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[whitespace] Steve Lawson Loop de Loop: Steve Lawson works to open up uncharted territory for the once-humble bass guitar.

Bass Pace

Serving and mastering musical high-tech at the Bass Looping Festival

By Marianne Messina

THE NOVEL Bass Looping Festival that is touring the Bay Area this week seems to cinch it: man has indentured himself to technology--and blithely. Two of the participants, Michael Manring and Steve Lawson, are innovative bassists dedicated to stretching the boundaries of bass. On both Manring's The Book of Flame CD and Lawson's And Nothing but the Bass album, the simple boom-di-boom we know as bass is transformed into a spray of chords, arpeggios, hammer-ons and rangy melodic runs, flecked in harmonics and reinvented by effects.

The accompaniment for all this bass? More bass. Only this time, it is bass played in loops, the digital scions of what people like guitarist Robert Fripp initiated when they recorded a piece of music on magnetic tape, clipped and spliced the ends together, and let it play round and round. (Lawson confesses that to fully grasp a loop's "landscape," he will sometimes play it for 14 hours continuously.)

Rick Walker, the third member of the festival's trio, compares working with loops to spiritually based music of the East. As a soundscaper, percussionist and self-described "exotica-phile," Walker has traveled the world, from West Africa to Bali, learning indigenous sound production, from Tuvan throat-singing to tabla. "It's amazing how little people listen in Western culture," Walker says of music rooted in party and dance. Like the West African music that first drew Walker away from rock & roll, the sometimes atmospheric loops can be as trancy (and revelatory) as mantra. "Service and support and silence, these are all factors in what we're trying to do," Walker says.

Live, each musician uses a looping device to create a loop and feed it through a MIDI mapper, a sort of digital conductor. Over the resulting communal ambience, players can add solos or other real-time melodic ideas. Internalizing the loops, which may waft progressively in and out of phase, plus interacting with the real-time statements in a creative yet pleasing way, demands enormous focus. "These guys, Steve Lawson and Michael Manring," says Walker, "are some of the best listeners on the planet."

All this loop-gazing talk of trance and servitude, of supporting, mapping and understanding what is essentially a digital animal, suggests that technology might be enslaving its inventors. It is telling that when the trio set up live, Walker's MIDI mapper will assign a "master looper," the player who sets the first loop in motion, and will designate the other two as "slaves."

"You would think this technology would be limiting," Walker reflects, "but it has been incredibly liberating to me." Perhaps, as in robotics, the loops take care of the "drudge work." "For the three of us," Lawson adds, "our aim is to use the technology of looping and processing to liberate us to play new things, to respond to each other's musical ideas in a way that wouldn't be possible without the loops."

The Bass Looping Festival takes place Sunday (July 8) at 7pm at the San Jose Museum of Art, 110 S. Market St., San Jose. Free.

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From the July 5-11, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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