Monday, April 9, 2018

Case #103: Ed Chang/Blindfold Pre-Tour Studio Session Oct 15, 1996

"I Solo Free Improvisation, and So Can You!"

My First Tour
     At the end of 1996 I found myself moving back to New York after a couple years of traveling and performing, most notably in New Orleans and South Korea (Busan). After several equally-productive months in Portland, Oregon, it seemed like the time had come to return to my "roots", so to speak. Since the only realistic (economical) way to make this move was to rent a car and drive across the country with all of my belongings in the backseat, I decided to do a solo tour while passing through the many cities on the way. This ultimately resulted in a 15-date, 30-day drive, swinging south through California, cutting east across New Orleans and the southern states, and then swinging back north, before ending up back in New York.

     Since this was my first tour ever, there were a lot of challenges, but the one addressed in this particular recording is the question of how to fill up a show-length free improv performance all by myself. In actuality, several dates ended up becoming collaborative improvisations (with guitarist Davey Williams in Birmingham, guitarist Myles Boisen in San Francisco, drummer Toshi Makihara in Philadelphia, for example), but the majority of the dates demanded a hopefully-not-boring set from just myself being onstage. Fortunately at this point I was exploring free improvisation on several different instruments, and I decided to create a structured set highlighting each of 4 instruments I felt comfortable with, and finally culminating in a kind of electro-acoustic "performance-art" piece.

What Is A Solo Improvisation?
     One question I found myself addressing from show to show (and on different instruments) was, what does one actually do in a solo improvisation? In free improvisation performances with groups, the music is driven by spontaneous reactions to the actions of collaborators. For example, a common modus operandi in duos or trios is to model the musical interaction after atomistic "conversation", a style first explored in the early recordings of the SME (Spontaneous Music Ensemble) with Evan Parker and Derek Bailey. Another approach is what Parker has called the "laminal" approach, exemplified historically by the patiently-applied aural deliberations of the electro-acoustic AMM collective. There, layers of sound texture are applied onto a kind of "sound canvas", with the sounds intended to form layers of complementing figures (rather than conversational "call and response"/"follow the leader" tactics). In fact, these are the two approaches most commonly encountered in my experience, although other kinds of presentations are also common, most notably the parallel genre of free jazz, as well as other more Dada-istic, confrontational forms of free improv (which in some ways come closer to theatrical performance art than instrumental recitals).

     In any case - pedantic zoological assignations of free improv styles aside - the question of what happens during a solo free improvisation was and is an interesting one to me. Since there are no actual collaborators, the aesthetic pleasure of seeing the struggle underlying a musical dialogue in action isn't as apparent to the listener. Looking towards the most famous soloists of free improvisation and free jazz (most notably Anthony Braxton, Derek Bailey, Fred Frith, etc..), it often seemed to me that some of the strategies employed included the exploration of pre-planned rhythmic, melodic or textural motives in a loose sequence of connected "sound-worlds", forming a non-cyclic, lyric "fantasia" of sorts. Of course, these sequences could lead to any kind of unplanned explorations (and ideally, did), but there was typically a "bag of specialties" from which the solo improvisor was sure to pull stylistic highlights out of. In some ways, the art of the free improvisor has much in common with the blues, in that there are carried-over elements of style and form (or non-form) from performance to performance, but each actual performance demands a new rumination of the piece. Of course, all of these observations are only noticed in hindsight 20 years after the fact. In the '90s, everybody seemed to be just "winging it".

The Piece
     Getting back to my first solo tour, I ultimately came up with a framework in which I would free-improv a few minutes each on several instruments:
  • Electric guitar (clean and then with distortion)
  • Clarinet
  • Drum machine/sequencer with electronics
  • Voice manipulated by electronics
     These improvisations were connected without breaks by use of looping effects to cover instrument switch-overs. The final part of my set would consist of an example of what I had been calling "Fencing" (later, "Compos'T") pieces. In order to pull off this section, I made use of a portable 4-track on which, during the elapsed live set, I had recorded each of the solo improvisations (each onto a different track). For the final "Compos'T", the 4-track played back recordings of all 4 prior explorations simultaneously, and during the playback I would use the mixing board controls to shape a kind of quartet improvisation. This somewhat "chance-based" electro-acoustic concept was something that I had explored in New York in 1994 before I had left, so in retrospect it seems quite apt.

     I was able to record almost every live show I did on this 1996 tour (and maybe I'll post some eventually), but presented here is a live, pre-tour studio recording (2nd take ever). Naturally, as described above, it is one continuous live recording without any overdubs or multi-tracking (aside from the "live" multi-tracking).

     Listening back, it's pretty clear that the structure of each instrumental subsection was defined by a freely-chosen chain of textural explorations (in general, free improv rarely uses structural things like "refrains" or "heads", anyways). At the time of this recording, I still had no real plan of the textural regions I would be exploring on each instrument, but over the course of the tour, some kind of thematic refinement/ossification took place (for better or worse). It might be interesting to post the last performance of this tour at some point for comparison...however in this rehearsal I was probably mostly concentrating on just keeping this houseboat afloat.

My Set Up or, "Whaddya mean, Electronics?"
     It might be worth a moment to describe what I label as "electronics" in my instrument listing. In many free improv recordings the role of "electronics" is often assigned, but I always end up wondering what exactly they actually used. "Electronics" could technically be anything from Jeph Jerman's contact-miked tree branches to Stockhausen's desk-sized EMS Synthi 100 synthesizer. So, to be more precise in my case, my "set up" consisted of 3 pedals and one sequencer:
  • Boss RV-3 Digital Reverb/Delay
  • DOD DFX 94 Digital Delay/Sampler
  • DigiTech PDS 8000 Echo Plus 8 Second Digital Delay / Sampler
  • Yamaho QY10 (Portable Workstation)
     The above served as a long-standing set up for me for several years (with some notable additions such as a whammy pedal). A much more detailed analysis of my "technique" using these pedals will probably be described in a future post, but in short, the wonderful thing about the Boss, DOD and Digitech pedals was that by twisting the delay time dial, stored loops could be "hacked" in bizarre ways (guitarist Bill Frisell got a lot of mileage out of this technique in his early, more experimental years). This "pedal abuse" was generally half-controlled and half "out-of-control".

     For the drum machine/sequencer portion of my set, the Yamaha QY10 portable sequencer was the primary (only) sound generator, pre-programmed with a few dozen sound textures. Each of these sound sequences could be manipulated in real-time (tempo, pitch register, instrumental arrangement). I also had a 1st generation SansAmp guitar amp simulator which I generally used to add distortion to my guitar. Over the years I feel like I've more or less developed a personal guitar sound, and much of my early tone had to do with the original SansAmp pedal I had. Sadly, years later I eventually needed to have a few diodes/resistors replaced and, although still excellent, it doesn't seem quite the same...

     The original single 30-minute piece has been split up into 5 sections, so that it's possible to hear it starting from any one "featured" section (feel free to skip to the next section if one gets boring...). One notable thing I was able to add into this piece while on the road was the addition of local radio transmissions to the final "Compos'T" mixdown sequence. By plugging a Sony Walkman (radio) into one channel of the 4-track I was able to add in a Cage-ian (but extremely localized) element to the performance. In this pre-tour rendition I hadn't started doing that yet. You can stream the entire performance below or download it from Below the playlist is an after-the-fact breakdown of what I think I was doing back then...

1. Electric Guitar Sequence (1 & 2)
  • 0:00: Finger-picked, clean, twangy figures.
  • 0:30: Percussive sounds with whammy bar manipulation, leading to frenzied chordal/tremolo-picked runs.
  • 1:07: Percussive textures from muted fingerboard tapping, harmonics.
  • 1:22: Overdrive, volume knob and whammy bar engaged to produce "smears".
  • 1:45: Overdriven percussive textures leading to whammy bar mania, etc.
  • 2:35: Fingerboard tapping techniques leading to whammy-bar chords, tremolo harmonics.
  • 3:35: Looping engaged (this transition had a practical purpose in that I needed to rewind the 4-track tape to prepare for recording the following clarinet track).  
  • 5:40: Clarinet engages with guitar loop.
2. Clarinet Sequence
  • 0:00: Tentative wails lead to staccato accents based on simultaneous low attacks and high releases.  
  • 0:43: Microtonal trilling with "ghosted" bass figure.
  • 1:17: Split tones, percussive pitch-less tones, rapid tonguing.
  • 2:16: Lyric section, soon with a dirtier tone (wailing).
  • 3:09: Pattern-based circular breathing, multiphonics.
  • 3:50: Looping engaged.
  • 4:46: Drum machine engages with manipulated clarinet loop.
     The remaining sections are a bit more like slow-cooked servings of "stew", so I'll refrain from giving a blow-by-blow for those parts. I suppose in the framework of the "conversational"/"laminal" dichotomy mentioned above, the abrupt thematic changes in the first two sections are more "conversational", followed by Part 3's transition from atomistic shards of noise to "laminal" sequences dominated by loops undergoing gradual additions/subtraction to their sound layers.

     To be slightly more specific, Part 3 starts with various hand-keyed, manipulated drum and synthesizer figures, leading to real-time processing of pre-programmed sequences. Part 4 is my live voice processed through the DOD and DigiTech delay loopers. Part 5 is the final "Compos'T" where I playback all four previous sections on a 4-track and create a kaleidoscope of "rooms" and "windows" through the mixing board controls. 

     In retrospect, this was a kind of turning point in my development as an improvisor-composer, since prior to this I had never integrated electronics so intimately with my live improvisations. In the years to follow my tour set up for electronics would grow immensely to incorporate various abused toys, "home-mades" and circuit-bent gizmos (before finally being entirely replaced by a laptop...). 

This was an early, self-made tour promo postcard (the final dates and shows ended up slightly changed).
Obviously my sense of design aesthetics at this time still left a lot to be desired...
     Below is a link to a video excerpt from my show in Sacramento. This was for the EMRL, which basically focused on electro-acoustic noise, so for this date I did a set consisting entirely of vocal manipulations:

Ed Chang Live in Sacramento.

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