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Monday, February 16, 2004

But it Takes a Moving Mountain Stream to Go Where the Money Brings

I caught Nathan Michel perform at the famed lower east side avant garde/experimental venue Tonic last night. Nathan is an experimental laptop musician, in what appears to be his late 20's. (You can see him-make a judgment call. Proof perfect that blogging is not journalism-I'd prefer not to give you all the facts.) He is remarkably different from most electronic composers working today, in part because he has, as I like to say, 'graduated' from the technologies he's used, a graduation which has landed him back into the most splendid, edenic, techno-pastoral playground one could hope for. There is still a nagging feeling with some laptop performers of 'gee-whiz, look what I can do'. This results in the obnoxious, trite schtick and quasi-cyberpunk aesthetics of many electronic musicians, such as Nathan's labelmates Kid 606 and Cex. Michel however has a more intimate relationship with his technology; and it feels more intelligent, evolved and relevant because he is not pretending that the music must in some way be about the technology. It feels more like a little boy who found a space suit and has rocketed into a multi-colored, day-glo, child-like galaxy of blip-radiating quarks and tonally pulsating fermions. These are Tokyo-pop landscapes drawn with gorgeous lights, smooth transistors of sound and slow electric waves to hear with the eyes. Michel opened for "Donna Summmer" a man named Jason Forrest living in Williamsburg whose moniker is intended as a kind of 'media-prank', as one reviewer says. I didn't stay for his set, because I couldn't sit through the second act, who was playing thrash-style drill-n-bass with video game sounds and goofy radio-grabbed out of context one-liners spliced in. The kind of stuff that went out of style in the 90's.

Nathan's set was actually very short, couldn't have exceeded 20 minutes. He set up his laptop, and I stared at the familiar glow of the macintosh logo on his white powerbook, and wondered if that glow would become the de-facto signifier of the wireless, palmpilot, pre-techno-singularity days that were the mid 2000's. Then I got over it. I saw Michel play once over a year ago, opening for Kid 606, (as you can imagine, no one was there to see Michel. And no one could figure out if they wanted to dance or mosh to kid 606. And yes, that performance is part of the reason I rag on Kid 606 in practically ever entry I make. Sorry.) This set was much more dominated by Nathan's voice then it was by bleeps and bloops. Whereas the crunchy melodic playground Michel presented to the audience a year ago managed to win them over, this time around michel is doing a set that is more or less all pop. His wailing children's song melodies are focused under the shimmer of his Pro-tools produced sounds; but the reminder that this is something not only cute but strange and otherworldy comes when the melodies are interrupted by glitches, by spooling sounds which suggest the sound is being rewound. The first album was cerebral music that required patience to hear the pop souflet underneath. This is a pop souflet with trapdoors and failswitches to remind us of the gelatinous, undifferentiated goop that this creature was birthed from. Like a homo sapien blitzing into a series of amino acids, bacterias and proteins, and flipping instantly back into a human mid-conversation.

(Michel's new album 'Dear Bicycle', available on Tigerbeat 6)

I got to speak to Nathan a little bit after his performance. He is studying music composition at Princeton, a pHD student on full scholarship. I assumed this was because he had a more scholarly background and influence, but he says "basically, I just don't feel like getting a real job." He essentially is allowed to spend his time creating his albums for tigerbeat 6, and the entirety of both his new record "Dear Bicycle" and his debut "ABCDef" were composed in school. I mention how strange I thought it was that "ABCDef" was the product of formal training at Princeton, and he tells me that the Professors are welcoming, flexible, and that they find his work "refreshing" because it does not revel in its own complexity. "Everyone seems to be trying to work more towards making something complex. Right now, I'm focusing on keeping it more simple." I mention that ABCDef has wild complexity underneath its toy kingdom setting, and he suggests that he is veering away from that into work that's more straightforward. What I think he was saying was that complexity for complexity's sake is the paen of computer music composition. Just check out any issue of Computer Music Journal, which includes huge academic articles including propositions to create Computational Music Representation Based on the Generative Theory of Tonal Music and the Deductive Object-Oriented Database Argh. Sometimes I can't figure out who it is that is trying to sound cute. I'm glad there are people so serious about Play, and regret that there are so many playing at serious.


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