Liberating Sound Floating Points Plays ISSUE Project Roomby Alan Lockwood
The curators at ISSUE Project Room, a linchpin in New York City’s experimental music scene, are hard at work on numerous fronts. One is to build on the venue’s five-year history with such projects as the month-long Floating Points 2008 program, the three-year-old performance festival of (primarily) electronic composition originated by composer, curator, and laptop performer Stephan Moore and IPR founder Suzanne Fiol. Another is for the space to pull off its latest, most ambitious relocation. From its original East Village home, IPR first moved to the Silo on the Gowanus Canal and from there, last year, to the corridors of the nearby American Can Factory. Selected from over a hundred cultural organizations this summer, Fiol and Co. are raising funds to move, with a twenty-year, rent-free lease, to the five-thousand-square-foot theater space in McKim, Mead, and White’s former Board of Education building on Livingston Street in downtown Brooklyn. This will double IPR’s seating capacity, creating archive, library, and office facilities, and provide easy accessibility to the space by subway. In late July, IPR also programmed an evening at the Tobacco Warehouse on the DUMBO waterfront, though the Theremin Society’s penchant for camp and antics winnowed away the early audience for John Zorn’s Cobra orchestra, until few remained for drummer Jonathan Kane’s blues power band.
This month, in addition to a benefit auction September 18 at Phillips de Pury, IPR has Tony Conrad playing violin on the 4th; then, autumn’s artist in residence Tristan Perich presents a concert on the 30th. (Perich’s 1-Bit Music, on Cantaloupe Music, is a circuit in a CD case playing forty minutes of his work through a headphone jack.) Collaborative concerts with a number of WFMU DJs will be interspersed with events including Eric Bogosian’s commemorative reading from Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers on the 11th (with guitarists Elliott Sharp and Marco Capelli leading the musical support) and a MATA Interval concert on the 17th by composer and vocalist Jennifer Walshe.
In June, Fiol and Moore’s Floating Points brought a broad bill of composers and artists to work with Moore’s fifteen-channel speaker system. Moore spoke with the Rail about this year’s participants, the festival’s history, and its guts, or soul: the grid of speakers that remain suspended above the room at IPR. (Moore said that Fiol’s support has provided his system with “a place to live, where we don’t have to tear it down after a weekend of doing shows.”) The interview transpired in the Bethune Street basement that serves as the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s music department. (Moore works for and tours with the company.) High shelves were chockablock with gear from electronic music mainstays such as Gordon Mumma, with two cases of seashells for John Cage and Stewart Dempster pieces, another with David Behrman’s Atari ST computer, and a couple of Leslie spinning-horn speakers that give the Hammond organ its distinctive sound.
Moore wryly noted the festival’s name-change from Points in a Circle (that moniker had fit IPR’s previous space in the circular Silo), then unwrapped a tiny IceTech speaker to play samples from concerts this writer had not attended. The black cube uses whatever surface it’s on for resonance—a pressboard worktable, in this instance—and, toward the end of the interview, Moore would have a laugh playing Tony Conrad’s overpowering piece through the dinky piggyback device. At Floating Points’ core is the network of multidirectional loudspeakers that Moore developed from a twelve-sided speaker designed in the 1990s by Dan Truman and Perry Cook (who both now teach at Princeton). They used impulse-response recordings to simulate the transmission from stringed instruments, and circumvented stereo-system restrictions faced by electronic musicians. Their speaker allowed the immediacy of chamber music, Moore said, where “it’s about the chamber as much as it is about the musicians.We’re liberating the location as a musical, compositional parameter and dimension,” he said of the IPR system. “Now where the sound is coming from is another degree of freedom that the music can be given,” along with rhythm and pitch. “You can have a sound coming out of one speaker, or all the speakers, or any subset of the speakers. It’s open to however you want to frame it or move things around. It’s all done in the programming language Max/MSP, an algorithmic, compositional tool for doing things with sound.”
“Every year there are folks who know exactly what they want,” Moore said of Floating Points, “and you sit them in front of [the system] and they make it happen.” This year’s closing night featured Francisco Lopez, “and he’s used to working with multi-channel sound and surrounding people. Also Kaffe Matthews—this is someone whose ideas are very clear and well thought out.” (Matthews had the audience in the palm of her hand on June 27, though her brash maximalist approach didn’t rely on much subtlety or surprise.) Moore also cited Scanner, Doug Henderson, and Michael Schumacher (who also runs Brooklyn’s Diapason Gallery) as other examples of “the easy picks: people who obviously get it and have an idea of what this [sound system] is capable of.” He said that in this year’s festival, Suzanne Thorpe and Tianna Kennedy came with completed pieces designed for his system, which they then refined once they’d run them live.
“And then there are people who are full of ideas but don’t have experience or technical capacity. Vito Acconci was like that this year. He came with this enormous piece of text but no idea of where the rubber meets the road.” Moore said that “some people show up and it’s just a wild ride, an improvisation,” and gave as a good (rather than troublesome) example cellist Jane Scarpantoni, from last year’s festival. “She said, ‘Let’s take my sound and do stuff with it,’ and I became more like a collaborator and performer in the show. We sort of nodded at each other and let the games begin. Now she’s ready to write for it because she understands the things we can do.”
On June 14, several Phill Niblock pieces concluded the program begun by Ashley Paul and Eli Keszler on acoustic instruments, with the first of those pieces hurtling with banshee intensity, a radical analysis of speed and stillness. On the 20th, Yasunao Tone patched CD players, a portable radio, and a boom box into an analog frequency divider, fragmenting his original source material, while a week later Seth Cluett’s piece had seeds and pellets ritualistically placed in slides and chutes, before Kaffe Matthews’s massive laptop romp. Moore spoke of Lee Ranaldo’s evening, for which the Sonic Youth guitarist mixed in a panoply of sounds and sonic events. “We worked out something where the sound still had a chaotic movement, but he was able to control what that movement was and how fast it was going. He hung a guitar near an amplifier for feedback, and he’d get up from his laptop, walk to the back of the room, hit the guitar so it would make this huge feedback noise, then go back to the laptop and start changing things. Leah Singer was doing video, and the two of them are a powerful combination.”
Tony Conrad’s early June slot was on an evening when Elliott Sharp also performed. Conrad arrived with cases of equipment, so Moore asked if it was a warm-up for an upcoming Tate Modern date. Conrad said no, and mentioned his legendary 1960s film Flicker. “He said ‘When I first did it’—and he has this very animated way of talking—‘I had this whole circuit designed, but the film had to be done, so I just used what I had. I’ve found my notes and decided to build the whole circuit.’ It was much louder than Phill—it was really loud, the bass was enormous. He didn’t use the center three speakers, he used the twelve around the outside. It would start at one end and as it got more distorted it would advance, with the loudest sound at the back. During one part, these huge solenoids were snapping and smoke started coming out. I don’t think any of that was supposed to happen. After a couple of days he said, ‘Would you mind if I came back and did this again sometime, because it was close, but that wasn’t quite it?’” Moore laughed: “I said ‘I’ll need to talk to Suzanne but I’m sure we wouldn’t mind!’ It was really stunning.”
Stephan Moore’s Receiver (released under the name Evidence, with Scott Smallwood) is out on free103point9’s Dispatch Series.