It was just before the golden hour when I sat down with Michael Bailey and Alex Boyd of Parallax ’48. Sunbeams spotted the ceilings and walls of my apartment, and my cat snuggled into Bailey’s lap, while Boyd looked around the room, touching various mementos from high school and beyond. It was a comfortable environment, and the ease between the duo became more and more apparent as we spoke: their overlapping responses building upon each other as we talked about feedback, artistic direction, and audio equipment.
Parallax ’48 formed when Boyd and Bailey worked on a documentary project together, and discovered a mutual interest in sound engineering and composition. “Parallax was the condensation of what we were already doing for fun,” Boyd explains. And the conversational give and take that I experienced is more or less how the music works as well: onstage, the group improvises ambient sounds, using carefully selected tools — some of which are handmade — to harness the sonic vibrations of their performance space and turn it into something new.
“It’s like that game that kids play,” Bailey says, “Where they put hand over hand over hand over hand. So once one of us puts a new hand on top of the others, then the hand below it needs to come back on top.”
In this case, the “hands” are audio tools: Five microphones, one guitar, one computer, and countless programs. The group brings no pre-recorded material to their performances, instead relying on sounds captured during the performance. “It’s like a magic trick,” Boyd says. “I”m trying to not, like, be DJing warehouse sounds, I’m trying to make something new every time we play.” She continues: “It's like a cooking show — we want to do things in front of [the audience], and have them be surprised at what comes out.”
Specifically, Parallax ’48 uses a max patch to constantly resample their environment, re-pitching both ambient noise elements (movements of the crowd, vibrations between walls, etc.) and intentional noise elements, like notes from Boyd’s guitar or vocals from her microphone. “Everything we do is listened to and re-imagined by the robot harmonizer,” Boyd explains. In addition to the vocal microphone that Boyd uses, Bailey collects noise from dynamic and condenser microphones, which he can point in various directions around the room, or towards Boyd’s instrument. Bailey also uses a binaural microphone that he made himself, out of two omnidirectional microphones and a plastic box.
If this all sounds confusing, that’s because it is — but when listening to Parallax ’48, the fluidity of their performance overshadows the technical chaos brewing behind the scenes. “From an audience perspective, hopefully our sounds request that the listener focuses and enters a deeper listening state,” says Bailey. “But for us, our minds are racing.” Making “magic” out of thin air requires a lot of practice, and though Bailey and Boyd don’t plan out Parallax ’48 performances, they play together constantly. “It’s practice of trust,” says Bailey. “It’s always new.”
Frankly, I’m jealous of the way that sound engineers apparently create impactful pieces out of unseen vibrations. It seems otherworldly: to exact emotional impact on an audience without them being aware of what is happening. But whether they are aware of it or not, the audience plays a major role in Parallax ’48 shows, as the physicality of their bodies influences the performance’s feedback.
Feedback loops, which occur when audio outputs are re-input into the same system, are a constant in Parallax ’48 performances. In any situation, sound waves bounce off bodies and walls, but in the closed and crowded environment of a musical performance, those vibrational interactions can be particularly powerful. “The sounds of the feedback only exist because of the parameters of [any one] environment,” explains Bailey. Boyd’s conception is a bit more romantic: “It’s like the room singing,” she says. “I want to make the room sing in interesting ways.”
Bailey and Boyd’s work with feedback loops and microphones is situated within a rich history of electronic composers, and they are both very studied in the field. Boyd’s face lights up when she tells me about a piece she was especially inspired by — “Pea Soup,” by Nicolas Collins. “The way that “Pea Soup” works is that all the feedback is going to frequency shifters,” she says. “So as soon as it starts to feedback, it gets pitched down, so it’s stabilized. It’s just this shifting mass of feedbacks that are constantly getting re-pitched so they don’t get out of control. It’s fascinating.”
Other inspirations include John Cage, academic experimental electronic music coming from Mills College, Maggi Payne, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Iannis Xenakis, and composers from the San Francisco Tape Music center, such as Terry Riley, Pauline Oliveros, and Morton Subotnick. Their name, too, acts as an inspiration; “Parallax ’48” comes from an Ansel Adams book, published in 1948, which describes “parallax error” as the difference between an image that appears through a camera viewfinder, and what is captured by the camera lens. “I’m interested in stuff that’s created out of nothing,” says Boyd. Bailey agrees: “it’s like an endless discovery, because [feedback] is like chaos in sound,” he says. “Every time you work with it is a new experience.”
The group is new, but they have big ambitions. “I definitely want to push more in the direction of doing cool stuff with feedback,” says Boyd. She lists off ideas for future performances, including getting tiny sound systems, a frequency shifter, phaser, and more. “Sometimes you have to switch it up,” she says. “I’m obsessed with mistake sounds. What we’re trying to do anyway is an improvised noise act.”
As far as the logistics of future performances, Boyd is practical. “We just lay the tools on the ground and try to make it work,” she says.
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