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Notes From the Underground
from the Boston's Weekly Dig
Sept. 20th - 27th 2000

Since they organized their first show in the autumn of 1996, the Toneburst Collective -- a loose association of electronic musicians, DJs and multi-media artists -- has been a locus of activity for Boston's electronic music underground. Over the past four years, Toneburst has staged numerous musical happenings, such as the large avant/anti-raves "childstyle," "Toneburst Squared," "Junk," and "We Will Play," as well as a wide variety of smaller performances in and around Boston. In the last year, the group's activities have slowed somewhat, the result of a mini-Toneburst diaspora, as a number of the Toneburst crew have graduated and moved elsewhere. This Friday however, Toneburst have organized a reunion of sorts, the amazing-looking <<Rewind<< show at MassArt, featuring all the original members of the collective plus a stunning group of special guests, including New York's Anti-Pop Consortium and Boston's own laptop hero, Hrvatski (a longtime Toneburst associate).

In their shows, Toneburst combine a festive, carnival-like atmosphere with a relentlessly eclectic mix of sonic experimentation. The events are, in the words of Jake Trussell (Electro Organic Sound System), "cheap, fun, and musically diverse." In a shingle Toneburst event, you are exposed to a multiplicity of musical styles (most of which fall under the general category experimental electronic), from jungle to noise, hip-hop to Hardcore, IDM (intelligent dance music) to dub, to name but a few. "That's what's cool about the shows too, of course," notes Antony Flackett (DJ Flack). "People in their set will switch it up so much - they won't stick to just one, repetitive style of music; and beyond that, there's just [the experience] walking between the different spaces. I think people come to realize that it's not compartmentalized music. With electronic music, there are all different kinds of ways to do it.... it's just expression. I like the fact that [a Toneburst show] blurs how people come up with what they like. Hopefully, people will be open-minded and be turned on to new types of music while they're there."

One of the keys to maintaining the spirit of experimentation so characteristic of Toneburst is the group's loose, collective structure, which fosters debate and innovation: the musical diversity of the shows mirrors the diversity of opinion within toneburst itself. "We have a lot of differing opinions," explains Mike Esposito (ESP). "We have a lot of people who want to keep things fresh and keep trying new ideas. Sometimes we would have growing pains, but I think that it's been a positive factor in keeping the shows interesting and changing as much as we could. People were willing to toss around new ideas and disagree with each other." Arnaldo Hernandez (Config.Sys) agrees, saying: "That's the main reason that I wanted to get involved [with Toneburst], because it was truly underground. It was in spaces you didn't expect it to be. It wasn't expensive. It was just this weird bunch of people, who somehow had it together enough to put on these events. And really amazing things happened!"

From its inception, Toneburst attempted to create spaces for musical innovation outside the confines of Boston's commercial clubs and the increasingly comodified rave scene, which Alex Rae (X Rae) notes "no longer exists outside of the mainstream." The group embraced what Esposito describes as a punk-inspired, DIY approach to events, organizing them in a number of unusual venues around the city: transforming galleries, a church, colleges, as well as larger institutions like the Children's Museum, and the Museum of Science into spaces for sonic exploration. With the Museum of Science show "Access," a part of the Boston Cyber-Arts festival, the group employed the idea of hacking as a metaphor both for their approach to the electronic music and to the event itself. Hernandez explains: "The mentality behind that title was that we were nothing but a bunch of hacks, who didn't have the big organizations to back us or have the wallets to afford fancy technology, so we were just hanging off the technologists' coat-tails, picking up whatever they had left behind, taking that, making use of it and really pushing the envelope of what technology was doing as far as electronic music and keeping it cheap and trying to survive. And, at the same time, [we were] sort of hacking our way into the Cyber-Arts Festival and getting access by any means necessary."

As they've traveled around the country and globe, The Toneburst crew has become increasingly aware that there are numerous small, experimental groups, sprouting up from New York to Madrid, who, like them, have taken advantage of new music and video technology to step outside of the corporate club culture and stage their own events. Sasha Constanza-Chock (Splice), who found such a group while in Puerto Rico, believes that phenomenon is widespread: "I think what we're doing here has pretty much arisen spontaneously everywhere around the world where people have access to the new music-making and video tools. We have word that it was happening in China from one of our Toneburst members who was in Beijing. I think it's happening everywhere, because they're just tools and instruments and human beings making music with them."

Although they are hesitant to call <<rewind<< the final Toneburst event, there is a sense among the members that I talked with that it will be the last large event for some time. Says Esposito, "Probably if it happens again, it will be a totally new thing, I think. Because everyone's got other projects that they've been working on in one form or another, I just can't imagine it will happen again as it has happened or as it will happen at this show." Toneburst members have indeed been busy: Jace Clayton (/rupture) recently toured Europe, playing the Montreux Jazz Festival; Hernandez founded Snowball Studio, a record label, which also provides free web space for artists working on projects dealing with electronics and information; Esposito has a weekly radio show on Sunday nights from 11pm-1am on WZBC; Costanza-Chock is working on the Boston Cyber-Arts Festival; Trussell will be releasing a second full-length as EOSS this October' and the list goes on. In the end, with so many individual projects, and more importantly, so many members of the crew moving out of Boston, the logistics of putting together a large scale event like <<Rewind<< have become prohibitively complex. "Hopefully, we'll keep doing events," says Trussell. "They won't be Tonebursts maybe, but we'll keep doing events and they'll still be good."

The group's dispersal around the globe, however sets Hernandez to thinking about a Toneburst of truly epidemic proportions. "Imagine this: Everybody leaves Boston and inserts this infectious seed in markets around the world."

Esposito finishes the thought: "The virus spreads."

-S. Bolle