Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Notes on the Motzkin Gangan Ensemble performance

Some notes on Happy Tengal Day performance at Magnet Bonifacio July 24. (photo by L.A. Peralta)

The Piece

SABAW organizer and composer Tengal (aka Earl Drilon) was invited to stage a SABAW gig at the Bonifacio High Street branch of Mag:net for the opening of the art exhibit Galleon Trade, and decided to name the performance Happy Tengal Day in celebration of his birthday's occurence the previous day. To this end, he came up with the piece which he initially referred to as Rotation of Nine, basically a scheme to schedule the overlapping performances of 9 improvisors. As Tengal has a thing for the number 9, he wanted to set as many parameters as possible to 9. Thus: nine players, each playing for 9 minutes then resting for another nine; players' entrances staggered 3 minutes apart, repeating as necessary to play a piece exactly 90 minutes long. He asked me to conduct the piece, whose concept/algorithm was straightforward enough to be discussed via text/SMS. After the preliminary discussion, I mapped out a quick and dirty score using Microsoft Excel, which I emailed Tengal. He was a bit concerned that the logic of the piece led to it ending prematurely at minute 87, three minutes short of the 90 minute duration he desired. After some back and forthing, I proposed bringing in the players at 20 second intervals after minute 87 in order to execute a full-company crescendo and stop at minute 90. He liked the idea and we went for it.


1) Lirio Salvador on a self-made touch-modulated synthesizer
2) Inconnu ictu on Alesis Airsynth
3) Ria Munoz on Kaoss Pad and contact mic
4) Chris Garcimo on Roland SH-101 keyboard
5) Caliph8 on MPC Sampler
6) Erick Calilan on self-made circuit-bent devices
7) Jonjie Ayson on a scrapmetal bass made by Lirio
8) Blums Borres on electric guitar
9) Tengal on drums, panart, kulintang, interactive computer

Atom Bomb Concerto

I was a bit doubtful about the idea, because sound artists (a term here used to indicate artists who primarily work with sound textures without using scales and generally in free rhythm) most often play solo, and at very loud levels. With noise as their palette, augmented with feedback, delay and amplification, it's as if every one of them owned an atom bomb: each one has the power to blow up the soundscape in pure white noise and most of them don't have much experience jamming with others as a sound artist. But it worked, partly because Tengal's score ensured that maximum density would consist of 6 players, but mostly because people actually knew how to lie back and leave space for other people. This space could consist of actual silence, (e.g. the silence between two drumbeats) but more often consisted of frequencies they chose not to output. With the possible exception of Lirio, whose whose homemade capacitance synth seemed to be outputting looped bass lines along with the usual robot cat squeals, people generally worked in very tight frequency bands. I was surprised by the amount of tact the musicians displayed.

The Sound

Aside from the expected dominance of metal machine music, there were times when the sound veered jazzwards, and melancholy parts where bits of melody would come and go, although the ensemble never actually played even moderately softly. I enjoyed listening to it for the entirely of the 87 minutes during which I only had to stand up and do something once every three minutes. Tengal, who selected all the players and assigned the positions had the great idea of placing the 2 drummers of the ensemble (himself and Caliph8) three positions apart at positions 9 and 6 respectively, which meant that they never played at the same time. This allowed the two of them to alternate using hard cuts, picking up exactly where the other left off. Another good choice was putting Lirio and Lirio's bandmate Jonjie at positions 1 and 7, which meant that they entered and exited in concert twice during the piece. Although they were positioned at opposite sides of the stage, their shared rapport transformed their simultaneous entrances into tight, dramatic, musical events.

Cuing System

As most of the band members would be seeing the score for the first time on performance day, Tengal and I spent a good bit of time working out a simple and unambiguous way to cue the players. First, we gave each musician had a written schedule of when to play. (So Player 1 had text that told him to play from minute 0 to minute 9; minute 18 to minute 27 and so on.) I also set up a laptop running a stopwatch connected to a monitor visible from the stage. This gave each player a copy of the big picture, and allowed him to watch out for his own entrance points. Aside from this, we broke down the score into a set of 29 cue cards (one for every 3 minute interval of the first 87 minutes) showing which player was supposed to start/stop playing. I had thought of doing this with hand signals, but we figured it was better to be safe and explicit. The last three minutes were the busiest, as it required people to come in every 20 seconds. Another thing I was concerned with was keeping everybody playing softly so that there was enough headroom to get loud during the crescendo. We decided that it would be simplest for me to just do this last bit with hand gestures.

Not-Conducting and Not-Playing

As the score shows, my conducting consisted mostly of reminding people when to start and stop playing, something that only happened every 3 minutes. In fact, Tengal's initial text request asked if I would act as "timekeeper". I was really only busy during the last 3 minutes. I hadn't actually thought about how to behave, but I felt an immediate inhibition against chatting during the 3 minutes of "dead time" I had between cues. Even if I "didn't have anything to do," any behaviour that looked or felt casual, or "not on" was out. This idea quickly led to the task of finding a kind of ritual, seated pose of attention, which I found after a few surprisingly difficult minutes. The English director Peter Brook speaks of an audience's "active silence," and how this attention shapes a performance even in the complete absence of positive action. I instinctively felt a barrier against casual or careless behaviour, a barrier I only violated twice, when I went to the bar to order another beer, and when I stole a puff from Blums, who took a cigarette break on the balcony. I think it was a kind of rebellion from the left brain, which was going crazy insisting that I "wasn't doing anything anyway," or maybe that it wasn't cool to take it so seriously, but it felt wrong, and it is interesting that the musicians also felt the same need to stay in their places. Inconnu ictu was the only other one who ever left his post (he went to chat with someone during one of his rest periods) and he seemed positively relieved when I went to fetch him back.

Avenues for Future Exploration/Adjustment

Dynamic Control: The lack of dynamics made the piece feel overlong to some. Local sound artists seem to think that noise has to be loud. Either most are still unaware of the dramatic possibilities of silence and/or sudden volume shift, or some may (consciously or unconsciously) equate improvising with soloing or domination, a possible consequence of primarily performing solo. In the absence of a shared vocabulary of dynamic effects, the next performance should incorporate structures for cuing volume levels. I once created an animated video loop to the cue performance dynamics of the (now defunct) noise gamelan Volume Control, but a video doesn't incorporate changes easily and graphic design perhaps ought to be left out of the picture at this point. It would be more elegant to do the cuing as flexibly and with as little technology as possible.

Increased Readability: The audience often had trouble knowing who was playing/making what sound. This is a fundamental problem with electronic instruments, whose sounds are not easily correlated with the player's physical behaviour. Tengal is thinking about using lights in some form (perhaps blinking LED necklaces, if they are still available in Quiapo) to mark the players. In addition, there perhaps ought to be an introductory section (like the Alap of Indian Raga performances) during which each player basically showcases his instruments' range of sounds.

Performance photos here and here

Monday, July 23, 2007

Cinema and Redemption

...we’d sit through hour upon hour of Indian squaws being eaten alive by fire ants, debauched pagans coughing up blood as the temples of God crashed down on their intestines, and naked monstrosities made from rubber lumbering out of radiation-poisoned waters to claw the flesh off women who had just lost their virginity. When three hours were up we would leave the theater refreshed and elated...

--George Kuchar---

"Dimestore Integrity"

Lust for Ecstasy is my most ambitious attempt since my last film. The actors didn’t know what was going on. I wrote many of the pungent scenes on the D train, and then when I arrived on the set I ripped them up and let my emotional whims make chopped meat out of the performances and story. It’s more fun that way and then the story advances without any control until you’ve created a Frankenstein that destroys any subconscious barriers you’ve erected to protect yourself and your dime-store integrity. Yes, Lust for Ecstasy is my subconscious, my own naked lusts that sweep across the screen in 8mm and color with full fidelity sound.

--George Kuchar--

I was really struck by the bit about "dime-store integrity." Electronica composer Malek Lopez recently introduced me to Genshiken, a discontinued anime about the sentimental education of a Japanese otaku, and Kuchar's phrase resonates with one of the anime's themes of the necessity of acknowledging and exploring one's impulses/loves/drives/preferences, no matter how disreputable they are. "Dime-store integrity" simultaneously characterizes and dismisses certain kinds of moral/aesthetic objections as cheap, mass-produced artifacts; the sort of taste Picasso was thinking about when he said "Taste is the enemy of creativeness."

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Conceptual Protest Art

When Soviet-bloc tanks rolled into Prague to repress the emerging Czechoslovakian democracy (in 1968), they were unable to find the city center because partisans had taken the street signs and switched them all around. Milan Kundera tells this story in his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

This sign-switching was a quintessentially poetic act—a heroic, improvisational playfulness with the truth in a moment of dire seriousness. The event even has the interpretive openness of a good poem, because it can be read in different ways. You could say that the partisans destabilized language to reflect the perversion of justice. Or perhaps they meant, metaphysically, "If you don't know where Prague is, no sign will tell you." Or perhaps they were saying, "The center will continue to be moved until your relation with the truth is correct." But what a story it is: As they were being invaded, knowing it would not save them, they made a delicious joke. It reminds us of the bravery and tragedy of the comedian—often a small man sticking a pin into a fat man's behind, just before being sat upon.

--Tony Hoagland--

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

from the Macchinismo manifesto

The machine must become a work of art! We will discover the art of machines.

-Bruno Munari, 1952-

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Dissecting the Monster

Another post where I go into the ideas/obsessions/processes behind the creation of a specific work; in this case, Eisenstein's Monster. See previous post and also Making Sausage (14July06)

The Invite

Below is an excerpt from the brief for the Dime A Dozen exhibit. It was written by Eileen Legaspi-Ramirez, one of the show's two curators. She showed it to me in early February 07, and asked if I thought I could do something with it:

How does an artifact, a motif, a fetish make the jump from elite item to kitschy icon? And are they able to make the journey back in reverse?...Dime a Dozen hypothesizes on how rarities... slip into the domain of pop and the banal—rarely able to regain pristine cult status in their original form. Artists working in a variety of media will be asked to virtually take iconic Lopez Museum (and other known museum) pieces on this potentially perilous journey...

So: the theme of the exhibit was the decay of iconic artwork. I know nothing about Philippine art history, and would probably be the worst person to comment on the field. Even up until a month ago it was not absolutely clear to me that Luna the painter and Luna the general were two different people. Also, I am not really into making art about art. I would have passed on the theme, except that I had been thinking about the process of meaning decay a few weeks earlier and had even blogged a paragraph on the subject. (Boredom As A Work of Art, 20Jan07)

...the fact must be faced: art can die. The energy an artwork contains for the viewer is a product of energies and cultural tensions/issues that the viewer's milieu have engendered in the viewer. The English director Peter Brook tells of a magical moment in a bombed-out basement in London in the 1940's: a clown on a stage recited the names of dishes he yearned to eat. According to Brook, the clown reduced the starved and rag-swaddled audience to tears. Then the war ended, and grocery lists lost their power to induce lachrymal reactions (in English audiences, anyway). An artwork is a wire between concentrations of social energy. When the distribution of social energies change, the artwork becomes a wire in a vacuum. (This is also the same process by which old art might reacquire power/relevance)

So I thought I'd give it a shot. As I said above, decay is one form of change, but change can occur in the opposite direction: things can grow, multiply, and renew. I decided I would try to instigate a process of growth by growing new meanings in the drawings of Hidalgo.

The Why

Why Hidalgo, and why the drawings? Well, I liked the way the drawings looked, first of all. The rough sketches had a spontaneousness and a power of suggestion that the finished oils didn't have. Second, a drawing that had two sketches of an arm in slightly different poses made me think that I might be able to animate the drawings, a technical idea/problem that excited me. Lastly, the fragmentary images of human body parts made me think of the story Frankenstein's Monster, a story about new life being created out of fragments which resonated with the enterprise of growing new meanings.

I've always loved the myth of Frankenstein. I got hooked on the myth as a kid, probably through TV or comics, and plowed through the novel --in all its turgid, 19th century phraseology-- at a very early age. As a science geek, I immediately identified with Victor, while Shelley's warnings against scientific hubris went in one eye and out the other. The myth inspired me to try to electrically revive a dead dragonfly once I discovered that the turntable of my father's stereo was badly grounded, and delivered powerful electrical shocks (I must have been around nine). Frankenstein's Monster was one of the reasons I decided to study biology.

Accordingly, I shot some drawings and cut some studies. It didn't take more than a couple of passes with Photoshop and Aftereffects to conclude that there was not enough material in the drawings to create an animation made solely from the drawings, at least, not enough to transmit the information that I wanted to transmit. It was at this point that I got the idea of recreating some of the drawings in 3D with the eFrontier program called Poser.

As I mentioned in the post about making Sausage, I generally cultivate a kind of tame, controlled paranoia when making art. I look out for signs and portents, parallels and corroborations in the universe; what Carl Jung called synchronicities. When I was about halfway through making the soundtrack, I discovered that Hidalgo's middle name was Resurreccion. Bingo!

Hypermodels and Hyperreality

The director of the Lopez Museum, Cedy Lopez, said she was having trouble describing the work to journalists, especially the part about the 3D figures. Was there, she asked, a term for the process of creating 3D analogs of 2D art? Something like animate, or morph? Well, no, there wasn't. Which meant I was free to dub the process myself. I decided to call the process hypermodelling. It's a good word, for several reasons.

1) It makes reference to hyperreality, a word coined by the writer Umberto Eco, which describes the state when a copy becomes indistinguishable from --or more powerful/fascinating than-- the original. Better than the real thing. Glamour photography is all about hyperreality. A photograph of Sharon Stone embodies sex incarnate. Sharon Stone in the flesh is just another blonde with bad skin.

2) It echoes the words hyperspace and hypercube, which refer to 4-dimensional space and the 4-dimensional analog of a cube, respectively. The two words come from multidimensional mathematics, and so lend a kind of mathematical glamour that is appropriate for the computationally intensive process of 3D hypermodelling to possess.

3) It contains the word model. Hidalgo would have used human models as references for his drawings and paintings. A 3D hypermodel can be thought of as somehow returning to, copying, exceeding and replacing the human model that the drawings copied.

4) It is grammatically versatile. It can be used as a verb: "The artist hypermodelled the drawings," and as a common noun: "The artist created a hypermodel of the drawing".


The primary element of the soundtrack is a processed version of Tony Bennett's cover of the song Stranger In Paradise. I processed the song through a bandpass filter to make it sound as though it were playing through a radio or gramophone, and created an audio layer composed of the song lyrics spoken by a text-to-speech program.

The 20 monitors are playing 5 layers of synthesized audio that I thought of as the sound of the resurrection machine. In fact, I saw the physical being of the work as a resurrection machine-- as a big black, monolithic THING that was processing Hidalgo's drawings.

Parable and Action

What I like most about the work is how it walks what it talks about. It presents a parable about the creation of new life, this is what it "talks" about. At the same time, it is actually creating new life, ie creating new meanings in Hidalgo's drawings: A visitor who has seen the work is now highly likely to be reminded of Frankenstein when he sees Hidalgo's drawings. Heh heh.