Music for ‘the brain,’ ‘the feet’ and ‘the gut’

By George Varga

October 7, 2005

Many musicians want to reach out and touch someone, the more someones the better. But when Luke Fischbeck & Lucky Dragons perform here this weekend, it is the audience that will be doing the touching – and music-making – via a software program triggered by an electronically enhanced carpet.

The Mandala-patterned rug is equipped with moving circuits that read and react to human touch, be it two people or 200. This is then transformed into a spontaneous, real-time composition based almost entirely on a kind of neuron-net created by audience members, who must also touch one another if the piece is to achieve its full potential.

The result of this “feel me-touch me” musical approach is a high-tech magic carpet ride that blends the tactile with the textile. One would expect no less from the seventh annual Mexico City/Portland/San Diego International Electro-Acoustic Music Festival, which takes place tonight and tomorrow at San Diego State’s Smith Recital Hall.

This year’s festival opened two weeks ago in Mexico City, where it was held for the first time, before moving last weekend to Portland, Ore. It is the brainchild of maverick composer Joseph Waters, who is the SDSU music department’s director of Electro-Acoustic and Media Composition. He is also the artistic director of the international North-West Electro-Acoustic Music Association, under whose auspices this nonprofit festival has been held since its inception in Portland in 1998. It has been held at SDSU since 2002.

DATEBOOKSeventh annual Mexico City/Portland/San Diego International Electro-Acoustic Music Festival
8 tonight and tomorrow, Smith Recital Hall, SDSU, $8-$12 (619) 594-1696 or www.nweamo.org

The ultimate goal is to “create the classical music of the future,” according to Waters. He is confident of success, one festival at a time.

“Our mandate is to explore the connections between popular music and the avant garde,” said Waters, 53. “So we work hard to create a festival that would be very interesting for people more accustomed to listening to rock music or hip-hop, or who are coming from a non-academic background or from a traditional classical music background.”

The lineup for this weekend features 14 forward-looking groups and solo artists (seven per night) from Mexico, Bulgaria, Spain, Switzerland, Colombia, Germany, Holland and the United States. Their tools range from laptop computers, samplers and synthesizers to such conventional instruments as guitars, bass, drums and the oud (a Middle Eastern lute).

“It’s really a labor of love,” said Waters, who performs at the festival Saturday with percussionist Joel Bluestone.

“Our total combined budget for Mexico City, Portland and here is about $10,000 per city. We try to raise as much money as we can, but performers end up getting as much help as they can. For example, a cultural foundation in Barcelona is funding the performance here by Gregorio Jimenez & D’Ars Ensemble. And the Mexican government is flying two composers, Gabriela Ortiz and Ricadro Giraldo, here from Mexico City.”

All of the performers thrive on aural adventure while keeping a foot planted in previous musical traditions. This fits in well with the theme of this year’s festival, “Ancient World,” and Waters’ desire to move forward without losing touch with our cultural roots.

But none of the performers requires the same hands-on involvement that Fischbeck does of his audience, which he has dubbed the Lucky Dragons. For his piece to work, concertgoers must interact with his futuristic electronic carpet.

“There are moving circuits in the pattern of the rug, so people in the front of the audience can touch it with any form of skin contact,” explained Fischbeck, 27, who teaches electronic music at Rhode Island’s Brown University.

“This can be measured, along with changes in touch and how many people are touching. The software I use reads changes in the circuits and the combinations of the circuits, and makes a sort of a neural map of the new circuit created when people are touching. The second part of the software is basically a synthesizer, old-style oscillators, that will react to any subtle changes in touch by mixing different voltage systems to produce sound.”

Fischbeck chuckled when asked which physical movements worked best for triggering his rug-generated music.

“Usually, what happens is that people grope around trying to find one gesture they can recognize (sonically), and then they get into that,” he said. “So you’ll see people just flicking someone’s earlobe back and forth for five minutes. Each person should be able to hear their own participation, but there should also be a group sound not controllable by any one person. The idea is to get a balance between these two things. My goal is to get rid of any centralized artist and give control totally over to the audience.”

Keep it short!
To ensure maximum impact and a minimum of self-indulgence, each performer is asked to limit his or her stage time to 10 minutes. Together, they will present a diverse range of music that draws from electronica, hip-hop, free jazz, experimental, contemporary classical and many points in between.

“We want to find a way to create connections between the music of the people,” Waters said. “Which means pop music happening in garages, on the street and on the radio – including the most gross examples of commercialism – as well as the experimental stuff happening in little hideaways. In other words, connections between rap music and Mozart, of which there are many. Purely in its phrase structure, rap is drawing straight from the first Viennese school of Mozart and Haydn, the subdivisions of 4, of phrases of 4 within 4.”

Waters will be drawing from a school of his own making when he performs Saturday night with percussionist Bluestone. Their nine-minute piece, “Flame Head,” was written for vibraphone, Chinese gongs and Waters’ custom-designed Graphical User Interface, which he describes as creating a digital interface akin to a video game for a laptop-equipped musical performer.

“Except,” he noted, “that instead of zapping space aliens, I have to zap notes that my percussionist is playing, at exactly the right moment. I’m listening to him and following the score, and in that score there are cue points. For instance, at measure 43, the third beat, when he whacks the gong, I have to hit the X key and the space bar simultaneously to elicit a whole miniature composition that flows under that gong hit. These pieces of sound design are very elaborate and take months to make. For example, the sound of the wind is blended with the sound of a frog, which is slowed down and played backward, but with a change in pitch that is down three octaves. Then it’s made to fly past, like an airplane . . . “

Waters’ desire to attract a diverse audience to his festival through eclectic programming is a sound one. Already, there is a small but growing ripple effect.

“Joe is doing everything possible to bring this music to a wider audience,” said Minnesota electronic composer Doug Geers, 37, who performs Saturday with Swiss violinist Maja Cerar and Bulgarian physicist/latop-manipulator Liubo Borissov, both 30. “He curates the festival to have stuff with an aesthetic point of view, with music that appeals to the brain and the feet or the gut.

“I stage a four-year festival in Minneapolis called Spark, and I’ve kind of modeled it after Joe’s festival. The first year, I brought out Paul Lansky from Princeton, who is the computer-music equivalent of Steve Reich. What I learned from Joe is that I really wasn’t going far enough. This year, we brought in a noted French composer, Phillipe Manoury from UCSD, and DJ Spooky, who is sort of the intellectual voice of hip-hop. And now we go to a local brew pub and do concerts there, and include jazz with computers, DJ-ing and more.

“I think any sound can be beautiful, if it’s in the right context. It’s all about creating topographies of experience for people, where they feel like they’ve been somewhere that’s meaningful to them.”