Dangerous Waves: Nels Cline, Thurston Moore, Zeena Parkins
The School of the Museum of Fine Arts
January 24, 2001
January 24 offered two unusual aural experiences at Boston's School of the Museum of Fine Arts. The first was the "Dangerous Waves" exhibitfeaturing installations by students, staff, and otherswhich looked at interesting connections between visual and sound art. The second was the "Extended Strings" performancefeaturing Nels Cline, Thurston Moore, and Zeena Parkinswhich toured the outer boundaries of instrumental expression. This article presents reviews of each element. A recorded synopsis of the combined experience may eventually be found in Sublingual Records' yet-to-be-released Acoustiphobia, Volume Two.
"Dangerous Waves" aptly described many features of the recent sound art exhibit at Boston's sMFA. The installation by Ron Kuivila, "Sparks on Paper," featured pairs of wires separated by a few millimetersbusily arcing electricity run through them at 12,000 volts. (Visitors were encouraged to touch the wires, but I didn't see too many people eager to plug into that one.) This electric installation had a surreal effect: sparks erupted everywhere in a darkened room, each accompanied by a violent snap. Pieces of paper regularly strewn on the wires personalized the sound and focused the energy. A few minutes in this installation was all one needed to reach enlightenment. (Speaking from the 2-meter perspective, the stereo effect of wires hung at that height was truly dramaticnot to mention somewhat unnerving.)
Another item on display was a bible laid open with small speakers installed on either side. Overlaid on a backdrop of biblical recital, herds of sheep baa-ed in the background. Danger, indeed.
In another installation, a set of speakers vibrating at frequencies below human hearing made an interesting point about vision as it applies to perceived sound. But as I closed in on the center woofer, it popped dangerously loudly at 1 kHz. Time to run away!
Less precarious but no less remarkable was Doug Henderson's massive "What Could Replace Opus?" Henderson, a sMFA instructor, created a massive stringed instrument out of the foyer of the building. Steel wires 35 to 65 feet in length connected in harp-like fashion from the second floor balcony to the opposite wall. A small rod intermittently struck one set of wires, yielding a percussive attack. Meanwhile, small motors resonanted the other wires. The entire building provided acoustic support.
A room in the back housed a high-tech installation by sound artist Liz Phillips and video artist Anney Bonney entitled "Suspended Frequencies." Highly interactive in nature, this unit responded to audience number and position with changes in the evolving geometrical video and overlaid sound. Supposedly the installation made use of the "ghosting" phenomenon that describes radio interference by architecture and geology. Walking around the room changed the ever-evolving video and soundtrack. But it was hard to get a handle on how it worked, exactly, with everyone milling about in the unpredictable way people tend to do at art exhibits.
After a couple hours of wandering around the exhibit, a substantial crowd gathered at the entrance to the auditorium. The sheer volume of this audience reflected the front-page coverage this performance garnered in Boston's weekly arts/events paper, the Phoenix. Most of the people present were around twenty and carried an artsy-fartsy flair. sMFA students reflected an attitude of art=body=art (persona as walking art exhibit). Punkers strode in with spiked hair, miscellaneous piercings, and zippered apparel. A portion of older audience members like myself (at the ripe old age of 30) appeared curious about the music for reasons other than fashion or attitude. Perhaps some Sonic Youth fans from twenty years back were present as well. Some impatient prankster in the line called out, "Lookit all these people! They're just Thurston for more!" (duh.)
The three string players had set up a truly amazing array of electronics onstage in preparation for the performance. Three amps, four monitors, and two massive speakers were set up onstage to conduct sound. Each amp was multiply miked and connected to a bewildering assortment of pedals and stompboxes. For the unfortunate people who didn't manage to make it into the SRO crowd, a couple of mobile handycams transmitted live video into the foyer for all to see. (Meanwhile, I cleverly made it to the front row, where I could stretch out and see exactly what was happening on stage.) At the last minute, a genie appeared with a huge box of ear plugs and passed them out to the audience. (Hint, hint. Some of us came prepared...)
Nels Cline, Zeena Parkins, and Thurston Moore came on stage and plugged in their various electronic tools. Electric harpist Parkins provided the sonic foundation for the first set, starting off with a simple three-note motif. Electric guitarist Moore, with his usual aplomb, set away busily scratching and scrabbling: square waves aplenty. Between these two dominant voices (more to come), guitarist Nels Cline employed the broadest range of color and tone, but often ended up playing more of a peripheral role.
Zeena Parkins, front center, took full advantage of her electronics to give each note she played maximum effect. While occasionally offering up vanilla reverb or square wave noise, Parkins mostly occupied the middle zone: hard to pin down, too quick to even try. She made regular use of her "whammy bar" to stretch the strings on the end of her harp, offering a microtonal effect and helping reinforce the concept of harmonic continuum. While she occasionally plucked pretty chords in the treble zone, she more frequently strummed arcs of sound. The bass offered Parkins the most room to run. She spent much of her time focusing on the tones and overtones possible in the nether regions, employing higher-order harmonics generated by scratching or rubbing the strings. But most importantly, the harpist offered a relatively rigid foundation for the group. She provided the structure that made possible many interesting paths of disorder. Her metric units served as leaping off points for the two guitarists, and her harmonic definition a suitable backdrop for their wild experimentation. Not to imply that Parkins was some sort of law-and-order enforcer, but she seemed to respect the importance of cohesion and play her part accordingly.
Guitarist Thurston Moore, situated at the right, spent the first several minutes of the performance playing his guitar without lifting it off the amp where it was resting. He made unassuming use of irony, treating his instrument as an object to be manipulated rather than an attached part of his body. As the set progressed, he eventually slung the guitar around his shoulders and played more "conventionally"if one can call his idiosyncratic style conventional. Moore utilized maximum distortion for most of the set. That meant his playing defined itself with a peculiar order that frequently relied on overtones (scratching, tapping, rubbing) to achieve texture. During moments of building intensity, Moore picked rapid-fire at his instrument, tossing out obscene clusters of notes which obeyed few of the known conventions of harmony. By the time he reached the peak, he was strumming feverishlywith a facial expression that was focused but glacial. Fans of Moore (and the open-minded) appreciated the sheer meteorological force of his playing; others in the audience seemed a bit confused and overwhelmed. (Perhaps one exhibit too many leading up to the group improvisation.)
Guitarist Nels Cline occupied his space on the left of the stage with a hyperkinetic, full-bodied approach. He kept his feet busy activating electronics, constantly reached over to twiddle knobs, and meanwhile launched a perverse assault on his guitar. He started out sliding a metal rod to "strum" (sort of like slide guitar in reverse), then eventually graduated to the eggbeater. I kid you not: Nels Cline has a talent with the eggbeater. The coiled handle end served as a perfect tool to generate full-bodied scratching sounds, while the beater part was ideal as a percussive tool to bounce off strings and achieve a sharper attack. Cline made more regular use of relatively "clean" tones than the other two players, providing detail and contrast. He came at his instrument from the perspectives of pure rhythm (regular strumming), pure harmony (implying bass overtones), and pure melody (clean singing notes). At times one could even detect the clear mountain waters of plucked harmonics. Unfortunately a lot of his play was lost in the depths of the volume pedal, while at other times he cranked up his sound to dominating levels.
After the first set, Moore humbly offered that the group could take a brief pause before resuming play, or they could improvise a second set immediately instead. Audience feedback (through plugged ears) emphatically stated: "Now!" So the trio readjusted their components and charged off into a second set. In round two, Moore's playing offered a dominant grounding force, primarily because he emphasized a regular but off-beat rhythmic feel. (Much of the second set could actually be seen as 4/4 time, if you were willing to deal with trickster polyrhythm.) Parkins also emphasized the rhythmic element during the second set, and Cline continued pulsing through his volume pedal to interlace with the other two players. Perhaps it would have been better to wait a few minutes before the second set: the trio seemed a bit worn out, and their interplay did not have the same depth. Their second set pulsed and vibrated, but lacked color. I noticed several audience members stretching with boredom or looking at the time.
Overall, the improvised performance was very, very loud. And that's something to respect: bone resonance offers an extra dimension to sound. With earplugs, you can experience the full-on vibration of your chest with the lower frequencies, and the tingling of your fingertips with the high end. (The man on my right chose to go deaf in addition.)
Musically, the three artists made several interesting statements about amplified sound. One was the direct debunking of the myth that square waves have no personality. The key to making distortion musical is to employ texture: either by "stacking" tones or by dragging objects across the strings to yield scratching, sweeping, or rubbing overtones. (The edge of a guitar pick is the classic example of the latter; revisit your Hendrix recordings and you'll hear some early recorded examples. The metal bar, a la Parkins, or the eggbeater, a la Cline, are two more highly evolved tools with the same purpose.)
Another lesson was that strings offer a unique source for sonic manipulation. Because they carry higher- order sound waves well beyond the fundamental tone, strings work very well as fodder for electronic tools. Moore's guitar playing, highly distorted at all times, would lose character if he were to turn the distortion off. The forceful yet glittery nature of his flights on the guitar offered a valuable insight into the potential of combining man with machine. Similarly, Parkins took a conventionally dull instrument (sorry, harpists) and turned it into a blazing fire machine or a thin, wispy thread by the mere twist of a knob. Much of this sonic sculpting was made possible by the fact that strings carry multiple frequencies which can be readily manipulated both mechanically and electronically. Add to that the fact that by strumming relatively fast, you can achieve a layer of rhythm that pushes the envelope into harmony.
Finally, the group improvisation offered a strong statement that three is the magic number. Because any dialog within the group was by nature public to the third member, the performance acquired multidimensionality. Whenever two players settled into a regular pattern (rhythmic, harmonic, or melodic), the third player entered from an acute angle to twist things in a different direction. (Thus Cline frequently served a valuable purpose when Parkins and Moore got to "talking.") That's not to say the performance failed to offer cohesionit's just a recognition that the level of interaction becomes much more interesting and abstract in group improvisation.
Relevant Links & Background
For more information, visit Sublingual Records and sMFA on the web. The "Dangerous Waves" exhibit accompanied a Sublingual Records CD release celebration for the two disc set, Acoustiphobia Volume One (a performance by Christian Marclay/Ikue Mori/Elliott Sharp, along with acoustic projects by sMFA students). Volume Two of this series was recorded during the "Extended Strings" performance.