Reinventing the Venue: A Tale of Chance in the Urban Night

In a Persian fairy tale called the Three Princes of Serendip, the heroes undertook brave quests that were diverted by unexpected discoveries. Though the royals didn’t meet their original challenges, they found useful things, fun things, silly things. The story instructed its reader to pay attention to the journey, to take your eyes off the prize, to find value in strange, new places. Like those Persian princes, the Austin digital music scene stumbled into an exciting venue last Thursday (July 10, 2003) thanks to a set of nearly daunting circumstances.

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A valorous man named Josh Knowles (DXM) sought to produce a show that would showcase Toytronic, Musik Aus Straum (MAS) and Merck’s hottest DJ’s in the freaky and magical land of Austin, Texas. For weeks he and his band of organizers toiled away making preparations for the show to take place at the IDM friendly club, Texture. Just as Knowles’ sleepless nights and tireless work was about to culminate in the show, the evil IRS put the smack down on the club owners and POOF! Texture closed its doors forever. Little did Josh know that this apparent setback would guide the show to a venue that would add power and interest to the performance as it elevated the music to a new level of interpretation.

The new venue, Gallery Lomabardi, hides by the railroad tracks on Austin’s Westside where warehouses used to be filled with hippies and artists, and now house hip art galleries and restaurants that serve exotic dishes to the IT-aristocracy. On one side of the railroad tracks, through open garage doors, the gallery invited the audience to climb up the concrete foundation of the building and peruse the fun ceramic sculpture inside. A little way down the building, Knowles and his crew had set up tables and equipment on the black and white checkered loading dock. Above the table, they projected parts of a Church of the Subgenius recruitment video. Speakers sent sound over the street and beyond the railroad tracks.

First, Richard Bailey (a.k.a. Proem) gave an energetic performance to the small crowd huddled uncomfortably on an unused railroad track that ended in a mound of large pointy gravel. One of Proem’s pieces evoked a Devo sort of feeling with its zooby bass and calculated random melody. As he ended his time he produced a rhythmic clacking that reminded me of a train going down the track. He let out a high pitched synth cry that sounded like a whistle and then grinded to a slow, dissonant soundscape where he stopped.

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Beyond the rusty iron tracks, the City of Austin Power Plant sign seemed to run on the sound of bugs hissing and chirping as the letters buzzed alive in red neon. The sign, flanked by smoke stacks and framed by power cables faced out toward its children–huge office buildings in downtown Austin outlined in gagillion watt lights visible from space. Immediately across from the gallery, nature stretched every vine to reclaim the lampposts and fencing. Kudzu wrapped around the wood poles. A massive yellow front loading tractor and real-live train engine tried to escape Kudzu’s reach as they rested by the street.

As Josh Knowles (a.k.a. DXM), took to the tables he was sweating through his black tee shirt in the Texas summer night. DXM’s sound has a pleasant 80’s European electronica influence. Watery, shimmering melodies feel bright and hopeful like drinking a cup of strong tea with lemon, light but forceful. A reliable beat manifested toward the end of his time that got sexier and sexier and then stopped. What would a bright and hopeful sexy mix sound like? We’ll have to keep listening to him to find out.

DXM’s somewhat abrupt ending coincided with a pack of yellow pedi-caps, or bicycle rickshaws peddling through the center of the show, which was after all, 3rd Street. Their motion through the center of the show reminded the crowd that they were out in the street, by the railroad tracks, under the moonlight, surrounded by the sounds of frenetic bugs and toads.
Tilmann was in his element performing outside a gallery. His new book of pen and ink illustrations, Figures 15-40 was numbered and available for purchase alongside the CD’s and vinyl. The black block prints evoke feelings of mystery and things left unsaid, a lot like Tillman’s music.

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A plane flew low overhead as Tilmann allowed one singular beat to push a loop of sound forward like a swirl regenerating. Dark heavy sounds allowed tones of movement and mystery to rise from underneath of it. Errant noises rang up breaking the darkness. Scooby Doo-esque scary synth bells resolved in beat breaks that conjured an incredible trick: it seemed that Tilmann had called a train to come.

A massive, yellow, Union Pacific train-engine roared by us. An interminable number of dusky cargo cars followed. Tilmann seemed to try to communicate with the train, with low, loud noise. Just then, some smart person (possibly Thomas Fang) turned the projector onto the cargo cars whirring by. A clip of baby faced puppets beating on an old puppet shone eerily onto the train as it moved in the direction of the red power plant sign. There were so many dynamic elements working together at that moment–the train, Tillman’s hybrid industrial music language, the lights of the city–we experienced a delight, a serendipity that we never could have known if the show had taken place in the safety of a club.

The Texas summer heat reminded us all that we weren’t inside the cool security of a club or lounge. Adam Johnson performed as the crowd moved their bodies to receive even the slightest relief from an errant breeze. Johnson’s techno break beaks and complexly dissonant melodies affected me viscerally. I felt dizzy from the ambient grooves that blended with the heat and the smoke from a long overdue clove cigarette. Still, each moment Johnson’s music made me resign the expectation I had placed upon him the second before–without warning, a surprise might roll by, moving to the rhythmic bass of this producers work.

Hot and tired, I relented to Mr. Projectile’s performance. His multi-layered production spoke to the dynamic of the cityscape, so many unique beats scurrying in multiple directions. His sound was calm, but energizing. Reassuring mellow gongs enveloped jagged beats, like shards of a broken glass bottle nestled within soft tufts of intrepid city grass.

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Either consciously or unconsciously, the organizers of this event employed their experience working with the Austin Museum of Digital Art. All of the performers except Adam Johnson had played before during one of AMODA’s increasingly popular showcases of digital art. Setting the show at a gallery gave haloed context to each performance. Because we attended the show in an “art” venue, it was easier to allow the circumstances and setting of the show to juxtapose and create a more complex experience. The DJ’s were able to take the heat, the pedi-caps, the police car, the planes overhead, the train, and communicate with them, comment on them, and produce music that felt completely vital to the urban landscape.

  • Kristin Harrison

    (Digital Dramaturg and Performance Theorist)

  • Photography by Ginny Blocher
  • Extra Photos courtesy of Matthew Arnold

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    Links ::

  • MILES TILMANN (Toytronic/Sub:Marine/CR&D)
  • ADAM JOHNSON (Merck/MAS/Parotic)
  • MR. PROJECTILE (Toytronic/Topscore/Parotic)

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