collaborations

Amy and I are currently residents at the Takt Residency in Berlin. One of the projects I’ve been working on, The Invisible Orchestra, is equal parts social experiment, algorithm, and music. From the website:

The Invisible Orchestra is an electronic music experiment. Using a collection of computer algorithms that rely–to an extent–on randomness, each week (or month?) we generate a collection of “riffs”–6 melodies and 4 drum tracks–for you to create original compositions with. Some riffs are more random than others. Some weeks’ riffs will be more conventional and listenable. Some will be more…well…difficult.

You–the “composers”–will build compositions out of computer-generated “riffs”. Riffs are simply midi-files, which include no information but which notes to play or drums to hit, how loud to play them, and for how long. Composers choose the voice and arrangement for these riffs. Sections might be looped, silenced, effect-laden, cut into pieces, etc.

The songs might be barebones, or they may include original (human-generated) riffs.

From week to week, we might tweak both the algorithms that generate these riffs, as well as the Rules of Composition (must composers use all available tracks? are human compositions okay? outside samples? vocals?)

Here are a handful of songs and early experiments, mostly by me, but including a growing list of other musicians and artists (shout out to Keith McDougall, Yuria Okamura, and the mystery composer Death By 7 Digits):

For those interested, I’ll post the (Open Source/Creative Commons) algorithms to Github in the next couple of weeks.

Over the last week I’ve spent quite a bit of time working with some new friends–Dutch artist Beer van Geer and Icelandic musician Anton Kaldal (aka Tonik)–on a project of Beer’s. Beer’s been working on a (really cool) Flash project to create visuals using brain waves. Early in the artist residency here in Reykjavik, we talked about applying a similar process to music. Based on your level of meditation (essentially, mental calm), you can control the amount and type of music you hear. I’ve recycled a bit of concept and code from the Song That Never Ends project, but most of this owes to Beer’s application.

Here’s a (pretty long) example track, in which I’ve tried to model what the experience might sound like for a user (based on musical collaboration with Anton and rules determined by Beer and me):

Aurora Project, Nests Mix (First Draft)

I’ll probably post a proper mix soon. I’m also keen on hearing some mixes by Beer and Anton, hopefully.

Stay tuned for updates on the (currently named) Aurora Project.

Short Film by Joe Sacksteder/Lionbelly Media

Intro and outro tracks by Chris Westhoff and me for the short film Silo. Silo rides the fine line between ghost story and drama, so getting the music just right has been a challenge. Joe is tackling most of music, working the “spookier” side of the movie.

These two songs arose out of a few improvised licks Chris, who plays the lead character Micah, came up with over the course of a few scenes. I added in bass on the intro, and electric guitar, slide guitar, and mandolin on the outro track.

Trailer forthcoming.

Silo outro

Silo intro

Video by Ryan Molloy

This was one piece in a larger install for Ryan’s solo show at UICA.

This picks up on some the themes from The Veneerists, but with a keener focus on the American mortgage crisis. This piece suggests (to me at least) that the process of home ownership–of initial acquisition, of upgrading, of always moving on and up–is something of a game, with all a game entails. There are specific rules for success, winners and losers, and a blind sort of ambition to achieve success in a moral and financial vacuum.

As in The Veneerists, the starting point here was looped audio gleaned from public domain 1950s films and footage. Slowly, it becomes a sort of game, invoking the sounds of 1980s classics like Megaman. Over time the music becomes a soundtrack; we’ve moved from blithe 1950s family homes to video game point acquisition, to a film in which we’re spectators. These movements intertwine and confound over time, allowing Ryan’s video both room to breathe, as well as room to ask its own questions and posit its own meanings.

Video by Ryan Molloy

This was originally written in triptophonic (is there a proper word for 3 channel?) sound, for three 80s-style mono TVs, each running video, for a total of 10 minutes. Installed in the Crisis show at Detroit Industrial Projects.

Below is a version edited down one screen for a much shorter 2:45. It was accepted into the 2009 OneDotZero festival.

In the Veneerists, Ryan considers the growing use of (graphic) design to sell products, and ultimately, a lifestyle, in post WWII America. The industrial boom prompted by the war resulted in a surplus of goods, which, in order to be moved into consumer hands, required the shift from function and necessity to physical attractiveness and social desirability. In these videos (assembled here into a semi-narrative montage), Ryan presents design as both a filmic element as well as an encroaching, insidious character.

This contrast of blithe 1950s optimism with the darker underbelly of consumerism immediately brought to mind David Lynch films, and in turn, the music of Roy Orbison (since Lynch films were my gateway to Orbison, it’s hard to say whether there’s something genuinely dark about his music or whether I’m mapping Lynch’s noir onto Orbison’s seemingly cheery tunes). The entire (musical) piece is based in a very loose way on Orbison’s “In Dreams.” The original is 10 minutes, in four two and a half minute “movements,” the first being a slightly more faithful reworking of “In Dreams”. From there, it moves into a darker, more modern piece, and then folds in looped audio from the original source footage that Ryan worked from, culminating (of course) in final movement that works with elements of the previous three.

This is probably far more than you really wanted to know.

I think Ryan’s videos are really nuanced and interesting, though, and worth a little jawboning on my part.

Paintings, Drawings, Cut Paper Installation by Amy Sacksteder

This was sort of the song that started it all. At the time, it was a bit of a departure. The first time I played it for Amy she practically swooned, suggesting that it sounded like a ghost town, which henceforth became its name. It happened to fit really well with the feel of an installation she was doing for a show, so she ended up including the original version of the song in it

It was that initial burst of excitement on her part that helped kick me into gear in terms of thinking about the songs I was working on in a more serious way.

Song notwithstanding, the installation was awesome.

Ghost Town (original mix)

Short Film by Jennifer Seibert & Brian Lillie

For this project, Val and I were tasked with writing a goofy, ironic song to be playing in the background at a coffee house in a scene from Edenwood, a tongue-in-cheek neo-Western sendup of American consumerism. Sara Jackson wrote the lyrics for “Low-hanging Fruit” comprised entirely of CorporateSpeak. Ultimately, neither Val nor I could come up with something sufficiently goofy, but we did take several different approaches.

Coffee house/Portishead

I think this one could have worked nicely. It (a) totally sounds like something you would actually hear in a coffee house and (b) the contrast between the overdramatically serious music with the light-hearted lyrics is sufficiently subtle so as to be interesting. You might miss the joke entirely if you’re not paying close attention.

Indie rock

There wasn’t any really good reason for this. It’s a little Shins-meets-Wolf-Parade. The lyrics supply the requisite sonic moustache.

Cock rock

This was…perhaps a moment of giddiness? Or one of frustration? I never thought this would be a good candidate, but must have had the need to get a total crap radio metal song out of my system. I was, in point of fact, laughing my ass off whilst playing the solo.

Radio-style neo-R&B

This was the most boring watered-down not-too-depressing we could get. I don’t like it, but I also don’t like what’s on the radio usually, so it’s kind of effective. Right?

Acoustic

This was more of a jumping off point than finished product. Included here largely for completeness.

And, for your viewing pleasure, here’s the trailer for Edenwood

Some years back I spent an afternoon hanging out with Brian Lillie, and these 3 songs just sort of popped out. We never went anywhere with them, but for never having played together before, and recording on one mic live, I was pretty happy with how these turned out.

Happy Sunny Afternoon Kinda Song

This is like the 10th incarnation of this song

Hypnotic, Sort of Mogwai-ish

Art Installation by Melissa Dettloff

First things first, you’re gonna need to check out the Severed Unicorn Head Superstore (for all your severed unicorn head needs!).

Melissa is one half of the proprietors of the aforementioned Superstore (Mark Maynard being the other half). In Summer 2008 she had an art opening/birthday bash celebrating our good friend the Severed Unicorn Head (SUH), showcasing a variety of fibers-based SUH artifacts. My job was to write the birthday music.

It probably seems overly obvious, but I thought to go with a classic, the much celebrated Happy Birthday. Until sitting down to play it, I never really noticed how FUCKING WEIRD it is. How did this song become the sound of our nativity? It’s a strange rhythm and rather discordant. So, since a Severed Unicorn Head birthday party should feel a little like a bad acid trip, it only made sense that it should sound an extended intro to a Butthole Surfers CD (i.e. a bad acid trip).

I can only take part of the responsibility for this, as Joe Sacksteder lent his considerable piano talents and Melissa herself laid down some of the drum tracks.

Happy Birthday, Unicorn!

It’s worth noting, that the above ditty was accompanied by several spraypainted boomboxes playing 30 second looped answering machine tapes of various moving renditions of Happy Birthday, as well as by a hacked Teddy Ruxpin, in full Unicorn garb, singing a “cheery” rendition of Happy Birthday. (video forthcoming, we can all hope)

This isn’t always about writing pretty songs.

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