Sam Pluta and P*funk

While doing two extremely worthwhile and enjoyable activities – reading Kodwo Eshun‘s “more brilliant than the sun” and listening to the Peter Evans Quintet‘s “Ghosts” – some synapses within my brain were activated and so I begin this post.

“In the mad science of the studio, mixadelics is science gone glad.” – Kodwo Eshun (1998)

Eshun is talking about Parliament‘s “Gloryhallastoopid” album and George Clinton‘s description of the studio processes used during the post-production of the album. In a joyous free for all manipulation of tape loops, Clinton reworks his old material in the studio in combination with contemporary recordings of the band in an attempt to explain the creation of the universe in as funky a manner as possible. Eshun continues: “Funk is extraterrestrialized through the mixing desk. Through multitracking, reversing, equalizing, slowing down, speeding up, double backwards tapeloops, it becomes what Clinton on the back sleeve of ’79’s Gloryhallastoopid calls mixadelics. Clinton’s concept of mixadelics means the psychedelics of the mix: the entire range of sonic mutation through studio effects.”

Fast forward from 1978 to 2011 and drop that funk. Look at jazz again, you thought jazz was dead? Not so!

I recently attended a talk at EXAPNO (as part of the Performer’s Forum, not to be confused with PPL‘s Performancy Forum) given by the man behind the electronic manipulation in “Ghosts,” Sam Pluta, who described his software and gave a brief demonstration (with Jim Altieri) of how he uses it in a live environment. Watching it I was struck by the graceful solution to the problems I’ve always had with the live use of computer manipulation programs in general, there seems to be no opportunity for visceral expression or the “play” of using an instrument like a violin. Making an “OH” face and rubbing a track pad or pushing a button really isn’t enough for me as a practicing musician and music lover. I have to FEEL it. And man, Pluta feels it.

He uses a custom made board as a controller for custom software programmed meticulously over the years in SuperCollider, using his fingers to rapidly cycle through layers of processing modules while changing parameters and adding/deleting modules. For Pluta, the thing which gives something a “form” is a recognizable return to a previous state, or a recognizable degree of control over manipulations (this is an extreme simplification but you get the idea). The software he’s developed/is developing uses these layers to provide a means to build a complex structure, move to another one, then return, switch between them, etc. It’s nothing like any instrument I’ve ever seen, and it relies almost completely on another performer to give some kind of input to be affected, though it can synthesize pitch, that doesn’t seem to be the point of the program.

So other than praising Sam Pluta, where am I going with this?

This direction in electronic music takes Clinton’s “mixadelics” and puts it in real time. As Pluta indicated in his talk, computers are getting faster, but the techniques of manipulation (many of them discovered during the boom of human speech research/synthesis in the mid to late 20th century) have been fairly static for the last 5-10 years, but we have more memory, faster processing, we can do live FFTs (Fast Fourier Transforms) faster than ever before. As our technology gets better and better, the likelihood of the computer becoming an instrument that can be “played” in a traditional sense becomes greater. Technically we don’t seem to be making many new discoveries in terms of how to affect sound, and so we are perfecting techniques of manipulation like fingerings on an instrument to produce effects like that instrument would produce notes.

More Eshun: “As Pedro Bell explains, ‘Technology automatically causes the language to expand,’ putting pressure on language, kneading it into new processes, new sensory lifeforms: suckulate, bootyful, throbbasonic thumpasaurus. Neologic, ‘the primal act of pop poetics’ in William Gibson’s sense, occurs at an extreme rate. Parliament are neologists, lexical synaesthetes extrapolating universes from a grain of sound.” (my emphasis)

Pluta’s work with the Peter Evans Quintet on “Ghosts” has already been remarked upon by various publications (albeit not always as glowingly as I think it deserves to be), and stands out to me as a very effective and subtle use of technology in conversation with tradition, rather than working against it or holding it up on its shoulders. One can only hope that we continue to extrapolate universes and expand our musical language in the tradition of those who have gone before. Electronic music is no longer a sufficient category, as its subgenres continue to proliferate, we might soon be calling it “music.”

– Brian McCorkle


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