Easy Listening for the Hard of Hearing 

Unconventional venue brings exploratory electronica to town

Unconventional venue brings exploratory electronica to town

Keith Fullerton Whitman, Greg Davis & Bird Show w/9R3R023

April 21 at Angle of View

Housed in a decrepit commercial strip on Gallatin Road, Angle of View is the kind of place that might go ignored if you weren't looking for it: nondescript from the outside, and nowhere near as inviting as the rough-and-tumble bar that sits next door. But ever since it hosted a performance by the Argentinean experimental group Reynols several years ago, it has made room for some adventurous musical explorations—the kind of performances typically associated with a Manhattan loft or a nonprofit gallery. Tucked away as it is, this part-time recording studio and video production facility hardly feels like a rock club, which also makes it feel like anything can happen there.

One noteworthy bill there last month teamed the New York avant-improv ensemble No Neck Blues Band with several like-minded local improvisers (among them AoV booker Chris Davis' Crystal Bladder project); this week it does the same thing for electronic music. Three of the acts on the bill, Keith Fullerton Whitman, Greg Davis and Bird Show, record for Chicago's Kranky imprint, a small label with a long history of smart, wide-ranging taste. (Its other releases include albums by Low, Stars of the Lid and Godspeed You Black Emperor.) Thursday's show also marks the reunion of local duo 9R3R023, featuring Mr. Natural and Logickal.

For all of these performers, "electronic music" is a misleading, if convenient, term: each employs traditional acoustic and electric instruments, manipulating the sounds they make to create a wholly new thing, in some way broken down, stretched out or otherwise reformulated. It's an inversion of what happens with most popular music these days, where computer technology is typically used in service of bringing out melodic and rhythmic hooks. Here, the basic repetition that informs most any song is taken to an extreme, as deceptively simple patterns and textures become the focus. The result has a hypnotic effect that recalls the transcendent drones and tonalities of Middle Eastern and Indian music—an especially apt comparison in the case of Bird Show, which draws source material from field recordings made all over the world.

Bird Show is the project of Chicago musician Ben Vida, who has experimented with sound in a variety of forms and outfits, including Town & Country and the sweetly lulling chamber group Terminal 4. On his recent Kranky CD Green Inferno, some of Bird Show's compositions take the form of actual songs that work in vocals and steady rhythms. Surrounding those elements, however, are the chirrups of birds, quietly clattering percussion, gently shifting hums and long, sustained notes that alternately soar, wheeze or break into a piercing whine. When he sings on the title track, Vida's processed voice trails off in an echoing spiral that makes it sound as though he's tunneling into the ground. There's a confessional, organic feel to the album—it's like we're being given the rare chance to hear a song as it might be heard inside the musician's head, unmediated by the recording process.

The songs on Greg Davis' Somnia CD venture into some of the same territory as Bird Show, with an emphasis on long, sustained drones that alter in subtle ways. In each track, Davis takes the sound of a single instrument—guitar, chord organ, harmonica—and runs it through digital filters that render it utterly different, though not entirely removed, from the source material. It's a version of what happens when we examine anything in extreme close-up: the very nature of the thing seems changed or distorted, yet remains somehow familiar. The song titles—"Clouds as Edges," "Diaphanous," "Mirages"—give a sense of what the CD sounds like, but as with everything else on Kranky, the music is substantive and gritty, even when it's blissed out. It's not the stuff you hear when you go the massage therapist, but it really should be.

As far-ranging as each of these musicians' interests are, Keith Fullerton Whitman may be the most restless and prolific of the bunch. He's recorded under several different names, most notably Hrvatski, and has explored everything from musique concréte to hyper-intelligent dance music, with a well-stated love of way-out rock 'n' roll serving as a solid foundation.

Whitman's forthcoming disc Multiples makes use of his access to the vintage electronic equipment in the music labs at Harvard University, where he served as a lecturer. Hence the compositions have straightforward titles like "Stereo Music for Serge Modular Prototype." If the CD starts out sounding like a series of experiments—albeit fascinating ones—it builds in drama and intensity, as the tracks add more instrumentation. Track five, which uses Yamaha Disklavier Prototype, electric guitar and computer, recalls the repetitive figure in Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells," and it's followed by a study for a Farfisa organ that brings out all the instrument's churchy qualities. The closing two-part composition crests slowly and serves as a gently bleeping and clicking lullaby.

For all the commonalities that bind these three sound artists' CDs, other points of connection emerge on Yearlong, a release on the Carpark label that spotlights a year's worth of live collaborations between Whitman and Davis. Here, they push each other to make music that sometimes jars and often moves in controlled bursts; yet their work also has an attentive, intently focused quality, the sensation of two people working closely together.

9R3R023's opening performance at Angle of View will have much the same feel. A decade ago, this collaboration between local musicians Mr. Natural (John Sharp) and Logickal (Jeremy Dickens) was one of Nashville's only electronic outfits (which is hardly the case today). In the years since, each has gone off on his own, and when they come together Thursday night, they'll literally play off each other, as Mr. Natural, who recently returned from a tour of Japan, uses his electro-acoustic equipment to process Logickal's laptop sounds, and vice versa.


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