In Wynwood last Saturday night, the streets were overflowing with random bits of energy, from the insect car parade driven by camera-ready hairdos gelled into disarray to the less-fastidiously disheveled imbiber barking loudly at a guard dog: drink in one hand, 90-proof antagonism in the other. Stepping out of the car on 23rd Street, there was a buzz and crackle in the air: it emanated from the grid of electrical transformers in the power station that eats up part of that block.
Around the corner, outside the Harold Golen Gallery on 2nd Avenue, the energy had organized into a semicircle of smiling spectators focused on a bearded, stocky man in a yellowish plaid shirt, spitting into a microphone. That man was Adam Matta, human beatbox extraordinaire. Armed only with a microphone, three effects pedals, and his mouth, Matta fired off a barrage of raw hip-hop beats, layering the expected drum sounds with scat syllables and an echo-laced trumpet straight out of fusion-era Miles Davis.
The show was part of the The Street: Festival of Electronic Music, Art, and Performance. Presented by the FETA Foundation and organized by Juraj Kojs during Art Basel, Matta was part of the Saturday lineup that concluded the three-night event. The down-to-earth Matta’s approach is simple and employs a loop pedal—a foot-triggered device that allows the performer to record a few seconds of audio, play that back in a loop, then layer more audio on top. Matta uses two of these pedals and has perfected the art of manipulating them along with his voice to produce a seamless, evolving rhythm.
Like its cousin turntablism, beatboxing often disregards the suggestions of equipment manufacturers. One of its characteristic sounds is the loud, low-pitched burst of noise that happens when you breathe or make a “puh” sound directly into a microphone. In “normal” usage, that sound is something that a performer would want to avoid, but in beatboxing, what might be seen as a limitation or defect of the equipment gets utilized as an important part of technique.
Another performer at Saturday’s event, Taylan Cihan, employed a more anarchic approach to this sort of technological subversion. Bent over his homemade synthesizer—a little red box covered with black knobs—the musician touched metal nodes with his fingers. That human contact inserted his body into the synth’s sound-producing circuit, radically altering the sound in unpredictable ways. The sonic results weren’t pretty: the soundscape was an abruptly shifting collage of chain-saw buzzes punctured by the occasional ear-splitting squeal and the sort of low ominous rumble that marks the territory of hirsute men on Harleys.
But pretty wasn’t the point. The idea was just to play around with the sound-producing capabilities of electricity and see what happens. Cihan said he rarely knows what his music is going to sound like, and the overall impression was akin to a giddy mad scientist unleashing the hidden forces of nature.
The third act of the evening was the FIU Laptop and Electronic Arts Ensemble (FLEA)—FIU students Kyle Motl, Brian Del Toro, Daniel Yellin, and Ricardo Lopez—who stood facing the sidewalk, each with a laptop perched precariously on an individual stand. In one piece, the performers followed a set of written instructions by professor Jacob Sudol to electronically manipulate the recorded sound of a gong, generating subtle variations on a single, evocative sound. The performance provided an unexpected, meditative background to the busy activity of the street, as if a mystical presence had emerged half a block from the vacant lot of food trucks, its aura protected by the four men transfixed in the glow of their laptop screens.
The laptop performance got me thinking about electricity and the difference between analog and digital. In the digital realm, computer hardware is carefully designed so that software can see it as a collection of switches that are either on or off, one or zero. The electricity has been tightly bound into little boxes. That control enables all kind of magic like the Internet and the smart phone. But in the real world of analog continuity, electricity is disorderly and messy just like we are.
Across the street, several graffiti artists practiced their renegade street craft inside a large open gallery, embraced by the commercial art world. Had they been digitized?