Breathing Ghosts and Dancing with the Devil: Sxip Shirey’s Fractured Sonic Fairy Tales

Sxip Shirey: Sometimes I call what I do overly serious novelty composition, or underly serious experimental music, but both are bullshit. I’m totally serious about this stuff. That being said, these are literally three canister music boxes taped together, with me putting markings on them so I know which order to play them in, and a bunch of bells in a bowl. It’s just a simple melody.

Usually what happens with this stuff is that I find myself with these objects and then I feel like I’m suddenly in the middle of a puzzle and I have to work my way back to the melody. I’m using the Zube Tube, but that’s a compelling sound. This says something so nice to me; that’s a unit of expression for me.

I also love harmonicas. I don’t know if I have the right ones together right now because I tend to blow ‘em out, but they’re really fun with pitch shifters. You can stack them to get more interesting chords in places. I call these obnoxophones when I’m playing a gig—sometimes I’ll work with human beat boxers and just do a kind of dance thing. I don’t have any a-minors? Hmm.

Molly Sheridan: I like that you just checked your pockets for your a-minor harmonica.

SS: You just never know.

I got this off eBay. It’s the holiday symphonium—a disc music box. This one is “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” See, it has little music box tines. What’s really nice is it sets off these bells that aren’t really in tune. Then you can flip the disc backwards, and it doesn’t exactly sound backwards like you’d expect. It seems to have its own interior logic. I call this Muzak for new music composers. You can just put this on and walk around the room and clean your house and your brain’s still trying to figure it out. I like it because it’s so nonsensical in a way, but as soon as you hear it, it moves forward and it makes sense. So then I become very curious: How are people hearing this? Does this seem random to them, or does it seem substantial to them? I’m very interested in off-kilter things, but with a very direct melody or music statement that makes everything feel like it’s moving forward.

All these things I’m showing you now are pretty new things that I don’t feel that I fully have control over or an understanding of yet. This is a parade horn from communist Bulgaria that my friend the puppeteer Chris Green gave me. It’s kind of instant John Zorn. It gives you nice tritones. I’m still working at it. I bungee corded this Acme siren whistle to it and actually grafted two different whistles together, so the top doesn’t want to stay on. I used to use duct tape, but man, bungee cords are awesome.

I sit with these things for a long time and with each of them, I think: What are the different sounds they can make? How do you control them? Then, if I’m playing multiple things, how do I do that? I’ll sit for a long time and just tweak.

MS: What’s on the floor down there?

SS: I have these pitch-shifter pedals that they’ve stopped making, and their sound quality is awful. And they track slowly. But I’ve tried better things and I’m not getting the same sound. I think part of what makes it work is it squashes the sound, and it also plays behind the beat. For me, it makes it breathe in this weird way. Now when I’m doing keyboard, it’s good because it makes everything sound like it’s coming out of a 78rpm recording with good low frequency response, which makes me happy.

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