Liquid Frequency

[Posting for a friend…]


Cystic slide #388

Liquid Frequency slideshow

One afternoon following orchestra rehearsal, I was standing near the stage door and I noticed a tall, thin man with very long, dark hair. He had soft, brown eyes and chiseled features. I’d never seen him before, but I was compelled to watch him, although he was doing nothing more than leaning against the wall, obviously waiting for the stage to clear while the other musicians were still filing out I heard a gentle voice in my ear:

“You’re going to know that man.”

I watched the tall, dark stranger as long as he stayed in the hall. Eventually someone came looking for him and waved him to come along. He was working, apparently. He might have lingered in my mind, but I was excited about my plans for the evening. That morning, a classmate from my theory class, Dennis Maxwell, invited me to bring my violin to his house to join his group for electronic music improvisation. He said he could put a pickup on my instrument and run it through a synthesizer. I’d never had the chance to play anything but classical music, except for the time at music camp when I fiddled in a bluegrass group in a talent show. I couldn’t wait for the evening to come.

That night I arrived at Dennis’s door, and no one seemed to be home. I knocked a couple times, and waited. No answer. I was about to turn and go home, thinking I’d come on the wrong day, but knocked one more time. A face appeared in one of the little window panes in the door. It was the tall, thin man with the long hair! My voice was trembling a little bit when I explained why I was there. He couldn’t have known how unnverved I was, finding myself at the door of the stranger, of whom I’d been told by an invisible whisper that I was destined to know. He welcomed me in, saying Dennis would be back soon. His name was Rator. Eugene X. Rator, Dennis’ roommate.

Overhead shot of tech outdoors

E X Rator with Liquid Frequency

Dennis didn’t return for a couple hours. Rator brewed a pot of cinnamon coffee, and we seemed to talk about the entire universe in one sitting, as twilight came, the light dwindled, and we found ourselves sitting in the dark, perfectly comfortable together. Suddenly the door opened and the lights were flipped on as Dennis returned and other musicians began to arrive. I laughed at myself for being an on-time person, but I was glad I showed up hours before the time Dennis really meant.

The other musicians arrived – a cellist, Chinary Ung, from the university staff, Chris Hyatt on bass, Phil Philcher on sax. Rator would be playing synthesizer, and Dennis would be on his rack of percussion. We string players attached pickups to our instruments, and Rator created sweeping, soaring, even razor-edged sound forms from the input. It was an exhilarating night of music for me. The lights were put down, eliminating any possible visual cues, and we played sounds against one another, merging our instrumental flows into a soundscape. The guys called it Liquid Frequency. Afterwards, as everyone sipped a gin and tonic, thinking about what had emerged from the musical chemistry, they invited me back. I played with them many times after.

Liquid Frequency performs at NIU

Liquid Frequency in performance

Liquid Frequency did a number of concerts around campus, sometimes enlisting the help of a dozen dancers from the Dance Department or borrowing everything that was available in the media pool, things like laser lights, echoplexes, whatever we could get our hands on.

Cystic slide #0192

Liquid Frequency slideshow

I decided to take some recording courses the following year, and began asking about the locked rooms in the Music Building, which Rator had said were synthesizer studios. I was determined to start writing music and doing more interesting things with my violin. I was tired of standard repertoire I’d been playing from orchestra to orchestra. This trail of breadcrumbs led me to the door of Joseph Pinzarrone. One day I worked up the nerve to knock on his door. He opened the door a little, peered out, and saw me standing there. I asked if I could talk to him about the synthesizer rooms, and he opened the door further, letting me in. Knocking on that door changed the course of my life.

Liquid Frequency at low SNR

Posted in Bands, In memoriam, Liquid Frequency, Media, Northern Illinois University | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

China Calling

We can all thank Chris Hyatt for his efforts to transcribe and preserve major portions of Eugene X. Rator’s oeuvre. The mountain of converted, digitized media is growing and some of us are following up now, editing and annotating, commenting and posting. But first, Chris took on on the much harder work of exhumation.

China Calling

“Larger than life and just as complex and interesting”

The challenges are daunting in several dimensions:

  • The recordings are all analog
  • The media are for the most part magnetic
  • Remember Beta?
  • Tape was often reused several times to save cost
  • Labeling is inconsistent or has deteriorated

Add to this the distortion and glitches Eugene often allowed or added intentionally for effect. Modern-day codecs work awfully hard at compression and in the process tend to smooth out noise and fill in gaps. But they can lose their minds entirely in the presence of recorded artifacts induced by, say, running power equipment near tape decks, passing magnets over the medium, or intentionally modulating the video synch signal. There’s plenty of that in this example.

Those are merely technical challenges. The emotional freight of memory and loss and survivor’s guilt hovers over the project, adding to its monumental challenge. And there’s so much of it in the first place. It’s hard to fight through the frustration and remember the good times, especially when sacrificing long hours or personal time. But the product does, in the end, speak for itself.

Here, in downloadable, digital form at last, is the infamous “Call from China” staged at the NIU School of Music concert hall on April 1, 1987. The first of many yet to come. Thanks, Chris!

Posted in In memoriam, Media, Northern Illinois University, Performances, Politics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

collectors’ items

…in which I contemplate broken dolls and the sequencer of my dreams…

Collectors' Items

Collectors’ Items

I had the joy of a delayed childhood with regard to electronic music, which I discovered as a real thing sometime around 1985. I had no protracted formal music education nor did I dive into the mean street scene of late 1970’s New York in my brief residence there. Instead, I came under the spell of the EM muse when I stumbled into a hacker’s paradise of sorts.

As son of a music professor, I had been introduced to Wendy (née Walter) Carlos’ Switched On Bach at a young (and contemporaneous) age, discovering rock’n’roll synth players on vinyl soon after. Having given up on the piano with some determination at the age of six, even as I was drawn toward that late ’60’s synthesizer sound I knew better than to aspire to play what I thought of as keyboard instruments. By the time I discovered EM “purists”—think Terry Riley’s Persian Surgery Dervishes or Xenakis’ Concret PH—I had relegated the whole tribe of “Electronic Musicians” to the superclass of “star performers” inhabiting a mythic, televised media realm outside my own personal fishbowl: beings I could observe and appreciate, but would likely never meet—let alone be—myself.

Blah blah long nineteen-seventies/eighties disillusioned post-baby boomer undergraduate college career blah. Also wonderful marriage first child born holy crap maybe the world doesn’t end before I’m twenty-five, etc. blah. Cue autumn 1985: graduate school; electives; yay.

early days in the NIU Analog Studio

Northern Illinois University’s Intro to Electronic Music was open to undergrads and graduate students and had (…apparently? Maybe my memory is hazy here) no ineluctable prerequisites. Better still, though music majors had priority, anyone could take the course. I had some exposure to the program through my wife’s association with the Music Performance degree program and had just completed an undergraduate program in Sculpture with a minor—disconcertingly challenging and mathematical—in Physics. Electives sounded…good. I was already blowing up electronic breadboards in pursuit of sculpture that moved and made noise without breaking down easily, but was also struggling to churn out a full course-load’s worth of material, a problem I came much later in life to associate with my stubborn refusal to adopt a “style” (though having a family along with too much other coursework may have had a bit to do with it). Now, a whole new kind of studio beckoned, one unshadowed by expectations of material productivity and without the high cost of wood, metal, tools, and hardware. I signed up.

The introductory semester’s assignments revolved around magnetic tape collage (musique concrète a la Pierre Henry) using a pair of two-track, reel-to-reel Revox A-77 workhorses. The recordings we made were remarkably physical on tape, and slicing and manipulating the medium with razor blades and splice tape to create new sounds was not unlike woodworking or poster-making. The notion of tape loops was a revelation, the actual operation of a mixing board not nearly as exciting as the mere fact of its availability. For me, analog tape work became another form of sculpture, and the studio another wood shop. It felt like something I could just take and then, maybe, quickly get good at.

up a [metaphorical] skirt or two

But the NIU Analog Studio was also home to more exotic toys. Though officially reserved for the second semester course, a small battery of analog synthesizers was just as ready to hand. Lab time being lab time, you could do whatever you wanted, and if you’d managed to grab the early Saturday or Sunday morning signup slot, there was a good chance your hungover successor wouldn’t be coming in. The officially sanctioned hour could easily stretch to two or more. And so these things were all mine for many a weekend morning:

  • ARP 2600 (Pay no attention to the Apple laptop to the left in the picture!) with its legendary scratchy pots and wiggly keyboard connector.
  • The “Putney“, with enough of the original patch pins to be playable.
  • An early Moog modular with the remains of its original keyboard.
  • Perhaps an ElectroComp 200? I know there was one box besides the ARP with a working sample-and-hold (S/H) function…
  • My first sequencer: the EML 400.

That’s how I remember it, anyway. We called them “analog” synthesizers back then; “modular” if they needed patch cords to function or could be disassembled and their functional parts rearranged. In the digital era since, their method of operation is known as “subtractive,” yet another sculpture connection.

I flirted with the Arp for a few weekends, gleefully scraping Joan Baez’ voice off the vinyl and into its ring modulator like so much sausage meat. I was baffled by the incomplete state of the remaining Moog modules and their attendant keyboard, its balkiness exacerbated by my lack of skill, its ribbon controller—such a thrilling idea—frayed beyond repair. Each time I managed to complete my tape assignment before my right to the room was challenged, I would try turning on something new and seeing what sound could be conjured up. The VCO-VCF-VCA paradigm started making a tiny bit of sense. I quickly learned to prefer a four-step to a two-stage envelope generator.

These early synth explorations evoked the same tingle as discovering my older cousin’s dolls when very young. There was something alien, enticing, but—ultimately—broken and forlorn about these relics. Rode hard, put away wet by the end of the seventies, few had all their original parts—at least, in working order— and many were missing entire limbs. Their secrets seemed elusive, perhaps irretrievable; their operation mysterious, bending only grudgingly to musical intent; their attractions vaguely perverse.

Then I stumbled on the EML 400 “Sequential Synthesizer.”

box with hinges, key quantization, and lid

The EML 400/401 was a two-piece combo set up as a box and lid with a dense multi-conductor cable between the two. The rather large “box” contained a fairly basic monophonic synthesizer and a front panel with an array of 1/4″ phone jacks; slide pots with red, black, and grey caps; and a tall row of red LEDs. It also housed the main on/off switch and power supply circuitry, along with a multi-pin connector for cabling up the lid section. Although the front panel had “EML 400 SEQUENTIAL SYNTHESIZER” stenciled in large and impressively futuristic-looking letters (the font was almost certainly Eurostile Extended), I have visited collectors’ sites that refer to the synth box portion as the EML 401. Presumably, someone once had benefit of a manual; certainly there was none in evidence in the studio!

So, let’s call the big, boxy synth part the EML 401. The module arrangement itself was fixed, pre-wired in the usual LFO-VCO-VCF-VCA order, though its front panel jacks allowed most control voltages and some signals to be intercepted between functions. The jacks also invited experiments such as patching signals between the EML 400-labeled box and other gear: the EML 200, by the same maker, was presumed compatible and had a S/H section; the Moog, though outfitted with the same style phone jacks, was somewhat less cooperative. (I came to understand and identify certain proprietary tricks used by boutique manufacturers after a while, then watch them recapitulated by every computer and consumer-electronics maker in the form of pointless format and connector variations for the next three decades: the failure of openness plagues the tech world still.) Despite the connectors, if the 401 synth box were all there was, it would have been one of the more limited devices in the studio: capable, but not thrilling.

The sequencer section built into the “lid” was an entirely different story. The EML 400 faceplate was the same size as the 401’s, though the lid was only a couple of inches deep. It was studded with forty-two switches, ninety-six (yes, 96!) linear slide pots, and thirty-two LEDs in addition to a couple of lamps and a few jacks. Two of those odd, multi-pin connectors were present, suggesting multiple lids might even be connected together. Almost everything on this panel was grouped into two groups of sixteen sequencer steps: each group had five switches to control overall parameters such as quantization and octave range, plus three rows of sixteen pots and a single row of sixteen switches. The groups could operate in parallel to vary six control voltages over up to sixteen steps, or in series to vary three CVs over thirty-two steps. The rate at which these steps were traversed was controlled by a master clock on the 401 “box”. Voltages were communicated back to the 401 through the odd multi-conductor interconnect cable. The 400 could thus “instruct” the 401 section to play sixteen entirely different sounds—or thirty-two quite diverse sounds—in series. And if a patch cord was used to connect the last stage to the first, it could play these series in a loop forever.

amber, aspic, and frozen static

The beauty of the 400 to me was its physical, visible representation of a pattern of discrete analog sound settings and their sequence in time. This was similar to standard musical notation but subtly different and—at least to my mind—both more intuitively accessible and multi-dimensional. One row of slide pots was usually assigned to oscillator frequency, so the height of the slider knobs on that row could be “read” as relative pitch, much like a traditional score. A step could be treated as a rest if the pot were set to a certain position (or elided entirely, depending on a switch position). But timbral settings and metamorphoses, too, were as visible as melodic lines once a row of sliders was assigned to control, for example, a filter cutoff frequency. Volume was likewise visible if the row was assigned to the VCA; the ppp—fff written notation was unnecessary, yet the control was there. And everything could be tweaked in real time.

One bank of pots could be assigned to control the clock, enabling syncopation and complex rhythmic patterns to be created and altered easily: step duration was reflected in the position of the pots in the selected row. Most step-sequencers of the day were single-CV affairs and tended to deliver a fast but isochronous eight-step beedle-deedle-deedle-doodle rhythm, often triggered by a key press. The clock frequency could be modulated by an LFO, say, and one could derive a syncopated beat that way. The EML, by contrast, was designed to create, control, and adjust phrasing and complex rhythmic patterns on the fly. As long as you were content with sixteen or thirty-two discrete notes, you could craft whole songs.

Perhaps I was fortunate in my lack of keyboard skill. There wasn’t a fully-functioning compatible keyboard available, so the typical means of triggering sequences were not ready to hand or somehow crippled. I remember using various S/H modules and another minor miracle—the envelope follower—residing on other synths to kick things off. Most of our serious music students were probably extremely frustrated by the lack of controllers that suited their advanced skills in the plucking, fretting, and pressing departments, but I got on just fine.

back to the future

Now, forty years after these machines were built, they’ve gone from remnants on the bone-pile of history—eclipsed by MIDI, ultimate revenge of the well-tempered clavier, and digital electronics in general—to exotica. An Arp 2600 in almost any working condition will fetch ten grand, scratchy pots and all. Don Buchla kept to the high ground for the most part, turning out handsome, hand-made modular kit for thirty years, and then rebooted his 200 modular a decade ago: a 200e base system will run you a bit over five grand US, but you can easily spend thirty on, say, the System 7. Robert Moog—having sold thousands of stomp-boxes and Theremins as well as full-fledged, nicely packaged mono-synths for years—resurrected his famous modular designs in 2014, and now you can purchase a brand-new System 55 for something in the neighborhood of $35,000 US.

No one has resurrected the EML 400/401. Last I checked, a few were still in existence, reportedly “functional” for seven thousand and up. I’m no collector, but I can’t help thinking about it.


Rather than embed their pictures and text, I’ve included several links to web pages at Vintage Synth Explorer and Sound On Sound. If any of this interests you, do pay a visit to their sites.

Anyone looking to actually buy any of these collectors’ items—the real antiques, not the reboots—would do well to visit Tone Tweakers first and to subscribe to their email newsletter and price list. As few of some models as were made, there’s still a lot out there.

—Cross-posted from 2015-04-01

Posted in Northern Illinois University, Raison d'être | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Word from the Grave – ArtBus

In 1985, the Neoteric created and sponsored an event known as ArtBus.

ArtBus poster 01, 1985

This ArtBus poster was a sendup of the Artrain logo ca. 1985

ArtBus poster 02, 1985

…another used photos from the electronic music studios

ArtBus poster 03, 1985

The date stamp signaled Student Association approval

ArtBus postcard 02, 1985

Rebecca Ayer’s postcards were not sanctioned by the S.A. nor by the Reagan administration

ArtBus postcard 01, 1985

…nor by Dow Chemical, for that matter

Begun in 1980, the Neoteric Ensemble took its place among the official ensembles of the NIU School of Music as the group dedicated to new music. In addition to providing the required concert evening per semester, the Neoteric was a driving force behind the annual Great Electric Pumpkin Patch, ostensibly a Halloween electronic music fun-fair.

The Neoteric soon opened auditions to artists, dancers, and performance auteurs – the semester performance requirement became an opportunity for an invented full-evening theater piece with the group emphasis on the totality of the event, and not just performance.

By the time of the ArtBus, the Neoteric already had a campus-wide reputation for unexpected alternative concepts, possibly political or shocking or naughty. There proved to be an audience for this kind of attitude – the Neoteric refused to be docents for a “new music” museum, and instead sought a gentle mocking of conventions with undue seriousness.

The ArtBus was inspired in the Neoteric rehearsal/planning sessions by the booking that semester of the Artrain by the College of Fine Arts. Like many university and town communities, DeKalb had subscribed to be a recipient for the Artrain, which was ostensibly a moveable feast (by rail) of “fine art”. The Artrain was sponsored by Dow Chemical (in conjunction with local destination funding) and essentially carried valuable traditional art pieces from town to town for viewing outside of the traditional museum experience.

Dow Chemical was also famous as the originators of Napalm and as one of the manufacturers of Agent Orange. Both were controversial chemical weapons used during the Vietnam war with deadly consequences for enemies and partisans alike. In the aftermath of the war, Dow and others were under a great deal of legal and moral scrutiny into the devastating, lingering effects of the application of their chemical weapons.

Like many wealthy companies, PR and money spent by Dow on “community service” was a valuable antidote to the reputation garnered by the makers of weapons of war. The Neoteric discussion considered the implications of this kind of manipulation of reputation and the complicities inherent.

There was an anti-elitist populist thread in our discussions. The Artrain purported to bring great Art to the masses by train (reminiscent of the 3rd Reich art-trains of selected “great art”). The local Artrain destinations also co-funded the moving display – local museums, universities, and townships were all required to support the effort, else the Artrain would bypass those venues.

Like many Artrain destinations, DeKalb had some protestors based on Dow Chemical’s reputation and some refusal to give them a PR-pass.

The Neoteric decided to turn this concept on its nose. Instead of an Artrain visit with contributions from local elites, the ensemble would commission an ArtBus costing nothing aside from participation. Instead of carrying “great art” to boondock communities, the ArtBus would carry audience members to local and unusual locations for unique art works.

ArtBus route plan, 1985

Performance locations and routes in planning

ArtBus route timing, 1985

Timing, being everything, was painstakingly planned with Larry

ArtBus route timing refinements, 1985

Another pre-spreadsheet scheduling diagram

How would a “blue-collar” Artrain concept work?

Members of the Neoteric took responsibility to create short and new art pieces in chosen and remote performance locations around the DeKalb community. The locations included indoor-outdoor spaces around the city, some requiring permission from local businesses and others requiring assent from private property owners.

Larry Nordstrom was a key conspirator. A local bass-playing musician, Larry was also a day-job bus driver in the DeKalb/NIU community. While the Neoteric’s official status as a campus-sanctioned organization allowed us to commission 2 buses and 2 professional drivers for the concert-evening, Larry arranged to be one of the drivers and also selected a 2nd driver.

We had a panoply of 10-15 minute performances all over town. With Larry, we created 2 separate bus routes that reached and stopped for each performance venue in complementary orderings. Larry worked with the troupe to time everything in detail so that we would have 2 buses with separate variations on the stops though with the same menu of performance locations.

On the night of the performance, the Recital Hall was turned into a bus station. Tickets were taken and schedules were published. Each of the two buses had some “sleeper” performers who pretended to be participants, but affected some on-bus artistic experiences.

One remarkable occurrence was a result of Larry’s efforts to cause a unique “bus moment”: while 2 buses on 2 different schedules were active at the same time, orchestration of the routes allowed for riders on both buses to have the singular experience of driving in parallel for a few minutes down Lincoln Highway, the main drag of DeKalb. Bus riders were treated to the specter of another bus alongside, similarly lit-up and packed with art-gallery goers. Larry was ecstatic as this could never have occurred in “real life”.

I’ll leave it to others to describe some of the mini-pieces at bus locations and on-board the buses.

This was a very popular Neoteric effort – carrying an audience to mini-performances was a big hit. Comparisons to the Artrain were inevitable (if not intended) and some of the publicity compared the two relative to the community.

The event was considered a popular hit and the local news media picked up on the mocking notion of a “blue-collar” Artrain. I was rewarded by a command meeting with the Dean of Fine Arts, Stan Madeja.

Stan was recently selected to head the College. I was on the selection committee and I had voted against his selection. I remember that one of his credentials was working for an organization that published exotic academic texts (deemed unpublishable elsewhere) with exceptional cost to the author. He even showed samples at his interviews – the cheapest possible printing and binding techniques used. It was clear he got a salary and his organization made money off these professors in need of some kind of vanity or professional publication. The results were shoddy and embarrassing.

As a blue-jeaned exotic myself, though recently tenured by the University, I asked Stan why he wanted to see me. He laughed and said “ArtBus”, shook his head. The meeting went downhill from there.

Jpinzarrone 25may2013

Posted in Media, Neoteric Ensemble, Northern Illinois University, Performances, Politics | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Word from the grave 13 May 13

In 1979, I accepted an offered teaching post at Northern Illinois University. My primary duty was to build a program in electronic and computer music to support the music composition department at both undergraduate and graduate levels.

As a seminal moment in music technology, this was a relished opportunity to foster some integration with analog synthesizer electronics and computers. It also coincided with the compleat digitization of recorded music—from vinyl and magnetic tape to digital streams and solid state memory.

The 60s and 70s were a period of great experimentation and invention for technology and the arts in general. This phase resulted in a commercialization of electronicized music with MIDI in the mid-80s. By the end of the 80s, traditional music composition dominated the technology and the era of experimentation and invention was over.

I left my teaching post in 1989 and that’s another story.

Oddly, this period also paralleled seminal changes in a China emerging from the Cultural Revolution. By 1981, the Gang of Four was vilified in a show-trial and the rehabilitated Deng Xiaoping had initiated the Open Policies—a great many academic and professional exchange programs were initiated in the 80s.

In 1986, I had the opportunity to travel to Shanghai and deliver lecture-demonstrations on electronic music and American jazz music.

In China, nothing is simple. My chief host was the Shanghai Music Conservatory—a venerable 150 year old traditional conservatory of both Western and traditional Chinese music. Their key partner was Shanghai Jiao Tong University, a major polytechnical university, with a contemporary computer science department funded and outfitted by Wang Laboratories—Mr. Wang being an overseas Chinese success story.

Attending my lectures were invited representatives of most of the major Chinese conservatories, recording studios and computer science laboratories. During that time, I became involved in many discussions about creating a contemporary Chinese computer music studio. I resolved to make a proposal.

With an accepted proposal to create a contemporary computer music studio in Shanghai, Northern approved a sabbatical for me during the 1987 school year.

I would take the fall 1987 semester to travel to Shanghai with a couple of concerts of music for a concert tour, the design ingredients for a resident Chinese computer music studio, and the donations of tech and equipment from a variety of commercial and academic concerns.

In Dekalb I prepared for this sabbatical with the close support of Eugene X. Rator (Rick Calderon). Rator and I had worked closely together on the NIU studios and Rick would cover my classes and studios during my absence, including important collaborations with my composition faculty and student colleagues.

For fun, Rator and I also conspired on a theater piece that might be presented at a concert during my absence in China.

This piece was conceived as a grand satire—we would plan for a projected “satellite video call” to me in China during a concert performance in Dekalb. Rator would perform a dialog with my video image as if I were in the Chinese electronic music studio and reporting back to our Dekalb community from my isolated position, on sabattical far away in culturally “primitive” China and with some emotional affectation.

We planned the video script so that if possible, I could be actually live by phone—using the script live with the video might have out-of-sync video, but we thought this would be realistic.

At the appointed time, it turned out impossible to arrange the phone call live—at that time in China, international calls required a visit to a public Western Union call center which was extremely inconvenient in terms of arranging a specific call at a specific time.

In preparation, we staged a video recording. My chief role was actor/scriptwriter/co-producer while Rator was director and executive producer.

Rator built a set with his many retro-tech electronic equipment pieces and I sat behind a desk in front, with a rice-bowl and chopsticks prominently placed. An electric fan whirled and oscillated in the background. We scripted a dialog as if we were talking on a live video call during the concert. I performed my part of the dialog and the tape was finalized for later playback. Post-processing included the imposition of distortion and transmission “bandwidth problems” (which were scripted)—the piece ended with overwhelming distortion and my voice and image fading away.

During my sabbatical, a concert was indeed planned and programmed featuring the “live video call with Pinzarrone in China.”

Rator arranged for a large satellite dish to be dragged and placed in the outside lobby of the Music Building. He tied a cable from the dish and boldly laid it down all the way to the concert stage and some equipment. The impression was that a satellite dish had been consigned to the concert in order to host the video call with me in China. (The concert program listed thanks to organizations who had donated the use of the satellite equipment.)

At the proper time, Rator had the tape started and with mike and PA, he performed the scripted dialog with the tape. The videotape was projected onto a huge screen with a mix of audio from the videotape and live-mike for Rator broadcast to the large audience in Northern’s Concert Hall.

Hopefully, this tape can be recovered and linked here in the Dekalborama collection. If a recording of the actual concert exists, that would be a good link as well.

As a prank, this turned out to be more successful than reasonable. We have heard over many years how amazing this was with many questions about how we achieved permissions for such a satellite broadcast.

I’m mindful that Rator’s sense of retro-tech and his innate sense of humor made this not only possible, but an artful achievement.

Now, some decades later, there is an acceptance for this type of gentle satire—improvised mock-u-mentary, as pursued by Christopher Guest and Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

Now, I’m reminded about the “Artificial Intelligence Conference” that we staged as an event across many departments within Northern. It was another “boffo” satire realized as if it were a legitimate academic conference, and “why-not?”

Rator’s sense of humor and his willingness to apply his considerable expertise will be dearly missed. I miss being a long-ago part of this community.

Jpinzarrone 11may13

Posted in In memoriam, Media, Northern Illinois University, Performances | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A passing

Eugene at NMA '82

Eugene X Rator at New Music America, 1982

Whether you know him as Rick Calderon, Eugene, Rator, or someone else, he left the building for good on May 1, 2013.

It will take some doing to craft a fitting memorial, and it’s too soon for anything comprehensive. So for the time being, this page just marks the spot where a memorial might someday be. Many of you have written in over the past weeks. It’s clear his passing—or maybe the whisper of it, followed by a Google search?—has knocked loose many memories and old tales. Some of those I’ve read have been about Eugene, but at least as many not. You are of course welcome to post comments here, or email us with your permission and we’ll add your emails and letters, photos, programs, and what-have-you to the blog pages.

For now, see Bucka Christopulos’ musings on the Neoteric Ensemble and Howard and the White Boys, and JP’s recollections of earlier times with Rator at Northern. We’ll have more in a bit.

Posted in Cinco Labs, CoNoHuRaSo, Diaspora, In memoriam, Media, Northern Illinois University, Potato Engineers, Punto Cinco | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Still Bucka after all these years

On 5/3/13 2:09 AM, Jim Christopulos wrote:

> Hi,
> Just found the Dekalborama website while doing a web search for Rick
> Calderon
. Just heard earlier that he passed on. Very, very sad news as
> he was a true friend.
> Anyway, I was with Neoteric for… three years maybe? Definitely two at
> least. Probably from ’88 – ’90, or thereabouts. Great times! The
> performances I was part of were The Bacchae, The Frogs, The Ring, The
> Pumkin Patch (or something… took place in various rooms of the music
> building), Toujour Perdrix (sp?) which took place at The Space (as we
> called it). There were maybe a few other performances, but they escape
> me at the moment. The Space was over on… I want to say 14th street
> but could be wrong. It was an old church that was converted to an arts
> space for a time, at least that’s how I remember it. Really cool setup,
> spent a lot of time there while it was up and running.
> Those were really fun times. Joe P was a great mentor (!), and the
> people I hung out with from the Neoteric the most during those years
> were Mary Zerkel, Harry Castle, Andy Shankman, Mark Nagy, and a few
> others. It’s easy to miss those times.
> These days I’m still playing with the blues band that formed around that
> time, Howard & The White Boys. Since I’ve gotten married and had a son
> (whose now five yrs old) I’ve scaled back and it’s a part time thing
> these days. It was full time for many years, and I had the priviledge of
> touring all over Europe and the U.S. several times with the band, as
> well as appearing with people like Buddy Guy (who was on our third CD),
> Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, BB King, etc.
> I also co-wrote a book (available only in Europe) on the British
> avant-rock group Van der Graaf Generator. In a burst of creative fury,
> it’s titled “Van der Graaf Generator – The Book.” They were a late 60’s
> – 70’s British “prog” band (but one of the few ‘good’ ones… punks
> actually *liked* them) who reformed in ’05. The reformation couldn’t
> have been more fortuitous as that’s the year the book came out (right
> smack dab in the middle of their European reunion tour, which I flew
> over for several times).
> Thanks!
> Jim ‘Bucka’ Christopulos

Posted in Diaspora, Howard and the White Boys, Neoteric Ensemble, Northern Illinois University, Performances | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

To the Neoteric diaspora

Naturally, the web already has a “Diaspora Project.” But so shall dekalborama. And now I sense a digression coming on….

Redundancy is, after all, the new herald of popularity. Come to think of it, it was also the old one. Heedless reproduction in all its forms—flattery included—seems to be what the web’s about these days. The quickest test of plagiarism is simply to Google a long phrase: how many sites post/host identical articles, unattributed, un-peer reviewed, just copied because someone thought them interesting and therefore cred-worthy? (Wait, is it all just some tedious cocktail party writ large, and without the free punch, at that?) Speed up the film—the web’s great at this—and it’s easy to see the process that has always been there. Flowers open no more quickly in the digital age, but fewer of us than ever stop to watch with our own eyes. Who has the time? My point being: “viral” and “unique” are becoming more apparently contradictory trends. OK, back to diaspora….

So I introduced a “Diaspora” blogroll widget to the sidebar here just to plug a few home pages once I realized how many of us had them. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised that gigging musicians and composers had secured their own namesakes, even if the medium is largely inconsequential (many of us are on the web in some form, even to the casual seeker, but how much of what we do uses the web more than incidentally?). I just posted one representative link each, constrained by the WordPress blogroll widget’s single-link limitation. But some of us have central sites featuring ourselves, while others appear only as adjuncts to others’ obsessions, or are cited in multiple articles, have several employers, moonlight in other bands. So choosing one link of many in the case of, say, Steve Doyle, ends up being my somewhat arbitrary choice, won’t necessarily please Steve, and isn’t open to Steve or others adding their own links, commentary, photos, or tunes; not even as personable as those truncated bios you read in the Playbill programs.

And then I started thinking about it…and damn. Digression two is a soapbox. Apologies in advance.

It’s a medium, folks! Some of you I collaborated with in some way at some time and it was good. But that was then, and we were there—the audience often smaller than the ensemble—the recordings are fading to dust with time, and we already have a project for that (Projects: how ADHD/OCD individuals muster their impulses into constructive, if irrelevant, actions). And many of you I have never collaborated with at all, nor even met. And now herein lies an opportunity.

The search for the Neoteric diaspora should be a project in its own right. Tracking down old members today, even flying little flags in their honor once found, is a nice job for a maiden aunt (one of the few jobs I’ve never applied for). And I’ve even had a little success, which is stroking, in its way. But one or two guys with a few email addresses are unlikely to do anything more than wax nostalgic. So I’m about to solicit more help. Your help. The diaspora themselves.

We could use this thing. Link. Join. Merge. Perform. Do new things. At least have some fun.

Think about it.

So to open things up, cede control, and (gods willing) pass the buck, I am about to rehome the blog Diaspora links to user pages on dekalbowiki. There will be some minor mechanical challenges as folks sign up—for example, your chosen user name may or may not be your real one, or I might start a page using a former nickname you’ve come to loathe—but that’s what redirects are for. MediaWiki is very forgiving of these things, really. And once this is done, your wiki bio is yours to do with as you like: add links, text, pics, tunes; ramble uninterrupted; defend against well-meant or malicious edits.

The Diaspora Project on dekalborama. Coming soon. Maybe this afternoon.

Posted in Bands, Diaspora, Media, MediaWiki, Neoteric Ensemble, Northern Illinois University, Projects, Raison d'être, WordPress | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Firing Stage 2

Well, it’s probably clear by now I’m not much of a blogger: it’s been almost three months since my last post on this site. Yet has pretty much consumed my spare time in those months—not complaining, just stating the facts here—and it’s been a great learning exercise. I’ve managed to get more extensions working on both blog and wiki domains than on my own humble site, figured out how to add file types to the wiki and declare MIME types to browsers, posted a bunch of our stuff along with Tim’s, and tilted with the video dragons for a month without loss of life, limb, or dignity (well, other than the Relâche business with the pants). But it is feeling like time to get back to a few of the other irons in my personal fire.

Tim Blickhan’s been a great help getting the word out and dredging up contact information. The Diaspora category in the blog site sidebar lists our contacts who’ve responded to date. All hint at a vast trove of material yet to be uploaded—assuming it can be unearthed—and we look forward to helping with that as it happens. Meanwhile, contact us for access, to share news or an email address, whatever.

Anyone up for restaging Toujours Perdrix at the Long Beach Soundwalk (assuming they have it) in 20xx?

Posted in Design, Media, MediaWiki, Neoteric Ensemble, Projects, Raison d'être, Site admininstration, WordPress | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Word from the grave

When I go tripping down memory lane, it gets complicated.

In the last 10 years, I have been a consultant to small companies trying to bring new products to market. The decade before that was my first in the commercial world, kind of a graduate assistantship in engineering, manufacturing and business.

It’s occurred to me before that I seem to reinvent myself roughly every 10 years. Starting with the most recent…

…the Prismlogic LLC decade, consulting and enabling sometimes silly ideas; speculating a bit and working for nothing on occasion; advising entities blinking into reality and winking out of existence; observing investors playing god as if playing legos, frequently driving the blinking and always involved in the winking…

…the Logitech, Inc. decade, learning to be an engineer and project manager; drinking the kool-aid from dozens of projects; squeezing research into an expedited product development and introduction; understanding the chasms between engineering, marketing and manufacturing; watching manufacturing and engineering on the move from culture to culture—a locomotive, stopping briefly only for fuel in an unending zig-zag path around the world…

…the Dekalborama decade, resident in an academic sanctuary; busting out from time to time to carry elaborate theater to outside venues; maturing as an artist, with great creative energy; social networking the old fashioned way—with drugs and laughter and parties and trysts; making music, building theater-pieces, inventing instruments…

…the wanderlust apprentice decade, finding a path from the piano conservatory through early arts and technology experiments to improvisation, composition and a personal voice; experimenting with sex and drugs and love…

…the unfortunate decade nobody likes to remember, escaping high school into university and beyond; family wars and worries; obsessing on sex and jazz and a sense of freedom; becoming the me of my future…

Each of these decades deposited keen memory images in my brain. My sense is these images are quite accurate, especially the painful, wince-causing memories. Why didn’t I modify the memories in my brain to be more pleasant than the experiences were?

Of course, some memories have clearly mutated. As I move through my sixties, I’m sometimes alarmed at memories that appear for the first time in many, well, decades. Not only have I not thought about some of this stuff in a long time, but it’s as if my brain is doing a prolonged near-death accountings of my life.

To none of those decades do I wish to return. My memory sees me as a pompous idiot and I writhe at some remembered episodes. Brilliant moments give me a nice memory rush, but I would not re-live those years.

Many people I have known throughout the years do not reinvent themselves as religiously as I have. Many seem to stretch a seminal decade into a lifetime or a career.

My academic colleagues and teachers, collaborators and friends are mostly dead or retired or still professing the same subjects. I think they get land-locked and never sever roots. I like Updike’s writing on this theme.

I have severed roots, sometimes with a surprising intensity. Changing careers, wives, locations—sometimes all three in one stroke.

There are of course exceptions. Energy and twitchiness slow down with the years, but also a sense of constancy seems to take the place of a manic creativity. In my life, this mellowness came with a partner who severed her own roots and with whom we established a fundamental garden together—kids and home by the sea.

The unhappy artist of my youth would disdain the ironic radical businessman I am today. I very much like the Borges story of a man who runs into himself from a different age. It takes some time and interaction to confirm that this is who he was, and he doesn’t like his earlier self at all.

I’m not as hard on myself (or maybe others) as I used to be. There is joy and pain in the Dekalborama collation effort, since it showcases an intense period of group creative activity in which I assumed to be a key instigator.

In fact, I worry less about my legacy these days. I have always been poor at documentation and write-ups and provenance—as if a personality flaw prevented me from ‘cashing in’ on my many improvisational efforts. I used to find something heroic in the ‘once-only’ nature of performance—boyhood stories read of Liszt or Chopin knocking out a great improvisation before recording, existing only in the memories and writings done thereafter.

I both exalted and rebuked myself for my lack of will to document and publish. Actually, it was the process rather than the product that moved me and I disdained the documentary side altogether.

Now, this seems a brilliant strategy—the internet and google (and others) are recapturing and documenting everything. Sooner, rather than later, every trace of my involvements—programs, presentations, scores, recordings, pictures, videos, writings—will be digitized and made available. This process is automated now and is inexorable. More than I ever intended to collect and publish will be available for sampling. Blessedly, I can ignore this life-long concern altogether.

The challenge and the hope is now with the next decade.

—on a plane from San Francisco to Hong Kong 4 April 2012

Posted in Diaspora, Projects, Raison d'être | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment