On a recent evening, celebrity performance artist Marina Abramović – she of the Jay-Z video, the upstate performance art boot camp, and blockbuster piece The Artist is Present – was excitedly milling around in front of Bushwick bar Alphaville with a few young friends. She was there to see electronic band Sound of Ceres; the artist is a fan.
Featuring former members of The Drums and Apples in Stereo, Sound of Ceres makes emotional, otherworldly electronic music – the kind of stuff that might spontaneously start playing if a tiny sprite pulled herself out of your computer and began flitting around the room.
Speaking of! Throughout the performance, the band is accompanied by simple, beautiful, utterly beguiling visual display, somewhere between a hologram and a laser show. Stars draw themselves in mid-air while rotating in three dimensions, small shapes squish and fly around, and tiny red galaxies explode in the air, all in time with the music (see it for yourself in the video below).
This visual magic is the project of Jacob Graham. He’d just left The Drums, which he’d started with his friend Jonny Pierce in 2008, when he got a call from husband and wife Karen and Ryan Hover asking him to collaborate with Ceres. After 10 years making jangly indie pop, Graham had been looking forward to exploring some other creative outlets (including puppeteering). He told them he’d be happy to join, but only if he wasn’t playing music. They agreed.
After some ill-advised forays into the psychedelic use of an overhead projector (“I definitely was never very good at it,” Graham confided), he hit on the idea of using lasers. He began reading about them, experimenting with them, even attending a Pink Floyd laser show hoping to find some inspiration. He wasn’t impressed.
“They were a lot of images that kind of went with the music very literally – dollar sign shapes, things like that,” he said. “We like when things are very abstract, and almost impressionistic. We don’t want anything literal, spelling out words, or anything like that. The Pink Floyd laser show just confirmed what I didn’t want to do with lasers.”
Graham eventually came to the current show. On the one hand, it takes an abstract relation to the emotional content of the music – he sites as inspiration everything from 1970s electronic giants like Tomita and Jean-Michel Jarre to the fireworks show at EPCOT Center. From a technical point of view, he draws from a classic magic trick called Pepper’s Ghost, first pioneered in the 16th Century and still used today to create the ghosts in Disney’s Haunted Mansion ride. Essentially, it works by putting a piece of glass between the audience and a set, onto which is reflected a figure from another room. Differences in brightness between the two rooms make the reflected figure appear ghostly and transparent.
These are the basics. The band is anxious to preserve the magic by avoiding more specifics (for instance, they confirm their touring car is too small to carry a stage-sized piece of glass). “We like to keep it like, ‘How did they do that?’” said Ryan Hover.
“We’re trying to make it as magical and transportive as possible,” said Graham. “We love playing in these super dingy dive bars, because once we’ve got all the lights off, it really transforms the space. Then, when the lights come back on, people are like, whoa, I’m still here in this dingy basement.”
At Alphaville, when the lights came up after the show, Abramović was still there, smiling broadly. She took pictures with the band, and was still there talking when I went home. There are many kinds of magic.
Sound of Ceres’ debut album, The Twin, is available to stream from Hype Machine.