The crowd at an experimental music show expects to be impressed. At Casa del Popolo a couple of Fridays ago, Jason Sharp stepped onto the stage and faced an audience of his peers. Accompanied by only a mounted snare drum at his chest, a baritone saxophone slung from his neck, and a lung full of air, he turned up the volume on the mic strapped to his chest. The room filled with the steady pulse of his heartbeat.
Then he added the saxophone, including every sound possible: the clicking of the keys, air rushing through incomplete stops, the buzzing of the reed, a full range of notes from low belly to high squeal. He droned. He bounced. There was an honest-to-god rock triad at one point, complete with distortion provided by the rattling snare drum.
The entire performance, with the exception of one very short segment, was done entirely with circular breathing. For those unfamiliar, circular breathing is achieved by breathing both in and out at the same time – in through the nose, out through the mouth. Watching Sharp, my brain struggled to understand how this is possible. I had must remind myself to breathe.
When the piece was over, Sharp broke his gaze from the snare drum and bowed his head. He quietly packed up his instruments, then left the stage without saying much.
The act that followed, Subtle Lip Can, is an ensemble composed of Isaiah Ceccarelli on percussion and piano, Bernard Falaise on guitar, and Joshua Zubot on violin. Every instrument was played intermittently with its intended components and with some home-made found object. Tinfoil made an appearance more than once.
The crunchy clicks and whines were more jaunty and upbeat than Sharp’s long form work. SLC has tracks within tracks, almost sub-tracks. Or maybe this is just my attempt to explain the chunky nature of themes in the work, bridged very loosely and played together to inform a single piece.
Normally, the brain filters sounds into streams: necessary noises or irrelevant background din. To understand this better, sit in a quiet room for five minutes. Then, count the number of sounds that you hear. There are probably a lot more than you realized. Now, imagine that each one of these small sounds was amplified and played together. Loudly. It’s like being upside down in a blender, moving too quickly to determine up from down, bad from good, pain from pleasure. You can be overwhelmed by trying to sort it out, or just let it happen and find yourself surprised. Subtle Lip Can is a lot like that. It’s loud, but only because of how amplified its small, subtle sounds are. It’s shocking how much those small sounds change when they become large enough to fill the room.
When paired with the visceral intensity of Sharp’s music, the two sound experiences created a sharp juxtaposition. Both turned the volume up on sounds intrinsic to urban human existence, but where Sharp’s work is deeply internal, Subtle Lip Can gives the impression that someone tuned in to all the sounds of a mechanical landscape—and turned the volume up to 11.
To be part of the crowd at an experimental show, you have to first accept that no sound is inherently bad or good. No sound is inherently noise or music. No sound is ever old. In the moment, there is always something new to hear. If you want to listen to the crude mechanics of your world and be overwhelmed by minutia’s presence in your ears, go see Subtle Lip Can. If you want to listen inside, tune your ear to what’s under your own skin amongst bones and organs, seek out Jason Sharp. In either case, you won’t be disappointed. Not unless you want to be.