Soundfarm Show Encircles Listeners With Sound

Paris Gravley

In Conservatory Central 25, eight small speakers sat in a circle, a modern Stonehenge setup, but with shorter, more expensive stones. A few rows of chairs placed in the middle faced the makeshift stage, which consisted of a couple of tables, a few Macs, a soundboard and a tangled mess of cords. It was Saturday at 8:30 p.m, and Soundfarm, a concert series for improvised music, was hosting its fourth show, titled “Circles.”

Noise music is arguably one of the least accessible genres out there. Because its creation is rooted in blurring the line between noise and music, an inexperienced listener is at a disadvantage when it comes to the nuances of “good noise.” What differentiates blank static from blank static as music? Add the complication of improvisation and the listener is further distanced from some sort of grounding measure. Was that change intentional? Accidental? Or just, well, noise?

The flip side of ignorance is that experience overrides all pre-existing measures of quality. Unlike more traditional genres, noise music isn’t backed up by its listeners’ familiarity with a lifetime of popular music. For people those of us who know nothing about noise, it is a unique experience of “was that in some weird way enjoyable? Or was it not?”

College senior Sally Decker performed first. The piece started off with a call-and-response of static; opposing speakers played similar sequences with varying degrees of delay. The effect was an interweaving mix of synchronization and competition. Because she used different speakers for different sounds, each chair offered a unique listening experience. The relative proximity of each speaker determined the sounds you heard loudest, faintest, or even missed entirely.

Decker’s piece progressed away from the echo-like pattern into more complex variations, adding a quality of static, horizontal movement through the speakers, and some vocals in the form of soft, guttural “awws.” Her piece seemed controlled, gentler and less abrasive than the two that followed. Though it wasn’t cacophonous, the piece itself seemed a little self-conscious, the improvisations thoughtful but hesitant and less surprising than the other two. Changes eased, rather than crashed, into the mix. When the piece ended, it had reached a soothing note, but perhaps a simple one.

Next up was College senior Jack Patterson, whose piece in many ways contrasted with Decker’s. His mentality seemed to be “more is more,” especially when it came to volume, which was flirting with unbearable. However painful, the extreme dynamic created a deafening cylinder of noise, metaphorically trapping the audience.

The static in Patterson’s music, as opposed to Decker’s old TV snow, was more along the lines of an Amber Alert message. A harsher, higher-frequency texture was combined with dog-whistle tones and something that sounded like a missile dropping. The performance in general felt like a full-blown siege, and when Patterson cut the music off abruptly, there was a wave of silent relief with some ear-ringing backlash. His performance, while exciting, was not as enjoyable as Decker’s. Though, to be fair, enjoyable is not always the endgame; violent, messy, abrasive and dense is as equally respectable an effect as enjoyable, but not necessarily what appeals to all listeners.

To end SoundFarm no. 4 was the music of double-degree sophomore Paulus Van Horne. Van Horne’s piece began as a warm texture with a line that vibrated the chairs. The new vibration’s insulating effect distinguished itself from Patterson’s overpowering volume. Patterson’s piece demanded attention simply because it forced itself into the forefront of the brain, jack-hammering in from the outside. Van Horne’s piece occupied the same space, but somehow emanated from the inside. The vibration he created, as opposed to the sound Patterson created, was a felt experience, rather than an observed one.

In addition to giving specific attention to the vibrational quality, the piece played with the circular set-up of the speakers more than the other two performers. The piece moved systematically through the speakers, horizontally extending as two neighbor speakers played the same tones, and then eventually fading as the previous speaker fell silent to its louder neighbor. As the piece progressed, the playfulness with speaker choice remained constant, but the noticeable pattern diminished.

Running in parallel to the geographic movement was volume. Rather than remain constant, the piece fluctuated, at times to near silence, then back to Patterson’s fortissimo dynamic. Between the changes in sound and the tonal quality, Van Horne’s piece seemed more structured than the previous two and subsequently more musical. Decker’s piece, though consistent and fluid, lacked the multi-layered complexity of Patterson’s and Van Horne’s, while Patterson’s “give ’em everything we got” approach seemed chaotic and less nuanced.

The show concluded with a collaboration between van Horne and College senior Adam Hirsch. Hirsch, who organizes the Soundfarm music series, played saxophone, but not in the usual sense. Several microphones had been hooked onto the sax in various locations, picking up on the atypical sounds the instrument’s structure can make. Hirsch utilized the saxophone’s physical qualities: he drummed on the bell, pressed the keys, ran his hand up and down the body. Paired with Van Horne’s noise elements, the piece sounded like a dystopian saxophone solo played by someone unfamiliar to the instrument’s classic use. The piece ran a little long, and Hirsch’s playing definitely overpowered Van Horne’s contribution; at times, it seemed they weren’t working together.

SoundFarm no. 4: Circles introduced of surround sound in a novel and surprising way; the performers used the placement of the speakers to their unique advantages. The performance brought into question noise and its purpose as a performed medium. As for the overall likeability, it’s harder to determine. But if the music was able to develop an alternative understanding of a medium we are unfamiliar with, is how much we like it as important?