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Wednesday, January 15,2014

Tune in, space out

Ambient musician gets atmospheric at MSU's Abrams Planetarium

by ALLAN I. ROSS

Although John Boyle attended Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music, he said he didn’t get much out of his classroom time when he was there.

“I majored in ‘The Flintstones’ and smoking pot,” the 47-year-old musician said by phone from his home in La Crosse, Wis. “I avoided classes completely for a couple months. But I developed an encyclopedic knowledge of the background music used in Hanna-Barbera cartoons. I have a Ph.D. in Flintstones.”

Boyle, 47, is a mostly self-taught musician whose style evolved from guitar rock into ethereal ambient noise. On Jan. 22, he plays at Abrams Planetarium on the campus of Michigan State University. But this ain’t his first time in a big dome.

“My first rock band, Concrete Jello, did a choral voice thing involving tape loops in a planetarium,” Doyle said. “Since then, I’ve played about once every two years at a local planetarium.

My current music is geared perfectly for the space.”

Doyle drives from gig to gig in a “well-worn” 1997 Mercury Villager lugging around his bread-and-butter, an electric synthesizer. But his first instrument was the guitar, which he picked up at age 11. He said he went into a music store and asked them how to tune it. Through a misunderstanding, he walked out with a totally skewed sense of how his instrument was supposed to sound.

“I somehow had it backward — I saw one finger go across whole fret board,” he said. “I thought the bar must indicate making a bar with the whole finger. But I stumbled on a method that made my music sound completely different.”

And it set the stage for a career in music that sounded nothing like … music.

“I’ve worked with sound, experimenting with tape recorders all life,” Doyle said.

“I go out and capture the sound of weed wackers, kids out playing, then I slow it down, play it back three or four times and mix it into a mono track. It’s just noise, but patterns start to emerge. And then I play to that.”

Emerging patterns, ambient noise, a dark environment primed for spacy visuals, a background in mind-altering drugs.

Hmmm … But when asked if he was trying to appeal to a certain demographic tinkering with hallucinogenics, he laughed.

“You don’t need that — just let the music take you,” he said. “I had a CD release party at a planetarium a year back, and a friend came up to me afterward and said, ‘I’m sorry, but I felt like falling asleep.’ I thought that was the best compliment ever. But it gave me an idea to encourage people to bring a sleeping bags and have an all-night sleep concert.”

Doyle said he’s played up and down both coasts and driven through a fair portion of the Midwest. He’s played a gig in Ann Arbor before, but this will be his first time in East Lansing. For one of his more experimental remote gigs, he was really remote.

“This radio station in San Francisco was broadcasting my music, which I was playing live from Wisconsin,” Doyle said. “I was listening to it over the Internet, which had about a second and half delay, and I was playing along to that. I created an infinite loop that was stretching around the world.”

This year marks Abrams’ 50th anniversary, but Doyle doesn’t think he’ll stick around and catch any of the sky shows.

“I’m not really into astronomy,” he said. “It’s actually just a coincidence. Planetariums have an intimacy that appeals to people with more than just an interest in astronomy. Stars just make a nice backdrop to the music.”

Listen to some of Boyle's music at the online version of this story at lansingcitypulse.com.

John Boyle

7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 22 Abrams Planetarium 755 Science Road, East Lansing, MSU campus $5 (517) 355-4762, pa.msu. edu/abrams


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