Jan 21, 2015

Another World of Sound

Best described as ‘Generative Soundscapes’ and ‘Algorithm Music’, Jim Marks has developed a style of sound that goes beyond mainstream taking the listener to a place they knew existed.

Jim’s entire life seems to have a soundtrack playing along as he experiences it. His current music library features music from every continent except Antarctica, several centuries of composition and over sixty genres ranging from the serenely etherial to the brutally aggressive. In fact, he can only name two genres of music with which he struggles to enjoy listening, and he is almost always listening — unless he’s making music himself. 

His earliest memories include his parents’ listening to records while painting a room in the house and failed attempts at lessons on the family piano. School brought with it the recorder orchestra in fourth grade, a failed attempt at saxophone in fifth grade band, and choral singing which began in junior high and proved to be the rare effort that stuck. Church brought with it the rich tradition of the Wesleyan hymns sung by Methodists, more singing with the choir and (in the early 90’s, while in college) a brief flirtation with evangelical, non-denominational “contemporary” worship.

He was given his first guitar at age twelve and he began to take his progress with the instrument seriously while in college (Gordon College, located on The North Shore of Massachusetts, class of ’91). Teenaged efforts at poetry gave way to song writing, and following in the footsteps of so many other young men, Jim’s college years were spent focusing almost as much on “the band” as they were on studies. His first year out of college was spent living with Jesus People USA, an intentional community founded by musicians and largely comprised of musicians living in Chicago’s troubled Uptown neighborhood, where he taught mathematics in the one room school and helped some of the high school boys with their singing and song writing. The late 90’s found Jim once again on The North Shore and continuing to help young people with song writing and performing while he made ends meet painting houses, tutoring and substitute teaching. 

In 1998, Jim formed his first professional band in the Boston music scene. This group cut three albums over the course of the next eight years, and performed hundreds of concerts, including opening for nationally touring acts. Band member participation in graduate school brought this effort to an end, and Jim formed a side project with the audio engineer who had recorded those albums for the band. This produced three live installations and two albums in just three years — at which point life circumstances found Jim moving back to Chicago.

These bands had brought another instrument into Jim’s soundtrack alongside the guitar and his voice: electronic sequencing. During the professional band era of his life, Jim also participated in a number of improvisational and collaborative electronic music projects which sought to explode the stereotypical boundaries of repetitive, straight rhythm based music so often produced by sequencers.

While in Chicago the second time, without collaborators for the first time in his musical life, Jim began to turn inward. He became fascinated with growing possibilities with computer produced music that allowed for the introduction of a random element to disrupt the repetitions. With the capacity to ensure these deviations remained not only within a given key, but also within a given set of chord progressions, Jim began to wonder if one could produce generative, algorithm driven music which could be improvised over, live, in real time, by skilled musicians without fear of a “crash” caused by an unexpected note. Early experiments with developing how this would be possible resulted in coffee house performances in Chicago which began with a single note that was manipulated over the course of an hour into entire song structures without the addition of any new notes. Despite this, the results were not yet mature enough to facilitate solos by live musicians. 

Circumstances again conspired to relocate Jim to Houston Texas in 2009. Within six months of arriving, a nearly 20 year journey reached its culmination when Jim began attending St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church. Almost immediately recruited into the choir, and shortly after being chrismated a year later recruited to the chanter’s stand, his life was now playing out to a whole new kind of soundtrack. Instruments and computers were set aside for some years as Jim put all his focus into learning the music of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic church. 

Jim met iconographer Nick Papas late in 2011 when he also moved to Houston Texas. A fast friendship formed, and something prompted Jim to suggest the idea of a “collaboration” in the mode of the artists’ salons of centuries past. The collaboration came to be nicknamed Cenobimono, a portmanteau of cenobitic and kimono. Jim liked the idea of harkening to the monastic communities and their deeply international ways of living. Nick wanted to avoid an overtly Greek name for the group. Jim joked (referencing My Big Fat Greek Wedding) that all words were Greek words, even kimono is a Greek word. Not wanting to take themselves too seriously, the name has stuck. Little did Jim know how much the soundtrack of his life was about to change once again.

Unsure at first what this would even mean in a practical sense, little resulted until the middle of 2013 when Nick suggested a focused effort on the Western (post-schism) saint Drogo the Ugly. Deeply inspired by this compelling life, the two produced an event, hosted in Nick’s studio, in February of 2014 which featured a dozen large scale abstract canvases and nine soundscapes representing roughly three hours of music which were improvised with, live, by fellow St. George parishioner Alan Richards on his rare and evocative Gittler guitar. After seven years of wandering, Jim’s vision for a non-repetitive, live electronic music completely in sync with improvising musicians was realized! The canvases and soundscapes (sadly without Alan’s amazing contribution) were exhibited a second time, in June, at Lone Star College’s Cyfair campus where both Jim and Nick were able to speak to students about the work. A second collection of work, to be exhibited once again at Nick’s studio on February 6th of 2015, focuses on the new theme of the vesperal Psalm of creation “103/104” and features the work of additional collaborators. 

Cenobimono’s focus is primarily relationship building. Between the participating members as they struggle to understand how eco-liturgical art “works” for Orthodox Christians, between the members and the audience of the work as they all struggle to re-discover how to “get” a piece of art in this postmodern culture we live in and also between the members and the global Orthodox community as they encourage others to participate in the life changing joy of centering any effort of engaging God’s unique gift to humanity to create in the formation of edifying relationships. The group intends to continue their ongoing group discussions and anticipates that, God willing, a third body of work will eventually be produced.

Jim has taken both his technical aspirations for generative algorithm music and the tension of a Church which is traditionally skeptical of “contemporary”, instrumental music and hopes to eventually return to his more than 20 years of song writing and produce a retrospective collection of new arrangements of songs he has written throughout his career recast into this generative, collaborative framework. While there are days that his soundtrack needs a sad song, an angry song, a song of triumph or a song of failure, there is never a day where his soundtrack excludes the hymns of the Church which always bring peace, joy and hope.

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EffectsPedalsHQ said...

Thanks for the links :)

costlules said...

The outcomes could be complex and stunning, starting from movies about conventional ceremonies to catchy digital music and even a native-language cowl of the Beatles.