THIS COLD WINTER (“OPERATIC,” ONE FRIEND RECENTLY CALLED IT) reached its extreme for me a few weekends ago when the main sprinkler pipe froze and burst in my apartment building. Water flooded through ceilings, along hallways, everywhere. In the building's elevator, water dripped through the ceiling lights, down the walls, and puddled on the floor; I stood in there briefly, as if surrounded by a metamorphosing world. By some stroke of luck, my apartment was spared. My main regret was that I hadn’t grabbed a camera to capture on film a few minutes of that bizarre visual landscape and myself standing there, in what felt like a moment straight out of a Tarkovsky film.
The night before, I had ventured out into the second coldest March 1st ever to see some experimental electronic music at Midway Contemporary Art gallery. The show featured two Twin Cities musicians, Justin Meyers and Eric Frye, and another from Los Angeles, Jeff Witscher. I am a fan of and occasional dabbler in the electronic arts, and I have friends with extensive catalogs and knowledge of electronic music, but I am not an expert. My knowledge of the genre is similar to that of the average listener, if there is such a thing, and at least partly influenced by the sort of synthesized sounds given wide audience in science fiction movies. If you think about it, the pattern of R2D2‘s speech is a sort of electronic composition, one that telegraphs the way he “feels.” What I mean is: when I walk into the gallery I am, consciously or not, already primed to hear the music through that filter.
As the crowd comes in from the frigid night -- a lively, packed house despite the weather -- everyone starts out bundled up in heavy parkas and knit caps in dark muted colors. Outerwear is removed, layer by layer, revealing tousled hair and pasty faces that look a little befuddled, as if confused to be so exposed. As we start to mingle and say hello, we all look (quite a lot really) like the extras in some Soviet-era science fiction film, like those weary inhabitants of the village in Stalker getting together on Deck 4 of the Space Station for an evening’s concert. There is (perversely, perhaps) beer on ice and a steady burble of conversations, everyone talking about their experiments -- not of the molecular or biological sort, but with color and movement, as if this is some center for performing arts in space. The woman sitting next to me tells a friend about the dance fellowship her boyfriend has just been awarded, that it means he is going to be moving far away.
When the music starts, it sounds somewhat familiar, perhaps in part because Justin Meyers specializes in a certain sort of warm analog synthesizer mode - like the purr and flutter of asynchronous engines playing against each other. The music is lyrical, meditative, evocative, even transcendent, but it’s hard for me not to place it in the realm of soundtrack. As I listen, my imagination fills with slow tracking shots of moody interior landscapes. Meyers stands over a box of wires and occasionally adjusts a knob -- like he’s directing an electronic orchestra, driving an imaginary machine.
By now, I think, most of us have seen such a music performance: no traditional instruments as such, just someone at the front of the room staring intently at a laptop or, as in this case, a collection of patch bays and mixing boards on a table. The performer concentrates and is still except for those unquantifiable movements – stooping over, moving an arm slightly, continuing to stare. It looks more like someone operating a control panel in a power plant than a musician playing an instrument. The audience listens closely; we’re attentive and respectful, and the music is lovely. We sense the machines are in excellent working order.
There is a long, indeterminate break after Meyer’s set, and the burble of socializing once again fills the room. I notice someone who has taken a chance with his attire -- he’s wearing bright red pants and a yellow sweater, but has a scraggly beard and wild hair, the unmistakably bedraggled look of living in confined quarters. In truth, we all look a bit like we’ve been living in our cars for the last three months.
When the music gets busy and fast, the cadence sounds to my ear like nothing so much as R2D2’s first psychedelic freak-out album. I even give it a title: “In Space No One Can Hear You Dream.”
Eventually, without introduction Eric Frye stands in front of his box of knobs and wires and begins his set. The sounds are much more percussive, all clicks and pops, and more aggressive without the simple rhythms and traditional movement. At one point, someone laughs behind me, and so I listen closer, trying to get the joke, but I’m not sure I ever do. Instead, I stumble into that earlier, cinematic reverie; when the music gets busy and fast, the cadence sounds to my ear like nothing so much as R2D2’s first psychedelic freak-out album. I even give it a title: “In Space No One Can Hear You Dream.” And it strikes me this would also be very good music -- a great event, in fact -- to enjoy with a slightly chemically altered brain.
After Frye, there is a much shorter break before Jeff Witscher, the final performer of the evening, stands in front of his Mac, eschewing the box of knobs for a more portable laptop. Both Meyers and Frye, in contrast to those of us in the audience, are well-coiffed and dressed fashionably, in black and dark blue -- their space-suit parkas and scarves hidden away in some other room, while the rest of us are left to wear ours, or try to drape them over chairs. Witscher, though, looks more like one of us as he takes the stage -- the same confused look in his eye, the bearded chin and indifferent hair. Maybe it’s because he has travelled from L.A. - it must be a shock, after California, to arrive here in far-off, deep winter. His composition contains some recognizable sounds -- sampled and reengineered, processed and looped. Like the others, he stands in front of his device, pushing small buttons, orchestrating sounds to blend what’s familiar into something strange, repurposing the workaday sounds of the world into something I can almost, but not quite identify.
Unlike the others, my mind doesn't conceive of Witscher’s composition as some sci-fi accompaniment; it doesn't sound to me like Space Age music. There's something rooting the piece back in daily life.
Listening to all three composers, I’m struck by electronic music’s unique sense of being created from the inside out, in such a way that nearly any sound one can imagine – any burble or wave or staticky envelope – can become real. In this music there’s a curious interplay between traditional musical tone and rhythm and the infinite possibilities of applying filters and plug-ins to incidental noises. The sound of a match lighting can be folded over, dissolved and reintegrated into something different, impossible. You can discover a whole new universe, chart a whole new imagined world.
With the music portion of the evening over, the hum of the crowd returns. It’s soothing, the thought that we all crossed the breathtaking vacuum of subzero space ro hear this music, a hardy lot of souls accepting the challenges of being alive to entertain the limits of the imagination.
Related links and information:
Meyers, Frye and Witscher performed at Midway Contemporary Art, Minneapolis March 1, 2014. More on the artists:
Splice Free, Meyer’s program of experimental music on KFAI
Tone Filth, featuring the recordings of Meyer
Sleepy Cobalt Sound, featuring the recordings of Eric Frye
About the author: Jay Orff is a writer living in Minneapolis. His writing has appeared in Rain Taxi, Reed and Harper’s.