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Broken Mirror 

The unlimited electronic children of Akira Rabelais

Wednesday, Mar 27 2002
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Akira Rabelais has made a musicimage DVD called Eisoptrophobia. The word means ”fear of mirrors,“ but for him it‘s not some ordinary fear; it’s a dread of limitation. ”I exist in a much larger space than what I am physically,“ says Rabelais (a.k.a. Vincent Carte). ”But if I were to look into the mirror, I would suddenly pull back into my body.“ Rabelais hears the music he made, smells his coffee, sees the room he‘s in (television always on), feels the footsteps of the FBI agents on his roof, considers the implications of everything, and rearranges it all into new combinations of sounds, words and images that will infinitely spawn their own progeny. Electronically.

”I’m not making pieces that you‘d put on and just focus on them,“ he says, his speech quick, gentle. ”That horrifies me in a way.“ Why, he figures, would anyone fixate on music, however fine? It’s like being trapped in a mirror.

Rabelais‘ vision has broadened. His previous CD, the excellent Elongated Pentagonal Pyramid, was audio-only; Eisoptrophobia is very sitesight-specific. In real-time video segments snipped from a day’s activities, a languid sylph gazes out a window, peels fruit, bathes, as Rabelais‘ music complements with glitchy drones, koto-like distorted arpeggios or shimmering distortions of Satie piano pieces. There are remixes, too, played along with abstract visual bands of vibrating, contrasting color -- direct representations of the musical frequencies. And against a blank screen, ultralow tones rippling with vari-speed waves move around your room, rattling the window now, the lamp a minute later. The music often sounds like it’s fluttering inside your head.

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Rabelais does it all on his little laptop, largely through programs he designed himself. But he‘s different from other dude-with-a-box sound twisters in a number of ways.

One difference is his unusually comprehensive and variable programs, one of which, Argeiphontes Lyre, he has offered as a free Internet download at www.akirara belais.comsoftwaresoftware.html (see John Payne’s sidebar): ”It‘s my way of giving back. I have some debts that can never be repaid.“ In his tidy North Hollywood penthouse, Rabelais demonstrates EvisceratorReanimator, looping a Coltrane fragment through numerous filters -- his computer contains half a million sound files to choose from -- for new rhythmic and textural effects that Trane himself might have dug. He tries, see, to bring purpose into the aleatory nature of the process: ”For me, randomness is like . . . a sea gull flies in and makes you a cup of anchovy-flavored coffee. I try to build more of that into the software so that things can happen that we may not expect. The program may ignore functions, or it may mutate them. I try to give it more inspiration.“

The sounds themselves are untypical, too -- dense, nuanced. Rabelais spends hundreds of hours tailoring them. Their quality becomes especially clear on a good system like the one in the Knitting Factory’s AlterKnit Lounge, where he performed a few months ago. It wasn‘t a visual spectacle; the musician moused and tapped his computer, improvising variations on predetermined sequences and files, his foot sometimes squeezing against the stand as if on the wah-wah pedal of a guitar (his main instrument before he partially disabled his left arm by practicing too much). But the aural effect of the notes, especially the sculpted piano samples, is intense. The experience has life.

And that’s another difference. Rabelais says he worms into the ”genetic structure“ of sound: ”Organic is what I go for. I don‘t like sanitized, too-clean sound; it doesn’t seem real to me. Maybe that‘s part of the ’Rabelais‘ thing -- there’s got to be a little shit and piss somewhere.“

There‘s a lot going on with this guy. He was raised on a racehorse ranch: ”I’ve always had my own sense of rhythm -- it might come from living in south Texas. Wide-open spaces. Howling at the coyotes, yelling at the dogs.“ He spent years as a blues and pop guitarist in Austin, supporting himself by working in a bookstore, which made him crazy for literature and poetry. He got the Akira nickname (after a Japanese cartoon character) at Bennington, a private liberal-arts college in Vermont, where he studied Chinese philosophy with Chi Chung Huang, composition with the great avant-garde jazzman Bill Dixon and electronic music with Joel Chadabe. He‘d used Carla Scaletti’s Kyma composition program; she told Rabelais about CalArts after finishing a residency there. So he came out and studied electronic music and software design with Tom Erbe and Morton Subotnick, taking a degree in composition with new media in 1997.

SoCal seemed pretty lo-cal to Rabelais at first. ”It had that wrapped-in-plastic kind of feeling.“ But he got it after a while: ”Driving around at 11 o‘clock at night in Hollywood, listening to that first Portishead album really loud, I was just, ’It makes sense now!‘“ Recent years have found him doing ”freelance digital-cowboy kinds of stuff“ for Hollywood Records, Universal, Mattel and such while he works on his art.

In a world of tech, once again it’s Akira Rabelais‘ human side that marks the man. Asked to compose a few lines about him, a couple of friends from his school years don’t bother saying how smart he is.

Jory Prum offers an analogy from The Little Prince: ”If I asked Akira to give me a sheep, his gut response would be to hand me a box and tell me that it is the sheep I seek.“

”Vincent‘s life is one of dreamy poetics,“ writes Geoff Kaplan. ”His sensibility is then digitized, and what results is nothing short of unaffected mystery and pleasure.“

Rabelais himself talks about his work in the same way: ”It’s like composing or writing poetry -- abstracting the sound, bringing it into a different realm.“

You can see this attitude on his rather mystifying Web site (www.akirarabelais.com), which contains lengthy transcriptions from his namesake and from the I Ching, among other attractions including his own poetry. And you can hear it most clearly in Rabelais‘ treatments of Satie’s Gymnopedies and Gnossienne, which echo with a distant longing that‘s anything but technical. Maybe the atmosphere has something to do with his early years. (He’s 36 now.) He never knew his father, and hasn‘t heard from his mother in many years.

”Those Satie pieces are some of my intense memories of her -- golden memories of childhood, where everything is perfect. They’re delicate and beautiful, but they have that warm sound that only memory can give to them.

“I have memories of getting lost, but in a nice sort of way, in spaces like out on the ranch, and not being able to find the end.”

Find the end. Who wants to?

As part of “A Day of Attention,” an environment of art, video, “lowercase” music and other experimental sound featuring Brad Laner‘s Electric Company, Steve Roden and many others, Akira Rabelais will perform at Whose Cafe, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood, Sunday, March 31. Doors open at 4 p.m.; Rabelais appears around 11 p.m. Visit www.lowercasesound.comeventsa_day_of_attention_01A.html.

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