It’s been amazing to make music with these two gifted improvisers on stringed instruments: Ulrich Maiß on electric cello and Eric KM Clark on violin. My first experiences with them drove the first part of my career!
I met Ulrich while studying at the Center for Experimental Music and Intermedia (CEMI; University of North Texas). Ulrich visited and performed his solo cello interpretation of Lou Reed’s classic Metal Machine Music (1975), praised by Reed himself. At first listen, that album may not sound like a “composition,” something where it’s possible to play a “wrong note,” but Reed confirmed that Ulrich was getting it right, down to its essence—musicianship beyond reading notes on paper! While Ulrich was visiting, I and other students improvised with him. This happened just as I was missing my musical roots as an improviser. Working only as a composer for years, I missed the feeling of making music happen in the instant, under my fingertips. That began my career in technology-based performance.
My primary musical instrument became: “I play computer.” I build and perform with my own live sampling environments (interactive software) and interfaces (using Nintendo Wii remote controllers or a gamepad). Each creation occupies a different place on the spectrum between being a composition and an instrument. In live sampling, I go in with no pre-recorded sounds, no loops, no synthesizers: just an open mic and an open ear. I grab sounds from my improvising partners live during each performance and transform them into my own musical voice, on the spot.
Here, Ulrich joins me in performing B4ch1007 (“Bach Loot”), which I composed as a silent video graphic score. That is, it’s a graphic score, which means we interpret visual shapes instead of traditional musical notation. This approach often allows a wide range of freedom for the performers to interpret it, but it can still be a deeply-structured composition. Since it’s the score (or the “sheet music”), of course it’s silent—it’s meant for musicians to play it! This graphic score is special in that it’s a video, not just a printed page.
So B4ch1007 (“Bach Loot”) is a video graphic score in six movements, drawing on Johann Sebastian Bach’s famous Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major (c. 1717). I fed images from a Bach family manuscript of the suite and a blocky computer-notated version into my own video-processing software that uses a sound input to distort and deform images. So, it was natural to play a recording of the cello suite into the software, to make the video scores. To recap: Around 1717, Bach wrote down some music, and people played it; around three centuries later, I used the sound of it to distort the image of it, and I used the video of that sound-deformed imagery as the score for a new musical work.
This is a new work; it doesn’t sound very close to Bach’s earlier composition, but hopefully it preserves some “fingerprint” from Bach’s musical imagination, deep down. After all, I do consider live sampling to be a 21st-century extension of classical imitative counterpoint (as in a round or fugue), of which Bach was a great master. Since this work owes much to Bach, but in a convoluted way, this work and its movements are named in 1337, or leetspeak, a geeky stylized form of writing that goes back in the history of the internet (and its predecessors). While the work does “loot” Bach in some ways (1007 = loot), 1007 is also the cello suite’s catalog number among Bach’s works: BWV 1007! I’ll let you decode the movement titles; they’re all punkish misreadings derived from the movement titles in Bach’s original suite. Fittingly, we also seem to be channeling Metal Machine Music in this particular performance.
The violin tracks here were recorded just before and just after Eric KM Clark joined the California E.A.R. Unit, in my first years on the Texas A&M University faculty. We met as artists in residence, both selected by Lawrence D. “Butch” Morris, and we recorded the next two tracks there. Eric inspired a new definition of virtuoso in my mind: not just someone who can play anything written down, but someone who has mastered every possible sound his instrument can make. Ulrich’s visit had turned me back on to improvisation, and Eric joined me in the most notable improvised performances of my early career, including the International Computer Music Conference and the International Society for Improvised Music.
These tracks fit together as a triptych portrait of the violinist and his instrument: first, within a busy ensemble, then alone with his memories, and then deep inside the instrument and inside its own raw sound. In Choro, Eric dances with live copies of himself, independent but coordinated in a complex choreography, ultimately finding peace in the whistling high register. Echo portrays the violin in a lonely setting, with only echoes of the past to keep him company. As more history ends up behind him, he becomes tangled in the crumpled flutter of memories. The violin dissolves into its basic elements (violin particles?) in Micro: starting inside its resonant wooden body and continuing inside the friction of bow-against-string, and beyond, into its dry, raw essence, providing an acoustic bookend to B4ch1007.
The cover art for this album was created by April Zanne Johnson, from her perceptual responses to this album.
Thanks to: Joseph “Butch” Rovan for bringing Ulrich to improvise with us at CEMI; Lawrence D. “Butch” Morris (no relation) for leading the artist residency where I met Eric; the Atlantic Center for the Arts for providing the artist residencies where I originally met and played with Eric and April; Texas A&M University’s Vice President for Research, Academy for Visual and Performing Arts, Crawley Family Faculty Fellowship, and Department of Performance Studies for making this project possible; and of course my family and friends for their support and patience as I followed my opportunities and intuition to where I am today.
— Jeff Morris