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Chris Armstrong: Reaches the emergence threshold on 'A.I. Awakens"

img  Tobias
After fourty years of working as a Percussionist, “A.I. Awakens” represents Armstrong’s very first public leap into composing. “I think it's like that old actors' cliche, after years of success as actors many of them eventually say, ‘...but what I really wanna do is DIRECT.’”, Chris ponders, “I always had in the back of my mind that I would just keep collecting more and more knowledge about music and ways to combine natural and altered acoustic sounds with synthesized sounds and someday become a composer as my primary focus, when the time was right.”

When his wife experienced the abovementioned Science Fiction flashbacks, a thematic focus started to arise and the project picked up pace. Now, the album consists of 14 tracks, depicting a richly ornamented story of “a cloud of flying nanobots attracted to various energy sources around the robot insect factory” starting to build more of their own kind, “primitive, instinct-driven, proto-minds beginning to emerge and evolve” only to end in “total neural collapse, brain death and the void.” What seems like a fantastical story really represented a mixture of naive narration and personal interest for Armstrong, who briefly studied Artificial Intelligence (primarily neural modeling) at Arizona State University from the mid to late 1980s.

“I believe A.I. is possible, IN PRINCIPLE, because the brain is a HUGELY complex and currently VERY poorly understood ‘system of cognition.’”, he expounds on the scientific implications and backgrounds to “A.I Awakens”, “So it is premature in the EXTREME to declare that ‘mind’ or even more nebulous notions, like ‘soul’ can only be understood as processes or states that arise from something non-physical or mystical.”

Armstrong likens our current knowledge of cognition to fish trying to understand swimming. The only way out of this dilemma, he suggests, is to find new and fundamentally different ways of approaching the subject matter: “What is actually needed to lead us to an explanation of consciousness is a revolution in our understanding of hyper-complex systems and the non-linear way that high-level behavior can arise from the interactions of ENORMOUS numbers of very simple components, which are interconnected with an ENORMOUS number of OTHER simple components. And this behavior can't be totally explained by understanding the simple behavior of the low-level components or even networks of these parts that are still small enough to still fall below the ‘emergence threshold’. Only when the numbers of simple parts and their interconnections reach a certain critical mass or ‘tipping point’, can the emergent properties be observed.”

Which again proves that even though many will sadly be put off by the Science Fiction aesthetics of the cover art and background story, there are exciting philosophical thoughts and concepts running through the record which award the music additional layers of meaning. “A.I. Awakens” doesn’t desperately cling to these metaphysical theories to hide a lack of musical creativity either. Quite on the contrary, Armstrong has built a richly resonating galaxy of drone filled with the brittle Eastern-European folk melodies of Soprano Kate Conklin, Jonathan Miller’s spacetimpani-like Guitars as well as the breathy Flute whispers of David Philipson playing Indian basuris on ten-minute centerpiece “Neurons Coalesce”, a dreamy meditation that will drive friends of Tangerine Dream’s “Zeit” insane.

Most noticeably, even though there is a softly pulsing percussive metrum throughout “A.I. Awakens”, the album defies the usual trademarks of a typical Drummer’s album. As Armstrong explains, this was much less a conscious effort in the vein of colleagues like Jason Kahn, Jon Mueller or Günter Müller than one might initially be inclined to think: “I guess the use of percussion as texture rather as a rhythmically driving element came naturally and out of necessity. Since I'm a drummer, percussion is my medium of expression. Once I decided to create a CD that was fairly low-energy and atmospheric, I HAD to use percussion in this way.” Experience from his days at CalArts came in handy: “John Bergamo was my "Western" percussion teacher and mentor there. John is world-famous for getting quite unusual sounds from traditional percussion instruments and even everyday, non-musical objects.”

The finished product nestles comfortable in between ambitious Ambient and laid-back Contemporary Composition – no wonder, as its “Space Age Furniture Music” concept was drawn directly from Eric Satie, even though the reflection on the 21st century’s "deluge of stimuli” implies that it might make for slightly uncomfortable background listening. When listened to attentively, however, it is a subtly immersive and subcutaneously tingling suprise, whose only downside consists in its late release, which meant that Composer James Tenney, who exerted an immense influence on Armstrong, did not get the chance to enjoy it. “It is a GREAT regret of mine that he never got to hear my CD. He died before it was finished”, Armstrong says, adding humbly: “ I like to think he would have enjoyed, at least, SOME things on the CD.” We’re absolutely positive he would.

Homepage: Chris Armstrong

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