“Now, Jeff asked me to open up Sonic Circuits, so I’ll be making the first sound of the festival,” Jason Mullinax said as an introduction to his solo set, known as Pilesar. “But I’d like to take that pressure off, and ask you all to make the first noise of the festival.” On cue, Mullinax had the audience make an assortment of excited clamor and then transitioned into his first song, laying down multiple loops of vocal samplings. He used his voice as percussion and melody, and once a few layers settled in, Mullinax added more sound by using his electronic pedal set-up. Many of his songs have a backstory, like “Itchy Carrots” — a ballad about his wife’s bizarre and sometimes hospitalizing allergic reactions toward carrots, apples, and other fruits and vegetables. To set the premise for “Spider Bites”, Mullinax explained that while practicing music in his basement, he frequently encountered spiders.
“I hope you like my songs more than those spiders do,” Mullinax joked. Ween is the first artist listed as an influence for Pilesar’s direction, which can be easily seen throughout Mullinax’s work, from his quirky song titles and lyrics to his musical stylings.
Always bringing something new to their live performances, Hume came to Sonic Circuits with an altered lineup. In the absences of bassist Joey Doubek and keyboardist Leo Svirsky, Hume’s three core members added Janel Leppin and Rod Hamilton to their live set. Leppin, popular throughout D.C.’s music scene, played her resonant cello, and Hamilton, from Baltimore’s duo Avocado Happy Hour, played vibes. These tones added a new mood to Hume’s music, as the band slowed down and softened up a bit without losing any energy.
Free improvised jazz teemed between Vector Trio and the Muffins. Both bands are from the D.C. area and used various brass instruments through their set. Vector Trio kept things tight with drums, an upright electric bass, and an assortment of hand instruments, and The Muffins played an explosive set with plenty of baritone saxophone action.
The evening’s main attraction, Magma, attracted a dedicated following since U.S. shows are so rare. This French progressive rock band is well-known for their theatrical and extended performances. Magma borderlines between being a band or an ensemble with choral movements at its core. The eight-person group is led by drummer and vocalist Chris Vander. Having a developed concept behind his lyrical and musical compositions, Vander further broke creative boundaries decades ago by establishing Kobaian, his own constructed language for Magma’s lyrics. Kobaian refers to the language spoken on the fictional planet Kobaia, referenced in the storyline of Magma’s songs.
Language is a primary form of communication, but Vander took language beyond practicality, putting it into an esoteric channel with his operatic compositions. Two women and one man went back and forth between singing together on risers and taking solos on the main stage. Vander even took a few vocal solos, pausing his drumming as he sang with a compelling stance. The instrumentalists maintained a high level of stamina amongst the long, operatic songs, and had their moments for solos as well. A highlight of the set was when the pianist took a turn into a celestial solo. As a whole, the group established a dark and dissonant mood, mesmerizing the audience for more than two and a half hours.
There’s not a moment of rest when Sonic Circuits is in full swing. By noon on the second day, festivities continued at Old Town Hall in Fairfax, Va. Borborites, an experimental noise group, decided to kick things off in a small garden, which put them into a form of performance art. Although they were concealed by a small circle of shrubs and flowers, their music traveled around the surrounding area, providing an interesting juxtaposition to the neighborhood farmer’s market, which was in earshot. Longtime experimental musician Dave Voch played a short and ominous set afterward with his analog modular synth, followed by noise artist Kingdom of Sharks.
Being unfamiliar with some of the acts, it was difficult to keep track of who was who. The Old Town Hall event was a constant stream of bands coming on one after another. The coordinators took advantage of the space given, setting up a stages upstairs and downstairs for smooth transitions. Most of the sets that I caught early in the afternoon were bands comprised of two or three musicians. Matta Gawa, a free jazz band, played an intense set. Guitarist Ed Richhart ended up tuning down his strings for strange effects, only to rip them off of his guitar at the end with his own hands. Mercury Fools the Alchemist shared the same stage as Matta Gawa, creating somber tones with an upright bass and guitar. The other member of the band, Jeff Bagato, fiddled around on what he calls a “springamajig”, which made complementary sound as well.
The musical marathon carried on all throughout the evening — a definite test of endurance. Although I left mid-afternoon, I heard audience members talking about their interest to catch later sets by Fuze Ensemble, Illusions of Safety, and many other acts. The weekend was a strong dose of music and served as a proper introduction as to what the rest of Sonic Circuits will offer this week, including special performances by international artists such as Fennesz, Merzbow and Univers Zero, as well as local favorites, Gestures.