iBoD – Playing by Ear with Lisa Means: Hearing the Ethers

Lisa bought a new guitar! A John Suhr limited edition commissioned electric guitar signed by the maker in a faux alligator hardshell case. The top of the guitar is quilted maple and looks like rippled water. Lisa bought the guitar because it’s voice eclipsed the sound she was carrying around in her mind. She said she had this jazzy sound in mind with rhythm (swingy, danceable) and a clean, clear tone when plucked (like George Benson). The Suhr guitar has a lovely tone with crisp, clean edges and bell-like shape. The sound the Suhr guitar planted in Lisa’s earbrain is more “New Agey”

A few weeks back, I sent Lisa a thumbdrive with recordings of our sessions since June. She reports that the recordings were not helpful to her as she couldn’t pick out her voice from the whole soundscape. This is good to know- the recordings give me a lot of information, but not so for Lisa. I know she listens to music by turning it up very loud in her home, so I asked if she did the same with the session recordings. She explained that she has sound reference files in her brain that pick up on familiar patterns associated with the song she is listening to. Without these references, Lisa is less able to make sonic sense of what she is hearing.

Our September 28 2019 session focused on the new guitar and what it brings to our pallette. And we played in a different relationship today. Instead of Lisa’s guitar through the Neutron, we played on separate channels. Lisa wanted to hear her new guitar clearly since she is just learning it, so I played the Ripplemaker through the Neutron. In this configuration, Lisa leads the way, while I bring interesting underpinnings into the mix.

Listening back to the recording, I think this is another way for us to play together. Our collaboration becomes more like intermingled solos, so the impact of our playing together is indirect rather than direct. Our voices are tandem rather than merged, and we can respond to each other. One question is how to create useful audio reference patterns for Lisa? She said that she couldn’t hear the recordings in the thumb drive because they were too removed from what we are doing currently. So it seems possible that if she listens to a recording from the most recent session, she could create new reference files. We will try this out.

The October 5 session is when things came together. Lisa brought another guitar – a 17″ wide arch-top Kay guitar which she describes as the kind of guitar you would find in the Sears catalogue in the 1950s. She played that and the Suhr while I created morphing streams of sound sequenced by Ripplemaker and modulated by Neutron through Abejusynth Station modules. The quality of the sounds of the sequence can be altered within the Ripplemaker, then in the Neutron. Then the audio signal from the Neutron goes through an Ableton audio track, which can then be sent through and altered by the Abejusynth Station AAC/EG modules. (For more info, go here: https://wp.me/p5yJTY-vL). Any of these Ableton tracks can go through delay send and a reverb send. So there is a whole lotta modulating going on!!

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After our October 12 session, I am very excited about our playing as intermingled soloists at 919 Noise Showcase on October 30. We ran ourselves through my Roland Eurorack mixer (Thanks, Jim!) so I could balance the sound. Then I recorded into 2 H6n tracks and in the room. We decided to start with a wave of sound and then whittle it down. I was not sure this was working, but listening to the recording, I decided we need to just listen close and have faith that it IS working.

Here is a mix of the 2 H6n tracks AND the room recording. This seems like an interesting way to capture sound recordings in the SunRa Room. That said, this mix has too much synth and not enough guitar, and we will fix that so the blend is better in the future.

Playing by Ear

Come and hear us play the ethers at 919 Noise this Wednesday 10/30 at 8:30!

Playing by Ear – What did we learn? Where do we go from here?

Following our first play date for All Data Lost, Lisa and I talked about what happened:

Lisa: I thought, “Oh, shit” when I first walked in [to The Wicked Witch] because its so dark I can’t see what I am doing, and then, you know, if someone is talking to me?!….but the energy there allowed it to be OK. You don’t have to interact, you can be alone in the dark with other people and not feel obligated to look at them, talk to them. Which is kind of freeing, actually, its freeing with the music too. Interacting with the audience effects my concentration on what I am doing with the music.

Jude: I really appreciated that aspect of the festival experience. The total focus on what is being created, on what is happening right now in this primal sonic moment! Most of the artists I heard during the afternoon performances could not be classified into any genre and each one was an engaging and unique experience.

Lisa: I also felt the audience was very attentive! They’re not looking at, or talking to, or doing anything else. They are standing there in the dark just listening to what you are doing! Its pretty neat! Even though some styles of music feed off of interacting directly with the audience, this is more experimentation, so I appreciated being able to focus on what we were doing.

When I listened to the recording, I was pleased with it, I thought it was pretty good. There was enough variety, without being too way out there. Here (in the SunRa Room) we are experimenting, then when we go and play somewhere, there needs to be more structure. I heard that. I liked the layers, and I think what I am hearing most are harmonics, and the harmonics allows the layers. The layers don’t let your brain get lazy or bored. The layering inspires curiosity!

Jude: Experimental sound art, which is what I feel like we are doing, is just one big surprise after another, and/or an evolving constancy built upon repetition and tiny changes. The layers of the soundscape are made up of harmonics, prolonged repetition, tiny and gigantic changes at a variety of tempos. Some folk’s hearing is limited by their thinking about genre classifications and performer virtuosity/charisma. Experimental sound can too overwhelming to the codified earbrain.

Lisa: The brain is like that in other ways too. People who believe that everyone should behave a certain way and anything outside of their prescribed way of thinking causes anxiety and tension. The brain is like a muscle, if you don’t use it to the full potential, it is going to wear out and not be able to tolerate much. When you exercise it, it begins to be able to handle more and more and more. Music and math are ways to exercise the brain. Math is completely like that, its exhausting, frustrating. You don’t see it and one day the light bulb comes on, and you are a totally different person.

The biggest difference between playing here (the SunRa Room) and playing at The Wicked Witch was having other people involved in listening. You feel some responsibility to bring a nice experience to them. So I think I listened more! I am controlling this, what do I want to put out there? I am not that experienced in playing for an audience, so I have a small bag of tools. So, in some ways, this lightens my responsibility to a degree.

Jude: I like having a minimal bag of tools cause it makes me go deeper with them. Also, I get overwhelmed by all that can be done to a sound signal and routing the signal to the right places, midi and audio, etc. So minimal suits my style, which is one of constant learning and deep listening.

Lisa: As far as the sound quality, I thought it was great! It was easy for me to hear what I was doing. I knew where I was at, where we were at. Even though this was the first time I played with the spider capo and that extra layer of harmonics (Lisa had the harmonics for the bottom three strings of the guitar in addition to fingering notes.), I didn’t have to do anything extra or anything difficult. Pluck the string and it is there! The reason I would use ANY tool is because it makes things easier. I am allowing each guitar to talk by doing less. I really want to hear the voice of the guitar, each one is different. That is how I decide to buy a guitar is because of the voice.

After we talked through what we each heard in our playing, I realized that Lisa listens for new ways of playing whenever she explores her guitar’s sounds. We are both experimenters, and feel quite free in that arena. We find structure more challenging. I have lots of questions about structure – my interest in modular synthesis comes from the very clear structural forms that are present in waveforms and filters. These forms, coupled with various sound sources, make interaction the essential feature of every sonic moment. How do we structure interactions? What is included in these interactions? When do we apply structured, conceptual thinking and when do we shake it off and realize “it doesn’t matter!!”

The next phase of Playing by Ear, will include Lisa’s guitar into the Neutron routed through Ableton Live and the AAC/EG clip templates created in the Abeju Synth Station. (See https://wp.me/p5yJTY-vL for more info) Here is a sample:

Come hear us at 919 Noise Showcase in October at the Nightlight in Chapel Hill.