Ridden Hard and Put Away Wet

Mike Hallenbeck makes music in the watery world

Mike Hallenbeck
Immersion: Water Works
Insides Music

Mike Hallenbeck has a fascination with bunnies. No, not the busty ones in leotards and fishnets, but the pink-nosed furry ones that, as countless laboratory tests have shown, possess the softest ears in the universe. Since he was a kid, the thirtysomething musician has been collecting bunny figurines, which are now displayed in his cluttered dormlike attic bedroom. And, rabbitlike, Hallenbeck's collector's instinct has multiplied since his childhood. His need to hunt and gather has led him to amass more typically dudish things like Star Wars figures, useless and broken garage-sale finds, and, most recently, sounds of all kinds. He has a stash of pre-toddler toys that squeak and squawk, an old-school Casio VL-Tone microsynthesizer, and a still-unopened pack of walkie-talkies, a gift he received for opening a checking account.

From underneath the package of walkie-talkies, he unearths a tiny leather purse containing painted beads and a tiger's eye. "I'm going to use these someday, though I'm not sure for what," he says, bouncing the beads in his hand. For Hallenbeck, everything is a music maker.

For eight years, Hallenbeck was the singer-guitarist in the Minneapolis-by-way-of-Ohio folk-pop band Pimentos for Gus. After the group split up due to, as Hallenbeck says, "creative and artistic similarities," the studious-looking musician went solo and performed as Mike Merz. Now an audio artist and freelance theatrical sound designer, he's gearing up for his full-length debut of field-recordings, Immersion: Water Works, a collection of pieces built from location recordings of lapping, gurgling, and tinkling water.

"It's been interesting to experiment with liberating the sound from the confines of a song," he says with scientific coolness. "Which is not to say that I don't like songs anymore, but for a long time I've had that temptation to explore sound."

A transformative moment for Hallenbeck was getting a minidisc recorder, which allowed him to record the world's peripheral music whenever he felt inspired, like the time he was jolted from the couch by a snow shovel scraping the concrete. "There are so many musical instruments that sound like other things," he says. "In a way, I feel like this is cutting to the chase by recording the sounds the world is making in the first place. Water's my favorite sound," he continues. "Even a trickle or a splash of water." Hallenbeck is drawn to its tonal, melodic, and rhythmic sounds. One track on Immersion is more than 14 minutes of lake water lapping under a dock, creating a constant rhythm so precise it could never be replicated. "I recorded that for half an hour," he says, "and that's the sound it made the whole time."

More so than even Handel's Water Music or Bon Jovi's Slippery When Wet, this is watery music, and you probably won't catch the sound of thumping rain blaring from pimped-out Nissans cruising Lake Calhoun. ("Dude, bust out that water CD. We're at the lake! Let's get all meta up in this piece!") But it's not a collection of new-age nature sounds designed to soundtrack an hour-long massage, either. Hallenbeck set out to record water, not to produce it or turn it into mood music. "I try to let the sound tell me what it wants to do," he says.

Hallenbeck recorded various water sounds--pit bulls splashing in the Mississippi, raindrops on his front porch--using binaural recording equipment. Unlike stereo sound, which attempts to simulate hearing a live performance, binaural recording uses ear mics to reproduce the spacious and true sound we hear between our ears, vibrating off our skull. The technique is widely used by a number of field recordists as well as mega-producer Tchad Blake, who recorded both Pearl Jam and Sheryl Crow using binaural technique.

Like most obsessive field recordists, Hallenbeck hears music in even the most mundane situations. Sometimes, he admits, his acute hearing tortures him. "My TV makes this really high-pitched sound. It's kind of like when you go into a watch store, and you hear this sound that's almost so high you can't hear it. Most people can't hear it, and they think I'm crazy."

His desire to collect sometimes tortures him, too. He has gathered some not-so-cute dust bunnies along with his heaps of laundry, circus-themed objects, geek trinkets, and action figures. On top of a large speaker, the Human Torch from Fantastic Four is displayed. Even his girlfriend has her own action figure: Her picture is plastered to the top of a Popsicle stick.

"It's glitzy up here, isn't it?" he jokes. I eye a black T-shirt inscribed with "Give Blood. Play Hockey" that's used, along with a pillowcase, as a curtain. "It's a mess. Queer Eye would come in here and turn back around," he says. Maybe. But the dusty box fan and archaic window-unit air conditioner sure do make beautiful music together.

 
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