* * *
Eight directional speakers surround the room. Large photography pieces line one wall but are unrelated and unlit. Light emanates only from the nearby entrance through a short hallway. A yellow lamp bright at the merch table and an LED photography floodlight bathe the first performer, Ocra. This is all you need to see, along with a projection of the day’s performers listed high on a wall, above but away from Ocra’s corner. He is one of twelve artists, his reverberated and reverberating frequencies pulsing from the speakers into the high-ceiling art space.
The past winter’s polar vortex lingers outside, snow flickering tentatively and giving some cause to dress warm. It’s not comfortable outside, and not everything we hear today is either. Nor is it meant to be. This is the 2014 YEG Sound and Noise Art Festival.
* * *
He kneels over his gear, his back to largely but not completely to the audience. The “stage” is a corner of the room, and thus his unconventional guitar manipulations and filterings are at least 90 degrees viewable. His pedals are lighted, though not his own front. What he looks like is not hidden, but not as important as the sound.
The irony is that while the artist maintains close proximity to his tools, and while the audience can all but touch both, the cavernous soundscapes he creates sound as ominous and distant as a ship lost at sea in a gale windstorm. The cacophony at once implies tight solitude as well as infinity.
* * *
The festival’s curator, multimedia artist Gary James Joynes, snaps us out of auditory trance with a “WOO” and a hard hand clap. Perhaps this is illustrative of the event and its content. Thought this is an art museum, nothing is weighed down by pretense or posturing. Not if you don’t want it to be, anyway. It’s a “scene” in the music genre sense of the word, along with hiphop or hardcore or house. And it’s a unique one. “It is kind of a niche thing,” says performer Aaron Macri, “not a lot of people understand it.” Within the community, these artists don’t just create; they’re into it, vocally supportive not unlike rockers in a dingy half-bar venue. It’s not passive, not pretentious. If you’re into it, it can be wholly exciting.
* * *
She is dark and unassuming, shy and not indicative of a musician in a visual sense. This is immediately contrasted with a blast of digital organ tones that at first makes you wonder if it’s mean to be so loud. But she’s done nothing wrong here, or else adjustments would have been made. Even sound-art festivals have sound-checks. There is no “wrong” at this event, not in any obvious sense. There is no clear equivalent to a pop group missing a beat or miss-fingering a guitar chord.
D.N.E.’s blending of several ringing notes at once isn’t meant for harmonic clarity at pleasant volume. It’s the hidden harmonics and frequency-play that only come to fruition with this level, this combination. You have to listen for it. It’s there. It rings and pulses and flows and isn’t meant to musically please, to register melodically. It’s sound as art.
She gently leans over the keyboard and either strategically or randomly strikes keys. Most likely the randomness is strategy. The point. It’s sound, and people both look and listen.
“What does the initials stand for?” queries an audience member between D.N.E.’s two sound pieces.
“Does Not Exist.”
And the chaos rings and overlaps again.
The 8.1 surround field is not static, or still. Gary James Joynes adjusts the sound dimensions for D.N.E. over her next piece, the driving tone sweeping around, crashing like waves. A few people pace the art space, listening, experiencing the surround field rather than waiting for D.N.E. to do anything more visually interesting than pecking at notes.
Suddenly she does, turning away to a single drum cymbal behind her, unnoticed or unconsidered by the audience. She holds low keyboard notes with one hand and strikes the cymbal with the other, and suddenly there’s a little more cause to look rather than just listen.
It feels as if I’m in some sort of high-powered hydraulic factory that causes high water waves to crash about in a single space, cut off in a single moment.
3) Raimundo Gonzalez
Sometimes, even with sound-based art, watching the creative process is just as fascinating as the audible end result. Case in point, Raimundo Gonzalez has a red-cased smart-phone in one hand, and what appears to be a computer tablet electrically taped to an oven mitt on the other. A laptop glows in front of him, and his hand movements are triggering sounds. The oven hand slowly waves about, creating appropriately drone-y waves. The other triggers harder, singular tones with a flick of the wrist. He seems uncertain that this setup is working at first, his phone-snaps yielding inconsistent results. Soon he’s in the zone, with new tones. He’s not even looking at the computer.
In the center of the room, his all-black attire and swimmer-like hand and arm movements give the impression that the sound is actually coupled with dance-based performance art, but this is not necessarily so. It’s just a means to an end. The audience is no less transfixed on his motions, perhaps just as much as he is. We’re all curious as to what movement will trigger what sound.
A subtle jungle-beat can barely be heard in headphone-like distance at another artist corner, perhaps emanating from the unmanned laptop there. I hear it and am not sure if it’s supposed to b happening, and I’m not sure I’m the only one who, while noticing, am bothered. After Gonzalez finishes his set it’s obvious that the beat wasn’t meant to be heard, but even if it was noticed by others, it was either assumed to be part of Gonzalez’ piece, or dismissed outright, ignored in the wake of his movement and striking tones.
* * *
If there’s anything unique about this festival, it’s the means by which the sounds are projected: a special 8.1 surround sound system is in place, and more than one of the artists are excited to be presented in this fashion, if not take advantage of the multi-channel diffusion. Newer artists such as D.N.E. are excited about “being able to play something through so much power.” Scene veteran KM Toepfer is “really thankful for the opportunity” to engage the 8.1 field. In his case, as with other artists of the day, Toepfer isn’t personally controlling the 8.1 mix. Instead, if desired, it is left in the hands of other performers such as Scott Smallwood or Gary James Joynes. The latter is able to adjust the field himself during his own Wind Rose performance, given the drone nature of his set pieces and immediate proximity of his synth gear to the central mixing board.
But while Joynes seemed largely to improvise the channel pannings for himself and others, artists like Aaron Macri have made conscious efforts to record and program sampled material “very specifically composed … using the eight channels almost as an instrument.” To Macri, for his set these channels are “as important as any of the sounds and samples” that he yields.
* * *
4) Bong Sample
Parker Thiessen is no stranger to this sound-art/noise scene, and indeed is one of the most active supporters, promoters and performers therein. The bulk of today’s artists, and audience arguably, are no doubt acquaintances of Parker and/or Gary James Joynes, myself included in both cases. They are both key reasons for my attending, apart from curiosity and desire to engage the scene more than I have in the past.
Thiessen’s stage name, Bong Sample, is just as casual as his stage attire, a sport jacket and cap implying he’s a rock roadie more than a performer, much less of the throbbingly loud sound art he’s synthesizing. But as with everyone else performing today in largely casual clothing, appearances are irrelevant, secondary to sound.
5) Gene Kosowan
Leather-jacketed Gene is one of the more dynamic sound creators here, harnessing a variety of tones and volumes while Gary James-Joynes inter-dances them around the stereo field. How much of Kosowan’s sound is pre-coordinated between himself and Joynes is anybody’s guess, though it’s likely just as improvised as everything else. His front tones pierce over space-like rumbling and pads.
6) Aaron Macri
At this point we experience a series of firsts. A (sampled) hiphop-like beat is used, with melody and dynamics and everything. Sampled voices are heard, and the upbeat nature of it all puts an entertained smile on most everyone for the first time all afternoon. Significant, considering it’s been three hours since the start. Also, Aaron is manning and fully engaging the 8.1 sound field himself, and unlike the synthesized soundscapes of most of the days artists before him, a variety of triggered voices and percussive tones are rocketed in quick succession, or sparse minimalism, or, most notably, open spaces of nothing.
One such dead-air gap leaves at least a few people looking around each other in shared suspicion that something might be wrong. “It just died,” Aaron ultimately admits to us, the sounds “maxing out” his computer’s RAM amidst fits and starts of trying to play the same section while navigating his laptop and hardware. “That’s it,” he concedes, and receives genuine applause for his efforts just the same. “It was fun while it lasted,” I offer.
* * *
Aaron Macri’s use of “spatial awareness” for this event both reflects the opportunity for creative sound application, but also of the ephemeral nature of the content created and presented. To him, the unique space and setup means that his work here “may never be the same anywhere else.” This isn’t a unique notion to any art form that involves live creation; improvisation and not-by-rote performance can be found in most any kind of music. But so much of what is heard in noise-based sound art is based in the uncontrollable, the not-quite-predictable nature of electronic and electro-acoustic experimentation. It’s a trust exercise between the artist and his or her equipment. It’s asking, “What if … ?”
Beyond that, for K.M. Toepfer “it’s about the moment always, and it’s about the pictures that are created, and I think that element of… the errors that occur during performances, or just how the feedback works, or what the space reflects.” SkruntSkrunt’s feels the same: “This stuff is ephemeral in the sense that you’re never gonna hear it again that way. You’re never gonna hear exactly the same thing.”
* * *
7) K.M. Toepfer
Gary James Joynes introduces Toepfer’s set by describing him as “one of the more aggressive” noisemakers of the Edmonton scene. Indeed, a loud and more percussively textured approach is presented. Like others, his approach is subtle, but yielding tremendous force. The thought of the chaotic parable of the butterfly’s wings causing tidal waves comes to mind. Warm bass is interlaced with mechanical grind and squeak, and someone yells a long “WOOO” in reverie. A young woman faces directly into one of the speakers, listening. The bass tone suddenly drops by a few notes, like an engine shifting into thrumming neutral. A high, richly ringing tone literally sends me outside for an experiment in respite, and two younger guys aren’t far behind with the same issue. Toepfer’s set of course ends less than a minute later.
8) Wayne Defehr
An unexpected interview opportunity and a need for food from a nearby supermarket find me late for Defehr’s set. I power-munch in the front lobby to the loud-enough-to-be-heard-from-there sounds of a minimalist beat over tingly washes. Many in the performance space are seated on concrete at this point (there is no seating, apart from a narrow set of stairs) as I finally bear direct witness. Some have appearances of contentment and intent in their listening, as far as I can tell.
* * *
Leaning against a vibrating wall makes me wonder what laying on the roof might feel like. The volume isn’t much of a concern to the dozen or so audience members and artists who have elected to stay thus far. Either earplugs are worn (in my case improvised with tissue), or the decibels just don’t matter. “It’s a different thing. It’s a non-stop kind of loudness,” says one attendee. Judging books by covers, the younger men in heavy metal band-patched jackets probably prefer loud over subtle anyway. This isn’t always the case, as with the two dudes that followed me for a break from some high frequencies.
For different reasons, audience members come and go throughout the event, an apparent mix of experimental-music fans, weekend art-scene adventurers and those with personal association with friends or family performing. Which is not to imply any kind of displeased obligation. Lack of proper seating notwithstanding, it’s a welcoming, supportive environment, even if the blasted sound art doesn’t seem that way at times. “We were going in and saying, maybe we’ll scare a few people here today,” says KM Toepfer. “But I guess that’s part of it, y’know? I always see sound as a challenge, too. I like to challenge myself, listen to things that other people perceive to be unlistenable, or chaotic. To me, a lot of those things actually make sense.”
This is similar for Geraldine Carr, a local independent filmmaker not just here to volunteer for selling tickets at the door. “It’s a great opportunity to hear a number of different artists that are local Edmontonians.” She feels a kinship to the experimental nature of the festival’s sound. “As a media artist I’m not confined to a certain shape that something has to be … we always have these definitions of labels, but I love these sort of limitless boundaries that they explore.”
Many of the artists tough out the day beyond their own 10-15 minute timeslots as much as they can, dedicated to supporting fellow artists and friends and engaging the scene they fully enjoy and draw circular inspiration from. Gary James Joynes is the perhaps the most well-known name, whether under today’s alias of Wind Rose or otherwise. KM Toepfer, a scene veteran, was not yet familiar with many of the festivals performers. He is excited by the notion of emerging new artists, and what that means for the community. “It’s always great if someone actually works up the energy and time and guts to go up on stage to show people what they’ve been working on. And that’s the moment that you actually reach out to that community. I really liked the set that D.N.E. played, and I hope that she’ll come out more often and present her material.”
* * *
9) Wind Rose
The room is the most populated it’s been all afternoon as Gary James Joynes takes center-staged control of his synthesizer equipment, today as Wind Rose. Several people sit, some kneel, eyes closed not in tiredness or boredom but in intent and rapture.
Warm, rich texture pulses and percolates. The soundboard just barely clips into the red. Joynes soon lets a static pulse roll and shimmer on its own for a bit so he can adjust the 8.1. The sound is strong and wholly enveloping, but never brutal, never overwhelming. Gary bobs is head rhythmically, a DJ hearing a not-so-obvious-to-the-rest-of-the-club beat. The sound feels like it wants to go wrong, to go bad, like an engine on the brink of losing a vital piece and violently shaking itself apart. The dissonance almost begs to let rip into piercing excess that, given the strength and quality of the sound system, could surely render us, or at least our hearing, into dust.
But no. The frequencies remain steady, remain bearable remain merciful. So many have their eyes closed now. I would too if not for wanting to see the reactions, the feelings. There are almost no lights on, nor does there need to be.
* * *
Nobody here is just pressing “play” on a pre-recording and then walking away. It’s an involved process. For KM Toepfer, “it’s a lot about focus, and a lot about layers and the structures of the sound.” Indeed, SkruntSkrunt likely would not attend a performance lacking direct artist performance and creation: “I don’t want to come here and watch you play tapes. I want to see you try to do something. I think it’s important that there is some improv to it, cuz otherwise, like, you’re playing a tape. I could just listen to it, but even worse if I do listen to it, I’ll probably skip through it a bunch, really fast, rather than give it the time it deserves. I like coming to these things to actually listen to music.”
* * *
10) Scott Smallwood
Eight multi-colored cables connect to eight miniature contact microphones hand-placed inside an old plastic harmonium. The cables look like psychedelic paint pouring out and mixing into a single stream. So too do the sound of several keys stuck in place as one ring out into a cacophonous gel that sings with the rich dissonance of how the instrument should properly sound. It all melds into phase-cancellation and static overdrive.
Scott even steps away from the equipment at times, circling the performance table to be sure of his own results and effects. The bottom panel of the small piano is open, and I speculate that things are being further manipulated within as clunking and tapping sounds are loudly projected. No doubt the machine’s tiny motor is what is buzzing like a small airplane. Feedback intermittently pierces, as the miniature mics probably get moved too close together, by accident or by will.
The only light is that of Scott’s laptop facing him, but that doesn’t keep the onlookers behind him, whom the light is thus also against, from staring with curiosity. The thick flannel-clad man hugs the harmonium tight to himself before flicking its power off. Even the sound of the motor winding down glows with EQ’d warmth.
SkruntSkrunt is on the wall, projected as a green silhouette via videogame motion-capture technology jury-rigged to read visual signals and respond by creating sound. The projection is crookedly angled into a corner of the art space. For one piece we all become green and yellow and blue shadows, trying to pluck at the straight colored lines reading our pixelated signatures, generating gritty tone or wind tunnel blasts or digitized voices. We are a voiceless choir pulling the strings of voiced one.
SkruntSkrunt’s programming process is not easy to understand, but it’s there before us, lines of code rapidly sailing up the screen in a desktop window behind that of the rainbow-colored video feed. We are again invited to engage the technology directly, and a young woman improvises a slow, sweeping, limber dance. My hopes of the system picking up the water in my water bottle are dashed, but not the imagination behind it that has been inspired.
* * *
“Are you coming to listen?” Geraldine Carr asks of a potential patron. Listening is key today, and made all the more engaging when you know that it’s live. More than that, a huge drawing factor, at least for myself, is not just knowing that it’s live, but being able to see how the sounds are made. Admittedly, it’s a delicate balancing act between being genuinely interested in the sound in and of itself, and being not just curious about but excited by the creative means of making noise. Anyone can aim a microphone at an amp and make it squeal with feedback. But it’s far more interesting, far more inspirational, far more invigorating to see someone like Raimundo Gonzalez trigger sound by waving a smart phone around, to see SkruntSkrunt use video game motion-capture software, to see Scott Smallwood dismantle an old plastic keyboard. It’s difficult not to value this over the end result. I try not to think about whether or not I would find the sound as interesting if I were to listen blindly, without knowing how it was made. But it’s perhaps only shameful if I were to disregard the sound altogether, to watch the performance with plugged ears.
Perhaps, in retrospect, it’s a package deal for me, audio-visual, even if a given artist doesn’t necessarily intend it as such.
* * *
“Everybody feel free to get behind, come close.”
Raimundo Gonzalez and SkruntSkrunt may have featured body movement as inherent to their sound generation, and Aaron Macri might have had some beats, but only Borys is truly moving, dancing to his synthetic rhythms. Take away his responsibility for turning knobs and switching cables and he would no doubt be all over the place. He can hardly contain his own music, and it’s infectious. His hair flips, his arms snap away from the modular units as if he’s been electrified. He has, in the spiritual sense.
“COME ON,” he yells to no one in particular. Pure verbalizing of the moment. Several people are alternately grooving subtly one way or another, or watching the grand entanglement of patch cables as colorful as the array of lights that blink to signify the triggering of notes.
He’s the closing act, and is asked by Gary James Joynes to do another piece. And so it goes. Harder and faster tones snap and pop at volume, minimalist in resonance but maximized in presence. In one section of his transformations, the muffled bass of everything equates to the backroom respite of a banging nightclub.
* * *
It’s a long afternoon and evening of wandering a concrete floor and enduring very loud, often consistent sounds. There’s a real physiological feeling of relief when an artist’s intense droning drains away to quiet. It’s not necessarily an emotional relief; even if you like what you’ve heard, your body still has its limits, and will thank you for the reprieve. After that it’s up to you to take from the experience what you will, be it positive or negative, confusion or impression, dismissal or inspiration. For myself, inspiration doesn’t even begin to describe what I feel. “I think the audience plays a big role in just the perception of it,” says KM Toepfer, “and I think that’s the most interesting thing about this kind of sound art … the experience is different for everybody else.”
– Andrew Hall, May 2014
© 2014 Andrew Hall Writes