anatomy of a visual / musical jam session -- vizcamp2013
Anatomy of a visual / musical jam session vizcamp2013

As always, this vizcamp had no official theme or orientation beyond being a visual gathering in the woods.

And as always, there was a thinly veiled attempt to give a direction to the gathering. For vizcamp2 the direction was simultaneous visual / musical improvisation.

I sought to impart said direction in various ways:

1. Preselecting participants by inviting musicians and visualists to camp who were already sympathetic to the direction.

Getting the right folks together      most important thing I did. That and ordering pizza.

2. Preloading the mindset of the campers to the direction. This was done via a couple weeks of email discussion before camp.

I tried to make it clear that the focus of the vizcamp weekend would be performing together. Friday night was warmup, explore, rehearse. Saturday night was the "Show" for campers and invited guests.

3. And then on vizcamp weekend, getting out of the way (the most important most important thing I did). The performers were smart, motivated and experienced musicians or visualists      and in several cases, both. They liked the idea and were willing to take risks in order to achieve it.

They did an awesome job.

Midway through Friday night's session, the visualist on ElectroSlate said to the vibes player, "At one point I thought I was following you and then realized you were following me."

And Saturday night things got even better.

The guitarist later said, "I was just carving out a line to follow what the visuals were doing."

Weeks leading up to vizcamp2013

At the same time I was publically planting and promoting the direction as a done deal standard procedure thing, privately I became increasingly worried about the possiblity of authentic visual / musical co improvisation.

I had sent some inquiries to media discussion groups before camp, and internet chatter on the prospects were pessimistic to say the least. Basically, "That kind of live collaboration has been tried before and it usually doesn't work."

Urg. I didn't bother to tell the campers.

Instead, I figured if anybody could do it, the vizcampers showing up that weekend had a fighting chance.

One heartening note: as part of my not so subtle email campaign to acrue mindshare for the viz/muz jam idea, I sent the following msg:

From: Fred Lakin
Subject: bottom up jam session

Roy, Julius, David and Tim     

A new part of vizcamp this year is the addition of a "bottom up jam session" for musicians and visualists playing together. Bottom up means start with small/short/simple elements (think "notes") which are combined into interesting temporal patterns through skill, agility and design.

AKA, bojams.

The goal is two musicians and two visualists all playing at the same time, and all looking at and listening to each other so that they're also playing TOGETHER. So that the patterns each player puts out there reflect and respond to what the others are playing.

To which Roy, the vibes guy, responded like this:

You've described what good musicians do at all times. It's the standard protocol for jazz sessions. Glad to hear that emphasis will be our goal ;^)

And I thought, OK, this might work

Friday, day one vizcamp

Friday morning before camp.

I wrote a composition for vibes and slate to demonstrate my idea of visual and musical jamming. I called it "Don Loui's Shuffle, a 12 bar graphics." Which I was going to hand out to each performer Firday afternoon before the first session. That way I hoped to get at least 5 minutes to see an actual VandM Jam before things went their usual course and evolved/degenerated* into a performing graphics free for all. For an old hippie, I'm remarkably conservative      I like my anarchy in politics, not art.

(BTW, turned out that I kept the score in my pocket most of the weekend, where it apparently worked by broadcasting through ESP, so that was good).

* A matter of disagreement amongst the assembled. Some folks love free for all and think it is the best form for all visual jams. I on the other hand enjoy viz free for alls, but think they have been overexposed and that it's time to try other more structured forms. Hence attempt to impart said direction to vizcamp2.

Speaking of personel, the account so far oversimplified the list of performers. A lot.

In total seven musicians and four visualists performed at various times at vizcamp2, including three visualist/musician hybrids who have been counted twice.

Instruments: guitar, vibes, bongo drums, voice, drum machine; electroslate, skypad,


Julius      guitar

Nick      keyboards (Casio WK 6500)

Clay      drum machine on laptop (also brought own vizinstr, but did not play; we ran short of juice for projectors and Clay was kind enough to stand in on rhythm).

Warren      Sky Pad visual instrument of own design

Tim visual instrument (also brought his Space Palette, the vizintr of his own design, but did not play)

David      (electro)Slate visual instrument of own design

Roy      vibes (actually, vibes with Tri Chromatic Keyboard of his own design)

Friday Afternoon

David (visualist, slate) and Roy (musician, vibes) both arrived midafternoon and promptly set up, started noodling around on their instruments individually.

Personel Aside      darn straights, they're ringers!

Roy the vibes guy:
1. invented his own instrument (trichomatic vibraphone)
2. very facile on that instrument, jazz musician
3. extremely open to idea of full peer VnM jam
4. visual side, also architect

David the slate guy:
1. invented his own visual instrument
2. very facile on that viz instr
(where facile means immediate control of small/short/simple visual elements (think "notes") which are combined into interesting temporal patterns through skill, agility and design)
3. was in a 3 person visual band in the 80's, The Raster Masters, who toured with the Dead
4. since then, been seeking full peer VnM jams
5. also a musician: kbds, drums, singer

Vibes and Slate continue to jam, other musicians observing, beginning to play, trying to join in.

[NOTE: what follows are mostly my rough notes at the time, crudely edited and shoved into web page; remaining half still to be transcribed.]

Friday evening, first jam session

Vibes and slate start playing. Working it out, learning how to play together and not just at same time.

Other two musicians setting up equipment, noodling a bit, lurking, observing.

After a hour or so, slate and vibes are getting the hang of it ...

And then tipping point comment by Slate to vibes: "At one point I thought I was getting pretty good at following you and then realized you were following me." [DESIGNATED CRUCIAL EVENT POINT A]

[also called the "WE MADE IT!" point by frd]

Other two musicians open to idea, witnessing event point A and figuring out how to join in and started playing.

During break, frd to the two musicians:

Q: "When jamming, how do you decide who's leading?"

A: 1. just assert, take the lead and others acknowlege
    2. conventions like rotation, hand gestures, meaningful glances

Saturday, day two vizcamp

Saturday morning/afternoon

Gathered visualists and musicians togther for discussion

1. Showed some video from jam on previous night. Didn't watch that much of it, but served to refresh people's memories and as a starting point for talk.

2. Led to musicians discussing how to PLAY WITH visualists

A. Re affirmation of peering goal

B. Nick the kbd player said they NEEDED TO SEE BETTER. For instance, a visual monitor for each musician (like speaker monitors or ear plugs for audio bands).

Talked about literally doing that. As electronic/traditional hybrid musicians, they were used to playing instrument AND looking at laptop at the same time, so each musician having the visuals on his laptop would work. Various technology was discussed for doing that, for example each laptop running version of visualists app, coordinated by local wifi.

But, for immediate use that night, settled on repositioning musicians closer to screen and facing it, also they resolved to focus more on watching.

At some point during Saturday afternoon, I accosted each of the visualists and musicians, confessed I had written a 12 bar graphics composition for vibes and slate to demonstrate VandMjam. They were polite, looked it over. My take: for vibes and slate, no insights from it, they'd already done peer jamming the previous night. For the other two musicians, also polite, meh.

[hence, as stated above, my contribution had been made pre camp, and actual camp value add was neglible. also should be noted I blew the pizza order, and literally ordered twice as many pizzas as were consumed Sat nite. so, breakfast and lunch next day.]

Saturday evening, second jam session aka "The Show"

Jam started at dusk with three screens up, two being used for one instrument each. Third screen was not every used and taken down almost immediately.

There were also electicity issues; fuses kept blowing which limited number of projectors.

Somewhere around this time, I asked the performers if they would object to a drum machine providing a simple background rhythm, and no one did. So I powered the drum machine app on my laptop, and Clay, who was not play his visual instrument because we ran out of juice, graciously agreed to operate it.

[ in retrospect, crucial event point C but not a big deal at the time ]

First set, there was one visually complex Sky Pad solo on right screen while Slate noodled around on the right, occasionally taking lead, other times doing background pattern.

At that point audience chatter suggested that the two projectors could be moved so that each one projected onto both screens. This was because the two visual styles were so different      slate with quick strikes of bright lines, and skypad with dimmer screen filling mandala patterns      that they could easily be distinguished if playing in a shared visual space.

I walked over and quietly suggested this to each visual performer; each readily agreed.


[also called the "WOW, WE REALLY MADE IT!" point for frd]

So the two projectors were overlapped to use the two side by side screens as one double wide screen of shared visual space.

After an hour or so, the jam was beginning to work with two visualists (slate, skypad) and two musicians (guitar, keyboars) plus operated drum machine.

Thereafter for next two hours, there were stretches of thirty seconds to two minutes when the visualists and the musicians were clearly playing together, not yet a band but darn good start. The remaining time they were playing at the same time, very entertaining and enjoyed by all, but not quite visual band moments.

At one point mid evening, guitarist said: "I was just carving out a line to follow what the visuals were doing."

And later the Slate guy said, after a particularly well gelled performance, "That was pan dimensional." [which I didn't really understand at the time, but the performers all did, and enthusiastically endorsed the observation, which is what matters. again, my role at camp, ordering pizza badly. they also serve who stand and wait.]

* Taken together, crucial event points B and C resulted in shared visualspace and shared rhythmspace. Which I felt really enabled the opportunity for visualists and musicians to play together and not just at the same time.


Last but should be first, much appreciation to all those who contributed time and effort to vizcamp2. Without them, no camp.

Melissa Lofton, for installing the amazing Skytent for all to enjoy.

Big kudos to Tim "Ironman" Thompson, who left San Jose Thursday afternoon to drive down to LA for gig, then afterwards drove some more to be back in Santa Cruz Saturday afternoon to pick up Clay and Warren. And to Don and Zack of DonLoui's. The fuses blew five times during the Saturday evening setup, and each time they had to trek through woods to the neighbors in order to make the fix.

And to Don who still had enough energy to play congas and sing scat after close.

More kudos to Roy and Julius, who, with stalwart help from Zack, lugged much equipment up the trail to Don's. Two vibes, one full size, wow!

And to all the campers for putting up with the well intentioned but often clumsy admin.

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