Dux: Exploring the sound of space
Experimental duo pushes Atlanta's sonic politics
Jagged, turbulent waves of manipulated strings fill the room. A classical musician has gone demented, exploring somewhere beyond the point where noise and composition meet. This is Dux, an experiment of improvised cello and analog synthesizers, and Chelsea Dunn and Casey Battaglino are the mad masterminds. "We're exploring the limits of what musical vocabulary we can achieve," Battaglino says
With a debut cassette release due out toward the end of the summer via local label Mission Trips, Dux is rising with a small but growing experimental community in Atlanta, pushing the boundaries of the city's music scene both sonically and politically. Like other Atlanta-based experimental groups, Dux grew from partnerships between musically different areas. Now, the duo combines two instruments into one, creating a confrontational disorder that breaks down gender expectations. "People in this scene are actively trying to interact with artists that they don't know and create new collaborations," Dunn says.
To concoct the duo's searing music, Dunn's cello is hooked up to a contact mic, which feeds into Battaglino's synths. With a converter, the pitch of Dunn's cello manipulates the tone's volume, frequency, and more, creating the Frankenstein of music. Battaglino is the electrical conductor, distributing the signals, but the experiment depends on Dunn, the sound's source. The resulting invention is unpredictable, and under such sensitive conditions, Dux never sounds the same way twice. "Every show is different," Battaglino says. "It makes the sounds chaotic and unpredictable, but also controllable."
Dunn co-directed this year's Ladyfest Atlanta, a March feminist celebration of women and gender nonconforming artists. Dux was born the same night the idea for Ladyfest Atlanta was hatched — a 2014 improv show where Dunn and Battaglino met and played together for the first time. Like Ladyfest, Dux has its own politics: Dunn subverts gender expectations through the process of creating the musical setup. "Even if it appears either visually or sonically as if you can't hear me, I'm actually controlling the sounds that you're hearing," she says. "Especially playing an acoustic instrument with a dude who plays the electronic stuff ... it's important to see how we're being perceived and what the process actually is."
Calling Dux a "duo" is misleading, bit only slightly — conceptually. Unlike a rock band, where members sing or play different instruments in harmony, Dunn and Battaglino guide a single sound. "We end up as one instrument playing," Battaglino says.
For Dunn, there's a balance of vulnerability and command of the music; she's the origin of the sound, but there's a give-and-take with Battaglino that allows both members to control the sound, not just one. "We're interacting with our instruments in ways that we're not controlling all aspects of it," Dunn says.
Dux's influences come from musicians who also delight in unpredictable chaos, such as British experimental rockers This Heat and the visceral electronic soundscapes crafted by Aphex Twin.
But Dux's music is improvised and relies heavily on the space where the two perform. "We don't know what it's going to sound like at the beginning," Dunn says. "Because it's such sensitive listening, if I feel like I can't connect with people, then it's hard to listen and interact."
Those spaces are usually in experimental hubs such as Eyedrum in South Downtown or the monthly Invent Room Pop gatherings at Beep Beep Gallery, where groups of musicians are randomly paired together — their names drawn out of a hat — to see what new sounds are born. These spaces are where wild inventions are created, and where experiments of music and politics emerge through collaboration. "The kind of music and art that you're able to do in a space is definitely connected to how that space is organized spatially, politically, geographically," Dunn says. "You're creating a small geographic site of artists that can collaborate together and have more connectedness between different events and shows."