Sine of the Times

This is an oscillator, a tiny cyclopean vault that produces one thing: sine waves.

It’s not much to look at, but in the hands of the Ensemble d’oscillateurs, a group of musicians assembled by sound and installation artist Nicolas Bernier, it becomes an instrument of real ingenuity, capable of bold and startling expression.

As to the question of how someone actually plays an oscillator, I direct your attention back to the image above. The big dial establishes a base frequency, the knob on the lower left allows a performer to multiply the amount of repetitions of that frequency – X1, X10, X100, up to X10K, adjusting the speed of it, essentially – and the knob on the lower right determines the amplitude or volume of that frequency, which is measured in decibels. The ports on the bottom are for output. And that’s about it. But from such limitations, the Ensemble d’oscillateurs create rich and strange worlds.

In 2018, Richard Chartier’s LINE label released 4 compositions, consisting of three pieces written specifically for the group and one interpretation of a graphic score.

“États Altérés” by Xavier Ménard is a fitting opening for the album, punchy and dynamic, while exploring dialectics of sound that push and pull and grind and glide before cutting out in random guillotine chops that open onto breathtaking chasms of emptiness. It has a clean electronic purity to it but never feels cold or merely mechanized.

“Shaping Things (A Simple Spectrum)” by Francisco Meirino sounds surprisingly organic in comparison. The oscillators are made to crunch and drip and hiss and leak on their way to an unsettled realm of ascending and descending tones buttressed by sporadic, pulsing bass pressure. There’s something mournful to this track, like the sound of fog horns both warning and lamenting a lost ship, and it’s in this piece especially that the oscillators effectively mimic the timbres of horns and woodwind instruments, a feature that can be directly attributed to the skill and care the ensemble players bring.

Referencing the eerie light that sometimes appears over swampy ground, “Ignis Fatuus (Solis)” by Kevin Gironnay is suitably crepuscular and hazy, built from braided, sustained tones that hover and fade in overlapping layers. After pulling the listener in, that atmosphere is torn away, and any suggestion of something on a spiritual plane is transformed to high pitches, staticky clicks, and the crackling sounds of things short-circuiting. The piece eventually stabilizes but the more ethereal quality established at the start is replaced by something harder and metallic, something less enticing, less forgiving.

The album closes with “SYN-Phon,” a piece scored in graphic notation by Candaş Şişman.  Rather than attempt to describe how it sounds, I’ll post two videos: one of a live performance of SYN-Phon featuring Barabás Lőrinc on trumpet, Ölveti Mátyás on cello, and Sisman on “electronics and objects,” the other featuring the Ensemble’s interpretation of the same score.

It’s said that constraints can foster creativity by forcing a person to come up with approaches they might not have taken otherwise. But as much as I enjoy both performances, I find the Ensemble’s interpretation more faithful to the score, more exacting, and maybe because of the limitations of their instruments, more imaginative. You decide.

While I’m confessing here, I’ll add that as much as I liked 4 compositions at the time of its release three years ago, I wasn’t directing any speculative thought toward a follow-up. The work presented had managed to fulfill any unforeseen longings I’d had for oscillator-generated music. So imagine my surprise when I heard Ensemble d’oscillateurs’ 2 Transcriptions (Oliveros + Pade).

Accompanying this new recording is an extensive, bilingual booklet describing the mind-melting work that went into transcribing the works, “Jar Piece (a Piece of)” by composer and founder of the original Deep Listening Institute, Pauline Oliveros, and “Faust” by electronic and musique concrète composer Else Marie Pade. The trope “labor of love” does little justice to the challenges Bernier and company faced to bring new life to these works. After listening to what they’ve achieved, I can say without hesitation that it’s a huge accomplishment.

Something these new recordings have going for them, compared with the tracks on 4 compositions, is brevity. “Jar Piece” takes off with what sounds like squalling feedback before climbing to the upper registers where it hangs in suspended tones, mobile and free as a hawk riding thermals. Those elongated tones gradually break up into arrhythmic fragments punctuated by swoops and glides while still maintaining their purchase on that upper realm. As the piece begins drawing toward its close, a high steady ringing emerges and stabilizes, pulling a few straggling tones in line with it while others fade to nothing, creating a solid yet airy sense of closure in its wake. In the six short minutes it takes for “Jar Piece” to play out, it artfully wields a laser to your skull and opens your mind to the sun.

The first movement of “Faust” had me convinced that someone was accompanying the ensemble on keys. This is easily the most melodic the ensemble has sounded so far and that sense of melody continues throughout as it sharpens and fuzzes and glints. A genuinely eerie mood is conjured in the second movement with its theremin-esque tones and timbre and the spreading haze of static that subtly drifts in and overlaps. Where Oliveros’ track feels elevated and Apollonian, Pade’s feels mired and earthbound, interior in comparison, like a kind of psychological soundtrack for a displaced person. The third movement is perhaps my favorite: spare, tentative, and gently pulsing with undesignated worry. Unexpectedly, Movement 5 drops the listener on a windswept shore and buffets them with bracing squalls of static before filling that new headspace with a chorus of what sound like crickets overlayed with rumbling growls and almost at times like someone violently bowing a cello. (This section reminded me of Kassel Jaeger’s Swamps/Things, which I’ve written about here.) “Faust” wraps up with a recapitulation of theme and mood and texture, a brief, creepy, narcotized crawl to something more of an ending than a clear-cut finish. It leaves a spooky residue behind it.

2 Transcriptions make it clear that the skills and techniques of the ensemble have grown exponentially in the time between recording their first album and this one. To listen to it and consider that the impressive arrays of sounds produced are coming only from sine waves makes me want to run out and snap up the nearest oscillator I can find just to see what else it can do.

Sometimes you don’t know what you need until somebody shows you. If I’ve done my job properly, you might just need this music too.

Soundtrack for an Empty City: A playlist

Before getting off the bus, I take a look around to see if anyone else has been riding with the driver and me for the last twenty minutes.

There’s just one more, a mountain of a man asleep in the back, taking up two seats. His legs are open wide and his head is tilted into the corner behind him. His jaw hangs low as if he were asleep in his living room. From the looks of him, he should be snoring but he’s not.

We’re at the last stop, the stop where the driver usually tells everyone to clear off, but tonight he doesn’t say a word. Then again, there’s a yellow plastic chain separating him from the rest of the bus, so I don’t know if he’s actually said something. That, and he’s got a mask over half his face.

Approaching the curb, I look up for traffic. I already know there probably won’t be any cars, just food delivery people wrapped from head to toe silently whipping past on e-bikes.

But there is one guy, short, thick, jacketless, with a Ray Davies “Come Dancing”-era comb-back. He’s standing in the bike lane of all places when there’s nothing but empty space around, yelling into his phone:

“I TOLD YOU, YOU CAN CHANGE EVOLUTION.”

Any other day, I would’ve let the moment pass. But with everything about city life that on a person-to-person level I’ve grown accustomed to – taken for granted even – suddenly gone, the indie movie cliché of the crackpot with a leaky theory about what’s really going on around here, man, stood out. Behold, your newly unemployed security guard, losing his shit with nobody around to notice or care.

I do that city thing though, and keep walking.

I turn the corner by the bank and head to Cooper Square plaza, a space that’s usually busy with skate boarders, pot-smoking bike messengers, residents like me walking to or from work, folks out for the night.

There’s nobody around. A fresh breeze gusts from the south and smells surprisingly clean. Less traffic, less pollution: one silver lining. Without all the headlights and ambient light from apartments and restaurants, the traffic and street lights glow with an almost sentient intensity. It’s beautiful. All of it. The silence, the surrounding darkness, the emptiness.

Beneath all of this is a horror story. And as I walk, I see ambulances parked mid-block on every other street, with warning lights whipping and flashing…

This playlist is an attempt to reflect some of the uncertainty permeating the city. The feelings of abandonment, of isolation and fear and doubt. It’s also an attempt to catch some of the unintended beauty revealed in the wake of all the people who have gone inside or gone away or gone missing.

I miss them. I miss us. In some way, I’ll miss this version of the city when it’s gone. Yet I can’t wait for all of this to be over.

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.