Sound Room: The Humans and the Machines
The basement of the SOUND ROOM installation is where the bass frequencies live. Down here, at the bottom of a three-floor brick building on an industrial side street in Chicago, there is almost no light. As you walk through the dark space, you can begin to make out the shapes of hulking speakers, some large enough to lie down on. If you stay in the basement during a surge of bass and volume–like the one during Mike Gillilan’s electronic work Tonar—you’ll swear that the sound is coming from the giant wooden beams in the ceiling, roaring out from the walls. If you sit on the cold cement floor and close your eyes, it is as if you are inside an enormous subwoofer.
As you leave the basement and head for the stairwell, you’ll feel a blast of cold air. The heavy metal door is slightly open to the fall night. But this cold zone of SOUND ROOM is also its most resonant spot: tall, narrow, and enclosed, it’s where the bass frequencies downstairs meet the dynamic sounds happening above them.
Upstairs is where most of the human beings can be found. The composers, the improvisers, and most of the audience are here. Upstairs, the sounds move quickly, like tiny creatures on light feet. This is where, during Kyle Vegter’s Interiors 2: The Actions, we feel surrounded by an enchanting, energetic cacophony of bells. This is where, during Daniel Dehaan’s Speaker Symphony No. 1, simple intervals played on a piano seem to collide with each other in mid-air and break into gorgeous fragments. And it is where Ryan Ingebritsen, holding an optical theremin, makes music with the air around him by leaping, diving, and dancing.
SOUND ROOM was an evening-length performance of electronic music hosted by High Concept Laboratories, an arts service organization which incubates some of the most forward-thinking art in the city. The show was a collaboration between composers Ryan Ingebritsen, Kyle Vegter, and Daniel Dehaan–multifaceted artists and sound designers who, while very different stylistically, share deep roots in electronic music. Vegter studied composition at the University of Florida, where electronic music is strongly emphasized; Ingebritsen was responsible for, among other things, calibrating several of Steve Reich’s early tape pieces for the massive sound system of Millennium Park; Dehaan teaches electronic music at Columbia College’s Digital Music Lab. Together, they created and installed a complex, multi-channel speaker system throughout HCL’s three-story building. They also created custom designed software that makes SOUND ROOM a uniquely responsive performance environment, “a three-dimensional sound spatialization system, specifically tuned to the acoustic nuances of the High Concept Laboratories space.”
For the culmination of their fall residency at High Concept Labs, the composers programmed an evening of their own work, as well as electronic pieces by composers Mike Gillilan and Claire Tolan. Ingebritsen’s three works were all improvisations, including one in which improvisers James Falzone, Jenna Lyle, Glenn Rischke, and Ingebritsen himself interacted with the system to create restrained, timbrally fascinating textures. Dehaan’s forty-minute Speaker Symphony No. 1 was a fully electronic work, performed by the composer at an Ableton controller. Vegter’s works did a bit of both: his delicate, spare Interiors 1: Bingo Yen was fully electronic while Interiors 2: The Actions, included a live element, with haunting vocal work from Maren Celest.
Because the programming for SOUND ROOM was so innovative and diverse, and because I’m not fluent in the electronic music idiom, it is a struggle to write about the fascinating and often deeply moving concert experience that was SOUND ROOM.
As I walked around the space, examining the music from different vantage points, the experience reminded me of John Luther Adams’s Inuksuit in Millennium Park. The difference, of course, was that I was not strolling around listening to individual musicians as they struck their triangle or wood block. Instead, I was paying visits to electronic things: a big black speaker, a small white one, a stray wire tucked under the leg of a chair.
The speakers may not be alive, but as 21st-century listeners, we know their capabilities intimately. These are the sounds of our lives; the sounds of great pop, the essence of great film soundtracks, and the obliterating foundation of a great live rock show. As clueless as we may be about the computers, software, and hardware that bring the sounds to life, once we hear them, we find that they are familiar creatures. These booming bass frequencies and the jangling electronic bells are our friends, our family. Speakers are, in a way, the ultimate vessel for realizing a composer’s precise vision. They are (comparatively) predictable, they do not get tired, they do not resist certain tasks.
Is it obvious why I’m trying to give human characteristics to amplifiers and cables? It’s because I’m a performer, and in electronic music, the absence of a clear performer can be disconcerting. A performance of composed electronic works is not like a string quartet performance, in which the music plays itself out on the musicians’ bodies and faces like a story, and in which you can relate each sound you hear to a physical movement by a human being. Instead, the makers of electronic music are more like Oz behind the curtain, their faces illuminated a little by a laptop screen, the tiniest movement of their hands producing a sea change in a massive wall of sound. If there’s anything that my experience at SOUND ROOM showed me, it’s that electronic music is not about what is seen, but what is heard. And even more so, what is felt.
In the work that closed the program, Dehaan’s Speaker Symphony No. 1, there was a great deal to feel. For me, the emotional center of the piece came in the second movement, in which a fragment of dialogue played over and over. “Are you the poet?” a stern headmaster voice demanded in a British accent. “I shan’t tell you,” a small boy’s voice replied. “Are you the poet?” he repeated. “I shan’t tell you,” the soft voice came again.
Here, power appeared to be in dialogue with powerlessness. As my heart gravitated towards the voice of the child, I remembered the delicate and gorgeous piano samples that had dominated the first movement. My memory now registered them as the improvisations, or perhaps the musical dreams, of an intelligent and lonely child. As the third movement approached, with the frightening sounds of hail thrown onto a tin roof and a steadily growing roar that threatened to obliterate us all, I felt I was listening to the sound of pure power–human and inhuman.
The piece, in other words, immersed me in a human story, told through deeply expressive musical gestures and the subtle power of psychological suggestion. It’s quite likely that the composer’s psychological narrative of the piece is different from my own. But as with any great symphony, the epic scale and emotional depth means that the hero is no longer the composer. The hero—as Alex Ross put it in Listen to This—is you.
As I listened, I occasionally caught glimpses of Dehaan, his gaze fixed intently on the screen, his hands touching small square buttons as they lit up. These were the only human hands shaping the sound. When the piece was over, and the last electronic gasp faded, I found myself staring at the speaker closest to me. It was on the floor: an unremarkable black rectangle. It emitted a distinct buzz. I stared at it in a kind of disbelief that I can’t wait to feel again.
**All photos by Daniel Dehaan