Shut Up and Listen! 

Appreciating sound as art with Bay Area electronica head Christopher Willits.

In early June, a small crowd gathered at Studio Rasa in Berkeley for the kind of smoking-ambient-electronic-musician bill that gets your average fans so excited they're apt to close their eyes and really zone out. After paying the $12 cover, audience members reclined on pillows scattered across the carpeted floor, ate grapes, and took in world premieres of four specially commissioned compositions. One catch: The featured musicians didn't play a note the whole session — in fact, they weren't even there.

Which is exactly the point. Guitarist Christopher Willits, a focal point of independent Bay Area music, organized the event as part of Listen, a bimonthly series designed to "explore the art of intense listening." He commissions exclusive compositions, then introduces and plays them to Bay Area audiences at events that have seen enough success for Willits to syndicate them. Coming months will see sessions repeated in Portland, Seattle, and New York, as well as Burlington, Vermont.

I know what you're thinking: Twelve dollars to watch a guy play a CD? I expected a live show at my first Listen session, and felt a little distressed when I learned the truth. I consoled myself with the thought that I was among the first to hear new pieces by heavies like Kenneth Kirschner and Taylor Dupree. And, once I gave up the need to see something, I felt thankful for the opportunity to give all my attention to the music.

"You want people to lay down," says Willits, a Kansas City native who studied film and painting before coming to the Bay Area to study electronic music at Mills College six years ago. He has since played his combination of guitar, effects, and computer software with Kid606 and other electronic musicians around the world. Many have been featured or will be featured at future Listen events.

"You want people to experience it as deeply as possible," he continues. "You want people to close their eyes and stuff. It allows the music to kind of live on its own. You don't have an author necessarily behind it, pushing it or displaying it, presenting it. It's something that a lot of people really have never had the experience of; really sitting down for two hours, nothing else to do; you're just zoning out and you're really listening."

This approach has its forerunners, such as the practice of Deep Listening that classic electronic composer Pauline Oliveros teaches as a way to heighten students' attention to the sounds around them. Listen is especially notable, however, in light of the changes facing the music industry.

"We're really entering a new age of sound recording and reproduction," Willits says. "It's less about the object of the sound recording itself and more about the service, more about the live event, more about the context." In the case of Listen, he says, "We're creating a service around the music where we have a space, we've got some tea, whatever — lay down, chill. It's more than just the sound recording; you're actually buying an experience."

And even though the artists aren't present, Willits stresses Listen's live nature: "The collective experience of people around is really what does ultimately make it this kind of live event. The energy in the space is really active; sound is vibrating all around you, everyone else is vibrating all around you. Even though the performer has made this piece maybe a month beforehand, it's still a very unique, in-the-moment experience."

Every time a session featuring their music takes place, artists also get a cut from the door. And once Willits has gathered a sizable archive of compositions, he may release them by subscription through Overlap.org, an event production group and Web site dedicated to promoting independent artists working in various media.

"Overlap is really trying to embrace this new kind of way of thinking about sound recording, realizing that live events, the service, and then the licensing of the work are really the main components of income," he explains. "It's curated consumption. People are trusting Overlap that we're going to have new interesting stuff, that we will be this filter of all the stuff that's out there."

And trust Overlap people apparently do, as no one has asked for his $12 back yet.

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