Aesthetic Drift #11 by Jared Silvia
Notes on The Pink Fire Revue
We knew, first off, that we wanted the event to be part concert, part reading, part projector art show. Whenever you start with the idea of creating a mutant, you have a relatively good chance of succeeding. Whether its destiny is to dwell in the sewer or not is another question.
John mentioned the idea of music/poetry coming together with an eye toward, I think, some of the modular synthesizer music I had been posting on various social streams. I had been bouncing a similar idea around in my brain, imagining it would be impossible to accomplish, or hoping that I would get better at what I do with synthesizers first, allowing my insecurity to shove the idea into the realm of “possible, but not likely,” that zone in my brain where I imagine something happening without reasonably expecting it to manifest. Sometimes it just takes the realization that you’re not riding a waveform alone to draw an idea out of hibernation.
Here’s what we did, for all the planning and one false start:
First, we knew it would be a literary event. That’s what our events, collectively, are. We knew it should be poetry with a technological bent, something that thought about ghosts in machines, silicon strands, electrical arcs, retro-futures, and technological mainstreams of now. We reached out to a collection of poets who would, we thought, approach this matter with an open mind, and who had performance experience, which would be necessary for a show that inherently required interactivity. This included John, of course, and also Nicole Oquendo, Tod Caviness, and Mary McGinn.
Meanwhile, at the school I teach at in an audio program, there are a number of teachers who dabble (to various degrees) in modular synthesizer building. I’m at the lowest extreme of that world, taking very small steps into the modular synthesizer world after loving and playing synthesizers since I was a teenager. Jon Curtis and Derek Duda, who both build their own modules, and are resourceful, enjoy making music, but hadn’t recently performed with their systems. When I asked if they were interested, they were immediately down. We spent a few weeks gathering in a classroom and improvising together in order to see what it sounded like when all three of us went forward into the world of self-playing patches and barely controlled chaos.
This part takes some explanation. I know many folks won’t be completely aware of what modular synthesizers are. Generally, they are like other synthesizers you may have seen or heard (zap, boom boom boom), but they present their components individually, and require that you determine how they are connected in order to create sounds. This requires a base-level of knowledge, but allows for an incredible amount of flexibility and variation from a simple collection of components. Sound sources (oscillators), modifiers (filters, etc.), and math/control functions (sequencers, envelopes), plus other cool modules (samplers, in this case) come together in many various ways to generate different sounds. We started with fresh patches each time. Each of our systems was chasing a common “clock,” which means that any elements we wanted synchronized together between our systems could be locked together with a common guiding timing signal that consists of electrical pulses. In the video of the event, you’ll notice us tweaking settings, pulling patch cables, modifying the sound. That’s how it goes every time.
It also takes a little of explanation to understand the video aspect of the event. Ginger Leigh, who I have known for a really long time, is a very highly regarded visual artist who operates under the name Synthestruct. She has presented her work in the US, in Germany, Sweden, and elsewhere, and has recently curated projector art shows here in the Orlando area. I originally asked her if she would be interested in participating in this show, naively imagining that she would create series of live visuals she could trigger in much the way a VJ might.
What she did, instead, though, was to create an entire program that received sound inputs from our modular synthesizers, and from the microphone at the event, and would vibrate and modify visual protocols she had designed. In essence, she wrote a sound-reactive program just for the event, and while she tweaked parameters live, the show was utterly one-time in that the sounds came from a set of variable un-repeatable instrument settings running chaotic patterns, modifying visuals that were designed to react to these patterns.
Ultimately, this event was wonderfully synchronized. The work of the poets intersected uncannily with the sounds being generated, the improvisation huddled up perfectly well, and the visualizations functioned in ways that went so far beyond what I imagined that it was a little overwhelming to be standing in the wash of light. Not bad considering that the actual event was the first time we put all of these ideas together to become the mutant it became, not, it turned out, a sewer-dweller.
It strikes me that there are some interesting concerns inherent in an event like this. What do we see when we view ourselves as technology users? The ubiquity of media is such that we so easily slip back into our devices, a closeness of mind and screen that is unprecedented in ages before ours. We are experts at media, consuming it constantly, ravenously. And yet, our consumption is often so solitary, a monologue flowing mainly in one direction from device to person. That this event was a “multimedia presentation” of unintuitive, self-exploring instruments, programs designed for visual translation, and human voices confirming that things are amiss, things are unsettled, does not encapsulate the full experience. Because The Pink Fire Revue was a communal happening, shared not only between members of the audience, but between the performers, the audience, the instruments, the software, the voices, and the building itself, complete with feedback at every hinge, it suggested another coming age of technological witness. In retrospect, it was (without any of us realizing it, and that includes those of us who came up with the idea) an experiment in basic singularity, with all of the complex nodes it takes to form a new, multi-mind nervous system.
This event would not have been possible without John King, who conceptualized it with me, Ryan Rivas, who is an amazing event producer, and who always makes Functionally Literate stuff possible, Shawn McKee, who shot the video of the event alongside John King, and edited the video as well, Pat Greene, who was generous in providing the space at The Gallery at Avalon Island, and Lesley Silvia, who always helps in a million tangible and intangible ways as things kick off on an idea like this.
Jared Silvia (Episodes 57, 62, 69, 90, 122, 129, 131, 152, 167, 171, 173, 206, and 213) is the host of the Functionally Literate reading series and radio show. His fiction has appeared in decomP, Monkeybicycle, Annalemma Magazine, Digital Americana magazine, and in collections from Burrow Press. He was the recipient of a Luso American scholarship from the DISQUIET International Literary Conference in 2013. You can find out more at jaredsilvia.com.