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Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Outsound New Music Summit: Gongs Are the "Original Heavy Metal"

Posted By on Tue, Jul 21, 2015 at 1:00 PM

click to enlarge SIDNEY CHEN
  • Sidney Chen

For 13 years, the Outsound New Music Summit has brought together musical pioneers to share sounds from the outermost reaches of human artistic possibility. This year they’ve got something for everyone, from gear heads to Druids looking to celebrate nature’s bounty, and anyone else who wants to hear what sound can be. Recently, SF Weekly talked with performers at two events that reveal the width of Outsound’s oscillations —The Serge Modular Synthesizer and Quiet Noise (the art of sculpting sound from metal, wood, and earth)

For part two of our double-post special on the Outsound New Music Summit, SF Weekly talked with gongwoman Karen Stackpole and bone-shell-and-bark-player Cheryl Leonard, artists who use technology to amplify and reframe sounds extracted from ancient and elemental instruments, making music of great depth and subtlety. Here’s a little bit about their work and a preview of Quiet Noise.

click to enlarge CHERYL LEONARD
  • Cheryl Leonard
Drummer and percussionist Karen Stackpole, who performs with Drew Webster, her partner in gong-electronics duo Machine Shop, has been playing gongs since 1991, and has made it her personal mission to share their rich sonic possibilities with audiences who might otherwise miss what they offer. To the uninitiated, gongs may seem more big and ceremonial than subtle. They are after all, “the original heavy metal” (as Stackpole puts it). But they have a great deal more range than simply heralding the beginning of the Klingon bloodsport.

“At this point, I have 36 gongs," Stackpole says. "It's kind of an addiction — an understandable addiction once you get to know the subtleties of sonorous metals.Gongs are extremely deep instruments — capable of many nuances that can get lost in a simple bombastic gong hit or at a distance. Specific harmonics can be coaxed from the metal by various techniques — friction, impact, and scraping with various implements and materials. Gongs can be bombastic and startling, or legato and relaxing.”

A gong may seem like a primitive instrument, something that, like a shark or a fern, hasn’t had to change much to stick around. But gongs have evolved in different ways in different cultures and environments.

“I’ve found the gongs manufactured by Paiste to be the most accurate in a Western concert pitch kind of way. They are responsive and consistent [for coaxing] specific notes and consistent harmonics around the fundamental frequency. I’ve found many Asian gongs to be less consistent, but they provide an earthy unruliness and a quick dark decay. UFIP, an Italian cymbal and gong manufacturer, makes a flat gong that is perfect for bowing due to the lack of a turned-in rim. Each approach to manufacturing and forming results in a gong that has something to say.”

The electronic manipulations of Karen’s Machine Shop comrade Drew Webster will give the Quiet Noise audience the opportunity to hear all the nuances of the gongs' sound, placing them sonically in the player’s position.

“Drew is able to take the sonorous content I coax from the gongs and kick it up a few notches. By processing the sound subtly and bringing it to the forefront, Drew enables a broad-spectrum sharing of the gongs’ power that hasn’t before, to my knowledge, been realized on such a level.”

The subtitle of the Quiet Noise event (sculpting sound with metal, wood, and earth) is very evocative. We asked Stackpole what “sculpting sound” means to her.

“Sculpting sound means having an intuitive connection to the instrument creating the sound — it is a connected interaction with the sonority and responsiveness of the sound source, be it metal, as in what I choose to interact with, or the elements of the natural world, such as stone, shells, wood, bone, leaves, and water, which are Cheryl Leonard’s medium.”

Cheryl Leonard is a multi-instrumentalist whose musical explorations led her from Stravinsky to punk and noise and then to pine cones, bones, and bark. This “natural progression” has drawn Leonard to the Arctic Circle, the lakes of Yosemite, and all over the world. Her work is inherently elegiac as she collaborates with visual artists to represent landscapes on the brink of irreversible change, but it also reminds a listener to open their ears — and eyes, Leonard’s instruments are lovely objects — to the beauty of the world we are living in now.

“While in grad school at Mills I got into free improv extended techniques on traditional instruments and playing found-object instruments, mostly manmade materials like scrap metal from junkyards and old box spring mattresses.” Leonard says. “One afternoon a friend and I were improvising in a forest up in the Berkeley Hills. I was playing viola and he was playing cello. At some point we both started trying to bow whatever we could find lying around us: bark, lichen, sticks, leaves, etc. Some things sounded horrible, some sounded less horrible, and some had musical potential. It was terribly fun! The first instrument I built out of natural materials, as opposed to simply playing "as is," was the Driftwood Pipe Organ. It's an arc-shaped driftwood base with 13 thin, curving, tentacle-like sticks that poke up from the base. It sounds great bowed.”

Leonard’s voracious curiosity about the endless sonic possibilities of the natural world has led her to make music from penguin bones, boa constrictor ribs, Antarctic limpet shells, driftwood, dried bull whip kelp, pinecones, and eucalyptus bark, or just two rocks and a microphone. Her work is a reminder that if we learn to listen, we’ll find that nature is always speaking to us, even if it’s through two rocks and a microphone.

“For me, technology is a tool that we can choose to use foolishly or wisely. I particularly love using microphones as aural microscopes that help me unearth super-secret, quiet sounds." When rubbed against a smaller stone, a piece of granite she calls "The Sea Egg" — after a favorite childhood book — produces a rich, slightly gritty low-pitched drone that evokes shifting tectonic plates.

At Outsound’s Quiet Noise event, Leonard will perform three pieces inspired by extreme weather, each of which is accompanied by a video from a different visual artist. Frozen Over, which focuses on freezing and melting lakes in Yosemite National Park; Threshold, which is inspired by a severe winter storm in Greenland; and Glugge, which responds to the threat of increasing industrialization in the Arctic Ocean, and offers an elegy for the Arctic icecap and the ecosystem it supports.

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Elizabeth Costello

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