Derek Morton has recorded acoustic guitars, electric guitars, even thumb pianos. Last summer, though, he spent an afternoon sticking a microphone into boxes of silkworms, collecting the sounds of mulberry-leaf-munching. Why? Art, of course.
The bugs belonged to Elsabe Dixon, a local artist who breeds silkworms to remind her of her native South African farm—and to use their silk in her sculptures. Before a recent exhibition, a McLean, Va., gallery went looking for someone who could create a musical complement for the show. Morton turned out to be just the guy.
“I’m a guy who likes to work with concepts, with ideas….I take a more cerebral approach to [making music],” explains Morton. “I visualize the music as sculpture, only instead of a 3-D thing that you can walk around, you’re listening to it in time.”
After beginning his musical career in the mid-’90s with the rock band Ex–Atari Kid, Morton became interested in more chaotic noises. He started using samplers to create music, and today he makes computer-based work both on his own and as half of the laptop-violin duo Microknytes. He also runs Techclub, a series of experimental gatherings to which fellow electronic artists bring various pieces of equipment, then interconnect them. Past events have featured guitar-effect pedals, modified toys, and homemade Game Boy software.
So for Morton, the silkworm represented just another offbeat instrument. Once amplified, the sound of their eating, he says, was “like the pitter-patter of rain.” When the creatures squiggled and spun silk, the noises were “similar to fingernails barely tapping on cardboard.”
With “Bombyx Mori Acoustic Interweave,” the performance piece Morton created for the McLean commission, the goal was to reference Dixon’s work in a “sound sculpture” that would stand on its own. For some works, Dixon coaxes her worms to spin across a flat surface rather than create cocoons; the result, as their output accumulates, “almost looks like paper,” Morton says. “There are many layers of these little sticky fibers. [There is] a pattern, but there was randomness, too.” “Bombyx Mori”—the title is drawn from the silkworm’s genus and species designation—is likewise a layered, manipulated construction built on the essentials of lepidoterous life. Morton modified his silkworm recordings—altering pitch, changing volume, applying echo, reverb, and other effects. Then he set about stacking them.
“When you multiply these individual layers, you can create a very interesting texture,” Morton says. And as the sounds get processed through his computer and manipulated, in performance, unexpected noises emerge, providing the piece with a chaotic element that echoes the randomness Morton sees in the silk “paper”—and forces him, in performance, to balance his skills in composition and improvisation.
“The piece isn’t going to sound like Mozart,” he cautions, “and it’s not going to sound like Brian Eno.” His goal is to put a listener “in an environment that doesn’t sound like anything [he or she has] ever heard before….It sounds like little silkworms are creeping around the room—and it sounds nothing like that.” —Matthew Summers-Sparks
Derek Morton performs “Bombyx Mori Acoustic Interweave” at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 21, as part of Collaboration, a new-music salon at Flashpoint, 916 G St. NW. For more information, call (301) 270-6240.