Two Sound Performances and a Few More Raccoons
Ean White, November 4, 1993, Mobius, Boston

This program of work by Mobius Artist [sic] Group member Ean White demonstrated his remarkable range as both a sound artist and performer. In work that is personal and political, analytic and theatrical, he creates a physical sound art, literally embodying his performances.

Employing a compact rack of instruments that included a short-wave radio, cassette player, digital delay, noise gate, and mixer; Airspace, the first piece, began with a pure tone generated by the short-wave radio antenna-as-theremin. Recently, White has been personally restoring the theremin as a performative instrument. Whereas in other recent work he has built a ceiling-to-floor theremin controlled by the moving body, in Airspace, with his right hand fading up the mixer, the left hand, held up, controlled the rising pitch slowly. There is an inherent grace to the spare hand movement as maker, director and deflector. As in most of the work this evening, the breadth of the sound was consistent with the scale of the performance: White’s attention and sensitivity towards details of utility and integrity were always evident.

Airspace develops with a mixture of live short-wave and prerecorded sound. Some of the sources listed in the program note include Bush’s illegal Radio Marti beamed at Cuba, an Eastern European State (sic) playing the Beach Boys, Christian broadcasting, and talk-radio psychiatrists. White is clearly pointing to the omnipresence of cultural imperialism, the political economy of ‘how a vast invisible soundscape has been carved up,’ and his own intervention upon the status quo. The introduction of these sounds, gated, panned, delayed, and combined with short wave noise, produces a yearning to hear them clearly, which subsides as White’s manipulation, juxtaposition and recontextualization of them increases. We hear the sounds as signals (signs) of the kind of information we can expect from them as White eventually singles out the talk-show analyst and caller, creating a dense, percussive apex out of their speech.

In a revealing note in the program states that “while constructing this piece my decisions had become colored, or clouded by seasonal depression syndrome.” In this light, effects such as gating, delay, and panning become metaphors for what we are willing to let in or pass through, the cyclical self-doubt which perpetuates depression and the dislocation and alienation that is felt. Yet the piece stands as an example of creativity presaging and answering a condition in a biopoetic way.

The ending, part of a pop ballad by a middle-aged singer, gated and combined with short-wave, is a kind of default setting, a median from which the culture divides. With its transient flickers of compressed, formulaic hope, it is a reminder of White’s search for light in a soundscape that is both rewarding sonically and oppressive programmatically.

Flowers and Wreathes, the second work on the program, was a trenchant, anti-war piece set to texts by the surrealist poet Jacques Prévert. White innovated an incredible array of sounds and instruments to explore sonically and theatrically, including a mouth transducer to amplify his breathing, the flossing of teeth and the knocking on his head: an “electric pickle,” whose discharges sounded like speaker distortion: sounds of mosquitoes and moths recorded in labs at Harvard and the University of Massachusetts. Other elements included a hydraulic chain [sic] attached to a set of bleachers, which at one point pulls the audience into the center of the performance space: and an approximately forty-foot long, amplified wire, infrasonic ‘monochord,’ stretched and played across the entire room. (Infrasound is a vibration or sound wave whose frequency is too low to be heard as pitch by the human ear.)

The texts were performed by Mobius Artists Group member Mari Novotny-Jones, who wore a dress with stones of slate sewn into it. The stones added benign, acoustic accents and slurs over White’s electroacoustic sound, as Novotny-Jones delivered the texts with varying intensities ranging from incantation-like monotone to full-scale drama. Her presence and focus were compelling, and balanced perfectly with the setting.

Although it is difficult, in retrospect, to criticize the specific relationships of the texts and their development throughout the work (they should have been included in the program), White’s and Novotny-Jones’ response to the themes of culture, men, and war provided a cathartic elixir. The monochord, in particular, deserves special mention. Whereas White had revealed it as a phallocentric image by mounting and riding across it during a poem about men, as the piece continued, it was left to vibrate, and the sound pressure was literally felt upon and under the skin. Bridged by a stool and strung across the entire room, its drone became the malevolent continuüm of time and war, and the men who create it (referencing military experiments with infrasound that vibrate and rupture internal organs). Obscured by the crescendoing monochord, tapes, and voices, the only word that filtered through was “war.” At the peak, the chain pulled the audience in the bleachers towards the center, a projection screen dropped suddenly in front of them, and slide images of headstones appeared in sequence. The ending was drawn out by the recording of a marching band playing part of God Bless America over the monochord, but when White finally released the lever suspending the monochord gently, we in the audience were left stunned, relieved, and enriched.

–Jed Speare, Pform 31, Spring 1994