Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Death By Audio

As the curtain closes on the act called 3 Catherine St, I must look again, for the sixth time in five years, for a new place to live.

Some of you may have heard the rumors about "the ultimate loft space" in Redhook, in Bed-Stuy, in Williamsburg, featuring Nate, Joe Grocki, Drew, Chak, Dustin, Big Nate, and me. We would build a studio and record bands and live in a big commune and it would be great. We talked about the "summer of building walls" and I looked forward to some manual labor in the summer, drywalling and painting and constructing the place ourselves.

Then there was the Great Flood of 2009. Our basement abode spent three days in the mildew of Brooklyn garbage and god knows what the hell is in the water around here. My mattress didn't make it, and I just barely saved the drums and amps. I spent the whole night wrapping up cables and hanging them out to dry, along with my sheets and some clothes. It was miserable.

Then we got the news about the loan. The loan that was supposed to grant access to our glorious loft space. It didn't go through. People started dropping off the lease and a general depression hung in the air. Nate and Drew moved home. April found a space in Park Slope. My options were running out.

Enter Death By Audio. Those of you in New York may recognize the name as a small all-ages venue in Williamsburg, in an old refurbished warehouse. Some of you musicians may recognize it as a manufacturer of guitar pedals. However you recognize the name, it also doubles as a living space.

Harry and the Potters play DBA

I was lucky enough to meet a friend of April's that lived there. He invited me to check out the place to see if I wanted to take the spare room that had been available for the past few months. I walked through the first half of the warehouse, through the stage area and into the back where everyone lived. I passed a row of bikes, skateboards, and various speakers and keyboards in the entry way. I emerged into a huge space with high ceilings that functioned as the kitchen/living room area. One of the guys was preparing a fish dinner with potatoes. Another was cutting out some magazine clippings and pasting them on a bass drum. It bustled with activity at all times.

There was a practice space on the first level, mostly for bands that rented time. Attached to this was a makeshift mixing room, cluttered with DBA pedals. The next room was the pedal production room. About 15 pedals sat open on the counter, in front of a wall of resistor drawers. They are debuting a new pedal in the next few months, and are getting ready for the demand.

Wandering into the next room I saw a wall full of paint cans, a workbench, screens for printing, some lumber, and an array of hand tools. There was no shortage of projects to work on. On the side of the kitchen, a second level was constructed above all of these work spaces.

Upstairs was a small living space with a projector for movies. My room would be next to this. It seems to good to be true. So I came back today to meet some more of the guys. A Place To Bury Strangers , a few of them residents, were playing their new album for an older guy from Mute Records. I sort of got an informal tour and they told me I was welcome to move my stuff in.

So I close this chapter of my life and enter the next, and I don't think it could get any better. Who knows what is going to happen from here on out.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Bent Fest 2009

Since the last time I posted here, I've been paid for the first two weeks of my job. As much as I loved living off of dumpster bagels and drinking $2 PBR, having money rules. Just being able to splurge again is great, and I did so this past weekend at the Bent Festival in Manhattan.

For those of you that are not familiar with "circuit bending," is the process of opening up a simple circuit and modifying it, or "bending" it, to produce different sounds. For example:

Now, most of this sounds like nonsense. Circuit bending and music are definitely two separate areas that should not be confused at first. Circuit bending is the process of discovery: finding out that your furby or see-and-say can produce the same sounds from Dark Side of the Moon. Does this mean you can make another Dark Side of the Moon with your see-and-say and a soldering iron? Absolutely not.

The first night of Bent Festival was Thursday, but that also happened to be the same night as Handmade Music at the 3rd Ward, which is essentially the same thing. So I decided to stay in Brooklyn and check out what was going on over there.

Turns out we got two performers that were scheduled for Friday night of Bent Fest. First, and most impressive, was Peter Edwards of Casperelectronics. Essentially, Peter has a bunch of different tone generators with the same clock running through the system. Each tone generator has different settings, and by modifying each one slightly, he was able to simulate a full "band" sound, using a patch bay of external Voltage Controlled Oscillators.

For those of you that didn't understand that, he plugged lots of stuff in and turned lots of knobs. Made cool sounds. This is sort of a preview into his live performance:

The second act was called E Squared. This was a more random performance, utilizing many different kinds of circuits from old turntables to card readers. They were sort of like DJs that used circuit boards.

So on Friday night, I headed down to The Tank, right on the edge of tourist hell Manhattan, and found that the space was A LOT smaller than I expected. Of course I had missed the free beer, but I was just in time to see Peter Edwards perform again.

I ran into my old friend Lauren, who is working on her masters thesis based around the circuit bending culture. We talked to Dr. Bleep, the inventor of the Thingamagoop. It is essentially a small noise-box with a photo-sensor and a few VCOs, but they're handmade and pretty cool to play with.

I also checked out an installation that used circuits with traced patterns for your hands to produce various different tones, as well as video.

For sale, there were a lot of starter kits, from stripped down Arduinos, to LED displays, to synths constructed on a breadboard. Instead of buying any of the kits, I opted to go for the book that was debuted earlier that night by Nic Collins. It is called Handmade Electronic Music, and it is a great read for people interested in getting started with circuit bending. You do not need an electronics background for it either.

Saturday night I had planned to return, but work was exhausting so I headed home. I was hoping it was going on today, but no such luck. All the tutorials and everything were Saturday afternoon. However, I'm going to start building some projects in this book and see what comes of it. I have a soldering iron and a breadboard so why the hell not.

Here's a preview to my next post: What happens when you put seven audio engineers in 2,000 square foot loft in Bed-Stuy? This could be the start of a hilarious sitcom.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Essentials in Jazz

Growing up playing the saxophone, I've always had a slight affinity for jazz. I played "Mercy Mercy Mercy" in my high school jazz band at age 16, and "Take the A-Train" at 17. However, I was always swept up with the hip punk rock scene, and jazz music was filed next to classical music on the "old people music" shelf of my teenage life.

Seven years later, it has become pretty much the only music in my life. Aside from a handful of bands, jazz has taken up the majority of my listening time. Tonight, I want to highlight a few great albums I've been listening to lately that you should all check out.

Roland Kirk - Volunteered Slavery (1968)

This album is one of the best saxophone albums I've ever heard. Roland Kirk, blind genius and multi-instrumentalist, mixes snippets of popular songs in with his freestyle saxophone. "I Say A Little Prayer For You" bounds into a Coltrane tribute (with the album below), which explodes into a free-jazz extravaganza. Occasionally, Kirk will warble along with his flute or just yell nonsense. This is the most fun jazz album I've heard in a long time.

John Coltrane - A Love Supreme (1965)

One of the most highly regarded jazz albums of all time, and for good reason. Coltrane kills it on this one. He's in the foreground and nothing else. The songs grow and morph from beautiful melodies into improvisational masterpieces. The drum solo on this album is probably the best I've ever heard. So good.

Charles Mingus - Mingus Ah Um (1959)

This is another upbeat, bebop jazz album reminiscent of old New Orleans jazz. Mingus records with an ensemble, alternating from a main melody line into a turn-based improv section. I hold a special place in my heart for Charles Mingus for his involvement with John Cassavetes, doing the entire soundtrack of Shadows.

Ornette Coleman - The Shape of Jazz To Come (1959)

Coleman pioneered improvisational jazz with this album. Primarily blues based, the saxophone wails and screams through seemingly tempo-less structures. The absence of a piano creates room for the other instruments to really explore the space. The spontaneity of this album makes it great.

Dave Brubeck Quartet - Time Out

Kicking off with "Blue Rondo A La Turk" in 9/8, Dave Brubeck designs this entire album around the waltz, shifting from 5/4 to 9/8 to 3/4. Probably the album that spawned "cool jazz" or "lounge," using Brubeck's sauntering piano to drive most of the songs. Such a laid back album, I love it.

Miles Davis - Bitches Brew (1970)

It took a while to narrow down my Miles Davis collection to one standout album, but I think Bitches Brew takes the cake. Miles was there for the dawn of avant-garde jazz, the conversion to electric, and then took jazz to the next level of improvisation. The electric guitar, synthesizer, and percussion led to the fusion of jazz and rock music. This album also utilized tape loops and reverb chambers, almost unheard of before this point. Miles is the king of jazz, hands down.

There are many more I could write about, but I think this is a good cross-section of what I've been listening to. Needless to say, the late 1950's were a great era for jazz music, evolving from a traditional music into an experimental phenomenon. The musicians were pure soul, playing what they felt at the moment. It's pure emotion, and the saxophone can convey it the best. I've been dying to get back into playing jazz in New York, and would love to play sax with a small group one or two nights a week, just to get back into the swing of things.

I really want people to add to this list. If you have a jazz album you can't live without, put it down here. I really want to expand on my collection.

Friday, April 3, 2009

My New Job

It's true, I'm finally working. 5 days a week (to start) at NYCe Wheels, a specialty bike shop that sells folding and electric bikes. Although I've never really gotten into this type of riding, I've got to admit the bikes are pretty cool.

Brompton, one of our folding bike brands, is so light and compact that I can't help but post this video, for the sheer convenience of the thing:

The folding bikes are great for New York, a city where everyone wants to save as much space as possibly while simultaneously saving the environment.

The electric bikes are pretty sweet too. Our biggest clients are Chinese delivery guys, who pay over $1500 cash to take an electric bike on the job. They cover it in cardboard and duct tape, which I suppose makes it look flimsy or cheap, but in reality they are pretty powerful.

My boss is a great small businessman from Austria. Knows all about conserving energy and good business plans, and is very tech-savvy. Our website is pretty high-tech. He also chided me for not commuting to work, so I started riding the 10 mile commute to and from work:

View Larger Map

Needless to say, I'll be in the best shape of my life by summer. How the tables have turned!