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
Max Riefer is passionate about new music, having founded his first new music ensemble at the age of 18. Currently, he is the percussionist with Inverspace (Switzerland) and Zero Crossing (Germany/Singapore). He has also played with Ensemble Modern (Frankfurt) and Zeitkratzer (Berlin). He served as artistic director and conductor of Shin (Japan).
Concert tours have taken him around the world with performances all over Europe, Palestine, Syria, China, Japan, Korea, Mongolia, and Southeast Asia. He has performed at international festivals including MaerzMusik (Berlin), Tokyo Experimental Festival (Japan), Wien Modern (Austria), two days and two nights of new music (Odessa, Ukraine), CRACKING BAMBOO (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand), and the Soundways Festival (St. Petersburg, Russia). Riefer's concerts were recorded and broadcasted at radio stations such as the DeutschlandRadio Kultur, DLF, Saarländischer Rundfunk, SWR 2 (all Germany), and BBC 3 (United Kingdom).
Max Riefer is the Chair of Percussion Studies at UiTM in Malaysia. Previously, he served as a lecturer on the percussion faculty at Conservatorio della Svizzera Italiana in Lugano, Switzerland from 2010 to 2012. He has been a guest lecturer at various universities including the Birmingham Conservatoire (UK); Toho Gakuen School of Music, Tokyo Ongaku Daigaku, Ueno Gakuen (Japan); the University of the Philippines (Manila, Philippines); the University of Malaya, SEGi College of Music (Malaysia); the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory and the LaSalle College of Arts (Singapore).
Riefer studied primarily at the Hochschule für Musik, Freiburg with Prof. Bernhard Wulff, Pascal Pons, and Taijiro Miyazaki, graduating in 2010 with highest honors. Having received a scholarship in 2007, he studied with Prof. Imamura and Prof. Tsukada at the Toho Orchestra Academy in Toyama, Japan. Further studies included masterclasses with David Searcy, Franz Schindlbeck, Steven Schick, and Aurel Nicolet.
Peter Ivan Edwards
Peter Ivan Edwards creates compositions on his own and in collaboration with other musicians. In his own works, he explores sound as a means to articulate energy, shape, narrative, and perspective. He employs computer-assisted and algorithmic means in the development of these works. The collaboratively created works stem from an experimental tradition wherein the general features are determined but the details are decided in performance. These works explore the use of signal processing to create new sounds and extended instruments as well as ways in which the computer can be an interactive partner in performance.
His works have been performed at festivals including Darmstadt Summer Courses (Germany), MATA Festival (New York), Donaueschinger Musiktage (Germany), Wien Modern (Austria), and June in Buffalo (New York). Additionally, his works have been premiered throughout the world by numerous performers and ensembles including Ensemble Interface (Frankfurt), Mutare Enemble (Frankfurt), Ensemble SurPlus (Freiburg), Ensemble Chronophonie (Freiburg), Ensemble Ascolta (Stuttgart), Ensemble Selisih (Freiburg), mmm... collective (Tokyo), red fish blue fish (San Diego), La Jolla Symphony, conductor Sian Edwards (UK), percussionists Max Riefer (Germany) and Aiyun Huang (Canada), contralto Noa Frenkel (Israel/Holland), kayageum player Heesun Kim (South Korea), trumpeter Stephen Altoft (UK/Germany), pianist Jongah Yoon (South Korea/Singapore), flutist Reiko Manabe (Japan), and guitarist Colin McAllister (USA).
Edwards was born in New York and studied composition at Northwestern University; the University of California, San Diego; and the Folkwang Hochschule in Essen, Germany. His principal composition teachers were Chaya Czernowin and Nicolaus A. Huber. Since 2005, he resides in Singapore where he teaches composition and computer music at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory, National University of Singapore.
Max Riefer, percussion
Peter Ivan Edwards, electronics
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.
Haneda Airplane Ballet
Schwarze Sehnsucht is the first work created by Zero Crossing. It resulted from Max Riefer requesting a new work for percussion from Peter Edwards. The answer was negative - there wasn't any time in his schedule at that moment - but Peter suggested that they work together collaboratively on a new piece for percussion and electronics. Schwarze Sehnsucht was completed during a 3-day session in October 2013, recorded that month and premiered publicly in Freiburg Germany a few weeks later at the festival celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Freiburg Percussion Ensemble.
The work is a structured improvisation with 3 contrasting sections using a minimal setup: snare, cymbal, and electronics. The timbral richness of a piece using such limited instrumentation is a testament to the extensive role that signal processing plays in this piece. There are no recorded parts in the electronics; everything is live signal processing on a snare drum and a cymbal. To achieve some of the more complex textures found in the first two sections, the computer needed to take on a more active role. In the first section, particularly, the computer uses randomization to determine certain parameters resulting in an improvisation between three components - the percussionists, the sound enginneer, and the computer. The two humans continually respond to changes proposed by the machine.
Still, the percussion instruments provide a great deal of timbral richness. In the second section, for instance, Max only plays a cymbal, but he strikes several locations on the instrument, each yielding a slightly different timbre. Most striking is the screeching sounds toward the end of that section that result from Max scraping the butts of his mallets across the surface of the cymbal. The final section returns to snare drum but this time without mallets. (The snares are never engaged on the drum, so the listener may wonder if the drum is a snare at all.) Using only his hands - palms, fingertips, nails - he yields a world of microscopic sounds that are heavily amplified and placed in a deeply reverberant space via signal processing. The electronics subtly change the timbre via equalization, but this is purposely pushed too far on occasion to yield feedback at particular frequencies.
When you stand on Tokyo Tower in the city district of Minato and face south, you can see Haneda airport. During sunset, viewers can witness a breathtaking spectacle: aircrafts taking off and landing over Tokyo's skyline. The variety in their movements amongst the positioning lights resembles a perfectly rehearsed, nimble-footed choreography, as if these huge planes dare to dance with each other.
Haneda Airplane Ballet is inspired by this image. It can be heard in the quiet, frenetic mumbling that starts the work and the rupturing counterpoint between percussion and a virtual instrument built from violin samples that interrupts the opening mumbles. The jet engines are referenced toward the end of the work with glissando whistles, pitch-shifted gongs, and suspended grainy violin samples that can be bent gradually up and down in pitch, like the whining engines transformed by Doeppler effect.
More generally, Max's memories of Japan, where he lived and studied for nearly a year, are found in the middle of the work, where 5 gong strikes are heard, a reference to the resounding temple bells found throughout Japan. These ringing gongs sound against a field recording, taken in Singapore. Originally, we used a more pristine nature recording made in a German forest, but Max rejected it for being too pure. "There need to be machines and people, maybe the sound of traffic in it, not just birds," he said.
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.