Heady College Days
Recollections of music made from 2001–2004
By David Bernabo
In college, I was interested in crafting long, multi-section compositions that had long titles like, “I’m Very Well, Thank You So Very Much.” Improvisation, whether on percussion, steelpan, or piano, was the starting point for these pieces. Other instruments and electronic manipulations would be added, stretching the boundaries of my trusty Roland VS-1680 Digital Studio Workstation.
The wealth of these experiments is stored on multiple data CDRs somewhere in my attic, encoded in proprietary Roland code. But a few mixed-down recordings from 2001–2004 have survived a long series of laptop and hard drive replacements. So, for the first time, these recordings have been compiled into a collection called DB In College, released on the Ongoing Box imprint.
Below, I trace a few of the influences that led to the creation of this music before diving into the mechanics of constructing these pieces.
In 2002, Wilco drummer, Glenn Kotche released two albums, Introducing and Next. Introducing explored coincidental rhythms, working with collage and board effects during the mix down phase. Next was an improvised record searching for chance rhythms, challenging his extensive musical training with unfamiliar drum kit preparations. These two records were the gold standard for me in 2002. As such, I began exploring unintentional rhythms and collage.
Collage and overdubbing were always part of my home recording strategy. Throughout grade school and high school, multi-track recording allowed me to create a band without needing a band. My home setup advanced from a microphone plugged directly into my dad’s tape deck to a 4-track tape recorder to the Roland Workstation. Cassette tape allowed for interventions — pitch shifting and tape speed manipulation, backwards sounds, choppy splicing. But in 12th grade, I was made aware of a few types of music that were previously hidden from me. Musique Concrete. Serialism. Spectral music. Tape music.
The path into these musics started with a burnt copy of Jim O’Rourke’s Eureka. I fell in love with this record — the string arrangements, the shaker, the splits between tracks, the dynamics — and quickly went to AllMusic to track down O’Rourke’s other releases. Fully utilizing AllMusic’s “Related Artists” section, I cross-referenced recordings and players, studiously reading O’Rourke interviews that frequently listed his top influences — Charles Ives, Van Dyke Parks, Sparks, Tony Conrad — while downloading whatever music I could find on the file sharing system Audiogalaxy.
With this massive influx of new musical information, my own recordings started to reflect these new influences. Information collided with experience — touring with Boxstep, starting Vale and Year with Greg Cislon, improvising with a variety of musicians at school. While opening for Azita at the Empty Bottle in Chicago with Boxstep, I met part of the Eureka backing band, Kotche and bassist Darin Gray. Together, they performed as On Fillmore. Seeing the playing techniques that I was hearing on record opened up more possibilities.
“I’m Very Well, Thank You So Very Much”
This piece started with in-the-box clicks and tones, created by pushing certain built-in Roland effects beyond their intended threshold, meaning that there is no input source for these introductory sounds.
The second session for this piece took place in a storage closet on Carnegie Mellon’s campus where steelpans and limited percussion were stored. Improvisation was an interest of mine, but also a practical consideration — I was decently sure that I wasn’t allowed in this closet so I recorded as much as I could before being interrupted.
A third session resulted in rather tonal layers of banjo strings vibrated by an electric toothbrush. The toothbrush vibrated at 261 hertz or roughly middle C. The steel pan or at least my playing of it stuck to the “white notes” allowing the banjo and steel pan to be in the same keys.
For the fourth and final recording session for this piece, I used a rather bad keyboard that I was gifted to layer a series of vibraphone and mellotron sounds.
All editing and mixing was done in the box, which required a much better memory and sense of timing than I have now. Modern day DAWs definitely spoil a person.
Greg Cislon and I had a duo called Vale and Year from 2003–2006. While we were pumping out records, recording in the Brass Factory building — now luxury condos — I kept up an exploratory solo practice. This piece is an edit of five closed-circuit experiments using only a RAT distortion pedal. The initial release of “Mass Electronic” was five separate pieces, but for this retrospective release, I made a new edit that is a bit more interesting.
“Take Over” and “Open Space”
These recordings were done, for the most part, on my dining room table in my junior year of college. Using only contact mics, the instrumentation consists of wine glasses, marbles and coins, kitchen pots, and melodica.
“Two-Tone Kitchen Arms”
Recorded during a summer home from school, this was an experiment in recording two tracks, a left and right track, sequentially in 1 to 4 second spans. The idea was that the left and right tracks would match up in interesting ways. This was somewhat successful.
“Four Piano Four Organ”
Incorporating four tracks of piano and four tracks of organ, this piece was my first experiment in drone. In recording the piano, I struck the chord, waited for the attack to fade slightly, and then hit record. For each piano entrance, I faded in the sound to create a decently seamless entrance and exit. Spreading this technique across four tracks allowed for floating layers of tonal clusters. After the pianos were recorded, I improvised four organ overdubs, using the organ foot pedal to control entrances and exits.
In the years since recording these pieces, I’ve used excerpts in my films and for commercial video jobs, but this is the first time the pieces are collected and presented nearly as intended. Hope they provide some enjoyment!