“The four of us have actually never all been in the same physical location at the same time. In preparation for our most recent performance, we did all of our meetings and rehearsals telematically—between Los Angeles, CA and Ashland, OR. I think this is pretty unusual for most chamber ensembles.” – Burnt Dot

I’m sorry—what? For anyone who’s ever spent small eternities becoming one with your bandmates in a windowless room, this might seem a little ‘unusual’ to you, too. But listen to Burnt Dot and you’ll enter a sound world so enmeshed and teeming it’s difficult to tell where one instrument begins or ends—let alone who is in the room and who is beaming in via telepresence. For Burnt Dot, an experimental jazz/noise group that exists between LA and Ashland, the old rules simply do not apply—to their instruments, to geography, or to divisions between the acoustic and electronic (if that’s even still a thing). In their concerts and videos, Burnt Dot magically and literally enlarges the space of collaboration and musical potential, with old technologies like breath as their anchor (and some cutting edge network audio technology).

Founded by our very own Sarah Belle Reid, a trumpeter and creative coder, and modular synthesist/composer Ryan Gaston, the group has recently been joined by celebrated trumpeter Kris Tiner, and sound pioneer wizard/analog synth player Todd Barton.

Following their recent performance at The Wild Beast Pavilion in LA, we sat down with them (no, not in the same room) to talk about collaboration, breath, improvisation, Duchamp’s notion of the infrathin, and how there’s “no shortage of ways to sincerely express oneself.”

Listening to Burnt Dot is like entering a sonic landscape so completely responsive and intertwined it’s almost one organism. But you’re four different people, playing trumpets, modular synths, and one of you is actually in another city, playing via telepresence. This is a very fine degree of collaboration! Can you talk about that? How do you collaborate at the level where, as individuals, you seem to morph into one crazy thing? What makes for good collaboration?

TB: Breath and gesture is the short answer.  I find we are all connected by breath, we all ride the intuitive breath wave. Even though Ryan and I are playing synths, both of us spent time earlier in our careers playing trumpet—so all four of us are kinesthetically connected. The gestures that Ryan and I make electronically are shaped by breath.

RG: I agree with Todd—our backgrounds as trumpet players definitely give us ground on which to relate. We all share a number of ingrained “habits” and musical ideals that stem from our practice with the trumpet. Breath is crucial, as is a level of mindfulness regarding sonic economy (drawing as much interesting content as possible out of relatively simple means). The trumpet is a limited instrument (as is the synthesizer!), and it requires a lot of strategizing to compromise those simple means to create something uniquely compelling. This pursuit of sonic economy has a wonderful side effect: you have to carefully listen to yourself and to your relationship with the sound around you. The group’s ability to mindfully listen is the glue—that is what lets us individually know when to back away, when to hold steady, when to abruptly change direction, etc.

KT:  Good collaboration comes from good listening. On one level, trumpets blend naturally with each other as do the synths. There is a certain amount of sonic reliability built into the instrumentation. But beyond that, there are really interesting things that can occur when Sarah and I push our sound towards what the electronics are doing, especially when we are only amplified and not being processed. Likewise, both Todd and Ryan have an innate sense of how to make an electronic instrument work organically in an improvising ensemble. They are great listeners, and the synths can sometimes take on an eerie vocal, breathy quality that approaches a wind instrument sound. It’s a lot of fun when that happens, when it becomes difficult to determine where certain things are coming from.

Left to right: Sarah, Kris, Todd, and Ryan during rehearsal
Left to right: Sarah, Kris, Todd, and Ryan – during rehearsal

SR: Interestingly, the four of us have actually never all been in the same physical location at the same time. In preparation for our most recent performance, we did all of our meetings and rehearsals telematically, between Los Angeles, CA and Ashland, OR. I think this is pretty unusual for most chamber ensembles, and it’s definitely an interesting way to collaborate. In terms of what makes it work, the others hit it spot on—it all comes down to listening. Especially when one of your collaborators is not physically present in the room, you can’t rely on visual cues in the same way. On a technical level, using open-source software such as JackTrip allows you to send and receive high-quality and low-latency audio between multiple locations, making these types of network and telematic collaborations possible.

[If you want to learn more about this, Kadenze’s course Online Jamming and Concert Technology has just relaunched! This course teaches you techniques for setting up high-quality, synchronized audio in multiple locations, using open-source (a.k.a free) software. It’s a fantastic course, geared for beginners and mavericks alike.]

How did Burnt Dot begin?

RG: Burnt Dot started when both Sarah and I were students at California Institute of the Arts. We were familiar with one another’s playing and were in many ways running with the same crowd — studying and playing with Vinny Golia, Mark Trayle, and other groups around the school and elsewhere. I had recently decided to stop playing brass in order to focus on modular synthesizer, and Sarah was beginning to work a lot with electronically augmented trumpet in her own music. We had a lot of common ground and more than enough reason to start to play together. When we started, we suspected that we could find ways to breach the territory between electronic and acoustic instruments from both directions. I think we’re still discovering that they can complement each other quite well.

SR: The idea of a double-trumpet, double-synthesizer quartet came up over curry at Jasmine Thai Noodle & BBQ (for the record, it’s delicious). Even though they play the same instruments as us, Todd and Kris bring their own distinct voices and sets of experience to this music.

Sarah, you mention somewhere that you were very influenced by Marcel Duchamp’s notion of the infrathin. Is that connected to this project?

SR: I was first introduced to infrathin through the writings of Marjorie Perloff, and through many cups of coffee and conversations with Anne LeBaron. I was so taken by the concept that it almost immediately began to find its way into my work and practice. Since then (about 2 years ago, now) I’d say there are elements of infrathin in pretty much everything I do. It’s funny how that happens — you stumble upon something seemingly unrelated to what you do, but something about it peaks your curiosity. So you start to research it and talk about it with your family and colleagues, and before long that new information has become a part of your voice or repertoire as an artist, without any real conscious effort. That’s actually a very infrathin-like thing, itself. This idea of a constant liminal state in which moments, events, and objects that seem inherently unrelated are in fact entirely interwoven as the result of tiny, almost imperceptible connections and commonalities. In Burnt Dot, I think infrathin manifests as a sort of heightened listening and awareness…a feeling of being “tuned in” — to the moment, to the sounds, to the others in the room.

TB: I think of the infrathin in our ensemble context as a diaphanous membrane which we all “feel.”  It is the place from which we reflect, respond, and listen.

A recent graphic score installation inspired by Marcel Duchamp’s infrathin

Burnt Dot is a jazz project, and it’s also visual art. How do sound and visual art relate in this project?

KT: I am working on some scores for the ensemble that go a bit beyond conventional notation, using graphic information in such a way that the ideas can be easily interpreted by trumpets or synthesizers, and can represent pitched material or timbral and textural material. I’m working with visual elements like symmetrical structures and lines and phrases that are reversible and invertible, but always retain a basic musical identity, while perhaps revealing another side of that identity. So the score becomes a visual metaphor for the inside/out nature of the music: acoustic vs. electric, melodic vs. textural, tonality vs. noise, and so on. 

RG: Graphic notation is a big part of what we do. The four of us each have our own compositional aesthetics that are informed by this approach to notation in different ways. We have also been collaborating recently with a couple of amazing graphic artists, Sahir Khan and Andrea Yasko. They make absolutely mind-bending motion graphic work, and we are excited to see how many ways our collaboration will manifest.

When I listen to your music I’m so struck by the interplay of breath and technology. It tells a story on a really visceral level. I wrote down what I was hearing in one minute of one your songs:

Postapocalyptic porpoise language

One of the things I really like about your music is there’s no separation between ‘organic’ and ‘non-organic’ kinds of sounds and instruments. On a sonic level, it feels like an ecological map of the future, or maybe just what ecology really is.  How do you think about the relationship between breath and technology in Burnt Dot? The acoustic and the electronic?

SR: To be honest, I often forget that the modular synth isn’t an acoustic instrument — Todd and Ryan play in a way that’s really relatable as an acoustic musician. Sometimes they make sounds that are super organic, and sometimes the trumpets sound like machines. Kris and I intentionally keep our setup very minimal, because we feel there’s such a huge world of sounds to discover with just basic amplification and extended techniques.

TB: Again, we are all connected, in my mind, via breathing gestures. Furthermore, Sarah and Kris are pushing the boundaries of the trumpet vocabulary into new unknown territory, as are Ryan and I with synths.  We offer up and contribute our curiosity and excitement in order to discover a diverse, sonic universe where all sounds (acoustic and electronic) are embraced as a whole. Listening, listening, listening, and surfing the wake of discovery.

As well as performing and making awesome videos, you also do outreach and education. Why is that part of what you do?

Burnt Dot: Obviously, music has been a defining part of all of our lives. Doing what we do means a lifetime of exploring new ideas. Some of those ideas wind up being discarded, but some of them wind up offering more and more substance and significance as they develop. I think part of our interest in sharing the things we have learned is the hope that it will enable others to express and explore their own ideas. Hopefully sharing some of our own experiences can help to show that there is no shortage of ways to sincerely express oneself.

SR: For me, it’s also about increasing access to arts education and creative mentorship in general. I also work with the Kadenze team, for a little over a year now, and it’s amazing to see this global community of people getting so excited about learning something new—especially when they are given access to a teacher or topic that might not otherwise be within reach. My goal is to carry as much of that over into my personal creative practice as possible, and to hopefully make a positive impact on others.

Many of you are interdisciplinary artists and/or multi-instrumentalists. How did you come to this? What is exciting or useful or frustrating, about being devoted to many practices as opposed to one?  How do you do this without spreading yourself too thin?

TB: It is all the same practice no matter what the instrument, interface or object, it is all about sculpting energy.

KT: I’m not really a multi-instrumentalist (trumpet is difficult enough by itself!) but I am interested in all of the possibilities of what the trumpet can be, how it can be used as a creative voice within many different traditions as well as interdisciplinary situations – I have done a lot of work with film, visual art, and spoken word artists. My initial inspirations were in jazz and improvisational music; but I also do quite a bit of classical and commercial music, and I’ve studied many different world music traditions. As a composer, everything I write is an extension of that investigation.

The most wonderful thing about a project like Burnt Dot is that in the moment of performance, all of the diversity of one’s own experience and research becomes like a personal repository of concepts and ideas, that can be accessed through improvisation, revealing layers and layers of potential in the music. So the performance can take many paths. Each of us brings very diverse and multifaceted perspectives to the ensemble, making the end result all the more fascinating.

What’s next for Burnt Dot?

RG: There are a lot of things coming up — Sarah and I are currently working on an album of duo music, and the four of us are each writing pieces to contribute to an album we are planning for the quartet. As we mentioned before, we are also working with graphic artists Sahir Khan and Andrea Yasko, and are really excited to continue exploring ways to merge our practices to create a unified product.

To keep up with Burnt Dot, you can visit their website, or find them on Facebook and Soundcloud.