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.

Musical Synthesis and Sonic Environments

Architectural Drawing of the SRT from Tonkin Liu

I am quite honored to have an article about my recent work published by the American Composers Forum (ACF). The article was written by ACF member Timothy Hansen and is available here. The focus of the piece is on my duets with the Singing Ringing Tree. From the article:

On a bare hill overlooking the village of Burnley in Lancashire, England, stands the Singing Ringing Tree, an array of galvanized steel pipes stacked in a swirled sculpture to resemble a stylized broad-boughed tree. Standing alone on this otherwise empty hill it is visually striking enough, but it’s when the wind picks up that the Singing Ringing Tree’s true purpose is revealed. A haunting chorus of hollow, almost ghostly tones fills the air, making the open sky seem wider than before, stretching from horizon to horizon over a broad, clear landscape: the Tree and its disembodied chorus starkly underlines that, here, you are alone.

This concept of an artificial “sonic environment” was arguably born through the work of John Cage, perhaps the first and fiercest proponent of listening to one’s surroundings as music. His infamous 4’33” kick-started a whole branch of composition where “non-musical” environmental sounds become an integral part of the piece.

British born John Keston is one of Cage’s modern-day disciples. Cage had already been a longtime influence on Keston when he commenced his masters program at Minneapolis College of Art and Design, but while at MCAD, Keston began to move beyond simply listening to his environments as sources of music and started considering them as collaborative partners. Armed with a synthesizer, he began to create a series of sonic environment duets.

“I started these duets close to home in Northeast Minneapolis,” explains Keston. “My neighborhood is crisscrossed with railways, rail bridges, and rail yards. I found that I could coax music from everyday ambience by emphasizing rhythms and textures with a portable synthesizer.” Once he had exhausted the possibilities of his local neighborhood he began to search for, as he describes it, “more exotic locations.” This was how, in 2014, with the help of a grant from the Jerome Fund for New Music, Keston found himself seated at the foot of the Singing Ringing Tree, ready to create a series of new duets with his strange, lonely collaborator.

“I did not compose any music ahead of time,” says Keston. “I knew that I needed to experience the Singing Ringing Tree in the flesh to legitimately collaborate with it. The music from the Tree can change dramatically by the minute. On one of the five days I was there it was mute when I arrived. A few hours later it began to sing quietly as the wind picked up. My approach was to let myself react to what it did from one moment to the next. There was no way to direct my collaborator. This was liberating because I could only accept, appreciate, and respond to its performances.”

Keston’s sonic environment duets are especially unique to his practice due to a lifelong fascination with synthesizers. “When I was ten my Dad brought home two records by Isao Tomita: Firebird and Pictures at an Exhibition,” Keston recalls. “I was immediately fascinated by the sounds on the recordings. The album cover of Pictures at an Exhibition showed the room sized Moog modular synthesizer that Tomita was using. The images of the mysterious technology and the fantastic sounds spurred my curiosity. Later as a teenager living in the States I managed to buy my first synth; a Moog Rogue with a broken key.”

Today, synthesizers are an integral part of Keston’s practice, which draws from the gamut of music technology and new media. Keston also has a background in software development, enabling him to build software and hardware from scratch to serve his artistic goals. But his motivation for creating such work goes beyond artistic impulse: Keston believes his work serves to humanize music technology. Keston explains:

“If we are going to use technology to create art then I feel it is necessary to inject the human engagement of technology transparently into the work in order for it to reflect the contemporary human condition. If not, then the art might be mistaken for art created by machines rather than art created by humans with the aid of machines. Don’t get me wrong. I am fascinated by algorithmic music, and the idea of art created by artificial intelligence. I look forward to experiencing art that is fashioned entirely by AI. Duets with the mechanical environments we live in using electronic devices to mimic or contrast the sonic landscape reflect the ongoing amalgamation of people with technology.”

Contributed by Timothy Hansen

Please read the short piece at ComposersForum.org. During the interview for the articles I was asked some interesting questions that didn’t make it into the the final draft. I’ll share some of those answers in upcoming posts.

Duet No.7 for Synthesizer and The Singing Ringing Tree

This is the last of seven videos produced documenting my five day recording session and performance series at the Singing Ringing Tree (SRT) in Burnley, UK. There’s a lot more content in the can, but for now this is enough to represent the project. My part of the collaboration with the SRT was simultaneously recorded on site using a Novation Bass Station II connected to a USB battery. I also ran the Bass Station II through a Moog Minifooger Delay.

My last day on site was also the windiest and it turned out that the best wind reduction happened to be a very thin cotton t-shirt wrapped around the binaural head as you can see in the photo below. The strong winds, although useful, made the process quite difficult, and the binaural effect seemed a little less prominent with any sort of wind reduction applied. However, I was able to get couple of good takes by carefully placing the dummy head next to the SRT and opposite the wind. Please checkout the playlist of all six duets (#2 was omitted) on my YouTube channel.

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Duet No.6 for Synthesizer and The Singing Ringing Tree

This is the sixth of seven videos produced so far documenting my five day recording session and performance series at the Singing Ringing Tree (SRT) in Burnley, UK. I performed accompaniment for the SRT binaural recordings simultaneously using a Novation Bass Station II connected to a USB battery. I also ran the Bass Station II through a Moog Minifooger Delay.

This piece was yet another captured during my third day on site. I chose to include this one to emphasize the potential for serendipity in compositions like these. About forty-five seconds into the piece you will notice the sound of a small, prop-driven, perhaps single engine plane flying overhead. Ironically the drone I was making was slowly modulating the pitch like an air-raid siren. Clearly hearing the aircraft in my headphones led me to slowly and deliberately morph the drone into a sound mimicking its engine.

NOTE: This is a binaural recording combined with a monophonic synthesizer track. Although it sounds great through speakers, circumaural headphones must be used to experience the binaural effect.