Perfect Sound Forever

On Hearing the EAR Duo


by Bill Bamberger
(August 2012)


In 1738, eccentric French engineer Jacques de Vaucanson exhibited a five-and-a-half foot tall mechanical flute player. This life-like figure, based on (and painted to resemble) a famous marble statue, had nine bellows to recreate the action of lungs, and with its precisely moving fingers, lips and tongue it could play a dozen different tunes. For a fee, Vaucanson would allow interested parties to come into his home where he would have the device play for them. As brilliant as this invention was the dozen tunes were set, the mechanics were inflexible and its operation limited to its inventor. It is said that later engineers were unable to program any new tunes for the apparatus.1

In Vaucanson's wake, other musical inventors built their own variations over the next century, one of which, "the Silver Lady" (a woman with a fluttering bird on her finger) was seen in operation by a small boy named Charles Babbage. When Babbage was grown, he bought the unsprung remains of this and carefully restored it. In the words of the late Hugh Kenner, Babbage also had "in his rooms a mechanism of his own devising to keep the Lady company: an Engine for computing tables by the method of constant differences."2 This was of course the famous precursor of the digital computer called the Analytical Machine or Difference Engine, a large glittering loom-like calculator which , by way of Gibson and Sterling, became a Steampunk icon a century and a half later (Steampunk is, of course, the alternate history fiction genre that marries obsolete, most often Victorian, technologies with modern problems and sensibilities).

Vaucanson's flute player and Babbage's Difference Engine came to mind as I experienced the music of the EAR Duo, a project of saxophonist Michael Straus and bassoonist Dana Jessen. Both Straus and Jesson play in other groups with other living, breathing musicians, but within the conjunction of the EAR Duo, they play with a pair of dedicated robots.

EAR is an acronym for "Electro Acoustic Reed." When Straus and Jessen formed the duo in 2005, it was for the express purpose of performing new electro-acoustical music.3 The EAR Duo commissions experimental works, incorporates electronic effects and computers into their performances, have worked with a DJ and a guitarist, and some of the compositions they perform include video presentations-all the hallmarks of a current-edge musical sensibility. But in 2010, the EAR Duo also began helping raise money for the Charlotte-based EMMI or Expressive Machines Musical Instruments. EMMI invited potential donors to "help thwart the imminent robot vs. human wars by demonstrating how fund, cool, and sonically interesting it can be when humans and robots combine their powers for good!"4 EMMI calls this project MARIE, yet another acronym, this one standing for "Monochord-Aerophone Robotic Instrument Ensemble" (there is just a touch of preciousness in this stance, something reminiscent of the persistent cuteness factor in Steampunk writing). The group's robotic instruments, which have been given individual names of their own, seem direct descendants of Vaucanson's wood, wire and metal flautist.

My introduction to the EAR Duo's music was a roundabout one. I first came across the name in scanning upcoming concerts at the Kerrytown Concert House in Ann Arbor. Curious, I entered "EAR Duo" in a search engine and, on Straus' website5, I found two videos. The first, "Push for Position," consists of excerpts from a raucous, rhythmically dazzling piece by Scott Barton. Here the saxophone, bassoon and electroacoustic robots (which look something like 1970's vintage CD towers with lights attached internally) mesh to the point where it is impossible at points to separate out which instrument is playing what. The clattering percussion is most likely all robot, but with players like Roscoe Mitchell and others coaxing convincing percussive effects from their instruments, there's always some doubt. The other video embedded here (a few others are to be found on YouTube) is "Northern Circles" by Peter V. Swendsen. Under an earlier regime of terminology, this piece, with its minimal rhythms and with the instruments' timbral possibilities foregrounded, would have been called a "tone poem" (one wonders, when will the persistent musical metaphor of high white noise evoking "the North" be abandoned and more adventuresome approaches be tried?). After a slight hesitation, due to my personal musical prejudices-a preference for the rhythmic over the timbral-based, having long passed the point of surfeit with "experimental" composition as sonic mobiles of drones, unrelated squeaks and scratches-I bought my ticket to the February 2, 2012 EAR Duo performance.

The Kerrytown Concert House is a (very) small venue-a house with a wall or two removed to make space (perhaps comparable to Vaucanson's own demonstration room). The robot players were introduced to the audience of thirty-five or so soon after the human ones: there was CARI ("Cylindrical Aerophone Robotic Instrument"), a mechanical clarinet about three-feet high, and its taller sister AMI ("Automated Monochord Instrument"). The MARIE instruments were set up center stage. The human performers began the evening by talking to us about the instruments, and announced their intent: "to meld these three elements-digital control, analog circuits and physical production." And this they proceeded to do.

The MARIE ensemble travels with its own combination roadie and programmer, the composer Troy Rogers, who sat at the back of the stage, hands poised over unseen controls. A camera and projector system was used to give the audience, some thirty-five or so of us seated in folding chairs, close-up views of the instruments' operations, and at one point, a hand adjusting a sock over a bare ankle. The flashing lights in CARI and AMI seem to serve no purpose other than that of winking at the audience. And the sounds programmed to come out of the instruments at times veer very close to R2D2 cuteness-and one has to wonder, to what degree were these instruments designed to include elements meant to invoke "aww, how cute" reactions in the audience? (my guess is that it wasn't a negligible one). The washing-out of the image due to the lighting in the tiny performance space gave the projections the look of holograms after multiple halvings. The Kerrytown Concert House often hangs mini-art exhibits on the walls of their performance space. This evening the it happened that the art comprised grisaille portraits of blues and gospel singers and lyric excerpts, all painted on Russian icon-shaped wooden supports.6 The lights of CARI lit these faces in melodramatic flarings, creating a spooky visual.

The first piece, by Virginia-based composer Steven Kemper, began with Jessen's bassoon and thick burring drones from AMI. The bassoon has not had a conspicuous presence in progressive music (except for Lindsay Cooper/Henry Cow), but Jessen's playing effortlessly exceeds the usual expectations for the instrument.7 Her tone ranged from the kind of low, woody plosives bass clarinets are known for, to unexpectedly sharp-edged high note runs. The combined sound was heavy-metalish, full of waspy rasp; again, this would have qualified as a "tone poem," but with AMI sounding like funk bassist Larry Graham with the treble turned all the way up. AMI stood near a large Marshall amplifier, with lights and mikes filling some of the space between, so in the projection AMI's robot glitter was backed by the silver imperative (partial) word "shall."

The second composition was "Push for Position," the piece I had seen/heard excerpted on Straus' website, and it was again, to my ears, dazzling-rattling, percussive music with popping giant steps from the sax and bassoon over bright sprays of MARIE music, leading into burred chords, metallophone ringings, with AMI doing her best bass trombone impression. A close-up of AMI at work showed a mechanism that resembles the inside of an old auto distributor rotor, and she was playing much the same role in keeping the music fired up. The third piece was improvisatory, with composer credit given to the resident robot wrangler, Troy Rogers. The humans partially deconstructed their instruments, pulling pieces loose to make sounds like a turkey call and ululating. Much of this was in the overtone range, shadowed by very low-end toy synthesizer dweezlings. Here the robots also "improvised"-by way of a program created by Rogers, the MARIE players tracked the sounds played by Straus and Jessen and responded to them. This raises the question "What is improvisation?" If we scoff at the efforts of AMI and CARI, and point out that such improvisation is only the machines following a complex algorithm, but then try to explain how this differs from what human musicians do, we are in dense philosophical territory dealing with questions that have worried us from Vaucanson's flute player to AI to Donna Haraway's cyborgs and beyond. It is curious how these stubby, non-anthropomorphic creatures insistently raise these questions in ways computers generating music rarely do. Is this because the musical processes of computers are digital, seamless and invisible, seemingly effortless (see, however, the next paragraph for an interesting partial exception), while we can see AMI and CARI flexing and flashing in their Steampunkesque efforts, and so they seem closer to us, to our own experience of playing, of living?

The next piece was by Jessen, and this utilized a computer in a much more human way than most. The piece utilized samples of her voice while reading a Denise Levertov poem, a reading which was then broken up into vocables and smaller sound fragments. Jessen played an interactive laptop/keyboard setup rather than bassoon here. A text of the samples she was activating appeared projected in a box above a keyboard on which keys lit up as she played.8 This real-time transcription of Jessen's broken yakking made much of the audience laugh. The sound was somewhere between a Balinese monkey chant and Sheila Chandra's vocal pyrotechnics-a percussive, stuttering work of beauty and humor.

This was followed by Swensen's "Northern Lights," much as can be seen on Straus' website. In this small room, the projections, some on the ceiling, were more enveloping but did little to help the program music feel of the piece. Alone, of all the pieces the duo played, this piece lacked any feeling of tactility, its program music approach to its subject (the summer solstice inside the polar circle) producing little to hold the listeners' attention. Terry Riley's "Dorian Reeds" was then performed accompanied by a collage and overlay film titled "Looking for Mushrooms." Riley's piece is strong and subtle in ways that reward attention, but the student-quality film detracted rather than added, dispersing attention and making the experience seem interminable-a serious miscalculation.




The EAR Duo's playing is virtuosic, with the robots as real if limited contributors9 -so there are very few physical or mechanical limitations to what the duo and its programmable friends might accomplish. The determining factor in where they go and what they achieve is aesthetic. The pieces composed by the members of the duo are, despite outward similarities, notches above the compositions by others that they choose to play- more varied, more rhythmically flexible, and, the Riley aside, more original. The preferred way forward, at least to my ears, would be for the pair to focus more on their own compositions and leave the often uninspired work of their contemporaries behind.

There are no CD or digital recordings of the EAR Duo of which I am aware, but by way of the members' websites and YouTube, those interested can get a fairly representative sampling of what this fascinating duo and friends are up to at this point in time.


FOOTNOTES:

1. Vaucanson is more famous for another contrivance: an "incontinent" mechanical duck.

2. Hugh Kenner, The Counterfeiters (Johns Hopkins, 1985), 38.

3. See www.mstraus.net/earduo.html

4. Originally rom www.kickstarter.com/projects/emmi/marie-a-virtuosic-band-of-robots-made-by-and-for-musicians-by-emmi (page not active now)

5. Jessen has her own, as well: www.danajessen.com. This offers details of her other activities and compositions.

6. Hazy memory suggests the face nearest me was that of Jimmy Witherspoon, but I'm not certain.

7. This, however, is changing. A number of bassoon quartets have emerged in recent years as orchestras struggle for funding and players increasingly have to found their own ensembles. Composers have begun writing music specifically for such ensembles. The finest of these of which I am aware is the "Odes to the Americas" which Marjan Mozetich composed for the Caliban Bassoon Quartet, particularly its final movement "With You I Dance."

8. It was difficult to see just how this setup worked, and I may have misconstrued; other descriptions I have found of Jessen performing this piece do no better.

9. It is unclear whether the MARIE players will be a permanent part of the EAR Duo's performances, but "Electro Acoustic Reed" suggests that the use of some sorts of interactive sound manipulation devices is integral to their existence as a duo.

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