Painting Soundscapes: Sound Mass Headlines the Utah Arts Festival

Posted June 19, 2013 in
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Sound Mass. Photo Courtesy Ryan Stanfield

Stepping into a small community center outside of downtown Austin in March during SXSW, I didn't expect to hear anything memorable. Austin-based band My Education had caught my attention on an NPR playlist, and I was especially intrigued when I found out Salt Lake local band Theta Naught combined with this band to form Sound Mass for a couple of performances at the music festival––plus, I'd been told I had to see as many locals as possible, so there I was, a good half hour bus ride away from the crowded 6th Street. 

I waited through two hours worth of mediocre music and an equally dissatisfying mojito popsicle before I found out that free craft beer was being poured from a keg in the concessions stand. With a smile and a plastic cup in hand, I walked back into the small auditorium that looked just like my high school's drama room, bleachers and all, and watched as the next band, dubbed "Sound Mass," started setting up their instruments. I immediately put the beer down and started taking notes––this wasn't going to be an ordinary performance, and the two drum sets facing each other in the middle of the stage area wasn't the only thing that tipped me off. As more musicians filed in on all sides, a cellist sat tuning his instrument––an ELECTRIC cello. By the time all 12 musicians had arrived and a big vibraphone (like a xylophone, except it emits deeper, longer-lasting notes like when you push the pedal down on a piano) made its way onto the stage, I had completely forgotten the refreshing beverage that sat on the floor next to me. 
The band started playing, but not with the typical "1 2 3 … NOISE" intro we're used to hearing in a concert setting. It was a slow-moving symphony, alive and breathing like waves on the beach as a storm comes in, except more dynamic and bustling, like traffic at rush hour. One instrument played the first note, and the song was built from the ground up right in front of the audience, the musicians clearly watching and listening carefully as they weaved their own bits in and out, swelling and ebbing as smooth and clean as a practiced symphony reading from sheets directed by an animated conductor. 
Wondering how two bands hundreds of miles apart were inspired to join together, I spoke with Theta Naught and Sound Mass bassist Ryan Stanfield, who explained that he had come across My Education in a webzine dedicated to instrumental groups called The Silent Ballet. Brian Purington, founder and guitarist for My Education, contacted Stanfield in 2010 in hopes of doing a show with Theta Naught in Salt Lake. "I upped the ante and asked if they wanted to record a split with us [Theta Naught] while they were in town. My thought was that each band could record a few tracks kind of tag-team style, you know, listening to the other band play and then recording [a track] themselves," says Stanfield. Once everyone's gear was inside the Audio Space recording studio, Purington suggested they record together as one big group. Thus, those first magical notes of the conceived Sound Mass were quite literally caught on tape (well, vinyl, but you get the gist). 
I was so moved and impressed by the performance that afternoon at the Van Guard Theater, I found myself in the stadium seats of a miniature auditorium in the back of a cafe in Austin less than 12 hours later, watching the same set of musicians tune their instruments at 1 a.m. I thought I knew what to expect aurally, but as the improvised songs played out with moving patterns projected onto the musicians for added visual stimulation, the experience was completely new. It was like running into a childhood friend after years apart––there was an unidentifiable familiarity, but the aesthetic features had changed enough to keep me looking and the conversation was fresh. 
It seems that this feeling of questioning recognition is perpetual, as each performance of Sound Mass features a slightly different lineup of musicians due to the fact that it's difficult to bring a group of so many (and of varying ages, responsibilities and locales) together in one place. "Each time we play together, we try to make the most of it by performing or recording as much as possible for the few days we’re together," says Stanfield. "In general, it’s a 1:1 My Education to Theta Naught ratio, but that changes based on performer availability, travel, et cetera." The music is also ever-changing, as it's all improvised onstage during the performance, usually beginning with a key or scale called out by an individual musician. From there, the others follow "cues and a mood" to build the song. "No song is ever played the exact same. Sometimes we’ll name a piece and recreate it at another performance, but there’s always a change, however subtle as it may be," says Stanfield. This kind of improvisation requires immeasurable talent and a good ear, of course––some of the members of Sound Mass are classically trained and some are self-taught, including Stanfield. "In one sense, I would say that I’m self-taught. I believe that everyone is and has to be in order to really understand what they’re doing, which applies to all aspects of life. However, I have received extensive amounts of schooling and training from those that I’ve played music with over the years," he says. "I have received countless lessons in technique, theory and creativity. I hope that I’ve been able to expose others to my own theories on music as I apply mathematics and irrational-constants to our compositions." Stanfield describes Sound Mass as a collective of like-minded musicians. "What we need and want from any and all members in Sound Mass is an open mind. We look for people willing to listen to everyone," he says. "Welcome to the hive mind."
I woke up the next morning after the performances in Austin knowing I had hit SXSW gold, but the success was bittersweet as I'd been told live performances were rare. Fortunately, Stanfield was kind enough to send me the Sound Mass LP, and though it doesn't measure up to seeing a live performance, was meant to hold me over until the elusive Sound Mass reunited in one form or another once again. 
It turns out I didn't have to wait long, and now have the opportunity to share the Sound Mass experience with my favorite city (though I'm sure some of you are way ahead of me). Headlining the Utah Arts Festival (which is quite a feat for a local band––longtime locals Theta Naught are, after all, a hefty 50 percent of the group) this Sunday, June 23 at 9:30 p.m., Sound Mass will craft their improvised soundscapes to what I hope will be an impressionable audience. For those who can't wait, or if you know what's good for you, Sound Mass can also be heard on Saturday night, June 22, playing the I Hear Sirens album release show at Bar Deluxe. Stanfield says, "The line-up for the June 2013 performances will likely be: James Alexander (viola), Ben Alleman (keys), Briawna Anderson (harp), Skye Ashbrook (visuals), Earl Bowers (drums), Darren Corey (drums), Greg Corey (lap-slide), Josh Ogzewalla (guitar), Brian Purington (guitar), Ryan Stanfield (bass), and probably a cello and/or other instrumentation." 
Sound Mass recorded more tracks at the end of last year, and hope to release another record this year, along with possibly touring in Europe or Asia. Theta Naught is currently on an indefinite hiatus, but you can find more on My Education here. Don't miss the opportunity to see Sound Mass Live, and cross your fingers that they'll have records to keep you satiated until next time. Oh, and keep a look out for the Sound Mass cover band, Sausage Mass.
SLUG Magazine will be onsite covering the Utah Arts Festival via interviews and photos with local bands and artists. Make sure to check back throughout the weekend. The Utah Arts Festival runs from June 20-23. Find more information and schedules here
Sound Mass. Photo Courtesy Ryan Stanfield Sound Mass in Austin at SXSW 2013. Photo: AHB