Big Car continues to expand the scope of its creative leadership in Indianapolis with the dedicated sound art space Listen Hear. This weekend, the venue will present Sound Out, bringing local experimenters together with acclaimed traveling artists for three nights of auditory extension.
The notion of sound-as-art beyond the rules of diatonic harmony can be perplexing in a culture where people are trained in their do-re-mis as early as their ABCs. The idea of sound art lies at the heart of Listen Hear's mission.
So what is it? "Sound art exists between music and the plastic arts, but in a way it's neither" explains Listen Hear's curator, John McCormick. "Simply put, sound art is an art form that uses sound as a material." His succinct definition of such a fundamental unifying concept provides an easy access point into a creative world that often seems too esoteric to enter.
It's tempting to understand sound art by what it IS NOT. The nature of using sound as an artistic medium that is not limited to harmony, melody and rhythm often yields work where those elements don't even exist. This can be a challenging experience for listeners, but in a society where technology delivers unprecedented media spoon-feeding, more and more people are desperate for this type of stimulation. To listeners who have not had a fully submersed experience within a performance, it's easy to misconstrue this art as purely a head trip. Music that de-emphasizes the organization systems that characterize more popular music traditions not only has an intellectual impact, but a visceral, emotional and physical one. Much of sound art could be described as "experimental" and while that title may reflect the process of many sound artists, what Listen Hear is offering may be more broadly understood as "experiential" music.
McCormick's three-day Sound Out program should serve as an initiation for anyone who is ready to start getting with the times. His own project, Sky Thing, will perform on Thursday alongside local percussionist Rob Funkhouser, and Los Angeles based all-media artist John Wiese. Funkhouser's output is diverse and unpredictable, but many of his performances utilize repurposed objects like propane tanks modified to become amplified metal drums that he commands like a one man gamelan orchestra.
Wiese could easily be awarded "hardest-working man" status in his field. His CV is of sweeping scale, and a brief skim of the list of collaborations there is a good resource for anyone interested in learning about the most iconic noise and free music artists of the past 20 plus years. He comes from a background in hardcore punk and DIY, well known in the fringes of those subcultures from gigs with rock-damaged genre benders like Wolf Eyes and heavy metal drone druids Sunn O))). An overall aesthetic analysis could only be done on a grand scale, but he has been known to work in audio manipulation that is harsh at its core, using composition processes that aren't made obvious unless they are explained.
Understanding is not crucial to the immediacy of the compositions, though. Wiese is also educated in design, and he maintains functionality in terms of style. It is thought-provoking material, but it still manages to be easily seated, more or less, in the context of art for the people. An important aspect of his diverse work is that it truly exists outside of classification, not in response to it. His ability to linger in this ephemeral space so consistently has come to define a purity that is very compelling. Wiese's work outside of the noise underground in film and instillation is equally as important and prolific. After slowing down on recorded music releases and touring over last few years and doing a lot in film and installation, now seems like an increasingly rare opportunity to get inside his world.
Night two's festivities bring the second annual Noise-A-Thon, presented in conjunction with Musical Family Tree. MFT's director Jon Rogers conceived of the original event in 2014 as a way to turn one of their regular staff meetings into a Happening. The concept is simple: 20ish do-as-you-please performance slots made available, first come, first served.
Jon explains the appeal: "Experimental music doesn't always get a lot of love in our city, although that's improving. Lots of people responded to this concept because it was different than most shows and they could participate and just cut loose. It seemed very freeing for all involved, and it's a great way to bring a bunch of local artists together making relatively unclassifiable sounds."
It is this spirit of collaboration and spontaneity that allows some performances to magically fill a space and make a creative environment that is more than the sum of its parts. The event is so unifying and fun, Rogers plans on keeping it as an ongoing tradition.
Saturday brings two more touring artists, Chicago's Bitchin' Bajas and synth player Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith. Smith plays the music easel, a modern instrument designed by synthesizer pioneers Buchla Electronic Musical instruments. Her masterful use of the young device is fascinating, and the highly melodic sound environments she makes with it are beautiful, expansive and fun. Smith's debut LP Euclid was released early this year on Western Vinyl.
Bajas also traffic in analog oscillations. The duo of Copper Crain and Dan Quinlivin on synthesizers evoke early '70s kosmiche music even more heavily after the addition of Roby Frye, who adds wind instruments to the mix. The group is known for performances that inhabit space in both music venues and art galleries like elaborate installations. Their meditative music often draws comparison to minimalist composers like LaMonte Young and Terry Riley. Drag City released their super chill self-titled double LP late last year along with a double–cassette "relaxation version" for even deeper voyages into their zone — based philosophy. Rounding out the bill are locals Shame Thugs, who should be in top form after a recent explosion of activity, and improviser John Flannelly. Flannelly 's unique vision has recently centered around electric piano improvisations that shift between childlike exploration and complex clusters of Cecil Taylor-level density.
The drive to innovate form has been always been a primary motivation for movements in art and media, including music and sound. While these new approaches may be radically different in thought and execution, a continuous aesthetic of otherness keeps evolving. Modern art has undeniably come to dominate design and the visual landscape. Similarly, the audio media universe of today reflects more the vision of Karlheinz Stockhausen than The Well Tempered Clavier. With resistance to the new fading, the increasingly obvious artfulness of humans using sound as an expressive medium in new ways is liberating for audiences and artists. With the ongoing efforts at Listen Hear, Sound Out promises to be just the beginning of a new music revolution in Indy.