Standing in the middle, it sounded like you were deep inside an angry hornet’s nest. Electric guitars, nearly 20 of them this afternoon, were ringing in primal, circular rhythms. Two drum kits anchored either end of the stage lineup. An upright bass sawed guttural melodies over the surrounding cacophony. And this all went on, nonstop, for about 12 minutes.
You felt dizzy - but exhilarated.
That was the overwhelming sensation emanating from the Pozen Center at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design a few weeks ago during a rehearsal for the Animal Hospital Ensemble. The project is the sprawling vision of Kevin Micka, who for the past seven years has been the heart and soul and lone mastermind of a band he calls Animal Hospital.
Micka composes, produces, and performs his music alone, mining an intense beauty from repeated patterns and heavy drones. In a live setting, he loops intricate moving parts to achieve the work of dozens.
Except now Micka, who lives in Jamaica Plain and grew up in Newton, is indeed expanding the band’s horizons, at least for two one-off performances. The Animal Hospital Ensemble will make its debut in Pawtucket, R.I., tomorrow before arriving in Boston at the Pozen Center on Sunday.
After years of making a name for the band as a one-man affair, an obvious question arises: Why the exponential shift now?
“I would say that a visual in my head of looking around to a circle of all my friends playing this music with me was a major component of me wanting to make this happen,’’ Micka says. “A musical community is a hard thing to keep together, even in Boston, and this project has definitely given me a lot of joy in just reinforcing a strong sense of that again for me. This whole process has been as satisfying to me as what I imagine the actual performances to be like.’’
At last count, the ensemble, including Micka, had ballooned to 30 members: 22 guitarists, two drummers, and six string players (two double basses, two cellos, and two violins). They’re all his friends who play in other local bands, many of which have collaborated with Micka in some capacity over the years.
“I would not be nearly as interested in this project if I didn’t have a connection with each member individually,’’ says Micka, who also plays drums in the noise band Neptune. “It would take on a whole different meaning to me to assemble this with 30 strangers.’’
A pivotal part of the performance’s power lies in the stage setup. The musicians will be arranged in a broad circle, with the audience seated in the middle, ensuring a wall of sound that envelops - and sometimes unsettles - the listener. He got the idea for that after seeing a live performance of Rhys Chatham’s “A Crimson Grail,’’ in which hundreds of electric guitarists from around the country convened in New York in 2009 to play the piece. Micka was among the volunteer guitarists and came away emboldened to do something similar with Animal Hospital’s music.
For this weekend’s performances, his ensemble will reprise three songs - “His Belly Burst,’’ “. . .and ever,’’ and “Memory’’ - from Animal Hospital’s most recent album, 2009’s “Memory.’’ Each song feels like a suite, full of fluid detours and departures.
Micka, who’s 35, is still the eye of the storm, playing guitar and adding ethereal vocals, but his role is fundamentally different now. He’s a bandleader, charged with conducting a huge cast of musicians who all want to replicate the songs according to Micka’s specifications.
It has been a massive undertaking that Micka has directed with precision. He sent each band member a link to ensemble parts with MP3s for reference. His compositional notes were thoughtful but minimal, to the point of almost being elusive. A sample instruction: “B string with distortion (throughout the G major scale with more gain, light touch and sustain).’’
For their part, his bandmates were eager to participate in Micka’s experiment.
“I think part of what’s exciting about his live show is watching one person make all these sounds right in front of you,’’ says guitarist Mike Gintz, who also plays in the band Hex Map. “It no longer has that aspect necessarily, but it has a completely new aspect - each of these people doing minuscule things that add up to something really big. It has a scope and power to it that’s really unique.’’
There’s a sense, too, that the project is pushing Micka in new and unexpected directions. It’s a challenge for a guy who’s been so good at what he does for so long, you wonder how he can stretch even more.
“When he’s in front of his little metal box, he’s king of the world, like a mad scientist,’’ says Hallelujah the Hills’ Nicholas Ward, who’s playing double bass and guitar in the group. “But in the ensemble he’s definitely riffing and figuring it out as he goes along. There’s a distinct possibility that we’re going to fail, but when it’s just him, there isn’t that possibility.’’
Alec Tisdale, on loan from the bands Volcano Kings and the Red Heroine, is also on guitar and says part of the project’s appeal was helping Micka realize something he’s wanted to accomplish for a long time.
“To be able to do this for Kevin is why everybody in the room is there,’’ Tisdale says. “It’s a big Kevin love fest.’’James Reed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.