Composer Spotlight: Steve Ball
Steve has been producing music, performances and workshops in the Seattle area since 1993. He moved to Seattle after seven years of playing in the first generation of the League of Crafty Guitarists and upon arrival, he founded the Seattle Guitar Circle with Bill Rieflin.
Over the past 28 years, the Seattle Guitar Circle community evolved into projects like Atomic Chamber Ensemble, the Steve Ball Roadshow, and the weekly performance project: Tuning the Air. Some may also know Steve from his work with Argentina’s Los Gauchos Alemanes and Electric Gauchos. In 2016, Steve founded Tiny Orchestral Moments, a recurring series of residential workshops and performances expanding on a multi-decade tradition of ensemble-based composition and collaboration practices including Circulation, Group Loops, Crafty Cards, and Improvisation Calisthenics. During COVID, Steve produced a 16-part global video collaboration based on a Trey Gunn piece called “Scaling the Whales.” Also during COVID, he has been completing a 12-part documentary series, directed by Seattle director Louise Amandes, capturing the people and practices of this prolific international ensemble.
SCA Vice President Amy Denio interviewed Steve for our Composer Spotlight. Enjoy!
Amy: All right! Well we have Steve Ball with us tonight! This is really exciting ~ thank you for meeting with me. I’d like to ask you a couple questions if that’s all alright.
Steve: Sounds good ~ thanks for suggesting this Amy, and it’s so great to see you.
Amy: Yeah, it’s great to see you too. I’m really I’m so happy because I’ve known Steve now for a while, we’ve done a lot of collaborating together so I’m in awe of everything that you do so this is really exciting to be able to share what you do with the general public.
Steve: Awesome and likewise.
Amy: So what have you been up to in this age of COVID, and what are next year’s plans? I know it’s probably infinite, the amount of things you’re doing. But anyway…
Steve: There’s a large list. At one point in 2020 I counted something like eighteen global collaborations that were underway and mostly I was focusing on just the logistics of how to keep going when none of us can meet in person. Because as you know in some of our weekly workshops and quarterly workshops and yearly workshops, a big part of what I do is focused on getting humans in a room together and surprising each other with what we can enable together if we shake up our normal ways of operating together. And that’s been so hard in a world of little rectangles, where all of our interactions have this horrid latency and low fidelity and just the awkward isolation of being alone for hours and hours and then just like this call ~ all of a sudden being on the spot. It’s social but it’s just weird. So I’ve had a couple calls even this past week ~ in fact I’m doing one right after this with our friend Brad in LA to do some tech support about how to help his Windows machine have better connectivity for musical events like this or so that when we play together there’s less distortion, less latency, and we can optimize the fidelity and the ability to come closer to what it’s like to be in the same room.
Amy: Could you maybe recommend? I know there are a lot of different software applications out there. I was about to use Jamulus the other day but I didn’t quite do it
Didn’t quite reach that point, but I downloaded it and I saw that people were online. When you’re in the same neighborhood, there’s only .008 milliseconds latency and it’s actually OK, more or less. Do you have any recommendations for programs? What are you going to do with Brad?
Steve: Good question. We’ve mostly just been falling back to Zoom. We’ve tried Zoom and Teams and Skype and Jamkazam and about ~ I don’t know, a dozen of the other allegedly low-latency online collaboration systems. And they all, I think most of them fail from the same physics-based problems of doing capture locally, digitizing this, sending it over the Internet which is like a big wobbly decentralized system designed for nuclear war.
Amy: And can’t we just speed up the speed of sound? Or the speed of light, rather?
Steve: Yes, it’s probably more the speed of light, but the speed of sound ~ it even takes time for sound to get from here to there. And what I found in working for years in ~ I worked on the Windows operating system, re-building the sound system from the ground up in the 2000’s. And we built a very low-latency way for Windows to communicate and collaborate so that you can get somewhere between 3 to 10 milliseconds of latency from when you hit a note to when it is capturable on a hard disk. At that time we were working to catch up to Apple, who put a whole bunch of energy into making the Mac computers of the last 20 years low latency and great for professional audio. Windows caught up but what has happened is the Internet still is this big unknown network that has uncertain distribution timing. And so it doesn’t matter what we do even locally. You know, I’ve got a computer here that is connected via Ethernet superfast. I’ve got a very high-quality mic(rophone) going into very high-quality A to D’s [analog to digital converters]. But the actual fidelity of the sound of this recording is going to be completely determined by the codec that Zoom uses to capture downsample and essentially MP3-ize our audio here. So we’re still going to be put through a teeny tiny pipe. And the quality will be determined by so many factors outside of control of what we have locally available.
Amy: (Ominous voice) Compromises will be made.
Amy: I’m taking a little recording class right now with Patrick Grant
Steve: Oh yeah! You’re doing that? That’s awesome. His workshops are great.
Amy: I know! And so I learned that sound actually moves quickest ~ most quickly through solid objects
Amy: … and less quickly through water ~ and really slowly through air. So if we could just make the inner tubes ~ I like to call it inter-tubes ~ just make them solid state ~ wouldn’t that help?
Steve: Yes (laughs). It might help a lot. In fact, I do think we’d have to jerry rig a bunch of sticks
or like metal pipes between our houses…
Amy: Yeah! The game of telephone always works, right? It’s a solid string…
Steve: Yeah, and it might sound better than this. I think that there’s another form of collaboration going on where ~ and you know, we’ve done some experiments like this as well ~ where one person does one thing at a time and then they send it off to the other people that they’re collaborating with. And then overdubs happen. That’s maybe a 50-100-year-old available way to collaborate at a distance as well. I did a lot of that last year also. I did 16 iterative videos on one piece of music where every week or so I would invite in a new guest to collaborate on top of this original four-part guitar part. In the end there were twelve players from something like four continents and maybe eight countries doing this orchestral version or set of iterations on a single piece of music.
By November I’d finished 16 versions ~ each with its own video. And at some point when COVID is over I’ll probably release something that’s like a compilation version of that, or it might ~ I might just stick all 16 versions serially back-to-back to be sort of this total cliché but Warhol style, evolving glimpse of the same composition with different iterations working.
Amy: Yeah, because I’m sure they’re all different, one from the other, with the same foundation ~ you’re taking stuff away, right? Working with negative space?
Steve: Exactly. In fact, some of the versions, I have our friend Nora Germain and even Tony Levin playing bass and our friend Alessandro playing drums. And there’s a one of my favorite singers on earth Dolette McDonald who is done a ton of amazing work on her own but is probably best known for her work with Sting and Talking Heads. After this instrumental piece was in the can with four guitars, at one point I just decided to put some words and music on top and I invited Dolette to come sing with me and so we turned it into an actual crazy kind of rap song as well. So each of these versions is radically different and yet they’re still grounded in the same essence of this sort of dancing piece in kind of a fast 7.
Amy: (laughs) Fun!
Steve: So that consumed a large part of 2020. And as you know, I’m constantly working on finding ways to enable unlikely collaborations. I’ve got a few more up my sleeve already that are brewing for this next year.
Amy: That’s great. So when they pull the curtains back up and we can all go outside, I can’t wait to see what you ~ is there a way? Where can we find your work? Is there a Tiny Orchestral Moments website or is there Steve Ball [site]…
Steve: Yeah, there’s both. Tiny Orchestral Moments.com has way too much information. It’s basically like a giant laundry list of work that’s been happening over the last 4 years. And for those who don’t know, Amy is part of the Tiny Orchestral Moments community.
About four and a half years ago I started hosting workshops designed to bring people together ~ usually in a retreat setting ~ to improvise, collaborate, write, perform and record a full set of music in 5 or 6 days. And Amy, you’ve been involved 4 out of 4 years during our summer workshop called “Peak Week” There’s lots of information about that on the Tiny Orchestral Moments website ~ but it’s not quite ready.
I’m going to devote ~ in 2020 and the rest of 2021 until COVID is over ~ working with a film director who you know named Louise Amandes who is working on a 12-part documentary series about our workshops featuring Amy and somewhere around thirty of the global musician’s we’ve been working with the last 4 years. And along with this 12-part documentary series are about a hundred and twenty individual tracks that we’ve recorded over the last four and a half years. And there’s many more in the can from the weekend workshops, [which] haven’t been mined yet.
Amy: And how’s the mixing of the audio, at least?
: Slow but steady. We’re now, we’ve completed, we’re working on the 10 core CD’s, the core collections of work that are mostly mixed. There’s about another 10 tracks from the 2019 version. And then we’re going to also have a “Greatest Hits” version so we’re going to take the best tracks from the documentary series and put them on a single kind of “best of’ release.
And then there’s a whole set of immersive tracks that we recorded with some help from our good friend Steve Turnidge and company, working on surround sound technology. I don’t think you made it that day, but we went up to Ron Jones’ place and we did some standing around a mic ~ like a whole day of recordings that have this surround 3D thing going on. I think we’ll start to hear more about that over this next year.
[Shows ear buds] I think people have already seen these ear pods or airpuds or whatever they’re called. These have some new surround mode that you can use if you use you know a fruit company device.
We have a whole set of content in the can ~ maybe this is an interesting challenge for the Seattle Composers Alliance audience: One of the things I’m also studying now is what is the best vehicle for doing mass distribution of a massive archive of ideas, songs, discussions, collaborations, and podcast style conversations like this.
I just read an article the other day that Facebook and of course Tik Tok and Instagram and all of these social media networks are struggling now to build Creator tools. Those would be tools that would help artists monetize what they’re doing and what they’re building in a more holistic and hopefully mechanisms with low overhead. So I think over the next year I’m hoping to use one of those to build a streaming pipeline of new content that is released with the documentary series with the whole set of these songs ~ maybe released one a week with a little backstory for 2 years. And then I can’t wait, Amy, until we can get back in rooms together and host weekly improv calisthenics workshops.
Amy: I know! I miss the calisthenics! Oh my gosh! I’ve had some perfect moments in those, so thank you.
Steve: You’ve led and enabled many of those amazing moments. And I’ve heard recently from many in our practicing community that everyone is missing so much regular forms of getting together and making sound or music.
Amy: Yeah. Well, we can sit on our back porches and see if we distance. We have a fire pit in my backyard in West Seattle ~ but there’s no bridge (laughs). Well, once the snow melts…
Steve: (laughs) Helicopter?
Amy: Helicopter with trapeze, maybe?
Steve: I really hope that between vaccines and smart social distancing and masks that maybe later this year we can begin to turn around and get back to some version of “normal”. But I’ve been [following] your ongoing work ~ the Friday concerts, and the shows that I’ve seen where we’re just all inventing and working to find ways to both make, monetize and keep the momentum going.
Amy: And create community amongst disparate [people]. Everyone’s feeling so isolated. But really we’re not! We just have to remember that we’re all in this together.
What has been the most delightful activity that you found? This brought any kind of pleasure to you in this last year, anything in particular?
Steve: Well, I would say I’m getting much better at mixing and even mastering. I put a lot of energy in watching and learning this year. I noticed that a huge part of our community seems to be doing this as well. I noticed Kathy Moore was doing some explicit learning ~ like, how to get better at recording, how to get better at ~ I think she still does a lot of hand offs to Don Gunn and others. I’ve been working to ~ like Patrick’s class, learning to get better at the nuts and bolts and get more efficient so that this big backlog of unmixed music doesn’t take another three years to get out the door. So we can all get more efficient in the tools and techniques and practices of production. To just raise the bar and get faster and higher quality that’ll hopefully add up to more efficiency later so that when we get back to making music we have better skills and better tools.
Amy: It seems that “how-to videos” are all the rage. I just came across a “50 tips in Ableton” video today. I just downloaded Ableton 10 (soon to be Ableton 11). And it’s so great, in five minutes ~ it’s this compendium of essential information, it’s so helpful.
Steve: That’s the amazing thing. You can find “how to” videos for beginners, or deep dive into how multi-band compression works, all the way out to the fine-tuning subtle EQ decisions and how a master encoder should work. So YouTube, Vimeo ~ there’s a whole set of amazing learning tools that I’ve used. But I will say, it still feels like homework and it still isn’t quite as delightful as even being in the same room as someone and just even practicing together!
Amy: Well soon we’ll be together again. Steve, I thank you for your time. I know you have a crazy busy schedule. I can’t wait to see you in person and to play music and to hear all the wonderful things that you’re doing.
Steve: Likewise. Amy I can’t wait to showcase a lot of your compositions and the leadership you’ve shown as part of our Tiny Orchestral Moments community too. Some of my favorite music from this past four and a half years has been your soul-drenched original compositions that you’ve orchestrated for 30 people so it’s going to be great when we finally get it out to the world.
Amy: I can’t wait. All right ~ be well, and we’ll see you soon.
Steve: All right, you too.