Reverberations: Jon Leidecker (Wobbly) on Rolling Drones, Feedback, and the Imaginary Audience

Jon Leidecker performs his own music under the pseudonym Wobbly. Collaborations include recordings with Matmos, People Like Us, Negativland and Huun-Huur-Tu. In 2009 he was commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona to create “Variations,” an eight-episode podcast on the history of collage and sampling in music. (He has performed at several L@TE events, including the inaugural one in 2009.)

I actually hadn’t been in the Gallery B atrium before my first show. All I knew was I was getting to open for Terry Riley with a DJ set, and I’d been warned the space was reverberant. That was definitely not an understatement.

The space is not just huge and tall, it’s complex. The galleries set back on each level and each have their own resonant frequencies, so it really is like a huge organ — the room as much the instrument you’re playing as whatever is in your hands. The first thing you notice is that quiet sounds are just swallowed by the space, right up until the volume reaches a certain threshold, at which point you’ve got eight to ten loud seconds of sustained reverb on everything. And it can be beautiful, depending on what sounds you’re putting into it.

The reverb is particularly sensitive to high frequencies. Whispered or quiet speech is largely unintelligible, and complicated rhythms simply turn into trebly noise—the only thing that comes through is the kick drum. This keeps me away from playing certain kinds of intricate music with quick details, or anything but the simplest kind of dance music, when I’m playing DJ sets. But rolling drones, choral music, and symphonic music all just sound unbelievably present. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re playing them forwards or backwards, the room adds so much reverb that even reversed choral music seems to have a natural release and decay.

I’ve noticed when other people perform that the sound is often better for people wandering around up on the second and third floors. So I often play for that imaginary audience. Usually for the opening DJ sets, no one is on the floor near the speakers; they’re all wandering around, so you play for those ears already several stories away.

What I’d love to create one day is a piece made exclusively from processed microphone feedback—in that room it wouldn’t be painful or piercing, the tones would just glow—the sound would be utterly organic. In a space that big, electronic music stops sounding electronic, it’s more obviously an illustration of a natural physical phenomenon. Anything you perform in that room is going to sound like an acoustic piece of music.

Jon Leidecker