the weird science of toneburst
(the boston phoenix february 19 - 26, 1998)
"Apollo Hank Funk," one of DJ Flack's cuts on the new Toneburst Collective compilation (BlissRecordings), is a sonic collage glued together by a voice intoning "carefully selected if not documented samples" over a beat sliced up from, of all things, Hank Williams guitar licks. The track, with its application of pre-millennial breakbeat science to a familiar country riff, is a perfect introduction to the work of Toneburst, Boston's most active and visible experimental electronic art/music/DJ collective. Started by local college students, the group have been pushing a steadfastly DIY aesthetic, relentless eclecticism, and a shameless disregard for musical categories, not to mention copyright law, for almost two years. The collective, whose next event, "We Will Play," brings the New York illbient/jungle trio We to Mass College of Art's Kennedy Building this Friday, was founded as a forum for experimental musicians and DJs to collaborate with video and installation artists. What brought the earliest members together was the underground network of electronic music shows on local college radio stations WZBC and WMBR. Toneburst member and keyboardist Rafi Loiederman, a/k/a Scuzzy, jokes that "one of the things we thought when we all met each other was, 'Oh my God, there's other people like us that exist.' "
Driven by a common interest in the booming beats of jungle, dub, and related musical forms, the crew assembled and in October 1996 held their first event, "Electro Organic Sound System vs. Embryo," in ArtSpace Gloucester. DJ Jace Clayton (he spins under the name "/rupture") admits that "it's questionable as to whether the audience was composed of anyone who wasn't a performer or who helped set up." But in the months since that modest beginning the collective has held more visible events, including a guest appearance by NYC's DJ Spooky and Ben Neill in North Hall at Mass College of Art last April.
Early Toneburst events were structured around a fairly simple format: dancing in one room, chilling out in another, with both spaces heavily juiced up by live-video mixing apparatus, interactive electronic toys, and even (at one event) a large silk tent. That format attracted day-glo-clad teenage ravers, outlandishly dressed art-school students, and hip-hop freestylers. Toneburst producer Jake Trussell, who's also the man behind the ambient dub/drum 'n' bass of Electro Organic Sound System, emphasizes that "affordability is always the main point." Indeed, whereas mainstream raves generally charge in the $30 range, Toneburst have kept their cover at just $5.
Having mastered the art of throwing progressive if somewhat straightforward parties, Toneburst are now moving on to present what Clayton likes to call "social sculptures" -- new ways to juxtapose genres of music that attract different groups of people, as in last September's "Junk" event. "Junk," or "jungle versus punk," attempted to throw together the heavy boom of jungle bass with the alienated aggression of local punk bands like Fat Day and Bristle Blocks. Sasha Chock, founding member of the dub-rooted Embryo (who have since merged with their sister group, Spool), says he'd like to see Toneburst do a show with live salsa bands or Puerto Rican DJs.
The current music of Toneburst, as compiled on the 14-track Toneburst Collective CD, represents a ferociously eclectic body of work. The "Sand in the Sampler" remix of Electro Organic Sound System's "Percussive Waves" by /rupture is a terrifying excursion toward ragga jungle territory that mixes abusive pools of static with Arabic flutes, vocal samples, and an off-kilter snatch of the '80s multi-artist famine-relief hit "We Are the World." Spool head in a completely different direction with "Red/Blue," which layers chewy synth lines over drill 'n' bass for a mix reminiscent of the weirdstep jungle being done by England's Plug. Ojamoj deconstructs a hip-hop groove on "Googly," and DJ Flack offers tongue-in-cheek juxtapositions of everything from the Hank Williams samples of "Apollo Hank Funk" to the space-age hip-hop beats of "Glue Hawaii," which sounds like a Rastafarian merry-go-round gone haywire.
One of the CD's highlights is a collaboration between Mike Esposito (ESP, Embryo/Spool) and Stu Brown, a drummer from Scotland. "Hundreds of Them (All Over the Place)" cranks out a growling, distorted bass line with an Ornette Coleman-sounding alto-sax squawk. The scratch and clatter of this track points to a collision of the aggressive remix ethic of jungle with the raw, virtuosic energy of free jazz. You might call it jazzy jungle, but it digs into more adventurous sample territory than LTJ Bukem's fusions of Kenny G ripoffs and jungle beats. Esposito says that his musical aim "is to continue to do jungle stuff, but not jungle per se . . . to find ways to work with the techniques and methods [of jungle] but not the same exact music."
That goal -- applying drum 'n' bass methods to a different sonic palette -- is the Toneburst philosophy in a nutshell. As a result, the collective has a Janus-like identity. There's the playful side, amply represented by the whimsical samples of DJ Flack and the carnivalesque atmosphere that's planned for this Friday's event -- attendees are encouraged to bring noise toys (in return for discounted admission), and the DJs will be encouraged to stick to playful themes. Then there's the dark, serious tone that conveys the urgency of Toneburst's underground mission -- a mood /rupture evokes by sampling from an LP used as an advertisement for early antidepressant drugs: "The constellation of symptoms always includes a feeling of ill being."
Toneburst's most obvious predecessor is the New York-based Cultural Alchemy, who sponsor Soundlab parties at various gallery spaces and warehouses in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Soundlab was the launch pad for New York's hippest electronic innovation, illbient -- DJ Spooky, Byzar, Sub Dub, and We were all given a profile boost from Soundlab's 1996 happenings. Soundlab events, like Toneburst's, thrive on technological mix-and-matching and immersive, media-saturated environments. But Toneburst events attract a more diverse audience than Soundlab's exclusive crop of downtown Manhattan arts scenesters, and the atmosphere tends to be more relaxed, playful. Perhaps because of Boston's smaller size and high college-student population, Toneburst are a more open, flexible crew -- the group have extended an open invitation to artists and musicians to call the Toneburst infoline for information on participating.
"Instead of saying, 'Who do we want to play?', we ask, 'What sort of dynamic do we want to create?' " -- that's how Clayton sums up Toneburst's inclusive ideals. But another key to the Toneburst philosophy is their concerted resistance to consumer culture. By manipulating the spiritual side of deep bass grooves with terrifying sonic grit and noise, Toneburst aim to hold onto their underground roots. Still, Loiederman is well aware that all artists face the temptation to go commercial, and none more so these days than Toneburst's main influence, jungle. "It's very easy for artists to rant and rave [about commercialism], but it's also very easy for them to sell out."
Cultural monotony is another worry. Although the music they work with, especially dub, is inherently multicultural, quoting from another culture's music is not the same as understanding that culture. Clayton acknowledges that Toneburst are "white for the most part, white and collegiate." They also, like the world of electronica at large, have few female participants. But the group have regularly included works by Jenn Leong, a video artist, and Lynn Stabile, a producer/installation artist. And Clayton is hoping they'll be able to draw more of a multiracial crowd to this Friday's event, which will feature the Boston hip-hop crew Politics of Experience.
Since most of Toneburst's members are indeed college students (Harvard and Mass Art are heavily represented), the group's post-graduation future is somewhat cloudy. The compilation CD points toward a Toneburst involved more heavily in recorded music than in live events. Several artists are already planning releases: Electro Organic Sound System have several vinyl singles in the works; Esposito, Loiederman, and Clayton have a collaborative vinyl EP in production. So even if Toneburst don't develop a distinctive group sound in the manner of collectives like Roni Size's Bristol-based V label, it's likely that their collaborative mixing and remixing will keep incubating the virus-infected funk of experimental beats.
"We Will Play" takes place this Friday, February 20, from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. at Massachusetts College of Art's Kennedy Building, 621 Huntington Avenue, Boston.
- Chris Tweney