Music » Music Stories

Building a Mystery

B-Sides gets the skinny on the renovations going on at BB's Jazz, Blues and Soups, and gets to the bottom of the MetroLink's sound installation.

by and

Ambient Noise

A soft series of electronic tones greets commuters at the Skinker/Washington University MetroLink station. The sounds resemble the sighs of a faraway android, mysterious harmonic boops that arrive one by one in persistent succession. It's not music, but it is. Or is it? It's hard to tell.

"I grew up on Kraftwerk — that's my mother's milk," explains multimedia artist Erwin Redl, who designed the installation. "Kraftwerk and Bach," he continues, then rattles off a list of other influences: Steve Reich, Aphex Twin, German techno, Brian Eno's ambient works, Conlon Nancarrow. Redl's standing in the engine room of the Skinker station tinkering with the hardware, which is mounted to the wall in a lockbox. The room hums with the generators powering the trains. Redl points to a MIDI box — bought on eBay — which runs his sound and light installation, titled Speed Shift.

"It's a great idiot," he explains of the simple computer. "It does exactly what I tell it, and nothing more."

Redl exits the room and heads upstairs to a catwalk that overlooks the station. He's installed two pairs of long, rectangular, light-emitting diode (LED) boards that face each other on either side of the catwalk. They pulse in white stripes synced with the sounds. With each boop, a strip of horizontal light zips across the rectangle. Beneath it, a small placard provides a mission statement: "The artwork reflects the demands and logistical underpinnings of mass transit — speed, mobility, precise timing and computer technology."

The Austrian-born, Brooklyn-based artist has some fancy credentials. Trained at the Music Academy in Vienna, Austria, and the School of Visual Arts in New York City, Redl is a Fulbright scholar with a long list of accomplishments, including participation in the 2002 Whitney Biennial. In his youth, he played in a band with twentieth-century composer Gygöry Ligeti's son. Redl's highly praised Matrix II installation, part of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art's 2005 group show Ecstasy: In and About Altered States, consisted of a three-dimensional, room-size grid of tiny green LEDs.

"This is my first underground piece," says Redl of the MetroLink installation, "and it's ideal. Number one, it's kind of quiet here, and there's no daylight. Daylight kills LEDs, more or less, visually. And it's very hard to compete with daylight. Our retinas are so in tune to daylight."

Speed Shift runs continually throughout the station's operating hours. Enter the station and the tones repeat like sonar from a submarine, which is something that the security guards have to get used to. One guard, who declined to give his name for this article, says that he's had to learn how to tune the sounds out. "That's what this book is for," he explains, pointing to a novel he's reading. "Sometimes when I go home at night, I hear that sound in my head." — Randall Roberts

Jazz It Up

At first glance, the renovations currently underway at BB's Jazz, Blues and Soups might suggest the TV program Extreme Makeover. But what's really going on at the popular live music spot (located downtown at 700 South Broadway) is more akin to Makeover's more circumspect, public-TV predecessor, This Old House: a careful, professional refitting of a venerable structure to make it suitable for modern times, supplemented by a bit of do-it-yourself effort.

And so on this early November afternoon, BB's talent buyer John May — who's usually seen wielding a cell phone or a bass guitar — can be found employing a hock, a trowel and other tools of the mason's trade. He's tuckpointing a section of wall on the first floor, as owner Mark O'Shaughnessy spends a few minutes outlining the plan that will more than double the club's seating capacity. Meanwhile, general contractors are busy upstairs, preparing the expansive space that will look down upon the stage once a section of the second floor at the building's east end is cut away.

All of these workers are constructing what O'Shaughnessy calls "a building inside a building," with new wooden support pillars extending from the basement up to the third floor, and new joists installed between the first and second and the second and third floors. Another staircase will be added to provide access to the second floor; a New Orleans-style balcony will be attached to the north side of the building. This balcony will overlook the side entrance on Cerre Street, where a new sidewalk, railing and small seating area were built several years ago.

Inside BB's, the stage is being expanded to the width of the entire back wall. Lighting and sound will be upgraded, and a Hammond B3 organ that's been sitting in storage will be installed to complete the club's inventory of backline gear. The heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems also will get upgrades.

Renovating a structure that dates back to before the Civil War poses special challenges, and so every move has been carefully choreographed by engineers, architects and contractors. (As O'Shaughnessy explains, "It wasn't really built for public assembly.") Originally constructed in 1848 as a private residence, the building was expanded at the turn of the century with a three-story addition and converted to commercial use. Over the years, it has served as a boarding house, reception hall, millinery, transient hotel, bar, diner and "house of ill repute" before O'Shaughnessy and original partner Bob Burkhardt acquired it in the mid-1970s. Since then, it's been home to two previous incarnations of BB's as well as the rock club Heartbreak Hotel and, for nearly a decade, Rich Andrews' restaurant.

The current version of BB's opened in 1996, and the club has subsequently become the unofficial headquarters of the St. Louis blues community, showcasing a variety of local and national talent and serving as a combination late-night hang and hiring hall for musicians. (Eventually, O'Shaughnessy also plans to install a series of brass plaques in the sidewalk to commemorate the careers of important St. Louis musicians.)

All of these renovations, of course, will cost some serious money — to the tune of $750,000. But with work on the new ballpark up the street complete and redevelopment set for the Chouteau's Landing area to the east, the club does seem well positioned to benefit from a downtown revival. The extra seating capacity should mean significantly greater door revenues for local musicians, O'Shaughnessy notes, and will give BB's the ability to better accommodate meetings, private parties and groups of conventioneers.

Once structural work is completed later this year, the club also plans to add permanent audio/video recording and webcasting capability. O'Shaughnessy says he's been in discussions with both PBS and the Discovery Channel about a potential series of music programs recorded live at BB's. And although no deals have been struck yet, he's clearly committed to using the club to spread the word about St. Louis music. "This town has always had great musicians," he says. "We want to do what we can to help put St. Louis on the map." — Dean C. Minderman

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