Wednesday, August 24, 2005

esprit de corps [a poem]

flowers in heat
bulbs lit
hold us in limpid scarlet light
your spine I trace with my lips
and pose another
kiss in the penumbra
like the question that has
only one reply

petals poised silently
breathe in as you
breathe out as me
a gasp and again
fingers wet, a shoulder scratched
and I’m wounded
much deeper than this

your colour is red, I decide
my flesh tinted under your gaze
six thrown pillows
on the bed
and again
six thrown pillows
and a candle

there are words I cannot say
it’s against all odds
and protocols
those words I say, anyway

I will be the mirror of your heart
to show you
to you
and again
and again
I press your hand
so I never forget
those parts I can never hold

after morning coffee
there are streets to be wandered
ablaze and dazed
past beings from the wrong side
of the silvered glass
weak and shimmering

to me is entrusted
as an aid in this passage
the strong low scent of you
and again
the strong low scent of me

I hold it close like a talisman
as you will that last beat
of my heart
you plucked from my chest
and mixed with your own blood
Friday, August 19, 2005

Microphone On

Every Wednesday night for over two years the White House Pub in Limerick has hosted an open mic session of poetry. Over the past nine months I have been designing and editing a book of these poems, with co-editors Dominic Taylor and Bertha McCullagh. Last night, Wednesday August 17th, the book was launched.

The policy for inclusion was as open as the nights themselves. Any poet could submit works, and one or two poems would be accepted. The book contains many poets published for the first time, as well as those with a long track record, both here in Ireland and abroad. The result is an uneven collection, but one which properly captures the spirit of the weekly event.

I wanted the cover to reflect the open mic aspect of the evenings in a bold design that would transcend the sorts of "pretty" images usually associated with small press poetry. I believe I have succeeded and am very happy that the job is now done. Anyone who has worked on a book knows the enormous relief that follows a launch!

If you search around the official web site you may eventually find a way of ordering the book.

And yes, I have two poems in the volume. Good ones too!
Tuesday, August 09, 2005

CTS Photos & Gear List

photo © 2005 Ruth Crean

Here I am performing Control Tower Sound as escalation 746 on August 5, 2005. You can see here how plain the room is, a small space provided by Impact Theatre. It's on a famous part of O'Connell Street here in Limerick that's known as The Crescent. The road forms that shape either side of a historic statue, and is framed with lovely Georgian buildings. What a nice place for a gig!

photo © 2005 Robin Parmar

A shot of my gear for those who wonder how it's all done. I am very picky about equipment and do lots of research. But I'm pragmatic about how much I can afford to spend and so look for the best deals possible. As a trained audio engineer I generally know what compromises I am making.

The mixer in the foreground is a Behringer UB1002FX. This has two mic inputs and four stereo pairs, which is enough to connect up to all eight analogue outputs of my sound card, an RME Multiface, seen just to its right. But that's not what I did on this occasion since I needed to be able to process audio in through the mixer at the same time as I was sending sound out. This is only a two-bus mixer so it's not designed for that. Enter ingenuity. :-)

On the left is my Cirque Touchpad, which is so much easier on your hands that a mouse or trackball that it's not even worth comparing. For health reasons alone you should use one, but live they have other benefits, like the fact I can move it to my lap, or stand up, or even do a little dance. Audience members were glad, I'm sure, that the idea of me dancing at my own gig remained only a potential!

Touchpads are also very robust and will last year after year, unlike any sort of mousy thing. Unfortunately they are no longer stocked by any retailer I am aware of, and must hence be purchased over the web.

Behind that you can see my mini-Virtually Indestructible Keyboard, which should likely have a shorter name. It is flexible, survives liquid spills, and goes anywhere. I am now totally used to the feel and the lack of a numeric pad. Oddly, the company does not have this model on their website anymore. Oh, sorry, yes they do, but they've redesigned it and taken off the "mini-" prefix in favour of simply saying "85 keys".

To the right of that is a minidisc recorder, which didn't end up seeing any use on the night. This is a nice shiny orange MZ-RH10, which I got from Japan. This worked out much cheaper than buying it locally, and the Japanese retail bundle is much better. Plus it's a funky colour.

These new Hi-MD units can record 90 minutes of CD-quality audio (yes, uncompressed audio) to a single disk, support MP3 files, and have decent features for any music listener.

Then there's a Samsung Syncmaster 172B, an absolutely gorgeous 17" LCD monitor. This model is no longer being sold but I recommend any similar one wholeheartedly. The best thing about the design is that the monitor folds flat onto the base, so that it's easier to transport.

At the back and to the left is my keyboard controller, a Novation ReMOTE. This is more expensive and more capable than others, but you never know when you're going to need several dozen knobs and faders and a jog-wheel and a touchpad and a joystick and... well, it's got lots of controllers. Also, it needs only a single USB cable over which it gets power as well as control data. It's nice to eliminate one wall wart.

Lying on the controller is a set of Grado SR225 headphones. Though not providing isolation like proper live or DJ phones, these sound so much better than anything else that I cannot be without them. They are my reference sound for mixes.

Lastly, there is a Studio Projects B3 microphone. I am still getting used to this but so far it seems like a very versatile (three polar patterns, pad, low-cut filter) and sweet sounding thing. Plus it really looks the biz.

photo © 2005 Robin Parmar

In this picture you see what was at my feet, namely a Behringer V-Tone Guitar GDI21, a brand-new piece of blue gear that simulates about a dozen different guitar amps. This sure beats carrying them around with me. Amp simulation has gotten steadily very very good over the years. Now it's also cheap; in fact this box is the price of a DI with the amp modeling thrown in for free! Fun to use on vocals or anything else really.

To its right is a piece of red gear, my Nord Micro Modular. This looks like a shoebox but is actually a complete modular synth that you programme on the computer. Patches are then stored to the box itself so it can subsequently be used independent of a computer. This is a great design. It also accepts audio input for processing. There are newer and fancier synths available from Nord, so this particular item is a steal.

Behind the colourful boxes is my computer, a Shuttle XPC case and motherboard that I built into a system two years ago. This form factor is a compromise between a full desktop system, which hardly anyone really needs, and a laptop, which often is too limiting. In the case I have a P4 processor, 1GB RAM, 200GB hard disk, a DVD burner, an ATI video card, and the RME interface card. It is very full and took me some 20 minutes to get closed. Every connector needs to be in precisely the right place! I'm surprised it doesn't melt down but seems to do ok.

Sometimes I think it would be nice to have an actual laptop and make some hardware compromises, but this feeling comes over me not so much because I'd like more portability. No, I start getting that itch every time I must disconnect all of the cords to and from my Shuttle. :-)

Not seen in these pictures are my audio monitors, the Behringer Truth B2030A, which I took on-site with me. Not only decent for reference mixes at home, they have enough power to be quite kick-ass on location, providing that location is quiet and small. I would love to have better-sounding monitors, but don't have €1500 to spend. For one-fifth of that, these monitors are amazing.

OK, that's about it for hardware. I'm not much of a fetishist when it comes to obtaining "stuff" but do get a warm and fuzzy feeling knowing my hard-earned money is going the extra mile for me.

But don't think it's all about the gear. Just thought I'd drop some tips your way.
Monday, August 08, 2005

Control Tower Sound Aftermath

Wow, the weekend is over! Three days of sound art, performance, and what-have-you. Next time I'll do something more modest. And I'll do it sometime other than a weekend in August when everyone is out of town. But despite the low attendance I am happy with the results. It was an experiment and I managed to learn a lot about what my gear can do and what I am capable of putting together live. Besides, I got a lot of positive comments from those who took the time to check out something far from the ordinary.

Some audio samples are below.

For Friday night I performed Control Tower Sound itself. Here is how the handout described it:

"Tonight you will hear an electro-acoustic improvisation using a computer-based instrument system. Spoken word, found texts, sound effect elements, and original music will be processed along with actual aircraft control tower communications from Ireland and Canada. Sometimes sounds will be relatively loud, at other times very subtle. Close your eyes and enjoy."

Over the week the sounds had evolved away from the abstract into more structured pulses and beats. In some ways it was like a DJ gig, as I mixed from one software instrument to another, controlling two independent sets of stereo speakers. At all times I had two instances of Reaktor up on my computer, plus playback of pre-recorded audio files. Additionally I had a microphone for some spoken word injections, often processed through the built-in FX on my mixer.

Oh, and I used my Nord Micro Modular, but only for static, shortwave, and Morse code sounds.

I was wishing I was an octopus. A groovy octopus.

Nothing ever starts on time in Ireland but I had said that this show would be an exception. By 8pm there were Nordish bleeps and ATC voices filtering into the room. But I was still at home, changing out of my soundcheck and gear-carrying clothes. I got to the venue sometime after most of the audience, went up to the computer, and tweaked some very subtle changes for about ten minutes. Then I started the programme of events. Or restarted them. Or continued them. I'm not sure which is more appropriate but I was happy to have a question mark over when exactly the performance began.

By this point I had decided that I would directly address the audience at times throughout the show. I had debated this when formalising the show, but I finally figured I wanted to be as open as possible. I hate laptop artists who just sit their behind their screen, so all you can see is a stupid Apple or Dell logo. I set up my computer elevated to the audience and turned 90 degrees, so they could see what I was doing to some extent. (There will be pictures soon, courtesy Ruth Crean, who did a great job of helping with the show and keeping me sane.)

The show began -- erm, continued -- with the Control Tower Theme, a nice little ditty that I present for you here in its entirety. The MP3 sampling is a bit low, for bandwidth reasons. I am going to be putting together a CD of pieces recorded at the event, or at least re-interpretations of these. Then you'll be able to get nice shiny CD-quality tunes to hear in all their fuzzy wonder.

In the meantime, here's an excerpt from Integrated Noise Model which you really need to hear in its full twenty-minute glory to hear how the drums evolve over time with the shifting samples. I am indeed happy with this and other collages that I improvised on the night. I got some very positive comments afterwards, which my tense body and tightly-focused mind filed away for later processing. It took ages to chill out after the gig. Two hours of concentration is a bit taxing, but next time I'll have more confidence in the physical setup so that will be one less worry.

Oddly, there was not one technical snafu or glitch all weekend. Well, let's just say that all of the glitches were deliberate!

While I'm thinking of it, I should quote from my own literature again:

"Thanks to Didier Leboz, Rachmiel Schott, Florian Erdle, Chris Malcolm, Pierre-Andre Soulier, Monolake, Marti Brinkmann, Lazyfish, Uwe G. Hoenig, and others for instrument design. Today you are all part of escalation 746."

More on the rest of the weekend later.
Monday, August 08, 2005

A Wholesome Game YOU Can Play!

The other day I was looking up a word on, a handy tool that is plagued by those annoying Google text ads. They are supposed to key off the page contents in order to alert you to products you may actually want. For me it never works, because I never want advertising. But anyway, on this particular day I got a very strange ad, and from it devised a new game.

Here is the ad:

What is a brain tumor?
Do you have a brain tumor? Free information here.

Now to play the game you have to copy down the ad, use one of the key words as your next site search, and see what you get. Repeat this process until you get matches that are all relevent. Then the game is over.

Here's the rest of my run.

Enter "brain tumor" and get:

Bitter Apricot Kernels
Vitamin B17 Products, UK Based Call 01487-832456 or order online

Enter "apricot kernel" and get:

Editing English Grammar
Hire Professors & Attorneys to Correct your English Grammar

Enter "grammar" and get:

Visual Parser Generator
Build your own parsers with ProGrammar. Free trial version.

Great fun, no?
Monday, August 08, 2005

sound is

Here is one of the texts read as part of a mix at Control Tower Sound.

sound is called mach 1
sound is one of the finest audio/video dealers
sound is present when i play an audio cd
sound is not working
sound is in the picture at kodak theater
sound is still playing even when in different
sound is red
sound is on the move
sound is broken
sound is a perfect sphere
sound is recognized
sound is important and full
sound is alaska's premier
sound is all about
sound is god
sound is recorded onto a computer
sound is disabled after simply
sound is your pleasure
sound is doing
sound is produced when an object resonates
sound is in our backyard
sound is hard to beat
sound is better than stereo
sound is california
sound is a registered nurse by profession
sound is just pathetic
sound is not distorted
sound is a leader in full event and production services
sound is the siren sound
sound is sometimes turned off in suspend mode
sound is low
sound is immune
sound is energy
sound is produced
sound is to start understanding what sound is
sound is here
sound is enabled
sound is working in my system
sound is a present
sound is a mechanical wave
sound is too taboo
sound is vibrations
sound is dangerous
sound is overlooked
sound is intermittent or choppy
sound is measured
sound is king
sound is the number of cycles of a sound wave in one second
sound is very low
sound is a sure hit
sound is cape breton
sound is in you
sound is owned by greg and kristin platzer
sound is hiccupping or breaking up
sound is coming from?
sound is dead sound
sound is a wave
sound is the vibration of any substance
sound is represented by the second letter in the word
sound is intimate
sound is generated from the backpack cd
sound is continuously repeated
sound is small compared to the ton per square foot in the silent room
sound is too slow and not synchronising
sound is bountiful in bottom fish like halibut
sound is digitized
sound is even better than dvd
sound is the sound you like
sound is a form of vibration that goes through a medium
sound is bad
sound is it?
sound is the connection between the artist and the audience
Thursday, August 04, 2005

Notes Towards A Sound Art Performance

For me an improvisation begins a long time before I ever hit a "stage". The original themes and goals of a performance are also open to chance elements and interactions of the unexpected. As these take shape, the process of developing the piece is next to come under scrutiny. As the process evolves, elements once in the periphery have a strange way of gaining focus.

Sometimes, all it takes is a plane crash.

When I first started work on Control Tower Sound I knew that I wanted to demonstrate to friends and local artists what exactly it is that I do. But at the same time I had no interest in being too exact because what "I do" is always evolving and is hard to define at the best of times. People in Limerick see me as a poet but that is certainly far too restrictive a term. So one of my goals was to integrate spoken word elements -- so that there would be something the audience would recognise -- but to do so in a way that was not grounded in the world of poetry. I want words that open up fields of meaning and interpretation instead of fencing them off.

With that in mind, I turned towards graphics. My first version of a poster utilised a photo of a construction crane, this being a common sight in the city at this time, a symbol of a changing Ireland. But later I realised that this performance was not specifically about Ireland, and not about construction, maybe not even about deconstruction! Cranes seemed wrong.

On my flight home from Scotland last week I snapped the Shannon control tower and when I looked at it later I thought "yeah, this works". I like airports and have even written poems to them. The idea of fluid transport is important in these years; here is an idea that seemed relevent. So the next version of the poster integrated that image and I soon had a name: Control Tower Sound.

I went looking for air traffic controller recordings and soon found some, not from Shannon airport unfortunately, but instead Dublin. That would do. There is something very banal about these transactions; ATC recordings are the last things to be exciting. I was happy with this choice since I wanted something more evocative than ear-shatteringly thrilling.

And then came the crash at Pearson airport in Toronto, an airport I know well, an airport I have written about. I have seen planes come in for landing so many times from Highway 401. So I scouted out the ATC recordings from the time in question. Now I have something both thematic and topical. Something I have a connection with.

What to do with all of this? Well, the theme of control is a rich one. So I worked up some texts to evoke the right mood. Then I started going through my grab-bag of audio tricks to see how I could make some fairly simple texts trigger responses in an audience. I have come up with some patches in Reaktor with Samplitude as a sometime host. We will see how they work out.

The event is a performance but it is also explicitly experimental. And by that I don't mean "weird sounds", I mean literally an experiment. Some things may work; some things may not. Those that do will end up on my next album and those that don't will at least be a unique audio experience for the lucky few!

P.S. Thanks to Ruth and Celene for the help so far.