Smile Politely

Making Noise at the Rose Bowl

Musicians on the stage at the Rose Bowl in Urbana, IL. One person is playing cello and one person is on the drums, and one person is on a keyboard. The lighting in the room is pink and purple.
Kathleen McGowan

On Monday January 16th, three solo acts and one collaboration made a lot of Noise at the Rose Bowl. In the tradition of Prairie Noise Invasion it was an intimate performance, in the way that everyone present knows each other and all of the bands that everyone has played in. Indeed, the sense of it as a performance was minimal; it was more like a meeting between a structured jam session with a lot of equipment and a pop-up art installation. A small but attentive crowd gathered to listen, dressed in varied riffs on jeans, beanies, and Midwestern-casual shoes — more functional than fashion statement on a 50º day in January.  

Monstrosity Complex (MC; BandCamp, Instagram) is the project of cellist and composer Briar Darling. MC opened with an all-electronic improvisation, affectionately described by the artist as a “ramble.”  The sounds in the untitled improvisation ranged from altered static, to “mild peril” vintage sci-fi sounds, to glitching video games. A few were immediately recognizable, like the many-times repeated GameBoy™ start-up interval, pinging upward in optimistic nostalgia. 

A Moog synthesizer is on a wood crate. There are several wires attached to the top, and cords from the back. It seems to be that the crate is on a stage, and the lighting is purple and pink.
Monstrosity Complex solo set-up. Kathleen McGowan

MC’s aesthetic brings together ideas from classical music, free jazz, Gregorian chant, heavy metal, and noise. The classical influence is particularly noticeable when the artist performs live. Their movement and stage presence brings an extra dose of physical expression to their electronic sounds. Because the changes the artist makes in the instrument — e.g., plugging different cables into different ports — are visible as well as audible, MC gives the sense of playing the subharmonicon as one would play an acoustic instrument. The main dial that gets turned is the volume; every other change is much more definite.  

There’s a background analog sensation to MC’s electronic soundscape, a likely intentional irony given that MC uses a Moog subharmonicon. (For anyone not versed in the historical lore of electroacoustic music, the Moog brand carries the legacy of Dr. Robert Moog, who invented the original Moog analog synthesizer). For this project, which regularly combines solo cello and electronics, the artist sat cross-legged behind an upturned wooden LP storage crate. They change the sounds in the texture by plugging in different ends of dual-ended cables to different parts of the central board (see photo above). The Moog brand, the vintage and recognizable sounds, the synthesis of visual and audio changes, and the DIY feeling of the setup all suggest the nostalgia of the analog just enough to make it present.   

Ori Sergel began the second set on a drum set with timpani mallets. The only electronics were the strategically-placed microphones. The unusual pairing of mallets/sound makers created a washed-over sound with plenty of texture, but without all of the sharp edges that often signify a drum set. At the same time, Sergel’s setup was fabulously capable of clear, precise articulation when it was wanted. Eventually they switched to conventional drumsticks, and some recognizable “fills” appeared. Sergel’s work treats the drum set as a timbre experiment instead of as the driver of rhythmic structure. There’s plenty of rhythm and all the groove that a jazz combo would want to jam with, but they’re plainly not the point. Within the artist’s hearing they become dynamic landscapes instead of primed canvases, used for their contrasting textures instead of as a foundation for other sounds.    

As the fully acoustic member of this electro-acoustic collaboration, Sergel has the most subtle in-the-moment transitions. There’s a free-associative feeling to how they enter and leave different timbres and groove patterns, sometimes changing as quickly as a flash of insight, and other times shifting as slowly as conversation until a listener stops to wonder, “How did we get here?”  

The third solo set was by Vor Pilatus (BandCamp; SoundCloud), artist Dot Homler’s noise project based out of Peoria, Illinois. Vor Pilatus has previously featured in Prairie Noise Invasion sets, and is known for bringing the “harsh noise” element of noise to the table. The set began with intentional (recorded) microphone feedback, which set the base intensity level for the entire improvisation. Occasionally samples of recycled bubblegum pop, ska horns, and other bright sounds would come through the texture, but never clearly enough to distinguish things like lyrics and always as a background to the foregrounded noise. (Fair enough — the genre is called Noise.) 

Of all the soloists performing, Homler’s set created the most tension and expectation leading up to points of release. Theirs is also the most electronic experience, compared to Sergel’s completely acoustic drum set (minus the microphones) and Darling’s analog-reminiscent setup. It comparatively feels more “digital”: there are more adjustments to knobs, dials, and buttons instead of physically plugging or unplugging cables, and often one of their chosen sounds will become audible with no visual cue that sonic change is coming.

The “harsh noise” elements that add so much of the intensity to Homler’s work interest me because they come from changed perception instead of from volume. Though some moments were noticeably loud — a regular feature of Noise — the sounds are so pure and concentrated that they make the listening space feel smaller. The “harshness” of the description then comes from an inability to tune out the noise instead of from sudden changes in texture. It becomes an audio equivalent of being unable to look away. 

The audience nearly doubled during the 14-minute intermission, and not with people arriving early for the weekly Hootenanny later in the evening. The collaborative set of all three artists, billed as by “Pilatus/Sergel/Darling” that made up the second set really seems to be what people came to hear. Vor Pilatus and Ori Sergel reprised their solo instruments, but Briar Darling (Monstrosity Complex) changed from their all-electronic setup to electroacoustic-enhanced cello. The balance between electronic and acoustic sound elements, coming from all three artists together, was remarkable. With a drum set in the background, the cello attains moments of “cool” that it might never achieve in a concerto. It’s hard not to be drawn into the repeated notes and gestures, always expecting the unexpected accent. My own musical training is both steeped in the metric regularity of classical music and marked by weeks of rehearsing pieces like Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and the Octet for Wind Instruments that it might be impossible for me to unanticipate the next accent, always hunting out where it might fall before it actually arrives there.

Electroacoustic music isn’t often billed as “chamber music,” though it often qualifies. The interactions between the three artists’ sounds evoked the kinds of ensemble synthesis that acoustic chamber ensembles strive for. Darling and Homler regularly blur the source of their electronic sounds, leaving the listener to wonder how much of a given sound comes from the cello, and how much from electronic enhancement. As with Sergel’s drum set technique, Darling’s cello training is evident, but through the mics and pedal conventional devices transform into something audibly new. There’s so much going on that when something as musically conventional as an interval sounds alone it becomes spacious, soaring, suddenly clear. By the time the installation is finished, the audience’s ears are full and the artists are noticeably drained, the best mark of a good show. 

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