Sunday, February 26, 2012

Recent Gigs: Micro Mutek 2012 - Party like its the end of the world

My official round up of the action at this year’s Micro Mutek festival can be found here at Resident Advisor, but to complement it a little, some extra ideas and some audio-visual cues.

First up is the last: the end of the world. Something in the air lately has given me this overwhelming Armageddon feeling. A lot has to do with global politics, economics and unemployment, but there is something else. I am sure there is some fall out from seeing Lars von Trier's confusing film ”Melancholia” last year and its extraordinary climax (warning: spoiler in video).

And I know 2012 is supposed to bring the end of the world according to the Mayan calendar and Roland Emmerich’s film, but I don’t believe that (though it might be nice to think it will be the end for some people in particular).

Coincidentally, days before the festival I saw for the first time one of Emmerich’s other films, the environmental disaster blockbuster “The Day After Tomorrow” which also left an impression. Perhaps this was more to do with having spent the previous two days in the south of France where the Mistral of Marseille and the Provence region drove deep the chill of temperatures that were maxing out at midday around -1ºC. Flurries of hail engulfed the car at certain points of the Pyrenees mountains on the way there and by Sunday afternoon the south west corner was engulfed in snowfall. Arriving back at home in time for the movie, I found the flat which had been left unheated for two days was impossible to warm again. In this atmosphere I watched Emmerich’s film and went to and from the Mutek festival and it wasn’t until after Theo Parrish closed proceedings that I found it possible to get warm again.

Apart from the weather, it was funny how this theme seemed to pass through the festival . The first night we had two eco-disaster movies with more than a hint of the end of the world about them. The first was Werner Herzog’s “Lessons in darkness”, a 1992 poetic documentary about the Iraqi’s setting fire to the oil wells to prevent the Americans getting them in the First Gulf War.

The film mythologises the workers attempts to extinguish the flames and their lust for fire. Lucrecia Dalt’s live soundtrack performance was one of the best of the festival, being unexpected, sympathetic to the movie, dramatic and technically proficient. Apparently an album is coming out soon and maybe an interview if I am lucky. The post punk sprawl of her music was in marked contrast to the films classical and operatic drama.

Vladislav Delay also played against the backdrop of Michael Madsen’s “Into Eternity” about the vain attempt to build a labyrinth of tunnels and sinkholes to store and hide radioactive waste for 100 000 years, away from nature, people and those who might exploit it.

One of the themes of the film was again work, at least in the sense of showing the miners digging the tunnels, just like Herzog’s film gets in close to the oil tanned faces of the fire-fighters. Ripatti gave the interviewees of the film, usually the “decision makers”, a hard time with abrasive patterns and machine noise, but allowed the workers to do their thing in more peaceful tones. The class stratification is noticeable visually too, with the actions of work often slowed to a dream, just as the forest, the tunnels and the diagrams are rendered in slow motion. It is only people who react and communicate in real (immediate) time as if rushing to eternity.

The last day saw two other groups of artists extend the theme. Argentinian ambient/IDM producer Why with VJ AV-K mixed lights and geometric patterns with newsreel images of war, skulls, conflict and faces, whereas the last group Ragul and Blowshe presented a work called “Frio” (cold) which was a kind of live edited fairy tale set to an icy backdrop. Later that evening it snowed, a rarity for Barcelona. It’s a shame there is no media for some of these shows, especially Ragul and Blowshe as their show really was charming. The combination of youth and curiosity was simply over whelming and it was great to see them get a chance to do such a big show.

Regardless, here is a little footage of Ragul playing in the Miscelanea gallery last year:

Some more on some of the other acts: on Thursday night I caught Argentinian DJ Dilo at Moog. He only played for an hour, but he crammed a lot into a short set, singing over the top of some tracks and generally playing at break neck speed with a decadent air. This track is a little minimal (he has also worked with M-nus’s Argentinian producer Barem) and there is some other live footage of him playing a slower, housier set, but nothing quite like the Mutek show.

I hate giving negative reviews, but Venezuelan DJ Moreon got a little stick from me in the above RA review. I think to be fair it just wasn’t his night in the end, maybe two and a half hours was just too long for him with the wrong crowd as he was playing some nice tech-house at the beginning. His summer image was also maybe somehow against the grain of the unexpected theme.

I was looking forward to Shackelton a lot on Friday night, but in the end he didn’t quite do it for me. Last year at Sonar it had been a buzzing and tribal performance, but at Mutek he had troubles with the sound system which didn’t help create intimacy or immersion, whereas he also seems to have verged a little bit towards noise over spaciousness and atomic details. Perhaps it is a consequence of his collaboration with Pinch from last year or an artefact of the sound system? In any case, maybe Shackleton is at a certain cross roads now as he sound is so distinct (just look how he dominated the collaboration last year) and has been for so long it is harder to evolve?

Falty DL had given a live interview earlier in the day on Friday where he had demonstrated a lot of eccentricity and charisma, but buried within all this was a really clear headed ambition. A snippet of interview:

But he almost blew his gig a little, train wrecking the start of his set amid the bad sound of the system, but he pulled it together nicely. In a kind of contrast with Moreon above, he had a really clear set design he wanted to follow that worked well, giving a lot of variation, different beat styles as well as a chance to show off some skills during the slightly hasty IDM finish. Indeed, one of the things that surprised me about the whole festival was how IDM a lot of it was. Part of the surprise was that I should be surprised, but sometimes it does seem that IDM is a past music, rather than a present one, though there are many labels and release who would disagree, like Planet Mu and particularly Stroboscopic Artefacts from last year. Ragul for instance was wearing an Aphex Twin shirt while Falty DL also name dropped him during the interview.

In the live interview with Deadbeat I asked him about the Reggae sample he used in several recent tracks (see also this previous post). Even though I said it was not necessarily fitting in his track to put the whole quote as it would have undermined the vampire impression of the “speaker”, he nonetheless seemed a little annoyed when I suggested there should be more politics in dance music. Sure, as he refuted, the crowd is drug addled revellers and not thinking people, at least in the club, but this is also not the point. Is there not a dangerous decadence at play here with longer-than-ever parties in the rich enclaves of Berlin and Germany while the rest of Europe sinks into financial oblivion, slowly unable to afford a night out at the disco or a new album? I am reminded of David Bowie’s track “Aladdin Sane” based on the 1930 Evelyn Waugh novel “Vile Bodies” about the “passionate bright young things” who live a decadent life despite a realization of the oncoming threat of war. It is important to point out the obvious which is that night club shows are not called “concerts”, but “parties” just as say, the Communist Party or the Tea Party. Not many have seemed interested in these issues since Achim Szepanski’s (as opposed to the recreated) Mille Plateau label folded:

“The point is that music or sound design not only takes place on the level of symbolisation and signification, but that significant material, i.e. non-coded forms of expression and elements, as well play a role in the production of sound. Then, ´Machinisation´ means that, in the production process, in the combination of music and composition, things have to be considered, circumstances which concern the artist but also exceed him, e.g. all the social-political implications in which music and electricity are made available.”

To download full article by Andreas Busche click here.

Brandt Brauer Frick tread a fine line between artistry and thievery. Dressed in Kraftwerk-esque salaryman clothes and jamming out fast minimal house based on Steve Reich patterns you could be excused for dismissing them as derivative. But results in the end speak louder than images and the group can pull it off with energy, enthusiasm and craft, with special praise for the drummer for commitment and endurance.

Theo Parrish’s musical philosophy can best be described by a line from the following track:

“Black music: when yesterday becomes tomorrow”

Parrish’s set, and by extension his music and elegant edits, continues a tradition of Afrofuturism in 20th Century music, from Sun Ra and the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in jazz to Drexciya and Underground Resistance in electronica, and more. Perhaps the principle difference is Parrish’s lesser reliance on technology to represent the future. Instead, his music conjures up the image of the future and hope as seen from the past and that has sustained in the music throughout generations. There is a real sense that Parrish is telling a story, bringing the past into the present and using the moment to launch into an unknown future. What was particularly impressive about his performance was the amount of design and thought behind it and yet the natural, spontaneous unravelling of the pieces. Parrish used volume control, long overlays and a winding road through black musical styles to reach the end. But more than anything else, he maintained the music with a continuous flow of vocals and breath-based instruments as if the literal voice was speaking through the music.

Finally, as mentioned,  there were also a couple of live interviews with the Luomo/Vladislav Delay, Deadbeat, Falty DL, Guillamino and San Proper at the local Bar 33/45 run by the guys at Struments Radios that can be seen in video format by clicking here.

Thanks again to Nerone, Carles, Bianca de Vilar for photos (take more next year please!), Laura, the Struments guys for the carajillo at 33/45.

Party like its the end of the world!!!

Friday, February 17, 2012

Materials and methods: science and methodology and sound

Firstly, no posting this week as have been four days and nights at Micro Mutek and the rest of the time sleeping and working. Next post will be a review for Resident Advisor and a few more details here. Thanks to Nerone in particular and all the other people I met there for a great time.

Meanwhile, some things that have come my way.

First up is a “machine that goes ping” alert (see last post) from the final track of Function’s most recent single for the now possibly closed Sandwell District label. On the first side are two decent dance floor bangers, but they don’t really detour much from the sound or palette of Function/SD’s recent output. It’s the second side where things get more interesting. The first track “Ember (field)” is a short ambient piece, while the second “Inter”, which uses the Machine That Goes Ping, is a downbeat and quite airy track compared to the groups normal output. Both reference the collective’s recent collaboration with Bob Ostertag, particularly in the radio voices, but add some ambient colour to the more washed out tones of the album.

Meanwhile, a bizarre curiosity from Stateside. No Machine that Goes Ping here, but nonetheless a curious set of materials and methods for making a track by American group OK Go. This text taken in entirety from the video legend:

“The new music video from OK Go, made in partnership with Chevrolet. OK Go set up over 1000 instruments over two miles of desert outside Los Angeles. A Chevy Sonic was outfitted with retractable pneumatic arms designed to play the instruments, and the band recorded this version of Needing/Getting, singing as they played the instrument array with the car. The video took 4 months of preparation and 4 days of shooting and recording. There are no ringers or stand-ins; Damian took stunt driving lessons. Each piano had the lowest octaves tuned to the same note so that they'd play the right note no matter where they were struck. Many thanks to Chevy for believing in and supporting such an insane and ambitious project, and to Gretsch for providing the guitars and amps.”

Wire magazine readers will also have noticed a strong undercurrent of science in the most recent issue (Feb 2012, 336). First up and also dealing with novel material and methods is Japanese musician and acupuncturist Masaki Batoh also of psychedelic folk group Ghost. He has apparently invented the Brain Pulse Machine (BPM) in collaboration with Japanese company MKC.  The BPM converts brain activity in the frontal and parietal lobes into musical pitch signals. The first experiments from the use of the BPM, augmented with additional traditional wind and percussion instruments will be released as “Brain Pulse Music” on Drag City at the end of February. Proceeds of sales will also be donated to the Japanese Red Cross.

Batoh believes the machine, still under patent application, can have healing potential for some neurological disorders and help in meditation. It converts electrical energy from the frontal and parietal (centre-back) lobes of the brain via contact with a skull cap and into a machine that translates it into sound. Brain activity in the frontal lobe is associated with voluntary movements via the Primary Motor Cortex and also contains the highest concentration of dopamine receptors with functional links to concentration, short term memory and motivation. The parietal lobe is where sensory information is integrated into spacial and directional information. Maybe there is some relationship to pre-pulse inhibition?

Keith Fullerton Whitman was also seen enthusing about a recently published article describing the sampling rate of a mouses nose during ollfactory sensation.

"There's graphs and everything. So cool" he says. Not as cool as the findings:

"Here we show that mice can behaviourally report the sniff phase of optogenetically driven activation of olfactory sensory neurons. Furthermore, mice can discriminate between light-evoked inputs that are shifted in the sniff cycle by as little as 10 milliseconds, which is similar to the temporal precision of olfactory bulb odour responsesHere we show that mice can behaviourally report the sniff phase of optogenetically driven activation of olfactory sensory neurons. Furthermore, mice can discriminate between light-evoked inputs that are shifted in the sniff cycle by as little as 10 milliseconds, which is similar to the temporal precision of olfactory bulb odour responses"

But back to Batoh’s invention, his album  comes at the same time as a research paper in the journal PLos Biology which describes the use of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) techniques to translate brain signals into words.
(MRI is not quite a Ghost Box, but one for Advisory Circle to remix?)

MRI can measure micro changes in blood flow in the brain in three dimensions by measuring differences in the atomic magnetic field of tissue, blood and bone induced as the subjects perform tasks. In this case subjects were played audio of a voice reciting words and phrases and then afterwards stimulated to think of particular words from the audio tape. The locations of brain activity were mapped and then the investigators were able to reconstitute the sounds using brain waves (BBC news item). For sound click here.

Finally, similar MRI techniques were also used in another recent study to examine the effects of the psychedelic drug psilocybin on the brain. Psilocybin is normally found in magic mushrooms and in this case was injected directly into the patients immediately prior to entering them in the MRI machine. Drugged patients were obviously compared to placebo controls. The surprising find of this study was that psilocybin actually decreases rather than increases brain activity. The hypothesis is then that the brain works to filter and control information to prevent overload, synthesesia and/or confusion. One of the effects of the drug is thus to temporally induce these states which bare several similarities to several psychological problems.

“the brain works by constraining our perceptual experiences so that its predictions of the world are as accurate as possible”

However, some critics of the study say that the investigators have only measured a fear response. Possible, since an injection of psilocybin must come on like a freight train and then being shoved inside one of those claustrophobic tunnels probably doesn’t help either.

Also out recently is a new theory  on the positioning of the stones at Stonehenge. Independent US investigator Steve Waller claims that the positioning of the stones is designed to reinforce the quiet and loud waveforms of music when two tones are played simultaneously. Waller claims

"… the stones of Stonehenge cast acoustic shadows that mimic an interference pattern."

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Machine that Goes Ping

Everyone knows the famous Monty Python scene from “The Meaning of Life” when Michael Palin, playing the hospital administrator, commends Graham Chapman and John Cleese’s use of The Machine that Goes Ping to assist a woman give birth.

Few people realize that most electronic producers today also use the same piece of equipment in the studio. There is a sound that frequently crops up in many dance tracks that unlike all the other sounds and techniques used by producers invariably sounds the same, like a ping. People often complain they can hear what pre-sets and plugins people are using, but strangely nobody ever seems to have commented on the Noise that Goes Ping in so many tracks. But this noise is not just endemic to one genre or era, it has occured since the early days of electronic music and has continued almost unchanged almost anywhere to everywhere as we shall see.

So what is this noise? The noise is of course just a little ping, but perhaps its timbre sticks out more than other recycled sounds like kick drums and hi hats because it is used in a grey area between percussive decoration and melodic tool and is invariably at the front of the mix. Maybe a tech head can tell us ho to make it?

But how does it sound? You can hear it at the start of Space Dimension Controller’s “The Birth of a feeling” (R&S) first at the 56 second mark (track not on web). It is also one of the first sounds on Julio Bashmore’s 2011 hit “Battle for middle you”, Resident Advisor’s third best track off the year.

Martyn also employed it in “We are you in the future”, the epic closer to his “Ghost People” album from last year (first coming in at 1:33 and then used throughout, including the breakdowns).

BNJMN perhaps takes the cake, using a whole run of pings (beginning at 1:48) in his track “Keep the power out” from last years “Black Square” album.

One of the first examples I can find is from the Power Plant mix of Craig Loftis’s Chicago house track “Yes I’m right” originally recorded sometime between 1982 and 1989 and once a big hit at the Power Plant club (sound begins at 21 secs).

Changing genres slightly, the Fuck Buttons also use the sound in “Surf Solar” the opening track off their last album “Tarot Sport” (coming in with the beat at 1:41).

The sound is there in plenty more tracks when you look for it (sorry, I lost my list), from dubstep, house and techno, like a secret code, a glyph or a gene within the music passed on from generation to generation.