A sonically productive summer

A rising senior VES concentrator experiences electroacoustic improvisation, experimental film technique and performing at a jazz festival in Berlin and Copenhagen. 

by Sam Wolk ‘17
2016 Artist Development Fellow

Sam Wolk ’17, an affiliate of the Dudley Co-op concentrating in Visual and Environmental Studies, was awarded an Artist Development Fellowship for a research internship at the LaborBerlin film cooperative in experimental film technique as well as development of sonic works at the Sonic Code Group at Spektrum Berlin. Wolk, who has been active in the Harvard University Studio for Electro-Acoustic Composition, has presented sonic, visual, or installation works at many locations including Harvard’s Carpenter Center for the Visual ArtsJohn Knowles Paine Concert Hall and Loeb Experimental Theater, and at the Washington Street Art Center (MA), the dA Center for the Arts Pomona (CA), and Perhspace (CA). He has worked as a studio/research assistant for several sound and visual artists including Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Véréna Paravel, Luke Fowler, and Dániel Péter Biró. Wolk is also an audio engineer and DJ at WHRB 95.3 FM and contributor to The Harvard Advocate. He plans to continue his studies in mixed-media after graduation. This is the first of two blog posts about his experience in Berlin this summer.

The summer is winding down, and so is my time here in Europe. It has been a wonderful few months here in Berlin in which I have seen much creative growth as well as significant accomplishments come to pass in both my sonic and visual practices.

Sonically, the summer has been very productive. 

Still from a film by Saul Levine
Still from a film by Saul Levine
In June, I traveled to Athens for a week to perform in concert at Beton7 as part of their V_ideas: Performance series. For this performance, Matthew Doyle (UCLA Design and Media Arts program, MFA) and I presented a series of new electroacoustic improvisations in dialogue with the moving image. The program, titled "Working Notes," had two parts. For the first half of the program, the frenetic, experimental, small-gauge films of Boston-based filmmaker Saul Levine served as the propulsive force behind a series of freely improvised studies utilizing a variety of acoustic objects.

Matt and I moved fluidly between performing in various combinations of percussion, piano, resonant drums with acoustic feedback and bowed cymbals, and field recordings with live cassette manipulation. In activating the different combinatorial permutations of these acoustic tools, we aimed to perform a sort of physical dance that generated audio by extracting labor from our bodies. The rhythm of this movement’s labor was to be a reflection of the intense labor manifested in the meticulous editing of Levine’s Super-8 films. 

Still from a film by Saul Levine
Still from Phill Niblock’s film "China"
The second half of the program consisted of a longform, structured, drone improvisation which accompanied Phill Niblock’s 1988 16mm feature-length film China. Where the experience of labor in Levine’s films largely arises out of the structuralist approach to editing and the foregrounding of the countless splices working to hold the film together, in China the experience of work does not occur at the splice, but rather between the splices.

The film presents human bodies hard at work: agriculture, forestry, bakestry, marine and construction workers all bare their bodies for the slowly unfolding gaze of the camera. The images of work envelop the spectator into a sensual experience of labor’s visible variety and repetition within long duration. The motivation for performing a longform drone then arose out of the temporal structure of China. With a goal of using the audio as a tool for sinking the audience into the rhythms of the bodies on the screen, Matt and I settled upon a combination of an 8-oscillator additive synthesis drone in conjunction with arpeggiated and sustained piano tones as the mechanism for the aural framing of the image.

Sun Araw MIDI Octet at the Copenhagen Jazzhouse. Sam Wolk (ADF '16), center.
Sun Araw MIDI Octet at the Copenhagen Jazzhouse. Sam Wolk (ADF '16), center.
In July, my major sonic undertaking occurred in Copenhagen. I traveled there for a week in order to complete the first iteration of “the Sun Araw MIDI Octet,” a project jointly conceived of by Los Angeles-based audiovisual artist Cameron Stallones, aka Sun Araw, and myself. The trip culminated in a presentation of the project in concert at the Copenhagen Jazzhouse as part of the experimental/avant-garde/free jazz program of the Copenhagen Jazz Festival.

The initial concept of the project was to create a performance environment for a large band which crossed boundaries between digital and analog, and in so doing create unexpected, generative situations for the improvisers to respond to and explore. In order to accomplish this, we attempted to exploit the Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) protocol in radical ways so as to create genuinely new collaborative improvisation possibilities for the performers. Rather than lament the fact that MIDI largely strips performers of the highly gestural, tactile, physical experience of playing a traditional acoustic instrument, we wanted to explore how we might use MIDI data to create new gestural and haptic possibilities for performers, which would not be possible in the purely analog domain. 

The first necessity in assembling the performance system then was to ensure that the improvisers’ physical and gestural performances could be adequately captured digitally by the “instruments” of the system. The natural decision then was to choose devices which could be used by performers with extensive traditional acoustic instrument practices, such as Electronic Wind Instruments (EWIs) for the saxophonists and flautists; an electronic ribbon controller for the double bassist; a pressure sensitive electronic drum set for the drummer; a MIDI guitar for the guitarist, etc. These sorts of devices are not normally taken seriously as solutions to the problem of performativity in electronic music because they are essentially poor simulations of “the real thing” (whether it be a saxophone, flute, guitar, drum kit, etc.).

In particular, they act as highly glossy compression channels for performance information, i.e. they take very complex gestures with large amounts of information and condense it into just two pieces of data: “pitch” and “amplitude.” The full sonic complexity of a gesture executed on a physical instrument will never be recovered by the same gesture executed on a digital approximation of that instrument. However, by acknowledging that the gestures are reduced to simple data, that data can be redeployed to invest the gestures with new sonic meanings which would not be previously possible were it not for the act of information condensation.

With this in mind, we designed a system wherein each person’s pitch/amplitude duplet on the one hand drives their own FM Synthesis algorithm (thus allowing them to perform a normal duophonic part), and on their hand their duplet also can be redeployed to modulate the parameters of any other performer’s FM synthesis algorithm. As such, a performative gesture on one instrument is translated into a both sequence of notes generated by that instrument and a series of sonic modulations of the other performers. Thus a new form of communication between improvisers arises; in addition to communicating through their own instrument, they communicate by constantly modifying each other’s instruments.

As a simplified analogy, one might imagine a series of eight organs that are linked such that when you play the keys on one organ, you also are opening and closing stops on other organs. One of the key components of the system that I programmed was that the relationships between performers (who is modulating who, and what parameters they are controlling with that modulation) could be dynamically changed. As such, in addition to programming the system and making sure everything was working throughout rehearsals and the concert, I also had a performative role: I controlled the matrix which defined the relationships between performers, thus driving the formation and dissolution of micro-improvisational interactions between individuals in the octet.

All in all, the process of programming this system over the course of May and June and rehearsing/performing with it in July was wonderful (if a bit stressful due to the sometimes arcane nature of MIDI). It was certainly one of the craziest, strangest concerts I have been a part of! We have actually been asked to do a series of MIDI Octet performances in the Netherlands in September, so that might be on the horizon for me soon.

My final major sonic activity for the summer was finishing the final mix for an album of electro-acoustic improvisational works due for release in August on Jeff Witscher’s Portland-based label Salon.

The Artist Development Fellowship program, jointly administered by the Office for the Arts at Harvard, the Office of Undergraduate Research and Fellowships and Office of Career Services, awards 10-15 fellowships annually to promising and/or accomplished student artists and creators who have an unusual opportunity for artistic growth and transformation. The program is open to all undergraduates currently enrolled in Harvard College, and applications are evaluated by the Council on the Arts, a standing committee of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. For more information, visit the OFA website or call 617.495.8676.