Art-Band MSHR Makes Sound From Light And Light From Sound

June 18, 2014 | Marina Galperina

MSHR’s stage is one giant musical instrument, a sculpture made of mirrors and fluorescent plastic. It’s laser-cut into latices of glyphs connected by wires, with plates curving into square, kaleidoscope shapes and lasers cutting through the fog. Their other instruments are custom-built from analog synthesizers, optical sensors, oscillators, light bulbs, microphones and seashells. As they perform, moving slowly, dragging objects — the sound controls the lights which control the drone which controls the strobe. Sound is light. Light is sound. Everything is everything. (Watch the interview above)

“We’re playing light-audio feedback,” MSHR’s Brenna Murphy tells ANIMAL, standing in a service hallway at Eyebeam Art+Technology Center. “The synthesizer is totally controlled by light and then, different groups of light are turned on by different frequencies produced by the synthesizer,” Birch Cooper adds.

MSHR, Liquid Hand, Upfor, Portland OR (2013)

MSHR (pronounced “mesher”) had just performed at Eyebeam’s last big bash before their move to Brooklyn. Two days earlier, they played an intimate show at Silent Barn. Influenced by free and raga music, MSHR’s every performance is different and improvised, but it follows a structure. After three years of performing together and collaboratively producing playable sculptures, the Portland, Oregon artists have developed a flow and are in visible harmony.

“We kind of think of our performances as ceremonies,” Birch Cooper proposes. Playing in complete darkness, MSHR begins with a centering, slowly flooding the space with drone and backlit fog, building up energy. Then, they activate the light audio feedback system. “It’s more possible to engage with the elements in front of you.” They move slowly, literally sculpting the billowing sound with wired gloves. There’s a climax — a throbbing, screeching blast of light which engulfs the audience.

Finally, MSHR walk around the set and step to face each other. “At the end, we are using an interface where we can play the frequency of an isolator by touching each other’s skin.” They meet their fingertips and stroke each others’ cheeks, the set sparkling and buzzing behind them. The audience feels plugged into that circuit.

“We’re working with a visual world and a sonic world, intermixed,” Murphy explains, smiling, outlining the merging boundaries with her hands. “It expands how we can enter each world.”

MSHR at Eyebeam, Brooklyn (2014), Video: ANIMAL New York

With this approach, there is a specific non-verbal vocabulary of shapes and symbols, manifested in Murphy’s sculptural and digital work. “We have to house the light sensors in some boxes, so we developed specific shapes for those boxes. We think of those shapes as resonant symbols that relate to the square-wave oscillators that we use.” The shapes are digitally fabricated using a CNC router, a laser cutter and a 3D-printer, evolved from earlier versions of sets which included scavenged pieces of plastic and carved driftwood. The seashells remained.

“It’s kind of an idea of a synesthetic link between the sound and the visuals of what we’re doing. The resonant symbols are supposed to be universal human consciousness,” Cooper says. When speaking of the shapes in an earlier interview, Murphy described design as “a form of meditation,” an engagement with “the structure of reality,” “accessing states of pattern consciousness,” and “molding my mental pathways toward vibrational sensitivity.”

MSHR ~ TerrestrialSenser, installation at PNCA Feldman Gallery, Binary Lore, Portland, OR (2012)

But unlike meditation, seeing MSHR isn’t exactly peaceful. Essentially, you’re watching two artists softly crashing through a volatile audio-visual field. “Because it’s an analogue system and we use incandescent lightbulbs, there is a lot of radiation and organic flutter to the system,” Cooper explains of the bursts and splatter. “We kind of prefer it this way. It feels more alive.”

There’s something else too. It doesn’t happen most of the time. Only sometimes. If you’re lucky. As the beat turns into a waveform, if the strobe hits the sensors in a particular way, if the oscillator reaches a high enough frequency and the strobe gets up to a certain speed, if there is a perfect amount of fog in the room, if they turn it all the way up… “The space in front you explodes.”

(Video: Aymann Ismail and Marina Galperina/ANIMALNewYork; Top photo: Aymann Ismail/ANIMALNewYork)