Zero Crossing performs new music for percussion and electronics.  The group’s repertoire consists largely of co-composed works, stemming from experimental musical traditions and frequently involving improvisation within planned musical structures.  The computer acts as an instrument and musical contributor. When performing, the duo aims for the spontaneity and intimacy of chamber music, even though one partner is often virtual.

 

Founded in 2013, the duo has performed in Germany, Malaysia, Thailand, and Singapore.

About the Members

In March 2015, Zero Crossing was invited to spend a week in the small Germany city of Pirmasens.  In that time, they were to construct a new work to be premiered at the end of the residency.  There was one stipulation: the work must be based on the sounds of the host city.  Pirmansens is located in southwestern Germany, near Saarland.  The French border is less that a 30-minute drive away.  Pirmasens is not a large city, but it is renowned in the region for, of all things, its shoes.  It is something that many citizens consider an important part of the city's history.  Still to this day, Peter Kaiser, a shoe manufacturer, maintains a factory in the city.  In many ways, Pirmasens is a typical small German city.  There is the ubiquitous Fußgängerzone, or pedestrian zone, in the center.  Situated in this pedestrian zone is the town hall with bells tolling the hours and a carillon that plays Wenn alle Brünnlein fließen (If all the fountains flow), a very famous German folksong.  The city is also proud of its science center, called Dynamikum, recognized in the region for its quality.

These aspects of the city's history and layout informed our recordings.  We made field recordings of the pedestrian zone, including the carillon playing Wenn alle Brünnlein fleißen.  We also visited the Peter Kaiser shoe factory and Joseph Bayer's cobbler shop to record various shoe making and shoe repair machines.  We scheduled a trip to Dynamikum Science Centre and recorded many of the exhibits, all with unique sound qualities.  Finally, we visited the home of Vilja Steckel who is a recognized piano instructor in the town.  The Steckels are recognized within Pirmasens as excellent arts educators - they trained 3 children for successful careers in major European orchestras - as well as patrons.  At the Steckel home, we recorded a piano lesson that Vilja Steckel conducted with an 11 year old student on Mozart's Fantasy in D minor.

We recorded these particular dimensions of Pirmasens life for different reasons.  Some of them can be classified as soundmarks, a term coined by R. Murray Schaffer in his Tuning of the World.  Schaffer is a founder of the acoustic ecology movement, a composer, and an educator.  He is particularly concerned with the transforming landscape of urban environments.  Tuning of the World lays out an approach to studying soundscapes, offering a wealth of new terminology, often derived from existing words, for instance, earwitness rather than eyewitness or schizophonia (the separation of sound from its source) rather than schizophrenia.  A soundmark, rather than a landmark, is a sound that people from that community associate to a specific place or memory.  The community that shares this soundmark is called an acoustic community.  Schaffer's argues in Tuning of the World that effort should be made to identify soundmarks and  design environments to preserve them.   The pedestrian zone, the town hall carillon,  the Peter Kaiser shoe factory, and even the Joseph Bayer cobbler shop are important soundmarks for the Pirmasens community.   They yield memories of life in Pirmasens.

The other recordings - the piano lesson and the Dynamikum Science Centre - capture nooks within a larger landscape.  They are portraits of life within the city rather than the life of the city.   This is an important distinction, particularly in relation to the history of urban soundscape and music, which probably started in 1913, with Luigi Russolo's Futurist manifesto entitled The Art of Noises.  Russolo's main argument is that machines fill our landscapes today and the resulting noises are to be embraced.  He proposed an orchestra of noisemaking instruments that are, in his opinion, much more varied in timbre than our tired old fiddles.  His families of noises devised for the Futurist orchestra are a list of percussive instruments.  In fact, Russolo's work can be seen as a precursor to modern percussion repertoire, which only got its first ensemble piece in the 1930s and first solo pieces in the 1950s.  Hence, urban soundscape arguably created the potential for Varese's Ionisation for 13 percussionists from 1931, Cage's prepared piano works from the 1940s, as well as Zero Crossing's adventures in Pirmasens in 2015.  Still, it's significant to note that Russolo's rumbles, gurgles, and scrapes are undifferentiated, generic sounds that represent the anonymous, undifferentiated urban world.  Similarly, when Pierre Schaeffer made his works with manipulated recordings of train whistles, he treated them as just train whistles, not those of the Gare du Nord.  In our Pirmasens project, we generally avoided undifferentiated sounds of the city such as highway traffic or construction sites.  These sounds are like cicadas in the jungle, an ever-present drone over which all else frequently struggles to be heard.  Their ubiquity makes them an anonymous extra in the urban theater.  They are the sounds not just of Pirmasens but almost all European cities.

Zero Crossing neither creates an artificial representation of a city nor masks sources completely via signal processing.  Instead, the recorded source is a reference, recognizable by its acoustic community and placed in an arena for our creative engagement with it via editing and signal processing.  Some sounds are left untouched, as can be heard in the opening 4 minutes of the work.  Others are sliced up and used in virtual instruments.  The opening is followed by an improvised duo between percussion and a virtual instrument of shoe repair machines.  Still other sounds are transposed, layered, glitched, frozen, distorted and move in and out between recognizability and obfuscation.  This is where Zero Crossing carries out its dialogue with the Pirmasens soundscape, shifting attention from representation to imagination.  This approach isn't just philosophical, it is practical, necessary because the work is not just built from recordings, but from the creative incorporation of those recordings with live percussion.  Through this work, the creative stimulus derived from the intersection between sound sources, sonic potential via signal processing, and percussion instruments yields a working method that guided the development of the creative framework, used in the creation of Trompong for 3 Balinese gongs and electronics.

 

About the Music

Schwarze Sehnsucht
  1. Schwarze Sehnsucht
  2. Haneda Airplane Ballet
  3. Pirmasens
  4. Trompong
  5. musegain song
  6. musegain song
  7. musegain song
  8. musegain song

Percussion and electronic instruments are particularly well suited for the exploration of new expressive possibilities of sound.  They are the most fluidly defined instruments in the contemporary instrumentarium.  In fact, they are not single instruments.  Today, anything that is treated like percussion is percussion.  Electronic components and computers offer a set of possibilities that seems to expand continually as new technologies become available and fresh perspectives creatively engage with them.  The sonic boundaries of percussion and electronics are limited more by imagination than the physical nature of the instrument.

 

Percussion and electronics became serious instruments only toward the middle of the twentieth century.  They are fitting additions to the contemporary instrumentarium because contemporary music has increasingly embraced musical materials that are not pitch-based.  A work like Xenakis' Rebonds for solo percussion would have been inconceivable as music in the 19th century; percussive sounds do not allow for tonal melodic or harmonic structure.  But the activities of composers from the first half of the twentieth century made works like Xenakis' Rebonds possible in the latter half of that century.  We now have a rich repertoire of works organized using different methods.

 

Still, it is possible to view all of the new sonic and structural possibilities as a crisis.  Any sound is a possible beginning with the potential to link to any other sound.  If anything can be material, what is the argument for any one thing being material in a new work?  The computer offers another conundrum: it can reproduce any sound.  It's sound source can be anything - a car horn, a church bell, a food blender - and it can be extensively processed to produce new sounds that exist along a spectrum between clearly related to completely dissimilar.  What is the reason for using any sound source?  Is it just visceral pursuit for unique, intriguing, or beautiful sounds?  Sorting out answers to these questions, even if they is temporary, is a relevant success for artists working in sound today.

 

 

In Trompong, we attempt to address this material crisis via a Creative Framework. This framework includes 3 stages of creation.  The first stage of creation is Instrument/Activator.  Here the duo selects instruments and explores their sonic possibilities.  Even with a single instrument, this is a rich space for sound exploration.  A percussion instrument, perhaps more than any other instrument, is sonically defined by both itself and its activator.  For example, a snare drum's sonic and compositional potential isn't defined exclusively by the drum.  Instead, it is the interaction between the drum and the activator.  Common activators of the snare drum include drumsticks, brushes, fingers, and mallets.  Chopsticks, coins, grains of rice, and many other materials can also be used as activators.  Each offers a variety of unique playing techniques, timbres, and compositional possibilities.

 

The Instrument/Activator stage of creation yields a set of timbres and textures, which propose compositional possibilities.  These are directly addressed in the Sonic Organization stage.  At this stage, the musicians create material based on the discoveries from the Instrument/Activator stage and work out compositional elements and a rough form.

 

In reflection on the materials, compositional elements, and form, the musicians, then, look for ways to complete the work in the virtual extension stage of creation.  Here signal processing routines are designed to enhance the work.  This may result in a challenge to the material and compositional elements developed in the Sonic Organization stage.  The musicians decide if the processing should run on its own via artificial intelligence or be designed as an instrument with interface elements used to control its active parameters in live performance.

 

The creative process described above is more than procedural; it is also organic, even ecological.  A composition, for instance, is not complete once work in the virtual extension stage is finished.  Instead, decisions made during the virtual extension stage may require reconsideration of the sonic organization or the sounds themselves, and these reconsiderations may require another pass at the virtual extension stage.

 

Trompong is a work with a very simply instrumentation - 3 trompong (pot-shaped gongs found in the Balinese Gong Kebyar gamelan) and signal processing.  Still, there is a great deal of sonic richness to explore.  In creating this work, we used the creative framework as a guide.  We started with the 3 instruments and explored what is possible with them, hitting them with different mallets in different places in different ways.  We discovered that the instruments are tuned so that beating occurs when they sound simultaneously.  and that it is possible to create a small glissando by hitting the pot with one mallet and dragging another across its surface.  This was the first stage of the work.  Then, we reflected on how those sounds could be organized compositionally (stage 2) and which aspects of the trompong sound world should influence the signal processing (stage 3).

 

As can be heard in the work, we start with an introduction to the instruments themselves and the vibrating fullness that they achieve when sounded simultaneously.  This is enhanced with thick reverb and tones generated by very short feedback delays.  At one point, we both play trompong so that the 3 instruments can sound simultaneously.  As delay settings change to introduce feedback glitching, percussion shifts to an assortment of mallets that introduce much sharper attacks in comparison to the yarn mallets used in the beginning.

 

The glissando on trompong is clearly heard in the middle of the second section of the work and this leads to the incorporation of glissando pitch shifting in the signal processing.  This middle section ends with modulating panning, which in our minds is related to the beating inherent in the trompong tuning.  The panning is a subtle introduction to the final section that brings back the 3 trompong in loud, ringing bursts filled with natural modulation. To this, we add distortion with live control over a modulating filter.  The speed of this filter modulation guides the improvisation between percussion and its processing.