On The Road: Cube Fest 2022
For my first “On The Road” report for Cycling ‘74, I attended Cube Fest hosted by Virginia Tech. Learn more about the festival, the Cube, how Max played a role, and Virginia Tech’s special guests below.
Cube Fest is a collection of music performances using Virginia Tech’s Cube, a 3-story, 140-speaker array to display music in a way the performers and the audience have never heard. The Cube can animate sound to climb walls and swirl around you resulting in the space becoming a performer as well.
Cube Fest has been an annual festival since 2016, and this was the first in-person event since the 2020 pandemic began. This year’s focus was on Afrofuturism in music. From the Cube Fest organizers, “Afrofuturism is an ideology that examines the past and the future through a Black cultural lens, connecting African diaspora culture with science and technology. Cube Fest 2022 features works by Jupiter Blue, King Britt, Yvette Janine Jackson, and Sea Novaa, and includes an evening-long concert, The Other Wakanda, presented by Stephen James Taylor.
The festival started out with an unlikely performance that I didn’t expect to experience at a space like the Cube. Virginia Tech’s Digging In The Crates hip hop studies group performed The Sankofa Tape.
In this hip-hop story, we have characters Dre (played by KoDa Leif) and Kam (played by DeRay Manning). Dre is going to go off to college, and Kam is still living the street life. And at some point, these friends end up getting into an argument. Kam felt disrespected by Dre because he thinks Dre was feeling superior since he went to college. Through the course of conversations, both of them get guidance from their friends and family that they need to actually work together and do things that better themselves and the community.
It was quite interesting how they set the performances up in the Cube because, as you heard the two friends’ argument taking place, they would begin very muffled. Then, as they open up the door and came out, the filter would open up and you would start to hear people moving around the space. It was as if you were physically in the living room hearing people come around and towards you from the back of the house.
It was interesting to see recorded and live hip-hop and spatial audio used together. The two emcees would rap live at parts and on hand as turntablist created scratches and sound effects to fill out sections.
The Other Wakanda, by Stephen James Taylor, is a piece consisting of multiple musical Wakanda tribes. I heard all sorts of new things listening to his piece. I especially heard sounds that were familiar but, at the same time, new. Stephen explained that some of the instruments were custom, commissioning a violin maker to create a microtonal instrument. Using these instruments made it seem like I was listening to the music of a group of people that have a connection to our society but not so much that they have the exact same tonal influences.
The performance was more melodic at times than I expected and many of us felt that, if we didn’t know, we would assume the whole piece was written by multiple people instead of Stephen solely.
Thomas Stanley gave his keynote, “You Haven't Met the Captain of the Spaceship...Yet”. He challenged the concept of attaching Afrofuturist labels to artists like Sun Ra, who was not alive during the creation of the term. Thomas, who spent time with Sun Ra as he held court backstage at concerts, stated that Sun Ra was not just a counter-culture figure to the masses but also to elements of things we call Black culture. Sun Ra was not a bandwagon or “go along to get a long” type of person. Due to his beliefs and his focus on music, he refused to be drafted. He was then jailed for a time resulting in his community turning their back on him.
Thomas spoke of how Sun Ra’s teaching influenced and changed thoughts on the world, the environment, and not just racism but capitalism as a whole.
I came out of that speech with some thoughts validated, but also challenged in other ways.
There were many other performances that weekend like a live space chanting guitar vocal performance by Jupiter Blue (David M. Hotep and Tara Middleton), long-time members of the Sun Ra Arkestra. David’s outfit was amazing. Another of the interesting performances was a Ryne Siesky piece on pollution using a sample of a K-Cup to literally generate what Tyechia Thompson, co-artistic director of Cube Fest, saw as unsettling sounds. It was interesting to sit at the back of the Performance Studio, a smaller secondary spacial audio space, and see people wince and look around as his insect-like sounds came around the room and seemed over people’s shoulders.
As someone not known to the lore of Sun Ra but new to his music and full history, it was amazing to close out Cube Fest with Eric Lyon’s spatialization of Space Is The Place. It was done in such a way that listening in different parts of the room can result in different experiences.
Since they knew the material so well, Thomas and Jupiter Blue were surprised to hear the album is such a different way. Vocals and instrumental parts now broken up and placed around the Cube. I remember Thomas having to move because one of the players he knew was almost playing in his ear. I saw him move, and so 20 minutes later I sat in the bean bag he was once occupied, and I heard a totally new experience. At one point, I was trying to find out what time signature the bassline is in over the 4/4 “Space is the place,” chant, after switching seats, I was able to realize it was in 10/4. It was a wild ride, and now I need to listen to it in stereo and see how sounds it resonates there.
The Cube and Max
Though Reaper is used for some decoding ambisonics, co-artistic director Eric Lyon said, “Our preferred workflow is to send individual mono audio tracks from Reaper to Max over Loopback. At the same time, we have a custom plugin that sends azimuth/elevation/distance data to Max over OSC. That way, all the audio processing is done in Max. We have custom Ambisonics decoders for our various spaces, all using the ICST Max externals.”
For example, during The Sankofa Tape performance, one of the Digging in the Crates crew, Köda was able to control volume and spacing live due to the custom Max setups done by Eric and Tanner Upthegrove.
Eric and Ben Knapp, founding director of the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology, took me to an experimental room they have for a smaller and more portable version of the Cube called the Tesseract. They have spoken about the idea of putting the Tesseract inside of the Cube for simulated rainstorms giving you more feel of the proximity of the simulated storm.
The best part of events like this are the connections you make. The moment I showed up, Eric introduced me to Steven. We hung out quite a bit, having lunch the first day as he explained more microtonal concepts to me using the Wilsonic iOS app. We continued to hang out outside of the performances and presentations.
I had great talks with Thomas Stanley, Ryne Siesky, Philippe-Aubert Gauthier and his partner, David M. Hotep, and Tyechia, to name a few. All of whom shared great and deep insights about life, ideologies, and music.
I’ve got a number of new acquaintances to share Max lessons with, as well.
It was great to see a number of black artists and a diverse group of other artists get their music played in such a space. I think Eric, Tyechia, and the whole crew did a great job at creating a rich musical experience, welcoming everyone, and connecting people. It showed how to see spatialization as more than a gimmick or music for artsy museums – it is a way for people to express themselves and reimagine sound.