The University of Iowa University of Iowa

Mission Creek: m denney Mesmerizes with Abstract Noise

On the final day of Mission Creek local musician m denney, now performing under the name .em, started off the night at Gabe’s. Over the course of a half hour, she filled the venue with waves of noise. I pulled up a chair and put my earplugs in as faces joined me in the crowd. The set started with m’s familiar droning, engulfing us as it increased in intensity. I sat there and listened intently, immersing myself in all there was to hear. Loud, outrageous noise sputtered in, cutting in and out until it dominated the soundscape. The way I thought of it was as “alien alarms,” an unfamiliar sound that jut through like a laser beam. This sound modulated as m turned knobs on her collection of pedals. 

The next phase in the performance crept its way in as m picked up a microphone and started speaking into it. The speech was sorrowful as heavy reverb added to the existing droning, turning the previously panicked mood more somber. The words themselves were obscured by these recursive layers, yet some bled through before joining the haunting echoes. It felt like the heavy strata of the past had piled onto my back, threatening to crush my future before it could occur. m holds the mic close right up to her face with both hands as if she was using a flashlight to tell ghost stories. What I can make out is sluggishly spoken. “I never…” “I’m sorry…” “I love you…” “Darling…” These artifacts of love left behind contextualized the abstract performance. Eventually m put the mic down, leaving only the underlying drone and layers upon layers of reverb to drift away. 

The noise resumes its pre-vocal intensity. The soft, constant echo is replaced with the searing buzz of before. This time m is almost no longer in control of this noise, holding the knobs with both hands like she’s riding a bull, and turning them with exaggerated movement. This is one of my favorite aspects of the performance. Her movements directing the sound seem so precise and calm during the beginning but as the show ramps up, this control is gradually lost until she appears to be wrangling with this mess of machines and wires connected to her laptop.

Image via Alyssa Leicht

Blinking lights on these pedals both ground the odd, spacey feeling into a rhythm, yet give the appliance a certain mystique, like a quaint security camera hiding in the corner. The droning sounds, the blinking lights, the expressive motions, none of this is superficial. It all is working towards the sound, the main course of the performance, but every part of it further mesmerized me.

The last leg of her performance included a very special feature: a voicemail from UIPD detective Ian Mallory. Without turning this show coverage piece into an exposé, Mallory has gained infamy in the past few months for arresting multiple trans protesters, including m. In sending the voicemails to all of those arrested months after the event and for certain statements he has made in court about the UIPD, Mallory has made himself a mascot of the injustices the UIPD has committed against trans people. This is deeply tied to recent state legislation targeting trans rights and the reality of being a trans person in Iowa City.

The decision to incorporate Mallory’s voicemail into her performance was bold and made a lasting impression on me as the sound wound down, before eventually stopping. m thanked the audience, leaving her reverb effect on by accident, before turning it off and trying again. A couple giggles emerged in the moment as the audience clapped in their own gratitude for giving us a performance unlike anything we had seen before.