Time Travel

I had the most strange experience today while visiting my old university where I hadn’t been for about 28 years. (Well maybe I’ve even been there once or twice in between but I don’t remember.)
I went to the music department to leave some flyers there for an upcoming gig.

While walking the hallways – a (relatively) old man of 55 who maybe doesn’t look much like a professor – between crowds of, as it seemed to me, very young students, I noticed that I could hardly remember this place. Between 1973 and 1981, I must have spent almost 8 years here, studying English and Education. I must have looked like these very young people then (with much longer hair though). This place must have been very familiar to me back then, it was the place where I spent large parts of my days, learning, working, reading, writing, falling in love, being afraid of exams, falling asleep in lectures.

All of this felt so remote today that I could hardly connect to it, as if someone else had been a student here. I was surprised how long my life has already been that large parts of it feel so remote. All these years seemed like ages ago. My past life suddenly seemed to span over a huge amount of time. This timespan didn’t seem like it had anything to do with me as I am now. Very strange. On one hand, my days seem to pass by very fast. But when I look back, it looks endlessly far away.

On a related note, many people aren’t happy with their present lives, and wish some better phase of their past lives would be back. When I look back, the university years weren’t such a happy phase of my life. Although I’m getting older and I begin to develop some minor health problems, the last 10 years have been the best of my life. I’m happier and more rooted in myself that I’ve ever been before. It feels good to see that.

One Week’s Musical Delights

The last week brought me several quite different musical delights. All of them were brought to me by musicians that I’ve been enjoying for 25 years or more. On the concerts, in the audience, I was mostly surrounded by old men … hmm …

March 20
Allan Holdsworth Trio (Allan Holdsworth, guitar; Gary Husband, drums; Jimmy Johnson, bass)

Allan is said to be a musician’s musician, or a guitarist’s guitarist. I don’t know how true it is that you have to be a musician to be able to dig what he does. Many people I know, many guitarists even, aren’t impressed by his music. But many other people, mostly guitarists, speak of him in awe. He has a unique style and a breathtaking technique.

The first time I’ve heard Allan play live was with the Soft Machine, back in 1975. The recent Soft Machine Floating World Live album is from that period. I bought the album a week ago and found that while Allan’s way of playing was incredible fluent even 34 years ago, it was much more rock oriented than it is today. He also played with progressive rock-fusion outfits such as Bill Bruford’s band but he eventually went away from this and towards a kind of jazz that is maybe more influenced by Coltrane.

On the gig a week ago, the trio was in incredible shape. Gary Husband and Jimmy Johnson were a wonderful rhythm group, true masters.

I stood in front of the stage and could see Allan play just 5 feet away (thank god I had my hitech earplugs because his Hughes & Kettner tower would have blowed my ears off otherwise). His solo lines were fluent as ever, his fingers did these incredible stretches across 7 or 8 frets, he jumped effortlessly across the fretboard in the breathtaking speed that he is famous for, and I don’t think he ever repeated himself – other than in the seventies where he had some trademark melody structures that he came up with often. And then there were these pieces where he played these series of „uncommon chords“, soft as clouds – I recognized none of them, and he didn’t repeat anything for minutes. It doesn’t happen often on concerts that I have no idea what is happening musically. On this evening, I was clueless but enjoyed myself immensely.

How wonderful that there are so many kinds of music that can make us fly, in many different ways. Allan and his band took us on a very adventurous flight.

March 23
Wire (Colin Newman, guitar and vocals; Graham Lewis, bass; Robert Grey, drums; and, as a replacement for the wonderful Bruce Gilbert who has sadly left the band a while ago, Margaret McGinnis on guitar)

Just a few days later, I found myself in a dense crowd in the Blue Shell club in Cologne, waiting for the British New Wave Art-Punk cult band Wire. In the early eighties, everyone I knew loved their first three albums – Pink Flag with its short and breathtaking punk hymn „12XU“, and the two follow-up albums (Chairs Missing, and 154) that were full of stunning compositions and unfamiliar sound worlds – they were an important part of my soundtrack for the early eighties, they had a strong magic of their own.

I had never seen Wire before and of course by now, they were old, and we were old (although there were a number of young people in the audience as well). Wire played several of their old famous songs but mostly new material from their current Object 47 CD. The majority of their new material is much simpler in structure than their pieces from the eighties – usually just based on two chords, sometimes there is just one chord, a monotonous drone punk with Colin Newman’s sparse vocals on top, but they know very well how to set this up to make it irresistable. Relentless and short statements, as fast and loud as the Pink Flag art punk that they had become famous with.

The audience loved them. Funny how surprised they were that we were so quiet and well behaved – apparently the British Wire audience is much louder. „You are so quiet – was it something that we said?“

March 27
John Hackett & Nick Magnus (John Hackett, flute, guitar + vocals; Nick Magnus, piano)

The German Genesis fan club had staged a 2-day Steve Hackett event. I was able to see the first night yesterday. Some unknown Steve Hackett live video material was shown, and the fans were able to talk to Steve in person during an interview.

After this, a good half hour of an „acoustic“ set with Steve’s brother John plus piano virtuoso Nick Magnus. They played some well known Hackett material and many pieces from John’s solo albums that I hadn’t heard before. What a delightful duo they were, very virtuoso and in complete command of their instruments, and quite humorous too. I loved how Nick, during the introduction to the next piece, morphed the piece’s title from „Le Chat Noir“ (called after a Paris club where Satie used to play piano) into „William Shatner“ (of Star Trek fame).

March 27
The Watch (Simone Rossetti, vocals; Giorgio Gabriel, guitars; Cristiano Roversi, bass & guitar; Fabio Mancini, keyboards; Marco Fabbri, drums)

The highlight of the first Hackett event evening was a Genesis cover set played by the Italian band The Watch. I had heard their first three albums and found that while the sound was very close to the trademark early Genesis sound, their compositions are interesting but somewhat less accessible at times – with some strange chord changes and melodies that seem to have a hard time to find a place to sit in my head.

For the Genesis fan club event, they covered early Genesis material – famous pieces mostly from Trespass and Nursery Cryme. They were amazing. Other than my good friend Hans who is a die-hard Peter Gabriel era Genesis fan and prefers the photocopy-close-to-the-original cover band Musical Box, I loved this cover band better – they were a bit less perfect, also very close to the original, but somehow a bit more lively and rough. Simone Rossetti’s ability to reproduce the young Peter Gabriel’s throaty voice with all its idiosyncrasies was almost uncanny.

Jon Hassell: Last night the moon came dropping its clothes in the street
(Jon Hassell: trumpet, keyboard; Peter Freeman: bass, laptop; Jan Bang: live sampling; Jamie Muhoberac: keyboard, laptop; Rick Cox: guitar, loops; Kheir Eddine M’Kachiche: violin; Eivind Aarset: guitar; Helge Norbakken: drums; Pete Lockett: drums; Dino J.A. Deane: live sampling)

Jon is one of my all-time favorite musicians, maybe the one who leads the list. His music means more to me than I can say. I still remember the first time I heard him, on the Brian Eno collaboration album called Possible Musics, back in 1980. I bought that album without knowing who Jon Hassell was because the name Brian Eno on the cover meant that it had to be good. Then I listened and didn’t get it at first. Hassell’s strange trumpet technique and vocal-like phrasings were unlike anything I had heard before. It took a little while before I understood with my ears and my heart. Then Jon suddenly spoke to something in me that I hadn’t known existed.

The short piece Empire V on Aka-Darbari-Java (1983) with its slow angular percussion rhythm, the very quiet short sample that runs through like a tin musical box, and its soft harmonizer trumpet melody lines gives me the goosebumps every time (even now, just thinking of it – funny how our nervous system works), and the longer Darbari Extension is like a permanent ticket to some mysterious timeless inner tropical landscape that resembles Mati Klarwein’s paintings that Jon also loves so much.

Over the years, Jon Hassell has quietly become an important influence for many jazz musicians. He is 70 now I think – I hope he’ll be able to stay productive for a long time. His current album is already precious to me and in constant rotation. There are so many details and wonderful atmospheres. Another milestone of a quiet giant.

Day Of The Flock

A flock of sheep is no common sight here in this part of Germany. Once a year though, at this time of the year, the meadows of our countryside are visited by a flock – it usually consists of 200 or 300 animals, some of them still very young. They stay at one place just for an hour or two, then they follow the call of their shepherd and the barking of their herding dog which keeps them together, and move on over to the next hill. When we saw them on the meadow right opposite our house today, we had to go out and visit them. It was a heartwarming experience – good on a cold, grey, and wet day – to be with these animals, watch them, and listen to them.

Listen to a 25 minute recording of the day of the flock (at 13:00, a sheep sniffs at my recorder to see if it smells like something to eat) (it didn’t).


… and now for something completely different:

Impossible Music

Algorithmic Music – music composed without human intervention, based on formal procedures, mathematical formulas, computer programs.

Gumowski and Mira – two CERN physicists who found an interesting mathematical entity, a new attractor – something not unlike a fractal – while researching into nonlinear dynamical systems. It was later called the Gumowski-Mira attractor.

HOP – a software that I wrote in the early nineties which created graphics based on this attractor. It was successful as a DOS screensaver. Then one day, I added a Midi output module, hooked a digital piano to it, and found that the resulting musical structures were very interesting.

Impossible Music – a collection of 16 improvisations with that Gumowski-Mira attractor based software. While the computer computed the attractor, I played with the constants and various other variables, and Matthias Ebbinghaus took care of the sampler, the digital piano pedals, and the live mix.

hyperfunction – a CD label for algorithmic music, launched by Markus Reuter and me, with Impossible Music being the first release.


Thanks to Matthias Ebbinghaus’s initiative, we finally have a beautiful CD with quite adventurous recordings that we had done 13 years ago, at this time not thinking about publishing them at all. The DAT tape had been sleeping in some drawer and I had more or less forgotten it but about three years ago, Matthias remembered it and suggested that we listen to it again, maybe for a potential CD release. So we listened to it again, found that we liked it a lot, selected the most interesting parts, remastered it … and then I talked to Markus Reuter about it and he suggested setting up a label for algorithmic music and publish it there.

Here’s what WIRE magazine just wrote about the CD (in the April 2009 issue). Maybe they have a point criticizing that we used familiar instrument sounds (mainly piano and percussion) for music that is so non-traditional. For me though, this music stands out because it is structurally interesting – maybe turning these strange structures into equally strange sounds would even take away some of the structural strangeness – I don’t know. (In 1996, I simply had no stranger sounds at my hands anyway 🙂

Michael Peters is primarily an electric guitarist with a long standing affinity for Frippertronics – last year he organised Cologne’s first livelooping festival. Now and then he’ll venture beyond the loop, as on this set of pieces for digital piano and sampler, recorded in 1996 but only recently edited and mixed for release. In a sense Peters here raises his enthusiasm for looping to a conceptual level: Impossible Music arises out of the zone of nonlinear dynamic systems, being based on a strange attractor discovered by physicists at the CERN nuclear research centre. By real-time manipulation of this fractal structure’s parameters, Peters and Matthias Ebbinghaus generate l6 algorithmically grounded improvisations.
Algorithms – essentially, objectified sequences of instructions – can, as John Cage recognised, produce results that personal taste might have precluded, and figures as diverse as Xenakis and Eno have used such procedures effectively. Limited interventions, such as those Peters makes, add an improvisatory aspect that can conjure up further structural variation and surprise. But beyond the glacial satisfactions of the concept and a sense of the abstracted structure, the pleasure of such music necessarily depends on the quality of the sound material. Most of the samples Peters uses are percussion. There are classical guitar-like timbres on „Alhambra Algebra“, synthetic pipe organ sonorities on „Blow Up Meltdown“, marirnba tones on „Woodenfall“. The digital piano often approximates a concert grand. It’s done well, but surely strange attractors cry out for wilder and less familiar sounds. (Julian Cowley)


We will try how this music sounds with more adventurous sounds on April 4 – there will be a CD release party at the LOFT in Cologne, and while I am in control of the attractors, Bernhard Wöstheinrich and his synthesizers will make them sound. Watch this space for a report if you can’t come.

More Gumowski-Mira attractors:

A Thousand Blended Notes

For those unfortunate souls who don’t live in the countryside such as this, I recorded the walk I took today – click the player and you will hear half an hour of my steps in the muddy forest, stopping now and then to listen to the first spring birdsongs. The most prominent bird one could hear today is the song thrush … their song is one of the most beautiful things I can imagine.

People who grew up musically in the late sixties (such as me) might be reminded of Pink Floyd’s wonderful song Cirrus Minor which contains lots of song thrush singing … that bird must have been recorded somewhere in England, at this time of the year, 40 years ago.

This walk reminded me of Wordsworth’s poem in more than one way. Well he lamented „what man has made of man“ … I only was somewhat put off by the incessant loud shouting of a group of kids who played right in the dense middle of the forest, the only place where the deer can hide during the day. Oh well. But then, they didn’t know … and of course, they are a part of nature too, no less than the birds and deer are.

Experimental Guitar Evening

I first met guitarist Craig Green last May when he played on the Livelooping Festival in Cologne that I had organized. Because he is currently in Europe for two gigs in Portugal, he had asked me if we could play together again, so he stopped in Cologne first before going to southern Europe and we did an Experimental Guitar Evening, again at the LOFT, again joined by my Cologne based friend Michael Frank. Each of us did a solo set and at the end, we played two improvisations together. Judging from what I heard from the audience afterwards, it was quite a successful and enjoyable evening.

Michael Frank played a noise improvisation and two of his older compositions: a Gong influenced psychedelic piece, and a wonderful rather intricate piece full of odd meters that although it has no Guitar Craft roots, it would fit in there quite well.

Craig, who came with his amazing new hi-tech Teuffel guitar, played two jazzy, very virtuoso, almost romantic compositions, and one of his trademark noise explorations. I was amazed at his sound, his precise technique, and his style in general. Very inspiring.

My set was not planned out, I was underprepared as usual but also willing to go for the risk. Actually I had vague plans for the beginning of the set that involved walking around in the room, theatrically whirling around my trusty old Höfner Shorty guitar – it has an integrated speaker that screams with string feedback in an amazing way when cranked up, and whirling it around creates a nice man-made leslie effect. Well this part worked as imagined but when I plugged it into my setup, there was nothing. No sound. I did some small talk and actually rebooted my Vista notebook, hoping the sound would reappear – but it didn’t! The audience was very relaxed and humorous, they even seemed to like that something went wrong, and their support made me relax too. Eventually I discovered that I simply had forgotten to pull up my main fader in my new Bidule setup. Argh !!! (sigh)

Anyway, sound was back, and I dropped my vague plans about continuing my explorations of radical noise. Instead I strongly felt like creating harmony, and so I started by setting up a simple but cinematic soundscape, and only later on went through more experiments, noise, samples, and cut-up rhythms.

Here is my 21 minute solo improvisation:

For those who don’t know but wonder – yes, all sounds were played live on the guitar. It can control samplers via midi, so I can play the guitar but you will hear strings, voices, or strange noises. There is even a part where I play a sample of a bee swarm which I had recorded myself last summer.
For those who know this but still wonder: The Fernandez guitar is equipped with a GK-2A and a sustainer. I played through a GT-5, a DL-4, a BitRMan and a Korg Slicer into the Bidule script on the notebook. Faders and switches in Bidule were controlled using a NanoKontrol. Bidule contained a number of VST instrument plugins (the awesome GForce MTron mellotron, a Kontakt sampler, a Humbox voice player), and VST effects such as the KT granular synthesis, the Quikquak Fusion Field reverb, and the beta version of the LoopV plugin for loops and cut-up stuff. Huge thanks to Matthias Grob and Andy Butler for the LoopV – I only used some of its many features but I can say it was stable and I had big fun using it.

Nobody left during the intermission – a good sign I think! The second half consisted of two extended collective improvisations that went very well. A wonderful evening, thanks to the support by the muse, an interested audience, some friends who helped in a generous way, and the folks from LOFT.