It’s the 12th of July and I’m in Silver City, Nevada as a day of otherworldly events unfolds around me, and I mean that literally.
Just this morning, the promised reveal of the first images captured by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) added billions of light years to our collective consciousness, so my jaw was already slack when I sat my folding chair down on the lawn in front of the stage next to the Schoolhouse Community Center.
The two of them have collaborated on an otherworldly musical project that is very close to our Earth, very close to the elemental life force of our planet.
During a break, I sat down with them on a shady park bench to learn more. Brian heads home to Michigan after today’s performance. I asked him to explain the nature of this adventure.
“Well, it’s a collaboration. Milo and I collaborated, but because I was the artist in residence, yes, I did feel some responsibility to bring forth some material that then Milo could respond to. It’s amazing this, the space in the place of Silver City. It’s just so immensely energetic and, so you know, I’m responding to that from an aural perspective and trying to find sounds that really connect… and not only with the earth, but as we were talking a second ago, you know, the sky and beyond, and to create a whole Soundworld.
So, where does one start?
“I did a lot of different types of field recordings that capture everyday goings on, everyday kinds of sounds, environmental sounds from nature, like birds and dogs and sounds of crowds inside of bars. You know, the happy piano player and some of the kids he gets, the sort of sounds from Virginia City where I could capture a bit of the kind of tourist vibe that is so predominant.”
The next step was to ask the flora to sing for him. He attached sensitive electronic sensors to local plants and recorded their electrical impulses with his complex, homemade receivers, then synthesized their voices.
“…the synthetic quality merges with a natural quality and you end up with a world essentially. I like to refer to it as The Soundworld.”
In music school, inspired by the unconventional conceptual works of Brian Eno and electronic music pioneers, Kraftwerk, he decided that he had to play to his artistic strengths. “I just said, Okay, I’m going to spend my time just listening and making sounds, not worrying about whether I have the right key or time signature or whatever… That’s really why the pieces that I make… are very organic, very self-evolving, generative kinds of works… some sort of union, between man and machine.
The thing about creating this kind of soundworld is that you’re sort of integrating, completely becoming one with the space, through sound, to make this kind of world and that’s truly fascinating. Making music like this, and sort of living it, live up on stage, was really exciting. Just to know that this was happening and other people were sharing in it, that it was out in this natural environment. The trees around, in the sun… it’s really fantastic.”
Brian’s musical partner today is guitarist Mylo McCormick. The young prodigy jumped at a chance to be part of this somewhat outlandish musical experiment.
“I’ve been interested in ambient works for a while, you know, not since the ‘70s, like Brian, but since, like, the ’17s, you know? We came together and really quickly discovered that we have a massive pool of similar interests. By virtue of the internet, I’ve had access to everything from this year and back to the time of tape recording.”
Now, I feel ancient.
“I’ve begun at the beginning. My career has come down from being very performance oriented to now, when I’m growing my interest in recording music and spending more time with it. This is kind of a bridge between both of those worlds, being able to perform in such a free artistic fashion. I’m not as worried about entertainment. You know, you’re here for the sounds, not for my smile. And it’s very freeing in that way, coming from strict eight bar guitar solos.”
In the interests of spontaneity in the performance, they kept preparation and process to a minimum. “We spent two afternoon practice sessions,” Mylo says, “and time texting and preparing the technical details. But what was so amazing, is that we just totally matched and clicked.”
Brian agrees. “Milo just was fantastic in adapting the guitar sounds and having such a wide variety, and with the same sort of curiosity and explorative quality about them. That was really fantastic.”
In performance, the two artists are each obviously in their own sphere, but magically, they’re also in a Venn Diagram-like space together where the music is evolving, moment to moment.
Brian in his cowboy hat and rainbow-lensed sunglasses, surrounded by his plethora of homemade sound gadgetry, moving smoothly from station to station twisting a knob here and configuring patch cables there. The sounds morph with each motion. He also has a live plant on stage connected with kinetic sensor pads to the signal path, contributing to the Soundworld live.
He explains, “It’s important to clarify exactly what’s going on. The plant itself isn’t necessarily making music, per se. It’s living in its living experience. It generates electrical impulses that are part of its living organic structure.”
The plant is a Christmas Cactus (Schlumbergera xbuckleyi) with its own significant place among these musicians.
“When I was (Artist-In-Residence) here in 2015” Brian relates, “my next door neighbor was Fred Swanson, and Fred was my dear friend, a friend to all of the artists and residents. He was just the guy who was always there to help you out and support you in whatever way he possibly could and he was your neighbor. He included you in everything that he did. I just found that without him, I couldn’t have made the work that I made when I was here.
The last time together, he had all the stories. He had all the history. He had all the places to go. He knew everything and he was just an awesome guy. Then while I was away, he passed away. I wanted to do something that honored him…”
One of the things Fred left behind was his Christmas Cactus. Brian seized on an idea: connect the sensors to the cactus for his experimental music and bring it live on stage.
“That way I can, maybe, you know, have some level of communication or connection to Fred, as a way to say goodbye… That’s why the name of the piece is Saying Goodbye.”
Mylo also wanted to bring other voices into his work and that, being a child of his time, meant deferring to his mobile phone.
“Yeah, I was using my phone as a sound generator.”
Onstage, in a regular band, your phone is the bane of your existence because if you set it near the transformer on the amplifier, the coils and the transformer act like a tower. They pick up signals.”
Bring the device near to the pickups on the guitar tho, and run it through a series of guitar-based effects and stranger things happen.
“I texted my wife who’s in the audience and [asked] her to text me. And she did, nonstop for a couple of minutes and I had it on vibrate. I was letting it vibrate the strings and then just, the sounds of the text messages coming through.,, they make this wonderful clacking, you know? They’re digital but they have a kind of organic quality to them as the message is being sent and received. Then I turned my notification noise up and let that be manipulated a little bit.”
The results were transformative, and that was the lesson of the day it seemed. Every electrical impulse coming from the stage, the pulses of the Christmas Cactus, sagebrush, and other flora, to the synapse firing in a creative human brain, is an element of The Soundworld and is in a constant state of transformation in and all around us.
“And it’s just, I suppose, maybe not by chance,“ Brian theorizes. “It’s maybe the music of the spheres. It ends up sounding like music to us when you apply sounds that we are familiar with as musical instrument sounds.”
Now, I want to hear The Soundworld complete, with the impulses of the JWST’s hundreds of billions of spheres, overlaid on the music of life on earth like I heard it today in Silver City. It’s a thing, completely worldly, that I now see we can do.
It’s said that “only the gods can hear the divine music. Are you one of them?” I think the answer, now, maybe yes.
Learn more about the Silver City Resident Artist Program here.
Steve is an experienced print and broadcast journalist, development manager, award-winning community builder, and communicator who has lived in Reno/Tahoe for more than 50 years. As a podcast and radio show host, Steve’s passion for the Silver State and its communities, economy, and politics drove his career and the content of his Grow Nevada Team‘casts on NBC Radio and writings in the Northern Nevada Business Weekly and Boomer magazines. His leadership has charted development for both non-profit and commercial enterprises in Northern Nevada. In 2012 AAF Reno awarded Steve Community Builder of the Year. When Steve has time, he devotes much of it to his love of making music with his wife and friends, volunteering, and exploring the outdoors with family.
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