The basement of the Elks Lodge was steamy hot. Two hundred or so jammed into the dark, low-ceilinged room (complete with elk heads on the wall) to celebrate opening night of the Megapolis Audio Festival in Boston. It was an all-star line-up: The Lothars, Radio Wonderland, Die Schrauber, Boston Typewriter Orchestra and Peace. Loving. I stumbled in just in time to catch the last bits of Radio Wonderland’s outrageous and wildly eclectic improvised soundscapes made with homemade instruments and remixed live samples from local FM radio. The room was captivated and electrified as Joshua Fried staggered around the impromptu stage with boom box, bicycle tires, shoes and assorted electronic instruments. Although no one was dancing, it was an existential sweaty frenzy in the crowded room.
While the Typewriter Orchestra was setting up their complicated set (six typewriters all specifically miced, punch clocks, hole-punches, staples, telephones …) I grabbed a whiskey at the bar from the two burly but friendly bartenders. The vibe was good, and the crowd was delightful intergenerational, from a toddler yawning and rubbing his eyes on his father’s shoulder to the septuagenarians roaming around (were they audio pioneers?) including the oldster running sound for the performers. The whiskeys came in doubles, which I should have paid more attention to, but the atmosphere was celebratory, stimulating, electric.
The Typewriter Orchestra filed out onto the stage, all wearing white shirts and ties.
“How was your weekend?’” one asked the other. “Too short”. And so on, establishing the eclectic sound work as (albeit playful) critique of the industrial transformation of time into productive labour. The rhythms began. Whack. Whack. Whackety-whack whack. Ting! All six performers beating out a catchy strangely comforting and complicated percussive arrangement. Old tools of industrial labour transformed into musical instruments. A solo on the punch clock. A dazzling duet on two typewriters, cleverly arranged metal tings and tangs as parts of the typewriters were smacked, opened and closed. It was truly smile inducing. And the crowd responded enthusiastically. If there is a criticism to be had, it was that the subversive potential and acoustic power of the performances were underrealized. The longer the group played, the louder the crowd grew so that near the end of their set they seemed to be competing for the room. Their one foray into linguistic accompaniment was excellent, and I would have liked more. But these criticisms are meant only as encouragement.
By now, I was deep into the large drinks from the little bar. Outside in the smokers alley, I met Tom, a sound artist who moonlights for an environmental group in Upstate New York helping them transform their activist media messages into more sophisticated and ultimately appealing podcasts.. He was pretty excited to be in Boston, with some of his acoustic heroes playing the festival. His favourite of the night was Radio Wonderland. “Creative genius,” he said.
The Lothars took the stage, another orchestral arrangement – electric guitar, synthesizer, hammered dulcimer, chains (I think), cello.* These were sounds of a different order, at once soothing and disturbing, a kind of dark, spacey complicated jazz improvisation, a sound that grew like living vines in the room eventually entangling us hopelessly in a ever-tightening swirl of hypnotic imaginings.
I swayed to the bar for another drink. It could have been the whiskey, it might have been the gin … The sounds pushing in on me, churning unexamined emotional detritus suddenly given life and nourished. The Elk Lodge began to spin, the sounds tangling through me, pulling me this way and that … I left my last untouched drink with the doordude, and escaped into the cool Boston night, walking along the darkened streets homeward, under the blossoming cherry trees along Broadway, buoyed by the intoxicating night, oddly reassured by such a display of creative waters running so deep and so strong.
*Thank you to Jon B. for the corrections re instrumentation and as to which band I was drunkenly enjoying.