Opening the auditory universe

Merrill Garbus' one-woman band, Tune-yards, used the Palace Grand in Dawson to remodel her audience's ears.

Merrill Garbus’ one-woman band, Tune-yards, used the Palace Grand in Dawson to remodel her audience’s ears.

Plucking rhythmically on a ukulele, backed by prerecorded strumming on a loop pedal, Garbus was drawing a rather unorthodox sound from an instrument better known for accompanying the hula.

The fast and repetitive beat, with her hearty voice flying overhead, was catchy. But this wasn’t your standard three-verse tune with a lengthy bridge. Instead, it felt like you were listening from a different part of your ear – as if you’d begun listening to sounds on a wider scope.

Garbus wasn’t the only artist at the Dawson City Music Festival to provide that effect. She was one of several artists – including Broken Deer and Elfin Saddle – which you could loosely jumble under the “experimental” tag.

What makes it experimental could be the lo-fi hisses and crackling pops you’ll find on Broken Deer’s album Our Small Going. Or the yodel-like vocals in some of the songs off Garbus’ Bird-Brains. Put more generally, what you’ll find in experimental music is that same joy of hearing something pleasing – what you would consider all music to be – but from a totally new auditory world.

“When you’re talking about a studio sound, it’s a vacuum of an environment in a way,” said Garbus, sitting on the grass outside the festival’s main stage two weeks ago.

So experimental artists search elsewhere for their sound.

“I felt that my voice wouldn’t be very well-represented in that way,” she said. “I didn’t want my voice to sound less breathy or real than it is. In a way, in my recordings you hear the flaws in voice.

“But I’d rather that than my voice be auto-tuned and edited and really perfect.”

Bird-Brains, released originally only on cassettes in June 2009, has received critical acclaim in the US. Tune-yards has also drawn an audience in the United Kingdom, where she’s signed with the 4AD recording label.

To find new sounds, experimental artists sometimes use everyday sounds to foster meaning. The use of ambient noise is something Garbus remembers from her father, who taught her how to play the old-time fiddle when she was growing up in Connecticut.

“When you learn music that way, you’re learning with tunes that were recorded by someone who was visiting the fiddler at their house, turning on a very antiquated machine and getting all the chicken clucks, the sizzling frying pan in the background and also just conversation and laughter,” she said.

Garbus doesn’t sample older recordings on Bird-Brains. But her interest in African music, gathered through field recordings, sparked an interest in the ways sound can be approached from different angles.

“The oldest recording is me as a teenager singing to myself,” she said.

Broken Deer, the stage name of Yukon resident Lindsay Dobbin, is practically fluent in the grainy sound of a recorder.

In 2002, when Dobbin lived in Halifax, she bought an RCA cassette recorder to capture “moments” rather than the structured sounds you’d find in a more run-of-the-mill jamming session.

“The tape already had layers and layers of content on it,” said Dobbin, who came to the festival to speak in a talk called The Natural and the Manufactured with artists Elfin Saddle.

“The sounds, just by mistake, were really amazing.

“I really allow the fragments of work to just kind of take their place nowadays,” she said. “I don’t really feel that things need to be a whole song. I believe that over a period of time whatever I’m creating, there’s a story to it.

“I go back to the recordings and look at the pieces that resonate to me and put them all together.”

The first recording that Dobbin would eventually use on Our Small Going, also released last year, comes from a night she broke into the now-demolished Halifax Infirmary.

“We kind of snuck in and I got separated and luckily I had my recorder with me,” she said. “I just pressed record, it made me feel a little more comfortable about talking out loud and the monologue that I got and all this spatial sounds. I knocked something over and it fell over and it hit the ground.”

Her fascination with traditionally unmusical sounds had begun.

“Because of our journey with technology in this last century, specifically with things like radio and communication technology, you used to hear those types of low-fidelity sounds and the crunchiness because the technology wasn’t there.”

But as technology has progressed, its become more perfect. That fact has completely enmeshed itself with our notion on what constitutes the quality of music.

On the other hand, lower quality sound develops a meaning too.

“When we hear that lo-fi sound we equate it with distance and struggling to connect,” said Dobbin. “That’s really the thing about the sound that gets me.”

Dobbin’s music is about going around the all-mighty god of better sound and clearer pictures.

And that speaks to people who came of age at the turn of the millennium. The ubiquity of technological achievement in our values forces creativity to bloom in completely artificial worlds.

When Dobbin moved from her grandparents farm in rural New Brunswick to the suburbs, she was struck by the way people became separated from their roots.

“It was a whole different wilderness,” she said. “Everyone was the same age. All the parents were the same age – all the children. There were no elders around.”

The farm, on the other hand, is where Dobbin saw the makings of man on the same pedestal as nature.

“There was all this old farm equipment littered throughout the land and that’s decaying back into the earth,” she said. “Then there’s New World relics because my grandfather was a welder and an electrician.

“All those New World objects decaying back into the earth and busting away really provided me with a sensibility that even if some things are man-made and some things are not, they all come from the same source. There’s always this natural process for anything.”

In an age where quality is measured in how perfect music sounds and how amazing an MP3 player can be, overcoming the measuring stick of technology offers the hope that creativity is not its slave.

For Garbus, the path to experimental music was guided by a need to sound authentic.

“As an artist, I was always trying to be universal,” she said. “I didn’t want to do work that was only applicable to my socioeconomic strata or status; I wanted it to be relevant.

“And I realized I couldn’t really do that without being relevant to myself. The only view of the world I have is through my eyes and my world and my experiences.”

Garbus garnered a strong response from her performance Saturday night at the festival, proving she has a following on her flight from the studio.

“I like it because it ties it to performance art and even a science project,” she said of her decision to call her music a “project.”

“It’s more than ‘We’re a band and we go on tour and play in clubs and get free beer and I’m trying to be a rock and roll star.

“Its never felt right for me to ‘make it’ in a music industry sense.”

Contact James Munson at

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