High Zero Festival Performer Lucas Abela and the Art of Playing Pinball by Bret McCabe
A week before his sound installation was set to open in Baltimore on Sept. 6, Lucas Abela was 1,660 miles away in Denver, Colorado, about half way through his second trip across the country.
The Australian musician, sound artist, and performer flew to East Coast in August with his family for the North American debut of his Temple of Din installation, which features a series of pinball-machine instruments Abela has designed and built over the past handful or years.
The installation, which opens Sept. 6 at the EMP Collective, is part of the High Zero Festival of Improvised and Experimental Music, and includes five of Abela’s pinball instruments—one of which was at the Pacific Pinball Museum in Alameda, Calif. So Abela rented a car and headed west, playing a few shows there and then back en route.
“I’m playing Denver tonight, before that was Oakland—and before that was Philadelphia and before that Santa Cruz,” he says by phone, and laughs to himself as he recounts the spread-out itinerary of this impromptu tour. “I’m driving across the country twice. That’s ridiculous, actually.”
Underground and left-field music fans know Abela for his Dual Plover label and his own work under many names, including Justice Yeldham and in the trio Rice Corpse, in both of which he plays sheets of glass outfitted with a contact microphone. He’s played glass for nearly 15 years, creating one of the more unusually expressive sounds and musical vocabularies in improvised music.
Whether solo or in the Rice Corpse trio—see the lovely Mrs. Rice album—Abela finds ways to make glass sound like an otherworldly human: at times the sound has the vibrato of a very large woodwind, at times the sinewy resonance of a cello with a chip on its shoulder, and at other times like no instrument the ear has ever heard.
Because he’s playing an instrument that has glass sharp edges, while performing he’s liable to cut his mouth and lips, which creates paisley crimson swirls on his clear instrument, a visual that often overshadows the sounds. (Guitarists and drummers leave blood on the instruments all the time; audiences merely don’t usually see it.)
That Abela has found his instrument in what most people would see as something to put in the recycling bin speaks to way the way his creative mind finds opportunities to create aesthetic experiences. As an instrument builder and sound artists he’s created a race track out of vinyl records and rhythmic instruments out of intravenous bags, a piece called “IV:BPM” that was included in the 2015 exhibition Anxious Spaces: Installation as Catalyst at the Knockdown Center in New York.
We spoke with Abela about his pinball instruments, sharing the experience of making experimental music, and what he’s learned from playing glass.
I have not seen any of your installations, though I am familiar with your various sound/music works as Peeled Heart Paste, Rice Corpse, Justice Yeldam and though I missed your Red Room performance last year I think you played at Tarantula Hill about 7 or 8 years back. So while I’ve seen some videos of the Temple of Din, I have no firsthand experience with them. What machines are going to be part of the High Zero installation?
It’s the first four plus the one I did in Vancouver [for the 2016 New Music festival]. The first one I made was Pinball Pianola, which has 20 flippers and you shoot the balls up against the strings. Imagine a piano that had a pinball cabinet built into it.
The second one I built is called Balls for Cthulhu. It’s a pentagram shaped five-placer machine framed by electric guitars. It’s kind of a heavy-metal one. It was painted by Rev Kriss Hades, who is a famed death-metal guitarist in Australia. He plays in a band called Sadistik Exekution, and if you’re into metal you may have heard them. He’s pretty special as well. So he painted that guy.
Then I made a foosball/pinball hybrid. As you play it, whenever the ball hits something it triggers a sample, and all the samples come from an artist called Toecutter from Australia. So it’s a remix machine. As you play it plays remixes of Toecutter tracks.
Then there’s Pitchfork, which is the most atypical machine that I’ve built. It’s single-player with a bunch of tuning forks coming up through it. And then lastly is the BassBalls, which I built last year, which is a single-player, more traditional looking but it’s built into Ampeg speaker cabinets, with bass guitars on the sides.
How did the pinball instruments begin for you? Was it a sound idea or a performance idea—and I ask because I’m old enough to remember what an arcade with a wall of pinball machines sounds like, and when I first saw one of them in a video it made me realize that though I’ve been listening to non-commercial music for most of my adult life, few things sounds like pinball machines.
I did this earlier installation called Vinyl Rally where you drive remote-controlled cars on a race track made out of vinyl records. In that one I had cameras on each car, so it was like going into a video-arcade machine to play—so it was like virtual reality but in the real world, if you know what I mean. You drive it on a physical race track but you’re driving through a screen. And I also had these effects on the dashboard and so on.
I come from a performance back ground, and that instrument was originally one I wanted to play onstage—a stage covered with records with remote controlled cars with styluses installed underneath them and I’d drive them around, but it evolved into this installation, and I liked the idea of putting my audience literally in the driver’s seat, giving them control of the audio making. I was always into randomized music and I like the idea of the audience taking control. So I turned it into an arcade experience.
And then I also noticed that not only people who were into noise enjoyed them, but people who weren’t were enjoying them because of the arcade format. Its was familiar. Sometimes with invented instruments people are shy to touch them or they don’t know what to do, or what to expect from the relationship between the sound and the people using them. In this case, people took to it like ducks to water. Video games already made sense.
That inspired me, and I was thinking I should explore the arcade format more because I liked how people were interacting with it. But I was also a bit shy of doing more works with a screen because there’s already too many screens everywhere, so I the idea of pinball immediately popped into my head. And it turns out its fucking wonderful if I do say so myself. [laughs] I just really got into it, and started building.
Was there a sound model in mind that you were kind of seeking out? Again, just from the videos, they sound large—like big band or gamelan orchestra big, with that pachinko plinking sound. You’ve basically made instruments for other people to play and you to listen to.
I’ve always had a philosophy that experimental music is more fun to play than it is to watch. There’s a certain thing about the physicality of making noise, and the when you play an instrument, and you feel the vibrations, and you’re controlling those sounds, you have this sense of ownership of the sound, and I wanted people to experience those kinds of feelings that I get when I play.
So when you’re up against the machine, and when you’re playing and you get a cause-and-effect relationship between what you’re doing and the sounds you’re creating, you get a sense of that ownership of what you’re playing. And even though the sounds are randomized at first, it’s pinball, so there’s a level of skill as well. And once you get a sense of what this trigger does and what that trigger does, you can start playing it—make conscious decisions about what you’re going to try and do with the machine.
You mentioned earlier that you designed and built BassBalls last year. Are you still making and coming up with new one?
I built two machines this year, one for the Dublin Science Gallery, which is a four-player machine and is kind of like the Balls for Cthulhu. They said they wanted that machine but it was schedule to be in Baltimore at the same time, so I built them another one that is kind of similar but has a few innovations that Balls for Cthulhu didn’t have.
And then I just finished another machine called Gizzard Wizard, and that’s clear and it’s all about lights responding to sound, so as you’re playing it, it glows and responds. And that’s another guitar machine, they’re really quite good with responding to balls. I’m turning things around now and instead of sending the ball back into the strings I’m sending the ball directly into the strings and letting it ricochet back. And I putting knockers—you know, those things that knock the ball back into the game—now I’m putting them where you can knock them into the strings. I’m trying to make all the aspects of the game interact with the guitars in some way or other.
I’m curious: what did experimenting with and developing a sound vocabulary with sheets of glass teach you or show you about sound, music, improvisation, whatever? I don’t necessarily mean that in a pretentious way, but you’ve been working with glass for what, nearly 15 years now, and for me, anytime you do something for a longer period of time you develop levels of control and ideas that you might not have had otherwise. Has playing glass provide you with any new ideas or approaches to your other work in sound and performance?
I’ve been making music since the late ’80s, early ’90s. And during that period in 2003 when I picked the glass up, I assumed it was an experiment that I would perform once or twice and then move on. But when I think back to then, it was an exploratory period for me, and I was trying to find something that worked. And when I came across the glass, it was more of a revelation—it was, This is it, I’ve found my instrument. I’ve kept at it and it’s a really beautiful and unique instrument—it’s simple but sophisticated. It’s a sort of a singing technique, part humming slash throat-singing technique I use on it.
And from 2003 to now, I guess my early days were a bit more crazy—I don’t know. I got myself a bad reputation for blood and gore and stuff. And I feel that people didn’t really notice what I was doing. I remember a newspaper in Switzerland comparing what I was doing to GG Allin, which I thought was quite an insult. GG Allin played bad rock’n’roll with schock tactics and I was making a musical expression in a very innovative way with a very aesthetic approach. And the aesthetic approach led to the bloodletting, but it was symptomatic to what I was doing but it wasn’t what I was trying to do.
I think because of that people really got the wrong idea about what I was doing and took more notice of the spectacle instead of the music, which was quite disappointing. Not always—some writers would talk about the sound.
But how does that play into my other instruments? I guess my early period of instrument building was quite inventive. But once I found the glass and just decided to stick to that trajectory, I don’t know—I’ll was to happy to think that I might be playing it for the rest of my life. At the same time, I no longer feel the need to continue it as an experiment as I was in the early days. Now, I’m mastering it as instrument. Other parts of my want to try out new ideas but I guess on a larger and grander scale, going back to that idea of wanting the audience to experience the music, I started thinking more about participatory instrument building. The Vinyl Rally came up first; it was actually an instrument idea I had in the ’90s but never actually built because I didn’t have the money.
I still want to try out remote controlled cars with records because I’ve always liked the idea, and when I started to get a little bit more money and some government funding, the participatory ideas became possible. And now I’m a father, and my next foray is going to be making children’s instruments—my next project when I get back to Australia is basically to build a sonic playground. Like a place when you go to the park with different instruments incorporated into it, all hooked up to effects pedals and stuff, which are controlled by really large, oversized joysticks and knobs and things like that. It’s kind of riffing on the idea of a toddler’s play station, but sonic and amplified—hopefully not too loud. I don’t want to destroy the little guy’s ears. But I’m particularly excited to get started on that.
Temple of Din opens Sept. 6 at the EMP Collective’s gallery at 7 p.m. The pinball-instruments will be available to play from 7-8:30 p.m., when performances by Andrew Bernstein, Leprechaun Catering, and Lucas Abela begin.
Author Bret McCabe is a Johns Hopkins Magazine humanities writer, arts journalist, inveterate giggler, snide comment collector, and Texan.