by Levi Dayan
art by Saffron Forsberg
[originally published November 2021]
This past Saturday saw Aaron Dilloway and Stephan Haluska join for a performance at the Birenbaum, Dilloway’s first true live performance since the pandemic. Dilloway, who has previously been the subject of a profile for The Grape, is an improviser and composer whose music is made from manipulated tapes. Originating from Michigan, Dilloway was a member of the legendary noise group Wolf Eyes, and started the independent cassette-centered record label Hanson, which has released music from Noise stalwarts such as Kevin Drumm, Hair Police and Smegma. An Oberlin resident since 2007, Dilloway runs Hanson Records and has become a central figure in Oberlin’s experimental music scene; this semester he began teaching in the conservatory’s TIMARA department. Stephan Haluska is a Cleveland-based harpist and visiting professor in the conservatory. As a student in the legendary, now-defunct Mills College, he studied with l creative musicians Zeena Parkins, Roscoe Mitchell, and Fred Frith.
The show began with Haluska performing a piece entitled “Music for Prepared Harp and Audio Transducers.” The sounds created on these instruments came from the continuous application of various objects to the strings of a modified harp, paired with the ensuing feedback from Haluska’s electronics.The strings of Haluska’s harp, however, were never plucked in the sense that a more traditional harp would. Haluska’s instrument, of course, calls to mind the prepared piano made famous by John Cage, but whereas the sounds of the piano could seemingly be greatly altered and expanded by simply placing objects on top of the strings, the modified harp seems to demand a complete level of precision and delicacy in the application of these objects . In spite of the potential for volatility in this setup, Haluska’s objects–which included bells, chimes, and aluminum foil–never once disrupted the resonance and flow of sound coming from the harp. The resulting piece was deeply hypnotic, encouraging and rewarding deep and immersive listening from the audience.
The second set of the show was an improvisation from Dilloway on tapes and percussion. Dilloway’s music is often characterized by a slow, creeping stew of sounds that eventually loop into a sort of distorted monster of its initial form. The performance began with Dilloway generating a creaking sound from his rocking chair, manipulating it in a way that made it feel as though ooze was flowing through the walls. At a certain point, Dilloway began banging a drum, and the sound hit in a way that, for me, called to mind the dub drumscapes of King Tubby and the like. This soon gave way to an eruption of rumbling noise and screeching walls of sound that shook the room, before Dilloway yanked his tape out of the player and snapped the entire audience back into consciousness. Oddly enough, Dilloway’s tape loops call to mind Albert Ayler’s themes, which though relatively simple,blared out at such a resonant capacity that they etched themselves into the listener. In contrast to the harsh, dissonant, but also simultaneously lush and spiritual collective improvisations of Ayler’s music, Dilloway’s music is ugly and unsettling.Yet the way in which it revels in the glory of its sheer ugliness is weirdly inspiring. Watching Dilloway’s improvisation build in the way it did was a truly beautiful thing.
The performance concluded with Dilloway and Haluska joining together for a duo improvisation. In contrast to his sparse, meditative opening piece, Haluska’s harp playing in this improvised setting was much freer. Haluska used every tool at his disposal to generate sounds from his harp, including strumming the strings with bowls and, at points,even rubbing the soundboard. Having never fully delved into experimental music prior to the pandemic, this was my first time seeing Dilloway perform in a live setting, as all of my previous exposure to his music came from recordings such as 2017’s Modern Jester. At the risk of beating the free jazz comparisons to death, this duo improvisation made me think of Cecil Taylor’s group recordings. This is not in the sense that they sound similar, but more in the excitement that they generate in their cacophonous combination of sounds. It’s always been wild for me to listen to players such as Jimmy Lyons and Andrew Cyrille play with a freewheeling powerhouse such as Taylor and not get overrun by his relentless barrage of piano percussion–let alone have perfect interplay with him. There was a similar thrill in seeing Haluska’s interplay with the revved-up garbage disposal clatter of Dilloway’s tape manipulations. Overall, this was one of the best performances I’ve seen in my nearly four years at Oberlin, and I hope it’s just the first of many more similar performances to come this year, as the college has been dreadfully lacking in experimental live music these past few semesters.