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Wave on wire

In Microtones, our newsletter-first column.

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MICROTONES by Scott Gordon, editor-in-chief and publisher

A warm, mid-range droning sound greeted people entering east-side venue Art In on Wednesday night, emanating from a roughly 12-foot length of wire strung between two waist-high bookshelves, the kind you might use as a nightstand. A couple of clamps and small wooden blocks, serving as bridges, gave the wire tension. On one of the bookshelves sat an EICO Model 377 Sine and Square Wave Generator—an ancient-looking steel box with a handle on top—sending a signal that traveled through a couple of alligator clips and essentially told the wire how to vibrate. A small U-shaped magnet sat under the wire on one end, and a small monitor speaker sat on the lower portion of each bookshelf.

With this rather large, homemade-looking electronic instrument, Madison-based experimental percussion duo Filament was attempting to recreate composer Alvin Lucier’s installation piece “Music On A Long Thin Wire.” Filament also played a proper opening set Wednesday at Art In to open up for fellow Madison musician Tony Barba’s album-release show. As patrons came in, Filament members DeLane Doyle and Aaron Gochberg hovered around the installation (over near the venue’s bathrooms, across the room from the stage), making small adjustments to the EICO box and putting up a small handwritten sign reading “Please don’t touch the wire.” (Gochberg and Doyle said the wire would probably be a bit warm, but not dangerous.)


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Both Gochberg and Doyle had seen Lucier’s piece re-created before they formed Filament. In addition to composing and improvising their own work and playing work from other new-music composers, they want to create some of their own installations. They figured taking on “Music On A Long Thin Wire” would be good practice. Doyle found the sine-wave generator in an antiques shop.

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“The score is just a series of instructions, just the routing,” Doyle explained. “You take a tone through the wire with contact mics, and a magnet, and amplify it. The sine wave generator is going into the wire, and then the wire is being activated by the magnet, and then the bridges are picking up the sounds and amplifying it through the speakers.”

In that sense, the piece isn’t that different from an electric guitar, if you busted an electric guitar down to its barest essentials and left all the parts exposed. There’s a vibrating string, a magnet, and bridge pieces to keep the string at a desired tension. I asked Gochberg and Doyle how they wanted the audience to interact with the piece.

“I’ve seen it installed once before, and as you walk around, the way the sound reflects around the room changes in a slow way, just based on the space you’re in,” Gochberg said. “Sometimes it kind of just starts changing the sound on its own. I don’t know the physics of it.”

As we talked and as Gochberg and Doyle made some final adjustments, the droning sound did change, feeding back a bit and taking on slightly different harmonic shades. Doyle showed me how messing with the sine-wave generator’s knobs could introduce warped and wobbly sounds. But the interesting part was stepping back and watching the installation play itself.



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New this week:

Grant Phipps, Edwanike Harbour, and Jason Fuhrman reflect on their experiences at the 2019 Wisconsin Film Festival.

A Madison man says Republicans misleadingly edited his comments in a video about Tony Evers’ first 100 days in office.

On a podcast short, Scott Gordon and Shaun Soman take stock of the spoils of Print & Resist.

We talked with saxophonist Tony Barba about his adventurous new solo album, Ether.

Elsewhere on the Madison internet: The Daily Cardinal reports on a newly established Rastafarian church that’s giving out weed in downtown Madison. UW-Madison’s next Go Big Read book will be science journalist Deborah Blum’s The Poison Squad. Patton Oswalt has announced a July 10 show at the Orpheum. Lizzo has announced an October 10 show at the Sylvee.

This week’s Madison calendar: Red The Bully at Communication. Miyha at the Crystal Corner. Old Time Relijun at the High Noon SaloonAnd more.

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