The Fifth Dimension of Sound

David Manson doesn't look like the kind of guy who would mess up your ears. With his neatly trimmed blond hair, sensible shoes, sturdy belt, and pleated khaki pants he could be a model for clean-cut middle-class America; his trombone could be a holdover from any of a thousand Midwestern high school marching bands. But don't expect this composer/producer/trombonist from Tampa to break into a fight song anytime soon. He is standing by himself under a spotlight at the Surreal Subtropics Marathon, the kickoff event for South Florida's annual Subtropics Experimental Music Festival, a pep rally for those less interested in music -- and its power to express, soothe, or rouse -- than in the simple fact and shape of sound.

"There are four elements of sound that we all know: duration, intensity [volume], timbre [color], and pitch [frequency]," says festival director Gustavo Matamoros. "There is also a fifth dimension: the ability of sound to carry information. Abstract carries very little information. It is talking about itself."

Yet Manson's trombone is as mournful as any Bourbon Street solo. As Manson jiggers the plunger in the instrument's mouth, the air sizzles; when he extends the slide to full length, a foghorn blows. Here is the foreboding and desire we have come to expect from brass. And something else. A machine is playing Manson's phrases back at him; the clear lines of his real-time playing overlay a resonant computer-generated echo. All that breath is being blown through circuitry and exhaled a second time. Is the pathos we're hearing a true expression of Manson's emotions? His eyes after all are screwed shut, his apple cheeks squinched. Or is it just the trick of a switch? The output of a binary code? The sequencer blinks.

When Manson finishes, violinist (and New Times art critic) Alfredo Triff begins fiddling with his own black box, prepping the technology for his performance. Sitting alone on a stool, he too invokes the blues, plucking his classical instrument as though it were a Mississippi Delta guitar. His left foot taps in a lizard-skin boot; his violin swings. Once he has established the melody, and repeated it, and repeated it again, each time sinking deeper and deeper into an erotic swamp, Triff leans over and presses a button, adjusting his machine. Now he bows the melody into fragments, broken apart by feedback. But still there is drama: the interruption of an ache, pain building to climax. Then Triff presses the little button a second time. The swinging melody we heard in the first section, however changed, returns. At the end of a dark journey, we have come back home.

Somewhere in the middle, Triff's performance is interrupted by the samba rhythm of a Cingular wireless phone. "I know this is an experimental music festival," Matamoros gently chides the audience afterward, "and you feel like participating, but maybe later." He doesn't really press the issue; part of the point of the event is to draw attention to the arbitrary lines drawn between those sounds we consider music and those we don't. "Not to be too resistant," jokes composer Lou Mallozzi, who follows, "but if you have cell phones or pagers during my piece, you can turn them on."

Then comes the kicker: "Just don't answer."

It is one thing to listen to music; to trace the processes that manipulate our feelings; to suss out its feints and postures. It is another to succumb to the manipulation -- to respond.

Seated at his machine, his back to the spectators, Mallozzi mediates the fragments. Matamoros joins him, his bow poised above his instrument, the saw. On a chair front and center, a woman squares off against a music stand, her eyes squinting intensely. The silence is broken by static, then the sampled sound of a man's gasp. Time passes. There is a second gasp, quickly followed by a third. Matamoros draws out a high-pitched sound. There is a fourth gasp and a fifth and then the woman begins reciting a poem, describing in a steady voice human tableaux: "four people sitting and talking together." Manson emerges from behind the curtain, wailing through his trombone. Four people sitting and playing, but not together. There is no intended harmony or counterpoint. There is nothing to hear but hearing itself.

And then there is Needle. In the dark, the face of the final performer is illuminated only by the glow of his Macintosh; the upside-down apple on the laptop lid is the most vibrant life form onstage. Needle's eyes never once leave the screen. His finger scratches frantically at the mouse, as though unattached to his motionless body. There is a throttling. Then after a while a zipping. Then sometime later a popping. There is a sound like footsteps walking a long, highly secure underground hallway. An actual child in the audience moans in his sleep. Tones stretch. Tones contract. His finger scratches at the mouse. His eyes never leave the screen. The lights come up. He closes the lid on the laptop and leaves.

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Celeste Fraser Delgado