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Soft Core

A defense of a different live music experience

By Michael Byrne | Posted 7/28/2010

Filled with several hundred people, mostly lying flat on their backs or propped against the walls, the room was entirely dark--dark enough and packed enough that some kind of fire code was certainly being broken. The audience was still made to wear blindfolds, however, and if there was any practical way, sound artist Francisco López would have had people floating in sensory-deprivation pools as well. Before the sound came in, an electroacoustic gush so textured and filled-out that a listener could almost touch it, there was the kind of dead silence that made you afraid to shift your weight around or even breathe.

This concert happened in 2007 on the other side of the country, but it sticks in the mind more than perhaps any concert this writer's attended since, for the attention López demanded from the audience, and the attention it gave without qualm or even cough. The reward was a series of sonic affects, almost illusions--like a whirlpool churning in the air above the stage, or the panic-inducing sense of being trapped under a very powerful and malevolent sound. In any case, performances like this one are so far from the norm that you might have shoved López's blindfold in your pocket instead of returning it, as a keepsake.

There's nothing all that unique about what López does that makes it more worthy of careful listening. He is a very good and widely revered abstract sound artist, but not a sea change in anything. If you are going to a place to have the experience of music, though, then it follows that it is all worthy of careful listening. Would there be so much pure crap music in the world right now, from Bieber to Boys Noize, if everything we listened to we actually considered and not just ingested? What happened to the delicate, precise minimal techno, a sudden and widespread phenomenon just five years ago?

The answer is that dance music trendspotters mostly moved on to dubstep and club music, the stuff you feel in your body as much as you consider with your ears--music to party to, not merely dance or listen to. The performance world isn't prepared for music that is soft and considered. German ambient legend Cluster played in Baltimore a few years ago, and it sounded like a fucking cocktail party. Everything is getting louder, and it's going to keep getting louder. Just watch it happen.

But soft music isn't going down without a fight. Amanda Schmidt (a former City Paper intern) plays in a band called Avocado Happy Hour, which makes soft, lush, and dense melodic music in a similar vein as French artist Colleen. She also lives in a performance space in Baltimore called the Soft House, home to last winter's Soft Fest and this spring's mass performance of Terry Riley's In C ("The New Now," Feature, March 31).

"We [the four housemates] came to agree that 'soft music' does not refer to a dynamic level, a musical genre, or a specific set of instruments," she writes in an e-mail. "We decided that soft music is an intention.

"Soft music is not created to offend you," Schmidt continues. "Soft music is listened to with care and attention. Soft music is not created as background music, or party music. Soft music is, in many ways, an internal, or transcendent, kind of experience. So, that has been a guiding principle for us as we have arranged, decorated, organized, and curated events in our house."

By most accounts, it appears to be a successful experiment. Watching the In C performance, with attendees splayed throughout the space on layers of afghans, offered proof that people want this kind of experience.

Which is great--Baltimore has the Soft House as a refuge. It also has Mobtown Studios' regular "microshows" of ultra-intimate small-scale performance. The Red Room, a small room in the back of Normal's Books and Records with some chairs and a small stage, is arguably in this realm. If you go to the Windup Space for an avant-classical or improv jazz concert, you might expect to get a shush or at least a dirty look for chatting--and it's a bar. Maybe, just maybe, careful listening is catching.

"But aside from an unappreciative audience showing up for your show--due to inappropriate bills," Schmidt says, "there is a certain level of discomfort that is kind of inherently present at bar-type venues or neglected DIY venues: The place has that sickening old beer smell, there's nowhere to sit, it's generally pretty dirty, no one is smiling.

"And of course, when we all listen to soft music in our homes (or wherever it is), there is a very specific way in which we enjoy it. None of us would put on Brian Eno's Discreet Music and then listen to it in while standing in the middle of a cold, concrete room with our arms crossed. So, creating a comfortable atmosphere, one that resembles as closely as possible the intimate, welcoming, relaxed aspects of the ideal private listening environment, is what we have aimed to do. We wanted to create the sort of environment that we, as audience members, would like to attend, and the sort of environment in which people would best appreciate the musical intentions of a soft performer."

This is, of course, only one kind of listening--people are still going to get drunk as shit at a hardcore show and thrash around the room, or get totally filled by deep bass on a dance floor, and so forth. We go to concerts as much because we want to share music with people as we want to see an artist perform music. But there are other levels of sharing.

"[T]here are deeper, silent conversations among us when we smile and listen and lie down next to each other," Schmidt says. "And, in particular, there is something so incredible about a 'shared transcendent experience'--I mean, to experience something really inwardly beautiful, and to know that everyone else around you appreciated it too."

Avocado Happy Hour plays Floristree July 30. Dustin Wong plays the The Hexagon July 31 and Mobtown Studios Aug. 12. The Red Room reopens Aug. 5 for the start of "a month of surround sound."

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More from Michael Byrne

In a Lonely Place (8/4/2010)
Montreal's Arcade Fire shows its American roots on new album

The Short List (8/4/2010)

The Short List (7/28/2010)

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