What is music? The answer may seem obvious: anything with a beat or a melody, something you can dance or sing to, right? Though on second thought, the definition should probably be extended to include free jazz and classical. And don’t forget atonal music and whale songs. Or, for that matter, high-fidelity recordings of the enormous, vibrating machinery at waste treatment plants.
That, it so happens, is the chosen subject matter of the New England Phonographers Union for their May 14 concert at the Metropolitan Waterworks Museum in Boston.
The New England Phonographers Union is a loose collection of sound artists and experimental musicians who work with untreated and unprocessed sound, re-contextualizing those recordings in improvised performances. Back in 2011, they presented their first concert (pictured above) using field recordings from the Deer Island Waste Water Treatment Plant in Boston Harbor, one of the largest sewage treatment plants in the country. The group has since produced several concerts at various venues using sound from the five different pump stations operated by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA).
“We did not venture into this project because we wanted to record water sounds. We wanted to record the sounds of enormous infrastructure,” explained Jed Speare on a recent afternoon at a space owned by the Cambridge-based experimental performance and art collective Mobius, of which he is a member and former director. He sat, slightly slouched and smiling, in the near-empty room, which contained some speakers, a few chairs and a laptop computer on a card table. Sitting next to him was Ernst Karel, lab manager of Harvard University’s Sensory Ethnography Lab and an internationally recognized location recordist and electroacoustic composer. The two will be playing the concert along with sound engineer and musician Matt Azevedo.
“[For me,] I think it’s part of a broader interest in exploring notions of place, or the situatedness of our lives through sound,” Karel said. “What are the possibilities of using this pseudo-documentary way of using sound to represent something about our society, or our lives?”
This latest entry in the “MWRA Cycle,” as it is called, will diverge from previous concerts because it uses sound captured at Deer Island by accelerometers—that is, machines that detect the vibrations in objects, as opposed to vibrations in the air, and therefore not detectable to the human ear.
When those vibrations are piped through speakers and made airborne, they manifest as thick, ominous hums, sometimes grainy and deep, other times high-pitched and trembling. They have a different character than the sound collected by regular microphones. On conventional recordings, you can hear the vastness of the Deer Island facility, the massive confluence of hundreds of machines spewing guttural tremors into the air. In contrast, the sounds collected through the accelerometers convey the immensity of each machine: a dense configuration of motors and gears, mighty and alive.
The concert—an official part of Boston’s weeklong electronic music-themed Together Festival—is presented by Non-Event, an experimental music series that was founded in 2001. The organization was originally created to bring international acts to Boston, and has since evolved to include two regular series: a monthly show highlighting local musicians at Café Fix in Brookline, and a series at the Goethe-Institut Boston focused on the fertile Berlin experimental music scene. Non-Event concerts span the gamut from noise rock to ambient techno to modern classical.
“It’s generally exploring the boundaries of the genres, or ‘what is music,’” said Susanna Bolle, Non-Event’s director. “It’s like with someone’s palate, where you expand your palate to certain kinds of food. When you’re a certain age, you find certain things absolutely crazily bitter, and later on you can’t understand why you thought this was a challenging flavor.”
Of all the spaces Non-Event has partnered with, the Metropolitan Waterworks Museum might be the most spectacular. The site of the original Chestnut Hill Reservoir "High Service Pumping Station” contains several enormous old steam-powered engines, elegantly fashioned in wrought iron and glowing copper in the building’s sunlit, high-ceilinged brick halls.
For the concert, four speakers will be placed at optimal points around the room, and two subwoofers underneath the grating in the floor. Speare, Karel and Azevedo have sketched out a musical arc for the approximately hour-long performance, but everything within that loose structure is improvised. They will listen intently and weave the sounds together, tinkering with location, volume and texture.
“The goal is to create an emotionally-engaging … experience for the audience,” said Azevedo, reached over the phone. He acknowledged that audience members’ reactions will likely differ depending on their familiarity with this type of music, which lacks any conventional form or rhythm. “So it’s on us to provide as engaging and welcoming an experience as we can.”
Karel offered a rebuttal. “I disagree fundamentally with the idea that the audience needs to be educated in a certain way in order to experience the sounds in a particular way. It’s needless to say everyone’s coming with a different set of previous experiences and will experience [the concert] differently because of their previous experiences, but that doesn’t mean that there’s any preferred way to experience it, or any preferred response to it. Or that we have any responsibility to we welcoming and engaging, or emotionally engaging, or any of that.”
The debate gets at the crux of the sort of music created by the New England Phonographers Union and artists like them. On the one hand, the whole point of experimental music is to challenge and expand one’s musical sensibility; on the other, that experience can be profoundly alienating.
The “MWRA Cycle” adds another dimension to this conundrum. To most Boston area residents, Deer Island is a remote abstraction, yet one to which they are inextricably linked: every twist of the faucet, every flush of the toilet activates complex processes at that distant facility. Will the concert feel alien or mundane? As strange as some of those sounds are, there is a familiar consistency to them. It’s the hum of the fridge, writ large.
“In one sense it’s a music performance, in another sense it’s a documentary movie with no picture,” says Karel. “And probably in a more interesting sense it’s neither one of those things.”
Sort of related: Watch video by WBUR's Off The Record of the garage rock band Pack A.D. performing at the Boston’s Waterworks Museum.
This article was originally published on May 08, 2014.