April 30, 2014

Up to 11

Music by chance

In Salem, Mass., people were lining up in droves at the Peabody Essex Art Museum to hear what it sounded like when 70 zebra finches played the electric guitar and bass with their claws and beaks. Ten Les Paul guitars and four Thunderbird basses were suspended horizontally from the floor on stands and amplified through speakers. As the birds fluttered around and perched or pecked on each instruments’ strings, they created an ambient melody.

The rock ’n’ roll aviary was so popular, the museum required visitors to purchase timed tickets, with hour-long waits. Céleste Boursier-Mougenot, the artist-musician responsible for the installation, hopes audiences will change the way they perceive, create and interact with music after experiencing the exhibit. The museum also enlisted local (human) musicians to tune and clean the pooped-on guitars each day.

The idea of being literally shit on by rock-star birds in front of a sold-out crowd might be a little hard for some trained musicians to stomach. Obviously, traditional musicianship is not always necessary in order to create compelling music. Those who visited the exhibit have raved about the unpredictable and otherworldly soundscapes they have witnessed.

It’s interesting that beauty is capable of emerging from a place where the outcome has been left completely up to chance. John Cage brilliantly explored this concept in 1951 when he composed a piece of music called “Music of Changes,” using the “I Ching” as a tool to determine musical elements such as tempo, dynamics and duration of certain notes. That the classic Chinese text is a divine symbol system describing order within chance makes Cage’s piece even more interesting. While widely praised for its innovativeness, the music can be difficult to listen to, with its discordance and seemingly disorganized structure.

For the majority of musicians, it’s comforting to be in control and create a map where notes “work,” and rhythm and melody align every time you follow your design. It takes a lot of courage to present music that appears to come from complete chaos and ask your listener to pay attention. There’s excitement and freedom to be found in pissing people off and following your own set of goals or concepts, instead of doing something that is expected. It’s the same ethic punk rock was founded on. Iggy Pop, often referred to as the godfather of punk, once said, “I like music that’s more offensive. I like it to sound like nails on a blackboard.”

Like the majority of music listeners, I generally like to connect to a song on an emotional level. I like being under the impression that the artist was feeling something when they created their work. To listen to music in which the creator appears completely emotionally detached — inhuman — can be hard to accept. Perhaps chance music like this is easier to appreciate when it engages multiple senses.

Most visitors to the Aviary exhibit were probably more drawn to the spectacle of the physical environment than by the sound alone. Actually seeing the fluttering of feathers, feeling the proximity of potential bird droppings to one’s head, and smelling the aroma of the gigantic birdcage certainly offers up a full sensory experience.

David Tudor is another composer who worked with this concept of sound environments back in the late ’60s. In his “Rainforest” installation series, Tudor filled spaces with hanging sculptural objects that functioned as speakers. Tudor would pick up vibrations off the objects through a contact microphone and redistribute the sound out again through a loudspeaker. This would, in turn, create a strange recycled electronic ecosystem of sorts where each component was reacting to another, and also depended upon where you were standing within the room. The sound recorded during this experiment is fascinating and unsettling to listen to, and it triggers actual emotion. In all its analytical, algorithmic glory, there’s still heart to be found.

Thanks to the folks behind efforts like the new Dreamland venue, the Cropped Out festival, Astro Black Records and ARTxFM radio, Louisville’s experimental music/noise scene has become increasingly more prominent and accessible to explore. Stop by a show sometime and approach the experience with a curious attitude. You may just discover a new way to listen.

Carrie Neumayer plays in the bands Second Story Man, Julie of the Wolves, and Early Age. She is also a visual artist and educator.