I’m crossing the Van Buren pedestrian bridge on foot and the wind is howling. It could be a rush of air funneled through Hellgate Canyon, but it’s actually the field-recorded end of the first track on Greg Davis and Sebastien Roux’s 2005 album Paquet Surprise. I’m dislocated momentarily, forced to pay close attention to the exterior world by the music playing in my ears.
Davis and Roux (of Burlington, Vt. and Paris, France, respectively) laugh when I tell them about my experience. Davis then says, “Music can’t be isolated from the environment that it’s listened [to] in so I think music that accepts the sounds of the environment…works better.” Ben Vida, a Chicago-based musician touring with Davis and Roux under the name Bird Show, also employs field recordings and also aims for a listening experience that extends beyond the album.
Listening to Vida’s 2005 solo album Green Inferno on the chairlift at Snowbowl, I sensed this. I was alone at the time, suspended above the ground with a view alternating between panorama and swirling snow; it was a place I’d been hundreds of times before, but Vida’s music—rhythmic repetition of percussive tracks interlaced with odd sounds and manipulated dynamics—elevated the otherwise quotidian ride into a series of little wow moments.
Vida describes such moments of heightened awareness as a subjective state he hopes to induce in his audience. When it’s working, Vida hopes listeners experience “a nice mesmerized state where you are able to relax and let the music wash over you, and notice all the intricacies that are happening within the music, but not struggling or intellectualizing it, having it be really organic and inviting.”
Vida makes his music by looping snippets of sound to create new textures, layering the resulting tracks using a 16-track editor without altering the characteristics of the source sounds. Davis and Roux, in contrast, make most of their music in custom digital processing environments built with the computer program Max/MSP, which allows them to alter virtually every element of a source sound. Regardless of the difference in approach, Vida says the three are “all speaking the same language musically.”
Davis, Roux and Vida each see an antecedent for their style in musique concrète—a school of music originating in France during the 1950s, the signature example of which is Iannis Xenakis’ “Concret PH,” a composition constructed with nothing but the amplified sound of burning charcoal. Xenakis and his contemporaries crafted music by splicing tapes of ambient sound and then manipulating those sounds by altering the speed or direction of the playback and layering the altered sounds. Roux describes the result as “abstract soundscapes with some at-the-origin recognizable recordings.”
Music made of ambient sounds—Green Inferno uses Japanese cicadas and helicopter blades while Paquet Surprise draws on howling wind and what one friend of mine described as “conch-shell bong hits taken through the ocean”—might sound intimidating to a casual listener used to experiencing music through the prism of pop songcraft; Davis admits the music requires an attentive ear. “We’re performing experimental music. It’s not dance music; it’s not really pop music…It’s challenging and there’s a lot of sound and it’s not easily categorizable.” Still, Davis doesn’t see it as exclusionary: “We’re not acting like academic composers. We’re keeping it more casual and open and people will see that experimental music is not just this academic stiff thing….”
Vida encourages concertgoers to embrace the experimental vibe by assuming unusual concert postures, advising listeners to “bring the frame of mind that you’re going to lie down on the ground. We sit on the ground when we play, trying to create this heavy, deep-listening atmosphere that just washes over you and hopefully kind of takes you on a trip.”
Live, that trip will diverge from the travels inspired by Green Inferno and Paquet Surprise. While the show will draw on the same source material that informs the albums, the live arrangements will be spontaneously structured and processed in real time. Vida contrasts the show he expects with his experience touring with more conventional projects. “We’re going into this tour not like a rock ’n’ roll band where we say, ‘Okay, we have these 10 songs and every night we’re going to play them and here’s a couple extra in case people want to hear them.’ Every night is going to be an experiment for us and every night is going to be different…I hope the energy we feel from going into a show like that will come across to the audience. It makes what happens in that room that night specific to the people who are there.”
Greg Davis and Sebastien Roux perform with Bird Show (Ben Vida) and M. Wanz From Gingerbread (Missoulian Michael Wanzenreid) at Higgins Alley Upstairs, 424 N. Higgins Ave., at 9 PM on Friday, Jan. 6. $6.