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A musical experiment under a bridge in Pawtucket

Festivals, Etc.
By LIZ LEE  |  August 28, 2014

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LILTING DISSONANCE The Eyesores. [Photo by Craig Johnston]

It’s a sunny, breezy day on Saturday, August 23 and I find myself slouched over, grimacing at the pavement under a bridge in Pawtucket. There are several frequencies — some very high, others low, all incredibly loud — reverberating off the bridge’s beams and pylons. I close my eyes and it sounds for a moment like I’m in some hellish factory where the machinery is revolting against the workers, or I’m inside a tunnel, listening to the screeching metal of a train that is about to kill me. Eventually, the screeching metal gives way to beautiful, bass-y oscillations and spacious white noise, reminding me I’m not about to die, I’m at the DOT AIR experimental music festival and Work/Death is playing.

Work/Death is Scott Reber, a long-time contributor to Providence’s noise music scene who is known to use anything from synths and modulators to plastic bags and scraps of metal to create sounds that are sometimes harsh and grating, often sublime and cathartic. It’s fitting that his set is evocative of an industrial nightmare — the festival’s name is an acronym for “death of the American Industrial Revolution.”

That name sounds dark, but the event’s concept is anything but, according to James Toomey, director of marketing for the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council, which co-organized the event with the Pawtucket recording studio, Machines with Magnets. “DOT AIR is an absolute positive thing; it’s about being forward-thinking, it’s about looking at what’s actually going on in Pawtucket right now rather than looking back on its industrial past,” he explains in between sets at the show. “Right now there’s a couple hundred people just hanging out by the river, and they’re here to support art — new art, different art.”

Willa Van Nostrand, manager at Machines with Magnets, says the show’s name did create some confusion in the weeks leading up to it. “We got some phone calls from people wanting to know if the French band, Air, was playing,” she says. “I was like, ‘Under a bridge, in Pawtucket?’ . . . No.”

Air isn’t on the bill, but eight local acts are, along with several craft booths, food trucks, and an estimated 500 attendees temporarily taking over Taft Street. According to Toomey, the location was chosen for its unique acoustics and to showcase the multicolored array of lights on the newly renovated bridge, which was completed last summer, and took about $81 million and three years to build. (Incidentally, the lights aren’t working properly this evening, but no one seems to mind.)

Van Nostrand and sister Glenna opened the day’s lineup with a performance involving a kiddie pool, several large jugs of water, and a small pitcher of live feeder fish. The pair took the stage in white swim caps and vintage swimsuits, making themselves comfortable alongside the fish in the contact-miked pool, using modulators and singing through snorkel mouthpieces outfitted with plastic tubing. It was strange and lovely.

The Providence-based Assembly of Light women’s choir sang at dusk, in an ethereal, commanding performance led by composer and singer Chrissy Wolpert. Later, the accordion-fueled lilting dissonance of Alec K. Redfearn & the Eyesores seemed right at home in the middle of the road under a highway overpass, and Pawtucket-based three-piece band Psycle played a happy, raucous set.

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