by Levi Dayan
art by Eva Sturm-Gross
[originally published April 22, 2022]
Despite being one of the first music conservatories in the country to host an electronic music department with the TIMARA program, Oberlin sometimes offers limited opportunities to witness experimental and avant-garde music performed live in person. The Modern Music Guild exists to remedy these issues by booking the music that sometimes falls between the cracks in terms of what acts are typically booked. “For example,” Jack Hamill tells me, “there may be an act that is too experimental for SUPC but not academically established enough for the composition or TIMARA departments. We strive to maintain a diversity of acts, both in terms of music and identity, and to serve the many enthusiastic music communities in Oberlin and the greater Northwest Ohio area.”
In the past, the Guild has hosted some of the most notable figures in contemporary experimental music, ranging from the tabletop guitar sound explorations of musicians like Kevin Drumm and Keith Rowe to the trance-punk-free improv jams of the Flower Corsano Duo. These shows highlight not only Oberlin’s position in the wider spheres of experimental and avant-garde music, but also the creative music community that is central to both the conservatory and the college. Recent performances by Jeff Carey and Sarah Davachi respectively, the first after a COVID-induced dormant period for MMG booking, are a testament to this sense of community, and each stand as some of the most singular performances I’ve seen of this music.
Smith (a TIMARA alum who, full disclosure, is also a friend) did one of the most incredible sets I’ve seen on campus. Performing under the name Mirrored Monster, she cycled between guitar and electronics, beginning with sparse explorations in sound and texture before dramatically ratcheting up the intensity. The performance called to mind an anecdote from Jim O’Rourke, an experimental composer who has also worked as an engineer for Joanna Newsom, Wilco, and Sonic Youth. Early on in his career, O’Rourke’s music centered around non-idiomatic guitar experimentation, and guitarist Henry Kaiser told foundational Free Improv guitarist Derek Bailey he couldn’t tell if O’Rourke was trying to sound like Bailey or himself. Bailey responded by describing O’Rourke as “Keith Rowe in Blade Runner,” and I’d say the same for this performance, but only if Keith Rowe really fucking shredded it. The level of sweat and passion in this performance is one not always present in this music.
Hinsdale, who opened for Davachi under the name Claudia’s Graces, made masterful use of the Fairchild Chapel’s incredible acoustics. Her opening music centered around electroacoustic manipulations of her voice, fluctuating between the multichannel sound system in a manner that felt as though it surrounded the parameters of the space. The rest of her performance was more song-oriented and incorporated an Appalachian dulcimer, but the feeling that the space was as much a factor in the performance as the instrumentation itself persisted throughout. The music synthesized many different elements; beyond the established influences of experimental electronic music and Appalachian folk, I could personally hear elements of polyphonic choral music, pop, and English folk singers such as Dolly Collins in there as well. Her vocal techniques complemented each of these seemingly disparate sounds and influences perfectly.
Though I had not been familiar with Jeff Carey prior to seeing him perform, the fact that he was billed as an experimental musician from Baltimore was enough to get my attention. Baltimore is home to some of the foremost creative musicians in the country, such as Susan Alcorn, Nik Francis, the band Horse Lords, and Oberlin alum Ami Dang. The city is also home to the High Zero Festival, one of the most notable experimental music festivals in the country and one which Carey has performed for in the past. Even taking this history into consideration, Carey’s music is out-there. His performance at the ‘Sco utilized a large LED strobe light display, and his instrument is described on the Baker Artist Portfolios website as “a physically controlled software based instrument of his own development called ctrlKey.” With strobe lights flashing dramatically in the background, Carey shook and thrashed against his instrument, which looked something like a DJ setup with a joystick attached. This generated torrents of noise whose vibrations made it feel as though something was grabbing hold of the room and rattling it about. Amidst these pyrotechnics, the music provided a measured assault with an impressive degree of depth and a layered, constantly shifting diversity of sounds. Still, like all of my favorite noise music, the performance was an aural and visual experience that grabbed the listener and gave them only two options: listen and take in the experience it presented, or leave and don’t. I’ve always found such experiences to be deeply liberating.
The Sarah Davachi performance that took place a couple weeks after Carey’s performance could not have been more different, but it utilized the performance space of Fairchild Chapel in a similarly singular manner, leaving an effect on myself and (it seems) the rest of the audience incomparable to any other performance. Davachi has been a major emerging figure within contemporary drone and minimalist music for the past few years. Like fellow luminaries such as Ellen Arkbo and Kali Malone, her music utilizes the pipe organ and pushes the influences of early music (i.e. medieval and renaissance-era music) that have always been present in minimalist composition to the forefront. Davachi performed in Fairchild Chapel utilizing a Renaissance-style pipe organ, and in an Instagram post the day of the performance, described the organ at Fairchild as particularly notable. She wrote:
“the instrument is tuned in an extended meantone temperament - meantone is not something you hear too often, and extended temperament also accounts for the subtle differences in tuning between ‘enharmonic’ notes such as G# and Ab, which you can see in the split sharps of the second image. this instrument, being of the era, also uses a tracker mechanism rather than the electro-pneumatic ones that you find in most modern organs. electro-pneumatics are great because they allow different pipes to be located all around the room, but their stops are either fully on or off, and thus there’s no gradient in pitch and tone. mechanical tracker organs, however, have the stops connected directly to the valves of the pipes, so you can open and close them gradually and create some intricate variations in frequency content.”
Though I am in no way qualified to explain all of the technicality and music theory that goes into pipe organ playing, I can certainly say that these dynamics had a noticeable effect on the music being performed that night. Davachi performed one extended drone piece, and like most drone music, it had the feeling of stasis, but as she performed there would be subtle shifts in the piece. The tracker mechanism helped the music to make these changes covertly, thus giving it the ability to progress and evolve without breaking the trance state it imposed upon the listener. And this was trance-inducing music of the highest order, evoking a reaction in the mind and the body incapable of being replicated in any other space or in any other format. Witnessing this performance was a truly singular experience, and not just because Davachi was playing a pipe organ with her back turned to the audience. Whereas Carey’s music felt as though it had grabbed and shook the room, Davachi’s music had such a deep, resonant presence that it felt as if it was walking up and down the aisles of the chapel.
Throughout the performance, my attention was stuck to a quote on the railing directly behind the organ, from Psalm 98:1 of the King James Bible: “Sing unto the lord a new song, for he hath done marvelous things.” It’s near-impossible to write about “the spiritual power of music” without being subsumed in cliche, but this passage is, to me, as succinct a way of expressing such power as I write this. Regardless of one’s religious or spiritual beliefs, the musical traditions Davachi is working within, from Hildegard and Bach to the Coltranes, Eliane Radigue and Catherine Christer Hannix, undoubtedly constitute marvelous things. And there is no other way to honor these marvelous things than by pulling something new out of the ether. I would imagine that, even if I was the slightest bit knowledgeable about music theory, I still would not be able to adequately explain the psychoacoustic effects of these techniques, and that’s a good thing. The power of Davachi’s music, like all great spiritual, trance-inducing music, is its ability to invoke emotions that exist in between words and any other form of direct human communication.