It’s a long way from the summer of 2016, and my first interview with Victoria Shen. Back then, in one of my first ever artist interviews as a young and very nervous writer, she had just finished a performance as one half of a raucous noise duo, Trim, spitting out hectic, fuzzy feedback from a handheld, self-made synthesizer. She climbed on top of the stage monitors, gave a piggyback ride to an audience member, and wailed into an effects-loaded microphone, producing what could only be described as dolphin screams from the depths of hell, all to the thunderous backing of bandmate Dana Cataldo’s hypnotic drums. I was shocked and terrified. My unprotected ears were ringing for days. I loved it.
From the COVID-induced hermitage of my living room, it’s a long way from the summer of 2016 and that blacktop parking lot gig, but when I ring up Victoria to talk about Hair Birth, the first LP entry into her catalogue as Evicshen, she’s quick to remember that first chat, down to the nitty-gritty details of the tacos we ate during the interview. We both remark on how exciting it is that we’ve both kept up our respective musical careers. However, as much as I still love dissecting an album or chatting with an artist, Victoria Shen has evolved from spell-binding performer (though she absolutely still has that down) into full-on technological wizard, crafting not just one of the year’s finest albums, but its most comprehensively mind-melting audio system.
She’s turned a snare drum into a speaker. Turned a cassette tape into a speaker. Built a speaker that levitates. She’s known to perform with a whip and has taken a band saw on tour. An engineer at heart, Victoria has a scholarly obsession with sound as a tactile phenomenon, but it was one particular discovery in the relationship between sound and material that drove her to put that relationship in the hands of the listener on Hair Birth, to “objectify sound” to its highest degree. “At a workshop in Copenhagen a few years ago, I figured out a technique for turning speakers into images — and vice versa — and it completely blew my mind,” she remembers, perched in her studio/workshop/home in Somerville, “You could make this entire integrated art object, where the sound is the visual art. A perfect meeting point of the desire for a thing, and the thing itself.” Watching the short demo of her brilliantly devised speaker cover sound system, you quite literally feel these distinctions evaporate into nothingness in your mind. The audio howls out from the grainy image, the entire assembly shakes and it all clicks: “The art is the speaker, and the speaker is the art.”
For an artist whose interest in synths was kickstarted by a long stint working at mentor — “and friend!” Victoria excitedly interjects — Jessica Rylan’s synthesizer shop (and Northeast noise musician hangout) Flower Electronics, the realization was not just the culmination of the technical craftsmanship that she’s cultivated over the years, but another chance to take a swipe at the the “modernist bullshit” that she’d been chipping away at since her years in academia. She tears into the subject with vigor: “Modernism is taught as an “anti-propaganda”: art for art’s sake. It forces a critical gap between the art and the viewer and it’s supposed to be some sort of “sublime experience.” But it’s not art for art’s sake: it’s art because of the frame around it, the institution and the capital supporting it.” Noise, particularly in the way that she makes it, provides an ideal escape hatch from those pretensions. “Because sound is so difficult to monetize and apply language to, noise is the perfect manifestation of a modernist potential: an experience that has no embedded meaning,” she explains, “When you make noise the signal and the signal is noise, it recontextualizes what it means to “hear” or to have an “aesthetic experience.”
Regardless of whether you’ve got a bone to pick with modernism or the coin to throw down on a possible Discogs resale of the masterpiece speaker cover edition, Hair Birth is one hell of an aesthetic experience and then some. Massive, densely textured slabs of noise and melody, generated by a combination of Harvard’s Buchla 100 synthesizer and her own homemade collection of synthesizers, slide against each other with all the delicacy of magma-filled tectonic plates, burbling and bashing against your eardrum in a dreamscape that’s equal parts tonal bliss and nightmare fuel.
Victoria built the backbone of these confrontational movements from an initial batch of Buchla recordings, choosing tracks where she was “absorbed” by a performance and adding and subtracting from it, taking care to preserve what she calls “precious layers” of sound by bringing them out with the right textural accompaniment. “Novelty and gut are the guiding principles,” she says, “Live and in the studio, I’m always looking for the most dynamic action at any given moment.”
The liner notes for the Hair Birth recordings go into wonderfully poetic detail about how the speaker cover and amplifier combo “dances and vibrates in your hands as you listen to the album, as it pushes the particles in the air back and forth to create invisible waves that we perceive to be sound.” It only leaves out the most critical bit of info: Victoria assembled every unique unit herself from the comfort of her own home.
While we’re on the call, she sorts through several of the copper coil speaker covers, featuring a particularly gnarly shot of her gripping a wire between her teeth, to find a “pretty” one to show off, beaming with pride. She picks up a box packed full of amplifiers for the speakers. They have a 10 percent failure rate so she has to test each one, individually. Victoria even made custom screwdrivers for listeners to attach them with. “It’s so dorky,” she laughs, showing off the hilariously cool black metal-inspired Evicshen logos that stretch across the sides. Screwdrivers have never looked better.
Altogether, one unit takes about 4 hours apiece to construct. It’s a week before the shipping deadline, and with 83 of the 100 completed, she has about 68 hours of precise assembly left to go. Some would call it grueling, but Victoria finds the methodical work of translating the transcendental harshness of the project into a DIY art project a meditative experience and plenty of fun to boot. With all of the love poured into their construction, it’s no wonder that the initial run of these gadgets has been snatched up well before the release date.
Once she’s done with assembling these, Victoria Shen will be on the move, relocating to her hometown of San Francisco, with a billion project ideas in tow. I ask what her ultimate, site-specific Bay Area art project would be. After contemplating using a lighthouse to do projections on the fog of San Francisco, something bigger and far more dangerous hits her. “If I could convince the city to let me do it as an art piece, what I really want to do is blow up the Salesforce Tower,” she says, practically shouting with giddy excitement and prompting a quick image search on my end, “It’s absolutely hideous; a big black vibrator that’s a perfect allegory for how tech has fucked San Francisco.” We both laugh at how truly grotesque the building is and how cathartic it would feel to see that sickening monument come tumbling down to a heap of dust. “I’m getting bitter,” she says with a chuckle. I’m genuinely hoping that she somehow pulls it off. Though might be a minute before we get to watch it crumble, if you put on the final minute of Hair Birth — the erupting chasm that is “Fever Pitch” — close your eyes and listen, you can get pretty damn close to how it might sound.