Collector of the Inaudible

Nate Manny pretends to record Earth music that doesn't even exist.

When tree roots grow into the ground, do they make a noise? What about clouds scudding across the sky? Can the sound of a seismic wave shuddering through the Earth be turned into song? Such were the questions Nate Manny asked himself when designing the album-cover artwork for ambient musician Dan Phelps. A designer by day (with his own firm, 51 Eggs), Manny is a different sort of musician by night, playing guitar for the Murder City Devils. So how to represent Phelps' collection of instrumental songs inspired by the natural world? Manny decided to create a new vintage machine that never existed and doesn't actually work. Manny explains: "We started saying 'What would it be like if a guy, almost like a post-apocalyptic musician, had to build his own machine to record music or make music, and he was connecting to the Earth as his source?' " The result, called Modular (also the title of Phelps' album), is a desktop-sized device sitting quietly in Manny's neat, bright Georgetown studio office, surrounded by posters he's designed for bands and artists including The Long Winters and Doug Martsch. With a Chinese New Year's parade of colorful dragon tattoos running down his arms, he points to each vacuum tube, dial, input jack, and VU meter to explain their fanciful function. Topped with a gramophone horn painted like a hypnoscope wheel, the wood-and-aluminum console is studded with knobs and switches salvaged from old ham radios, movie projectors, and reel-to-reel tape decks. Their inspiration, he explains, comes from "old synthesizers from the '70s. People would have big objects—giant, giant machines, some of them were as big as a room—that were made out of wood and had these big knobs. You would connect all these cables, and that was how the original [electronic] keyboard sounds were being developed. It's all based loosely on real ideas of science and sound recording, but it's a totally fictional execution." "This one," Manny says, pointing at a dial, "would go voomp-voomp-voomp! And then this one"—he flicks another switch—"would go kink-o-kink-o-kink-o. "The idea in my mind is that different environments would create different sounds," he continues. "So when you connected it to an arid desert and were putting the sensors into the dry earth or the rocks and tumbleweed, that would have a sound. In a tree: There's vibration, there's photosynthesis, there's the water moving through it. In the Earth: There's seismic vibration. Whether or not that's musical is debatable. The idea of [Modular] is saying, 'What if you could record those vibrations and amplify them, and make it musical?' " It's a question that confounded—and fooled—many people Manny met while photographing Modular in wilderness locations around the state. (These photos will also be on view at Artopia.) In the mountains, the desert of eastern Washington, at the seashore, or in the rain forest, he recalls, passersby often asked him what he was doing and how the device worked. Indeed, Modular looks totally real, in a retro, Popular Mechanics kind of way. But that's the conundrum Manny intended: a non-functioning yet tactile object that suggests everything unheard in the world. What such music would sound like is left to the imagination. "That's what I was trying to do," he concludes, "to create a situation in which people are curious."

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