Friday night, July 8, at the Invisible Dog Art Center in Brooklyn, the Dither electric guitar quartet will present the Invisible Dog Extravaganza! In addition to Dither playing works by Phill Niblock and Corey Dargel, the show will also feature several other acts, including guitarist Marc Ribot, So Percussion, and sound sculptor Lesley Flanigan (full list here). Last week, I caught up with Lesley to talk about electronic music, intuition, and what, exactly, a sound sculptor does. You can read the full transcript here.
Lesley Flanigan is the first to admit that the idea of using feedback in an intentional manner to create music is nothing new. But still there is something to be said for arriving at such a technique on one’s own, absent any outside influence – and a degree of poetry in taking what audio engineers and technicians have gone to great lengths to eliminate and twisting it into something intuitive and beautiful.
When I ask Lesley about the role intuition plays in her music, there is a slight, nearly imperceptible, hesitation. It’s understandable. This is, after all, something of a loaded question – not in the sense that I am trying to trip her up (I’m not that kind of journalist) – but even though we both know that intuition is a factor, it is also, almost by definition, notoriously difficult to define.
“I think all artists and musicians essentially start in a place of intuition, playing around with ideas and feelings, sensing what’s right. Once you’ve thrown something out there, then you step back and realize what it was you were doing and can focus it a little bit better.”
It’s an idea I am intimately familiar with. And like me, Lesley is a singer who came to music through voice. It’s the most intuitive instrument we have at our disposal, and for most of us, it’s the first instrument we learn, taking our cues from the world around us. She adds: “even if one doesn’t use their voice as a singer or in any particularly trained way, we all can shout, we all can cry, we all know how to use our voice to express emotion.”
“I also aim to create a very raw and intuitive environment in my performances. While it can be nerve-wracking to not have complete control of the outcome, if done successfully, my best performances are very intuitive.”
Those performances are what first brought her work to my attention – one woman on stage, surrounded by a handful of handmade wooden speaker boxes and a microphone. She walks, with deliberate pace, from one side of the stage to sweep the microphone past another speaker a few yards away, stopping, on occasion, to sing a few syllables of her own. It all appears to be highly choreographed, but it is far from theatrical. This is what it looks like when a feedback soloist plies her trade – it’s intricate, it’s physical. It’s sculptural.
For Flanigan, her role as a sound sculptor – a label used primarily for the sake of argument – was a natural extension of her experience as a musician and education in fine arts. Initially resistant to the idea of marrying sculpture and music, she built her first hardware electronics as a grad student at NYU, experimenting with sound circuits. It was while testing some amplifiers she had built, when the piezo (a contact mic) and speaker she was using came a little too close together. She recalls:
“[Some] feedback happened, but it was more than just sound. It was really energetic, a physical kind of reaction that was happening, because the piezo was bouncing on top of the speaker and making all this sound. And was like the raw electronic sound that, as a musician, I had been looking for in keyboards and computers and stuff like that and failed miserably….I was always trying to find the perfect kind of dirty electronic sound, and here these speakers were doing it, but it was coming from a very physical place.”
Taking those noises, so often our cast offs, as her starting point, the progression was natural. “[Maybe] you call something noisy because you don’t exactly know what it is and it’s kind of uncomfortable,” she says. “But if you sit with that same noise for a while, you can…at least get used to it and then it becomes something you would call a sound. And then, when you take those sounds and you start to put them in patterns, arrange them in compositions, they become understood as something you would call music.”
Those noises become voices, characteristic and unique to their respective amplifiers. And like a choir director, Flanigan arranges and rearranges them, guided by the way they play off of and against one another, playing on the idea of amplification within amplification. The sound of her homemade speakers projected through PA speakers into a performance hall designed to be an architectural amplifier in its own right combine in what she refers to as a “Russian nesting doll effect – a speaker within a speaker within a speaker. It is naturally spatial work.”
And the effect is demonstrated beautifully in tracks like “Thinking Real Hard” from her album Amplifications. Out of three minutes of looped feedback and harmonized “oos” and “ahs” emerges a single voice: My head is small / but it hurts like hell / been thinking real hard / been thinking hard all night. It is simple and unadorned, and as she sings: Stay with me a while, the listener is enveloped in a flood of warmth and clarity. But, just as you feel you could reach out and touch the sound around you, the voice fades once again into the noise from which it emerged.
“I’ve ended many performances with that piece,” she says of “Thinking Real Hard”. “Because in my mind, it locks in the idea of noise to sound to music, it’s like, now that we’ve just gone through this wash of voice sounds and speaker sounds, it’s all ultimately music in the end, that it’s actually not that far off from what you’re used to. And I love that switch that can happen, where suddenly you realize, wait a second, I’m listening to a song.”