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Audiograph: Making noise at SF State

For most of us, it’s pretty easy to make the distinction between music and noise. We probably don’t even think much about it. 

But for some people, those distinctions are blurry. Songs, trains, rustling leave-- they all have a kind of musicality.

So, what is music? And what is noise?

At San Francisco State, one teacher is exploring these questions with a medium that could be both:  Percussion.

Most days, when you walk the halls of the music department at San Francisco State, what you hear is a cacophony of muffled pianos, clarinets, and violins, all playing at once behind rows of closed doors.

Students are shut in practice rooms, repeating phrases over and over, mastering the intricacies of the music they want to play.

But walk down a hallway, and turn the corner, and you start to hear something very different--strange sounds of whirring and whining, clanging and crashing.

That’s how you know you’re in Allen Biggs’ class. Biggs is a percussionist who’s been teaching at SF State for the past five years.. And his approach involves some pretty unusual instruments.

One of his students, Michael Young, explains, “We have vacuum cleaner tubes that we spin around. And we have random things that Allen finds that he wants us to bang on.  But they make different cool sounds, and it ends up meshing together really well.”

The students -- about ten of them -- are about to play a song Biggs wrote called Shimmer. In addition to the spring coil (from a diesel truck), the thundersheet (a big sheet of flexible metal), and the vacuum cleaner tubes (that you spin around above your head), people are playing upturned 5-gallon buckets, and a rusted autoharp. They’re also using cello bows to play the rims of crystal wine glasses. And instead of silencing their phones, the students are turning them up—using alarms and ringtones to punctuate the song.

Biggs says using everyday objects is a way of opening his students’ ears to the music that’s all around us.

“I think suddenly the squeaking of a chair, the rustling of paper, the wind going across a microphone, the fog coming in, and the wind going through the cables of the Golden Gate Bridge—it's all there all the time. And it's just wherever we arbitrarily delineate what is noise, what is sound, and what is music,” Biggs says.

Most of what the ensemble plays is composed or arranged by the students. For everybody, but maybe especially for the music majors, this class is about learning how to play—really play—with sound and objects and noise.

“There’s a kind of emotional bravery,” says Biggs.”Like maybe someone plays the oboe, and they know how to do that. But when I ask someone to play some flowerpots, there's a kind of abandon that you have to throw yourself into. Okay, how do you play a flower pot? What do you strike it with? Do you strike it? Do you shake it? Does it make any sound?”

Biggs says although what he’s teaching might be new to his students, this kind of sonic exploration isn’t necessarily a new idea.

“Composers such as John Cage and Lou Harrison experimented with these sounds,” he says. ‘It's just sort of what I think of as the next generation of these students exploring these sounds.  And putting them together and playing them, and maybe coming up with different combinations.

During a class break, one of these combinations takes shape. Students are chatting, and fooling around with instruments. And then, someone starts using a cello bow on the edge of a big gong. From across the room, another student starts to sing.

And then, spontaneously, people stop what they’re doing and move toward the gong, singing and making sounds and playing instruments that are lying around the room. It’s beautiful music, ethereal and dreamlike.

It lasts for three or four minutes—no one talks, no one planned it, no one wrote it. And, then, just like it started, it comes to a natural conclusion.

The students start laughing. “That was impromptu,” says one.  “Total improv!” says another.  And just like that, class starts again.

Allen Biggs called us with the idea for doing this story about the Percussion Ensemble after he heard Audiograph’s sound of the week game.

We love getting these ideas from you, and love the places that you take us.