The mad scientists of sound art
|By Alex Zaragoza|
Meet some of San Diego's experimental noise-makers
Sitting on the patio of Krakatoa, the Golden Hill coffeehouse, you'll eventually hear the sound of an airplane ripping through the sky or a shopping cart full of clanking glass bottles being pushed down the alleyway by a homeless person. These noises are common in the area. Most people consider them nuisances. But Scott Nielsen, Clint Davis and Sam Lopez aren't your average guys with low tolerance for bothersome noise. In fact, that clattering shopping cart pricked up their ears up right away.
"I like that sound," Nielsen says with a crooked smile, and it's no surprise. He, along with Lopez and Davis are part of a community that blurs the line between music and art by creating experimental sounds that, by definition, are completely unpredictable.
Hunched over wires, synthesizers, amplifiers, drone instruments, the innards of children's electronic toys, fuzz pedals and anything else they can use to produce strange, erratic and ultimately fascinating noises, these artists become Dr. Frankensteins screaming "It's alive!" after building their own uproarious monster.
Sometimes that means constructing a simple instrument from scrap materials. Other times it means placing, say, a screwdriver under the strings of an electric guitar or metal clips on acoustic strings, in order to produce a different resonance or distortion.
When they really go mad, it can mean taking circuit boards, knobs and other pieces from different machines and latching them onto a standard Casio keyboard to alter its sounds. That Casio is connected to a pedal that then runs into a laptop or amplifier. Using programs like Pure Data, the sound can be manipulated in endless ways.
In the end, they use those meticulously crafted monsters to explore, redefine and push the boundaries of sound. These scientists want to build an aural experience that will melt your mind.
"Throughout my life, I never felt like I was a musician," Nielsen says. "I was more of an experimenter, so I was, like, 'No notation; none of that classical music stuff.' I was really interested in expressing myself musically, creating experimental music to go along with these experimental performances that I was doing."
Experimental music has been around since the mid-20th century, popularized by composers like John Cage, Keith Rowe and Philip Glass. Modern rock acts like Sonic Youth and Brian Eno have also used experimental sounds in their music.
Locally, sound artists have had exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (Margaret Noble: 44th and Landis), shown strange sound sculptures at Space 4 Art (The Art of Sound) and gone nuts on their instruments for the ongoing experimental-music series Stay Strange.
Nielsen, Davis and Lopez continue in that tradition of sound experimentation, creating something that's arguably performance art. Each takes a different approach to the creative process. The bespectacled Nielsen is the music nerd, name-dropping experimental composers and excitedly describing a fuzz pedal he's building. Davis is the mild-mannered, classically trained guy who went down the rabbit hole of sound experimentation and never came back.
Lopez is the wild kid.
"My performance in certain instances can be considered performance art because it's physical; you could get hurt. It's also music, too. To me, it's the hardest thing to describe," says Lopez, who's bringing Davis and Nielsen, along with Bart Stull, Demetrius Antuna, Rafter and Wages, together for the San Diego Experimental Guitar Show on March 23 at Soda Bar in City Heights.
"No one really knows how to talk about it, really," Nielsen says. "It's so new that we're just starting to create a vocabulary to speak about these things. It's still kind of open territory, and you're free to explore it."
In an email, Stull says his ultimate goal is to "use these tools to tell a story that should be both spontaneous, melodic and noise-based," determining in the moment the direction the sounds will go. Therein lies the beauty of the art form. It takes a high level of skill to create something that seems completely chaotic.
The performance is what truly elevates the art above a schizophrenic jam session. Davis considers his work and the act of performing it his gift to the audience, absorbing the vibrations of the room and the people in it as he performs. The sensation often borders on metaphysical.
"When I'm performing, I really get turned on by what's happening. And there isn't an audience. There isn't a me. There's just the sound," he says. "It sounds very mystical and even cheesy, but you are coupled with sound somehow, and it's kind of hard to tell if the sound is making you do something or you're making the sound do something."
While Davis experiences an inward intensity that he says leaves him unable to speak for 10 minutes, Lopez and Nielsen project outward. Lopez joyously thrashes about the stage, contorting his body and relishing any moment when a member of the audience does the same. Nielsen says he "kills" his identity before taking the stage in order to focus on what he's doing.
Each admits that you have to be a little crazy to make this kind of art.
"I think it definitely applies if you're in the recording studio doing electronic-based experimental music," Davis says. "You spend more time trying to get your stuff to work than actually making music. You actually do start feeling like a scientist, trying to get all the stuff to work right.
"It really does take on that Frankenstein metaphor," he adds. "And then when it does work, you're just so amazed."
"I think that's definitely the case for me, too," Nielsen says. "There's always this conflict within me because the whole mad-scientist part of it and the creative process for building an effects pedal is very different from the performance. It's very much a left-brain, right-brain kind of thing where one is more logical and the other is more spur-of-the-moment, instant creativity."
As a result, their performances are a non-stop wave of intersecting sounds that rattle the bones.
"Thirty years from now, there will be a book, 'Scott Nielsen and Clint Davis: The Mad Scientists,'" Lopez jokes. "They'll talk about them the way they talk about Afrika Bambaataa now."
In Davis' mind, that publication may actually be called "Sound Art for Dummies: Here's How You Do It."
Either way, it should be a fascinating read.
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