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Tone Glow 063: Yvette Janine Jackson
An interview with Yvette Janine Jackson + our writers panel on Anaïs Tuerlinckx's Dissection lente d'un piano rouillé, Matthew Revert's Hail Obliteration & Thomas Ankersmit's Perceptual Geography
Yvette Janine Jackson
Yvette Janine Jackson is a composer of electroacoustic, chamber, and orchestral musics for concert, theatre, and installation. Building on her experience as a theatrical sound designer, she blends various forms into her own aesthetic of narrative soundscape composition, radio opera, and improvisation. Her works often draw from history to examine relevant social issues. Her latest album, Freedom, features two radio operas: “Destination Freedom” and “Invisible People.” The former portrays the horrors of the Middle Passage while the latter brings together various sound bytes of people from Black communities negatively responding to marriage equality.
Jackson is currently an assistant professor in Harvard’s music department, and worked with her colleague Dr. Naomi Oreskes for “Doubt,” a piece commissioned for the Artivism for Earth program at the University of Utah. She also has a new piece titled The Coding that is part of the Fromm Players concert series. Joshua Minsoo Kim talked with Jackson on April 23rd, 2021 to discuss her latest projects, her “Soundscape Compositions and Social Justice” class, and more.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: Hello!
Yvette Janine Jackson: Hello! Nice to meet you.
Nice to meet you! How’s your day been?
Long but good. I just got this new synth (turns camera to show semi-modular synth). I’m excited to dig into it this weekend.
Where’d you get it from?
I ordered it in December but production was delayed, probably because of the pandemic. I got it from a place in New York. Anyway, I’m excited about that.
I know that you’ve been in a lot of places, but where were you born, and do you have a deep connection with your hometown?
I don’t think I have a deep connection to any geographic place, but I was born and raised in Los Angeles. I’ve lived in LA, New York, San Francisco, four years in the alpine desert in Colorado, I did grad school in San Diego, and have been in Massachusetts since 2018. If I have to connect myself to a location I do say I’m a loyal Californian.
Do you feel like a Californian though?
I think I’m a Californian because of my sense of humor and I love the Pacific Ocean and I appreciate certain types of weather (laughter). I also think there’s a certain sense of humor that people who grew up in LA have.
I have family in California and I go there every so often. It’s definitely a different vibe than in Chicago.
I’ve only been to Chicago once and that was like two years ago. 2018 was the first occasion outside of layovers at O’Hare, and I loved it. Of course it was at the time of year when it wasn’t freezing or humid, so I’m sure if I went during a different time of year I would’ve had a different reaction. I was on a Zoom call this morning for the Fromm Players Concert and Roscoe Mitchell said when he was growing up in Chicago, they would put buckets out to collect snow and make ice cream. The snow was so clean. He talked about going to the beach and how the water used to be so clean.
I wanted to start off by asking about the first musical memory that you have.
That’s interesting because it’s not the first musical experience. The first musical memory that comes to mind right now is probably being in the car with my mother listening to music. By the time I was six, she stopped listening to music and started listening to talk radio.
Do you remember what music she listened to?
All kinds of things. On the radio it was whatever came on, and this might be a false memory but I remember being in the car listening to Prince’s Controversy. Is that a real memory? Who knows (laughter). In the house, she had records from Phoebe Snow. She started me in music lessons when I was five so there was a lot of classical music. And she knew I was interested in soundtracks by the time I was in junior high—at the time I played trumpet—so I had a lot of John Williams and Canadian Brass.
Did your mom play music herself?
She played piano just for fun. She was a public school French teacher and then administrator. Music was important and education was important—there are four generations [of educators] in my family. I have my great-grandmother’s teaching certificate from Arkansas. My grandmother taught math and was an administrator. I taught K-12 public school.
Can you talk to me about your grandmother? What sort of things come to mind when you think about her?
She and her sister grew up in Arkansas and they both learned to play the piano. My grandmother played jazz and her sister played classical, and they came out to California during World War II with their parents up to Richmond, California and worked on the shipyards there. When my great-grandparents went back to Arkansas, my grandmother and her sister went down to LA.
I got exposed to the trumpet and my mother quickly persuaded me to play other instruments. I remember this horrible experience of a year of clarinet—I had a cousin’s old clarinet that had loose, sticky pads. It was just an unpleasant experience. And then I played violin for a bit. My grandmother would say I tricked her into getting the trumpet for me. She was always supportive of my music. And something that rubbed off on me from both my mother and grandmother is that I’m always ready to learn something new.
Were the piano and trumpet your first two instruments then?
Yes. Well, I guess there was the recorder (laughter).
Oh, yeah. Well, we’ll ignore that for now (laughter). Would you say the piano and the trumpet are the instruments you feel the closest bonds with today? And if not, what are the instruments you feel closest with today?
During the pandemic, I’ve had this renewed bond with the piano. I grew up with a piano in the house but it was sold to help with college tuition. I’ve had a keyboard but there’s something about hearing the instrument in actual physical space—its strings… The semester’s wrapping up now but I’m looking forward to summer so I can have more time to play piano. And my synth too (chuckles). The past few months I’ve been very curious about a lot of instruments. I’ve been playing them for fun, learning them slowly, and incorporating them into my projects since a lot of the music I do is computer-based.
I love hearing this because you said earlier that just like your mother and grandmother, you always liked learning new stuff, and here you are still doing the same thing with these instruments. With the piano, how would you say your relationship with the instrument is different than other instruments?
I had formal lessons but I feel like the past few years, I’ve been unlearning what I’ve been taught and developing what I describe as a kinesthetic approach to learning the piano. I guess I’ve been concentrating on how it feels and how I move when playing. It’s a lot different than trumpet, which requires a different type of focus on breath and listening. You really have to hear the intervals in your head before playing them, as things are not mapped out visually.
In recent months, I started playing guitar for pleasure. I finally decided to go beyond the basic open chords. When I was teaching public school, especially when teaching little kids—it was a K-12 school—it was easier to play the guitar because you can keep an eye on everyone. When I was playing the piano in that classroom, I had my back to everyone. I’ve used guitar for practical purposes, but recently I’ve been using it for other reasons. It’s opened up the way I listen. My understanding of the instrument has changed.
You mentioned how you were unlearning things about the piano and aiming for this kinesthetic approach. Are you able to identify specific things you had to unlearn?
I’ll frame it more positively: I’ve been learning how to play with my full body and breath and not just have it be a cerebral activity. Many of the pianists I’m drawn to are self-taught and have developed their own style as a result… this has been a long process of the Yvette Jackson method of learning the piano. I don’t know when to say I started doing this. You could say 15 years ago, 10 years ago, or the start of the pandemic. What I’ve been trying to get out of this approach is communicating my own style.
I know you went to Columbia University and were in the Electronic Music Center [now called the Computer Music Center]. What was your time like there?
It’s probably been the most impactful period on my current practice. The week before last they had the Unsung Stories symposium and it was nice to hear stories of people from decades before and after my time there. I started composing there during my last two years there, so between ’94 and ’96.
While I was there I was part of a class taught by Arthur Kreiger, which was the last class focused on composition with reel-to-reel magnetic tape. We would have these exercises where he would want, like, a metallic sound that morphs into a water-y sound and had to be this certain rhythm, and we’d have a week to work with oscillators and mark tape with grease pencils and slice things around. That experience alone was perhaps the most significant thing that influenced my current practice because it gave me this tactile relationship to sound. You could pick it up, move it, tape it, reverse it, flip it upside down. And I had that experience before working with digital audio workstations, or programming music.
I like this idea of being able to think of sound as this physical material that you can shape and sketch, but also thinking about sound as something that can be programmed, whether I’m composing by hand or using a DAW. This piece that I’m composing now, I made myself write this all in prose first. I’m composing for tap dancer, bassoon, and electronics.
Have you had interest in tap dancing prior to this?
When I was a kid I took tap and ballet. I enjoyed tap more, probably because of the sounds.
Does that mean you actively disliked ballet?
I don’t think so. I just know I enjoyed the sounds of the taps hitting the surface. I also think at the time, my godmother’s kids—who I guess are my godsiblings then (laughs)—they were brother and sister and I remember when I’d go over there, they’d be in their tap attire and I thought it was cool.
When I listen to Freedom, and you call these pieces radio operas, there’s a sense of movement there in the narrative and also the sounds themselves.
I first started calling my works radio operas, not because they were mediated through the radio. They were designed as concert pieces to be experienced as group listening in a hall or theatre space. “Radio” signals to the Golden Age of radio drama where music, dialogue, and sound effects were combined to produce images in the minds of the listeners.
Both pieces on Freedom were designed to be multi-channel so the audience would be surrounded by speakers so there would be movement created for them that translates differently in this stereo version, which is fine. But when I think of movement, I don’t necessarily think of this bodily movement of everyone tapping their feet, but moving the audience through an experience, sort of like a ride at an amusement park where there’s highs and lows and you go in different directions.
I like the analogy because it’s very much a guided journey as well. The thing I appreciate about the radio opera format is that it feels like a pedagogical tool, where you’re guiding people and allowing them to think about things as pieces progress, as connections are made. It’s not just this nebulous atmosphere. There’s the gospel music on “Invisible People” and you mentioned Communion earlier. Did you grow up in the church?
I grew up Catholic, but people practiced different faiths is my family—A.M.E, Buddhism, Islam. When I lived in San Francisco, I was the webcast and production director at Grace Cathedral so I was mixing and recording and webcasting all the services. [At Grace Cathedral] there was this choir of men and boys, and the organ. I loved being at the booth or below the recording studio, just feeling the vibration from the organ. I remember my first year of recording, there was this boy whose voice was so beautiful—he’d have all the solos. There was a bit of sorrow because I was like, is he gonna be really depressed when his voice changes? (laughter). I’m interested in ritual as structure.
I’ve attended churches of different denominations and I’ve felt that idea of ritual and structure, and how different the experiences can be. And sometimes when I watch pastors have such a command over the congregation, I’m like, “Oh, I gotta use some of these tactics in my classes” now that I’m a teacher.
(laughs). I’ve thought that too. Like, how can I be an evangelist of sound? How can I captivate students and motivate and inspire them to music?
Right, like how do you get people to be uninhibited? To express.
I don’t like to dance but there’s some music that just makes me dance. I don’t even have to try, the music just makes me dance. I’m interested in how this music can have this type of feeling in the body. The first time I heard the composer Éliane Radigue, it was a recording of Biogenesis (1973), and I was listening to it while laying down in my apartment. A few minutes in, I could tell my heartbeat and my breathing was changing. It gave me a physical reaction and I’m really interested in that.
I know that one of your goals has been to initiate intergenerational action. There aren’t a lot of intergenerational spaces in current-day America, I feel. The church is one of the few places where I feel like you’ll have this intergenerational component, though you won’t really see much—if any—productive action done by attendees outside their own little bubble. Do you mind sharing any experiences you’ve had of intergenerational communities you’ve been part of that have stuck with you? And this could be about music or anything else.
I started thinking about this at the beginning of the pandemic and the most recent waves of racial violence. I noticed that the generation people identified with played a role in their responses to this series of traumas.
One of my collaborators on my project called The Coding is a flute player named Taiga Ultan. We’ve been meeting periodically on Zoom and she’s really been advocating for these intergenerational conversations. I just finished teaching a course called “Soundscape Compositions and Social Justice” and I created the class so my students, my guests, and I could explore the question together.
One of the things that’s interesting to me is that one of my students had a soundscape project and put it on CD rather than online. They did that so their grandparents’ generation—and those who don’t have access to computers—could hear it. And they put it on CD as this physical thing that can be carried from home to home. There have been a few projects that I think really get to how we might approach intergenerational communication.
Can you talk a bit about being a professor and teaching? What do you want your students to gain from your class?
Some of my objectives are the same as when I was teaching K-12 or the same as when I am talking with friends or people who are curious about music in general. I want people, including myself, to rethink what they know about music, to examine their assumptions and expand the way that they listen. I may start off a semester with an exercise reflecting on our earliest memories of sound, so similar to what you asked me. I want them to really think about it. Did your family listen to music together? Was it in the car? Who got to choose what would be listened to? Did kids choose or parents choose? Were there any restrictions on the types of music that could be consumed? What about at school or in community activities? And this series of inquiry leads to recognizing one’s own musical biases before launching into class.
Sometimes I ask students to keep a sound journal—a listening journal—and after documenting for a few days, I ask them to look for patterns or identify what rituals they use to accompany specific tasks. Another listening exercise, another kind of sound journal, is a sound meditation: they choose a location that’s meaningful to them and they start listening internally and go out as far as they can hear. They would notate and create graphic scores for that. Sometimes I get students who say they can’t hear any sounds but soon they are telling me how their listening has changed and suddenly they notice birds or their own breath. There’s something magical when people start to realize, like, “Oh there’s this high pitch coming from the TV” or “my refrigerator’s rattling” or “there’s a generator outside for three days.” Which, there has been a generator outside my apartment for three days, which has been annoying (laughter). There’s also a bird that’s been waking me up. It does two glissandi up and then four low sounds.
I strive to get people to recognize how their experiences influence how they value sound, and to expand listening to incorporate sounds they may have not considered musical previously, and to also develop their own personal style. You can learn technique and craft from mimicking others, but I’m invested in developing exercises to help people bring out their own voices.
What ways do you feel like your own experiences have biased your approach to sound?
I think that has to do with my mission to unlearn the way I was taught to play the piano. My musical training is extremely Western European-biased. In junior high, at one point I had two trumpet teachers. I had one, Bob Karon, who was my “legit” classical teacher—my original teacher—and then I started studying with a jazz teacher, Clay Jenkins. Even in my own household I grew up with music presented in binaries. My mother encouraged me to listen to a lot of classical and my stepfather was like, “If you can’t tap your foot to it, it’s not music!” I’ve always grown up with this dichotomy between classical and jazz, electronic and acoustic, improvised and composed, and all of those are things I work out in my music. They’ve been presented to me as binaries, so my music is all these things—it’s electronic and acoustic, it’s improvised and composed, it’s transidiomatic.
Yvette Janine Jackson (composer) & Dr. Naomi Oreskes’s “Doubt” appears at 41:42. This composition is inspired by Dr. Naomi Oreskes’ work which examines the history of scientific doubters in relation to increasing climate change.
I wanted to talk about your new works. You have the piece “Doubt” for quartet and electronics. Do you mind talking about it?
It premiered last night! I was commissioned by the University of Utah as part of their “Artivism for Earth” Earth Day programming. Each composer was asked to find a collaborator and I reached out to Naomi Oreskes, who is a historian of science and a lot of her work has been focused on climate denial and how the impact of a few lobbyists can perpetuate this culture.
“Doubt” is in relation to this idea of climate denial. The piece was composed for quartet, which was for flute, bass clarinet, cello, and double bass. To me, that’s an amalgamation of sounds that I’ve heard and listened to—Eric Dolphy and Ron Carter. And then there are electronics. It was fun to work on, and I think it’ll lead to another collaboration between Dr. Oreskes and me.
One thing that was exciting for me about this is that when I’m working on something, I usually create my own libretto and do research on the topic and grab ideas and lines from different things. With my current piece, The Coding, there’s a part where there’s a counterpoint between the texts. Working with Dr. Oreskes, it inspired me—it inspired both of us, actually. She has this science fiction journal and when I heard that I was like, (gasps) “That would be great to use as a source for a future radio opera!” Recently during the pandemic I did work with a librettist, Jarita Davis. The main thing with text that I work on is that I’m really invested in working with events that have actually happened, with text that has actually existed and has been said, including from internet trolls. Sometimes I may recontextualize something: in The Coding, there is a section where I reduced Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points down to nine, but I also synthesize them with the Canadian Gradual Civilization Act from 1857 and articles and websites about space exploration.
Is your decision to work with things that exist because you’re less interested in hypotheticals?
When I was working on my second piece that was themed around the Middle Passage—it was a composed piece for improvising ensemble—I was describing the conditions of how Africans were crammed into the bottom, into the hull of these ships. Someone started laughing at me because they thought I was being silly and making things up. The fact someone didn’t think this event in history was real was troubling and that was definitely a motivator for what I’m currently doing. Though, the works [that influence my work] tend to be labeled speculative fiction or Afrofuturistic and can stray from the past like Saidiya Hartman and her idea of “critical fabulation.” I found a piece I did in Columbia in the mid-90s and it has these news excerpts and tells a story in ways similar to my current radio operas. My pieces aren’t documentaries in any way, though, but with the things I compose, I imagine the conversations they’ll produce.
Are there any conversations that you’ve had with someone about your works that have stuck with you?
I think the most unique one was after I played “Swan,” which is like a predecessor to “Destination Freedom.” A woman came to me afterwards and said that the sounds she heard while listening to “Swan” were the same sounds she heard while in labor (laughter). That was the most surprising one. Responses have varied.
The other thing I expect when I compose these pieces is that people will have different experiences based on their lived experiences or their knowledge or their identity. It can speak to people on different levels, and I’m not trying to tell people to have certain reactions, and I don’t explain things. After Freedom came out, someone wrote to the label and asked if I would identify all the different voice clips at the beginning, and my immediate answer was no. That’s part of the experience: If you don’t know who this is, then the piece will mean something different than if you do. For the piece I’m finishing for [April] 30th [The Coding], I’m including visuals for it and I’ve never done that to this extent. I’ve been thinking about images as a musical language and how they can be a counterpoint.
I’m sort of seeing this relationship between a lot of these things we’ve talked about. When you were talking about being an evangelist of sound, I’m thinking about what the hope for a lot of these things are. Like for the church, you would think that these gatherings would be a place where people can have conversations, be invigorated and rejuvenated, and then go out into the world and do good things.
And it’s maybe the same idea with political music or music that’s hoping to bring about change, where it can provide for space, for creating conversations—as with your music—where there’s an opportunity to be with like-minded people and from there disperse and do things in our respective communities.
You mention “like-minded people” but I’m also interested in reaching those who aren’t like-minded. One of my mentors, Anthony Davis, is able to connect with a certain audience through opera. My radio operas, they may be done in a theater or in a concert hall—to a theatre audience, I feel like I am preaching to a choir. So the question is, how do you get to that audience who really needs to think, because they’ve never thought about how a person feels when they’re walking down the street.
This past year, it’s just been really condensed, mass trauma for everyone. I’ve been thinking about how to create works that address issues without exacerbating trauma. My colleague Esperanza [Spalding] has really returned my thinking of music back to it as a healing space. I can still raise issues, but I don’t need to add onto anyone’s depression or anything.
Right, that makes a lot of sense. Is there anything that you wanted to mention that we didn’t talk about?
I am excited about developing my new ensemble Radio Opera Workshop. In my earlier radio operas I worked with a studio ensemble which I sometimes refer to as the Invisible People ensemble or Invisible People players. I would use the results of these sessions for my fixed media compositions. I sample my own music. But in 2020 I planned to introduce a new ensemble that would be a part of live performances of my radio operas. That idea is on hold, but The Coding is the first project in which I debut the ensemble. The idea of the Radio Opera Workshop is that the ensemble can shift, telescoping out from solo performer to large ensemble.
Its inaugural performance features Tia Fuller on alto saxophone, Judith Hamann—who can be heard on all of my radio operas—on cello, Davindar Singh on bass clarinet, Esperanza Spalding on double bass, Rajna Swaminathan on mrudangam, and Taiga Ultan on flute and voice. The ensemble also includes actors. I have used sampled soundbites like in Invisible People (A Radio Opera) but I prefer to work with actors. The Coding features Shayla James, Malesha Jessie Taylor (a soprano with whom I enjoy working) and her family, and Karen Werner. I’ve also included Zac Jaffe and Barclay DeVeau in related projects.
The April 30 Fromm Players concert premiere is only the first iteration of the project. I received a grant from Live Arts Boston and the Boston foundation to develop this project and I already have the next stages mapped out. I like to develop my projects in a serial fashion—living compositions.
I have one last question, which I always ask everyone. Do you mind sharing something you love about yourself?
(pauses). Let me think about it.
No problem, you’re all good.
That’s the other thing, like would it be weird if I had an immediate answer (laughter). (thinks). I like that I create and figure out my own path. And it may take steps that aren’t linear, or may be different from what society expects, like II said with this Yvette Jackson method of kinesthetic piano learning—or unlearning—or working with students to help them bring out their voice. It’s not something I’ve accomplished; it’s something that’s in progress. More and more each day, I want to express myself and be me.
Yvette Janine Jackson’s Freedom can be purchased at Bandcamp. Her piece The Coding premieres this Friday as part of the Fromm Players concert series.
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.
Anaïs Tuerlinckx - Dissection lente d'un piano rouillé (Vlek, 2021)
Press Release info: Explorations from within the frame of a broken piano. Rubbing and tickling strings - with drone-based undercurrents in leviathanic apparitions; squeals of insects,- molluscs and intriguing shells; underwater singing and moaning - the work of Belgian musician and performer Anaïs Tuerlinckx entangles us into a captivating constellation of sound, full of roaring tensions, squeaky flashes and the occasional deep, resounding backwash wave. Four pieces recorded in one afternoon at the Delta in Namur.
Steel breaker waves collapse into a seemingly endless rebounding fall, straight into the bowels of the earth or hell. It is a totally absorbing acoustic approach supported on certain tracks by a bass amp and a monotron synthesizer and a bewildering and fantastically anguishing dynamic richness.
Ending the record with the "false" lull of "Exploration finale d’un corps abîmé" resonating like the last trace of the fall, a sort of end of the total collapse surrounded by various scattered sounds, before the pipe organs of the abyss resonate with the surviving strings remaining from this wonderfully mistreated piano. A 40 minutes long record by Anaïs Tuerlinckx, the perfect insight into her dense sound universe.
Purchase Dissection lente d'un piano rouillé at Bandcamp.
Dominic Coles: Tuerlinckx’s record follows in a tradition of piano preparation that seeks to resist the instrument’s inherent decay. By decay, I mean both the rot or woodworms that might one day take hold of the instrument’s body, as well as the piano’s natural envelope: typically, a sound once produced on the piano, begins to immediately fade away. Tuerlinckx resists both these forms of decomposition, seeking methods that will allow the instrument a kind of permanence through sounds that continuously sustain. There is a poetry in this preoccupation: Tuerlinckx fights against the piano’s natural sonic decay on instruments that have been neglected, discarded, and broken apart. It is an attempt to resuscitate these instruments, to bring out what final sounds, melodies, and textures might live in their broken bodies.
One of Tuerlinckx’s primary strategies for extending the life of a sound depends on the piano’s mechanical augmentation. Through e-bows, springs, motors, and vibrators, Tuerlinckx creates a sonic environment defined by a churning, repetitive, mechanical energy. She is able to intervene in these emergent sound structures through dampening, rubbing, and tickling the strings, adding a layer of sonic complexity and variety to these ongoing mechanical processes. These moments of intervention are some of this record’s strongest.
On the first track, “Grattements de métaux sur organe usé,” Tuerlinckx uses these interventions to control the density of sound and the frequency range of a given section. With a supple dexterity, she cuts between wide broadband noise, high frequency jangling, and a low intense rumbling—part of the formal cohesion of these improvisations arises from her complete control of the frequency content of a given section. These formal cuts between frequency bands are achieved by chiselling away at the acoustic noise that fills the spectrum, giving these improvisations a sculptural and monumental quality. The second track, “Exploration finale d’un corpus abîmé,” attempts to provide a respite from these dense, overpowering sonic forms, but it instead detracts from the raw intensity of Tuerlinckx’s language. Despite this track’s loss of focus and intensity, the listener will find the other pieces, akin to complex sculptures in steel and metal, exciting spaces to explore and move through.
Mark Cutler: Anaïs Tuerlinckx’s Dissection lente d'un piano rouillé comes from a long tradition of albums and artists that explore the interior life of classical music’s most ubiquitous instrument. The piano’s size, complexity, and mixture of materials make it uniquely fertile for manipulation and exploration, particularly in an age when handheld recorders and aglet-sized contact mics are readily available. The possibilities in this field are so broad, and yet so particular to each instrument, setup, and microphone, the only real way to disappoint is to leave the piano sounding like… a piano.
Accordingly, Anaïs Tuerlinckx’s debut album is most compelling when she pushes the music as far as she can from anything recognizably musical. “Pulsations métalliques sur cordes sâles” sounds like a mixture of subwoofers blowing out and someone sawing vigorously through cardboard. On opener “Grattements de métaux sur organe usé,” Tuerlinckx manages to make the piano sound like a great machine, producing all manner of sooty, steely clatter. “Grattements” is possibly the best track on the album; unfortunately it is also the first, and shortest. It is followed immediately by the longest and weakest track, on which the piano strings sound most like their regular, melodic selves. The long, more conventional middle prevents Tuerlinckx’s album from becoming a classic of the prepared-piano tradition, but the album as a whole does establish her as a powerful voice, from whom I expect great works to come.
Nick Zanca: Take note of the sole genre tag on Tuerlinckx’s Bandcamp page—“acoustic”—nothing without intention! Blindfolded and bereft of a press release, chances are high that one might forget the organic source of the sound until the point of decay at the close of the first cut, if at all. At first, the manner in which her ‘inside-piano’ instantly emerges guns blazing stirs up the shadows of certain spectral forebears, but listen closer: you may moreso find a strain of sculptural sensibility evoking Richard Serra’s torques of steel, or better yet, Harry Bertoia’s horizontal ventures into sound art. Sure, this number has been done countless times with varying degrees of damage, but here the replay value lies in the grandiose, daresay Kanye-like shifts of the sequencing; the second that long-lurking middle-C finally leads to the closer’s startling 4/4 dub-techno swoosh, my expectations exceeded that of the idiom. A confident debut, not to be missed.
Marshall Gu: There are lots of ways to generate interesting industrial sounds nowadays, but on Dissection lente d'un piano rouillé, Anaïs Tuerlinckx limits herself to a prepared piano. She bullies the instrument, teasing out results you wouldn’t expect. That the press release proudly boasts that there are “no overdubs, no edits” only adds to this “wow” factor, inviting me to work out how she’s producing these sounds. What exactly is she doing to produce the deluge of scraping metal on “Grattements de métaux sur organe usé?” How is she creating such a strange and cold hum from the strings on “Vibrations solitaires et frottements sur la matière?”
Alas, while freeing herself from any restrictions that playing the piano as intended would have imposed, she runs into a different set of limitations: the sounds being generated throughout never go beyond typical cold and desolate industrialism. Thus, the only images that come to mind are Tuerlinckx hunched over a piano that’s been pried open, whereas other electroacoustic artists are able to put me somewhere else: the inside of an empty warship, a completely automated factory, anything. Dissection lente makes me ask: you’ve made these interesting sounds, but what am I supposed to do with them?
Sunik Kim: Tuerlinckx’s roiling, scraping cascade contains seemingly infinite possibilities: at points her piano mimics pure digital noise, a mountain of clanging alarm clocks, and hail thwacking on a tin roof. An obvious reference point is Rădulescu’s Clepsydra, but Tuerlinckx’s approach is drier, more interested in traversing the total possible range of the prepared piano’s sound—see the album’s title, which roughly translates to “slow dissection of a rusty piano.”
This exploratory mindset is simultaneously the album’s strength and shortcoming. The sheer variety of sound initially intrigues—Tuerlinckx reduces her piano to a shapeshifting swarm of metallic particles capable of constant rearrangement and reconfiguration—but there is an anticlimactic lack of focused direction to many of these individual sonic portraits; as the initial shock wears away, they quickly become repetitive, content with demonstration rather than composition.
The final piece—“metallic pulsations on dirty ropes”—introduces a twisting, throbbing, bassy foundation, a sudden and necessary rooting that begins to imbue the music with a certain forward momentum. But ultimately the piece remains static, frozen—the scraping sounds that once thrilled are reduced to unremarkable decoration. Dissection lente d'un piano rouillé is compelling enough as a somewhat scattered collection of intense, frictional prepared piano sounds, but it lacks a current that would run through them all and fold them into its inexorable flow; this is a series of snapshots rather than a film, with all the attendant strengths and weaknesses.
Gil Sansón: Utilizing the frame of the piano is an old trope of experimental music: it’s used as a noise generator and as a harp, played with bows and with contact microphones; it’s a relatively common presence in experimental music, with artists like Andrea Neumann using it as her primary sound source, either alone or combined with electronics. Anaïs Tuerlinckx has chosen to highlight the ontological aspect of the instrument. The fastidiousness with which she explores a particular area at a time hints at a topological approach, like mapping the instrument bit by bit, with patient explorations of timbre and sonority. The cavernous resonance typical of the instrument is exploited, but so are smaller, more modest sounds, and they’re delivered with the same care as the album’s boldest moments.
Despite the absence of sounds most people associate with the piano, there’s no sense of the Fluxus-type of statement involving the piano as a totem pole to mock or celebrate; this is no anti-music statement. Instead, it’s the product of a careful and systematic approach, and so we hear swarming sounds, heavy friction, a string being bowed in isolation, a thud here and there, all carefully laid out and placed within the aural plane of the music. The effect can be felt as reverential in places, in fact, though not so much about the piano as historical construct, but as a physical object with a creative life extended beyond its destruction as a concert instrument. Even when reduced to a frame with strings, the piano can still make earth-shattering sound waves, and at times the music has a Xenakis or La Monte Young quality in the way it throws shards of thunder like noise, favoring the primal aspect of sound creation without sacrificing a larger sense of structure. Texture, the density of events, the ebbs and flows: these are the more salient characteristics of Tuerlinckx’s approach to the broken piano, and the music is expansive and suffused with a cinematic feeling.
Samuel McLemore: Using the guts of a salvaged piano to deconstruct its sound is a fun concept and a good example of how composition can grow organically out of an attitude towards an instrument. Such philosophical territory has been well covered before, but the actual sound of the music produced within this record is beguiling beyond its intellectual appeal. We hear impressively loud dins of uniquely dull piano strings being vibrated and smacked and rubbed in a surprisingly layered fashion, with a synth providing the occasional bass tone to cleverly tie everything together. Liner notes indicate this was recorded in a single day and lacks any overdubs. Maybe it suffers for the rush, as pacing across the album is its main flaw; each track stands alone and nothing really builds or changes in structure across the runtime, making Dissection feel longer than it should.
Maxie Younger: The difficulty I have with solo improvisation is that it’s nowhere near as fun to listen to as it is to play yourself; when I hear Anaïs Tuerlinckx hit her piano with chains and scrape mercilessly at its strings like nails on a chalkboard, I mostly think, Damn, I wish that were me. To explore an instrument as Tuerlinckx does on Dissection lente d'un piano rouillé must surely be a revelatory, perhaps even spiritual, experience in real time. To hear it after the fact, though, is a fairly unmoving slog through meandering roads of stray thoughts and impulses that loop, thin out, and double back to the point of sheer tedium.
Each track sees Tuerlinckx trying out a new group of exciters on her broken piano, wringing every spare inch of depth she can out of the results. She tends to linger on how each successive strike feeds into the resonant, softly echoing body of her instrument, particularly on the mammoth second track, “Exploration finale d'un corpus abîmé”; gestures float up from an ocean of silence, each new sound a beginning and ending unto itself. The addition of a monotonous, bassy synthesizer note on the third track, “Vibrations solitaires et frottements sur la matière”—held in stasis to the point of becoming both overbearing and curiously invisible—does little to spice up this basic framework; it only renders the results more generically dark and atmospheric.
All this to say that, really, I don’t think this is for me. I have neither the patience nor the interest to properly engage with this work, and I’d rather try it myself than listen to someone else. It’s interesting to think about what Tuerlinckx’s piano must have looked like as she recorded these death rattles—battered, bruised, sunbleached, choked with fine dust, brown masses of particulate; unfortunately, that state begets the pallid final product at hand.
Vanessa Ague: Pianos have so many parts that can be altered, ruined, or explored, which has inspired much musical experimentation throughout history. In the 1920s, the pianist and composer Henry Cowell ventured to open the lid of his piano and play its strings, breaking ground with the delicate strums of Aeolian Harp (1923) and the demonic screech of The Banshee (1925). Later, the composer John Cage would “prepare” his pianos, placing objects amongst its strings to create different tones than those the instrument naturally produces. Perhaps most memorably, the composer Annea Lockwood would burn her piano in the late-1960s, exploring its physical structure and the music that was born from its fiery decomposition.
On Dissection lente d'un piano rouillé, the improvising pianist Anaïs Tuerlinckx carves her own niche within this tradition, playing a series of metallic improvisations on her deconstructed piano. The album, which is her debut, never reveals the instrument’s standard sound. Instead, it unearths its rhythmic power. It can often be easy to forget that the piano is a percussion instrument, but here, Tuerlinckx leans into the piano’s percussive possibilities: Venturing from jittery swishes to syncopated rhythmic pellets to bass-heavy beats, Dissection lente d'un piano rouillé is driven by its continuous pulse, and never unveils exactly where its sounds are coming from.
Much of the album relies on sporadic bursts of static noise to present different pianistic techniques. Some tracks sound like entering the conveyor belt room of a factory, others sound like a spinning top against a game board, while others still ripple like raindrops against a windowsill. But it’s with “Vibrations solitaires et frottements sur la matière” that Tuerlinckx finds her most compelling footing: The nearly 11-minute track strikes a compelling balance between a bouncy, metallic backbone and an entrancing drone to create an all-consuming listening experience. Grating, croaking strings simmer above a continual vibration to form intricate textures; part of the intrigue of the track is that its motion feels rigid, yet it somehow maintains a sense of spontaneity.
Tuerlinckx’s music isn’t about the resonance or vast harmonic possibility of the piano, but rather the ways she can create gritty textures and wispy pitches from the instrument’s body. Dissection lente d'un piano rouillé doesn’t break wholly new ground in its sound or ideology, but in mining the different rhythms of the piano, Tuerlinckx reveals that there’s still more to explore.
Matthew Revert - Hail Obliteration (The Geryoneis, 2021)
Press Release info: Visceral and crippling, The Geryoneis' inaugural release is a debut in itself for the artist—renown musician, graphic designer, and author Matthew Revert's first official metal release. Here, Revert utilizes his expertise in sound assemblage to craft an auditory implosion of suffocating guitar noise grappling with scorched vocal wailing.
Originally releasing the title track for the AMPLIFY 2020: quarantine festival, this apocalyptic shard has been remastered and is accompanied by a B-side dirge exclusive to this tape release.
Purchase Hail Obliteration at Bandcamp.
Gil Sansón: Last year, people were treated to Matthew Revert’s black metal side via his track for AMPLIFY 2020. His love for black metal is as earnest as they come; the more salient aspects of the genre are embraced wholeheartedly, especially the vocals and the grimy production. It’s not black metal by numbers, though, so there isn’t tremolo picking or blast beats. Instead, we hear a slow dirge-like stomp that doesn’t resemble a beat to bang your head to—it sounds like slow, aimless pummeling, like Godzilla dragging its feet to clumsily destroy Tokyo. There are precedents for this type of black metal sludge in Abruptum, but Revert employs none of the extramusical lore that made them notorious. The second half of the 20-minute title track does, however, feature a glacial beat and descending riff of understated simplicity—it sounds evil and epic. With “Landfall,” the slow beat is more pronounced, the expression more concentrated, and the lead guitar is half-Keiji Haino, half-Nocturno Culto.
Being that this side of Revert’s artistic persona is relatively new, it may seem like he’s a visitor in a foreign country, but in reality his whole aesthetic is closer to the black metal genre, as evidenced by his visual art and fiction writing. There’s a despondency towards humanity that resonates here, but Revert manages to keep it away from the misanthropy of the genre, revealing that it all may just be a joke of cosmic proportions. There’s a warm soul behind this music and somehow it shows in spite of all the abrasiveness in sound.
Sunik Kim: Revert brings little new to the table, but the hook here is the left turn: his past work gave little indication that he would ever take this sludgy, screamy direction. Now that it’s happened, it’s fun to work backwards and hear metal-ic traces in his older albums; the squealing, snaking drones and deadpan narration on Everyone Needs a Plan reappear on Hail Obliteration, but in smashed, blown-out, demonic form. While it would be easy to say that Revert is merely having fun here—which he undoubtedly is—Hail Obliteration is also just another exposition of Revert’s long-term compositional interests in a shockingly new musical context.
In the right hands, this kind of genre-hopping is an absolute thrill; genre becomes the particular prism through which the artist refracts themselves, rather than simply being the artist. I may be projecting here, but I see this album as an example of true experimentation, music-making as problem-solving: which of metal’s peculiarities will shed new light on the particular sonic phenomena that one has already explored through field recording, musique concrète, etc.? Expand this approach beyond the narrow horizons of music, and suddenly nothing is off limits.
Evan Welsh: Sometimes it feels nice to just get your ass kicked a little bit. It’s why we go to aggressive shows and listen to violent music—throw ourselves around, get a ring in our ears, and let energy transfer, disperse. So it’s nice to spend some time with an album that aims to purge via destruction in a similar fashion.
I mean this in a good way: the title track is an auditory endurance test to see how long one can listen before deciding to let the music just take you where it may. The bass drum acts as a hammer punching you further into the dirt while the droning guitar, screeching electronics, and wailing vocals add to the turbulence of the track. The slow pace adds to the discomfort in a deliberate manner, slowing the sludge to the point where forward momentum is a mere illusion. It’s untamed and oppressive, an unrefined catharsis. Initially it’s intriguing trying to sift through the present layers but the raw distortion and length of “Hail Obliteration” makes that feel like a futile practice—I was roughly seven minutes into the track when I gave in.
While still a lengthy beast that focuses on dark, cacophonous ambiance, “Landfill” uses distinct riffs and propulsion from the drums to push through the weighted atmosphere and keep the song moving in a more familiar, structured setting. The vocals claw at the ear as they’re set further above the rest of the instrumentals than on the album’s A-side. The distinguishably black metal stylings that drive the track make for a less psychologically strenuous 20-minutes than its predecessor, but it also make it less engaging over the prolonged runtime.
More than anything, Hail Obliteration made me miss (as we all have) the live experience. I miss, and am now made a bit anxious by, the shifting sweaty bodies and the still heads nodding in a lightless basement during a solo noise set, but at least for now I can turn off the lights in my room, press play on this, and imagine.
Samuel McLemore: Black metal… I dunno if I get it man. I mean, on a personal and subjective level I know I don’t get it. I don’t appreciate the purely stylistic choices, and as expressions of personal feeling black metal almost universally leaves me bored rather than moved. So, maybe you can already guess how I feel about this rather unremarkable entry into the genre before I have to go any farther: It’s long and boring. It feels like Revert decided the tracks should be twenty minutes before recording, and then he didn’t edit their structure to make them interesting to hear. Clearly mood and texture are meant to dominate, so it’ s unfortunate that all the mood and emotion are recycled genre fodder instead of something forward-thinking.
Nick Zanca: My first encounter with this Melbourne-based DIY polymath was the hour-plus clairvoyant exchange with Vanessa Rossetto which over time has slowly joined the ranks of my favorite recordings of the 2010s. Everyone Needs A Plan is a rainbow road of transparent talk and crossfaded electroacoustic murk, a celestial balancing act between the vague and vulnerable, a document of multimodal subtlety—long story short, everything that this 180° pivot to black metal cosplay isn’t. That’s not to say he doesn’t wear the drag well—he’s clearly studied the squashed-to-shit production strategies of every Tascam church arsonist in Norway in depth—but I can definitely sense a disingenuous smirk behind the corpsepaint. Perhaps Revert may be posturing himself as an unreliable narrator—a similar role to the tape-music troubadour he portrayed in his record for Graham Lambkin’s Kye imprint, utilizing certain genre tropes as characters to be played. No doubt the actor has prepared, complete with dead-air drum machines and grating vocal feedback, but I hardly engage with this mode of heavy enough to warrant repeat listens.
Mark Cutler: As an occasional fan of metal who’s also a huge fan of twenty-minute dirges, I feel that this release was almost designed to appeal to me specifically. I’ve always wondered why, by and large, even the sludgiest, most Viking-y black metal bands seldom push their songs past the ten-minute mark. Revert’s release only underscores that question, showing that there’s plenty to explore within an extended runtime. My only complaint with this release is that, comprising only two songs, I almost wish it were longer. I think what keeps this from feeling great to me is knowing that this is likely a one-time detour in Revert’s endlessly-detouring career. It’s a shame; I’d like to hear what else he could make in this rubric.
when we do our silly deathwaltz
it’s dead red & bitter bone dry. it tastes
the world via
hornetwisdom: seldom seen
ninethousand lips and two miles
high. yup, yup, i’ma midwest
and I do midwest things..
i’ll take cover. Your
warmth will endow me w/
white light, shuddering:
a rank, acid-subsumed meat, treyf,
but, pierced with hunger, I take it, bite..
...it’s consuming mee…
[you find my
body awash on the rocky shore, still in the early
stages of decay]
i told you(!): the last condition towards eating your Face was that i would keep the kids, i could have full custody.
and that muug...
[it’s all gray-blue
and slightly opaque]
as such, i’m wandering.
i hollow you,
Thomas Ankersmit - Perceptual Geography (Shelter Press, 2021)
Press Release info: In the piece, Ankersmit explores different “modes” of listening: not just which sounds are heard and when, but also how and where sounds are experienced (in the room, in the body, inside the head, far away, nearby). So-called otoacoustic emissions (sounds emanating from inside the head, generated by the ears themselves) play a prominent role. When turned up loud, the material moves beyond the loudspeakers and starts to trigger additional tones inside the listener’s head; tones that are not present in the recorded music. Cupping the ears with the hands and slight movements of the head also help to bring these tones to life. Maryanne Amacher was the first artist to systematically explore the musical use of these phenomena, often referring to them as “ear tones”.
The title is a reference to Amacher’s essay “Psychoacoustic Phenomena in Musical Composition: Some Features of a Perceptual Geography”, and despite the all-electronic instrumentation, a dramatic sense of landscape and environment often emerges. There are sparks of fire, howling wind, distant thunder, a swarm of bats disappearing into the distance. Ghostly, floating tones are contrasted with highly dynamic sounds darting around the listener, and large, heavy waves rolling in slowly. “Ear tone” stimuli weave in and out of these textures, emerging from them. Once or twice, the music seems to completely freeze in time, but a slight movement of the listener’s head reveals changes.
Purchase Perceptual Geography at Bandcamp.
Matthew Blackwell: The physical effects of music—the ways that it makes your lil earbones jump around, to your satisfaction or displeasure—are not discussed often enough in criticism. One reason is that it’s easier to describe an object than an object’s perceptual effects. A guitar can be described as “dissonant,” but the way that that dissonance rings through your head, the way it physically feels, nears the limits of language. So forgive me if my language fails, because Thomas Ankersmit’s new album is devoted exclusively to physical effects. Inspired by Maryanne Amacher’s work, Ankersmit took a Serge modular synthesizer and fucked around with it in some unaccountable way until it makes the listener’s head feel like one of those novelty plasma globes.
The album’s liner notes tell you to “play loud and use speakers, not headphones,” and in this I have to admit I failed. I don’t often have occasion to play music like this at high volume, or at least I’m not willing to disrupt a tenuous domestic harmony to do so. Still, through headphones, the effect is remarkable—a sequence of dramatic and intense audio events occurs between the ears, from insectoid occupations to violent meteorological phenomena. Through headphones at least, nothing here compares to the otoacoustic effects that Amacher could produce—at the right volume her “Head Rhythm 1 / Plaything 2” feels like Roman candles are shooting out your ears—but there is still a sensation that the audio field is infinitely more detailed than usual, and a resulting wonder that more artists don’t take advantage of this spectacularly increased canvas. It must be a transfiguring experience to hear it on GRM’s Acousmonium, where it was premiered. Still, I’ll take the experience in headphones, and camp out in the IMAX world that it conjures in my skull.
Vincent Jenewein: This record was entirely made—and the press text and accompanying interview make sure to let you know that—on a coveted Serge modular system that the artist assembled over a number of years. I do appreciate the idea of taking seriously the notion of a synthesizer as a true instrument that an artist forges a deep, long-term relationship with. However, I do find it somewhat odd that even artists whose music is marketed as “experimental” and “cutting edge” can be so fixated on very limited, monophonic synthesizer designs from the 1970s that were at the cutting edge of technology fifty years ago. As a result, it can be easy for this type of record to sound like the avant-garde from the past, rather than be the avant-garde of today.
That said, one interesting side effect of this minimalist focus on limited vintage synthesis technology is a certain feeling of being “out of time,” not quite belonging to the current world, in a way that escapes the nostalgia-machine of the culture industry at large. This is electronic music in its purest, most free-form state; the analog synthesizer as an escape tunnel out of traditional notions of composition and tonality, rather than the stratified tonal keyboard instrument that it eventually became. In the spirit of early academic synthesis, Ankersmit blurs the line between music and non-music, between composition and scientific research, the electronic and acoustic.
Admittedly, I am not meeting the press text’s instruction to “please play loud and use speakers,” since I listened to it on headphones. I thus cannot vouch for the virtual “ear tones” that are supposed to emerge within the listener’s head, but only the actual musical content. Still, there are interesting “Perceptual Geographies” at play here. Some of these synth tones really sound like electricity, the lack of effects and post-processing lays bare the raw timbre and dynamics of drifting analog oscillators, control voltage modulation signals and nonlinear feedback routings (famously a strength of Serge modules). At other times, sounds appear as simulacra of the acoustic natural world, invoking waves, storms, rain, fires or insects.
While these timbral motifs often sound gorgeous (no one ever said that a Serge doesn’t sound good) and are viscerally satisfying, even ASMR-ish at times, they do stay firmly within sonic tropes that anyone familiar with the history of electroacoustic music will have heard plenty of—monophonic sustained pure tones, filtered noises, wonky audio rate modulation bleeps and blurbs and so on. Perhaps this is a sign of the limitations of the vintage technology employed. Rather, Ankersmit’s real strength lies in arrangement and composition, the way different sounds dynamically morph and segue into each other—electronic sounds become synthetic over time and vice versa, and he play with this electroacoustic perceptual indeterminacy.
Sustained drone montages are frequently interrupted by rapid bursts of noise and feedback that chaotically dance across the mix. In a world in which the vast majority of electronic music rarely exceeds a handful dB of dynamic range, these drastic dynamics feel exciting, despite the fact that this is essentially a style of composition dating back to electronic music’s pre-historic age. That said, it is clear that Ankersmit has made use of modern digital multi-tracking to achieve complex layerings that probably exceed what would have been possible in the tape age. He channels the history of the avant-garde but subtly evolves it. As a result, this is a record that is simultaneously traditionalist and avant-garde, ancient and contemporary.
Maxie Younger: Perceptual Geography makes me thankful for the pause button. If I had to experience it live, moment-to-moment, I’d probably have a panic attack. As is, the sharp otoacoustic tones Thomas Ankersmit begins to explore in earnest in the piece’s second half are swallowing, visceral, relentless: when played loud, as the artist recommends, they lodge themselves deeply in my ears with half-wondrous, half-dreadful insistence, refusing to let go. As my first encounter with Ankersmit’s work, I found myself especially drawn to the sense of theatricality with which these otoacoustics were deployed. They aren’t handled at the level of a sterile lab experiment: under Ankersmit’s deft touch, they soar with radiant, arresting energy, leaving bright trails in their wake as they fade.
Ultimately, though, the piece as a whole doesn’t do so much for me in the wide as it mostly amounts to vacant soundscape noodling: collages of windup camera flashes, clicks and pops that evoke blown-out speakers, heartbeats, a short phrase in Morse code, the prerequisite low tonal drone or two. When stripped of the aid of its most dynamic tricks to pull focus, Perceptual Geography feels content to be nondescript and unchallenging. It’s certainly worth a listen, especially if, like me, you’re new to the artist’s work or to otoacoustic phenomena; beyond that, there’s not quite enough oomph to merit a closer look.
Marshall Gu: I used the opportunity when my partner went into the office on Monday to play this on my speakers, and turned it off when I had the suspicion that all 40 minutes of Perceptual Geography would be noisy and difficult. I vowed to return when I was in the mood. A few days later, I defied the press release command to listen to it on speakers—my partner hates this kind of music and so I try not to subject her to it—and listened with my headphones. I found it immersive, even if the long stretches of high frequency pitches, especially in the end, are especially overwhelming and less forgiving to the ears this way. The pops of static moving from channel to channel in the first few minutes are arresting: it feels like bombs are dropping around me, always in different places, and each impact sharpens my focus only for the noise to swell and blur everything once more.
As soon as the next opportunity presented itself, I listened to Perpetual Geography the way it was intended. That is: loud and on speakers, while adjusting where I was in relation to them and what I was doing. I’m unsure if my head generated any otherwise not-present tones as it was supposed to but I did get more out of the music this way. Listening to Perpetual Geography as instructed made me realize that while we think of music as a purely sonic experience, that is, a mono-modal experience, it can be multi-modal as well: Perpetual Geography made me more conscious of the physical aspect that I otherwise do not think about. For an album of similar tones, I might not have been so receptive, but cupping my ears and moving them closer or farther away from the speakers to try to perceive more, I had the most fun listening to Perpetual Geography as I’ve had in weeks.
Gil Sansón: Ankersmit and Amacher. The two names combined are more than enough to make people turn their heads. There’s a promise here of carefully composed electronic music with a strong interest in how sound behaves in space as much as time. Ankersmit is known for his drone works with analogue synthesizers while Amacher, whose name grows stronger with each year as a one-of-a-kind sonic explorer, is famous for her investigations of sounds that create the impression of spatial fata morgana originating in the ear.
The exacting demands that Amacher requested as essential to the presentation of her work have meant that in a world in which records are the main introduction to an artist, her presence was slim (though spectacular would be the best way to describe her two CDs for Tzadik). Still, all the artists who encountered her directly are unanimous in their praise, perhaps a case of a composer’s composer, one whose example inspires many to this day. Ankersmit is just one of these artists who were changed profoundly by the experience of working with her, and this record is his way to pay homage and explore her soundworld, one that suits him well by temperament as he constructs his music with the same level of attention to detail: there are no spare parts and everything is carefully, deliberately laid in place.
Listening to Perceptual Geography on headphones offers one type of experience, but playing aloud on good speakers yields the inner ear effects so dear to Amacher much better. What matters most is that this is not lab-coat experimenting, but real music, mining the sounds first discovered by Amacher to make something that sounds both like vintage Ankersmit and with the enterprising spirit of Amacher—it’s a record to live with. While a good deal of previous albums by Ankersmit focus on an ever-increasing drone, here the music ebbs and flows. It would be incorrect to use the term climaxes but the intensity varies over the duration, perhaps to reflect Amacher’s music and to direct attention to the reality of sound in space—it’s something to be experienced empirically, inviting an active approach that rewards with both the general impression and the minute details. It’s one thing to employ some of Amacher’s trademark concepts to pay homage, and it’s something else to include them on a piece of music that integrates these in a natural manner. The inner ear tones are part of what makes this album exciting, but the elegance of the composition is what encourages revisits.
Dominic Coles: In her project notes for Music for Sound-Joined Rooms (1980), Maryanne Amacher brings into focus the relationship between the unconscious and her specific sonic and material interests. She writes:
It is really a ‘new music,’ in the sense that the listener now has the opportunity to REALLY CONSCIOUSLY ‘feel’ what is happening to his body via the music, and more importantly, begins to experience the ENERGY OF RECOGNIZING the tones being created in his ears and brain, in response to the tones sounding in the air. This is not a metaphor - in the music I am describing one really ‘feels,’ EXPERIENCES, this. It is a new energy, releasing what has been suppressed by subliminal perceptions.
—Amacher, Selected Writings & Interviews, Pg. 239.
Through the use of specific materials, Amacher transforms unconscious processes into conscious ones. In this sense, her research into otoacoustic emissions, the additional tones our ears produce in response to a specific stimuli or input, is not so much concerned with sonic material in an abstract sense as it is with releasing the psychological, physiological, and emotional realities repressed within us. For Amacher, this project held a particular political function—through the liberation of repressed sensations and experiences, the listener could achieve a kind of physical and mental autonomy. With this context in mind, we can ask of Thomas Ankersmit’s Perceptual Geography: What does it hope to uncover or reveal in its use of these materials which it specifically ties to Amacher’s conceptual project?
Ankersmit’s Perceptual Geography follows a previous release on Shelter Press that saw him paying homage to pioneering Dutch composer, Dick Raaijmakers. This installment, for Maryanne Amacher, bears a striking sonic resemblance to that previous release, a similarity that surprises this listener given the significant conceptual and sonic differences between Amacher and Raaijmakers’ practices. Why is it, for example, that both feature extended forays into granular processes, despite Amacher almost never working with these microsound materials? Perceptual Geography develops Ankersmit’s own virtuosic and gestural manipulations of the Serge modular synthesizer with a dash of Amacher’s distinct material palette haphazardly scattered throughout.
This record presents Amacher’s materials without a serious engagement with her conceptual apparatus. When Ankersmit activates otoacoustic emissions, it does not seem to have anything to do with Amacher’s original intentions around this material—there is no relation to the unconscious and no sense of a liberatory potential. Often in Amacher’s work, these potentials would be developed through the sound’s relationship to narrative elements presented in video, sculpture, text, and image appearing throughout the installation space. While it would be a challenge for Ankersmit to achieve this narrative complexity solely through sound, he makes absolutely no attempt to do so. This is not to say that every work activating otoacoustic emissions needs to have the same intent as Amacher’s, but by tying this piece to her project, Ankersmit is required to pay some notice to the conceptual logic that underpins her work. He instead strips these materials of their mind-altering potential and reduces them to a pure sonic materiality.
Sunik Kim: The most compelling moments here are the least flashy. Take the brief, rumbling stretch around eight minutes in: it sounds like a phase error, the queasy consequence of leaving a speaker jack plugged in only halfway. Otherwise, while Perceptual Geography’s central components—stony-faced drones, squealing noise bursts, and shrill, stepping sine tones built to trigger otoacoustic emissions—have their individual strengths, Ankersmit too readily piles them onto one another, simultaneously dulling their unique impact and establishing a crude feeling of separation between them, like drone with a sprinkling of noise on top. This flaw becomes most glaring in the “ear tone” sections.
On “‘Head Rhythm 1’ and ‘Plaything 2,’” Amacher exactingly arranges her “head rhythms”—they remain mostly totally isolated for maximum impact and, when they do overlap with her ‘drone’ element, the two very obviously clash, creating a disorienting and mind-warping feeling of immersion and overwhelm. Ankersmit, on the other hand, bends his “head rhythms” to match the tonal foundation of his overall composition; they sound like mere decorations on top of the ever-present, mournful drone that roots much of the piece. As a result, even though the otoacoustic emissions technically do happen, they are sapped of the thrilling, threatening vitality that makes Amacher’s work so astounding. A sine tone is a sine tone—but Amacher is able to explode that simplest of building blocks into a dazzling field of pure energy. Ankersmit’s “head rhythms” sound positively gray in comparison—raising the question of what exactly he hoped to achieve here, in the direct shadow of his mammoth forebear.
Mark Cutler: Thomas Ankersmit is one of a small number of musicians who have devoted themselves almost entirely to the exploration of a single synthesizer: in this case, a modular Serge setup. Analogue synthesizers—and especially modular ones—are more than just tools for producing sci-fi sweeps or new-wave basslines; they are ghosts of the minds who made them, relics of how that person thought. Before turning his attention to making synths full-time, Serge Tcherepnin studied under and worked with some of the twentieth century’s most adventurous avant-garde and experimental composers: Stockhausen, Boulez, Subotnik, and Amacher. That adventurousness is reflected in the sheer flexibility of his designs, which permit endlessly recursive loops and reshapings of the generated sound, and this flexibility is what makes the Serge synthesizer both endlessly enticing to explore, and exceptionally difficult to master.
Perceptual Geography takes almost 25 minutes to tip its compositional hand. Before then, you’d be excused for thinking the piece was more-or-less improvised. Ankersmit’s rumbles and whines approximate a number of natural and manufactured phenomena—chirping animals, bursts of wind, morse code and fire alarms. However, Ankersmit has a plan, and he is exceptionally patient in executing it. In the fifteen-minute finale, each sound, each idea returns in its proper place. The effect is seismic. Perceptual Geography is the rare modular synth work which also holds together as a single, indivisible composition. This is a high point of the year, and of Ankersmit’s career to date.
Thank you for reading the sixty-third issue of Tone Glow. Let’s create and figure out our own paths.
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