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Chuck Johnson's diverging sounds and unifying ideas

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In 1913, Swiss psychology pioneer Carl Jung began penning a series of texts and illustrations in journals that, after more than a decade, became his Red Book, or Liber Novus.

Jung developed Liber Novus by recording induced hallucinations in a meditative process he called "active imagination." The hallucinatory explorations of his middle-aged episodes with "creative illness"—some have called it psychosis—helped Jung develop his theories of archetypes, collective unconscious and individuation. "There are things in the psyche which I do not produce," Jung asserts, "but which produce themselves and have their own life."

Bay Area experimental musician and Triangle expatriate Chuck Johnson releases his own Liber Novus this Saturday. Like Jung's work, the double LP—released under Johnson's Pykrete alias and through Chapel Hill's FrequeNC label—combines recollections from several years of work. Recorded between 2005 and 2007 in Chapel Hill and during 2008 in Oakland, Liber Novus showcases Johnson's gradual shifts in attention from beat-driven wallop to rigorous, arrhythmic experiments. More important, though, Liber Novus' several phases epitomize Johnson's two decades of quest for sound, no matter the medium or genre. He's played angular indie rock and blissful acoustic mantras, harsh noise sprees and Middle Eastern-influenced psychedelic pieces. Now, he says, it's making more sense.

"I'm starting to see more of a whole-ism to it now," Johnson says by phone from California, just days before flying to North Carolina to play electronic shows as Pykrete and acoustic shows under his own name. "Whether it's acoustic guitar or Pykrete or the composition stuff I do, there's always, for me, an interest in what's happening outside or beyond the notes that are being played, or the sounds coming out of the speaker."

Timbre has always been of special appeal for Johnson. He recalls piano lessons as a kid and how much the instrument's sustain pedal captivated him. He'd hold it down, layering chords atop each other and letting the overtones intertwine and ring. "A sound is a hook," he says. "It doesn't have to be melodic or like a form-type thing."

Johnson continued his quest. During college in Chapel Hill, he finally picked up the guitar. "The first thing I did as soon as I had access to an electric guitar and an amp was make feedback, before I could even play it," he remembers. "I wasn't thinking about feedback systems. I was just thinking this sounds really great."

Johnson graduated in 1991 with undergraduate degrees in psychology and political science. Like his academics, his musical oeuvre was full of divergent streams: He played indie rock in Spatula with Matt Gocke and Chris Eubank, then, influenced by folk music and Eastern stringed instruments, formed Idyll Swords with Polvo's Dave Brylawski and Black Taj's Grant Tennille. He improvised in Ivanovich and, in 2000, joined stately instrumental rockers Shark Quest. He's worked with, among others, Superchunk, The Nein and the Durham composers' collective pulsoptional.

In 2007, Johnson left Chapel Hill to pursue a graduate degree in electronic music from the esteemed music department at Mills College in Oakland. At Mills, he earned an MFA in Electronic Music and Recording Media, focusing primarily on studying Just Intonation—a system of tuning based on whole number ratios, as opposed to the more familiar system of sound being divided into intervals—and on honing his skills in developing the hardware which creates Pykrete's palette of sounds. Both helped him better capture the ethereal phenomena that give Pykrete its character.

"I streamlined the system," he says of his time at Mills, "and basically came out of it with much more of an understanding of what's happening when I'm playing [the system]."

As Pykrete, Johnson explores the unconscious elements of musical performance—again, recall Jung's explorations of the mind—manipulating acoustic phenomena that, he hopes, create a transitory experience. Primarily with analog electronic synthesizers, Johnson aims to create systems that can have their own intelligence, much like the environments Jung said he'd found in the unconscious mind.

"What you're doing is composing a situation, or creating a system or a situation that has some behavior that is predictable, but you don't necessarily want to control that behavior," he says.

In a sense, then, it's like musical deism. Johnson creates the universe in which his music exists; he builds and modifies his own equipment and controls the setting and direction in which it begins. But he sets the circuitry in motion with "an ear towards finding faults and instabilities that might reveal latent beauty." If Johnson is the creator, he's not an omnipotent, overbearing one who manipulates his creation's every act. He reacts, sure, but the full result of each piece is unknown at the outset, even to Johnson.

"There's always something unexpected that will happen," he says. "You just build on the accident or the thing you didn't expect to hear."

Five years ago, when Johnson played as Pykrete in Chapel Hill, he was something of a staple at the dance parties booked and promoted by Charlie Hearon at FrequeNC Records, often held at the Nightlight. "Early on, in a lot of the sets he did with us, he played a lot with a drum machine," Hearon remembers. Over time, the more beat-driven elements faded. Liber Novus' D-side keeps a steady thud as Johnson adds layers of looped burbles and scorched feedback. With its steady build, "+++" almost feels like house music; "Nocukes" is equally insistent, just a bit harsher.

But those closing pieces offer a sharp contrast to the rest of the works, which shed the foundation of automated percussion and instead pay more attention to texture and gradual, less predictable shifts in momentum.

"Ondulación," for instance, is a 19-minute piece that comprises Liber Novus' third side. It begins simply enough, with frayed, oscillating waves of static competing for attention with a grinding, percussive rhythm. Midway through, the beat tumbles noisily, like a clothes dryer filled with scrap wood. At the end, the track buzzes like an alarm clock and pounds like an impatient and insistent visitor knocking at the door. The momentum within the piece shifts with little warning or precedent—none of the movements exactly repeats another's speed or volume—but it maintains a constant direction and, again, an affinity for sound.

Last Sunday, in the narrow, deep and mostly empty Carrboro storefront that will soon house All Day Records, Johnson performed under his given name with only an acoustic guitar. The guitar work with which Johnson has spent most of his time recently—and which landed him on the high-profile Beyond Berkeley Guitar compilation earlier this year—is reminiscent of the folk interpretations of John Fahey and Robbie Basho and, closer to home, the Piedmont blues of artists like Elizabeth Cotten.

Seated, Johnson played to a room filled with maybe 50 people sipping beers, many sitting cross-legged on the concrete floor, listening keenly. Occasionally a flash of lightning would bleach the overcast night sky behind Johnson, outshining the lone streetlight framed in the store's window. Crickets chirped in chorus and cars whooshed by outside. Inside, feet shuffled and bottle caps clinked to the floor. At first, the set seemed a stark contrast to the electronically produced noise that defines Pykrete.

But the commonalities seeped out without warning: The honeyed drone of Johnson's thrumming low notes was a constant above these small interruptions. Notes poured from his guitar, accumulating until a pregnant pause scattered them. At one point, it seemed as if someone was bowing another instrument to accompany Johnson, so rich were the overtones drifting above the ragtime melody. Like he does with Pykrete, Johnson was mining for sounds outside his instrument's usual boundaries.

"It's all coming from this idea," he says, "of composing to create a space for something else to enter the room with you."

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