Matt Clark and Jeremy Lemos
Matt Clark and Jeremy Lemos Credit: Brian Swanson

For most of this month, visitors to the Museum of Contemporary Art have been greeted by a low drone coming from somewhere north of the building’s main hall. If it happened to be a Tuesday evening or a Saturday afternoon, they might’ve heard other noises—drumming, snippets of narration, fingerpicked electric guitar—weaving in and out of that drone. And if they followed the sound to its source in the McCormick Tribune Gallery—on the main floor, near the spiral staircase—they might’ve found one or more musicians performing to an audience of a few dozen.

But most of the time the entrance to the room is curtained, and no one’s inside but curious museum patrons. Surrounded by 14 guitar amps and a pair of vintage reel-to-reel machines—each of which is playing a tape loop, tensioned by two mike stands, that’s big enough for three or four people to stand inside—is a microphone glowing yellow. A beam of white, the only significant source of light, descends from the ceiling and passes near it. If someone steps up to the mike or otherwise disrupts the beam, the drone will subtly change until he moves away. Whether he knows it or not, that person will have just collaborated with local experimental duo White/Light.

Northwestern law student Matt Clark and sound engineer Jeremy Lemos have been playing together as White/Light since 2004, creating transcendentally loud and densely psychedelic drone-based instrumental improvisations. In early 2007 they performed at an MCA exhibit by Terence Hannum (who’s half the Chicago drone duo Locrian), and soon they got to talking with the museum’s curatorial staff, who’d liked their music, about a project of their own. Their MCA installation, Untitled, which opened March 6 and closes this Sunday, arose from a concept they came up with about two years ago.

“The original idea was way too expensive and logistically impossible for the MCA with the budget they have for that gallery,” Clark says.

“It was insane,” Lemos adds. “It would have cost $10,000 . . . “

“A day,” Clark finishes.

That idea involved a room full of blinding white lights with 120-decibel accompaniment—a setup that would’ve required visitors to wear ear and eye protection. With the help of the museum, Clark and Lemos scaled it back. Clark (who was briefly signed to Capitol as the guitarist for Ambulette) likens MCA curators Tricia Van Eck and Michael Green to label A and R reps, in that they guided the creative process by telling the band what they could and couldn’t pull off.

Onstage White/Light use mostly electric guitar, electronics, and shruti box—a hand-pumped reed organ similar to a harmonium. Untitled uses similar instrumentation: the discordant drones on the tape loops are built from layers of analog synthesizer, shruti box, and melodica. One tape loop is four tracks of low-register sounds, the other eight tracks of midranges and highs, and two samplers each add a looped guitar. Each track or sample runs through one of the 14 amplifier rigs arranged around the walls. The amps are all on loan—the speaker cabinets from Chicago manufacturer Emperor and the amp heads from Victoria, a Naperville company that makes what Clark calls “the Rolls-Royce of Fender clones.” (They’re using VIC105s, built from old ammo cans and fitted with transparent faces to reveal the glowing tubes and LEDs inside—which the company has switched from green to white in honor of the band.)

The drone’s discordance is purposeful, created by a combination of factors: the synth tracks are slightly detuned from one another, the reed instruments were never perfectly in tune in the first place, and the listener can experience additional pitch disruptions (both psychoacoustic and actual) caused by moving relative to the 14 sound sources. Because each part of the composite piece comes from a different amp, the interference patterns created by the tones’ intersections are extremely complex—the sonics of the installation have a spatial richness that few stereos or even PA systems could reproduce. Walking around the room is like pushing faders on a mixing deck up and down, emphasizing or subduing different elements and changing their interplay.

Though visitors commonly lean into the microphone to talk or sing, says Clark, it doesn’t actually work. He calls it the “cheese in the mousetrap”—the idea is to lure people into the path of the beam so they’ll interact with the music. Breaking the beam activates a ring-modulator pedal that modifies one of the 14 tracks.

“You’re getting rewarded, or punished I guess, depending on your perspective,” Clark says. “The further you walk into the space, the more that you do, you hear this thing that maybe other people didn’t discover about the room.”

Lemos was working monitors on the Pavement reunion tour when the exhibit opened and had to participate in White/Light’s March 9 artist talk via Skype from Brisbane, Australia. The drone tracks were recorded well before Untitled opened, and he didn’t even see it set up till last week. But Clark has tweaked the setup each morning, including which rig is affected by the ring modulator. “I patch something in differently or I change what the pedal’s doing or I change the guitar samples,” he says. “Some days it’ll be big Eno chords, like these huge, stretched-out major triads, and other days it’ll be one drony note.” Even if he touched nothing, though, the drone would morph: the transit of the tape loops around the mike stands is imperfect, creating instability in their playback.

The way Untitled changes from day to day—both because its creators intend it to and because visitors tend to grab the tape or twist knobs on the amps, against the museum’s rules—makes it feel something like a slow-motion version of one of White/Light‘s sets, which rely on constant re-creation and renewal. “I’ve been referring to it as ‘the installation and residency,'” Clark says. “Is it a performance? I don’t know. We’re playing the room as an instrument. I guess that’s kind of a performance.”

Throughout the month a series of invited guests have played alongside Untitled, including members of Disappears, Tim Kinsella (who Clark has played with in Joan of Arc), and Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley. (Lemos, who also does monitors for Sonic Youth, plays with Shelley in a new group called the High Confessions.) There are two more performances left, both this weekend: on Saturday at 3 PM, White/Light will be joined by French audiovisual artist Felicia Atkinson, and at the same time on Sunday they’ll play alone.

On Tuesday, March 16, John McEntire of Tortoise and the Sea and Cake accompanied Untitled with a fanciful rig that included a Buchla modular synth, a Suzuki Omnichord, and something called a Luminist Garden—a flat wooden box whose copper top bristles with plantlike clumps of clipped guitar strings maybe four or five inches high. When McEntire stroked or tapped them, they produced strange, alien rattling noises. His other gear created electronic beeps, clicks, and whirrs that chased one another around the room, flitting from amp to amp. His contributions lifted the drone up and made it seem to dance.

I walked around the museum that night, which extended the space-as-instrument effect that White/Light mean Untitled to have. By the time I got to the fourth floor, with the sound reflecting off wall and windows and floors and ceilings, the music had lost much of its definition and presence but hadn’t quite fallen away. As I stood amid the visitors pondering the Matthew Barney sculptures and the Mike Kelley installation, the noise coming from downstairs sounded like the deep hum of a power-station transformer, or some cosmological process too huge to perceive all at once. It was the sound of something coming into being, and drawing closer.