Game Boys and dunking music

Roy Harmon will bring his unusual technology and sunny disposition to Levontin 7 this week.

Roy Harmon 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Roy Harmon 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Jazz, like many other areas of artistic pursuit, has increasingly become more technologically oriented. For example, musicians use synthesizers in all sorts of inventive ways, which may ruffle the feathers of a few purists, but at the end of the day, progress will generally make its presence felt.
So it seems a bit backwards to hear 23-year-old Roy Harmon talk about such arcane technology as a Game Boy. For those who are too advanced in years to have been technologically streetwise in the late ’80s or too young to have been around, Game Boy is a handheld video game device.
Despite its relatively simple capabilities, Game Boy was a huge success and achieved worldwide sales of close to 120 million units.
There is a neat chronological symmetry to Harmon’s use of a Game Boy device in his music. “It came out in 1989 and I was born in 1989,” notes the trumpeter, adding that the he was especially interested in the sonar features the low-tech appliance had to offer. “You could install software on it, which is similar to a game that allows you to write music,” he explains.
The device in question is the Xi413 – also the name of Harmon’s band, with which he will perform at next week’s Trumpet Festival at Levontin 7 club in Tel Aviv on November 5.
Harmon will play trumpet and perform his technological magic on synthesizers and cassettes, and he will be joined by guitarist Jonathan Albalak, bass player Avri Borochov, drummer Moy Nathanzon and percussionist and electronics wizard Oded Aloni.
Harmon makes no apologies for the paucity of features the Game Boy offers, and says its simplicity helps him to concentrate on the job at hand.
“It is pretty limited and I can focus purely on the music I can get out of it,” he says. “There are no distractions.”
It also serves as a blast from the past. “There is a nostalgia element to it. It reminds me of breaks at school. You know, you play jazz the whole time, and sometimes it gets a bit too serious and not so much fun. So playing around with the Game Boy helps to lighten things up too.”
Considering Harmon’s sunny life philosophy, it comes as no surprise to hear that his decision to shift from his initial childhood instrument of keyboard to trumpet was not the result of being inspired by some of the jazz discipline’s iconic players, the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis or Chet Baker. It came down to alluring aesthetics and a cheeky facial expression.
“When I was a kid, in fourth or fifth grade, there was a Dudu Topaz show on TV,” Harmon recalls. “He had a band on the show and there was a girl trumpeter called Ruta, and she used to wink at the camera while she played. I liked that.”
Once bitten by the gorgeous Ruta’s showmanship, Harmon set his sights on mastering the trumpet. His aunt sent him a CD of feted American trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, and the next stop was Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts in Givatayim where he soon got to grips with the basics of the craft.
Harmon began exploring other musical domains toward the end of his teens.
“I started getting into electronic music and grooves,” he explains.
“There are grooves in jazz too, but I was looking for some other kind of energy. That’s when I started playing around on the Game Boy. I did that for about three years.”
The next step in the Harmon-Game Boy love story involved taking the show on the road.
“I wanted to make that music live, on stage,” he says. That involved enhancing the technological infrastructure.
“I have an electronic setup with my trumpet, which feeds the trumpet sounds through sound effects. I use a computer which produces the sound from the Game Boy, together with guitar, bass and drums.
You can get a jazzy feel to all of that, but it still sounds a bit like the music of a video game. There is a sort of naiveté, together with groove and a sense of the video game energy. I like that.”
Part of Harmon’s somewhat extramural curiosity can be attributed to a sense of frustration with the way contemporary jazz is going. “There is something a bit monotonous about jazz today, and I also realized that straightahead jazz was not the music I grew up on; it’s not my roots music.
When I was little, I heard ’90s pop songs on the radio, and Israeli children’s songs with singers like Tzipi Shavit. Those were the first things I listened to.”
There is a debut Harmon album en route, which will go by the delightfully tongue-in-cheek name of Xi413 and the Art of Biscuit Dunking. The title track is an insouciant-sounding escapade with, as you would expect, lots of tinny sounding rudimentary computer-crafted soundscapes. The energy level is high and there is a strong go-with-the-flow feel to the effort. Harmon’s explanation of the album title also fits the bill.
“If you dunk a biscuit for too long it goes soft, and if you don’t dunk it long enough it stays too hard,” he muses. “You’ve got to know exactly when to take the biscuit out of your drink. It’s the same with writing music. You’ve got to know when to do things.”
There is also slightly more serious reasoning for the name. “Music is a bit like baptism; there’s a sort of holy vibe to it,” he says.
Other acts at the Levontin 7 trumpet minifestival include the Enhco Brothers from France, with David on trumpet and sibling Thomas on piano; trumpeter Avishai Cohen, who will be joined by percussionist Itamar Douari and Harmon’s colleague guitarist Jonathan Albalak; and electronics act Sefi Tzisling and 3421. The first show starts at 8 p.m.For more information: (03) 560-5084 and