It’s 2 o’clock in the morning, and the halls at 115 Empire Street are quiet and empty. Tall shadows line the walls; dimmed lights glint off littered beer cans on the ground. Someone has left their jacket behind, draped over a chair. Someone else forgot a set of keys, tossed carelessly into a corner of the room. Alone in the mess, in the dark, Scott Reber cleans methodically, one square foot of floor space at a time. He has all night, after all.
Reber, the man behind local noise project Work/Death and a former custodian at AS220, has worked late nights for much of his life: “For a lot of years . . . I’ve been the person who’s walking around in the middle of the night when it’s otherwise really quiet and there are no people out.” He eventually found inspiration in his late-night commutes, recording and archiving the sounds he heard around the city. The recordings come off as mysterious, yet strangely familiar—an infusion of moonlit Providence into his music.
To Reber, his recordings represent far more than just interesting noises. He approaches each sound, no matter where he found it, as an element in a musical language of signs—a terminology tied to the concepts of memory and place. As much as the sounds he uses in his work remind his listeners of the Providence they know in the daytime, they also trigger a series of associated experiences and emotions.
Having lived in Providence for over fifteen years, Reber finds his own history captured in the sounds of the streets, as well. From his birth in Woonsocket, Reber was drawn to Providence as both “the big city” and a musical mecca in New England. As an adolescent, he harbored an interest in progressive music, and, reading the show listings at Providence venues like AS220 and Machines with Magnets from his family home, he became aware of a cultural community only a few miles away—one that he hoped would someday host his own artistic ventures. Woonsocket offered little incentive to stay home. A post-industrial town that Reber describes as “miserable and depressed,” its lack of an arts scene combined with its small-town mentality contributed to a sense of creative oppression that accelerated Reber’s escape.
Providence stood as a beacon of opportunity, a place where DIY artists traded cassette tapes and radical bands like Lightning Bolt and Dropdead had significant followings. In Providence, it was easy for musicians to find a community of listeners who were interested in what they were doing, no matter how weird it may have seemed on the surface. As Reber recounts, “Coming out of Woonsocket, I had a hometown and an upbringing where a lot of stuff wasn’t possible at all, and it was definitely a dead end. Providence can have its own problems . . . but all of those things are possible here and are exciting . . .”
The diverse community of musicians in Providence consistently inspired Reber to experiment and explore. According to him, “At any given time, there’s easily a half a dozen different types of scenes or genres or styles of music that are happening,” from punk hardcore to metal loud rock to experimental electronics and computer music at Brown and RISD. The wealth of musical diversity in Providence manifests itself in Work/Death’s sound, although his influences almost never appear externally.
Beneath layers of processing and distortion exist traditional structures that can be found in genres from Western European classical music to pop to hardcore. Reber isn’t afraid to voice his love for Top 40 and classic eighties dance music. And, in a sense, he doesn’t see his music as being that different. It incorporates some of the same techniques, the same emotional pull—just processed in interesting and unique ways. Occasionally, he abandons the more complex noise approach in favor of a jazz guitar set or a few songs played on the piano, a twist that he still sees as being in line with his creative vision. He explains his spontaneous approach to music by saying, “I’m not making a symphony but destroying that, through a process that makes sense in this community here in 2014, and that comes out of this history of Providence music, of industrial noise culture.”
Reber admits that so much processing can make his work somewhat inaccessible. It is often the responsibility of the audience to listen beyond the heavy feedback and intense vibrations to gain a complete understanding of his work. Work/Death is far more than just “noise,” a term that Reber deems somewhat derogatory. It’s classical music; it’s high art. It’s that lingering feeling that you’ve heard this sound somewhere before, that the music is linked to your past in some shaky, inconceivable way. Unlocking these elements of Reber’s music takes a special kind of key, a lot of jiggling and shifting and twisting the knob each way. But with each glimpse of understanding, with each new connection, the work seems worth it, and the complexity seems necessary.
As he continues to create music, Reber has started to move out of traditional basements and art galleries into larger, more accessible performance spaces. He wants to experiment with a new cultural context, independent from the grungy DIY locales that the Providence noise scene is known for. It’s a departure from the midnight sounds that initially inspired much of Reber’s work. But even in a brightly lit concert hall, it is still possible to sense his earlier inspirations: echoes bouncing off of high-rise windows, steam slowly floating upwards from a manhole in the street. The buildings and the streets all seem familiar, but the darkness and the quiet make everything seem mysteriously—and refreshingly—new.
Don’t miss Work/Death this Saturday at Foo Fest 2014. Click here for tickets and more info.