For most of this month, visitors to the Museum of Contemporary Art have been greeted by a low drone coming from somewhere north of the building's main hall. If it happened to be a Tuesday evening or a Saturday afternoon, they might've heard other noises—drumming, snippets of narration, fingerpicked electric guitar—weaving in and out of that drone. And if they followed the sound to its source in the McCormick Tribune Gallery—on the main floor, near the spiral staircase—they might've found one or more musicians performing to an audience of a few dozen.
But most of the time the entrance to the room is curtained, and no one's inside but curious museum patrons. Surrounded by 14 guitar amps and a pair of vintage reel-to-reel machines—each of which is playing a tape loop, tensioned by two mike stands, that's big enough for three or four people to stand inside—is a microphone glowing yellow. A beam of white, the only significant source of light, descends from the ceiling and passes near it. If someone steps up to the mike or otherwise disrupts the beam, the drone will subtly change until he moves away. Whether he knows it or not, that person will have just collaborated with local experimental duo White/Light.
Northwestern law student Matt Clark and sound engineer Jeremy Lemos have been playing together as White/Light since 2004, creating transcendentally loud and densely psychedelic drone-based instrumental improvisations. In early 2007 they performed at an MCA exhibit by Terence Hannum (who's half the Chicago drone duo Locrian), and soon they got to talking with the museum's curatorial staff, who'd liked their music, about a project of their own. Their MCA installation, Untitled, which opened March 6 and closes this Sunday, arose from a concept they came up with about two years ago.
"The original idea was way too expensive and logistically impossible for the MCA with the budget they have for that gallery," Clark says.
"It was insane," Lemos adds. "It would have cost $10,000 . . . "
"A day," Clark finishes.
That idea involved a room full of blinding white lights with 120-decibel accompaniment—a setup that would've required visitors to wear ear and eye protection. With the help of the museum, Clark and Lemos scaled it back. Clark (who was briefly signed to Capitol as the guitarist for Ambulette) likens MCA curators Tricia Van Eck and Michael Green to label A and R reps, in that they guided the creative process by telling the band what they could and couldn't pull off.
Onstage White/Light use mostly electric guitar, electronics, and shruti box—a hand-pumped reed organ similar to a harmonium. Untitled uses similar instrumentation: the discordant drones on the tape loops are built from layers of analog synthesizer, shruti box, and melodica. One tape loop is four tracks of low-register sounds, the other eight tracks of midranges and highs, and two samplers each add a looped guitar. Each track or sample runs through one of the 14 amplifier rigs arranged around the walls. The amps are all on loan—the speaker cabinets from Chicago manufacturer Emperor and the amp heads from Victoria, a Naperville company that makes what Clark calls "the Rolls-Royce of Fender clones." (They're using VIC105s, built from old ammo cans and fitted with transparent faces to reveal the glowing tubes and LEDs inside—which the company has switched from green to white in honor of the band.)
The drone's discordance is purposeful, created by a combination of factors: the synth tracks are slightly detuned from one another, the reed instruments were never perfectly in tune in the first place, and the listener can experience additional pitch disruptions (both psychoacoustic and actual) caused by moving relative to the 14 sound sources. Because each part of the composite piece comes from a different amp, the interference patterns created by the tones' intersections are extremely complex—the sonics of the installation have a spatial richness that few stereos or even PA systems could reproduce. Walking around the room is like pushing faders on a mixing deck up and down, emphasizing or subduing different elements and changing their interplay.