COMA (I WAS IN PINK) (2014)

The other big project I’m working on this summer is a hybrid performance/installation piece for the wonderful percussionist Elizabeth Delamater, to be premiered this November at PASIC 2014 (the Percussive Arts Society International Conference), in Indianapolis (specific event details TBA!). The piece is about 25% built, but luckily I’m pretty much done with the design specs and just need to gather up the rest of the parts and put it all together! That’s the plan for the end of this month. If you’re curious and want to follow the journey, I’m documenting it on my Instagram page (@janeairplane, #jojcoma).

This is my second sound installation project, and I’m getting totally addicted to building and learning more about electronics. I’m also super inspired by the work of my brilliant friend Tristan Perich, who melds silvery, intense one-bit electronic sounds with the richer spectra of acoustic instruments. I’ve definitely stolen a few ideas from him—what his music and artwork have triggered in me is a desire to re-convene with the strong emotions brought up by the electronic sounds of my childhood (Nintendo, Casio keyboards, etc) and to blend them with the layers and washes of digital audio that I’ve been exploring in my own work of late—and to combine all of this with actual instruments in a hopefully compelling way.

This latest piece is actually not about Nintendo, nor my childhood, but about the story of a close friend of mine who was recently in a coma in an ICU. She described a vivid impression of being “in pink”—in a pink box—and being told by a “voice” that she had a choice: to stay in pink, or to leave “pink” and enter a place that was actually no place at all, but vast, terrifying emptiness. The difficulty of the choice was that “pink,” while beautiful and slightly serene, was also about deep, chronic discomfort (she was intubated). The other place would remove this discomfort, and that temptation was difficult to resist.

It’s pretty obvious what this decision was about, and I’m grateful she decided to stay “in pink”—and then eventually find her way back to us. After she emerged from the coma, a friend of hers suggested that the “pink” she experienced throughout her deep sleep was all the love surrounding her.

So—I decided to try to build my friend’s “pink” space. It’s a seven-foot cubic structure made of pipe fittings, designed to be cage-like; the “bars” are made up of small 16-ohm 1-watt speakers (80 total, 20 on each side) strung up with hookup wire and cannon ball sinkers, and also strips of RGB LEDs to illuminate everything “in pink.” The box is surrounded on the outer perimeter by small foot-switches (handmade from materials purchased from Bitches Love My Switches, a top-flight audio boutique in Brooklyn) which allow the audience to control the spatialization of the sounds coming from these speakers.

The sounds coming from the speakers are simple square waves, meant to imitate the intensity and urgency of the many ICU (Intensive Care Unit) monitors emitting loud beeps and other sonic indicators. I’m attempting to harness these timbres into a series of “chord clouds,” or blends of different combinations of perfect fifths, which produce some compelling quartal harmonies (forgive the nerd talk) that I’ve always been attracted to. The sounds are produced by 80 individual battery-powered circuits involving an ATTiny85 IC (integrated circuit), which is programmed by an Arduino to produce the square wave patterns; a TIP120 transistor to boost the amplitude; and a series of switches (both the outer “audience switches” and the inner “Elizabeth switches,” which allow her to control content while the audience controls diffusion as well as rhythmic phasing).

So….how will these sounds comprise an actual piece? I’m definitely still composing this as I build (trying to let it all come together organically), but I know that CONTROL and CHOICE are my two main guidelines (thus the number of switches and the division of control). Elizabeth will be inside the cage with her steel pans, playing music that will timbrally combine in hopefully compelling ways with the swarms of beeps and bloops from the speakers. She will have four foot switches that will allow her to turn a series of chords on or off (or all on, or all off, or combinatorially). This gives her control over the harmonies, but the audience controls whether each group of individual circuits are on or off (essentially changing the overall amplitude, phasing, and spatialization).

Elizabeth’s steel pans will also be accompanied by digital audio coming from two Adam A7 monitors that I will install next to her and control with a Max/MSP patch on my laptop (I will also amplify her pans and process them to increase their frequency range, essentially using an octave pedal patch and other filters, which will provide a necessary low end to the piece). The digital audio will also include spoken-voice fragments and some incredibly processed clips of my friend—who happens to be an amazing singer—performing some jazz fusion songs in the 1980s, which I ripped from an old cassette tape that has been languishing in Hawaiian humidity ever since, and is thus beautifully detuned in spots).

At least, that’s the current plan….

So—it’s a big piece, pretty heavy, emotionally laden, and…super involved, tech-wise. But that’s how I roll. Maybe someday, if I am remembered as a composer, someone will include me under the reductive umbrella term “maximalist.” More is more, right? But seriously, I do think that having lots of gear involved is not only crucial for the sounds I want to make, but for the overall aesthetic of my work. My music pulls from so many disparate sources of inspiration, uses so many different random things simultaneously, and that seems important to acknowledge on lots of registers.

Also, it feels really important to me that this is a percussion piece. It’s my instrument as well—that’s how I met Elizabeth, at a music camp at age 17, and looked up to her in a major way (still do)—and it reflects me imagining myself in my friend’s “pink”…how that would feel, how I would respond.

Wish me luck as we push toward completion! I’m driving the sculpture out to Elizabeth in Ohio in August, just two weeks before the recording of my first album(!), and I can’t wait to bring this thing to life…