Improv with Audio Files and Computers

I heard an interesting concert last Friday. The New England Phonographers Union appeared in the Art Without Borders concert series at the Democracy Center in Harvard Square, Cambridge, MA. They each make their own audio recordings of “found sound”, whatever is going on in the world around them. Then, without further editing, maybe just a little EQ, they improvise a group composition with these audio files.

Each performer came with their own laptop and amplification system, so there were 8 speakers around the edges of the small hall. The small audience for this under-publicized, off-the-radar event sat mesmerized watching and listening. I could see the intense concentration on each performer’s face as they selected sounds and shaped them via volume and panning to fit with the other’s sounds. The first piece was a slowly evolving soundscape of road noise and industrial sounds, interrupted briefly by a very close-up door latch. It was hypnotic and calming, very meditative – not a usual characteristic of industrial. As I listened, I felt contradictory impulses: to identify the sound and to appreciate the sound out-of-context as a purely musical entity. The second piece was more animated, with more of activity generally and manipulations and repetititions of particular sounds.

At the break, there were lots of questions about their performing process. They each have different levels of comfort with editing their files. One thought a little EQ was OK to enhance the target sound, another said no editing at all. They each used different software to organize and launch their sounds. Before each piece, they make a quick plan. As they worked, it was clear that each performer had “solo” segments in turn.

It would be fun to perform with them (I’d need the right hardware – laptop and portable speakers). My palette of available sound files, mostly from nature, would contribute to a very different soundscape. Last Friday, their palette of sounds was mainly urban-industrial. They joked that their last concert had too much bird song.

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