WORDS: LAURA MCINTYRE '17, STAFF WRITER
Daniel Fishkin’s Concert, World Music Hall
A machine. 2001: A Space Odyssey. My friend’s yellow earplugs, at one point. Helicopters circling above a patch of land, their blades whisking a dust halo into night clouds. Absolute uncertainty. An experiment. These are the tidbits that come to mind when I think of Daniel Fishkin’s Transcriptions concert last Tuesday, October 28th, much more so than “instrument”, or “rhythm” or “music”. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
2:30 pm: Text messages are exchanged. “I’m thinking I want to go to this concert tonight, wanna come?”
“Daniel Fishkin. Donno beyond that.”
At 8:55 pm my friend and I meet at the intersection of paths between our dorms and walk to World Music Hall.
9:10 pm: Four men in black dress file in for the first piece of the concert. Their conformity draws attention to the thing that doesn’t conform at all: the instrument, the “Lady’s Harp”. It juts diagonally across the stage and is 18 feet long. Its shape is that of lines, sharp edges, gaps, strings, triangles, metal, X’s, little wooden blocks. There’s nothing smooth or round about it, unlike, say, a cello or violin. It reminds me of a machine. I’ll call it Sal.
The men each have different ways of interacting with Sal. They’re collectively responsible for initiating the first sound, but after that, it seems as if Sal is able to perpetuate her own noise.
9:25 pm: The sounds haunt the room. They fill the music hall, expanding into the space like a growing ghost. In them I find both the instrument and the machine: there is sometimes softness and subtleness, other times industrial clanking and chain sawing. Either way, it’s eerie.
9:30 pm. I’m transported to 2001: A Space Odyssey, in a large movie theater, with loud audio. I picture the scene towards the end when abstract swirls float amidst a black void. At one point I can make out a star constellation, at another point a baby drifting in an amniotic sack. I’m always just utterly perplexed by this point in the movie. Sal’s sounds are perfect for it – the way one morphs into the next, the strangeness of it, the volume that often pierces the ears.
9:32 pm: My friend slips in his earplugs.
9:37 pm: I don’t even know which of these four men is Daniel Fishkin. Is he even here? Where’s the human controller? Why does Sal seem so powerful?
9:42 pm: The men recede away from Sal, and they watch as she continues to make noise without human aid. Gradually, she becomes silent, and the lights dim away. The first piece is over.
“What the hell is going on?”
9:58 pm: The second piece of the concert takes place downstairs. People sit in the dark on the floor and stand like sardines along the periphery of a cave-like area. We look at two boxes positioned on the far side of the cave. Daniel Fishkin later tells me they’re oscilloscopes - “they're old lab equipment that also double as a beautiful instrument.” The top of each box has a bright screen, one blue, one green, and above each screen hangs a string with a microphone attached. They’ve replaced Sal.
10:02 pm: I hear helicopters. That reverberating sound when they’re pretty close to the ground, and they drown out everything else that might occupy the airwaves nearby. I imagine the furniture rumbling, the lighter fragments on the carpet rising into the air, as dust and debris in a desert might when a helicopter descends.
10:14 pm: The two machines suddenly fall silent. The helicopters disappear out of the cave. Next on the program is a piece that’s supposed to last one second. We, as the audience, are directionless sheep, waiting for this third piece. We don’t know what to do with ourselves. Someone speaks up: “I think there's some uncertainty about the one-second piece and whether it actually already happened.” Apparently it had.
10:19 pm: The fourth piece is back upstairs. A group of five men and women in black are already seated in a semi-circle on stage. They’re machine-like in how organized, purposeful, motionless, emotionless they are. Funny how they seem to know exactly what’s going on when everyone watching them gives off the opposite impression.
10:23 pm: One drum and four rocks rubbing against violin bows. It turns out later that they are in fact daxophones, and are made of a wooden block and plank, attached to a bow, which can then be struck to make sound. The rocks against the bows make a smooth, scratching sound. Or it sounds like something falling from the sky. Or like someone taking one long gasp of air. Or a crying wolf. A motorcycle revving down a motorway. A balloon being blown up. Someone's growling stomach. The moan of a dog. A kettle on the brink of boiling point. When played together, it sounds like New York City rush hour on a busy avenue.
10:40 pm: When I leave World Music Hall, I’m so completely confused. But maybe that’s okay. Maybe the sounds don’t need to make sense, and maybe they don’t need to be melodic. I think about a conversation I had with my roommate just a few days before Fishkin’s concert.
4 days previous, 4:45 pm: “Bebe, I’ve changed my definition of music.” Bebe and I sit on the carpet in our dorm room. She sketches hands and feet shown in a photograph for a drawing class while I sort papers into folders marked with post-it notes. FKA Twigs plays in the background. “Before I got to Wes, music was very purposeful, you know? Every song had a rhythm. And music was supposed to be pretty, like appealing to the ear. And then I got here. And now I’m listening to stuff that has none of that. Sometimes songs are just lots of sounds, put together. It can be jarring, and it still counts as music. So, music is kinda a lot broader than I thought. Maybe it’s more like an experiment.”
11:20 pm: I bring up Daniel Fishkin on Google. Google will soothe the uncertainty, right? His website reads, “Daniel Fishkin’s ears are ringing. Composer, sound artist, and instrument builder. Completely ambivalent about music.” An interview with him is titled, “Q&A: Daniel Fishkin, Mad Scientist of Musical Instruments.” Daniel refers in the interview to the instruments he uses as “machines”. Suddenly my reactions to the concert go from seeming uncertain and uninformed to rational and aligned. Fishkin, perhaps, wanted it to be an experiment. If so, he pulled it off, with instrumental beauty yet mechanical precision.