Brian says, "Club Contras was kicked off back in January with the idea of injecting the Virginia contra dance scene with some new youthful attitude, variety and innovation. The first project was to introduce crossover contra to Virginia with pop/rock & techno and develop our vision for how amazingly fun that could become. But that's not all. Our main goal is to promote more variety and an even greater community focus. That means things like open mic and guest calling. It also means bringing in excellent young modern bands such as Perpetual e-Motion, and we hope to attract others. We'd love to provide a venue for area musicians who don't necessarily play traditional folk music, because we know that many of our dancers have eclectic musical tastes. For the record, we definitely don't want to use only recorded rock/techno. We love live music! However, the genre is still very very young, and at the moment we're relying mainly on our talented DJs. As part of the spirit of promoting innovation, we decided back in the spring to try putting on an extended day of dancing with a variety of music genres, and Contra-phoria was born. As an extension of that mindset, dJ improper expressed interest in creating a few sets with the band and the DJ performing together. It was a great idea, and I think the dancers really enjoyed this new fusion. We plan to do that and more new stuff in the future, and we certainly welcome new ideas from the community!"
I caught up with Perpetual e-Motion and asked them for their take on the experience.
“I loved playing with a computer. I practice with a computer at home,” said John. “There is so much great music out there, and we haven’t had the ability to get those beats. I’ve been trying beat-boxing of late, but it’s not as lush and huge as a computer can do.”
The biggest difference for all three performers was the addition of the others’ talent. John described it as follows: “We were working outside of Jeremiah’s usual context...so we asked Jeremiah to use a different program to be able to change dynamics and do things on the fly.”
Ed added, “dJ improper is great. He listens.” The tracks he used were sparse and simple, and “what we did do worked well.”
While this gave dJ improper some flexibility, both John and Ed remarked on the differences between playing with another live accompanist and playing with a live DJ with samples.
“I really love using recorded music,” said John. In fact, he mentioned that he practices with a computer at home. The trick to doing so seems to be that “we don’t expect it to adjust to us, we can go to them.”
“The computer doesn’t listen to what you do, it doesn’t listen to anyone. When you set a loop going, the loop is God, essentially,” said Ed.
This also meant that Ed couldn’t loop the live music as much as he normally would at a Perpetual e-Motion gig. “There’s no way I can loop except synching them. I’m not sure if it’s something to pursue...There’s more impact and more going on with loops.” What a DJ can do with techno is to create a great soundscape. In this case, the soundscape involved dJ improper’s percussion and John and Ed’s melodies and harmonies.
John explains, “I love the challenge of playing over a complex rhythm -- it’s not even that challenging as” some other styles, like the polyrhythms in Cuban and other music. “There’s a certain simplicity to techno beats.” He further explained that it is comprised over 8-16 beats, and traditional tunes are over that range as well. “You don’t have to count it. For us, the challenge is that it gets repetitive, so we have to create the AABB form over the melody.”
John continues, “It’s important to think about beats and music and think from the ground up -- what works with the contra tempo, with the basic groove. Does this help carry the dance, start to finish. And I think Jeremiah is thinking the same way, what would work for various figures, same as a live musician.”
The next time they’re all going to play together will be at LEAF in Black Mountain, NC. They’re still trying to do their homework for the upcoming gig, exploring things like midi syncing – as Ed says, “last time there was no homework.” They’re still exploring this avenue, explaining that once they figure out how such collaborations can work in the future, they can tailor it to something more exact and elegant.
However, as anyone who’s heard them perform knows, the electronic influence is nothing new for Perpetual e-Motion’s live performance. “My idol is a guy by the name of Martyn Bennett,” Ed explains. Bennett was a Canadian-born Scottish fiddler, piper, and flutist who studied classical technique in conservatories and then used his talent when he turned to DJ’ing to create traditional fusion. His career was cut tragically short when he died shortly before his 34th birthday in early 2005. Ed continues, “When he died it was very devastating [to me]. He was a huge influence on me….Nobody came close to him. He took you on a journey.”
John adds, “Ed and I have been really into him for about ten years, and we are really, really loving his groove. We’re going for something along there. We’re lucky to be part of the dance community, and he wasn’t. So we could tap into that whole market really quickly. Martyn is recognizable but not in the folk world [because he wasn’t straight folk].” Other influences include Booka Shade and Groove Armada.
Given the chance, who would they want to jam with? John replies, “My answer would have to be John Mayer, being somewhat out of the realm of possibilities. I very much respect his talents both in terms of playing, song writing as well as production sensibilities and I actually think we have a bunch in common in our music pursuits minus the fame and stardom on my part. But seriously, I very much value musicians with a true gift for craft and detail and I think he's one of those people.”
“Tough question. I listen to all different types of music and have a huge admiration for everyone who makes it.” While he starts with Martyn Bennett, Ed continues that asking about other possibilities would probably open up to a whole page of people. “Everyone from Mike Stern to B.B. King on one end of the spectrum, and bands like Spunkshine and Way Out West on another, to funk bands like Garaj Mahal.”
The contemporary influences, however, are not entirely external to Perpetual e-Motion. As Ed explains, “First and foremost, we had this idea that when every band goes into a studio, you have all this equipment available. You have all of this technology to make things sound good.” However, with live bands, “the sound equipment is a second thought, whereas in the studio it’s first and foremost. Why not have that attention on stage, with the best sound you can make, with mics and sound boards.” He continues, “The electric violin gives power and the artistic approach to the audience and afforded us a whole other world...If you give an artist more tools, they will use them.”
Ed also points out, “My father was an engineer, I was always interested in electronics.” When he’s sitting there, he’s sitting there as a sound engineer, just looking for the right sounds. “With a computer, you can really tailor the sound, suddenly the sky’s the limit.” He adds, “it’s a lot of fun.”
Ed continues, “I need to put a disclaimer here. I am a huge, huge supporter of acoustic music. But when you get a whole recorded sound, there is something...tribal and powerful. You can connect to dancers in their souls.”
Along this same vein, both performers emphasize that they are a live band, with all of their music played on-site, even if it is looped and reused later in the performance.
“We are not a techno band. we are a tradition based band pushing the envelope although we’ve dabbled in techno,” says Ed.
“Techno contra is different from what Ed and I are doing,” says John. He is very clear on this point. “Techno is prerecorded, and while we use layers and loops as tools [with live music].” With what they do, Perpetual e-Motion can use drumbeats in a different environment and “access synthetic sounds in an interactive way to add flexibility.” With a computer, you can take samples from recorded music.
“Ed and I are doing live music. The sound is a bit unique and involves a lot of multitasking to sound like a 3- or 4- person band. The difference between us and techno [contra] is that everything is there. Ed clears the loop machine before each dance.”
Ed clarifies, “We are a tradition-based band pushing the envelope although we’ve dabbled in techno.”
John further differentiates by saying that in a techno contra, the audience assumes everything is coming from a computer. He feels that what Perpetual e-Motion does is accessible because the audience knows where the sound is coming from. He adds that throughout the history of contra music, the music has been live. In other traditions (such as swing and square dance), it’s always been recorded music. “I’ve never been to a contra dance without live people on stage,” he adds.
Ed also points out the human element to their craft: “Electronics can play but can’t listen. The loop is the loop is the loop. For all it knows you’re in the next room. It doesn’t care.”
Where do the members of Perpetual e-Motion feel that their project fits into the tradition, then?
Ed replies, “I suppose that would start with the question of what is tradition? It’s a type of situation that creates a lasting impression -- and this lasting impression is what people remember. Take bluegrass -- Bill Monroe was seen as a rebel in his time, when really he was just following his own heart. Perpetual e-Motion is traditional to the core. We will probably be seen as traditional in the future because we’re pushing the envelope like others have.”
“We’re creating a path inspired by past tradition. We’re heavily influenced by traditional fiddle style. In many ways nowadays we’re losing sight of the soul of music.” At the same time, Ed doesn’t see electronics as tarnishing that idea at all: “We’re using electronics to update it to modern society. Traditional music was not amp’ed because they didn’t have it. Adding electronic influences helps the tradition keep up with newer stuff. What we are doing does NOT replace tradition. The tradition has soul, character, charisma. We’re doing something different. Not better, just different. If I like oranges, and decide I like apples, that doesn’t mean I have to stop liking oranges.”
John agrees: “I don’t think it’s hijacking the tradition by any means. We’re an anomaly at the moment. What we do requires lots of patience and fussing with….Lots of musicians are going to adhere to the tradition, and lots of people enjoy creating beats and synthetic music. There’s lots of craft involved [on both sides] and [people will explore] different ways to do the craft.” He also points out that there’s a “craft of understanding software” even for people who don’t play an instrument, which may be part of why the collaboration with dJ improper at Contra-phoria worked so well.
As far as their own particular way of synthesizing the tradition and electronica, John says, “When we explain what we do to people, they get perplexed. This will be on the fringes for a while and Perpetual e-Motion will be unique for a while yet, at least three or four years more. So in the meantime, we’ll keep integrating more stuff, like my beatboxing…..Perpetual e-Motion is more about connecting with people to create an emotive product. We want to inspire people to want to dance, and I think people recognize that.”
That said, they have incorporated something into their act that makes the connection between their electronic music and the tradition more explicit: as Ed explains, “We’ve started to play the waltz with the electric violin, and then panned the music down to nonelectric violin” while Ed walks among the waltzers, still playing. “There’s something really wonderful and intimate about that, something great about being part of that.” When he is down amongst the dancers, he can start playing to individuals rather than the mass. “We’re about pulling everyone back together, [lately it seems like the world is] forgetting community and it’s really important to keep that!”
Maine-based duo Perpetual e-Motion is made up of Ed Howe and John Coté. (Photo is from Perpetual e-Motion’s website, taken by José Lieva.) They will next appear in concert at The Light Well restaurant in Orange, VA on September 7, at the contra dance at Greenwood Community Center in Greenwood, VA on September 8, and then will head up to High View, WV for Footfall Dance Weekend. They are also scheduled to appear with Washington, DC’s dJ improper again at the Lake Eden Arts Festival (LEAF) in Black Mountain, NC October 20-23, 2011. Thanks to both of them and to Brian Hamshar for taking time out of their busy schedules to talk to me for this article!
Edited, 1:33 P.M.: Added quote by Brian Hamshar about Contra-phoria's concept development.