In audio practice XI

Media mapping performance 2014

Chris Funkhouser, Newark Improvisation Festival 2014; photo by Ben Polsky
Chris Funkhouser, Newark Improvisation Festival 2014; photo by Ben Polsky

In Spring 2014 NJIT Theatre Arts professor Louis Wells invited me, as a musician, to participate in the Newark Improvisation Festival (held May 10 in Bradley Hall, Rutgers University-Newark). My daughter Aleatory and I began taking guitar lessons together in early April, so I decided—with my new instrument—to prepare a digital poetry performance with synchronized sound and media (visual accompaniment with embedded textual arrangement). I would interconnect a series of pictures to the sound by way of MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) technology, specifically Eugenio Tisselli’s software program MIDIPoet—my experiments with which I’ve documented in posts on Netartery and Authoring Software.

Preparing for a February 2013 bass guitar/MIDIPoet performance with Amy Hufnagel and Sophia Sobers, I made 510 .jpg images with a digital microscope. These pictures capture photographic details from pages of an annotated copy of Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing; Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith eds.). Since the images were recently repurposed as a book, pressAgain (Free Dogma, 2014), I decided to locate the original files, necessary hardware, and “play” the book on a different instrument.

In order to activate the images (i.e., connect the guitar to a laptop), and achieve the desired sonic effects, a few connections must be made. First, the guitar is plugged into a pitch-to-MIDI converter; from there, the signal feeds to my effects pedal (a DigiTech Multi Play—digital delay with sampler), which connects to the amplification system (Mos Valve Tube Works with Two Channel Tube Preamp and Mesa/Boogie speakers), and into an external sound card (M-Audio Fast Track Pro) that connects to the laptop/software via USB port.

I use a basic stage setup consisting of amplifiers, a guitar with pedal, a laptop and projector. In practice sessions I devised an entry point, where I’d start playing, and experimented combining the few chords and notes I am formally aware of, but I had no set idea or plan for their presentation on stage. In fact, beyond the first few pages of projection my musical interactions with the book were unscripted and just as much a surprise to me as they were to the audience. I knew I shouldn’t play for more than ten minutes, and didn’t. After reaching a point where I felt as though the music had reached a couple of brief peaks, and the book’s pages had cycled through a couple of times, I concluded. Plus, with dozens of blasting lights, the stage was very hot—the temperature was at least 30 degrees warmer than what I am accustomed to—and not entirely comfortable.

The annotations in the images primarily (though not entirely) document notations I made to a copy of Against Expression using Jackson Mac Low’s method of creating a poem by “reading through” one text, using the letters of a predetermined seed phrase, in order to determine its content—a process I briefly describe in “On Jackson Mac Low, 'Stanzas for Iris Lezak'”. My read-throughs partly stem from a series of wandering, somewhat ambiguous, reflections I had while reading the book. You could, using a method described in my “Author’s Note”, decode some impressions. Using Mac Low’s method, one also becomes aware of the ways frequency with which the alphabet functions on a finite level; thus, some of my recorded marginalia addresses to on-the-page textual materiality (and alphabetic imbalance). My notes likely contain documentation of the deciphered text, though by now I do not recall these ruminations beyond the first few phrases. (I like the book, for sure, though didn’t think it was flawless).

The day after the show I was struck by how many people directly (and indirectly) played a role in the performance and thought to make a diagram, a mind/media-map of sorts, to illustrate visually the different components of this staged presentation (and see if and how they interconnect). My chart maps the various elements comprising the event (hardware, software, instruction, textual arrangement and source, previous collaboration), divulges influence, technical application, and more. Invention of this performance style is/was a matter of inspiration, picking up on concepts, energies, methods, and tools others enable and invoke me to make use of.

mind/media chart, Chris Funkhouser 2014

Singer-songwriter-activist Stephan Said donated an old Peavey (Horizon II) guitar of his to our studio, along with the amps and speakers mentioned above (the rack also includes an Alesis QuadraVerb digital effects processor, which I opted not to use). I don’t know the exact details, but I believed he used this gear a lot in the 80s while touring with his SST band Always August, and probably later. I’d never used these amps onstage before, and they still sound great. I’d made recordings with this pink guitar before, mainly to exploit the fact that it was slightly dysfunctional. For example, a non-linear mix of sessions where I attempt to tune the instrument, to no avail, became the soundtrack for a lengthy animation I made for Trickhouse in 2008. Preparing for lessons, the guitar was fixed, the whammy bar removed, and now it is in fine shape.

I have performed as bassist many times, particularly in recent years, and since the early 90s I have always used one type of effects pedal or another. Since the 90s I’ve been using the DigiTech unit mentioned above, which enables flanging, chorus, reverb effects (one at a time), and a “looping” function that I like because it thickens, propels, and extends in combining sampled and live sounds in performance. The sound card and pitch-to-MIDI converter, about $300 investment, are necessary to connect the guitar to software (and projection). Though my formal training on any sort of guitar was non-existent, I occasionally performed and recorded with guitar in thelemonade, improvising in response to sound without knowing anything else—I suppose to add texture to what the group was doing through notes and effects.

I was drawn to MIDIPoet, which can be utilized with any MIDI-compatible hardware, after seeing Tisselli perform with it using a cellphone as interactive device at Brown University in 2008. For a musician who wishes to synthesize text, images, or video with sound, MIDIPoet provides a basic platform on which to do so. Certainly, greater effects can be achieved with more sophisticated MIDI programs, but I especially value programming with Tisselli’s software because it is a solid means to unite sound with image/video and not very difficult to use.

I met my first guitar teacher, John-Paul (JP) Guttwein, about two months ago. Looking for a teacher for Alea (anxious to learn), we came up with his contact information through local community networks. He was willing to come to our studio to give lessons to us both, with the understanding that we would track at an eight year old’s level. We had five lessons, learning just a handful of chords and easy, familiar riffs (e.g., “Wipe Out”), before this show. I left out anything recognizable from my approach and did not have a lot of technical sensibility to base the performance on—really only a sense of sound and oddball ideas about what might decently work together, particularly in conjunction with the accompanying texts. Though he said it jokingly, I appreciated Guttwein’s feedback after seeing the video footage, “Floyd should hire you”; it’s nice when the student can please the teacher. 

A final substantive dimension to the show—definitely present—are reverberations of previous digital media collaborations, which helped propel my practice. Since 2010 I have used MIDIPoet in a range of settings, including a musical performance with gropeUsurp at the 2011 E-Poetry festival, and elsewhere with Alan Sondheim, Andrew Klobucar, and Hufnagel—with whom I’ve done many different related collaborations (our practice with a digital microscope began in 2000).

In our 1991 interview Nate Mackey, discussing influence says, “If I start naming them I'll name all day”. For me, past experiences influence on multiple levels, as shown on the chart above, and the pathways of this performance surprisingly connect to most of my practices in audio, as told in these Jacket2 commentaries. I am onstage a sum of all parts.