Jazz and electronic music are two distinct genres that begin and end at two entirely different points, with wildly different conjurations in the modern imagination. For jazz, the imagery that comes to mind might be of coffee shops and seemingly magical drummers keeping time to complicated polyrhythms as guitarists play in odd key signatures and improvise riffs over winding bass lines. For electronic music, dark basement corners in decaying urban sprawls, created by bearded men in black hoodies who toil over complex modular machines made of infinite wires. Both are skilled, both require a virtuosic understanding of their craft, but this is where surface similarities seemingly reach their terminus.
Enter Nick Demopoulos' SMOMID (short for String Modeling Midi Device), a project that officially began in 2010, but that started way back when with a deep love of jazz.
"I actually got started with music in a jazz group called Exegesis back in early 2000s," Demopoulos says.
But what was different, he says, is that they were "incorporating samplers and drum machines, so it became this jazz/electronic soundscape combination."
After a time, Demopoulos began playing around with the idea of creating freeform music with electronics.
"I got the idea from a class I took at [Brooklyn-based performance gallery and teaching space] LEMURplex [League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots] and started toying with the idea of building an electronic drum kit," he says.
But when the drum project came to a dead end in 2010, Demopoulos
completed a prototype of his first custom-designed electronic instrument, what he calls a light guitar; a MIDI controller (an interface through which digital musical sounds are made) in the general shape of a guitar but that looks more like a weapon from a cyberpunk film than the instrument on which it's based. Knobs, lights and touchpads are placed with surgical precision, which gives Demopoulos flexibility to create soundscapes with ease from a number of self-built instruments on stage tied in to his custom instrument. In this regard, Demopoulos is less a musician and more a mad scientist, editing sound designs on the fly and building sonic creations that can surprise even him. It's beginning to sound more and more like a jazz show, right?
The proof is in the tracks. SMOMID doesn't rely on a few flashy tricks and a light guitar to create textures for the sake of doing something weird. Rather, the project should be viewed as a series of dualisms, of complex musical arrangements and simple instrumentations, mathematics and tonality. Snare hits are algorithmically manipulated to provide slight variations in tempo and pitch to intone live drums. He treats drum fills similarly, to the point where Demopoulos often doesn't know where a fill will occur in any given song.
"Even though I rehearse, I don't quite know what I'm going to play when I'm going into a show," he explains. "Nothing is tracked, everything is being triggered live."
While there might be some sequencing done in preparation, a SMOMID show begins and ends with improvisation. Which, of course, is a core ethos of jazz; a dedication to the ephemerality of music and capturing moments, rather than a meticulous collection of rehearsals and performances. SMOMID might be an electronic act, but the method by which the music is created is no less organic or natural than any other creative process.
"I think people are hungry for artists that are taking chances," Demopoulos notes. And while it might be easy to lump electronic music into terms like "dance" or "ambient," he doesn't think electronic music is closing in on itself.
"It's expanding," he adds. "I think there should be two genres: acoustic music and electronic music."
So I find myself struggling to understand if SMOMID is high art that I just don't get, or if it's something that is much less difficult to grasp—a guy with a cool MIDI controller making interesting music outside of the confines of any single genre. There is no such thing as a single unifying taste in music, and an act like SMOMID might not sit comfortably in any genre. Yet Demopoulos succeeds on his own terms by bridging the gaps between jazz and electronic music. It's the product of pushing the boundaries of what electronic music can be, while having a reverence for the foundations of contemporary jazz. That, and a custom designed light guitar.
SMOMID, Hyper Lords, APPS:
8-11:30 pm Wednesday, Oct. 23. $10.
Zephyr Community Art Studio,
1520 Center Drive Ste. 2.