Breaking Your Sound Barriers #6: Extend Your Technique

Breaking Your Sound Barriers is a series of blog posts related to the upcoming Sound Edge Festival, which takes place from February 10th - 18th in locations all over Birmingham, including Seasick Records. This piece comes courtesy of Lee Shook -- a fine writer, DJ, and the host of The Audiovore on Birmingham Mountain Radio. He also created the Spectra Sonic Sound Sessions.

Out of all the formative experiences I’ve had in my life that opened me up to the inherent possibilities of music, I often think back to my mother’s opening of her Steinway Grand when I was a small child to introduce me to the sonic wonders of the “guts” of her prized piano. A classically trained musician with an incredible ear and wonderful facility on her chosen instrument, who instilled in me from a very early age an interest in classical composers like Bach and Beethoven, she also made sure that I knew that there was more than one way to go about “playing” the piano – that some of the most interesting sounds didn’t come from the keys at all, but rather the strings attached to its innards that resonated so beautifully when she would light up our home with pieces by Chopin and Rachmaninov. 

Perhaps realizing that a child’s inquisitiveness towards the instrument could be tapped more broadly and effectively by providing a kind of blank canvass with which to paint, she made a point of introducing me to methods of performance and playing that would far outstrip my young mind’s ability to comprehend their meaning beyond just pure sound. Regularly lifting me up to the lip of the piano’s sides and encouraging me to play the strings in sweeping motions like a harp, or just bang on them with my bare hands to create deep, thunderous and foreboding sounds with the dampers left wide open, she quickly overran my senses with some of the most powerful sonic impressions that would not only change the way I thought about music, but continue to resonate well into my adult life and later listening habits. Quickly adding to our arsenal with the use of adapted materials like coins, combs, and rubber bands, which she would let me place in and around the steel wires to create muffled, clinking percussive noises, my pre-adolescent brain became enamored with the abstractions, falling in love with the incredible racket I was being allowed to summon from deep within its black wooden frame. 

And although I didn’t realize it at the time, what my mom was doing was essentially introducing me to the work of some of the 20th century’s most radical musical minds — and more specifically the work of composers Henry Cowell and John Cage — and some of the revolutionary techniques they introduced to the world that would go on to be deployed in new and exciting ways by some of my favorite contemporary artists going well into the new millennium. Commonly referred to as “extended technique,” Cowell’s “string piano” and Cage’s “prepared piano” methods — along with a host of other subversively original compositional approaches — would help usher in over a century’s worth of artistic development that helped free musicians from the intellectual confines of shared wisdom about the limits of both sound creation and overall instrument repertoire, and open up vast new sonic landscapes with which to explore their creative impulses. Essentially deconstructing and redefining the very meaning of what it meant to “properly play” an instrument (in this case the piano) — or even what constituted an “instrument” in the first place — the influence of composers like Cowell and Cage would far outweigh their household name recognition, as musicians from around the world would not only take up their mantle, but apply their philosophical underpinnings to other sonic sundries and noisemakers. 

And whether it was a young Frank Zappa using a bicycle as a multi-use sound generator on The Steve Allen Show in 1963— where he plucked, beat, bowed, and blew through various parts of the bicycle’s frame to generate various sound waves and timbres — or Sonic Youth’s later application of drumsticks and other various objects to the fretboards of their guitars to produce howling feedback and percussive interludes (themselves influenced by Glenn Branca’s symphonic “guitar armies” and the music of Rhys Chatham), Cowell and Cage, along with a few others, were pioneering terrain that would wind through almost all of contemporary music in both the 20th and 21st centuries. From brass saboteurs like John Zorn and Colin Stetson, to the drum dissections of Han Bennink, Z’ev, and Wilco’s Glenn Kotche, the reimagined guitar workouts of artists like Adrian Belew, Marc Ribot, and Birmingham’s own Davey Williams, the avant-garde tendencies of keyboardists like Sun Ra and John Medeski, and even the vocal acrobatics of people like Shelley Hirsch, Bobby McFerrin, and Faith No More’s Mike Patton, without the inspiration of Cowell and Cage much of today’s music would be a lot more boring, or at least a lot less sonically expressive. And for that, I at least, am thankful. 

But I’m even more thankful to my mom for having the foresight to open my mind to their seemingly wayward and enigmatic approaches at such a young age. Because although it wouldn’t be until high school that I discovered the names of the composers who had brought me so much playful joy as a child, their influence was undoubtedly felt throughout my burgeoning listening career as I unknowingly groomed myself towards appreciation of their work as the years flew by. And whether it was listening to the bowed guitar of Jimmy Page on “Dazed and Confused,” the work of AMM and Cornelius Cardew, or the recombinant rock of DNA, all of it in some roundabout way worked itself back to those early lessons – that the potential to create was limited only by the boundaries of your imagination. And that is an education you can’t put a price on.

The Sound Edge Festival continues tonight with Waves of Woodlawn -- a weird-music street party happening on the block of 55th Place South and 1st Avenue North. Live music begins at 7pm and it's FREE!