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.