NiCad: In Search of Sound

So – alright, stop me if you’ve heard this one – a German, an Israeli, a Chilean, an American, and a Japanese guy walk into the Royal Conservatory of the Hague in Holland. They all pull out experimental, one-of-a-kind electronic instruments and start jamming. Then after four years of touring and recording they come to Williamsburg, VA to play a badass show at my college.

The band’s name is NiCad. They bill themselves as a power rock band with homemade electronica instrumentation. They’re visiting my school for a three-day stay, culminating in a true concert. Tonight they presented a live demonstration of some of their toys.  Normally I would consider a review of an isolated live performance to be unfair or poorly informed, but in light of my recent exposition on the borders of music and the nature of this group, I couldn’t resist.

You see, the boys of NiCad didn’t play a single “song” tonight in the traditional sense. A brief introduction set the stage for Lyset Fra Nedenunder, a “tape piece” – a term they use to specify that it was pre-recorded and not interactive in nature.  Pause to process that.

The entire room was left dark and no musicians stood on stage while it played.  For fifteen minutes, we were treated to (in the artist’s words) “a thoroughly planned walk through the garden” of “sound materials originally generated for another of the composer’s electronic pieces.”  To my ear, it began with a robot breathing heavily, proceeded to electronic slurps and ribbits, then some harsh winds, a city-destroying robot laser battle, and continued with various other non-rhythmic, pitchless, otherworldly ambiences.  Listen to it here.

Several of the other pieces followed suit. In fact, the immediate follow-up was a one-man Study on Feedback. Here, interactivity was the heart and spirit of the work. Two microphones were pointed directly at the two speakers in the auditorium. The artist sat on stage at his computer – did I mention that most of the pieces tonight were presented by the individuals who made them rather than the band en masse?

The composer – or inventor – was Roberto Garreton, who used one hand to input occasional bips and whirrs via one of two handheld iPod-like devices and the other hand to control stereo volume knobs on a nearby hard electronics box. This, again, went on for what might have been 10 or 15 minutes. The variety of sounds produced in that time went beyond what your imagination is likely to conjure from my sketch.

Let me give one more example. There is a museum in The Hague that houses an exhibit of glowing neon tubes, installed there by Gilad Woltsovitch of NiCad. Each tube is damaged in some way: a wire may be frayed, a transformer may be malfunctioning, etc. The erratic electric signals due to the imperfections make noise, but that noise is far too faint for a person to ever hear, even if you held the source to your ear.

Gilad designed a device to pick up these “microsounds” and amplify them to an audible level. One of the pieces performed tonight was Hunting for Fireflies, a “tape piece” that was simply a 10-or-15-minute recording of sounds made by malfunctioning neon tubes in Holland.

To all the avant garde loonies out there (and I mean that lovingly) whose eyes are growing wide with thrills: I must now apologize.  There was a severe downside to this show.  Many of the pieces performed were concepted as both aurally and visually interactive, but the visual components were simply not available.  Hunting for Fireflies begs for the sensory stimulus of the crackling neon tubes themselves!

Watch Satoshi Shiraishi’s Hystere, featuring his invention, the e-Clambone, at work.  It’s “an aerophone supplied with haptic sensors and digital signal processing algorithms,” complemented in this piece by real-time video processing that “seeks moments of convergence and divergence.”  The entire visual component was absent at NiCad’s demonstration.

In short, this was a tragically incomplete presentation of novel and exploratory art.

See, NiCad makes albums filled with music that people can appreciate as such. But tonight was a demonstration of their deep personal interests, the sonic experiments they pursue voraciously in their free time. Clicks and bloops and buzzes and every manner of distortion came out tonight. These don’t add up to “music” by themselves the way we’re used to thinking about it. That’s not their point.

The guys don’t imagine a sound – or tune – and go try to make it; they imagine a source and go find out what sound it makes.

What they find leads, in turn, to inspiration. They take the sounds they discover and use them in their construction of (slightly) more traditional music.

I will add that, to end tonight’s demonstrations, three of the five guys got up on stage to play an improvised jam. One of them had a mic, one a drum set, and one a guitar, but goodness knows there was more to it.

The mic had a keypad on its stand and operated essentially as an advanced Yakkity Yak, the old toy voice recorder. The German would gasp, click his tongue, stutter frustrated growls, and so forth, using his mic to record and play back loops of a few seconds or so, perhaps with volume, tempo, or distortion effects added.

The guitar had pads and pedals and extra buttons (oh my!) and rarely made the sorts of noises you would expect, sticking mainly to pick scrapes across strings, warm string synths, clicks, etc. The drum set was played very quickly and in no consistent time signature.

The German would sometimes lean his mic over to the drums to start looping their sounds instead of his own. It was equally likely that the mic would be used to crash a cymbal or that a drumstick would be used to play the mic.

This all was so out of the ordinary that I can’t possibly describe all the action on stage or all the sounds that were achieved.  If this rough outline of the show intrigues you, seek more information at

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