An Afternoon with Mannlicher Caracno

My article on the LoK8Tr project took me to Guelph, Ont., last Saturday and live on the radio.

I met Porter Hall, the host of the Mannlicher Carcano Radio Hour, at the University of Guleph campus radio station. He arrived just after 3 p.m., a few minutes after the scheduled start time for his weekly show on CFRU. As the automated public-service announcements, commercials and eventually the show’s intro were being broadcast, Porter Hall hooked up a sound processor and unloaded his backpack. The bag held a bunch of cassettes, including a Musicworks compilation (No. 28); a Buddy Greene record called Praise Harmonica (”sappy Christian tunes,” Porter said); ukulele player Tiny Tim’s 2nd Album; CDs, some with spoken samples that Porter had compiled; and a collection of instruments, such as an electronic toy piano (Piano Fun!), a trumpet mouthpiece on a 1/4″ piece of PVC pipe, a McDonald’s Happy-Meal prize that went “boing” and other hose-y bits. There was an electric toothbrush in that bag, but Porter didn’t bring it out for the show.

“My bag of tricks changes over time,” Porter Hall said. The host, whose pseudonym is taken from Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, then added: “Sometimes it’s quite random.”

All these “tricks” were for the Mannlicher Carcano Radio Hour, an improvised sound-collage set. Once the gear was ready, Porter threw on a record, looped some spoken component from one of his CDs, and had whatever was on BBC World Service thrown on for good measure.

“What was that?” Porter asked when a sound caught his attention.

“Sometimes I don’t know what’s going on,” he admitted. Then the sound came through one of the myriad channels on the mixing board once again.

“Yeah. See? Where did that come from? Where did that come from?” he asked as he fiddled with the machines to try to catch and manipulate the sound.

The in-studio gizmos and media are only a part of the show. Porter Hall and his two long-time collaborators Really Happening and Gogo Godot form the core of Mannlicher Carcano (MC). Really, in L.A., and Gogo, in Winnipeg, call in most weeks, over the phone or Skype, and add their musical gestures to the mix. Porter looked on Skype for Rock Hill from Montreal. Some weeks there can be eight people in eight different cities. Pilot K9 in Peterborough, Ont., broadcasts the CHRU Web stream over Trent Radio and jams along with it too.

The three members of MC have known each other for years. Porter and Really have been friends since Grade 7. The trio started performing as MC with live, Fluxus-style, performance-art events that featured improvised audio collage around 1988 when all three were art-school students in Winnipeg. In 1990, Porter moved to San Diego, Calif., and in 1991, Really moved to L.A. The three collaborated occasionally following the moves, but it was in 1998, when Porter settled in Peterborough, that the group focused their artistic output to radio. Porter helmed the show at Trent Radio for four years. Then, in 2002, with Porter’s move to Guelph, the show came to CFRU.

I travelled to the university to learn more about Mannlicher Carcano because the radio show is going to mix in the LoK8Tr project when the latter is performed sometime in March 2010. I thought maybe MC could offer me some insights into the mysterious LoK8tr. At the very least, I could see how a musical/sound collaboration employs Skype, an application common to both endeavours.

But, the odd thing about Saturday’s show is that no one showed up to jam. Really Happening didn’t call. Neither did Gogo. Rocky Hill didn’t appear on Skype and there was some technical snafu that prevented Porter from streaming the Trent broadcast back into the Guelph broadcast for a kind of feedback jam.

At the start of the show, Porter generously invited me to join in with the audio collage. I was hesitant. Sure, the format was anything-goes, but still, I didn’t want to do anything that sounded dumb. About two thirds into the show, I felt comfortable enough to make some noise. I spun a record around with my hand, getting a slow-mo drone out of that devotional harmonica music. I couldn’t resist the Piano Fun! with notes that came out like electronic wheezes. I even shoved my voice recorder up to a mic and played what I had recorded from earlier in the show. Porter mixed and matched everything at the mixer. And, man, now I really get a kick out of hearing what came out of that session.

(To download the show, head to the archives at the CFRU site. Select Mannlicher Carcano from the drop-down menu, then click on the show with Saturday’s date. My contributions start at about minute 40.)

After the show had finished, we went to Porter Hall’s studio, where he works on his art installations, and discussed MC. (One installation, Robochorus, is now on at Gallery Lambton in Sarnia, Ont.)

The MC sound collages can be jarring at times, but they often enter the realms of trippy or hypnotic, especially when elements are looped and layered. Although the MC process is anarchic, there is an aesthetic operating.

“Various participants have favourite ways of processing sounds and there are favourite sounds that get mixed in different ways,” Porter said. “Also, we like to refer back to other times and events in our Mannlicher history. It’s like an extended, abstract conversation. I can reference some performance we did five years ago, something that had particular resonance, and just by dredging that up from our archives, it will send a recognizable link to the rest of Mannlicher. It’s a non-verbal means of communication. So, someone can bring in one thing and it will inspire the others to respond in kind, which is a way of saying ‘I get your reference.’”

For those who don’t share the MC vocabulary, I wondered if there were conventions or modes similar to those found in jazz improv.

“More formless kinds of jazz improvisation have to do with intense listening,” Porter said. “Whenever I hear jazz musicians speak of this type of improv, they all say the most important thing is to listen. It’s the same with Mannlicher and I don’t know if intense listening is work or a kind of meditative withdrawal. It always works best when the separation between yourself and the sound is lost. You become the sound.”

I admitted that my contribution to that day’s show felt a bit random even for a random process. I just made noise, not really sure how it fit into the existing sounds. I guess I was like a toddler just starting to babble. Porter, ever generous, said the studio set-up isn’t exactly conducive to proper collaboration, with me on one side of the table and him surrounded by players and computers. But I have a feeling I need to work on my listening if I were to jam with MC again (which I fully intend to do).

As for my mission to try and find out more about LoK8Tr, it wasn’t furthered along much. The person(s) behind LoK8Tr are as much of a mystery for Porter as he/she/they are for me. Months ago, Porter got an email from LoK8Tr asking if MC would be interested in participating in a project. Porter was receptive to the proposal even though, at the time, he had few details.

“I basically said that as long as we are allowed do anything with the sounds or samples we are given, then we’d be quite happy to use them,” Porter said.

I told Porter that at the beginning of my research, I had thought LoK8Tr was simply a new MC project. He, on the other hand, had thought I was the person behind LoK8tr coming to look into Mannlicher as part of my project.

“But I’m pretty sure you’re not,” he said.

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