Sound Experiment: Aphonia Records

Picture a group of sound artists setting up before one of Aphonia Records’ monthly showcases at Gallery 1412 in Seattle’s Capitol Hill. You'd expect to see guitar cases, keyboards, maybe even some drums. Instead, most of the musicians carry black boxes—large, small, some with wires, most with numerous knobs and dials. This is music unlike most you’ve heard. Which requires a record label unlike most others.

In 2006, Andrew Senna '04 and Ben L. Robertson '03 saw a vacancy in the Pacific Northwest for the kind of music they play and now release. So they founded Aphonia Recordings, an Internet-based label and production company dealing almost exclusively in digital downloads of contemporary experimental music.

Aphonia’s first artists included friends and collaborators. "This is work that otherwise may not be available or even collected in one place," explains Senna. "We knew so many people who were doing experimental and noise music, we thought 'why don't we band together and make a label?'"

Image of Ben and Andrew - with cool blur

They decided to start online—"a good idea when you don’t have a lot of start-up capital," says Robertson. "It also goes well with our do-it-yourself ethic."

In 2006, creating your own online label was no easy task. Setting up their own proprietary download site—think do-it-yourself iTunes—took more time (seven months) and programming know-how than they realized. "Of course, today digital releases are just a given," says Senna. “When we started, we were doing something new. But we figured, if the big guys are doing it, we’re just going to do it ourselves.” Today, the Aphonia site receives more than half a million hits per month and generates sufficient income to support and promote more than 20 artists on the label.

Running Aphonia also motivates them to release and perform their own work, which has grown out of their 14-year friendship. In addition to solo composing and performing, the two have created an interactive performance project entitled The Precambrian, an “environment/instrument” engineered by Robertson using the graphical programming language Max/MSP, combined with narratives Senna composes using transducers, microphones and field recordings.

As they have branched out, they find more and more listeners who are interested in alternative music that stretches beyond punk. "We’re constantly moving upward, even in this economy," says Senna. "The great thing about the Internet is we can release infinite copies of work without waste—no shrink-wrap, plastic boxes, or discs. As we grow, we are beginning to do limited runs of compilation CDs, and we are working to make them as environmentally friendly as possible."

Senna and Robertson both grew up in Spokane. Senna’s grandparents were old-time fiddlers, and he traveled all over the region with them to contests and festivals, even as he nurtured a burgeoning interest in post-punk New Wave. Robertson spent most of his childhood picking through his stepfather’s eclectic and extensive record collection—listening to Bauhaus and John Cage when he was still a teenager.

Both studied electro-acoustical music with Evergreen faculty members Arun Chandra and Terry Setter, where they were exposed to experimental contemporary composers like Harry Partch and Ben Johnston, who work extensively with microtonal music, incorporating alternative tunings and different tone intervals than are found in most Western music. "I don’t think I would have been exposed to this kind of music without Evergreen," says Senna, who went on to study sound design at Vancouver Film School in British Columbia, and teaches at Seattle Central Community College.

Ben and Andrew

Many of Aphonia’s artists take experimental music past the point where most people recognize it. They are alchemists of a sort—much of their music and sound art comes from complex computer-generated mathematical formulas, using distortion, feedback, machine sounds, vocals and other kinds of acoustically or electronically generated noise. It may not meet the musical expectations of many listeners. Senna and Robertson compare it to a science experiment—putting stuff together to see what happens. "Music is simply sound that’s organized—either through improvisation or composition," Senna explains. "As the musician, you are the decision-maker, applying a process or concept."

The music can be anything that draws on uncommon elements—things outside the normal realm of music. "It incorporates all kinds of things, both tactile and computer-generated, that make sounds—non-instruments, noisemakers, algorithms, etc.," says Robertson. "It's content that's been used less commonly or hasn't ever been used before."

Both men have long been committed to sharing their unique “noise” with the world. In 2002, Robertson served on the organizing board for Evergreen’s Student Works Festival, showcasing student created art, music and performance. “I thought the lineup was missing experimental work,” he recalls. “So in 2003, we did an independent contract to showcase art, music and performance art in the area.”

“We feel like we’re fostering a sense of community among artists”

wires and boxes - audio tools

That’s when the two began organizing shows together—not just music, but puppetry, Butoh theater and other kinds of expression that needed a venue. Since 2007, they have promoted and produced Aphonia’s monthly artists showcase at Gallery 1412. The showcases feature artists both on and off the label, including wellknown experimental musicians Amy Denio, L.A. Lungs and Desolation Wilderness.

“We feel like we’re fostering a sense of community among artists,” Robertson explains. “Lots of people who wouldn’t have otherwise connected have met each other through showcases and being on the label. New collaborations are happening all the time, and that’s one of the most rewarding parts.”

The term “aphonia” describes a medical condition resulting in a loss of voice. Aphonia Recordings’ goal is providing a venue for both their artists and audiences—“exposing material that might not otherwise see the light of day.”

Ben and Andrew - a crazy view

Much of that audience is younger, college educated music experimenters, or engineers, who are really interested in how and where strange music comes from. Although they are often concentrated in urban areas, it’s not an exclusive art form, and Aphonia has expanded its audience, reaching out to the pockets of experimental music fans across the country.

“Our label is a great distribution system, because it’s not limited to an educated, urban audience,” says Robertson. “There’s a great noise scene in Spokane, in Kansas, in rural areas. There is a small town audience out there that is looking for this. It’s more inspiring to reach them than in ‘preaching to the choir.’”

They’re not looking to be the next Columbia or Arista, or even Sub Pop Records. “Not that we don’t want to make money,” laughs Senna, but they value their non-commercial aesthetic, which gives them and their artists the flexibility they require.

“Because we are an online label, geography is irrelevant,” says Robertson, who plans to move back to Spokane for graduate school next fall. “We operate the label as part of our lifestyle—it’s just a more formalized way of doing what we’d be doing anyway.”

And if some of their bands move on? Desolation Wilderness, for example, has been picked up by Olympia’s K Records, and is playing the famous SXSW festival in Austin, Texas this year. For the Aphonia guys, that shows that they are reaching their goal to get this music out to the world. “We serve as a face—a collective umbrella for all those voices,” Senna says. “If our role is to foster young talent, that’s ok.”