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A homeless man’s voice filled the First United Methodist Church. “Jesus’ blood never failed me yet,” he sang. It was like you could see him in a crackling black and white film, his face dirty and unshaven. “There’s one thing I know, for he loves me so," he continued, the scratches of the recording bouncing off the pillars and stained glass.
After a couple of loops, the Ohio University New Music Ensemble began easing its way into the song. One by one, different instruments blossomed: violins, an upright bass, a cello, a guitar, a xylophone. It was a steady progression, obscuring the beginning and end of the song. A climax for the piece never really came before regressing soundly back to the homeless man singing alone. His voice faded out and the audience clapped, but only when it knew there was not a trace of him left.
That piece, "Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet," composed by Gavin Bryars, was one of many that Aaron Butler found a calming intrigue in. Butler studied music history and literature at Ohio University and since has found himself a comfortable place in the Athens music scene. Percussion is his specialty, but he likes to do unconventional things with it. Butler is creating contemporary classical music.
“It’s kind of foreign to our culture and people don’t really think classical music as being something that’s existing now,” he says. We’re sitting in the music library of Glidden Hall on a Friday evening in spring. Few, if any, other people are in the building. Books are scattered and stacked in a half circle around Butler: some for music history, others full of compositions.
Through projects like the Ohio University New Music Ensemble, Butler aimed to bridge the many gaps between centuries worth of musical trends. The nobrow.music.collective, an “amorphous” band that is “whatever it needs to be at any given moment,” according to Butler, is another means to make more sense of the timelessness of music and sounds.
After all, nothing would exist now had it not existed before. There’s a certain chain of influence that happens within music and because of that, there is always an essence to a sound or song that is larger and wiser than what it appears to be. Butler and his collective look up to composers, from Brian Eno to Karlheinz Stockhausen to John Cage, who have communicated that idea best.
But despite the fact that this realm of music may be unfamiliar to most people of the present day, Butler and Nobrow’s intent is humble: to simply make its presence known. “We’re not trying to teach people something or enlighten people,” Butler clarifies. “We’re just trying to play this cool music and think that there’s more relevance than people might see."
That relevance manifests itself in slow sounds, some more complex than others. Butler points to Eno’s Music for Airports as an example. “[There are] things that are happening at such a wide interval that you kind of get lost in them,” he says. The piece, released in 1978, was one of the first coined as “ambient,” with reserved sounds--both acoustic and synthesized--fading in and out over the course of 40-some minutes. As minimalistic as the piece is, the effect is stimulating.
On the other side of the spectrum is someone like Stockhausen, known for his abrasive--perhaps even discomforting--compositions, full of disproportionate and misplaced electronic buzzes and hums. His impact on music composition was controversial yet undeniable. Take The Beatles’ “Revolution 9” for instance, a nightmare-esque blanket of noise and voices. Without Stockhausen, that concept for a song would have been but a passing notion for John Lennon.
Whatever shape the sounds take, their long strides make it both easier and more difficult for the mind to latch onto. It takes a certain mental discipline to join them wholly, but once the avenue is there, it can sweep up the listener.
“If you really want to enjoy it, you have to really give into that sound. The slightest thing can distract you from it so you have to be very active in your focus of it. But once you let that happen, the way things kind of come together and pull apart, it almost is like...you can experience that note for a really long time,” Butler says. “It’s like you can experience it like you can experience this. It’s like you’re in that sound and you can look around and hear it from different angles and shift your attention.” His hand gestures like the sound waves he speaks of.
For music like this, live performances are key in rousing the listeners. Butler tends to practice a kind of humility in order to ease the artistic hierarchy that inevitably comes with playing music. When that barrier between performer and audience crumbles, the art is not lost.
“I think people are more likely to fall into the right mode of behavior depending on the piece that they’re hearing if you’re just honest about it and not trying to make yourself like, ‘I am here and you are there and I am the artist,’” Butler says. “You can feel honesty in presentation of art.”
Typically, classical music is performed in a certain kind of venue. You know the one--where a thousand suited-up ladies and gentlemen shuffle into a concert hall and take their place on red velvet seats. They must be on their very best behavior--no sneezing or coughing, and certainly no talking.
But Butler believes a nontraditional setting suits the performance of these compositions best: in a bar or a coffee shop--places where the fateful sounds of the outside world are welcomed. “If there’s some extraneous noise from the piece, then ultimately that’s part of the experience of that piece now and that’s fine,” he says.
For instance, it happened to be a very windy day when I first listened to "Why Did Absence of Light Disturb Him Less Than Presence of Noise," a James Joyce-inspired piece Butler wrote and recorded. From inside, I could hear the crunchy leaves scooting across the pavement. Fast winds made their way through a narrow gap, creating a ghostly whistle, loud and distraught, while the neighbor’s chimes knocked into one another. It was difficult to tell what was in the recording and what was happening in real time. It all became a part of it, and the music allowed that.
Fast-forward to late fall. Butler, along with Greg Becker, Joey Van Hassel and Turner Matthews form the collective one night at Factory Street in order to perform John Cage’s “Four4.” The piece, which is 72 minutes long and the fourth installment of Cage’s Number Pieces, must be performed by four people (hence the name). The performers are able to choose their own sources of sound and decide when to start and stop them based on Cage’s particular time-bracket.
“There are opportunities for the performers to somewhat shape their performance and make these decisions, but ultimately the form is there,” Butler explains.
At Factory Street, Butler, Becker, Hassel and Matthews, each with a table of unusual instruments and sound makers before them, took to the four corners of the open room. A puddle of people lay with blankets in the middle of the floor while others rested on the wood benches tracing the walls. Most everyone’s eyes were closed, which allowed for a different kind of listening experience. “Maybe sometimes you don’t really understand where the sounds are coming from,” Butler says.
The sounds occurred sparsely, simultaneously working hard and hardly working to fit just right with one another. From one corner of the room came a roaring thunder, produced by a thunder sheet, one of Butler’s favorite instruments. “It’s interesting to listen to because it’s always changing if you really, really listen to it. The way the overtones work, it can be unpredictable,” he says.
From another corner, the soft hum of a fan blew on chimes while rice slid around on a wood block, resonating like a tribal rain stick. Water poured into itself over and over again and an electronic harp glided back and forth. A drumstick brush scratched the skin of a drum in slow circles. All of this happening over the course of 72 minutes left a lot of room for meditative imagination. The pictures forming in between the listeners’ ears were as pure as daylight.
“The combination of those sounds and the resonance of the room creates different sonic illusions of combination sound,” Butler says. “So everybody is listening really intently and they start picking up on all these subtle sonic phenomenon.”
Because of the passive essence of “Four4,” silence is inevitable. In fact, silence is cherished, a scientifically deliberated moment of time that is just as important as the audible sounds.
“[Cage] figures in where he wants silences to happen,” Butler says. “So in the middle, there’s this really great section that there’s no opportunity for anybody to make sounds; everybody is waiting, so they create these sections where everybody’s been listening really intently to these super soft sounds, and then hopefully is still listening just as intently in this silence.”
Again, foreign noises are welcomed. An audience member coughed; a couple more walked in late, their coat arms swooshing against their bodies. A few fumbled around on the floor and cars drove by outside. “You hear those and now those are framed in the piece and become apart of this piece because everybody is still intently listening,” Butler says.
But what does that silence mean for the performers? What an odd sensation it must be to be performing in front of an audience, but not actually playing anything. For instance, Hassel had a 30-minute time period of silence, when he was just sitting there with his hands in his lap, his gaze forward and down.
“I think you learn a lot about yourself in those sections...you’re just not doing anything and you’re really focusing, almost meditating,” Butler explains.
Nobrow has performed “Four4” in other cities as well, one of the most special shows being in Atlanta, Georgia, where about 80 people gathered in a warehouse to hear them play.
“How many times are you in a space with 80 other people and nobody is making a sound? There’s something awesome about that,” Butler says, excitingly.
In pieces like “Four4,” it’s important to think not about what silence lacks, but what it creates--what doors it opens for music and the mind. To fully enjoy silence is to connect oneself more freely to the world, to soak in every moment rather than escaping from it. Most often, people tune themselves out with music, and while that pastime is well respected, it may also be overindulged.
Silence is unpleasant for many people. It is not socially acceptable. However, what Butler calls a “comfortable silence” does exist--a moment in time where no one feels the need to say anything or interact with one another. With moments like that comes the ability to listen more intently, to be more aware of one’s surroundings and the people in those spaces.
But the question remains unanswered to some: what is music? Is silence music? Do the spontaneous sounds like the ones Cage and Sockhausen have composed qualify as music? Or are they just noises lost in a transaction between performer and listener?
For Butler, there is not a doubt in his mind that these pieces are music. He uses Cage’s definition of music as “organized sound” to support his thought. “If you accept that any sound that you listen to is a sound, then yes it’s music,” he says. With someone like Stockhausen, the lines are foggier but the intent remains, especially during a live performance.
“Is it music? Sure. Is it just music? Maybe not,” Butler says.
Ultimately, however, the decision is up to the perception of the listener, which was one of Cage’s main directions in creating the pieces he did. “If you hear a telephone ring and you answer it, it’s noise. If you hear a telephone ring and you listen to it, then it’s music,” Butler explains on behalf of Cage’s thought. “So [Cage is] projecting the decision onto the listener. So if you hear this as a signal for you to make some action, then it’s a noise that tells you to do something, but if you just listen to it, then it’s just as much music as anything else.”
The issues become even more complex when one considers how difficult it is to use language in order to describe music, particularly pieces like “Four4” or “Telemusik” by Stockhausen. Perhaps our language--words like “melancholy” and “minimalistic”--is too simple, placing a work of art inside a chain linked fence of definition and dooming it to both meaningless critiques and praise.
“[Cage] doesn’t want sounds to have to pretend to be some other object or to project emotion on a sound...For whatever reason we project our emotions onto it. So that sound doesn’t need to be anything other than it’s just a sound. Is it an interesting sound or is it an uninteresting sound? We get rid of a lot of baggage listening when you can just break it down that way,” Butler says.
Rather than trying to dissect every note and what it means or how it feels, perhaps it’s best just to let it be what it is. Does that mindset threaten the emotional attachment we as people have with certain kinds of music? Maybe we cling onto it to make it our own, or maybe we prefer feeling disconnected. Or maybe that doesn’t really matter either.
“You leave that emotional language away from it and just enjoy it,” Butler says.
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