Michael T. Bullock > Converging tendencies resonate and sustain

The Box in context

The Box in context

Audio Sample: http://fielderblank.tumblr.com/post/120700564/5-string-banjo-piezo-contact-mic-small-adhesive/

During my time at STEIM, my intentions changed from a single, large building project to a broader artistic and conceptual development.  My original submission proposed the construction of an all-analog device I was calling The Feedbacker, This device would require me to reverse-engineer several pieces of gear I own (along with a few I would acquire) – namely a compression pedal and an EQ pedal – to accept crackle and other intuitive interfaces, and combine them with microphones and a flexible array of small speakers to create polyphonic feedback.

The instrument would be like a nerve center, or perhaps more like a heart, pumping and modulating the flow of acoustic and analog audio signals to generate two or more channels of sustained feedback tones.  My interest in feedback stems mainly from my experience as an improvising contrabassist; that empty wooden instrument is especially prone to feedback.  I discovered some years ago that it was possible to control this feedback to a significant extent using piezo elements and a compression/sustain pedal, not just to suppress it but to tame it and even make it melodic and expressive, often with a theremin-like tone and even polyphony.  And this is the kind of feedback that’s always appealed to me the most – not the screaming cone-frying blocks of sound (which can also be beautiful) but the kind that you can just barely sculpt and control, like taming a giant eel.

Anyway, this was the intention behind the Feedbacker, but when I arrived at STEIM I realized it was a much more ambitious project, from a technical point of view, than I could or should tackle in just under two weeks.  I’m comfortable with a soldering iron, but I wouldn’t call myself a professional; to make a full-fledged Feedbacker would require more experience making smaller projects.  Also, by the time I arrived, I realized that my STEIM residency was also going to be an excellent opportunity to work on consolidating several directions in my artistic work and moving myself toward the next stage in my overall work.  I have been primarily an electroacoustic improviser for the past decade, and I am now moving more into territories of video and installation; I’m also working on a dissertation for a practice-based PhD program.

My STEIM residency, therefore, consisted of several trajectories:

1.) Concept and build, from scratch, a 2×3 passive switch mixer with on-off-(on) switches.

2.) Integrate this mixer with my 5-string banjo, an instrument with unique resonant properties given its combination of metal strings and single-skin drum body.  Specifically, I wanted the mixer to give me control over several feedback loops involving the acoustics of the banjo, contact mics, small speakers, and the PA.

3.) Record this setup extensively, and refine my musical approach.

4.) Do concepting and rehearsal work on integrating this all-analog setup with my extant digital live-performance practice (based on VDMX 5).

5.) Ancillary practices: phonography; installation concepting; writing (see my blog at http://fielderblank.tumblr.com/)

My recordings from STEIM, both on the feedback and banjo and from my phonography, will be edited and mastered into a full-length release.  My work with integrating that setup with video was just at the end of my residency but showed a lot of promise, so I plan to expand that in the near future into a performance piece.

The switch mixer I built, which I called the Sweet-Smelling Switcher (because it’s housed in a sandalwood incense box I got at the Albert Cuyp market), is pictured here.  It’s a great size for touching with both hands and rocking the switches gently with thumbs, and it’s narrow enough to integrate among the rest of my banjo setup with minimal rearrangement.

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