On the Artscience of Sound

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Mouthbreathe performing on 15 January 2017

A man wearing a gorilla mask manipulates a theremin as though he’s attempting to summon the demon that dwells within. His fellow performers are a guitarist and keyboardist, both in balaclavas (totally appropriate, given the season). Interestingly, their instruments aren’t the main focus: it’s the manipulation of console and pedal sets that feature.

The result can create some cognitive dissonance, because this shit ain’t Foghat. It’s more like Pink Floyd made an album out of their transitions and then handed it over to Animal from the Muppets for mastering. Also, someone gave Animal some white powder in a baggie and ohmygod he just inhaled, like, ALL of it.

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Uh-oh. Just remember, dude: less like a rocket ship, more like a balloon.

I’ve tried to explain the appeal of the noise set – which is sort of like the anachronistically purist younger cousin of glitch electronica. Some people get it and still aren’t fans, which is understandable. It’s not for everyone. I often grow frustrated with consistent decibel level, a habit of which many noise artists are guilty. After a certain period, it becomes difficult for me to differentiate individual sounds from the general hum of the universe, thereby robbing me of what makes a noise set so much fun (until I go outside for a few minutes to reset my brain’s auditory systems).

Let me illustrate the best way I know how: with a charming anecdote!

As a kid, one of my favorite finds in the field behind my house was this 10-foot long, rusted ¼-inch steel(?) cable. Upon kicking the cable with the toe of my boot, I discovered it made a delightfully metallic sound that mimicked lightning. After experimenting with rocks and wiggling the cable, I decided to drag it all the way home so I could play with it for a couple of days before my mother took it to the dump while I was at school.

This is the heart of the noise set. Despite the common presence of musical instruments, it’s not really music. The purpose is to play with manipulating sound-making devices, to find new sounds, to share those findings with others, and, finally, to bask in the enjoyment of sound in general.

We don’t often stop to think about how special sound is. It’s vibration that hits a very sensitive spot of skin and hair – that is, the ear drum – which our brains then interpret.

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Look at all that delicate hardware. I should really stop using q-tips to clean my ears.

High-frequency vibrations produce high sounds. Low-frequency vibrations produce low sounds. A certain combination of high-and-low frequency sounds together produces Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra.

Admittedly, I feel like a total nerd at these shows. They’re frequented by stylish artists and innovators, and I’m like, “You guysh wanna talk about schiensh?” as I schlump around in the same shit I’ve worn since high school.

Those are my brother's boots from basic. I still wear them.

I put this outfit on in ninth grade and said, “Done!”

That feeling never lasts, though. People who support experimental art and performance tend to be a very supportive crowd. I recently went to a venue with three rules posted, one of which is, “Don’t Be an Asshole” (more on that venue in a later post).

This aspect of the culture is very important to me. In an era where learned helplessness is a growing phenomenon, we need fewer nay-sayers and more people realizing that they CAN do the thing they dream of doing. If you want to practice what is essentially a fringe art, there are not only people who are into that sort of thing, they’ll help you learn how to do it.

In other words: you know that weird thing you like to do? That weird thing is totally cool and probably not as weird as you think it is. In fact, we’d love to see you do your weird thing. If you do it a lot, you’ll probably get better at it. Maybe you could do your weird thing at one of those outsider art festivals and other people will be like, “Cool. I wanna do that weird thing now.”

Noise sets aren’t even that strange. Noise music has been around since the early 20th century. We’re used to hearing performers manipulate their instruments in ways that both astound and mystify.

While contemporary performances have a more tenuous link to traditional music, they can be surprisingly tonal and dreamlike. Audiences will often find a repetitive sound to latch onto, as if subconsciously creating their own compositional thread.

In the simplest terms, it is what you make of it. I imagine people had a similar feeling about jazz in the 1930s. To quote Lisa Simpson, “You have to listen to the notes she’s not playing,” to which Sadsack Stickinthemud replies, *scoff* “I can do that at home!”

Sure, why not?

Overall, it’s an enjoyable experience, and if nothing else, it should inspire some creative motivation. Sometimes all I make after a show is a snack, but it’s the most inventive snack you’ve ever seen.

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Ya’ll wanna collaborate on a sandwich?

SMACKDOWN!: Mountain Swallower vs. Condor and Jaybird

New Year’s Eve is a smörgåsbord of debauchery and decadence. As per usual, I had many options this year: the always amusing Analog Arcade Bar offered some sweet console giveaways alongside their champagne toast, the Candymakers took over RME, and good old Chicago offered some amazing shows from the likes of Umbra and the Volcan Siege, Houndmouth, and Patti Smith.

All tempting. My ultimate decision to attend the New Year’s Eve Smackdown between Condor and Jaybird and Mountain Swallower mainly hinged on two things: the kickassity of Condor’s most recent release show for The Power as well as the donation of all proceeds to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) and Kings Harvest Ministries. And at the end of this post, I will declare a definitive winner.

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The flyer is the icing on the cake.

First, the show:

The best way to start NYE is with a performance by a skinny white dude in old lady’s brunch hat calling himself Aqualife in a German accent. None of that was sarcasm (I know it’s hard to tell sometimes). Andrew Cline’s compositions are playfully synth, with progressions kidnapped from the late-1970s and 80s and mated with a melodious noise set. If this sounds like a contradiction in terms, you just don’t get it, man. It takes cajones to invoke Vanessa Carlton and destroy her one hit song in front of over a hundred Midwestern post-alter-supermodernists. That’s the type of animal that lives inside Andrew Cline.

Davenport’s own Harsh Times likes to play songs with names like “Too High to Die” and “Fucking Up” that descend from punk and garage rock as popularized by bands with names that begin with “The” – The Buzzcocks, The Skids, The Stooges, etc. And while we won’t have any shows from The Clash, The Adverts, or The Damned to look forward to, Harsh Times is here for us. So happy.

Lungs appeared. You know how with aughts nu metal, every song has that one little great bit that lasts 12 seconds and then it’s ruined? Usually by some muddy strings and a singer whining through his nose lyrics that sound like they were written by a seventh grader? Lungs takes that one great bit and turns it into a whole song. No whiny singer. Instead, the voices of Doom and his brother Cataclysm. Thank you, Lungs! Bangovers galore.

Sister Wife played a set. Everyone has a boner for Sister Wife. No further commentary necessary. If you haven’t heard them, you’re a musical muttonhead and I pity you (also, you should click here).

Moving on…

The actual headlining performance – the MAIN Event:

Mountain Swallower claimed stage right; appropriate given their role as the forces of good. In case anyone missed out on the metaphor, they helpfully color-coordinated. It was a bit odd to see the white suits, since I always picture Mountain Swallower as more of a muddy rust.

At first, they played on their own, and their set was similar in sound to the September show (see below). I still wasn’t sure what to expect. With no octagon and no apparent weaponry onstage, it was safe to assume that the smackdown would indeed be a kind of musical battle. I was picturing series of back-and-forth performances, maybe? With a Clap-o-Meter?

Inevitably, good could not sustain without the appearance of evil. The darkness cannot exist without the light. Thus, Condor and Jaybird tore onto the stage, all in black, to meet Mountain Swallower.

The two bands faced each other. We held our collective breath. This was potentially a fight to the death. What would happen next?

PLOT TWIST!

Before that night, I wouldn’t have said these two bands have a similar sound. And I still won’t. Listening to Condor and Jaybird’s albums, one can pick out dozens of musical styles across a handful of songs. They need to sprawl out, both physically and symphonically. Meanwhile, Mountain Swallower is a band that can play an acoustic set in the Australian outback (they look like they could handle a croc). I’d like to sit around a giant campfire with all my friends and listen to them play a set under the stars.

But somehow these two bands came together to form, like, a Super Friends-type group. MountConSwallowBird.

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They fit together like this.

It was an extra special treat to hear these guys all play together featuring duo drummers and singers who love to get right lusty with their harmonies. Sharing the stage, they shared each other’s music in a big ol’ megaset. They rocked tunes from their most recent respective albums. For fans of both bands, it was essentially magic.

What likely makes this marriage work is the mutual respect and admiration these musicians all have for each other. They’re familiar with each other’s work and are very comfortable together on stage. They truly became an entity larger and separate from their individual groups.

There’s probably some meaningful philosophical thread I could pull out of this. Mostly, I’m just stoked I was there to see it. It’s an event that can never be replicated (a couple for real got engaged that night), but there’s no reason that MountConSwallowBird can’t fly again. Perhaps this summer? Under those stars I mentioned?

After the countdown and the kissing and the fireworks, the show ended with an ambush set by Closet Witch who took over the stage when no one was looking and surprised the hell out of everyone. They’re good at that.

And the last thing. The winner and champion:

The audience! You really should have seen that coming.

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Also: RAINN and King’s Harvest, which received $1,200 from the show.

Tiny and Mighty: The Boy Who Wanted to Live

The winter holidays are a bittersweet time for everyone. If you are fortunate, retail bills, icy weather, and an anti-climactic gift exchange are your biggest disappointments. Like a Christmas special, everything tends to turn out all right in the end. Though you fought with your mother and burned the roast, you went to bed feeling content. Maybe even happy.

Tragedy and Death don’t recognize holidays. Traffic accidents happen on the way to brunch. Electrical failures destroy homes. Ex-lovers show up on front steps with shotguns.

These are sudden, violent examples, but Tragedy and Death can also be quiet. They are patient and persistent in their work.

Jesse Amandus was born on December 13, 2015. He wasn’t supposed to arrive for several more weeks, so he went immediately into an incubator in the NICU. As small as he was, he squalled irritably, pulling at the many apparatuses attached to his little pink body.

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Excuse me, madam, but I must express my dismay.

For the fist week, doctors were worried about a brain bleed. His mothers spent all of their free time in the hospital. They made friends with the nurses, who watched Jesse’s progress with increasing hope and joy.

Both of Jesse’s mothers are in medicine – one a doctor, the other a pediatric nurse. They’re scientists, but they put their trust in their faith and in God. They prayed for their boy, and hoped that he’d be home with them soon.

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Always happy to cuddle.

On the tenth day of his life, Jesse suffered a spontaneous perforation of the bowel. There was no known direct cause; perhaps his colon wasn’t fully developed.

It didn’t take long for Jesse to get very, very sick. With fluids leaking out of his gastrointestinal tract into his body, he gained three pounds. He bloated and turned yellow. His mothers stopped praying that he would live and began to pray that they would have the strength to let him go. Through it all, though, Jesse continued to kick at the tubes and wires in his incubator. He turned his head, trying to nurse. He waved his little arms at his mothers and looked intently into their faces (as infants tend to do).

This was a child who wanted to live. Everything about him bellowed determination and strength of spirit. He fought as hard as he could, but he died on December 26 at 13 days old.

Once upon a time, Jesse wanted to live, and he just didn’t.

His mothers will never recover. Almost immediately after his death, they left the country for several weeks. They couldn’t stand the sight of their home, and spent as little time as possible there between Jesse’s death and their escape trip. It’s understandable; it was the home they’d expected to share with their baby.

This year, instead of chasing a one-year-old through their house, they tried to decide if they would even decorate the house. They bought the gifts they would have bought for Jesse, and then gave them to charity. They wrote a little on social media every day, musing over the past year and how their son changed their lives. To paraphrase one entry: “My son Jesse, born tiny and mighty, showed me true strength and faith.”

After everything, they still keep the faith. I have no idea how or why. Maybe that’s where Jesse got his incredible strength.

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DIY is dead. Long live DIY.

The final death toll is 36. According to the L.A. Times, the Ghost Ship in Oakland was considered an “enchanting ‘safe space’ that many called home.” Yes, people lived there, but they also opened their doors for others to meet and gather.

I’ve been in plenty of spaces like that: filled with wooden furniture and antiques, decorated with draped cloth and light strands (although I cannot picture this pallet staircase everyone keeps talking about), and it didn’t occur to me to search for fire exits or sprinkler systems. I took it all for granted.

Maybe that makes me stupid. Maybe I shouldn’t assume that a building could stand in a highly populated city for 30 years without a single inspection. I know I’ve lived in apartments with insufficient fire exits (not to mention the severe pest problems and illegal underheating that made for some very, very cold February nights) that still managed to pass city inspections on a regular basis, and I sure as hell wasn’t about to report the issues, criminal though they may be.

Why would I do something like that? How could I be such an arrogant, brain-dead moron? Answer: because I’m not made of money, and it’s better to have a shitty roof over my head than none at all.

As many people have already pointed out, not only was the Ghost Ship an essential place to the people who did call it home, it’s far from one-of-a-kind. You’re probably within spitting distance of a DIY space right now.

These are places where people live and work. Usually, if they’re not squatting, they’re not living there 100% legally (that is, the space is not zoned for residential use or there are more residents than the lease allows, etc.), and it has nothing to do with sticking it to The Man. People simply cannot afford to live and eat and clothe themselves. That’s all there is to it.

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The fire has terrified city officials nationwide. Fire departments are all combing their files, searching for any structures they may have overlooked, especially those that are the most suitable for a group to occupy with little risk of detection.

I get it. It’s their job, and they’re the ones who would have to sift through the wreckage searching for bodies. A consequence of this, however, is that people are losing their homes.

I’m looking out the window right now: snow continues to fall, and will through the night, as temperatures hover below freezing. Some local spaces have already been closed down. The DIY kids are going underground. Even more than usual, I mean.

That’s the rub: their goal is to evade detection. That’s how their homes have stayed below the radar for so long. That’s why they’ve been so easy to ignore. Will they eventually be forgotten entirely?

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Who, us? No, we’re fine. This is fine.

On the plus side, another Lost Generation means we’ll have some great artistic and literary works to look forward to. Remember how awesome F. Scott Fitzgerald was before he drank himself to death? And Steinbeck before he smoked himself to death? And Hemingway before he stuck a shotgun in his mouth and blew his brains out?

‘member?

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Trump: “Who ‘members? This guy!” Pence: “Dude, are you still constipated? You should maybe think about seeing a doctor.”

Tweet Your Dissent

A local college instructor told me about the rhetoric class she taught this fall. She had her students watch the presidential debates. “Watching those debates is usually very useful for students. [The debates] illustrate rhetorical tools and logical fallacies.” This year was quite different. Students saw Trump fail to use even the most basic principles of argument while barely stringing together a coherent thought. After he won the election, the students stopped working. “Nothing you’ve taught us matters,” they told the instructor. Logic no longer applies. True and false are subjective. 2+2=5.

In other words, the students have lost faith in their education as well as in our democratic system.

I’ve been dealing with it the only way I know how: research. It’s the most reasonable way to predict the future, especially now that ours appears to be out of our hands. There’s little precedence, however, for this precise situation. While corruption has existed among humans since the dawn of our species, the Era of Information (that is to say, the Present) is virtually unprecedented. We can compare it to the invention of writing, the printing press, radio, and television, but it’s so much more prevalent in our daily lives that any of those things have ever been.

This is the problem. There is so much information that cherrypicking is necessary. We can’t possibly absorb all of it, and people are more inclined to read articles that correspond to their way of thinking. People love to be right! They love to be vindicated and told that their way of life is the most valid.

So there’s one other thing I’m trying. I can’t believe it’s come to this, but I’m freaking tweeting like a maniac.

We know Trump doesn’t read anything other than Breitbart. We know he can’t stop tweeting to save his stupid life. So I’ve started tweeting articles at him.

Signing the petitions and protesting and sending money to organizations that fight his administration are all excellent, and I’m doing that as well. With his inauguration six weeks away, however, I’m willing to do everything I can to make my dissension clear, even if it’s spending half an hour every day tweeting a bunch of articles at a chump trumpet. And then blogging about it.

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Who could have seen this coming?

Also, it’s pretty satisfying. Tweeting at Trump is about as close as I’ll probably ever get to insulting him to his face, even if he gets so many tweets that he likely won’t see mine. However, I encourage everyone to tweet articles to @realdonaldtrump. He’s bound to spot a couple of them, and just think about how funny he looks when he cries. His head gets all red and sweaty, and then he stammers out some lame comeback that makes everyone around him experience shame by proxy.

In the meantime, I continue to be an Absurdist. It’s all I have left.

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“Who’s intensely constipated? This guy!” courtesy of @realdontaldtrump

It’s Absurd! Or: Suicide as the One True Philosophical Problem

Some time in the early 1940s (or, possibly, the decade before, or really any time between then and about 1915 but most likely in the late 30s), Albert Camus wrote: “The absurd man will not commit suicide; he wants to live, without relinquishing any of his certainty, without a future, without hope, without illusions … and without resignation either.”

In the same year he published those words, he wrote these: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”

People don’t like to talk about suicide. More than one National Geographic documentary narrator has referred to it as “the ultimate taboo.” If we assume that both Camus and National Geographic are correct, then these truths depend on each other. A if and only if B, and vice versa.

BUT

By the very definition of absurdism, even this observation is meaningless. Or maybe it’s not. We’re alone in the universe and in 10 billion years nothing we’ve ever done will have mattered.

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Please meh this page. Or don’t. None of this matters.

Anyway, I’ve wandered from my point, which is this: we have entered the absurd. No future. No hope. No illusions.

The laws of evolution do not guarantee inherent positive development. Things do not get better just because time moves forward. In the 1960s, women in Afghanistan looked just like women in the United States. They wore make-up and bobbed hair. They went to school and drove to work. They had no way of knowing that only 20 years later, they would risk death with this same behavior.

This is all I can think about. I am surrounded by the same ideology that that has polluted the cradle of civilization to the point where it’s simply a cesspool of spiritual excrement. I already struggle with my place in a society that just gave me a giant middle finger.

“You have no future,” says the giant middle finger. “Also, no hope or illusions. None of those things.”

All that’s left, according to Camus, is resignation.

Honestly, I’m on the fence. Resignation. The word sounds relaxing. No more stressing about whether or not my life matters. With resignation, the answer is: it doesn’t. I have no future. I have no hope. I have no illusions.

As a female incapable of procreation – that is, our only apparent function – I hear the message loud and clear: I have no value.

The Church of Euthanasia advocates suicide for the good of the planet. That is to say, if a person is dead, that person is no longer using up natural resources that could be utilized elsewhere. If one is useless to society, it makes sense that one should altruistically eliminate oneself for the good of the rest.

BUT

The Church of Euthanasia drags us right back into the absurd, with slogans like, “Save the Planet, Kill Yourself,” and “Eat a Queer Fetus for Jesus.” And with the absurd, of course, there can be no resignation. Because that is the very nature of the absurd. The absurd is killing the Buddha. The absurd is cheering for Machine Gun Joe. The absurd was on the front fucking page of my newspaper this morning.

Resignation is all that’s left. I’m pretty numb right now, but I’ll keep fighting it. I’d like to believe everyone else will, too. I hope we are not resigned to a bleak future. The past 24 hours – and the three decades leading up to them – have taught me not to hope too much. It may very well be that America hanged herself last night.

The Power is Glorious – Condor and Jaybird

It’s taken me nearly a month to write a review of Condor and Jaybird’s newest album, The Power. No, it’s not just because I’ve been busy teaching and writing and giving readings in laundromats.

It’s because The Power is not the type of album you listen to a couple of times and think, “Oh, I get it. It’s this: …”

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This. Cover Art by Tyler White.

Dissecting The Power is a slow burn. It’s not a term paper. It’s a dissertation.

Example: According to producer Andrew Barkau of Future Apple Tree, ‘Lightbringer IV’ alone is a tapestry of 80 tracks that jostle one another as in a prelude to a mosh pit, and then swell into an orgiastic sonorous dogpile.

Barkau’s the same guy who describes the album’s theme as a “theological buffet.” An astute assessment, it serves to inject the soaring melodies and acrobatic syncopation with additional significance. But let’s go back, first, to the album release party:

The Village Theatre in East Davenport was beyond capacity, I can tell you that for goddamn sure. Not that anyone could have done a thing about it. If the fire marshal had shown up and turned the hoses on us, maybe some of the younger families with toddlers might have gone home. The rest of us would have found the blast refreshing, as we were already soaked with sweat, anyway.

The Golden Fleece opened and set the tone for the evening. The band is known for inventive melodies, a satisfactory amount of thumptastic percussion, and a barefoot lead singer very at ease with the audience.

Next: Mountain Swallower, another local favorite and a fine group of young fellows who bill themselves as bridge-gazers. They’re like shoe-gazers but not as boring. Mellow, but unafraid. It doesn’t make me want to sit in the dark and drink alone. I’ll keep the darkness and the drinking, but one cannot sit and listen to Mountain Swallower. Some form of creation is required. A little crying is acceptable.

By the time Condor and Jaybird took the stage, there was not a dry person in a one-block radius. I’m fairly certain I slipped in puddles of sweat as I got in line to exit the building for a smoke, as did most everyone else. Between sets, the room emptied out but for scatterings of torn and abandoned clothing, spilled drinks, a few old folks who weren’t about to get out of their chairs, and a handful little kids with those noise-canceling ear muff things.

Those last two details are important: Condor and Jaybird isn’t a sound that caters to a select few. Librarians, gutter punks, retirees, bartenders, bankers, schoolteachers, carpenters, toddlers, small-business owners, students, and exotic dancers were all members of the audience – I even bumped into a lumberjack.

It’s not that the band plays it safe with their music. Detractors might not appreciate so much experimentation or non-traditional use of instruments or the simple-yet-terrifying bird people that appear on stage.

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Payton Shumaker Photography, The Power Release Show

In the very first minutes, a listener will assume that the band’s main influences include 90’s brit pop. Then: high school marching bands, Christian rock groups from Michigan, and some of the jazz trio that backed Mr. Rogers.

Then, we descend into deconstructed mythology: gentle, patient strings that collide and separate. Private myths. A little baseball organ. Jesus camp. Suggestive hip movements. Decompartmentalization. Synesthesia. Dogs wearing hats.

See? I’m not even sure what I’m talking about anymore. Wait here while I go back and listen one more time…