Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Interview with Adam MacGregor

Adam MacGregor is a guitarist, vocalist and sound artist known to Pittsburghers as a member of local bands Brown Angel, Microwaves, Conelrad, Fate of Icarus, and Creation is Crucifixion. He also performs solo under the names Lothal and torus, and is one half of the free-improvised rock duo Orlop (founded in Beijing, China, 2013) with drummer Stephen Roach. He's also performed with Anla Courtis, Li Jianhong, Li Qing, Yan Jun, Vavabond, and Klaus Bru. He'll be performing in a special two-night event: Crucible Sound #12 this Wednesday and Thursday (December 17th & 18th) at Modernformations. 

I know that you've been in Beijing for the last couple of years. What can you tell us about the improvised music community there?

I moved to Beijing in November of 2012 for my fiance's job.  I'd done a lot of travel through Europe and India in the past, but China was a totally new frontier for me - I knew absolutely nothing about the people, language, or culture at the outset.  To stave off the shock of relocation, I figured the most obvious thing to do would be to get back to basics and seek out the things I knew best: creative music that was weird and abrasive enough to keep my interest.

It took a little bit of sleuthing and the help of some very knowledgeable American expat friends: Josh Feola, who performs as Charm and promotes shows under the Sinotronics and Pangbianr banners, and Nevin Domer, Fanzui Xiangfa guitarist, proprietor of Genjing records and COO of the influential Maybe Mars label.  As my bilingual guides (and themselves witness to the recent and very rapid development of the scene over the past decade), these two helped me to ease into what I found to be a vibrant improvised music community.

Josh used to organize a weekly improv night at a venue called School Bar under his Pangbianr (the Beijing-accented transliteration of the word for "next to") venture. He kindly booked me for a performance there as torus in March, 2013.  It was also around this time that he introduced me to Yan Jun. Yan Jun is a sound artist, writer, poet, and founder of the Subjam label who is regarded as the godfather of experimental music in China. His own music is heavily based upon controlled feedback, micro-sound, environmental recordings, and silence.  As I observed to be the case with many other artists on the scene, Yan Jun's delivery seemed to me to be more focused and measured than brash and chaotic.  I don't know if I would characterize this as a sweeping characteristic inherent to Beijing artists necessarily, but some other performers such as the modular synth/effects duo Soviet Pop (Li Qing and Li Weisi of the popular Beijing postpunk band Snapline), Liu Xinyu (guitarist of dark psych band Chui Wan, who performed solo on no-input mixer) and laptop glitch exponent Vavabond (aka Wei Wei) exhibited these affectations often.

On the other hand, there are the out-and-out cathartic blasts of free-noise saxophonist Li Zenghui and guitarist Li Jianhong, whom I had the pleasure to see many times.  Nevin once described his playing as "elemental", which is spot-on.  At his most intense, I'd compare his playing to the feedback-soaked atavism of Masayuki Takayanagi, but he manages to avoid any kind of idiomatic framework during his solos for the most part.  He frequently uses a small stone to attack the strings rather than a pick, enabling him to grind some harrowing sounds out of the strings.  Li Jianhong collaborates frequently with his wife Vavabond in two units (Mind Fiber and Vagus Nerve, the latter of which has released material on Utech); here they explore psychedelic masses of sound and so-called "environmental improvisations" where the two play together in an outdoor setting, responding to the ambient sounds from their surroundings; however, they use headphones to isolate themselves from one another.  The resulting hybrid of field-recording and free improvisation yields some interesting chance-based "interaction."

There are many other active improvisers in addition to the ones I've mentioned, many of whom take part in the Miji Concerts and improvisational workshops that Yan Jun holds frequently at a few venues around town, namely Zajia Lab and XP (a real hub of experimental music, indie rock, punk, and lots of other great local talent).  Minimalist violinist Yan Yulong (also in Chui Wan), He Fan and Zhouwang of Carsick Cars, avant-guitarist and Plunderphonics artist Feng Hao (who plays in the excellent, terrifying Walnut Room with Li Zenghui), A-Ming Liang (who performs on a type of electroacoustic contraption made out of a pedal-driven sewing machine), erstwhile P.K. 14 guitar strangler Deng Chenglong, Zhu Wenbo and Zhao Cong (multi-instrumentalists who perform solo and as no-wave duo Xiao Hong and Xiao Xiao Hong), are just a few of the folks who you're likely to see on experimental bills in Beijing.  And those are just the native Chinese musicians - Beijing is a world-class city, and as such there are many foreigners who take part.  Drummer and saxophonist Stephen Roach - who is featured in this edition of Crucible Sound - continues to be a great friend and cohort of mine in the free-rock/thrash/noise duo Orlop that we started in Beijing, late 2013.

There's another stable of artists in the Nojiji (literally, "no pee-pee") camp, who used to be based out of a venue/house (and fish hatchery!) called Raying Temple located in far-out neighborhood of Tongzhou.  This place was closed by the time I arrived, but the guys who were the core of the collective maintained a few projects and at one point set out as a nomadic troupe, traveling across China in a van and playing impromptu concerts.  These artists ranged from the harsh noise of Li Yang Yang (also the mind behind the noise-rock wrecking crew Mafeisan), to the more stark and meditative "ethno-ambient" ensemble ONG, to the dark, manipulated field recordings of Dead Sea.

In short, I was intrigued, blown away, and terribly comforted to find likeminded musicians so far from home.  And I was honored to play alongside on many occasions.  My only regret is that we didn't talk much about "process", and as a result I left with a sizeable chunk of the story absent.  But, there's always opportunities to backfill while enjoying the music at face value.

Josh Feola has written an excellent article for Tiny Mix Tapes on the history and development of experimental music in China, and covers far more ground in a much more erudite manner than I could: check it out here.

At Crucible Sound, you're going to have groups improvise along to guidelines provided by Yan Jun and Vavabond. Can you give us a preview?

At some of the improvisation workshops that typically precede the Miji Concerts that Yan Jun organizes, he'll have a guest coordinator choose parameters for the players.  I participated in one of these with Alan Courtis (Reynols), who stopped through Beijing on a China tour early this year.  This past September, Vavabond organized a monthlong residency at XP Club's "Zoomin' Night," which is a mainly free-improv program held every Tuesday night.  We collaborated using the "no-thought" guideline that she devised.  Here are some (but not all!) of the guidelines below:

Yan Jun:
One musician sits on stage. The rest sit among the audience (it will be better if they don't use a P.A. - i.e., better to produce the sound from each one's own position). The one on stage plays less (it will be better if he or she plays no sound. But definitely in a tension of playing). He or she is the first one who finishes performance. The rest have to play at least 5 more minutes after he or she leave stage (without bow).
And here are a preview of Vavabond's guidelines for Thursday; again, one group will perform according to these:
No-Brain Improvisation - A Tribute to Dogura Magura  
"Brain is not the place where thinking comes out." In the Japanese novel Dogura Magura, the doctor proclaimed. "Brain is a protein without nerve or sense." "Our spirit or living consciousness rest on each corner of our body." "All our desires, emotions, wills, memories, judgments, faith, etc, equally scattered in each of our 30 million cells."
No-brain Improvisation is an attempt to practice and prove what was told in Dogura Magura.  
Rules: DO NOT use the brain during creation and performance — try to abandon all the concepts, aesthetics, logic, thinking, judgments and decisions about sounds that are “ordered” by the brain. Let body and instinct do the job.

Orlop has just released a split tape with Slime Street on Telepathy Tapes. It will be available at Crucible Sound #12.

You can hear more of Adam’s music on his Soundcloud.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Crucible Sound #12: December 17 & 18, 2014

Crucible Sound #12
2 nights of improvised music with Pittsburgh ex-pat Adam MacGregor and friends

Adam MacGregor is a guitarist, vocalist and sound artist. Currently he works solo under the names Lothal and torus, plays in noise/metal band Brown Angel, and is one half of the free-improvised rock duo Orlop (founded in Beijing, China, 2013) with drummer Stephen Roach. He has performed with Creation is Crucifixion, Fate of Icarus, Conelrad, Microwaves, Anla Courtis, Li Jianhong, Li Qing (Soviet Pop/Snapline), Yan Jun, Vavabond, and Klaus Bru.

Wednesday December 17
Collaborating with:

Stephen Boyle - percussion & electronics

Dave Kuzy - guitar (Microwaves)

Jim Lingo - percussion, objects, electronics (Centipede E'est)

RJ Myato - feedback, electronics (Wiretappers, Ouroborean Piss)

Ben Opie - alto saxophone, contrabass clarinet, theremin (Flexure, Thoth Trio, Water Shed)

Stephen Roach - drums/percussion, tenor saxophone (Orlop, Susto, DInner Sock)

Tyler Tadlock - electronics (Spirituals)

Thursday December 18
Collaborating with:

Johnny Arlett - bass (Microwaves)

David Graham - synth, theremin, baritone guitar (Requiem)

Joshua Rievel - guitar (Casual Male)

Stephen Roach - drums/percussion, tenor saxophone (Orlop, Susto, DInner Sock)

Tyler Tadlock - electronics (Spirituals)

At Modernformations4919 Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh
Doors at 8:00
Music starts at 8:30, ends by 11:00 (3? sets)
$7 suggested donation

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Crucible Sound #11: October 9, 2014

Crucible Sound #11
Thursday October 9, 2014:

Brian Hecht - guitar
(Radon Chong)

David Kuzy - guitar, electronics 

Daniel Malinsky - prepared instruments, interfering objects

As usual, the musicians will improvise in ad-hoc groups

At Modernformations4919 Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh
Doors at 7:30
Music starts at 8:00, ends by 10:30 (3 sets)
$7 suggested donation

Facebook event

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Crucible Sound #10: September 11, 2014

Crucible Sound #10
Thursday September 11, 2014:

Zach Katonik - vinyl loops, bass, electronics

Joey Molinaro - violin 
(Say At Last, Hot Singles)

Micah Pacileo - guitar & electronics 
(Hunted Creatures, White Reeves)

As usual, the musicians will improvise in ad-hoc groups

At Modernformations4919 Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh
Doors at 7:30
Music starts at 8:00, ends by 10:30 (3 sets)
$7 suggested donation

Facebook event

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Crucible Sound #9: May 8, 2014

Ben Bennett, photo from http://romvos.org
Crucible Sound #9
Thursday May 8, 2014:

Ben Bennett - acoustic instruments & objects
From Columbus, OH

Steve Boyle - percussion & electronics
(Fuck Telecorps, Dead at 24)

Jim Lingo
(Centipede Eest, Pay Toilets)

At Modernformations4919 Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh
Doors at 7:30
Music starts at 8:00, ends by 10:30 (3 sets)
$7 suggested donation

Facebook event

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Back in the spring

Crucible Sound will return this spring. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Interview with Ben Hall

Ben Hall is a highly-accomplished percussionist, label honcho, and gospel record archivist, among other things. He'll be traveling from his home base in Detroit to perform at Crucible Sound #8, this Thursday December 12th at Modernformations. 

Most people probably know you from your wide-ranging collaborative work: Graveyards (with John Olson), New Monuments (with Don Dietrich & C Spencer Yeh), "Weight/Counterweight" with the late great Bill Dixon and Aaron Siegel, duos with Joe Morris, C Spencer Yeh, Mike Khoury, and Wally Shoup, the list goes on. You're known to be both prolific and highly discerning (a rare combination). Can you talk about what you look for in a collaborator? 

That's not something I think about per se, like if I'm putting a band together. It's available resources but also who I've built with before. Sometimes that's somebody like Lytton where we hit it off on the bandstand but didn't kick it much. Getting together seemed smart and appropriate. Dietrich and I played together for  'bout five minutes and we were just like, "Band." There's thought on it but it's mostly just friends, people I want to spend time with chopping it up.

I also tend to follow those peoples work closer because they're friends and therefore end up being really apprised of what they're talking about because I'm really apprised of what they're working on. I'll listen to anything Spencer, Joe Morris or Nate Wooley send me. I'll try to find them in the work. And if you add Olson to that equation you're talking about a tremendous breadth of production, approaches and outcomes.

That feels like a warm space to operate in because I know if send Joe a record I'll get a fair listen, any of those dudes... And most of the folk you mentioned have a serious history of listening. I mean combined you're talking about huge travel from someone like Spencer to Dixon to Khoury to Olson, ridiculous coverage. You don't want to make your framing bias too small or exclude what might teach, so recommendations from that group are real important. And that's how we build — just chopping it up.

So is community the lynchpin? Is being there, in conversation and in the same places with each other, the thing that causes all these collisions and enables the kind of cross-pollination you've been a part of? Because not just anybody gets a chance to get on the bandstand with the likes of Bill Dixon and Paul Lytton.

A lot of this art stuff in general is not wanting to sit in the bleachers. The collaborative effect isn't osmosis, but again you start to build a matrix out of bandstand experiences with those dudes, and again if you're not getting it first hand, it's Olson telling you about Braxton, or Dixon telling you about Cecil or Zitro or Marzette Watts, or Nate telling you about Hadley Caliman. Those aren't my histories but they kinda become my memory.

So for me it's not really about reaching out to big names. It's just this question of where you get your information from and I'm always more interested in folk who are more interested in the work and how it manifests than in themselves or in the game per se.

On that list there's a lot of bad motherfuckers. Serious thinkers. And I'm sorta the low man on that totem pole if you want to judge it. I just keep trying to make the work, and because there's a handful of people that are aware of that, I get to be a part of a good salon.

There's a thread of communion, of cohesion and wholeness, that runs through your work. 

I have a set of compositional ideas that I work through and then some, what could be described as, material concerns, that is, actual physical sound issues or mechanical issues, they will out.

It's harder to exert control over that in New Monuments not because of the players but because the music is moving really fast, it's like the ship is sinking and you have to not fuck up. I don't want a collision but I'm only a third of the conversation so I can only say and guide so much. So it becomes a matter of framing by block of sound rather than by individuating things. With Dixon or Graveyards, it's relentlessly trying to corral the movements and frame and destabilize.

I distinctly remember a passage from an interview you did with Dusted where you talked about "how not to be a self-important, chucklehead improviser." Do you think individuals have certain responsibilities when they're improvising in a group?

I think people have different approaches. I've noticed that for a lot of straight musicians who happen to improvise the language is often not there. The letters and words, yes, but the grammar less so. It's also opposite from most pure improvisers. So when you have someone like Evan Parker doing the thing it's beautiful because he has the slang, the turn of phrase, the lexicon with which to make a deep and engaging conversation. He's not gonna rule out performance, mechanics, sound, ensemble etc nor does he have to bc he has the tools to juggle all those things in his brain at the same time.

Most improvisation, to my ears, places a premium on the individual, though you'd hear a lot of denials. If you're not interested in discontinuity, but it happens to be a default setting, that slows everything down quite a bit, the accuracy of decision making, and so for me as I listener I fall asleep.

If folk aren't discussing the value of the individual or group, in the music or syntactically then it shows. You know you can fool the fans but not the players and I think if you do close-listening to music, music that's widely considered interesting, Follow The Leader, Talking Book, November 1981, you can discern the capabilities inherent to basic decision making. If basic decision making is the order then I just look for those people. It's a sort of pre-responsibility.

So let's talk about the value of the individual. You're going to be doing a solo set at Crucible Sound. How do you approach your solo practice differently (or not) from your groups?

Well, I think it's changing for me right now. I've never done much solo work but naturally I primarily work alone day to day. I guess Milford pointed out that to be a soloist is to be an avowed egotist, and Olson always told me the power of the solo is the fact that "you can't break up with yourself."

I just did a solo at Anabel Anderson's Snugs series in Brooklyn last month and it was really great exercise to be asked to do a solo and think about the conceptualization of time and presentation of material. Typically I'm thinking about the nature of voicing and blocks of sound in a group. Presentation is pretty low on the list, but if it's just you, you really gotta be on the ball. I know this is obvious but it's still the basic fact I have to return to each time I perform solo, which has been probably less than ten times. That said, I've done a lot of duets with dancers, so in terms of continuity and voicing it's helped me a lot because I don't like narrative or program music but I think having something that opens up those pathways is really powerful. I end up being way more aware of the performance aspects of the deal and really focus on that as much as the sound.

Tell me about "object-based percussion."

Well it's just a basic set of rules that I started to have when Graveyards was touring a lot. It was partially to keep myself sharp. I really just didn't want to play the same set on a separate tour. Olson and I have been playing for 15 years so it was a really comfortable place to say "I'm only bringing this set up" without having to worry about the preciousness of the known brand or assuring a continuity of image. It was more about how to get the same set out of a totally different instrumentation and still have it be Graveyards. I noticed Skaters could play the exact same set on gear that someone just brought them at the gig. You could say that's because Skaters suck and it always sounds the same because it's all shit (as I've heard someone counter). For me, I found something unique in that.

More to the point: on the percussion tip, I just like to think about objects more than the instrument and it allows me to think about sound and the arrangement a lot different. I wanted to have sound that was spatial and architectural so part of it is just thinking about the different beat frequencies and what they do acoustically and how that might produce a new image.

For me a snare, a ride, a hi-hat is so rooted that when I hear someone play a fill I can hear the Motown or the Bonham and it snaps me right out of the music. David Simon said something about that with The Wire: he wanted to use actors that didn't pull you out of the moment for one second so he could build something bigger than what is otherwise possible.

Vince Gilligan said the exact opposite about Brian Cranston. He wanted to use someone who was so deeply rooted to a single role that he could use that against the audience. So if I play something traditional, I want to be able to use that as an activator, a smelling salts rather than just a collection of notes seemingly denuded from their source material, though still rooted in the muscle memory and mechanics of producing, of learning something like Purple Haze. If I execute the smelling salts properly it's not supposed to be some meta, Lothario, bricoleur deal. It's supposed to break up the monotony of the performance. Not to mention that these objects have different trajectory in the world than maker, music shoppe, musician. It's trying to understand the inability of the objects to only sustain one role. I mean I don't like anything more than a table that has a book underneath a short leg. It's still a table and a book but they both become so much more enabled and empowered. Which brings me back to basic understanding of the capital inside of a book which is only wood pulp dried and printed on. But obviously the cultural value of a book can be so powerful and does not lose that power by virtue of being a prosthetic for a table. It doesn't make it less Don Quijote. It doesn't de-exalt it for me, it just allows it to have a grander provisional status.

For me, the problem with the bricoleur/engineer binary is not only that it's a binary but it doesn't have an allowance for primitive to become the engineer. I don't think there's a lot of sneer but it's problematic to unpack it and put people into one or the other category. In the new Ed Park novel this office is trying to divide themselves into Berts and Ernies and there's always a compromise or a qualifier. 

I wonder where you place Sean Meehan on that trajectory. What he's doing is ultra-technical on an engineering level but it's really deskilled in a way. Meehan is an important guideline for me not as a percussionist but thinking about how to get the work to have the qualities you want it to. I mean I could follow Meehan around the Iron Triangle with his snare under his arm like other people follow Kanye's twitter. It's just so engaging on a performance level. He has me thinking of Helmholtz, Cage, and Henry Threadgill at the same time without referring to that for a sec. 

In that way it's very American in that it stems from this very Rube Goldberg-ian idea of the trap set, or contraption set. Cartoon jazz 78s have percussion that's just mind-numbing (and I mean mind-numbing with the highest regard) because you hear people playing rhythm on what are essentially effects that aren't rooted in clear use like a clarinet.

Ben and Don Dietrich will be performing at American Tapes' 1000th release blowout party this New Year's Eve.