October 12, 2001
MONSTERS OF POWERBOOK
by John Foyston
Summary: At this avant- garde festival, musicians don’t burn their laptops. Music festivals have changed some during the past few decades. Where stage announcements once warned, “Watch out for the brown acid, people, the brown acid,” they now advise that things will get under way “just as soon as this algorithm is finished loading.”
Algorithms are technical recipes that allow computers to carry out tasks, to create music through programs such as Max/MSP, for instance. They are not sexy — not to most people, anyway. No self-respecting rock star would admit to knowing an algorithm. Gene Simmons does not have scrapbooks full of photos of all the algorithms he’s consorted with in his years in Kiss. Algorithm abuse was not what sent the Toxic Twins — Aerosmith’s Joe Perry and Steve Tyler — a-12-steppin’ toward recovery.
But the world is changing. Computers now are so integral a part of music-making that there’s a type of band/group/aggregate called a Powerbook duo that takes its name from the Apple laptop that is its main instrument. There were several such among the 20 or so DJs, VJs, ambient auteurs, soundscape sculptors, beepeurs and noise wranglers last weekend at the Third Annual International Festival of Electro-Acoustic Music.The two-night festival was held at B Complex, the very cool new-music club in the Southeast industrial district (some of us remember it as Euphoria). It was sponsored by the Northwest Electro-Acoustic Music Organization, a group of musicians, composers and visual artists based in Portland and San Diego. The group was founded in 1998 by Joe Waters, now director of electronic music at San Diego State University, and it aims to blend the classical avant-garde tradition with the dance music and electronica bubbling up from the underground.
It’ll have to get more people up from B Complex’s stylized moderne furniture and out on the dance floor to truly take it to the streets. But the intent and spirit of the festival were spot-on, and it worked well as a quick tour of the brave new world of electronic music.
Things are going to be different, I was thinking while watching a new media Powerbook duo called Invincible Star Yoshi. My notes betray a couple of things: namely, how hard it is to write about new-media Powerbook duos and just how bad my note-taking is. Let’s look at a couple of entries:
“Next to each other . . .” I imagine I was trying to convey the fact that a Powerbook duo is generally a couple of young guys (Los Angelinos Robert Duckworth and Brad Breeck) sitting behind open Apple laptops, and that in this case they sat next to each other.
“One guy rocks slowly back + forward, something something a bit — nods . . .” A couple of problems are becoming apparent, not the least of which is that I can’t decipher half of what I wrote. More central to the future of electronic music is the fact that the visuals often are less than compelling. To use the technical term, they bite. One guy slowly rocking back and forth was in fact the pinnacle of a show that looked a lot like two guys doing their homework together.
(Several artists sidestepped the problem and collaborated with filmmakers; the Morpheus Project from Canada was the most successful with an absolutely seductive blend of electronic music and video with real-time editing and manipulation.)
OK, so we probably have to kiss some rock ‘n’ roll verities a semi-fond farewell in the coming Age of Electrons. The primer-and-Pabst mulletheads are unlikely to break into a couple of spirited verses of air Powerbook around the keg, for instance. Nor should we expect our Powerbook stars to torch their axes at the end of a show, as Jimi did at Monterey, or to smash them, Who-like, into banks of amplifiers. We probably shouldn’t even expect to call them “axes” anymore.
Another thing: Tight leather trou are right off the menu. Can you imagine sitting quietly at your computer, legs going to sleep thanks to a pair of Dwight Yoakam-spec leather jeans constricting blood flow? No thanks.
There are bright sides, however: No more guitar solos! No more drum solos! No more Guitar Gods’ sneers/grimaces/scowls/moues ! Yea, even unto the dreaded bluesface: Nevermore. Free at last; thank God almighty, free at last.
Not that the 21st century is going to be all beer and skittles. Sometimes this music leaves the definition of the word bruised and bleeding. One of Saturday night’s artists was Sawako Kato, a Tokyo woman who performed “Dreaming Dragon.” Kato, said MC Waters, grew up playing piano pieces by Debussy and other musical Impressionists, then sang in a punk band and now finds herself working with the concept of noise. Which, as interesting as it may sound in a grant proposal, portends badly for the coming listening experience.
My notes never actually refer to knitting needles being whanged through eardrums (or maybe they do, if I could read them), but the thought crossed my mind as a loud tone dropped into the room from beyond the range of human hearing, lingering just above the threshold so you couldn’t really hear it, but made you nervous about the next few seconds.
“Eerie — loud, sampled bells, loud piercing tone, skipping record . . .” Paints a fair word picture, doesn’t it?
No, far more restful to watch Paul Rudy play “Degrees of Separation: Grandchild of Tree,” which involved a cool video track, a laptop computer and an amplified cactus. Rudy, an assistant music prof at the University of Missouri in Kansas City, sat at a table with a cable junction box and an earthenware vase holding the semi-spherical cactus. Rudy gently plucked its spines, coaxing forth liquid ripples uncannily like the electronic experimentation on Jimi Hendrix’s “Electric Ladyland.”