Towering Tongue

by Chris Randle

Last month in this space, Carl wondered what it means to be avant-garde, still. One idea of it hinges on identifiable harshness, dissonance, “difficulty,” even alienation: a dance to metal machine music. Must the new always shock? Maybe it can be gently instructional instead. Misha Glouberman (best known as the cleverly flustered host of local lecture series Trampoline Hall) has been testing just that with a loose, long-running series called Terrible Noises for Beautiful People. These events typically involve amateur non-musicians improvising vocal sounds together, in structures that range from John Zorn’s Cobra game to ones of Misha’s own design. This week’s noisemaking was a rehearsal of sorts for upcoming performances at a vertiginous art-edifice called the Sound Tower. (“If you’re afraid of heights, as I am, 80 feet is tall.”) Whether straight jazz or the uncategorizable, I’d listened to a lot of music employing improvisation without knowing much about the theory of it. I still don’t. My first time as a non-spectator was all practice, mortifying and then finally elating.

Misha is bearish yet friendly, in the manner of a slightly absentminded professor. His introduction sounded a bit like the opening of an old-school role-playing game: “Imagine you’ve come to a tower.” It worked a bit like one, too. Again and again he sketched out the course of an exercise before gradually removing its guide rails. Our initial task was to wander around the room improvising “angry” sounds and motions – fine by me for several reasons, like how I’d woken up that morning to find my bathroom door nailed shut. At first Misha rang a bell to pause and restart our gesticulations, but his influence slowly faded until we were improvising moments of stasis by mass consensus too. Once he raised the instrument, froze, and lowered it with a stage scowl.

A string of “fighting forms,” formal outlines for free-flowing arguments, grew increasingly complex as we barked at each other. (“Everybody’s a genius improviser when they’re fighting.”) We paired off at random, one person “conducting” their partner’s sounds with motions that no professional would ever use. The experimentation culminated in an unorthodox orchestra. Everyone arranged themselves into a descending spiral (or an ascending one, depending on your vantage point); Misha sent various noises rippling through it, but on the way they were modulated in pitch, loudness and length until they became unrecognizable. I heard an unusually intense variation on those fake “forest soundscapes” dominated by hisses and shushes. I listened with eyes shut while participants strained to make the fastest and briefest sounds possible, as if they were demented beboppers. I balanced on a chair and joined the concentric choir in mutilating vowels, droning “I-I-I-I” and “U-U-U-U” like a skipping John Ashbery audiobook.

Was this avant-garde? It certainly felt uncomfortable at first, which is one way of answering “yes.” Compulsively slapping yourself or babbling wordless nonsense is what movie lunatics do. As the evening wound on, though, the universal humiliation had an ice-smashing effect. It was a mixed crowd, which fit the neighbourhood, and the bulk of that crowd was affable middle-aged people in sandals who looked like they might have signed up on a whim. Describing the event to our overseer, one lady said “you’re in both places at once,” simultaneously spectator and performer. I think that’s more radical than any of us realized at the time. The mercurial cacophony reminds me of what one character says about glossolalia in The Invisibles: “Everyone hears what they need to hear. The unconscious speaking directly to the unconscious. What kind of world might we make where such a language would be the common tongue?” But we never climbed very far up that tower and away from more practical matters. When I left an hour early, Misha was fielding ideas for a quieter “VOWEL” sign.

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