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Vic Rawlings: Hardball

Gordon Marshall By

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On a June night in 2009, Vic Rawlings was spinning 1950s LPs at a local record store in Central Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At his side, the "sound fountain"—a true period piece of a hi-fi tower (mono, of course). Buddy Holly started the party, segueing into Doris Day and The Ink Spots. Sometimes the records skipped and hissed. The extraneous noise put a smile on the evening DJ's face.

"'40s, '50s, '60s—the fountain's good until about '65," Rawlings explains. "[The speaker] was made by Bell Labs in the '50s. I love it. It makes those records sound right. An owner-operator stereo store dude hipped me to the history of mono/stereo and the evolution of playback equipment. It's a lot to take in. I'm convinced there is a benefit to listening to recordings on the playback equipment of their day...but that's another interview!"

On another night, just down the street at the local YMCA, Rawlings played guitar hero (in the old school sense—not the game!) in post-jazz transgression partner Dave Gross' band, Moshi Moshi I Am The Decider, whipping out licks from The Rolling Stones' "Nasty Habits" as Gross stomped on a Casio keyboard and Gross' wife Polly Hanson shouted from her drum kit. Mike Bullock sang garbled French and the fifth Moshi, Angela Sawyer—owner of the aforementioned record store (Weirdo)—belted out shrill pitches like the latter-day, outside Janis Joplin she is. Rawlings, relishing every moment of adopting the talented, macho- guy persona, flew in the face of those two personal anathemas.

Rawlings loves music—any kind of music—but when pressed, he might demur. "The stuff I have come to hate at times is the stuff I've been forced to listen to in the public world—the wallpaper drone of Billy Joel, Elton John, The Beatles..." Then again, he recapitulates: "It's important to make peace with that, too." What he loves best, or at least creates best, he resists calling music, or art, at all. His chosen modus operandi is small format electro-acoustic improvisation with an amplified cello and an instrument of his own invention—a series of open-circuit electronic devices—on which he etches out a most demanding and unrelenting discipline upon the ears of the audience. Teaming up with percussionists who grate toms with violin bows, a bassist who uses rubber balls, a balloon player—"some of which are very large, like a big, big exercise ball," he says—Rawlings questions the very function of hearing. He questions how we produce sounds and if sound itself is even the central question when it comes to invention in instrumental ensembles.

"The cello and electronics are fundamentally different instruments," he emphasizes. "There is no electrical contact between them—only acoustic. At times the cello pickup 'hears' the electronics in the room. The cello is absolutely unprocessed except for the equalizer on the preamp, which kills unwanted feedback, and the Electro-Harmonix Memory Man analog delay, which is most often used to capture sounds in the room to make drones. I use Memory Man to fatten up the sound a little, but when an echoey sound happens, it's often a mistake."

In other contexts, Rawlings plays—and teaches—traditional, old-time banjo. "Some people might think I'm deconstructing that, too, but I'm not...yet," he assures us. Then he tells a joke. "How long's it take to tune a banjo?" [long pause] "How long you got?" he quips. In his experimental work (and it is experimental, truly, in the sense of involving the aleatory), he constructs an entire ethic out of this. As he modulates the broken guitar pedals and the damaged circuit boards on his table, he is forever fine-tuning and rough-tuning his larger sound pantomime. He allows chance blips and buzzes to surprise him and spur him to alter the collective patterns and counterpoints that arise out of the mayhem. It can be downright jarring, like a smoke detector in the middle of the night, or as peaceful and reassuring as the hum of an electric fan. As often as not, the noise is homeopathic, almost unnerving at first, but cathartic in the long run—like primal scream therapy.

Rawlings' instrument is ever-changing, as he finds new devices to add and subtract, including a timer. "The timer's been there since around 2000," he says. "I had thought of using one, but it seemed like cheating. Then I played a show with my friend Sean Meehan, and he used one, and it seemed like such an obvious thing. I went out and got one and have used it ever since. If I forget it I do just fine, but it is a help in constructing a piece."

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