The Sound Between Two Lous

Lou Cohen and Lou Bunk

By Eli Jace

An artist can hook an idea from anywhere in the sea of creative thought and turn it into something grand, or something shy and minimal. When Lou Bunk bought a new refrigerator he found an intense joy – not in the new slick shelving units, or extra fruit and vegetable bins – but in the tall binding logs of Styrofoam that outlined the refrigerator inside its box. “I felt like I passed through some door in my life,” he says. Bunk made instruments from the Styrofoam, wrapping six or seven rubber bands around each block.

Bunk, 40, and Lou Cohen, 74, are co-directors of Union Square’s reliable monthly concert series, Opensound. The two have been heavily involved in the experimental music community in and around Somerville for years. Sometimes they play together as 2lous, with Bunk on Styrofoam and Cohen twisting nun-chuck Wiimotes to shape warbling tones.

Opensound instills a freedom in the performers. The sounds heard are impulsive and nonlinear, falling anywhere between free-form noise, electro-acoustic instrumentation, percussive patterns, free-jazz, and even an exploration of the silence between all that. In short, anything goes. “One thing Opensound does is provide a venue for people who want to try out something new,” Bunk says. “In that sense it’s truly experimental.”

The roots of the series came up at the hands of  Tim Feeney, a new classical music percussionist who noticed a void in the music scene around town. “Tim saw something that wasn’t there and wanted to create it,” Bunk remembers. After scattering a few concerts around the Boston area in 2005-06, Feeney took a job at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. He decided to pass the torch on to the two Lous, leaving only one condition. “Tim said, ‘You’ve got to have it in Somerville,’” says Bunk, “which I was happy with.”

Both Bunk and Cohen had worked separately with Feeney on various projects before, so the union was natural. At the time, Bunk was on the board for the Somerville Arts Council and with the aid of a few Local Cultural Council grants, he and Cohen were able to keep the series stable. They found a perfect backdrop in Third Life Studio (33 Union Sq.) and have since consistently put on a monthly show, except for an annual summer break in July and August.

Cohen, a student of legendary avant-garde composer John Cage, handles publicity, Bunk watches the finances, and both curate the shows. They band together groups of noise-making sorcerers, feedback conjurers and vocal manipulators. “We’re always having powwows” to figure who should play the next show, Bunk says. A majority of the performers are from Somerville, but their reach has extended up to Maine and down to New York, as well as into Boston’s other surrounding cities.

Bunk, with a grinning Cohen looking on, demonstrates how the Styrofoam instrument works, slicing a viola bow across the corners of the packing material. When played slowly and tenderly it sounds like a menacing twister off in the distance; when played with force it sounds like those hungry velociraptors searching the kitchen in Jurassic Park. “It’s out of tune right now,” jokes Cohen.

“I discovered I could use this very simple material because it has resonant properties in it,” Bunk explains, gazing through thick wide lenses. The bow angles over back and forth bringing on a rushing tide of cringe-noise.  “There’s a nail-on-the-chalkboard thing going on, but there’s also a lot of expressive possibility.”

Born generations apart, the two Lous have taken different paths to end up in the same spot. Bunk, who grew up in Connecticut, started playing guitar in rock bands and quickly began improvising with structure. After tooling around in the years after high school, he decided to study music at Central Connecticut State University (CCSU) where he found avant-garde classical music. “It just opened my mind,” he says. “I was blown away that there were people who had done this one hundred years ago and I was trying to do this on my guitar.”

He immersed himself in the genre. After finishing up at CCSU in 1996, he left for St. Louis. Enrolled at Washington University for two years, he scooped up a master’s in music composition before returning home. In 1999, he moved to Somerville and took the commuter rail to Brandeis University where he went on to receive his PhD in music  composition and theory. Bunk has called Somerville home ever since and currently commutes from the city to Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire, where he teaches music. His collection of homemade instruments includes such novelties as the Scratch-O-Lin and the Tower of Electro-Acoustic Flim-Flammery. He played his Styrofoam with Flandrew Fleisenberg for Opensound’s February edition.

For Cohen, born in New York City, the path to Opensound was not as direct. By age 11 he was interested in classical music. In high school his math skills shined through, but his love was embedded in composing. Upon graduation, he arrived at an important decision: math or music.  “I ended up at MIT,” he says quickly, “and the crisis only got bigger for me.” He took a six-month leave of absence from school in 1958 and returned to New York where he studied composition under Cage at The New School.

“I was really enthusiastic about what he was doing,” Cohen says. “He made noise legitimate.” Cage went far beyond the constructs of song, shedding layers to the barest of elements, relying on atmosphere rather than melody, the prospect of chance rather than rhythm, and sometimes finding nothingness. His most famous and controversial piece, 4’33, literally makes music from the air. “Cage, in a lot of ways,” adds Bunk, “is the Grandfather of all this.”

Before his time with his mentor ended, Cohen asked for a little advice. “’You’re a very talented composer,’” Cohen recalls Cage telling him, “’but you need to know, I cannot make a red cent as a composer.’”

Those words led Cohen to complete his Bachelor’s in Math from MIT in 1959, which steered him toward software. He worked at Digital Equipment Corporation as a software engineer, then as a development consultant until the company went under in 2002. In retirement, he put a few concerts together in Boston with fellow Cage student Christian Wolff, but mostly wrote music in isolation.

An avid astronomer, Cohen built an observatory in his Cambridge backyard only to dismantle it a few years later. “I decided I was getting too old to screw around anymore,” he says. “I had to do music full time.” As the accessibility of personal computers and synthesizers became widespread, he saw his chance and took it. Using open-source program Csound, Cohen writes lines of code to get a desired sound; he then alters it with the whip and whirl of a Wiimote.

“The way I produce music now is completely dependent on writing software,” he clarifies. “To understand how to work with sound, my knowledge of math is the absolute basis of it.” He plays Opensound March 10 under his alias, any Bee, with Steve Norton, Matt Sampolis and Walter Wright. It will be their first performance together. The final show of this season, June 9, features Variations III by Cage, performed by the Emerging Voices, in celebration of the artist’s centennial. (He died in 1992.)

With the nearly weightless Styrofoam block cradled in his arm, Bunk drags the bow across for an encore. It sputters and hops down the edge, then slides. “I found what seems like a limitless amount of sounds I could make with this,” he explains. He plucks a rubber band a few times that bounces muttering staccato notes into the room, and then returns to sawing. “Because it’s a bow you can articulate, you can make rhythms, you can stretch things out.” He pauses, before getting too lost in his work. He admits, “Of course, having the artistic sensibility to want  to do something like that helps, too.”

For the most part audiences are ready to embrace the strange proceedings at Opensound. “They know that you don’t get to hear this stuff in a lot of places,” says Cohen. “Typically the musicians start and the place gets dead silent.”

“Of course, there are people who come to see their son or their husband play,” Bunk says. “Sometimes those people are the ones most surprised because maybe they don’t know what little Johnny’s been up to since he moved to Boston.”

Bunk’s laughter then rolls out into the air colliding with Cohen’s admonished cackle as my own polite wheezing fills any leftover space and right there, on the spot, our own spontaneous symphony takes off, then finishes in silence, like it never was, without a trace.

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