General 3-4-2003

Doing Something Different With Sound

This is a story of a collaboration and its results.

Christian McShane

In response to the increasingly monolithic world presence of an imperial America, people all over the country are forming nodes of resistance. Not all of these groupings are consciously “resistant” to the mainstream; many are simply artists getting together to make sure that difference has a voice, that what needs to be made gets made, gets heard, gets shown, gets seen. We’ll be running more stories about this trend. Here’s one about music. Chris Godsey describes here a group of musicians in Duluth who have created a venue for experimental music.

Logan Erickson, a serious, stout 19-year-old white kid, was sporting a close-cropped, blond beard and buzzcut, black pants and T-shirt and
sneakers, and shop-teacher-style safety glasses that had dime-diameter white lights at the corners, like some kind of sci-fi hornrims. Onstage upstairs at Duluth’s Norshor Theatre, Erickson sat behind a quagmire of electronic equipment: a Nintendo GameBoy, at least one keyboard, and wires of all colors arcing up and around and over and under each other, connecting a tabletop collection of gadgets whose purposes and relationships only he will probably ever understand.

Like a mad musical scientist, he tweaked knobs and switched switches, constantly working his equipment, coaxing it to produce a sonorous drone of oddly but undoubtedly comforting deep tones and rumbles and spacey, ethereal, eerie pings, twangs, and other pleasing sounds that defy accurate description. In the darkness the crowd, maybe 12 people scattered through the amphitheatre seating, silently watched.

Erickson was the second of four acts on a mid-February Experimental Tuesday. Act one, three separate guitar drones initiated by If Thousands’ Christian McShane and a huge, intimidating guy with a razor-bald head, chest-length white beard, and multiple hoop earrings, was joined midway through by Alan Sparhawk of Low. McShane sat/kneeled on the floor in front of his amp, occasionally fiddling with its dials, mostly intent on making interesting patterns of noise. Occasionally he would gently grab the guitar by its body, lifting, twisting, getting it to say something unique. The big bald cat sat in a chair, six-string in his lap, facing the back of the stage, perfectly complementing McShane’s explorations with his own. During their first piece, Sparhawk ambled down from his seat in the audience, sat down cross-legged next to his own amp, picked up a guitar, and added a third layer of sonic sketches; occasionally he’d let his head rest in his left hand, left elbow propped on left knee. Was he bored? Weary from a few months on the European road? Thinking of where to go next?

McShane and Sparhawk, both in their mid-30s, have been coordinating Experimental Tuesdays at the Norshor since August 6, 2002. “We started because . . . I don’t know,” McShane said before the show one Tuesday. “Al and I thought there was a need. A lot of musicians don’t fit into the 4/4 beat, don’t play ‘Proud Mary.’

“This town is full of musicians no one’s heard, and this is an outlet for those people to fit in. We were hoping for people who do music like this . . . to come out of the cracks.”

Music like what? What is experimental music? “It’s tough to describe,” McShane said. “I wrote down a ton of descriptions once.” None of them quite scratched the definition itch, though.

“As soon as you label it, it’s not experimental. Some of it’s drone. There’s some found sound. We have people play toy instruments and do some circuit bending,” which is what Logan Erickson was doing with all his wires and such. “The idea of it is taking . . . it’s really hard to describe . . . just doing something different with sound.

“I did a performance where we took the inside out of a piano. We plucked the strings. Hit it with mallets. Dragged chains over it. A few weeks ago Al set up seven guitars and seven amps. They all resonated and created some interesting sounds.

“It’s more something that you’ve got to hear to understand. It’s all the other stuff that doesn’t fit in.”

McShane said almost every Tuesday is a collaborative effort. “There are lots of ‘fringe dwellers’ I never knew existed who form a sort of extended family in Duluth,” he said. “There are also people I know and Al knows. If you look at the last If Thousands record, or Trust, the last Low record, there are lots of people from Duluth who have contributed to those.

“Tuesdays are just one big collaborative effort. It’s not an open stage—it’s programmed every week, but you can do anything you want to. I have turned down acts. I found out who could and who couldn’t play after one particular conversation. This guy called from Green Bay. He’s in a band called Hatefuck. I went online and checked out some reviews of their shows,” which, he said, involved lighting off a brick of fireworks into the microphone and one band member inserting a microphone into various bodily orifices.

“That’s just bad performance art,” McShane said. “Other than not wanting stuff like that, we have no criteria. Haley Bonar [a folky singer/songwriter who plays guitar and keyboards] and Al are playing tonight, and they’ll probably sound very un-experimental, but it will definitely be an experiment for her. Something she’s not done before. We had a guy play a few weeks ago who just did some straight song stuff, but it was experimental for him. It doesn’t have to be swinging from the rafters, hitting a tin can.”

McShane and Erickson agreed that there’s rarely a “bad” performance at an Experimental Tuesday. “There’s no such thing,” Erickson said.

“A couple people have done things they’ll never do again because they weren’t satisfied, but everyone else liked. Everybody’s supportive here.

“At last count, we’d had somewhere around 50 different people perform. One woman showed up and was very shy. She asked if she could play and we told her she could, and when she walked away, Al said, ‘She’s going to be great.’ She got all set up and got herself ready then did a 20-second set, and that was it.” He smiled at the ambiguity of the story.

All four acts achieved some sort of transcendence that Tuesday. “That usually happens,” McShane said. “Every performance has some sort of ‘wow’ moment where the walls dissolve and the ceiling disappears.” McShane, Sparhawk and Bald Cat never strayed into the territory of drone for drone’s sake; every avenue they took was interesting and engaging, challenging but comforting, skillful and assertive. Erickson’s stuff—he describes it as “ambient or soundscape”—sounded like life inside the belly of gargantuan spaceship, at once chilly and safe. His sounds conjured a sense of infinite darkness, disconnection from time and physical matter and anything but basic, nebulous consciousness. Like floating in warm dark liquid.

A solo Sparhawk played electric guitar and sang some tunes. Another band was playing on a different stage in the theatre, and as their music wafted into the experimental space, Sparhawk kept playing, stopped singing, and cocked his head: “They’re exactly in key with me,” he said. After a while he accompanied Bonar, who was singing and playing an acoustic guitar, and who said she uses such Tuesdays as opportunities to play her “brand, brand new stuff. They’re always super rough,” she said of the new songs, “but everybody here is cool with it. It feels good to play in a totally different setting.”