Electric Sculpture: BEBOP ‘79

Through experience I know that the more “automatic” I am, the more touching I am. -Robert Bresson

Music, at its most essential, has been described as a series of tension and release. Our cultures provide means of actualizing this in scale, harmony, rhythm: those of us in the West are inculcated with the major/minor keys, four-on-the-floor, polyphony dating back to liturgical chant. It’s this last one, preceding the epoch of “Western/Eastern” division, where there are unities to be found which may be indeed called universal: when we sing together, we feel mathematical perfection in our chests, the resonance of just intonation. It is a reminder of music as a physical phenomenon; we need not know anything about intervals, keys or intonation to appreciate its physicality. If we let ourselves be driven by this sensuality, and shape an external energy after our own automatic resonances, we may find there a path to sublimity.

With Bebop ’79, I explore the possibilities for shaping resonant, external energy by union of rhythm and melody. This is achieved by a more fundamental union of percussion and sonority, driven by a machine — LAZERBEAT — I’ve developed to actualize this union in real time. The result is a cybernetic expressionism.

In this essay, I introduce the Bebop ’79 project and explain how the technology works at a practical level in performance (the playlist above is a suggested accompaniment to showcase its various aspects). This is used as the ground from which I explore greater questions for both audiences and artists: does man and machine form a duet? What is the significance of a machine’s tone of voice? I explore the perceptual differences in man and machine, their consequences for art and experience of time, and assert the primacy of the sensorial. I expose the hidden life of the musical improvisor, and consider the artistic benefits of machines that are unaware of our cultural mores. I consider what separates living artwork from dead ones, art from propaganda, and from mere output. I posit that the modernist method is abstraction, and advocate for active participation. I depict both the complexities of representation for the cybernetic artist and the opportunities, through dissection of the conceptual and the supernatural, and why I reject the “generative.” Finally, through the metaphor of bebop and the arts of 1979, I forge a path forward that aims to reconcile contemporary technological ecologies with the cultural desires that enabled their creations in the first place.

LAZERBEAT generates melody through its comprehension of the tonal content of percussion. This is electric sculpture: driven by direct application of force to an object of artistic potential — marble slab of time — we expose the figure beneath through electric current. Functionally, we illustrate that piano, voice, reed and snare are separated only by degree, and the machine, by virtue of its mechanical sensitivity and photographic accuracy, provides the connective tissue that unites us as organism. Over the course of several years of study, multiple recordings and live performance, I have evolved the machine in several dimensions of complexity. Yet the work still retains intentional directness: no generative parlor tricks such as machine learning or probabilistic modeling are used.

The resultant organism is therefore cybernetic; an extension of human expression through explosion of possibility. Because the machine has been designed not to judge, but rather to enhance intention, intention flows from the analog/spiritual to the digital/analytic and back again in a perfect circle. The machine detects the crack of a snare drum via its microphones and thus plays the note it “hears.” That note, along with the “note” of the snare, then resonates throughout the room, and when another drum is hit, those previous notes may still linger perceptibly in the air, creating an abstract form of feedback that mirrors our own apperception, our situational awareness. Perception is thus the constant that elevates beyond mimicry into co-creation.

bad air for the individual

Because the machine outputs essentially standard MIDI data (that is: digital messages which correspond to physical aspects of playing a synthesizer: a key is pressed with some measurable force, a key is released, the sustain pedal is in, portamento or other effects should be activated, etc.) the machine may be voiced in a variety of ways. A traditional acoustic piano sound is one possibility I’ve made much use of; that instrument offers the advantage of grounding the piece in a form that might be recognizable to fans of 20th-century experimental music, from Webern to Babbitt to Monk to Jarrett. Indeed, this was the first voicing I’d experimented with precisely because it was so familiar and contextually loaded, thus allowing me to be freer in my own role. The piano’s familiarity also made it quite remarkable and transcendent when we would construct a “traditional Western melody” from such a free and nontraditional means.

In later pieces (and indeed for the entirety of my second album, bad air for the individual), I voiced the machine through more sostenuto, electronic, sine-like instrumentation that further individuates it from the human in both form and content. This grants the machine an air of omnipresence, but also, in some ways, teleological coherence. In other words, rather than the machine adding overtones and distortions to mathematical functions with the aim of imitating acoustic instruments (such as a piano, trombone, viola da gamba…), a distinctly electronic timbre embraces a “synthesizer-ness” that provides quite a contrast to the natural and indelibly complex resonance generated by human muscle wielding wooden stick striking synthetic surface stretched taut over wooden shell with metal rings to vibrate wire snares. Or in the case of saxophone: the breath — very stuff of life — blown through a delicately filed reed resting upon human lips, with flicking of tongue, modulation of fingers creating complex oscillations in a mechanical metal vessel that vibrates air molecules in all directions and resonates through teeth to skeleton. The outcome of this dualistic juxtaposition is Hegelian: the existence of the opposite affirms the authentic in each.

pianosolo/dark pictures (from “what is bebop ‘79? where is?”), demonstrating a “traditional” piano voice

The machine is triggered by “percussion”, but given that this is a quantitative definition rather than a qualitative one, it is open to generous interpretation. Many of our syllables are percussive, as is the “p” in “percussive”, which makes the voice fair game as stimulus (and even when it doesn’t cross the stimulus threshold, a sustained vocal note will still influence the machine’s arithmetic.) A saxophone, in the absence of other saxophones, is almost percussive by default, owing to its natural volume differential between play and rest. And of course there is the twang of a guitar. In many performances, I use my voice, sax, guitar and other instruments to direct the piece and bring us to different expressions, often in conjunction with looping. In Bebop ’79, a synthesizer is never played directly via keyboard: all synthesizers are actuated by the machine.

The key point is that each player has a distinctive voice, and is expressing something intrinsic to their perception of reality. That their means of perception are so intrinsically different (one being human, the other mechanical) makes the pieces all the more interesting. In Bebop ’79, we each attempt to reconcile with the other, anticipating our actions, and as with any great duo, creating something out of those similarities and differences. Bebop ’79 is thus a duo in the truest sense: a synthesis not just of motions and electrons, but rather an iteration and evolution of Kandinsky’s innerer klang: the “expression of the soul of nature and humanity.”

White Relief over White (Ellsworth Kelly, 2003)

I use the word “soul” here in the broadest sense; without dogma but very much with spiritualism, perhaps akin to Benjamin’s aura or Husserl’s process of eiditic reduction — both intellectual tools to arrive at the essence of something through dissection of its components to identify those which are most essential to its being what it is. This endeavor, via process and intentional selection, is emblematic of what differentiates minimalism and expressionism from the naive sentiment of “my kid could do that!” we’ve all heard in reference to non-figurative art.

(My favorite recent experience of this was in a room of late Ellsworth Kelly paintings that used masterful and subtle gradations of white and variations of form to play with shadow and light in elaborate ways across three dimensions. Every angle you viewed it from revealed other shapes and, as all his work does, has a way of vibrating. As I was leaving, a man considered the piece for about 17 seconds, and proclaimed sincerely: “So it’s white.”)

Perception is a precursor to selection. “Perception” here connotes not only our relative sensorial abilities, but also the context in which we begin to “make sense”. With Bebop ’79, the former is impressive indeed: the microphone is capable of sensitivities our ears cannot match. Furthermore, the machine may have as many microphones as I wish (in studio, I often have as many as 10; in live performance, this is reduced to 3). They can be attuned to spectra beyond our own ranges, and positioned in such a way as to capture sound in many different places simultaneously, which affects not only tonality but also (to quote Tony Visconti describing a similar effect he used in the production of David Bowie’s Low) “it fucks with the fabric of time” — one microphone may be listening across a room at the same time as another one is listening directly at the source. This disjuncture is a powerful creative tool, and one which has been used in audio engineering for as long as music has been recorded. In the context of musical creation and improvisation, though, there are still many avenues to be explored with this media, and Bebop ’79 offers a trip down many such trailheads. In terms of potential, I view this advancement as analogous to the photograph revealing to painters subtleties of light, color and movement that the naked eye is physiologically unable to see. As Terrence McKenna puts it, technology is bringing us “in league with the demiurge.” The question then is what do we do with it?

This leads us to the sense-making part — the area in which we as humans excel, and in the machine becomes reduced to a mathematical matter. In the spirit of cybernetics, the goal here is neither to supplant the human nor to denigrate the machine, but to supplement one another’s abilities, playing to the strength of each, to enable greater expression. The machine respons foremost to human impulse. At times it may feed back upon itself (and there are some marvelous moments of this, particularly in the second album), but the machine itself is ultimately not an automaton. What would be the fun in that? Whither the tension, the drama, of such a scenario, having thus excluded all agency? A more interesting question is to what extent the whole of Bebop ’79, that is both of us, unite in our automaticism. To me, the answer is not yes or no, but rather one of degree.

Montaigne observed that “the hand often moves itself to where we did not send it.” Inevidably, the notes articulated by the machine are not always the ones I would have intended- they are often more interesting. Part of my practice of performing as Bebop ’79 is to cede some level of control to the machine, as I would to any improvisation partner. What is different is that the machine and I share very little qualitatively between us, typically the opposite as one would with the human you choose to make music with (because, say, you’re both really big fans of Kajagoogoo). The machine doesn’t know Bach from balderdash, is unaware of every cultural convention I bring with me, is unaware even of me in any ontological sense. What a partner to get on a stage with!

on stage with said partner: Bebop ’79 Live! at Turn! Turn! Turn! (Portland, OR, July 17 2018)

And yet, this juxtaposition, this lack of prejudgment is also at the core of its value. Bebop ’79 is, while not strictly “performance art” (in the sense that the physical performance is the audience’s primary experience, a tradition deriving from theater), it is certainly performative in the sense that the physical performance, by means of technology, influences not only the expression of the content (as different readings of the same score might), but the entire content itself. Some formal aspects are precomposed: I select the synthesizer to voice the machine in, and may thread a motif through the performance. I am creating a mise-en-scène in which the spontaneous performance can happen.

Here again I must reveal my inner life as a performer: improvising, especially in front of an audience, is an emotional tightrope walk. It lies at the intersections of craft, intuition, confidence, talent, openness (of audience and self), vulnerability, cultural/genre expectations, and often fleeting presence of the muse. Most of this is outside of my control. Connection with a musical partner in these situations is deeply spiritual: you are creating the space for each other to be open, and be more yourselves, in service to something outside your selves. This is a rare quality to find, and a difficult one to embody. The machine clearly lacks the corporeal presence to embody these positive emotions, but equally important is that it does not, cannot embody negative ones! It is an untrained actor. The cinematic equivalent is Robert Bresson, who in his use of untrained actors (“protagonists”) to create cinematography had this to say:

[My protagonists] are human beings whom I approach like precious treasures, but I could never consider them actors or characters. I don’t ask them to act like charters, just to be themselves. At a certain point what happens is we sort of “tame” each other. I shape myself to them and them to me. There’s a moment of exchange, intuition and secret understanding that has nothing to do with acting, direction or directing.
a man escaped (1956)

The other value concerns entropy. As DeKooning said: “A painting isn’t finished; it is abandoned.” We might frame this in Schrödinger’s terms by saying that such a painting, the artist having methodically reduced the disorder within the painting (and the disorder between the painting and themselves) to a point of equilibrium, has reached its maximal entropy. Entropy is popularly understood as a measure of “disorder”, which is accurate but unenlightening. Disorder matters because it is a measure of the unavailable energy in a closed system, or the movement towards equilibrium in an open one. When a system, or thing, has no energy left in it, it is complete, or dead (the same coin). The processes of life (metabolism) generate entropy as a by-product, and thus to sustain itself a living thing must obtain “negative entropy” from its environment.

The process of art-making, in my view, is similar. In music specifically, we work in the dimension of time, over which the piece and performer metabolize. At every juncture there are decisions to be made (to play a note, which, how?), and each decision points in countless directions. Given that any unit of time can be subdivided infinitesimally, we have a great many more paths to disorder than to order. The musician choosing a note in this environment is foraging for food in an alien land: will this berry be a delicious treat or an inopportune laxative? Will this mushroom nourish me, delight my olfactory senses, offer me spiritual awakening, or paralyze my central nervous system? Traditionally, we use scale, key and meter as steady cultural guides. Those of us who live under the “creative musician” demonym have generally abandoned these rules, or more accurately aspire beyond them into the unknown. In Bebop ’79, the machine is a guide towards negative entropy, the taster of curious fruits, which we bake into a curious pie.

The not-knowing is crucial to art, is what permits art to be made. Without the scanning process engendered by not-knowing, without the possibility of having the mind move in unanticipated directions, there would be no invention. -Donald Barthelme
a curious pie indeed: Sottsass’s furniture (1981), from the height of his Memphis period, was created with the intention of reconciling the domestic mise-en-scène with modernism, and thus too our ways of living. somehow, this never took off.

More broadly, Bebop ’79 raises questions of modernity, abstraction, authorship, and the condition of being “post-”.

The methodology of modernity is abstraction: abstraction of nature, of labor, of communication, of self. Technology accelerates and amplifies all of this, and of course the dominant sponsor of technological progress is not humanism but capitalism. This does not mean we need to take a reflexive position towards modernity out of confusion over some particular geegaw. Quite the opposite. We should instead consider what purpose the abstraction serves. We can and should push back upon those abstractions which ultimately inhibit us from realizing our potential, be it through neo-serfdom (the “gig economy”), isolation and segmentation (social media), or the annihilation of truth (regressive relativism; #bothsides). We should also understand that objectivity is not the absence of judgment, but a positive feature of it, and one which should portray things as they are. In this way, Marx didn’t critique capitalism as immoral — he critiqued it as a waste of human potential. Likewise, my view of engaging positively with modernity is to create abstraction oriented towards enabling human potential, democratizing culture and cultivating sustainability. To reclaim agency and create a future we want to live in. The tools have never been more powerful or accessible, yet so too is the opium of the consumerist status quo. In this era of the cloud, the D.I.Y. has never been more fucking necessary.

I think art’s project is fundamentally meliorative. The aim of meditating about the world is finally to change the world. -Donald Barthelme

Finally, the question of how Bebop ’79 relates to “Generative Art” and creative machinery. You will note that in speaking above I used the plural — “we/us.” This is not a literary exaggeration but an epistemological fact. Recursion of influence is foundational to the performance and to the finished product. The output of the machine is a generative act (“lowercase-g generative”), resulting from a naturalistic human act which is an equal part of the finished art. This is not the same as, for example, training a “convolutional neural network” on a corpus of Rembrandts and getting a mimetic Rembrandt in response to an input. In the latter, the machine replaces and excludes the human input, whereas in the former, it compliments and coexists. In other words, both the input to and output from Bebop’s machine are equally represented in the final product: you hear both the strike of the drum that triggered the machine, plus the note generated. The drum is unchanged, although the machine’s output can (and does) affect the audience’s perception of the input, in the same way that perception of a color is affected by the colors around it. The key point is that the synthesis of these realities happens in the mind of the behearer, and this potentiality is what separates a living art from a dead one.

very lifeing, makes such art

It is, of course, significant that one of us is inanimate, synthetic. Here we enter into questions of representation of binaries [computer joke, lol]. Let us imagine we hear a new human rock band called SVVVKXZ, or something. We want to share the song with a friend, but in so doing we see a picture of the band, and thus learn that one member is male and three are female. Do you now label this a “female” band when describing it? What if that ratio were reversed, or was evenly split? Some people do say such things. (Let’s put aside the important point that this vignette indicates “male” is the default and the structures thus implied — not because that isn’t essential and problematic in the real world, but rather because it is exactly so important, and people who place the “rights of machines” along the same continuum as the civil rights of actual oppressed human beings can go fuck their privileged selves.) These labels are used because they express something that the speaker thinks is essential to understanding what that band “is”, and doesn’t necessarily imply a simple valence, but it does suggest a category, and the feelings we have towards that category may be thus transferred to the categorized.

So why did the speaker judge this information as essential? Let’s assume that their intention was to provide additional information that isn’t reasonably obvious — you might guess at the singer’s gender through register or tone, but let’s say it’s pointed out that the drummer is female. Is this essential to our understanding of the band? First consider something even more primary: did you like the song or not? Let’s say you do, and that’s why you want to describe it with the best of intentions. If you then gender the drummer in your description, is it because there is a prejudice about the technical (quantitative) abilities of female drummers that this female drummer is either confirming or denying? Or is the label instead applied qualitatively, in order to say that the emotional content of her playing expresses a femininity? By the act of categorizing, is a speaker negatively judging, “objectively” elucidating, or positively justifying?

Categories lie within the conceptual. We all know of the “concept album,” or “conceptual art,” whose focus moves from the realm of sensorial/emotional to the pensive/analytic in a way that modifies our own sense-making abilities. This is useful insofar as the main purpose of an artwork is narrative. After all, the original concept art is religious painting, and in my view the “concept art” epithet carries that baggage of didactic religiosity still. This is not to say that a strong belief system is a useless, counterproductive or unseemly thing for an artist to have personally; quite the opposite. Yet even in religious painting: great art evokes where propaganda insists. Does the work not stand on its own? And if we explain it, by barging in upon our work and its audience at their moment of first coupling, do we not then denigrate the work’s ability to define itself? To ask questions of itself? To have a mystery that lets it become an “anxious object” (as Harold Rosenberg puts it) and not just a pile of dead matter?

In material terms all art is essentially dead matter. It’s the audience that gives it life. But human life is limited in both duration and capacity. We, as an audience, only have so much blood to donate. The role of the critic and theorist is cultural triage, and they need to recognize a hopeless case. If artists participate in theorizing, then they learn to perform this triage on their own works and can sustain the most life. Categories are a conduit for transfusion, so we need to be careful about them. “Generative” describes a process — and process is, in my view, the least interesting aspect of any artwork and the least deserving of a general audience’s transfusion. It’s not that Yngwie Malmsteen doesn’t deserve an audience, or that no one should like him, but that by centering on technique and “guitarness” he is speaking to a limited audience, in his case, other guitar players. It’s likewise not that technology isn’t interesting, but that it’s not interesting as art. Your technology is showing.

“Generative” is, in my experience, often tagged onto a piece of work that could not stand on its own as “art” without that legitimizing qualifier, because frankly the human behind it didn’t perform sufficient emotional or aesthetic triage, and asks their tools and audience to perform it for them. In other words, it can be a way of lowering the audience’s expectations of aesthetic and subject by shifting the art-experience away from the sensorial and into the cerebral. Such shifts can be medicinal in smaller degrees, such as to call attention to bias, but taken in extreme leads to overdose. My objection to the reliance on concept isn’t that this is necessarily condescending or lazy as polemic, but that it is condescending and lazy as art.

To me, the notes of Bebop ’79 are as interesting, legitamite and sensorially exiting as any a human would compose in the same conditions, first because they sound pleasing, and second because they reveal a new perspective on familiar forms, and invoke personal understanding. I do not think that reading the above 5,000 words is necessary for an audience to appreciatine my work. Yet I know that labels like “inanimate” and “synthetic” are indelibly a part of the Bebop ’79 process, and they are demanding words full of meanings that imply an ecology, which I must embrace if I am to use them.

Culture gives us some categorical values, and we create others ourselves through lived experience. “Inanimate” is a category that all of us can and must relate to, for one day we will be inanimate. Irvin Yallom makes the wonderful metaphor of confronting death as “staring at the sun,” and identifies this as the basis of many human anxieties (which I certainly share) as well as many works of art. The machine is not alive in the animal sense, but by being oriented towards human potential, in its job is to affirm life, it becomes animated and pushes us into the supernatural, which is the realm where Bebop ’79 lies — as opposed to the unnatural, the purely generative. “Synthetic” too implies not the unnatural but the supernatural, having been intentionally combined or improved in a way so as to better meets a culture’s needs: LSD, 808s and engine oil.

One might rightly ask what the hell any of this has to do with bebop music, let alone the year 1979. To that I have several answers:

Bebop was the progressive music of its time, against which, like most good music, many contemporaries revolted. It was borne of the 20th century’s most significant historical, cultural and technological epoch: World War II. It was intellectual music that elevated a new class of musician: the composer-performer. This was concomitant with and parallel to the rise of writer-director “auteur” cinema. Both expanded the internal domain of their respective arts, and sharpened technique and theory. Bebop assumed great cultural importance and shaped a curious new curious audience: the hipster (in the original sense of that word, e.g. Lenny Bruce, kinetic art and heroin, not the contemporary Williamsburgoise, “content” and oat milk). Rare is the contemporary art form that can move its audience beyond consumption to active participation.

1979 saw the death of one of the giants of the late form (though also one who transcended it) and a personal favorite from whom I have always drawn inspiration: Charles Mingus. As his ashes merged with the flow of the Ganges, perhaps so too was “jazz”, having broken into pieces that no longer formed a whole, sinking in the currents of modernity. There was still much great music being made (Old and New Dreams comes to mind), though also quite a lot of aesthetically dubious trends as well (Chick Corea’s Leprechaun phase and “fusion” writ large, which as in gastronomy, all too often blends the spices from two traditions while omitting the substance of either). The cultural moment moved on, and new times demanded new art.

a spectrum analyzer circa 1970 (wikimedia)

Meanwhile in France, advances in computer audio technologies enabled the emergence of a movement called “spectralism” (a term coined in… yes… ’79, by Hugues Dufourt, a major practitioner and theorist of the form). Composers in this movement used the novel technique of spectral analysis to uncover and foreground intrinsic properties of sound such as timbre and oscillation. These bits of sound are what make sounds sound like a sound, that make the same note sound different on different instruments. By zooming these in and slowing them down, spectralists aimed to draw listeners into the realm of the supernatural; portraying “nature using nature without copying it” (in Bresson’s words). This movement had antecedents in western classical (these were still scores written for orchestras after all) and closer ones in French avant garde, vis-a-vis musique concrète (the name of which refers to the durability of the source material: a musical sample is always exactly the same, as though fixed in concrete.)

I grew up on Staten Island. The continental, naturalistic lineage of spectralism is not my own. And yet, I find commonality in its aims. What might similar approaches yield from a first-generation digital native, in a modern American context using modern technologies?

The 20th-century creative values of bebop remain as important as ever, I feel, and they can be wielded in a 21st-century manner. Our condition of post- needs a something on which to rest. Bebop ’79 represents one modern articulation of what can come next.

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