Ewoks, Doppelgängers, and weird Pachyderms…
Michael Dessen’s Digibone Forest (2019) Review

Digibone Forest is a solo + electronics album by Michael Dessen and it is the six album he recorded as a leader. I’ve been following Michael’s career for a little more than 3 years now, and let me tell you, personally, this is a long awaited album.

Before I adventure into the forest, however, let me first introduce the characters for this plot: we have Michael Dessen on trombone, computer and midi controllers, and ???? as the monster who inhabits the electroacoustic forest.

Michael is a performer-composer-technologist and a thinker. In 2014, Downbeat magazine had this to say:

“In an era where technology erases old truths about our world at a blistering pace, Michael Dessen is a musician for this moment.”

Digibone Forest itself is a recording of a (two set) live concert that took place in Irvine, CA, on April 7th, 2018. I was fortunate enough to be attending that concert - both sets. A standing trombonist, a computer and controllers on one side, a partial drum set on the other, a pedal on the floor, and a plethora of microphones in between - that’s what it looked like.

Maybe I should add this disclaimer… that this might not be a totally impartial review. Heck, I don’t think any album review is, or even should be (!), entirely impartial: there must always be a reason for one to drop the needle on the record and decide to listen to it from start to finish - both sides. Not that this was literally the case here, for the album is a digital release only, but there is always so much music at our disposal (and so little time)!

Why should one decide to engage with new music anyways? How much better is my word - written or oral -, compared to an online streaming service recommendation algorithm? Ok, I don’t only own a digital copy of this album, I was also involved on the live show itself for this recording — and my name even shows up on the thanking notes on the album! (yay for me). But hear me out, this is a cool adventure you might not find elsewhere (probably I say that often, when I invite friends to new concerts and events, but anyway).

At the beginning of the live concert Michael welcomes everyone:

“Thank you all for coming out, this is actually more people than I expected. This is going to be casual. I think I know everybody. Maybe I don’t know you. Hey, I’m Michael.”

He waves to my guest friend, Yubo. Then, surrounded by familiar faces, he proceeds to play “Gogglar”.

“Gogglar” is an old piece that, until some months ago, one would be able to access on the now extinct (hidden?) Michael’s soundcloud page. You know that you are up for a treat when you are faced with some good’ol relics that you can’t find anywhere else. Similar to the concert, surrounded by familiar faces, the recording starts with “The Usual Suspects”, which I for once suspect to be a direct descendant of “Gogglar”.

Following the album order, because after all I’m writing this as an album review - though informed by the extended experience of the live concert -, we have “Ginger Flanger” which unlike the previous track, it is not an exclusive Bone Ex Machina, and reveals some more of the acoustic timbre of the trombone.

Digibone forest is like an alternate reality for Kashyyyk. A world inhabited by Ewoks, doppelgängers, and some weird pachyderms alike. And if you throw them some Peanuts they can talk like Charlie Brown’s teacher too!

Still, during the concert, before Michael plays “Ginger Flanger” he explains his new setup:

“I wanted the computer to basically listen to me and then I have all the effects that I’ve gotten to know: my little electronic creatures that I can turn on and off. But rather than me turning them on and off, I wanted to be able to go into a sort of autopilot mode where the computer turns them on and off (…) I wanted to give it some parameters and let it listen to me and respond based on how I am playing. But in a non obvious direct way.”

If the last two tracks were more about the computer dressing the bone, “Bonegaggle” is, as the name suggests (think of a gaggle of geese), a track where the computer takes the bone countenance, as a doppelgänger, and starts talking to Michael expecting him to be the one to react this time.

“Crustard” brings other colors to the set. And by this point we can get an understanding of what this is all about. Digibone forest is like an alternate reality for Kashyyyk. A world inhabited by Ewoks, doppelgängers, and some weird pachyderms alike. And if you throw them some Peanuts they can talk like Charlie Brown’s teacher too!

Referring back to the concert, before “Limbo Neurosis” was played, one of the short pieces inspired by the homonym artwork series by Mariángeles Soto-Díaz, Michael introduces the major challenge of working with these Ewoks and Bonegaggles.

“A lot of these sounds I think of them as these little creatures, like little pets. Some of them I’ve had for 15 or 20 years, and some of the pets are newer: in the sense that certain effects I’ve been practicing for years, others I just discovered a month ago, a week ago, and I don’t have as much familiarity with. This is a weird world, when you perform with a computer and you have this constantly shifting tool. Because sometimes you can get really used to one thing and you get some degree of control, but then you throw some other element and then it is different. Though, it can be interesting - to make you come up with new things.”

For me, going back to these statements sheds some light on new questions for computing practices and, by extension (and contraction), composing practices. Though still not making it any easier to articulate them.

The last four tracks of the album could perhaps be regarded as the odd ones out, for the timbre and samples they present the listener with. It is hard to dissociate “Percolating Time” from his trio work. And the stretched counterpoint voices of “Mensural Refractions”, an homage to the music of Guillaume Dufay, which ends this album, should leave the listener in a strange blissful mood, as it did at the end of the live concert.

Irvine, December 24, 2019
Omar Costa Hamido

Copyright © 2019 Omar Costa Hamido
(with exception of all images in this article)



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