Option Music Alternatives Jan/Feb 1994 No. 54 Copyright 1994 by the Sonic Options Network Inc. ISSN: 0882-178X excerpt 1775w

= page 61 = DANGEROUS RHYTHMS by Robert Neuwirth

In a series of concerts this summer in Holland and Germany, the mild-mannered Barry Schwartz shocked his audiences into submission by putting on a pair of insulated gloves with metal tips on the fingers, stepping into a mechanical waterfall, and strumming the highly electrified strings of what he calls his fountain harp. Each 16-foot-long string is juiced with 15,000 volts of raw power, so as Schwartz plucked, he coaxed tennis ball-sized gobs of arcing electricity up and down the strings, seeming to actually grip the power with his hands. In the process, a battery of sharp, metallic, strident sounds washed over an undercurrent of falling water.

"I'm struggling with actual electricity to make the sounds," says the Oakland, California-based performer. "You usually don't see electricity and you usually don't see music. I try to make my sound where you can see it." The idea, he says, is to get audiences to experience sound in new ways, with more than one sense.

Though not a trained musician, Schwartz has definite ideas about sound. Music, he suggests, should be a whole body experience. To that end, he has hopped freight trains around the country and wired them for sound, creating huge improvisational performances. "I don't look for the sound first," he says. "I look for the situation and the fear factor. I want to create a more succinct connection between sound and energy -- one that is potentially lethal or dangerous."

. . .

Chico MacMurtrie likes to watch old-fashioned robots go at it like humans. MacMurtrie, who also builds machines and creates music with them, uses his unconventional technology in a more conventional arena. He recently premiered Trigram, what he calls a robot opera, which features a cast of 15 musicians and 35 machines. The robots play music, make noise, and -- what else? -- act human.

"Some of the machines hurt each other," MacMurtrie says. "Some of them fall down. Some of them break. Some of them are really frightening. You empathize with their different personalities."

MacMurtrie, too, sees his creations as emblems for our culture. "These are creatures that depict the human condition. They're a warning of where we're heading as a civilization.

If MacMurtrie's futuristic music machines point out the dangers of where we're heading, Matt Heckert's mechanized symphony tips its hat to the perils of where we've been. Heckert, also based in the Bay area, likes to listen to things move, drop, whirl, and scrape. "I'm interested in the physical proximity of large, quickly or slowly moving loud objects, and large objects dropping from the ceiling," he says. To Heckert, a musical performance "should be disturbing -- carefully designed so it couldn't injure anyone, but the impression is that you better watch your ass."

The Mechanical Sound Orchestra, Heckert's big band of oversized factory objects played via computer, is in part designed to create that feeling. You can't listen to it without getting a little nervous, because you feel the floor vibrate and the metal groan and heave. "I think about the sound," he assures, "but I also think about motion, what it's going to look like, how I can heighten the experience by making it look dangerous."

For instance, one of his orchestral instruments consists of a four-foot-diameter washer on a 55-foot motorized cable. As the cable slings the washer around, the washer erodes. "You get it going pretty fast," he says, "and you get a bunch of different sounds and a bunch of aluminum shavings. It's not all that comfortable to stand under."

Heckert, another danger musician who received only minimal conventional music training -- he learned "Puff the Magic Dragon" on guitar and later played in some punk and lounge bands -- has big plans for his next project. He imagines a roomful of instruments that would automatically play themselves as people walked through.

"It's like making a whole place into a machine. It's like walking inside a watch. If it could be done properly it could be great. It could be extremely scary and very exciting. I'm not talking about running with your hair standing straight out and your face turning blue. It's got to be something people can sense on a gut level. There's no point in playing it safe."

Trying to imagine Scot Jenerik playing it safe is almost impossible. Booked to perform at the cabaret/jazz house Cafe du Nord in San Francisco this past summer. Jenerik was sandwiched on a bill featuring a jazz band, and accordion ensemble and flamenco dancers. So what did he do? "I turned down the lights and dropped onto a burning sheet of steel," he recounts with glee.

As cafe patrons wondered what the hell was going on, he proceeded to bang on the sheet metal, his hands encased in gloves wired with contact mikes in the fingertips -- and invention he has dubbed fautschlag, which is German for "fist strike." The mostly buttoned-down audience sat wide-eyed as Jenerik doused the steel with lighter fluid and continued drumming in a crazed, post-modern immolation ritual. "You feel like a freak show in a place like that," he comments. But the club has continued to invite him back to perform his latest piece, "Demons Eating of My Flesh and Drinking of My Blood."

"I accidentally set my hair on fire the other night," Jenerik says, matter of factly. "My hands get really bruised. I get burnt a lot. But you really don't notice the pain. It becomes part of the piece. I basically play until I can't play anymore."

The fire also serves to control photo-electric switches that trigger pre-recorded bursts of sound, tape loops, and time delays. The result, he hopes, stimulates his audiences. " A live performance is physical bodies interacting -- the body of the performer and the body of the audience," he says. "I'm trying to create an assimilation with the audience, to have them absorbed into my Dionysian frenzy."

In a sense, Jenerik has always been interested in frenzied sounds. When he was young, his father confiscated his electric guitar because all he wanted to do was et feedback out of it. After studying art in college, he played in a rock and noise band called Pat's Orifice. Jenerik believes his lack of formal musical training has helped him because he doesn't care about the rules he's breaking. "I'm creating sound in a way that's not traditional. It's easier for people who haven't learned musical notation and Western musical structure to do this work."

He too sees his music as social commentary as well as sound investigation. "Throwing the body up against steel is a very nice metaphor for the kind of age we're in," he says.

Jenerik has set up a foundation called 23 5 (loosely named after the tilt of the earth's axis -- 23.45 degrees -- and also the musical and emotional symbolism of the first three prime numbers) to support artists working with sound and danger. His plans include a CD compilation series, some videos, and a two-day festival of performances held in the Bay area.

Timothy North uses no electronics, no machines, and no flames in his low-tech approach to danger music. His instrument, the hoverdrum, is simply bolted together and hung from the ceiling on an unlikely looking gyroscope and spring set-up. The danger in the hoverdrum is distinctly old-fashioned: it might fall apart or it might fall down.

It's a suspended percussion and found object sculpture that I'm inside of," the artist explains. "Basically I am the motor of this contraption. The more I play it and move around, the more it moves and throws me off balance. The apex of the performance is control and loss and then regaining control again."

North has deliberately crafted the hoverdrum to look rickety. "There is a certain amount of danger, but the idea is to make it look a lot more dangerous than it is. The thing's designed to look like it's on the verge of collapse. I put on loose nuts and bolts that will fly off when I really get it moving."

He began experimenting with suspended drums after a stint playing with Therrien's Comfort/Control. Since the gallery where the group was performing was small, there wasn't enough room for his trap set. Instead of squeezing North into a corner or dropping him from the show, it was decided that both he and the drums would hang from the ceiling on a platform; North would be secured by a safety harness made of seatbelts. "It was like surfing," he remembers. "I loved the kinetic quality."

After years of playing his drums as a sideman, North had grown tired of the conventional rat race. He wanted to find his own sound. "I decided to make a show in which I could play my drums in a non-traditional way. I basically made a sculpture around by drum set, to get away from the trap kit mentality. Getting the drums off the ground and mobile and out of my control makes it much more interesting. It's sort of become its own little monster."

At one recent show, North was in the hoverdrum, suspended close enough to the audience for people to heave the contraption around. Not only was he bouncing around to his own beat in the hoverdrum, but he had to handle the rhythm of the audience as people took turns shoving him around. It was the truest form of audience participation.

The interactive nature of danger music is its most important aspect, says Barry Schwartz. The idea of going to see artists perform, but not being able to just sit back and idly watch, is the central point. As with almost everything else in life, you're forced to get involved. It's an issue of life and death.

It also expands the vocabulary of music. For instance, Schwartz has figured out a way to make temperature into a sonic phenomenon. Using an oversize steel turntable and a dry ice stylus, he "plays" the thermal stress of the metal. The pressure of extreme cold on the warm platter makes the metal expand and contract at different rates as temperature and pressure battle on its surface. Using contact mikes, Schwartz captures the steel's cry of distress.

"Take a wall," Schwartz suggests. "When you look at that wall,, you don't know what's behind it. If you can't see behind something, that causes fear. To me, metaphorically speaking, I think that I can hear sound in that wall. There's sound happening there if you harness it."

Typed by Cheryl Vega 5-4-95