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Songs From a Room with a Laptop

Santa Cruz has become a nerve center for experimental electronic music as technology pushes creativity to a whole new level

By Mike Connor


"Looping frees up musicians from 'holding down the groove,' enabling deeper expansion into melodic & harmonic realms."
--Music critic/looping fan

"I tend to be suspicious of these newfangled things. I just want to rock."
--Music critic/looping skeptic

"Unless it's an odd sexual practice, I'm completely baffled."
--Music critic who has never heard of looping


Although some astrophysicists might not agree, I've heard it said that the universe is made up of pure vibrations. Now I'm no shaman, but I'm pretty sure that means that when it's time for humankind to take the next evolutionary step into pure consciousness, we will all worship vibrators and become indentured servants to Frenchy's, and Brian Wilson will be king. I could think of worse fates, and since sound is all about good vibrations, I think it also means we'll have plenty of great music, too.

But this article isn't about some future utopia. It is, however, about an epic struggle between the past and the present; between technology and, er, nontechnology; between tradition and innovation. And, ultimately, it's about the eternal pool of good vibrations here in Santa Cruz. Please don't ask for directions--I meant that metaphorically.

The fact is, experimental electronic music is up and buzzing in Santa Cruz--in fact, it's become a veritable hub for the fledgling genre called "looping." But then lots of you already knew that, what with all the Electron Salon, Woodstockhausen and various looping festivals in town. This week sees two more significant events with Electron Salon V and a local stop for Rick Walker's Looping Trio tour. Even the mayor has gotten in on the action, with a proclamation deeming Jan. 25 as "International Live Looping Day in Santa Cruz." The real questions are: who are these people making this music, what's it all about, and, perhaps most pressingly, is it cool enough to deserve your attention? The short answer is, yes. But getting to yes is half the fun, and it's also the title of a book--one that local looping guru Walker knows a lot about.

Shadow People

Late at night, when most of us are having anxiety dreams about an impending math final for which we forgot to study, Walker, an insatiable percussionist and looper, is playing with clitoral vibrators. And plastic jugs. And PVC pipes. These and a slew of other seemingly random, yet acoustically interesting objects populate his insanely diverse stockpile of "instruments."

Not that this is a new phenomenon, exactly. From washboard and jug players to the stage of Stomp, we've all heard how virtually any sound can make sense in a musical way when it's in the right context. It's just that looping pushes things to the next level, because it enables a performer to record anything--be it a drum beat, a bass line, a guitar solo, a clitoral vibrator buzzing in a glass, or a random gurgle of intestinal bubbles--and then loop and layer it, all in real time.

But underneath all the special effects and funny instruments, looping is really a simple tool that allows performers to be their own backup band. Local performers like John Whooley, Rick and Bill Walker, and Gary Regina all use the technology in their own unique ways. Whooley, a member of Estradasphere, also performs astounding solo acts around town as Whoolilicious, using his prodigious beatboxing skills, throat-singing, multiple-horn-playing abilities and boundless creative energy to entertain audiences for 45 minutes at a time, all by himself.

If you are getting heavy-lidded and feel tempted to use this paper to make a funny hat right now, it's probably because (a) you're Homer Simpson, or (b) you're not a tech-head, and can't get into things just because they're superweird, complicated and require a jillion cables. This is where Walker's familiarity with the ancient art of persuasion comes in. Getting to "yes" with a reluctant manager of a venue or radio station isn't a piece of cake when you're dealing with a fairly new art form that most people (except, of course, the loop of artists actually making the music) haven't even heard of. I asked a bunch of music buffs what they thought about looping, and was surprised (and amused) by the responses:

* "I don't really understand the mechanics of it, although I have a general idea of what's going on. I don't know if I've ever really listened to any extended bouts of looping. Not my thing."

* "It gets old fast."

* "I think it's really, really cool. It always, always boggles my mind to see/hear musicians 'playing with themselves.'"

And sometimes, it helps if someone goes and gets metaphysical on your ass: "Looping is an art, wherein the artist is defeating the very randomness of found sounds by way of repetition; by bringing them into the loop."

And indeed, the inclusive nature of the art is reflected by the culture of the looping community ... or something.

We Built This City

Walker refers again and again to an online community of looping artists called Looper's Delight (www.loopersdelight.com) that has helped him along the way, and has allowed him to help others produce their own looping festivals around the world. Walker believes Santa Cruz has traditionally fostered this same spirit of cooperation and acceptance, but it's been waning in recent years. He points to a smaller number of venues, the city's music-permit sand trap and the downtown ordinance controversy as proof.

"We need to get back to SC having the intelligent, quirky, compassionate and friendly vibe. That's what makes it great to live here," says Walker. "The looping community hasn't had an agenda, other than creating a loving, supportive and extremely creative community where anything goes."

And even if he hasn't been as successful in getting to "yes" with the City Council in regard to the ordinances, he did manage to get a proclamation from the mayor.

Says Mayor Emily Reilly, "I really think it's important for the city to recognize the wonderful, innovative music going on in the city. Especially at a time when we're losing arts funding in schools, it's important that we do everything we can to celebrate the music that's happening in our community."

Incidentally, Walker and Reilly used to play samba in the streets of Santa Cruz and at Carnival up in San Francisco together back in the '80s, which is probably the coolest thing you can say about a mayor. Well, I guess if she had been a professional wrestler back in the '80s, that might have been cooler, but still ...

Meanwhile, at the Parisian Batcave

Ah, gay Paris! The city of light, and also the home of L'Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM), a technical institute devoted to acoustics and music. Zoom in on Emmanuel Deruty, composer and sound designer, whose job it is to compose pieces for innovative audio systems and install them in museums. Some of his most recent work involved the "Audio Spotlight" developed by researchers at MIT, which uses ultrasonic loudspeakers to aim sounds at particular subjects; the sounds remain inaudible outside of the focus range. If advertising agencies have their way, the technology might soon be used to address you with audio information as you walk by a specific product, without creating a cacophony of noise in a store.

But, as you might imagine, Deruty and others like him are focused on the artistic possibilities of such innovations. There is a large (and extremely expensive) concert hall at IRCAM that has moving walls and rotating acoustic panels which allow designers to play with the 3-D possibilities of sound. Although not quite as malleable soundwise, the Rio Theatre will be home to similar sonic outrageousness when it hosts the fifth installment of the Electron Salon, which will feature dark, atmospheric works from Deruty, John Zorko and the internationally acclaimed gothic trio from Sacramento, Claire Voyant.

For his part, Deruty mostly uses a ridiculously expensive ($40,000) version of Pro Tools to make most of his music. He says that the cheaper versions suffice for some things, but there's a price to pay for high-quality work.

Deruty's music ranges from U.K.-style pop and sensual, atmospheric dark wave to nerve-rattling hardcore electronica reminiscent of a bad acid trip. While the music feels very organic and emotional--as if the various elements were orchestrated by a real live conductor--I felt a bit like Dorothy pulling aside the curtain and getting a glimpse of the wizard when he showed me how it worked. Except that the wizard turned out to be an iBook--the software enables the user to manipulate every aspect of a sound or sample, which sounds great from a creative standpoint, but quickly gets dizzyingly complex for a beginner like myself.

"With Pro Tools, it takes much more time to create something that sounds alive," he says. "The shapes you are working with are all geometric, and it's difficult to get used to thinking of music in terms of these shapes. A two-minute track with a lot of movement can take as much as 100 hours. For a complete piece, no less than six months. Really, it's not much more difficult than learning and playing an instrument, but it's less [intuitive], and you have to spend all your time in dark places, hanging over a computer."

While it may sound significantly less visionary, it's devoted tech musicians like Deruty who helped to imagine and develop the sophisticated technology that helps pop singers like Shania Twain stay on beat and in tune through the now-commonplace digital manipulation of their voices--although Deruty considers such Shaniagans to be an abuse of the technology.

"A lot of singers don't sing well. After Pro Tools, they will sound perfect." But, Deruty continues, "musical feeling is often imparted by veering slightly out of tune; this is what makes it beautiful."

Deruty blames the music industry for pumping so much money into the production of pop stars that our ears are accustomed to hearing technically perfect music.

"These days," he says, "if you do something that doesn't sound perfect, it will sound cheap, even if it's rather musical."

Invasion of the Technofiles

Here in Santa Cruz, looping artists are attempting to walk that line between musical feeling and high-tech perfection. It helps that one of the companies cranking out cutting-edge audio hardware, Creative Labs, has a branch in Scotts Valley, and it's only natural that they organize electronic music events. Veronique Larcher, who also used to work at IRCAM in Paris, is the powerhouse force behind a lot of the events in town, including the Electron Salon series. One of the most ambitious of these involved rounding up enough futons to cover the entire interior of the Cayuga Vault, which seemed to be transformed into a futuristic opium den, except without the opium.

"She's running on some amazing batteries," says Walker about Larcher. "I've always been a cheerleader for the electronica community, so it's nice to see somebody else take on that role. In a sense, she's let me become more of an artist."

Not that Walker hasn't done his fair share of organizing and promoting. Forsaking for a while things like "making money" to put the looping genre on the map here, Walker used the ever-useful principles in Getting to Yes to help him enlist the support of venues and radio stations. And then there was the Y2K2 looping festival, for which he recruited loopers from around the world to perform at the Cayuga Vault for two days straight. He did so via his connections in the online community Looper's Delight--fitting for an admitted technophile to organize a technolicious event using technology.

But what happens to all these events when the power goes out?

"It's a damn good thing I play drums," Walker says. "I've been able to save a couple concerts that way. But I love that interface between organic and inorganic. Acoustic and electronic musicians are sometimes really alienated by each other's music. What I always say is, it's all good."

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From the January 22-28, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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