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…with the noise of a great tumult he hath kindled fire upon it…

Last night I was prepared for a quiet night, alone, here in MontrĂ©al, where I’ve recently arrived for a month-long fellowship at the Canadian Centre for Architecture. A few days earlier, back in New York, I was perusing the schedule for the Mutek festival and came across a listing for this Saturday evening event:

A/Visions 4: The Organ Drop

Modern composition and historic location converge in this bold expedition, where two giants of experimentation use church organs and acoustics to transport audiences to another realm.

What this meant was: ambient producer Tim Hecker and guitarist Stephen O’Malley from the “doom metal” band Sunn O))) — which has always been way too much for me to handle — would do something insane in the recently renovated, 125-year-old St. James Church on Sainte-Catherine Street in downtown MontrĂ©al. I’ve gone to quite a few provocatively described experimental performances in the past, and I’ve come to realize that, more often than not, the execution falls a little (or far) short of the concept. And when you’ve got a lot invested — a rather expensive ticket, a commitment to sit there for an hour…or two…or three — performances that don’t live up to their own self-description (or hype) can be pretty frustrating.

This Mutek thing carried the same risk. But then Jonathan Sterne told me that he and his partner were going — so I bought a ticket.

OMG. Holy Gesamtkunstwerk!

For both acts there were patterned and colored lights projected on the vaulted ceiling and the massive pipe organ at the front of the church. When Hecker and O’Malley took the stage — or the “chancel,” I guess — the lights concentrated on the pipes and pulsed, in blood red, throughout their hour-plus set (Hecker’s apparently known for doing shows with low, or no, lighting.)

The relative darkness didn’t mean this was a visually impoverished experience. The lights from outside faintly illuminated the church’s stained-glass windows, and there was enough interior light to make you constantly aware of the spatial volume you were inhabiting, and of its church-like form.

Volume was central to this experience; I’m referring both the kind of volume one associates with “doom metal” — loudness — and to three-dimensional units of space: specifically, the building and the body.

Now, I’m no expert on pipe organs, but the organ is of course an instrument that can be said to have a distinctive relationship to its architectural “container.” When one plays the organ, one also plays the building (in a much more integral, “volumetric” way than we experienced at David Byrne’s “Playing the Building” exhibition a few years ago). Relatedly, there’s a long history of musical composition tailored for performance in particular venues — especially religious spaces (see also Deborah Howard and Laura Moretti’s Sound and Space in Renaissance Venice: Architecture, Music, Acoustics).

Hecker, who has experimented with the organ in previous projects, explained to The Quietus that in this and other performances he’s actually playing a “treated organ”:

It’s a kind of system that relies upon a lot of sounds generated internally through my computer and mixed and effected, and I take microphones, a couple microphones on the pipe organ itself, and run that through my electronic setup and treat it. It comes out of both bass amplifiers, and hopefully a supple PA system in the room itself. So what you hear is mostly the PA, but there’s a blend of organ depending on how intense the sound levels are.

Between O’Malley’s guitar and its various accoutrements; Hecker’s computer, microphones, and amplifiers; the organ; the church’s PA; and the building itself, the performance produced a range of tones and vibrations that migrated throughout the building and our bodies. Particular notes would pulse up from the floor, through my feet; others would shake the pews; others went straight to the back of my throat or into my chest. Others tickled my fingertips.

While my earplugs did little to dampen the extreme sound, it was often difficult to discern particular tones. But I gathered it wasn’t really about tones. The music was often sub-sonic — or non-cochlear, to use Seth Kim-Cohen’s term. My body was simply a volume — a resonance chamber within another architectural resonance chamber — through which this sound passed out into the MontrĂ©al night.

I was sitting right across the aisle from the sound guys. My row was partly underneath the balcony, and I couldn’t help but look up on occasion to check for cracks developing in the ceiling. At times Hecker’s processed noise sounded like various materials shaking and shattering — and because it was often impossible to orient oneself in this soundscape, to determine the direction from which sounds were emerging, I occasionally looked over my shoulder expecting to see a stained-glass window exploding.

I knew nothing about the Cathedral Church of Saint James before last night, but then did a little research and discovered that it only recently reopened after a highly fraught renovation. It’s a historic landmark, and I’d imagine that landmarked properties don’t typically open themselves up to potentially roof-raising, window-shattering events. I can’t imagine how this concert ended up in this location — but I’m so grateful it did. Rather than making a “joyful noise,” Hecker and O’Malley gave voice to Revelations. Or Jeremiah: “[W]th the noise of a great tumult he hath kindled fire up on it.”

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Music for Staring at Ceilings… and Typefaces… and Cities

Back in 2007, when we were organizing our wedding, I suggested to my husband, in all seriousness, that we walk down the aisle to El Ten Eleven’s “Sorry About Your Irony.” He vetoed my proposal. The traditional Episcopal church where we got married probably wouldn’t have gone for it either; I doubt its old speakers had ever heard the likes of post-rock. The song title, too, was perhaps a little foreboding; regret and irony aren’t conditions (if that’s the right word) one typically wants to associate with a wedding. I had also wanted our first dance — a tradition I had no desire to honor, but was forced to uphold — to be to Red House Painters’ “Song for a Blue Guitar,” which is an absolutely beautiful song. If only the first line out of Mark Kozelek’s mouth weren’t “When everything we felt failed….” (What can I say: I have a knack for choosing mood music.) We opted instead for FaurĂ© at the church and Band of Horses for the dance.

But El Ten Eleven remains for me a wonderful maker of soundtracks for sunny-day urban perambulations — for noticing cracks in sidewalks, reflections in shopfront windows, recognizable shapes in the clouds overhead. Perhaps it’s the sometimes math-rocky feel of the music that inspires careful attention to rhythm and texture, that evokes geometric precision.The band’s name is derived from the Lockheed Martin L-1011 TriStar; perhaps appropriately, this is music for cheery engineers of everyday life.

It also makes for a great soundtrack for movies about design. I saw Gary Hustwit’s Helvetica at the Logo Cities symposium in MontrĂ©al in Spring 2007. I found myself at dinner with Gary and a few others after the screening, and I think my first question for him, after gushing over the film, was: “Who did your soundtrack?!” El Ten Eleven seemed the perfect choice: their music, full of loops and effects pedals, feels more designed than composed. There’s also a certain levity to their sound that’s consistent with the tone of Gary’s editing. (The Album Leaf and Battles and a few other bands in the same vein also contributed to the film.)

Dave and I saw Gary’s most recent film, Urbanized, last night as part of Urban Design Week. Here the soundtrack felt not only fitting, but almost natural — as if it was an indexical manifestation of the urban rhythms on the screen. The music seemed, to borrow one of the band’s song titles, like an urban “Central Nervous Piston” (see video below) — a simultaneously organic and mechanical index of, and power-source for, urban circulation. In Urbanized, the soundtrack that has undergirded so many of my walks across the Manhattan Bridge, up the Bowery, across 14th Street, is now exported to the streets of so many other cities across the globe, proving that post-electro-math rock is indeed, as we’ve always suspected, the universal spatio-rhythmic language.    ….If only!

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stillspotting

Today my husband and I took part in the second edition of the Guggenheim’s stillspotting project, a two-year collaborative undertaking dedicated to finding ways for people to “escape, find respite, and make peace with their space in this ‘city that never sleeps.'” The museum has partnered with Columbia’s Spatial Information Design Lab, where students created “data studies” of urban noise (including this visualization of music-related 311 complaints, this video mapping of the sounds of above-ground and subterranean infrastructures, and this Underground Public Library project, which I like for obvious reasons); and with SVA’s photography/video MFA program, where students created “video studies of the visual, aural, and sociological ecology of the urban landscape in New York.” I’m particularly fond of Jessica Miller’s video, below; its singular focus on scattered shards of glass limits our visual awareness of our surroundings to only the movements reflected in the glass. We’re thus aware of movement behind us, behind the camera — a three-dimensional perception that’s more akin to the way we hear than the way we see. 

Our adventure today took us to several sites around Lower Manhattan (and would’ve taken us to Governor’s Island, too, if we had more time), where we experienced “To A Great City,” a network of “listening installations” (my term) curated by architecture firm Snøhetta and composer Arvo Pärt. We started off walking the labyrinth in Battery Park (see top photo) — at the center of which was a weather balloon, the spatial icon of each stillspot — while listening to Pärt’s “Silentium” on iPod Shuffles. It was a perfect experience to start with — simultaneously centering and disorienting.

We then moved on to the Woolworth Building, which I had only walked past, never entered, before. Oh, the lobby! — the embodiment of the commercial sublime! Again, a weather balloon marked our spot, on the stairs, where we sat for 20 minutes and enjoyed Pärt’s “In Principio.” Unfortunately, we weren’t permitted to take pictures (from what I understand, nobody is), but the following image, which shows just a portion of the ceiling, gives you a sense of just how much there is to look at here.

via Mirka23 @ Flickr: http://bit.ly/nc8Mez

Our final stop was 7 World Trade Center, where we headed up to the 46th floor, stepped off the elevators, and found ourselves gazing upon this:

Okay, this isn’t what you see immediately upon existing the elevator, but it is the view from around the corner.
More balloons call us over to sit, be still, and listen.

Pärt’s “Hymn to a Great City” was the soundtrack to our perambulatory panorama. I knew what scene awaited us along the south wall, so we decided to walk around the perimeter of the floor counterclockwise, first looking north, toward the Empire State Building; then west, toward the Hudson River pathway I walk every day; and finally, south, overlooking the construction at the World Trade Center and the new memorial.

According to the Guggenheim, “To a Great City” “transports visitors from the hustle and bustle of the streetscape to an elevated urban experience that makes them newly aware of their sense of hearing.” I’m honestly a little tired of hearing this “raising awareness” justification for sound art, soundwalks, and any place-based or site-specific listening activity. We have to develop a better vocabulary to explain what precisely these sound projects do for us, how they function aesthetically and politically.

My husband and I agreed that the rhetorical intention of the soundtrack at the final site was a little too obvious. “Hymn to a Great City” was significantly lighter, airier, more hopeful than the other pieces we had heard that day. It seemed to me that were expected to look down upon the construction — the cranes, the massive piles of I-beams — the beautiful Hudson River parks; the Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Verrazano Narrows bridges and other engineering marvels; and the throngs of people bringing life to Lower Manhattan, and think, “You know what, Dave? Everything’s gonna be okay. Yeah. It’s okay.” And maybe I did think that while walking around the 46th floor, gazing down upon my beautiful city from several hundred feet up. But I also felt just a wee bit patronized.

That’s okay. I still liked it 🙂

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Feel It All Around


I’m still not sure how I feel about Portlandia — but I always look forward to those opening credits with Washed Out’s “Feel It All Around,” a personal favorite from the 2009 glo-fi / chillwave swell.

Washed Out, \”Feel It All Around\”

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Chicago Sound

Chicago friend Eric to the right, blonde who’s *not* Leah to the left; Cap’n Jazz in the back

It’s an awful picture, but it captures pretty accurately the way I saw the scene through tear-blurred eyes. I had waited 16 long years! And after a few failed attempts, I finally found myself standing before the Brothers Kinsella, Davey Bohlen, Victor Villareal, and Sam Zurick on their home turf, in Chicago.

I discovered Cap’n Jazz when I started college in 1994, a year before the band’s demise yet too late to see them play live. Having missed out on the ur-band itself, I settled for — and was really into, actually — its offspring: Joan of Arc, American Football, the Promise Ring, Owen, Owls, Make Believe, even the many, many superfluous Kinsella projects. When my brother-in-law, Patrick (who made an impulsive one-night trip this past January to catch their “secret” reunion show at the Bottom Lounge; I wish I had been so impulsive), told us of their rumored reunion late last year, I wasn’t exactly stoked. How could a bunch of thirty-something-year-olds manage to do the disheveled, kinetic, rhythmically unpredictable, adorably off-key thing that charmed my socks off back in the early 90s?

I don’t know how, but they did it. The Wicker Park show was totally awesome (as have been all of their reunion shows, as far as I can tell). Totally worth the wait. Worth suffering the indignity, the week before, of being denied entrance to their show at Brooklyn Bowl, while undeserving (I jest!) 16-year-olds, who weren’t even alive during the “Chicago sound” halcyon days, got in.

The idea of a “geographic sound” dawned on me shortly after I started working at Blue Train, an independent music store in State College, PA, at 18, and initiated a weekly habit of trading CDs. My then-boyfriend was on the university’s independent concert committee, which often brought in “caravans” of bands from the same region, who were traveling together between DC, New York, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh. I discovered that my musical tastes were concentrating in particular geographic areas: Glasgow (Mogwai, Arab Strap), Chapel Hill (Superchunk & Merge Records), DC (Fugazi and almost all things Dischord), Austin (Mineral, Stars of the Lid, and, later on, all those “big sky” bands), Louisville (Slint, Rodan), and, most of all, Chicago (Tortoise, Shellac, all the Kinsellas’ projects). (These cities, with the exceptions of Chapel Hill and DC — and with the addition of Brooklyn and ReykjavĂ­k — still give rise to the music I like most.)

Back then, not having ventured much past the East Coast, I started to wonder about the connection between place and sound. Why did particular cities generate such vibrant music scenes? And why did particular scenes generate such distinctive “sounds”? What was it about Glasgow that engendered such melancholy? Why all the clippedness and exasperation in DC? Why all the alternating angularity and fluidity in Chicago?

August 27, 1994, via Metro
August 27, 1994, via Metro 

Will Straw, Alan O’Connor and Holly Kruse have written about the political, economic, and cultural factors that together mold and sustain a music scene (for more “music scenes” literature, see my “City and Sound” syllabus). Marc Faris addresses the defining characteristics of “that Chicago sound” of the early to mid-90s: loyalty to a “workingman persona,” the centrality of Steve Albini and his commitment to “material authenticity” (my term) in recording, an emphasis on rhythm over melody and harmony, and a distinctive musical “visual culture” that is, too, tied to material authenticity.”

I guess I’m looking for something more, though — something more than human actors, aesthetic choices, ideological loyalties. Perhaps because Chicago feels so materially distinctive to me — so solid, so securely rooted to the earth, so broad-shouldered (if you’ll pardon the cliche) and, simultaneously, towering (Wright and Mies, lake water and steel) — I want to think that this physicality somehow informs the city’s culture, including its music. Tony Mitchell writes, in an article I unfortunately can’t recommend, of Sigur RĂłs’s connection to Iceland: their music “could be said to express sonically both the isolation of their Icelandic location and to induce a feeling of hermetic isolation in the listener through the climactic and melodic intensity of their sound.” I like this idea. True or not, it’s a satisfying thought. Whether or not there’s a there there, in Mitchell’s argument, I like that he finds a “there” in Sigur RĂłs’s sound.

I still can’t explain how the spatial-to-sonic translation works, but I know I hear Chicago in Thrill Jockey and Drag City. And I especially enjoyed hearing that “there” — the ur-“Chicago Sound” of the 90s — there, in Wicker Park, on a lovely Saturday night, with two long-time friends.