Third Angle New Music’s ongoing Decibel Series continued into the 2023-24 season with three shows featuring local artists: Branic Howard, Yawa, and Methods Body. All three put an interesting spin on the group’s reputation for playing “new music,” though this isn’t new music in the sense of “people who write classical music who are still alive.” Rather it is stuff that does feel genuinely new and fresh, exploring new dimensions of sound, songwriting and music-making using electronic equipment, hand-built instruments and “folk” instruments like steel pan and kalimba.
It is also new music insofar as it features music in a new venue, Decibel Sound and Drink. Decibel is a short walk away from downtown Milwaukie, featuring a retro-chic interior of comfy couches and soft lighting. The bar serves cocktails and food from a small menu of high-quality bar fare (salads, nachos, tacos, sandwiches) alongside fancier items like focaccia, bruschetta and charcuterie. And if you want a tasty non-alcoholic option, their shrub soda made from green apples and orgeat is delicious.
Decibel is right next to Eurotubes, and owned by the family of Eurotubes owner Bob Pletka. The choice to open a bar next to a vacuum tube shop seems a bit strange–you may be thinking “really, those light-bulb looking things?” In basically all respects, vacuum tubes are outdated technology. Compared to semiconductor-based solid-state components like transistors and diodes, vacuum tubes are older, bigger, more expensive, more fragile, and less reliable. But those tubes that were once the backbone of radio and computing technology during WWII are now prized almost exclusively by musicians, for one reason: they sound good.
For points of comparison, compare the warm tube-based distortion of the guitar sounds in electric blues, the British Invasion and jazz fusion to the more brittle and bright solid-state distortion of 90s black metal and desert rock. Tubes necessarily color the sound of the instrument, giving it what many consider a pleasing, smooth quality. Another decent point of comparison is the difference between the grainy “smoothness” of 35 mm film, and the crisp vibrance of digital photography. It’s not better or worse, just different. For similar reasons, tubes are popular in hi-fi stereo preamps, which one can see along the back wall of Decibel Sound and Drink.
So Decibel–from the hi-fi system and record collection to the interior design, even down to the punny names of their seasonal cocktails (Psycho Chiller, Dance Yrself Clean, High Thai-D)–knows who their clientele is: audiophiles and music nerds. The surprisingly good acoustics and cozy atmosphere make it a great place to chill and listen, great for the vibe Third Angle is going for in this series.
Intimate, casual, diverse
Each of the three artists featured in this close of this series used the opportunity presented by a more casual, intimate atmosphere to reach beyond the music and offer something more. Howard, for instance, punctuated his set with musings on the nature of sound and what sound means to him. Similarly, Yawa was vibrating on a higher wavelength, passionately orating between her songs on transformation, violence and love. Methods Body separated their jams with explanations of the jargony terms used to describe their music, like “microtones,” “polyrhythms,” “polymeters,” revealing what these things mean to them and their process.
Each artist also brought a diverse assortment of instruments. In a post-concert conversation with Howard, we talked about how instruments can impose limitations on our creativity. And with electronic music bringing near endless possibilities, it becomes even more essential to define what we want to use to bring forth our artistic voices. Those who seek to create music that is really new have to either re-imagine the instruments handed down to us through the generations, or to create entirely new instruments.
We saw a combination of both at Decibel. Howard’s most creative instrument was the “bell box,” used for his piece of the same name. Performers/participants threw objects into the box trying to hit bells like a pinball or pachinko machine. What made Bell Box unique was its interactivity. Each audience member had instructions like, “when you hear a high-pitched bell, blow bubbles into your drink.” This forced us to listen to each other to try to get everything right–and as the piece got more busy, I’m sure we all made mistakes, just adding to the messy markov-chain of events.
Yawa’s set-up contrasted the mellow chiming tones of the kalimba (thumb piano) with synth tones, 909 drum machine timbres, and vocal effects like stuttering tremolo and vocoder. All of these sounds became part of one- or two-bar loops that accompanied her singing. Yawa’s voice reminded me of the unique tone of Erykah Badu’s voice, with melodies sliding up and down through her entire vocal register. She also had fun messing with the tempos of her loops, speeding up and slowing down to build energy towards the end of each song. It was a cool effect, if a bit overdone.
Methods Body is a duo consisting of John Niekranz and Luke Wyland (no Matthew or Mark). Drummer Niekrasz used about every implement imaginable on his four-piece drum set, including sticks, mallets, brushes, and even his own fingers, plus a contraption with a steel pan placed upside-down on a “dadaist sculpture” of a drumstick taped to a stand that allowed the drum to rotate like a top. These sounds got picked up by Wyland’s electronic set-up of a keyboard, MIDI controllers, laptop and pedals to become manipulated into new textures and grooves.
All three artists came to Decibel and to 3A in different ways. Branic Howard was a long time audio engineer and recordist for Third Angle, and has now chosen to step back a bit from his work as a sound engineer for more creative pursuits. He began his audio engineering career in grad school at Stony Brook, when his classmates asked him to record and film their audition tapes. Once Howard came back to Oregon, he sent hand-written letters to every arts organization in town looking for work, with some of those letters leading to near decade-long partnerships. Howard has also long taught at Grant High School, where he has a fun time teaching high schoolers how to record and create music.
Yawa, meanwhile, is the artist’s name of composer Amenta Abioto. Abioto moved to Portland from Memphis, TN in 2010 with her mother and four sisters, who each have their own artistic careers spanning photography, filmmaking and performance art (a few of them were sitting up front for Yawa at Decibel). Earlier this year Abioto also released a soundwalk with Third Angle around Whitaker Ponds Nature park. And, much to the joy of ArtsWatch music editor Matthew Andrews, Abioto did finally get her own individual profile show he wished for back in 2021.
Their first album under Methods Body moniker came out in 2020, making enough noise to garner a reflection here at ArtsWatch and a review from Pitchfork (don’t pay attention to the 7.1 score: P4K’s rating system hasn’t meant anything since they were bought by Condé Nast). Since then they’ve made many sounds that at once feel familiar and foreign, especially with their “anti-Algorithm” 2023 album Plural Not Possessive. The rhythms, with a pervasive 3:2 polymeter, remind one of the sublimated African influence on American popular music, and the xenharmonic piano tunings sound close enough to our familiar major and minor scales, but more dissonant and mangled.
It’s also important to place these artists into a larger context of what is happening in Portland. The drummer-and-keyboards duo Methods Body reminds me of another local duo, Sea Moss, as well as the microtonal prog band The Mercury Tree. Yawa’s live looping textures remind me of artists like Dolphin Midwives. And Howard is at home alongside the sound art experimentalists of Extradition and the sorts of things you hear at PICA’s annual TBA Fest. These are three artists that are part of our vibrant musical culture that Third Angle is tapping into and putting a warm light on at Decibel.