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Review Sun Feb 24 2013
Hong Chulki and Choi Joonyung, performing two Saturdays ago as part of the Winter/Spring 2013 Lampo series, created a rare moment in modern experimental music, the type of things we read about and hope to witness naturally one day: a genuine split of opinion.
My first clue that friction was coming was the unusual crowd, stuffed beyond comfort. The Graham Foundation's ample upper-level auditorium room, though usually fully accommodated, has never (that I've seen) been packed to standing-room only. Given that the city's academically-inclined experimental music community likely hasn't doubled in the past few weeks, Chulki and Joonyung were clearly going to be playing to people other than the choir. These days, experimental music belongs to the converted, or at least those at least willing to try to be converted. Say what you like about your roommate that rolled his eyes when you dragged him to see Prurient or your parent who blanched when you played them Masonna: most audiences for avant garde music are, for good or ill, either in on the game or not ready to give the roars of disapproval once afforded Charles Ives, Edgard Varese, or the Berlin Dadaists. Yet who of us, having witnessed their 23rd straight performance of heroic, virtuosic free improvisation, hasn't yearned to see someone get so agitated that they tore their own clothes or threw a chair?
Of course, no chairs were thrown, but there were walkouts. There was palpable tension. There was a feeling of being led deep into a journey with few road markers. Not everybody wanted it, and though nobody could quite summon themselves (at least at first) to lave mid-performance, a good chunk of the room bolted at the midpoint between the "acoustic" and "electric" halves of the show.
Why? Why the walkouts? Before we talk about that, I need to know the other why. Why were so many people at this specific show? Why was this performance of two not overly famous South Korean experimental performers so very sardine-squeezed on this cold Saturday night? What brought the cavalry in for this one? I can't answer that, but it surely affected the tenor of the room. Beneficially, I think.
For the acoustic set, the two were polar opposites. We saw Chulki, hunched over his turntable, using the rotating motor and lack of amplification to vertically abrade the edge of a piece of metal on the turntable's rotating platform, a quiet but insistent squeal of grinding metallic resonance. Pure sound, nearly no movement, all focus. Joonyung, by comparison, approached his performance with his head in his hands, staring forward at the machines as if they were a chessboard, planning his movements, outguessing his opponent. Starting with five Discman CD players missing their covers, he spun first one disc, then two, then three, the only noise coming from the brief "pew!" of the laser engaging. Joonyung then attached small post-it notes to the edge of each disc, putting them near each other so that the flapping pieces of spinning paper collided with each other in the air, gently, but deliberately, the rhythms of the tiny flaps changing constantly like a machine with a thrown flywheel.
After contemplating this for a while, Joonyung left the table and got a large roll of tinfoil. The foil was rolled in a border around the seating area (the two were seated at a table in the middle of the room while the seats flanked them on either side, facing center), again causing a light "flap flap flap" like the sail on a child's toy boat, first in that corner of the room, then the other.
And all the while, Chulki kept scraping his turntable. Mood: fidgeting, confusion, struggle to stay awake in the body-heat-warm room.
Joonyung then taped long strips of tinfoil to the base of each corner's amplifier, then brought each spinning CD to a corner of the room, so that the spinning pieces of paper could snap, slightly louder, against the foil barriers.
If this all sounds like the Portlandia "Battle of the Gentle Bands" skit with experimental music, it might not have been far off. But the slow growth was still happening, and the field of sound was being set spatially, with devices placed around the room, rather than relying on the four-channel speaker setup.
Returning to home base, Joonyung turned on five of those three-footed "back massager" devices. He put one of each into the space between the window and the shutters, locking them in while they buzzed impatiently around the window frame. First in this corner, then the next, then the next. The symmetry of the building sounds in different corners of the room was counterpointed with humor (Joonyung quietly walking from place to place, deliberately creating these movements) and slowly building sound (closing one's eyes revealed a multi-layered sound field from different parts of the room, creating deeply subtle nuances of texture and rhythmic energy).
Grind grind grind, went Chulki's turntable, now sweeping into a wheedly high-pitched whine. Just like a violin bow on a cymbal, only higher, more painful, yet quieter.
As the buzzes around the room went in and out of phase, Joonyung brought his fifth buzzer back to the table and put it on a metal box in the center of the table. He watched as it jittered this way and that, finally falling off the box but still buzzing around the table, getting stuck behind an abandoned Discman, its jittery little circular motions eerily emulating the path of an injured insect. As the device fell to the floor, the crowd let out a little laugh of recognition, a collective realization that we've all been staring at a vibrator for the past five minutes.
The spell having been broken, Joonyung collected all his devices -- the CD players were returned, the tinfoil perimeters torn down, the buzzing devices removed from their resonating windows. Only Chulki's savagely horking turntable noise remained. And once it died, a chunk of the crowed went with it in the applause break.
But, for all the emphasis on the leaving, those who stayed were clearly enjoying themselves, even those stuck standing up. Whether what we had just been was "entertained" or "something else," what we hadn't seen was something familiar, even those of us who chase forever after the unfamiliar.
Suffice it to say, the "amplified" set was louder, though the gestures were the same. Chulki's turntable now had a umpteen volts of quadraphonic power behind it, and when it really got to roaring, we saw yet another first -- a mass walkout DURING the performance. No less than 15 people bolted for the door when it became clear that things had taken a turn for the louder. Much louder. Chulki and Joonyung knew their equipment, but also knew to let it tell them where to go, not the other way around.
The second set closely mirrored the first, though instead of discmans and vibrators, Joonyung carried full amplifiers around on wheels, moving them to different corners of the room. As a couple attempted to sneak out during the set, Joonyung, perhaps following them or perhaps meaning to go that way anyway, followed them out the door with his amp, which was making all manner of grumbly hacks and guffaws. From the other room, we heard Joonyung discover something new -- the joy of dropping an amp to hear its coils bounce. That familiar "chonnnngggggg!" noise an amp makes when it brusquely connects with floor could be heard again and again behind the door, like a small child running around grandma's house and yelling in every empty room, causing unforced laughter from the audience. Even Chulki seemed amused.
As the amps were put away and Chulki coaxed the last swarms of needle-less turntable hell from his mixing deck, the survivors cheered heartily. Perhaps in reading this, you're bewildered as to why that is. Does this sound fun to you? Does it sound like I'm putting you on? I am not putting you on. The show gave me a lot to think about. Considering that "experimental" is one of the most-used adjectives to describe this kind of abstract commotion, it's rare to see someone truly experimenting. The same pathways to success have become so deeply rutted, it's hard to get excited about the fiftieth, one hundred, one thousandth person to turn knobs bash metal. It can still be fun, and even revelatory, but the emphasis is still too much on heroics. Like a comic that only plays for gut laughs while taking no emotional/personal chances, or a director who refines that same old thing that puts butts in seats, experimental music can get find itself running the same tests again and again with hope of new results. Sometimes, small gestures (or absurdly huge ones), even with no clear progression, can be invigorating, and most of us are show-scarred enough to prefer even the semblance of newly-considered thought over the usual burnt offering to the god of spontaneity. Furthermore, even if Chulki and Joonyung have tried these specific strategies before, they are fresh new perspectives to the organism as a whole. Whether anyone takes up this ultra-minimal mantle and carries it on is of no concern. It happened, maybe just this once, and for those of us who live for these moments, it was enough.