With the 2010 Sonic Circuits Festival of Experimental Music and Beyond quietly raging across our region this week, I felt compelled to sample at least one of their outsider music showcases. On Sunday, I found myself in the Old Town Hall of Fairfax, a brilliantly restored old building, watching a variety of acts representing the wide range of styles Sonic Circuits covers. Sunday’s Music Marathon Overload! featured about 15 bands for $15 and ran from 11am to 11pm – a mind-melting 12-hour block of experimental music that only those of the strongest constitution could really survive. In the interest of mental self-preservation, I decided to partake of the second half of the Overload and sat in on the evening’s programming. It was an evening full of inspiring music made by people, toys, and furniture-come-to-life that I won’t soon forget.
I have noticed that experimental music elicits a lot of different reactions from people. Some consider it ridiculous, pompous, and absurd. Others find it liberating, inspiring, and the frontier of originality. It can often be intimidating and almost always requires the listener to think; which some listeners enjoy while others prefer their music to distract rather than engage. The beauty of experimental music is that it provides evidence to support all of these feelings and observations about it. Sometimes it is absurd and sometimes it is a performance that is truly unique in the universe. Sometimes it does challenge its listeners, other times it provides a universe of sound to escape into. I always try to approach experimental music events with an open mind, but I have to admit that I usually experience an adjustment period when I first arrive. The best attitude to have is “go with the flow”, check reality at the door, and enjoy being in the artist’s head for awhile. Because that is really what was happening on Sunday. With each performance, each performer transformed the Old Town Hall of Fairfax into their own sound universe and provided the audience a tour of it. To go into an event like this with a closed mind is a waste of time because you will be faced with seemingly ridiculous things that in their world make perfectly beautiful, bizarre music.
The Fuse Ensemble performing “Usina Mekanica”: A local ensemble led by composer Gina Biver, Fuse Ensemble present challenging works by living composers using traditional instruments such as the flute and clarinet, and unusual ones like wind-up toys and toy-pianos. Fuse Ensemble has a running collaboration with Edgar Endress, a video artist, who was present at the performance on Sunday even though it did not incorporate his visuals. As I mentioned earlier, it usually takes my brain a little bit to adjust to experimental music performance and Sunday was no different. Thankfully, Fuse Ensemble’s performance was designed perfectly to ease the listener into their far-out sound.
The performance began with two toy pianos, facing one another atop a large green table. In between the pianos were several metal wind-up toys, seemingly for decoration. Biver and friend took their positions at their respective toy pianos and began to play. Biver rapped her knuckle on the wood under-belly of her piano while occasionally tinkling its keys with her other hand. Her piano sounded broken and her knuckle-wraps on its base added an eerie effect. Across from Biver, the other pianist played a piece of repeating variations from sheet music. Her playing was much more frantic and created a tension with Biver’s wrapping and sick piano. The piece was eerie but low-key and by its end I was totally on-board for the rest of their performance.
Fuse Ensemble at full-strength is a large group. Nine people on stage with instruments ranging from piano, cello, electric violin, the aforementioned wood-winds, and drums. Perhaps the two most unique musicians in the group were the two men in gray jumpsuits who stood by the green table and played wind-up toys. Various metal toy vehicles zoomed across the table-top, their wound-up engines buzzing into the microphones. Two wind-up metal monkeys played xylophones. A dozen metal mice wiggled their tails and zipped around in circles, colliding. Every sound the toys made was picked up by the microphone and covered the ensemble’s performance in a hail of clicks, clacks, whirs, and dings. The ensemble met this tinny randomness with discordant chamber-pop. The combined effect was at times hectic and unsettling, and at others completely pleasant and even whimsical.
For their finale, most of Fuse Ensemble left the stage leaving behind an empty green table manned by one of the toy-players, a violinist, and Bivers. What followed is one of the oddest performances I will ever see. The violinist began playing a creepy, almost horror film score styled piece. The toy-player stood by the table holding a microphone and occasionally touching the table top; almost rubbing it. As the violin wailed away, our attention was on the man standing by the table. What was he going to do? Was he going to sing? Was he going to start pounding on the table? No, nothing so mundane. It began subtly, the table shifted slightly. Then with more speed. The table top began to wobble, or warp. It looked like the table top was a wave. Meanwhile the violin wailed on. It took a second for the brain to reconcile the fact that this table had come to life. It had come to life and it was making music. Soon the table (no small table mid you; think dining room table) was walking around the room, making mechanical noises which were picked up by microphone and somehow making sense along with the violin. Each step the table took was accompanied by a mechanical sound, a whoosh, and a thud. The table was a alive and a few times even walked dangerously close to the front row, menacing the audience with its strangeness. The piece went on like that for several minutes and not once did the living table lose its novelty. It was a reality-bending performance.
Astma: Next, I was very impressed with the Russian, improv-collaboration duo, Astma.* Pairing drummer/vocalist Olga Nosova from the Russian noise-core scene and Russian industrial legend Alexei Borisov (seriously were talking pre-’89 USSR here), Astma is a drum and guitar-torture act incorporating looped electronics and disturbing improv vocal performance. Playing in near total darkness, the two set to work, seemingly unaware of one another and yet making music that complimented each other in powerful ways.
If kung-fu styles could be applied to drum-kits, I would describe Nosova’s style as drunken-master. She worked the kit in forceful, stumbling ways that kept the listener off-balance the entire performance. Borisov played his guitar effects pedals more than his guitar as he manipulated the signal from it into all sorts of electro-glitches and worbles. Astma’s set began with a spare sound and became increasingly dense as they introduced new elements such as Nosova triggering a killer industrial backing loop (the main instrument of forward propulsion in the set), or when Borisov stood up and unleashed on his guitar. Both Nosova and Borisov did some form of singing during the set, but it was completely alien in its effect. Nosova sang in high-pitched eee-ooo’s that sounded like a female toddler in-the-wild discovering and attempting opera vocal warm-ups; while Borisov mumbled into the microphone sounding like a microphone sound-check coming through the walls from the building two doors down. Astma’s set was awesome and their 45-minutes of electro-industrial-noise left me wanting more.
Nobu Stowe – Lee Pemberton Project (with Andrea Centazzo): This was an experimental music super-group that I gathered was something of a highlight on the festival’s schedule. Unfortunately their set of experimental jazz (improv?) left me feeling flat. I would not call their set of jazzy, piano-led noodling bad, but it was not really to my liking either. The set felt rather purposeless, other than serving as a forum for these musical friends from around the world to jam together.
The Cornel West Theory: I am so glad that these local intelligent hip-hop heroes were included on this bill because I missed them opening for Public Enemy in August. On paper I thought these guys sounded like a bunch of disparate elements that would come together like a mess; in the flesh The Cornel West Theory may be my favorite rap act since Dalek. Featuring two drummers, a laptop technician (over a DJ) and two captivating front-men The Cornel West Theory owned the performance space with their bodies as well as their sound. Both rappers disturbingly danced around the entire front of the Old Town Hall with their herky-jerky moves and slow-motion stalking. On the mic they traded off angry intellectual deliveries with spaced out information-overload style. The dual drum set-up was awesome with the drummers sometimes seeming to continue and complete each other’s drum-fills like a four-armed monster. On the sonic front, atmospheric samples and midi freak-outs took their sound out of the DJ-era and into the information age. These guys are a tight unit and I was floored by their stage presence and DC-themed lyrics. If you are into alternative, cutting-edge hip-hop, check The Cornel West Theory out! (They are playing at the Velvet Lounge on Saturday 9/25).
Illusion of Safety: Daniel Burke is a titan of noise music. Operating his project Illusion of Safety in its various forms since 1983, he has covered the gamut of confrontational, challenging, immersive music. Serving as Sunday night’s headline act, Burke closed out the Music Marathon Overload! with two sets, each featuring different elements of his musical genius.
First Burke was accompanied by his friend and collaborator Travis Bird for about a half hour. With Travis on an electric guitar and Burke on a modified acoustic guitar, the two created some beautiful soundscapes using pedal manipulation and various hand-held gadgets. I often use the WTF? or noise-wonder factor as a rubric for experimental noise concerts, and even though I was sitting in the front row, and watching every little move they made, Burke and Bird had me completely mystified as to how they were able to make such an awe-inspiring range of sounds with so little. Their set was beautiful and filled that old, second-floor, meeting room’s high-ceiling like a physical thing.
After their beautiful and peaceful set of guitar experiments, Burke then performed for about an hour by himself as Illusion of Safety. Working his laptop computer like a sound factory, Burke composed three massive, sprawling, multi-faceted pieces that began with software and then piped out to a table top and suitcase-full of wire-covered doo-hickeys and whats-its. Again, Burke completely baffled me as he manipulated the wires and knobs like an alchemist, transforming the sounds coming from the laptop into all manner of strange beasts. With each long piece, Burke began with tones and pulses that were pleasant enough. It did not take long, however, for him to bend these sounds into jagged shapes that stabbed at the listener from all angles. Burke surrounded us with sound and then attacked us with it. Finally his pieces evoked information overload as he took us right to the edge of volume and intensity before ending the pieces with nature sounds and disjointed voice samples. Thankfully, Burke let us ride out those softer sounds to conclude the long night and for some long day (12 hours!) of brilliant and bizarre music.
Don’t forget – Sonic Circuits has events planned every night this week as their festival rolls on – Check them out!
* Not to be confused with the Swedish group of the same name.