A sound artist, musician and composer, Mark Soden Jr. has brought his handmade instruments and inventiveness to OC's noise scene since its inception. Nowadays, he curates the Santa Ana Noise Fest and Wonder Valley Experimental, each cacophonies of beauty that find people generating soundscapes with instruments of every key, technology, distortion and shriek. While making sure these raucous marathons move along at a good clip, Soden performs with phog masheeen.
The OC native and longtime Costa Mesa resident has been an avid musician since childhood, playing trumpet or electric bass in orchestras and bands of every sort. But now, he says, "noise is how I conduct my operation. Sound design—it's not just for movies anymore."
The phog masheeen noise collective came together in 2006 with Soden and visual artist Wm. Almas, whose live-mixed video projections blanket the walls of each gig and blast vivid colors onto Soden's long, white lab coat. Soden's kit of mysterious analog and digital processing devices fills a suitcase, and he often uses a propane torch to heat dry ice, handling it with enormous welding gloves, to boil up vibrations on instruments he has concocted from motorcycle exhaust pipes. "I've got one that I can play from either end—one is didgeridoo style, and the other end has a clarinet mouthpiece," he says. "It may be the only wind instrument—at least that I know of—that can be played that way."
Noise began to make its way into Soden's creative output with Long Beach's SoundWalk. "We had kind of exotic things at the beginning," he says, "bringing in huge amounts of gear and improvising pieces for the entire five or six hours."
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Later in its 10-year run, Soden pared down his rig to fit inside a military backpack. "I could set up in different spots, play with other performers or just move about the spaces," he says. One year, he staked out a rooftop "with these crude, horn-oriented PA speakers, and I broadcast public-service announcements with all kinds of special effects in the background. That was very fun; some of that ended up on the first phog masheeen CD."
While performances are predominantly improvised, Soden's albums are built in meticulous detail. "I have a high bar for the recordings and spend a lot of time to get them right," he says.
Soden not only incorporates sounds stumbled upon in live shows, but if a song he's composing cries out for a particular device he has made, he says it's also an opportunity to expand the vocabulary of that instrument. "The recordings are stand-alones that have to make their way in the world," he says. "You never know where they're going to land."
But lately, live performances have Soden off balance. Ever since he played through a rainstorm at Jawbone Canyon in Mojave, his instruments have had a mind of their own. "It's funny, but it's humbling," he says. "A live show is a cauldron of testing things out, allowing gear to manipulate me, trying to stay in the moment, not be angry if the gear decides to do something I wasn't planning on—it's a mistaken arrogance thinking you're in control of things."