Music » Music Feature

Lucky Dragons Is People

At the LA duo's shows, the crowd becomes the instrument.



Lucky Dragons are a band, but they're more than that—they're an art project, a social experiment, a magic show. The LA-based duo of Luke Fischbeck and Sarah Rara use an unconventional setup that works to dissolve not only the barrier between performer and audience but also the barriers between audience members. Rara sings, dances, and delivers vocal incantations, and either band member might play a simple flute, a melodica, or handheld percussion; Fischbeck often tends to a laptop on the floor. But for the last half of a typical Lucky Dragons set—part of an ongoing project the band calls "Make a Baby"—the crowd creates most of the music, controlling the output of the computer via a neon hydra of yarn-wrapped cables that sprawls out of it and sprouts wands of braided tin and dried seed-pod shakers. There's even a small pile of rocks that can be played like a theremin.

Lucky Dragons have designed the wands so that people have to touch or hold hands in order to play them. As audience members make and break contact, drones burst into scintillating chords and new notes drop in and out. Everyone in the human chain that forms around the wands becomes a resistor in an electrical circuit, and Fischbeck has written a program that turns the input from this constantly changing circuit into music.

The rocks cover the converter box that the wands and pods are plugged into—a piece of hardware that can double as a sort of sensor, able to respond to disturbances in the magnetic field it creates around itself. Practically any object will "play" it if waved in the air close by, and rocks have an especially strong effect. Most people don't pick up the rocks, though, instead simply moving their hands in the air over the pile—it looks they're conducting or playing an invisible synthesizer.

Every version of "Make a Baby" is unique, determined by the way the audience participates. The performances are nonhierarchical, free-form, and welcoming, and they're unlike anything else coming out of the underground right now.

With Lucky Dragons it's not like going to go see a band that plays on a stage, does the songs by rote, and maintains a certain distance from the crowd. With you guys the audience has a hand—literally—in shaping the sound. How did you develop this participatory approach?

Rara: Our main focus is often on the social contract between people gathered in a space and between ourselves and the institution or venue. The show either challenges or reinforces or exaggerates the expectation of in-concert behavior. But what is the expectation of how to act in a concert? It's not a fixed idea—it's something that is discovered through the action of the show—a social contract that is fleeting, an agreement that changes, that is questioned, but is always malleable and subject to alteration. The audience always had the power to change the course of music; we didn't give it to them. We just acknowledge that capability in a direct way.

What attracts you to making music the way you do—with that direct acknowledgment of the audience's power?

R: It comes from the way I've come to define music over the years. What is music? Music is generous. The rules are fluid. Any question can be asked and solved for a moment, even if a single solution never sticks. Any situation can be improved or destroyed by sound. Music is all-ages and nonexclusive when it works—it can bring together people in conversation that would never otherwise interact. It's in the world at the same time as it creates a space other and new. Music highlights proportions, relationships, structures, moods—things that guide the way we perceive, the way we know, the way we act. For me, music is something looming in everything, it's unavoidable. I could do music in another way, but the core questions would most likely be the same.

Fischbeck: It's portable, inexpensive, easily reproduced, scalable, and transferable. There's a pretty good distribution network, the tools are standardized, or at least made up of standardized parts that can be arranged in simple ways to do new things. It can be casual and immediate, or steadily forceful, relying on existing forms. . . . I guess these things could be said about both live and recorded music made the way we do.

You say the rules are fluid—what are the rules for Lucky Dragons?

R: I guess in each performance the rules are redefined, and perhaps we could relate the ideas of rules to a "tuning" system. In each scenario there is a limited set of tones or sounds, and a limited number of ways to produce those sounds. We are generally trying to balance levels of harmony and dissonance, individual actions blending together or becoming more distinct both aurally and socially. The sound is not a metaphor; rather a sound and an action are inextricably linked, which is perhaps what gave way to the simple design of our instruments—something held, something that must be a bridge between multiple players to be played, something shaken, something floating, something touched, a space moved across, et cetera. . . . Some rules I give myself are like an open-ended game: find the resonant frequency of the room and hover there, crawl through the legs of anyone standing with their arms folded, look each person in the audience in the eye one by one from left to right, sink into the ground while singing, bounce a sound off the ceiling and wait for it to come back, leave something on the ground and see who takes it.

Can you explain how Lucky Dragons' music works? It seems like you guys play laptops, a rigged melodica, and dried beans or pods of some kind that are connected to the laptops by what looks like yarn. People in the audience affect the music by waving their hands over rocks, or by touching either these wandlike things or the person who is "playing" the wands. It's more like magic than music when you see it.

F: We play with electrical fields—passing out rocks for audience members to move around in the fields, or passing on the fields by touching one another on the skin to change the amount of energy in a field. Then we translate these small changes into sounds using laptops that are running software that we made. The software's not that complicated, it's just specific; anyone can download the software from our website and make their own Lucky Dragons if they want to. We take the idea of direct democracy from [Joseph] Beuys—a performance that is a conversation. From [Allan] Kaprow we take the idea—that's also in John Dewey's writing—of art's power being located within shared experience. Both these approaches suggest to us a larger promise—that art can take the place of a state, of nations, as a connected world open to free participation among equals.

How did this process with the rocks and shakers and people holding hands come about? Like, did you think, "How do we make people hold hands?" Or did what you built beget that?

R: What's most important is the social interaction, the engagement, the chance interface with strangers—so we figured, why not start with that? Make the specific arrangement and attitude of the people the source of the sound, the thing that structures the music. It's still an odd thing playing "Make a Baby," something that I never fully get used to. Can I touch his arm? Can I say hello? How far apart are we? Where am I? What are we doing? Who's over there? Some of the instruments are a kind of joke on technology or dumb magic—somehow the rock synthesizer and the computer are equated. Our shakers come from the most common tree in our neighborhood, a Brazilian gold medallion tree. In many ways the instruments are anti-"gear"—why would I want to buy dozens of guitar pedals? I loathe shopping for music gear. There's so much out there, and for a while we were working from whatever materials we could find on the street—it's a zero-budget orchestra of instruments.

What's it like to make music in Los Angeles—as Carol Muske-Dukes put it, "a city whose main industry is the serious production of illusion"? How do you make real art in illusion city?

F: I was reading about a public-health research project asking for suggestions of what a "placebo for art" could be, so they can do a proper statistical experiment to see what the effects of public art are on public health. Something that appears to be art and seems to have the same effect, but lacks some crucial mechanism that would deliver the real thing. I think this is an amazing idea, though most people I talk to about this think it's a joke, or that it implies a deep misunderstanding of either art or science or both. I think what it does is establish a basic assumption that there is such a thing as "real art," something that irony has made it very hard to admit—anything can be art, even its opposite, right? LA, as you maybe know, is not a very ironic place—there's no sarcasm. This gets me in trouble for my sense of humor. Even illusions are literally produced—it's a place of actuality. Nothing is accepted as a stand-in for its opposite, and I really like that.   

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