And in the Margins, the Mad Scientists: Synth Nights at the Kitchen
Live electronic music is never quite in the moment. It’s concerned with creating the future or busy sampling the past. It’s delivered from laptops with dimly-lit Digital Audio Workstations, or performed by robots. It’s fascinated with space and time, but never explores the moment in which it actually exists. It’s also rarely visually engaging.
Nico Muhly is interested in this issue. On April 4th at the Kitchen in Chelsea, composer Muhly curated the most recent installment of the venerable venue’s revival of its Synth Nights series. Synth Nights originated in 1971 and has featured such notable participants as Laurie Anderson, David Behrman, and Daniel Lopatin. Muhly chose three electronic composers for their common approaches and shared interests in the “physicality and visual elements of electronic music”: Jordan Munson, Joe Snape, and Jethro Cooke.
As the concert (the first of two nights) began, Muhly stepped on stage for an introduction: “In the world in which I’ve worked, on the fringe, or in the corners, are electronic musicians. They tend to be very well-dressed, quiet, and under-tanned.” To be sure, all three musicians fit Muhly’s description: young, clean-cut, and dressed entirely in black. “They’re [like] mad scientists,” said Muhly. “It’s all gadgetry.”
Jordan Munson, an American sound and video artist, began the show. Like a child figuring out a toy, he sat on the floor behind a small, old music box, cranking a notated punch card through. The box was wired to a synth, and with each sound produced corresponding shapes of light which were projected on a large screen behind Munson. As the duration between sounds decreased, so too did the negative space of the projection: blackness undulated like Rorschach blots. After sequencing and modulating a long loop, he sat down at the piano, quiet and still, a silhouette in the bright light of the projector. The loop, now dense with delay and reverb, evolved into an ambient hum, and Munson’s hands spread to the keys. Evoking Philip Glass’s minimalist piano works, he began to play long stretches of repeated minor chords, shifting a note or two at a time.
Nearly 20 minutes later, at the climax—a piano crescendo—a woman’s face briefly emerged from the otherwise formless blobs on the screen, as if we were watching a photograph being developed in a darkroom. The effect was haunting: Munson’s work was the highlight of the night.
Joe Snape, a Birmingham-born composer, performed a piece from his Lärmlicht series, a meticulously-programmed light and sound work. Owing as much to industrial and noise as to Laurie Anderson, Snape’s music is more concerned with physically attacking the senses than it is with the tropes of standard electronic music. Snape sat behind a small MIDI keyboard and a set of angular metal rods, like the spindly limbs of a dead tree, each with a light bulb attached to the end. The bulbs began to blink violently, and abrasive sounds pulsed with them, like television static or crushed gravel. The lights were triggered from the keyboard, the darkest tones came from amplifying the sound generated by the electric circuitry inside the lights; others came from samples. While at times it seemed more like an art installation than a musical composition, the work was nonetheless impressive.
The third performer was London-based musician Jethro Cooke. Cooke builds his own instruments, and his setup was comprised of two handmade MIDI controllers—one box lined with touch sensitive buttons that triggered samples and synths, and a smaller box with nobs that controlled filters and effects. Cooke’s work was the most improvisational and performance based, but the least visual. It was the subtlest, but the least interesting musically. Between long, droning tones and snippets of field recordings, the slow thumps of a bass drum emerged, the only discernible beat of the night.
The fourth and final performance was a collaboration between all three musicians. Snape sat hunched above another MIDI controller, Cooke behind the same boxy electronics he used in his piece, and Munson off to the side, iPad and iPhone glowing on a table next to him. Ambient, sonorous, and slow, the piece was largely uncommunicative. It was hesitant—no one was allowed to offer the timbres they explored in their individual works. Instead, each musician took a different predetermined role, working with sounds and frequencies that couldn’t collide with the others: Snape played synth tones with slow attacks and long releases; Cooke played more organic sound samples, shortened and repeated, that served as a kind of rhythmic bed; and, disappointingly, Munson handled only the video. The piece accomplished little, other than reiterating the sentiment behind the anecdote in Muhly’s introduction: that this kind of music, meticulous and contemplative, is for the solitary worker.
The most apropos moment of the night didn’t occur in this final piece, but just before. As the three performers were sitting down, Snape discovered his equipment wasn’t working. The sound engineer came down to help, but to no avail. Snape stood, and in his elegant English accent, suggested that they take a break while he figured it out. Finally, after almost 10 minutes of tinkering, the controller started working. The audience began clapping and cheering impulsively. It was a strange and intimate moment, one in which the gap between the performer and audience had completely disappeared, a moment wholly of and inside itself.
Said Snape, “It wouldn’t be an electronic show if something like this didn’t happen.”
TAYLOR DAFOE is a writer and photographer based in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared in Afterimage, artnet News, BOMB, Elephant, Interview, Modern Painters, and Photograph Magazine, among others.