Photo by Keith Bruns
Odd times and ambient groove
Interview by 5-Track, Part III
PSF: With the end of the fabled Chai House run, what's next in your life and/or music?
AW: No doubt the biggest change in my life over the past couple of years is that my partner Tina and I had a baby girl two Januaries ago! With the full-time job (animation and game-design for high-end console videogames) plus a nearly 3 hour round-trip commute on the bus, I can only bear to be out of the house on a scheduled basis for at most one evening a week. There are lots of little pieces of time for music (and Lucy and I will sometimes beatbox or bang on the acoustic together), but at this point I don't want to be away from the family regularly enough or long enough at a stretch to pull off something like twice-weekly rehearsals and realistically, that's probably a minimum requirement for a project with any of my usual approaches to collaborative sound-exploration and composition. Actually, just thinking about trying to slot together all of the busy schedules of the musicians that I'd like to play with, that kind of thing would be a big challenge even if I personally had more time available. So here's what I'm currently trying, roughly in order of increasing satisfaction:
With many of those scattered little pieces of time, I've been working on solo-guitar-and-voice arrangements of old and new tunes. This is something I'll even do during short breaks at work. I'm playing a six-string acoustic guitar "finger-style" and tuned like the highest 6-strings of the plank- C#, F#, B, E, A, D. It's a slightly lower overall pitch than the conventional 6-string tuning, and it's all linear-4ths, so I don't have the same open-string patterns that most guitarists have. And I've added a pair of leg shakers -- "dry" on one leg and "sparkly" on the other -- which allow me to keep my finger-plucked and tapped approach and still hopefully get a little bit of the momentum that most singer-songwriters get by strumming a lot. I like the subtle rhythmic interplay between the leg-shakers and the guitar and the increased focus on the vocals. But my inspiration for doing it in front of an audience comes in fits and starts. The traditional singer/songwriter approach -- focusing on "songs" and pre-written vocal lines -- feels like a step back in some ways (back to speeches instead of interactive dialogue). But I keep playing with the format in the hopes of discovering a unique approach that holds my interest. And there has been progress! You can find a couple of these arrangements in my Myspace player. Perhaps as my technique with the particular setup I'm using gets to the point where the improvised sections really start to bloom?
As I mentioned, I've also got loads of bus commute time. A solid 2 hours each weekday. Some of this time goes to much needed meditation, reading, etc.. But I've always got a laptop computer with me as well. During the 'neon brown' era, I used this time to edit and mix down live jams for the FreelaBlog and multitrack-recordings for our studio albums. I'm still processing live-recordings for the blog, but the multitrack studio-work has now grown even further in the direction that 'neon brown' was heading, with lots of experimental, and often long-distance, collaborations. My goal with these pieces is to make broadly appealing tracks ("pop music" really), from diverse attempts at combining structure and improvisation in new ways.
For instance, I'll edit a particularly inspired free-jam down into a vague semblance of a song-structure, usually somewhere between 3 and 6 minutes long. "What's Got Into You" (also in my Myspace player at the moment) is a great example of this approach. In that case, I condensed a 4-piece jam from the Chai House and then added MIDI-elements on the bus, some created from samples of the same recording, but also synthesizers. The goal here was to borrow the energy and the space (the actual room-reverb vibe) of the live-performance, but to make it feel tight and polished by adding some very clean, full-spectrum sounds in the foreground. In a few cases, I added new washes or transitional riffs to help the listener anticipate and bridge large jumps in tone created by my edits. Then I sent the track to a friend in L.A. to record whatever vocals he wanted over the mix. When the track came back, the surprises of the new vocals had reinvigorated it again. I added my own voice to harmonize directly with his melodies and to respond to and extend the lyrical ideas with new verses, bridges, etc So there can even be lyrical collaboration/interplay with this approach, just not in the same room. And there are countless variants of the process. I'd like to do a more linear-form composition where I start by improvising two measures at a time as loops in my line-6.
I've done a couple of theme-songs for artists, one of them a theme-song for the release of my friend Dylan Sisson's first vinyl toy, built around lyrics written by him and the other a theme-song for a kids' adventure show based on the words and musical gestures of a friend's five-year-old son. Loads of other ideas I've written down and haven't yet gotten around to trying. The general focus is short digital-audio recording sessions and then as much processing/mixing/MIDI-supplementation as I want during my bus commute. I imagine I'll do lots more of this sort of thing in the coming years.
In a different kind of long-distance collaboration, I spent a couple months worth of my commute this past fall creating all of the sound-effects and music for an iPhone game. The game is called Yipe 5. It's an old school 2D knights-and-dragons adventure with understatedly hilarious dialogue by the creator Kevin Kinnell (who I only met face-to-face for the first time months after the project was complete) and a complete re-skinning of the graphics with the inimitably disturbing/lovable art of my friend Dylan Sisson. With all of the role-specialization and endlessly branching technological nit-pickery required for my day job, the simplicity of working on a 2D game with a three-person team was a welcome change of pace! It makes me seriously consider trying to leverage some of my connections to make music and sound a bigger part of my day-job. Still, I've been very lucky. I work in a creative field, with some very diversely-clever people, and it's allowed me to buy a small house in a walkable urban neighborhood that I really like.
Speaking of that, here's something I'm interested in doing in a less-musical but to me no-less-artistic field: Tina and I are big into natural building (building with earth and other "sustainable" and experimental materials) and permaculture (designing human living-situations to better use local resources, mesh into their surroundings, and incorporate food and energy cycling on-site in clever ways). So, a small yard of our own provides us with lots of fun design-challenges and opportunities. We get really into weaving our home and yard together with designed spaces that are as functional, healing, and inspiring as we can make them. Recently, we've been focused on turning the front yard into a tiny forest of perennial fruiting shrubs and trees. Sometime over the next two years, we want to build a tiny, tiny studio with sleeping loft in the back yard. I'd like to attach a small greenhouse with shower to the south-facing side, with the hope of reusing the shower water to grow plants in the greenhouse.
But getting back to group-improv, I can't get past the desire to jam with other people face-to-face in the same room. So I'm trying to embrace the design challenge of coming up with a group-concept that can provide some focus and be worthy of a consistent lineup without requiring weekly rehearsals. Plus, with the closing of the Chai House one of the best impromptu community centers I've seen there's clearly a hole in the scene. How do you build community without a home? Of course, musicians have been doing it on larger regional scales since forever, but it's clear to me that if you want to do it at the local level, then the band not only needs to have something unique to offer but the whole thing also has to be open-ended enough that both the musicians and the audience can continually discover their own unexpected ways of adding to a mix.
So my latest group project is my first take on a concept that's been bobbling around in my head for the past 2-3 years: the "all-improv dance-band." Every time I get a chance to go out and see a live show, I rediscover the incredible healing power of dance, just letting your body do whatever it wants to do in connection with sounds created by other people in the same environment. It's a mostly-socially-acceptable way (not that I'm advocating sticking entirely to socially-accepted methods!) to break through some of the repression that we perpetrate on ourselves in the unconscious pursuit of various forms of safety and control. Dance also seems to be the easiest way for the audience to tap into the same stuff that is making the band want to keep getting out there and playing. Anyway, as the Chai House run was wrapping up, I decided that it was time to put together some music that would consistently make people want to move. I can really appreciate music that primarily engages your intellect or emotions and makes you want to sit perfectly still and listen, but that's not what this group is about. It can be tough, since it is mostly improvised, and you have to go where the music goes, but we try to keep "groove" as a consistent focus so that if we wander off into free-space, it only lasts a minute or two (instead of 20) and if we go into a rambling sea-shanty, it'll usually be backed by some sort of subtle percolating groove.
I wanted there to be enough people playing that each person could play sparsely with an ear to both melody and groove. There are many ways that large groups can be difficult. But I was mostly worried about how to get everybody's schedules to line up, so I'm trying to make it really large. We've got like 10 core members, so that if only two-thirds of them can make it for any given show, we've still got at least six. These are all busy musicians and I didn't want them feeling bad when they ran into scheduling conflicts. And at the same time, I didn't want to have to pass up great show-opportunities.
For now, since I figure I'll be booking the shows and therefore will always be there, I'm playing bass on the keyboard. I wanted there to always be bass and it's probably the hardest instrument to have more than one of. If I didn't play it, then the pressure on the bassist to be there for every gig would be out of keeping with the goals of the group. It's the first time I've been back on the keys, since my last cover-tune gig! But everything comes full-circle I suppose. By design, there's no kit-drummer, so the percussive rhythm is a collective effect of various hand-percussionists and just the attacks of the other instruments.
Before we even got started, I wrote up a vision statement and put it up on the web. Really, my goals were community and dance, but especially in such an open space and with the intent of getting a lot of people involved, carefully chosen limitations can really help. Over and over, I've found it helps to explicitly limit the scope of what you're doing in order to get people's creativity flowing. Up to a point, it feels like the more constraints you put on creativity, the more it leaps up to stretch the boundaries of what is possible within that space. So there are some project-wide limitations (all-improv, groove-oriented). And then we use specific tools to create and abruptly change other more specific constraints on the music (key-signature, pulse-rate, chordal-movement, note-count limitations, stylistic influence, etc.). These further limitations are signaled through a combination of a white-board signaling system several steps evolved from what we were using in the 'Woodland Acoustic Orchestra' at the end of the Chai House run and a brand new 'Gestural Musical Sign-Language' (hand signals). Essentially, we're designing a system for making open-ended compositions on the fly. My hope is that the tools keep both the group and the audience listening, and that has actually been the effect so far. With so many players, what would otherwise be a slow-morphing wall of sound pivots its huge momentum around abrupt changes in constraints, continually refreshing attention. And the tools allow the players to editorialize in real-time. Rather than waiting three gigs to pipe up that the sound is getting too dense for their tastes, a given player can use a signal to change that whenever they want. We become familiar with each other's musical tastes in a very organic way. I try to keep the tools clearly documented and linked from that vision-statement page, so it's relatively easy to reference and to share with new members.
There's another key part of the vision that's not encapsulated in the original "all-improv dance-band" label, and that is that the focus is on vocals instead of solos. I didn't want to restrict the membership to virtuosos-only, and besides, there are already seemingly thousands of instrumental groups trading solos over improvised grooves! So for us, instrumental solos aren't forbidden, and they do happen, but when it feels like we need "melody," we usually add vocals instead, using a tool that I'm calling 'Lyrical Standards.' It's as simple as singing well-known lyrics over whatever music is spontaneously happening. I used this before in my duo "bicuspid," but with up to 5 singers in the group at a time, the effects are magically compounded. In last week's rehearsal, dense anthemic harmonies, call and response, and overlapping "rounds" were springing up all over the place! I've been super impressed at how responsively everyone has been adjusting and responding to the moods that the vocals bring. And while nobody in the group knows what the melodies will be until they happen, even the audience will know the words.
So that's my project focused on musical community-building, with both old collaborators and relatively new ones that have been introducing me to even newer ones on a monthly basis! And there's a growing comfort that is allowing us to enter some more idiosyncratic spaces. I'm psyched to see where it goes if it can hold people's interest for the next year. We have our first show coming up in a month! (ED NOTE: that was a few months ago by now) ... so we'll see. (read and listen here)
What did you ask me again? Oh yeah, what was next in my life and/or music. It seems like there's just so much happening right now. Musically, I'd eventually like to do short tours with an expert group of composers/improvisers where we pick out 2 or 3 songs by each of the members, come up with our own lines for them individually, and then get together 2 or 3 times before the tour to play the material and choose places to improvise in each tune. Sometimes, I'll just stop and notice that everything is perfectly in its place and no effort is necessary. Then usually, out of this no-effort, another cool idea will bubble up and I'll be off on another "neoburn."
you remembered what you really wanted
and gravity helped a bit
now you're not so busy
you've got some time to think
off on another tangent
making the circle grow
expanding the circle
- 'Neo Burn' from the album "Nice Feathers" by neon brown
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