In his new monthly column, Alex Tripp will take us back 5 years to give a closer look at what he was listening to throughout 2016, and the fluctuating nature of our relationship with music.
by Alex Tripp
Around the end of 2015, I had the idea to start keeping track of the music I heard. I thought it would be fun to see what my behavior looks like, what kinds of relationships I’m building over time.The five-year milestone seems like a good point to check in with what I was listening to, how I treated it, and how my feelings have developed, now that it is solidly a product of the past.
I generally don’t like to hear an album twice in the same day, I start to lose appreciation for what it is and resent it for not satisfying all of the other possibilities that it could have fulfilled. I’ll hear something new that blows me away, give it some thought, and then I’ll try to put a bit of variety between it and my next listen. I’ll still come back pretty quickly when the music is immediately striking. After a while, it drifts away, returning every few weeks, which turn into months, and then years. This results in the total listening of any isolated moment showcasing some kind of balance between musical experiences already assimilated, a flurry of new experiences that haven’t gotten far beyond the initial chance they were given, and then a few that get their moment in the spotlight, in the process of being assimilated.
This isn’t meant to exemplify my process, I don’t think there’s one right way or that people should take my approach, or that the specifics would necessarily be typical. But I think, in addition to the opportunity to share music that is meaningful to me, this series can take a critical look at the way music becomes meaningful through repetition and reflection over time, even if your musical interests or listening habits are completely different.
With that out of the way, here are the most prominent features of my January:
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I spend a lot of time with contemporary music, and when the end of the year comes, I find myself getting caught up in all of the retrospective thinking that goes on. I’ll try to take stock of what I heard, and recognize the music that I developed the deepest connections with. A lot of my listening in January was a continuation of this process.
Some of the activity was focused around the music that I already recognized as making a tremendous impact on me in the year, like Joshua Abrams’ Magnetoception and the self-titled album by Metasplice. The Abrams album is a gem, it starts off with two subtle, lengthy pieces led by Abrams’ bassline and incredible frame drum work from Hamid Drake, with hints of guitar ringing out over select portions, while the second half has Drake move behind a drum kit and the guitars front and center. The entire experience is like being given a half hour to gather yourself, and then using that focus to barrel into living. The album from Metasplice is another special one, each track finds a different way of accumulating raw electricity until the only thing left to do is shut down. Nothing else that I had heard in the past had given me the distinct pleasures these two albums offered.
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Magnetoception became my go-to selection anytime I felt I was lacking vitality and needed a boost. Metasplice was the “just right” Goldilocks position between abstract abrasion and clear form that I would use to reset myself after getting wrecked by some hardcore computer noise or left restless by a bland ambient album. Part of what I was doing was cementing those positions. I like to describe this status with a videogame metaphor, the whole idea of “new game +”. You’ve finished the game, and can start it over from the beginning while carrying over what you unlocked through the course of playing. There may be new facets I haven’t yet appreciated, but there will always be the overall sense of taking a victory lap.
These were not my only 2015 discoveries. I still had plenty of stories in development, like with Bérangère Maximin’s Dangerous Orbits. This was an album that I heard in the first half of the year, but it only really made sense to me as winter took hold. Maybe the lower temperatures fit the atmosphere better, or maybe what I’d heard in the compositional use of accumulation on the Metasplice album made me better prepared to listen to the residue buildup from the looping textures on this album. Either way, I entered the new year only beginning to appreciate this music. And there were also the albums I had only truly begun to listen to around the end of the year, like Different Selves by Shapednoise, which didn’t even come out until December, or Max Eilbacher’s Subtle Scatter, which took me a while to get my hands on, since it was a vinyl exclusive at the time. They already had their hooks in me, but I was just getting started. My greatest association with the heavily distorted drum loops from Shapednoise is as a soundtrack to walking at night in a neighborhood I wouldn’t even move to until the middle of 2016. But the seeds for that experience were planted around this time.
I could go on listing even more music, but the point is that there were a lot of ongoing stories from the previous year that I gave space to, which left less time than usual for new experiences to really take hold. But I still had a few.
Graham Lambkin / Michael Pisaro – Schwarze Riesenfalter
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One major development for me in 2015 was finally exploring the music of Jon Abbey’s Erstwhile Records. Throughout my 20’s, I had no apprehension about exploring all sorts of electroacoustic and musique concrète from the past, but when I attempted to explore the sort of music Erstwhile was putting out, I couldn’t really make any sense of it right away, and I stuck with the music that I responded to more immediately. But as I entered my 30’s in 2015, I wound up hearing Eric La Casa / Taku Unami - Parazoan Mapping and Devin Disanto / Nick Hoffman - Three Exercises, and it was absolutely the right time for me to be hearing them. This ignited a voracious curiosity in me, which mostly centered on the work of Keith Rowe (his music is a primary feature throughout the Erstwhile catalog), but also through selections from Abbey’s Electro-Acoustic Improvisation Primer. This was all still ongoing in January, jumping from Keith Rowe’s AMM group to the work of his bandmate, Cornelius Cardew. There were still plenty of Erstwhile releases in 2015 that I never got around to, but I set my focus on Schwarze Riesenfalter. One of the things that makes Erstwhile so special is the pairings of musicians who aren’t exactly in the same circles, in this case taking Michael Pisaro-Liu (credited as Pisaro here, pre-marriage), who is closely associated with the Wandelweiser collective of composers (they’re very deliberate about silences and long durations), and Graham Lambkin, who I find difficult to pin down with words (you’d need the sort of multiple perspective approach on 29 years of material that Tone Glow put together to get close to an accurate picture), but let’s just say he has a musique concrète thing going on.
I wasn’t familiar with the work of either one before this, but the album was so inviting, I don’t think I could’ve asked for a better introduction; it’s symmetrical, opening with four and a half minutes led by piano, followed by seventeen minutes and seventeen seconds of sound collage driving the composition. Then you have the middle piece, with sine waves and field recordings of plain air, one step removed from nothingness. And then the final two pieces match the durations and styles of the first two: the album closes as it began, focused on the piano. But it’s not simply repeating what we heard in reverse. Similar to the album cover (also by Lambkin) which features two sets of wings with different orientations and clarity levels in 3D space, the two duplicated formats have major distinctions. In the opening track, the presence of some wood creaks and other small noises towards the end may not seem like much, but their complete absence from the final track does add to its starkness. But it’s really the approach to the piano that differs most significantly. The overall structure of the first piece opens with a wide cloud of notes before suddenly snapping into focus. This type of distinct change is absent from the final track, which maintains a more relaxed mode throughout. The longer pieces are less subtle about asserting their individuality, like the way the piano’s role is hidden within the collage of the first piece, versus the second opening with the piano straight away. Or the liveliness of the selected sounds and their rate of change. I don’t think it really matters to chart out all of the changes, but what is important is the way this creates a sense of going through something and coming out changed. The value I find in the way this album is structured was in how it immediately clued me in to the fact that this wasn’t purely spontaneous music, that there is something deliberate in how it’s put together. But I don’t think it would have struck me as much if the structure was simply repeating itself in reverse. I listen to it once every year or two now, and the satisfaction of seeing the transformation play out is as strong as ever.
Prants – Hot Shaker Meet Lead Donut
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Another late listen on a 2015 album, I believe I found out about this one via the high praise of Chris Madak, aka Bee Mask. It was his recommendation that also led me to the Metasplice album, so I figured I should check it out. I was already a little familiar with the members of this duo; Chris Cooper from his Angst Hase Pfeffer Nase alias, Bhob Rainey from his work in Nmperign. Both of those acts came up as I explored the contemporary electroacoustic music that I had been ignoring, but I hadn’t gotten that deep into their work before I got to this one. The album opens at an extreme, with a piercing, tinnitus-baiting tone accompanied by a mechanical hum and a reverberation that leaves an empty space around the tone, giving the impression of a forcefield. There’s some exploration with the pitch of the tone, but it’s hard not to wonder if relief will ever come. An interruption from a loose, awkward rhythm suggests change is on the way, but it’s a fakeout, and more time is spent in the original configuration. But eventually everything cuts out and there’s a brief appearance of church bells, which leads into the piece switching over to the other side of the dynamic range, with various ominous hums giving just enough of an impression to convey an empty space. There’s still quite a bit of runtime left in the piece, and the expectation has been set that there could be a shift at any moment into the next phase, but we still hold in this environment long enough to reset the sensitivity, to be more geared to the small fluctuations in sound before the piece moves into the final phase. The second piece follows with something that felt a bit more familiar to me, linear in structure but constantly moving forward, with a throughline of erratic oscillators developing their own abstract sound grammar. Not too dissimilar from the type of 1970’s synth adventure that I’d get from a Creel Pone bootleg. When I was in college, these “unheralded classics of electronic music” from the 50’s to the 80’s widened my perspective of the boundaries of music. . This album from Prants brought me back to that awestruck perspective, fitting comfortably in the context of those trips to the deep end, while also pushing my understanding forward with the duo’s mastery of spatialization and momentum, in addition to the more recent developments in electroacoustic improvisation that I was still getting acquainted with.
Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe – Cognition/Observation
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As time has passed, I’ve become more comfortable calling this perfect. At the time, I wasn’t so sure of myself, this was only the first thing I’d ever heard from Lowe. Though I had seen his name and the name of his Lichens project pop up in various discussions for a while, I suppose I was just waiting for his name to feel familiar before actually investigating his work.
Cognition/Observation might get classified as a minor work in Lowe’s discography, it’s not even 20 minutes long, and on a macro level, it puts all its cards on the table pretty quickly. The first track opens up with the foundation set for the eleven and a half minutes to follow, with some crackling electronic percussion and an isolated bass hit carrying a particularly cavernous spatial profile. Once this is established, there’s some other elements that take the stage and push the track in various directions, in a way that supports the sense of constancy while pushing some dramatic changes that are easy to miss in the linear experience. And then the second track does the same thing with an extremely similar collection of sounds, just with different timing. It can feel almost too easy to say that something like this is perfect, because the way it’s so focused on being what it establishes itself to be, it’s almost like it isn’t spending that much time taking any of the sorts of risks that could lead to mistakes. But all existence is a risk, every single placement and gestural timbre shift could have brought the whole thing crashing down if they weren’t implemented with a consistent vision. As time passed, I stopped taking that for granted, and it has only felt more remarkable with each return.
Tarzana – Alien Wildlife Estate
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This collaboration between Jan Anderzén (Kemialliset Ystävät, Tomutonttu) and Spencer Clark (The Skaters) was completely off my radar for all of 2015, but I had been getting into Anderzen’s work in a big way since around 2013, so once I knew about it I made the effort to track it down. I never really got into Clark’s work, I just wasn’t that kind of tinymixtapes reader, though I also never really made the effort. This seems like it could’ve been a good gateway, but I mostly just focused on how the warped cuteness of Anderzen’s melodic sensibility shined through. If you are expecting “alien zoo noises” based on the title, you’re in luck, because this album has them, and not only do I love that sort of thing, but it showed a new perspective on what I loved about Anderzen’s music. But I still mentally relegated this to “side project” territory. I had my time with it, but before long it dropped off and became something I listen to once every two or three years. It just sort of slips my mind. When I want to hear something from Anderzen, my attention defaults to the “main projects”. But when I remember to check this one out, I’m always glad I did, and I think it holds up.
Brian Chippendale/Mats Gustafsson/Massimo Pupillo – Melt
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The main draw for me on this album was Lightning Bolt drummer/vocalist Brian Chippendale. I had a bit of familiarity with Mats Gustafsson from the Fire! Orchestra group that he’s a part of, and my knowledge of Massimo Pupillo is that I’m pretty sure people have told me to listen to this band he’s in called Zu, and I still haven’t. I got a hold of this album on January 21st, and I put it on relatively frequently for the remainder of the month. I feel positively about the album, but I never want to listen to it again. And while I do consider this a side project just like the Tarzana album, that’s not what drives me away. This is more of a “me” problem than anything that I would criticize about the album. In fact, I would explicitly recommend it for anyone who wants some noisy and exuberant free jazz, especially if you have a familiarity with the artists. It can get a bit harsh with the distortion and shredding, but something about it feels good-natured to me, and the parts with Chippendale providing vocals are delightful. Or at least, on an intellectual level, I know I have felt that way, and that everything in the music should be coming across that way. But the idea of listening to it again makes me feel anxious. I still think it is good, but I think I put something into the music and damaged its longevity.
Harry Bertoia – Sonambient Series
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I took a shallow approach to this series, I can’t give you much of an informed idea about what makes this music significant. It had a notable presence in my January, though. Bertoia released 11 albums that utilized his Sonambient sculptures, which are mostly grids of thin metal rods with enough flexibility to allow a nudge to send them all colliding and vibrating for a good amount of time, producing a shimmering drone with the fluidity of silk. As an idea of a moment, it sounds gorgeous to me, but my memory of the entire experience is all one indistinct blur. I listened to the first five of these albums all in one day, one after the other. And then after a break with one other piece of music and a good night’s rest, I went on to the next two. And then the remaining four popped up in pairs over the next three days. What was I in such a hurry for? It’s like I was just checking off a box. I would have been better off starting small, becoming invested in the specifics of one rather than trying to take in the whole picture all at once. If I did that, maybe I would come away saying “if you’ve heard one, you’ve heard them all”. But I still would have heard at least one of them.
The thing that strikes me the most while reflecting on all of this is what happened with Brian Chippendale/Mats Gustafsson/Massimo Pupillo – Melt. It’s already clear to me why my gorge approach didn’t carry the music of Harry Bertoia into the future, and why my focus drifted from Tarzana to what I considered the primary work of the project participant I was most interested in. At first I thought maybe I’m going soft, and can’t handle the abrasive stuff like I used to. But there’s other harsh stuff from this period that stuck with me. It’s like I did something to this music in particular. But what exactly did I do to Melt that led me to leave it behind, and only find anxiousness when I returned again?
The roots of the answer go back a ways, to middle school and the transition into being a teenager. Picture this: your author, newly inducted into the “child of divorce” club, full of angst and acne-producing face oils, just wants to block out everything instead of actually dealing with their issues. Fortunately, this was happening in the late 90’s, and nu-metal was blowing up just in time to find me. I couldn’t get enough, from goofy fun stuff like the first System of a Down album, to the names that aren’t even remembered, let alone fondly, like Dope. I was not discerning about it, I just wanted to let my ears do all the work of getting through my volatile emotional state.
Recently, there has been something of a critical reappraisal of this much maligned subgenre, and I am completely unable to participate. I cannot revisit this music, even the stuff that seems like it would be relatively more fun. It all carries the time, and the place I was at. I have no idea if any of it is actually any good, and I never will. I’m pretty sure some of it was artistically indefensible, but anyone who wants to argue for the quality of Slipknot’s music will have to do it without me, though I wish them all the best.
Lets jump to January of 2016. I was living in an industrial-zoned space located next to a loud venue, with something like seven people sharing one bathroom. It was still fun but the charm had faded from its peak. But it was also becoming clear that a side effect of cannabis legalization in the city had made the property valuable, since the regulations around it meant that my home was some of the limited property where a business in that industry could operate. Totally worth it, but it was clear that my days there were numbered, and I would need to find a new place to live.
I wasn’t sullen like I was in my nu-metal days. But I was willfully ignoring that I needed to begin taking the steps of setting up the next phase of my life. I was indulging in a similar sort of utilization of music as in my nu-metal phase while listening to Melt to do it. It’s not just the fact that it’s noisy that did the trick. It’s the dynamic range, or lack of it. The album, from what I can remember, is consistently loud. It’s not just that this doesn’t allow space for the outside to come in, the immersive quality of it allows me to forget myself. Like I’m outsourcing my entire feelings to the music. That’s why I still remember enjoying myself while listening. I was engaged with the exuberance, I had a good time.
But the things that I was trying to avoid thinking about were in the back of my mind when I sought out this temporary escape, and by repeatedly engaging with this music for the purpose of escape from this feeling, I believe I created an association with that feeling, I put it into the music.
I don’t know if this is exactly healthy, but I don’t regret it. The album was a sacrifice. It’s not fair to the artists, but I believe that it’s a valid use of their work, to give up the future we had together in service of getting through a moment. Engaging in this behavior to the extent that I was in middle school was a bit much, but as a small part of the listening experience, I think it’s fine. And when it happens, the sacrificed music shouldn’t be treated as inferior to the music that grows with you, it just has a different place in your life. I often hear people put the latter category on a special pedestal, “the albums you still listen to, those are the ones that have stood the test of time, you know they’re good”, but the former category can be quite important as well.