It was not for nothing that Bluebrain ended up in our Best of D.C. issue: Inspired by the New York avant-garde composter composer Phil Kline, the participatory boombox performance the duo staged in Dupont Circle last year—-a 40-minute work for several dozen cassettes—-was arresting and perfectly chaotic; the debut album Bluebrain dropped in February, meanwhile, is lush, immediate, and often strangely sorrowful art pop.
The group, composed of brothers Ryan and Hays Holladay, has a second boombox experiment planned for Saturday, this one patched together from 3- to 5-minute segments created by a host of well-known local names: Brian Weitz, better known as Geologist of Animal Collective; Chad Clark of Beauty Pill; singer/songwriter Maureen Andary; Sockets Records head and Fatback DJ Sean Peoples; electrofuturist Outputmessage; Omega Recording Studio engineer Alfonso Bravo; DJ Will Eastman; and Bluebrain itself. All the music was created for the occasion, and will only heard once, under the cherry trees, which could make it the most bizarre, most unique happening occurring during D.C.’s most reliable—-and to some, most dreadful—-tourist magnet.
After the jump, the musicians share some notes on the music they’ve created for the Cherry Blossom Boombox Walk. The event takes place Saturday, beginning at 5:30 p.m. by the carousel on the National Mall (in front of the Smithsonian Arts and Industry Building). Bring your own (cassette-playing) boombox.
BRIAN WEITZ (Animal Collective):
A few years ago I got Buddha box when I was on tour in Japan. I’m not a buddhist, but I like playing the loops when I have to pack or unpack or get ready to move houses—-all things I hate doing and find really stressful. Last year my friend brought me back a Buddha box he found in China with 135 loops on it. Considering this is happening during the peak bloom of the cherry blossoms, I thought it’d be fun to make a piece sourced from the Chinese box. The idea of making multiple stems that can work together without being guaranteed to be played in exact sync is pretty similar to the last project I worked on in Animal Collective, so my brain was already in that headspace.
Being challenged to leave your comfort zone musically is a good thing. And my boombox piece is certainly a departure from the jazz, cabaret, and folk songs that I’ve made a career out of writing. I was asked, perhaps in more specific terms than the other musical contributors, to create a piece that centered around my voice. It doesn’t contain any decipherable lyrics and, more than anything, creates an ambience that might sound less like a human voice and more like something synthesized when played through many tiny speakers.
BERNARD FARLEY (Outputmessage):
When Ryan explained that, when working on the composition, we should take into account the fact that the tapes in the boomboxes will slowly go out of phase, I decided to run with the idea and aimed for a Steve Reich-inspired phased-loop piece.
I’m a minimalist at heart, so when Bluebrain asked me to compose music that was subtle and complimentary, it appealed to me right away. But the larger appeal to this project is the one-time experience of creating a microgeography of sound with a slew of D.C.’s most talented sound designers. There’s no telling how a sound or collection of sounds will translate from one space—-speakers and headphones—-to another, a series of boomboxes in a natural environment. So, aural experiments like these are crucial to discovering sounds that are different from what we get fed each day. Beyond that, the challenge, and most certainly the fun, is composing something complimentary to and distinguishable from the whole. For the past few years I have recorded/tinkered/discarded/rediscovered numerous sound experiments, including a good number of field recordings. This was a good excuse to rummage through these ideas of the past to find inspiration, then using Ableton Live to warp samples, layer notes, and get a sense of sounds in relation to some of these past experiments.
Composing this piece was a welcome challenge. As a dance-music producer, I focus on rhythms and bass; however, due to how it will be played—-on multiple boomboxes, perhaps out of synch—-instead of a melodic bass line, for example, I used a spiraling, pulsing tone. It was a pleasure to break out of my thing for a bit and work on something ambient. I thought about what the mall will look like April 3 and whether pieces are synced or train-wrecking, the stems are designed to bounce around with the collaborators’ elements, rise and disperse kinda like falling cherry blossoms, or throngs of tourists.
It’s been a fantastic challenge working under such strange parameters. The nature of the performance removes the comfort of dependable sync between the elements of the piece, and that’s not something you typically come across when composing music. It’s taking away a lot of our control, but that’s what makes it so interesting and, dare I say, fun. I’ve found myself taking a lot of inspiration from Shinto ritual music and taiko drumming, both because of the sparse and fluid arrangements and (predictably) because the vibe fits the Cherry Blossom Festival. I can’t wait to find out how it all sounds on the day of, but I’m especially excited to hear how my fellow contributors approached this.
CHAD CLARK (Beauty Pill):
On saying yes to Bluebrain: The two things I most admire about the Holladay brothers: (a) They’re not cribbing from anybody; and (b) they’re not waiting for permission. This is what ties them to a long line of D.C. musical mavericks and it’s why people are getting excited about Bluebrain. The Holladay kids are fully, fully, fully making it up right now. Right in front of you. Yes, there’s an element of strategy and design, but their form—-we all sense this—-is subject to change at any moment. And, as stylish and strikingly modern as they are, form is not the focus. The focus is on maintaining a component of FSU. There’s always a small measure of mischief in any Bluebrain gesture.
And love. Love is there, too.
Love for art, love for the community, love for D.C., love for sound, love for each other, love for the moment.
So, yeah, love and FSU are the two constants. Warmth and a bit of danger. A good blend.
And that is why I pretty much will say yes to anything they ask of me.
On Beauty Pill’s Contribution to the Cherry Blossom Suite: When I began composing this music, I had only one objective—-to earnestly make something lovely. I mean, come on, it’s springtime in Washington 2010. An historic health-care bill just passed. Rush Limbaugh is red-faced with rage, howling into a microphone somewhere. And I know the Empire will strike back at some point but, right now, all things considered, I’m in a good mood. Springtime and cherry blossoms and boomboxes and, yes, hope. So I see no cause to deny the moment of its intrinsic loveliness. I’m going Claude Monet. Whatever that means. Sparkly, metallic, glistening, shimmery sounds.