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Tone Glow 041: Ernst Karel
An interview with Ernst Karel + album downloads and our writers panel on Maths Balance Volumes's 'A Year Closer' and Rubén Patiño's 'Actually Laughing Out Loud'
Ernst Karel is an artist who works with sound, including electroacoustic music, experimental nonfiction sound works for multichannel installation and performance, and postproduction sound for nonfiction films and videos, with an emphasis on observational cinema. His recent solo projects are edited/composed using unprocessed location recordings; in performance he sometimes combines these with analog electronics to create pieces which move between the abstract and the documentary. He has released various albums both solo and collaborative that have been on Cathnor Recordings, and/OAR, and Greunrekorder. From 2007 until 2017 he managed the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard University, doing postproduction sound for films including Sweetgrass, The Iron Ministry, Manakamana, and Leviathan. He co-directed Expedition Content with Veronika Kusumaryati, and the film is streaming now as part of Film at Lincoln Center’s Art of the Real. Joshua Minsoo Kim talked with Karel on November 20th, 2020 to discuss his new film, how he approaches teaching sound and sound editing, and more.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: Hey, how are you?
Ernst Karel: I’m doing well!
I wanted to say congrats on the film.
Thanks so much. How are you?
I’m good. It’s Saturday. I just visited my grandma to help her out with some things. She had an old toilet that she needed to get rid of that’s been in the garage so I helped remove that. What have you been up to today?
Not too much. [I went to a] talk at 11. I had some porridge (laughs). We built a fire—it’s a little on the cool side over here, and our source of heat is a wood-burning stove.
Where specifically are you right now?
My partner Mirra and I are just north of San Francisco along Highway 1 near the Pacific Coast. Coast Miwok lands. Highway 1 is running right past the house here.
Does it get loud?
Yeah it gets busy on the weekends but, you know, busy is relative out here. I’m getting used to sheltering out here and not living in the city, which was one of the big deals of coming to this place. I’ve always lived in cities; I lived in Chicago for ten years. It’s a very different thing to not have human-built roads all around you.
Do you feel like you’ve adjusted well?
It’s been easy (laughter). It was just the right time in terms of overall trajectory for our lives. When I was younger I wouldn’t have thought I wanted to live outside the city. I was too interested in being able to go to concerts at the Empty Bottle or to catch movies in theaters. I’m glad I did those things and had that life trajectory but I’m happy to be outside of it now.
I’m glad that you’re doing this right now, it feels cozy and nice, especially while we’re all sheltering in place. So obviously you really love sound: you’ve made albums and have done sound for numerous films, and your new film with Veronika Kusumaryati, Expedition Content, is focused primarily on sound. Was there a point early on in your life where you realized that music and sound was something that you wanted to focus your life on? And you can think about sounds that you were drawn to when you were a child.
You know, I have thought about this kind of question before. This idea of, “Why am I so interested in sound?” (laughter) and where it came from. One interesting potential way to address this question came up in the context of Expedition Content during one of the last times it was screened in a theater for a preview screening this last February at Carleton College in Minnesota. It’s in Northfield, which is a place where I spent part of my childhood. My mom spread the word to her old friends that it was happening.
One of her old friends was my former elementary school music teacher—Judy Bond—and she came to the screening. Although she was late and only came for the Q&A, which is funny; there was a meeting at her church or something, and she came after that. She came up to me and it was wonderful to see her. I hadn’t seen her in a long time. Here I was, standing and talking to people in the front of the theater,and she comes and tells me that when I was in second grade, she knew at that time that I was really good at the Orff instruments, which are like xylophone-type instruments.
I thought, “Wow, now that’s an amazing thing to hear about myself at second grade.” I do remember being in her class and loving playing these Orff instruments, and Orff is this musical pedagogy for teaching kids about music. And I guess that’s where some of this interest came from. It wasn’t just music, it was about timbre and sound and that’s the thing. It’s not just music that interests me, it’s much more than that. It’s about the fullness of sound.
The other answer that comes to mind—speaking of her going to a meeting at church—is that I grew up going to church every Sunday. It was part of what we had to do. It was a Methodist church. When I was more in my teens, but even before, I went to a church with this big pipe organ and the organist liked to play preludes and postludes that really filled the church with the low-frequency stuff. That was probably the best thing that came out of going to church every Sunday, just hearing the organ in the big stone church, and being invited to play trumpet with the organ and listening to that reverberation
At every step it wasn’t always clear. When I started grad school I was purposefully not going to do anything related to music or sound, but it ended up turning that way anyway.
Why didn’t you want to study that?
It didn’t seem interesting (laughter). Sound studies wasn’t really a thing when I started grad school in ’95, and I wasn’t interested in ethnomusicology. I was interested in language and questions about the relationship between language and thought—the linguistic relativity hypothesis. The idea that, do the categories and things we think vary depending on the language we speak? And it seems clearly yes to a certain extent, but the certain extent is what people haven’t been able to nail down so much.
I was taking a course with Susan Goldin-Meadow about gesture, about the relationship between gesture and thought, about non-verbal language and thought. It’s a super interesting area. It’s about how thought becomes externalized, and gesture precedes language a lot of the time. So I started thinking more generally: what about non-linguistic sound? So here we’re talking about linguistic non-sound and meaning, but what about non-linguistic sound and meaning? And non-musical sound and meaning? And the way we make meaning and navigate the world and construct our sense of ourselves and our relationship to the world through non-linguistic and non-musical sound.
So that’s how I ended up getting into this area, which became, sort of, sound studies. I never published anything but I have had the thought that if I had published some version of my dissertation or some of my earlier research from the late ’90s that it would’ve been early stuff in sound studies.
What sort of stuff did that all entail?
I did what was basically a Master’s thesis—a fieldwork project—looking at the significance of the sound of bells in the ceremonies of a particular temple in South India. I spent three months in this temple just listening to the sound of bells and talking to people about the sound of bells from this temple. In particular, it was these two huge bells that rang together. There were five pujas a day but the bells didn’t ring at every one of them. It was this completely enveloping experience. I was looking at those two bells functioned in terms of how people made sense of their experience of puja.
And then for my dissertation research I went back to South India, this time Kerala, rather than Tamilnadu. I strangely switched from Tamil to Malayalam and did my research in Kerala, broadening outwards, looking at—at least as a starting point—the role of amplified sound in shared spaces, of the role of sound in creating a sense of place. You can tell by how inarticulate I am that I never felt like pursuing writing as a way of trying to make a living in this world (laughter).
Whatever! You don’t need to be down on yourself, and I can imagine it’s been a long time since you’ve thought about all these things.
But it was also a conscious decision. Writing is not something I’m great at or enjoy and I much more enjoy working with non-linguistic sound and I feel fortunate that I was able to work with sound but not have to deal so much with words (laughter).
That’s really interesting. What do you feel are the benefits of forgoing studies or creating art or doing anything in a way that is non-linguistic? What do you feel like is there that wouldn’t be present if we were to, say, have text.
I think that we human beings and, in particular, we neurotypical human beings in this specific cultural context… and I think I qualify as neurotypical. My partner is autistic so we sometimes have these conversations about autistic versus neurotypical minds. But, certainly, in our neurotypical-dominant culture, we overprivilege our linguistic fluency and it often only feels like something is real if you’re able to verbalize it. We really privilege being able to communicate something in words. Obviously with academia, it’s what they trade in—being able to put something into words, write it down, someone else can read it and understand it.
I think in our cultural context that we let our discursive minds run wild and we let our discursive minds determine our sense of self and determine the meaning we’re making out of our experience. One of the things I’m interested in is quieting down that discursive mind and allowing for other aspects of our experience—of our way of interacting and understanding the world and ourselves in it—to take up that space. In terms of media-making, in terms of audiovisual media, it’s often the case that our same linguistic… I don’t know what the word is, linguistic domination or linguistic supremacy… it continues to be there. Journalistic modes of documentary certainly are all about words. Most mainstream documentaries are about words.
There’s room for exploring. We’re not just word people, you know? We’re not just word beings. There’s to the way our minds work, and so it’s interesting to purposefully create space for non-linguistic, non-discursive ways of experiencing. And not just through directly experiencing the world, but through working with media in that same way.
Wow, I love everything you said. You calling yourself inarticulate seems less convincing now (laughter). What are ways in which you’re trying to slow down that discursive way of thinking in your own life?
One way is through sitting and trying to establish mindfulness. Through Buddhist meditation practices. I’m not very good at it (laughter), but I also know there’s nothing to be good at.
I know you have that sonic ethnography class you teach every couple years. What’s the main thing you want students to take from it? What’s your objective?
That’s a good question and maybe something I should have and maybe even put on the syllabus (laughter). You know, some classes do that, right? “The objective of this class is that students will be able to be proficient in…” I don’t think I have such a statement on my syllabus for that class so far. Let’s see.
I have a basic idea, which is that students are exploring listening beyond just words. They’re thinking about ways of knowing beyond the linguistic, as we’ve been talking about. They are thinking critically about the difference between listening and experiencing the world directly with one’s senses. They’re listening to audiovisual media. Those things are often conflated, especially with discourse around field recording and listening and so on.
They conflate these two kinds of listening and experiencing, as if listening to a recording of something is somehow similar to listening to what one might have heard if they were in the place where the recording was made at the time the recording was made. Which, you know, the casual speaking about hearing the sound without seeing the source of the sound—what people call acousmatic listening. I try to disabuse students of that idea, that there’s anything remotely similar to those two ways of listening (laughs).
Okay, right. So then how do you go about making that clear within your classes? How do you convince them of that?
Well, luckily, they convince themselves. I don’t know why that way of talking persists because it becomes so self-evident. These are practice-based classes. It’s a class where they’re out with their handheld recorders and other microphones that they’re attaching to their recorders, depending on what’s available. So they’re making their recordings and they’re experiencing for themselves that their experience of listening in a place, and the kind of things that they’re able to cause to show up in a recording, and the kind of experience we then have when we listen back to the things we recorded—in a classroom with a sound system—are all totally different from each other. All those three things.
You don’t record what you think you’re gonna record. And when you’re editing, it becomes something else altogether. These things all become obvious. You’re not hearing the sound without seeing the source of the sound anymore. There’s something going on now that involves our practices of meaning-making, or signification and semiotics. All that stuff comes into play. When we hear a sound we can make sense out of, is it recognition? What’s going on there? That’s the mysterious part.
I remember first listening to your album with Annette Krebs, Falter 1-5, and your album on Gruenrekorder, Swiss Mountain Transport Systems. They all sound so good. It’s like something my friend once told me about Toshiya Tsunoda, about how the sounds somehow sound more crisp and “HD” than other field recordings. It almost sounds uncanny, it sounds more real than real life. When I was watching your film I kept thinking about that.
I also kept thinking about how music is an artform that’s often engaged with passively. It doesn’t require sight so you don’t actually have to be looking at something; you can listen to something and have it in the background. With how film is consumed and the expectations that people have for it: you’re gonna set aside time to watch one, you’re gonna sit down and ensure that you have nothing for the next couple hours, and if you’re in a theater you’re isolated from the rest of the world and it’s the only thing to focus on.
And because your film is a film, that in and of itself forces me to engage with it differently. This could have been released as audio but it wouldn’t have been the same experience. I don’t really have a question, I just wanted to share that with you.
For a long time, we [Ernst Karel and Veronika Kusumaryati] made it audio-only, but we always had the cinema in mind as where it would be listened to. We didn’t add image until pretty late in the process. Not that there’s very much image but we didn’t even have any role for the projector; it was going to be projector off but in a cinema, and that was to make use of the sound system in a cinema, as well as everything you just described about the expectations that one has when going into a cinema: your schedule is clear for the next hour and a half, you’re basically expecting to sit there for that long, and you can leave if you want but if you stay, the only thing going on is this piece. And of course we made it before the pandemic—as I said, it had its premiere even before the pandemic.
Think about distributing it as an audio-only piece and those problems are there because when you’re listening to audio, you don’t have this sense that it’s the only thing you should be doing, unless you’re in a concert hall. You’re listening to it while doing such-and-such. I’m glad that we do have the image component, but it’d be interesting to know how many people who are watching the film online are also monitoring their Twitter feed while doing it (laughter). I’m wondering to what extent people are turning everything off and putting it on full screen mode. And one’s experience of any piece is obviously rewarded by doing only that.
One thing I appreciated about the film is how you have the beeping sound and the light-blue flicker that comes on to indicate that text is going to appear. It keeps in mind that people watching might be closing their eyes, that they might not be watching the screen, that they might be thinking that it’s just gonna be black the whole time. When it first came up I was like, “Oh, there’s something here.” It also helps with pacing.
It’s almost a pedagogical tool because you’re specifically marking things that you want the viewer to be aware of, to be mindful of. Because, you don’t always translate or explain everything that is happening. How did you decide on the specific audio clips that would be explained and translated?
Well first, I’m really glad that it works because that’s exactly what the function of that is. It’s a cue to look at the screen. The blue screen comes along with a tone, for a moment, and for the cinema version we only added the tone recently. When you’re in a cinema, when the whole screen turns blue, the whole room turns blue, so even when your eyes are closed you know it’s time to look at the screen. On a laptop screen, a blue screen is not enough, so if your eyes are closed or if you’re looking away you’re gonna miss it. So that’s why we added the tone.
The tone is also an inside reference. It’s a 440hz tone, which refers to Michael Rockefeller’s tuning fork. During the film you hear him say “tuning fork” a couple times and he hits it. And that’s a 440hz tone, which is of course the European standard for tuning an orchestra. It’s all of this history of colonial practices of categorization and scientific knowledge acquisition and he uses this 440hz tone to tell if his tape is running at the right speed later.
It ends up serving this other function that you mentioned of marking structural time throughout the piece, although that wasn’t part of the intention of it. It’s not that everything gets explained but it’s a cue for when there’s going to be a translation of something. Well, I guess it also happens before the beginning and end title cards. But during the piece it’s just when there’s going to be subtitles appearing onscreen.
And even before we decided there were going to be subtitles, the piece was basically in the form it is. We had already included these episodes of this woman washing sweet potatoes in the ditch who talks to Michael and multiple times suggests that he sits away from her, and it’s unclear if he understands or not. That whole interchange was in the piece just for sonic reasons even before we realized that it would have all these extra levels of depth with the translation. And these were all translations that Veronika had worked on with a Hubula anthropologist, Nicolaus Lokobal and a Hubula musician named Korneles Siep.
It just obviously adds more dimensions (laughs). One could be of two minds of experiencing something completely without that linguistic dimension, as we talked about it earlier. But obviously adds whole other dimensions of depth when it’s translated. It becomes extremely important when we think about it in relation to Dead Birds, the film that Robert Gardner made at the same time, that this audio was supposedly being recorded for although very little of it was used for the film. In that film, you don’t hear Hubula voices, let alone women’s voices. So, here’s a chance to hear them.
I remember that specific component was why Rivers of Sand stood out in Gardner’s filmography, because that’s the one where women are sharing their stories. What are your thoughts on Robert Gardner and his films?
(laughs). Well, that’s a big topic.
So, when I started working at the Film Studies Center in the Sensory Ethnography Lab in 2006, I did not have a background in film. I had a background and anthropology and music and anthropology of sound but not ethnographic film or any kind of film. So I saw Forest of Bliss at Harvard, which is his film from the mid-late ’80s shot in Varanasi in Northern India and at first I hated it. I was coming from a background of having studied Indian religions and languages since undergraduate days and done fieldwork there and I thought it was terrible and had an arrogant, colonialist approach. It was from somehow who clearly had no expertise and was representing Varanasi in a way that would be insulting to anyone who loved Varanasi or was from there.
I later found out that all these things were criticisms that others had made of the film too. There’s a whole special issue of the visual anthropology journal dedicated to this kind of controversy about Forest of Bliss when it came out. There are similar issues that came up with Gardner throughout his career. The liberties he’s taking as a filmmaker and what he’s trying to do and what he’s trying to do and what you might wanna call ethnographic…
Anyways, later I came to appreciate the beauty of Forest of Bliss. Not that it invalidated my earlier objections. I was able to see both ways of experiencing that, as a film and as a representation—those are two different things. He’s an amazing filmmaker who had amazing camerawork and incredible confidence but that grows out of his extreme arrogance. That’s one and the same. The confidence and power of his filmmaking, his camerwork, his editing—they’re all part of a piece with this white arrogance. So, you know, it’s complicated. There’s a lot one can learn about image and sound and filmmaking and camerawork from his work, while still seeing the more complicated picture that it’s part of in terms of the history of colonialism, of visual anthropology, of anthropology itself, of nonfiction film more generally. There are a lot of lessons there.
What’s your take on someone like Jean Rouch, then, given that he allowed those he filmed to participate in the filmmaking process?
It’s super important and it comes up now, this dialogic approach that Rouch used, where people are participating in the making of the film. This comes up more but even more so in the way people are using this term multimodal anthropology. A film ideally, for example, is not just being made by the filmmaker for the filmmaker’s own purposes. Rather, it’s a collaborative enterprise with shared goals between the filmmaker and, just to use these older terms, subjects of the film. But they’re no longer just subjects—everyone’s participating and everyone has these shared goals and this thing comes out of it. That’s taking this thing that Jean Rouch did to another level. And that’s something that’s happening now which is really great.
Where do you see it happening now?
Films aren’t coming to mind but it’s there at least in terms of people’s ideals and the way they’re wanting to work. As a way of guiding an approach to new projects, it’s pretty important too. I’m drawing a blank on examples though.
That’s okay. In terms of your new film, you had to have been thinking about Gardner’s history of colonialist filmmaking and making sure representation here was right. Were there any specific decisions you were thinking about when making this film related to these topics?
I wouldn’t say we were trying to aim for a “representation that was right.” What we were trying to do was shed a little more light on the colonial setting and history, focusing on the expedition itself and the members of the expedition, rather than trying to do something—which would be a totally different project—that would involve taking this audio and representing Hubula life in some way. That wasn’t really the goal. We were interested in focusing on the context of the expedition which is why we have the text at the beginning and the end. The English conversations that happen at the beginning and the end also frame that.
That makes a lot of sense. I guess with representation being right I’m also referring to the expedition too, that it’s being presented in the way it should be. I also appreciated that you included the description of the audio clip, which has the day and stuff.
Yeah, like when Michael IDs each thing on the tape.
Yeah, I liked that that was included instead of this whole thing just being a collage of sounds themselves. If it were just the sound themselves mixed together, you wouldn’t be as inclined to think of them as more than just a pure sonic experience.
Right. You might be misled into thinking they’re some transparent representation (laughter).
You’ve worked on a ton of films, a lot of SEL films. Can you tell me how you feel you’ve grown in your work throughout the past 15 years or so of working with sound for films. How does the Ernst today compare to the Ernst from when you worked on Sweetgrass, for example.
(long pause). You know, it’s interesting to look back on those earlier films, Sweetgrass and the other films that have been seen since then but started off as class projects in the sensory ethnography class by Stephanie Spray and J.P. Sniadecki.
Having come into that world without a background in film… I mean, I had done work as an audio technician in various ways, recording music, mixing music, doing CD mastering, working in Chicago public radio, making radio programs, and doing live broadcasts and blah blah blah. I had some sense of how to work in audio but not any training in how to do soundtrack for a movie. I had blissfully approached that without a sense of what conventions I was either making use of or not making use of.
I realized almost in retrospect what it was that I loved about working on those films, about this close approach to what is sometimes referred to as reality-based audio. Obviously I had my own background in making recordings in my field work. Maybe I’ve lost my innocence and now I know what interests me and I’ve become dogmatic about it instead of experimental (laughter).
What do you mean by that? In what ways have you been dogmatic? What have you been dogmatic about?
I don’t know if I’m really dogmatic but this came out of working on Leviathan, this idea of appreciating that audio that emerges from an encounter for its own sake rather than trying to make something sound a particular way because you think it should sound a particular way. For example, let’s say someone goes off with a camera and a microphone and puts a lens and puts the microphone capsule into various situations, and then comes back. I put my camera lens and microphone capsule into these various situations, and this is now what showed up on tape. This is the image and this is the audio file. And that’s the ideal case, it seems to me. It’s maybe bordering on dogmatic to say, “Let’s just stick with that.”
It’s about finding freedom in this set of constraints instead of feeling constrained by the set of circumstances. The conventional approach is people cut their images and then they want a sound that sounds according to how they think it should sound. Like, somebody’s walking there so we should have footsteps. I think it’s more interesting to use what actually happened on the tape.
This is not a matter of more truthful representation but rather that it feels nice for every aspect of image and sound to have a genealogy that goes back to the actual encounter, as opposed to images coming from the encounter and some sound coming from the encounter, some sound coming from a sound library, and some from somewhere else.
I like that. It reminds me of thoughts I’ve had regarding this passage on “Authenticity” in Theory and Method in Ethnomusicology by Bruno Nettl:
The theory that a culture or, for that matter, any group of people has its own pure musical style which is subject to contamination has played an important role in ethnomusicology. Authenticity is the word which designates the quality, distinguishing pure material from that which is not pure. Karpeles (1951) provides a good statement of the position. No doubt the assumption of authenticity is related to the theories which propose specific and predictable musical styles for various types of culture, or race. There are facets to this theory which makes its application dangerous [...]
The ethnomusicologist may be interested in musical utterances simply as events, without regard to their background, but he is more likely to be interested in music which is somehow representative of the musical culture and repertory of the singer and of the singer’s cultural group [...]
Identification of the real, true musical style of a people assumes, moreover, that each culture has one main musical style, and a body of music which is basically homogeneous. This attitude is at the root of the many statements in ethnomusicological literature which gives “the” style of a people on the basis of a few songs.
Just this idea that so often we have these assumptions of what something should sound like in a given setting, and how we privilege that assumption more than the reality. And I get what you’re saying where it’s not necessarily about truthfulness. It’s about not letting yourself be the one who dictates everything. Why do we always have to be the one who has power in all these situations?
Exactly. And seeing the things that can happen as bigger than ourselves, which is accurate. Which obviously connects to other ideas in 20th century American music. We could talk about John Cage, about intentionality of the composer and taking that out of the equation. Images and sounds are bigger than anything we could possibly plan for or create ourselves. They have their own agency. It has to do with the interdependent nature of all things, self included.
Has there been a time that, in working on a particular film, you realized something about sound or how you approach it or the beliefs you have about it?
What comes to mind—and it came to mind a minute ago—is Leviathan. That was a film where I did the sound edit and mix and then it went to another stage of sound design and rerecording mix by Jacob Ribicoff. While I was doing the mix I hadn’t quite realized that it was gonna go through this other stage, so I did basically what I considered a complete edit and mix on it.
Anyways, it went to further sound design and rerecording mix in the studio with Jacob and mostly I wasn’t there. One day, which I think was the last day of the mix, [co-director] Véréna Paravel couldn’t make it so Lucien [Castaing-Taylor] asked me if I could come in the room. I was mostly just observing but there was one point that stuck in my mind a lot where I realized what exactly was going on here between my approach and another possible approach.
Jacob was doing this very conventional Hollywood design stuff. He was going into libraries, he was adding sounds to everything in every shot, all this stuff. I had a more strict “let’s work with the material from the shoot” approach. Anyways, one sequence he says, “The problem here is that I hear the mic.” It blew my mind because that was exactly what my interest was. What he thought was a problem was what I thought was the best possible situation, where you hear the perspective of the mic, a single mic. He wanted an overview, this fictionalized Hollywood sonic overview of the space where you hear things without any—as Michel Chion uses the term—point of audition. The idealized sound design world, with some exceptions of course, is that there’s no single point of audition.
And I was like, wow, that really crystallized everything. I’m really interested in hearing that mic. What was that mic made out of? Who made that mic? Everything about the history of that mic is part of what’s in every shot. That’s part of the movie to me. Ideally, everything is important or something to think about or think with.
What were the frequency characteristics of that mic? How was it that the filmmakers happened to have that mic with them and not some other mic? Obviously I’m getting a little absurd but that would be amazing. And you get that in Expedition Content. It’s all about a mic. And it’s a bit of a pun because that’s the recordist’s name. It’s all about that microphone capsule and the way it’s being inexpertly held in the hand, the wind that blows across it and all that stuff. So that really was an illuminating moment. I saw the difference between my worldview and this worldview—they’re totally different.
Thanks for sharing that. All that was super interesting. I only have a couple more questions—we’ve been talking for a while now and I don’t want to take up too much of your time.
You’re gonna have a whole lot of editing to do.
Do you not edit?
I essentially don’t edit at all, unless it’s like filler words or whatever.
(laughs) Okay. Sorry I’m talking so much (laughter).
Oh no, this is what I live for, don’t worry. So something I was curious about given everything that we’ve talked about: what’s the most surprised you’ve been by a sound that you’ve heard, either from when you were recording yourself or from working on a film? Have you been surprised by sounds you’ve heard while recording?
I’m sure I have. (pauses). So this is when I was doing the recording?
It could be that or when you were in the editing room and were surprised by what you heard. I think the important thing to recognize is that when we fictionalize the sounds we hear in documentaries, this assumes that we ourselves are the greatest source of sound-making and sound design. We undermine the natural sounds that can be produced, so that’s why I wanted to ask.
Not to harp on Leviathan but the sounds that came out of those GoPro cameras were pretty mindblowing. That’s why I wanted to stick with them. They were harsh and noisy but very detailed in their noise, it was like whoa. On a different level, looking again to these older films, Manakamana. It was recorded by Stephanie Spray with just a stereo microphone in a gondola. It was just beautifully done and it was just this pair of mic capsules in a gondola. Hearing a radio playing in a village that they’re passing over, or the birds that are down below—all this depth and detail came through in that recording.
Some people have asked me about foley in that movie, and there’s none. It’s all the sounds from that one mic, and that was a beautiful surprise. I had already done Swiss Mountain Transport Systems by that time so I already knew what happened when you made a recording in a gondola (laughter). But nonetheless, it was a nice surprise. There must be better examples of something being really surprising. (pauses).
Just as a tangent to what we were talking about a minute ago, the fact that people asked about foley or were convinced there was foley in Manakamana has to do with the sort of distrust of the soundtrack that people who see movies learn; you assume that what you’re hearing isn’t from what you’re seeing because that’s how you know movies are made. That’s a bit of a tragedy. Maybe that’s a bit of an overstatement, but people learn not to trust the soundtrack. The soundtrack is exempt from the point of nonfiction.
If you have other examples you think of feel free to let me know after we’re done but I really like those two examples. The Leviathan one especially with the GoPros.
There was also a revelation to Lucien and Véréna when they looked at the GoPros because they didn’t go into the movie they were going to make it that way. That was something they tried along the way and saw the results later in a sort of old-fashioned way. With GoPros you don’t see the images that are recorded. It’s like in the old days of film when you’d record something and then look at it later, and so they’re looking at it later and are like, “Okay, I think we have something here, this is interesting.”
Very early on you were talking about being in South India and these bells you were doing research on. You were talking about sounds and the meanings they have. Are there specific sounds that are meaningful to you, that are specific to your life? I’m wondering if there are any—well I mean, there have to be, but we don’t always think of them in that way.
This is not a unique story but these days, I’m listening more and more to the sounds around me. Where I am, along the Pacific Coast, I’m getting to know the ravens that live around here and know their sounds. I’m getting to know their way of communicating. The wind sounds different in each type of tree. Getting to know the different sounds of the directions of the wind. Those are the kind of things I’m listening to now and recording less.
I’ve never actually been a nature recordist so it’s never that I used to record bird sounds and now I don’t—I never really did. I was always a recordist who always had a project in mind. I would always make recordings for a specific project or based on a particular theme, rather than some friends of mine who are wonderful recordists who end up with wonderful sound libraries. I sort of regret that because I don’t have a very good sound library (laughter). My sound library is just a few specific things that have interested me over the years.
I’m listening to non-human beings these days. And that goes with what I was saying earlier with how something I’m loving about being outside of the city is not having the human world dominate my thinking all the time.
Do you have any future plans or things you’re looking forward to?
I just started listening through to a body of recordings that are kind of blowing my mind that I’m hoping to be doing something with soonish. These are recordings made by Dan Dugan and some friends of his. Dan Dugan is known in the audio world for his automix technology. He’s also been heavily involved in nature recording and the Nature Sounds Society for a long time.
In 1972/1973, he and, I think he said it was his students—I wanna ask him what he was teaching—went out and made recordings having to do with the presidential campaign and the inauguration of Nixon. I haven’t listened to the campaign stuff yet but I’ve been listening to these recordings made by multiple recordists using different rigs. I guess Dan had rigged up some stereo microphones up on top of his head, and in the recordings people laugh at him and say he looks like Mickey Mouse.
He’s going out around the city of San Francisco and recording the sounds of and conversations with people during these demonstrations against Nixon’s inauguration on January 20th, 1973. It’s just an incredible moment in time, and hearing it recorded this way without image to, again, be freed from the associations we have from images, which is what interested me with Expedition Content. We can listen to these voices free from the connotations and associations we have with the visual representation. There are all of these socialist organizations and you hear the incredible politics of the time and what they were going up against, which is frighteningly reminiscent of what we’re going against right now.
That sounds super exciting, it sounds super interesting.
They recorded not only these multiple demonstrations that day, but also several people were recording all the news broadcasts the entire day from NBC and CBS. And those I have only just started listening to. I’m thinking it’s going to be more interesting to focus more on the location recordings in the parks than the nostalgia of what TV sounded like in 1973.
I’m really looking forward to whatever you do with that. I have one last question. What’s something you love about your partner Mirra and one thing you love about yourself?
I love everything about Mirra. I think the project is to love the self as something constituted of non-self constituents (laughs).
What do you mean by that?
I am composed entirely of things that are not I, as everything in the universe is composed of non-it elements and indicate relationships between self and other things. There are characteristics and qualities that come up, and I appreciate when they do, in terms of my arriving in the moment. But I try not to essentialize, thinking that anything that I may like, maybe an expression of kindness, is an essential part of who I am. I appreciate when kindness comes up and appreciate when it feels like there has been helpfulness in something that I’ve been a part of, or when harmfulness has been reduced as much as possible. (laughs). Let’s see if that makes it to the final edit.
Expedition Content is streaming now as part of Film at Lincoln Center’s Art of the Real. An all-access pass can be purchased up until this Monday and the film will conclude streaming on December 4th. You can get a 20% discount with the code AORT20. You can also hear Ernst Karel’s music at Bandcamp.
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.
Unknown Artist - Bruitage Cinéma Volume 7: Oiseaux (La Voix De Son Maître, 1955)
Field recordings have a readily obvious value as a sonic representation of a space; they tell you how things sound at a particular latitude and longitude, from a particular vantage. If you can’t go somewhere, knowing what it sounds like can teach you a lot about it—you can mentally drop yourself in that place and feel it in a small way. This used to be the primary reason I’d listen to field recordings; I wanted to collect a lot of experiences and enrich my understanding of the world. That’s still important to me, but my priorities have significantly shifted the more I think about music and, more broadly, sound. When I started getting into Cage-ian music that used silence as a stand-in for what’s around you, I thought more about the way incidental sound informs your experience as much as what you were intended to hear. That was an important lesson, and I took that philosophizing further: if anything can be part of music and every sound is musical, why even record anything and present it as music? Does any of it really matter?
When the confoundingly musical genre of “non-music” took over my life, I found my answer somewhere in the middle of where I started and the extreme positions I began to consider: all sounds matter, simply because they happened. Sounds give an identity to the spaces we inhabit, but they also hang in the air and mark a moment in time. Collecting sound from everywhere is enough of an impossible undertaking, but from everywhen? It’s enough to fill you with existential dread, thinking of all the things you can never hear now that the moment has passed and nobody was there to catch it. It gives me the same humbling feeling as learning something complicated, only to have more questions than when I began. This revelation makes me want to know what I can’t possibly know, and it stimulates a literally insatiable curiosity that reignited my love for listening a third time over.
There’s a lot that’s impossible to know about this short LP because the information simply isn’t present. First of which, where these recordings were made and who made them. You can work out that at least some of these recordings of birds come from France, simply because a parrot can be heard repeating a person saying “bonjour, coco” on one of the tracks. If these recordings were made for research or pleasure, the packaging doesn’t say. The date of release isn’t even possible to figure out, with the year of 1955 listed on Discogs being nothing more than an estimate based on adjacent releases in the La Voix De Son Maître catalog. I don’t even know where the LP came from—some guy on a torrent site found it by chance and ripped it, knowing nothing of its provenance himself. I held on to these files for years not only because they’re pretty, but because I think these moments in time are worth preserving. I became protective of this record because someone decided to preserve its contents on a whim, and because everyone else that downloaded it almost surely forgot about it. I can’t tell you a thing about why it should matter, and that’s why it matters so much to me. —Shy Thompson
Kjell Samkopf - Aqua For Tape & 2 Percussion Players (Pro Musica AS, 1991)
Just what are those two percussion players doing? Even by the standards of contemporary composition, in which the word ‘percussion’ is often a catchall for a baffling variety of instruments, very little in this fabulous hour of musique concrète resembles music performed by human beings. Nothing I’ve read online has been very illuminating; the album comes with no liner notes and was released to no reviews. In fact, it’s hard to find out more than the piece’s composition date (1986) and runtime (58:08).
Otherwise, however, the album delivers on its title’s promise: we do hear plenty of water, and plenty of tape. Things bubble and splash; recorded waves and thunderstorms cut in and out abruptly. There are other rattles and bangs, looped and spliced and rearranged in all manner of ways. Occasionally, some marimba, gongs or bells sneak in, but they do not sound played, exactly. Rather, they have an icy, almost mechanical precision, which only accentuates the music’s alien feeling. I wish I could tell you more about this strange artefact, but I can say this much: you won’t hear anything else quite like it. —Mark Cutler
Richard Youngs - House Music (Meme, 1997)
Long before the word ‘meme’ became associated with the exhausting cycle of self-referential images clogging our every online feed, it was the name of an obscure Japanese label run by critic and theorist Atsushi Sasaki. It would be difficult for Meme the label to be further from contemporary memes. Each release came on a blank white CD with a blank white cover, with perhaps a little text indicating the artist and album title on the back. The music contained there was similarly austere in the extreme, sometimes verging on total silence. Nevertheless, in its two years of existence, the label featured work by such sound art luminaries as Kevin Drumm, Sachiko M, Richard Chartier and John Hudak. It also featured this stunningly reserved album by the ever-brilliant Richard Youngs.
It will come as little surprise to Youngs fans that House Music bears little resemblance to the dance genre of the same name. However, it is difficult for me to think of any sense in which it relates to houses. The album opens with church bells and what sounds like a rusty merry-go-round, or someone playing bagpipes fashioned from disused car parts. Then, with a faint crackle, the church bells change pitch, making us aware that they are a recorded tape loop. Soon, we notice that not only the bells have changed pitch, but that the silence between them has too, that the tape hiss itself has become a melodic element in the piece.
The opening sets the tone for the rest of the album. Most of the performed music consists of unidentifiable abrasion: things that scrape, bang, rattle and sputter. Through this weave equally opaque field recordings of rummaging, banging, wind blowing and water dripping. Nothing sounds natural; rather, Youngs plays explicitly with layers of recorded sound, creating juxtapositions which shouldn’t coexist in physical space. Whereas it is easy to imagine Youngs recording many of his cozier, avant-folk albums from the comfort of his Scotland home, nothing here calls to mind any house I’d want to visit. Rather, it sounds like walking through a deserted, apocalyptic landscape—a seaside town, perhaps, ice cold and pitch-dark, because the smoke has blotted out the sun. —Mark Cutler
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.
Maths Balance Volumes - A Year Closer (Penultimate Press, 2020)
Press Release info: A Year Closer tells us already in its title what its theme is: approaching death, time ticking away and getting closer with each track of the record. We are told in the first song that our protective mask isn’t working, warned by the storm clouds and a ticking bedroom clock in “Dark Skies.” We hear fears of death approaching in the sad words exchanged by lovers who see they will run out of time, or already have, as in “We Had Time” or the romantic lament of “When I Drink.” In “Work Last Monday,” all of life passes with cold automatism in an “office apartment,” as a narrator broods over early onset dementia, remembers the details of rituals for respecting the dead, and thinks of how a hole is opening up in reality itself. The singer of “Over the Hill” isn’t apparently afraid of growing older and becoming a “man,” but only leaks a few disjointed details of his plans for disappearing, collapsing, turning into a tree, and finding a home. “Angel of Mercy” tries to resurrect the Christian promise of a life after death, anxiously asking if anyone is up there waiting for us after the oblivion of this world.
But these are just the moments when A Year Closer speaks in words clear and audible enough to be understood. The giddy, agitated voice of “The Price” speaks only to itself in a private language, hidden away in a tin can somewhere. Musically, A Year Closer is a series of pieces that make symphonies out of separate processes of decay and disappearance: unidentified cracking and creaking objects, broken equipment, and lost melodies that seem to have escaped other songs and wandered into the room looking for a place to hide. These are the moments that the listener of Maths Balance Volumes always knows are coming, waits for, and settles in temporarily for a moment of repose. Maybe this is the meaning of A Year Closer: while waiting for the worst, things come together, a “we” with no name but with a rhythm, a tenuous but definite harmony to share as the clock ticks. Even if, when the lights are turned on, it turns out nobody was there. —Paul Buchholz
Samuel McLemore: Though I am completely unfamiliar with their past, I am entirely unsurprised to discover that Maths Balance Volumes have a long history behind them. Not only does A Year Closer sound like a lost release from mid-90s Siltbreeze records when they were releasing albums by bands like The Shadow Ring and The Dead C, it is also as accomplished and composed as you would expect from a group of their history.
What else except experience could explain a musical palette as broad-ranging as theirs, and where else could a song as heartfelt as “When I Drink” have sprung from? Clearly aware of the many possibilities opened to musicians by 20th century technology (post-production techniques as a creative instrument, the ability to use samples and “non-musical” sounds in compositions for some examples), Maths Balance Volumes have used these new tools to craft a kind of forward thinking folk music that never sounds labored over or pretentious. Though it seemed thin and anti-climatic on first listen, no element in this album is tossed-off and subsequent visits have revealed what a coherent mood A Year Closer builds and how carefully they work to maintain it.
Zachariah Cook: Decades ago, swathes of American media were concerned with the darkness lurking beneath cheery facades. Today, when every rock is unturned, not much is left to the imagination. We have our lingering doubts, unanswered prayers, unmet demands, but is there really any question as to why that is? Mystery increasingly belongs to the domain of fiction. The all-encompassing sprawl of decay and corruption is plain to see. The mask isn’t working.
A Year Closer restores some of the obscurity lost in our collective fall. The voices that spring up seem to comprise a band of lost souls, maybe the perennial depressives of a small town. Though their woes are plainspoken, sometimes sung with the pithiness of an old blues song, Maths Balance Volumes lathers their voices with grit in a steadily escalating manner. “When I Drink” is a turning point, after which the voices aren’t so much circling the drain, but swimming directly in the murk below. If there’s anything that still somehow evades our best efforts at understanding, it must be the way individual people hurt. But it can almost be seen, we’re told.
Gil Sansón: Song, the limits of song, getting close to song, hovering around the idea of song, being in and out of song, hearing a sound that reminds you of a song, imagining a song without delivering one, playing around the signifiers associated with song, messing around with the tenets of being in a rock band, levelling the field between instruments and everything that’s not an instrument. I sense all of this when I listen to this record by the three-piece Maths Balance Volumes. The title clearly implies the memento mori theme that we find in most of the tracks of the album, emphasized by a delivery that’s both proudly indie rock and indebted to the blues, without any purist ethos regarding the form but clearly intent on keeping all the emotional resonances available. The transient nature of the human experience finds expression in everything from the microphone hum, the mid range and the lo-fi ethos of the recording, but the weight of the songs themselves is enough to convey the message. It’s a good call, and one that keeps the music away from the formalism of most blues based investigations of recent years; the feeling of arte povera fits the music like a glove and heightens the impact of the music.
The variation also helps a great deal, making this a proper album in the old fashioned sense. That is, this is a listening experience to be had in one go, with each song being part of something bigger. In that sense, the record works nicely, each song focusing on a specific area and employing the resources of the group, from veering headlong into Jandek territory (“Angel of Mercy”) to a fine mix of blues singing and musique concrète (“When I Drink”) to the act of making music for yourself while you sit in the porch on your rocking chair (“Barren Anthem”), with slight detours into areas that make me think of the much missed Presocratics (“We Had Time”) and more rhythmic based constructions (“Over the Hill”). Sitting somewhere between The Shadow Ring and a Folkways obscure release, this is one album that makes sense in this day and age, one that we will go back in the future to try to understand our troubled times, one that will speak to us on an emotional level.
Marshall Gu: For headphones only; the intimacy and strangeness get lost in the air. The songs that make up A Year Closer are not so much ‘songs’ as they are peeking through windows into a suburban home. The residents aren’t there, so they go about their business, sometimes muttering to themselves and singing in a way that makes it feel like these songs aren’t for you to hear, they’re for them. Little snatches of tune you hum to yourself in the shower, or while making bread. Opener “The Mask Isn’t Working” is the creak of hardwood floors and inaudible words until near the end where a man says the title’s words aloud, and so the title A Year Closer expands into its full unstated version: A Year Closer to Death. And everything afterwards carries an ominous weight. “Every step I take draws me closer to the ground,” a woman says clearly on “Work Last Monday” while her husband enjoys his old American folk records, “Something is going to break soon.” But I like this album more in theory than I do execution, as if someone took The Hissing of Summer Lawns very literally.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: As you may have guessed from how late this issue is going up on this Friday, and how I’ve failed to be timely in posting Tone Glow issues, I’ve been incredibly tired as of late. After the election, after work debacles, and a year of being holed up at home, an album like this is exactly what I want to hear. This is music that really doesn’t sound like anything musical in the sense that I don’t feel like I’m being asked to pay attention to it. I’m not being asked to think about these as songs. I’m not inclined to analyze them. They’re just things that exist: rustling, greyscale electronics, unadorned singing and playing and talking.
Yeah, it sounds like Lambkin and Komare and Mark Harwood and everything in the Penultimate Press axis, but something about this one feels especially murky and turgid. Interestingly, I’ve found that nowadays, music that sounds too empty or is silence-adjacent has more signifiers and meanings and emotions than something like this. It feels bleak but not oppressively so. It’s like that torn down area of your hometown you see during a drive near your old place. It’s sad, but what can you do about it. And so you move on.
Shy Thompson: At the ripe old age of 28, I’m already well past the point where birthdays feel like milestones. Getting older no longer feels exciting; it’s very decidedly anti-exciting. I still feel young and I still look young, but I’m constantly worried about how much longer I’ve got left to feel that way. I find myself googling human life expectancy a lot more often lately and bargaining with myself so that I can feel more comfortable—I’ve got more than a third of the years I’ve already lived left before I’ve even reached the average halfway point! I have time! The phrase “another year closer to death” hits you differently when your back is sometimes sore and your knees sound like popcorn when you stand up. I’m still young and sexy, but the clock is ticking.
I think about my mortality enough without sad music to remind me that I can’t do anything about the fact that I’m barreling towards death. A Year Closer irritates me on its face because it’s another one of those albums. For my own mental health I tend to avoid things with central themes of death, decay and dementia—even the levity of a TikTok challenge isn’t enough to soften the existential dread. Sometimes I can put the theme out of my mind if the music sounds cool or the theme only feels superficially relevant; Maths Balance Volumes’s A Year Closer checks both of those boxes, and I’m better off for it. It’s an album that claims to be about death, but it doesn’t do much to remind me of death. It reminds me of very little, frankly, because I feel like it does too much and consequently doesn’t feel like it’s about anything. It’s a pretty enjoyable listen, anyway, and I appreciate that it doesn’t make me want to look in the mirror and stress about my skin.
Sunik Kim: Depressing in every sense of the word. Nothing compels me to return to this after reviewing it. This feels to me like the kind of album that is fetishized by listeners as the darkest, the most brooding—a simple exercise in horror and despair, the Shadow Ring’s spin on slowcore’s navel-gazey doom and gloom. There’s nothing wrong with serious music, heavy music, dark music (see my other blurb in this issue!); and, on the opposite end, unrelentingly peppy music can be equally grating. But something about this very particular approach puts me off—ultimately, it feels juvenile, lacking much-needed subtlety, outdated, too aware of ‘what it’s doing’ and heavy-handed in producing its intended effect. The ratcheting acoustic glitch on “Clearing” is interesting and initially had me excited for more; but as the minutes passed, the cobwebs piled up and the dust accumulated, my excitement also waned and decayed to pure nothingness. Maybe that was the plan all along.
Mark Cutler: Maths Balance Volumes started out making basically the same freeform blend of folk/psych/noise that was especially in vogue in the ’00s, thanks in part to the absurdly prolific outputs of labels like Not Not Fun and Night People. The music was druggy and fun and sporadically interesting, but largely has not stood the test of time. Many of its prominent figures, too, had abandoned the style by 2010, pivoting to aggressive blown-out techno, lo-fi prog noodling, or (literal) bedroom pop.
I must admit, I am not familiar with Maths Balance Volumes’s development after the long hiatus from 2008 to 2017; perhaps for diehard fans, their sound on this album was wholly anticipated. However, it took me very much by surprise. “We Had Time” is, paradoxically, both more abstract and more focused than anything I’ve heard from the band before. Generally clocking in under four minutes, the songs here have a real sense of composition, in stark contrast to the strongly jam-inflected sound of their early output. On the other hand, those compositions feature sounds which are far less ‘musical’ in the conventional sense: squeaky wheels, unplaceable burbles and scratches and rips, and what sounds like a degraded tape recording of a filing cabinet dragged across a concrete floor. These sounds, playing against the heavily Appalachian-influenced singing and instrumentation, create a pleasing juxtaposition. The album almost sounds like the work of an old-timey mountain hermit, using kitchen utensils, rusty car parts, and cheap tape recorders in place of guitars, pianos, and drums. And—what can I say?—I’m totally into that.
Patiño - Actually Laughing Out Loud (Anòmia, 2020)
Press Release info: Actually Laughing Out Loud is a project by Rubén Patiño which explores the sound of laughter as a compositional material as well as a means of psychological conditioning. It originated as a re-interpretation of the "laugh track" sound effect featured prominently in many beloved TV sitcoms. ALOL stretches the boundaries in between the enjoyable and the uncanny while addressing certain aspects of contemporary entertainment and popular culture. At the same time, it is an attempt to explore humour as a subversive tool that allows Patiño to question, through a playful approach, rigid standards and a persistent excess of "seriousness" in contemporary electronic music.
The album is a compilation of sonic assemblages of manipulated laughter samples that have been featured in Patiño's concerts and spatial interventions over the last years. Such as No Laughing Matter, a performance created with Kay Schuttel presented at Berghain as part of CTM 2020, that included 5 laughing vocalists live and numerous compositions included in the CD.
Purchase Actually Laughing Out Loud at Bandcamp.
Maxie Younger: A concept such as Literally Laughing Out Loud’s is a tricky one to execute. Played wrong, it can function as a musical version of clickbait, an empty enticer created with little more than the intention to draw ears. Rubén Patiño mostly succeeds at crafting a work of art that functions beyond the signifier; he treats his samples with a refreshing degree of transparency, allowing a clear window into their original character, but finds bewitching ways to bend, break, and stretch them on the way to their final destinations. Chuckles and breathy gasps undulate across the stereo field, molded into horrifying, bass-addled stutters; laughter is pushed to its most confrontational dimensions, becoming a cudgel, a razor, a serrated edge. Sonically, the album is one of the more compelling experiments of the year.
It’s in the compositional department where I’m left feeling mixed. Many of the tracks on Literally Laughing Out Loud don’t have a defined start or end, or much in the way of layering; samples are introduced, manipulated, played out, and then shuffled off stage in a pretty unceremonious fashion. On the few glimpses we do get of tracks with a stronger rhythmic center (“Echoic Fun,” “FUNNY HOW,” and “Skip The Line”), I can’t help but think a much better album shows its face. As it is, I’m not dissatisfied with what’s there—it never ceases to be interesting, at least—but I’m not all that satisfied, either. And while I won’t argue that the album should have become some “I MADE AN ENTIRE TRACK OUT OF LAUGHTER!” YouTube video where sample microslices are EQ’d within an inch of their life to serve as kicks, hi hats, and mirthless chord progressions, I do think there’s something missing that prevents the album from being the exploration of “laughter as a compositional material” that it bills itself as.
Gil Sansón: Every once in a while an artist takes on the task of making a recorded statement using laughter or crying (the first that comes to mind is the one that Mattin and Taku Unami made with the sound of weeping), but I’m still waiting for something that’s bigger than the sum of the parts and Actually Laughing Out Loud is not the one that’s going to satisfy me in this regard. The album falls short of truly exploring the material, with all the tracks sounding very similar in approach and structure, and with too much digital sheen to involve the ear in a truly playful manner befitting the concept. Some tracks do show a little bit of what could have been in the hands of someone with greater ambition: “MAD MEDLEY,” for instance, hints at what could happen if the laughing patterns were employed with the aim of making music with them, “ECHOIC FUN” does the same for a more noise based aesthetic, PIERROT MALOGRADO” suggests a rhythmic variety mostly absent from the rest of the album (“Skip The Line” follows along this route quite nicely, veering into drum ‘n’ bass territory), and the use of a vocoder in “SPEEDY LAUGHING” again evidences what could have been if the artist would have taken a more ambitious path for the album, working with layers and giving some thought to structural concerns (one wonders what artists like Bernard Parmegiani or AGF would have done with this basic material). Alas, this ends up being yet another attempt falling short of its possibilities and somewhat coasting on good intentions more than anything else.
Adesh Thapliyal: Actually Laughing Out Loud makes something very unpleasant out of humanity’s most pleasant noises: the giggle, the chortle, and the guffaw. Patiño confines himself, Matmos-like, to composing entirely from canned laughter, which he transmogrifies into something approximating ambient industrial. After all, “hee-hee” is just a sound, silence, and then the repeated sound—the moment when voice departs into music. Unlike Matmos, Patiño isn’t interested in creating well-tempered conceptronica out of his gimmick. Patiño, from his earliest cassette releases, values the musical sketch over the composition, and weirdo synth noodling over stern purpose (see his catchphrase “UNNECESSARY Sound Art”). At its best it makes his music feel like one side of a witty conversation, instead of the exhausting lecturing of an art talk. Actually Laughing Out Loud, however, suffers from its loose structure. It feels like fifteen stabs towards a bright idea than fifteen ideas.
The few tracks that sustain, structure and develop their sound experiments, like “ECHOIC FUN” and “MAD MEDLEY,” are really a treat. The first involves various distortions and delays pushing the chuckle into its neighboring sounds, coughing, vomiting, sneezing, saying pew like a laser gun and so on, which is both a neat trick and gets at the hidden grammar underlying our perception, like good Op Art. The second, “Mad MEDLEY,” does live up to its name, beginning with a metallic laugh complimenting the buzzing of a tanpura, and ending with hooting whipping in and out of our hearing like it was played out of a Leslie Cabinet. But these are exceptions, and most tracks here fall into cartoonishness, sounding like a chopped and screwed remix of a Halloween muzak record. There are laughs that sound like this (“PAHAHATIÑOUTRO”), and like this (“SPEEDY LAUGHING”), and in “RISA RAMPANTE,” something that sounds like sex grunts processed through the TurboGrafx-16 sound chip. Patiño here is trying to defamiliarize the laugh, but that project feels already accomplished by generations of YouTube poop, Timbaland production and whatever ’60s Bollywood was on. While the concept is pretty stale, at least there are fabulous musical bits and pieces that rise out of the soupy mess of the weaker tracks, and if given space to shine, would’ve made a different, much better album. We feel best what Actually Laughing Out Loud wants to be in the middle of “SPEEDY LAUGHING,” where Patiño weaves a dense tapestry of Galaga sound effects that could’ve been a lovely passage from Hosono’s Video Game Music. Instead we get a half-hour of the snickering trees from Paper Mario covering Pharmakon, which is funny but we’re only figuratively laughing out loud.
Shy Thompson: For as much as I sit around analyzing various aspects of my personality, my sense of humor is probably the thing I spend the least amount of time thinking about. I don’t really laugh at a lot of things. Sometimes I will make a joke that somebody reacts to with hyena-esque cackling and I don’t even have a reaction to what I’ve just said. I think things are funny occasionally, of course, but laughter is usually nothing but a polite formality to me—the thing I have to do so that someone’s feelings aren’t hurt when their very funny joke doesn’t land. I’ve devised a clinical system of when to use a particular textual rendering of laughter that I will not reveal here lest I look like a sociopath; just know that when I go to type “ha” into my phone’s keyboard the prediction strip spits out “hah,” “haha,” and “hahaha,” and they all mean different things. The difference between “lol” and “LOL” is significant, and “lollllll” is also strongly distinct. “Hehe,” “ehehe,” and “heheh” all have a paragraph’s worth of text in my mental dictionary.
I have to confess to using the album’s titular phrase, Actually Laughing Out Loud, at times that I was not actually laughing out loud. To anybody I know reading this, I’m sorry—if you remember a time that I said this, that was probably one of them. The audio contained within this album examines laughter with a cold and methodical approach that reminds me of my own. Is this album “serious” or is it playful? The central theme of this music is the sonics of laughter, but is it funny? I legitimately don’t know because I’m a freak with a broken sense of humor, but it seems clear to me that Patiño has thought about the particulars of laughter just as much as I have, or maybe even more. I don’t feel too bad about the times I’ve lied about Actually Laughing Out Loud, because I don’t think Patiño is telling the truth either. This album is fun, but do I think it’s funny? I’ll give you a hint: lol.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: My friend once told me that the best feeling in the world is when you can make your partner laugh. When she told me that, I immediately got self-conscious because I don’t think I’m a particularly funny person. In fact, I’d say I’m an incredibly serious person, and I often wish that I were funny because it feels like the best possible thing that any person could be.
Listening to Actually Laughing Out Loud is sort of like hearing a terrible stand-up routine. There’s something about the formalized setting and the expectations you have of it being funny and then it failing that makes it so much worse. This album doesn’t make me laugh or make me think about laughing. (I mean, Stine Janvin is on this album, let’s be real.) What it does do is make me think about how the funniest people have it in their nature. Those who aren’t at that level often need to frame it through something, or meticulously plan a joke, or create an artsy project related to laughing and the seriousness of experimental music. The fact I even explained all this is just reminding me of how unfunny I am and is depressing me; this album is nothing but a mirror.
Samuel McLemore: One of the first questions I think of when I approach any remotely “conceptual” music, however you might want to use that term, is that the concept should be a rich source of material to mine, and not a straightforward explanation of the idea in question. If you can comfortably explain a concept in one sentence or less then it was probably a better idea to just write that sentence than go through the trouble of making an album about it. As a rule of thumb it has steered me wrong before, but on Actually Laughing Out Loud it’s too apt to ignore.
The album quickly articulates the rather simple concept (a sitcom laugh track, but twisted) in exactly the laziest and most cliched manner you could possibly imagine. And then, in what is surely the most interesting artistic choice Patiño makes here, doesn’t do anything in the slightest to develop or innovate any part of the concept throughout its length. Not only is there no sense of narrative or progression in the material, it even sounds like he uses the exact same synthetic processing on the exact same sampled voice throughout the album. As a listening experience it quickly grows tiring, as an intellectual stimulant it is nonexistent. Save yourself some time and just read the press release, they put all the interesting parts of the album in there.
Sunik Kim: For an album positioned as a response to “a persistent excess of ‘seriousness’ in contemporary electronic music,” ALOL is actually shockingly unfunny. In fact, it’s more deeply entrenched in and emblematic of the eye-rolling bullshit of the experimental music world than it would care to admit. At the end of the day, this is, ironically, a fairly self-serious and—worst of all—tedious album, a slog of a listen, a straightforward gimmick shrouded in the (serious!) art world language of “sonic assemblages” and “spatial interventions” (press copy’s words), one just barely carried by a few flashes of sonic wizardry (“Skip The Line” is a standout, Autechre’s “V-PROC” with—you guessed it!—manipulated laugh tracks instead of fractured drums). I feel nothing, I think nothing—there are countless ‘serious’ experimental works that are exponentially funnier, more cutting and exciting than this. In fact, a 40-minute album composed of straight, unprocessed laughter would come much closer to fulfilling the promise of this project.
The benchmark for this kind of ‘conceptual’ music is Bánh Mì Verlag’s All Star Mixtape: on the surface, it seems like a massive troll, a novelty item. That’s not necessarily incorrect. But the thing is, as the album unfolds and you think you have it figured out, it keeps on giving—yeah, it’s hilarious (already miles ahead of ALOL), but it also made me think deeply about questions of process, sampling, language, composition. Turns out you can have it all: a truly funny, entirely concept-driven album that still holds its own as a great work of art. ALOL falls far short of this benchmark, offering ephemeral music that simply goes in one ear and out the other, and a ‘concept’ that seems much deeper than it really is: for starters, it claims to address “certain aspects of contemporary entertainment and popular culture”—but which ‘aspects,’ and in what way? It claims to “explore humour as a subversive tool”—but how can it do that if it's neither funny nor subversive? The music is composed from laugh tracks. And...? How deep does this really go?
There is definitely a “persistent excess of ‘seriousness’ in contemporary electronic music”—ALOL being a perfect example (!)—but what about the persistent excess of shit music? Self-seriousness only becomes a real issue when the music in question is bad; if after hearing, say, Eliane Radigue’s Adnos I-III—a ‘serious’ album if there ever was one—your takeaway is that musicians ‘take things too seriously,’ I'm not sure we can ever come to an agreement. Purely reacting to the surface-level ‘seriousness’ problem with equally surface-level ‘humor’ while sidestepping the fundamental issue—mediocre, self-aggrandizing music—seems like a one-way road to shallow gimmickry and disposable art, a negative project of reaction rather than a positive project of creation. When things are this forced, stilted, the laughter (spatial intervention?) dies out pretty quickly.
‘Serious’ and ‘funny’ are not mutually exclusive opposites; in fact, the very best experimental works—ones that might seem deadly ‘serious’ on the surface—skillfully balance the two, toeing the line between perfection and farce and provoking genuine laughter and amazement along the way. If I’ve fallen into the ‘trap’ by, well, taking all of this too seriously—I’ll fully own that, without hesitation.
Marshall Gu: I have been thinking lots about the death of humour in music, about how ‘serious art’ has become the norm in many genres. I think about Haydn’s delightful subversions and surprises being written out the concert hall, about Bob Dylan laughing a little less and less with each album, about Genesis kicking out Peter Gabriel. In an article for The Guardian, pianist and composer András Schiff wrote “It seems to be much easier to make an audience cry than it is to make them laugh,” and while Schiff was writing specifically about the classical audience, the only genre that seems to be willing to make listeners laugh anymore is hip-hop. So when I read that Rubén Patiño was trying on Actually Laughing Out Loud “to question [...] a persistent excess of ‘seriousness’ in contemporary electronic music,” I was excited to say the least. Especially given the title: no one actually laughs when they type “lol,” or am I projecting too much of my own cynicism? I may crack a smile, I may chuckle, but I certainly don’t laugh out loud, and if I do, then I send out a “lmao” or a “rofl,” but I save the lols for the less-funny ones. But the results of the album—15 mostly short experiments comprised of laughter samples—is as unfunny as so much ‘contemporary electronic music.’ Is this album a noble failure, or a failure of intent? Or does it fail to even get off the ground?
Mark Cutler: This album promises to “explore the sound of laughter as a compositional material.” These explorations, sadly, come to an end but a stone’s throw from their beginning. The laughter here is, generally, very lightly processed, pitch-shifted or high-passed or distorted, but never beyond recognition, or even in a way which brings new sonic elements of laughter to light. No track ever really breaks with the already beat-like rhythm of a laugh. However many filters he processes his laughs through, they retain a dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-dun pattern which both renders the album extremely samey, and undercuts Patiño’s claim to be doing any meaningful ‘composition’ with his material. I would be more interested and impressed if he had managed to take recorded laughter and manipulate it into something truly alien, or at least sufficiently different to justify his intervention over that of, say, a pre-loaded MAX patch. One can imagine taking microscopic samples of sound and smearing them into cacophonous drones or glitchy, quantised compositions, but instead, these really just sound like laughs fed through Audacity plugins.
It is not my intention to hold Patiño’s album up against one he didn’t intend to make, so I want once more to quote Anomia in describing the album as: “an attempt to explore humour as a subversive tool that allows Patiño to question, through a playful approach, rigid standards and a persistent excess of ‘seriousness’ in contemporary electronic music.” This attempt, I feel, is an utter failure. There is nothing really very humorous or subversive about this album. It is a rather rote, bloodless bit of filter-noodling which might have might have scraped its way on to a Wire year-end list circa 2001, but which is now almost indistinguishable from the work of any teenager with a cracked FL Studio and the capacity to google free sample packs. In terms of questioning the ‘seriousness’ of contemporary electronic music, Patiño is less successful than, say, Alessandro Bosetti in 2006, Hype Williams in 2009, PC Music in 2013, or 100 gecs in 2019. Perhaps he would do best to leave an art gallery once in a while, and give one of them a listen.
Thank you for reading the forty-first issue of Tone Glow. You can always listen more closely.
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