But regardless of how much kookiness one may encounter on a field trip to art school, few visitors expect to enter a padded room, as we had the recent privilege of doing. The occasion? A rehearsal for the Scientific Americans' Electronica show with the NewEar ensemble.
Three ensembles will perform simultaneously in different parts of St. Mary's Episcopal Church on Friday night. One will set up onstage, another will be piped in from the basement, and the third will feed in from outside the building. Only Ensemble One practices inside a padded room. Funny thing is, this padded room -- used to isolate the sound produced inside it -- is quite pretty. The ribbed foam padding is layered on in aesthetically pleasing blocks, checkerboard-style. This adds texture in a way that we are embarrassed to admit we briefly considered replicating at home.
The other funny thing is how hot it gets in that room when you cram in a mandolin player, a bass clarinetist, an Ozarkian sultry player and a handful of people playing less-traditional instruments: Colby Walter, whose "large metal instrument" is a hanging metal sheet played with a bow; Katie Mullen, whose "aquatic metal instrument" is a cymbal dunked in a bucket of water; and A.J. Smith, whose pressured-air hose is more casually known among ensemble members as "bubbles." Add two people who move microphones closer to and farther from these instruments, and you've got one happening padded room.
The musicians playing in the padded room can't hear their counterparts in Ensemble Two (a live sound mixer, a CD scratcher and a theremin player), who are stationed in the room next door.
Outside, forming Ensemble Three, instructor and NewEar member Dwight Frizzell plays a "zwoom" (a long sewer hose with a contralto-sax mouthpiece on it), and NewEar member Jan Faidley plays the sax.
The sound of the large aquatic instrument? It's like ... the sound a humongous Martian's footsteps would create on pools of goopy, semisolid lava -- a slow, reverberating, watery boom. The other noises are no less bizarre. Heather Hendrix-Russell plays the sultry by rubbing her fingers slowly along the strings, creating a delicate, otherworldly squeak. "The rubbing along it's more vocal," she says. "I came up with that last year. And you're really not supposed to pluck it, either, but I like the sound that creates."
Most of these students are painters or fiber artists, not musicians. "It's nice to work with artists who don't come with some of the limitations of musical training," Frizzell explains.
But training or no, how do they all stay together when they can neither hear nor see each other while they perform? One person in each group has a stopwatch, but that's the only help they get. "We're kind of proposing psychic links," Frizzell says. One of his fellow performers recalls a trial run the group recorded, during which there were several passages when the performers -- completely isolated from each other -- played in unison.
"There's no way, no way," Frizzell insists. "When you think about all the notes you could play at any given moment, that implies synchronicity."