Thursday, June 27, 2013

Interview with Joe Mruk

Joe Mruk is a visual artist originally from Plum Boro, Pennsylvania. His incredibly detailed illustration work can currently be seen on event fliers throughout Pittsburgh, as well as on a recent LP by the modern composition and improvisation collective Host Skull. Joe has also been a longtime member of the "Americana noise" duo Coyotes By the Way with fellow artist and California University of Pennsylvania graduate Seth LeDonne. He has also made music as a solo artist under a variety of monikers, most recently The Dead Refrain. Joe will be improvising as part of Crucible Sound #3 on July 11th at Modernformations. This interview was conducted over email by RJ Myato.

How does improvisation work in Coyotes By the Way and how has it changed over time?

When Coyotes started out, we "made" songs. Or planned them, at least. We had parts. Seth was getting good at circuit-bending (something I could never fathom attempting) and he had all these little instruments. He had a sparkly-sounding one and that was the star box. Thus we had the "star part." Which would be part of a song. Seth was originally doing percussion, and I was on guitar, but the formula was too rigid and playing live we were prone to making mistakes because, well, I had picked up the guitar only months prior and Seth likewise had had no former experience playing anything. But it was fun to do something in front of people. Our ideas were fucking weird. We wanted a banner behind us emblazoned with "Kindness, Manners, & Friendship." I still want that banner. Anyway, we loosened up because we had to. We realized that structures weren't fun and improvisation was. We quickly ditched the "songs" and began to record in a huge art studio. We incorporated our surroundings into the music (Seth realized how fun it was to mess with amp coils and I would jump on chairs as percussion). That studio prepared us for a lot of future shows!

How does improvisation fit into your artistic practice? Obviously your visual art is meticulously planned out and so on; do you see playing noise or improvised music as a break or catharsis compared to your painting, or do they tie together somehow? Is there an overall aesthetic connection you see between your music (in general) and your artwork?

My artwork has always been so rigid, Coyotes was always the catharsis I needed. Seth used to play the Silver Jews a lot, and that was a big inspiration for the both of us. It said "you don't have to be technically skilled to be completely interesting." Most people don't get the chance to realize this and that sucks. But when I make artwork I'm not really thinking about breaking out of the rigidness of past work; I'm more concerned with consistency. With a cohesive body of work you can develop your own distinctive visual vocabulary. I learned that from Seth. As for the connection between music and art, I wanna evoke atmosphere. I love artists like Labradford and Bark Psychosis, who are in love with the desert and the sound of nothing at all. I wanna be the Ennio Morricone to Seth's electronic eclecticism.

A lot of your visual art work deals with natural imagery, especially a lot of the more violent or tragic elements of nature. Do you think ideas of nature or the natural world inform your music in any way? Do you see the spontaneity of improvisation as somehow "natural"?

Sure! If Seth and I are creating a sonic landscape, it should constantly be evolving, seamlessly. People can tell, even at noise shows, when you've made a mistake. Part of the challenge is to create a seamlessness. That's why we're constantly going to the mixer. Our rule of thumb has been the slow fade. There's a lot of communication we do with our eyes. Seth knows when to intensify or bring it down. His job is tougher than mine, because he's the one who has to create and control texture. It's all very instinctual. I love playing shows because I never know where it will go. Right now my choices are "open tuning or standard?" That's about it —I don't think about structure. We do not practice. That would be like drawing a map.

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Monday, June 17, 2013

Crucible Sound #3, July 11, 2013

Here's the third edition of the Crucible Sound series, curated by RJ Myato:

Crucible Sound #3
Thursday, July 11, 2013

Joe Mruk, guitar (Coyotes By The Way)
Micah Pacileo, electronics (Hunted Creatures)
Jim Price, saxophone (Jungleland)
Jim Storch, percussion etc. (Burnout War Cry)

The musicians will improvise together in different combinations.

At Modernformations4919 Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh
Doors at 7:30
Music starts at 8:00 (3 or 4 sets)
$7 suggested donation

Facebook event

Monday, June 10, 2013

Interview with Herman Pearl

Photo by John Altdorfer

Herman Pearl is a musician and producer who creates "immersive audio." His musical resume is about as diverse as you can possibly imagine, including: the political punk-funk of Stick Against Stone, long-running reggae group Chill Factor International, eclectic alternative band Soma Mestizo, house music collaboration 3 Generations Walking, revolutionary collective Indigenous Resistance, hip hop production as DJ Soy Sos, and sound design for Pittsburgh's finest dance companies. He'll be improvising with his modular synthesizer as part of Crucible Sound #2 on June 13th at Modernformations.

What can you tell me about your semi-recent collaboration with Ben Opie as part of the Space Exchange series?

We were asked to do something and we weren't sure what we were going to do. I had the idea to base it around of a sort of Indian raga form, where we would start with an open drone kind of thing, and he would introduce melodic sequences that I would then match on an analog sequencer step by step and then build it into a rhythmic thing. We just gave it a shot and it came out nice. There was no preparation, we just talked about it. He's a good enough player that he can just say "yeah, I understand what that is." Ben and I have known each other for a super long time and we've done a few things together in the past. That was the first collaboration that was just he and I.

I thought it was really interesting that you both were kind of getting outside of the idioms that people usually associate you with - in your case, reggae and hip hop. Did that collaboration suggest any new processes or concepts for you, or were there any things that you have incorporated from that experience into your reggae and hip hop work? 

I was originally a guitar player, and I've become a sound designer and audio engineer. But I've been working with modular synths for about ten or twelve years. I've been wanting to get them out into the field and collaborate with people more. It's been a bit difficult finding people that are interested. But also the equipment has gotten smaller and more performative, so there's more sequencers and touchplates and joysticks that are available now, so you can create smaller stealthier performance systems that are more flexible. I've just been wanting to do that lately. I kind of replicated the concept beforehand, sort of patched something up, because the instruments themselves are a little bit labor-intensive. So in one way it's not like being a standard improviser where you just show up with your horn and then you play it however you want to play it. This thing requires a bit more preparation.

The idea that I've been working with for a long time is of structured improvisation or guided improvisation or form. The thing with Ben was a good exercise in coming up with a premise and executing that, rather than rehearsing a tune. It was more about being prepared to execute and staying within a concept and a form.

Is that structured improvisation approach something that you're interested in bringing to Crucible — walking in with a premise in mind?

Yeah because I'm not a brilliant improviser. I'm more of a conceptual kind of guy. So I think that I personally need some type of a framework. It makes improvisations a little more interesting, especially when you're getting people together for the very first time, or when you're getting people together from wildly different backgrounds, to have some type of an arc that's agreed upon in advance. I think other great things can happen too when you get the right group of people together. But I like the idea of establishing some kind of a form. It doesn't have to be this chord progression or that chord progression, it could be something as simple as: "start out very sparse and get very busy over a period of five minutes." 

You mentioned preparation and how that's labor intensive. Can you talk about how you set up for an improvisation?

For the thing with Ben, I had a very specific patch in mind. I actually came with 2 cases of the modular system and I wired it up in advance. There were a couple of connections that went between cases that I just had to remember.  It was a spiderweb/nest of wires that ended up doing the thing that I wanted to do. In that case, it was very much something that I needed some preparation time for that was best done at home, and then bringing the case knobbed- and wired-up the way it was supposed to be. I just needed a few minute to patch the last bits in together and make sure everything was correct with the headphones before I played it through the system.

For Crucible, I'm thinking about asking that I alternate so I do one piece and then lay out for the next piece. In between pieces, I can prepare something on headphones and do the next thing. Give myself ten minutes or less to prepare new sounds. That way it's not too pre-ordained and it puts me on the spot a little bit, but not so much that I have to try to be ready in ten seconds.

I guess I was asking less about the technical set-up, and more kind of expressively. Are there certain things you're trying to build into the system or certain kinds of sounds that you find yourself gravitating toward?

The types of things that the modular is good for are drone kind of I might want to do a piece where I become the harmonic foundation of an improvisation where we just establish sort of a base tones that lay down the tonic or the fundamental of the piece, and then I can just do sort of floaty evolving kinds of sounds and textures. Another thing might be triggered noisy analog percussion stuff so that I could trigger that with touch pads and play along with somebody. Or melodic or tonal hits that can punctuate certain things. The other thing I'd like to be able to do involves clock-driven sequences where I'm providing the meter. I want to talk with folks in advance and make sure that monitoring is good and specifically the drummer can hear enough. I know that specifically he's done a lot of work with arpeggiators and things like that, so that's good. I just want to have a little advance conversation with some folks about that sort of thing, and just allow myself enough time to set up each thing in advance, put myself on the spot in terms of coming up with something quickly. I have a set of patches that I know will work. It's sort of three distinct voices that I can do.

Obviously modular synthesizers have been undergoing a bit of a renaissance over the last few years. The whole subculture around them is really growing. I've been interested to hear a lot of more generative modular work recently, where people are able to take the device outside the constraints of what we normally expect it to be able to do. Are there things that you're seeing change about the toolset that are encouraging to you? 

For the live thing, analog modular has the restriction of no patch-saving, no memory. So you are under the constraints of not being able to switch from one thing to another rapidly. But you also have the flexibility of patching it up any way you want. You can have wildly diverse sets of sounds that you can customize. The modulation and all the things that are possible are much more extreme than in a hard-wired situation where the signal control paths are already established. I think for the live thing, it just has to be in the right setting. You can't walk into a jazz jam session and just expect to play a Miles Davis tune, necessarily.

How does improvisation figure into your studio and recording work?

I do a lot of sequenced kinds of patterns in my sequencers and drum machines that I then lock up to some type of a tempo generated by Ableton Live. Then what I'm doing a lot of is recording the audio from the synthesizer in sync with the time of the sequence in my digital audio workstation (in this case, Ableton Live). And then I have the chance to chop that audio up. What I generally do is record three or four minutes of variations of a sequence or a drum pattern or some form of rhythm-sync'd modulation. That's been giving me a really wide and varied set of sounds that I can then chop up at will.

I don't really do a lot of melodic kinds of work with that system. It's not really best for that. What I try to do is create generative rhythmic events with the modular. The only thing that I'm doing is basically tethering it to the computer. I'll build something on the modular free-running and then I'll synchronize it to the computer just with a MIDI click, essentially. Then I'll have it in the computer rhythmically in sync with the sequence.

A lot of my sound design with Staycee Pearl Dance Project has been heavily influenced by my modular work and by Ableton Live. I did our last two shows pretty much exclusively with those two sources. It's been some mix of modular and sample manipulation in Ableton.

RECOIL TRAILER from Staycee Pearl on Vimeo.

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Sunday, June 9, 2013

Interview with RJ Myato

 photo rjmyato.png

Photo © R Magnelli, from Skull Valley

Besides hosting dozens of outer-limits shows as part of the recently-deceased Roup House, RJ Myato has self-released a veritable landslide of harsh noise, drone, and musique concrète-influenced material on the NNNCO and Kill Collector Culture labels. He's able to balance the overwhelming physicality of his sounds with a thoughtful approach, a deep understanding of historical precedents, and a refreshing awareness of the context he's working in. He'll be improvising with feedback systems as part of Crucible Sound #2 on June 13th at Modernformations.

As someone who's vigorously supported experimental music in Pittsburgh over the last several years by performing, booking shows, and running a label, how would you describe the community's overall awareness of improvised music? 

That's a difficult question to answer for several reasons. One is because I probably don't have that much contact with people who are involved in music but not "aware" of people improvising in Pittsburgh. I think anyone who's into the more experimental or DIY arena of music here is probably aware of improvised music via noise, drone, psych, etc. and those are the people that I know, mainly. Another reason is that I think improvisation as a practice is widespread but maybe music that is freely improvised isn't. There are lots of people who are pretty popular who practice improvisation within whatever it is they do, like Gangwish or Dean Cercone or other people, but they're not thought of as "improvisers" maybe and aren't playing in a non-idiomatic/"free" way. So I'd say that the core group of people who are playing and listening to totally improvised music is very small but improvisation as a practice within other kinds of music is there to maybe open up the arena a bit more for things like Crucible Sound.

How does improvisation as a practice fit into the idiom you're working in (namely noise music)? 

Generally my live performances are fully improvised and in fact I only solidify the specific setup I'm using the day before or day of a gig. Recording is about the same. I rarely "practice" other than to just make sure my stuff works in a basic way. That said more and more I'm interested in the line of what "noise" is in a theoretical way and the sense of "noise music" as a kind of non-academic DIY "experimental music" subgenre like is like other subgenres of music, and so the question of improvisation and it's place becomes interesting.

In my playing I guess there's a spectrum where I have more or less control of the situation and it's hard to say where improvisation begins and automatic or process composition or something ends. Sometimes I play noise — maybe with a feedback loops or contact mic'd objects or whatever — and I'm super involved in the activity of actually "playing" and lots of things happen, and that feels like improvisation. On the other hand if I want to make "wall noise" and in doing so I play a cassette tape through effects and record it on another cassette tape and the final result is my piece, and I didn't touch anything the whole time once the eq was set and so on, is that an improvisation? So when I'm working with harsh noise wall, or computer automated cutups or something like that, to make recordings, it's hard to say that I'm improvising. And I think recording is where I do the most sort of pure and extreme things that are most purely "noise," and live performance is different because you have an audience there and you're engaging them in some way, at least for me, so I tend to go for agitation of the audience whereas in recording I'm basically communicating with people who already know the score.

I think the issue is that "improvisation" relies pretty strongly on a concept of human agency and active decision-making that maybe at its extremes noise tries to erase. Even in playing noise live the concept is to be all fucked up and act crazy and scummy and not like you are at work, whereas in "free improv" having a clear head and reacting to things in a considered aesthetic manner is maybe more valued. Certainly people are "in the moment" and have feelings of ecstacy in traditionally improvised music, I certainly do and I love that, but I think there's possibly a distinction to be made.

I don't know how well this will hold up when I think about it tomorrow but in a sense you could see "free improvisation" as a kind of utopian music at its heart — free people interacting in a very highly social way, spontaneously contributing to a collective creative act, etc. — and there is some music that is considered "noise music" that acts in the same way (LAFMS maybe, etc.). And then on the other hand what you might consider "noise" at its furthest theoretical extreme the opposite of that, in the way that harsh noise wall in the Vomir style is totally inhuman, asocial, actively nihilistic, etc. And certainly I think there is room for both in celebrating the best aspects of being a human in civilization while recognizing the sort of precarious material reality we live in.

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