Someone’s gentle perfume opened me up to the similarly gentle sounds coming from the stage last Friday night at REDCAT. Not that it is hard to receive Tim Feeney’s micro sound worlds; it does takes patience and curiosity, but not in huge amounts. The concert consisted of a free improvisation with Feeney and his longtime improv partner Vic Rawlings, and the premiere of Feeney’s ensemble work Music of what happens.
Now a percussion artist at the California Institute of the Arts, Feeney has been involved in experimental music since 2002, composing, performing, and designing sound installations. He likes to draw attention to quiet sounds made by unconventional or extended techniques. Further back, he was a founding member of the percussion group So Percussion and commissioned David Lang’s The So-Called Laws of Nature, premiered at the 2001 Bang on a Can Marathon.
I enjoyed the free improvisation most; two people who have made something out of nothing together for that long can be hard to resist. Rawlings opened by dabbling with different static sounds coming from disembodied speaker cones, working at his electronics set up like a bored but diligent waiter entering orders into a management system. Feeney responded by steadily stroking the drumhead of a floor tom, keeping even time hand after hand, over a long period of time.
Sections seemed to be marked by Feeney pausing and selecting a new kind of sound to obsess over. A bristle brush pushed into the drumhead? Oh yeah. Bowing a tiny cymbal? Heck yes. At one point he picked up a long thin metal implement, waited for the right moment, held it to the drumhead with two hands, prayed, and then decided against it and picked up the bow and tiny cymbal. I laughed as silently as possible — what about the sounds at that moment made him change his mind? And so suddenly?
It’s very easy to feel silly about these quiet sounds, and much easier to be whipped into conceptual submission by sound musicians who deal in teeth-shattering feedback and bass. In order to focus and be productive day to day, we train ourselves to ignore the smallest sounds. It can feel ridiculous to buy a ticket and go to a concert to suddenly pay attention to what we ignore during the day. I found myself asking, are we really sitting in this hall watching adults make tiny noises? Using instruments in every way except for what they were built for? Thankfully the answer is yes, because regardless of the volume or the mode of production, Tim Feeney makes wonderful music.
The improvisation ended with a section in which Rawlings triggered the smallest sine wave beeps that miraculously created a major chord with the large cymbal Feeney was bowing. Feeney smiled and nodded (an endearing gesture he did often). After more moving-furniture-upstairs noises produced on his tricked-out cello, Rawlings turned to his electronics and snuffed out the beeps. A few minutes later, he brought them back as a special treat to end the music. A sweet little shadow of that major chord hung over those last beeps, and it was a perfect ending.
Music of what happens is a larger production, with six performers on various instruments or noise thingies (including, but not limited to, a set of tubes with bassoon reeds, viola da gamba, pieces of slate, and a hurdy-gurdy). The piece is a collection of hoped-for pieces — ideas for works Feeney jotted down during his travels but never fully materialized. Singer Jessika Kenney held a special place in the texture, often being met midair by a guttural sound from Cody Putman’s bassoon, or a hum from Cassia Streb’s harmonium. Magic entered the room when Kenney sung fragments of Irish sean-nós songs; it lifted the music above mediation into remembrance.
Perhaps I was swayed by the idea of travel, but each of these little sections began to feel like soundscapes of different rural roadsides. Waiting next to a strange forest, waiting next to an open field, or by a sentinel gas station between towns. Feeney’s sounds bridge electronic and organic, but his frequent use of improvisation and more open scores pushes the tendency towards the natural.