Jenn Kirby at ISSTA 2017

Attending ISSTA last month was a fantastic experience. The conference brought together an intimate group of like-minded composers, sound designers, and developers all dedicated to uncovering and exploring new sonic territories. I immensely enjoyed all that ISSTA had on offer, especially the concerts. One of the performers this year was Jenn Kirby who composes and performs electroacoustic works that apply processing through the use of unconventional, gestural, controllers like the Gametrak golf swing tether controller. In Phonetics she uses the Gametrak to control the signal processing of her vocalizations.

ISSTA Live Recording, September 2017

This recording was made during my appearance at the International Sound in Science Technology and the Arts (ISSTA) Conference in Ireland on September 8, 2017. The piece is a rendition of my composition, Vocalise Sintetica, first performed at Echofluxx14 in Prague. This piece is written so that it is allowed to evolve in a number of ways each time it is performed. Here’s how it changed this time around.

First of all it uses the Audiovisual Grain Machine (AVGM), which I update frequently. This time the updates were minor improvements to speed and efficiency. However, I did add some new audiovisual content. Secondly, in order to travel lightly, I limited the AVGM accompaniment to a single Novation Circuit. I loaded the Circuit with custom patches and samples, and used my Minifooger Delay on the AVGM (I usually leave it dry), but that was it, sonically. Other than that the Arturia KeyStep helped add a few tricks (mainly arps and one drone) to the mix.

Drone Trick with Arturia KeyStep and Novation Circuit

Look, ma! No capo!

Lately I’ve been using a capo (yes the kind for guitar) to hold down a note on the KeyStep in order to drone a note on the Novation Circuit’s Synth 1 while playing notes on Synth 2. It’s awkward but works. Today while prepping for I stumbled on a way to drone a note on the Circuit with the KeyStep and no capo necessary! Here are the steps to drone Synth 1 and then play new notes/sequences/arps on Synth 2:

1. Make sure the KeyStep is setup in Keyboard Play mode by pressing Shift and Oct+.
2. Enable hold by pressing the Hold button.
3. Put the KeyStep in pause mode so that the pause/play button is flashing.
4. Hold Shift and press the low F to set the KeyStep to MIDI channel 1.
5. Play and hold the note(s) you’d like to drone (anything but the low Gb because you’ll need that key to switch channels)
6. Keep holding the note(s) and switch to MIDI channel 2 (Shift + the low Gb).
7. Un-pause play/pause and release the note(s)

Once you’ve lifted the note(s) you can re-pause or play arps or seqs on Synth 2 because essentially you have a stuck note on Synth 1 (just double tap stop to unstick the note). If you don’t want to hear Synth 2 when un-pausing, just make sure it’s down in the mix. This trick works while the Circuit is stopped or playing and will continue until double tapping stop on the KeyStep. It’s even possible to change the existing stuck note(s) by following the same steps. It’s easier than it reads, as you will see in the video below:

45 Delusions for Common Time at the Walker Art Center

45 Delusions was commissioned by the Walker Art Center for an event with former Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC) dancers as part of the Common Time exhibit and performance series. The piece was performed and recorded with the dancers on March 30, 2017 in the Perlman Gallery at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. My setup included Rhodes, Moog Sub 37, PreenFM2, Korg KP3+, and a Moog Minifooger Delay. Graham O’Brien performed on percussion and electronics triggered from his drums.

John Keston's Setup for the Common Time Event

My Setup for the Common Time Event

The score is two pages. The first page (pictured at top) is the timeline for both performers. The timeline is vertical and made up of cells that last between one and five minutes each. Frequently the cells correspond with each player, but they are arranged so that at times they overflow. Rests are also included as cells. Each cell includes brief instructions and/or graphics that give suggestions to the musicians. Some of the instructions are expanded on the second page of the score.

Graham O'Brien's Setup for Common Time

Graham O’Brien’s Setup for Common Time

The second page also includes a list of forty five delusions. These include terms such as alternative facts, capitalism, corporate culture, equality, freedom, fossil fuels, greed, justice, and so on. There are also a few technical delusions such as erotomania (belief that a celebrity is in love with you) and lycanthropy (belief that one can turn into an animal). The second page explains the delusions and what to do with them:

Anything that might be considered or is delusional. These are not necessarily medical or technical examples of delusions and may involve individuals, societies, or organizations. Prior to performing the piece, each musician chooses one “delusion” applied to each cell within the score.

Take a look at the PDF at the end of this article to see the complete list of delusions as well as expanded instructions for some of the cells. Obviously this is an improvised piece of music, but this approach steers the improvisation in directions that would be unlikely to occur freely. Particularly the timing. As one performs or listens to the piece it is possible to discern distinct variations as the musicians transition from one cell to the next. If you are inclined to listen to the piece in full, try following along with the score and placing a SoundCloud comment where you hear the cells change. The timing on the recording doesn’t exactly match the score, but it’s pretty close.

The reasons I took this approach are multi-faceted: (1) It keeps the piece moving. Often free improv tends to stagnate as ideas are repeated and refined. With this approach the challenge is to express ideas with concision and then move on to the next (this is possible, albeit rare, in free improv – we call it channel surfing). (2) It is possible to strictly define the length. We used a timer that counted up to 30 minutes. One quick glance at the timer illustrates the need to move on to “High Speed Arps” for example. (3) Mood, dynamics, and theatrics can be injected to create a narrative with scope and meaning. It is a way to ask questions, discover sounds, explore, and experiment. (4) It enhances my musical engagement. I am influenced by my collaborators and surroundings, but I’m also interpreting the language of the score, and hopefully to the benefit of the musical output.

45 Delusions by John C.S. Keston (148K PDF)

Merce Cunningham: Common Time with John Keston and Graham O’Brien

Suite for Five


This Thursday, March 30, 2017 I will be performing two 30 minute sets of music with Graham O’Brien at the Walker Art Center as part of the Merce Cunningham: Common Time series of events and exhibitions. Our performances start at 5:30pm and 8:00pm in the Perlman Gallery and feature former Merce Cunningham dancers. Here’s a one minute teaser recorded during a recent rehearsal. The concert is free and open to the public. Visit the Walker Art Center for more details.