Boston City Hall isn’t just for shuffling important papers or starting meetings with the mayor. The iconic brutalist building, defiantly repping the coldness of 1968 to make sure you never forget it, is occasionally home to a series of stimulating, though infrequent, electronic events—and the next in its series is possibly its coolest yet.
This upcoming Friday will see Non-Event, the Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture, and the Harvard Graduate School of Design present Concrete Sounds: Multichannel Experimental Electronics in Boston City Hall. Los Angeles-based artist Richard Chartier will headline the event with his now well-known minimalist sound art, focusing on the inter-relationships between the spatial nature of sound, silence, focus, and the very act of listening. Somerville-based multimedia artist and musician Victoria Shen will perform before him, focusing on the spatiality and physicality of sound and its relationship to the human body. The event is free, all ages, and begins promptly at 8 pm.
Even if Victoria Shen’s name doesn’t ring a bell, there’s a chance you’ve seen her before under the moniker Evicshen. The 29-year-old artist has been performing in the Boston area for close to four years and has been living here for over 11 years. Shen moved to Boston from San Francisco to study visual arts at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University. She supported herself throughout her time there by various projects, including a performance art project where she built pop-up nail salons and recreated modernist paintings on volunteers’ nails. She continued cobbling together money along the way before landing a full-time job at Harvard, where she still works during the day. Music was in her life throughout all of this, but it wasn’t until after college that her attention shifted to the performance aspect of it and, in turn, the desire to explore the analog world kicked in. That’s when her creativity hit a new type of high.
“Some people say analog instruments are a fetish, like some type of elitist music space,” says Shen. “But I think it’s very beautiful and elegant in its simplicity. It forces some amount of constraint on you that I think digital doesn’t have, at least when it comes to the kind of music I was making before using virtual sound samples and overlaying as many effects as possible. It was helpful to pair down my sound pallette.”
Over the past four years, Shen primarily performed in the local experimental EDM scene. At basement shows and small DIY gatherings, her peers pushed themselves to see how far they could go, and their influence began seeping into the way she viewed live performance. Eventually, Shen’s short stint working at a synthesizer company producing experimental electronics paid off, as the owner introduced her to the world of Non-Event, the Boston-based concert series and booking entity. It was only a matter of time before they invited her to perform at a few smaller events, including one at the magical Waterworks Museum in Brookline. This Friday’s show at Boston City Hall will be her biggest to date.
“A lot of my work tries to respond to the space I’m performing in, in an attempt to have every performance be site-specific and new. At City Hall, I want to utilize the resonant qualities of the concrete interior and the space in general,” says Shen. “This performance will be more different than normal because of the installation I’m creating as well. Usually I just bring my synthesizers, contact mics, and other electronics. I’ll try to figure out how to build a relationship with the space by bringing in what I have on hand because I don’t usually know what the site will look like. But this time, I’ve visited the space three times since learning I would perform here, so I’ve been putting together a far more ambitious installation than I normally would.”
Those seeking a more vivid description of Shen’s installation will, unfortunately, have to wait until the event. She plans on keeping everything a secret until it’s happening in the moment. But it helps to know that she usually plays with the same theme: using resonant bodies to play with feedback, to explore how sound will travel through space, and to then translate the way sound uses that space as a source input for her synthesizers.
So what exactly does it mean to explore the relationship between sound and the body? Shen wants to explore every definition out there. There’s more to that bond than just your ears hearing sounds around them. There’s four other senses to engage with. For one thing, it helps to play music really loudly, because at the very least you begin to understand the physical force and power of the otherwise invisible source.
“When I say that I deal with the relationship between sound and human body, I think of the way I interact with my body through sound,” she explains. “It’s a gestural reaction to sounds. It’s like dancing, but not necessarily with the lexicon of typical dance. With certain types of music, there’s body language that people will respond to that genre of music with. A lot of the sound stuff that I do is primal, meaning I enter this primal present state when I play music. It’s unclear if it’s my gestures creating this sound or if it’s a response, converging onto a type of singularity. I put my own personal body as an instrument as a receptacle for the sound.”
If that doesn’t stick, just think about how microphones operate instead. Abandon the idea of them as a way to transmit messages, and instead think of microphones as a way to translate emotion or the space you’re currently occupying. The human bodies in a room will change the timbre of the feedback. If nothing else, it’s about playing around with things until you begin to understand the immediate section of the world around you—something that, in itself, is impossible to understand because everything is constantly in motion, constantly developing, constantly aging as you begin to grasp onto an earlier understanding of it. It’s a heady subject matter, but one that’s just as moving and insightful as you allow it to be. Music is art, yes, but it goes deeper than just being an art form. It’s about pushing the traditional ways in which it’s made and how it makes you feel, and Victoria Shen will do exactly that this Friday.
“There’s something painful [about experimental music], but it’s almost like modern art,” she says, laughing. “The ability to appreciate or follow a musical thread down in that way, to not have it be spoon-fed to you, is great. You tough it out to find an angle where you can really enjoy these sounds, whether it’s the pure sensation of listening, learning to be present, or feeling the textures of the song. You get to do all of that, but without all the baggage of language or history or intertextuality of past conventions of music that you need to understand it. You just experience it.”
RICHARD CHARTIER, VICTORIA SHEN. FRI 10.12. BOSTON CITY HALL, MEZZANINE LEVEL, 1 CITY HALL PLZ., BOSTON. 7:30PM/ALL AGES/FREE. NONEVENT.ORG