The Music Box in the Performing Arts and Humanities building is abuzz with the unintelligible murmurs of students eagerly awaiting a lecture by composer, filmmaker and video artist Kyle Johnson. Eight rows of black folding chairs line the center of the room slowly fill as students shuffle in one by one, seating themselves near friends or classmates. A few students stand along the back wall, leaning casually as if disinterested despite their apparent willingness to stand through an hour-long presentation.
Johnson himself is at the front of the room, idly making small talk with a few audience members who approach him. As he fidgets and fiddles with his water bottle, it becomes apparent that the title of his multimedia piece, I’m Not Really Much of a Talker, is more than just a title, but a statement. His works have been featured by Harvard and the Library of Congress, yet it is clear by his shy and nervous yet charming demeanor that he is not used to the attention.
As the lights dim and the lecture begins, Johnson opens up a presentation with excerpts from I’m Not Really Much of a Talker, only to be promptly met with technical errors. As tech people rush to the front of the room to assist him, Johnson turns to the audience to break the awkward silence: “Anyways, you guys wanna talk about anything?”
The issue proves to be an easy fix and as the lecture commences, Johnson introduces each song with a brief description of what it means. “This is a song about admiration,” he said before distorted and disconcerting brass notes filled the room, growing and fading, moving between speakers as a muffled, disembodied voice sings in Spanish behind the din. “This one’s about friendship,” precedes a frantic, hurried cacophony of string instruments, stopping briefly for a few somber notes before lunging back into a frenzy. “This one is called ‘Summer Breeze’,” he remarked as a broken and jumbled symphony accompanied a disjointed opera singer, his voice sounding desperate as if crying out for help or gasping for air.
To describe his music without also describing the imagery that goes along with it is admittedly doing Johnson a disservice. Though for many of the songs (including “Summer Breeze” and another that he describes as being “about a girl from Elkridge”) stand alone and required the audience to close their eyes to get the full experience, many of the other excerpts from I’m Not Really Much of a Talker were entirely visual experiences. Many over-saturated images of grim or frantic settings, others so still they give the illusion of being photographs.
Throughout the entire piece, the audience sits enraptured. Johnson’s music is discomforting, but that is precisely the point: “When I was a child,” he remarks towards the end of his lecture, “What made me sad was the Oscar Mayer wiener song.” His songs bring forth beautiful elements and mash them violently with loud and abrasive ones. His videos are filmed at often jarring angles and show people interacting with one another in unusual ways. Words come out in a jumbled mutter – few things are clearly articulated – making much of the fast-paced dialogue difficult to understand.
As he brings his lecture to a close, Johnson makes a simple request: “Please don’t congratulate me. Please don’t applaud me. What I want is silence.” Regardless, he is met with fervent applause from the enraptured audience. His work is surreal in the most appealing way, pushing the boundaries of what music and video should sound and look like.