Murmur | 2020 My work primarily centers around live performance, specifically involving the creation of improvised / improvising systems in real time. The core of my practice is about being present, in a moment, and in a specific space, with a group of people — listening, hearing, thinking, and responding — so I have found myself struggling with redefining my role as an artist during the pandemic.

Despite how much I miss sharing these sorts of moments with others, I have not found myself particularly interested in performing using any number of the available social media or video game streaming platforms (which I have serious political / ethical contentions with), or finding opportunities to collaborate telematically (which seems more draining than inspiring).

Instead, I have found myself drawn to spending time with my partner, our six-year old daughter, and five-month old kitten, and — when I can find time — improvising in my home studio, which not only helps “keep my skills sharp” for the day that I may find myself in a room with others giving a performance, but also helps keep me sane.

This August, I was asked to be a part of a fundraiser for Black & Pink Boston, a grassroots organization working to abolish the prison industrial complex while meeting the immediate needs of LGBTQ and HIV+ prisoners, as part of an evening organized by the long-running experimental music series Non-Event.

I decided to take this invitation as a challenge to complete a new fixed media work. I am notoriously finicky when it comes to creating fixed media pieces, and would rather give a dozen performances than create one fixed media work, but I decided that this is perhaps exactly what I should be focusing on during these strange and isolated times, and began combing through my archives.

The primary sonic material of this work comes directly from a studio-based improvisation made using analog modular synthesis techniques in conjunction with a plate reverb made from a sheet of scrap metal, a four-track reel to reel, and a tape delay unit, recorded in a single take.

I have recently become somewhat obsessed with miniature reel-to-reel tape recorders and have begun collecting them to use in performances as part of a giant, wonky, multi-tap delay / feedback system, and in sound installations featuring myriad tape loops in some sort of labyrinthine configuration…

The recorders themselves are very simple machines, and the mechanism for advancing the tape does not use a capstan motor like most reel-to-reel recorders or cassette players, but instead simply drags the tape across the head using a “rim-drive” system, which creates a great deal of “wow and fluttter” in the recordings.

Some of these recorders have speed controls, which allow you to squeeze longer recordings onto a tape (or play back tapes from machines that record at different speeds), but as you slow them down, playback becomes uneven, as the motor is not pulling with as much force, and friction causes the tape to catch. This produces pitch discrepancies that I find quite lovely, and give recordings of the spoken word a somewhat lilting quality. Others of these machines are simply in less great states of repair, which is perfectly understandable given their age (rim-drive recorders were most popular in the early sixties). These units crackle, buzz, hiss, and jerk the tape about — each recorder has its unique sonic fingerprint.

The majority of recorders I have salvaged have invariably come with tapes from their previous owners still inside them, their histories waiting to be discovered. These sorts of tapes were generally meant for voice recording, and were used for audio diaries and “letters” to loved ones (to such a great extent that the boxes they were sold in often included address boxes and a place for a stamp). I have spent a lot of time getting to know these tapes — not simply the messages they contain, but how they sound on each of the recorders.

It seemed important that I include the forgotten memories that I had unearthed, but in a way that emphasized the sonic qualities of the recordings rather than the words they contained (letting them bubble up into the listener’s consciousness), so I started digging through this strange archive, playing back the tapes and re-recording them while listening back to the improvised material, then added some additional sonic “glue,” and quickly stepped away.

The video was made using a feedback loop comprised of analog video synthesis modules and circuit-bent video instruments whose outputs were fed not only into one another, but also into a CRT display. The CRT was being monitored by a security camera genlocked to the video signal, and the camera’s output was then passed back into the modular / circuit-bent instruments, as well as into a computer hosting custom software written using Max that allowed for rudimentary video manipulation techniques (video delay, scaling, rotation, etc.). This software also played back the audio recording and output control voltages based on amplitude analysis for specific frequency ranges, which were then used to manipulate parameters in the modular / circuit-bent instruments; the results were recorded in real time and composited using After Effects.

This piece is a meditation on memory and loss, and trying to find reason amidst chaos; it is dedicated to the memory of Matthew Underwood, who has taught me so much about all of these things.

Providence, RI
September 2020