The Music of Sound

Click, shriek, boom! Sonic collage artist Escape Mechanism cuts and pastes while aural trickster Lost in Translation slashes and burns

Lost in Translation's second set featured a duet with drum 'n' bass artist Substance P, and here Krause's loops and roars seemed most interesting. It was semimelodic like a kind of pleasant aural wallpaper, yet rough-edged enough to disrupt your conversation. Which is, of course, the entire point. "We play to conjure an atmosphere," Krause noted later, "not rock a party."

 

Lost in Translation is part of a long lineage of aural collage artists whose aesthetics can be traced to Luigi Russolo's 1913 essay "The Art of Noises," in which the Italian futurist insisted that classical melody and harmony had no place in the increasingly modern world. "[There is] much greater pleasure from combining the noises of street cars, internal combustion engines, automobiles, and busy crowds," Russolo wrote. Eventually that idea infiltrated the classical halls via John Cage's prepared piano pieces of the '40s and '50s, and invaded the rock world through '80s artists like Negativland and the Tape Beatles.

Today it can be heard in hip-hop-influenced "messthetes" like DJs Spooky and Olive. If Krause represents the noise-for-noise's-sake part of this tradition, his opposite is Escape Mechanism (Jonathan Nelson) whose eponymous debut is an ambitious mixture of pop-culture artifacts, classic-pop sequences, and comedic spoken-word bits. Where Lost in Translation is brashly confrontational, Escape Mechanism is carefully composed; he's more a quiet observer than an edgy antagonist.

Nelson proves to be as reserved and unassuming as his music is tasteful. Sitting in a downtown Minneapolis coffee shop, he speaks hesitantly before warming up to the notion of discussing his life and work. The son of an electrical engineer and a folk musician, Nelson lived in Dallas before moving north to Crystal and then Plymouth. Ironically, the seeds of Nelson's musical career were planted while attending a private Baptist junior high (which he declined to name so as not to "give them any credit"), where he was begrudgingly encouraged to pursue his longtime interest in photo collage. "I used to frustrate my art teachers," he remembers. "The Baptist school had a rigid, classical-based art department, and I'd do collages instead of drawing. After a while, they'd just accept them."

Around the time Nelson began gluing magazine pictures together, he also began playing around with his father's tape decks. "That's when I started making homemade edits using pause buttons," he says. "I didn't take it very seriously. Mainly I was just trying to amuse myself. I was bored and I didn't have any friends at that private school. Then when we moved to Chicago my senior year, I found myself in public school for the first time in years."

Finally fitting into his surroundings, Nelson played a tape of his experiments to some of his newly acquired friends, and was emboldened by their positive reaction. "That's when I got serious about it," he says. "I would rent movies and tape dialogue, using Radio Shack microphones. I went through my dad's record collection and found his Bill Cosby records, took stuff off those."

After a two-year stint at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, he headed to Chicago's Columbia College to use its state-of-the-art radio facilities. But city life grew tiresome, and he soon dropped out and moved to Duluth where he spent eight isolated months working on found-art sculpture, creating tracks, going to school and watching the lake outside his apartment turn into jagged planes of ice.

In 1997 Nelson transferred to the Twin Cities campus, where he began eagerly reinserting himself in the world around him. "I made a list of things to do," he says. "Join the radio station, write a book, put together enough sculpture to do a show, and finish the CD." Two years later, the book remains unfinished. But Nelson is close to getting an art show, he's just been promoted to production director at Radio K, and his Escape Mechanism disc is generating a local buzz.

Despite its avant-garde origins, Nelson's music, created on a digital sampler and a Macintosh Soundtools program, is surprisingly listener-friendly. Escape Mechanism occasionally strays into didacticism (does the world need another Jerry Falwell montage?), but, for the most part, it sustains a playful mood. The best tracks, like the acid-orchestral "Theme," the choir-hooked "Digital Occasion," and the echo-filled "Determined," evoke the smart, moody "beat concrete" of DJ Shadow. Unlike Krause, who takes pride in creating sounds you've never heard before, Escape Mechanism appropriates often easy-to-spot samples of everybody from Thelonious Monk to Mr. Rogers (who, in the album's most memorable moment, reassures us that "only children can fall down the bathroom drain").

"It's like a dream," Nelson says describing his sound. "You're hearing the upstairs neighbor's radio on top of a random conversation your roommate's having, mixed together with noises coming from the street. One sound influences the next. I try not to worry about using recognizable samples. It's meant to be a reflection of our culture, and how can you reflect what you don't know?"

It's like John Cage said: "With all the sound in the world, who needs music?"

 

Lost in Translation plays 8 p.m. Monday, February 22 at 7th St. Entry; (612) 338-8388. Escape Mechanism's music and manifesto can be found online at www.detritus.net/escmech.

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