On the Artscience of Sound

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.

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.

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 nerd at these shows. At first. 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 in general. I recently went to a venue with three rules posted, one of which is, “Don’t Be an Asshole.”

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.

Ya’ll wanna collaborate on a sandwich?

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