Brains: Audiophile Computer Music by Christopher K. Koenigsberg
Reviewed by Donna McCabe for The Computer Music Journal
Christopher Koenigsberg's Brains CD is a fine example of what you might find lurking in your basement - or rather the basement of the Mills College Center for Contemporary Music. In this release, appropriately subtitled "audiophile computer music," Koenigsberg takes us on a 72 minute exploration into, around, and through a 15 second sample of a water pump, mixed skillfully with grains of his personality.
In his thesis paper The Insane and the Technical: Comments on My Music, which contains the 10 pages of program notes from the 1993 premiere concert at Mills College, Koenigsburg speaks about obsessive gems and surprising discoveries that go into making his music.
When I first received this CD to review I was struck by the difference from the live concert in 1993, and the 1994 recording. Surprised to find the music different, not only in order of program, but in overall sonic experience. Koenigsburg obviously thought a lot about presentation, and his music worked well due to his forethought in both situations.
Knowing his concert hall audience was much different than the CD audience, Koenigsburg chose to start the CD with Back to Nothing, his self-described audio spinach for hard-core computer music listeners. Back to Nothing uses granular synthesis to germinate organic seeds which grow to become musical textures. Originally the seventh piece on the concert, Back to Nothing is appropriately placed first, laying the framework for the music to come. Koenigsburg wrote C programs to generate scorefiles for Mara Helmuth's Sgran computer music instrument, which is part of Paul Lansky's Cmix software suite. Don't let the high frequencies at the beginning fool you into turning your amplifier up; the crisp clean sounds will soon give way to foreign audio lands. This is no question this is computer generated. We hear the pump first in its tiniest pieces, imploding upon itself in prelude to The Rat's Nest (which did follow sequentially in the concert as well).
Koenigsburg admits, If you're going to the stereo store to test-drive some speakers, take 'The Rat's Nest' along. A full audio spectrum test, both in frequency and amplitude. This piece originates from swapfiles off a public access NeXT machine, translates operating system data as sound, and finally mixed using SoundDesigner and Lansky's RT mix software. At the piece's opening we discover precious interior landscapes (rat's nests), which Koenigsburg ventures into full force. If you make it through this track, or rather if your speakers do, you'll be rewarded by reaching the heart, or perhaps the brains, of the pump sound. At 5:41 in duration, you'll not be begging for more, but nor does it drag on too long.
The Free Spirit, the third track, is the culmination of the first half of the CD. After hearing the tiny grains of the water pump in the earlier pieces, Koenigsburg phase vocodes these grains up to 500 times their original length. The slight fluctuations in the original fragment turn into worlds of delicate sonic nuance. There is a robust mix of five tracks of these stretched sounds with slowed down text from poet Yun Wang. Her voice and the sibilance of her hissing S's make this 18 minute work my favorite on the disk, becoming more rewarding with every listen, each minute becoming a deeper journey inside the pump. You'll want to listen to this delicate industrial work over, but daring to a higher volume next time. Just don't forget to turn your amp down after this piece is over.
This timeless world is shattered by the voice that begins the title track Brains. The text is taken from a 1975 recording of Koenigsburg's father, in reference to some noisy teen jam session, Shut it off! That's it. No more, you understand? If you don't have Brains enough, I won't let you use it again! These textual fragments are then stretched and torn. Stereo placement on this mix is spectacular, with excerpted segments of the original text looping at different points, played at various sample rates. Koenigsburg takes the risk of including humor into his computer music, which makes the difficult listening tracks enjoyable.
The fifth track, LCM for 12 Piano Sample is the first in Koenigsburg's LCM series of rhythmic explorations. With non-prime Least Common Multiples of organic piano samples, the twelve streams play a phrase of different length and time signature, though they all play in the same tempo. Since the individual piano phrase lengths are not equal, their LCM becomes the generative structure for the work. During the live performance there was a team of modern dancers on-stage in a structured group choreographic accumulation improvisation.
Artifact #2? ArtMix acts as a prelude to Basement Artifact #1. This is the first full, unaltered, 18-second cycle of the water pump. Koenigsburg indicates this work is a live improvisation, beginning with the awful nasty broken pump sound, journeying through countrysides of strange hybrid shapes and creatures of gestural material, finally ending up in a spaced-out zone where a maniacal, crazed Buchla Thunder automaton process runs away and begins to spout jazz riffs, on its own accord, as if the Turing machine suddenly ran out of tape and finally transcended Godel's Incompleteness Theorem, to achieve a fleeting moment of shining self-awareness. The continual overdubs of the original pump sample, looped within and on top of itself throughout the work sonically add texture to Koenigsburg's pump explorations. He has subjected the sound to severe technical and aesthetic scrutiny.
The CD ends with two very different pieces, Yellow Teeth Dub and All the Same to Me. These are the dance mixes to Koenigsburg's "Brains." A dub mix complete with reggae beats, followed by music to rock you on out of the house, rub-a-dub style (sort of). A palatable and up-beat ending to some otherwise challenging sounds. These pieces make you want to go back and start the disk all over again. Maybe this time on shuffle play.
Koenigsburg has the only cassette recording of the Mills College water pump, which he had fixed prior to his concert. Give your stereo system the workout you purchased it for. This disk brings together the technical and the insane. Koenigsburg's Brains is something to hear.
Compact disc, PWOA 011 Available from PWOA Productions, Suite 705-405, 1163 E. Ogden Avenue, Naperville, IL 60563.