Notes on Music Factory

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Alan Sondheim

I participated in the Music Factory event at Eyebeam, a continuous improvisation over four days, with over fifty musicians. Most of my playing was in the morning and afternoon; the larger ensembles were at night. I used a number of instruments, including recorders (tenor, garkleinflote, and soprano), chromatic harmonica, classical guitar, ukulele, sung lisu, oud, cura cumbus, pipa, violin, viola, sarangi, and electric saz. Many of these have a 'natural' fundamental or even drones; the pipa for example is tuned A-D-E-a (depending on the chosen pitch). Most of the instruments use untempered 'natural' scales as well; in other words, they play within one or two basic pitches, but may use a variety of intervals built upon them. For this reason, they can work awkwardly with western or orchestral instruments (even my violin and viola are tuned with drones for example, in an Arabic fashion). On the other hand many of the players at the event used saxophones, which can be bent towards natural scales, but excel at running intervals and scales, and timbre changes; they're also relatively loud compared to, say, an unamplified oud. With some instruments like the sarangi, I found myself trying to play louder and actually making a mess of things; the result was so bad, I discarded it.

In the afternoons I often played alone but had some wonderful duets with Chris Funkhouser, Ras Moshe, and others; Azure was sick, and wasn't able to sing unfortunately. When I played alone, I played 'in the small' and was able to develop whatever I was working on; this also held with duets of course, but it was odd, soloing for what seemed to be fairly long intervals at times.

In order to explore these directions by the way, I just traded for a tambura, in order to work with drones. Drones can be even in intervals of a major or minor second, so you have a great number of overtones to play with, which is terrific. Another interesting element of tambura - it creates communion in a sense, because two people play together, drone and otherwise; it removes the isolation that a soloist might feel. And of course metaphorically the tambura connects with the cosmos at large - and I wonder what quaking aspen sounded like, before primates walked the earth.

At night there were large ensembles; what I heard and saw in the broadcast was both brilliant and more jazz/new music oriented. There was a lot of unison playing, close to drone but changing (also in the afternoons). I left feeling I was among brilliant musicians and disappointed somewhat in myself, particularly in relation to sarangi - which I love, and which is difficult at best. I've been focusing on it since; I also need to extend my limited repertoires and scales on viola and violin. I feel that in the world of improvisation - and this is so general as to be nonsense - there are two regimes - I think Alain Danielou also talks about this - one which is the western scales/harmonies/timbres/horn mechanisms/psycho- acoustics/mostly but not always tempered scales/training - and the other, which often works of melody/scale/natural temperments/drones/bases and 'returns' (which are different than tonic/fundamental), absence of harmony or minimal harmonies (gagaku), and different sonic structures altogether (think of the alap in raga). The latter favors the instrumentalist or singer, although there are any number of large orchestras across Asia, full of color (which is often absent, say, in Indian music) and often in unison or fifths. This is so general as to be blatantly false. Where it does come into play, is in trying to work or 'fit' these different regimes together in improvisation. I do feel it's possible but at least for me, I need to work on amplification systems, both for monitors and room. The latter seemed great, for example with electric saz; on the other hand, I couldn't hear my own saz playing but had to 'feel' it along, if I were playing with sax. (I do hope next time, if there is one, I can bring other oud and guqin players along; I tried unsuccessfully.)

The music was phenomenal and there were so many amazing styles, solos, duets, combinations of instruments, that things were always exciting. I can't remember a dull moment; Jackson's idea of a sonic citizenry or communality held true. The staff was also amazing and things ran smoothly. I though a number of us would be staying overnight; I napped, but that was all.

What was most impressive was the opening of a kind of space that took on its own characteristics over a period of time, that became a habitus opening new artistic territory. I'd love to see this happen again, even on an annual basis; if we could use miniaturization for recording and work somewhere where the staffing didn't have to be quite so on alert, it might work. Certainly the experience of what is at least close to a unique and beautiful event is worth building upon.

I'd also like to see an open forum for discussing long improvisation somewhere online - there are forums for everything! (I'm on Mike's Oud Forum for example), that might develop their own aesthetics and phenomenologies, might lead to even other interesting forms of music. This event, however, was fantastic by any account!

I want to add that the audio/video broadcasting seemed really integral to the whole - when I wasn't playing or at Eyebeam or traveling there and back, I was online listening and watching the music. The broadcast ended suddenly around 11:30 Tuesday night - I thought something was wrong with my computer - and I hope next time there's a final farewell flourish or salute!

Again, I want to thank everyone for participating and let's go forward from here!

- Alan Sondheim

Alan Sondheim

Photo: John McDaid

Alan Sondheim is a Brooklyn-based new media artist, musician, writer, and performer. Sondheim made his recording debut on ESPdisk in 1968, leading a group of improvisers from Rhode Island in a trailblazing exploration of free improvisation and electronic music. He has published over a hundred and thirty articles, and has spoken at a number of venues on the Internet and Information Highway. He has taught or lectured at Lang College at the New University, UCLA, Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, the Ontario College of Art, Concordia University, University of Texas at Dallas, and U.C. Irvine. His film and video has been exhibited at two Whitney Biennials as well as the Paris Biennale. Sondheim has an M.A. from Brown University and currently lives in Brooklyn, New York with his partner, Azure Carter.

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