Live Coding with Improvised Piano, Bass, and Electronics

This recording from August 23, 2017 at Jazz Central Studios was made during Sound / Simulacra: A monthly series that I do in conjunction with bassist/composer Cody McKinney. The intent is to explore musical improvisation as a “faithful and intentionally distorted” representational process. On this occasion we featured Minneapolis-based Mike Hodnick, aka Kindohm.

…[Kindohm is] widely known for his live-coded dancefloor interruptions, wringing algorithmic rhythms and textures from a text editor using the open source software TidalCycles. Combining analog synthesizers and samples, Hodnick’s improvised performances encompass an array of styles from glitchy IDM to odd-time techno. In 2016, Kindohm released “RISC Chip”, an 8-track LP released on Conditional. Receiving positive criticism on Resident Advisor, Lisa Blanning writes: “Hodnick has a way of teasing inhuman funk out of his evolving patterns. RISC Chip succeeds in escaping its programmer’s niche, launching Kindohm’s work into the realm of music that exists for its own sake.” – www.residentadvisor.net/reviews/20249

Mike and I both played solo sets earlier in the evening, but for the finale we formed a trio with Cody McKinney on bass and electronics. My setup included acoustic piano, Rhodes, Novation Circuit, and various processors. Both Hodnick and McKinney are expert improvisors so participating in this performance was quite a pleasure. Please have a listen and let us know what you think!

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 ISSTA.ie 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:

Upcoming Concert at ISSTA September 8, 2017

I’m pleased to announce that I will be performing a version of my piece Vocalise Sintetica at the ISSTA Festival and Conference on Sound. The conference will be held on September 7th and 8th, 2017 at the Dundalk Institute of Technology in Dundalk, Ireland. Please check the website for details.

I have developed new content and features for the AVGM (Audiovisual Grain Machine) which I’ll be using during the performance. I also be triggering samples and playing patches with a hardware synthesizer to accompany the audiovisual content. Here’s a video that demonstrates some of the new media:

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45 Delusions with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company

45 Delusions was commissioned by the Walker Art Center for an event with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC) 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:

DELUSIONS
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)

Un:heard Resonance at Northern Spark, June 10, 2017

This Saturday, June10, 2017 I am participating for the sixth time in Northern Spark. The project I’m directing is called Un:heard Resonance. Also involved are artists Mike Hodnick AKA Kindohm (music), Chris LeBlanc (visuals), Lucas Melchior AKA MKR (music), and Aaron Marx (design). I’m am also fortunate to have the help of several student / former student volunteers inlcuding: Mike Brooks, Mike Miller, Meg Gauthier, and Justin Maki. The piece will be performed at the Weisman Art Museum from 8:59pm to 5:26am. Yes, that is eight hours and twenty-seven minutes!

The piece is comprised of a series of electronic sonatas composed in real time with micro-sonic signals crowdsourced from the audience. A variety of microphones and sensors will be used to capture rarely heard vibrations emitted by geological, biological, and technological processes. Three movements chronicle the stages of the planet’s evolution: Geology, Biology, and Technology. The project will bring awareness to sonic activity rarely experienced within the environments we live in and exploit. The combination of micro-sonics and accompaniment will non-verbally stress hidden geological processes, the fragility and jeopardy of the ecosystem as it faces climate change, and the rapid, global expansion of technology.

It will also imply that technology may eventually replace the geological and biological states of the world. A precedent for this idea resides in the concept of “Computronium” theorized by Norman Margolus and Tommaso Toffoli at MIT, a hypothetical state of matter that would yield the most efficient and powerful atomic arrangement for computer processing. The Geology and Biology sonatas represent the first two sequential stages in the evolution of the planet, while Technology suggests the dystopian possibility of the world becoming a giant computer that no longer supports life as we know it.

Northern Spark attracts more than 100,000 visitors to experience hundreds of interactive art, music, and performance projects throughout the Nuit Blanche. This year the overall theme is Climate Chaos | People Rising. All the projects will be shown along the “Green Line”, a light rail line that stretches from downtown Minneapolis to downtown St. Paul, Minnesota.