Monday, November 22, 2010

Concert Review: Seattle Phonographers Union; Chapel Performance Space at Good Shepherd Center, 11/19/2010

"The Seattle Phonographers Union convene to explore the ways in which we recognize, differentiate, map and navigate our sonic environment. Our intent is to move beyond habitual experience of sound and uncover what is foreign in the familiar and familiar about the foreign; to explore what we hear and relearn what we know." - from the Seattle Phonographers Union Facebook page.

This was presented after a meeting of the Pacific NW Chapter of the American Society for Acoustic Ecology. I wanted to go to that meeting, but due to a series of snafus I only got there in time to hear the last half or so of the concert. At any rate, this was one of the more interesting takes on music I’ve heard in a long time, and it used (what I think) the meeting was about as a starting point.

There were six people in the band. They played five laptops and one MP3 player. That is, they actually play prerecorded material as an instrument (much in the way that hip-hop artists play turntables) – the difference being that all of the prerecorded material is their own, and none of it is “music” in the conventional sense. It is all field recordings. And, I might add, this performance is improvised. They interact with each other, adding and subtracting layers based on what the others are doing.

The result is a mishmash of environmental sounds. Some of them contrast with one another, but most often they blend into a continuous low murmur that is intrinsically beautiful and interesting. Traffic sounds (ugly in their usual form) are played quietly against ocean and river sounds, and they become indistinguishable. Rain in the forest (with birds) echoes in the infinite distance, morphs into hail on metal (on a screen door?), then overlays with rain on logs over an electric hum. A foghorn sounds, suddenly loud (causing one of the members of the Union to smile, nearly laughing) against steady, rhythmic, metallic dripping. A clock chimes 3. khht khht khht scratches appear from the end of a vinyl record, then a hollow metallic whoosh (unidentified) scatters into the sound of crows. A loop of birds (and monkeys?) repeats at half volume below this. Gongs bong out a steady rhythm. A plane goes over, growing louder, but not in the way that it would if it were actually passing by – the sound grows very slowly, then suddenly crescendos to a climax (the loudest sound of the concert) and then abruptly – click! Silence, for half a second. A coda of car sounds, repeated, strangely musical, fading into water.

All sound is music, here; and all sound (even ugly sound) becomes exquisite in this context. I’ve heard the Phonographers Union before, and I’ve heard their CD – but these live performances shed a different light on their sound (particularly in the echoing resonance of that space) and shed a different light on the concept of music in general.

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