Spooky Action Labs: Making Music with Time, Place, and… Nature?

Courtesy of Steve Donofrio.

It’s the first Sunday afternoon of the summer and Greg Camphire is standing under a tree in the Gospel Swamp at the Heritage Museum of Orange County, explaining how the chrysanthemum at his feet is about to become his bandmate. The crowd around him, made of families and music fans both young and old, looks on with a shared sense of curiosity. He and the plant are surrounded by an arsenal of MIDI controllers, electronic drum pads acoustic drums, and cymbals. 

This is Camphire’s multimedia musical project, Spooky Action Labs. Originally a drummer, Camphire started conceptualizing the project a few years ago as a way to perform without a live band. “I wanted to make it like site-specific events, that are sorta one-time things where I create music specifically to go along with whatever location I’m playing at,” he says. 

Courtesy of Steve Donofrio.

The idea came to fruition when Camphire was awarded the Investing In the Artist grant from the city of Santa Ana last year. “They were awarding grants [last] year to do projects this year,” he explains. “And this being the 150th anniversary of the founding of the city of Santa Ana, they wanted projects that were thematically connected to the history, people, and culture of Santa Ana.” Spooky Action Labs, an immersive, site-specific project from the beginning, proved to be a good fit for this theme.

“I had several ideas and I ended up getting enough funding for two,” Camphire explains. The first performance, titled “Celebrating Alex Odeh,” took place at Makara Center for the Arts in Santa Ana this past April. He and the Makara Center assembled a team of volunteers to translate Odeh’s book of poetry into English. Camphire then composed an ambient soundtrack for the translators to read over during the event. However for this second project, “Spooky Action Labs at the Gospel Swap” the focus is all on Camphire. 

Wearing a straw hat and sunglasses, Camphire enthusiastically describes the months of preparation that have led up to this performance as bright, irregularly-spaced tones play in the background.

Courtesy of Steve Donofrio.

“As you can see, this wire is clipped onto the branches and the other end runs into this device called the MIDI Sprout,” he explains. “It’s converting the electromagnetic pulses that the plant naturally produces into digital information.” He then uses MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) controllers and a laptop running Ableton Live music production software to make music out of this information. “So you’re listening to this plant singing to you live.”

To be clear, the plant itself isn’t producing any actual sound. “The MIDI information you’re getting is just 1’s and 0’s,” Camphire says. “So it’s up to whoever’s using it to assign a sound to each plant. So that’s where I was able to get really creative and use my research about the plants.”

“There’s signage all along the nature trails at the Gospel Swamp. So you can read about a plant’s traditional uses, maybe how Native Americans used it for medicinal purposes, or how it attracts certain kinds of birds or insects,” he explains. “So I used that to kinda give me a poetic description of each plant that would help me create a sound for it.” 

While Camphire is triggering sequences and improvising on percussion, it’s not difficult to tell which plants might be fragrant and which ones might be poisonous. Some tones are sparkling and metallic while others are harsh and dissident. Some are downright threatening. But Camphire weaves them together into a cohesive and dynamic performance. 

Camphire’s performance also utilizes samples taken from all over the museum grounds. Since the museum agreed to collaborate with the project at the end of last summer, Camphire has visited the location about a dozen times to “basically record any sound that is associated with the museum,” he says. “There are some historical Victorian-era houses there. Those immediately appealed to me because there are two different hundred-year-old pianos, a pump organ, and a Victrola record player with records from like 1915 in there. So it was really obvious to me that I could make music  with that stuff.” 

But it’s clear that Camphire isn’t one to settle for the obvious. In addition to using the MIDI Sprout on various plants throughout the Gospel Swamp, he found other unconventional sounds throughout the grounds. “There’s a really old creaky spiral staircase in one of the houses and I recorded myself walking on that, which makes for an amazing kick drum sound,” he chuckles. 

Of course the performance, which Camphire describes as a musical séance, does have the “spooky” vibe that the project’s title promises. “It has that kind of ghostly element, because some of the pianos were a little out of tune, but in a cool way that brings an interesting dissonance,” he says. 

“There were no encounters of any kind, with ghosts or whatever,” he laughs. “I wouldn’t want to put that out there. But just the vibe lent itself to a little bit of a darker performance.” While Camphire may not have any literal ghost stories from this experience, he did work with instruments that have specific connections to old Santa Ana residents. Most notable of these is one of the pianos, which was gifted to Mary Elizabeth Maag, the on her 18th birthday in 1906.

“So I’m imagining she played this piano. You know, her fingers were on it, she played certain melodies on it. Those rang out into the house and the atmosphere. Whether it’s just using your imagination or whether it’s an actual sonic or psychic signature that’s still in that area, it’s definitely something to draw on as an artist,” he explains. 

Through utilizing the natural sounds of the Gospel Swamp and recording samples of everything from the museum’s blacksmith shop to a Victorian-era pump organ, Camphire was able to capture a literal bit Orange County history and culture in his performance. Through hip hop and drum and bass breakbeats, cacophonous sound collages, and jazz-like improvisation, Camphire has found a way to connect the past to the present. The only question now is where, and how, will he do it next? 

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