Monday, 28 December 2009

Church Vibrator

My second end-of-November improvisation concert (my first one was in 2008) with percussionist-singer-bassist Uwe Schumacher in a church in Bonn, Germany was an interesting experience for me in several ways.

Firstly of course, improvisation concerts are always interesting experiences, especially when there is no plan at all. Uwe's regular church concerts (sometimes solo, sometimes with musical partners) are based on complete openness. The resulting music can develop into many directions - often there are jazz, world music, or ambient influences. It seems to be a successful concept - the number of visitors slowly increases and many people come on a regular basis.

On this evening, a sound engineer class from the nearby university came to record us as an exercise, in professional quality. I'm looking forward to that recording - haven't heard it yet.

I brought a number of new musical toys, such as a wonderful old Indian electric drone box with tambura sounds, an autoharp, and an electric classical guitar which always makes me want to play bossanova inspired music.

One item I brought was a vibrator. I knew it would potentially offend religious-minded people to play with a sex toy in a church but I used it in complete innocence, thinking purely in musical terms - the vibrating egg shaped device can be placed on various kinds of surfaces (metal bowls or drums or cymbals are great) to trigger a wide range of sounds. I played with it for a while and eventually found a vertical open metal tube that was probably a candle stand. I put the vibrator in there and left it for a few minutes, making the whole thing buzz and drone away with an interesting timbre.

Apparently, this was too much for some people who left the church at this point.

I also used my solo livelooping gear at times to create dense soundscapes. Uwe sang on top of them, and he played bass and looped percussion, especially the wonderful berimbau from Brazil that I love so much.

My own playing was ok I think (for my standard) but with hindsight, I would say I should have played less, leaving more room for Uwe and for a more dynamic interplay. Livelooping does not always lend itself for a group improvisation, and "less is more" is always a good motto anyway.

We even got an email with detailed criticism from a regular visitor of Uwe's concerts. He hated what I did so much that he left earlier. I actually felt grateful for the email because usually, people leave without commenting when they don't like a concert, and one is left with the part of the audience who liked it, with no way to learn from the negative views. We received some very positive comments for the evening too, so what we did can't have been a failure entirely, and I didn't feel completely devastated by the email, but I noticed that it successfully undermined my poor little musician ego for a while. I'm not a very experienced live musician yet, and I don't always feel completely confident with what I do, especially if I move in potentially dangerous free-improvisation territory.

Having one's ego attacked by harsh criticism is an interesting experience in itself - does one go into defense immediately, hitting back or powering up the ego self-repair mechanism, or does one try to tolerate the feeling for a while and look at it with interest? I found it difficult this time - the superego voices that come up in such a situation are very convincing, the reaction of the body is not pleasant, and inevitably, one feels like a child that is reprimanded by one's parents. I'm grateful for the experience anyway - it seems I have been so successful setting up my life to run smoothly, avoiding edges and criticism, that I almost forgot how painful it can be.

I was happy to hear from Uwe that he liked most of what we did, even if we weren't always playing together in a successful way. At this point, he would be my favorite partner for some kind of duo project.

Here are some video recordings I did with my little camera, the sound also being recorded by the camera. This doesn't have the official recording sound quality (I haven't received a copy of this yet) but it gives a good impression already.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Diamond Body Friday

I live in the countryside 30km east of Cologne - it takes 45 minutes to drive into the city. This Friday I managed to squeeze four very different Cologne appointments into one day which was good ... it saved some driving time. So the day brought me an interesting and quite pleasurable mixture of computer programming topics, music related meetings, and something deeply spiritual - all in one package. Plus a nice walk, some interesting buildings, a number of lo-res photos (see below), and a piece of cake.

Date One - ColdFusion 9 Upgrade Workshop

Version 9 of Adobe ColdFusion has just been released, and I was invited to a presentation at the Cologne Adobe offices. My programming colleague Horst Becker was also participating, plus 20 or so other ColdFusion programmers from the larger Cologne area.

It was good to see again that ColdFusion is in pretty good health (even though many programmers who feel attached to other programming languages often doubt this, and look down on CF because they think it is not a real programming/script language). CF9 is the first version that was entirely prepared by Adobe (it used to belong to other companies before), and there are quite a large number of useful developments and new features, such as extensive methods to communicate with Microsoft Office products, and a new Hibernate-based Object Relational Mapping methodology (a persistence layer, or abstract access method, replacing the familiar SQL database access syntax).

Exciting as these technologies are, I find myself more and more bored, not by ColdFusion which is a wonderful tool, but by this kind of work in general. I don't belong to the programmers who are completely identified with their work and their tools and take it all oh so seriously. But as I don't have an alternative way to earn money, it seems I will stay with it for a while. Unfortunately, it seems to me that programming, instead of getting easier and easier as technology advances, gets more and more complex, requiring more and more energy to keep up with the latest developments.

I took a walk with Horst along the Rhine towards the chocolate museum where we had a coffee and a cake, overlooking the Rhine. We spent an hour discussing technology, current projects, and his art exhibition that opened later that evening. (Horst was not amused when his iPhone told him about the latest stock market developments following doubts about the solvency of Dubai.)

That part of the Cologne Rhine west river - stretching for a mile south of the city center - used to be a no man's land full of old defunct factory, storage, and silo buildings. Everything has changed now - there are many gleaming new office buildings, among them the new German Microsoft center, and the three spectacular crane buildings, two of which are already in use. I felt slightly uneasy to walk below them, with I don't know how many tons hovering above me, just leaning on one thin looking central column. For some reason I had to think about the huge Cologne subway project that led to the collapse of the archive building, not far away from here.

Date Two - A Talk About Music
I walked half a mile from here to the Severinstor, the heart of the old southern part of Cologne, where I met Christian Schaal, a singer and bass player who I knew from concerts with singer-songwriter-composer Markus Apitius. Christian had recently asked me to join his new band project that he is thinking about. We had hot chocolate and tea and talked music for an hour. We found that we have some ideas in common, and that we will probably meet again at the beginning of the year for a session, to see how we harmonize musically.

I find that my musical activities are expanding rapidly, with the various loop festivals, other concerts, and various free improvisation collaborations. I'm enjoying this immensely of course, and not being a professional musician (Robert Fripp told me that I'd be much better off if I didn't try this :-) I don't have any expectations, and I don't even think about commercial success, so these musical explorations can be completely open. I have no idea where I will be in a year or two, musically.

Date Three - A Strange Instrument
After my meeting with Christian, I drove to Mr. Viertmann's beautiful guitar shop to pick up the Cümbüs I had recently bought for cheap. This strange Turkish fretless 12-string banjo was in bad shape but I got it back repaired, and ready for new strings. I can't play it yet but it is such a strange instrument with such a strong sound, and I sense so many exciting musical possibilities here ... I look forward to learning to play it ... at least a little bit.

Date Four - Remembering Presence

My last appointment led me to Rani Willems, a wonderful spiritual teacher who I met only a couple of months ago. Her work complements the many things that I learned and experienced at the Ridhwan school - following many years of Zen and Meditative Inquiry with Toni Packer, who taught me more important things about life and the human mind than anyone else.

I hesitate to write about what this is all about - too large a topic for a little blog such as this, too prone to misunderstandings. Strange how many myths exist about spirituality, meditation, enlightenment, and everybody seems to be an expert anyway.

To me, this thing has nothing at all to do with religion or beliefs or philosophy, it is certainly nothing esoteric and actually not even spiritual, whatever that means. In 2001, after more than 25 years of grappling with Zen, it began to dawn on me what it is about, and I found it to be natural and utterly simple - too simple for the mind to grasp.

It appears to me now that all that was needed was
1. a good knowledge (thanks to Toni) about the countless ways that we constantly fool ourselves (by clinging to personality, opinions, beliefs, self-images, etc.) so I could learn to quickly recognize this in myself, and to drop it;
2. I eventually lost interest (to a limited extent) in my own compulsive, conditioned, and repetitive thinking; and
3. I found that by ignoring the oh-so-important blah-blah of my own mind, instead staying simply awake for a while, completely conscious in the present moment, something entirely unexpected and powerful could begin to shine - something that had been here all the time, totally covered up by the internal noise that I believed to be. This new thing is closer to me than my personality, it has nothing at all to do with Michael, and it was just a matter of recognizing it - somewhat difficult because in the midst of all the turbulence of my life, this was a quiet constant, easily overlooked.

There is some kind of oscillation now, the old Michael structure appears to pull me back into oblivion most of the time, but there is another force that pulls me into remembering again, very subtle and soft, but it is there, sometimes very strongly and clearly like today while looking at it together with Rani, and burning like a flame afterwards through the evening. We are incredible beings! Yes, stardust, as Joni Mitchell put it, but much more than that.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Wise Old Men

Who remembers Catweazle? When Daevid Allen entered stage yesterday where his band Gong was already playing, he was clad in his skull covered suit, a long glittering cloak, and a pointed hat. I thought of Catweazle at first, that crazy sorcerer from the middle ages who time travelled into contemporary England by accident.

What on earth does this guy (who will turn 72 soon) do to be so obviously healthy, full of positive energy, and so much power and stamina at this age? he jumped and danced around on stage all night long, he played electric guitar and sang as energetically as ever, laughing often and having the time of his life. I looked into his old wise eyes from quite near the stage and found that there was a considerable amount of presence and charisma around him. Remarkable.

Gong and their guitarist Steve Hillage were heroes of my youth. Here's a photograph of my table in a room in a Cambridge college where I spent a week or two back in 1975 to work on my English. The Camembert Electrique LP by Gong ("holy cheese!") was one of the items that I bought there, completing my early Gong record collection that already contained the "Radio Gnome Invisible" trilogy - a mythology about a planet called Gong, inhabited by the peaceful and spiritually evolved Pot Head Pixies that visit Earth in their green flying teapots. (I learned yesterday that the flying teapot theme was inspired by an analogy by philosopher Bertrand Russell.)

I was delighted to finally see the reunion lineup of this band that has been together since 2006 - Mike Howlett was not with them yesterday but at least there were Gilli Smyth (still doing her psychedelic witch singing at 76, maybe more convincing than ever), Canterbury scene guitar hero Steve Hillage, and his longtime partner, synth wizard Miquette Giraudy, along with a wonderful backing band (drums, bass, and sax/flute - I knew none of them before but they were all technically outstanding).

The Steve Hillage band played as openers before Gong, warming us up with Hillage's psychedelic old songs - even some of the complex pieces of his Fish Rising album. They played quite energetically, less playful than I remember them - "less bubbles" as Michael Frank commented. I liked them a lot. Where would I be as a guitar player if I hadn't been inspired by his echo guitar and his ethereal screwdriver glissando technique? (The technique was invented by Syd Barrett but I learned it from Steve Hillage who also used it extensively.)

The Pot Head Pixies that visited Earth 35 years ago are still alive and more active than ever, it seems. I bought their new album "2032" yesterday. It says that 2032 will be the year when "the existence of Planet Gong will be officially recognized by astronomers on Earth and will signal the first public arrival of these space visitors". Something to look forward to!

Thursday, 29 October 2009


Y2K9 was why we had come to the west coast in the first place:
Rick Walker (who keeps pointing out how much my MY2K project had inspired him to move towards abstract electronica) had invited me for years to come to his annual livelooping festival, and this year was the first time that I felt up to it.

One reason that I felt I could do it this time was that I had finally replaced the heavy guitar rig full of hardware effects I had been using for years by a notebook - good for international flights. I also took my small midified Hohner G2 guitar, an instrument that can easily be taken as hand luggage and tucked into a plane's overhead compartment.

The notebook contains a complex Plogue Bidule setup that is capable of doing infinitely more than my old hardware effects could - it is a maze of VST plugins, VST instruments, loopers, and realtime samplers, infinitely reconfigurable and versatile, and it opens many musical doors for me although I'm still a long way from understanding Bidule, and also, a long way from mastering this setup.

One additional musical difficulty that I had created for myself was that I insisted to improvise everything - as on my previous solo livelooping concerts, I played no compositions (although sometimes compositions suddenly found their way into the improvisations). This has its pros and cons. It needs a certain amount of openness from the audience - people who expect "pieces" will inevitably be disappointed.

What usually happens, and happened this time too, is that I start out only from a rough idea for the beginning, and then some kind of flow finds its own way, often in surprising ways, sometimes boring, sometimes interesting. One thing that sometimes seems to happen, and it happened this time too, is that I try certain things along the way, and fail - then I'm disappointed and frustrated, but because the audience doesn't know what I was trying, they often like the result anyway.

I was flattered that Rick had featured me in his "headliners" list for the festival, and scheduled me for no less than 3 gigs on 3 subsequent days.

On the first night, we met for the "Best of the Y2K9 International Live Looping Festival" concert in the Anno Domini Gallery in San Jose. Except for Atlanta based kalimba wizard Kevin Spears, all of us had come from abroad (from Germany, Australia, Barbados, UK, Belgium) and were somewhat excited to play in the USA for the first time.

It was a very nice evening - although we did not have many people (maybe 25) in the audience, there were up to 200 people listening and watching the show over the internet. Nat Grant from Melbourne created a very soft and subtle texture of material sounds from percussion and plastic foil, Julia Kotowski from Cologne played her charming "Entertainment for the Braindead" songs, David Cooper Orton presented wonderful guitar compositions, Sjaak Overgaauw led us into quiet ambient sound worlds, Andre Donowa played very relaxed caribbean guitar music, and Kevin Spears made us all tap our feet with his irresistable, and technically astounding, kalimba grooves.

Here's a captured live stream from San Jose.

I drove home with Nat, Julia, and Kevin in my car, eventually discovering that our fuel was low - and there was no way to get new fuel in the middle of the night in the mountains between San Jose and Santa Cruz. We made it safely to Santa Cruz though - thanks so much to my guardian angel who protected us on the quite dangerous highway 17.

The next night, Rick had scheduled me for the "Experimental Side of the Y2K9 Looping Festival", a concert in the Luggage Store Gallery in San Francisco which holds regular new music concerts curated by Matt Davignon. I've known Matt for years as a very creative musician and regular contributor to Chain Tape Collective projects - it was very nice to finally meet him in person.

I must admit that it was quite exciting for me to drive into the breathtaking night skyline of San Francisco, with Rick and Nat in my car, to give a concert there. This wonderful city is a mythical place, both beautiful (as Sabine and me saw it a few days ago) and dark and even a bit creepy - but then I'm probably simply not used to this place at night.

The gallery was a wonderful concert space. Matt did his drum machine soundscapes, Nat and Rick created surprising music with percussion instruments and various materials, and Thomas Dimuzio played breathtakingly beautiful synthesizer music - like something straight from Blade Runner, but abstract. I would have loved to get a recording of this but he had forgotten to record it!

I did 25 minutes of, as Georgina Brett put it, "severely electro-acoustic LIVE music" - a continuous stream of sound events from the guitar and from various mysterious little devices that made the audience lean forward, trying to see what they were :-) The music was not something that is easy to listen to afterwards, but I think it was an enjoyable concert live - big fun for me to play really noise oriented at times, maybe I should do more of this?

The main livelooping festival began on Friday evening with a concert of some of the headliners - Nat Grant with Rick Walker, Kevin Spears (the Paganini of the kalimba, as Rick put it very correctly), The Mermen guitarist Jim Thomas, and me, with each of us given 45 minutes. This was the only concert which saw me a bit nervous during the afternoon, but then I found myself very quiet and mostly present while I performed. Again, many things that I tried to do failed, but the audience didn't know what I had been trying, and judging from the many positive feedbacks I got, at least parts of it must have been enjoyable. I felt especially flattered by a very positive website guestbook comment by singer Lilli Lewis who I saw perform on the next day.

The two following days were like a livelooping sweat lodge - from noon to midnight, more than 50 livelooping artists played for half an hour each, performing on one half of the stage while on the other half the next artist quietly set up his gear. Many of the stylistically wildly diverse shows that I saw were amazing, some of them utterly wonderful. Among my favorites were Bill Walker on lapsteel guitar, David Cooper Orton on electric guitar, Mike Crain's ambient-minimalist vibraphone music, and especially the songs of Lilli Lewis - her performance was almost a spiritual experience, many of us were in tears because it was so beautiful and full of heart.
Lilli's CD is here in case you want to hear it.

At times during the days of the festival, just sitting and enjoying, I seemed to feel an intense field of love that surrounded the whole venue. It was an impersonal love, and definitely something beyond the love that Rick, and the many people who helped, obviously put into organizing this event. For some reason, the livelooper community is exceptionally friendly - there is no competition but rather an atmosphere of mutual support. It seemed to me that something that I would call the presence of love can materialize in a palpable way when many people gather in such an atmosphere, to work together and to share what means most to them - their music, their personal vision of beauty.

What a treat this festival was. We finally met on Monday morning for the traditional loopers brunch and had coffee and cakes with Rick, Chris, Michael Klobuchar, and Nat Grant the next day ... then we had to say goodbye. Amazing how close one gets during just a few days, and how much we missed each other afterwards - it was not unlike a meditation retreat or a guitar craft week ... special times where one is together in an intense way, and then leaves to return into ordinary every day life reality.

(thanks to George Wiltshire and David Cooper Orton for some of the Michael Peters photos)

(many festival photos are here)

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Towards Y2K9 (16): Hungry in Paradise

Point Lobos is a little stretch of coast immediately south of Monterey, California. It was named after the the Spanish word for the sea lions (lobos marinos) that inhabit the place, among many other animals. During our first visit in 1997 I really fell in love with this place - I think it is one of the most amazing places on this planet I've seen so far. We came back during our week in Santa Cruz to see it again.

There is something about it that awakes the child in me. So much to see and find and explore - strange rock formations, colorful crabs, tidepools full of red seastars and green seaanemones, miniature beaches, driftwood and heaps of drying kelp. We had binoculars and could watch sea lions and sea otters and oyster catchers, and marvel at the slowly rising and falling kelp filled mountains of water out there that are probably full of wonders under the surface. I felt like I could easily spend a day here.

We soon found out that we had made the same mistake as during our first visit - we had forgotten to bring sunscreen, and more important, we had not brought any food. So after some hours of discovering, we found ourselves not only sunburned but also quite hungry, and there is no place where you can buy food. We had to leave although we only had seen a fraction of the place. But there was another exciting thing waiting for me: playing a set on the Y2K9 loopfestival that evening ...