AT FIRST GLANCE, it looks like any other jewelry box, maybe something you'd find stuffed with pearl brooches on your grandmother's bureau.
Except this little fabric-covered container has a small jumble of wires inside, and when sound artist Ross Fish connects it to his mixing board, what comes out might blow Grandma’s mind:
“You can create stable pitches like this,” explains Fish as he plugs in the instrument he’s created, which produces a series of clear tones.
“Or,” he continues, adjusting several dials until a dissonant racket of reverb and crunchy static wails from the speakers, “you can get really gnarly with it.”
Fish regularly makes music by mining the electrical sockets and has been performing his own experimental soundscape at local clubs and art openings since 2010. He’s hosting a pre-PULSE “Make Your Own Electronic Music Toy” workshop at the Jepson this Friday, Jan. 16.
The SCAD grad has been making what he calls “noise toys” for years, promising that with a little tooling, almost any object can be turned into a sound device—and can be controlled by almost anything as well. While the little jewel box has a set of knobs, Fish explains that sound can also be manipulated by flashes of light, and he performed a set at last year’s PULSE Festival by hooking up a bicycle wheel.
“Audio is just electricity that moves quickly, and any electrical voltage will work,” he says. “Even a toaster.”
Indeed, his studio resembles a high-tech laboratory that popped up in an appliance graveyard, overseen by a meticulous mad scientist who really knows how to jam. A turntable and an old school double cassette deck sit on one cabinet, rows of mixing boards with tiny lights and dials on another. Along a wall there is a cache of color-coded cords, each perfectly coiled.
For the most part, Fish creates his ambient compositions on a modular synthesizer, an instrument that looks more like the console of the space shuttle than anything that would inspire a dance party. Unlike the “fixed voice architecture” of a traditional keyboard-based synthesizer, modular synthesizers have several components that can be switched around and patched together, allowing musicians to create, loop and distort with unlimited freedom.
“It’s like Legos with sound. You can rearrange what you’re hearing in real time,” he says, offering a wordless syllable into a microphone. Within seconds, that singular sound has been spiraled into spacey drone and set to a techno beat.
Musical experimentation has always been in Fish’s wheelhouse. The New Jersey native began studying orchestra and jazz at the age of 7, playing tenor sax and bass through his high school years. When he looked at what pursuing formal music training in college held for him, however, he decided to jump tracks.
“I realized I hated sitting in a practice room for six hours a day,” he laughs.
An interest in audio engineering led him to SCAD, where he met sound design professor and mentor Matt Akers, whom he call his “Obi-Wan.”
Akers introduced him to 1950s musical pioneers John Cage and Steve Reich as well as the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop, responsible for Dr. Who’s original eerie sound effects. Messing around with what was then new technology was more of an exercise in esoteric experimentation back then, but as equipment has become more affordable, electronic music has morphed into a populist—and pretty hip—undertaking.
“It used to be strictly an academic pursuit, but it’s so much more accessible now,” rhapsodizes Fish, who often collaborates with other local artists and musicians.
He enjoys the communal aspect of the local noise-pop scene, where audiences tend to become participants as he manipulates the noise based on the group experience.
“I like to think of it as live sound sculpting,” he describes, noting that in that respect, it’s not so far off from jazz.
Fish’s new album “The Pelican Curse” was recorded in live time—no computers, just the modular synthesizer and a slew of surge protectors—and drops this spring on Bridgetown records. He also provided the soundscape at the most recent Geekend and will be participating in the upcoming GIF festival. In his spare time, he provides sound engineering for touring bands that perform at Graveface Records.
For Friday’s workshop, Fish hopes folks will put aside any staid notions of music as well as any fear of electrocution.
“No experience necessary whatsoever is needed, you just have to be willing to take a step out of your comfort zone and experiment with sounds,” he says as he pulls two cords out of a console and reverses them.
“The main idea is to get people comfortable with tinkering.”