Some days when Marielle V. Jakobsons goes to work in the morning, she's thinking about a million cockroaches scuttling through the walls of a house. She thinks about what that might sound like. Is it a hissing sound? Or more like a scratching sound? Is there clicking? Chattering? Fluttering?
When she gets to work, she thinks about how to replicate that sound — maybe not the exact sound of real, live cockroaches, but how we might think a cartoonish infestation of bugs might sound. As a sound designer for the popular video game series The Sims, Jakobsons spends her days creating the noises that make up that fantastical virtual world.
From the made-up "Simlish" language the characters speak, to their tapping footsteps and the fantastical moments that make the game fun, "all of the sounds that go into the game have to be created somehow," she says. "Sometimes you have to get those gushy, goopy sounds of when you're cooking, or dropping splattery things."
And sometimes your character's house gets infested with bugs.
"In the real world you don't necessarily hear them just walking around, or hear them talking," Jakobsons explains. "But we don't want the literal sound of cockroaches in the game. It doesn't really translate. We're trying to think about how to create that sense and that tension and that gross feeling, while also making it sound like an insect."
In her career and her art, Jakobsons lives a life that revolves around sound. She's a member of the bass-heavy electronic music duo Date Palms, which has released albums on the beloved independent music label Thrill Jockey Records. She creates installations in museums — ones that allow people to experience the way sound interacts with objects. Jakobsons also performs solo music (like she'll do this week at Eastern Washington University) that draws on both her classical training and love for electronic sound manipulation.
While she was in college at the Cleveland Institute of Music, Jakobsons — who had a violin in her hands at age 4 and has played piano for nearly as long — injured her hand and was unable to play piano. During that time, she discovered the school's electronic music studio. "Nobody knew it was really down there," she says.
She began playing with MIDI synthesizers and Roland Jupiter 8s, moving toward more avant-garde and experimental sounds. She loved noise rock as much as she loved classical, and wondered what would happen if she married the two.
"I really enjoyed playing classical music, but I didn't feel very connected to it a lot of the time. I felt like it was music from a different time," she says. "It didn't always translate into our language and our way of thinking. And what was really compelling to me was making music that was a part of a relevant conversation at the moment."
In Date Palms and as a solo artist, many of her compositions begin with the violin. It's what she does to its sound — warming the notes with delay and fuzz pedals, sending it through computer programs to bend and twist the sounds — that reinterprets the instrument's old, familiar trill into something new and strange, otherworldly and dreamlike.
"The great thing about the violin is that it is an instrument that speaks to people on various levels. So I feel like I have an advantage over purely electronic performers," she says. "When you see someone playing violin, it's a recognizable experience and sound you can enter into right away."
With her sound installations, Jakobsons plays with cymatics: "how [soundwaves] move through different mediums, and how that creates actual waves on water surfaces and stuff like that," she says.
Where electronic music — and no doubt, noise music — can feel unaccessible, she says that in the Bay Area, where she lives, electronic musicians like herself have entire festivals devoted to their craft.
She says it's the people who aren't used to hearing this kind of music she makes who are often the most receptive to it. In fact, she says that sometimes young children — who she's spent time teaching as a music educator — are often the most interested audience because they project no constrictions on what music should sound like.
They're the same kind of imaginative listeners who might be able to think about what cockroaches crawling through the walls might sound like, too. ♦
Marielle V. Jakobsons • Fri, Feb. 21, at 7:30 pm • $5; $3, seniors and non-EWU students; free to EWU students • Eastern Washington University Music Department Recital Hall • Intersection of Seventh and I streets, Cheney, Wash. • 359-2241