Duet for Spaceship and One Piano
MUSIC by Jay Jensen
On any given weekend in Chicago, there’s likely to be several musicians performing that don’t use actual instruments. Occasionally, they might make use of a guitar or a keyboard, but not for any melodic purpose: only to create a signal that can be manipulated with digital effects and mixing boards. One has to admire the purity of expression that noise art, at its best, can attain—even if, at the end of the day, the hummable melody is king. I remember talking with one noise artist after his performance at Myopic Books who explained, “We just get up there and do our thing, no set-list, none of that ‘songs’ bullshit.” I thought there was something charming in this cavalier remark, surpassed only by its unintentional hilarity. The idea that robotic bleeps or drunken bird chirps could be less sentimental than a top 40 country song seems far-fetched to me. At the least, I think the virtue of noise art lies elsewhere than in a lack sentiment. I have come to appreciate, however, that the kind of feedback that noise artists use, unpredictable and infinitely varying, can heighten the sense that a recording reenacts a transitory sonic event that could never be reconfigured or brought into formal notation.
If I’m honest with myself, one motivation for overlaying my piano work with amplified guitar feedback was to prevent someone from taking my work too seriously in the first place. Indeed, guitar feedback does recalibrate the listener’s expectations, not to mention that it’s more cathartic than hitting a punching bag while smoking a cigarette. Even if my chromatism is off base, this is not likely to be the first thing that someone thinks is wrong with the music. I hope, however, that amplified feedback has the potential to do more than simply insulate my self-esteem from the scrupulous. The piano has a great capacity for harshness; and feedback, in certain moments, can be bent into successively warmer overtones much like a piano. Making piano and guitar feedback work together is a challenge, but not altogether impossible since they are not entirely dissimilar.
Whatever its real value for the musician, feedback results from an easily understandable process. When an output signal is loud enough, it can be converted back into an input signal if it is picked up by a microphone or electrified instrument connected to the same output. At the risk of being reductive, it’s possible to delineate the different ways it has been used in popular music. Jimi Hendrix used feedback to evoke the disfigurement of jungle warfare and the psychedelic effects of LSD; Jimmy Page, to project unrestrained, masculine sexuality; punk rock musicians before 1974, to dispute the supposed importance of musical proficiency in making great songs. For noise artists, feedback perhaps signifies the dread (or ecstasy) of a technologically determined universe. For me, its value lies more-so in its ability to undermine the artist’s attempt to isolate the solo instrument. A distant cough from a contagious audience member, the clanging together of beer bottles: these sounds confirm the presence of human life in the background of our favorite records, even if mainly in its frailty. Their presence reinforces the idea that a performance was once a real event enacted for real people. Feedback allows for a heightening of this principle. It makes the performer work harder against something that threatens to envelop the performance. Sonic Youth were on to this principle in the 80’s when they realized that having overdriven guitar amplifiers droning backstage made them play faster and more angrily, much to the delight of their fans.
It’s comforting, therefore, to know that our sonic environments don’t answer solely to us. Great music exists when unintended noises are appropriated into an evolving blueprint. What happens when the mistake becomes the intention is harder to gauge. But if Van Cliburn had concluded his Rachmaninoff record by cutting the microphones in half with a chainsaw, no-one would have ever made him wear a tuxedo again, or ever have worried that their stuffy sinuses might ruin his carefully calibrated diminuendo. It’s the things that don’t really belong on the records that make you feel like a human.
Jay Jensen graduated from the Master of Arts Program in Humanities at the University of Chicago in 2011 where he studied literature and media studies. He has written for Sixty Inches from Center: The Chicago Arts Archive and the website of The Oxford American. He lives in Little Rock, Arkansas.