The Madison drone duo plays a Tone Madison-presented show on September 11 at Communication.
Madison-based musicians Dan Woodman and Emili Earhart began playing live shows as a duo in late 2017, after spending about a year holding weekly jam sessions in Woodman’s living room. Woodman is a veteran of experimental projects like the synth-and-tape-loop duo Drunjus and the mutant dub solo outlet Lens, and Earhart is a classically trained pianist who performed selections from Philip Glass’ Etudes and John Cage’s prepared piano works, among other material, in her recitals before graduating from UW-Madison’s music school, and has continued to work in Madison on her own solo material, and in bands including Jex Thoth and Cave Curse. (Full disclosure: Earhart is also a Tone Madison contributor.) The two didn’t necessarily set out to create a fully-fledged project, but as they played together, they realized they had a shared tendency to set up drones and feedback loops and “sit in it,” as Earhart says.
Woodman/Earhart, which plays a Tone Madison-presented show with Avola, Elrond, and Saint Saunter on September 11 at Communication and plays with Chicago’s Grün Wasser on October 2 at The Wisco, accrued hours and hours of tapes of improvised material before the two decided it was actually a going concern. Earhart would set up her Minibrute (a compact but powerful analog synthesizer) and Woodman would draw on his own collection of synths and pedals (which at live shows are sometimes tucked rather inscrutably inside a road case). They’d start playing without much of a plan, and Woodman would leave a blank tape rolling in his cassette deck to capture whatever happened. “That’s the way I like to hang out with people sometimes,” Woodman says.
Over time they started listening back and selected tracks for the two releases the duo has put out so far, last year’s Rose and Shore. Both releases move slowly, riding big swells of bass that gradually shift through different timbres, and surging around crackles of noise and whirring higher-pitched synth lines. Shore, also features some ecstatic guitar work from fellow Madison experimental musician Erik Kramer. Over time, Earhart has incorporated more of her classical-piano background into Woodman/Earhart. She was reluctant to do so at first, in part because she wanted the project to give her more time to develop her synth playing, and in part because she wanted to delineate it from the piano compositions she’s working on as a solo artist. But there is some warbly, watery piano captured on Shore‘s closing track, “Yours,” and piano has since become an integral part of the duo’s live sets.
While the two can record/improvise/drone out for hours at a time, Woodman/Earhart’s live sets are always brief—the longest they’ve ever played was around 20 minutes, and usually they clock in closer to 15. This might seem a bit contradictory for drone music, but it forces the live sets to have a definite arc, and doesn’t really end up cramping things. It’s also a smart response to the challenges of playing experimental music in Madison, which often means playing in places that are, you might say charitably, not set up with such a thing in mind, and where the crowd response could go either way. Most of the duo’s performances so far have been at bars including Mickey’s Tavern or The Wisco, and they’re able to pull it off without getting drowned out. If anything, they’ve embraced the close quarters and restless activity of these venues. Brevity and bit of structure (but not too much) can make a difference, giving the audience enough time to sink into something, but not trying anyone’s patience all that much.
“It’s almost a retroactive kind of feedback, where you’re like, ‘We just cranked out a drone in a bar for 15 minutes and people didn’t move, they stood there and watched, and they didn’t really react that much, other than to say that it was cool,” Woodman says. “Knowing that we can keep doing that in bars has kind of honed our style.”
There’s another healthy tension at work in Woodman/Earhart’s music, one between cultivating something deliberate and giving up control. In our interview, the two talk about music as something that’s already there to be discovered. It’s not necessarily a set-it-and-forget-it attitude, but a willingness to do some prolonged, deliberate listening and let sounds or specific pieces of gear run with things a bit.
“You might know what your gear’s gonna do, and what you have set, but it could totally interact in a different way in the air,” Earhart says. “But if you are manipulating it the whole time, you’re not going to really know what that interaction was. If you can remove yourself from letting all the sound do what you want it to do, then something I’m doing and something he’s doing is just going to interact on its own, and it’s fun to take yourself out of that.”
“It’s a continuation of what I’ve been doing for a long time, which is just to find a lot of drones, a lot of jamming with other people, and not doing very much,” Woodman adds. “Sometimes that’s with people that are doing a lot, and sometimes not. It’s been really fun to find out that Emili is also a person who’s willing to not do that much and sit on the floor and listen for a while and maybe change it or maybe not.”
The sound of Woodman/Earhart also evolves as the two swap out different pieces of gear with each other, and as the two continue to try and leave each other lots of space to explore. The duo is still sitting on a lot of home recordings, and has started tracking some proper studio material. They’re not ready to share all the details about that just yet, but for now they plan to continue making each show and each jam session a little different.
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