One of the emblematic objects of the last century is the AK-47. Mass produced, reliable and easy to use, it toppled governments in the cause of utopian and dystopian ideals. It was a true weapon of mass destruction.
Another emblematic object is the personal computer. It’s generally been used for more peaceful, constructive purposes than an assault rifle, but not everyone would agree, especially executives in the offices of EMI, Sony and UMG. For those companies, the computer has destroyed a lot of their artificially created and jealously guarded value, while becoming especially over the last ten years, a mass produced, reliable and easy to use means for creating music. There’s an entire generation of musicians using laptops and other electronic boxes (it’s easy and not misleading to refer to them generally as “laptop musicians”), to produce sound and bring it to their audiences’ ears and laptops.
The third night of the Wordless Music at Miller Theater Festival was a triple-bill of laptop musicians, Juliana Barwick, Grouper (Liz Harris) and Tim Hecker. They produced an evening of mesmerizing, satisfying music. Although the concert lasted two and a half hours, the performances were so involving that they seemed to stop the sensation of the passing of time.
All three musicians work with pure sound along the generously lengthy spectrum of what could be called ambient music, and all get to the sound they seek through electronic means. Barwick starts with her pure-toned soprano voice, singing and recording short improvised phrases which she then loops into choirs that have an ethereal quality to their sonic sheen. The sound is also harmonically rich and full, and Barwick uses the choral sound as accompaniment to her more melodic improvisations or for the singing of epigrammatic songs. She does this with great skill, singing while seamlessly looping her wordless phrases. The results are lovely and entrancing and as simple as can be – she’s only working with one instrument and using technology to perform one of its most basic tasks, copying information. She found her way to her art by working in her bedroom, and her appealingly modest, gawky stage manner bespeaks a private, individual musician for whom music making is some sort of ritual, and indeed her method of building through repetition is a ritual, and her use of multiples of her own voice and the sheer beauty made her performance a kind of ecstatic, secular liturgy.
Grouper also sings and accompanies herself on guitar and with a solid wash of white noise and reverb. A lot of records have been made using reverb as a kind of pancake makeup, but Grouper uses it to place her voice in a very stimulating ambient environment. It makes the juxtaposition of the immediacy of the voice and the almost over-stimulating bed of noise work. Her use of reverb and other processing creates a sound with space that extends through all three dimensions, and the sensation of width and depth focus the attention on her calm, gentle voice which seems placed at the eye of a hurricane of chaotic sound. It’s a striking effect, and adds a sense of powerful meaning to the simplest phrase. Hearing her live is very different than listening to her recordings, like last year’s breakthrough “Dragging a Dead Dear Up a Hill.” Recordings flatten out the music and bring the songs and the singing into focus, while the live performance opens up the sound and makes everything abstract, purely musical; she is still singing, but the diction and articulation are lost in the mix. This is not a complaint, as her sound is spellbinding and mysterious. Her set of old and new material seemed to take place out of time, in the space between breaths and the audience was in no rush to take the next one.
To close the program, Tim Hecker came down from Montreal with a laptop – the only one of the evening – a mixer and a keyboard. He also brought his familiar stunning, massive slabs of sound. Hecker is one of the most unique electronic musicians in a scene where commercial music and the avant-garde collide. He played a mix of music from his tremendous “Harmony in Ultraviolet” record as well as this year’s “An Imaginary Country.” The songs’ titles don’t matter, as there is no important differentiation between his pieces. His body of work is really about pure sound, and the sounds he makes are almost geologic in nature; huge, shifting expanses of crunching, crackling, rich noise, noise made up of pitches but so full of so many pitches that the output is a kind of comforting, enveloping, warm chaos, full of fascinating interference patterns and sonic phantoms. His new music displays elements of an expanded pallet, including some chiming tones and an actual minor key chord cadence. An accordion seems to appear, perhaps a broadcast caught between notches on the radio dial and heard from another room, then it disappears. But he eschews a beat, rhythm, harmony and melody, adjusts the mix on the fly – that’s his performance – and dazzles with a physical sensation of sound that is simultaneously atavistic and profoundly, abstractly advanced. You can’t sing to it, you can’t dance to it, but you do surrender to its power.
There is something oddly consistent about how these three laptop musicians perform, and it seems to be a generational marker. Technology allows so many people to make complex music both on the cheap and literally in the privacy of their own homes. This is a mixed blessing, but on the good side a lot of good, unexpected music is being made. The process of working so privately and mastering a tool that is essentially a means to take sound directly out of the imagination and put it through speakers, with no mediation of notation, interpretation of even idiomatic convention, means that at its best what we are hearing is the unadulterated inner life of these musicians. There is artifice in finding the means to make that electronic sound, but once made there is no artificial process by which the concrete idea is transformed into a subtle gesture. This is a profound possibility. These three performers all appear as deeply private people standing on stage. While Barwick offered thanks at the end of her set and took a bow, the others simply turned off the juice and walked off into the darkness, while each on began their set by simply walking on-stage and starting, without any fuss or affect. The stage manner is that of someone deeply shy who is embarrassed to be there when they are not making sounds, yet willing to offer their most personal sounds to us. This is digital technology put towards an achingly human purpose and makes concerts like this one quietly yet intensely human.
Wordless Music at Miller Theater concludes Saturday night, with the JACK Quartet and others, and tickets are still available.