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


Blums said...


angermitano said...

I think he was thinking of spotlights, too, but not all venues would be set up for it. But ok, for you, a 3 foot LED penis sheath. ;-)