|Ed Chang & Motoko Shimizu (Catch 22 Gallery, NYC, 1997)|
"Adult Music With Children's Toys"
What is Experimental Music?
By definition, "experimental music" is when intrepid musicians try out something new and unknown to see what would happen. In that sense, experimental music is a form of research, and if something in the result ends up as being appealing to listen to, then the experiment may be further developed into a style or "school" (through shows and recordings). The initial spark for a new experimental music piece can come in several forms: a new compositional idea (melodic/rhythmic themes), a new kind of musical instrument (textural explorations of "prepared instruments"), or even some kind of exotic musical "limitation" or rule (emphasizing silences, bowed textures only, etc...). However, one of the most exciting kinds of experiments is when contrasting musical backgrounds or approaches are pitted against each other in a duo free improv situation. Sometimes the results are interesting as a "one-off", but don't seem particularly promising for further development. However, other times these kinds of collaborations can lead to an entirely new aesthetic approach, which could be applied to any number of stylistic/structural ideas or performance settings.
For me, the most successful of this kind of "odd-couple" musical experimentation has been my work with Motoko Shimizu in our duo project Spin-17. Starting from the latter part of 1997, we toured and recorded together on a regular basis up until about 2008 (after which I went into a form of semi-retirement). Stylistically, we ultimately explored so many musical genres and approaches that one could say that Spin-17 was for me what Naked City was to John Zorn. In other words, just as Naked City was completely unhindered (or unhinged) in its willingness to try anything in any stylistic wheelhouse, so too was Spin-17 a platform from which Motoko and I could pivot from genre to genre, mixing stylistic tropes at will. During a decade of near-constant recording and gigging, we explored a plethora of styles, including noise-punk, ambient "installation" music, "harsh" live electronics, etc. - on the way doing cover renditions of things like John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme" (the whole album!) to obscure segments of Stockhausen's "Hymnen", to a 20-song medley of Kiss, Nirvana and King Crimson songs.
Spin-17: 1st Encounter
This particular "case" is the very first improvised music session that Motoko and I ever did together. I had initially met Motoko when she was looking for a guitarist for her alternative rock band (although I don't recall if that band ever actually played out). A few months later, an open spot at a gallery gig presented itself and I asked Motoko if she might be interested in playing some free improvisation music, even though she had never played this kind of music before. It might be relevant to highlight some of the essential differences in our backgrounds, and why those differences seemed like intriguing elements for experimental music-making.
For my part, I had at this point been well-exposed (almost jaded) to the major ideas and stylistic concepts commonly heard in free improvisation, free jazz, noise rock and avant-garde classical (ie - "contemporary classical"). In the immediate year leading up to this point, I had been concentrating more on exploring extreme examples of "noise" music - essentially the kind of textural live electronics made famous by Japanese noise-artist Merzbow (and probably reaching its "cult"-ural saturation point at the Brooklyn No Fun Fests of the mid-2000s). From a guitar standpoint, my playing style had reached what I consider in retrospect a "mature" stage (downhill ever since!), and most of the following years would be spent developing concepts and playing techniques on other instruments, in particular reeds and electronics. In other words, this period probably featured my "best guitar-playing ever". Motoko's background was very different, in that, as a vocalist and pianist, she had developed her style in the realms of "normal" jazz and classical. For example, in jazz performances she had played with bassist Ron Carter, and in classical recitals she included works by Schubert, Purcell and Schoenberg (although later she would also be involved with Bang On A Can's choral adaptation of Brian Eno's "Music For Airports").
The differences in our musical backgrounds may already seem sufficient enough to expect interesting results from a collaborative session. However, what made this meeting doubly unpredictable was the fact that in this setting Motoko didn't sing or play piano at all, but instead was limited to "small instruments" - i.e. toy horns, whistles, plastic souvenir instruments and various kinds of percussion made from clutter ("found objects"). Since Motoko was not technically an "accomplished player" on these noise-makers, her non-disciplinary approach here could be viewed as a form of "free folk" improvisation or "outsider art" (this characterization is all in retrospect, of course). In contrast to her role as a "naive artist", I played electric guitar, an instrument on which I had been developing a refined style for the preceding 13 years. Additionally, I was at a stage where my familiarity with the guitar was reaching an "entropic" endpoint (or at least a stylistic plateau).
Truth be told, the contrasting elements described above probably weren't such "well-framed" musical-tactical choices in my mind leading up to the session and following gig. However, heard now as a result of juxtaposed, contrasting backgrounds (noise/classical as well as stylistic entropy/nondisciplinary freedom) it's interesting in this context to trace how we navigated through these challenges during this first session. In the following decade, different pieces would "rebalance" this dynamic between us (for example when Motoko sang a straight jazz version of Thelonious Monk's "Round Midnight", while I accompanied her on my homemade "Noise Machine", a form of live electronics). Also, the very fact that we were unafraid of playing (or trying to play) any kind of musical instrument we could get our hands on (and in NYC, one could get quite a lot) undoubtedly helped Spin-17 sustain such a varied output over such a long period of time.
Session Recording (and a Vintage Remix)
Returning to the case at hand, as an historical record of experimental music, I can appreciate the ambition behind this session. However, I've probably only listened to it a couple times in the last 20 years, and that's probably because this recording is a little bit too "free-wheeling" to be enjoyed as a "composition" in itself. I suppose one could relate this kind of thing to an actor's "screen test", where evidence of a working chemistry is more important than the actual scene. Also, being aware of the more accomplished and focused pieces to come in the following decade probably puts this recording at a somewhat unfair disadvantage (although it is starting to grow on me a little, the more times I hear it...). Structurally, I think the most successful parts are when my guitar takes on the role of a background painter (using prepared guitar feedback drones or digital looping) and Motoko uses the "small instruments" to add foreground fauna and flora. One example of this texture can be heard starting from around the 12 minute mark (I also add a pretty creaky "bass line" over the loop at that point).
From a technical standpoint, for my guitar I used a SansAmp amp distortion pedal, a Boss RV-3 Digital Reverb/Delay, a DOD DFX 94 Digital Delay/Sampler, a DigiTech PDS 8000 Echo Plus 8 Second Digital Delay / Sampler and a Digitech XP100 Whammy-Wah pedal (the XP100 pitch shifting probably over-colors the guitar tone, and as I recall it was only a short-lived period where I employed this particular effect). There was also a chorus unit in there somewhere, probably a Boss unit. No effects were used on Motoko's miked acoustic track (aside from sparingly-applied reverb from a Zoom pedal, I think). The entire session was recorded live to 2-track with no overdubs.
You can stream the entire performance below or download it from Archive.org. Below the embedded player is a quickly-sketched verbal transcription.
- Ed Chang: Electric guitar, live processing/loops
- Motoko Shimizu: Toys, percussion, whistles, toy xylophone, toy accordion, panflute
1:03: Staccato accents/scrapings and toy horns, rhythmic noisemaker with loop.
2:01: Resonant "prepared" guitar with whistles (increased density), looped/shifted.
2:54: Toy accordion with pickup noise accents (becoming polyrhythmic), upshifted power chord accents/toy horns (tight reverb).
4:11: Percussion with objects, percussive textural guitar with chorus/shifting.
4:53: High textures with triggered accents. Toy xylophone, intermittent distortion and toy percussion.
6:02: Guitar volume swells and harmonica (misc loops).
6:41: Isolated percussive accents/biting textures, wind sounds lead to heavier whammy.
7:31: Feedback drones (developed with chorus) and toy horns.
9:14: Acoustic slide over drone loop with harmonica dissonance.
9:54: Fast scraping/scrubbing with background noise loops.
10:31: Soft, layered guitar swell loops with sustained winds, isolated noise maker.
11:26: Heavier textures introduce percussive guitar elements (some looped) and more creaking toys (developed).
12:34: "Noir" bass line surfaces under ambient loop, joined by thin metal percussion.
13:38: Various staccato percussive textures (with envelope filter) over ambient loop.
14:18: Electric guitar shred joined by metal percussion.
15:00: Heavy feedback drone develops, whistle, drone rises with toy horn.
16:23: Percussive slide accents into percussion duo ("banjo").
17:23: Sliding textures return, leading to wobbling guitar textures and tentative "owl hoots", percussive textures.
18:49: Staccato percussive/rubbed textures.
19:11: Heavier/resonant percussive strikes w duck calls/whistles.
19:49: Percussive underwater guitar loop develops, resonant prepared guitar noises and metal creaks.
21:06: Intermittent overdrive/looping/whammy pedal.
21:31: Rhythmic whammy accents.
22:04: Percussive impacts/loops with toy horns (developing).
22:40: Loop becomes denser joined by duck call and auto harp melody (Middle Eastern vibe).
23:40: Punk rock groove implied/developed.
24:40: Less distorted percussive textures with intermittent distortion, slide harp textures.
25:38: Triggered loops, rhythmic motif.
26:21: Jazz chords (or "tuning"), "Spaghetti western" vibe, noise interruption.
Considering the "historical nature" of this recording, I decided to have some "2018 fun" and filtered it so that it sounds like it was recorded in the 1920s. Crazily enough, I actually almost like this version better....