Lori Napoleon (a.k.a. Antenes / Antemeridian) “It didn’t feel like an illusion or an illustration of the material but the raw material in my hands.”

Photo: Seze Devres

In his 1913 Futurist manifesto “The Art of Noises,” Luigi Russolo extols the pure pleasure of creating cacophony from the shuttering of metal-shop blinds, the short burst of a slamming door, the insistent thrum of a city crowd. His desire to manipulate this “variety of din” was not to diminish its inherent beauty, but to bring about a greater awareness through attributing variety and color to noises.

There is a moment during Antenes’s Issue Project Room show, past where the static-y radio and telephone signals have crackled away, wherein the ominous, booming drones have subsided. From her surrounding menagerie of self-made synthesizers, Antenes lifts a rotary dial cannibalized from an ancient phone. She places it near a contact microphone and dials a single number. The dial whirs its slow churn, a technology many of us are familiar with, but few use. The sound emanating from within is alien, chilling, even unholy. Processed through a number of effects units, the rotary moans like a crippled animal, echoing against the venue’s pillared walls. A century after Russolo, Antenes channels technological ghosts conjured from a bygone world.

Antenes was a 2017 Artist in Residence at Issue Project Room in Brooklyn, NY. She worked closely with early electronic music supporter Bell Labs for her research, exploring its extensive archives and studying sounds in the company’s spacious anechoic chamber. Her latest release is a three-song EP for The Bunker New York under her Antemeridian moniker, coming out March 16.

How did you arrive at music composition? Was it fostered at an early age or did you discover it through playing instruments at school?

I arrived at music composition relatively recently and am mainly self-taught on that end. Formally, I’ve studied and pursued visual, science-based and interactive electronic arts and have been drawing and sketching what I saw around me since before I could read. I’d been collecting records and DJing in Chicago. Around the same time, I pursued a studio arts degree at University of Illinois in Champaign Urbana, and moved on to NYU’s interactive telecommunications program with the intention of following the path of light installation artists such as Olafur Elaisson, James Clar, and Dan Flavin. My first projects involving sound were audio-visual installations at school, where I made rooms of amplitude-modulated light antennas and receivers — that is, line of sight AM “radio” using the visual part of the spectrum, where you would unearth messages hidden in blinking LEDs or lasers via sensors wired to audio amplifier/receiver circuits.

Music composition grew out of unanticipated exposure to the old analog and modular synth collection at NYU through the Music Technology at Steinhardt program…

While I played guitar and keyboard in bands in high school, I never caught the bug to produce my own music until encountering machines such as the Buchla 100, Minimoog, Arp 2600, and Doepfer Maq 16/3. They made me feel closer to the substance of the sonic result without constraint, and this kind of tactility made me feel I had something to say with music. It was finding a medium conducive to shaping a sound’s characteristics from its fundamental building blocks, creating nuanced rhythmic patterns, setting up systems, playing with signal paths. They enabled a process I felt intuitively hard-wired to embark upon regardless of art form — to experiment and get lost in the real “substance” of the material — and were critical milestones for me to pursue sound and evolve as a musician.

You first encountered antique telephone switchboards at a museum in Escanaba. What brought you there initially?

I grew up in the Midwest — Chicago in particular — and I was invited to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to celebrate a friend’s engagement in a series of native Ojibwe ceremonies. We stayed in a rural hotel that was nearest to the town of Escanaba, so naturally I wandered around the town and discovered a tiny lighthouse museum that housed the telephone switchboards connecting the town. I immediately found that the elaborate rows of switches, patch bays, and cables resembled the old synths I’d seen at NYU. There were also many old Bell Telephone system advertisements on display there depicting operators, technicians, musicians, or performers. My mind instantly flashed to images of Bob Moog and Suzanne Ciani operating their instruments.

Photo: Jay Isolini, courtesy of Issue Project Room

What draws you to vintage technology in particular and telephones specifically?

Working with analog electronics with vintage machines made me understand synthesis starting from its fundamental components. I had a sense that I was working with the real sound and physics of the material that you could manually patch and follow, which also has an elemental timelessness about it. It didn’t feel like an illusion or an illustration of the material but the raw material in my hands. I truly needed that in order to start learning how synthesis worked. I could work on a computer or integrate software into my setup now, since I understand what the controls are referencing, but I wouldn’t have been able to really learn that way in the beginning. I enjoy how the controls themselves are large and start simple, but can be made incredibly complex in their combinations. Artistically this brings about the ability to learn something new that’s not limited to preconceived ideas. I like to be surprised.

As far as the vintage aspect is concerned, many audio developments owe their lineage to these early, forgotten machines, including the concept of patching to transfer audio from one place to another and modern plug and jack (TS, TRS) designs — living fossils of those invented for switchboards in the 19th century. I wanted to rekindle an awareness of this tradition, whether or not the inventors intended their designs to lead to these creative and expressive places. Plus, the old telecommunications are simply beautiful to me. They lend themselves well to adaptation and they deserve to be seen and heard.

Regarding telephones, I’m more interested in the switchboard and other communication networks than the telephone as a sole object, though I do utilize the gestural sound of dials in my performances. I was fascinated by the structure of the patch cables, their endless combinations and connections to a greater system, and their sonic nuances and aberrations these conditions would impinge upon communications. The old telephone exchange was constantly struck by lightning. Incessant static, voices through the worst weather, crosstalk, and trans-continental echo, are examples of sounds that can be dealt with physically and conceptually. These sounds are becoming obsolete as technologies improve, yet these aberrations are what many experimental musicians enjoy discovering within their own musical systems.

You just finished a residency at Issue Project Room in Brooklyn that included two performances. What were you exploring in the first performance?

In my first performance, my approach was to utilize and integrate vintage recordings into the piece and to become an audio explorer not unlike the historical phone phreaks. But instead of amplifying the hidden aberrations in the analog telephone networks of the 60s and 70s, I was exploring the hidden sounds of today.

The piece began with more recognizable recordings, with operators reciting numbers like old location identifiers. Gradually the recordings I played omitted any recognizable words and were simply pulsing patterns and background tones found during waiting periods in an analog telephone network. The rhythms were communications to the switching equipment.

How about the second performance?

My second performance placed emphasis on amplifying hidden electrical and mechanical phenomena present in the artifacts themselves. They became kinetic sculptures in a sense. I specifically highlighted the mechanical qualities of vintage telephone-switching equipment by applying contact microphones and small binaural microphones to the surface of the equipment while I operated it, pulling new sounds out of antiquated devices. The underlying exploration is the technological shift from robust knobs, switches, and dials of the past to more modern, lightweight, plastic equipment like analog and modular synthesizers. Their often unrecognized lineage to telephone-switching equipment was a focal point of this performance, highlighting the sounds of working operators from the past.

The residency was also a collaboration with Bell Labs. Discuss what you explored in your research.

Silence and amplification of tiny sounds was a large part of my collaboration with Bell, brought about by the incredible opportunity to spend time inside and eventually set up and perform an intimate, participatory installation inside its anechoic chamber.

At Issue Project Room, I was able to amplify, process, and spatialize the “tiny” sounds of operator time-keeping devices, old bells, switches, and dials culled from the archives with contact mics and, eventually, without any amplification at all, letting the natural reverberation in the room affect the audience. In the anechoic chamber we had the inverse condition — no echo at all. Still, our brains recalibrate when faced with such a change in the space. This piece was 100 percent acoustic. I wanted to create an intimate experience with tiny sounds set up on various pods that one could perceive and “mix” in different ways as they walked around the room.

You’ve been developing your own instruments for a while. Did you feature any new gear for these performances?

I repurposed a small local telephone switchboard found in the Bell archives by installing new electronics that turn it into a performative, central controller. These can then be freely attached to various artifacts from a variety of turn-of-the-century telephones. I’m pulling the sounds out via “upcycled” phone vibration motors, so phones of different generations provide both sound actuator and result.

The central switchboard contains six arduino-controlled motors with voltage controls so I can play any of the sound pods by manipulating the intensity/speed of the motor’s vibrations. At lower intensities it simply vibrates, but at higher intensities the rotor makes it jump and strike the bell or other objects in more erratic, organic ways. This system is capable of long, acoustically sourced drones as much as nuanced, but still controllable, rhythms.

I also integrated natural sound modifiers, like early gramophone horns from the archives. They added filtering and vibrato to the motorized machine sounds. Especially in the anechoic chamber, this was used to stir the sound around like soup, and I invited participants to try.

I also made a “hiss and crackle” box out of an early operators test set that integrates inventor and sound artist Derek Holzer’s sound box circuits. It generates lots of lovely speaker feedback. I play the switch, dial-and-VU-meter-resplendent box through the microphone input and external contact mics. It’s my effort to introduce some non-synth electronic elements into my setup, and this was a direct result of trying to capture the essence of the archival materials Bell lent me. I feel overall the content of the residency has only just begun in the building of new pieces, and a lot of exploration with performing and recording new sounds will undoubtedly carry me through at least another year.

Last year you lectured at the Cooper Union, which contains the “quietest place in New York City,” an anechoic chamber.

I brought in a vintage operator’s clock for the lecture, which included a location-specific, guided listening activity that was part of Lea Bertucci’s Site:Sound series. Being inside the echoless chamber allows people to deeply hear the clock’s electro-mechanical sounds, even in the absence of a sound source. You realize there is no true silence when mediated by the human mind and body. Instead, tiny sounds become magnified, directional, and clear. My residency and the installation developed at Bell’s chamber grew out of this initial encounter.

Does your home-studio setup consist of anything different than what you perform with live?

My home-studio setup contains all the larger switchboards and machines that are too cumbersome or fragile to move very much. I have only really taken the largest of the switchboards out twice: once at the first Issue show, and then for a weeklong gallery installation and durational performance at the 2016 MoogFest. The project as a whole wasn’t really conceived to fit into flight cases, and if they were I’d have constrained my original spark of the idea: that they’re predominantly studio tools, an installation and customized studio I wanted to experience and inhabit. That said, since then I’ve built some smaller pieces which enable me to bring a remote, “satellite” version of my studio when I travel to perform live. I also sample and manipulate my own sounds extensively and bring those to shows, too.

How do your DJ and experimental sides inform each other?

The approach from my point of view is slightly different. During an experimental live set, there is more focus on the interchange between myself and the quirkiness of the material at that moment, the surprises that the hardware might bring, and the audience is usually seated in the dark. I can’t really see them, though I’ve enjoyed photographs of people with faraway eyes and dreamy expressions! The machines are the organism. In a dance setting, the people are the organism. Improvisation plays a great factor in both, as in a painting where one brushstroke informs the next.

I’m interested in the performative side of electronic music that provides interactivity that makes people participants, not just observers. This is why I lean towards abstraction, ambiguously shaped modulations, overlapping phrases of different lengths, and emphasis on sound design. People take the experience with them, sometimes physically by dancing, falling in and out of minimal or dense rhythm, and in both cases it is experienced simultaneously by myself and them.

All that said, I would say my live sets are more thematically and conceptually specific, whereas my DJ sets — especially the longer ones — veer into a much broader celebration of musical history. I’ll sweep through different genres, time periods, and styles like electro, techno, acid, movie soundtracks, and disco. That’s more about the form of mixing songs or tracks as components of the whole than a specific genre.

Are you still working in the holography space at all?

I’m not, but I’m open to returning to it in the future. There are many parallels between the two media that made holography a fitting precursor to music production. Both holograms and vinyl preserve information over time by embodying it in tangible objects. Both are stored on a flat, two-dimensional surface and release information as light and sound waves in a third dimension that you can perceive but can’t physically touch. And holography, just like music, inspires interactivity.

Photo: Aimee Odum, courtesy of Issue Project Room

You’re performing at the Rewire Festival in the Hague in April. What can we expect during this performance? How will it be different than the Issue Project Room shows?

I’ve enlisted an experienced telegrapher to key in messages relevant to archival history housed in the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision during the performance. My challenge is to reroute these signals into musical events that aren’t as instantly recognizable as the dots and dash sounds of Morse code. The information will be intrinsic in the music, but it may take more layers to decode. I’ll be developing this piece in part at the avant-garde venue WORM in Rotterdam, where I’ll be taking up my second artist residency. I plan to continue working with the materials and instruments built and gathered at Bell Labs throughout the year with continued research, composition, live set development, and recording of new material.

Any recent or forthcoming releases you’d like to highlight?

Silent Season just released a 12” called Shifting Zones in December. The sounds I used on this record were from a similar palette as to what I perform with. It’s always very special to work with people with such an unwavering vision as Jamie McCue, the label boss.

Also, I just produced a mix for Unrush. It’s an audio journal of significant places, people and events in the last year, and the sounds that I explored. I was trying to capture the sense of technology as it can be experienced in nature. I was also trying to capture a feeling of being in awe of the depth of our communications signal networks and the precious geography of the planet, and being physically tiny in comparison while experiencing emotions just as incomprehensibly vast and seemingly boundless.

Unrush tracklisting:

01. Antenes - Telecom Recordings, synthesizer >>> [continuous]
02. Monolake - Gobi - Imbalance Computermusic >>> [continuous]
03. BLNDR - Temples And Mothership - Natch Elements
04. Earthen Sea - The Time Past - Silent Season
05. Raica - Drone - Further Records
06. SETI - First Fragment - Instinct Ambient
07. MIIA - Search In Destruction - Unreleased
08. Binsy (Miriam Bordoni) — Alti Forni - Cabiria
09. Evan Caminiti - Acid Shadow I - Dust Editions
10. Byron Westbrook - Precipice - Root Strata
11. Jo Johnson - Weaving - Further Records
12. Dan Joseph - Digital Ephemera - Dendroica Music
13. Lea Bertucci - Sustain And Dissolve - NNA Tapes
14. Sky H1 - Huit - PAN
15. Antenes - Chicago, Metra Train, 1000x [version] - Silent Season
16. Last Faith Studio- For Faith (Feat. Sebastian Mullaert) - Last Faith Studio
17. Abul Mogard - Trembling With Tenderness - Houndstooth
18. Antenes — Dream Uncreates Abstracted / Live Excerpts @ Issue Project Room
19. Lawrence English - Negative Drone - Cruel Optimism
20. Richard Lainhart - Mist - The Deep Blue of Twilight [release]
21. Internazionale - Protection Glass (Love Is The Cure) - Posh Isolation

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