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Posts Tagged ‘Dan Deacon’

For this comparison on the use of improvisation in two performances, I decided to try and find two very contrasting artists. And thankfully enough I couldn’t have found two more differing performances to go and see. The first of these was Atau Tanaka, who performed in SARC on Thursday 29th November at 1:10 pm. This was not so much a concert as a kind of seminar/lecture that included a performance/demonstration, but it is mainly the performance I will focus on. For the first part of this performance, Atau introduced the equipment he would use. He firstly described the brief history of how the equipment came a bout, and then a description of how it works. The instrument that he would use is known as a BioMuse. It consists of two straps placed on each forearm, which would pick up impulses and muscle tension under the skin. Each strap had two sensors, and each was attached to a transmitter by wires. This transmitter would send the signals to the laptop that Atau had set up. This would then use processing software to convert the data to audio output. Once he had given his introduction and set up the equipment he was ready to begin.

The main thing to be said for the performance that followed was that it was completely improvised. Due to the nature of the instrument he was using, it seemed as though writing a score for it would be impossible. He began by using a wind-type effect, and controlled the amplitude, tone and pitch of the noise with the movements of his hands. He would start with them quite close together, using very slow movements, and then gradually became more aggressive with his movements, giving a wide spectrum of differing sounds that were quite pleasing to the ear. Every so often Atau would press a button or two on the laptop and the output signal would change, and gradually the sound would become more melodic, with different instruments becoming more discernable with each change in his general movements. I noticed that Atau would sometimes move in a kind of dance, possibly to keep the same rhythm he was using or just for another dimension to the performance. This was the general structure of the performance, until he finally closed with a diminuendo, after playing a Mo-Town type beat for a period.

The second performance that I went to see was that of an absurdist electronic music composer known as Dan Deacon. He hails from Maryland in the U.S. This gig took place in the Pavilion bar on the Ormeau road in Belfast at 9pm. The artist started by bringing his “music desk” into the middle of the floor and started connecting all the different wires and gadgets, (which were all held in place with luminous tape!). This equipment included a keyboard, mixing/effects board, a lighting rig, a delay pedal, and various other electronic gadgets for sound manipulation.

Once he was ready, he called everybody around him, until he was surrounded on every side by the audience. He then told everybody to kneel down and close their eyes, told the bar staff to turn off the lights (so he could control the lighting with his own setup), and then started into his first brilliantly synthetic techno tune, upon which the crowd all got up and started raving madly! This basically set the trend for the whole gig. In between songs he would talk to the audience about his gear, and also tell insane stories, as well as randomly thought out theories. Throughout the gig, he had the crowd chanting random words, doing loads of strange but fun activities, singing along to the tracks when he would stop, and at one point left his desk to go to a specific person to help them with the tune of a song! I should also tell you that Dan Deacon raved just as hard to the music as anyone in the audience.

At one point the music just stopped mid-song, and Dan was just looking at someone in the audience. We all notice that the guy is standing right in front of the desk with a pint, texting on his phone. When the guy realises and looks up Dan Says “Who are you texting man?” Everyone just laughs and he slams back into the techno.
As for the actual songs themselves, I think Dan did a lot of improvised stuff on the night. Even though there were structured songs with lyrics and a general layout, he attacked every verse from a different angle. You could tell when he found something new that he liked, because he would play it again, and then manipulate it or change again in some way.

I think the main way that Atau and Dan’s performances differed was the use of audience interaction. Even though Atau talked to the crowd before and after the actual performance, during it he mainly concentrated on his own playing. This contrasted greatly with Dan Deacon’s unconventional way of bringing the audience into the actual performance itself. This was maybe down to the different venues, as perhaps Dan had a lot more freedom with what he was allowed to do, whereas Atau had been asked to put on a performance and knew exactly what he would do. The audience interaction greatly helped and added to the use of improvisation in Dan’s performance. By getting the audience to sing along, he was creating another set performers with which he could feed off and converse musically with. He kind of became a conductor, in the way that he was controlling the actions of the crowd. Through his talking with them he also introduced humour which was completely improvised, given the topics we were discussing.

I also realised that there was a possible argument that Atau was not actually creating music in his performance, but mainly controlling the pitch, volume, tone and duration that the pre-set sounds on the computer were played. But I suppose in theory this is what all musicians do with the sounds that are available to them with their instruments.

I should also comment on the content of the music that was played; how much was improvised, and what was predefined. As Derek Bailey suggests, “Anything written down serves not as a perfect expression of the music to be played, but as a starting point, a guide…” (1993, P.39). I think this was definitely the case with Dan Deacon’s performance. There were pre-written songs, but having listened to most of them beforehand, he changed all of them in at least some way, and a great deal in most of them. Some of this was down to how the crowd reacted to the tasks they were given, but I think it was mainly to do with what he felt like playing at the time. But even this approach cannot be compared with the methods used by Atau. I’m sure it’s possible that he has recorded tracks using his instrument, but I would imagine any songs would be near impossible to re-create exactly on-stage. I’d say that the only thing that was pre-empted in Atau’s performance, was the actual way his hands moved. He mentioned that he had been playing the BioMuse for about ten years, and so it is possible that in that time he has developed a certain style, or series of rhythmic patterns to use on-stage. But for the most part the actual musical performance was completely improvised, and probably more-so than Deacon’s.

Another way in which the performances differed was the way in which each artist controlled the environment. For Atau’s performance, our very own Chris Corrigan controlled the mixing desk and lighting, whereas Deacon did his own. I think this gave Deacon another powerful improvisational tool, where he could change the lighting and sound of the environment to suit the mood of what he was playing, or getting the audience to do.

To summarise I would say that the actual musical performance of Atau Tanaka was probably a lot more improvised than Dan Deacon’s. It was clearly a performance that was created from nothing there and then, by the rhythmic moving of his arms, and the dance-like movements of the rest of his body. Deacon’s music was definitely improvised to an extent, but he still had the basic structures of the songs he had pre-created to fall back on.
However, to be fair Deacon’s brilliant audience interaction techniques made it a performance that seemed to go completely against the grain. It felt like a new kind of gig.
The way he controlled his own lighting and sound definitely added to the improvisational theme that I was looking for. I hope this isn’t too long.

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