Monday, February 1, 2010

Live From NOMA: Quintron

Posted By on Mon, Feb 1, 2010 at 10:09 PM

New Orleans Museum of Art curator Miranda Lash flitted around the crowded Frederick Weisman Galleries for Louisiana Contemporary Art like a sapphire pixie. Miss Pussycat kissed cheeks and played the role of hostess with aplomb. As for Quintron, he looked like the nervous, dutiful museum employee he was dressed up to be: moving and fiddling with his recording equipment; dragging out and setting up an elastic barrier when too many drunkies got too close to one of his “studio audience” oil portraits.

Friday's opening of “Parallel Universe: Quintron and Miss Pussycat Live at City Park” was a smash — and better yet, a hell of a lot of fun. Hundreds of visitors, of all stripes, ages, and walks of New Orleans life, filtered in and out of NOMA to catch a glimpse of what’s sure to be the most unusual art happening of 2010. Here are some of the stories behind the Gambit cover story “Live From NOMA.” First up: Mr. Q.

On the exhibition’s origins:

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They approached us. We were walking down the street and got a call from Miranda. She said, “This is the curator for the contemporary wing of the NOMA. Do you want to do something there?” That was the best call. We almost didn’t know if it was real. We’ve never been involved in the gallery scene here. I’ve never been an artist in the sense of the word that I’ve sought out that career.

When we were home, we called her and she explained that she wanted to do something with us, and was open to whatever we wanted to do in the space. She was familiar with us from Dallas. Then we started getting these ideas that began developing. I started thinking about my involvement in it. I’m not a painter, nothing like that — except for the Drum Buddies, very beautiful visual objects that I make the same thing over and over. So I knew that would be part of it.

The most interesting thing to me, if we’re going to do it, would be to make something out of it, go in there every day. She didn’t tell us, “We want you to do this.” She said, “We want to do something with Quintron and Miss Pussycat, whether it’s a retrospective of all the work you’ve done in your life, or whether you want to do new stuff.” It was almost a year ago. It was a secret for a long time. We didn’t tell anyone.

On the arts scene in New Orleans:

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In general, I feel like New Orleans is very desegregated artistically compared to other cities. Just within music, I find Atlanta to be the most musically segregated city. I don’t mean racially; I mean genre-wise. It’s so different from New Orleans. You know, you play with punk bands, and if they’re a little too much this kind of punk, hardcore garage punk or whatever — which, here, that’s kind of our scene, even though we’re electronic and we play with R&B and whatever. We go there and bands are just freaked out that they’re even playing with us. Punk bands would never play with metal bands, and you would never have Katey Red at your house and play with King Louie. That shit just doesn’t happen there. Now, the art and music scene are kind of coming together, since Katrina. I just don’t know much about it before Katrina, honestly.

On making a record in the museum:

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That was my idea, and I brought it to her to see if it was allowable. She said yes. She was instantly really into it. There were a lot of hoops to jump through, because it had never been done before. There was no precedent for it, I think, anywhere, at any museum. As far as the legalities: What is the work? Who owns the work? Is the sound that’s being made there mine? And insurance stuff, and if anybody’s documenting it. I’m going to be surrounded by [portraits] that I curate from the museum; those can’t be filmed without contacting the family that owns the rights to that painter’s work. All these crazy issues. But God bless her, she worked her way around it. That’s what’s going to happen: We’ll go in there every day, eight hours a day, and make a record.

I’ll be there and I’ll be able to record anything at any time. But the focus is going to be making a record there, and not a collaboration with the audience so much. I know that’ll be part of it, but I don’t want to make that the focus, because I think it would be, I don’t know, not as interesting to me. I can already tell you what sounds the average person is going to make on the Drum Buddy over and over and over again. I’m more interested in people’s voices, things like that. A clumsy Drum Buddy player, I can do that myself. But the voices of people, and kids and talking, that might end up on it.

I won’t be interacting. It’ll be like — have you ever been to Colonial Williamsburg? It’s going to be kind of like that. There will be a velvet rope, because I don’t want people messing with my recording equipment. I’m not going to be there every single second of the day; I do have to go to lunch or whatever. I will be in my workshop, basically ignoring them. Otherwise I would spend all my time talking to people. The point is, I want to f—king go to work and make a record — but in a museum, in this weird place surrounded by paintings and people in a strange environment. So I will be like the blacksmith in ye old Colonial Williamsburg, working in my shop, making a record. And they can come and hang out as much as they want and watch. A lot of won’t be that interesting, because the process of making a record is repeating one sound over and over and over again. A lot of the time I’ll have headphones on, and they won’t be able to hear what I’m doing. So it’s definitely not a performance. I’m not going to be addressing them as a performer to an audience; that would exhaust me.

On Miss Pussycat’s puppet wing:

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It’s going to be new landscapes that she’s making. Kind of dioramas from all of her films, from North Pole Nutrias to Electric Swamp — she’s got hundreds (of puppets). I don’t know how she’s going to do it. They’re going to be on pedestals. They might have to be under glass, because I guess they’ve had a lot of stuff damaged there. They’re very freaked out about people messing with stuff. There’s no touching. There will be a Drum Buddy that is interactive.

On the Drum Buddy and other inventions:

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We should light them up while we’re having this conversation. I just finished them yesterday, the internal touches. I designed the templates for the cabinets, designed all this (lifts lid) — the real work is there. That’s a hundred hours per, probably. It generally elicits a “Wow — what is it, what does it do?” I was walking through the museum the other day with one, just to measure a pedestal to see if it would fit with the top open, because I’m going to display one like that. I’m very proud of the electronics in these. The older ones, I was kind of learning as I went along how to interface all the power supplies and stuff like that. I’ve done it so many times now that it’s like, even my electronics look pretty and logical. I’m so proud of the way that looks. But I was walking through the museum with it, and [a man] was like, “Is that a stereo?” People don’t know what it is.

The very, very first prototype — which I hope I have a photo of; it was totally destroyed in Katrina — was a hair-dryer thing that went over it. But there’s also going to be really old ones, early prototypes. Stuff people have never seen that’s just been in my shop. Even though it’s only a 10-year-old instrument, I like the idea of this history of it. I do have one that was flooded, and it looks like it’s fucking a hundred years old. That, definitely under a glass case, like it’s some precious piece of African mask.

This is the little test Buddy that I do all the testing cans, testing motors. Something I screwed together in an hour. But I thought that was kind of interesting looking. I’m going to put that in there too. There’s the pristine ones that look like robots that are all the same, then there’s these — the same form, but all contribute to what it became. This is the electronics shop, all the wiring and ICs and components are in there. Organized: “Funny switches,” “Miscellaneous knobs.”

The Spit Machine was just an organ that you tuned by spitting onto a long plank of wood. Spit is conductive, as is water, but spit has a very particular kind of conductivity, in that you can take contact A and contact B and move it up and down. Say there’s a bunch of spit here. You could almost write on there “A, B, C, D, F sharp” and go (noises). I tried all different liquids: lime juice, water, oil. Spit worked really good because it lasted a long time, and it maintained predictable conductivity for tuning a note.

Those all just led up to this. They’re really just toys compared to this thing. The light Theremin, that basically got integrated into this. I really am just interested in continuing to improve this one thing. That’s how great inventions get really good: when they are not abandoned when they evolve, like the automobile.

There are four primary oscillators, which are color-coded: yellow, blue, red, green. They’re standard analog VCO oscillators. Yellow is the scratch oscillator. The thing is, within each one, there is a light sensor that runs up into these tubes that surround the can. The reason they’re in the tubes is so that the external room light has no effect on them. When this light passes by that light sensor, it’s not saying on or off, it’s saying, zero resistance/50k. Or however fast they’re spec’d. Some are 50k, some are 200k. You have to design that into the oscillator. Basically, that’s all a volume knob is. But it does it in this really organic, glide-y fashion. You can design that to be a filter, so it can make the sound go (funny noises), or it can make it go on/off. Or it can have a galloping on/off. For the yellow one, it’s pure pitch. The more light, the higher the pitch. (High funny noises) down to almost nothing. Those are designed to fit all together as one nice-sounding, comprehensive Drum Buddy drum kit.

Then, within that, all the colors relate to each other. You can tune that sound low, high; you can fine tune it if you need to lock in pitch to a certain key you’re playing in, if you’re a slight half-step off or whatever. The yellow pipe, basically think of it as a giant effects pedal. The back slides out. Here’s the main output for all the Drum Buddy sounds. This is an effects unit. You plug an instrument in, then out into an amplifier. Then your instrument, unless you’re bypassed, is being affected by a CDS cell, a light sensor in this pipe. It’s basically an auto wah. The cool thing about that being tied into a Drum Buddy is, it’s exactly the same tempo and you can use the Drum Buddy sounds at the same time. You can be playing a guitar through that, and somebody else can be going (funny noises).

There’s been three models. I identify them by wood, for some reason. The first was the birch model, Y2K. The second was the cypress series. I think this will probably end up being called the NOMA series. There’s only six of them.

On his inspirations:

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My main technical consultant, since day 1, has been Matt Vis. He’s a genius engineer. He opened a gallery called Good Children with Tony Campbell. Matt’s a part of Generic Art Solutions, and they do those funny pictures. He’s a conceptual art, UNO guy. He built the very first cabinets. And whenever I have problems, he knows a lot about materials. What type of acrylic do I need for this motor mount that is going to be rigid enough to not wobble but stiff enough to hold the platter on there for a long time. And what type of oil should I oil it with. And what type of hole saws should I get to drill these holes, because I’m having problems with regular wood hole saws tearing the acrylic. And he’s like, “Oh, you need this, and you go to Harbor Freight in Kenner.” He’s that guy.

My uncle Jack, my mom’s uncle, he holds several patents in the fields of solar power and electroluminescence. He’s one of the pioneers of electroluminescence and anything to do with centrifugal force and inertia. He’s really good at understanding that. And my father, who is an electrical engineer and really understands current flow and power supplies. He designs flight simulators for the government. He actually helped me source some really cool looking knobs and switches. There’s Radio Shack stuff, then there’s stuff that the military buys that will never break. I definitely wanted to make something that was an art object but that somebody could have forever. I really respect well-engineered, well-built things. You look at things from the ’40s, amplifiers and stuff, you have such respect for them when you take them apart. It’s like, they designed this so that when I take it apart, I can get to this. And I see where the wires go, and it’s all very logically laid out to be taken apart and cared for and rebuilt and maintained. That’s important to me. My dad’s real good at all that.

On his one-man-band setup:

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This is an expression pedal for the organ. I can turn organ percussion sounds on and off. I also have my organ fed through a Drum Buddy; a Drum Buddy can also affect a sound, and make it like an auto wah. I can turn that on and off. So I’ve got a series of pedals that have to do with the organ for my right foot. And my left foot is playing the hi-hat drum, so I have the real acoustic (sound). So there’s organ bass, effects pedals, hi-hat, and then the Drum Buddy’s right here, so I can be playing organ, or bass, and the Drum Buddy.

That just happens after doing it forever. The hi-hat came in about halfway through. It was too electronic-sounding, and I really wanted clackity-clackity-clank-clank over everything. Then the Drum Buddy, I keep wanting to add stuff to it, to make it more friendly to my one-man-band situation. That’s really how the new features get added to the Drum Buddy — it’s what I need.

The new feature’s going to be a speed pedal. Right now, there’s this cool potentiometer — you spin it and it takes a long time to get from zero to 10k. But that way you can match beats perfectly with a record or a drum machine. I was like, wouldn’t it be cool if you could bypass that and just have a speed pedal — say you just want to go (funny noises). You might not want that precise thing. I was actually DJing a month ago, and I thought, f—k, I really wish I had this foot pedal. I should make it.

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