Sitting in the pews at St. Augustine’s, I feel like I’m in the belly of a dying whale. It’s Halloween night and a deafening roar is swelling inside the church hall, an all-consuming noise that makes my body vibrate like a struck bell. Onstage is a group of musicians dressed in black. Bathed in soft LED candle light, they’re coaxing this gigantic death wail out of their instruments: Choral voices, organs, strings, computers, percussion. Wooden beams curve above the giant cross hovering over the stage; The way they jut out makes them like rib bones, or the underside of an ark.
This happens almost every year at St. Augustine’s. On Halloween night, ASU teacher and composer Jacob Adler assembles a group of musicians to perform Otoacoustic Emissions. The ensemble drones onstage for over an hour, starting off with gentle tones before building into an ecstatic cacophony that sounds like Sunn O))) engaging in a soundclash with the ghost of Beethoven playing “Ode To Joy.” It feels more like a ritual than a concert. It isn’t just the church setting or the cosmic sound of the drone; it’s the set dressing and choreography of the players. Every year, they slowly shuffle toward the stage with candles in their hands. Once the drone dies down, they extinguish their candles one by one and form another slow procession to exit the church. There is no talking, no onstage banter, no conductor or singer to pull your focus, just an assembly of dark strangers unleashing an unholy racket in the holiest of sanctums.
This year marks the 11th annual Otoacoustic Emissions. It also marks the return of the event to St. Augustine’s – Adler took a year off last year. Ever since I first stumbled onto the event in 2011, it’s become a Halloween tradition, something that I observe with the dedication with which devout Catholics treat their Christmas Mass.
There are two things about the annual drone that make it such a profoundly moving experience. The first is the aforementioned ritualistic feel. There are no cellphones, no bored meat-market window shoppers gabbing at the bar, nothing to divide our attention from being in the moment. The other is the otherworldly effect of the music itself, which can build to such an intensity that it becomes hard to distinguish where the body ends and the music begins. After a certain point, the drone is so loud and powerful that there is no pew, no stage, no bodies, just vibrations.
The name of the event itself is a hat tip to the physicality of the music. While Adler has cited drone pioneer La Monte Young and his Theatre of Eternal Music as an inspiration for the Halloween performances, another avant-garde composer comes to mind every time I experience the event: Maryanne Amacher.
The late Amacher was a sound artist who worked with some of the towering greats of 20th-century avant-garde music. She was a student of Karlheinz Stockhausen and collaborated with John Cage and Merce Cunningham. Her work was geared around generating psychoacoustic effects; She created installations and compositions with frequencies and tones that were specifically designed to trigger otoacoustic emissions.
Otoacoustic emissions is an auditory sensation in which certain combinations of frequencies, played at high volumes through speakers or live instrumentation – never through headphones – can cause the inner to produce and amplify tones of its own. The effect is uncanny: When it’s done right, it feels like your head is producing the music. The sounds feel like they’re spilling out of your ear, not entering them.
Amacher only released a handful of recordings, including a pair of CDs called Sound Characters for John Zorn’s Tzadik label. “I want to release this music which is produced by the listener,” Amacher wrote in the liner notes for Sound Characters: Making The Third Ear. While not all the songs on the CD were designed to produce this effect, certain tracks like "Head Rhythm 1/Plaything 2” pull it off. The first time I experienced it, it felt like there was something alive moving around inside my head — fumbling in the dark and trying to feel its way out.
There are moments during Adler’s Otoacoustic Emissions performances where a similar effect overtakes me. The voices massing onstage take root in my chest, the beats begin rolling out of my head. I hear instruments that aren’t onstage at all: Harps, chimes, saxophones, didgeridoos. Composers like Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham were able to achieve similar effects in their guitar ensembles, using tones and extreme volume to generate harmonics that could play all kinds of aural tricks on listeners. Shoegaze titans My Bloody Valentine have been known to do this in concert as well: They'll stretch out a single chord in the middle of performing "You Made Me Realize" for five to 10 minutes, sometimes even longer, building up to tinnitus-inducing levels of volume so disorienting that concert attendees report experiencing powerful hallucinations.
The big difference between “You Made Me Realise” and what happens at St. Augustine’s is that the latter isn't playing at a volume that is literally painful to experience. The music is physical and overwhelming, but not to the point where you need earplugs.
Every year, I go to church on Halloween to let that sound fill me up. Amacher often talked about a “third ear,” much in the same way that William Burroughs and Brion Gysin used to say that they created a “third mind” when they collaborated together. Their collective artistic efforts creating a perspective and consciousness that couldn’t exist on its own. Sitting in the pews on Halloween each year, I know what Amacher was talking about when she talked about opening up people's third ears. The music ringing through the church and my ears come together to produce a new sound, a private symphony that emanates out of my ear like static and fuzzy melodies from a car radio.
That’s one of the reasons why people go to church, after all: to find themselves, to be recognized, to discern a signal in all the noise of the world. It’s why people have been coming to St. Augustine’s for over a decade to take part in this musical ritual: so that we can escape from the sound and fury outside and finally hear ourselves think.
Otoacoustic Emissions. 9 p.m. Wednesday, October 31, at St. Augustine's Episcopal Parish, 1735 South College Avenue, Tempe; 480-967-3295; staugustinetempe.org. Free admission.