Bricolage & granularity…..
When Red Square re-formed in 2008 I began using a pair of Boss PS2 pedals for real-time, live transformation of the horns, a technique I’d worked on in the Colins Of Paradise. But, looking to investigate transformational processes further, I bought a Korg KP3 Kaoss Pad.
Because the Kaoss pad uses new gestural techniques of sound sculpting and introduced a whole new sound-scape into Red Square, I felt the need to find a system, or process, to aid assimilation. I had an idea of the kind of sound material that I wanted to generate with the KP3, but I needed an ‘in’, which would allow for an incremental development of knowledge and, eventually, for an intuitive relationship with it’s sound control elements, such that I have with those of the horns, the PS2s and Cubase.
I’ve always been interested in the tension that arises between the idea of an improvised music and the elements that are lost or added when that music is recorded. There’s a very interesting philosophical debate to be had about the rights and wrongs of recording / editing improvised music, about how a listener ‘post composes’ an improvisation on repeated listening by anticipation, finding pattern and structure in material that ostensibly at least lacks these elements. I came across a visual analogy for this one day when playing with a toy abacus. I noted that the randomised arrangement of beads that resulted from a casual shake of the abacus were infinitely more interesting visually than any conscious pattern making attempts that I made. That I then went on to find (or impose) patterning on the shaken beads ‘post-shake’ was interesting. This seemed an example of the mind’s ability to synthesise, post hoc, disparate elements into a subtle, interconnected whole without recourse to obvious, predictable pattern-making ‘hand-me-downs’.
This is the ‘good’ side of improvisation for me. On the other hand there is John Cage’s justifiable warning: “Improvisation is something that I want to avoid. Most people who improvise slip back into their likes and dislikes, and their memory, and they don’t arrive at any revelation that they’re unaware of”……
This is the point at which your ‘style’ tips over into cliche…and then you really do need to do something to frighten yourself again.
I spun these idea round and decided to experiment with adding previously recorded material to live improvisation in the form, initially, of samples of my soprano saxophone extracted from earlier Red Square rehearsals. These would be like ‘snapshots’ from an earlier time, partially de-contextualised. The samples would be subject to processing and transformation, as an old family photograph is transformed by speculation about it’s origin and subject matter.
The result, in both instances, was the development of a narrative rooted in the imagination and creativity of the interpreter. My initial tasks were to find appropriate samples and suitable transforming processes within the KP3, and thereafter to work at developing the intuitive, gestural control of the KP3’s various pots, sliders, buttons and touch-pad that.
This meant putting to one side traditional instrumental ‘expertise’, and starting from the basis that my role was transformational, not generative; that I do not produce the sounds that are heard using traditional instrumental skills at the moment in which they are heard.
I may have selected and trimmed the samples to length from earlier rehearsals, but once loaded into the KP3 they play, if looped, for eternity. Initially, therefore, I was obliged to do nothing more than listen.
I realised quickly that using delays was not where I wanted to go; the rhythmic – and sometimes harmonic – periodicity of delays seemed too predictable, and had in any case been pretty comprehensively wrapped up by Terry Riley.
I wanted something that would transform my input into a surprising acoustic feedback and give me an unexpected halo of sound to work back into. I found what I was looking for in granular synthesis.
Over time, I have added Low North’s fabulous real-time granular synthesiser, the RTGS 3 ,and numerous gestural iPad apps to my elecro-acoustic set-up . I continue to experiment, and some of these experiments can be heard below and in ‘Daidalos’ on the Deathless page of this blog.
In parallel with this live transformation of sound, I’ve also worked ‘in the computer’, time-stretching and pitch shifting material scavenged and then re-purposed from other recordings. I first used this technique at the beginning of a Colins of Paradise song ‘Save Me’, which you can find in the Colins of Paradise section of this page of the blog, and there are further examples below, and in ‘Asterion’ on the Deathless page.
Above are two recordings by the Circuit Electro-Acoustic Ensemble. The first is a live recording featuring Pat Thomas (keyboard), Trevor Taylor (electronic percussion) and myself (soprano sax, bass clarinet and granular synthesis). This track forms part of the FMR Records album ‘Pyro’ (2011).
The second piece is from the album ‘Illusion’ (2012), featuring Trevor and myself again, this time with Tim Chatzigiannis (electronics).
Circuit was formed by Trevor Taylor to explore electronic and electro-acoustic music taking advantage of ever-faster processor speeds to deliver complex, real-time processing of acoustic signals.
The next two tracks are ‘in computer’ miniatures or studies, and they are the result of setting myself a number of, quite-possibly, arbitrary limits. All the audio for each of these bricolages is scavenged material and re-purposed detritus from a single improvisation by Red Square, and each miniature had to take no more that an hour to construct…….
The next two pieces are improvisations from a solo set at the Oxford Improvisors in July 2012, using flute processed via Low North’s fabulously inspiring RTGS granular synthesiser.
As I mentioned above I like the idea of extending the sound of the flute / saxophone / bass clarinet beyond their natural arc of a breath, but I’m wary of circular breathing, which tends to favour ‘looping’ or delay-based processing, which also tend to lock one into rhythmic and harmonic loops.
The advantage of the RTGS (and even my Kaoss Pad) is that you never quite know what will be coming back at you, so you are always on your toes, responding to the unexpected……