amazing to hear that work (at least the portions for flute and electronics) live. The rehearsal did not disappoint, and the bonus was that I learned of another event—this one in Basel—that seemed quite fascinating.

Klangturm from Rohrwerk: Fabrique sonore

While chatting after the rehearsal, Germán Toro-Pérez told me and another Ph.D. student (Marcio) about his recently completed collaboration—essentially the building of a new instrument—and a concert work for that very instrument that were being premiered soon. I decided to take the train out to Basel to see the open rehearsal that was offered. Germán had designed feedback-tubes that were inserted into this upside-down, conical ‘klangturm’, or in English; ‘sound tower’. These feedback tubes could be put into use as electronic tracks for pieces, or as what I assume is a 33′ looped installation piece composed by one of the other artists. The whole visual design of the tower was very cool, and reminded me of a mix between the obelisk from 2001 and Jean Tinguely’s goofy kinetic sculptures (very fitting for Basel).

More Klangturm

The obelisk explanation, I think, is self-evident: An imposing black structure that has descended from above (to put it in the courtyard of the Kunstmuseum Basel, they lifted it in via crane), while the Tinguely reference has to do with all the old wind instruments, bells, organ pipes, etc. that are sticking out from the structure of the ‘tower’.

One thing I found notable about all the music that was presented, was that almost all of the works featured hollow, tubular, resonating bodies. It was a nice programmatic touch, and all the works were fantastic to listen to, even though the artists were still polishing them up (open-rehearsals are like that).

Oh, also. Swimming in the Limmat after a hot day is the bomb.

All This Talk of Saving Souls at Washington State University’s Festival of Contemporary Art Music

Oboist and current Washington State University faculty member, Keri McCarthy will be performing my oboe and electronics work All This Talk of Saving Souls at Washington State University’s Festival of Contemporary Art Music. There are many great composers from all over the US on this concert and festival, most of which will be presented in the Kimbrough Concert Hall at Washington State University in Pullman, WA. Find details below, and I am so looking forward to meeting all the composers and performers there!

This event will be held in Kimbrough Concert Hall in Pullman Washington

About the event

Concert 2 of the WSU Festival of Contemporary Art Music features works by WSU student composers, visiting composers from around the United States, and a performance by contemporary chamber music ensemble TORCH.

All Festival of Contemporary Art Music events are open to the pubic and without charge.

Support for the festival is provided by the College of Arts and Sciences.

Flying out to Doctoral Program

Looks like the best time to fly out to Stony Brook is around 5:00AM O_o

I think I’ll just go at 6:00AM and take the Throgs Neck…

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Burning City Orchestra — Debut Album

In November of 2015, Burning City Orchestra (BCO) released its debut album after five years of hard work. The primary driving force behind this indie-rock release is Noam Faingold, who is a great friend of mine. With that being said, as a reader, you can rightfully expect this review to be a good one, so let me explain to you why BCO’s debut is worth the listen:

I first met Noam at NYU when he was a graduate student in the composition program there. At the time, I knew Noam primarily as a classical composer and was only marginally aware of his past in indie-rock and his work on the Noam Faingold Orchestra—the name of BCO many years ago. Listeners should not think that this makes the BCO some unwieldy foray by a composer out of his element (not directly comparable, but see John Adams’ I Was Looking at the Ceiling for example). The parts written for the BCO are genuine and idiomatic to the form, except with a prominent twist where, instead of vocals being primarily supported by the classic rock quartet formation of an electric guitar and bass, the body of the orchestration¹ is primarily fulfilled by a contingent of strings. Hence, Burning City Orchestra. The string parts are performed competently by Amanda LoJoshua HendersonPatti KilroyRick QuantzSusanna Mendlow, Mike Midlarsky, and Pat Swoboda.

To provide readers with an idea of some of the string parts’ compositional creativity, I would like to use a few songs as examples of what string writing in pop and rock should aim to be. In the introduction of The Place You Go Before You Die, during one of the final choruses and the outro, Noam uses glissandos, harmonics, and pizzicato played at various distances from the instrument’s bridge to create a kaleidoscope of effects outlining melodic content from the song, flung across the ranges of the instruments. There is a fair bit of processing on the parts, and these played string effects were sampled and then locked into their intended temporal position to create a clear rhythmic picture.

In Allinmymind over this lyrical content:

There’s a sin that’s been waiting for a special occasion
There’s a masterpiece waiting to be given shape
There’s a train built for one destination to take

And a rat looks me square in the eye as I’m falling awake.
And the train comes to take me away, as my pen starts to ache.

Here, Noam breaks the repeating triplet figures that have persisted since the beginning of the song with a beautiful ascending progression which ultimately lands on an A minor chord with the cello suspended on the 4th which subsequently resolves to a D minor 7 chord with a major 9th, through which the viola shines through on the tonic of the key. The moment of harmonic richness lands as Noam sings ‘awake’.

Musically, the best moments of this album are when the entire texture drops into a quiet intensity before bursting into adulation. This musical gesture happens a few times through the course of the release, in MadameInspiration Hits Like an Atomic Bomb, What Sweaters are for in the Summer specifically. In Inspiration Hits Like an Atomic Bomb, this kind of moment, which is presented in the 1st chorus,

Inspiration hits like an atomic bomb
And I’m waiting for the calm
So I can tell you that you’re perfect
Inspiration hits like an atomic bomb
And I’m waiting for the calm
So I can tell you that you’re perfect
Tell you that you’re perfect

is extended through a somber bridge that leads to a full stop in the music. Here Noam sings alone before all other instruments explode back in with a restatement of the chorus. Another interesting aspect of this album to note is that the usual song structure of intro-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus-etc. is eschewed. For example, the first chorus in The Place You Go Before You Die occurs at 2:03 in the track, and only has a single second (albeit extended) chorus segment. In What Sweaters are for in the Summer, the reflective track is divided into two parts, with the first part essentially a soundscape of electronic noises with some light violin harmonic arpeggiations thrown in for effects. I won’t spoil the entire album for you, you can buy the album and see more here.

1. Orchestration in the sense of how the instrumentation and composition intertwine.

Creep With Highline Chamber Ensemble and Hirona Amamiya

Arranged & transcribed this in a day of work based on the well known Carrie Manoulakis rendition, but with lush strings and a written out—virtuoso piano part for Xiayin Wang.
Creep @ Sleep No More Supercinema

Due to popular demand, we sewed together this crowd footage of our arrangement of Radiohead's Creep sung by the gorgeous Hirona. Arrangement by Eric Lemmon. Thanks to Shu for the main footage.

Posted by Highline Chamber Ensemble on Thursday, February 18, 2016