I-V-vi-IV. 1-5-6-4. The root moves to the fifth, gains momentum with the sixth, then resolves to the fourth. This chord structure and variations of it have been the default way to write a catchy pop song for a long time. From Beyoncé to Lynyrd Skynyrd, from “Wagon Wheel” to “Someone Like You” to “Let It Be” to “Take On Me,” the four-chord pop song is ever present. And while this classic approach will continue to be a wellspring of beloved jingles, it certainly isn’t the only way to write music. For listeners who crave something different, there’s a lot more out there, especially if you’re open to something a little more – well – out there.
Let’s start by trading traditional instruments for something completely experimental. Swap those tired guitars for some homemade “cello trees” made of copper wire and PVC pipe. Replace the drums with sawed-off fire extinguishers and hanging sheets of metal. Lose the concept of chords and build songs out of textures, lots of textures. Do all this and you might just end up with the Mobile Interactive Computer Ensemble (MICE) from the University of Virginia. This performance ensemble takes the standard formula found in mainstream music and strips away all the convention, resulting in raw, compelling musical experiences.
Founded over a decade ago by Matthew Burtner, current chair of the McIntire Department of Music, MICE is meant to be an agile and adaptable collective for site-specific performances. And while they typically keep to the grounds of Mr. Jefferson’s university, MICE can transform most any setting into a transcendental aural happening. I was lucky enough to catch just such a performance at The Haven during last month’s Tom Tom Founders Festival in the heart of downtown Charlottesville.
This church-turned-homeless-shelter provided a stark contrast to MICE’s otherworldly instruments. Speakers housed in vintage suitcases lined the stained glass windows while cryptic samples echoed against the vaulted sanctuary ceiling. According to director Peter Bussigel, the group sought to respect the history of the space and the purpose of The Haven’s mission, softening some of the more aggressive elements and using reverb to bring an air of contemplation to the piece. Bussigel explained, “The whole idea of being a mobile ensemble means that you’re constantly thinking about the context in which you’re performing and the spaces that you're performing in.” The mobility of it all provides opportunities for the performers to command spaces in ways that other bands can’t and, in turn, provides opportunities for audiences to venture away from something commonplace and into something unexpected and surprisingly immersive.
Creating these offbeat instruments is an exercise in identifying sonic opportunities in the everyday materials that surround us. I assumed that the designs featured in the performance must have originated in some obscure online message board, but Bussigel assured me they were imagined, designed, and constructed entirely in-house. “It’s a lot of found objects and found materials, putting them together in new ways and creating sounds that are somewhat familiar, but also different.” Back at the MICE studio, a Frankenstein’s lab of pipes, wires, and soldering irons, Bussigel demonstrated pitch bends on the student-designed cello trees by stretching and flexing the PVC base. “There’s some familiar sounds in there, but by and large, it’s a new instrument.”
“It’s a lot of found objects and found materials, putting them together in new ways and creating sounds that are somewhat familiar, but also different.”
The group spent about three weeks preparing for the Haven show: building instruments, discovering their capabilities, and developing a piece that would complement the performance environment. While composing, they jettisoned the usual concepts of verse, chorus, and bridge in favor of texture, density, and randomness. “Instead of thinking about chord changes,” explained Bussigel, “we’re thinking about these textural shifts in the music. These instruments are all somewhat unpredictable and, in my opinion, that’s some of the beauty of it. You’re not exactly sure what you’re going to get every time.” One MICE performer, Isabella Van Kesteren, noted, “We did not develop a strict score to follow for our performance. Instead, we focused on the overall flow of energy throughout.” The result is an improvisational piece that is guided not by a metronome or a melody, but by nuanced cues between performers.
With a shortage of time and an abundance of options, the students had to find a way to collaborate quickly. “It’s hard to build a piece with twelve people, it’s really hard, but I think it’s worthwhile,” Bussigel noted. “You learn a lot about how we can find a common ground about musical taste, and about taste in general.” Surprisingly, only a handful of the performers are music majors. The others come from fields like computer science, engineering, and studio art. Students from these disparate backgrounds gravitate to various aspects of the project, be it instrument construction, sound sampling, or composition. Likening it to an experiment in utopianism, Bussigel quipped, “It’s kind of this little society that develops and becomes a band.”
MICE will continue to refine the same Haven piece for their upcoming final show at Digitalis, UVA’s annual computer music festival. For this performance, the students will be building handheld audio modulators that can control reverb and delay settings without the aid of a laptop, thus adding to the overall spontaneity and theatricality. Once again, it’s uncharted territory, so they’re not sure what the end result will be. “It would be wrong for me to say that I know exactly how to do this,“ said Bussigel, “There’s no blueprint for this type of music or this type of performance. We’re really all trying to figure it out together.” In other words, while the road of the four-chord pop song is well-tread, there are vast opportunities in the unknown, and for Bussigel, the MICE crew, and an open-minded audience, that’s a trail worth blazing.
MICE will be performing at UVA’s Digitalis showcase on May 3 in Old Cabell Hall. Show starts at 8 PM, admission is free. Learn more about the ensemble at music.virginia.edu/mice.
Photography by Ashley Travis