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James Blake: What the heck are they playing on stage?!?

Editor’s note: This piece is a collaboration between UMS programming intern Margaret Albrecht and senior programming manager Mark Jacobson.

Photo: James Blake (performing in Ann Arbor on November 11, 2013).

When the house lights dim, and strobe lights and color washes paint the stage, James Blake and his colleagues will play non-conventional instruments, sometimes in non-conventional ways.

Seeing the instruments in the dark will be tricky, so what instruments are they playing?

James Blake, a conservatory-trained pianist turned singer/songwriter and producer, provides the vocals for this project while performing on various keyboards and electronics. Blake can be heard building complex vocal harmonies in tandem with vocals he records live during the concert (via foot pedals to record and loop his voice), using nothing more than a Synth Prophet ’08, a few microphones, and his ears. During his set, Blake produces the same live effects that many of today’s popular artists spend hours sweating over in recording studios.

Rob McAndrews is credited in the program as providing guitar, synthesizer, and electronics. But what is remarkable is not the multitasking, but the seamless integration of these various instruments. One instrument rarely seen on stage, the Moog Taurus 3 analog synthesizer, is actually a fairly standard piece of equipment popularized by big name rock bands like Pink Floyd and Rush. The instrument is comprised of a series of pedals originally designed to be played by foot, which are similar to the pedals found on an organ. McAndrews however, plays the Taurus with his hands to create massive, low-end bass sounds. He also treats his guitar like a synthesizer, producing sounds atypical of a familiar electric rock guitar sound.

Ben Assister has an almost infinite array of sounds at his disposal through a combination of digital and traditional percussion. While most bands stick to a traditional, acoustic drum kit (typically comprised of variously sized cymbals, drums, and toms), Assister incorporates a digital drum pad into his minimalist kit so that he can rhythmically trigger pre-created electronic samples live, often while accompanying these samples on traditional drums and cymbals.

So now, when those lights dim, you’ll know what to expect: dramatic timbre changes, live vocal manipulations, looping, and harmonization, and, we hope, a concert experience you won’t soon forget.

For a preview of the music, take a listen to UMS Senior Programming Manager Mark Jacobson’s “Staff Picks” playlist, or Associate Manager of Community Engagement Mary Roeder’s “Electronic Music” playlist.

Or, take a look: