Ashuelot is a collection of sounds produced for a New York Modular Society livestream I did from in the eponymous southern New Hampshire town. I’d spent the summer as the Art|Work artist in residence at the 32M Center for Creative Work, rehabbing an old mill building, getting a little deeper into videography, and considering musical/visual gesture for electroacoustic performance.
AsGahlord Dewald, double bass & electronics. part of this project I commissioned essays on electroacoustic performance from three other composer-performers whose work I admire—Elizabeth A. Baker, Ibukun Sunday, and Ravish Momin. There are many approaches and methods for blending instruments with electronics and highlighting these practitioners' work and thoughts seemed like fun to me.
Elizabeth A. Baker gives us insight into how she hears and finds meaning in the music of Ashuelot. She places the sounds in context with other music, her own experiences as a composer-performer of electroacoustic music, and with sound itself.
Ibukun Sunday takes a moment to share insights into the processes and goals in his own music, which is a blend of viola, field recordings, and electronics.
Ravish Momin (aka Sunken Cages) writes about his transformation into an electro-acoustic percussionist. His creative practice expanded to include software and electronic percussion instruments, furthering his pursuit of sound, tone, and texture.
Scope and Scale in Electroacoustic Performance
A torrent of challenges are revealed when approaching electroacoustic music on the double bass. Different requirements for thought patterns, different physical demands, monitoring sounds by touch and ear is different, and the potential “disasters” in improvisation are multiplied.
The mindstate required to successfully operate the double bass is wildly different from that of operating the electronics. The double bass makes only sounds that I pull from it. The electronics make no silences unless I create them. In free improvisation, being able to control my mindstate, to achieve a sensitive perception of the world around me, is core to finding where to move and shift sound. Achieving gestures which bridge the acoustic and electronic sound worlds requires much more attention than either of these would on their own.
And then there’s the physicality of this music.Ashuelot is available for purchase in digital and streaming formats at Bandcamp. The double bass is a physical instrument using both arms and some of my body to keep it wrangled in place so I can make sound with it. Learning how to shift scope from the broad physicality or synchronized wrist/finger movements of the double bass to the tiny knobs and cabling of a modular synth becomes a necessary investment in the craft.
Working with these realities is creatively worthwhile, though. The kinds of textures that become available, the sleight-of-hand in the endless replication of a gesture, the ripples and eddies of creative feedback between the movement of air and electrons—all of this becomes a new palette. And the more I work with it the more it opens up new possibilities and directions. The mind expands infinitely along several dimensions.
I hope you enjoy Ashuelot.
What Exists Here on the Periphery
Gahlord Dewald’s latest release Ashuelot, though briefElizabeth A. Baker, a 2021-2022 Harvard Radcliffe Fellow, eschews the collection of traditional titles that describe single elements of her body of work, referring to herself as a “New Renaissance Artist.” Embracing a constant stream of change and rebirth in practice, expanding into a variety of media, chiefly an exploration of how sonic and spatial worlds can be manipulated to personify a variety of philosophies and principles both tangible as well as intangible. Elizabeth has received international recognition from press, scholars, and the public for her conceptual compositions and commitment to inclusive programming. Fanfare Magazine proclaimed in Fall 2019 “Perhaps Baker will be the Pauline Oliveros of her generation, and perhaps she will be more than that.”Her album Quadrivium is available on Aerocade., is the sort of album that leaves you wanting more. It is replete with subtitles that demonstrate a true mastery of shaping and collaborating with the electronic world. For example, the sublime use of repeated cutoff in “An Entryway” that adds to the compositional through line of the track but acts as a connective thread. This enhances and sculpts the acoustic content in a way that begins as a depth perception trick and then floats like a feather on the wind into a new foreground, setting the stage for the electronic-forward track which follows it… a sonic entryway into the home of “Choral.”
Often when people think of electronics as a component of music, there’s a tendency to expect the sounds to be super forward and detached from the overall work. In the modern era of production and creation, many artists focus on the ability of contemporary processing chips and software to perfectly replicate and snap sonic events to a master grid… but electronics are living beings, each with their own character… in my experience with Gahlord’s work throughout the years, I’ve consistently been taken by electronics that are inherently organic unto themselves and serene lockstep moments where upright bass and modular synths become one clandestine cloud of electron mass, like murmurations on the horizon amidst the orange glow of a sunset close to the Equator.
As an electronic musician who learned synthesis through sessions on a collection of ageing synths borrowed from my piano teacher Jeff Donovick, I am quite familiar with the living aspect of electronic music, of oscillators falling out of tune throughout the course of a session, the way that patches misbehave because of a tiny aspect you’ve forgotten to dial in at the last moment, of the way that differences in power conditioning subtly effect the behaviour of a boutique synth, how synths need to warm up just like a human body before working out. All of these are things to be tamed, reckoned with, or accepted when working in the realm of electronic music, but there’s still an entire world beyond mere synthesis where sonic sculpting continues in equalisation, compression, and mastering choices — on Ashuelot we hear all of these things coming together to create distinct and yet deeply interconnected worlds, under the hands of a true master of united acoustic and electronic sonic sculpture.
The obvious mainstream comparison to Gahlord’s work is that of Squarepusher, but where Squarepusher often feels like a series of worlds seen through the plastic film wrapped around a CD, a place where things fall on a grid — Gahlord’s work, and in particular the cuts on Ashuelot, are the coalescence of a raw energy. It is hand thrown pottery coloured by fire, organic and living. “An Entryway” brings me into the visceral land of Ted Lucas’s solo album and mystic meditation practices connecting concretely with the human body, whilst simultaneously catapulting me to the stars. “Choral” breaks through the atmosphere… the mind wanders, out and back to centre but amidst all of the sonic activity and evolving drones, one becomes totally aware of space. “Choral” stands out as a work that assembles space, which seems contrary to the activity, yet following the dynamics of harmonics and subharmonics… the inherent beauty and sonic story is what exists here on the periphery. Bringing us back to Earth from the floating space of “Choral,” the record ends with “Two Songs, a Dance, a Conclusion,” a weightlessness descending towards the atmosphere… it is the recoil of the slingshot from “An Entryway.” It’s a slow back into our bodies, into the space of gravity, into the grounding of the beginning of the album… it feels wholly complete and fundamentally like you want ten times more of this world, but I suppose that’s why the repeat all tracks feature was created.
The Honourable Elizabeth A. Baker
Surprises, Distortions, and Possibilities
MyBased in Lagos, Ibukun Sunday expertly entwines his compositions with viola, field recordings, and deeply considered philosophies of existence, humanity, and apocalypse. His album The Last Wave is available on Phantom Limb.
Regarding Ashuelot, Ibukun Sunday kindly writes “Gahlord Dewald’s Ashuelot is a piece of work that should be listened to, which also has a blend of natural sounds from the surrounding, sounds from double bass, foot pedals, and electronic sound devices.” performance is a blend of acoustic sounds, field recordings with electronics sounds. The acoustic sound is produced from my viola which is mostly enhanced with effect pedals and accompanied by electronic sound producing devices.
I am really interested in the range of sounds that can be created by both acoustic and electronic instrument as against playing tones or notes despite the fact that I am a trained classical musician. I am interested in reaching across to the human soul then the body, which can then have influences on the brain. I believe in playing sounds that resonates with the human soul and body which can serve as a medium of healing, relaxation, inspiration and memory. By playing sounds ranging from low vibrations, distortions to high pitched sounds that pierces the receiver’s soul, I use field recordings, acoustic and electronic instruments to create ambient sounds, dark sounds, meditation sounds, noise music and natural sound to create an imagined human experience as it relates to people from different places and culture.
The fundamental distinction usually made has been between tone and noise, a distinction best clarified by referring to the physical characteristics of sound. Tone differs from noise mainly in that it possesses features that enable it to be regarded as autonomous. Although tones too are commonly linked with their sources (Viola etc.), they more readily achieve autonomy because they possess controlled pitch, loudness, timbre, and duration, attributes that make them amenable. Instruments that yield musical tones are those that produce periodic vibrations. Their periodicity is their controllability, which makes it musical. I employ both the use of these musical tones and noise to create surprises, distortions and more room for possibilities.
Some sounds are intrinsically musical, while others are not, for instance the clapping of hands, the slam of a door, foot steps, or the sound of a moving vehicle. Any sound is a potential ingredient for my kind of sound production. The choices of sounds for my art making have been severely unlimited in all places and periods by a diversity of physical, aesthetic, and cultural considerations. With electronic sound, I have the freedom to paint colours, imaginations, scenarios etc. This blend of acoustic and electronic sounds give access to oceans of possibilities just by engaging and allowing my imaginations, feelings, memory, and spirit to flow.
Reaching out to the soul, creating sounds that resonates with the soul and body, I want people to feel my sound, enjoy the emotions and experience the journey through sounds. I want people to hear my sounds, feel and experience it. I don’t want people to hear sounds and start thinking about how, why or what because I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m only following my heart, my feelings and what I hear in my spirit and I need my audience to journey with me. At the end of the journey you can then start asking the questions of how, why or what, if you still wish.
The Air of Ashuelot:
The Interplay between Acoustic and Electronic Sounds
Ocean mesoscale eddiesRavish Momin is an Indian-born drummer, electronic music producer and educator. He privately studied with Jazz master-drummer Andrew Cyrille for years in the late 1990s. Momin’s unique approach quickly led him to work as a sideman with a diverse cast of musicians ranging from to legendary avant-saxophonist Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre (of the AACM) to pop-star Shakira.
In 2019, Momin began working under the moniker Sunken Cages to showcase his unique production style which involves layering live-loops and manipulating them in real-time to blur the lines between composition and improvisation. While rooted in Indian folk and Black Music traditions, Momin is also influenced by the street sounds of South African G’com, Angolan Kuduro and Egyptian Mahraganat. , which are circling currents typically a few hundred kilometers across, can alter the sea surface temperature by moving heat around, which in turn affects the air currents circulating above. These changes to the air currents can feed back to the eddies themselves and shape larger atmospheric patterns as well. In my analogy, the acoustic instrument is a body of water, while the electronics are the air above it.
When the sound from an acoustic instrument is processed and converted to a digital signal, to what extent does the desired electronic output also change the way one plays the instrument? The answer to this question of course varies from instrument to instrument and exactly how it is connected to the electronics.
I, for one, am fascinated by this interplay between acoustic and electronic elements, and the seemingly endless possibilities of synthesizing sounds to create entirely new sonic experiences over and over again.
Transitions: acoustic to electronic
Since I’d studied Jazz drumming and, for a short while, North Indian Classical tabla, I focused on playing acoustic drums and percussion instruments. I recall having looked upon electronic drums with bemusement. I’d never quite grasped their use, beyond novelty. They seemed to recreate acoustic sounds, yet lacked the depth and ‘air’ of their acoustic counterparts.
I’d listened to all genres of music during my formative years, ranging from Rock to Jazz to North Indian Classical to Global Folk Music to all manner of so-called experimental music. But I didn’t know much about electronic dance music. I’d done most of my research/listening during my college years, a time period during which I was surrounded by many music-majors who’d considered that music ‘lowbrow.’ Unfortunately, I’d developed preconceptions about electronic dance music being monotonous and not very technically demanding. I could not have predicted that this long-held view of mine would change overnight.
Back in 2006, my cousin, Alap Momin (of the avant HipHop group Dalek), turned me onto the music of electronic music producer Flying Lotus, whose now legendary “1983” had just been released. I’d never heard electronic music that was based in grooves that sounded so elastic, while the use of harp samples gave it an other-worldly feel. I was completely blown away.
I’d also seen FlyLo do a solo liveset in New York City which had inspired me to create my own electronic beat based music that was danceable, yet rooted in improvisation. I went to see him again a couple of years later, performing a duo with an acoustic drummer. He was in top form and the drummer played virtuosically as well. However, something did not gel for me in the same way.
I realized that what had bothered me was the way the electronic sounds and acoustic drum sounds seemed to clash. Electronic and acoustic sounds dwell in different frequency spectrums, and blending those on a live performance can be tricky. After their performance, I wanted to explore how I could make my own acoustic drums sound more electronic in order to blend better with my electronic elements.
I then embarked on a journey which would be a decade in the making, to seek out different technologies and equipment, to find the right electro-acoustic approach.
The evolution of my electronic drumming
I began experimenting with simple piezo triggers (voltage based) that converted the sound from the drum hit to an electric charge which was sent on to a drum module. In my case, the drum module itself wasn’t just a bank of drum samples, but a NordDrum, which is a ‘percussion modelling synth’ that allowed for different parameters to be tweaked to create unique drum sounds. Unfortunately, the triggers weren’t always uniformly responsive to the strikes on the drum-heads, and I had to contend with balancing the acoustic artifacts along with the electronic ones. I switched to mesh-heads to eliminate the acoustic sounds but ultimately was still left with a piezo-based triggering system. I finally arrived at FSR (force sensing resistor) drum pads that detect pressure, not vibration like the piezo, and applied the hits more accurately. More importantly, the electronic drum sounds also blended better with the digital synths I was using in my liveset.
And yes, knowing the desired output can affect how I play as well. For instance, if I’m using a plug-in to get a simple growing/growling sound, then just the slightest touch is needed to send the faintest signal which quickly spirals in a feedback loop. On the other hand, I may activate a plug-in that responds to sounds that are mapped at different velocities, which would require a rapid succession of notes that progress from light to medium to hard strikes to get a nice blend of all those layers coaxed out at once.
The air above Ashuelot
The Ashuelot is a river tributary in New Hampshire. Its name is an Abenaki Native American word meaning “a collection of many waters.” It is also the title of the latest recording by bassist and electronic musician Gahlord Dewald.
While certainly a significantly smaller body of water than an ocean, a river can still have an interplay with the air currents above to create micro-weather variations. Scale aside, my analogy, which demonstrates the interplay between acoustic and electronic elements, still holds.
While Gahlord is first an acoustic bassist, his approach to integrating electronics with his bass sounds is similar to my previous approach of running triggers on acoustic drums through a drum modelling synth. Of his process, Gahlord writes
“It’s mostly just live-sampled: a microphone by the bridge grabs sound when I press a foot pedal. From there the sound goes into a sampler (Phonogene by Makenoise, a Eurorack module). The sampler has controls to “granulate” the sound: essentially chop the loop raw into 2|4|8|16|32... sections.”
Just like the Ashuelot River, the record is a blended collection of acoustic and electronic sounds. From the first track onwards, I got the feeling of standing in the river itself, feeling ripples of different wavelengths hit my body and eddies moving at different speeds circling me.There are moments which feel like being surrounded by standing waves- waves of equal intensity hitting from all sides, moments of stillness and calm waters, and moments of rolling turbulence.
As I kept listening to the record, I was certain that a great amount of time had been spent studying the interplay of the acoustic performance (pizzicato/arco) and the desired electronic output. The weight of each finger or the bow is calculated and adjusted as it plucks a string or presses into it, in anticipation of how the attack, decay, sustain and finally the release of the notes and sound artifacts would be processed as they pass through the Phonogene.
The electronic sounds here always seem intentional, never random (some players revel in the chance operations of different parameters being tweaked in unmapped combinations). Here again, I kept thinking of how the acoustic sounds and electronics affected each other. Given my own process and understanding of the interplay involved, it’s clear that we’re not dealing with a unidirectional flow of ideas in Gahlord’s music. Instead, there is a constant push-pull amongst the acoustic and electronic elements, each influencing the other. The music never feels predictable, yet has a cinematic arc that entices you to play out this scene of floating down the river, as you feel the water and the air swirl around your head.