Above the Threshold

A real-time novel for the sonic age.

Wooden Indians

by Primus Luta

It was testing his patience, or more precisely, challenging his tolerance.  Lil’ Man of course knew the name Raymond Scott just like anyone who knew anything about J. Dilla did.  But you don’t learn much about a man or his music from just a sample.  The jazz band and orchestra stuff was new to him.  Scott wasn’t just a technologist, he was truly a musician.  But the work he did as a musician, no matter how fascinating it was musically, for Lil’ Man just couldn’t be separated from extra-musical things.

Scott it would seem was a product of the racism of the era.  Lil’ Man wouldn’t go so far as to call him a racist.  In fact as much as he’d call him a product of it, the name change and nose job proved him also a victim of it.  But the way those racial overtones eased into his music made Lil’ Man very uncomfortable.

On screen an animation shows Scott’s writing process with the band.  It sounds like it is from an actual recording session.  The animated characters make it seem lighter in mood than it should be.  But if this was how Scott worked Lil’ Man is impressed.  He plays licks on the piano, passing them off to each of the players, no score no transcription, just sharing sound concepts.  Something about it reminds Lil’ Man of sampling.  He wasn’t working with notes, but with sounds, and using the band to arrange them much like one might use an MPC.  It’s engaging to watch, but still he can’t shake the racial overtones.  From the story of the two indians Scott admittedly makes up to conceptualize the song, to the final product “War Dance for Wooden Indians” it is a testament to an American social context that even today, Lil’ Man doesn’t feel that far removed from.

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*call me*

by Primus Luta

“Are you coming?” Lilo whispers in Gisella’s ear.

The panel has shifted to the classic digital versus analog debate, but everyone is so non-commital about their opinions it is hard to call it a debate.  Gisella is mildly interested.  She looks at her watch and it’s 4:45.  If they got on the train right now they would make it in time for the first performance of the Oceans of Noise show out at Littlefield.  But she’d really like to connect Lilo with Laurel Halo.  Despite Lilo’s seeming indifference Gisella believes they have a lot in common musically.

“We just got here,” she pleads. “Can’t you wait just a little longer?”

“I don’t want to miss anything,” Lilo insists.

“But COH is not on until later,” Gisella says.

This infuriates Lilo.  She sees Lil’ Man sitting there next to Gisella focused on the panel.  She doesn’t want to be jealous, but having waited all afternoon for the two of them, she’s fed up.  Then she’s angry at herself for trying to come down on her friend’s happiness.  But that happinss is at the expense of her own right now.  There is no way she will miss the opportunity to see her favorite noise artists in one place.  No way.  Shaking her head at Gisella to keep from raising her voice over the panel, she turns to stand and walk out.  Gisella reaches to stop her.  Lilo turns her head mouths, “call me”.

Somehow Gisella knows she won’t.  Not tonight at least.

There are drops of sweat on her lashes when Gisella finally opens her eyes.  She looks at Lil’ Man who is smiling like a man who knows he’s done good. She smiles back licking the presperation off her upper lip only slightly suggestive.  Lil’ Man notices but turns to give an nod to Chancha for keeping her there with him on the dance floor.  Only two other ladies, who probably arrived with Chancha, could keep up with the cumbia influenced rhythms.  It didn’t keep others from moving to the beat, but even with her eyes closed, Gisella knew they had been the center of attention.

“Let’s go get some air,” she says into his ear before leading him through the crowd.

As they walk down the corridor where people are still waiting to get in, Lilo comes behind them from the back room.

“Oh my god,” she says.  ”I don’t know who’s on now, but whoever was doing the last set in the back room just made my night.”  There are more people outside waiting to get in and small groups gathered in nicotine circles.  ”You missed him playing Madonna.”

“No way,” Gisella replies as they walk toward the curb where she recognizes Praveen and Sougwen.

“But did you see Dave Q voguing behind his laptop?” Praveen asks over hearing Lilo’s enthusiasm.  The guy standing next to him responds by striking a pose.

“Do you know Dave?” Sougwen asks Gisella.

“Only by reputation,” Lilo says extending her hand.

All at once the sound of the machines comes to a rattling halt.  Lil’ Man couldn’t tell if this was normal or not.  People were reacting but not as if it was an emergency.  The decrease in sound allows him to pay closer attention to his sense of smell, which had been trying to place the scent of the place since they first walked in.  It was a toxic smell and yet it brought a huge smile on his face.  All these machines and people operating them were working for him.

It was something he had never dreamed of the first time he uploaded a track on MySpace.  But there they stood, only minutes from receiving the test pressing of his own music on vinyl.  In the digital age, for him at least this was the crowning achievement.  When at last the woman returns with the small stack of test pressings, Lil’Man takes them and pulls out the black sharpee from his pocket.  He then throws his “Lil’ Man” tag on each and every one of them.

“Now it’s official,” he tells Gisella. “NOW it’s official.”

One Patch Cable

by Primus Luta

“While I don’t feel cheated,” Lilo says between sips of wine, “I do feel like I missed something.  I mean it was Morton Subotnick, the Buchla was there, and he performed Silver Apples on the Moon, but something was missing.”

“He didn’t patch live,” Lil Man says.

“Yes, that is it isn’t it?” Lilo thinks about it taking a sip.  ”It’s funny how laptops throw everything off.”

“You couldn’t really see what he was doing,” Gisella chimes in.  ”You could see it all working but you couldn’t see the work.”

“He had a controller near the laptop,” Lil Man notes.  ”He was doing something with that.”

“Yeah,” Lilo says after another sip.  ”I mean you have to think, why wouldn’t he use a laptop?  Can you imagine how hard it must have been to create Silver Apples back in the sixties, let alone perform it.  Even now with the technology we have it’s an amazing achievement.”

“Most def,” Lil Man affirms.

“But I do wish he had pulled at least one patch cable,” Lilo adds before finishing the glass.

“Most def.”

Gisella can see that Lilo is disturbed by it.  Lilo was one of those artists not chosen for the evenings presentation.  The open call was for surround sound pieces that fit the theme of horror.  Lilo had grasped onto the horror aspect, but completely ignored the surround sound.  She didn’t really have a means of creating a surround sound piece with her makeshift studio, but she did have a strong grasp on how to create sonic horror.

To her credit, none of the clichè’s Alexis runs down as overused in the submissions were employed in Lilo’s piece, so technically he wasn’t coming down on her.  But Gisella can tell it still hurt to hear.  Looking at Lilo felt more awkward than Bryan Jacobs, the one presenting artist on stage being praised by default.  He deserved direct praise.  His piece, culled from horror samples, was quite an achievement.  But the tension created, restrains direct questions for him.  For the life of her she can’t think of one to ask to break the spell.

She looks around the audience, still trying to avoid looking at Lilo, wondering if there were other rejected artists in attendance.  Lilo leans over signaling for Gisella to do the same.  ”I need a bigger studio,” she said and then sat back, confidence restored.

The sound of an ambulance trails off behind her.  Suddenly a female voice moves in only to be accompanied by at least ten different iterations of the same voice.  They are all being manipulated diferently and floating around the space.  Gisella closes her eyes and could see the voices sweeping, like ghosts in a haunted house.  It was clearly the Pamela Z piece, but the description didn’t really do the effect of it justice.  The title and even the description made it sound out of place.  What did “The Star Spangled Banner” have to do with horror?  But listening to Pamela Z’s deconstruction and recomposition of voice in the surround space, at this point Gisella recognizes, Pamela is the first artist to truly create a scene from a horror movie.  So why was she thinking about sex?

She wonders, ‘why do people still watch it?’  Why is it considered a classic?  Not because it is a good horror movie.  Then again if it was good when it first premiered, and highly regarded at that time, failing to meet modern standards is irrelevant.  With music, even if something is dated, to be considered a classic it is still expected to be listenable years later with an appreciation which parallels its first release.  She could listen to Dark Side of the Moon today and still hear the greatness that was heard fourty years ago.  But watching this film she cannot help but wonder what is so great about it.

Svarte plays a high trill while on screen the men on the boat try to open one of Nosferatu’s boxes of sand.  Paul has what looks to be an inverted cymbal on top of his snare which he uses to tap out a crescendoing line.  Gisella looks up to the screen to see mice crawling out of the corner of a box causing her to jump, grabbing and pulling at Lil Man’s arm.  She looks at him remembering herself and tries to let go, but the corner of her eye catches more mice and she just has to turn her head into his arm.  She cannot stand mice.

“Tell me when it’s over,” she asks closing her eyes tight, but she can still hear Svarte’s guitar screeches.

“Not yet,” Lil Man says smiling to himself.  ”They are trying to turn over the box to get rid of them.”  She wiggles back and forth at the thought of them.  ”They just turned it over and the mice are crawling all over the place.” She pulls at his jacket even more. “Wow that’s a lot of mice,” he says this with an audible smile and she thinks he might just be messing with her.  ”One’s on one of the workers feet.”

“Stop playing with me,” she says turning around only to see a mouse on one of the boat workers feet just as it starts crawling up his pants leg.  Before she can feel all squirmish about it Svarte and Peter have eased off the tension with a lightness that allows for everyone in the theatre to appreciate the modern humor.  The people in front of her laugh.  Down the isle from her Phillip Seymore Hoffman laughs.  Lil’ Man laughs. Gisella uses the opportunity to laugh at herself.

As Terry finally leads the second group into his office, Lilo is completely taken aback.  Despite Terry’s introduction and everything she had known on her own about the early days of synthesizers, to actually see one cover the entire back wall is amazing.  Everywhere she looks there are details to notice.  Knobs that look like the controls on a stove.  Levers instead of faders.  Patch cables the size of wall plugs.  The dot-matrix like roll of paper she imagines serves as the score mechanism for the massive machine.  Is that an oscilloscope?  And then she sees them – the tubes.

It brings back memories of summer’s with her grandparent’s in Sheepshead Bay.  Her grandfather owned a TV repair shop when she was a little kid.  She would spend days in that shop watching and helping him.  She remembers the tubes specifically because he’d always ask her to go fetch his box of replacements.  Terry holds up his own box of tubes as she reminisces.  He explains that the synth has not operated properly in years, though a student a few years back managed to get one of the oscillators working and recorded it.  The center had stockpiled parts for it, but unfortunately, as a one of a kind machine, fixing the whole thing wasn’t in the immediate future.  When the group starts moving to the next room, Lilo walks over to the box of tubes Terry has left on the table.  She picks one up and just stares at it.

“Business?” she enquires as he hangs up and gives her a hug across the gear shift.

“You know how we do ma,” Bobby says. Pulling back he holds her at arms length to get a good look.  “You don’t look so good.”

“I’m tired,” Gisella sighs.

“Yeah,” he says squinting his eyes, “but it’s more than that.  Like, you don’t have make-up on.  Ya jacket is clashing with ya shirt,” she looks down and indeed the jacket is clashing.  “Don’t get me started with your hair.  Unless you just got finished fucking, there really ain’t no excuse for that.”  She hadn’t even bothered to look in the mirror before leaving.  “I mean if you wanna go back up stairs and do something about that, I don’t mind waiting.”

“There’s no time,” she says.  Bobby doesn’t move, he just keeps looking at her.  “Wait,” she says recognizing the look.  ”Am I embarrassing you?”

“I’m just saying ma,” he says, “you lucky we cousins.  I don’t be letting broads sit in my car with they hair all messed up like that.  It ain’t good for my reputation.”

“What do I have to do with your reputation,” she says pointing to herself on ‘I’.

“I just know you could look better than that,” he says.  “I mean you don’t want people to think you crazy.”

“Actually,” she says turning back in her seat, “right now I do want people to think I’m crazy.”