Mike Shiflet strikes a balance with new ‘Tetracosa’ albums

The Columbus noise artist recently released a pair of 24-hour albums, one created solo and a second featuring contributions from 170 friends and fellow musicians.
Mike Shiflet
Mike ShifletCourtesy the musician

When Mike Shiflet created the first volume of Tetracosa in 2018, he said he had reached a point of frustration, his music-making bogged down by persistent indecision.

“I had just come to this stalemate where I couldn’t finish any projects,” Shiflet said via Zoom in mid-April. “Basically, I was having decision-making burnout, where I couldn’t figure out when anything was done, what needed more, what needed less. I was overworking things and underworking things, and it was like, ‘I need to come up with some outside factor to control this.’”

Amid this funk, Shiflet, who has been crafting immersive experimental noise recordings for more than two decades, devised a system based on random number generation. Within this system, Shiflet would create spreadsheets and assign various sounds and samples a number. These numbers were then plugged into a computer program that spit them out in a randomized order, creating a musical blueprint from which to work and in effect removing Shiflet from the decision-making process. 

“And that liberated me,” he said. “If something was weird or I didn’t like how it sounded, well, that’s what the numbers said.”

Around the middle of 2022, Shiflet began to conceptualize a second volume of Tetracosa, beginning work early in January 2023. But while the first project served strictly as a solo venture, this time out he decided to open things up to collaborators, creating a pair of 24-hour albums in the process. For one of these, Tetracosa 2024, Shiflet again worked on his own, drawing on a deep catalog of sounds that veer from violent static buzz to celestial keyboard drones. The second, Tetracosa Ensemble, incorporates a wide swath of sonic submissions from 170 friends and fellow musicians, including the likes of Ty Owen, who curates the monthly freeform noise show S.T.A.T.I.C. at Dirty Dungarees, Jen Powers of the great Powers/Rolin Duo, and Dead Winds of Summer, which describes its musical output as “the sound of reverbed tinnitus, manifest.”

A small part of the decision to invite in a larger community, Shiflet said, could have been informed by the separation brought about by the Covid pandemic, though he explained he is uniquely suited to that kind of solitude. “I’m not the most social person in the first case,” he said. “So, with the lockdowns, mentally, it was business as usual. … But undoubtedly some of that was there, and I wanted to reach out to people I’d lost touch with over those few years, and even the years prior to that.”

Shiflet didn’t give contributors any specifications, asking people only to “represent themselves and whatever their vision might be,” he said. And, for the most part, the various collaborators provided soundscapes that aligned with their skillsets, drummers chipping in intricate percussion rolls and experimental artists submitting jarring bursts of scuzzy noise. At times, though, the musicians upended expectation, with one percussionist, Sarah Hennies, turning in a field recording of croaking frogs. There were also noise acts who submitted uncharacteristically mellow turns and ambient-leaning musicians who churned out harsher sounds. “Some people gave me things that were representative of their sound, while other things came out of left field,” Shiflet said. “And it was like, ‘Okay, that’s not what I thought you’d do, but cool.’”

While Shiflet again relied on spreadsheets and randomization in building both 24-hour compositions, he said the Ensemble record required additional finessing. For example, one short sonic loop was initially slated to fill an eight-minute window in the recording, and Shiflet swapped it with a longer contribution to avoid having it repeat for a duration that could begin to feel gratuitous. “Normally, I would have left everything as it stands,” he said. “But I wanted to represent everyone as accurately as possible. It wasn’t moving it with the idea of this would sound cool here. It was all about the timing and duration.”

Working with nearly 200 collaborators also allowed the music to expand in directions it never could have had Shiflet again recorded exclusively on his own, and he described it as an educational experience, both personally and professionally. “The Ensemble was a good way to learn more about the piece and about myself,” he said. “It allowed me to explore how [Tetracosa] comes together with sounds that aren’t my own, because I’m never going to do an eight-minute-long drum track. At the same time, it’s celebrating this community and all of these people who have meant a lot to me throughout the years.”

When Shiflet first started creating noise tracks more than two decades ago, he said the compositions were more reactionary, the musician meeting outside stimuli with discordant outbursts. In the years since, Shiflet’s approach and output have evolved, particularly as he learned to drill down on those melodies he began to uncover beneath the chaos. 

“I like to start with something loud and static-y and weird, and then I latch onto a frequency or whatever harmonic, rhythmic element is buried under there, and then I pull the music out of that,” said Shiflet, who pointed to the album Llanos, from 2010, as a particular turning point. “I do like harsh and ugly underground music, but I also like when things are pretty and gritty at the same time. And I think that’s more reflective of my life, at least, where everything’s not totally gross and ugly, but it’s also not pretty all the time. It's about finding that balance, that sweet spot where they can coexist.”

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