Locally Grown Sound

The talk of the neighborhood right now is Dynamo’s doughnuts and with good reason (Glazed Maple Bacon, we meet at last). What with Sugarlump around the corner providing me with my daily caffeine intake, there seems to be a conspiracy in motion to keep me from venturing more than three blocks from my house.

Add Million Fishes Art Collective to the many reasons to think local. My roommate was attending yoga classes here when her schedule permitted, but weirdly my connection to the place was limited to staring through the windows while I waited for my bus to arrive in the morning and my fascination with the sidewalk panels of opaque glass circles. If they’re anything like the ones that you can view from below in Seattle’s Underground Tour, they’re evidence of icicle-like glass cones that illuminate a basement space with natural light. Recently the windows of the place have displayed a collection of weird mottled globes and tusks suspended from the ceiling. Turns out there’s more going on than just aesthetics. Each of the objects, ranging from peanut-shaped ones the size of a chunky cellphone to full globulous adults of basketball dimension are in fact gutted gourds, shellacked and stuffed with a speaker apiece. Together they create what the website describes as a “canopy” of projected sound. Saturday night we got to hear it in action.

With the lights dimmed and our collective selves plopped onto a smattering of cushioned Ottomans, my roommates and I crane our necks to investigate the flock of orbs dangling overhead. If Beili Liu were a DJ, this would be her sound system. Jess tactfully observes that the curly tailed ones in the north window resemble sperm. First up on the program are Kristin Miltner and Mark Bartshcer who man their MacBook Pros under the moniker of miba. Soon sonorous rumbles are passing from globe to globe above us. Like leaves rustling in a breeze, the overhanging gourds displays evidence of their broadcast as the speakers list in gentle pendulum arcs. I feel like I’m in the scene from Funky Forest, where the DJs lounging astride tree trunks coax the sounds of nature out of the roots and earth around them. There are indeed a panoply of organic tones that interweave together with all the unpredictability you find in the field audio of nature programs. It’s bizarre to think musicians needed the tools of the electronic era to restore these sounds to our consciousness. Every now and then twitterings of bird song or something like it puncture the rolling grumbles.

There is a strange disconnect between our physical selves and its by-products. I remember once reading about how one author demonstrated this fact by suggesting we spit into a cup and then drink it back up. The thought provokes instant revulsion even though the saliva was lubricating our gums just a moment before. Apologies quickly follow any time a fleck of food escapes our mouths when we talk. The same self-consciousness accompanies all those unprompted bellows and murmurings that erupt from a hungry stomach. By contrast, at some level we are accustomed to the cacophony of artificial propogations that surround us everywhere we go: the alarm of a truck backing up, the thumping bass of a passing car, police sirens and the clicking of a crosswalk indicator. The organic seems to have become divorced from us somewhere, somehow. Drop us into the natural world, a weekend in Yosemite say, and our minds are alert to every rustling and crackling. Our instincts instantly spring to our defense by monitoring aural feedback for any sign of trouble. We’re on the lookout for something we can recognize and react to if need be. Randomness undefined is defenselessness. I think that this may account for the rebellion one can feel to much of the output of the Noise movement. Melody, harmony and syncopation are often the narrative we rely on to tell us where we’re headed. Without them we’re left defenseless in the woods.

The impression I’m getting as the first Resonance performance progresses is that the ambient soughing is an interweave of familiar sounds that have grown alien through custom and habit. It’s appropriate that the mobile fixtures are in some ways natural and in others artificial. Soon a gentle chime begins to appear, resonant and regular like a metronome. It sounds processed but still identifiably tintinabular. It is I think the element that really makes the entire performance come together. It suggests a deliberateness where there was before chaos (even though the latter was itself deliberately engineered). It is strangely comforting. It reminds me of the nearby church on Sunday mornings my senior year of college and of the arcane and complex bell ringing procedures related in Dorothy Sayers’ mystery novel The Nine Tailors. I am left with a lot of odd indications that nature, human or otherwise can feel more alien than the most mechanical and autonomous products of invention. Just like a trip out to the woods seems to remind us of senses that have lain dormant, miba’s performance feels less like a concert and more like an evening stretched out below overarching treetops in a gentle rainstorm.

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