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I made this

August 8, 2010 2 comments

I didn’t do my usual sitting-at-the-computer-until-my-eyes-bleed thing yesterday. Instead I built this:

What is it? Answer: a stepped tone generator with in built fuzz/distortion. A self contained noise instrument. Not having played with this stuff much for around 20 years and not having handled a soldering iron for over half a decade I’m pretty pleased with myself – though I have to acknowledge that it didn’t actually work until Stu discovered one of the components in the wrong place and fixed it for me.

It’s the result of going to an electronic music workshop run by Stench, a Leicester-based experimental music outfit. Interesting afternoon, with much conversation about circuit-bending – the ‘creative short-circuiting of electronic devices’, as Wikipedia has it. For the curious reader (you have to be pretty curious type of person to want to know, I suspect) there’s more on the topic at anti-theory.com. Or google it, there’s lots of stuff out there.

This all happened at Fabrika in Leicester, which is going from strength to strength, with fairly off-the-wall things happening. I don’t, for example, know who thought up the idea of workshops on recycling bicycles into other household items of furniture, decoration and utility but it’s a brilliant concept. No, I haven’t been, but just the idea of it is cool – workshops twice a month apparently.

Anyway… the evening was a Stench performance. Stench is a collaborative umbrella for a bunch of people all doing their own thing. So it started with someone whose name I didn’t catch, working with a range of samples. Then there was Steve Auxilec. Ordinarily it wouldn’t be the kind of noise I’d listen to for very long; the improvisation he did was pretty ‘ambient’ with no identifiable rhythm. That said, I zoned out to it and felt strangely refreshed afterwards. Someone commented ‘That looked like you’ve just downloaded the master code and re-set your circuits’. Why, what did I do??

I left about half-way through the next set, by Threep, because I had to get home early for other reasons. But what I heard was excellent. In fact, at the point I was leaving, quite a few people were turning up and the event was running until, I think, around 1am – so I hope everyone had a good time.

Next project: an urban-inspired take on a tribal mask, I think. I’ve got the stuff I need, had the whole project in a box in the shed for about a year and just never got round to it.

Oh, and if anyone with relevant knowledge can explain why a couple of virtual synthesizers I’ve downloaded (for Mac) need some additional sound files – VSTi support, or some such thing – and how I get hold of them, I’d be grateful.

Drumming

August 4, 2010 6 comments

I’ve pretty much always had a drum or two around the house, either bought on holidays or bought for me as presents. But I rarely do much with them. This is the current one:

Small djembe drum

A small djembe

(The pic, by the way, is courtesy of Chris Cafferkey – it is my drum, but the background is a Seminole-style patchwork quilt she made a few years back).

I ended up doing a bit of drumming round the fire at a pagan gathering a while ago – where I was doing the fire stuff you’ll see in previous blog entries – and when I saw an ad for a local drumming workshop, it piqued my curiosity.

See, here’s the thing. Being a writer, I spend about 110% of my waking hours in front of my computer, writing stuff – or researching and preparing to write, or editing. It’s all very right-brain, word-based, analytic stuff. I write some things that look like stream-of-consciousness, but when they get fitted into stories it’s all carefully manicured and tailored to the plot… And the idea of crossing over to the ‘other side’ and doing something more physical, more visceral, perhaps, appealed.

So I went to the workshop. And learned a lot in a short space of time.

First, I’m crap at drumming. That much I already knew. But I could keep a simple beat going, at least. Apparently if I bothered to practice every day for say three months I could get pretty good.

Second, I learned some basic technique. For djembe this is essentially the bass slap, the higher-pitched ‘tone’ when you hit towards the edge of the skin and the ringing tone you can get from a glancing blow on the very edge. Yes, there are many more techniques. I said I was a beginner and these are basics. I found my own way of working out a rhythm, running it to a lyric in my head. Actually I already knew that one from years back, but doing it again was a challenge. And I learned I’ve very right-handed, struggling to lead into any beat with my left hand.

Third, and most importantly, I was impressed by the teaching/learning style. I guess I’m used to ‘learning’ being a case of discussing something, working it through in a conversation of some kind, and then putting it into practice. Almost every type of learning I’ve done, from academic to shiatsu to first aid, follows this general pattern. This, however, was very different. If you want to learn to drum – you drum. You see and hear what the workshop leader is doing, and try to replicate it, and then he goes off into something else that makes the beat more complex or interesting, and you keep going, and then he comes back to the basic beat and takes you off in another direction. It’s a whole lot more intuitive and I found I was using my whole body, almost doing a sitting-down dance, in order to keep time.

Which takes me to a fourth observation, which is how stiff my body is from all the sitting-down-thinking-and-typing I tend to do.

Lots more as well. I noticed how the drum I was playing was reverberating to the other drums, for example. And how loud a drum really is when you go at it (which at home, with neighbours, I almost never do). And I’ve decided I need a bigger drum because the 8-inch diameter is basically the whole length of my hand, which makes a bass slap tricky.

I’m going to keep going. At home, and not necessarily in that particular workshop because it’s Afro-Caribbean based and that’s not my particular thing, but maybe there are other groups elsewhere. But the more left-brain, intuitive, rhythmic side of me needs to come out from wherever I’ve been hiding it. And it’s a good upper-body workout as well… It must have been inspirational because I’ve started randomly hitting and slapping things just to see what they sound like and whether I can copy a rhythm – the rhythm of the dishwasher as its working, for example…

I’m sure there are more ‘analytic’ sides to drumming; but for the moment that’s not how I’m engaging with it. I’m seeing it as a counterpoint to the other stuff I do, not a replication of it.

In other news, I’m planning on going to a music event of a totally different kind, Stench, at Fabrika, Leicester on Saturday (they’re running Sunday as well, but I’m not sure I can make it then). This will be home-made electronic music, the kind where people have fiddled and rebuilt and customised various electrical appliances to make interesting sounds. Should be fun.

And for now, it’s back to the sitting-at-keyboard-thinking-and-writing thing…

Stench VI

March 12, 2010 Leave a comment

Early in the evening Star Trek: Yoyager was on TV. B’elanna says to Seven something along the lines of ‘You have to watch the warp coil like a hawk, it can be unpredictable’. Seven says it’s only a propulsion device. B’elanna says ‘But it has a mind and personality of its own.’
Cut to later in the evening at The Art Organisation, Leicester. The stage has a couple of laptops and a pile of repurposed circuit boards stripped out from discarded electronic kit. It’s impossible to tell which sounds are sampled, which are generated from scrapped and modified circuitry. It looks like this is indeed a pile of junk that has a mind and personality of its own, and the performers are interacting with that mind and personality as much as controlling it. The overall effect varies from ethereal birdsong to heavy driving industrial beats.
From an audience perspective it looks like chaos theory at work. A performer gently tweaks a knob and whatever input that adds to the mix (which might be a signal controlling another sound) has the effect of a butterfly that beats its wings and whips up a hurricane.
It’s an acquired taste, but if you’ve ever gone to sleep with the radio on and woken up sometime in the middle of the night to find the signal has drifted, there’s a beat created by phasing between two stations and loops of static and interference – and found that it’s weird in an interesting way – you’ll have the idea. It’s almost trancelike, and the music of dreams. My dreams anyway, and presumably those of the respectably large audience.
At the end of the evening, Kanta Horio did some intimate, amusing and fascinating stuff on a very small scale with old computer fans, electromagnets making ball bearings jump about in little boxes, springs used as reverb units and suchlike. This is a style of performance that seems quirky, distinctive, unique.
There seems to be an increasing interest in this kind of music. Perhaps some people have come to it from the contemporary industrial music scene, some from looking back at the origins of it in the more or less experimental work of groups such as Einsturzende Neubauten, and some from the (now rather dated) avant-garde of Stockhausen. Perhaps some have just latched on to the aesthetic of recycling old stuff to make new and interesting stuff, the way that people like Survival Research Labs have done for redundant military equipment that gets re-made into performing robots. But whatever the sources and influences, the effects are remarkable.
Stench appears to be a collective of 30-plus people (though only a handful were involved in last night’s performance). It describes itself as an ‘artist-led forum for innovative performance, experimental music and digital arts … open to anyone who is interested in being involved in creative projects that go beyond the mainstream’. They will be performing again in April and August, and apparently are running workshops over the summer.
Read more at Stench’s pineapster page.

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