Hal McGee will leave his home in Gainesville, Fla., for a four-show tour along the East Coast in less than 100 hours, and right now, the only thing he knows he'll have with him is a handheld silver Sony tape recorder. He'll probably take some clothes, maybe some keyboards with bent circuits, perhaps a transistor radio, and possibly a video camera to tape his sets. But, for six days, that tape recorder and one blank tape will be McGee's primary instruments. He has no idea what it will sound like.
"I've worked with live improvisation and tape collage before," says McGee, "but this is the first time I'm doing them together."
As McGee pulls away from Florida en route to his set at the month-long Washington, D.C., experimental festival Sonic Circuits, he'll begin recording sounds that intrigue him—bits of conversation, a phrase read from a scrap of paper hidden in his travel bag, moments heard from the window of his car as he travels north along Interstate 95. When he arrives in Chapel Hill, he'll rewind the tape, listen for an interesting starting point and push play. As the tape advances, he'll encourage the audience to play along to the collage with the items and instruments he hopes they bring to the show. And when he hears something worth recording, he'll press record and begin the process again. As the tour progresses, the sounds pulled from one night's show will erase bits of other nights, nesting the present inside of a partially erased past, stored for possible future use. This sort of imposed surrealism fascinates McGee: "It's a combination of choice and chance.... I am looking for unexpected, weird juxtapositions of sounds I record. Oftentimes, I surprise myself even as I discover these things."
The indeterminate questions McGee's set-up offers reveal several interesting, practical challenges: Each stop depends on an interaction with an audience that may not exist. He could be recording total stillness. He's never played any of the rooms on his itinerary, either, so he's not sure whether he will run his tape deck through a club's sound system or just rely on the recorder's tiny internal speaker. This is his chance for solo interactive listening.
"A lot of artists don't leave any room to listen to sound. If the entire sound field has this assault mentality, you can't listen," he says. "And I'm challenging myself and the audience to listen and hear these relationships of sounds."
Hal McGee joins Ironing, Clang Quartet and AM Salad at Nightlight Thursday, Sept. 13, at 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $6.