In 2011, a curious digital release popped up on the digital archives of Stasisfield, an online sound art label run by John Kannenberg, who now runs the Museum of Portable Sound — a mobile “museum of sounds” that are contained in digital form on his cellphone. (You can visit the museum by emailing him and and arranging to meet somewhere in London). Though Stasisfield has since been shut down — and all its digital releases lost to the annals of time — it was, at the time, a highly-regarded label, considered by some the gold standard of avant-garde net labels.
The interesting release in question was entitled The Nail House of Yang Wu, and was advertised as being “sourced from a field recording of the artist pulling up carpet tacks.” It was by The Beige Channel, the project of Michael Farley, a sound artist from a hamlet outside Albany, New York, called Delmar. Besides his audio work, Farley has worked full-time as a librarian for the past 37 years.
In touch with me via email, Farley tells me he hasn’t revisited this piece for years. “I listened to it tonight for the first time in nine years, since I never listen to anything again once it’s been released, because by that time I’m already well into my next project. But it was pretty obvious to me what I was getting at.
“I actually started it in July of 2008. It was a summer weekend, and I was involved in a particularly tedious task one Sunday afternoon — removing old shag wall-to-wall carpeting from the master bedroom of our house. The house was built in 1966. Apparently, the custom in those days was to put in beautiful hardwood floors, and then completely cover them in hideous shag carpeting, in this case they had chosen a vomit-y pink orange carpet. The upside was, when I was finished, we suddenly had pristine hardwood floors in our bedroom, virtually untouched since it was built! But it was a lot of work, pulling up the carpet, ripping it apart by hand, and pulling out all the nails with pliers.”
Farley explains that one of his philosophies as a sound artist is to find beauty in “ordinary” sounds that are often taken for granted. It’s an idea he described in a brief 2007 interview for the Some Assembly Required blog:
I like to deal with disenfranchised sounds, that is, sounds never meant or expected to accumulate significance with repetition or diffusion. By recontextualizing fragments of recuperated audio, I hope to reveal unexpected meanings inherent to the originals. I believe the listener makes the music into art, not the composer. My intention is to present discoveries for individual contemplation, not to express my feelings, nor to symbolically represent ideas that would be better voiced with words.Michael Farley, interview with Some Assembly Required
“As I was making all this ugly, mundane racket, pulling up nails and dropping tools, I noticed the noise I was making in the room was fairly consistent, with a degree of slight variation, but always the same kind of texture of incidence. I quickly got my Minidisc recorder, and let it record this sound world, thinking I would listen to it later to see if there was anything of interest there.”
“Ordinary sound out of context often presents a fascinating aural document, and it was the case in this instance. The recording came out well (Minidisc recorders were truly an incredible invention) and I was really excited by the potential of using the sounds for a composition.”
I ask Farley to tell me more about his idea of “disenfranchised sounds,” and he is quick to point out that he is not the only sound artist to think this way. He cites the phonography movement, and the scene surrounding the phonography.org collective in the early 2000s, as embracing the same concept.
In order to contextualize the idea, he separates sounds into three categories. There are sounds that most people find pleasant. “Birdsong, babbling brooks, wind through leaves,” he provides as examples. And then there is noise, a judgmental term. “Noise is thought to be an annoying nuisance, chaotic, an interference, unnecessary, and barely tolerable.” Apart from those extremes, he identifies a third category of sound — the everyday sound that we take for granted, that exists on the fringe of consciousness. “It’s not confrontational enough to demand attention, or pretty enough for anyone to make an effort to enjoy. It’s just kind of ‘there’ in the background, easy to ignore, if it’s even noticed at all. Those are the disenfranchised sounds I found I was attracted to, like the hum of a refrigerator, the whirring of a ceiling fan, the clicking sounds of a cat eating dry food from a metal bowl, or acorns falling from a tree. I call them disenfranchised because they’re too mundane to be considered worthwhile, and not aggressive enough to demand attention.” He points to other recordings he has done in this vein, including compositions that incorporate the sound of acorns falling, or the audio from a tennis match.
The EP’s title, The Nail House of Yang Wu, is a reference to the Chinese phenomenon of “nail houses.” These are buildings whose owners refuse to move when property developers are razing an area. Yang Wu, one famous example, was someone who refused the money of a developer for many years, even after all his neighbours had sold their properties. As a result, Wu’s entire neighbourhood was demolished, leaving just his house alone on a mound of dirt, surrounded by a trench. Even the electricity and plumbing were disconnected.
“Between the beginning of recording, and its release on Stasisfield, I had been to China a second time. China was certainly on my mind a lot in those years, and I think it was natural to relate my creative work to the intriguing and mystifying culture of China. Somehow I found nails referenced in a news story from China about the ‘nail house, the house that Yang Wu and his family refused to leave, even as developers dug deep trenches around it, leaving it stranded almost in mid-air. I was so impressed with the tenacity, confidence, and defiance demonstrated by these homeowners against the greed of corporate business, that I was inspired to dedicate this EP to their cause.”
To listen to this recording is a treat. You can check it out yourself; though the Stasisfield website is long-gone, the old site — and zip file — are miraculously still alive here thanks to archive.org!
Over email, Farley outlines the record for me, providing insight into the largely abstract sounds. “Part One” showcases the carpet sound in largely unprocessed form. “The first half of ‘Part One’ is basically the exposition,” Farley says. “About halfway, some of the sound is buffered and filtered, resulting in an echoing drone.” Thereafter, the source recordings are subjected to digital processing to alter the sound.
“Part Two” uses a processed loop, then adds some guitar and synthesizer to lush effect. “In ‘Part Three’ the original sound is now fragmented and manipulated to resonate at inherent frequencies using granular synthesis. I probably used the Pluggo plugins from Cycling ’74.”
“The ultimate transformation” is how Farley describes “Part Four,” the final piece. “From the drudgery of weekend chores comes this thing, which is almost ‘music.'” Farley points out a review on Disquiet.com, which likens the piece to the minimal techno put out on Chain Reaction. It’s a very apt comparison. “The only thing missing is the kick drum,” Farley says.
Farley wraps up by updating me on what has happened since The Nail House came out. “After The Nail House of Yang Wu came out in 2011, I did one more album, Evening In Paris, in 2012, a few videos, and a few live performances under the name The Beige Channel. After that, I completely switched gears and abandoned field recording and sound art. I had already begun pursuing a shoegaze/indie pop/dream pop project called Caramel Snow at the end of 2009. Since then, on the average, I’ve written and recorded one new song a month. Even now, I’m working on about three or four new songs at various stages of completion. I spent most of my life just trying to write a convincing rock & roll pop song and I could never figure out how to do it. Once I learned how, it was like I flipped a switch, and I can’t turn it off!”
Thanks to Michael Farley for the interview.