Tone Glow 065: David Grubbs
An interview with David Grubbs + our writers panel on Giant Claw's 'Mirror Guide', Kiri-uu's 'Creak-whoosh', and Jim O'Rourke's 'Too Compliment'
David Grubbs is a composer, musician, and author who has performed and recorded music in a multitude of settings throughout his career. Notably, he was a founding member of Squirrel Bait, Bastro, and Gastr del Sol, and was also a member of Red Krayola. He’s released numerous collaborative albums with artists including Mats Gustafsson, Taku Unami, and Loren Connors.
Grubbs has released three books published by Duke University Press, including Records Ruin the Landscape, a meditation on experimental music, their practitioners during the ’60s, and the recorded medium. He also has published two book-length poems titled Now that the audience has assembled and The Voice in the Headphones, which detail a live performance and studio recording session, respectively. His upcoming book, Good night the pleasure was ours, will be released in spring 2022.
His most recent albums include a live recording with guitarist Ryler Walker called Fight or Flight Simulator and a new album titled Instant Opaque Evening with Gustafsson and Mazurek in their group The Underflow. He also has a new collaborative album with poet Susan Howe out in September via Blue Chopsticks. Joshua Minsoo Kim talked with Grubbs via phone on October 13th, 2020 to discuss his latest ventures, his time with Red Krayola, and the various collaborators he’s had throughout the years. Additional questions were asked via email in May 2021.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: Hey David, how are you?
David Grubbs: Hey, I’m doing fine. How are you?
I’m good. I was outside for a little bit earlier today because the weather is so nice, but otherwise nothing out of the ordinary. I had to teach today and that was pretty much my day so far. How about you?
Doing all right. Kind of been a busy day. I was on a grant review panel for the Foundation for Contemporary Arts this morning, for their emergency grants, which are awesome. I approved the mastering for a recording of a solo set of mine that Che Chen is going to release in the Fire Over Heaven series. And I’m almost finished with a text for an artist’s book with John Sparagana and Reto Geiser. So I’m kind of coming up for air after obsessively rereading, going back and forth between the laptop and printed versions. I’m almost finished with it.
That’s a lot of stuff you’re doing, and I feel like you’re always doing stuff. It’s always impressive whenever someone seems to be juggling a ton of different things at once. So hats off to you.
Thank you. I mean, I think the common denominator is that they’re all opportunities to work with people who I adore working with. So it makes it very easy. You just say yes, and then you’re on the hook for it. I’ve been astonished by the speed with which you turn these interviews out and the level of detail, but I feel like, if you really want to do things, then you find the time to get them done.
You mentioned to me over an email that you have a new book that you’re working on right now. Is this another book-length poem?
It’s called Good night the pleasure was ours. And it’s the third and final book in the series that includes Now that the audience is assembled (2018) and The Voice in the Headphones (2020), and it’s approximately the same length. It’s a book-length poem about a specific kind of musical activity. The basic unit of the book is the individual page, and the visual disposition of the page is very similar to the other books. There’s three lines or three paragraphs or three stanzas per page. The big difference is that the first two describe events that happen within a single day of musical activity, so a concert in the first book and a marathon recording session in the second book, but this one describes 30 years of playing music on tour. And so there are little markers and hints dropped throughout the book that hopefully will make it possible for people to get a sense of how much time elapsed with the turn of a page.
I’m wondering, what is your relationship like with touring right now? If you had to go on another tour, what would be the immediate reaction you’d have?
Oh, I would start packing my suitcase (laughter). I will say that writing a book about touring in the wake of canceled tours and canceled shows has been, mentally, the best thing that one could possibly do. To day after day put oneself in the headspace of touring and try to recollect and recast the details of touring. I mean obviously now, seven months into the pandemic, I’m just like everyone else on the planet. Dying to do so. Dying to be in a club that smells like a club.
It’s a book that I started a year ago, but then really put pedal to metal in March , as lots of things became impossible to do I suddenly had a lot of time open up, a yawning chasm of time before me. And also [there was] this desire to, I dunno, to do something with my brain. Yeah, I didn’t learn a foreign language, I didn’t get in amazing physical shape, but I did spend a lot of time working on this book (laughter).
Why talk about these different musical activities in the framework of a book-length poem?
I found myself really kind of slingshotted into Now that the audience is assembled after finishing Records Ruin the Landscape (2014), which began as essays that I wrote in graduate school. I’d been thinking about writing a long poem for a long time. I studied poetry as a grad student, which sort of cured me of reading poetry and thinking of poetry for a few years, and then I started working with Susan Howe, a poet, in 2003, which got me very interested in poetry again. I would hear her read the pieces again and again and again. Her poems tend to be longer serial poems; it might, in the verbal delivery, be 30 or 40 minutes.
I’d always just really loved longer poems, like John Ashbery’s Three Poems and Flow Chart. I’ve never really wrapped my head around writing the individual poem, I think because I have written song lyrics for so long. Song lyrics more than satisfied any desire that I would have for writing poetry. I felt like there were people ready to engage with it. Moving from songwriting to writing for the page, I’m sure I had a fear that suddenly I would be consigning all of this writing to the void.
It really is kind of a question of scale, if you asked me the difference between writing song lyrics and writing poetry. These books are all around 120 or 130 pages. I suppose someone could sing them, but not me (laughter). I’m a miniaturist, as a songwriter. I like writing a nice one-minute song that doesn’t repeat, and perhaps an instrumental intro or outro that’s about 10 times as long as the song. That seems like a nice kind of balance to me, that’s my “classicism.” In writing these longer texts, I wanted to feel that what I was doing was qualitatively different from what I do in writing a song.
I really liked reading your books because of the way you talk about these different experiences. What do you feel like you were able to successfully capture about being in the studio or seeing a live performance, and what do you feel like you weren’t able to capture through writing?
Well, let’s start with what I’m not able to capture, that seems easier (laughter). What am I not able to capture? I’m not able to capture the sense of how time passes in the studio, because everyone’s sense of time, and each reader’s sense of time, is really profoundly different, right? One of the things that I really aspired to capture in the first two books is the way in which time subjectively seems to accordion. If you’re a musician, and you’re working on a take, and you’re really focused on doing repeated takes on a very small fragment of a song, you’re aware of the second-by-second. And then, suddenly, four hours have passed and you realize this kind of macro-movement of time. That’s something that I aspire to capture and I assume is a kind of quixotic idea.
I think about very long pieces of music or very long films, the way in which you experience it is set in terms of duration, especially with a film, because you have to actually sit there for the length of it. But with reading, everyone might read at a different pace, and they might not read it all in one sitting and you don’t really have control over that.
Right. I mean, I assume that’s one of the reasons why people like podcasts, in a time of maximum distraction and it being very difficult to focus on reading sometimes, you’re pulled through the text at a consistent rate and it’s not dependent on the progress that you as a reader make through the text. A podcast doesn’t get longer because you’re not paying attention (laughter).
I’m fascinated by things like this. I remember right when Now that the audience is assembled came out, somebody said, “Oh, I read your book yesterday afternoon.” It kind of blew my mind. Like, I feel like I’m still thinking about that. It is a relatively short book and it is something that someone could read in an afternoon, but it hadn’t really occurred to me that one would plow through it in an afternoon.
Is there a pace at which you sort of assumed people would approach your books?
No, I have no idea. Now that the audience is assembled and these other books, to me, they really are experiments in form. I don’t have particular models for it. At different different points in making music, I felt that there were certain models, things that I aspired to as a teenager or at the beginning of Gastr del Sol. So much of what Jim [O’Rourke] and I did was sit and listen to records and talk about them. But with these books, they’ve been made in the absence of the model.
Was there ever a point throughout your career where you retroactively recognized [that there was a model]? Like, “Oh, this is influenced by all these things, but I hadn’t recognized it at the time.”
Yeah. Bastro was the band that I was in after Squirrel Bait. And in our very first iteration, we played with a drum machine. It was an E-mu Drumulator, the same type of drum machine that Big Black used. We were friends with Big Black and had played shows with them. After having committed to a recording with the drum machine, I did find myself thinking like, “Wait a second!” The reference points seemed clear as day. That’s the one time that I can think of, you know, that borders on a kind of painful recognition. I felt immediately like we needed to chart our own path. But very early on with Bastro, just purely by virtue of playing with the drum machine, it felt like following in the footsteps a little too closely. Maybe that’s been an important lesson for me—not to proceed with a particular model in mind or to try to be clear and honest with myself about not doing so.
Would you say that’s something that’s been a value to you for most of your life, even prior to making music?
No, because I’ve been making music since I was a child (laughter). I feel like that’s not for me to say. There’s much that I do that’s extraordinarily conventional, from the fact of making albums or publishing books. I do find myself working with available forms that have greased the wheels and have made things easier. One of the reasons why the subject of Records Ruin the Landscape interested me was because when I was growing up as a teenager in Kentucky, releasing records or publishing fanzines or things like that were essential for feeling some kind of resonance with other human beings, for feeling like you were in creative conversation with other people. And yet one does those through very easy channels you can tap into: releasing records or doing any kind of publishing.
You have collaborated with a ton of people, some repeatedly, like the aforementioned Susan Howe. I’m curious, what do you feel like you bring to the different bands or collaborative settings that you’ve been in? Like, if you weren’t there, what would be missing?
I think what I aspire to is a kind of ease within collaboration where people enjoy one another’s presence to the extent that they can intervene in one another’s process. I rarely felt like I’ve done collaborations that feel like work for hire, where I’m supposed to, like, keep it zipped if I don’t like what somebody else is bringing to the table. So with Susan Howe, or with visual artists like Anthony McCall and Angela Bulloch, and with different artists who played in the Red Krayola, I feel like the best kinds of collaborations happen when: (a) you have some practical experience of what someone else was doing, and (b) your personal relationship with that individual is such that you can creatively intervene in their process.
Do you feel like you were always good at providing for that sort of environment?
No, no. I think that it’s really hard to do, and I’ve gotten much, much better as an adult. When I first picked up a guitar, I think I was as thickheaded and individualistic as anyone who’s ever picked up the instrument (laughter). I could have been a much better collaborator, had I been more mature. In Gastr del Sol, for example, which was a totally thrilling open-ended kind of collaboration, but also one for which, at different points… I dunno. In retrospect, one always wants to have been more generous. It’s very nice to be in communication with Jim now, but that was an intense working relationship. And when it stopped, it felt like a failure of a working relationship and a friendship.
What do you wish you could have been more generous with?
I mean in a day-to-day way of being in the studio. It didn’t need to be as high-stakes as I felt like it sometimes had to be. By generosity, I mean, just being easier, taking it easier, and making it about more than whatever recording we’re sweating bullets over. Recognizing that one doesn’t always need to be sweating bullets.
Would you consider yourself a perfectionist?
Uh, no. By no means (laughter) I wouldn’t work with the range of people that I work with and I wouldn’t have worked on the kinds of projects that I’ve worked on if I was a perfectionist. I’m a real perfectionist on some things. I’m an absolute perfectionist, for example, on these books that I’ve been working on the last few years but in working with other people, perfectionism just doesn’t seem possible. Or relevant. As a musician, I’ve learned so much from playing under less-than-ideal circumstances. It’s one of the great lessons that I’ve learned from playing in improvised situations or being an audience member: taking in an improvisation as it unfolds.
Improvisation is so powerful to me because, when left to my own devices, I would’ve never invented any form of improvisation. In improvised music settings, I sometimes wish that I could hit the pause button and make a note or try something. It’s so powerful to me because I feel like I learn so much from what doesn’t come naturally to me. In some ways, I think of myself as the opposite of a born improviser. It’s so different from how I feel myself to be wired.
How are you wired, then, and why is that not compatible with, seeing yourself as a natural improviser?
I’m wired to revise, that’s why I like writing (laughter). I say I’m wired, it’s a figure of speech. And actually it’s something that I wouldn’t defend within any seriousness, but I’m happiest, or I feel most myself, when I have the time to really reflect and revise. I was laughing the other day—so I’m working on this text for this artist’s book, and it’s short. I mean, it’s one long sentence. It’s around 2000 words and it will be laid out as a single line that runs through the entire book of collages by John Sparagana, designed by Reto Geiser. His works are minutely detailed, sliced and mixed collages—these tiny, tiny little squares. I thought that, for maximum contrast, I could unfurl a line, a very, very long sentence that runs the length of the book. And the book would probably be 180 or 200 pages, but it’s just a single line of text on each page. It’s a page turner, like that. In some ways, the shorter the text, the more time you find to revise and really polish it. And I found myself giggling, thinking about the mantra “first thought, best thought,” right? Because I guess written expression is not a thought. Perhaps “first thought, best thought” does work for me so long as I don’t confuse thinking and writing.
I’m curious, can you think of an instance where you were creating art and you felt the most uncomfortable, the most “not yourself,” and it ended up being a good learning experience?
I was low-level terrified going on tour with Mats Gustafsson and Rob Mazurek this past January  with The Underflow, which is the new trio. Mats and Rob are two of the most extraordinary improvisers that I’ve ever seen as an audience member. That tour was like flying because you have convinced yourself that you’re able to fly. I thought, if they’re willing to do this, then I should also take this leap of faith. The first few solo records that I made for Drag City, I can hear the balance between written material, the song, and playing with improvisors, but to imagine a song rendered as a performance that welcomes its improvisation… I think that was behind Mats and Rob’s idea to do this. The makeup of the group has to do with the fact that I’m able to drop a song in there as necessary, or a written piece. I’m able to introduce that into an improvisation, as material for improvisation.
I found it tremendously rewarding to play with them. It wasn’t just like I survived the tour with my sense of self intact, but that I really loved going on stage in an entirely improvised setting and playing, eight nights in a row. I don’t play in improvised settings that often, living in New York, maybe I play five or six fully improvised gigs with other musicians in a given year. It was very different, it was an experience that I had not previously had, that I was slightly terrified of and in the end was very glad that I did.
I sometimes think about the people I’ve surrounded myself by in different periods of my life and how they impacted me. From the different collaborations and the different bands you’ve been around, who do you feel taught to you the most about where you were capable, what you were able to do with art?
One group that immediately springs to mind is the Red Krayola. It was something about the structure of the Red Krayola and the particular participants when I was participating in it. Mayo [Thompson], I remember at one point saying something like, “Red Krayola is a non-membership organization.” I mean, that’s a mind-blowing way to look at a band, right? Talk about re-orienting stuff.
When I started playing in the Red Krayola, it was so fascinating to me because I’d only ever played music with musicians before. They may have been teenage musicians and they may not have been professional musicians, but we were doing it for the sake of music. And the Red Krayola at different points has been the musical arm of [art collective] Art & Language, and there was this sense that the Red Krayola means certain things in the context of music, the Red Krayola means certain things in the context of psychedelic music, it means certain things in the context of DIY production, and in their role in Rough Trade. And they mean certain things in the context of art.
When I started playing with the Red Krayola, Stephen Prina, a visual artist and musician, was in the group, Christopher Williams, a visual artist was designing the covers, Mayo was teaching at ArtCenter in Pasadena, California. This was around 1993, 1994. I was 26, 27 years old. It’s like in Moby Dick, Melville says something like “A whaling ship was my Harvard College.” And the Red Krayola was my art school. When I was talking about Gastr del Sol and that it would have been a more successful collaboration if I just learned to take it easier, in the Red Krayola, there were so many different worlds overlapping. I think up until that point in playing music, I’d been very confident of my own opinions, but that was a point at which I felt like my frame of reference was relatively narrow, and maybe I needed to listen to other people, that I had to take this opportunity to expand my frames of reference. To the largest degree, it had to do with Mayo, who really set the Red Krayola and was the presiding genius of the ensemble. It had to do with the looseness of the concept or the openness of the concept and whatever people were convened for the occasion.
Do you mind sharing a memory you have of being with Mayo?
Yes. I can point to one of the first shows that the Red Krayola did. George Hurley was playing drums, and it was a show downstairs at The Middle East in Boston. It was in front of a huge crowd for the Red Krayola. I think that maybe the Red Krayola had never played in Boston, or hadn’t played there since the earliest days. It was kind of a to-do, and it was a fucking wild set. It was one of those things that, like, while it was unfolding… I feel like I frequently know—not always—but often know what other people in a given group think about how a performance is going, you know? (laughter). Like you can get a vibe from the rest of the group, if people are happy or unhappy with the way it’s going. But that show was that kind of electric situation of a really loose, really chaotic set in front of a really large audience which can be a combustible situation.
And George in particular, I remember, I think that he knew some of the Red Krayola things, but he would just start a beat and we would play whatever the next song was in the set. I remember feeling like, I have no idea how Mayo feels about this. And afterwards, he was so ecstatic about the set. I learned something. This again speaks to my own way of approaching situations, but I was concerned like, “Ah, is this a disaster?” (laughter).
I’m aware as an audience member and as a musician of understanding the real glory in a spontaneous performance, of rough performances, of all of those things. And with that Red Krayola show in particular, I just had no idea if Mayo was going to be like, uh, um, (laughs) “uhhh.” And the fact that he was just giddy after the set, however many years later, this was very visible to me and it was very impressive to me. I had some insight into him as a person that I didn’t previously have. And I have an object lesson that I could refer to in the future, whenever I’m afraid like “Ugh, this is a fucking disaster.”
You had an album out on TakuRoku earlier this year, which was a live recording of a performance by you and Ryley Walker. What was it like revisiting that? Do you have any memories of that show?
Ryley and I have only played live three times together, and that was the first duo set. It was a blisteringly hot summer night in Ridgewood, Queens, and we were playing at a neighborhood bar called The Windjammer. The sort of place that I would have called an old-person bar before I became an old person. I miss playing what seem like big-deal gigs in far-flung places, but I also miss playing more spontaneously organized low-key local gigs. I guess you could say that I miss it all. It’s a fucking blast playing with Ryley—and I feel like that collaborative partnership is just getting started.
You have a new album coming out with Susan Howe called Concordance. This is your fifth collaborative album with her, how do you feel like you two have grown together? Has the process behind creating the music changed at all?
Until this recording, which was completed during the pandemic, the big change in our working method is that Susan has become more involved in the collection of sound materials with which I compose. Our previous album, WOODSLIPPERCOUNTERCLATTER, came about when Susan was an artist in residence at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, staying in an apartment connected to the museum, and she had become attuned to the sounds of the museum in the morning prior to its opening—watering plants, raking gravel, echoing voices from a different floor, the clattery old elevator. That piece ends with the sounds of the museum opening and the first student group coming in and the most outgoing of the students letting out a giant whoop to test the acoustics of the central atrium. By that point, spirits have fled.
Are there things that you still want to be able to do, be it with music or writing or anything where you’re not quite there yet but still striving towards something?
With writing I feel like I’m still understanding what it means to write different kinds of books. Records Ruin the Landscape was one kind of book and I was ready to write a very different kind of book. Now that the audience is assembled turned out to be sufficiently rewarding to me that I then wrote two more books that were extensions of that form. So it’s one of the things that I’m thinking about every day. I mean, as much time as I spend on music and thinking about music and listening to music, in some ways writing really, to me, has emerged as the thing that I wake up in the morning and that I’m ready to do. I don’t dread it. It’s a really rewarding activity.
Will I write a novel next? It’s very possible. Will I write a non-fiction book about working collaboratively, that is more of a scholarly book? Every day I think about where I want to go with writing. As far as playing music, there was something that was so different about this tour with Mats and Rob. For me it was, it was a really unfamiliar experience and I’m still kind of wrapping my brain around it.
Do you want to perform with them more? Do you see yourself being in another sort of improvisatory setting where you feel like you could also feel that sort of energy?
It would be good to play live music (laughs). It would be good to play in improvised settings more regularly, but most of all, it would be good to continue with Mats and Rob or with other musicians with whom I feel like it squares the circle with regard to this question of revision and refinement. There’s something about revisiting encounters with musicians in an improvised setting.
I don’t know. It’s an interesting question, comparing the way one envisions or mentally maps out musical projects versus writing projects. Writing projects, most of those are so much longer than any particular music project, than working on an album or something like that. I find it easier to envision what I might be doing several years from now in terms of writing, or to map out these longer projects, whereas with music, I’m still eager to fly in four different directions.
Are there, are there specific people that you would like to collaborate with still that you have not collaborated with yet?
In January  I worked on a recording with Jan St. Werner [of Mouse on Mars], and it looks like the two of us will probably teach a seminar together. In conversations about that, I feel the musical collaboration is only kind of the beginning. He’s somebody who I’ve known for a long time, but haven’t known that well. It was a very simpatico situation of working together, one in which I feel that music would be perhaps only one of the kinds of things that we could collaborate on. I had a really nice meeting with him the other day, talking about how we could structure a 10 day seminar. I had a very positive feeling at the end of that conversation. I also frequently had that sense with Tony Conrad. Music [was] tremendously important to him, absolutely crucial.
You know, sometimes, you make music, or music is the path that you go down. And sometimes you start working on something else, you know, like something is telling you to pick up a video camera. Those seem to me to be the best kinds of collaborations. If one medium like music isn’t sufficient, then you’re really free to go in any direction.
I think it’s an important thing to recognize that there are so many different mediums of art and the medium of art that you work in isn’t necessarily going to be the most productive or the best way in which to go about doing a project. I feel like I’ve learned so much about music from mediums of art that aren’t music. It helps me to approach things from a different angle.
I think it’s really helpful for people not to identify too strongly with one particular mode. I really think of Marcel Broodthaers moving from being a poet to a visual artist at age 40. He gives a speech at his 40th birthday announcing that he’s becoming an artist. If I’m a musician, it’s not because I have any particular musical talent, but rather because I picked up a guitar at age 13 or 14 and started playing in new wave and punk bands. It shouldn’t be like being ejected into outer space where your exit trajectory, leaving the atmosphere, is the trajectory that you always continue on.
There was an interview with the French philosopher Jacques Rancière in Art Forum, like 14 years ago, with John Kelsey and [Fulvia Carnevale]. The first question to him was something like, “As a philosopher, what does this prepare you to say about contemporary art?” And his response was something like, “To begin with, I don’t speak as a philosopher. I speak as somebody who aims to destroy notions of competence and professionalization.” I think I fell out of my chair when I read it, just because it really resonated for me. It’s such a familiar question, people are asked things based on their disciplinary training or their academic training or their job, like, “Tell us as an art historian, what does this mean?” Or tell us as a musicologist, what does this mean? And usually people play along with that. Rarely do people reject this idea that “I speak as a musicologist” or that “I speak for musicology.” I just thought it was so inspiring. Like a lot of people who grew up playing punk rock, I am at my most ironic when saying things like, “Well, as a musician.”
You mentioned Tony Conrad earlier, do you mind sharing any memories you have with him? Are there specific things you feel you really learned from him?
This could be an entire separate conversation. It’s a bit like talking about improvisation—that was so much about Tony’s fearlessness, something that from the start seemed so different from my own comfort in caution, that I instantly knew I was about to get some serious life lessons. His willingness to argue, to be combative, to speak honestly… you know, he was the sort of person whose presence makes you hold yourself to higher standards. Or funnier ones.
Who in your life have you had or do you have right now, that you feel is very supportive, or has been there in general?
Oh, Cathy Bowman, who I’ve been with for a little over 20 years, but who I met in 1973 in Louisville in first grade.
Wait, first grade?
Yeah, yeah, we met in first grade. Yeah. Our son Emmett is named after the grade school where we met, the Emmet Field Elementary School. Cathy’s a lawyer and runs the LGBTQ and HIV law projects at Brooklyn Legal Services. And so, because she is someone who does something extraordinarily different from what I do on a daily basis, I’m introduced to people through her work and they ask me like, “Are you a lawyer?” And people meet her and then ask, “Are you an artist or musician?” (laughter).
She started doing HIV work in the late 1980s. Before we were a couple, she was a friend who, you know, I couldn’t respect more, couldn’t admire more for what she had committed herself to doing. You and I were talking about how important it is to get outside of music, even as one is making music. But in some ways also to get out of art or cultural production and to not only dwell within that world and not to be lost within that world.
You were saying supportive, like in terms of a person’s generosity and that’s absolutely true, she’s incredibly generous and supportive and critical, and asks smart, tough questions. There’s also just that kind of support that comes from somebody who sets an example for you. That’s funny. I was talking before about models. I don’t want to have any models, but I feel like the example that she sets in her life, I would have to say that’s the greatest form of support, that I’m lucky enough to enjoy. I love her total commitment to social justice. I feel like that’s really at the core of her being, and not only the fact of her job. I feel like that comes through in all of her relationships and friendships, how she treats her family, how she treats my family. You would talk to her for about two minutes and probably get that.
I’m happy you have her in your life. Do you mind sharing one thing that you love about yourself?
That I’m this weird optimist. Three weeks before the  election and I’m this weird optimist. My naïve optimism enables me to like get up in the morning and do what I do.
Have there been instances where you feel like other people were perplexed by your optimism, but you sort of just kept going and it led to something beautiful?
I think it’s just annoying to people (laughter). I don’t know. There are a number of people who I’m close to who struggle with depression, and I think my often perpetual-seeming optimism can be a real source of annoyance. But I do feel like that’s who I am.
I feel like there’s an innate optimism necessary to continue pushing forward after all these years in the many things that you do.
I think that’s right. It’s certainly not born of fatalism (laughter).
The Underflow’s Instant Opaque Evening is out now on Drag City. Susan Howe and David Grubbs’s Concordance will be released in September by Blue Chopsticks. Ryley Walker and Grubbs’s Fight or Flight Simulator is out now on TakuRoku. They also have a studio album coming out this fall on Ryley’s Husky Pants label. Grubbs’s third book-length poem, Good night the pleasure was ours, will be published by Duke University Press in spring 2022.
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.
Giant Claw - Mirror Guide (Orange Milk, 2021)
Press Release info: Like his visual art, the music that Keith Rankin makes under the moniker Giant Claw music glistens with detail, evidence of a rigorous sculpting process relying on experiments with sound and form. Mirror Guide, the fourth full-length Giant Claw LP released through the label Orange Milk, which he co-founded and runs along with Seth Graham, joins a wide catalog including 2017’s Soft Channel and 2014’s Dark Web.
Though Mirror Guide spans a program of high definition sound design and labyrinthine harmonic arrangements, at its core the album focuses on the central voice of a hyperreal, virtual cello performance — manifesting in its final form as something like a concerto for lead instrument and varied accompaniments. Breaking from his long-standing practice of manipulating samples of mainstream pop vocals into unrecognizable volleys of melody, Rankin couples the central cello of Mirror Guide with contributions from a roster of guest vocalists including NTsKi, Tamar Kamin, and Diana Gruber. The album presents both his most organic experiments somewhere on the outskirts of the pop tradition, and his most progressive explorations of instrumental composition.
Purchase Mirror Guide at Bandcamp.
Maxie Younger: Mirror Guide boasts what’s probably the strongest start to any of Giant Claw’s LPs to date; opening track “Earther” pushes the trademark swells of indeterminacy Keith Rankin honed on 2017’s Soft Channel to new heights by anchoring them around a single element, the warm, airy pizzicato plucks of a cello. Pitches stop, start, and cut into one another with the bloodless precision of scalpels: I’m reminded of futurist visions of symphonic orchestras, the synthetic coloratura of Plavalaguna. Mirror Guide excavates and reanimates the full dynamic range of the cello across its eight tracks, stitching pieces upon pieces, reedy swells paired with dry stabs over unpredictable beats that gleam like clear lucite: individual elements don’t blend with one another so much as they lie suspended, cast in resin, parts that form new wholes at different viewing angles.
The album’s weaknesses mostly lie in the holdover patterns it carries from Soft Channel. Songs spend too much time railroading themselves into the same formulae, a self-impressed sort of aimlessness that turns grating in its refusal to cede to a consistent rhythmic pattern. The result turns monotonous: a constant, uncompromising tension that renders the whole rope slack. With Rankin’s steps into calmer, more conventionally orchestrated soundscapes come growing pains—it’s thrilling to bear witness to his expansion, but I can’t help but strain my neck to try and catch a glimpse of what’s around the corner.
Sunik Kim: My jaw hit the floor when I pressed play on this—the boinging shards of cello and bouncing-ball percussive ratcheting were so explosive and immaculately organized that I could barely wrap my head around how they were created. The rhythmic fractures and fluctuations exerted a gravitational pull, expanding and contracting with an ease as natural as breathing. However—against all my excited inclinations—as the album progressed, this firecracker sound began to feel... too perfect. The immaculate timbral and rhythmic control that initially wowed quickly began to feel cold and mechanical in a way that detracted from my experience of the music. Part of this feeling stems from sheer repetition and over-exposure: as the album progresses, the stabby cello sound becomes grating in its clackiness (“Mir-Cam Online”), the frenetic stop-start rhythms become fatiguing, the lush, Sims-esque tonal foundation becomes cloying and saccharine, and the bouncing ball just bounces and bounces to eternity. As a result, the formal inventiveness that sustains this music starts to feel flashy and showy, in need of a more substantive rootedness and purpose. The highs are still high—this is not the kind of music that is made every day—but these drawbacks ultimately limit the album’s dazzling potential.
Gil Sansón: The music seems to start, fall flat on its face, start again, and then fall in a different way—I’m reminded of Christian Wolff’s Burdocks. “Earther”’s three-note phrase gets reiterated amongst a variety of stuttering sounds, and marks a central notion of Mirror Guide: melody. It comes in many forms and guises, and it’s undeveloped in a traditional sense. It stutters, tramples upon itself, changes timbre, but always maintains a cantabile quality. Meanwhile, the music interrupts the space by way of glitch, and a current of digital tremolo moves things along without ever settling in one place for long.
Keith Rankin could have kept this going, but he utilizes vocals on some tracks, and takes a slightly different approach with each one. “Disworld,” for example, features NTsKi’s voice without melody—it’s all spoken. The voice finally claims the spotlight in “Until Mirror,” which has Tamar Kamin’s lovely melodic voice floating atop the ever-changing soundscape—there’s glimpses and reflections of Rock in Opposition, ’80s rock and pop, old English madrigals and hymns—all while coalescing both naturally and gracefully. I would say Rankin knows that this refusal to identify with one genre, or to settle in one direction, is his best weapon—it’s what gives the album an edge, and is the key to understanding his vision: there’s a sense of disorientation throughout Mirror Guide, but it all begins to feel familiar and cozy. And then all of these threads are woven into the album’s best track, “Mirror Guide Pt. II (you and me),” which at nine minutes, neatly encapsulates the album into a single statement.
Mark Cutler: Like many, I came to Keith Rankin’s Giant Claw project through his very zeitgeist-catching flurries of pitch-shifted vocals and MIDI instruments, circa 2014-15. Those albums captured what was exhilarating and exhausting about the internet, in a time when everyone seemed to be talking about the “New Aesthetic.” The aptly conceived and titled DARK WEB was one of my favourite albums of that year; it’s also an album I don’t think I could stand enough to revisit now. Perhaps Rankin was exhausted too, because it’s taken him a fair few years to return with Mirror Guide. It is a deeper, more patient, more interesting album than any he’s put out to date.
Superficially, Mirror Guide continues where Soft Channel left off. Musical elements still cut in and out abruptly, sometimes looping or changing speeds, sometimes swelling abruptly or slamming from full-blast into total silence. Yet the elements themselves sound less like shuffling through the Tiny Mix Tapes newsfeed on acid, and more like they once belonged to a single, coherent song. There is a consistent emphasis on acoustic instruments and violins, trumpets and woodwinds—even when Rankin slivers them into quarter-second flutters, or smacks them into walls of digital noise. The whole album has a shattered, symphonic quality, which makes it both more compositionally interesting and less memetically fatiguing than his eflux-addled mid-2010s works.
Lucy Frost: Mirror Guide is a flood of details, digital and analogue. It snips and dices the elements of its arrangement into a grand chemical solution: plucked strings, fruity and mellow; disembodied voices tickling the edges of language; electrical static and splashes of sunny ambiance. I hear brass and I hear sequencers, I hear the golden, throaty chiming of bells. I hear in all of it a high-piled accumulation of energies, colors, voices, spaces, shapes, and shadows. I hear that accumulation as you might hear a tide gathering high on a beach before sunrise: wave creeping ahead of wave, getting a little nearer you as the moon sails overhead, spraying foam up the sand into morning. It’s the sound of something gathering, mounting a swell of substance in larger and larger leaps.
I wouldn’t know how to categorize Mirror Guide. It’s too dynamic and percussive to be ambient, but its breathy Babel of textures draws all attention away from melody or rhythm. “Composition” doesn’t seem like the right word for what Keith Rankin has done here—“metabolism” would be a better fit. The details splash together, compressing the expressive ranges of instruments and voices into pinpricks, flashing their moods and potencies in rapid agglutinations, each strike of the keys or the strings making a sharp corner in one large polygonal prism; a jagged crystal, catching sunlight here and there, an arbitrary fistful of sparks as you turn it in your hand. It has the ephemeral charm of a crystal, too, the fascination of solid translucence playing tricks with the light, filtering and coloring the day with its tint, but at last estranging the attention when the gleam has lost that vivacious novelty. But again, like a chunk of quartz you keep on your desk, it holds the attention in brief but numberless spells. You may get tired of looking at it after five minutes or half an hour at any one time, but set it down for long enough and there’ll always come a new opportunity to gaze into its glassy depth and see something new; or, which amounts to the same, to see something old in a new way.
Samuel McLemore: Every track here sounds like someone has spent a very long time tweaking and perfecting every single detail without addressing the basic weaknesses of the underlying musical material. The all-digital instrumentation sounds fantastic, with the muted trumpet soundalike on the “Mir-Cam” suite stealing the show for me, but because the harmonic and melodic material in the album is so limited to a single repeated phrase or note—and because there’s a focus on a particular set of digital instruments—fatigue and boredom sets in quite quickly. The opener “Earther” is a good synecdoche for my problems with the rest of the album: A phrase plays on a MIDI cello, and then repeats over and over and over, changes timbre, expands into an orchestral hit and cycles through dozens of filters and effects, all without reaching coherence or narrative, or even changing the basic, boring phrase that it started out as. Every track seems to follow this pattern: a simple idea gets refracted through a million different lenses without ever being altered. It’s a concept that has a lot of promise, I just wish Rankin had chosen more interesting material to start with.
Zhenzhen Yu: Perhaps it would be cheating to describe an album entitled Mirror Guide as tautological, but it’s all that comes to mind when I hear the carefully notched, polished nature of its contents. Polished, indeed: the startling turn to coherence on the tracklist is one thing, with titles finally being named rather than numbered (even if most are variances on “mirror”, anyway). For another, there’s more of a coherent goal and concept, even on an album comparatively stripped back from a generally maximalist producer. As Giant Claw, Keith Rankin has long explored a more skeletal approach to the classic Orange Milk Sound: Deep Thoughts worked well as a refractive interpolation of James Ferraro-esque pop, but the more inundated and directionless Soft Channel felt like a muddy step back. Yet even in Mirror Guide’s remaining cyclical chaos, Rankin has engineered a lacquered, high-tech simplicity, and its weight centers the total body of the album.
The repetition and refraction of harder MIDI textures— in the notched, curt motif of the cellist’s pizzicato, or the tone of piano keys so abruptly clear they’re ghostly— suggests a more pared down storyline. “Mir-Cam Setup” flirts with a thicker and more miasmic atmosphere within its truncated horns, one that recalls a more direct and Rankin-typical nostalgia; subsequently, the transition into “Mir-Cam Online” enters with a popping barrage of plastic-coated plucks, like slim tree trunks straining in the wind, before erupting into walls of blunt digitalism. Elsewhere, Tamar Kamin’s vocals on lead single “Until Mirror” are gently painted like brushstrokes, while NTsKi’s are wielded like small daggers. The similarly reflected two-part titular tracks are feasts of attunement. The highlight of the album, “Mirror Guide, Pt. I,” has a truly euphoric, video game-like blast of sound that rounds out the climax. Nevertheless, even with a much more succinct mission, it’s still difficult to glean an unbroken enjoyment from this project. There’s often not enough time to sit with an interesting concept, whether that be a newfound MIDI minimalism or a re-interpretation of vaporwave-like maximalism. It’s not at all unpleasant to listen to, but an atonality is maintained with enough inconsistency to remain somewhat aimless, even if cleverly textured.
Shy Thompson: As I listen to Giant Claw’s Mirror Guide, the concept of a “found” sound keeps coming to the front of my mind. Generally, the term implies a transformation of something incidental into something musical; sound obtained passively that you actively repurpose. I keep thinking about it because I get the sense Keith Rankin’s musical tool roll is full of things he’s picked up from any and everywhere—but, fundamentally, every sound is being treated like a priceless treasure. The MIDI cello is the framework upon which the rest of the album sits, accomplishing things no human musician could while feeling like it’s still exercising restraint—as if it’s being wielded by a being with 88 fingers that doesn’t think you’d be able to comprehend the upper limits of its power. While not uncommon to see Giant Claw releases described as sound collage, I think it’s more appropriate to call them kinetic sculpture; each unit thoughtfully placed among the rest so that they move in poetic unison, even though it might look like a monstrosity that shouldn’t work.
Dominic Coles: From the very start of Mirror Guide it is clear that something is awry. Plucked strings and pizzicato figurations give way to corrupted digital artifacts. Melodies fragment into uncanny, synthetic voices while rhythmic ostinatos repeat in a frenzied and irregular pulse. Giant Claw’s new record is a kind of digital rococo, wherein musical vocabularies from the distant past are smashed through the corrosive, digital logic of the computer processor, resulting in a surreal and surprising hybrid language.
This incongruous language produces a startling set of sonic novelties. In the record’s opening track, “Earther,” pizzicato strings are punctuated by a series of disjunct digital glitches. One could hear these moments of articulation as a computational error that interrupts the string texture. On further listening, however, these ruptures seem to resemble a Baroque consort, but one composed of corrupted harpsichords and rotting theorbos repolished and refurbished with sleek metal finishes and synthetic polymer components.
This record’s surrealism lies in its compression of multiple genres. One can hear strains of Scarlatti and Couperin, but the record’s particular self-awareness bears a greater resemblance to the Neoclassical stylings of Stravinsky and Hindemith (by way of the 21st century’s most abject digital synthesis softwares). Mirror Guide fluidly traverses the sonic space between Bernard Parmegiani, John Oswald, Wendy Carlos, and Handel. This is hyper-dense music that will leave the listener dizzied by any attempt to fully grasp its contents and various points of reference.
In essence, one could hear Mirror Guide as an auditory experience of the digital domain. In this digital space, time and history are seemingly compressed into the unified plane of binary information. All events encoded into the computer’s processor are reduced to a numerical logic that links disparate and discrete signals via their shared identity as electrical data. In this sense, composers from Telemann to Vaggione are fused through their participation in a shared electrical field. To listen to Mirror Guide means to fully immerse oneself in this cybernetic space that merges a sleek futurity with the distant past.
Kiri-uu - Creak-whoosh (STROOM.tv, 2021)
Press Release info: There is an overarching hypothesis that music and place are inextricably linked. Where the ancient folksong may be regionally grounded, migration and modernity have confused this notion. Who owns what is by definition the music of the people and not of the composer? Passed down by generations and subject to revision, reappraisal and re-telling, music develops over time in the public domain; new routes providing new understandings.
In the words of Charles Seeger this is the concept of the folk process. ‘Creak Whoosh’ is a collection of choral ballads originating in the Finno-Ugric regions of Estonia and Ingria, electronically adapted predominantly by Olev Muska and Mihkel Tartu, based around the contemporary arrangements of Veljo Tormis. Originally established as ‘Kiri-uu’, the project was undertaken by the children of Estonian refugees, most of whom grew up over 8,000 miles away in the metropolis of Sydney, Australia. With the majority having never visited the land of their ancestors prior to the tour of 1989, the first generations reshaping of these ancient folk tales conveys Seeger’s process amidst displacement and its subsequent fringe-culture. Fusing modern recording technologies and synthesised instrumentation with themes of nature and eternity, for a short time the Kiri-uu choir dictated their own unique reading of Estonian music for the Australian market.
Purchase Creak-whoosh at Bandcamp.
Maxie Younger: It’s probably a mark of its success that I’m stumped at how to respond to Creak-whoosh. The compilation operates on logic that feels entirely foreign to my perspective, shoving folk chants into a broad patchwork quilt of new-age and avant-pop trends: ambient drones, warped, toy-like drum machine beats, haunting choral runs that wade through soupy walls of reverb. When the verses themselves aren’t too obscured by all these bells and whistles, the album becomes quite enchanting. “Harjumaa Lepikud / The Alder Groves Of Harjumaa” might even be one of my favorite songs I’ve heard this year, a hair-raising procession of esoteric chord changes, male and female voices chanting against one another at perpendicular angles, brief microtones that glimmer from the stereo field like nighttime fireflies. This is Kiri-uu’s sweet spot: folk song that genuinely transports, steeped in atmospheres detached from reality—a beautiful time capsule of conversations between the then-present and the imagined past. Some of Creak-woosh is wildly dated in ways that can’t be helped, but the stuff that works is well worth sitting through the cheese; throughout, I’m enamored by its eager, sometimes fumbling fascination with the process.
Sunik Kim: This is a hushed, tumbling collection that derives its momentum from a constant interlocking and rearrangement of shifting vocal elements. The clearly contemporary-ish production—most striking on clattering dance track “Tšimmairuudiralla,” but present throughout—plucks it from the fantastical and pastoral and places it in an almost oddly club-like sonic territory; some of the rounded, lightly-reverbed percussive hits on tracks like “Piirileikkilaulu / Roundelay” sound like classic house or techno samples. Far from being a tacked-on decision (a crude ‘updating’ of a traditional sound), the synthetic, rubbery production dances nicely with the looping, refracting vocal lines, forming a sound that feels simultaneously new and comfortingly familiar. Though there is a feeling of restless forward movement that drives each song, the overall effect is that of stasis; there are few peaks and valleys, and many of the tracks dissolve into each other, taking this release just a couple notches below compelling into the merely pleasant.
Samuel McLemore: The story of Kiri-uu the band—the children of immigrants attempting to forge a true connection with their family’s homeland through music—is a fascinating one, and a Veljo Tormis namedrop in the liner notes all but confirms their belief in his idea of folk music as a vessel for sacred cultural knowledge. Estonian folk music is theorized (somewhat debatably) to be some of the most authentic in Europe to pre-Christian pagan traditions, and Kiri-uu gracefully shows off the gorgeous close vocal harmonies and lilting melodies that characterize it. Curiously, all of this fascinating history is presented only glancingly, in a bizarrely truncated reissue only half the length of the original release. The only material not from that album is the grating “Tšimmairuudiralla,” both the longest and weakest track here, and noticeably out of place next to the far more traditional sound of every single other track. A head-scratching presentation to some decent material.
Marshall Gu: I understand the appeal of attempting to “modernize” folk music. I do! Modern is sexy! Bob Dylan should have brought out the Minimoog to really shock the folkies! The press release hopes that these 1988 originals will help them reach “a truly global audience,” and backing up the choirs with electronic pads and modern recording tech should theoretically make it more palatable for today’s audiences. But on Creak-whoosh, the electronic additions from Olev Muska and Mihkel Tartu have an unintended consequence: they blur the choral beauty of these songs into a haze. The human voices—which should be the draw of this music in the first place—sound touched up in a way that makes them sound synthetic in places. For example, on “Hällilaul,” the voice sounds cold and distant, buried underneath ambient keyboards going “Whoosh!”, and what results is the furthest thing from a lullaby (which the Estonian title translates to). In fact, it sounds more like a robot nurse cooing you to sleep.
With all this, it is no surprise that my favourite songs here are the ones that are the least treated, particularly “Ilu Neiu Kiigel,” but even that has a distracting electronic backdrop as the harmonies ebb and flow. Meanwhile, closer “Kiik Tahab Kindaid” backs the lead vocalists with angelic backing vocals and a simple Nordic drum, and I can’t help but wish more songs were in that style, where the electronics are actually playing a support role instead of fighting for lead. In that regard, “Tšimmairuudiralla” sticks out like a sore thumb: a Certified Banger™ that comes early on, and ironically emblematic of how downplayed the vocals turn out to be later on. An analogy can be made here to the failure of New Coke where Coca-Cola thought its audience wanted something sweeter, or in this case, more modern, when I would have been happy with the real thing.
Adesh Thapliyal: The very best albums of the folk-fusion boom of the long ’90s used electronica to bring out the repressed aesthetic dimensions of folk music, especially the qualities suppressed by Western Art music's white supermacist framework. Creak-whoosh, originally composed in ’88, is not one of those albums. The album overlays Estonian choral music over synth drones and reverb-drenched percussion, which mostly reinforces the common associations of Eastern European choral music: the fairy-like delicacy, the feminine purity, the unfathomable Otherness. The best work here either exercises restraint with the technical wizardry, like “Ilu Neiu Kiigel,” or abandons the musical motifs of the album entirely, like "Tšimmairuudiralla," a lopsided take on techno. As a whole, however, the album further mystifies the music it wants to represent, and for that, Creak-whoosh is for historical interest only.
Gil Sansón: This is traditional folk music seen through the prism of migration, and a way to see how a tradition mutates when away from the land it originated from. What can be seen as forced compromise also shows great potential for something new given it retains the key aspects of the original and host cultures. That seems to be the premise of this album. There’s a mix between the traditional Estonian, Ingrian and Votian music and the relatively standard sounds of today’s pop music, but often the aesthetic choices are charming and unusual. You can tell the artists would be happy to find themselves breaking into the type of mainstream success that certain artists combining folk elements with broader pop sensibilities have achieved on occasion, but at the same time, they can’t help but sound leftfield—this is a good thing.
The record alternates short choral pieces with longer tracks that stretch into instrumental territory that’s not so much folk as the type of cottage-industry pop pioneered by the Rough Trade label with artists like Scritti Politti. It’s a realm in which Robert Wyatt is more important than The Beatles. The choral arrangements closely follow the originals, apart from the digital sheen of studio production and post-production. Somehow the coldness of the production illustrates the pledge of immigrants in their host country, the combination of wanting to cling to cultural identity and the alienation of being “not one of us.” In songs like “Lullaby,” the voice almost drowns under the swell of digital synth-string washes. These aesthetic choices are used to point at the very real culture clashes that immigrants face, but you never feel like you’re being lectured, thankfully.
Whoosh-creek avoids falling into a naïve optimism because the music never loses its dignity in the modernization process. It’s probably because this process is critically examined: the digital sound isn’t fetishized, and instead leaves plenty of room to appreciate the irony implied. More importantly, it’s likely that a few of the songs sink their hooks on the listener and prompt further investigation of the originals, as the intention of the album isn’t to present new standards as much as revealing a contradiction. Interestingly, “Tšimmairuudiralla” seems out of place compared to the rest, but on repeated listens it offers a tasty complement to the rest, pointing out where the musical offspring of the immigrant and host cultures may end up being when nationalist paranoia is cast out.
Jim O’Rourke - Too Compliment (DDS, 2021)
Press Release info: Playing up to and into DDS’ freeform aesthetics, O’Rourke renders 40 minutes shearing hyaline synth tones and ruptured rhythm generated at his Steamroom facilities in Tokyo, a modular out-zone trawling that harks back to his iconic Mego releases and some of the more recent Steamroom experiments. It’s an ideal addition to the ever expanding DDS cosmos, following Demdike’s recent ‘Drum Machine’ expo with a slice of purist and screwed modular magick that transcends early electronics and modern styles in pursuit of musical sensations that defy stylistic brackets.
Too Compliment was assembled using a bespoke Hordijk modular system, a rare West Coast-style setup hand made by Dutch engineer Rob Hordijk. O'Rourke focuses on the frequency shifter here, using it to coax out fluxing tone thickets, haphazard frequencies and elongated drone corridors. It's transportive stuff, harking back to the early days of private press academic synth music but also sitting on edge alongside Autechre's recent long-form work, as well as O'Rourke's classic "I'm Happy, And I'm Singing, And A 1, 2, 3, 4”
In O’Rourke’s hands, the mass of electronics takes on throbbing, organic dimensions, congealing grey matter and purplish veins of fluid in viscous transitions that glisten and spark with invention as they form new tissue. What comes out is as unearthly as the earliest electronic music, but also blessed with a psychedelc spirit in a way that’s long kept O’Rourke right out on his own, teetering between paradigms yet never settling into any single style. If you’ve always been keen on finding a way into that sprawling soundworld, 'Too Compliment’ is a perfect entry point into a highly rewarding creative macrocosm.
Purchase Too Compliment at Boomkat.
Mark Cutler: It’s Jim O’Rourke. Dude puts out like fifteen hours of music a year and it’s pretty much always great. Too Compliment feels like a nice counterpoint to the Ankersmit record we reviewed last month, both because O’Rourke is working with a radically different style of synth and because his approach is, perhaps as a consequence of the aforementioned, diametrically opposed to Ankersmit’s monastic drone study. This album made me think often of a room full of bouncy balls, ricocheting between corners and colliding in midair. Much of the time, we are hearing more sounds than we can count, ramping and veering across the audible spectrum and between the left and right channels. Even as the piece slows, on its second side, to a stately progression of recognizeable chords, tuneless electronic chimes bloom and morph relentlessly over the surface. In terms of concept or focus, I don’t think this album particularly stands above O’Rourke’s regular Steamroom releases in the way that, say, last year’s Shutting Down Here did. But it’s a lovely, lovely slice of music regardless.
Nick Zanca: At this juncture, Maestro O’Rourke has churned out an alarming amount of abstract music at a prolific rate these past few years, and it ultimately begs two recurring questions: does this man ever sleep—and how does he determine which sessions he saves for the Steamroom over those he ends up offering for certain commissions? At first, this distinction seems indeterminate; readers who sat with his conversation with our editor last year might say that sonic research serves as the backbone of his Bandcamp—but what is the rationale for a murky match-up with DDS, amid their roster of dance-music deviants? The pairing makes much more sense upon pressing play: instantly, we witness a percussive and primitive side of Jim’s synthwork that has rarely shown its face before this release, detailing Doppler-effected drums stretched to granular limits. For the most part though, there’s nothing new here—the laserlike oscillations that make up the middle of this two-parter feel cut from the same concrète cloth as the golden years of GRM before the piece calmly culminates in a major-key long-thin-wire drone; this is a number we’ve heard him do plenty of times now. For those expecting a masterstroke, don’t expect much to be happy and singing about; for the Jim completists, Too Compliment is a welcome addition to his curio cabinet.
Sunik Kim: This flanged, teeming sound is a nice turn for O’Rourke—it’s always fun to hear his more chaotic side. The crawling, thudding percussive stretches are the clear highlights: there is a remarkable heft and density to these burps and gurgles as they careen, collide and collapse on the soundstage. The quieter, more sustained sections that form the bulk of this release feel too aimless in comparison—bleeps in space—edging dangerously towards noodly hard-drive fodder. There is undeniably an audible structure that roots the piece as it cycles sinusoidally through different sonic portraits, but those long, meandering sections disperse any overarching feeling of purpose or drive, making the piece feel like a cobbling-together of fragments rather than a unified whole. There is nothing inherently wrong with that; but when so much of the music verges on jam-session cutting room floor territory, structure and drive are the only antidote.
Vincent Jenewein: Too Compliment’s A-side starts out with chaos; on both edges of the stereo field, resonant, flanged transients and vocal-ish formants stomp around asynchronously. What follows is a cacophony of: frequency-shifted, icy, spectral harmonics; audio-rate modulation noises; and percussive, vocoder-esque sounds that remind me of Gérard Grisey’s Les Chants de l’amour. A few more minutes in, things take a calmer direction: a warm, pitch-warbled pad and transient-heavy sounds that resemble water or glass. Then, sweeping and modulating resonances descend into feedback over a moving bed of low frequency pulses. After the twelve-minute mark, complex, metallic harmonics segue into a network of string-like drones reminiscent of later Autechre. This is the side’s best part and would have benefitted from more playtime.
Side B opens with more percussive flanging, though with a more metric rhythm. It almost feels like a different version or remix of the A-side’s opening. Following it, things continuously slow down and head towards a symphonic opening around nine minutes. The high register is flooded with glassy, springing resonant decays and slow, shimmering lines whose harmonies signal a change in direction away from the high-velocity mania of the opening. Later, the composition reaches equilibrium—total calmness. The last three minutes “cash out” the rest of the composition, when a swarm of gorgeous, reverberant strings—still accompanied by shifting glassy harmonics—plays a slow concluding encore.
Overall, side B feels slightly stronger to me, although both parts need to be viewed as part of a single, overarching composition. What makes Too Compliment somewhat unusual compared to much of O'Rourke's slow, drone-based work is its commitment to a rapid-fire, complex, style of composition somewhat reminiscent of post-war electroacoustic and musique concréte. It’s hard to keep track of all of the changes in direction—just as something settles in, something new appears. This is skip-resistant music that needs to be listened through in its entirety.
Given the sheer amount of carefully designed sonic material packed into this barely forty minute piece, it is clear that a great deal of effort went into this. Yet, at times, it does resemble a random, rotating grab-bag of typical “experimental electronic” sounds. I think especially the more emotional parts on side B would shine a bit more if some of the earlier noisy parts were trimmed down a bit—perhaps this is part of the overall teleology of the piece. Without a score or documentation, it’s hard to tell. Overall, and despite occasional frustrations, Too Compliment does feel rewarding of attentive listening in a way that few contemporary music does.
Marshall Gu: I have always been put off by the ironic distance in Jim O’Rourke’s work—grotesque album covers that grace his pop albums to their occasional off-putting lyrics under the guise of “humour.” I tried looking for that same irony here, but truth be told, I cannot find any trace of it; of course, it’s harder to spot irony in this kind of music. And yet, the ending of the album took me by surprise: the synth takes on a very church-like organ sound with its rising and sustained tones, and for a few seconds, Too Compliment sounds incredibly austere for an album that sounded very much like chaos and coldness before that.
Despite the irony, I like Jim O’Rourke’s music enough to have dutifully heard all of his (for lack of a better term) pop albums, but didn’t love any of them enough to check out his non-pop albums beyond a few throughout his career. And so Too Compliment took me by surprise since it is very reminiscent of Autechre, and the vast stretch of cold ambient on the second half could have been on NTS Session 4. The press release mentions I'm Happy, and I'm Singing, and a 1, 2, 3, 4 as a point of comparison as well, but that album actually does play like a happier, childlike version of this one, with the textures more eager to bounce around. By contrast, Too Compliment doesn’t bounce. So the question is, what does Too Compliment do? Not enough for me to foresee myself coming back, and so I return to my cave of ignorance on what O’Rourke is up to these days, at least, until he releases Bad Timing 2.
Samuel McLemore: The mother-to-be is so excited she can hardly sit still; the father-to-be is so nervous he can’t stop pacing back and forth. The technician has arrived. He sets up his equipment, hooks the cables into the monitor and attaches the bio-sensors. The silence is broken by a sudden multitude of noises jittering in every direction. The husband cries out, startled, but the technician, his salt-and-pepper beard and soft green cardigan giving him an air of gentle authority, assures him that this is all a part of the calibration process. The new world always demands we must hear it on its own terms first. The klaxon smoothes out into a hypnotic, but irregular, pulse which fades out and then back in, changing shape from moment to moment. Time stretches on, long gaps appear between the changes and the parents glance nervously at each other, not sure if they have missed some important signal, if the show was already over and they were revealing their ignorance through a lack of reaction. But before they can muster up the courage to ask the technician to explain what is happening it appears on the monitor clear as day: hidden in the waveforms the words “IT’S A BUCHLA!” scroll by. The mother-to-be shrieks in excitement; the father-to-be convulses in ecstasy; the technician leaves, shutting the door behind him with a smile—another day's work is done.
Shy Thompson: On November 14th, 2004, a Navy fighter pilot named Alex Dietrich had what she believed to be an encounter with a UFO. A strange aircraft was picked up by radar that didn’t seem to be obeying the laws of physics; it darted around in the sky in a way no manmade ever could, purportedly dropping over 80,000 feet in altitude in a split second. Dietrich was sent out to investigate this incomprehensible phenomenon along with another pilot. In a recent interview with 60 Minutes, she went on record about the event publicly for the first time, explaining what she saw: “It jumped from spot to spot, and tumbled around in a way that was unpredictable. The whole time we’re on the radio with each other just losing our minds.” Another military jet caught the object on an infrared camera, and one of the pilots remarked that it resembled a breath mint, which is why this famous UFO sighting was christened the “Tic-Tac Incident.”
Why am I talking about UFO sightings? Because if I were listening to anything else but Jim O’Rourke’s newest album Too Compliment, I don’t think I’d be nearly as freaked out reading about this shit at 3 in the morning. I’m normally alright hanging out by myself in the dark at the hours, but I was watching someone play through a horror game earlier and my malleable mind was already primed for fucked-up stuff. Reading through a silly Twitter thread about military UFO sightings, the alien squeals and electronic deep-ear massaging of this album filled me with a sense of dread that I was about to be carried away by the Flatwoods monster. I actually like being scared—it makes me feel weird in a way that I think is interesting—but I’ll still feel silly as I power walk to the bedroom right after I’m finished writing this. I’m probably going to associate this album with weird paranormal stuff forever, too.
Gil Sansón: Jim O’Rourke has a lot of records, in all sorts of genres, so it’s hard to imagine a typical fan or completist of his vast output. Of course, not all of it is indispensable, but the quality control is high and none of the records feel like he’s phoning in. Instead, the impression I have is that of an artist who enjoys zoning in on a particular area to mine something worth listening to. Too Compliment has many of the characteristics of his electroacoustic production: constant reference to matters outside of music while also denying explanation, honoring his canon of artists from the past (Ives, Parmegiani), the relationship between music and film, and a flair for confounding expectations on behalf of the listener.
First impressions are often deceiving with his work, and sometimes one feels that the music is a commentary, even as it stands on its own. The record is a sonic object, hiding nothing about its processing, not trying to be original, and quite similar in character on both sides. Side A is more hectic: a liquidy surface sound, more focused on texture. But near the end, it moves to an elegiac glass harmonica that appears closer in spirit to those instrumental interludes on Genesis’s The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, one of O’Rourke’s lifelong favorites. Side B starts in a similar manner, as if emphasizing that these are two sides of the same coin, but it soon expands into the same forlorn views of the end of side A, with glassy sounds giving room to violin. The music is stripped of embellishments and it’s spacious enough that you could call it a drone record. As it moves along, it sounds closer in spirit to John Luther Adams than, say, Tony Conrad. And when it ends, it does so abruptly, giving the impression that this could have kept going on, that it never needs to stop.
Matthew LaBarbera: Another one for the pile! I must admit that I have become quite wary, and most certainly wearied, in recent years by the interminable glut of albums—an equivalent torrent of breathless PR salvos—centered around the modular synthesizer. Even more so with the more recent assertion of the synthesizer as high-end lifestyle commodity which has produced its own mass of content, largely on YouTube and Instagram, in the form of bloodless, ambient “jams.” And so, in a sense, my disappointment is doubled and here I am pincered.
First for being subjected to whatever leaden drift or squirmy Autechre aping I have been bullied into listening to by Big Experimental Music, and second for that inevitable moment when I scroll to the bottom of the Bandcamp page, see “composed on Eurorack synthesizer,” and sink a little further into my weariness. None of this is the fault of the instruments nor even the artists, but I can’t help but shake the feeling of something in a greater creative consciousness being caught in the threshing maw and pulped to pap.
Still, I listen. There is something of an obvious irony that much of what I encounter now comes off as so much staider than some of the inaugural electronic releases. Check the comments, the people agree with me. It really does sound, as the ring-modded scores of scores of science fiction flicks of the ’50s and ’60s suggest, like a new planet, born in some far-off cosmos, swimming into our ken.
Despite the prohibitive cost that meant really only people with the support of government, universities, or corporations could use these synthesizers, there was at the core of these machines a potential for the radical rejection of form that could not have been possible earlier. Instead of the parts that compose the physical body of an acoustic instrument, a synthesizer is constructed of independent and reconfigurable cells that exist outside of reference and obligation to any ideal of an instrument. It is, conceptually at least, an organism made only of particulars; amorphous and adaptable, a truly protean instrument for truly protean creatures.
That is why I get a little disappointed that music made in 1957 feels as new or newer than material released today. It appears to me our modular imagination has not advanced too far beyond the late ’50s and ’60s. While early efforts seemed to be exploring the frontiers, at a certain point in time those edges have calcified into boundaries. The future of the sounds of the future determined right from the start. It is tempting to imagine alternate histories. Given the availability of portable, keyboard-controlled synthesizers in the ’70s this does make sense though, and a wider interest in modular synthesis wouldn’t really return until the release of the Eurorack format in the ’90s.
(On those occasions when you find yourself in conversation with an old synth-head, you might bear witness to a powerful experience of uchronia. Amidst long digressions into the heady old days, you might catch sight of a wistful gleam or melancholic quarter-smile. They are gone: living, if only for a moment, in that beautiful world in which Buchla’s became the predominant design paradigm.)
So it is with a mixture of hope (non-Eurorack system, decent sign) and skepticism (“purist and screwed modular magick”) that I approach Too Compliment, knowing that it might merely come to represent another battle in the struggle between myself and the Boomkat “product review” box.
Both sides kick off with the same patch: great walloping astral social clubs rebounding off cyberkinetic springboards. After tossing you down a rubberized stairwell, each side develops, like the children of Echidna, into its own monster. The language of monstrosity is appropriate here; O’Rourke stages his own resistance to form in a program of chimerization, the gradual deformation of one beast into a hissing, bleating, roaring menagerie. Even the cover implies this plasticity in its pitted warped mirror.
Take for example a passage just a few minutes into the first half in which O’Rourke undertakes an exercise in pseudo-hydrophonics. Following some pachinko cabinet riffing, we begin our descent by bathysphere. The underside of icebergs cracking morphs into delphine chatter. In a few moments we find ourselves in a small cloud of Alka-Seltzer sizzles which later ventures into more Sauvage territory.
While not often so condensed and fluid, gestures such as these are the highlight of Too Compliment. Listening closely, it becomes an exciting enterprise to trace the contours of the sound, growth and cleavage constantly shaping its surface. It approaches, much more so than another recently released album, an embryology of sound.
The record does flag a bit on the second side. A terrific section—a battery of bagpipes conjuring up a razor-flecked whirlwind—elides into a rather dull passage of rippling bass tones and pealing stereo novae. Some previously deployed sounds return to fill out the space, but the intensity never really returns. We hear scrapes of that metal edge again, but maybe he’s just paring his fingernails. That drone swells again, but to flabbiness. There’s little life here as if, hands sore from twisting knobs and plugging patches, O’Rourke has decided to sit back and let the system run itself out.
So, in the last instance, has Papa Bear O’Rourke done it? Has he paid proper reverence to his predecessors and restored the faith? Trail-blazed and expanded our entire economy of imagination? Not really. The edges of the map have not moved, but it is quite fine refection nonetheless and still the best advertised-as-modular release I’ve heard in a while.
Thank you for reading the sixty-fifth issue of Tone Glow. Shout out to the weird optimists.
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.