Memphis Concrète Festival: Making Synthesizers Weird Again 

The Memphis Concrète Festival brings a weekend of strange synths to Crosstown Arts.

Jamie Harmon

The Memphis Concrète Festival brings a weekend of strange synths to Crosstown Arts.

Just up the river from Memphis, in 1944, one of the first compositions known as musique concrète was presented, The Expression of Zaar, using manipulations of wire recordings to create an audio collage independent of the sources it was based on. The composer was Halim El-Dabh, and while he was closer to Memphis, Egypt, than the Bluff City, it's somehow fitting that by the 21st century, his approach has gained a foothold in Tennessee. Nowadays, of course, synthesized sound permeates nearly every genre, but it generally owes more to the tradition of disco or synth pop. Yet the tradition of musique concrète lives on as well, and Memphians will get a heavy dose of it in this weekend's Memphis Concrète Festival.

It may come as a surprise that most of the festival's acts are local or regional. While Tav Falco combined synthetic noise with rock-and-roll as early as 1979, a torch now carried forward by the NOTS, the textural (as opposed to melodic) use of synthesizers among locals has otherwise remained under the radar for most labels and media. But Robert Traxler, who organized the festival, found that once he began looking, an entire world of such artists emerged. "You start talking to people, and it kinda snowballs," he said. "I'm hearing so much stuff that was completely new to me. And some of it just right here in town. You may not see them a lot, but you know there are more people out there than what you see firsthand. So a lot of my drive was to find people that are in fragmented scenes and bring them together."

Traxler notes that, out of more than two-dozen acts, "the majority are from Memphis." Even among these local acts, "the variety is pretty exciting. You have some ambient, drone, experimental dance music, noisier stuff, and some that's more abstract. A lot of different artists representing different subgenres." Among the Memphis acts, >manualcontrol< is arguably the best known and the most original, with a reputation for completely extemporaneous performances that solicit much audience participation. This is partly due to their unique human/machine interface, relying on light-activated audio processing rather than keyboards, which responds to both the performers and audience movement. Other locals range from Nonconnah, who purvey ambient textures using effects-laden guitars, to the beat-driven approach of Qemist. The latter act is associated with Rare Nnudes, a homegrown label whose growing profile is another indicator of a more robust Memphis scene.

What surprised Traxler most was the variety of artists emerging from Mississippi, including the noise textures of Pas Moi and the edgy dance sound of Argiflex from Cleveland, Hattiesburg's NEPTR and Division of Labor, Jackson's Blanket Swimming, and Oxford's Ben Ricketts, who is also known as a more traditional singer/songwriter. Beyond our neighbor to the south, look for artists from as close as Nashville and as far afield as Virginia. Pittsburgh's snwv (pronounced "sine wave") is notable for his generative, systems-based approach, which sets up sonic layers that interact according to loose parameters that evolve independently.

This "generative music" can also be experienced in one of the free exhibits that open each day of the festival. Saturday's exhibit, called "You Are Standing in a Room," involves a feedback system based on noises from the surrounding space, which processes and re-processes them into new sounds that gradually amplify the room's particular overtones. Traxler himself developed this for the festival, inspired by the work of experimental composer Alvin Lucier. Sunday's free exhibit, "Hand–>Ear," while not premised on any particular conceptual approach, will feature a theremin (the world's first electronic instrument, invented in the 1920s) and various materials connected to microphones that patrons themselves can play and process with effects.

Finally, Saturday's grand opening will include a screening of Forbidden Planet in its entirety, with the original score replaced with compositions by Traxler and other collaborators. While the original dialogue will remain in the mix, scenes without dialogue will be re-imagined with the new music performed in real time. All in all, it promises to be a unique event for Memphis: an ambitious weekend of experiments for the aurally adventurous.


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