The Music of Sound
"I have this theory that, culturally, all good things originate in the Midwest." Having intimated this, local electronic-music agitator Jace Krause takes a swig of his third Guinness of the hour and grins conspiratorially. Sunk deep in a chair in the dark back room of the Loring Bar, the mastermind behind the blitzkrieg breakbeats and alien drones of his musical alter ego, Lost in Translation, grins coyly and leans forward. His wild eyes dart from side to side as he fires off a list of items to prove his point: the Coen brothers, the guerrilla comedy troupe Upright Citizens' Brigade, the Chicago post-rock record label Thrill Jockey. "You can fill in whatever names come to mind," he says. "But there's a lot of cool shit coming out of the Midwest."
Critics may soon be adding a pair of Minneapolis-based soundscapists to that list in the persons of Krause and Jonathan Nelson (a.k.a. Escape Mechanism), two twentysomethings who specialize in very different versions of what Krause calls "experimental music made by nonmusicians." Certainly their '90s musique concrète is some of the most intriguing noise to come out of the Twin Cities in recent months. And while Krause, a rock band veteran, and Nelson, a classically trained pianist, are in fact experienced musicians, they've rejected their musical backgrounds to embrace a DIY approach to pop-culture collage.
Which is basically where any similarities between the two end. The lanky, 29-year-old Krause is a wild-eyed radical who has a maniacal smile and an overpoweringly gregarious persona. Nelson is a tall, shy University of Minnesota cultural studies major with close-cropped hair and meticulously maintained sideburns. They've never met, they never perform together, and their sounds are diametrically opposed. Escape Mechanism's carefully crafted sound bites and familiar musical motifs on his self-titled debut are almost poppy, while Lost in Translation's feverish blurt is confrontational and intense. Imagine the latter as a kind of Public Enemy and the former as a De La Soul. Yet taken together, the pair present a fascinating study in the aesthetics and politics of one of the decade's ascending artistic genres.
Lost in Translation's side of the just-out "Premium Crack" split 12-inch (with Substance P) presents bracing, violent breakbeats--that is, looped rhythm tracks--and blotchy, overdriven bass tones that evoke an overheated vacuum cleaner. Whirling clouds of static circle through the mix, and a weird sense of uninhibited glee--a giddy Look, Ma, no melody! attitude--unites it all.
The debut release on Krause's recently launched History of the Future label, "Premium Crack" is just one salvo from the international "breakcore" underground promoted by labels like Germany's Digital Hardcore, Scotland's Diskono, and California's Vinyl Communication. Breakcore takes pummeling, ultrafast gabber techno and dirgelike drum 'n' bass, throws the mixture into a blender, and spikes it with loud fuzz and distorted sound effects. The result is a product that in some sense defies description while inviting metaphor: Imagine it as a robot's bombastic soapbox speech delivered over a bad PA system in machine language.
Krause is almost evangelical about the power of horrible noise. Discussing the scene he's part of, he practically lights up our dim table at the Loring. "Everything we've liked over the last 10 years finds its way into what we do," he explains, referring to his breakcore cohorts. "There's a lot of connections between extreme musics, and we're trying to bring those out. It doesn't fit any one place: It's too techno for the noise scene and too noisy for the techno scene."
Born in Chicago, Krause started getting into records at age 5. "My dad had a really nice stereo and a lot of old records, and I just dove into them," he says. As a teenager, he discovered hardcore punk and leftist politics, and eventually started studying a kind of homemade noise aesthetic--which he describes as, "one note played for an hour."
Attending college in De Kalb, Ill., Krause starting going to raves thrown by Milwaukee's Drop Bass Network. "At first, I'd just go into the chill-out room, because I was into ambient at the time. I hated jungle and gabber--I thought it was too fast." Here he stops for a second and grins. "Now, nothing's fast enough for me."
After college Krause abandoned his Amphetamine Reptile-style noise-punk band, Festering Rinyanyons, and followed his girlfriend Lita (now his wife) to her native Minneapolis, where he began work on Lost in Translation. The project took form in 1996, as Krause began to create the "droney lo-fi soundscapes" that have since morphed into the brutally hard music featured at a recent installment of Jitters' monthly experimental music showcase, The New Atlantis.
The hype surrounding Lost in Translation that evening packed the room with an occasionally puzzled, mostly attentive assortment of friends, scenemakers, and curious first-timers, and Krause's first set was by turns intriguing and frustrating. Manipulating analog sequencers, he unleashed loud sheets of white noise that occasionally revealed fascinating textures--an electronic wind gusting in from a metallic tundra. When the beats got going, the sound became groovy, if not exactly grooveful. Without the rhythms, however, the noise started to seem formless, like a snarling open radio channel to the underworld, and the crowd appeared lost. The formula, in a phrase: No momentum equals no fun.
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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