Inverting the Instrument: Aram Shelton’s Tonal Masher
Modern music journalism tends to focus on one aspect of an artist’s output, often in the form of a review of an album or a show. I’ve been increasingly interested in thinking about the creative process as a continuum, rather than just the results. I’m reminded of the rock journalism days of yore when a magazine would send a journalist out on the road with a band to chronicle the experiences in a way that would reveal much more than just the consumer-facing end product. What often emerged was a living, breathing creature that was a lot more complicated than what any one performance or album would have you believe. Although I’m no Cameron Crowe, and there was no tour bus involved, it is in this spirit that I’ve tried to approach my conversations with improvisor/composer Aram Shelton.
I’ve known Aram for many years. We had met during his notable stint in the musical melting pot of Chicago, but really became close when we both attended Mills College in Oakland, CA. Although Aram is known for his impressive work as a saxophonist, he has played in and written for all types of groups and genres, and has an extensive background in electronic experimentation, for which Max has been a part of from the beginning. We’ve spent years together socializing, collaborating, and generally causing trouble, but we have never sat down to specifically talk about his solo work in a dedicated fashion, so it was with great anticipation that I embarked upon this project. Using his performance at the Starline Social Club in Oakland as the centerpiece, we got together a number of times to discuss his solo project, Tonal Masher. We first met at his practice space a week before the concert to talk about the project, his working method, and the upcoming show.
Aram started using Tonal Masher moniker (an anagram of his birth name) in late summer, 2014. It grew out of his desire to have a project that was an alternative to the jazz and improv groups that he had been playing in. Maintaining musical groups requires a lot of work, and touring is a difficult prospect, especially when there is little money and collaborators are always so busy with other projects. Additionally, he wanted to take his experiences doing electronics and sax in group settings and see if there was a way to do it solo. The project started out with some sax “blowing,” mixed with electronics, but then quickly moved into what it is now, where the horn is never traditionally played, rather, it is used for “shaping” feedback. Before describing it any further, maybe it’s best to check out Aram’s unique performance practice in action:
Aram practices in a nondescript building on a side street in the Temescal district in Oakland. As we make our way through the building, I hear a half dozen bands tuning up and working their way through rehearsals. The hallways are where all of these creations co-exist, creating a Frankenstein-esque mashup of sounds and styles. I wonder what they think is going on in Aram’s studio, as he sets up and begins to coax out the first sounds for this session.
As he’s setting up, I asked him about solo versus group performance using this setup. Aram says, “It makes more sense as a solo practice, particularly because it is electro-acoustic. You hear the tone, but you don’t hear the amplification of the tone, until the electronics are added. This project is about the relationship between the instrument itself and amplification of it. I tend to make music with other people, but this feels like it is complete, or can be complete, by itself. I like having the clear distinction of this as a solo project, as it helps the aesthetic of the music. Even though the Max patch I’ve built is pretty flexible, it’s never that easy to integrate it into something else.”
Although the Tonal Masher project is specifically a solo affair, Aram has worked with electronics in group settings on many occasions. One of my favorite examples of this was a trio called Stratic, with Alex Vittum and Michael Coleman. Aram points out that electronics can be difficult to integrate into a band setting, but in the case of Stratic, all of the members of the group had both electronic and acoustic instruments, and because if of this, it felt like it was somewhat easier to create a cohesive sound. He also used the Tonal Masher Max patch for post-processing for a 2015 project called Resounder, with Fred Lonberg-Holm and Frank Rosaly. It is interesting to hear what happens when the patch is re-purposed for a recording project, taken out of the live context it was built for.
Aram’s discovery and subsequent development of these techniques happened, like many of the best things in life, somewhat on accident. “I just heard it happen in rehearsal once, and I asked myself, I wonder how many pitches I can get out of this? And then it just went from there. It really is an exploration of a different way to use the sax. There are mathematical relationships that have emerged, which is really relevant in pursuing it as a musical instrument. The sax was built this way for a reason, and this project reinforces that it is an important instrument.” Watching Aram play the instrument, you realize that the instrument in this context is actually inverted, played in reverse. He says, “A higher pitch is actually created by holding down less keys. I’ve had to navigate how to play it in this context.” I wondered aloud what other sax players think of this project. Aram says, “I’ve met some other saxophonists who have seen me perform in this context, and they are probably the toughest audience. But, I’ve actually found that most of them are are pretty interested in it.” It must be startling to some sax players to see the instrument, stripped of it’s mouthpiece, laying on it’s side, never even blown through by human breath once.
For me, finding time to rehearse, let alone writing new work, can be a struggle. I ask Aram about his writing and rehearsal schedule, and how he prepares for a solo show like this. “I tend to spend a good amount of time before a show preparing for it, getting into the practice space as much as possible. Having the practice space is really important. Although sometimes I’ll patch build at home, the practice space is for making noise. Which is great, because here I can just crank it up, make as much noise as I want and not worry about it.” Aram recently started a new full time job, and I ask him how this has affected his musical practice. “It’s definitely made my life busier, but since then, I’ve actually been getting involved in a lot of musical projects. I have way less free time than I had before. So, I have less time to to do things like leisurely read the news, but the news is always horrible to read anyways.” He’s had to make some sacrifices to make time for things like rehearsals and composing, but it also has made some things clearer to him. He says, “Thankfully it’s reinforcing the notion of, yes, I want to be doing this, music is still a number one priority.”
As far as what a Tonal Masher rehearsal actually looks and sounds like, Aram sets up as he would at a performance. A single monitor, for playback and feedback activation, a keyboard stand with the sax on its side, a single mic, a foot switch/pedal on the floor to control the patch, and a computer to his left. Aram is using a Windows touch screen computer, which is a dedicated box just for performance.
Aram mentions how he used to try and still use a neck strap like a “normal” saxophonist (as shown in the first video), but it became difficult to navigate both the position of the sax and the operation of the computer. Setting it down on a surface frees him up to change the relationship of the sax to the mic while simultaneously operating the Max patch. He begins to play a bit while we talk about rehearsal, “Rehearsal for me is all about finding new things. For example, I gave myself a month long “residency” before a European solo tour, coming in every day to try something new. I’d record something I liked, save a preset, go home and listen, then go back the next day and try to reproduce it. Even though the preset saves parameters, it’s always slightly different, so I’d want to make sure I could get something close. I’d back come in and just do one thing for a long time, to see if I could just get it consistent. A lot of this is just practicing coordination, moving from position to position, and operating the computer at the same time.”
“I like to have a certain set of things that I do, say three or four, and the transitions between these things are the “wildcard” elements. For a one-off show like the Starline gig, I tend to pick a clear order of events. If I’m on tour, playing similar sets every night, I often will mix it up, moving around the order, and generally improvising more.”
The Max patch that Aram has developed has a beautiful and functional UI, and does just what he wants it to do. He’s spent years fine-tuning it, adding what he needs, and taking out anything unnecessary. He walks me through the inner workings, “The first, and most important thing, is that I’m passing the signal through the DSP. This starts the feedback tone, and I can get a variety of pitches using different key fingerings on the saxophone. I use a compressor on the input, and a multiband limiter on the output. This controls the feedback and does some waveshaping to the tones, depending of course on their amplitude. I think it warms up the pitches a bit (as they come in as nearly sine waves), but it can also bend the feedback pitch. I use continuously recording fixed-length buffers to capture the sound for sampling and processing, and sometimes lock these in to create fixed loops to use to transition to a new section. I use a few different “motion types” to scan through the sample, from just standard forward playback to more dynamic movement. The pitch shifting can happen either temporally (by speeding up/slowing down the buffer) or FFT based (to not change the speed). I use a lot of filtering, ring modulation (the mod tones are fixed on 4 different frequencies), a “Sound Deleter” (fast change of amplitude to create ‘holes’ in the sound), Bit crunching, and delay with feedback controls (which is BPM based, or I can peg it to the length of the recording buffer earlier in the stream). The patch contains four modules that do the same thing, and I can route the signal through these via 4 busses. So on an input I’ve got the choice of either of my preamps, or each of the 4 busses.” It’s a wonderful example of an actual living, breathing instrument created entirely in Max, and specifically tailored for its creator.
Our conversation turns to set duration. “For this show, I’m aiming for about a 20 minute set. 20-30 minutes usually feels really good to me, especially if I’m sharing the bill with other people, You have to allow the audience energy for other bands. The longest Tonal Masher set I’ve done is something like 60 minutes, and it was really nice to just play everything much longer, stay somewhere for a bit more time, and really dig into that sound world.”
Tonal Masher is quite different than the many other musical projects Aram is involved in, and we talk a bit about finding venues that work for this project. “Different than my other work, this project doesn’t fit so much in so called “free jazz” settings. I don’t think there is a perfect space really, but it definitely seems to fit in places where people are more interested in more electronic, experimental work. The bill at the Starline feels like a really good fit for it. There is a rock aspect to it, and “volume” is ok. This project really shines when I’m allowed to play loud and be ‘full spectrum’. I tend to like being enveloped by the sound.”
Aram has had the opportunity to take the project on the road a number of times, playing across Europe and the US. “One of my favorite shows I’ve played was in Dortmund, Germany, in a concrete basement. I shared the bill with a sound artist from the Netherlands, and an electronics artist from Berlin. Another great one was a show in Texas, at a big warehouse space, where I was really able to let loose when I wanted to, and be quiet when I wanted to do that. I also played a large ballroom a while back in Olympia, that worked really well. Talking about it now, I guess I tend to gravitate towards large spaces a bit more…I like it when you can feel the sound around you.“ I’m reminded that touring always brings out new things in the work, and reveals aspects of what you do that you may not have considered before. Although logistically difficult for experimental musicians, and often a money losing endeavor, I’ve always thought it as critical component in shaping an artist’s body of work. That’s clearly happened for Aram.
The upcoming gig is at the Starline Social Club, a beautiful venue on the edge of West Oakland. The main performance space is a large 4000 square foot ballroom with a big, bouncy sound. I ask Aram how he will deal with the room. “It is a huge space. Maybe I’ll be in front of the stage. Surprisingly, there can be more flexibility in situations where I can be loud. My monitor is required to complete the feedback chain, so I’ll bring that. The sound emerges out of the sax’s relationship with the monitor and microphone positions. When I’m playing on a bigger system, I have to get the monitor system going first, then bring up the mains. Soundcheck is really important, ideally an hour to work on the sound, just to be sure. Going to new spaces and not having a lot of time to set up can be pretty difficult. You have to tune yourself to the room.”
Aram runs through some of the different sections he’s considering playing. I comment that I’m particularly fond of how I hear the sound reflecting off of different surfaces in the practice space. Aram says, “Even though there is only one speaker, my setup lately is completely monophonic, the psychoacoustic effects that occur when the sound is moving around the room can create a more-than-monophonic sound.” He continues, “I like to actually feel the vibrations going through the instrument when it is feeding back. I also like to focus in on some of the more percussive elements, as they tend to come through a little bit better. With those gestures, you get to hear that part of the instrument more, and hear the actual mechanics of the saxophone.”
Aram plays a bit more, then we wrap up for the night. I leave understanding and appreciating the project in a new way, excited to see how the performance next week will play out.
I arrive at the Starline on time, as Aram is performing first. A Golden State Warriors game has just ended, which they won, so a celebratory mood permeates the bar. A whole cast of friends and familiar faces begin filtering in, many connected to Mills College. With the exception of the touring band, Ahleuchatistas, a guitar/percussion duo from Asheville, NC, the rest of the performers have connections to Mills. Black Spirituals, the headliner of the evening, features the electronics and guitar work of Zachary Watkins, one of my first friends at Mills, and percussionist Marshall Trammell, who I first saw perform at a Mills concert. Electronics/percussion duo IMA features Amma Ateria and Nava Dunkelman, who also went to Mills. The ballroom begins to fill out, and I weave my way through the crowd, reconnecting with old friends, Mills professors, and musical collaborators. The strong sense of community is palpable, and I’m happily surprised with the attendance. It’s a large room, and having done my fair share of show promotion and booking, I know how hard it is to fill a space like this, on a week night no less. I run into Aram, and we chat a bit about sound check.
He opted for performing on the actual stage, which in the end seems like a good idea. It sounds like he has had a little less time than he had hoped for in terms of sound check, but gives the impression that the Starline sound staff are organized, and know the room and the equipment that they are working with. The opening slot can be both a burden and a gift. A burden because people are still arriving, or haven’t totally settled in yet, but a gift because you get to perform first and have the rest of the night to relax and enjoy the other sets. Aram seems happy with the order, and as the night wore on, I was personally glad that he played first, setting the “vibe” for the night, and long before my inevitable ear fatigue set in.
The show starts with little fanfare, only a shift in lighting and a soft series of tones emerging from the PA indicates that we are underway. The sound slowly evolves into a solid drone, then giving way to rhythmic pulses. Watching Aram perform in this context is an interesting experience. Visually, it appears as if he is doing very little. The physical actions are limited to moving the sax ever so slightly around on the table, as if he was a decorator that was trying to find the perfect location for a critical piece. The lighting on stage here is particularly effective, with heavy green and purple contrasts that visually amplify his movements. As the pulses become more regular, I begin to recall bits from rehearsal, a pleasant experience to hear familiar sounds. The pitches start shifting, and filtered envelopes start shaping the sound, almost recalling Oval or Microstoria in its spectral squishiness. The stage lighting continue to shift, complimenting the tonal shifts, subtle swaths of pitch clusters cascade through the room.
Here is a short excerpt from the show, pardon the quality of the in-camera microphone:
Some slight distortion makes an appearance, is it the speaker distorting or some bitshifting artifacts? Regardless, it provides a welcome grit for the otherwise ambient drift. The crowd listens attentively, settling in, as Aram moves to a decidedly rhythmic motif, somehow managing to sound virtuosic. It reminds me that although this is not the traditional use for the sax, Aram’s technical skill and sheer amount of time he’s had with the instrument remains critical to the success of this project. His physical movements change, it now appears as if he’s trying to fit an object of some sort into oddly shaped container, or maybe running a piece of expensive wood through a precision band saw; a careful dance with an inanimate partner. It sounds as if Aram is feeling out the constraints of the room, carving consonants from the unintelligible air. Now he’s on to something, balancing the unwieldiness of the room with the compactness of his setup. Things sound “in tune,” and he strikes a peaceful equilibrium. I could sit here for a long while, I feel myself beginning to lose a sense of time and space, but as soon as I get to this point, he finishes. I’m left wanting more, but remind myself that it’s better to be left wanting more than wanting less.
The rest of the show goes off without a hitch. The sheer creative diversity of each performance somehow celebrates what it is to live in the Bay area. Aram and I catch up briefly after the show, talk a moment about how it went, swap some jokes, and promise to catch up in the following week to have a decompression session.
The following week, we catch up at a neighborhood bar. I find Aram upstairs next to the skeeball and a growing crowd of happy hour revelers. We grab drinks and start talking the events of last week. I wonder if he recorded the set, as I would love to hear it in a different context, but he hadn’t. We start talking about the difficulty of trying to capture this project for an album. He mentions how when he records it, it tends to sound “more peaceful,” somehow losing important characteristics along the way. He says, “Recording this project is such a challenge, it feels like it has a lot more life than what I’ve been able to capture.” He’s still grappling with how to document the project, and we discuss different recording techniques that might work, perhaps recording in a nice live room, with some overdubs, or perhaps with some re-amping. I can relate to the difficulty of recording this kind of work, and we commiserate on this topic for a while.
Our attentions turn back to the performance. I ask him about the structure of the set, and he says that it basically went as planned, three major sections, with the goal of the performance being to connect them together. I ask him how the week was leading up to the show, and he mentioned that it ended up being a little stressful, finding himself with less time than he thought he’d have. He says, “I can usually show up to the practice space and no one will be there, even if someone has something scheduled on the calendar, but this time someone actually showed up after I had just set up. Luckily I was able to come back the next day and get in a good session and feel prepared enough for the show, but it did set me back a bit.”
We talk about the order of the sets, how things flowed into each other, and how nights with a number diverse musical projects can be difficult to schedule. He says, “In this case there was a nice balance of non-rhythmic and rhythmic to create a cohesive flow of the night. It was good booking, and it’s nice when a night has a lot of musical diversity but can also flow. I was a little concerned about playing first, as it seems like there is this culture of waiting until the very last minute to show up, people are used to showing up late, but I was happy with the crowd when I started playing. I do wish I had a bit more time in sound check. I always test the highs and lows, that is the most critical. You really need to control your sound, and that is what I use the limiter and compression for. It takes a lot of time to figure your “sound” out.” I comment that even if you manage to “figure out” your sound on a technical level, you then have to deal with a usually random sound person who doesn’t know the work, and a completely different space. We talk about this for a bit, and Aram says, “it’s really important to work with the sound person to familiarize them with your sound, and then you can really feel comfortable leaning on them to make the necessary tweaks during the set.”
He moves on to talking about the set in more detail, “As far as the performance, I worked really hard to make the transitions feel natural. Some of the “cross-fingering” techniques that I was using weren’t working in the room, so I had to rely on different things.” As for the acoustics of the room, Aram says he ended up thinking a lot about spatialization and psychoacoustics. Although satisfied with the results, it seems like the space asked more questions than answered. But, he says, “Each time you play something though, you get a chance to do it better.” He mentions his upcoming show at the Switchboard Music Festival and how he will likely do a similar set. But, he says, “I still have things to learn about and work on with this project. It’s always a work in progress.”
I ask him about if anyone is ever curious about his setup after the show. “I think the combination of the old instrument and the computer triggers a certain type of curiosity. Aside from wanting to understand how the basic sound works, the first question people have is ‘what app are you running on your computer?’ I give them the quick lowdown, and they are often surprised, ‘oh you were actually making the sound from the sax? I thought you were using oscillators!’ When I mention Max, some people know it, some people don’t, but for those that do, when they look at the patch, because I’ve customized the interface, they often don’t recognize it as Max. Occasionally, I’ll let people actually try it, moving the sax around pressing down the keys to see how it works. People are generally very curious.”
Our conversation moves on the where he wants to take the project, “I’d like to continue to explore it as a solo practice, and hopefully get an album out there sometime. I could see it also as an installation of sorts, or perhaps I could use multiple instruments, which I’ve experimented with. It does seem to work best with the alto, but I’ve tried it with other wind instruments. Bass clarinet doesn’t really work, and I have tried with soprano, tenor, baritone, but I’m just working with what I have. Tenor sounds good, but it’s bigger, harder to move around, and it gets unwieldy. I like this project because of how compact and portable it is.”
From there, our conversation gets more familiar, looser, and much less related to Tonal Masher and the show. We spin out into the inevitable of politics, light social gossip, and other idle chatter. A few more beers are merrily consumed, and we part ways for the night. I leave feeling like I know Aram better, and have come to understand (and hear) his music in a whole new way.
As it turns out, this interview is a farewell of sorts. Soon after we met for drinks, I received an email from Aram telling me that he and his partner are moving to Copenhagen this fall. I’m still reeling from the news a bit, as I’m not only going to miss him on a personal level, but it is an undeniable fact that the Bay area is losing a massive musical force. Selfishly, I don’t want him to move, but when I step back a bit, I get excited for this new adventure that he is about to embark on. I’m already imagining all of the room acoustics he’s going to have to figure out, the sound people he’s going to have to haggle with, the new musical and personal partnerships that will be forged, in Copenhagen and beyond. I know that we will stay in touch, and I can’t wait to see how Aram’s music, and our friendship, will evolve.
To check out more of Aram’s musical projects, visit his web site.