Last winter, on a night of music sponsored by the U of M Spark Festival at the Nomad World Pub, a man in a white lab coat gyrated convulsively around a MacBook Pro, pulsating a freakish miasma of European house music while a projection of campy 1950s sci-fi bathed him and his setup in a sepia-tinted crackle of imagery. Taking the stage later would be Cepia—the decidedly calmer and more stationary Huntley Miller on laptop. No one in the considerable crowd seemed particularly concerned about the time. A lone drum kit with various electronic implements sat silently onstage as if waiting to be triggered into life.
The scene was a microcosm of a genre and a method of music that itself showed up late in the history of composition. Though electronic music has thrived in its various forms as augmentation to popular music, alone it is still often considered a cold, stark, and alienating genre for new age Dadaists who consider Dostoevsky's Underground Man a likely acquaintance.
"I've heard it described that way a lot—getting emotion out of something cold," says Brett Bullion, an accomplished drummer and electronic musician who plays and records under the name Tarlton. "I guess I would just point out that a guitar is not any less cold than a drum machine. It just depends who's operating both things, you know?"
Once part of the acclaimed electronic trio Tiki Obmar, Bullion is one of a few artists around the Twin Cities who have left behind the traditional guitar-based band dynamic for an insulated world of Moog synthesizers, looped patterns, patch bays, and complicated microphones. Much like fellow drummer Martin Dosh, Bullion uses rhythmic improvisation to not only propel but accentuate his music, hooking dizzying time signatures into looped and sequenced soundscapes.
"The thing that all of my favorite producers have is—they just feel, and they put all of that feel into their tracks and just make you want to listen," Bullion says, further adding the studio space to his list of instruments because in such a setting, "by using certain gear in certain ways, you can alter the mood you're actually in." As with an accomplished cellist or guitarist, sometimes it's difficult to tell which element, player or instrument, is controlling the relationship.
"I certainly get in a mood when I have an analog synth going through 10 reverbs," Bullion says, as if that were a perfectly normal thing to say. Like many electronic musicians, Bullion relies partially on the German-made music sequencing program Ableton, which helps in constructing tonally modulating patterns by "triggering events" both in the studio and in live settings.
"I use whatever tools are going to represent my emotions," he says. But what if the tools still can't quite convey the right emotion? Simple: change them.
In a small rented room in a house somewhere in Minneapolis, Andy Voegtline is circuit-bending, creating what fellow Minneapolis bender Ryan Olcott of FoodTeam and Mystery Palace refers to as "frankeninstruments." Circuit-bending involves rewiring various electronic instruments and even toys to produce what Voegtline says are "sounds that are outside the existing groups." Voegtline's own prized possession is a formerly punk-oriented guitar to which he attached a small patch bay generator which, when fed through a number of loop and distortion pedals, can create a collision of synthetic and very non-guitar sounds. The distorted instruments have a shelf life—Fisher Price's simple tones aren't really made for smashing into each other—but their delicate nature adds to the uniqueness of their use.
"In circuit-bending, you just have a lot of unpredictability," says Voegtline. "Because it's not meant to do what it's doing."
Voegtline is a classically trained drummer and composer who became interested in the grimy, slightly wrong-sounding tone of "putting a connection where there was not one earlier." Floating somewhere above his apartment workshop strewn with keyboards, soldering equipment, and an array of patch bays, including one made out of a cigar box, is a poster of the family tree of jazz. Voegtline's percussive skill allows him a place among those branches, but he reaches out to a genre that is still disconnected.
Yet there's something right about this wrongness, these disparate sounds for desperate times, because human emotions are incongruous and unpredictable, too. Everything depends, according to Bullion, on how that emotion is expressed, both live and in recordings.
"It doesn't matter how much stuff is available," he says. "What matters is that people are working really hard at it."
Bullion eventually got behind his kit that winter night, electronic tones pulsating and ricocheting against his labyrinthine beats. An event had been triggered. He, too, had a live projection of video images bathing him in strange colors, although these evoked travel and momentum, and were analogous to the movement of his body as he leaned into the drum kit, feeling the notes and creating a warmth that radiated into the cold metal around him.
TARLTON will perform at this year's Spark Festival on THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 19, at BEDLAM THEATRE; 612.341.1038