In their now seminal work Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson contend that people make sense of (and exist in) the world through the use of metaphor. For example, the authors describe how individuals make sense of an argument because of the underlying metaphor that links argumentation to war. Beyond just being an aspect of our language (i.e. someone getting “destroyed” on Twitter), we know how an argument works because we understand how war functions: two sides fighting over an intellectual territory, verbal attacks being made, defenses being issued, various linguistic maneuvers being deployed, etc. Equating an argument with war differentiates an argument from a regular old conversation. More importantly, this metaphor actually allows us to interact with each other. We can argue with somebody precisely because of this metaphor. Without it, arguing wouldn’t make sense at all.
I’ve been thinking about this book and the notion of “conceptual metaphor” a lot for a few reasons. First, I’m trying to finish a dissertation and my advisor told me I had to. Second, the idea of a conceptual metaphor helps explain the difference between noise and more traditional forms of DIY and underground music. In a sense, noise asks the question “what happens when we make music through a different foundational metaphor?” For example, instead of thinking of music as a written text (notes as letters, phrases as words, melodies as sentences, or something like that), noise (and experimental music more broadly) tries out other metaphors to see how they fit. What results is a new musical tradition.
So credit where credit is due: I guess my advisor was on to something. Probably why she’s a doctor or whatever.
But if we’re trading metaphors, we have to trade them for something. While I don’t think there is a one size fits all metaphor for noise (Vomir is probably operating on a different plane then, say, Crank Sturgeon, but I could be wrong), one example is the metaphor of noise-as-theatre. GX Jupitter-Larsen, the mastermind behind the legendary LA noise group The Haters, explains how this might work in the now infamous As Loud As Possible magazine: “traditionally, the opening of the stage curtain signals the beginning of a performance, while the closing signals the conclusion. As nearly no place I performed has such drapery, I needed to come up with something else that would duplicate this function. So, I started using prerecorded sounds on tape.” Noise, for Jupitter-Larsen, is not a text to be read in this context but, instead, a frame to perform in. It quite literally sets the stage. Were in a completely new metaphorical territory. How fun!
In Jupitter-Larsen’s response, we see one of the affordances that comes with using a new metaphor: you get a whole new set of tools or conventions to work with. Curtains don’t exist in Rock and Roll. They don’t exist in Jazz or classical or anything else. The idea doesn’t even make sense. But it does make sense in noise. The use of a new metaphor let’s the artist steal the convention/trope/idea from one arena and use it somewhere else. It’s a pretty neat trick if you can pull it off (and if your audience is willing to go with you).
I’m gonna hit the pause button for a second. I can only guess that, at this point, you have either stopped reading (in which case I say fuck you, but only because you won’t see this and I’m afraid of actual conflict) or want the insufferable grad student on the other end of the internet to get to the point. Here it is: My favorite album from 2019 was Pedestrian Deposit’s Dyers’ Hands and my favorite joke was “Car Pranks” from The Righteous Gemstones. And I think they both worked because they did interesting things inside of this weird tangle of conceptual metaphor, language, and convention described above.
Was that an incredibly long winded and pretentious way to get to that point? Probably. But it was the easiest way for me to start this post while simultaneously flexing the fact that I have read a book.
While you can probably interpret (and reinterpret) the seemingly endless depth of Pedestrian Deposit’s Dyers’ Hands through a number of lenses, the noise-as-theatre metaphor provides a useful tool to examine this work. And while the duo of Jonathan Borges and Shannon A. Kennedy may not have been thinking about this exact idea themselves while making it I don’t think they would shy away from it either, considering Kennedy’s extensive background in theatre as a costume and set designer. You can especially see the influence of this alternate artistic practice in Kennedy’s highly theatrical solo project Nephila. Her metaphorical approach to instrument design would also suggest that the world of theatre is not too far from her mind as she works in an auditory realm. Not to mention that Pedestrian Deposit has increasingly embraced visual and physical performance techniques in their live sets over the past decade. In other words: thinking theatre when listening to PD isn’t the craziest idea in the world.
But as a purely sonic artifact (minus the album cover), Dyers’ Hands can’t embrace the noise-as-theatre metaphor quite the same way as The Haters do in their live performances: an album doesn’t set the stage for some other form of performance or action or content, it’s the content you’re supposed to be paying attention to. That being said, the theatrical convention of the curtain still plays an incredibly important role in the composition behind Dyers’ Hands. On the opening track, Crow Theory, a looped banjo line welcomes us into the world constructed on the album, as the sounds of plucked, twangy strings slowly disappear into a shimmer of reverb and a hint of distortion. After a brief moment to breath, a blast of harsh noise crashes on stage and the album begins in earnest. To close the curtain, PD reverses this compositional approach on the last track, Beneath the Salt, by transitioning from Borge’s impeccably detailed harsh noise musings to a melancholy cello line played by Kennedy. The strings once again give way to a quietly reverberating and unnamable texture as the album comes to an end.
With the opening and closing moments of the album acting as curtains, PD effectively create a window into a new world. Theatre (at least conventional theatre) does the same thing- when the curtain opens up, the audience doesn’t think “wow, look at all these people running around and saying shit in the same room as me.” The audience sees a new world and they buy into it. The curtain helps this process. It lets the viewer know that they are somewhere else, existing just outside of a reality that they can now see and hear and witness. HBO actually uses the same trick, but that’s besides the point (for now). When listening to Dyers’ Hands, you are not sitting in a room staring at a stereo (or, likely, a Bandcamp page and a pair of speakers). You’re staring through a window and into another world.
In using this convention, PD now has the opportunity to create a new world for the listener to explore, a world with its own logics and language, a wholly new dimension or reality full of nothing but uncharted territory. Thankfully, PD takes full advantage of this opportunity. From start to finish, Kennedy and Borges fill Dyers’ Hands with morose and distant textures that constantly flirt with a sense of tranquility but never allow the listener to cross that line. On What Can’t Be Given, for example, almost recognizable field recordings and expansive ambient synths sit underneath Kennedy’s gorgeous cello playing, creating an almost tangible form of beauty. However, an underlying cello drone and growing synth patch constantly pull the listener away from reaching a peaceful respite. The track ends and immediately gives way to the menacing Auger, with a pulsing synth that constantly reminds you that something is not right. And if that wasn’t enough, the opening blast of What Can’t Be Taken and its subsequent atmosphere of isolation removes any doubt.
All told, Dyers’ Hands is a harrowing ride, an album that is felt as much as it is listened to. It’s a glimpse into the scorched landscape of another world, one that looks terrifyingly familiar.
What makes the album especially powerful is the fact that PD composes in the cracks of so many experimental genres. There’s definitely moments of harsh noise on here, but it’s not really a noise record. Or an ambient record. Or an industrial record. Or a drone record. Or any other kind of record. Instead, PD speaks through their own language, one that sounds vaguely familiar but remains elusive all the same. In doing so, the world crafted by PD becomes that much more detailed and meaningful.
In a completely separate realm, the show that provided my favorite joke of 2019, The Righteous Gemstones, did the exact same thing: invented an entirely new language/world for an audience to explore. I’ll explain more next time.