Richard Chartier – Variable Dimensions – This Is What Ontology Sounds Like!

“Vertiginous proximity prevents us both from apprehending ourselves as a pure intellect separate from things and from defining things as pure objects lacking in all human attributes.”

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, from The World of Perception

It’s been my experience when listening to Richard Chartier’s work (I’ve written about him before) that I’m always pushed to reflect on not only what I’m listening to but what I am as a listening and interpreting being in relation to the work. Chartier’s latest, Variable Dimensions, continues and expands this reckoning.

From my first encounter on through repeated listens, I’ve felt it in my head before I was aware of hearing it. Variable Dimensions comes in surreptitiously, as if a kind of granulated pressure is being poured into my skull, and as it’s pouring in and rising, I become aware of a high ringing tone, and then a distant, buried pulse. But nothing settles. It all continues to subtly shift and ebb and throb and grow. Eventually, as the pressure eases, dissolving into a cloud of static, I become aware that with its cessation, a sense of unease and anxiety that’s been building in me is being leached away. In its place, on a more conscious level, appear unnerving questions about my own vulnerabilities to the simplest sorts of information. And the piece goes on changing from there.

I could have chosen another word, but “goes” suggests movement, which suggests space to move in, neither of which actually applies here. Yet as the title of the work implies, there are dimensions, just mostly of one’s own making.

This is Chartier’s suggestion for approaching Variable Dimensions:

To find words to adequately describe it, please listen to it.

In other words: It is. You are. Figure it out.

This is work that both begs and confounds description. It suggests space without occupying any. It simulates haptic qualities while lacking tactility. As it proceeds through its near hour-long span, I find that it distorts and erases any simplistic conception of time I might have as an ordered, directed progression. A complex and edifying relationship can be established with it, simply through listening. And this is something I find so fascinating and enriching about Variable Dimensions and the rest of Chartier’s work. His mastery of sound sculpting techniques and his willingness to push psychic and temporal boundaries address issues around information and experience in a media-saturated culture. (What is real? What is imagined? How do we know the difference?) For all of the seemingly “chilly,” minimalist trappings, it is “music” that is deeply felt, deeply aware of, and deeply interested in the listener.

It is. You are. Have a listen.

Kamran Sadeghi – Loss Less – Industrial Evolution

Back in 1990, my job used to take me past a building on Sixth Avenue called Americas Tower. Construction had started on it in 1989 and in that same year stopped. As I walked beneath its murky shadow, I used to think of the unfinished building as a gigantic work of art unto itself. What could be more perfect? A symbol of “America,” hulking, generic, and as I discovered years later, nakedly incomplete thanks to lawsuits over shady funding from the Marcos clan. To my disappointment, work resumed in 1991 and the ugly thing was eventually finished and folded into corporate oblivion along with the other unremarkable towers along that stretch of midtown Manhattan.

The idea of that other tower, and the possibility of repurposing whole structures, still lives in my mind…

Over in Satsop, Washington, stands what was intended to be a five-tower nuclear power plant, the largest in the country. Started in 1977, construction came to a halt in 1983, thanks to an enormous budget gap. Two of the hoped-for plant’s enormous cooling towers survived, both nearly 500 feet tall, and with bases 440 feet wide, and from 2004 to 2008, a local organization worked to open them for artistic exploration.

All of which brings me to Loss Less by Kamran Sadeghi.

As artist-in-residence at Satsop in 2008, Sadeghi created a pre-recording – a string of metallic-sounding strikes, varying in attack and pitch, a little over two minutes long – then played it into the space of the unused cooling tower and recorded it, capturing the tower’s unique acoustic response to the recording. (The cover art above is a shot taken from inside the tower.) He then repeated the process with that new recording, capturing the next generation of sound. And so on, and so on, up to ten times through, recording and replaying every amplification and every distortion. What might sound objectively like a dead-end exercise in methodology resulted in something extraordinary.

Unlike Alvin Lucier’s legendary “I am sitting in a room” – a stated point of reference for “Loss Less” – things go askew quickly. By the third time through the cycle, the individual strikes of Sadeghi’s original recording sound as if they’re smothered in clouds of cotton wool. The dormant acoustics of the tower space are fully activated, pulsing and swelling and resonating, yet the source material can still be discerned through the sonic fog. By the fourth round, distortion has firmly taken over, and as you enter the fifth iteration, you’re in another realm altogether. Where Lucier’s piece gradually works its way toward a glowing sort of hum, “Loss Less” hungrily morphs into a howling delirium, a blistering, roaring blast that raised the hairs on my neck and left me flinching with delight. If you’re a fan of Yellow Swans’ mighty Going Places, you need to check this out. 

In the spirit of reiteration, Sadeghi follows up the 25-minute “Loss Less” with a 25-minute rework, combining samples from his source material with various effects over a rumbling drum track that put me in mind of the calming, repetitive sounds of a train. Both pieces effectively conjure sounds of industries – one from what was intended to be the future, the other from the past. Sadeghi deftly slips into that temporal gap, exploring and exploiting the tension between presence and absence, representation and abstraction, site and non-site while drawing out the tower’s unintended yet serendipitous acoustic properties to create something altogether other. “Loss Less” offers caustic bliss in abundance. Be sure to play it loud.

drøne – The Stilling – Shattered Atlas

It makes sense that it starts in medias res, with a welter of traffic noise and an amplified voice in the distance singing indistinctly. Up close you can make out snatches of laughter and echoing crowd sounds, the rumble of panning engines and blatting horns. We’re indoors and outdoors. In a market. At a festival. Or perhaps it’s just another day in the thrumming city. And while one listens, trying to get bearings, a drone slowly builds – a low tone and a high tone in the same key. Something that sounds like a teletype machine kicks in, getting louder as it goes, while under that a static-choked voice mumbles on a radio. Then suddenly we’re in a restaurant, with the random ding of a delivery bell (or a bicycle bell?), a woman’s voice taking orders, perhaps, or chatting with a customer, and the gentle rattle of what sounds like a register drawer. The drone, however, is still there, hovering, menacing.

Then it’s all shredded by an unidentifiable blast and we’re somewhere else entirely.

Welcome to The Stilling, the latest album from drøne, aka Mark Van Hoen and Mike Harding.

The Stilling is a work you submit to. A bricolage of locations and dislocations, moods and moments made from decontextualized field recordings, radio static, and synthesized sounds that stretch and bend and build until they collapse, then rebuild or mutate or disappear altogether. Here and there, a compact string section provides keening emotional counterpoint that contributes to the anxious psychic states that Van Hoen and Harding whip up. As a whole, the effect is disorienting and jarring and altogether mesmerizing.


I’ve been a follower of Van Hoen’s eclectic output since 1994 when I first heard Weathered Well, an album I still listen to and love. He had a sound that was uniquely his own, but what always grabbed me were his gorgeous melodies. His partner in drøne, Mike Harding, along with Jon Wozencroft, is a founder of the massively influential label Touch, home to forward-thinking, innovative sound artists and musicians, such as Simon Scott, Christian Fennesz, Oren Ambarchi, and Hildur Gudnadottir. Chances are I might not be working on this blog if not for the hundreds of hours I’ve happily spent coming to grips with the music and ideas that Touch has exposed me to.

No single track can do justice to the totality of The Stilling and anything taken out of context runs the risk of misrepresentation. Here’s a little more anyway, to give you a taste:

“The Stilling”

If you’re curious, you can try the whole thing here.

While the title refers to the phenomenon of the generalized stilling of the winds around the world – something that may or may not be happening – I think it might also be referring to the need to retreat, to disengage from the apocalyptic vortex of the media in order to still one’s racing mind and heart.

Or, as the artists themselves put it:

Scream – it’s all you can do now. Overwhelming, scatter-gun information delivery has us confused, bowel churningly fearful and appalled at the nature of the changing times. We are biologically, psychologically and emotionally able to cope with slow evolutionary change, but struggle with revolutionary, violent distortion or mutation. This leaves us anxious and even desperate for a firmer footing. Fight or flight.

Or maybe both. The Stilling is an essay of sorts, a take on the fragility of our species, the fragility of our planet, our home. It’s a short run, around 35 minutes, but it will sweep you up and take you to another world that, curiously enough, is somehow still our own.

Machinefabriek-Stillness Soundtracks II: Future Reference

In 2013, artist and explorer Esther Kokmeijer collaborated with musician and sound artist Rutger Zuydervelt, aka Machinefabriek, on a project called Stillness, a series of short films of landscapes in and around Greenland and Antarctica.

I like Stillness as a multi-media piece, however, I could never manage to connect the music to the footage it was meant to accompany. The soundtrack seemed to float in another dimension, as if it pre-existed and had been chosen after the fact. Kokmeijer’s footage also struck me as perfunctory, as if she’d turned her camera on and just let it record whatever came through her lens in the hope that the extraordinary landscapes would take care of the rest. Beautiful and otherworldly as it was, nothing drew me in or touched me. There was no sense of scale established, no engagement with the terrain. I felt an odd, unexpected distance, a kind of torpor at work that didn’t suggest stillness as much as detachment.

This year Kokmeijer and Zuydervelt have followed up with Stillness: Brash Ice, Pack Ice, Growlers, Bergy Bits and Icebergs. The unwieldy title doubles as a glossary of terms for arctic ice. (In case you were wondering, a growler is smaller than a bergy bit, but you can look it all up here.)

Nothing prepared me for this new work. Kokmeijer’s footage is eerie, astonishing, and horripilating – active and fully engaged – and Zuydervelt’s music is right in sync with it. I’ve been listening to this for days now and loving it, reveling in its depths and textures, losing myself in the speculative soundscapes it conjures for me. And when I need grounding, I pore over the booklet of moody, mystifying, emotive images that comes with the download.

Stillness #6, Lemaire Channel, Anatarctica

As I’ve been looking and listening, I’ve also been reading. On February 13th, 2020, the temperature at Seymour Island, Antarctica, was 20 degrees Celsius, or 68 degrees. One week prior to that, a temperature of 64.9 degrees was recorded at Esperanza Island, Antarctica. Elsewhere, it’s been pointed out that January of this year was the hottest January on record for the planet. All of which has added a poignant new element to my experience of this work. Icebergs and arctic regions are melting down. Will they disappear? And if they do, are we prepared to face what comes next?

With Stillness II, Kokmeijer and Zuydervelt have opened a portal to a part of the world that most people will never get to but that everyone will be affected by as it disappears. Step through and look around. And if you find yourself at some point in the future trying to describe what ice was like to someone who’s never seen or felt it, Stillness II might be the place to start.

Nathan Salsburg’s “Third”: Both New and Inevitable

I have to confess: I have a soft spot for solo acoustic guitar. Not that I’m embarrassed about that exactly. It’s more that hearing it can still stir up my untested teen dreams of being that guy, the one who can pick up and play the guitar flawlessly, with silent reserve and perfect hair, as if his (my!) talent weren’t the result of thousands of hours of patience and practice but simply the purest expression of my deep and mysterious soul. This probably explains why I don’t play any instruments at all.

There’s something different, though, about Nathan Salsburg’s music – the piercingly sweet melodies that sound both new and inevitable, or the nimble command of his playing, or the balance he strikes in his music between virtuosity and feeling. Whatever it is, all I know is that his album Third, released in 2018, revives all of my foolish musicianship fantasies and lays them to rest at the same time.

There’s not a dud on the record, nothing that’s ever less than thoughtful or moving or surprising. There’s also a quality of timelessness, as if the freshness of songwriting – the exploration of what a new song might be, discovered in the moments of just playing around, as I imagine it – has been preserved in the recording process. Favorites are nearly impossible to pick, but if pressed, I’d have to say that “B.B.” (the “chorus” puts me in mind of some of Joni Mitchell’s playing on Ladies of the Canyon), “Ruby’s Freilach/Low Spirits,” and “Walls of the World” always make me pause in whatever I’m doing and dig in. But “Timoney’s” and “Impossible Air” and “Exilic Excursions” do the same thing too. All are graced with lovely melodies expressed in fluid, intricate fingerwork. In fact, there’s great sweetness throughout the whole album yet Salsburg deftly avoids slipping into sentimentality or nostalgia for its own sake. He mines many traditions yet never becomes mired in any of them.

I’ve been listening to this album steadily for months now and have yet to grow tired of it. It really is kind of shocking to me how good and deep and satisfying it is.

B.B. – Nathan Salsburg

Third is – no spoiler here – Salsburg’s third album, and I also strongly recommend his first two: Affirmed (named after the horse that won the Triple Crown in 1978) from 2011, and 2013’s Hard For to Win And Can’t Be Won, a title that could’ve come from Samuel Beckett if he’d been born your grim southern grandpa. Salsburg has also recorded two captivating albums with James Elkington, Avos (available on iTunes) and Ambsace. Not surprisingly, both are on a par with his solo work. Check out their rendition of Duke Ellington’s “Fleurette Africaine” from Ambsace. It is heart-stopping.

Fleurette Africaine – Nathan Salsburg & James Elkington

Salsburg has a dayjob as a curator at the Alan Lomax Archive at the Association for Cultural Equity. I mention that because it takes me back to ideas of exposure and influence. For all of the various DNA strands in Salsburg’s music that inform and shape his sound – some British folk here, some “American Primitive” there, the foundational bedrock of American blues and jazz underpinning it all – the end result is still unique. He’s got his own thing; no small feat.

So yeah, I love this guy. As for those daydreams about being that guy, it’s enough for me to simply love this music without having to measure any version of myself, real or imaginary, against it. Only took me most of my life to get there, but better late than never.

Simon Scott: Harvesting Sounds

At this point, eight years down the road from the initial release of Simon Scott’s 12k debut, Below Sea Level, it’s ritual that when the first hot days of summer arrive, when the early mornings are submerged in a bit of haze and it’s quiet enough outside my city windows to eliminate distraction or worry, I play the album and luxuriate in the shimmering bliss of it. I know the critics’ favorite word luminous gets pasted over every last person, place, or thing as if they all were emanating some kind of holy spiritual glow, metaphorically speaking at least, but I think this music is actually deserving of it.

Below Sea Level was recorded in part at the Fens, a vast area in England covering nearly 750,000 acres that serves, among other things, as a vital hub for the production of food, owing to its rich, peaty soil. Scott (who also plays with Slowdive) lived near the Fens as a child in the 1970s, and in 2010 returned to it while searching for a new approach to his music making. Over the next two years he wandered the area, laden with recording equipment, capturing everything from the sounds of bird life to ringing echoes inside a drain tunnel to the erratic rhythms of a metal cage around an electrical box buffeted by the wind. He then blended these field recordings with guitar and effects in a studio, then re-recorded those recordings in the fields of the Fens, picking up another layer of ambient sound over mixes played on portable speakers. The result is a fantastic immersion in – and an interpretation of – place, as well as an investigation of music and sound and where the two cross-pollinate.

Sealevel 1

Scott went back to the Fens and came up with a new take on Below Sea Level. Where the first version radiates a bucolic haze around itself over seven tracks ranging in length from five to seven minutes, the update is one extended 34-minute piece that conjures up an uncertain terrain of menacing voltage buzz and whispery static, shot through with clips of staccato bird calls, chittering insects, and the echoing crepitation of trickling water. The presence of humans is more apparent in the new recording (the panning splash of a passing car, the footsteps of Scott himself on dry reeds, the drone of an overhead jet, even the palpable breath of someone’s dog), and it creates a kind of tension that’s markedly absent from the original. It’s the same Fens but from a different point of view, and Scott suggests with both works that a phrase like “the same Fens” doesn’t actually mean much; that in fact it’s too vast, too diverse, too changeable to ever be one single, knowable, quantifiable place. He ends the new version with a return to more of that hazy, insulated, luminous music found on the first recording and it makes for a lovely, dreamy exit.

Cut to the recent conflagration in Australia. Or the continued, rapid disappearance of the polar ice caps. Or the recent floods in Indonesia. It’s clear we’re killing the planet. What can you do, as an artist, with that information in your consciousness, in the face of such an enormous crisis? Keep on doing your art. Especially now.

Scott’s new piece, Emergency Exit, put out on the Touch label, is a haunting two-track EP that’s brief but no less powerful for its brevity. Once again, Scott has gone to the Fens for inspiration, this time to record the sounds of flood waters there as well as the crackle of fire and the warning, echoing cries of birds. Any notion of the “musical” is nearly absent in a conventional sense from Emergency Exit. But the evocation of mood and place is potent. A coarse, corrosive wind blows through, buttressed by hard-to-identify rumblings and elongated moaning sounds. The human presence from before has been replaced by a post-human absence.

Scott is making a point here about the climate crisis and ecological ruin and what stands to be lost as the planet collapses beneath its human burden. The end of the world may have already happened. Like the Fens, it isn’t reducible to a single event. It happens gradually here and there and then all at once and everywhere. Emergency Exit is a document of the process of the ending and of the end. It’s recorded at the Fens but you and I, wherever we might be, are in it too. Give it a listen and get involved.


Welcome to my blog.

Back when I had a career in animation, I worked with two very different people. Neil was a craggy, grouchy, suspicious-of-technology film editor; Tim was a forward-thinking color corrector at a high-end post-production facility. Neil turned me on to jazz. Tim turned me on to what was then simply called “techno.” You could say that one was looking to the past, the other to the future.

Everyone should be so lucky. My life as a lover of music was permanently altered by their interventions—they blew open the dead-ends of rock and punk I’d felt stalled out in. Through what they shared with me and what I discovered on my own, my tastes gradually veered toward instrumental and experimental music, where they’ve remained. I realize I like to listen closely to what this music has to say.

This blog is my attempt to share what I’ve found with anyone who’s also listening.