Tone Glow 062: Lea Bertucci

An interview with Lea Bertucci + our writers panel on Andy Stott's 'Never the Right Time', Fossilized Wilderness's self-titled debut, and Modern Obscure Music's 'PRSNT' compilation

Lea Bertucci

Lea Bertucci is a composer, performer and sound artist whose work describes relationships between acoustic phenomena and biological resonance. In addition to her longstanding practice with woodwind instruments, she incorporates multi-channel speaker arrays, electroacoustic feedback, timbral approaches to composition and tape collage. In recent years, her projects have expanded toward site-responsive and site-specific sonic investigations of architecture. Her latest solo album, A Visible Length of Light, is inspired by American landscapes and “is the product of real-time reactions to, and reflections upon, the instability of [the past year].” Joshua Minsoo Kim talked with Bertucci via Zoom on April 6th, 2021 to discuss her latest album, working with director Fern Silva, mushroom hunting, and more.

Joshua Minsoo Kim: Hello!

Lea Bertucci: Hello, how are you?

My day has been okay so far. How are you?

I’m good! I’m fully vaccinated! You know, it’s been a weird year. You think that your life is going to go a certain way, you make plans, and then those plans don’t work out. It’s been a real learning experience, a real lesson in all this. It’s been wild, but I feel grateful because I have a comfortable place to live and I have income.

I’m happy you have those things. And I know everyone says this all the time, but it really is surreal that it’s lasted this long.

I don’t think anybody expected it. I thought it’d be over by the fall, but none of us have ever experienced anything like this. Our parents’ generation hasn’t either, so there’s no reference for what we’re experiencing. I will say, even though things didn't go the way I expected them to go, I haven’t really spent so much time feeling sorry for myself, because one thing that’s really rendered visible is how screwed a lot of people are in this country. I feel gratitude for not being as screwed as many other people.

The pandemic’s really made more obvious how there wasn’t and still isn’t a lot in place to help massive amounts of people here in the US.

Right, just how precarious so many people’s situations are. It just takes a few days of not getting work for your life to crumble. And the number of undocumented people here who don’t have access to government benefits. I live in a pretty diverse neighborhood and I see food lines all the time, it’s really crazy. I’m just leaning into the things I’ve been grateful for. I’ve been grateful for time to get better at what I do and to develop my work more. 2020 was supposed to be a year of intense touring and presentation for me, but it didn’t quite go that way, so of course I’m sad to not have had certain kinds of experiences, but I also believe in practice—I believe in getting better and developing things in a real way. But I never would have had the time to do that if reality hadn’t gone off the rails.

What’s something you’ve been able to invest a lot of time into this past year?

As a musician, practice has always been a really big part of my life. I just had time to practice in a way I never really had before. I was playing through Bach preludes again. I was practicing extended techniques on my instruments and playing with other instruments—all of these things really deepen what I do. I never would have been able to make the record [A Visible Length of Light] if 2020 hadn’t happened, because it’s so informed by my ongoing experiences. I would’ve made something very different, and maybe something I would’ve felt less good about.

I’m always doing things on such a tight budget because I’m chronically underfunded, and I don’t have enough time to do things, so a lot of projects that I’ve done have suffered from that lack of time and resources. At least now I have the time to get deep with something and make something, and remake it, and let it sit for a few days and then listen to it again with fresh ears. I can really go through the process to the fullest degree it can be gone through. I feel like I did that with this record and I’m happy about that.

That’s an awesome thing to be able to do. I can relate because I’m always overworking myself; I rarely have time to sit and evaluate what I’ve done after some time has passed. I’m wondering, is there a specific album in your discography where you’re like, “Oh, I wish I had more time to sit with it” because you feel like there would’ve been changes you would’ve made?

Oh, yeah. Everything I’ve ever done (laughter). I can endlessly critique things and pick them apart and wish that I had done certain things differently, but the truth is that when something’s out in the world, I don’t really listen to it again unless I’m taking time to go through it and reflect. I don’t listen to my own work for my own pleasure—there’s so much better work to listen to (laughter). There are so many more amazing things that I’d rather be inspired from.

When was the last time you reflected on one of your older works?

Somebody contacted me a few months ago and asked for this tape I had put out in like 2011, before I was even serious about making music. I listened to a little bit of it and was like, “Oh man, I don’t know if I wanna send this out” (laughter). I don’t feel like it’s quite representative of where I’m at now and I don’t think it demonstrates the skills that I’ve cultivated. It’s stuff that’s very much in the beginning stages of development. It was interesting though to see how my tastes have changed and what hasn’t changed.

Did you decide not to send it then?

I ended up swallowing my pride and I sent it because I thought, you know, maybe it’s interesting for someone who knows my work now to hear what I had been doing then and understand a certain kind of trajectory. The guy who was interested in these tracks was very enthusiastic, so that was cool.

I wanna bring us back to little Lea. Did you grow up in New York?

I was born and grew up in Upstate New York, in the Hudson Valley.

How was that? What sort of things come to mind when you reflect on your childhood?

A lot of things! The thing that I’ve been thinking about a lot, and that I’ve always thought about a lot—which has given me a huge sense of alienation within my discipline and in the arts community—is that while it’s really great that there’s been a reckoning in terms of racial justice and gender justice, what’s really glaringly absent is any talk of social class and economic privilege. It’s not talked about within this intersectionality that [these institutions] are now becoming aware of.

My childhood was not an easy one. I grew up in the Hudson Valley at a time when it was not very chic. It was a depressed area that was not cool to be in—it had nothing to offer young people. I grew up in a way that was not very economically privileged. Upstate has had a lot of influence on me because it’s a stunning landscape and it’s a really singular place—it has a rich history of Bohemian culture and hippy culture, which is why my parents moved there in the ’70s.

So when I think about my experience growing up, I think about how different it is from that of many of my peers. I think about how to reconcile that and how to talk about that. If we’re really talking about intersectionality and the differences in people’s experiences, that has to be something that needs to be talked about, but I don’t see much space for it.

Right, that makes sense. I’ve never lived in New York but my impression of the whole new music and experimental music scene at large there is that those sorts of conversations don’t really happen.

Social class and economic status are a lot harder to talk about. Like, it’s easy for me to pass as someone who’s upper middle class because you can look at where I went to college, you can look at the way that I dress, you can look at certain things and think I’m a certain person, but my experience doesn’t quite match that. But for things that are more physically based, like race or gender, that’s more inherently public-facing. And that comes with all sorts of other problems, like walking down the street and a cop harassing you.

This is to say that it’s a nebulous kind of conversation. It’s harder to pinpoint what is the experience of a poor person versus a middle class person versus a rich person, and knowing where you fall into that spectrum. I also don’t think a lot of people want to talk about it because it implicates themselves, you know? The truth is that the colleges that are producing the people who are active in experimental art, they’re not for poor people. It’s complicated.

I love that you brought this up because I’m realizing now that in all the interviews I’ve done, I think this is the only time someone’s mentioned it. Have you ever had any conversations regarding this within the music scene?

I’ve had a lot of different kinds of conversations and over the years, I’ve learned to not have them. It’s “not okay” to talk about money and it’s “not okay” to talk about the ways in which you’re privileged. I’ve encountered lots of different people who’ve come from different backgrounds, but I think that my takeaway is that I can’t talk about it. I don’t think that race and class—or gender and class—are oppositional forces. We have to talk about all these things together, and I just find it to be so absent. Not talking about money is a way for the wealthy to barricade their wealth and status. They’re obfuscating the fact they have these resources, which allows those resources to continue to exist [for them alone].

The goal obviously is for these resources to be more accessible for everyone. Are you familiar with any organizations that you think are doing a good job of closing that gap?

In the arts, I can’t think of any. There are some need-based grants and usually those are reserved for people who are in really dire economic circumstances, but it’s interesting that when I fill out a grant application, there are many ways in which you can choose your particular flavor of “other.” I almost want to put another category for “person who grew up poor,” you know what I mean? This isn’t to say that I don’t have privilege—obviously I do in lots of ways—but I don’t see that discussion happening and I don’t see space held for people who have had that kind of experience. I hope that can start to be in the discussion. People were joining the DSA and supporting Bernie Sanders and talking about taxing the rich, but that hasn’t quite translated into the arts.

What certain things do you wish would happen?

I wish college wasn’t so expensive and that there was more equity in terms of educational resources. I went to Bard College—one of the most absolutely privileged and entitled places in the entire universe! I had a hard time at that school. I would love to see an educational institution like that—that has incredible resources and access to amazing professors—do more in terms of that kind of equity. So, providing better educational opportunities.

But also, there has to be more value for people’s labor in the arts. For a lot of people who come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, it’s kind of insane to go into the arts because you’re guaranteeing to continue a life of poverty unless you’re very, very lucky. It’s no surprise that people from those backgrounds are more hesitant to go into the arts, especially experimental art or art that has niche audiences. So maybe if the NEA actually distributed funds to artists or if there was a universal basic income, maybe we’d see more diversity in terms of that.

Thanks for sharing all that.

I’m sure I’ll get horribly criticized for being some asshole but whatever.

I apologize in advance for anything that happens as a result of this interview.

It’s okay. I know where I stand on all this, I’m not worried.

You said you had a hard time at Bard, can you expand on that? Paint a picture for me of the school.

I really loved my teachers. I never had experienced people who were that brilliant and worldly and treated me like an adult. I never had conversations that were that sophisticated before. I had gone to community college for a semester before I went to Bard and it was a really huge difference. I met a lot of interesting people there, but I really did feel the chasm of experience between my life and theirs. The things I worried about were not the same things they worried about, and I think I definitely alienated people by bringing up class differences. I was an angry 19-year-old who was coming to terms with the fact that my experience was really kind of fucked up and different.

When I first got to Bard, I thought I was really stupid. I thought everybody was much smarter than I was, and it took a year or so to realize that it wasn’t that I lacked intellectual faculties, I just had a crappy education. I had a public school education in a rural community and it was nothing compared to the elite private schools that my peers attended. So yes, they were able to write better than me, and analyze text better than me. They had nicer cameras and equipment than me, so they were better students than me. It was a big adjustment, just understanding that I’m not actually stupid.

Do you ever feel self-conscious about your abilities as an adult now?

Yeah, totally. I feel insecure a lot, I do. I don’t have a degree in music so there are some technical things that take longer and are harder for me, but I do have good instincts, at least some of the time (laughter). I definitely see a lot of the ways in which people in the music world have more resources, and sometimes I’m frustrated by that, but sometimes I feel like an imposter. Sometimes I feel like I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing. But the thing is that even though I feel that way, I still can’t help but make art anyway. I’m compelled to express something, and that’s what keeps me moving ahead—I just have to do it.

You don’t feel like you can pinpoint what’s compelling you to make art? It’s just an impulse that you have?

When my work is really at its best, I can articulate something about the human condition. Or at least I hope. It’s interesting because people’s response to this record has been, “Wow, thank you, I really needed this.” I feel like there’s something embedded in it that’s really helpful to people, that’s cathartic to people that allows people to understand themselves and their experiences more. So when I get feedback like that, it’s one of the things that helps me to continue. It’s also just pleasurable to work! When I play I feel better. If I’m ever feeling bad I just play music. There’s something powerful and healing about it, and I’m interested in facilitating that experience for other people.

With A Visible Length of Light, it said in the press release that you were contemplating what it means to be American. What sort of things were you thinking about while you were making the record? I guess what I’m asking you is, what does it mean to be American?

One of the tracks on the record is called “To Bridge the Chasm of Experience” and I think that as Americans, that’s our job. We all come from different places and have different kinds of experiences. I think that we should understand each other better. I don’t think that the US is a successful experiment all the time, or really ever (laughter), but at least some people are trying to bridge that chasm.

I’ve always been really inspired by landscapes and one of the things about the US is that it has all these different kinds. There’s swamps and coastal mountains and desert mountains and prairies. The diversity of the landscape reflects the diversity of the population, and so I thought that American landscape would be a good access point to talk about ourselves and each other.

How did making the music help you reflect on all those things?

It’s because the music is situated within the physical realm, dealing with the physical sensation of sonic vibrations in a very essential way. I think that as people who have skin and ears and bones, we have physical manifestations, and that’s the phenomena I’m most interested in musically, playing with psychoacoustics and otoacoustics. That’s sort of how I approach that.

When do you think that all sort of came to light? This idea of you connecting physical sensations from music and the exploration of the human condition.

Living in New York over the years, I’ve seen many incredible performances. I’ve seen three-and-a-half-hour La Monte Young pieces that do that. The work of Maryanne Amacher does that. The work of Haino Keiji. That visceral, bodily, shrieking experience (laughs). I don’t think there’s much of a difference between physiology and mental stuff. I think the physical and emotional and the intellectual are all interconnected, so I’m interested in working at those meeting points.

You were talking earlier about all the different landscapes in America. Is there a favorite place you’ve been to?

My father lives in an area of southern Utah called the Grand Staircase-Escalante region, and actually the cover image of my record is a photograph by David Benjamin Sherry. And that’s from the Grand Staircase-Escalante monument. I’ve been going there since I was a child and it’s had a huge impact on me. It’s a place of real serious spiritual energy, not to sound like a total hippy, but it’s a really moving place. The landscape is dramatic and singular—I’ve never been to a place that looks quite like that.

Talking about physicality, when you’re in a landscape like that, you really feel a part of it but also divorced from it—you feel how small you are within the grand scheme of things, and how indifferent nature is to your physical needs. I’ve been in semi-dangerous situations out in the desert in really remote places, so I’ve felt that indifference.

Can you share a story about any of these dangerous situations?

Oh, I have a great story. Gosh, this is probably 10 years ago now. My friend Pete came out and we went on a hike to a very special place. It’s a swimming area in the desert that’s fed by this spring—the water is crystal clear, cold, and it’s in the middle of the desert so it’s hot as shit otherwise. The thing that I didn’t quite understand was how challenging of a hike it is. And it’s an off-trail hike so you have to navigate your way down these precarious cliffs.

Pete got stuck on this ledge and it was a really bad situation because he couldn’t quite climb up and he couldn’t quite get down—it was like a 25-foot drop to the bottom of the canyon. Pete wasn’t in the best of shape at the time and I ended up having to brace myself on the side of the cliff, holding a towel down to him to have a 250-pound man climb this towel. I was really afraid for him. I was afraid he was gonna have a heart attack, I was afraid he was going to die. I’m glad that didn’t happen because I would’ve felt horrible forever (laughs).

That’s intense!

It was really intense! It made me really understand how fragile we are, and that you can’t fuck around with nature. Do not fuck with nature—you will lose!

In high school I almost drowned in the Pacific Ocean, and that really shook me up. It was a similar sort of experience in terms of learning not to fuck with nature.

Yeah the ocean is intense! You really do feel helpless; those currents can really be so strong and you think that you have control but you actually don’t.

Exactly. Even beyond the importance of surviving, do you think there’s an importance in recognizing one’s own smallness and the indifference of nature?

Yeah, isn’t that the lifelong project?

What do you mean?

Understanding the limitations of our own mental, intellectual, spiritual, and physical capacities. Understanding that human history accounts for a blink in the eye of the history of the earth. It’s this perspective that I’m forever going to be coming to grips with, and I think doing so helps minimize one’s ego and sense of self-importance. You can put into perspective certain kinds of struggles. It’s really about perspective, of understanding that all the things I worry about don’t fucking matter (laughter).

Do you feel like you’ve been getting better at that? Of being upset or worried about something and moving on from that?

I think that’s my great takeaway from this year. The thing from the Before Times that I cared about, I don’t care about them in the same way now. I really don’t.

I wanted to ask about the music video for “On Opposite Sides of Sleep,” which was directed by Fern Silva. How do you know Fern?

He’s my boyfriend.

What?! What!! (laughter).

I know Fern because we were introduced to each other by a bunch of mutual friends. I was supposed to play a show in Greece last year which got cancelled, and we were introduced through that. And then we ended up corresponding a bunch over the spring and summer of last year, and lo and behold, here we are (laughs).

Wow, did not expect that answer.

I feel a real kinship with him in terms of artistic stuff. When I first saw his movies, I was really like, “Oh shit, if I made movies this is what I’d make.” I felt a real serious resonance between our work, and he felt the same way. It was a really exciting connection. He has a really amazing capacity to surprise in his movies. He’ll take you into a space and then completely suck it out from under you.

[Lea and Joshua continue to have a lengthy, gushing conversation about Fern’s films]

He really does a lot of research into his movies, so everything that’s in his movies is related in some obscure, tangential way. I feel a lot of people don’t get every single reference, but it’s all there—it’s all completely revolving around the same issues.

The older I get, the more I recognize that every single thing I do can just be an excuse to do more research or go deeper into something. Any piece of art that embodies that, where you can tell that’s what happened and sense it was an enjoyable experience for the artist, is wonderful to me. And I get that with Fern’s films.

Totally. He’s deeply fascinated by his subject matter. Well, I’m gonna say obsessed (laughter). And I think that enthusiasm comes through in the work.

Do you wanna talk about how this music video came about?

I had sent him some sketches of these flute pieces I was working on, and he was in the process of editing [his debut feature film] Rock Bottom Riser at the time, and he just put some of that stuff in a few scenes. It just ended up working really well. We developed a relationship around that, and the idea was that I’d let him use these pieces for his film, and we’d do a trade—he’d make me a music video for when my record would come out. He was really enthusiastic.

He shot some stuff in Greece, and then over the summer, I flew to Croatia. So he came from Greece to Croatia so we could hang out for a couple weeks. We shot a lot of the stuff in the music video there. He had some high-contrast, black-and-white film, and we did double exposure superimpositions—of water and landscape and what we were surrounded by on this island in Croatia. I love watching the video because it makes me so happy. And then he came here over the holidays and we shot some stuff in New York. I was with him when he shot most of the stuff for that music video, and it was really a collaborative process. It was nice. It’s really cool to meet people who you feel creatively and artistically connected to.

Is there anything that you wanted to talk about that we didn’t? Or a question that you always wanted to be asked in an interview that you haven’t before?

One thing I would like to talk about a little bit is that in my artistic life, I have a lot of different projects. I have my solo work, which is what this album is. I have my collaboration with Amirtha Kidambi. I also work as a sound designer and collaborate with theater and dance artists. I also have a practice as a composer, writing for instruments I don’t perform. I have a lot of different ways in which my work manifests, and I always appreciate it when people understand the idea of an artist having range and doing lots of different types of things instead of relegating myself into a corner, like, “I’m the person who does this very specific thing.” I’m curious about the world around me, and I like to think that the entire breadth of my work reflects that curiosity.

What’s it like for you to create stuff that you don’t end up performing, be it with your work as a composer or with these works for theater? And how does that compare to your solo endeavors?

I feel like I always learn a lot. Right now I’m in the process of writing a string quartet. I didn’t grow up playing string instruments and it’s a very different kind of way of making music than a wind-based method. You have to think about all sorts of different things, physically, timbrally, about the possibilities of what those instruments are. It’s a much more collaborative process, especially with theater where you’re working with directors and designers. And in composition you’re working with different musicians who have different skills and perspectives, so it’s always amazing to have that space of collaboration. I always just learn so much working in those kinds of ways.

Given your curiosity, is there something you’re into that most people wouldn’t know that you’re into?

(smiles). If you ever look at my Instagram and look at who I follow, it’s not that many musicians or music-related things. I mostly follow mycologists. I think fungi are really fascinating. I don’t know if it’s related to my work at all or if it’s a non-art related interest, but yeah fungi are incredible lifeforms.

Do you go mushroom hunting?

I do!

When was the last time you went?

I have not been yet this season, but it is morel season so I need to get upstate.

What’s the most exciting thing you’ve ever found?

One time I found a lion’s mane mushroom, which is my favorite mushroom. It has amazing medicinal benefits, which are just starting to be understood in Western homeopathy. Of course in Asian culture, lion’s mane mushrooms have been known to have these benefits. It’s also just a beautiful mushroom! It looks like sea anemone and it grows on living hardwoods. It’s a cool thing! It’s just this incredible creature that tastes really good, and it has all these interesting health benefits.

Is there a specific mushroom that’s like your white whale? And it doesn’t have to be something you’d have to find in New York, but anywhere.

I’d love to go truffle hunting one day. I love truffles, oh my gosh.

I really hope you get to go hunting soon. Do you ever see yourself incorporating this into your music practice in any way?

I wonder about that. I recently read this book called The Mushroom at the End of the World and it talks about matsutake mushrooms and the economy around it in terms of post-capitalism. I think it would have to be some kind of oblique influence… I’m not about to make a mushroom record and go John Cage on this stuff (laughter) but I think at some point, there’s going to be something I read regarding fungi that fascinates me as a jumping-off point for something I make.

I’m excited for when that happens, whenever that may be. I have one last question that I ask to everyone I interview. Do you mind sharing one thing you love about yourself?

I like to think I have a good nose for thrifting.

A good nose?

A good eye? A good eye (laughter).

I was like, are you sniffing out things?

You don’t wanna do that (laughs). I have a good sense for thrifting.

How often do you go thrifting?

I’ve been a little afraid to go into indoor space, but [prior to the pandemic] it’d be pretty much whenever I would go upstate to visit my mom, so like every couple months. But when I’m on tour, especially in the US, I always look up what the best thrift stores are in whatever city. In New York we don’t have a lot of proper thrift stores, we have “vintage boutiques” that are curated. I want real thrift, I want the deals (laughs).

Love that that’s your answer because it was also unexpected, just like all the mushroom stuff.

I guess I like finding things (laughter).

Lea Bertucci’s latest solo album, A Visible Length of Light, is available now at Bandcamp. Her upcoming album with Amirtha Kidambi, End of Softness, is out in June.


Writers Panel

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.

Andy Stott - Never the Right Time (Modern Love, 2021)

Press Release info: It’s been a decade since Andy Stott released ‘Passed Me By’, a radical re-imagining of dance music as an expression of “physical and spiritual exhaustion” (Pitchfork). What followed was a process of rapid remodelling: ‘We Stay Together’ (2011 / slow and f*cked, for the club), ‘Luxury Problems’ (2012 / greyscale romance), ‘Faith In Strangers’ (2014/ destroyed love songs), ’Too Many Voices’ (2016 / 4th world Triton shimmers) and ‘It Should Be Us’ (2019 / the club, collapsed) - a run of releases that gradually untangled complex ideas into a singular, chaotic body of work - somewhere between sound-art, techno and pop.

In early 2020 - with a new album almost done and an offer to produce for a mainstream artist on the table - personal upheaval and a pandemic brought everything to a sudden standstill. Months of withdrawal eventually triggered a different approach. recording hours of raw material; slow horns, sibilance, delayed drums, wondering flutes - whatever, whenever. 

With vocals recorded by Alison Skidmore, the album was finally completed late last year- taking on a different shape. Its songs desolate, melancholy, defiant, beautiful - often all at once. The sounds echoed music around Stott during those months: Prince, Gavin Bryars, A.R. Kane, Bohren & der Club of Gore, Robert Turman, Cindy Lee, Leila, Catherine Christer Hennix, Junior Boys, László Hortobágyi, Nídia, Prefab Sprout - the unusual /  the familiar.

Echoing that mix of new and old, each of the songs on ‘Never The Right Time’ is woven from the same thread despite following different trajectories; from the lovelorn shimmer of opener ‘Away not gone’, to the clattering linndrum pop of ‘The beginning’, through ‘Answers’ angular club haze, and the city-at-night end-credits ‘Hard to Tell’. These are songs fuelled by nostalgia and soul searching, but all hold true to a vision of music making as a form of renewal and reinvention. A 10 year cycle, complete.

Purchase Never the Right Time at Boomkat.

Joshua Minsoo Kim: Andy Stott’s 2011 EPs came at a perfect time, providing a funereal and glum counter to the warm dub techno of Yagya and the late-night party comedowns of Rod Modell and Stephen Hitchell. Even Deadbeat’s Drawn and Quartered, a standout LP of that year, couldn’t compare: Stott was making dubby dance music that was far less typical, channeling apocalyptic dread through slow BPMs and texturally-dense atmospheres. When Luxury Problems dropped, the inclusion of breakbeats and Alison Skidmore’s vocals felt like a welcome broadening in sound: So many electronic artists with greyscale album art were occupying a similarly serious zone, from Emptyset to Raime to Demdike Stare. Since then, Stott’s sound has changed so much that his latest album, Never the Right Time, is as far removed from Passed Me By and We Stay Together as those EPs were from Merciless.

Change has usually been a good thing for Stott, as standout tracks from his LPs often involve a new or refined element: the layered, looping vocals of “Hatch the Plan”; the skittering Atlanta bass-adjacent beat of “Faith in Strangers”; the raucous deconstructed club edits of “Selfish.” Never the Right Time has such moments—the quasi-dembow rhythm of “Repetitive Strain,” for one—but much of the albums falters from aimless meandering; these compositions are unable to sustain the characteristically bleak emotions that Stott specializes in.

“Away Not Gone” sets the tone: gauzy ambience led by spectral vocals and gossamer guitars. Stott’s bass guitar—slick and clean—is all too familiar at this point, but it provides a weightiness that prevents the whole thing from evaporating. The title track isn’t as well-rounded. Its kick drum is too bulbous, constantly sucking the life out of the song’s dizzier elements; it feels less like an anchor than dead weight. Most songs suffer due to having interesting ideas that are poorly implemented: “Don’t know how” works into a solid groove but the vocals don’t interact with it meaningfully, and “The beginning” is only salvaged by the bassline’s off-notes. There are some HTRKisms on closer “Hard to Tell,” but it’s lacking any emotional nuance—something that would be fine, as often has been the case in Stott’s catalogue, if its lethargy was tense instead of lax. Throw in two beatless tracks that amount to little more than shallow mood pieces (“When it hits” and “Dove stone”), and Never the Right Time ends up feeling hollow despite any adventurousness.

Nick Zanca: Like all of the Mancunian producer’s LPs since Luxury Problems, the highlight here is undoubtedly Alison Skidmore’s chameleonic contributions; his former piano teacher and frequent collaborator’s blustery vocal still blends beautifully with the bassy murk, maintaining malleability through whatever spatial treatment he embellishes it with. That in mind, it’s a shame that she sits on the backburner more than before; bereft of a voice, this austere post-club palette feels far too familiar in the decade that’s passed since we were introduced to it. That’s not to say the work is entirely redundant—in particular, the sneaky LinnDrum and detuned guitar of closer “Hard To Tell” evokes a hidden gem of private-press collector’s ephemera begging to be scavenged for the next Sky Girlbut what this music lacks, and what I ultimately crave from genre-agnostic producers of a certain PR-heavy persuasion, is an element of surprise.

Ryo Miyauchi: For all his respectable consistency throughout the 2010s, I itched for innovation from Andy Stott after observing the producer churn out haunted, monochromatic dub techno for basically a decade. Never the Right Time, then, serves what has been requested: a show of recognizable evolution. Some of his pop efforts here resemble if Dan Snaith tried making Andy Stott songs; the full-on ambient tracks are as gorgeous as they are harrowing. Despite the noticeable, inspired shifts in the formula, the album doesn’t fully convince that change was what he needed: the tweaks feel more like hypothetical pursuits than a genuine turning point.

Eli Schoop: One of the hallmarks of experimental music in the 2010s was the omnipresence of ever-evolving stalwart men in the medium. Guys like Tim Hecker, Daniel Lopatin, Ben Frost, and James Ferraro all fell into this category, producing an oeuvre by which fans could latch onto and grasp as a particular aesthetic, netting them as a big-tent attraction in the indie circuit. Andy Stott came to be a readily identifiable member of this niche. From Passed Me By to Luxury Problems to Faith In Strangers, his discography morphed constantly, yet was familiar enough in its lineage to not alienate his audience, but Never the Right Time comes in stale, without any of the hallmarks Stott has previously presented.

A problem with this position is the genre markers Stott consecrates on the album feels grasped from other sources. “Repetitive strain” and “Never the right time” sound like they’re straight from Jam City’s hard drive but without the panache that makes the Londonder’s beats irresistible. Elsewhere, “Don’t know how” checks in as a James Blake b-side, but without the vocals emblematic of the electronic crooner. Everything here is undeniably Stott’s vision, but lacking what has made his previous releases so vital. This mirrors the other Serious Avant Men, as they too have also run out of steam towards the beginning of the 2020s.

The most pungent tracks show Stott giving into what he does best: making manic-depressive beats as dark as a rat-infested alleyway at 3AM. “When it hits” is the highlight, striking in its grasp, hammered piano chords piercing as shadows. Never the Right Time refuses to commit to itself, leaving us in limbo as a captive crowd. Its dreariness is not forthcoming. Rather, the emotions left here are ones of boredom. It’s a half-baked depression, Zoloft and Prozac not even required to weather.

Sunik Kim: There is a languorous, almost luxuriant feel to some of these tracks that’s reminiscent of Jam City’s pop turn on Dream A Garden; given Stott’s signature icy, doomy sound, the gliding 80s guitars on opener “Away Not Gone” shock and—initially—intrigue. As the album progresses, the Achilles heel of Stott’s overall project becomes clear. While the structural and compositional weaknesses of Stott’s earlier work were conveniently hidden under dense clouds of fog and mist, Stott’s leaner, crisper, more straight-ahead sound on Never the Right Time disperses the murk, exposing these shortcomings in the clear light of day.

Ultimately, Stott’s music—old and new—is driven by style over substance, uninventive, meandering rhythms and scattershot melodies with a single-minded emphasis on “mood” above all. On Never the Right Time, Stott takes us on a wandering road trip through various contemporary beat scenes and patterns—there is a clear desire to sound “plugged-in” to the latest in electronic music—but Stott’s flimsy style-only approach (a kind of musical Instagram filter) strips them of their inherent energy and vitality, anonymizing them. Given this glaring lack of identity and purpose, the album’s sole driving force seems to be the gimmicky, pseudo-shocking contrast between this Stott and the old Stott. But this relies on a kind of reflexive self-mythologizing (“A 10 year cycle, complete,” in the press copy’s breathless words) that is simply another example of hype over music. Some artists are doomed to remain chained to a particular era; Stott was undeniably influential in his day, but today he’s a fish out of water.

Samuel McLemore: I’ve never connected with Andy Stott’s music before, and I’m sad to say this time around is no different. I’ve always found that his music sucked the energy out of a room rather than pumping it up; his take on rhythm is awkward to me, and the melodic and textural elements of his tracks do little to win me over. I’ve always chalked this up to a “not my cup of tea” kind of situation, with the rueful footnote that I’ve never heard his music over a proper sound system, and this is probably the first time I’ve given his music a proper listen since his Luxury Problems album way back in, damn, 2012. Sad to say not much has changed for me and Andy. Almost every track has something grating to my ears: the treble-heavy mix on “The Beginning,” that awful click on “Repetitive Strain.” Nothing on this record commits to becoming a full-on pop song or a techno banger or a moody ambient piece—they all exist in the dull purgatory between all three.

Lucy Frost: Never the Right Time might be the closest thing Andy Stott has made to a straightforward electronic pop album. Its key element is an eloquent melodic plaintiveness, an emotive urgency that works best when using the shape and flow of pop composition to articulate its details. The crucial register here is elegant melancholy, a fusion of sensuality and angst. With vocalist Alison Skidmore, Stott keys his jagged rhythms and dubby production to a mood of nocturnal loneliness whose greatest practitioners make for a proud and varied lineage—one thinks of trip hop and vocal jazz, even though Never the Right Time sounds nothing like Portishead or Frank Sinatra. That, I think, is the essence of Stott’s originality: he uses new sounds to channel old feelings.

Skidmore’s vocals provide agility and airiness: a languid touch. Vaporous, ghostly, and fluid, her phrasing pours like warm fluorescence over Never the Right Time’s most affecting moments; the echoing guitar chords and muted percussion of “Hard to Tell” frame Skidmore in a torch singer’s amorous anxiety. An icy keyboard melody trails her performance, but can’t imitate the hitches and jolts in her articulation, the way she stretches syllables and hesitates between lines, the way she lingers and pauses, the unrelievable ache her chilly tones suggest. Listen to the extraordinary melisma she uses to inflect the word “sharp” at 2:32— it’s a sudden dizzy ripple cast through the song’s pristine surface, suggesting barely-maintained cool, a studied restraint just beginning to crack.

“Hard to Tell” is Never the Right Time’s crucial track because it best represents the album’s tension between poise and heartbreak. That tension defines the ebb and flow of Stott’s production. The sound keeps changing; rhythms surge to a frenzied clatter and then subside, with overlays of drone and melody moving in organic arcs, mirroring the swell and shudder of a turbulent mood. Its frank poignancy makes the elements of dance music into a kind of balladry. “The Beginning,” for example, glides over a shuffling, tinny beat: a wave of warm neon, all shimmer and sway. See also the title track’s rush of dubby nighttime bliss, with fizzing cymbals, a glacial interlocking play of synthetic handclaps and bass drums, and the steely suspended whir of keys holding a chord—a mixture of the visceral and dreamlike. This mixture drives Never the Right Time, where Stott and Skidmore achieve a grand nocturnal soundscape.

Average: [4.14]

Fossilized Wilderness - Fossilized Wilderness (Enmossed, 2021)

Press Release info: "The CD is scratched.” A saying from the early millennium, it describes the phenomenon of skipping music on a damaged CD, the locked, repetitive groove. For nearly a decade, Fossilized Wilderness has been experimenting with a peculiar modification to CDJ equipment, birthed by long hours sorting through promotional CDs sent to a radio station. In embracing choppiness, a body of abrasive but bright ambient work has been constructed from the refuse of musical commodification.

The CD skip is both rhythm and tone on this LP, but if you expect the monotonous motions of a concept album, don’t: The moods here are just as granular. The six tracks shift from digital euphoria to shoegazing sentimentalism, a balanced mix of terror, plaintiveness, and joy, an impressive feat considering that the scratch of a CD produces potent nostalgia as well as Pavlovian irritation for many—a drive to eject the thing and fix the problem.

For those not growing up with it, the scratched CD is a relic phenomenon, something that happened with an artifact format. But just because it’s an artifact doesn’t mean it’s obsolete. On this LP, Fossilized Wilderness uses a sonic palette of subtly-shifting broken loops to create something new: delirious spectres rising from an ocean of plastic.

Purchase Fossilized Wilderness at Bandcamp.

Mark Cutler: It is of course impossible to listen to Ryan Martin’s new project without thinking of Yasunao Tone, who spent the ’90s and 2000s extracting the tortured, electronic detritus from vintage CDs and CD players which he scratched, burned, and otherwise mangled. Yet where Tone always leaned hard into the most alien, abrasive sounds he could find, Martin works with larger chunks of audio from promo singles and maxi CDs. The effect is less harsh-noise and more vaporwave. Half-second snatches of female vocals loop until they become chantlike, fading into the background of our awareness. Other elements come, go, and subtly modulate, occasionally permitting something like a melody to form.

The last and longest track (“6”) is also the loveliest, calling to mind the more abstruse songs by ’90s ambient acts like Seefeel and Susumu Yokota. It’s no coincidence that it’s also one of the most noticeably structured, shifting pitch every few seconds to lead the listener along its blissful ascent. Many of the other songs come and go pleasantly enough, but they lack the form to really hold the listener’s attention, feeling more like sketches or raw material for a solid composition. Fossilized Wilderness isn’t a great listen start-to-finish, but it feels like a strong blueprint for future explorations, ably demonstrating that the niche territory of CD-skip-music still has plenty of unmined potential. I hope Martin continues to discover how he can bend and shape this material into compelling songs.

Zachariah Cook: No one hears what you hear when you tap out a song. Performed on a wooden table, “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” sounds like a random sequence of thumps. A lot of the repetitive, rhythm heavy experimental music I hear reminds me of this phenomenon. When I search for the there-there, or some semblance of emotional expression, all I hear is one *thud* after another. Fossilized Wilderness is a flurry of CD skips. Much of it drones on like a tattoo gun, although its best moments give rise to bliss.

Track “3” is such a moment. Each vocal sample is ineffably light, like lasers gliding through steam, while they must contend with the industrial cacophony that forms the backbone of the piece. Finale “6” is another such moment. Its delicate stutter makes me think of an old projector flickering holy light at 24fps. It is also quite a leap from the mechanical stasis of the album’s front end. I suppose the abrupt CD skipping is easier on the ears over time. That is, if you’re patient enough. Behind those hollow thuds and dull taps is a creator sharing something beautiful.

Sunik Kim: The opening, skittering tones and chords are immediately Fennesz-ian—warm, fuzzy, a direct throwback to Endless Summer. To be clear, this is not necessarily a welcome comparison in 2021; that sound is so singular and mythologized that retreading it yields very little freshness, regardless of the medium or context. The rest of Fossilized Wilderness steps methodically and diligently through its source material, with an incessant, static, metronomic ticking. This compositional backbone becomes tiresome almost immediately, a far cry from Yasunao Tone’s free-flowing, serrated rhythms. The album’s ultimate weakness is, somewhat counterintuitively (given its ‘limited’ technological approach), its omnivorous nature.

In attempting to capture several different musical flavors—hazy shoegaze, soupy ‘ambient,’ SND-lite percussive glitching—the peculiar strengths of the CD skipping process get lost in the mix, and the end result simply sounds like a series of rote studies with a granular synthesis plugin. The album’s unquestionable highlight is track “3.” Here, Fossilized Wilderness at last fully commits to the specific task at hand (“make shoegaze”), densely layering blown-out, shrieking phrases of various durations on top of one another. But this track is only one ‘sample’ of many in a series of skip-aided genre-exercises; there are too many bases left to cover, and the album simply flits, forgettably, to the next thing.

Joshua Minsoo Kim: The sweet looping of “1” immediately recalls The Field’s most exuberant tracks, but the lack of any percussion alters the listening experience entirely. All that Ryan Martin leaves one with is CD skips, and with it comes a surprising world of sound therein: small changes in pitch, subtle gradations in rhythm, speckled blips in varying spaces of the soundstage. It becomes a dramatic affair that’s heightened from an environment that forces hyper-focusing. Much of these tracks stand in stark contract to each other. “3” functions most differently: the loop that’s present is long enough to help you enter its atmosphere, and the presence of a voice, as always is the case, humanizes the piece, making it far less mechanical. “6” layers refluent rhythms to create something ambient, but it eventually pulls you out of such a relaxing headspace through an increasing rate of CD skipping. And “5” has sounds that constantly pan back and forth, which results in something of a techno track. The delight in Fossilized Wilderness is rooted in how such small decisions play an enormous role in shaping the character of every track, and true to the project’s title, listening becomes an act of excavation, of finding truths hidden in the rubble.

Gil Sansón: Some writers use the expression “medium archeology” to refer to works like this, and there’s a tradition in which this album can be inscribed. The obvious comparison would be the first couple of Oval CDs, but a closer analogy is that LP by Francisco Lopez made with the typical surface noise of vinyl records exclusively. Another characteristic example would be the Yasunao Tone’s work with skipping CDs (closer in spirit to Fluxus than to the more musical undertones of Fossilized Wilderness). Here one can hear something that seems informed by the use of phasing in the early works of Steve Reich, but also a certain kinship to the work of Mika Vainio and Ilpo Väisänen (solo or as Pan Sonic) in its commitment to a minimal framework to let the sound breathe and not so much develop in the normal sense.

You can also tell that there’s the intention to play with the skipping CD phenomenon as something that can be both amusing to some and deeply irritant to others, but in this sense Oval did it first and more systematically, even to the point of depleting the notion altogether. So, no, I’m not impressed by the choice of basic sound or how well it translates to the vinyl medium. My interest as a listener is purely musical, and that's the only criteria employed in the assessment of it. Does it work?

This is textbook experimentalism: each track takes one aspect of the sound and runs with it, applying treatments, EQ, envelope and so on, so the work comes out as a series of monochrome pictures arranged in sequence, each emphasizing one aspect in particular, meaning that you can tell how each piece will proceed after hearing its first ten seconds. Fossilized Wilderness is a case of observing phenomena and finding artistic use—though I would rather use the term artistic commentary—without deviating from the original premise, implying something akin to a fetish attitude, with emotional investments and attachments to its basic sound. Some tracks are more engaging than others—“5” has some menacing undertones that take it beyond the anecdotal into a more vital listening experience—but Ryan Martin knows how far he can push this concept; he doesn’t overstay his welcome.

Samuel McLemore: From the short runtime to the tasteful sound palette, Fossilized Wilderness, aka Ryan Martin, does so many things right with this release it’s easy to overlook its few flaws. With a basic concept of using the CD skip as a compositional tool, he gives us six tracks of skips and skip-like loops, bringing to mind everything from Ryoji Ikeda to The Field. Surprisingly, it’s the latter sound that really fits this project best, and Martin is at his best when he indulges in lush, romantic textures and snatches of recognizable instrumentation. The third track on the album exemplifies this approach best, with different half second loops of vocals, guitars, and drums practically forming a full pop song—they’re cut into shards and glued back together with static and feedback to fill the gaps. It’s practically a My Bloody Valentine tribute, and its emotional maximalism is only really matched by the final track, “6.” Though the rest of the album isn’t nearly as satisfying as those two standouts, it remains engaging throughout by virtue of its consistently inventive soundscape and exploratory attitude.

Maxie Younger: My first listen of Fossilized Wilderness proved anxiety-inducing, dredging up memories of long family road trips in hot cars with my portable CD player, trapped at the mercy of beaten-up discs from the library that would skip if I tilted the player just two or three degrees off-center. Track one sees the effect at its most sharp and confrontational: I found myself flinching as each successive skip ricocheted off the back of my skull, pushing out through the bridge of my nose, plangent. The subsequent tracks feel mellower by comparison, obscuring the skips behind taut snippets of vocals, bitcrushed noise, high-pitched stabs; the progression is something akin to a cornered beast relaxing after it confirms its transgressors mean no harm.

Fossilized Wilderness is beautiful in the way that a lot of incidental things are, creeping into evocative moments between slow, difficult periods of fumbling, like brittle fall leaves spiraled into brief tornados by the wind. The rewards for your patience may vary depending on your connection to the pieces’ inspiration. Upon being transported back to those hot car rides, I was consumed by a dense cacophony of emotions: nostalgia, discomfort, optimism—I thought about the person I am now compared to the child I was then. I spread out inside those fractions of memories, pressing up against their soft boundaries, straining my neck to catch a glimpse of my sisters and my parents as they used to be. The mundanity and annoyance of those days transformed into lovely brightness under that craning eye of hindsight; so, too, for Fossilized Wilderness, which is true to itself to a fault, which makes magic out of small pieces, a mosaic of stuttering wonder.

Average: [5.86]

Various Artists - PRSNT (Modern Obscure Music, 2021)

Press Release info: Each musician was given a fascinating challenge to create engaging compositions with real artistic merit, inside the confines of this shortened span. Akin to Brian Eno’s famous Windows 95 start-up music, the time constraints are crucial, and the compositions are deceptively complex and more substantial than expectations of their nano nature would suggest.

‘PRSNT’ acts as a critique of flighty feed culture, but is simultaneously constructive, providing something which is either proposed solution or “if you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em” resignation. Every artist has interpreted the brief differently, resulting in an intriguing blueprint for the potential future of digital music. Could abbreviated micro compositions satisfy, inspire and nourish like their longer counterparts? They certainly take up much less of listeners’ busy lives, which are often spent tackling ever-increasing workloads.

Purchase PRSNT at Bandcamp.

Sunik Kim: PRSNT is entirely unconvincing as a “critique of flighty feed culture”—what we have here is a gimmick. While the internet has undeniably warped our attention spans, I skip tracks within 30 seconds because... that’s how long it takes to know something is not for me. These snippets—varied in approach but generally rooted in fluid sequences of buzzing, blocky synth tones and chimes—are not given the time to reveal their flaws, become irritating or repetitive. Instead, each song is arrested at the height of its possibility, like an early morning optimism, leaving little room for negative reactions—but also none for positive. Nothing is risked, committed to. I have admittedly skipped past many tracks that I eventually return to days, months, even years later; perhaps this is my short attention span at work, but I’ve found that a haughty skip makes the bashful return and rediscovery that much more thrilling. Skipping is a kind of intuition, one that can be honed; I want to spend as much time as possible with the music that moves and excites me the most. PRSNT has not changed my mind on this. Skip away, but when you find the thing that speaks to you, spend your whole life with it.

Nick Zanca: Amid other compositional criteria, the teacher of my high school’s music technology class tried to instill the idea in her students that listeners are somehow able to decide how they feel about a piece of music in less than thirty seconds, citing the length of iTunes store previews—this was a year before Apple extended it to a generous ninety. Radigue or Feldman would have probably liked a word with her, but anthropocenic attention spans apart, the notion of durational constraint certainly calls into question just how much music can contain in such a short span of time. Though this compilation’s veteran contributors have played plenty with similar creative restrictions before, we are left with nothing more but dead-end sketches once one strips away its semblance to startup sounds. If the music fails, it is entirely because of the gimmick of reduction, a performance on the press copy’s behalf that pulls more weight than the sounds remotely have the chance to. In the act of evolving, the tracks ultimately feel more cut off than constricted (see Chassol and Lyra Pamruk’s contributions), and at that point, a commissioned composer should have taken Sakamoto’s Cagean cue here and simply stayed silent.

Mark Cutler: Not gonna lie, a lot of these sound like they were full songs that got arbitrarily lopped off at the thirty-second mark. I’m actually something of a sucker for albums that feel more like bricolages of short fragments and sketches—something one finds no shortage of in the history of experimental music (and perhaps why, to my ear, Laurie Spiegel and Pascal Comelade have two of the more successfully self-contained tracks). And the multi-artist, time-constrained album concept is one I’m familiar with, having contributed to one in 2014. That said, I don’t think this is an especially effective instance of one. The contributors, while all very pedigreed, share very little beyond that. As I said, it’s hard to repress the suspicion that many of these are just scraps, rather than compositions made with the constraints in mind—and I shudder to think how much they must have paid Ryuichi Sakamoto for 32 seconds of silence. If anything, this may act as a sampler to win some new fans for these artists—most of whom I genuinely love—but it’s hard to imagine anyone getting much more out of it than that.

Vincent Jenewein: According to the press text, this compilation is attempting to explore the consequences of today’s shortened musical attention spans through its uniform thirty-second track lengths (possibly inspired by Francois J. Bonnet’s latest book After Death?). But is hyperactive skipping even still a pressing concern in the era of curated ‘mood’ playlists made for passive background listening? Within a playlist, individual tracks are absorbed into one long, continuous durée, making the length of individual tracks somewhat irrelevant. Tracks on a ‘relax/study to’ playlist might be thirty seconds, three minutes or ten minutes long—many listeners might not even notice any difference, just as long as similar-sounding ‘moods’ keep flowing. Thus, I think in the current context it might’ve been more interesting to release a compilation like this as an hours-long Spotify playlist, for example. As it stands, the critique feels somewhat external to the problem at hand.

Still, arbitrary track length limitations can be an inspiring compositional tool. The press text even mentions Eno's infamous Windows 95 micro-composition. But while a sub three-second framework requires a total rethinking of compositional time, thirty seconds end up feeling neither here nor there. Many of the tracks sound like the artist wrote a full-length track and then rendered out a random thirty second section—although perhaps that is the point? Take Laurie Spiegel’s wonderfully crystalline and utopian space opera “Fly By,” which ends in an abrupt and unsatisfying manner. Just as it has settled itself in, it already fades out, creating a feeling of being cut short—a rare experience in a world of 23-track streaming albums where you often want less of whatever you are listening to. However, I think this experience of being cut short might be contingent on the kind of critical, active listening that one tends to employ when a Bandcamp release is marketed as ‘experimental’ and ‘critical’. Would the same effect still happen if the track were slotted in a standard ambient playlist?

Gil Sansón: The individual track lengths here don’t benefit all these artists; one wishes some tracks were longer in order to grasp the character of a piece beyond their anecdotic presentation, but with others, one simply wishes they were longer in order to extend the pleasure they yield. For me, PRSNT only becomes engaging after its first five “songs”: Pascal Comelade’s “Segons com” proves a charming vignette featuring his requisite toy piano, and Visible Cloaks’s offering is the sole contribution that feels like a true entity, meriting the short length as a raison d'etre. The following two tracks from Raul Refree and Lucrecia Dalt barely register but at least they flow nicely in sequence, and Kelman Duran gets it right by assuming that all you can do in this short timeframe is provide a punchline. Ryuichi Sakamoto’s closer is a bit of a head-scratcher: is 30 seconds of silence by the most high profile artist here an elegant gesture or a cop-out? Very short albums are an interesting proposition (a couple favorites are the two albums by grindcore band Anal Trump), and giving this whole thing another spin seems logical—even desirable—but one still ends up thinking, “Why not ten minutes instead of five?”

Samuel McLemore: Although it has a concept of social critique that’s so dull and played out it’s more or less indistinguishable from a six-year-old Daily Mail article, the idea of commissioning compositions with a significant time constraint has a lot of interest to it. One could point to the history of musicians who have done the same to note just how much creativity can be wrung out of such a conceit. Almost none of that is explored by the artists in this compilation, big names all, most of whom might as well have thrown out a random clip from their archives for what the result wound up being. Chassol’s “ya!” emerges as a clear standout for managing to sound like a complete production in and of itself and not just an intro divorced from its main theme. Perhaps the most reasonable takeaway from this compilation is that it’s a lot harder than it seems to compose 30 seconds of interesting music.

Marshall Gu: One of my favourite songs by Wire is “Field Day for the Sundays,” which functions as proof that you don’t need more than 30 seconds (28 seconds, actually) to make an incredible song. And so I was fascinated by the concept of PRSNT, a collection of 12 songs from a diverse set of artists, each song running 30-some seconds that reflects how many people engage with music in today’s Internet era: they skip ahead if the first 30 seconds of a song don’t capture their attention. However, unlike that Wire song, the songs on PRSNT are not fully-formed compositions: they’re more like snippets, with many fading out early and the compilation playing like a sequence of intros and interludes. With my own dwindling attention span, it’s true that if I don’t like a song sometimes, I’ll skip it, but like everyone else, if the sonics have grabbed me, then I’m there for the full ride. That option isn’t there on PRSNT, and so it does not matter that I want to know what Chassol does with those video game synths and bad-ass bassline, because we are already onto the next completely unrelated track.

At best, one might be able to take this compilation as a sampler—“if you like this sound, check out more from the artist!”—but it’s hard to imagine people are going to find their way to Air based on a bubbling interlude between Nicholas Godin and Pierre Rousseau, or that anyone not already familiar with Ryuichi Sakamoto is going to be enticed by 30 seconds of silence. Thus, it’s a double-edged sword: if the purpose of this album was to prove that you cannot glean the quality of a song from a 30-second snippet alone, then it has succeeded, but at the same time, the format does not allow us to keep listening either.

Maxie Younger: PRSNT smacks of smugness and conceptual hot air. Many of the 12 half-minute tracks don’t make much effort to fit a satisfying, resolved composition within that time frame, instead choosing to end unceremoniously like a snippet or demo of a longer (and, undoubtedly, much better) song. Lafawndah’s “THE SUPER LADY FROM NAMELESS-TOWN” is the worst offender of this, a pounding club cut that abruptly transitions to a wobbly hip-hop beat before fizzling out just as quickly. The tracks that work better are the ones that aren’t trying to force conventional song structures into the restrictions, leaning more toward the idea of Brian Eno’s Windows 95 startup sound mentioned as one of the compilation’s inspirations. Laurie Spiegel and Lucrecia Dalt’s contributions, two quick, punchy soundscapes that lap at the ears like ocean waves at the shore, both fall within this category. Only one piece here, Lyra Pramuk’s gorgeous “Cage,” feels like the kind of revelation this prompt was designed to coax out: its divine, vocal-driven ambience is the sole moment of the collection that sticks in my mind.

Ryuichi Sakamoto receives top billing on the press release despite having chosen to not actually contribute a composition; his 30 seconds are of pure silence. I get it: faced with the problem of shortening attention spans, he retreats, refusing to make the effort to engage the assumed-sophomoric, skip-hungry consumer who would never give his full works the time of day anyway. It’s a sharp statement, one that got me thinking about the complications and little absurdities of such a challenge in the first place; but, the way that PRSNT is packaged ultimately leaves me feeling quite cynical about that choice. Bear with me as I go over some numbers. Buying PRSNT on twelve-inch white vinyl on the Modern Obscure Bandcamp page will set you back €49 for six minutes of music, thirty seconds of which are silence; a PRSNT-branded t-shirt is €34. Far be it from me to complain about someone selling something that I don’t personally have any interest in buying, but there seems to be something awfully dissonant (or perhaps right on the nose) about a work designed to interface with how we consume music today wrapping itself up in absurdly inaccessible novelty bundles. PRSNT asks a great question, one that certainly deserves further follow-up: where it falters is in the execution.

Joshua Minsoo Kim: PRSNT is dead on arrival: as an album, it doesn’t cohere; as an exercise in creating short-form musical pieces, every artist here could’ve taken these songs and fleshed them out into something better; and as statement about current-day listening habits, it’s an inaccurate representation of what that’s actually like. Really, the fact this is an album and being presented as such automatically makes this different from the seconds-long sampling one may do to determine if something is worth checking out. There’s no consideration for the intent of a listener here; having an album with relatively famous artists—with tracks mastered by Rashad Becker!—completely goes against the sampling idea (i.e. most people are checking this out because of the artists they recognize).

The comparison to Eno’s Windows 95 composition makes no sense either, as that sound is tied to a specific image and action, and that innate association—of dreamy ambience appearing alongside a flag-like logo atop a cloudy blue sky (and after a black boot-up screen with uninteresting info, no less!)—is nothing like an audio-only experience where we hear one track after another without pause. I was fascinated with TikTok last year for how songs could be addictive in these bite-size formats, but part of that was due to the accompanying dances and the fact these excerpts would automatically loop. You could dig into a piece and feel the weight of every note and lyric. Here, tracks have no room to breathe. Consider, for example, the silence after the Windows 95 sound and how important that is to the experience of the piece as a computer finishes booting up.

If this were an installation (either in person or online) it would be considerably more interesting, as one could engage with the project at their own pace. As it currently exists on Bandcamp—without any way to read the text without purchasing the limited-edition LP (the promo didn’t come with it either, just a SoundCloud stream)—it feels like I’m asked to be content with the mere existence of this shallow conceptual gambit. Admittedly, while the music here is largely unremarkable, I do enjoy thinking about how PRSNT fails. I guess that’s something.

Matthew LaBarbera: Twice-bitten and no longer shy, I decided that it was time to take up again my mantle as reviewer for the premiere culinary criticism newsletter, Tongue Gloam. Perfect timing, too. A ritzy joint just opened up nearby, and I could imagine no better place to celebrate and inaugurate my return to the field. I fired off a quick email to my editor and called in a reservation, pseudonymously—I am a professional.

Three days later, in my finest frippery, outside a warehouse-cum-gallery-cum-restaurant, I finally got a good look at the name of the place. It was a bristling panoply of cedillas and circumflexes, accents graves and aigus, the odd umlaut, and a truly confounding tilde floating above a ‘U.’ Something quite blandly and indistinctly European to it, something unhazardously haute for my arid environs. Always on the qui vive for the trappings of trendiness, my sensors were reporting.

Stepping inside, a queasy minimalism announces itself: smooth, featureless concrete spread like tablecloth, a gleaming bar of whorled marble, sanatorium white walls and heavy black curtains. All of which attended to by servers whose carefully trained industrious observance rendered their motions and, most unsettlingly, faces a blur. The maître d' welcomes me to the present.

After finding my seat, a waiter tells me that tonight there is a set meal and proceeds to rattle off inventories of ingredients, offering few hints as to how these parts might be arranged. Each dish composed by a different chef and presented in chromatic harmony. He waxes on: historical moments, technological ruptures, problematics. I nod along, providing whatever necessary phrase and gesture to communicate that I get the concept. Satisfied with the shibboleths, the waiter withdraws and I wait.

What comes next might best be called a caravan of amuse-bouche. Twelve plates—not dishes, mind—arrive in quick succession. First, a foam, bracing in its saltiness, that promises a dynamic swoop across the palate before literally fizzling out. Next, a fine sheaf of finer jamón wrapped around a mousse of acorn, sorrel, and pepper, folded over into a little Phrygian cap. A nickel-sized dollop of ricci di mare roesat atop a plush mat of perilla. Already, it is a bit tedious. The vanishing savor of each dish becomes a quick frustration. Dégustation is my job, but even I struggle to find either structure or detail in any of these foods. It’s as if upon entering Mauritshuis you are informed that you have 15 seconds to view The Goldfinch before it is set ablaze.

A beef jelly martini heaving wet, hematic breaths and a comically diminutive vol-au-vent housing a thimbleful of wild mushroom pâté, the fusillade of fussy food continues unabated. I try to draw a line through all of these dishes, find some correlate that might allow me to wrap my head around all this. There are similarities, loose and perhaps unintentional themes, between some, but it’s just as likely an accidental product of the types of food that eddy around in the Michelin imagination. 

I am left, by dint of décor and cuisson, or the detached aesthetic and ambience they produce, with a feeling of brackishness. An ambivalence that does not generate any tension but instead a lack of clarity. While I’m sure that on the molecular level, from heightened perspectives, these are brilliant architectures of flavor and feel, I do not exist in such infinitesimal scales and such brisk intervals.  

Speaking of, as the twelfth and final plate arrives, I realize that just fewer than six minutes have passed since the waiter first scuttled off. The waiter looks down at me with blurred anticipation as I take in the small object he placed before me. A pink, pearlescent satin ribbon perched upon a faintly peppermint pinstriped box. Een cadeautje. With a deft and dramatic flourish, the ribbon undoes itself and snaps into the waiter’s hand as the top of the box splits into four triangular sections and falls away. From the center, a single finger of pale smoke rises, curling into a question mark, a fiddlehead, and then a fist. And then the smoke rose again as a single column from this floating core. This, the waiter avers, is a white miso ice cream.

Fifteen minutes later and just a few doors down: I am feasting on fried zucchini flowers and grilled octopus. How else is one to recover from the Quibi of meals? Despite the uncoordinated total, each dish considered on its own was somewhere between uninspired and intriguing. There, of course, is the problem. The highest quality of the entire meal is a mere suggestion that some part of it might have been decent. In light of some actual food, I was being too generous, extending too much credit. Insipid, through and through. 

What I actually abhor is the philosophy behind this. It seems craven to make cuisine kowtow to the caprices of capital. There is a special pleasure in dining at a restaurant. The Meal defines its own time and proceeds by its own rhythms. A well-paced, well-composed dining experience dissolves exigency. Why would anyone want to defile one of the few remaining oases amid the striated waste of a totally commercialized clock-time? Instead of resistance, a conviction against the morselizing doctrine of market, the ever-accelerating, ever-expanding regime of algorithmic attention-seeking is coming to a restaurant near you. All to leave you with the impression of an experience in exchange for a handsome bill—handsomer if you get the wine pairing. On repeat all night: a 7” edit of For Philip Guston

I have been back to wade in those estuarial waters many times. At the very least, I find myself committed to inventing a person who could enjoy this experience, who could walk into that ludicrous space and six minutes later come out ringing like a bell. Each run feels as much a weightless barrage as the first. Each time, the flavor becomes more insubstantial, the presentation looking less like craft than chance. And, of course, that taunting coda. This is fashion without vision, and consequently it cannot advance this art, only attempt to cannibalize it. Any future realized by this present is sure to be a hell. It is best, I think, for all involved, and perhaps for the entire culture, that this restaurant and the philosophy it embodies pass into oblivion as inconsequentially as the puff of smoke that closes each meal.

Average: [3.30]

Thank you for reading the sixty-second issue of Tone Glow. We hope you keep finding things.

If you appreciate what we do, please consider donating via Ko-fi or becoming a Patreon patron. Tone Glow is dedicated to forever providing its content for free, but please know that all our writers are paid for the work they do. All donations will be used for paying writers, and if we get enough money, Tone Glow will be able to publish issues more frequently.

Donate to Tone Glow

Become a Tone Glow Patron