21st Sensory Music: In Conversation with Composer Randall Woolf

As 2010 draws to a close, it should be noted that this year has marked the centennial of the premiere of Alexander Scriabin’s Prometheus: The Poem of Fire, arguably the first contemporary composition to use “multimedia” as we (mis)understand it today. That is, as defined here, accompanying visuals that are produced by electric/electronic means.

With this as a point of entry, a discussion of the previous 10 decades of new music with visuals, and their ever evolving technology, seemed a good way to lead into a mini-profile of the work of composer Randall Woolf. His catalog contains many compositions where the elements of video and staging are prominent features in a unique combination of current technology and contemporary culture in what is 21st century classical music.

Randall Woolf

This blog post is made up of three interdependent parts: this hyper-linked text as an outline, embedded video examples, and an audio interview/conversation (24 min.) between Randy and myself, recorded and edited by Jocelyn Gonzales. Feel free to hop, skip, and jump around all three as you feel fit.

You can listen to the audio here:
All told, it simply wasn’t possible to cover everything that the topic deserved but we did touch upon a number milestones, in rather broad strokes, in this order:

01. Prometheus: Poem of Fire (1910)
02. Synesthetes & Synesthesia
03. Wagner’s stage directions
04. If C=blue, then F#=?
05. Berg’s Lulu and its filmmusik
06. Schoenberg & Satie
07. Walt Disney, Russian animation, and Marcel Duchamp
08. Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho
09. The composer as “the last rigger on the ship” in film scoring
10. ELP, Kiss, Pink Floyd
11. Late 70s/early 80s and the advent of MIDI
12. The newer generations’ use of video
13. Fancy screen savers vs. narrative content

Around 9:15 in the audio, our conversation turns to Randy’s work itself. He says it best when he says that his goal is to incorporate aspects of real life into his compositions. We discuss four of his pieces which use video in a number of ways. Excerpts of these works are found below:


music: Randall Woolf, video: “The Cameraman’s Revenge,” by Ladislaw Starewicz, produced by the Khanzhonkov Company, Moscow 1912


music: Randall Woolf, video: Mary Harron & John C. Walsh


music: Randall Woolf, video: Mary Harron & John C. Walsh, Jennifer Choi, violin


music: Randall Woolf, video: Margaret Busch, text: Valerie Vasilevski, dance: Heidi Latsky

* * * * * * *

As we conclude, we speak of Randy’s upcoming work, including a new commission from Newspeak based on the Detroit Riots of the 1960s, and as to what the future may hold for the continued marriage of media in modern music.

Speaking of the future, we wish you all a very Happy 2011 and look forward to all the new work to come from us and from all of you.

Patrick Grant

Synch Before You Speak

Ever have one of those days when nothing coming out of your mouth makes any sense?

THIS is sort of what it’s like when that happens to me, although it doesn’t sound half as funny or cool:

This project is called Speakatron, created by interactive designer Marek Bereza for one of this year’s Music Hack Day events. In general, Music Hack Days happen over a weekend in a number of different cities. Musicians, coders and programmers get together to try and build the next generation of music applications, whether it’s software, apps for mobile devices or new ways of creating art for the web.

On the project Wiki, Bereza describes Speakatron as, “A program that looks at you through your web cam and plays a sound when you open your mouth. It can tell what shape you’re making and how high your mouth is on the screen as synthesis parameters.”

I haven’t downloaded it yet, but if you’d like to play around with the program or the source code, you can pull it down from Bereza’s project page. At the moment, the program offers the sounds of a cat, a synth, birdsong and Buddhist monks. I would love to add the wah-wah trombone sound of the teachers on the old Peanuts cartoons.


H2Opus: Behind the Music (w/video)

Make Music New York 2010

And so, after months of planning and promotion, our Make Music New York 2010 performance of H2Opus: Fluid Soundscapes by Multiple Composers at Waterside Plaza in Manhattan came to pass on June 21st. Funny. Considering everything that could go wrong, musician schedules, illness, broken guitar strings, it all came down to the elemantal. It seemed that, after all of that, our only concerns were the possibility of rain and the reality of wind.

The weather forecast for that day was great. Nothing but pure sunshine all day. Yay! Sort of. On every piece of electronic that we as consumers buy, we see that notice in bold on every instruction manual: “WARNING! Do not store or operate this equipment in direct sunlight.” Man, they are not kidding.

With temperatures in the mid 90s and with no cover of any kind, we were sitting ducks for El Sol. The result was having to prolong the set up process as much as possible and, even then, do so with Manhasset music stands serving as umbrellas for the sound board and such at my station. I couldn’t even read the LCDs on most of the stuff until the sun went down a little further. Everything felt hot to the touch and, as usual, I kept my quiet veneer on the outside while I was privately freaking out on the inside. This I do for my team. I’m long beyond the days of counter-productive displays of dismay when there’s problems to be solved.

The upshot to this was that, after waiting 90 minutes longer than planned to set up, we were going to have to start the show without a proper, if any, soundcheck. Electronics and computers really do strange things when over heated. My computer wouldn’t boot up and read the MBox correctly. Our sound board, with each of the 11 pieces pre-programmed for levels, decided to give me random settings. One can always pre-program these levels in rehearsal and know that at the gig some minor adjustments will be necessary to accommodate for the different space/venue.  Well, this was like Bizarro World.

For smaller, more convivial shows like this, I’ve been able to run the sound from my station no problem exactly because of this programmability. In this situation, we sure could have used a dedicated soundman. My attention was all over the place.  I told the group and people afterwards: “You have just witnessed the last time I run sound while performing, no matter how small the gig, EVER!” I mean it.

Now the wind. It’s a good thing I saw this one coming days ahead of the show. Living at Waterside Plaza, I felt like an ancient mariner, going down to the performance site for every night leading up to the show and taking wind readings. “No good,” I thought. “This wind off of the East River is going to blow our music and our stands all over the place.” We had to find a solution.

My trick was to go to an art supply store next to the School of Visual Arts on 23rd St. and buy a half dozen sheets of black foam core. From these I made and gaffer taped to each stand “wings” (bad choice of words) that could fit 4 pages of music so page turns would not be necessary within a piece. In turn, these music stands would be heavily gaffer taped to the stage so that they wouldn’t blow over. That was half the problem solved. Keeping the music on the stands was the other half.

I called around and found a place in Queens that would cut (and deliver) 9 sheets of 1/4″ clear Plexiglass that would fit on top of the music to hold it down and yet enable us to read it. That seemed to do the trick.

One of the reasons I had approached Waterside Plaza about us doing a Make Music New York performance was, I thought, “How hard good it be. It’ll be EASY! I live there. Just bring everything down on luggage carts and such.” It was harder than that but certainly not as hard as dragging all those 88 key fully weighted keyboards off the premises. Plus, I wanted it to be our “Big NYC Moment.” You know, playing an outdoor gig on the East River on the first night of summer in Manhattan…hell, I romanticized it as being something like our “rooftop concert.”

And, you know: it was just that. Attendance was GREAT, all ages were represented, kids were dancing, the mature folks were bopping in their seats, and the stand-offish teens hung the duration on the perimeter lest they would blow their cool. Most of all, the musicians played great and we did well as a group. We were completed on the diversity of the music played and to me, that meant a lot. After all, “diversity” is this city’s middle name.

H2Opus: Video Excerpts
(click lower right icon in the player to enlarge)

Things to watch for in the video:

1. Musicians struggling with their music against the wind
2. The clever editing around the kids riding scooters back and forth
3. Performing while adjusting the sound at the same time (when possible)
4. The sound of the wind into the mics (you can even see it in the trees)
5. Musicians leaning into their music more and more towards the end as the sun goes down and the light fades

Afterwards, having had a proper sound check, I wanted to do it all over. Not possible. That’s live performance. So ephemeral.

Having this repertoire together now, we all are looking forward to doing it again in some way in this upcoming season: INDOORS!

Patrick Grant

The iPad “DJ”

As cool and desirable a device as the iPad is, THIS whole business here…

…is cute if you want to entertain your friends on beer night. It’s hilarious when compared to something like THIS, for instance:

…OR, say, something like this:

BUT, watching a “brand storyteller” stab at a touch screen in front of a bemused bar crowd on cable TV, is NOT as thrilling or aspirational as a REAL turntable artist combining software technology and fierce deck technique in front of a happy, bouncing crowd. So much hard-sell yapping (buy TWO iPads and YOU can be a DJ!) and not much demo.

We wish the app makers had gone straight to some established beat jugglers and musicians to show off the iPad’s potential as a musical tool, instead of concocting this viral campaign. It would have said a lot more about their products.

"Brand Storyteller" Rana June

As one online commenter said, this was meant to be a “WOW” but turned into a “LOL” instead.

-The MMiXdown

The MMiXdown Goes to Motown for the DEMF (Updated)

Post DEMF Update:

What a time that was. According to reports, over 83,000 people came down last weekend to Hart Plaza in Detroit to take part in the Detroit Electronic Music Festival. Truly, the best artists in this genre were there, representing many countries and continents besides those from Techno’s birthplace, Detroit.

The view from the hotel room at the Greektown Casino-Hotel. Canada can be seen across the river behind the Renaissance Center (left).

Two observations: the performers that were the most successful (in our opinion), that connected with the audience on a performative level, we’re those that actually had people on stage playing an instrument in addition to the laptop and turntable-driven music. The other was that many groups, no matter where they were from, incorporated many microtonal elements, that is, riffs and patterns that did not adhere to any equal-tempered scale. In fact, many of these were retro analog timbres that grunted and groaned in between the notes, sounding very vocal-like (in all octaves) and sometimes imitative of a guitarist’s bending of the strings.

It should be said too that, even though dance music was to the fore at night, that, during the day, the main stage was reserved for ambient artists and experimenters from all over who, with their dedicated followers in attendance, were so grateful, as was I, to hear their work on such a massive and very clean sound system.

The "Made in Detroit" logo created by Robert Stanzler in 1981.

We had to miss the third and final day to get back to our work and concerts here, BUT, the techniques and great vibes we brought back are going to last for some time. What a musical city, no matter the decade, no matter the style. Inclusive as hell. Everyone is welcome. We look forward to returning in the coming year.

May 29, 2010, Hart Plaza, Detroit – Evening performance excerpts by Josh Wink (USA), Claude VonStroke (USA), A-Trak (Canada), and Richie Hawtin a.k.a. PLASTIKMAN (UK).

Excerpts of the evening’s performances by Derrick Carter (Chicago), Kraak & Smaak (Netherlands), Rolando (Detroit), Robert Hood (Detroit), Ricardo Villalobos (Chile), and finishing the night on the Main Stage, hometown hero Kevin Saunderson’s INNER CITY (Detroit).


The Detroit Electronic Music Festival a.k.a. MOVEMENT 2010

The MMiXdown goes to Motown this coming May 29-31 for the Detroit Electronic Music Festival, also known as Movement, for its 2010 edition.

Time Out New York‘s Bruce Tantum described the festival in a recent article:

Detroit: It’s a prime example of urban decay; it’s the poster child for the failings of the capitalist system. But whatever its shortcomings, the city has one very big thing going for it: Its musical history is as rich as it comes. From the jazz and blues of its Black Bottom neighborhood, through the emotion-soaked soul of Motown and the cosmic grooves of Parliament-Funkadelic, to the jam-kicking punch of the MC5 and the Stooges, Detroit has long shown a sonic sensibility that outshines 99 percent of other towns its size. Since the mid-’80s (a quarter century—can you believe it?), one of the sounds that’s had the world cocking an ear toward Detroit is Techno, so it shouldn’t be surprising that one of the world’s leading celebrations of electronic dance music takes place in the Motor City. This coming Memorial Day weekend, that blowout—the annual Movement festival—takes over downtown Detroit’s Hart Plaza, with scores of after-parties helping to spread the techno gospel.

The three-day event attracts the top echelon of techno’s artists and DJs. This year’s headliners are hometown heroes Richie Hawtin (in his Plastikman guise), Juan Atkins (in Model 500 mode) and Kevin Saunderson (performing with his classic Inner City combo, the group responsible for late-’80s technopop hits like “Good Life” and “Big Fun”). And the rest of the scene’s elites will be on hand as well, with American stars such as Claude VonStroke and the Martinez Brothers mingling with international superstars like Ricardo Villalobos and Michael Mayer. (That’s not to mention wild cards along the lines of funk fiend Mr. Scruff and dubstep doyen Martyn, nor the dozens of other big names playing at unofficial ancillary events.) But despite the scope of the festival, Movement executive director Jason Huvaere sounded remarkably calm … “I only panic when I look at the calendar,” he jokes. “But it is a massive amount of work. When this festival began in 2000, I think a lot of people tried to treat it as a part-time job, and I can tell you, it is not. This is a 365-day-a-year job. We don’t have a couple of artists; we have 100 artists. We don’t have one stage; we have five. We don’t have 2,500 people every day; we have 25,000. The scale is immense.”

Read the full article HERE.

PLASTIK FANTASTIC Richie Hawtin’s set of brooding techno, performed in his Plastikman guise, is among the weekend’s highlights.

The Greektown Casino Hotel will be MMiXdown HQ while we attend the festival. Expect pictures, video, and other content when we get back (as long as we can stay away from those damn slot machines).

Detroit’s Movement festival runs May 29–31. Go to http://paxahau.com/movement for more info.

Patrick Grant


Scratch and Scribble

This time on the MMiXdown, Elan Vytal aka DJ Scientific takes some time out to tell us about TTM (Turntablist Transcription Method), a system of notating and arranging DJ sampling, scratching and effects. But instead of notes on a staff, the marks show samples, where to backspin or when your mix fader needs to come up or down in a particular measure.

Elan has been using TTM in his collaborative work with live musicians, especially string quartets, and documents his compositions with TTM. As he describes it, TTM has helped him share his technique with musicians looking  to expand the sonic vocabulary of their instruments, by showing them how to mimic the DJ’s physical moves and rhythms in their own playing. He also finds it useful when teaching a younger generation to use turntables for the first time.

Developed in 2006, TTM was founded by film-maker John Carluccio in collaboration with a wide community of renowned DJs and turntablists, including Rob Swift, Qbert, Babu and Apollo; industrial designer Ethan Boden; and DJ Raedawn, who had been independently developing a transcription method for complex scratching and combined his efforts with John and Ethan. In the late nineties, John Carluccio created the documentary, Battlesounds, which documented the rise of the hip-hop scratch DJ, and the grassroots community of turnablists working to develop the art form.

On TTM’s web-page you can find tutorials, audio demos, sample notations and tips from renowned turntablists, opening up DJ technique to other disciplines and applications. As Elan says, these sounds won’t be limited to just dance clubs and party circuits. “Hopefully future DJ’s can take what I’m doing to the next level and beyond.”

– Jocelyn

MMiX Festival Video: Radio Wonderland – The Dance Party

Last week, we heard that Joshua Fried of Radio Wonderland was stuck in Europe, waiting for the Icelandic volcanic spew to slow down long enough to get a plane back to the US. He’d been doing Wonderland shows in Italy when the ash cloud began to wreak havoc with the air travel.

I’m not sure when Joshua gets back, but as a shout-out for him to make it home safe and sound, we want to share video from Radio Wonderland’s set during the MMiX Festival last fall.

And if you can’t figure out what in the world Joshua is doing in that clip, listen here to what he has to say about the Radio Wonderland mission:

Video from the MMiX Festival of Interactive Music Technology Oct. 8-11, 2009, NYC

Radio Wonderland

Oct. 9, 2009 at Theaterlab NYC

Produced by Patrick Grant, Jocelyn Gonzales, & Theaterlab NYC

Co-sponsored by Ableton & Cycling ’74 with Dubspot NYC and Eventide
Media sponsorship by WNYC FM & AM, listener supported radio

Cameras & audio assistance: Erick Gonzales & Jocelyn Gonzales

Edited by Patrick Grant for The MMiXdown

©MMX The MMiXdown

– Jocelyn

MMiX Festival Video – Dan Trueman & His Mini-Laptop Orchestra

Video from the MMiX Festival of Interactive Music Technology Oct. 8-11, 2009, NYC

Dan Trueman & His Mini-Laptop Orchestra Part 3

Oct. 9, 2009 at Theaterlab NYC

Produced by Patrick Grant, Jocelyn Gonzales, & Theaterlab NYC
Co-sponsored by Ableton & Cycling ’74 with Dubspot NYC and Eventide
Media sponsorship by WNYC FM & AM, listener supported radio

Cameras & technical assistance: Erick Gonzales & Jocelyn Gonzales

Edited by Patrick Grant for The MMiXdown

©MMX The MMiXdown

– Jocelyn