As redundant as any claims that “(insert genre here) is dead” would be, there exist certain elements lurking in today’s more mysterious musical forests that are breathing a new life into the concepts of performance and noise. It’s true, anyone can make a racket with an amplifier and a 1/4 inch phone input, but understanding the nature of what actually creates sound and using that knowledge to compose (un)structured sonic blasts takes a bit of skill. Peter B is a performer from Chicago whose homemade electronic instruments celebrate the beauty of this skill, and he’s bringing some of these hardwired golems on tour, along with some hand-picked artists who will put their own twisted spins on the tools he’s presented them with.
“I make an ensemble of instruments and then find people to play them. It’s a really interesting collaboration between me, trying to make these original instruments, and the performers, who are trying to make original music with them,” he explains over the phone a few days before his tour starts.
The Shinth tour, as it’s called, is a showcase of the extremely complex creations Peter B has made. There’s the nabratu, an “analog brain synthesizer,” which is composed of about 30 different circuits arranged on a long roll of canvas; by connecting different circuits in random combinations, the performers can create tons of unique sounds that Peter describes as “sophisticated and robust … not necessarily dense and loud, but sparse … but still complicated.” The ambrazier is a digital sampler full of analog synth circuits. Any sounds it receives are translated into the sonic language of a synthesizer, processed by the performer through the instrument’s unique effects settings and then sent into an amplifier. The instruments with perhaps the most sonic possibilities, though, are the shinths themselves. Essentially boxes of different circuits with no input or output channels, these “beasts,” as their creator likes to call them, can be played many ways with multiple results.
“They’re a collection of a bunch of different circuits that aren’t like synth circuits or oscillators … they do arbitrary things,” says Peter. “It’s like a chorus of organisms or a big bunch of cells … like looking through a microscope at a sample of pond water.”
Mr. B himself plays the shinths by using his body as a conduit for the voltage they generate. After placing a spoon that is connected to an amplifier into his mouth, Peter connects circuits randomly with his fingers, which sends the voltage (a relatively low amount, mind you) through his body and into the spoon. This is just one form of invoking the arcane power of these instruments, and part of the attraction of this tour will be seeing how four different performers utilize the seemingly infinite combinations of sound provided by the shinths and their counterparts.
None of the three artists on tour with Peter and his “beasts” are strangers to circuit chaos and sonic anarchy. Twig Harper, whose Baltimore-based group Nautical Almanac is known for their incendiary live performances involving most anything they can rewire, will bring the most abrasive aesthetic to the tour. Live recordings of his previous shinth interactions reveal piercingly high frequencies hovering above a constant roar of white noise and a rhythmic melody whose shape moves from thunderous beats to chirping blips and bleeps. Chicago DJ and multimedia artist Rotten Milk’s approach to composition discards conventions both rhythmic and harmonic, sometimes resulting in the juxtaposition of several “song” structures layered over each other. Taking a more conventional (in a relative sense) approach to Peter’s creations is Fashion Flesh, whose remixes for artists such as bizarre Scottish pop star Momus have earned the Michigan native a reputation for having an ability to sonically disembowel whatever he’s handed, be it a song or a toy found at a flea market. He’s described as the “glitch half” of a group called Super Madrigal Brothers, who take apart the theme songs to various early ’90s Nintendo games and cut them into distorted grooves.
Peter sells these instruments and more on his website, rainbowrandom.net, and is currently able to support himself peddling his contraptions. He was given a head start by the Langlois Foundation, a Montreal organization that provides grants to any endeavor that merges science and art. The initial funding was used to build the first shinths, and multiple shows over the past few years around Chicago have spawned enough interest among knob-twiddlers and noise addicts nationwide to warrant this tour. Even though he is the Dr. Frankenstein to these elaborate monsters, Peter considers himself a musician first and foremost, and hopes that his creations can catch on with the worldwide music community.
“I want them to be art pieces, but I want them to be used by musicians first,” he explains. “It’s a hard place to be, between artist and artisan with these instruments … I love the possibility to have more complex, automatic forms come out of these creations. I really like automatic music, where originally you’re sitting in a room with yourself and then all of a sudden you’re sitting in a room with an intelligent form that’s making something sort of emotional … a handmade beast.”