The Character Weekend, the trilogy of small sets of improvised solo piece that was my dissertation piece, are now up on the major streaming and download services.
Character Weekend 01:
Character Weekend 02:
Character Weekend 03:
1 Vox, Vol. 1, the EP I released on Bandcamp last December, is now up at all the major (and a bunch of minor) music streaming and download sites. Search your favorite service, or follow the links below.
(Psst, if you want to buy and download it, it’s cheapest on Bandcamp…)
The genesis of Tap Hear is rooted in a listening exercise I learned as an undergraduate studying music [redacted] years ago. At some point I was exposed to, or perhaps assigned, this task designed to open one’s ears to environmental sound.
Its effect on me was much more profound than I imagined it would be when I first sat down to try it. I found a nice place in the UC San Diego undergraduate library, got out my notebook and pencil, and prepared to sit and write down everything I heard for 15 minutes. I figured that would be plenty of time, but instead the experience was so unexpectedly interesting and enjoyable that I found myself wanting to continue after the time was up.
It’s hard to put myself in my state of mind from back then. I was young and just getting exposed to new worlds of interesting and unexpected music. It was music that sounded like nothing I had been exposed to growing up (this was long before the internet would provide easy access to the long tail of the music world and visits to Tower records could only take you so far…). Musician philosophers like Pauline Oliveros and John Cage were telling me to listen to the world around me, and after doing this exercise, I realized that that was a great idea!
For years I’ve looked back fondly on this formative experience, but I couldn’t remember exactly where it came from. Though I knew (or at least was pretty sure) it was from the writings of Pauline Oliveros, the exact source was lost to me until recently, when some helpful Facebook friends were able to quickly point me in the right direction. The instructions were simple:
Listen to the environment for 15 minutes or a longer but pre-determined time length.
Use a timer, clock or any adequate method to define this time length.
Describe in detail the sounds you hear (heard) and how you feel (felt) about them.
Include internal as well as external sounds.
You are part of the environment.
Explore the limits of audibility:
(highest, lowest, loudest, softest, most complex, nearest, most distant, longest, shortest sound)
That’s it. Just listen attentively in order to bring sounds that we generally ignore into focus. It turns out, when you give those sounds your attention, they become interesting.
There’s a good argument to be made that Tap Hear is technological overkill. All you really need is a pen and paper (or just your favorite notes app on your phone). Nevertheless, I’ve found it to be a useful tool that encourages me to spend some quiet time listening, and I hope that you will too. Either way, just find yourself a quiet space, and enjoy the music.
So find a spot, head over to Tap Hear, and listen!
 Pauline Oliveros, Software for People. Special thanks to Miguel Frasconi, Gascia Ouzounian, Ellen Weller, John O’Brien, Ellen Waterman, Jason Freeman and Daphna Naphtali for helping me ferret this out and suggesting additional resources. The Grand Prize goes to Gascia for being the first to suggest not only right book but the page number too. Honorable mention to John for being the first to suggest the book. Also thanks to all those in the undergraduate library at UCSD that afternoon sometime in the early [redacted]s for performing such a beautiful symphony.
Everyone has their breaking point. My work has tended towards more abstract modes of expression so it has rarely been overtly political. But it appears that the fact that this dishonest, unqualified, unserious and unworthy dumpster fire of a human being could somehow become our president is apparently beyond my limit to bear in silence. So in the aftermath of this disastrous election, Betsy and I started to think more and more about what kind of changes we should make to our current and future projects.
One of the great things about making art with software that lives on the internet is that it can be updated easily and frequently. In fact, the potential an idea has to evolve over time is a high priority when we’re considering our next project. It’s natural for the changing cultural and political landscape to influence the direction of such a work over time.
The first thing we did after the election was temporarily shut down our Twitter bots. In truth, this wasn’t so much a political statement as self-care. Waking up on November 9th, way too early and way too hungover, with continuing difficulty processing this new reality, I grabbed my phone off the nightstand and looked at my Twitter feed. Watching the satirical movie pitches of Jerry Botheimer (@jerrybotheimer) and the silly photo collages of Kiddie Rides BK (@kiddieridesbk) pass by just felt…wrong. I turned to Betsy and suggested that we shut them down temporarily. She agreed.
We shut them down once again on Inauguration Day. This time the silence was more purely ideological. Many art spaces shut down in protest that day and it felt appropriate to pause our bots in solidarity. We planned to use this downtime to add new content related to the current…situation we’ve found ourselves in. It would have been difficult to focus on any of my other work anyway, so this had a side benefit of distracting me from an obsessive wallow through the news.
Jerry Botheimer and Kiddie Rides each have a different character, but both were meant to be silly and fun, and neither was particularly political before their Inauguration Day updates. Nevertheless, these differences suggested a way of adding a political twist to each, in which they could retain their established character. Both will draw solely from this new political material until the end of January. After that, it will be a mix of the old and the new.
For Jerry Botheimer, the new direction was fairly obvious. Jerry Botheimer produces stereotypical Hollywood-style movie pitches by drawing from a set of formulas into which random actors, directors, genres, pets, etc. can be inserted. Though simple, this approach still creates some fun and unexpected juxtapositions so that even when a formula is repeated, it’s possible for it to contain new meaning.
To update Jerry Botheimer, it was just a matter of creating movie pitch formulas that are “ripped from the headlines,” as they say. I started things off in a blunt, unsubtle fashion:
[ACTOR] is a fascist clown who accidentally becomes president.
We did leave that formula in the mix, but fortunately from there Betsy took over and added a couple of dozen (and counting) formulas with more, er, depth. Though the new formulas are more thematically serious than the previous Hollywood caricatures that Jerry Botheimer churned out, the new pitches do continue to retain a silly and irreverent tone. Hopefully Jerry Botheimer now reflects the state of the world a little better while still retaining it’s original spirit.
While Jerry Botheimer now complains about how things are today, the new Kiddie Rides BK update reminds us of how things can be again. For the last few years, Betsy has been taking pictures of those quarter-gobbling cartoon characters you find outside bodegas and grocery stores that kids can ride on for a minute at a time. The best of them are posted to Instagram and Twitter tagged with #kiddieridesofbrooklyn. The Kiddie Rides BK bot takes the rides from this collection and inserts them into old public domain photos. Some of the background photos are pretty prosaic, but many come from recognizable sources such as the depression-era Works Progress Administration and early NASA missions.
Recognizable or not, the background photos have a sort of inherent nostalgia attached to them. Continuing in this vein, we selected photos from the first 100 days of the Obama administration. Hopefully this reminder of a time of Hope can provide a small respite or elicit the occasional smile.
As it turns out, in addition to updates to these existing bots, Inauguration Day found us making a brand new bot as well. While procrastinating the work described above, I fired off a jokey suggestion to Betsy:
Damon: I’m not feeling much like being mature today. I’m thinking we should make “Trump is a” Bot. It just tweets juvenile insults. Trump is a weenie. Trump is an asshole. Trump is a penis head. Etc. It’ll just take about an hour…
Not taking the bait, Betsy suggested:
Betsy: I don’t know sweets. Can you make it more original/genius?
Undeterred, I defended my nascent masterwork:
Damon: It is genius!!!
Then the joke actually became a real idea:
Betsy: Maybe it could just tweet Trump’s own insults. Perhaps at him?
Damon: We’re rubber and he’s glue everything he says bounces off of us and sticks to him.
And thus a new bot was conceived. About a Bully (@insultingdonald) takes the history of all of Trump’s tweeted insults and simply turns each one around on Trump. Even if you don’t follow him on Twitter, you may have heard that, from time to time (*ahem*), Trump takes to it to insult people he doesn’t like. Well, these Twitter insults have been collected in one place (of course) and the list is a doozy. You hear about his stupid rants and tantrums, but to see them all collected in one place is something else. We’ve been manually processing the list to make each insult be about Trump instead of whoever it was meant for (Trump is.., Trump has…, Trump can’t, etc.). They are so consistently juvenile and substance-free that few of these insults make less sense when applied to Trump. Hence our school yard inspired slogan: “Everyone’s rubber and Trump’s glue, whatever he says bounces off them and sticks to him.”
At a rate of five a day, using just the insults that were collected before Trump’s inauguration, it will take well over year before About a Bully will have to repeat itself. Well, that’s only half true. Trump’s lack of imagination is displayed in the repetitive nature of his bile-stream, and so About a Bully will reflect that. I had originally thought that this would be just a throw-away punchline bot; something to blow off a little steam and maybe provide a cheap laugh or two. But it turns out that watching these insults pass through my Twitter stream in a relentless march provided a more enlightening perspective on just how much more hateful and petty this man is than I could have realized. The coincidental relationship between About a Bully’s latest tweet and the latest news from Trumpville also frequently proves interesting. Perhaps this is just the beginning for this bot too. Maybe there’s room for it to grow beyond its original, simple idea.
I kept myself informed. I voted. I gave to the ACLU, the EFF, and the Southern Poverty Law Center. I spent a very long day making some silly bots slightly less silly and ended up creating a third as well. I marched. Will political themes now appear more frequently in my art? I don’t know, but I do know there’s a lot more work to be done.
I’ve never bought into the cruel lie that the artist must suffer in order to make art, though it’s certainly the case often enough. Many are able to productively channel pain into beautiful and powerful work. Work that touches others and work that is therapeutic for the creator. Perhaps for some it is not merely helpful but rather a necessary part of processing their emotion.
But not me. Whenever I’ve suffered through periods of anxiety or depression, my work has suffered right along with me. In the current shock and confusion, there’s a part of me that refuses to see any point in making art right now.
But that’s bullshit, as you were probably already yelling at your screen, and I know it. This post is really just a reminder to myself, present and future, to get back to work. Getting back to work spawns a virtuous cycle while breaking a seductive vicious one. This moment will pass, and when it does we will need to be ready to continue the fight for our values.
So first things first, time to get the fuck back to work.
My Mom recently left me a voicemail message consisting of 30 seconds of quiet noises and a repetitive beeping sound. Of course it was just a pocket-dial, and where she was at the time was near one of any of a zillion beeping things that appear throughout one’s day (after talking to my Mom, it seems likely that it was an elevator). My mind, however, jumped straight to the conclusion that the beeps came from hospital machinery. In hindsight, I realize I’m a total idiot for not assuming the pocket-dial interpretation over the I-need-to-get-on-a-plane one. Who would leave 30 seconds of “silence” from a hospital room?
Funny how quick we* can sometimes be to jump to the worst possible conclusion. I guess worrying about my parents is just one more item to add to the growing number of signs of aging.
* And by “we” I mean “I.”
The first synthesizer I owned was a Roland Alpha Juno 1. The first synthesizer I spent any time with was probably my friend’s Korg Poly 800. I have the most nostalgia, however, for the semi-modular Roland System-100. Hours spent with it in De Anza College’s tiny practice room/synth studio, and Dan Mitchell’s classes, taught me the basics of synthesis. Before that, my understanding was relatively limited. The crutch of presets that my previous synth provided, even if it they were just a jumping off point for programming, perhaps made mastery less urgent. Working with the preset-free System 100 is when I started to really understand how synthesizers work. What moment in a budding young electronic musician’s life is more thrilling than the time this strange collection of wires, knobs and sliders emits a sound like a tuba? Well, lots of times, of course, like the discovery of all the chaos you can wring out of it. But still, for some reason I do really remember that tuba…
Anyway, what brings this to mind is Roland’s announcement that they are releasing, in addition to some digital Eurorack gear, the new 500 Series of analog synth modules. It’s been decades since the modular approach has been a good fit for my style of music making. I briefly considered diving back in a few years ago, but quickly dismissed it as impractical for me and continued creating custom software-based instruments that are more limited, but more immediate (and more portable). In the meantime, the modular world has continued its amazing explosion of new modules from companies large and small. Hardly a month goes by without some cool new module appearing, tempting me back into the world of spaghetti cables. Lucky for me, it’s still an expensive hobby, so I’m safe. For now.
As it turns out, you can improve your paper toweling technique.
I’m generally pretty hesitant to junk up my phone with attachments of any kind. I’ve only ever briefly even used a case on any of my iPhones, though I will sometimes use a battery case when needed. But as much as I love the added screen real estate of my iPhone 6 Plus, it comes at the expense of easy one-handed use. So, with some trepidation, I decided to try one of those stick-on finger straps. The one I chose has the oh-so-graceful Amazon.com title of nobiggi Finger Strap – Ultrathin – Comfortable Elastic Strap and Faux Leather Patch – Extend Thumb Reach for iPhone 6 and 6 Plus Users – Fits Most Mobile Devices (Premium Black). Aaah, just rolls off the tonge, doesn’t it? As it turns out, it actually works pretty well. I’ve only been using it for a few weeks, so I can’t vouch for it’s durability, but if you’ve been eyeing something like this it might be worth a shot.