Watching noise musician Victoria Shen (A.K.A. Evicshen) perform is like watching a mad scientist transform into a joyful noise cyborg. In an amazing 2019 video taken at New York's Ende Tymes Festival of Noise and Liberation, she carefully tweaks a table full of boxes bristling with knobs and wires before wrapping cables around herself, sticking a wire in her teeth, and thrashing around so that the movement of her body itself elicits grinding spits of feedback.
Born in San Francisco, Shen went to the Museum School in Boston in 2007 for illustration. But a class on synth construction with instrument maker Jessica Rylan changed her direction. "She really liked the way I soldered," Shen says, "so she hired me and I worked for her for five years on weekends soldering electronics." As a result, Shen learned music and noise "in a totally backwards way, starting from the nuts and bolts of practical stuff and later coming into the theory, and graduating to doing printed circuit board layout design."
Shen's been an instrument maker, video artist and sound artist for about a decade, and has put out a couple of releases in various formats since 2018. She's releasing her first LP, Hair Birth, this year on American Dreams records: 45 minutes of hiss, roar, shriek, feedback, and vibration, with an album cover that can be used as a speaker.
Coming into music from what she calls "the technical back end" of construction gives Shen a unique perspective. She loves building the things that make the noise as much as the noise itself. She talks very quickly, because she's got so many ideas she can barely get them out in time. When you listen to her it's hard not to get swept up in her enthusiasm for making things and banging them together until they make a satisfyingly cacophonous noise.
Noise music can feel angry or dystopian, but you've described your own sound work as optimistic. What's optimistic about noise?
Noise music is so liberating because there are no rules. We have this idea and this notion of the way music should work and what a musician is. And then there's noise!
I think noise highlights that the rules of music are just things we've assumed. Because there are no real rules in noise. If anything, you're encouraged to break rules, to transgress rules. When you present work that doesn't have any embedded, meaning it's up to the audience to interpret it. So it forces them to take an active stance. I'm trying to shock people out of complacency, so that they're present.
How did you become interested in noise music?
I worked with Jessica Ryan, who's a pioneer in noise music. She makes these chaotic synths. They are themselves chaotic systems that are designed with feedback in mind. One small change in the parameter will result in really complex aperiodic sounds. So that completely dispenses with the idea of reproducibility and mastery over your instrument. There's always an element of chance.
Her instruments fundamentally have this chaos in them and so it attracted a lot of noise musicians. She herself was a noise musician.
So, she would bring me to shows. That was my introduction to the local noise scene. It was kind of mind-blowing. I don't think I was quite ready to enter that scene quite yet!
What prompted you to start performing yourself?
When I was 25, I fell head over heels for this guy in San Francisco. It made me feel so alive. And we enjoyed the same kind of music, and that inspired me to start this band called Trim. The logo was an illustration of a pubic hair triangle, which was the "T" and then one errant pube like kind of strays out and spells the rest of our name.
At first maybe it was a kind of rock, maybe kind of metal because we had guitar and drums. But then I dispensed with the guitar and it became synth drums. But then the drummer moved to New York and I was performing more and more as a solo musician.
The guy who inspired me, me and him weren't even really dating; I'd just see him when I came to San Francisco and we would hang out. But he epitomized to me the weird funky underground aspects of San Francisco with comic books writer and graffitti and skateboarders, and living in the moment. His small presence in my life had huge consequences for me down the line.
I know you make your own instruments. Do you have instruments you made and now use regularly, or are you making new ones all the time?
I'm making new ones all the time! I have a bandsaw that I have a contact mic on. I modified a stethoscope to turn into a microphone so you can listen to your heartbeat. I made this…I don't know what you'd call it. I put audio tape on a spindle on a motor. And I can change the speed and direction of the motor. And then on my hand I have a glove with tape heads on the fingertip. So I applied the tape heads onto the tape spindle. And it plays audio that way.
So I'm always trying to add stuff to the sound palette.
So for this album, Hair Birth, the cover actually functions as a speaker. How did you come up with that idea?
At the end of 2018, I was figuring out how to make speakers by winding magnet wire. And I found out that you can make planar speakers. You take a coil and you can integrate it into a single plane and then distribute the magnets across the back of it and then you have a flat speaker.
And then I thought it would be really amazing if we could have it render an image. And so I did a bunch of different stuff. I embroidered fabric with conductive thread and made fabric speakers. I turned a cassette tape into a speaker; I turned a drum into the speaker. I made a levitating speaker using four coils that switch polarity really fast.
It was while I was in Copenhagen with sound artist Jenny Gräf that I developed the workflow to actually make images. And the first image that I made into a speaker was Else Marie Pade, who is a Danish electronic music pioneer and composer. And I was like dude, I'm going to make an LP jacket that you can listen to the LP through! So that was when the Eureka moment came, when I was in Copenhagen.
What did your label American Dreams say when you said, "Okay, I'm going to turn this album cover into a speaker"?
Oh my god, they were so into it.
Is it expensive to make these covers?
It's very laborious. I'm completing the last few right now, but I've been working on it for months. It's conceptually very simple. You take this copper foil and adhesive on one side, and paste it on the jacket. Then you put it under a vinyl cutter so the vinyl cutter will cut out the pattern. And then the difficult part is taking out the negative space with tweezers. And then you have to solder the coil together.
So you have to do them one-by-one by hand? How many of these are you doing?
Yeah, by hand. There's 100 that we're selling with the speakers.
Are you working on anything else in lockdown now?
I've been secretly really loving lock down! [Laughs.] I've had so many projects that were back-burnered—things I would ordinarily feel too guilty to devote a lot of time to.
So recently I've been co-teaching this introduction to digital fabrication class at Harvard. It's laser cutting, 3-D printing, electronics, embedded programming, I was able to whisk away part of that lab so I have a couple 3-D printers at home. And I've been making masks. I made a fluorescent day-glo mask, and then a xenomorph face-hugger mask. And then I made this mask that has an LED smiley face if you're talking in a low tone, and then it turns into a frowny face when you're yelling.
I'm trying to figure out how to cut my own records at home. And I've also been working with micro-phonographs. The Audubon society released these trading cards with tiny platic discs, tiny plastic records on them which described the birds and played birdsong. And they also released these phonographs you could play them on. And what's interesting is that instead of the plate moving or the record spinning, it's the needle that moves, because it's mounted on a motor. It spins from the center outward, which is the opposite of conventional records.
I've been figuring out how to replicate them by making silicone molds of the microphone grafts and then pouring like a very low viscosity urethane into them.
There's not enough hours in the day, I'm telling you!
Are you living alone?
I have a roommate but I share an apartment that's pretty spacious for Boston, I'd say.
So you're not in her way when you're pouring fluids and things.
I kind of am, actually. [Laughs.]