The Association of Spacecraft Mechanics

This entry is part of a continuing effort to document the music I make and play. I’m on schedule to start to forgetting it soon, you see. None but the most extreme Troy Van Horn completist (there is no such person) or possibly participants in the music being discussed would be likely to find anything of interest herein. Hell, I don’t even know if I care anymore: I started working on this in September 2009 and the year is almost out. This introductory caveat is presented in the hopes that I don’t come off as a self-important windbag. Though that probably is true.

The Association of Spacecraft Mechanics is one of the least active ensembles one could imagine. Evidence: the project began in late 2000, played one show, then didn’t resurface until 2006. Other bands seemingly have entire careers between ASM show dates. But that’s ok—I consider it to exist anyway. My hope is that it will rise from the ashes again in 2010. Or, you know, 2013—whatever works.

Way back when, Andrew Miller, writing in The Pitch, summed up the Mechanics as, “a sprawling nine-piece improvisational instrumental noise-metal ensemble.” And that was an accurate assessment of that version of the group. Really, the term “group” is a bit too solid —”amorphous theoretical collective” would be more accurate: aside from me there was only one carryover from the first lineup. I’ve now revealed that this thing hardly ever plays and has no real members. So, what the fuck is it?

The ASM is/was/may be my attempt to combine several experimental musical constructs in which I’ve become interested over the years. I’ve always been fascinated with Frank Zappa’s concept of “stock modules,”—textural blocks of sound or stylized variations of playing telegraphing subconscious information to the listener—which can be applied to any number of subjects upon visual cue. By his own example, a gesture simulating a dreadlock would signal the band to deliver whatever piece of music was being played à la reggae. (There is footage in the movie Baby Snakes and elsewhere of FZ giving bands direction through various gesticulations.)

Speaking of organized texture, Miles Davis’ early ’70s “electric period” is also an influence on the ASM concept. The tenets of musique concrète, where sound in and of itself is used as a musical building block equal to melody or rhythm, can be heard on albums like Bitches Brew and On the Corner.

Then there’s the idea of aleatoric, or “chance” music wherein some portion of a piece is left to either the whim of the player or some other force external to the original composition. (The previously discussed “In C” by Terry Riley is a type of aleatoric music.) Examples of this concept actually date to the 18th century practice of Musikalisches Würfelspiel, a musical game involving dice. (I haven’t been into the idea quite that long.) Meanwhile, chance and game concepts have been taken to an extreme level by John Zorn whose work Cobra has no written music, only a series of “game pieces” which instruct musicians with specific improvisational parameters.

Sounds like it could be a real fucking mess, eh? Well, it has its moments.

Anyway, the above notions form some sort of philosophical skeleton upon which the ASM cloak and top hat are draped. Here’s how it works:  I start with simple musical themes, heads which function as unified outposts amid vast expanses of conducted improvisation. These typically 8-16 measure fragments are queued, and can be cued, at any given moment with the according hand signal. The pieces are somewhat tailored to the makeup of the group I know will be present; the original show featured a lineup of the few people I knew at the time who would put up with such an idea. As such the music had more of a “noise metal” character.

Some of the members of the Mk.I lineup surprised me by wearing bizarre self-constructed constumes to the show. This was mostly amazing, except in the case of the drummer who, aside from being stoned and playing everything in pretty much the same tempo, couldn't see out of his helmet (that sort of R2D2 looking affair) very well. Not so great when relying on visual cues. Oh well.

By the time of the second performance, I was connected with more like-minded individuals and so worked up phrases of a slightly more involved nature (each set piece of that show was based on musical ideas of Olivier Messiaen, one section titled “It’s all over, messiah”—oh I crack myself up).

The ASM Mk.II at Mike's Tavern in Kansas City. The "brass section" consisted of one very good sax player Sam Hughes, plus trumpet and another sax operated by people who didn't really know how to play those instruments. Kenny Bassett is on the right front and you can see E. Voeks hunched over Miles style under the Mike's sign. Folk art, people. Also present: Andy Critz, Mike Meyers, Michael Stover.

The composed bits are bridged by … whatever develops as a result of my conducting. Each player has a copy of the “texture matrix” containing various procedures—”Spikes,” “Drone – closed,” “Tantrum” etc.—their appropriate cues and other pertinent information. Each performer also possesses a copy of the Spacecraft Mechanics Relativity Tableaux:

Relativity Tableaux

I’m sure it’s all very clear now.

While the group at large starts with something structured, I will begin to direct various members to depart in certain ways. Their indication may be to solo in the same key as the rest of the ensemble, or to play something in another key, or to produce some sort of timbre.

Sounds like it could be a real fucking mess, eh? The collision, intersection and rejoining of all of these elements as woven by the group is the gist of the entire project. When it’s working well, I find it very magical. Unscripted motifs develop and are picked up on, set frameworks take on new life and after say, 45 uninterrupted minutes, a new thing exists where once there was nothing. And to me it’s a hell of a lot of fun as well as an honor to lead a collection of adventurous friends on a little journey. Y’know, once every few years.

Have a listen to “A Case of Clarinets, Edit 6” , a rehearsal excerpt.

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One Response to “The Association of Spacecraft Mechanics”

  1. […] instance of the fulcrum of experienced musicians and casual players that I’ve welcomed in the Association of Spacecraft Mechanics. So I was up for it. Somewhere in the darkness I try to conjure Aynsley Dunbar, ca. Chunga's […]

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