Dangerous Waves: Nels Cline, Thurston Moore, Zeena Parkins
After the first set, Moore humbly offered that the group could take a brief pause before resuming play, or they could improvise a second set immediately instead. Audience feedback (through plugged ears) emphatically stated: "Now!" So the trio readjusted their components and charged off into a second set. In round two, Moore's playing offered a dominant grounding force, primarily because he emphasized a regular but off-beat rhythmic feel. (Much of the second set could actually be seen as 4/4 time, if you were willing to deal with trickster polyrhythm.) Parkins also emphasized the rhythmic element during the second set, and Cline continued pulsing through his volume pedal to interlace with the other two players. Perhaps it would have been better to wait a few minutes before the second set: the trio seemed a bit worn out, and their interplay did not have the same depth. Their second set pulsed and vibrated, but lacked color. I noticed several audience members stretching with boredom or looking at the time.
Overall, the improvised performance was very, very loud. And that's something to respect: bone resonance offers an extra dimension to sound. With earplugs, you can experience the full-on vibration of your chest with the lower frequencies, and the tingling of your fingertips with the high end. (The man on my right chose to go deaf in addition.)
Musically, the three artists made several interesting statements about amplified sound. One was the direct debunking of the myth that square waves have no personality. The key to making distortion musical is to employ texture: either by "stacking" tones or by dragging objects across the strings to yield scratching, sweeping, or rubbing overtones. (The edge of a guitar pick is the classic example of the latter; revisit your Hendrix recordings and you'll hear some early recorded examples. The metal bar, a la Parkins, or the eggbeater, a la Cline, are two more highly evolved tools with the same purpose.)
Another lesson was that strings offer a unique source for sonic manipulation. Because they carry higher- order sound waves well beyond the fundamental tone, strings work very well as fodder for electronic tools. Moore's guitar playing, highly distorted at all times, would lose character if he were to turn the distortion off. The forceful yet glittery nature of his flights on the guitar offered a valuable insight into the potential of combining man with machine. Similarly, Parkins took a conventionally dull instrument (sorry, harpists) and turned it into a blazing fire machine or a thin, wispy thread by the mere twist of a knob. Much of this sonic sculpting was made possible by the fact that strings carry multiple frequencies which can be readily manipulated both mechanically and electronically. Add to that the fact that by strumming relatively fast, you can achieve a layer of rhythm that pushes the envelope into harmony.
Finally, the group improvisation offered a strong statement that three is the magic number. Because any dialog within the group was by nature public to the third member, the performance acquired multidimensionality. Whenever two players settled into a regular pattern (rhythmic, harmonic, or melodic), the third player entered from an acute angle to twist things in a different direction. (Thus Cline frequently served a valuable purpose when Parkins and Moore got to "talking.") That's not to say the performance failed to offer cohesionit's just a recognition that the level of interaction becomes much more interesting and abstract in group improvisation.
Relevant Links & Background
For more information, visit Sublingual Records and sMFA on the web. The "Dangerous Waves" exhibit accompanied a Sublingual Records CD release celebration for the two disc set, Acoustiphobia Volume One (a performance by Christian Marclay/Ikue Mori/Elliott Sharp, along with acoustic projects by sMFA students). Volume Two of this series was recorded during the "Extended Strings" performance.