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Thursday, November 23, 2017 
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Friday, August 16, 2002

++ 365 at 33 1/3

++ Happy birthday to "Needle Drops." Thanks to a careful manipulation of the pitch controls — and the infinite patience of Neumu editor-in-chief Michael Goldberg — I've managed to keep this groove running for exactly one year now. Sometimes it's sped along like a 45 pitched up to +8, and once or twice it may have slipped into the warped spin of a wobbly LP at 33, slowed all the way down. But that's the way life revolves, right?

Especially over the past 12 months, which have felt pretty warped for many of us. Thank goodness for fresh wax and sparkly aluminum and the occasional gig to take our minds off the news. It's not so much escapism that I'm after — Matthew Herbert's Radio Boy project proved that "dance music" can be explicitly political — but freedom. And these days of economic squeezing and constitutional freezing, we can all use as much freedom as we can get.

++ Last weekend I was fortunate enough to perform as part of "My Boombox Is Broken; So Is Your Shoelace," an improvised music event at Oakland's Ego Park gallery, curated by Aisha Burnes. An exercise in constraint-based improv, it traced the line between restriction and unruliness. The toss of a die determined the number of players for each set. Players — guitarists, percussionists, horn players, DJs — were then selected by drawing crayons out of a hat. The arc of a dart fixed the set length. Thus chance decided the three sides of the frame; everything colored in the empty space was left up to talent, whimsy, and communication between players.

The format was by no means an original idea, of course. Zorn, Braxton and many others have incorporated far more complex approaches to chance and game theory into improvised music. But originality was hardly the point: it was an exercise in limits, an oblique strategy for freeing creative energy. (It didn't hurt that the event took place outside, in a gated parking lot between Ego Park and two other galleries; participants and listeners alike lounged on sofas or squatted on the gravel, while dust and barbecue smoke mingled synaesthetically with the harmonic strains in the air.)

I've forgotten the exact progression of the evening. There was one five-minute shakedown of dual drummers and dual guitars, and then a ménage à trois of decks, drums and trumpet, and after that a handful of similar jams. One guitarist sampled his cell phone ringing into the pickups on his Gibson, and used foot pedals to play it back. Of course, as with so many everything-goes performances, the signal-to-noise ratio sometimes struggled to remain in the black, and when the evening was done, it was hard to keep any strands of the music from slipping away into the cooling breeze. But perhaps it was enough that it existed at all, however briefly.

After the structured improv, I joined two drummers and two guitarists in an extended, undirected improvisation. With four turntables and a CD player at my disposal, I wanted to avoid letting the decks lead, as is their wont, so I loaded up a few sets of lock grooves and busied myself with listening. Before long, we had a complex call and response going: the drummers jabbering at each other on snares and toms, the guitarists scratching out their turf like uppity roosters, and vinyl-born squibbles and yelps filling in the spaces between. We played for an hour, perhaps an hour and a half; at some point one of the guitarists left, and a drummer traded his sticks for the other guitar. I ran vintage Appalachian hollering through a series of delays, and suddenly the ghost of the blues inhabited the post-everything clang.

We threw out the rulebooks and approached our instruments like innocents — one guitarist used a bottle and a drumstick on his; a drummer laid a Styrofoam sheet over his snare and started smacking that; I hummed through the turntable cartridges (it didn't work, but hey, you'll never know til you try). Late in our hour-long set I cued up a CD-R of Jonathan Bepler's soundtrack to Cremaster 3; toggling between "play" and "pause," I cut the soundtrack's Gaelic ballad into bite-sized chunks and fed them through the delay. This, for me, is where it all gelled: the drums slowed down while the delay spooled out in perfect time, and the guitarist began trading phrases with the ballad's melody line. The singer's poignant, guttural chants curled like smoke rising from the courtyard, and time seemed to congeal while we locked into this unstable exchange.

I'm not sure what felt more powerful — the nonverbal communication we'd achieved, or the fact that we'd found a way to take recorded music and make it live again, transcending the aluminum prison of the storage media. I don't mean to get all gushy, but damn: it was beautiful, and if I was shivering from the Oakland evening chill, I was just as shaken by the stark force of the moment. Maybe you had to be there, but it was one of those moments of total transcendence. You felt like you could live forever on the vibrations of the air around you.


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