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Columns > Jesse Jarnow - Brain Tuba

Published: 2002/12/22
by Jesse Jarnow

Unsilent Night

1.

In the past two weeks, I’ve had two experiences that have restored my faith
in some subsegment of mankind — or at least just restored my faith in the
idea of a shared musical experience. And though the second might seem a
silly step down from the first, it’s not. It’s really not.
2.
Over the last four years or so, my idea of the transcendent musical
experience has changed from something undergone at a concert to something
achieved by myself, usually alone with the music and (more often than not)
underneath a set of headphones. There are various reasons for this. Mainly,
it seemed that this kind of listening seemed to fit best for the music that
was most exciting me. And, as it’s always been, the music that most excited
me was the music that most surprised me. It was that characteristic that
first attracted me to live, improvised music. After all, music that’s
improvised is (at least, theoretically) supposed to be entirely new.
The source of the simultaneous attraction, pleasure, pressure, and addiction
of going to see live music is that, even though a band might only make
it on (say) one night out of three, there exists the possibility that it
could happen at any moment on any night. It would therefore behoove a person
not to miss anything. One can come up with any number of rituals to improve
the odds, of course – stress-free transportation and entrance to the show,
good company, drugs – but, really, it’s a crapshoot. Crapshoots can, of
course, lead to transcendence: the feeling that one is out of control of his
immediate fate.
After a while, though, it no longer surprised me as much. The stuff I was
hearing was good – I could still tell a kick-ass jam when I heard it – but the experience was no longer as viscerally and intuitively as
exciting. After all, what could happen? I’d go to a bar. There’d be four or
five musicians on stage. They’d probably play guitar, bass, and keyboards.
Maybe some would sing. Maybe there’d be horn players. Sometimes, there’d be
cool lights. As transformational and transportational as the music had the
potential to be, it was never literally transformational — which
seems like an obvious point, but it was one that was getting harder to
ignore amidst seething crowds, overly aggressive security guards, cigarette
smoke, and long drives.
About a year ago, I moved to Brooklyn. Gradually, I started noticing that,
often times, my most enjoyable moments occurred not during the music, but
much later — as I was walking to or from the subway, late at night. And
though the moments were undoubtedly mine and mine alone, they somehow came
about only as a result of whatever had just transpired at the show. It
wasn’t so much a post-show glow of having seen really great music (though,
on good nights, there was that, too), but rather the sensation of quite
suddenly going from extreme high volume to extreme low volume. The rush cast
a sheen on the world.
I started looking for permutations of this sensation, other moments of quiet
transcendence, and began to classify them. Often it involved being able to
recognize certain vibes at precise moments and capitalizing on it — usually
by attempting to try to open myself to it, getting the environment right,
then (moreless) forgetting about it. It could get pretty geeky and/or
obsessive-compulsive, but no more so than getting into a car and driving to,
say, Chicago in the hopes of hearing something magical. For example, if it
looked like there was going to be a flash storm on a summer day, I’d make
sure all the windows were open (screens closed), find appropriate music [1],
and then go back to whatever I was doing. It was certainly more of a
challenge than buying a ticket and going to a show — and, ultimately, more
satisfying, too. Even if I didn’t make the music, I still made the
experience.
Bringing music into public places with me was also something I discovered as
a good source of amusement. Last week, I semi-spontaneously wandered slowly
through Times Square, and into the bustling holiday frenzy of Toys ‘R’ Us,
accompanied by Tom Waits’s excellent Alice album. While that was an
extreme situation, I’ve also found that – on all but the most blustery of
days – the right music can turn just about any walk into a potentially
mystic experience, allowing that one operate his eye and ears to their
fullest capacities. The simultaneous focus on the two different stimuli can
create an experiential gap — sort of the same way that the difference
between the left and right eyes allows the mind to perceive depth. And,
because one is in the outside world, anything really can happen.
3.
A recent obsession of mine has been the Flaming Lips. I really like them.
I’d heard the name around a whole bunch, but it wasn’t until this summer
that things began to fall into place. "Oh, they’re the fuck-ups
who’re making a sci-fi movie in their backyard!" "Oh, huh, they’re playing
with Beck." In October, I saw them open (and
play back-up) for Beck. Left on the seats before the show was a
postcard, a letter from Lips’
frontman Wayne Coyne explaining the genesis of the song, "It’s
Summertime." Their website, I discovered, is full of such writings, a rare
example of major artist absolutely gracefully and unpretentiously opening
themselves to the world, so much so that the earnestness has (at least, in
my mind) become an integral part of their art. The band has never used it as
a crutch or an excuse.
Another point that I remembered about the Lips, and something I’d
periodically wanted to try [2], involved an album titled Zaireeka.
Issued in 1997, the album is four discs long, and one was meant to listen to
the four discs simultaneously on four different stereos. The necessity (and
intent) of the album are multi-faceted. For starters, it’s necessarily a
social experience. With four stereos with a decent amount of space between
them, it requires at least four sets of hands and – voila – instant
party. For another, despite semi-formal instructions in the CD booklet,
there’s no way to ever listen to the album the same way twice.
So, last Sunday, we gathered at my place. Lights out. Candles. Y’know,
everything I was training for but didn’t know it. I got the discs out. The
reality of actually getting four people to start CDs simultaneously hit me
rather strangely. "Um, who wants to do it?" I asked. We spread out around
the loft. "Okay, on the count of four," I said. "One, two, three, four".
When the discs started, they were supposed to count themselves off. A tense
moment, then voices. I think we were all a little too amped up to really
know which voice was coming from where and when. And so Zaireeka
started.
And, sweet merciful crap, it was magical.
There’s no real way for me to describe the experience, other than somehow
try to convey that, for the duration of the CD, I – we – really were
transported in an almost a physical way. With music coming at us from all
sides, it not only created the illusion of an environment, but it shaped a
distinctly multi-dimensional space. The fact that this new space was
transposed over the place where I live… well, that was just the lobster on
a surrealist’s cake.
Around the same time in the Lips’ history lies the Boombox Experiments.
Lips’ frontman Wayne Coyne collected 40 boomboxes, composed pieces of music
for them, and staged them with orchestras created of audience members. The
shows took place at typical small and mid-sized clubs — including the
Wetlands Preserve in New York, where I was – at the time – a regular
attendee. Finding out now that I missed out on it… well, it kinda bums me
out. Just knowing about it, though, is invigorating.
I thought about the same stage where I was first baptized by many of my
favorite bands. Though Wetlands
wasn’t built like any other venue, it was still – musically speaking – fairly traditional at least compared to things like the Boombox Experiments
and multi-channel sound galleries. To
imagine the room reappropriated by the Lips to create a truly outside
musical experience was somehow liberating. After listening to
Zaireeka, we watched the Talking Heads’ concert film, Stop Making
Sense, an elaborately staged genius of a production.
It’s a bit of a bummer that more bands don’t try these sorts of conceptual
things, especially in a scene which supposedly celebrates musical adventure,
expanding their artistic scope to include wildly different kinds of
experiences. Performances incorporating extra-musical effects don’t have to
be tacky at all, don’t have to involve audience members dressing up in
costume or cloaking/rationalizing their actions in some psuedo-mythical
terminology. They can just do it. After a certain point, a band no longer
has to be democratic and offer the audience a choice. They’ve already made
their choice. They’ve bought tickets, they’re in the room. If something’s
gonna be presented, if the audience is going to be literally engaged, it
should be all out on the performer’s part: a force of will.
4.
Another event I’d heard about for some time, but never had a chance to
participate in, was Phil Kline’s Unsilent Night. Every year for the
past 10 or so years, around Christmas-time, Kline would lead a procession of
boombox-wielding friends through Greenwich Village playing a piece he
composed for the machines — much like Coyne, I suppose. The difference,
however, is that Kline’s piece was inherently public, and would have at
least a fair number of unintended listeners as the participants walked
around.
Friday night and most of Saturday were fairly miserable — rain and cold
sleet falling from the sky. I debated whether or not I would go. Eventually,
I left my boombox at home (no batteries), bundled up, and headed in. As my
friend and I approached Washington Square Park, we realized that it had
actually turned into a fairly warm evening (relatively speaking). A crowd of
people gathered near the Arch, many holding boomboxes and chatting with each
other and getting their gear in order. A nervous looking man (Kline,
presumably) stood up on a short ledge. "Thanks for coming. Did everybody get
their tapes? Is everybody ready?"
"Everybody turn off your cellphones," somebody shouted.
"Aw, it doesn’t matter," Kline replied. "It all sounds good. Um, okay, so on
the count of three everybody just hit play, and – uh – follow me. One,
two…"
Washington Square Park was filled with a metallic, gorgeous cloud of ambient
sound, which resembled Brian Eno’s Music For Airports rendered in 17
dimensions. The procession began, winding its way through the parks diagonal
paths. The soundscape changed and mutated as it circled around the fountain,
creating 360 degrees of sound. The tail of the parade criss-crossed with the
front and the sound changed again. We went down Washington Place, towards
Broadway, shimmering chimes rising like warm steam. We went past holiday
shoppers, wide-eyed mothers with wide-eyed children, and policemen. Down
Broadway to 4th Street, over to Lafayette, and up several blocks to Astor
Place.
At Astor Place, my nose filled with the smell of Christmas trees for sale in
an empty parking lot. We passed by the famous cube,
which was being pushed about by a group of renegade Santa Clauses. As we
crossed Fourth Avenue, two more Santas appeared. They stopped in the middle
of the Avenue as two buses approached, and held their hands out, politely
stopping traffic. East on 7th Street. When we emerged at Third Avenue, I
glanced to my left and saw an even huger group of Santas appear from St.
Mark’s Place. They streamed out into the street and moved to join us in our
cloud. Several more of them blocked traffic, a little more belligerently
this time. We crossed the street. Car horns blasted, but their sounds were
absorbed perfectly by the silvery mass.
It should be said that the experience of walking inside the sculpture of
sound never diminished once over the course of the entire piece. It remained
constantly shocking, and utterly beautiful, and felt like a waking dream. We
continued to walk down 7th Street. Until then, the crowd (which now seemed
to number in the hundreds) had stayed on the sidewalk, with one or two
stragglers on the street. Gradually, the entire crowd filled out into the
street. "We’re blocking traffic," somebody said. "We are traffic,"
somebody else replied.
The Santas continued on with us, adding a surreal visual component to the
proceedings. As it turned out, it also happened to be the night of SantaCon, an annual
gathering of free-roaming Santas. As their event melded with Unsilent
Night and moved en masse towards Tompkins Square Park, I felt an energy
I hadn’t felt in sometime. On one hand, it was the kind of experience I
shared with fellow audience members at a show, a
wow-did-you-hear-that? kinda thing. But, on the other hand, it wasn’t
limited to the venue, wasn’t hemmed in by the walls of the place, and one
didn’t have to try to maintain the magic when he went back into the outside
world. It was the outside world — a Pronoid prank fused with music
and powered by the sheer force of will of several hundred participants. It
was magical. It was transportational (literally! I began in one place and
ended in another!). It was inspirational.
(1) I recommend Tetsu Inoue’s Ambient Otaku, which actually became
a solid fall back for many potential situations.
(2) The closest I got was my roommate
and I listening to the three discs of Live Phish 02
simultaneously.
Jesse Jarnow plans on bringing all
of his friends to next year’s Unsilent Night, and will hopefully be
listening to Zaireeka again soon.

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