Tone Glow 002: Sunik Kim & Seungmin Cha
Interviews with Korean experimental musicians + album downloads and our writers panel on Speaker Music's 'Of Desire, Longing'
Welcome to Tone Glow, a newsletter focused on experimental music edited by Joshua Minsoo Kim. In our second issue, we talk with Sunik Kim and Seungmin Cha, two musicians who utilize traditional Korean instruments. We also have downloads of Korean albums and our writer panel’s thoughts on Speaker Music’s Of Desire, Longing.
Sunik Kim is a NY-based musician whose debut album, Zero Chime (First Terrace), finds them playing alto sax alongside a multitude of traditional Korean instruments—taepyeongso, haegeum, kkwaenggwari, janggu, jing, buk. It all comes together in a cacophonous mix of freak-out jazz. I asked Kim about the inspirations behind their album and the goals underpinning it. The photo below was taken by Tonje Thilesen.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: The inner sleeve of your LP comes with extensive liner notes, an excerpt of the Korean Declaration of Independence, and a quote from political activist Yu Gwan-sun. Can you describe the politics that informed the creation of Zero Chime?
Sunik Kim: The fundamental issue at the heart of this project, and my political interests more broadly, is the violent division of the Korean peninsula: a division that has shattered families, murdered countless Koreans, and laid the groundwork for many of the fascist, militarist and imperialist tendencies we see cropping up across the world today. Many people today simply accept the fact that there is a “North” and “South” Korea, with little to no knowledge of the extreme violence and brutality that led to the division itself and the chaos and horror that the division wrought in the following decades. It extends far beyond the Korean War. Without going into every painful detail, Korea’s history in the 20th century has been one burdened by colonization, military occupation, war, dictatorship, famine, forced capitalist development, crushing sanctions, neoliberal “restructuring”… the list goes on and on.
This has led some to consider Korea as simply a “tragedy,” a “forgotten” casualty of Cold War political maneuvering. However, it is critical to recognize that, throughout these tragedies—and yes, there is no shortage of tragedy in Korean history—Koreans have always risen up and fought, often to the death, for their freedom. So to simply call Korea and its bloodstained history a “tragedy” would do a disservice to those countless strugglers and their legacy.
To me, the core of Korean reunification is simple, emotional—even though the issue is of course deeply rooted in complex political and economic structures, and will only be achieved through a radical overturning of the current world order. It is about reuniting long-separated families; it is about ending sanctions on the north that kill innocent Koreans by denying them food and medication; it is about ending the US military occupation of the south, a critical outpost for the American political and economic agenda in East Asia; it is about the abolition of borders and all the horrors they bring; it is about lifting a dark cloud from our collective past, so that we can truly begin to heal.
To be honest, as a communist I have some issues with the language of the Korean Declaration of Independence, and included it as more of an important, fascinating and poetic historical artifact rather than as a perfect document that aligns with my political beliefs. Originally I had planned on including two quotes, one from Mao Zedong and one from Korean American artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, which we scrapped for copyright reasons. There were many political tendencies within the Korean independence movement, from left to right, and I disagree with much of the language of the Declaration, which is rooted in vague liberal ideals of “human progress,” “morality,” and the “conscience of mankind,” and also includes sections explicitly not wanting to blame Japan for their brutal colonization of Korea (“We must not blame Japan, we must first blame ourselves…”).
In addition, Korean nationalism has been leveraged by right-wing forces in Korea for decades to justify brutality and violence against dissenters, strengthen narratives of “blood” or “racial purity,” and establish a highly gendered, militarized culture that only recognizes men as true Korean “citizens” and “patriots.” This is not to diminish the impact the Declaration and fighters like Yu Gwan-sun had in mobilizing what is known as the March 1st Movement in 1919 for independence from Japan. It’s just to note that the document itself is flawed, and illuminates many of the complexities of Korean history and politics. Ultimately I believe that the class struggle is a global one, and making the nation and nationalism the end goal will not destroy capitalism and will only result in neo-colonialism of the type that we see exhibited by south Korea today.
Beyond explicitly Korean politics, I wanted to engage in the cultural front with this work as well. Lately my work gravitates around these unresolved questions: is it possible to merge revolutionary politics and music in a real way, and not simply in words or press releases? What is the role of music, if any, in actual liberation movements—movements that actually affect the daily lives of the masses, not the movements that take place solely within insular cultural “scenes” and spaces? Does music have to be literal and didactic in order to be considered “revolutionary” or “useful” in liberation movements? What is the role of the “artist” in revolution? What is music actually capable of?
I feel that this will be an unending and forever unresolved issue for me, and I see this album as my first, very flawed attempt at tackling it. Fundamentally, I believe that a “revolutionary music” should be viscerally and immediately felt, rather than simply “read” or “understood.” I fully admit that my personal approach is imperfect and a permanent work in progress, but I tried as hard as possible to make the “form” of my work match the political “content” in feeling and intensity rather than artificially tack a political “content” onto a completely unrelated “form”—with the goal of allowing any listener to immediately feel the weight of these histories and traumas even without knowledge of the issues at hand or a discernible message or narrative within the music itself.
That instant, overpowering feeling is one that many artists try to create, across all mediums, and is incredibly difficult to capture. But I believe that anything less than that will not suffice. At the end of the day, as with all art, it always comes down to—I know—the actual quality of the art itself!
Basically, (and this is mostly directed at the so-called “experimental music scene”), I’m very fucking tired of reading 10,000-word press releases filled with nonsensical jargon drawn from disparate, trendy strands of philosophy about “the intersection of art and technology,” “AI,” and, best of all and most popular, “these times we’re living in,” tacked onto boring genre exercises that don’t express anything interesting or radical musically (this extends far beyond “conceptronica”). Does this take us even an inch closer to a better world? Equally exasperating is the notion that a “revolutionary music” must be incredibly literal, straightforward and didactic, or that an artist simply “having” the “correct” politics means they will produce good work—plenty of people with politics I agree with have made bad art. In my opinion, all of these approaches are dead ends that conveniently sidestep the actual difficulty of making good art. I just want to hear good music, always and forever. And let’s be honest—the vast majority of this “good music” actually exists outside of the so-called “experimental music scene”: 10 seconds of any Chief Keef, M.I.A. or Missy Elliott song instantly demolish the life work of many an esteemed “experimental” composer or musician.
Ultimately, I would much rather have us focus on the quality of our art than force politics into the matter if they don’t really need to be there. (I’m of course sidestepping the fact that “all music/art is political,” which is a whole discussion in itself). Like Albert Ayler, I absolutely believe that “music is the healing force of the universe”—otherwise I wouldn’t be doing this work—but I equally believe that music has its limits in actually fundamentally changing the political and economic structures of the world. If artists and musicians are serious about the revolutionary politics they espouse through their music, there is much more work to be done outside the purely cultural sphere—and many artists are doing that work. Music alone will not vaporize the DMZ or cast the tens of thousands of US soldiers occupying the Korean peninsula into the sea.
What was the process like for how you started making the album? Did you already have an idea for what it would sound like prior to working on it given its underlying message?
I definitely didn’t foresee where the album would go when I started. It originated in some sketches I’d been working on for a little while, but was ultimately dissatisfied with. In general, for a few years I was pretty lost creatively, striving for a sound that would fully meet my expectations and constantly failing. Completely separate from the music, I started engaging with Korean history and politics in early 2018, which led me to discovering lots of Korean folk and traditional music for the first time—all of which absolutely blew me away. I instantly felt and understood these sounds, and realized I’d subconsciously been looking for them all along: screeching, clanging gongs, chimes, strings and horns, often untethered to a steady rhythm and rooted in collective, ritual improvisation. From that point on, things fell together fairly quickly. I’d say I “filled in” the skeletons of my discarded projects with these new sounds over time, to a point where nothing of the old structures remained.
The main creative question I wrestled with, and continue to wrestle with now, is that of sonic “density” and the limits of listeners’ perceptions. Though the term “experimental” has been rendered completely meaningless, I think that one of the core tenets of truly “experimental music” is pushing listeners’ ideas of what music actually is or can be, and I find that the best “experimental” work perfectly treads that fine line between effortless bliss and complete parody—where literally just one misplaced element can instantly take it in the latter direction. I tend towards walls of sound with my music, and I’m sure many would say my work is too “busy.” I’m fine with that, but I guess I’m more interested in seeing what happens perceptually in this “excessive” territory—how many things are our ears capable of processing simultaneously, and why? What does music sound like beyond the point of listener fatigue? What do our ears gravitate towards in a sonic wall, and why is that different with different listeners? What makes this free jazz album so much better than that free jazz album, when they’re both ostensibly cobbled from the same sounds, material and even players? I believe that thinking in terms of a piece of music being “too dense” or “too busy” is still stuck in the notion that music’s task is to deliver a clear message to the listener, or provide a pleasant experience. I’d rather marvel at the fact that sound can move us in such extreme, emotional and inexplicable ways, and continue to push the ways in which we can sculpt and organize sound with the goal of producing truly new and undiscovered feelings and perceptions. I should note that this is not at all about “brute force” or “sheer volume”—in my opinion, work in this territory still requires very careful thought, curation and consideration, just like with all other effective art.
There’s a lot of traditional Korean instruments on the album—how long have you been playing them? Are you fond of any one in particular?
I don’t consider myself as being able to play any of them, necessarily. I’m sure actual practitioners of Korean folk music would be horrified to see me at work, as I never learned the proper techniques for any of them. But I find the sounds so compelling on their own that I was able to use them however necessary to achieve the sound I wanted. I would say my favorite is the kkwaenggwari, a small gong that makes an incredibly piercing, clanging sound when struck. It’s the sound of many Korean protests, in addition to folk music of course. As soon as I heard it, I heard all my favorite percussive sounds all at once: rolling, crashing Rashied Ali-type stuff.
Is there a particular artist, album, or song that you remember resonating with you strongly?
I’d say the most incredible and inspiring thing I heard was a recording by the Kim Suk Chul Ensemble titled The Shamans of the Eastern Seaboard. It’s basically a free jazz album with the same intensity of late-era John Coltrane, except with the taepyeongso (an extremely loud and abrasive Korean double-reed instrument) and kkwaenggwari instead of sax and drums. I return to it constantly—it is astounding. Though that’s the best “official” recording I’ve heard, I would have to say that this short video of the Kim Suk Chul ensemble at work sums up pretty much everything I love about music: rhythm, movement, community, ecstatic call and response… it’s all in there. Not sure how anyone could watch this and not feel extremely moved by the joy and intensity of it all!
The press release for your album says that Zero Chime is partially influenced by “시나위 exorcism”—can you go further into what that is and its impact on the album?
Going to preface this by explicitly saying that I’m not an expert or practitioner of either sinawi (시나위) or Korean shamanism. Sinawi is a form of Korean folk music that is based on collective improvisation, and often accompanies Korean shamanic rituals. On a basic level, I immediately hear free jazz in sinawi—it is a harsh, vibrant music that rolls and unfolds at varying speeds, always maintaining a sense of rhythmic drive and impact. So, as a devotee of John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, etc., of course my mind was completely blown when I discovered that Koreans have been making incredible noise like this entirely outside the typical musical canon.
I included “exorcism” for a few reasons. First, I was hinting in broad terms at the musically ritualistic aspect of both sinawi and the kind of free jazz I appreciate, where it’s all about collective possession, transcendence, altered states and ecstatic rhythms. Next, I meant it as a gesture towards Korean shamanism and the surface-level aspects of it that aligned with my approach for the work: once again, concepts of ecstasy and possession like shinbyeong (“self-loss”), where the shaman experiences physical pain and hallucinations while being possessed by a divine power, which can only be “healed” when the shaman fully merges with the spirit. This “physical pain” of shinbyeong leads me to my final point: I meant “exorcism” in the context of Korea’s history, the still unresolved traumas that burden Koreans to this day, and a desire to purge these ghosts from our past—in deeds, not just words—so that we can move forward and flourish. A shamanic ritual, or music, will not actually heal the world of its ills. But I guess I’m trying to make music that feels like it could just do that, even for a moment.
I make these connections somewhat metaphorically, and don’t mean to slight or misrepresent Korean shamanic tradition in any way, or propose that my work is actually in the line of Korean shamanic tradition.
There are moments on Zero Chime where your voice is heard. Are you saying anything in particular?
There are snippets of English fragments in there, mostly original plus a few stolen from other artists. The English words deal abstractly with the larger themes—division, imperialism, trauma—but in a roundabout way. The rest is either gibberish or an improvised Korean stream-of-consciousness. As someone who isn’t fluent in Korean, I found it really interesting to force myself to form words and sentences on the spot while recording, and to see where my mind and mouth went of their own volition. I found myself rapidly digging through fragments of memories and conversations with relatives, and gravitating towards certain phonetic constructions even if they mostly made no sense. Theresa Hak Kyung Cha explores the concept of speech in her work Dictee, and I thought of that often while I did the vocals. The actual process of trying to spontaneously formulate Korean words as a non-fluent speaker opened up some really rich territory that is rooted in history. Why are certain people fluent in these languages while others aren’t? What kind of space opens up in this middle ground between two languages? What emerges when you point at someone and demand them to speak in their “native” tongue?
Do you have any final thoughts that you’d like to share?
If anyone reading this is interested in learning more about Korean history, and/or is seriously interested in organizing around Korean reunification, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Twitter! I am new to this struggle but eager to share all the info and resources that I have.
Seungmin Cha is a Seoul-based composer and musician who primarily plays the daegeum, the Korean transverse bamboo flute. Her debut LP, Nuunmuun (Total Unity), finds her creating hypnotic and raucous tracks with the help of some effects pedals. I caught up with her to discuss the meaning of her album’s title, her relationship with the daegeum, and more.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: The title of your album, Nuunmuun, translates to “Eye Gate.” Can you talk about the meaning behind this phrase and how you decided on it as the name of your record?
Seungmin Cha: I first saw the word nuunmuun (눈문) from a book. I can’t remember the title but it was about ways of cognition. The Korean writer mentioned the word “augatora,” which in English means “eye gate” and in turn translates to nuunmuun in Korean. I liked the pronunciation of the word—it conjured up a lot of images. At the time, I was especially curious about who’s seeing this world: I felt I could see but the being who’s seeing was not me, like I was a little being sitting on the edge of an eye. Nuunmuun was just the right word to describe what I felt at the moment, so I chose it as the title for my solo project in 2017.
The author of that book took the word augatora from a poem written by Sujata Bhatt. It’s really beautiful! She was really united with nature. Frankly, I couldn’t understand the poem 100%. But as time went on and I got into my solo work, I had more time to be alone and could eventually understand what Sujata Bhatt meant by augatora.
You’ve worked in collaborations previously, including work as the director of the ensemble Shiro. Can you speak to what those experiences have been like? Have they informed the way in which you address your own solo work?
I started Shiro in 2009. At first it was a project that involved making songs through poetry. I would write scores, arrange them, and hire musicians just like composers do. Prior to Shiro, I had taken a break from playing the daegeum for more than five years, so when I started up it was just like being a beginner again; I really wanted to play music but I needed time to practice. I knew I couldn’t be a virtuoso so I hid myself behind the songs I made with this ensemble, playing what I could in a basic manner. Still, I was really happy to start playing music again with music I had composed.
Beginning in 2014, Shiro became an acoustic four-piece band featuring myself (daegeum, composition), Taehun Lee (guitar, composition), Yeonkyeong Oh (gayageum) and Heeyoung Kim (vocals, both jungga & minyo) because I felt I had met the right musicians to play with. After forming the band, it took some time for me to understand what a band is, and what each band member’s role would be. But even then, I could feel more freedom than ever before. We didn’t use scores, which meant more space for communication inside the music. I could learn many things from my band members, from their attitudes about music, their habits, their tastes—it totally opened my eyes. And of course, I was able to practice and improvise with them a lot.
I slowly got the courage to move from working in a four-piece to a duo with Yeonkyeong Oh in 2016. Afterwards, I could finally do solo work. My bandmates always gave me a lot of energy. I used to have SERIOUS stage fright; I took pills before almost every show until last year. The members in Shiro always encouraged me to fight and get over it.
When did you start playing the daegeum? What about it continues to draw you to play it versus other instruments?
I started playing the daegeum back in 1993 when I was a student at the National Middle School of Korean Traditional Music. I chose the daegeum as my major because it looked like the Western flute. I always dreamed of playing the flute—I saw it as such an elegant, silver, shining instrument during my childhood.
My fingers are a little too short to play the daegeum—it’s kind of a drawback. However, they’re quite flexible and stretch widely. I didn’t have any doubt I could play the daegeum during my school days. I believed it was all I had to do, and all I could do, so I just did it. After many years I finally became doubtful of my abilities, but noticed I had come too far and that there was nothing else I could do besides play this instrument, ha. So, I still do it.
What gugak musicians or compositions have had the largest impact on you, be it in general or in terms of how you approach composition?
Nobody. Nothing. I’m afraid that it’s arrogant to say that but I thought for a while and still: nobody, nothing. There are a lot of gugak musicians and compositions I like and love. But no artists or songs have influenced how I approach composition. Rather, I can say that I’ve been largely impacted by bands like Acid Mothers Temple, Tera Melos, and Swans; they influenced my solo compositions a lot. I want to thank Taehun Lee, the guitarist in Shiro, because it’s through him that I was able to know about these artists. He knows my exact taste and always recommends the right musicians I need to hear.
You’ve incorporated poetry in a lot of your work. Can you describe the process of creating music based on poetry?
It’s always beautiful to make music through poetry, it feels like falling in love with someone by chance. Once I find a poem I like, I read it again and again and again. I read it with my eyes but also recite it many times: I try to be the poet and understand the poet’s mind. Then, I can hear the song that the poem sings. It’s such a mysterious moment. I write down the melodies and rhythms I hear. (Thanks to my music school days, I can do music dictation.)
I believe every poem has memories of what the poet tried to convey. The poet has to recite the poem a thousand times, as well as edit it. Recitation creates rhythm, emotion makes melodies. So I can listen to poems’ songs themselves. Nowadays, after I decided to make more instrumental music, I try to draw from poetry’s scenery through music. On Nuunmuun, there’s a track called “Now, We Are.” For that song I wanted to capture the atmosphere of every line in the poem of the same name (written by Jun Park). As I’m working as an illustrator, it’s a somewhat familiar task—embodying text to image, or text to image to music.
Are there any new ideas or modes of composing you want to implement on future releases?
Not really, but I had some nice recording sessions this past year. I tried to record all the different sounds the daegeum could make—not just its melodic elements but also breathing, various textures of tones, the percussion sounds from the bamboo itself, and natural noises I could subtly hear whenever playing. It’s such a great sampler of what the daegeum can do. I’m so curious what I can do with them.
What do you have coming up next?
I recently got into a car accident and was hospitalized for a month. All the plans I had are now gone as I won’t be able to play the daegeum for a while, and I’m not sure when I can play as freely as I did before. I’m just focusing on my recovery—it’s all I can do for now.
Whatever’s “coming up next” has always been on my mind my whole life, but now I have nothing on my schedule. Isn’t it great? Thanks to the accident I’ve finally found and can appreciate the present, the “now.”
Oh, I recorded a new tune before the accident and it may go out as a single with a remix version! That’s something I can say is “coming up next”! Yay!
Every issue, Tone Glow provides download links to older, obscure albums that we believe deserve highlighting. Each download will be accompanied by a brief description of the album. Artists and labels can contact Tone Glow if you would like to see download links removed.
Hwang Byung-ki - Masterpieces Vol. III (SEM Gramophone, 1984)
Hwang Byung-ki, the most masterful of gayageum players, was never going to settle for just making traditional-sounding music. He was enamored with Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in the ‘50s, and from there studied Bartók and Schönberg before meeting Nam June Paik in 1968. During this stay in New York, Hwang saw John Cage perform Electric Ear and even played alongside Charlotte Moorman in a concert Paik organized. Also during the late ‘60s, Hwang would perform in a free-improvisation trio with Kang Sukhi (synthesizer) and Michael Rinta (percussion), stating that the performances were both progressive and meditative.
During the ‘70s, Hwang met dancer Hong Sin-cha and her performance—which involved rolling around and wailing—captivated him enough that they collaborated on “The Labyrinth,” the first track on Masterpieces Vol. III. The piece was commissioned for a concert coinciding with the 100th issue of Konggan, a magazine that focused on art, architecture, and traditional Korean music. According to Andrew Killick's book on Hwang Byung-ki, the goal of the composition was to portray “the life cycle of the human as a biological rather than a cultural being.” As such, Hwang employs extended playing techniques to rupture any notion that the sounds heard are Korean-specific: the gayageum’s strings are bowed and plucked in discordant fashion to mirror Hong’s numerous modes of vocalizing, all of which captures life’s wide range of emotions.
While the two other tracks on Masterpieces aren’t overtly avant-garde, they’re no less captivating. “Beside a Chrysanthemum,” Hwang’s very first composition, finds him setting music to Seo Jeong-ju’s poem of the same name. The song is consequently more focused on the vocal performance, but the accompanying trio of instruments—the daegeum, geomungo, and janggu—provide an appropriately introspective backdrop. The poem itself draws from Buddhist ideas of dependent origination, and the music conveys a similar idea of interdependence: every gentle note seems to play a crucial role in the piece’s coherence. “Sanun (Mountain Rhyme)” features daegeum and geomungo: it’s soft in tone, conjuring up images of picturesque mountainsides. —Joshua Minsoo Kim
Choi Joonyong, Hong Chulki & Ryu Hankil - Inferior Sounds (Balloon & Needle, 2011)
For the fourth issue of Versus, a magazine published by Gallery Factory, Choi Joonyong wrote an essay that addressed our tendency to classify sounds as either “inferior” or “superior.” He described an inferior sound as one that “does not bring about anything particular to the listener.” Furthermore, he stated that “even though the air-vibrating process that hits the eardrums is identical, when the sound gets classified, we tend to ignore and avoid inferior sound, consciously or not.” This Cagean declaration also found Choi positing that this innate categorization of sounds is a result of “capital, technology, and established industry players.”
With Inferior Sounds, Choi is joined by two other titans of Korean experimental music to expand on this idea. The instruments used here—a CD player, turntable, snare drum, and typewriter—don’t produce sounds as you’d typically expect. You could argue that even listing these instruments on the packaging was part of the conceit: the expectations one may have (especially if not privy to any of these artists’ previous work) would be subverted upon pressing play. There’s scraping and shuffling, hissing noise and electronic squawks—an assortment of percussive gestures that never rise to dramatic heights. Absent is the cathartic release and psychedelic experience of harsh noise wall; the sound of whirring and high-pitched tones are meant to be appreciated exactly as such, without the theatrics. Seoul’s noise scene always felt like a response to the corresponding scenes in the West and in Japan. In their exploration of inferior and superior sounds, Choi, Hong, and Ryu revealed the homogeneity of ideas present elsewhere, that a similar hierarchy of “superior” and “inferior” sounds existed even within the realm of experimental music. —Joshua Minsoo Kim
Kim Gok & Kim Sun - Suicidal Variations (2007)
Not an album but a short film—surprise! Kim Gok & Kim Sun never got the appreciation they deserved, so I saw it fitting to provide a link for Suicidal Variations, especially since Hong Chulki handled the soundtrack. The film, shot beautifully in black & white, dabbles in the surreal but gets its verve from a punishing flicker effect (epilepsy warning!) and dramatic audio track. Hong’s work here is familiar—flecks of crackled noise and turntable-sourced mania, all of which feel both tightly controlled and bursting at the seams. The needle skipping creates tension, but there’s clanging piano to heighten the ever-present paranoia. At a couple points, we hear diegetic sounds—the solemn ringing of a phone, the stretching of packing tape, the lead character screaming—that are mixed a bit low, as if Hong’s noise is meant to take primacy. It disorients the viewer even more, distancing them from the action onscreen. The result is uncanny: at once a greater sense of alienation and a more visceral experience of the film’s visuals and music. —Joshua Minsoo Kim
Download link: Standard Definition (720x480, MKV)
Content Warning: Strobing lights, suicide
Every issue, Tone Glow has a panel of writers share brief thoughts on an album and assign it a score between 0 and 10. This section of the website is inspired by The Singles Jukebox.
Speaker Music - Of Desire, Longing (Planet Mu, 2019)
Press Release info: “[DeForrest Brown, Jr.’s] music project Speaker Music was inspired by Rhythmanalysis, a book of essays by urbanist philosopher Henri Lefebvre as well as considerations of vibe, momentum and the “chronopolitical” in Black music as defined by British cultural theorist Kodwo Eshun. Speaker Music mobilises freely improvised electronic percussion and stereophonic audio recordings. Speaker Music yearns to caress, engineer and sculpt sentiment into a multi-textural rhythmic body, quivering moments into a collapsed ‘nonpulsed time.’
His debut for Planet Mu centers around gestural sonic portraitures of sonorous and cybernetic ensemble energy music. Of Desire, Longing is a time-based release meant to fill both sides of the vinyl completely, working against the quick turnover rate of the current track-based standard of the streaming economy. Through his empathetic ‘touching of frequencies,’ DeForrest unveils a romantic abstraction of sonic narratives that recalls previous innovations by electronic and jazz musicians such as Eddie Gale, Les McCann, Urban Tribe and James Stinson. Of Desire, Longing encodes the listener with an encrypted heat, made ‘with empathy’ and ‘without excess.’”
You can purchase Of Desire, Longing from the Planet Mu website or on Bandcamp.
Mark Cutler: I have always interpreted the name Speaker Music literally, as drawing our attention to our physical relation to music in space. When I saw DeForrest Brown, Jr. live, he spent much of the performance not on stage, but weaving through the audience and between the four speakers arranged in a square around us. Following his lead, I also wandered around, enjoying the subtle elements that became audible as my own position relative to those four booming boxes changed.
On the first side of the record, Brown, Jr. achieves a similar effect by making careful use of dynamics. As the beats and instruments—both analogue and electronic—swirl around each other, elements surge without warning to the bottom or top of the mix, alternately forcing us to narrow our sonic focus to follow a given melody, or disrupting that focus with a loud slap in our left ear. This gives the music a mazelike quality, which makes it difficult to digest in a single listen, but which rewards repeated explorations. The second side is more focused and more abrasive, built around a wonky drum loop and vocal samples that have been processed to a shocking degree—one wants to say mutilated. Like the first, this piece refuses a coherent trajectory. At least, it does until the last sixty seconds, when the beats suddenly snap into place. For a moment, we get a tantalizing hint of a serious banger that was buried, perhaps, the entire time.
Jeff Brown: The album begins with what sounds like a crinkled tape loop featuring the ghost of a jazz group. As “With Empathy” progresses, a minimal drum machine pattern emerges that’s comprised of electronic pulses for the bass drum and hissing white noise shaped into the hi-hat. The second track, “Without Excess,” has a modern drum loop that stutters at random intervals and is accompanied by a vocal sample that’s been pitch-shifted to sound like a car horn or siren. If “With Empathy” sounds as if the listener is walking down a street, then “Without Excess” feels like the music is approaching you from the block over. Mid-track, there’s a wailing saxophone and bursts of noise that resemble a corrupted audio file or a malfunctioning media player. At this point, what might be a document of a city transforms into something sci-fi, and you start to wonder if what’s being heard is from our world or something beyond human understanding.
Marshall Gu: An uneasy stasis. You convince yourself it will be okay and, at first, you believe it. There’s a glimmer of light. Something twitches. Or was it just the wind? That’s the first song on Speaker Music’s Of Desire, Longing, “With Empathy,” wherein glitchy, in-and-out drums create a sense of constant unease, but a distant wavering saxophone provides respite. The track alternates between building and unraveling tension which contrasts with the second side’s “Without Excess,” a midnight fire-alarm of noise on the blackest of nights, where there’s no such relief. There’s no more light: just darkness. Darkness unending. Darkness everywhere.
Tara Wrist: This album makes me feel less lonely, like the city I live in is singing, like I have to take in a deep breath just to talk about it at all. The progression of sounds here feels nostalgic to me—there’s a mournful, digitally-altered saxophone, the sort of sound you’d expect to cut through a late-’90s jungle track’s Blade Runner fog, pulsing like blood through a vein or the syncopated bleats of highway traffic; skittering drum snares picked up from where another era’s techno would’ve left them scattered beneath a four-on-the-floor wobble, placed in a shuffling footstep across an auditory sketch of a city street, instead; buzzsaw synths that could rise like hissing steam from a sewer lid in a drum and bass mix, shining out here like choirs to heaven. But where for many producers those sounds linger in their toolkit as jittery reminders of urban paranoia, Speaker Music’s summoning of these echoes works warm instead of antagonistic, like a bunch of dimly audible heartbeats instead of a thudding grind. Of Desire, Longing reminds me of promises I’ve forgotten to keep.
Oskari Tuure: The Marxist themes of the work are absurdly heavy, and the tribal percussion and noise supposedly ties into them. The first track features a field recording that invokes the bustle and heat of a Middle Eastern marketplace, while the second one, titled “Without Excess,” is so sonically excessive that its name must be a joke. The track is abrasive and loud; everything is over-the-top.
Because the tracks mostly consist of a lot of pure, unrefined sound, there isn’t much to properly latch onto here. Both tracks noisily drone on for 20 minutes, only consisting of a few separate elements each. The way the percussion on the soundscapes jumps at you reveals how the album tries hard to grab at your attention, but paying attention does not get rewarded: nothing is given back to the listener. Just like a lot of modern living, listening to this is challenging while not at all satisfying. Maybe that’s the point?
Eli Schoop: DeForrest Brown, Jr. is one of the foremost essayists working in music journalism today, having published in Hyperallergic, FACT, and Tiny Mix Tapes. His treatises on electronic and experimental music illuminate much within the cultural context of performance, race, meaning, and what is gained and lost through these transactions. Of Desire, Longing does not accomplish the same musically, given its barren attempt at giving the listener any sort of connection or invigoration. Not withstanding some decent musique concrète ideas, wherein Brown, Jr. uses the atmospheric rhythms to escalate and de-escalate tension on the b-side of Of Desire, Longing, there is very little to be gained here without the academic dissertation needed to establish credibility. The only thing worse than being vapid is being boring.
Raphael Helfand: DeForrest Brown Jr.’s debut album is smooth chaos. Of Desire, Longing blasts the eardrums like a gust of hot wind and blows ceaselessly for its entire 47-minute runtime. Brown, Jr., who created a mix as Speaker Music for the Make Techno Black Again project, turns to stranger sounds on his solo debut. Here, he matches glowing synth tones with industrial percussion: a texture that provides a lush soundscape for his rhythmic adventures. Drawing on Henri Lefebvre’s concept of “rhythmanalysis,” he works in “nonpulsed time,” creating moments of tempo without temporal parameters. These short, pulsed phrases give Brown, Jr.’s music a sense of movement without constricting it within the bounds of structured time. “Without Empathy” and “Without Excess,” the tracks that stretch out to fill both sides of the record, are not separate entities. Rather, they flow together like whitewater streams merging at the mouth of a raging river of noise.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: Henri Lefebvre declared that the rhythm of capital is “the rhythm of producing and destroying.” What happens then when your life—when Black art—is treated solely as capital? DeForrest Brown, Jr. works with that idea in conjunction with how Lefebvre described musical rhythm: a portrayal of everyday life, but also a source of catharsis. These tracks are consequently restless, aching and moaning inside suffocating atmospheres. The wistful sound of a saxophone emerges from the haze on “With Empathy,” while a scattered beat never fully resolves on “Without Excess.” Brown, Jr. draws upon Black music—jazz and dance music—but scatters these elements across queasy landscapes.
In taking such familiar touchstones and rendering them obtuse, Brown, Jr. follows the ideas expressed by Kodwo Eshun in “Further Considerations on Afrofuturism.” Eshun stated that “Afrodiasporic subjects live the estrangement that science fiction envisions,” and that the alienation present in such works function less as a source of escapism than identification. The necessary goal is to then defamiliarize the terror of lived experiences to make them real again. In an age when award-winning art and leftist politics can easily assume the posture of progressivism, further abstraction of ideas related to racism prevents the privileged from feeling they understand the plights of the othered, the victimized, the killed. Brown, Jr.’s objective here is akin to that of his work with Make Techno Black Again: he wants to reclaim what’s been co-opted. In “With Empathy” you can hear the sax wail alongside the sound of laboring (it sure sounds like soil being tilled) and the atmosphere is replete with uneasiness and anxiety. “Without Excess” is even more unsettling, and sounds a bit like Intelligent Dance Music—a genre descriptor that often excluded Black dance music producers—and functions as commentary in and of itself.
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