Recently, on the occasion of Kranky’s 20th Anniversary, I’ve been revisiting the ca. 2002-2005 Playthroughs frameworks, and have updated them to work with contemporary hardware. A series of anniversary performances has been ongoing, and I have recently performed the piece at Musée des Artes de Nantes as part of SOY Festival, in Niigata Japan as part of The Labyrinth, and at l’Auditori in Barcelona for Sampler Series.
"I began experimenting with real-time guitar-processing setups during the mid 1990s; I had this amazing "Norma" guitar - you could actually pull the pole-pieces out of any one of the 4 (!) pickups while you were playing it, plus the pickups were entirely microphonic and would pick up any sound-source near the guitar (this guitar was covered in food at the fateful last "trio" El-Ron gig and is still sitting in the basement in the case... I'm afraid to open it). I would affix a "flex-a-ton" to this guitar, which was played with an E-Bow and a metal slide through a Lexicon Jam-Man and a Digitech DSP-12... the result was this great raw square-wave low-end drone. I played a few gigs in 1997 with this setup... in the Twisted Village shop with Damon & Naomi, and again a few weeks later opening for Yo La Tengo at the Middle East Downstairs... a very high profile gig given the relative a-commerciality of the sounds produced. During the soundcheck I sliced my hand open with a straight razor I was using to "prepare" said guitar, but played the gig anyways.
The following year I acquired a Mac G3 Powerbook and started experimenting with a powerful (but sadly extinct) audio software package called "Spark". I found that in Spark's "Realtime FX Machine" mode I could string together VST plugins in a modular array and play any sound-source through said matrix and receive instant feedback. The trick was in getting the right order of processors... after a few weeks I had come up with a tried and true signal path:
Input --> MDA Tracker --> Steinberg Karlette --> GRM Tools Shuffler --> Spark Reverb --> Output
The beauty of this chain was that, if I played a guitar (at this point, a very cool and very cheap Bentley acoustic with a Dean Markley pickup) carefully through a volume pedal, fading in each note to remove the attacks, the MDA Tracker plugin would correctly guess the pitch of the note(s) played into it and synthesize a nice round sine tone at the exact same pitch. The slight intonation inconsistencies inherent to even an expertly tuned/setup electric guitar would be translated in floating point values to the Tracker, whose output was sent to the Karlette where all those slightly out of tune notes slowly built up in a near-infinite feedback loop. I panned the four "heads" of Karlette hard left, just left, just right, and hard right - the tap times set at 2 seconds, 1.98 seconds, 1.96 seconds, and 1.94 seconds. This yielded a very slowly shifting sound-cloud, pure enharmonic sine tones going out of phase and cancelling each other out all across the stereo spectrum. In itself a very dense sound, but when fed into the GRM Shuffler the tonal possibilities really started to reveal themselves... and when that was fed into a rather remarkable spring reverb emulation, well, let's just say it was a very unique combination of sounds.
Using this system I recorded about 2 DAT's worth of improvisations, mostly 10 minute pieces with slow attack and slow decay. As much as I love completely atonal and dissonant music, I found that the harmonic buildup was much more impressive when I played in a scalar fashion... pealing out multi-octave arpeggiations one note at a time, then adding the one note below all others that would shift the tonality of the whole tone cluster in a completely different direction, then build that up and repeat ad infinitum. One wrongly played or incorrectly tracked note-choice would ruin the entire performance. In time I became familiar with the system enough that I could feed notes into it in an almost subconscious level... I intrinsically knew what note needed to be played next, almost a sort of "automatic music" with only one stage of human interaction, and a few tweaks of the plugin parameters for slight variation and formic buildup.
I made some 3" compact disc recordables of the two most successful pieces and gave them out to friends. Kurt Ralske asked me to play a show he was curating at Brownie's in NYC, where I played the computer-based guitar piece in front of a live audience. Needless to say, there was a high level of excitement on my part in again playing long-form, blissed-out drones in a rock club.. it was the perfect riposte to the jarring, short-attention span freak outs I was most known for and, even back then, getting somewhat tired of. One of the CD-Rs landed in the hands of the Apartment B label who reissued the two pieces as "21:30 for acoustic guitar..." in early 2000. This led to a series of concerts playing the piece opening for Labradford in 2001, who recommended I send some music to the Kranky label, who agreed to release an album of said pieces. This was incredible news as I did and still do consider Kranky the "heavyweights" of crossover rock-drone, penning many a review of their catalogue for fanzines...
I figured it was time to take it to the next level...
Back in college ca. 1993-1994 I had been using Opcode's Max to build MIDI-based performance pieces (under the tutelage of Dr. Richard Boulanger) although in the interim years I had little contact with any music software other than Studio Vision and Sound Edit 16 (all of the Hrvatski-music was produced via MIDI and a hardware Akai sampler). After retiring from my day job, I went on a working safari in Australia where I finally had the time/resources to purchase the contemporary Cycling '74 version of Max-MSP. Within one massive bringing-up-to-speed week I was playing concerts with a superior version of my previous Spark-based system, including a mind-bendingly loud duo set with Oren Ambarchi at the Sydney Opera House. The stability and easy learning curve of Max-MSP still, to this day, amaze me... there's little that can't be done within the realms of digital audio and control data manipulation given you work within the confines of the processing power of the host computer. Plus, and I repeat this often, I love that you start with a blank slate and are forced (at knifepoint) to build everything yourself. That's the kind of modus I can get behind... especially in a market inundated with "plug and play" solutions for producing cookie-cutter music.
For a straight year, I recorded music using variants of the Playthroughs 1.0 system, resulting in approximately 18 hours of music. I whittled this down to the three finest compositions on file, added a few non Max-MSP pieces, and christened it an album... "Playthroughs" was released on Kranky in October of 2002 and continues to sell in record numbers (for an album consisting mainly of processed sine tones at least). Just prior to the album's release I upgraded the patch to 2.0, as, armed with a Powerbook G4 400, there was much more room to squeeze in processor-intensive routines. This revision marked my switch to constructing master patches entirely out of "BPatchers" - sub-patches with their own inlets and outlets that can be arranged, deleted, and organized any way I see fit, even on the fly.
Between 2002 and 2004 I played the Playthroughs piece the world over from Austin to Tokyo to New Orleans, etc... all while adding functionality to certain modules, while removing others entirely. These constant renovations, coupled with my recent acquisition of both a top-of-the-line Mac Powerbook and a collection of hardware-based Electro-Harmonix effects pedals (take a look at the routing chart above) to process the guitar signal pre-computer input culminated in the completion, yesterday, of the landmark release Playthroughs V3.0." - Keith Fullerton Whitman, March 7th, 2005.
The source material for every piece on Playthroughs is guitar: acoustic, electric or otherwise. From Sept. 2001 to April 2002. Keith Fullerton Whitman transformed raw guitar tones via laptop computer into the tracks on Playthroughs. Whitman has used ring modulators, granular re-synthesis algorithms, banks of delays and special effects in a process that owes much to Terry Riley's Time Lag Accumulator setup and Steve Reich's Phase Pieces. Technology and Whitman's careful selection of notes combine to create shimmering drones and deep waves of sound. Though the source material was improvised guitar and the procesing involved computer technology, Playthroughs reflects Whitman's mastery of composition.
Constellation (Chicago, December 2014)