By Sadie Greenberg
“Music creation is a collaborative effort,” said sophomore music composition major Emerson Borakove in an interview for The Beat earlier this year. “Very rarely I think it is supposed to be someone on a stage and you look at them.” When her band, Untitled Noise Night, began hosting “interactive sound baths,” Borakove found herself at the forefront of a niche community of experimental sound musicians at Purchase.
At sound baths, Borakove and her bandmate Shiloh Blue lead the crowd of students in a collective music-making activity. Attendees scan QR codes to play different sounds from all over the room, while Borakove and Blue use their own pedals and instruments to distort the chords, submerging the audience in an all-consuming, unique sound. By utilizing additional visual aspects, such as animation, spotlights, and films compiled by Borakove, she aims to create a fully immersive sensory experience.
For Borakove, these sound baths, beyond being a space for sonic experimentation, serve as a way of staying present in her surroundings. Growing up in Nebraska, in a relatively rigid artistic community, she felt trapped. When she arrived at Purchase in 2021, she was liberated by the enthusiasm of the student body and the seemingly endless resources that the school had to offer. Now that she and Blue are going on a brief East Coast tour this month, her world will be expanding even more. The tour, titled “The Untitled Noise Night Bite-Sized Psychotour,” begins at Purchase on Dec. 8 and ends in Boston at Berklee College of Music three days later.
In a recent article about Untitled Noise Night, you mentioned that the sound baths help you to stay present when struggling with disassociation. What aspects of the sound baths help you to achieve that present feeling?
It’s complicated. Originally, they were going to be very different. They were going to an experiment with the format rather than an experiment with emotion. I wanted to experiment with video technology, for example, not to make anyone cry, but to see how motion picture can be dealt with. Then when I started to actually work on the sound baths everything started to click in a really hyper-realistic way. I realized I had been going on this intense autopilot before, and the more I worked on it, the more – I don’t know. When I’m working on the sound bath, I’m giving everything that I have. It’s every art form. I make code art for it, I’m working on audio, I’m working on video art, I’m filming, I’m working on poetry for it. It’s everything that I do in one project, it contextualizes every skill I have. I think that leads me to be present for it. Or, maybe I’ve just set the expectation for it now, like, ‘you are going to be present for this, Emerson.’ Maybe it’s the attempt. Maybe you get paid for the attempt on these kinds of things.
How long does it take you to prepare, to put all of these things together?
The second one took more time, I was planning to have three projections going at the same time, so I made three 40-minute-long videos. It’s hard to say, I got to work on the second sound bath right after the first one. So, probably one or two months. But some of it is just collecting footage. I film a lot, I get a lot of videos, I code a lot. It wasn’t constant work, until the last two weeks when I would stay up till 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. every night finalizing the audio and the videos.
This is Untitled Noise Night’s first tour. Is that scary?
I suppose. Everything could fall apart. I’m too busy to get scared. But if it all falls apart, that would be kind of funny, too.
Collaboration is a big part of Untitled Noise Night shows, especially the sound baths. Are you planning to implement any collaborative aspects on your tour?
Yes, and these shows are going to be a lot more high-energy than the sound baths. One collaborative thing we’re doing is this software I made that’s a motion tracking synthesizer that I coded up. We’re going to get people to dance during the performance, which will set off sounds that we’ll play along to. We also always bring a bag of instruments to the show that people in the audience can play.
You first began bringing bags of instruments to shows when you were in high school in Nebraska, which is where you were raised. How did growing up in Nebraska effect the way you make music?
I think only very recently has it become clear how much it has affected me. I’ve been doing weird collaborative shows since high school when nobody was getting it. I was assembling choirs to play my shitty indie rock songs. This handing out instruments shtick, I’ve been doing for years now. Nobody liked it at all. I grew up in a vacuum. In Nebraska, the music scene isn’t ambitious at all. I love Nebraska, but very few people are pushing it to new levels. It’s different here, where there is an audience for noise shows. In a way, it was nice to develop without having to deal with anybody. But growing up, I had large droning objects all around me. My father owned a gong distribution business.
I didn’t know that there were entire distribution companies just for gongs.
I think we can only support like two in the entire world. My dad, and like one other person. That’s the carrying capacity.
Did your dad’s unique business introduce you to sound in any way? Did it change the way you view music?
It showed me that sound didn’t have to be traditional. My house was filled with gongs all the time, it was at the point where I thought it was normal to know every single gong manufacturer in the world. I think it opened my sonic palette earlier. My dad would also hire people to record gongs, so I had at least some knowledge of how recording works. The people who worked for my dad were musicians, so I kind of knew people in the Nebraska music scene were doing stuff, which was interesting. Not that it really led anywhere, but it was just nice to know that people were doing stuff.
Beyond sonic elements, you incorporate a lot of visual effects in your performances. For example, projecting poems onto the ceilings or your use of looping animations. So, I have to ask, have you ever seen a movie that’s changed your life?
“Stop Making Sense.” When I was in high school, I watched that movie every day for months. Now, I don’t think I can make something that doesn’t relate back to it in a way. It’s the Talking Heads concert film, directed by Jonathan Demme, who did “Silence of the Lambs." It’s very theatrical, very beautiful. It has this great arc, where it’s told entirely through the music and through the cinematography. But I’m not really a film person. I like video art a lot, and I like sculpture a lot. That’s something that’s going to be more evident, the sculpture.
Are there any specific sculptors that inspire you?
I’m in a class with Liz Phillips right now. She was one of the first sound sculpture creators. She’s opened my eyes to a lot of different sound sculptors, like Jonathan Harris, who is on campus. I really like the idea of the composer Iannis Xenakis. He wrote pieces that he called polytopes, which is a term that he made up. It would be a piece that could only be done in one specific area. Part of his score would be like 50 schoolchildren yelling down a hill during the performance of the piece, or if it was in a building, he would set up speakers very specifically through walls. Different sounds would occur depending on the way you walked through it.
So that production of sound that can only be replicated once, is that something that is important to you during sound baths?
Yeah. Because of the asynchrony of the phones, even if we record it, it won’t come through in the same way. You’re only going to have your experience; you’re only going to have it once. Even if we did the sound bath again, it would be different sounding. That’s part of my theory of live performance. It should be different every time. It should be exciting; you should not know what’s going to happen next. There’s got to be a certain feat of strength, where it could go wrong, but the performer pulls it through. Sometimes when I’ll go see a rock band or a mediocre band, I’m like, 'Where’s the risk? What are you doing here that could go wrong? You’ve practiced, we know!' Or, it should sound so good that that’s all I’m focusing on, which also requires a feat of strength.
What does risk mean to you in a musical performance?
I want to see somebody pull something off, something that totally has the chance of going wrong. You shouldn’t go into a performance knowing exactly how everything is supposed to happen. Me and Shiloh have had horrible experiences, where nothing went right, the audience didn’t like it. I’m not saying you need to be the most impressive out of everybody. Take Kimya Dawson, my favorite artist. The first feat of strength is the way she puts words together, it’s awe-inspiring. But the strength is also in her guitar playing because she’s trying her best. You don’t have to be great; you just have to be better than you were. It should be a spiritual goal of getting better, not just trying to rip through the music.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.