What’s New? is an email roundtable that draws together persons of diverse backgrounds to discuss the issues shaping jazz and constituent experimental musics in the early 21st Century.
The panelists for this roundtable include:
Lisle Ellis, a New York-based bassist, composer, visual artist, and teacher. After studies at Creative Music Studio and exposure to the New York loft scene, Ellis returned to his native Vancouver, where he joined forces with Paul Cram, Paul Plimley and others in the galvanizing NOW Quintet of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Subsequently residencies in Montreal and San Francisco led to the formation to ensembles including What We Live with Larry Ochs and Donald Robinson. Ellis has worked with artists spanning Cecil Taylor and the principals of Matmos. Since moving to New York in 20025, Ellis’ projects have included such luminaries as Roy Campebell, Ellery Eskelin and Rudresh Mahanthappa, Ongoing projects include three trios – ODE, with Ochs and Trevor Dunn, SOS, with Marco Eneidi and Peter Valsamis; and Di Terra, with Alberto Braida and Fabrizio Spera – and the electronic band Instant Coffee. In-progress recordings include a remixed solo bass album for D1, and, for Metalanguage, In Search of the Living Verb, featuring a tentet withThomas Lehn, Kjell Nordeson, Rova, and a string quartet rounded out by Carla Khilstedt, Charlotte Hug and Joan Jeanrenaud. For more information about Lisle Ellis, consult: www.lisleellis.com.
Adam Linson, a Berlin-based bassist, composer, and developer of real-time interactive systems for live performance. Linson studied music with George Lewis and Bertram Turetsky while majoring in philosophy at the University of California San Diego. Subsequent residencies at STEIM in 2004 and 2008 have centered around the development of custom controller hardware for music performance. Linson’s 2006 solo album, Cut and Continuum, was released on Evan Parker’s Psi, as was Linson’s 2007 duo album with computer musician Lawrence Casserley, Integument. Linson has performed with Parker’s Electro-Acoustic Ensemble’s 2004 ECM recording, The Eleventh Hour. Current projects include Linson’s Systems Quartet, an electro-acoustic group with Axel Dörner, Paul Lytton, and Rudi Mahall, as well as creating interactive computer compositions and installations. Linson’s most recent recording is as a member of the John Butcher Group, somethingtobesaid, issued on the leader’s Weight of Wax label. To learn more about Adam Linson, visit: www.percent-s.com.
Bill Shoemaker: Both of you are bassists who have incorporated electronics and signal processing to a considerable degree in your work. The double bass seems a less likely jumping-off point for this type of work than other instruments, if not a rather odd one as it is an instrument with remarkable pitch range, capable of producing a full spectrum of colors, and it has the capacity to produce chords and polyphonic material. What does electronics and signal processing bring to the table?
Adam Linson: After playing strictly acoustically throughout my formative years, a few things began to bother me about the relation of the bass to the wider field of music practice. Having played with orchestras, it was clear that the classical ideal of the bass section was, generally speaking, to sound like a single instrument, achieved by eliminating any player or instrument idiosyncrasies or differences. And, again generally speaking, with obvious notable exceptions in twentieth century music, the other ideal was for a particular tone that suppressed the timbric range of the instrument. One benefit of playing the bass is its historical role in jazz as well as classical music, which enabled me to be involved with both practices since I started out. However, the jazz ideal of the bass has its own inherited self-imposed limitations as well. For the most part, the practice of jazz bass playing as I learned it was confined to walking lines, played through a pickup and amplifier, also discarding much of the timbric range. Those loose confines clearly did not stifle some of the best jazz bass playing that I still enjoy listening to, which handily exploits the full spectrum of colors you refer to. But in my case, while I was strongly drawn toward improvisation, the sonic aspects of the bass sound I was interested in exploring and developing were marginalized in both jazz and classical practice. By the time I reached the point of playing solo acoustic, there were already decades of solo acoustic practice to reckon with, with many of the pioneers still active in the field. And of course parallel developments were happening on other instruments, from the relatively technically-similar cello and on through all the rest. So rather than repeat too much of what has been done, I turned to the world of computers in which I had a separate and distinct background, and began to experiment with the emerging field of integrating real-time electronics with acoustic sources. One of the first things that struck me about the level of technology that is currently possible is that with the right equipment, a very accurate reproduction of the bass can be realized through digital recording, including all the sounds that I had been trained to mitigate or discard. And exactly the things you named about the bass make the artificial reproduction of its acoustic sound through technological means seem all the more uncanny. To use a metaphor popular in this context, it is like holding a mirror up to the sound. But in this act of mirroring, there is an almost sculptural dimension to the juxtaposition of a bass and all of this modern equipment, given the vast asymmetries. From the hollow embodiment of carved wood, the hand-brushed varnish, the structural tension of steel strands, the arrangement and spacing of the component elements, the bow hair, and also the setting into motion of palpable material with bodily exertion – all very corporeal and personal – to metal boxes, lights, cables, and the mental facilitation of electron flow – cold, industrial, and disembodied. In the sonic realm, I was developing my acoustic practice, like many others, in terms of microscopic details, polyphony, and so on. It wasn't long before I realized that with the aid of technology, those details and voices could be further magnified, multiplied, and ultimately manipulated, because the richness of acoustic sound makes for a rich signal to deal with electronically or digitally.
Lisle Ellis: I agree that the bass is an instrument with “remarkable pitch range, capable of producing a full spectrum of colors”. Yet, if this is really true, I wonder why tradition and convention has primarily relegated the bass to the backline role of incidental support? It seems to me, historically speaking, that recognition of the instrument’s potential has been slow in coming. Curiously, even though the bass has had its share of virtuosi, compared to other instruments there have been relatively few seminal bassists who have emerged as innovative composers, improvisers, or ensemble leaders.
The bass's extremely narrow power margin is one possible explanation. That is to say, in terms of dynamic range, the difference between forte and pianissimo is not large. Simply put, the bass can be hard to hear; bass notes are delicate and can be obscured and obliterated easily. Bassists endlessly discuss the difficulty of amplifying the instrument and the challenge of achieving a clear and natural amplified sound.
Undoubtedly, Charlie Haden’s unique musicality is an immense force in any ensemble. But to really “hear” him and to comprehend his music at a profound level most everyone else in the group needs to be silent. On the other hand, Barry Guy will bring to a performance an array of mallets and percussive devices with which to catapult his sound over and through the din of whatever else may be happening. However, such preparations are well beyond the propriety of most bassists. Whereas, saxophonists, such as Bird, Coltrane, and Ornette and their respective languages of “bop,” “sheets of sound,” and “harmolodics” did not really need to stray too far beyond the basic canon of their instrument’s technique to have their voices physically heard and conceptually understood.
Alleviating the acoustic bass’s limitations and enhancing its vital force by way of electronic signal processing is a fairly recent development. It remains to be seen where all this “current” activity will lead but it certainly presents a locus for the instrument to gain even more control of how its role is perceived, to sustain consistent power with its voice and, thus, to attain a solid equality with other instruments
Shoemaker: What hardware and software do you currently use? How does it serve your music better than other devices and programs?
Linson: On the heels of Lisle's last comment, the electronics definitely give the bass a chance at something many other instruments have in their purely acoustic form. One of the major developments of contemporary instrumental practice concerns the possibilities for polyphony on what could be considered traditionally monophonic instruments. This tendency is even seen on instruments like the piano and guitar, where people have been developing practices of parallel independent polyphony rather than relying merely on hierarchical supporting lines. In this vein, I have been working towards essentially the same goals in the purely acoustic realm, but – to extend Lisle's sentiment -- much of what I have developed with the bass would remain inaudible without amplification. And as soon as you have introduced amplification, you are no longer dealing with an acoustic instrument per se. Even when the amplification is ostensibly "transparent", purporting to be non-additive to the acoustic sound, in reality there are a vast amount of layers introduced by microphones, pick-ups, pre-amplifiers, amplifiers, on to mixers, equalizers, speakers, etc. The list could obviously continue.
So in the move from the literal excitement of air in and around the instrument and the room to the manipulation of signal paths over electrical circuitry, you have already, to use a rather ridiculous metaphor, caged and released the sound. And then we are supposed to pretend that nothing has happened to the sound during this caging and releasing. At the core of the practice, you have to recognize that acoustically, you are physically manipulating the materiality of the instrument to generate sound, but then in amplifying it you are generating a new type of material that is introduced once it passively passes through a chain of devices that have been designed by people with particular aesthetic perspectives -- and you are not even meaningfully intervening in the dissemination of this new material you have introduced. You are reduced to choosing your preferred gear and combining and setting it up in a such a way that is agreeable to you. That may be sufficient for a wide variety of contexts, but as you attempt to approach the zero degree, the layers become impossible to ignore.
So you've got acoustic polyphony, but maybe the lines you are working with are nearly inaudible acoustically. You introduce amplification, and along with it, an entire set of materials and accompanying problems, much of which overlaps with general theoretical discussions about the relation of live to recorded music. Oddly enough, similar questions are addressed in (still and moving) photographic practice, where ideas of a transparent or objective rendering of reality have been extensively debunked throughout recent history. In this sense, ignoring the layers of mediation does not mean they are not constantly operating, though there may be practical reasons for ignoring them. (The same could be said about, for example, the use of language for communication, where practical goals might displace an otherwise endless series of ambiguities.)
Cutting to the chase, these matters serve as a preface of sorts to how I entered into dealing with electronics -- in short, as a way of dealing with the additional material introduced by amplification. So if you are working polyphonically with, say, two parallel acoustic lines, and you are amplifying it, in some sense you already have four lines. My inclination has been to push the virtual lines into further polyphonic territory, beyond what would be possible acoustically, as the virtual lines are in an important sense already decoupled from the acoustic instrument and thus disembodied. As such, they present themselves as a separate set of materials in a different realm, to be dealt with according to an entirely different set of practices than the ones governing the acoustic production of sound. I might even be willing to say that signal processing relates to amplified sound in the same way that friction relates to acoustic sound, but that is an admittedly rash and polemical formulation best left as a matter for further consideration.
Ellis: My electro-acoustic setup, which I refer to as bass & circuitry, begins with my Eminence Bass, a commercially available instrument that I’ve tweaked a bit. Complementing its standard issue piezo transducer, is a magnetic type pickup which mounts on the end of the finger board. Having two pickups gives me the option of either having a very “hot” signal from the magnetic pickup to facilitate the signal processing aspect, a more ‘pure‘ acoustic tone from the piezo, or a blend of the two. The magnetic pickup allows no sound to bleed in from any other instruments in proximity and the piezo transducer presents the possibility of producing a decent facsimile of the sound of an acoustic bass. However, the piezo will allow sound from other instruments to leak in. Consequently, I do not use the piezo to create my processed sounds.
I route the signal from the magnetic pickup into a line selector device which splits the signal and enables me to send it to two different places. One signal goes to a processor mounted on the deck of my laptop. The other signal goes directly into a channel of a small mixer. The signal out from the laptop mounted processor also ends up in a channel of the mixer. The main outs from the mixer run to the input of my laptop’s sound card, and the line level output of the computer is from where I send a stereo pair to the final stage of amplification, such as a house system, or whatever else I may be using for a particular performance.
Of course, I prefer running in stereo, it is just so much more robust than mono. But some stereo sound systems give diminishing returns for the sound of the bass instrument and I find that the presence of sub woofers does not help all that much. Using subs can manifest other problems which have to do with the projection and separation of sounds in a stereo field. In particular, I find it disadvantageous to have a certain range of frequencies emanating from one set of speakers and other frequencies coming from another.
Recently, I’ve been using two bass amps and enclosures which gives me strong definition in the low frequencies. Strategic placement of twin speaker cabinets gives good separation which I find to be helpful because having my sound source be apart from any other instruments in the ensemble that are also going through the house system can boost the clarity - especially for the bass. Such audio segregation can also aid the listener in identifying who is doing what in the music which is often a challenge when listening to groups performing with electronics. The drawback of using two bass amps and cabinets is the considerable loss of clarity of high end and mid-high end frequencies. Oh well! Tradeoffs: win some, lose some.
Concerning the processing end of things, I run Ableton Live V7.2 on my laptop as a host program for a number of VST plugins, including some soft synth patches that I’ve created. Among other things, the software allows me to assign keystroke commands to the computer’s qwerty keyboard so I can trigger events in Ableton and effect audio processing parameters. As well, I supplement these control possibilities by way of an external hardware USB controller comprised of knobs, dials, and faders.
A couple of other software applications I’ve been investigating are Soundplant and Kenaxis. The latter is a wonderful app developed by the brilliant electro-acoustic musician and computer music software programmer, Stefan Smulovitz from Vancouver.
Lately, I’ve incorporated a small two octave USB keyboard which allows me to actually play - in a very limited way - pianistically. Yet, adding more gear is always dangerous.
Over the nearly ten years that I’ve been expanding and elaborating upon my bass & circuitry rig I’ve made a conscious effort to reduce the amount of hardware involved. A major obstacle to overcome for anyone - specifically, any acoustic bassist - interested in this field of endeavor is to figure out how to transport the instrument and all the paraphernalia needed to create the sounds one wants. Generally speaking, engaging the realm of electro-acoustics is more than a notion: it doesn’t come cheap, literally or metaphorically.
Even more central to the issue, and besides the back breaking prospect of carrying a large instrument and a mountain of equipment, is the issue of ergonomics. Standing with a double bass demands that the instrument be supported with one hand leaving only one hand free to manipulate the control surfaces used for the processing of sounds. Utilizing a stool or a special stand to hold the instrument only means more stuff to transport, or more requeststo be made of the venueswhere one is performing. Promoters do not find “demanding” performers to be user friendly. Certain specific requests will be seen as persnickety and may be ignored outright because they are difficult to fulfill. And if presenters do attempt to comply one may find their improvised “solutions” wrought with unpleasant surprises.
Foot controllers are a feasible option to hand controllers but the problem I find with them is that an upright bassist, unlike a guitarist who can literally stroll around, is in a fixed position and therefore has an extremely limited range of motion. Two pedals is about the maximum a bassist can fit within reach of their one free foot.
It took me a long, long time, years in fact, to compact my kit. It was mostly trial and error. In the beginning I brought an incredible array of devices, most of them bulky. It would take me hours to pack, unpack, set up and tear down. Now, I have a very efficient system: besides my computer, which I carry separately in a shoulder slung briefcase, all my gear fits into a small flight case; the case itself serves as a partial table to support my computer and all of the hardware. I set my case on one chair and sit my butt on another. So my tech rider ends up being exquisitely simple: “two standard chairs and a sound system, please” ... and some cake, I like cake.
Therefore, I have a total of three items to carry. For gigs at home in New York I simply sling my bass and computer over my shoulder and wheel my case either onto the subway or into a cab. No problem. My instrument has a detachable neck so that when touring I dismantle the bass and place it in a hard-shell “golf club” style case (in which I also manage to fit clothes and other sundry items). The golf case has another hidden benefit: at the airport check-in counter they usually do not suspect that I’m a musician, so I often get better treatment ... sometimes they ask, “hey, what's your handicap?” Obviously, I don’t say “experimental music” ... that would be foolish and only courting trouble!
In terms of both the look and the feel, sitting in a chair with my bass is more akin to a cellist’s experience rather than that of a bassist. Yet, sitting does free both my hands and this freedom is imperative when manipulating sounds through a series of keystroke and controller commands. Performing simultaneous cluster commands such as <ctrl + alt + F11> with the right hand, while slowly increasing the rate of fader 7 with the left hand is really not much different than playing a double or triple stop on the bass. I love the tactility of the bass and find a similar sensibility in these electronic tools. Manipulating them can be the opposite of what one might think to be a cold and detached encounter. For me it is very visceral. It touches something at my core and although being quite a different sensation from pulling a string with the fingers of the right hand or depressing the metal strings to the wooden fingerboard with the left, it is somehow related, or so I feel. It may be hard for some to imagine, but it is a completely true, authentic, and compelling event for me.