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The Arts

Egalitarian electronics

Area musicians create a democratic do-it-yourself music scene in a virtuoso town

BRATTLEBORO—By scanning the local arts and entertainment calendar on any given week, one will see listings for musical performances in well-known genres by seasoned artists playing traditional instruments at venues such as the Latchis Theatre or the Vermont Jazz Center.

But what about performers who aren’t classically trained, who use their instruments in unusual ways, or who play music using objects not usually considered instruments? Is there an avenue of expression and a community for them, too?

Yes.

For a growing number of local musicians, electronic music — which often includes experimental and noise music — provides the platform for do-it-yourself creativity, and removes virtuosity as a prerequisite for entering the ranks of performing artists.

At a number of smaller performance spaces and in home studios in Brattleboro, electronic musicians gather to trade instruments and ideas, or they play alone.

One of those spaces, 118 Elliot, the newest arts and music venue in Brattleboro, hosts an every-third-Thursday experimental/electronic music event, Fieldtone (fieldtone.com), produced by three local musicians: Cal Glover-Wessel, Willie Gussin, and John Singer.

Glover-Wessel said he is also planning a regular electronic/experimental artist expo, where, in addition to performing, the artists have the opportunity to talk about their creative processes and possibly share other types of art, including visual art and filmmaking.

‘Why no guitars?’

Singer is one-third of Green Hill Builders (www.facebook.com/GreenHillBuilders), an experimental/electronic group, with John Levin and Ron Schneiderman. Although he is a vocalist and guitarist who has played with a number of bands here and in the Bay Area, he usually plays electronic instruments such as synthesizers for the ensemble.

In January, the group played at Brattleboro record store Turn It Up!, in a sort of test run of Glover-Wessel’s artist expo plans. After a 20-minute improvised performance, the trio answered questions from the audience — questions such as, “Why no guitars?”

The choice of using electronic instruments, Schneiderman said, came from the musicians wanting “to mess around with some cheap [effects] pedals” and other non-traditional instruments such as field recordings, shortwave radios, tape decks, and rocks.

“We’re big Experienced Goods supporters,” Singer said, referring to the Brattleboro thrift store.

“There’s a certain amount of chaos in our performances,” Singer said, adding that “electronic music gives you a wider palette to draw from.”

“Also, more volume,” he said.

Schneiderman explained why experimental music works for him: “I have a hard time with songs with a clear beginning, middle, and end.”

“I’m probably the most ‘song person’ in the band,” Singer said, but he said he has “no expectations with this [genre]. It’s musical therapy.”

‘Your voice is valuable’

Maria Pugnetti, a musician, DJ, and composer who plays under the name “Wooly Mar” (woolymar.com), incorporates puppetry, lighting design, and costumes into her performances.

Pugnetti came to Vermont in 2007 when she followed circus artists to the area.

Originally from the Bay Area, her introduction to electronic music came while she was a student at the University of California, Santa Cruz and took part in the college’s electronic music department. But after college, she entered her self-described “Luddite” days, learning farming and playing music on her acoustic guitar.

“I got back into electronic music when I was composing a folk opera on my guitar. I needed to hire a band and I couldn’t afford it, so I began using GarageBand,” Apple’s consumer-market music-production computer program, Pugnetti said.

GarageBand allowed Pugnetti to create drumbeat arrangements, but “very crudely,” she said. So, she moved up to Apple’s Logic Pro X, a more sophisticated program with a drum sequencer and sampler, which she uses to layer and process her voice into a variety of aural textures.

Pugnetti also uses a MIDI keyboard and an analog synthesizer. Once she started using a TC-Helicon vocal-effects processor, “I left my guitar behind,” she said. “I could create my own drum samples, organic vocals, and found sound.”

With electronic music, “I can express myself and my voice percussively without using drums,” she said. “My voice can be the main tool, creating atmospheric sounds in the music.”

Using prerecorded samples and synthesizers allows Pugnetti the ability to incorporate visual elements into her live music performances with shadow puppets.

Although Pugnetti had a musical history prior to composing, she considers herself “not trained.”

She believes that quality makes her a better composer. “I can use my voice intuitively. I’m a visual artist, and I make music the same way. I do things texturally,” she said.

Pugnetti is self-taught in the technical realm as well, learning online via videos, user-to-user forums, and YouTube tutorials.

When asked if she believes electronic music lowers the barrier of entry, allowing more creative participation among the untrained, Pugnetti offered an adamant “yes.”

Before discovering electronic music, “I felt if you didn’t go to Berklee [College of Music], and can’t play five instruments, what’s the point” of trying to be a musician?, she said.

“I want to encourage other women that want a musical outlet,” she said, noting that it is simple to find basic (and inexpensive or even free) tools and resources online, “and some people to help you if you want to create.”

“It’s easier than you think if you can get over that initial intimidation,” she said.

She notes her background as a participant in the Riot Grrrrl underground feminist hardcore punk movement, which has had an enduring message for her.

“Your voice is valuable, and society needs to hear it,” she said.

‘Boredom with music’

Musician Willie Gussin agrees that electronic music, especially the noise genre, is “the democratization of music and art.”

“It’s a vehicle for self-expression without needing musical training expected by the dominant culture,” Gussin said, adding that “anyone can pick up the instrument” and make music.

“I don’t think we can talk about music without talking about the economics of music,” he said. Gussin tries getting his music to people who want to hear it, regardless of their incomes, by “releasing music for as cheap as possible” and making some of his music available for free on soundcloud.com.

He also plays in all-ages venues with low (or no) admission fees.

Gussin performs in a few different groups, including the duo Eye in the Sky Guy, where he combines his manipulated cassette decks with Jonas Fricke’s drums and vocals.

On one online forum, a user defined tape manipulation as “an incredibly broad range of techniques that involve analog tape, including slowing the tape down or speeding it up, warping it by baking/crinkling/stretching, running through effects, cutting up and reassembling, making random edits, abusing the pause button on the tape recorder, or playing back and recording a sound over and over again.”

“We’re all improv,” Gussin said, describing the sound as “noise rock without the aggression.”

He also performs solo as Rush Awesome (soundcloud.com/rushawesome), which he describes as “slower and more plodding.”

Gussin uses an older Casiotone 301 and a newer KORG Volca Keys, a “new-ish cheap analog synth.”

“I’m processing my sound through reverb, phaser, and delay effects pedals, then plugging that sound into an old Marantz field recording tape player.... That tape player goes into the mixer, then the amp or PA,” Gussin said.

“Live, I will have three or four tape decks at a time. All tape decks have pitch control; the slow setting drops the pitch a whole octave, and it drops the tempo. You can get really crazy bass with that,” he said.

“All of my stuff is analog,” Gussin said, noting that with an analog signal, the sound is not cut up into bit-rates. “You can slow down analog forever without getting that choppiness from digital.”

“The way I got into experiments with sound was [through my] boredom with music” when he was younger, Gussin said.

Although Gussin said he appreciates proficiency and likes “being really good at playing an instrument, I don’t think it’s a requirement.” (He cited the 1977 album “Germicide” by the Germs: “It’s obvious no one knows how to play their instruments, but there’s a lot being communicated.”)

Another of Gussin’s influential musical experiences was seeing the noise band Sword Heaven.

“It was an eye-opening experience that showed me what sound could do,” he said.

“It was definitely the most afraid I ever felt at any performance,” Gussin said, describing the “strong emotional reaction” he had while in an audience of “like, four people in a yoga studio.”

He said the academic side of the experimental music world influenced him, too.

His sister-in-law’s father, a student of John Cage, provided Gussin “early exposure to really weird music.” For example, some of Steve Reich’s pieces “freaked me out and led me deeper into what music could be and how it could feel.”

“Pop music is extremely important to me,” Gussin added. Many pop greats, he said, “are more important to me than most [experimental] musicians.”

But, he said, “I am not interested in telling my story in the way that they do.”

Gussin considers the local experimental music scene his strongest influence, and it’s what got him playing music for other people. He said he never considered the idea of performing live until John Singer asked him to.

“There’s so much going on here and in western Massachusetts,” he said, calling the scene “very supportive.”

“I would have gotten discouraged without it,” he said.

Technology as bridge

“I have no idea how I’d be able to [make music] if I just had acoustic instruments,” said Kathleen Kennedy, who performs as Manes Prophet and has been in such local bands as Don’t Thank Me Yet, Arts & Sciences, Wet Wet Wave and, with Gussin, Subtle Action.

She uses traditional instruments such as guitar, concertina, and electric bass, but her performances also incorporate electronic elements — and not always in the way they were intended.

It all began with a gift.

Many years ago, a friend gave Kennedy a loop pedal meant for guitar, but she used it for her voice, to make “a chorus of myself,” she said.

“It layers nicely, it becomes a chorus of sounds,” she said. “I’m just making notes, yelling, screaming, or singing, and I’m harmonizing with myself.”

“You can really corrupt a lot of stuff” this way, she said.

Kennedy, who started out as an acoustic musician in 2004 in Gainesville, Fla., got into noise music four years later through a monthly electronic-music showcase.

“I realized that with noise music, you can do whatever you want for however long you want,” she said.

Just standing outside with a tape player also helped her make the transition to electronic music.

Kennedy originally bought the tape deck to record her practicing, but she ended up using it to collect field recordings and for recording herself singing outside. She uses both elements in her music.

“I first realized the woods, the train, the planes, and frogs could take a classical acoustic song and make it an electronic song,” Kennedy said.

More recently, she purchased an iPad. “It changed my life,” she said. The device included the GarageBand application on it, which lets her plug the device directly into her guitar amp and use more electronic processing in her live shows.

Some of Kennedy’s lyrics are about suffering, a truth that she does not see as negative.

“I’m a bridging-type person. I bridge suffering and healing. I’ve felt more raw emotions with noise music,” she said, noting the genre allows for “the element of surprise. It’s powerful.”

“All of my songs are a story of my life,” she said, adding, “I live out in the world. You can resonate with something natural — the wildness bridges with the man-made memories — that’s how I see my music.”

D.I.Y. guy

For Wyatt Andrews, music was not supposed to be part of the story of his life.

Andrews records and performs solo under the name Deep Seize (soundcloud.com/deepseize).

He also pairs up with singer/guitarist Calvin Moen to form Badweatherfriend, which he describes as a “polyphonic queer-pop” band, and he performs with Jed Blume in a synth/percussion duo.

Until a few years ago, “I went through my whole life thinking I couldn’t be a musician,” Andrews said. “Then I discovered I could, and that was a revelation,” he added.

When Andrews was in college at Castleton State, he said, “there was a cheesy career center poster in the bathroom that said, ‘If you could do anything....’”

The first thought that came to Andrews’ mind was: “professional harmonica player.”

“I had heard it was one of the easiest instruments to play,” he said. He thought should take some classes. But which ones?

“I love music, but I couldn’t figure out how to express it,” he said, noting he tried guitar, bass, and drums, “but nothing really grabbed my attention completely.”

Andrews said he soon realized, “I wanted to do all of those things, and at the same time.”

Electronic music helped him realize that goal.

About a year after graduating from college, Andrews was visiting a friend who had just gotten “all this weird free electronic stuff.” He picked up a Boss Dr. Groove DR-202 drum machine.

“I’m a beats guy, and [the drum machine] instantly allowed me to create rhythm material, bass lines, and melodious material behind that. It opened the doors to doing all the things I wanted to do with a band behind me,” he said. “But I could do it all myself.”

“I’m a technical nerd,” Andrews said. “I don’t have a trained ear. I could approach the drum machine from a very math-y perspective. I translate math to sound using logic. It’s pattern-based.”

Although Andrews mentioned a number of musical influences, he said old radio dramas and movies inspire his work as Deep Seize.

“I love the narrative structure” of old science fiction and horror radio shows, Andrews said, noting he “weaves old dramas” into his compositions.

“One of my main goals with Deep Seize is to juxtapose ridiculous and campy dialogue with really somber music,” Andrews said.

He has since outgrown that first drum machine. (“I feel like a hermit crab. I keep needing a bigger shell,” he said.)

“There was a point where I didn’t have enough hands to trigger all the things and affect all the parameters,” Andrews said, adding, “I had to be like Dr. Octopus.”

He learned to use the Ableton Live software, which he described as a “virtual version of all these machines I use.” He said the software lets him “play all the things at once with the turn of a knob,” he said.

“When I first thought about being a musician, I thought you picked one thing and that’s how you became a part of it,” Andrews said. “But until I found electronic music, I didn’t think I could be a musician because I couldn’t find that one thing.”

“Now I can do all the things,” he said.

Autonomy

Cal Glover-Wessel, who performs under the name “Azfarat” (soundcloud.com/azfarat), got into the genre through working with sampling software.

By using a MIDI keyboard and Reason software, which he refers to as his “gateway analog drug,” Glover-Wessel began making dance music.

“It wasn’t quite right, so I took a hiatus,” he said, and learned two acoustic instruments not often used in electronic dance music: the accordion and the bagpipes.

Then, with the arrival of a new computer, Glover-Wessel returned to Reason, and began “doing experimental stuff.”

“I just started f—ing with this guitar — I put in springs and cables where the strings were supposed to go,” and used a DOD Buzz Box distortion pedal to further change the sound, Glover-Wessel said.

“That pedal is too feisty for regular musicians, but noise musicians like it,” he said.

Soon after that, Glover-Wessel’s music evolved beyond computers, and he began using analog synthesizers. “I started out with the cheapest crap I could get,” he said.

“Electronic music is a necessity for me. If I could make the sounds I like without electronics, I would. But I can make the sounds I like with electronics,” he said.

Glover-Wessel’s electronic music career also started because of many moments of self-awareness: “The thing I kept running into was, I work poorly with other people,” he said.

With electronic music, he can make all the sounds he needs on his own.

Glover-Wessel does not believe that the access to software and the autonomy of electronic music means doing so is easy.

“People have this idea that you’re just pushing a button and music is coming out,” he said, “but sometimes it’s harder than acoustic music.“

Because of the work that takes place on a computer behind the scenes, at an electronic music performance, “there are no sweaty drummers,” he noted. “People only see the result, they don’t see the effort that went into it.”

“People who are classically trained get very defensive about the entire experimental music category,” Glover-Wessel said, noting there seems to be an attitude of “these upstarts are coming out of the woodwork with tape decks and cheap guitars.”

“What’s fascinating about electronic music is, when you’re working with computers and other electronic instruments, it’s about what you’re doing with what you’ve got.

“That’s the dream: to be able to make music out of trash. It’s not just notes; it’s the process,” he said, pointing out some PVC pipes he picked up off a curb and made into a musical instrument.

Glover-Wessel characterizes the local electronic music scene as “tight-knit, a little more surreal [than in cities], and a little weird because it’s in a weird part of the world.”

“Outside of the [local] metal bands, I think I’m probably the most depressing [act] in experimental music,” he said, “but I can’t shake that whimsy, that Brattleboro charm.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #367 (Wednesday, July 27, 2016). This story appeared on page B1.

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