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Squid Sounds: Composer Bhob Rainey's Axon Ladder

Composer Bhob Rainey

For many people, squid means calamari – not music. But for Philadelphia composer Bhob Rainey, the squid's neuron activity is the starting point of the new electronic music piece that he unveiled recently at the Vox Populi art space. The Philadelphia Inquirer's David Patrick Stearns charted the distance between squid and sound.

Radio script:

David Patrick Stearns: When the great Hungarian composer BelaBartok collected primitive folk songs from remote villages, the ultimate result was his now-classic, anything but folksy Concerto for Orchestra. That process is not so different from that of Bhob Rainey, whose piece Axon Ladder abstracts the brain

activity of squid.

Bhob Rainey: You look at things that you don't quite know what they're going to produce, but you have a feeling that it's going to be interesting. And it's going to be something YOU haven't thought of yet.

What sets him apart from the romantic composers of old, is that they so often looked inside themselves for their music. But Rainey is looking out at the world.

DPS: Why squid? They have unusually big, easily studied neurons with electrical impulses that can be translated into mathematical formulas. How that leads to music is another story.

BR: I generally look at chaotic equations and see what they're going to sound like, and this one was particularly interesting because it has an array of pure tones and buzzing white tones and white noise and silence built into its perimeters.

DPS: The ability to hear possibilities in math and science is what makes Rainey, who grew up in the Lansdale area, a singular artist, and one drawn to the wide-open world of electronics.


BR: I came out of a jazz tradition. Timbre became this very seductive element for me. And things could be structured more "timbrally" than notes and rests.

DPS: As a student, Bhob Rainey sought out the iconoclasts of the New England Conservatory in Boston rather than guardians of tradition at places such as the Curtis Institute. A major catalyst for his work came in the late '90s. He was playing a cutting-edge jazz gig in Washington, D.C, to a receptive audience, when the coffee house's owner literally pulled the plug. Far from discouraged, Rainey was energized.

BR: For me, the idea that in the late-20th century somebody would be so disturbed by experimental music, an event like this was kind of exciting.

DPS: Since then, he has created pieces out of found sounds, whether industrial noise he records in his travels, or a homemade 1950s Christmas recording he discovered in a Western Massachusetts antique shop. In Philadelphia, he's working with a theatrical group named New Paradise Laboratories

BR: We're pretty interested in existential horror...exposing the cracks in the symmetry of the world. These seem like generative spaces for us. You don't make a lot of friends at parties when you start talking about this stuff.

DPS: But with Rainey, and people like him, the world is less likely to become artistically stagnant. What sets him apart from the romantic composers of old, is that they so often looked inside themselves for their music. But Rainey is looking out at the world - today at squids, but tomorrow, perhaps, at us.