Vol. 41 Issue 3 Reviews

Sebastian Lexer + Steve Noble: Muddy Ditch

Compact disc and digital download, 2016, Fataka 13, available from Fataka Fataka.net Trevor@fataka.net; https://f-a-t-a-k-a.bandcamp.com/

Reviewed by Seth Rozanoff
Glascow, Scotland, UK

CD CoverMuddy Ditch is the title of a two-improvisation set, performed by Sebastian Lexer and Steve Noble. This work represents their first collaborative musical work together. Lexer performs on piano with what he calls his piano+ system, alongside Noble, who performs on drum set. The duo's approach to compositional form seems to be influenced by the capabilities of Lexer's live performance system, which not only augments and enhances the piano, but also forms a cohesive dialogue with Noble.

Lexer's implementation of his piano+ system in Muddy Ditch, stems from exploring amplification. The system relies on microphones and the use of pickups, which capture sounds for processing. Lexer's system enhances the percussive possibilities of the piano and drum set. As this sonic range is expanded, other timbral nuances begin to emerge.

The duo's personal approach to creating composite, electroacoustic sound does not rely on a simple transformation of one another's sound. I hear Noble and Lexer intentionally weaving separate sound streams wherein these layers often collide, or mask, each other. The piano+ augmentation should be viewed, not only as a sound design tool, but a component that helps to define compositional strategies during performance.

An AKG C414 large-diaphragm condenser microphone is used to pick up all of the sounds in the immediate area between the two players. There is a conscious decision here, regarding microphone placement, to capture incoming sounds blended together. We might view this as an attempt to incorporate the performance space itself into the composition. Of course, the room can affect a given approach to playing, especially with respect to spontaneous music making, but Lexer seems to primarily focus his mixing efforts on the instruments. As such, the sonic resources of the room have not been directly taken into account in the duo's performance system.

For the piano’s amplification, a lapel microphone is used for the smaller, micro-sounds, and a piezo strip is used as a contact microphone, with an eight-and-half inch pickup. This pickup covers the middle range of the piano, focusing on the anomalous sonorities stemming from that location inside of the instrument. Both tracks use these amplification procedures, although the second track works more with the pickup. Also, in the second track, the pickup was used in order to create a thicker, more pronounced, sense of amplification. These practices aim to guide the listener's attention to sympathetic resonances between the percussion and the piano.

A very important feature of Lexer's set-up, is the use of his custom designed controller, Parat+. This is an Open Sound System controller, able to efficiently manage Max patches. The user has the ability to interact with, or make adjustments to, the patch, during performance. Parat+ allows Lexer to redesign his controls during performance, enabling him to experiment with various degrees of controlled determinacy. In both tracks, I hear the duo building their interaction at varying rates. It is this back and forth, or their tendency to spontaneously adjust levels of control, which is at the core of Lexer and Noble's performance. They maintain a dialogue in which emerges a sense of counterpoint.

Lexer's software allows him to manipulate parameter routing in real time, rather than via scaling. These are adaptable controls, which exert influence on the behavior of the interaction. Lexer has created a dynamic way of crafting sound in the moment of performance. With piano+ he has made his own granulation patches, as well as other modules that crossfade between ring modulation and fast Fourier transform-based transposition. Lexer also adapts Max’s fffb~ object, which is controlled by a sensor during performance. This type of processing, along with the aforementioned aspects, creates a human and personal environment.

In Muddy Ditch we hear a series of compositional transitions initiated by each player. For example, in track one, Pool, the players begin by improvising introductory music. By the four-minute mark, they transition into a section characterized by an increased level of activity in the form of larger 'chunks' or sound masses, which highlight various contrasts between the performers. Their individual sounds easily fit with each other, even in the presence of wide sonic contrasts. As the new section begins, the duo’s sonic palette expands markedly. There are instances of more strident, forward-projecting utterances, which produce an even wider range of contrasts.

Around the nine and a half minute mark a new development begins. The duo highlights the juxtaposition between fine-grained micro textures, and increasingly dense, frenetic gestures. The pace, or flow, slows down dramatically creating transparent and delicate music. Twelve minutes into the piece we hear a new musical character emerge from much larger, broader gestures. After another two minutes, the duo underscores their next block of sound with short, direct gestures.

Pool moves through many transitions, with both players attempting to work with one another's way of making sound. Eventually, fine-grained sounds are brought back into the texture, and the more extreme juxtaposition of sounds heard at the beginning of the track, begin to dissipate. Afterward, in a coda section, tranquil, bell-like timbres suitably end the track.
Lastly, I want to discuss Lexer's approach to synthesis as it relates to the piano's role in performance. He views the piano as participating in a series of textural layers, discussing its role in the following way: “a traditional grand piano is the core, then there is the layer of extended techniques (inside playing, etc.)… then the electronics, (which) is another layer around those extended techniques.” Lexer moves freely between these layers, exploring their boundaries, and ultimately forming his own distinctive approach.

In track two, Loess, his performance seems to demonstrate an increasing sense of flexibility. The results represent a combined instrumentality, where both players create their own electroacoustic layers. Notably, Noble responds intuitively to Lexer's performance, which is based on the decay phase of the piano’s amplitude envelopes. I also hear materials built around micro-sounds, highlighting thin, less weighty timbres. Here, the form generated, progresses at a more deliberate and consistent pace.

The contribution of piano+ should not be viewed as a separate entity from the piano. Rather it functions as an augmentation, which generates a potential palette of related sounds. Looking closer at Lexer's views on performing with the piano, his stance is informed by the concept that the pianist can only provoke a certain sonic outcome. He mentions, “as soon as you push the hammer up, the hammer loses any kind of connection with the key,” and that the performer must “live with the result.” This concept of practical experimentation can also be heard throughout Loess. The players freely provoke one another. Lexer explained to me, “by the second track, we knew where we could go.”

Lexer’s and Noble's work achieves a range of interdependency and dialogue in performance. That range can be summed up in Lexer's comments about his overall approach. He states: “I like to think in terms of delineating a field – acoustic, then the electronic sound; we want to find the area in between. I like to set things up, and then move in that field...” Lexer's fieldhas made it possible for the duo to organically manage their interaction, developing their own strategies without the need for a pre-determined sonic outcome. Hence, the listener’s journey is full of surprises.