Acoustic Anomalies and Other Phenomena: The Music of Marcus Rubio

Posted by on May 9, 2014

I first came across Marcus Rubio’s work through his collaborative release Only the Imprint of an Echo Remains with poet and Kendra Steiner Editions label head, Bill Shute. Rubio used select spoken word pieces read by Shute as the raw materials for his electronic compositions that found him manipulating and time-stretching Shute’s voice beyond recognition and, interspersed throughout with the direct unaccompanied readings, into something hypnotizing and utterly arresting. There was something about Rubio’s electro-acoustic arrangements that were abstract yet playful, foreboding yet tranquil, droning yet undeniably musical. An investigation into Rubio’s recorded output shows that this former Texan-cum-Angeleno has been creating a captivating body of work that is equally as elusive as it is difficult to peg.

Now pursuing an MFA in composition at CalArts, Rubio often deals in highly conceptualized and sound-specific work like that heard on Only An Imprint of an Echo Remains. His recent album Music For Microphones for Copy For Your Records, for example, explores the sonic possibilities of various microphones and microphone feedback. Building on the ideas in Steve Reich’s “Pendulum Music,” wherein the legendary minimalist composer used swinging microphones as the main “instrument,” Rubio uses his microphone sound sources as compositional building blocks, shaping and manipulating these sounds through minimal electronic treatments and extended techniques. Regarding Music For Microphones, Rubio states that, “Since starting at CalArts, I've slowly come to realize that a lot of my work deals with specificity. I've always been interested in extended technique and doing very instrument/sound-specific things in a non-Classical/”new music” fashion. Last fall, I started realizing that I could apply these ideas to most sound-making objects, and as a result, I wrote a lot of pieces that utilized the acoustic anomalies of things like portable fans, beard trimmers, and walkie-talkies. Music For Microphones definitely draws on those ideas but also utilizes some fairly simple patches I built in SuperCollider that help sustain and amplify different sounds. SuperCollider was also something that I learned as a result of studying at CalArts. Initially, I wanted to use those SuperCollider patches for processing guitar but I was testing one of them with a cheap contact microphone and started getting such insane results that I knew I'd stumbled across something that was far more exciting and relevant to my work! As a result, I composed a bunch of pieces combining those ideas about specificity with various electronics to make the album.”

While Rubio employs more avant garde-leaning compositional strategies, songwriting remains a key facet of his work as well. In listening through his back catalog, from Hello Dallas up through more recent releases like Now on Yawn Tapes, Rubio seems to be continuously trying to reconcile his interests in experimental composition and out-and-out pop songcraft. Rubio explains that, “The dichotomy between sonic experimentation and pop songwriting is something that I find infinitely fascinating. I'm really in love with numerous strains of both genres and I feel like I see more and more connections between these different worlds everyday.”

Rubio goes on to say that, “When I first started studying composition, it took a while for me to reconcile all of these influences. I always sought to try and merge these worlds in a non-eclectic manner but I wasn't quite sure how to go about it initially so I just wrote various kinds of music and tried to transplant different sounds and influences in each case. However, a few years ago, something just clicked and all of a sudden I started seeing all these deeper parallels that were never apparent before. I'm very interested in how much of one influence you can add or subtract from a composition and still have it reference or acknowledge another world.”

Rubio’s use of auto-tuned vocals, heard most recently on his excellent Rooms release for Prairie Fire Tapes, toys with these ideas of referencing other worlds or influences, yet coming at it from somewhere entirely different, too. On tracks like “On Texas Secession,” Rubio’s voice is blurred out by this effect making it come off sounding somewhere between a soulful R&B crooner and an airy electronic whisper. When asked what some of his motivations were for trying to work with this often reviled audio processor, Rubio says that, “Well, as I was writing those pieces I was very much assembling them like a collage and when I decided to add vocals, they just weren't really working as a dry, unprocessed texture. They sounded too unrelated to the other sounds I was working with so I started layering, auto-tuning and in some instances further processing my voice so that it became just another texture in the collage. I am generally fascinated with the potentials of auto-tune in obscuring vocal quality though and I think that some really interesting results can develop from using it more as texture and less as a way to 'fix' a vocal take.”

Of late, Rubio has returned to some of his Texan roots, drawing from a well of Americana influences while again approaching them from a decidedly experimental angle. “I grew up playing fiddle, mandolin, and banjo with a lot of Americana songwriters and groups in Texas, and I still feel a very deep connection to a lot of that music. But as I've grown more and more interested in experimental music, I started really thinking about how all of those instruments (and particularly the banjo) could be played in unconventional ways but still structured into songs of some sort,” explains Rubio. With recent albums like Now and his latest release, I Don’t Think I See a Difference (out on the digital-only imprint Spectropol), he says that, “A lot of the banjo-based work I've been doing lately is really indebted to early weird blues-folk music like Abner Jay and Washington Phillips, even though it doesn't necessarily sound like it.”

Given his background with Americana music and in playing more folk and bluegrass-oriented instruments, it seems rather curious how Rubio wound up pursuing such divergent musical paths. When asked what initially sparked his interests in this direction, Rubio says, “I was always very gutturally interested in weird stuff and I think that's what led to me getting interested in both folk music and noisy music at a young age. Around the time I first started playing out and recording when I was around 14-15, I remember being as equally into Sonic Youth and early Flaming Lips records as [I was] Texas folk bands like the Gourds and the Bad Livers, both of whom were bands with a somewhat experimental background. However, the Americana scene in Texas is much more transparent and accessible, so I wound up getting into that world a lot faster initially before finding folks who were interested in loud noisy music too. All that being said, I can very specifically pinpoint an Alan Licht and Tetuzi Akiyama art gallery show in San Antonio I saw when I was 17 as the precise moment I heard true 'experimental music.' I had really never heard anything like what those guys were doing and I remember being super stoked on it and thinking, 'It's OK to do this! This is awesome!' after the performance. From that moment on, I tried to seek out everything I could about experimental music and that continued to this day!”

While Rubio's music remains difficult to categorize into tidy genre descriptors, perhaps this final statement of his is the most telling description of his body of work as a whole: It's the sound of a seeker; someone continuously searching for new sonic paths to explore and new connections to be made.