Synesthetic Experience: WHPK’s annual music-movie event showcases Midwestern creativity

“Spiral Jetty” by Robert Smithson (David O. Stevens/flickr)

This Saturday, Pictures and Sounds brings the recent surge in live, improvised soundtrack performances to the campus of the University of Chicago. An annual collaboration between WHPK 88.5 FM and the University’s Film Studies Center, the event features a sampling of four acts gleaned from the Midwestern avant-noise/free improvisation music scene. Each performer has chosen a short film to accompany their show, ranging from classics of experimental cinema to films produced specifically for the occasion. This year’s roster of musical acts includes Mist, Dog Lady, Trauma y Nate Wooley, and Brett Naucke.

The format updates the long-abandoned pairing of live piano soundtracks with silent films. The spontaneity and air of collaboration in the performance bring the audience into the creative fold as they, too, are a vital component of the artistic experience. Live performance simultaneously expands and explodes the self-contained world of the film, turning the musicians into co-creators of a real-time multimedia experience.

WHPK program director and showcase curator Eric Hanss sought to expand on previous years’ tradition by bringing in a more varied set of performers. “I wanted to use our resources to showcase what I find to be an increasingly fertile and dynamic, cassette-fueled outburst of Midwestern creativity,” Hanss said.

Hanss listed some elements of the local avant-garde music climate included in the show: “Sequencer worship, agile/understated creep improv, eldritch body hallucination, and sensory wobble.” “I think we’ve managed to graft a lot of countervailing styles into a coherent whole,” he said, “which is what is so great about this Midwestern thing in general, and I went with artists that I found to be crucial players in it. Four run cassette labels, many book local shows, etc. I’ve been familiar with them through the cassettes they release, and I’ve caught a few locally.” He further explained that the relationships between the radio staff and the local music scene are facilitated by Pure Hype, a weekly radio show that broadcasts live performances of local bands recorded in WHPK’s own record library.

A brief investigation of the bands themselves yields quick verification of Hanss’ claims. Mist, comprised of Cleveland noise/drone stalwarts Sam Goldberg of the Pizza Night Tapes label and John Elliot of drone torch-bearers Emeralds, deal in burbling, synth-based technicolor. Appropriately, they’re scheduled to play to the vibrant, playful animation of Canadian Norman McLaren. Pictures and Sounds will be their first Chicago performance. As Dog Lady, Detroit’s Mike Collino summons a dynamic range of lurching wasteland symphonies with heavily processed violin loops. He will perform with the film “CAST” by Michigan video artist Alivia Zivich. Trauma y Nate Wooley, also of Detroit, bridge the sensibilities of free jazz with chaotic electronics. They will play to Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty,” a film of his famous earthwork sculpture. Last on the roster is Chicago’s own Brett Naucke, cornerstone of the local scene and the man behind the Catholic Tapes label, who will present the debut of his new synth project along with a film made for the occasion by Chicago’s Nathan Young. With such an accomplished, heterogeneous set of performers and films, Pictures and Sounds’ live soundtracks seem guaranteed to provide a reeling synesthetic pilgrimage to the roadside temples of the Midwestern avant-garde.
Film Studies Center, third floor, 5811 S. Ellis Ave. February 20. Saturday, 8pm. Free.