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In concert: Alan Gilbert on Ultra-red.

SINCE AMBIENT MUSIC'S origins in the '70s, its creators have felt compelled to distinguish it from Muzak or aural wallpaper. Ambient godfather Brian Eno, for one, conveyed this very anxiety in the liner notes for his 1978 release Music for Airports, where he famously argued that ambient music should be "as ignorable as it is interesting." Where Muzak was made to fit any place and time, he declared, ambient music would honor the heterogeneity of sites, aspiring to a seamless integration with particular social and material landscapes. For Eno, site-specificity would be the new genre's key distinction.

The Los Angeles-based sound-art and activist collective Ultra-red, while indebted to the ambient tradition, are political interventionists whose engagement with charged sites and subjects is anything but ignorable. Founded in 1994 by two members of the Clean Needles Now needle exchange in Hollywood, the group have since grown to four, released almost a dozen CDs and vinyl recordings, performed at international music festivals, produced commissioned broadcasts for European radio, and exhibited sound installations in numerous shows in the US and abroad. Ultra-red today consist of one of the founders, Dont Rhine, along with Elizabeth Blaney, Pablo Garcia, and Leonardo Vilchis. The present configuration arose in 2000, soon after the release of Structural Adjustments, a CD of manipulated found sound released on acclaimed electronica label Mille Plateaux that documents the struggles to save from demolition the Pico Aliso and Aliso Village public housing projects in East LA, where Blaney and Vilchis work as community organizers. An earlier Ultra-red lineup focused on the relationship between property values, access to public space, and the policing of gay sex in LA's Griffith Park and produced the CD Second Nature: an electroacoustic pastoral (Mille Plateaux, 1999).

Trying to figure out exactly who's in Ultra-red from their text-heavy CD booklets or extensive website is an unilluminating task, which seems to be the point. With various projects, the communities with which Ultra-red work become as much a part of the group as its core members. Amorphous authorship in the service of community-based practice has become increasingly prominent in the art world (think of The Land, Rirkrit Tiravanija's collaborative environmental project in Thailand, or Thomas Hirschhorn's library and television studio at Documenta 11), and Ultra-red's methods reflect this trend. Ultra-red begin each of their projects by accumulating dozens of hours of field recordings. The recordings emerge from direct participation in environments and events such as community organizing, political protest, workplace dynamics, and gay cruising and are shared with the communities from which they originate, with suggestions and responses incorporated into remixings. They are then run through a computer whose music-editing software introduces distortions, static, skips, glitches, repetitions, abrupt cuts, woofer-rattling deep-bass shivers, and downright funky minimal techno beats. The voices of protesters, police officers, public officials, and bystanders fade into noise and landscape; in turn, noise and landscape shade into voices. During "Cancion de la posada" on Structural Adjustments, marchers' looped Spanish chants mingle with and at times are engulfed by the sounds of children, dogs, passing traffic, and a low-frequency droning, only to return in force at the end of the track.



Despite a proclivity to abstraction, ambient music has the potential to encompass unruly realities, and Ultra-red are committed to exploring that potential in a way distinct from most other sound artists and purveyors of electronica. More agit than prop, the group's work is distinct from the ironic mash-ups of postmodern audio pastiche or the formalist reductions of neo-modernist sound art. For Ultra-red, ambient music is about expanding the range of social relations, with technology playing a crucial role in the process: The array of beats Ultra-red mix into their audio collages isn't an added ear-candy bonus but a means of impelling negotiations--or, if that fails, confrontations--within politically contested spaces. This strategy is echoed in the recordings of political protest that factor into much of their work.

The collective's most recent major project, The Debt, facilitated a dialogue between residents of the Pico Aliso housing projects and those of Dublin's Ballymun public housing via residencies, panels, and performances held in Dublin and LA throughout much of 2003. Ultra-red have decided to dedicate a chunk of this year to evaluating past endeavors and planning future projects. One can hardly blame them for taking a self-reflective hiatus. In these politically fraught times, airports--and just about everywhere else--are far more complicated sites to make music for.

New York-based poet and critic Alan Gilbert is editor of NYFA Quarterly.
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Title Annotation:Sound
Author:Gilbert, Alan
Publication:Artforum International
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2004
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