Digital music production has opened unforeseen paths into composition and performance. Looping and sampling have become common practice for those unable or unwilling to have a group alongside them; assembling and manipulating audio requires only a computer and the right software. These tools face derision – many insist that laptop musicians spend the entirety of their shows checking Facebook – but powerful music can still translate live in the right scenario, with the right approach.
WLFM, a digital entity itself, brought this complex world to the Memorial Chapel last Saturday, juxtaposing two artists who function on differing ends of the electronic spectrum. Squanto, the dorm-room recording project of Rochester, N.Y. native Ben Lovell, implements hypnotic loops of guitar and vocal harmony to produce a broad, yet humanizing, effect.
Tim Hecker, a well-known ambient music producer, constructed a dense, haunting network of synthesized and found sounds. While the pair seemed a difficult fit, the show benefitted from their disparate styles, commenting on the adaptability of music to cutting-edge mores.
Lovell’s performance was rooted in the personal, no doubt a quality derived from small shows and isolated recording. Stepping onto the broad stage with only a classical guitar and an array of effects, his songs began starkly, relying on quiet plucking and plaintive vocals. His self-sampling also demanded obvious effort, as he frequently knelt over his pedalboard to make adjustments and even lost his swelling background due to a technical difficulty.
Despite the hiccups and timidity, Lovell managed to stress the Chapel’s sound system, losing fidelity as he reached the climax of his pieces. Though he stood to benefit from an attentive sound mixer, particularly in a complex acoustic setting like the Chapel building, the Squanto performance deftly exhibited Lovell’s power as an individual musician while emphasizing the intricacy of live looping.
The audience was privy to the entire process of Lovell’s songs, literally watching the components of the piece assemble themselves onstage. With a more practiced presence, Lovell could gain a strong reputation as a live artist, particularly given his fraught and personal songwriting.
Hecker’s live show inverted the plain procedure of the Squanto set on two counts: Hecker appeared to trigger pre-compiled sounds rather than develop such sounds in performance, and his setup excluded the audience from the live process. The entire set was played in complete darkness. Hecker’s computer station was only visible before he had started, and the audio did not seem directly sourced. The effect was more like that of a black mass than of a typical Chapel concert.
Hecker’s work flowed seamlessly throughout his set, largely derived from the sweeping pieces on his most recent LP “Ravedeath, 1972.” Massive, gliding organ lines grounded a field of soft “audio snow” and crunched oscillation. There were infrequent moments of instrumental clarity – the tenuous noise slipping into a timbre like a flute or saxophone – but the sounds stayed in motion, cresting and receding into a concluding static.
Whatever equipment Hecker obscured during the performance, it was clear that he had a strong sense of his auditory power. The sheer volumes he was able to reach, and the breadth of frequencies in his soundscapes, resulted in some of the most powerful noise ever heard in the Chapel. Most notably, the anxious sub-bass tones seemed to question the structural integrity of the building.
The work filled the space almost confrontationally, particularly in light of the more traditional approaches of Conservatory ensembles. Audience members steadily trickled out as they reached their limit, underscoring the alien nature of both Hecker’s music and his performance.
Those that remained were simply treated to “thanks” upon the show’s conclusion, the only word Hecker found fit to say to the audience at all. His distance throughout the twisting sonic experimentation was imposing, just as the Squanto set endeared its transparency. And though it was largely an evening of twiddling knobs, the performers offered an intriguing glimpse into the myriad possibilities for electronically-based music.
If WLFM and its fellow organizations can continue to bring innovation to the seat of musical academics, the Lawrence community may hopefully see other such stimulating work.