Seeking Out Sparks

In the hayloft of a barn somewhere in New Jersey, I sat with my bandmates, Ben and Dan, listening to the hyperactive pulse of digital music that made the aging outbuilding shake like an Amish boom box. We sat, we waited, and we fretted over our equipment as our start cue approached, watching the DJ at work tending his turntables in a calculated frenzy, beatmatching and crossfading in a purposeful trance in the dimly-lit space. As we waited, configuring our controls for the show, we gently touched our gear as one would trace the forms of sacred objects, the plastic and metal surfaces like Zen gardens under our fingertips. The event’s organizer stepped back from the huge mixing board that he manned like the pulpit in an android church and gave us the “go” sign. I kicked the foot switch to start my loop sequencers running and we fell into our instruments.

My fascination with electricity started in once-rural Scaggsville, Maryland, in an old log farmhouse on a dead-end road. On the other side of the road there was a small farm, with its preindustrially minuscule herd of steers hemmed in by three strands of barbed wire and a single thin, silver-grey wire carrying powerful jolts of current from a small grey box on the side of the barn. Whenever thunderstorms blew in, rolling over the ridge and settling over our house, we’d run through the house, switching off every light and appliance, and then convene on the porch to watch the storm. We rated the lightning strikes and booming thunderclaps almost like Olympic judges, quietly exchanging words of surprise and admiration and enjoying the thrilling mixture of peace and silence the storms brought.

I was always fascinated by the apparent lack of concern among the steers as they stood there, looking unusually calm and dignified even for cows, surrounded by curtains of lightning and lashing rain. It seemed almost as if their encounters with the electric fence had immunized them to the threat of electrocution, or perhaps that they had grown to enjoy the occasional jolt from the wire and stood there, exposed, as if to say, “Bring it on, baby, Briiing it on!”

That wire called to me like a siren, seductively beckoning from the fenceposts in a sea of soft grass, and I tentatively began to experiment with the thrill of the wire. Using the stalks of weeds as weak conductors, I’d delicately touch the wire, feeling the periodic jolts as the moisture in the weeds carried a fraction of the current to my palms. The fun of it was much like that of the first drop on a roller coaster, that simultaneous laugh and scream that come completely without conscious control, and I got bolder in my experimentation, using progressively shorter and shorter lengths of stalk.

It was probably inevitable that I’d eventually reach for the wire bare-handed. I touched it, tentatively at first, and then with the sort of foolish conviction found primarily among the young and ignorant, pressing my open palms against the cool wire to wait for the next pulse of the charger, kneeling there in the grass like a supplicant in prayer, and feeling oddly serene as I waited for the shock. It was roughly at this point that events taught me an extremely valuable and illustrative lesson on the difference, in ohms, in the resistance of a long stalk of weed as compared to, say, the sweaty palm of a nervous little boy.

The first shock grabbed me by the spine and wrenched me like a rag doll. I lurched back, with the wire firmly clasped in involuntarily-clenched fists, and held position there, unable to even draw a breath or let go. Before I could will my hands to release the line, the second shock came, this time hurling me away from the fence in a move that combined elements of grand mal and grand jete into something new and particularly athletic. I landed on my back in the road, breathless, and was completely still for an alarmingly long moment before a simultaneous gasp and involuntary jet of pee reanimated my body.

I lay there for a long time, on my back, just looking up into the blue, blue sky, watching the clouds go by, sensing the world turning on its axis beneath me, feeling the warm stain speading in my crotch, and feeling a peculiar wholeness to the world that I’d hitherto only suspected.

In the hayloft in New Jersey, the memory of those tentative brushes with current stirred as we began to get our feet in the thunderous backwash of the giant PA system. I reached out with my knobs and sliders, playing the immense bass bins like artificial fault lines, hurling and lower bass notes into the power amps and feeling the whole barn throb in response. Ben was sweating like a powerlifter in the close space of the loft as he bent over his ancient Prophet 5 synthesizer, pounding the keys in dense clusters of liquid notes that flowed from him like the sweat that poured from his forehead and onto the front panel of the synth, draining away in tiny salty rivulets through the field of knobs.

My early encounters with the thrilling power of electricity led to a brief career as an amateur mad scientist. I took to toiling away in our junk-filled basement, working on a series of inventions notable mostly for their spectacular failures. My high-voltage flyswatter, for instance, was powered by a ten thousand-volt furnace transformer and consisted of a pair of closely set metal plates mounted on an old broomstick, creating a narrow charged space that would actually draw in a housefly if you were able to swing the bulky contraption quickly enough. As the hapless fly entered the space, a tiny, but potent, arc would bisect its body and the remains, resembling a sculpture of the insect rendered in charcoal, would drop to the floor, still smoking.

My invention worked as a flyswatter, albeit in a rather clumsy and roundabout way, but was inordinately heavy and cumbersome because of the heavy rubberized jumper cables needed to connect it to the thirty-pound transformer. Even when one was taking proper precautions, wearing thick rubber-soled shoes and heavy rubber gloves, an occasional stray arc would leap from the under-insulated cables and seek ground through the body of the unfortunate operator. This had the result of causing the aforementioned operator to expeditiously hurl the apparatus to the floor, short-circuiting the plates in a shower of sparks and blowing out one or more circuit breakers, leaving him or her standing there in the smoky darkness, surrounded by unquestionably smug houseflies.

I’d also started experimenting with tape manipulation around this time, a pursuit that initially revolved around earnest attempts to get the perfect belching and farting sound effects for my first foray into the world of radio production, a sci-fi epic in miniature starring a seven-hundred pound heroine as an intergalactic marauder for the forces of proper interior decor. I fell in love with the tape recorder like I’d fallen for the electric fence, with endless devotion and little or no common sense, but felt comparatively confident that I’d signficantly improved my chances for survival by revising my avocation.

I taped my relatives, teachers, people in private place, the curious voices wafting in on my shortwave, and the sounds of nearby construction sites, using an old reel-to-reel tape recorder I’d purchased at a yard sale, and splicing fragments of tape into cluttered, incomprehensible sonic landscapes. Slicing strips of magnetic tape into ever-tinier segments, I spliced together entire symphonies of noise with blissfully short life spans dictated by the crappy dime-store cellophane tape I used to string them together.

Eventually, I made a providential move to an apartment near Washington, D.C., where my roommate had a four-track recorder and an old Moog synthesizer encrusted with knobs and switches. Delving into the Moog without a clue, I soon realized that it was much more than a balky, unreliable collection of vintage electronic components–it was an amusement park for electrons. I produced hour after hour of joyous, unlistenable music with that lovely machine, much of which now resides in the mysterious red shoe box in my closet that my friends have been instructed to destroy without opening in the event of my premature demise.

Those early, tentative days of knob-twisting delight were some time behind me as I played in synergy with the percussionist and keyboardist in the barn, but the need to reach into new territory was stronger than ever. I’d grown frustrated with the limitations built into my instruments and started writing my own software and building customized controllers to better articulate the sounds that buzzed in my head like the ever-present hum of house current. My homemade loop sequencers spun like Tibetan prayer wheels, churning out complex rhythms and spinning splintering shards of noise into the heavy night air as I trimmed and tweaked their patterns on my slider controller.

In the dense atmosphere, I played my gear gently and reverently, like I was defusing a bomb–tapping, tweaking, and delicately edging sliders and controls to new positions as the music pitched and spiraled in curling sheets of timbre that boiled out of the hayloft like clouds of pixelated steam. The clusters of electrons racing through the jumbled pile of gear reached up and out, and before long I was speaking in tongues, guided by the voices of my machines.

On the other side of the barn, dancers in full regalia traced complex paths through the dusty air in the other haylofts. I was thrilled to see them in rapturous exploration of the music at every layer and energy state. A glitter-encrusted girl with foil woven into her variously-dyed hair moved in perfect rhythm with the languid dub bassline, while an older guy in plain jeans and an oxford shirt performed a curious series of individualistic mudras to the complex pattern of seven-to-nine beats I’d unashamedly stolen from gamelan music. I grooved and twitched too, feeling strange twinges in my scalp that I thought must be big June bugs landing in my hair. Waving them away, I slipped back into my controllers.

In the darkness of the highest loft of the barn, a slender guy dressed in all black twirled slowly to a rhythmic element I couldn’t pin down, almost out of sync with the mix and yet obviously tied into some mysterious undercurrent I wasn’t hearing. I watched him with intense curiosity, focusing focusing focusing until all I could see was his body in motion, which spoke to something pure and quiet in the mix. I turned inward, into my physical senses, into my instincts, blocking out everything else until it was just me and him in that cavernous space, surrounded by hoops of invisible electromagnetic fields and the complex patterns of pressure waves in the air, and I suddenly found his groove in the sea of sound.

The sense of this is much like when you’re driving on a road through the pecan groves in the deep south, seeing the trees in jumbled disorder until you reach the one and only point on the road where the greater structure of the place is visible and the rows and rows of trees can be seen, radiating outward in perfect order. I shivered in the cramped space, moved my hands without thinking, and played the undercurrent that I could feel but not describe, pushing it slowly into new directions almost as one would redirect a river–slowly, carefully, and in tiny increments. The dancer in black obliged, tailoring his languorous movements to fit the new trigonometry and wrapping himself around the streams of gently eroding samples that I cast into the mix. For a millisecond, we made eye contact across the hazy open space, and one could almost hear the scream of modems as carrier tones connected to exchange a single word’s worth of language: “Yes.”

Dan erupted into a finger-flickering solo on his ancient drum synthesizer and the set tilted from oceanic waves to pounding rapids. Ben rode the rapids with perfect agility, his own fingers a blur over the sweat-drenched keys of the Prophet. I wiped my forehead with a sweaty towel, trimmed a few loops, and leaned back against the wall of the barn. Something felt hot against my arm and I turned to see the orange, heavy-duty extension cord carrying power in from the farmhouse dangling there. I touched it gently and found it uncomfortably warm from the overload of all the thousands of watts driving speaker cones and electric music machines in the barn. I pondered whether I should mention it to someone, but watching Dan and Ben nodding in perfect rhythm, their hands nearly invisible in hummingbird frenzies, sweat flying everywhere, I decided that it was as good a time as any to burn to death in a barn fire. I took a breath and jumped back into the set with a group of broken loops I’d edited together from the fragments of an old recording of Porgy and Bess.

Dan turned to me, laughing as he recognized one of my favorite loops, an seriously-processed fragment I’d built in which the gymnastic vocals of Sarah Vaughn shatter into little beads of sound and spin backwards into silence. He shouted something over the mix, but I couldn’t hear him over the music. I smiled and shrugged, and he repeated himself, comically pointing all over the place this time. “Bats!” he yelled, and at that precise instant I saw hundreds and hundreds of bats everywhere in the barn, darting through the haylofts and open spaces, dipping down to snatch at our hair. They were everywhere, everywhere in the barn, electrons in motion.

Seeing them, running my equipment as if in a trance, I was suddenly in my childhood again, running underneath the high-tension power lines on a cool, dry autumn evening, swinging an old fluorescent tube in the air under the hissing wires, and watching the bulb flicker and glow in the stray electric field there. I traced the surfaces and protrusions of my controllers as if sparks were flickering from my fingertips as I moved over the board.

When the wrap signal came, we rushed into a roaring coda, imaginary sparks flying in the frenzy as if we’d been handed welding torches and were sealing the last seams on our monstrous aural sculpture. Ben peeled off first, punching a last series of jangling chords through the churning surface of the music and falling back into his folding chair, while Dan and I locked into a frothing percussive spiral. Dan kicked his way out of the mix with a spasmodic series of finger seizures on the drum pads, leaving me to wind the set out.

With my pattern sequencers running, I carved away pattern after pattern as if using a lathe, paring away layers of sound and strata of rhythm until all that was left was the rolling beat of the bass drum. I stretched the kick, trimming the high end until it was a warm, thunderous boom, bringing in traces of harmonic-shredding distortion, scaling the tempo down and down and down as I drew out the tail of the single note until there was just one left–a note that rang in the barn like an endless clap of thunder, taking a full minute to trail off into the dark evening. As it faded into silence, I closed my eyes and flashed backwards through my history, through razor blades dancing across tape, my electric flyswatter throwing sparks, the fence wire singing to me, and all the thunderstorms I’d watched from the porch in Scaggsville, rubbing my hands together and feeling the residual soreness of exercise and the pleasant afterglow of one more hour spent speaking the sign language of electricity.

© 2001 Joe Wall

Originally published in Link magazine, issue 7, in 2001. This essay was voted “Best Arts Essay of 2001″ in Baltimore Magazine’s annual “Best of Baltimore” issue, January 2002.

I’d like to remember my late editor, Dawn Culbertson, for her work on this piece.