My last album focused on the most natural and human instrument: voice. You might think brass instruments are the next most human, since sound originates in players’ own lips vibrating. Woodwind instruments like saxophones seem farther removed since it’s a reed that vibrates instead. I’m not sure how to explain it, but having played both myself, I know reed instruments can transmit more human expression than brass, perhaps because reed players get a more intimate and complex grip upon their instrument as the reed sits inside the mouth. Although more equipment lies between the performer and listener, the human imagination can still be heard through a complex and intimate interface.
The same can be true with computer music. It isn’t always the case—simply clicking a button can’t carry much nuance—but more varied, sensitive, and even error-prone controls can let humanness shine through. I’ve been “playing computer” since the beginning of this century, mostly using a technique called live sampling. My software can make no sound of its own. Instead, it captures the sound of an instrumentalist improvising with me, and I transform it into something new. This way, listeners witness the original sound being created, then notice how it loses its “aura”—its specialness—when it comes back as a mere copy. They then witness the sampled sounds gaining their own aura as they change into something new and influence the ongoing improvisation, all live in the moment. Sampling and playback pushed to extremes introduce their own artifacts that didn’t come from the sampled instrument but become part of my musical voice in performance.
Each performer on this album explores their instrument’s potential in their own way as my live sampling instruments create a moving sonic “hall of mirrors” for them to navigate. In Slurp, we crawl inside Nana Pi’s saxophone to explore the instrument’s sound even though she never really plays a “note.” Even though he’s in the largest and loudest ensemble on the album in What’s in a Whisper, Johannes also sticks to the quietest, subtlest sounds of his instrument. Since I couldn’t record each instrument close and isolated there, my samples carry the patina of the ambient acoustics and noise from the amps, highlighting these ephemeral aspects by making them part of the music.
In a world of copy-and-paste, autocorrect, emoji, and videoconferencing, I build intimate and nuanced interfaces that invite the audience to discover where the fingerprints of expressive human creativity can still be found. The human element can also be betrayed by giving up some control over the machines. In Close Reeding and Voclarise, some of my sampling instruments have minds of their own. They recall and recombine past material into motives that seem new, even though they can’t be. Their changing unpredictably keeps me on my toes as I jump to respond to them musically. This is most extreme in Baby’s On Fire, which involves no sampling. Instead, I perform with Baby, a 1980s-vintage mixing console (complete with fake wood grain and padded rail), with no input except its own output. This feedback loop turns every fader, filter, and pot into something unpredictable, keeping me in a constant state of experimentation, discovery, and adaptation. I found myself adopting techniques from other instruments like the banjo, mandolin, cello, and pedal steel guitar to work out how best to map my body and ideas onto its controls.
Because we’ve each entered this crucible of improvisation with technology, in this music, we hear something more than any or all of us could have conceived, as it was borne from each unique musical situation. To close this portrait of human creativity from the perspective of the technology that captures it, the final track reprises the album through the perceptions, recollections, and interconnections made by an artificial neural network.
And to bring our reflections back to the realm of human perception, the cover art comes from visual artist April Zanne Johnson, who created it from her perceptual responses to the album. (aprilzannejohnson.com)
Thanks to Kevin Patton for obtaining and reconditioning Baby, as well as the University of Tennessee, Aristotle University Thessaloniki, and the Texas A&M University President’s Excellence Fund, Honors Program, Academy for Visual and Performing Arts, College of Liberal Arts, and Department of Performance Studies for making this work possible.
— Jeff Morris