Lesley Flanigan at The Fuse Factory’s Frequency Friday

Lesley Flanigan performing in Columbus as part of the Fuse Factory's Frequency Fridays series (photo by Eric Robertson for The Indie Handbook)
Lesley Flanigan performing in Columbus as part of the Fuse Factory’s Frequency Fridays series (photo by Eric Robertson for The Indie Handbook)

Wild Goose Creative, at the bottom of Summit St. in Columbus, is a far cry from Chicago’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park, the last place I saw Lesley Flanigan perform. About 400 miles and God only knows how many seats separate the two venues. One, the picture of intimacy, the other the epitome of the Big Stage, with a stage so big it could swallow the former whole—many times over. Friday’s show, part of the Fuse Factory‘s Frequency Fridays series, was of the former variety.

It cannot be easy presenting an electronic music series in a city where DIY and garage bands dominate landscape and synthetic dubstep is the most readily available electronic music. And yet, Columbus isn’t without it’s electro-acoustic bright spots, Brian Harnetty, Masterer of Appalachian field recordings (and favored collaborator of Will Oldham) being among the most obvious examples. Within that community, Fuse Factory plays an important role in bringing national acts to Columbus as well as spotlighting local talent, like Tone Elevator, who opened the show Friday.

Peter and Jessica at Wild Goose Creative, March 2014 (photo by Eric Robertson for The Indie Handbook)
Peter and Jessica at Wild Goose Creative, March 2014 (photo by Eric Robertson for The Indie Handbook)

A small setting, like Wild Goose—with two dozen folding chairs set only a few feet from the performers—leaves little to the imagination. That immediacy, the intimacy, far from being a hindrance to the music, breathes new life into the listening experience. While the sight of a dubstep DJ propped in his perch pumping phat beatz into the club can truly be one of the most mind-numbing sights in all of music, even a slight cable malfunction early on in the Tone Elevator set injects a bit of dramatic tension into the music’s emergence from nearly-white noise while Tenori-On lights blink white from a tabletop corner. In the hands of Peter and Jessica Speer, incidental sounds like the chirping of birds and presidential speeches take on the form of intentional music.

Sound is a visceral thing. In purely physical terms, it is a disturbance, a disruption. The entire history of music is little more than the story of man’s effort to harness and control those disturbances. In an earlier Skype interview with Lesley Flanigan, we discussed in purely abstract terms the physicality of sound and ideas like sound sculpting. But at a distance of eight feet, abstract terms become a physical reality.

Lesley Flanigan at Wild Goose Creative, March 2014 (photo by Eric Robertson for The Indie Handbook)
Lesley Flanigan at Wild Goose Creative, March 2014 (photo by Eric Robertson for The Indie Handbook)

Less a “glimpse of the artist at work” and more an entering into the work, the relationship between recording and live experience is more akin to the difference between visiting the Rothko Chapel website and entering the Rothko Chapel—one is interesting on an abstract intellectual level, the other is a conflation of small and broad strokes into a confrontation with one’s own mortality.

I won’t go so far as to say “I saw God Friday night”—I would hate to saddle any artist with such immense responsibility, and besides, it would be a lie—but I saw many other things. A twist of the wrist and sudden scrape of microphone against speaker cone. The near-violent trembling of a small piezo confronted with the presence of its own sonic reflection. In short (to borrow and adapt a phrase from EJ Koh*), I saw the Thingness of Sound.

And that is the importance of a series like Frequency Fridays. In a world super-saturated with passive listening experiences, artists like Lesley Flanigan are taking incidental noises and even minor annoyances like electronic feedback—the sounds of everyday life that so many of us go out of our way to drown out of our lives with our earbuds and iPods—and molding them into new forms, giving the intangible a physical presence.

Fuse Factory have an annual Frequency Friday crowd-funding drive (to pay artist fees and expenses, the usual). There is one week remaining in the current drive. If you’d like to donate, there’s an indiegogo page here.

*We’ll get to EJ Koh soon, hopefully next week.


Loops and Variations

lesley_flanigan_white2bFinally. I’m finally going to see Lesley Flanigan perform. I’m headed to Chicago next week to see her perform as part of the Loops and Variations series at Millennium Park on a bill that also includes champions of modern music eighth blackbird (did I ever tell you about the time I saw them play Philip Glass with Philip Glass?) and Wilco drummer (and Delta faucet virtuoso) Glenn Kotche.

It’s not really clear what the program will consist of, but I have to assume, where there’s eighth blackbird, there’s a world premiere. And that’s great. But for me, the real excitement lies in finally seeing Lesley Flanigan perform her feedback compositions live. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while: not a life long dream by any stretch, but certainly something I’ve been trying to arrange ever since I interviewed her a couple of years ago.

In case you weren’t with us then, here’s a link to the article and the interview. It’s still one of the most interesting conversations I’ve had with a musician. And, in case you need a refresher, here’s a video of a performance of my favorite track from her album Amplifications. Of course, if you’re in Chicago on the 28th, you should definitely come down Millennium Park at 6:30 and catch the FREE show. But Columbus folks will also have a chance to see Lesley in person come March 2014.

Lesley Flanigan – The amplification of amplification

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.

 Download: Lesley Flanigan – “Thinking Real Hard” – mp3

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.”

Download: Lesley Flanigan – “Thinking Real Hard” – mp3

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.”