When the Sonic Lullaby Festival debuted last June at Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit (CAID), it offered a discount on the door price to anyone who showed up in sleepwear. Organizer Paul MacLeod had booked acts with an affinity for ambient textures and the vagaries of experimental music encouraging comfort seemed apt for a fest celebrating music best heard horizontally, basking in the cerulean glow of a laptop screen.
The pajama tease didn't take MacLeod says he was the only one who wore them but the festival was a success, helping to centralize a burgeoning scene of musicians working with a mixture of experimental, ambient and noise influences.
Sonic Lullaby returns to the CAID, this time with a lineup that includes Trellis, a noisier outgrowth of Kimble; Hungry Tummy Project, a Royal Oak-based instrumental duo enamored of syrupy, slowly rhythmic soundscapes, like Boards of Canada submerged in paint; For Wishes, the pop-ambient side project of Au Revoir Borealis' Steve Swartz; the frail, voice-generated loop-tronics of Detroit expatriate Noise for Neko; and Mother Whale, a local noise duo who'll play Sonic Lullaby fresh from performing at the Five One Seven noise-music fest in Lansing.
It's a roster united in glitch, hushed tones and lengthy stretches of sound, but still with enough diversity to help map the particular peaks and valleys of experimentalism in the 21st century, where DIY has been revolutionized by available technology. Suddenly everyone's a bedroom genius, just waiting for some stage time.
"Some people probably those in the record industry think the do-it-yourself, home-recording ethic is ruining the record industry," For Wishes' Swartz says. "But thanks to the wonder of such technology, I've discovered so many amazing, underappreciated bands who are doing really phenomenal things, but would never have an audience the way things used to work."
Sonic Lullaby 1.5 also features Geist:Ex:Bibliotecha, the laptop duo of Chuk Nowak and Chris Thornburg. Thornburg, along with MacLeod, is a veteran of Tiny Amps of Corduroy Tuscadero. When that group dissolved in mid-2006 ("True to form," Thornburg says, "once you put out a CD, everything falls apart ...") all three shifted their focus to the computer-driven, more experimental sounds they'd been making on the side, MacLeod with his Sea Turtle Restoration Project and Thornburg and Nowak with Geist:Ex:Bibliotecha.
Geist has since started a label (Lowercase Music) and just released a comp called Softest Hammers that features tracks of their own alongside like-minded sounds from Bam, Wire Farm, Kindle and Sea Turtle.
"This is definitely music that's not of the mainstream," Nowak says of Hammers. "But it's a weird little micro-scene unto itself where everyone goes to each other's shows, anyway. We wanted to collect it, curate it, and cross-pollinate it with friends and other people who might like it" that's where MySpace comes in "and then people would hopefully realize it was happening."
Geist:Ex:Bibliotecha are doing the ambient-experimental, electronic-music-for-listening thing right. They don't get too intellectual or standoffish about it; their tracks are soft-edged and organic, but always moving forward, and always with an assist from Ableton Live, the revolutionary music sequencing software.
"Geist is like a tiny Kompakt, without the poing-y poing-y poing-y," Thornburg laughs, referring to the Cologne, Germany-based future-techno imprint and the sound of its signature beats.
Thornburg and Nowak are also helping to fuel the next-gen electronic music boom, inspired by Detroit. "Here, what makes you unique as an artist is this place," Nowak says. "Not that you went to California or New York, but this place. This is why you're interesting. It's where you grew up."
Nowak and Thornburg tick off a list of localized references for their music. There's the isolation felt, living amid the empty, occasionally decaying edifices of what came before. But there's also the sense of making music inside a working, breathing, clanging city. Nowak works on the line at Ford's Livonia Transmission plant, and acknowledges its steady hums and mechanized murmurs as one of his principal influences.
"There's a certain machine that does the drilling on the casings for the transmissions," he says. "It goes through these wonderful harmonic cycles as it drills through the aluminum. I've been trying to get recordings of that thing for years."
The sound of a drill boring through aluminum, transformed into experimental music. If that's not a Detroit lullaby, what is?
Sonic Lullaby 1.5, Saturday, Jan. 20, at Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit, 5141 Rosa Parks Blvd., Detroit; 313-899-2243. See myspace.com/soniclullabyfestival.Johnny Loftus is the music editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]