In November 2011, I visited Columbus, Ohio to work with my friend Noah Demland.
We had met at the Percussive Arts Society’s Convention (PASIC) in 2010 and over the next year, we both happened to be working on improvisation and composition in percussion and posting our results on Soundcloud. I think we were a bit inspirational to each other over this period: one of us posting something on Soundcloud motivated the other to go and record something.
Anyway, I was planning to be in America with Ensemble Evolution for PASIC 2011 so it was easy to plan on visiting Noah, but I had no idea what we would actually do.
When I arrived in Columbus, I found out that Noah actually has two personas. By night, he improvises and records strange, punk and post rock infused tunes with an old vibraphone and a new drumset. By day, he turns into Mr Demland, teaching at a high school called the “Arts and College Preparatory Academy” full of strange and wonderful young people.
Anyway, my role with this visit was to work with Mr Demland’s classes, teaching improvisation and talking about how I make music with percussion, computers and electronic instruments. In the evenings, Noah and I practiced for our concert “drums + gadgets”.
improvisation at ACPA
The high school teaching was completey exhausting. I have a lot of experience teaching, particularly one-on-one, but these students were uniquely enthusiastic about creativity. Whether they were interested in my projects or wanting to show me theirs, I hardly had a spare moment while I was in the class room.
There were (I think) four distinct classes each day with a few students overlapped between, for example, the “rock band” class and one of two “percussion” classes. I did three projects with each class over the three days I was there. The first was a seminar session where I talked about the process of creating an ambient composition on computer using field recordings, samples and Ableton Live and then using that as a basis for improvisation. The example was a piece I created with Ensemble Evolution in Piteå in October 2010 called “Sounds of Piteå”.
The second project was to explore the sounds of instruments that the classes used everyday and to use them in some ambient improvised music. The “guitar” class all had guitars and we found some interesting sounds going around the room and had fun making them together. The percussion class had some basic percussion instruments and could invent instruments out of other strange stuff around the room, and the “rock band” class had a mixture of everything. With all of these students I tried to emphasise the idea that you can make sounds with an instrument without playing it in the “intended” way.
The third project was to use these sounds to compose a piece for the whole class to play together. We divided the class into sections with similar sounding instruments while Mr Demland added some drumset over the top and I added some synth sounds from a Korg Monotron and iPad.
drums + gadgets
Noah and I had agreed to put on a concert while I was in Columbus that we called “drums + gadgets”. Our idea was to use the crazy instruments Noah had and the strange computer music gadgets I was bringing with me to play some music.
Noah’s friend Coco had recently opened a dance space called Feverhead in a warehouse, so as soon as I arrived in Columbus we took all the instruments over there and started improvising.
For the concert, we played some improvised pieces based on new ideas we had during the week and also each contributed one semi-composed piece. Noah had a piece called “Åtta för Anders” that he wrote in Stockholm over a summer residency in 2010 and I had been working my “Norra Vinter” suite.
On the day of the concert, we realised we wanted to use the ideas we were having in class, so Noah put together an ambient composition and we had three other friends play it with us.
Here’s a video of Nordlig Vinter from the concert:
It was especially fun to rely on my iPad and iPhone instruments so much in this concert. I’d played around a lot with some little programs, but it wasn’t until drums + gadgets that I had a good chance to really let these “instruments” loose. The best surprise here was that my iPhone + iRig works well with a contact microphone. We used this setup to process the sound of Noah’s washing machine drum (literally from a washing machine). It was awesome.
So the concert happened, I think we played pretty well, had a lot of fun and the audience seemed to appreciate the music and the whole experience. One of the great things about working at Feverhead rather than a big concert venue or even a university is that you don’t feel like a customer or a hassle. Feverhead is awesome because cool people put stuff on there and make it happen and I got the feeling that everybody appreciated our efforts to put on a performance and use the venue.
what does this all mean?
This intense experience really pushed me as a performer and a teacher. It was great to use all the skills, music and technology I’ve been working on in Piteå in three crazy days, but I also had to draw deeply from my experience as a teacher. When I’m not teaching for a while, it’s easy for me to forget that I actually know how to do it. So much of what I teach is invented on the spot when I see what the students need so I rarely have lesson plans or outlines to prove to myself that I can do it.
I really felt that the different environment in Columbus brought out a different kind of creativity that I have in Piteå. Piteå has an isolated, focussed, university feeling that is great for practicing certain things but not so great for cross-artform collaborations and performance making at the pace we achieved in Columbus. I guess a challenge over the next few months is to bring my different creative interests together and have more awareness about how and where I can use them.
Also this hotdog was amazing: