My initial plan for this blog was to write two posts every year that wrapped up my favorite work from the past twelve months, one focused on comedy and the other on noise. But unfortunately, I backed myself into a corner for 2020. On one hand, I can’t write about the best in comedy anymore because I already wrote a pretty extensive piece about The Dress Up Gang, which I strongly believe was the funniest thing to come out this year. On the other hand, I haven’t written about Ono’s Red Summer, which was far and away the best album I heard from 2020. Except I don’t think writing about it is a good idea, because that album is all about what it means to be Black and queer in America and the last thing anyone needs is a straight White boy telling you why that is important.
But where there is a will, there is a way. If everyone will just pretend that the article I wrote about The Dress Up Gang counts as a year-end post we’ll be covered on that front. As for noise, I’ll skip talking about the best album and instead talk about my favorite gesture, or what I’m calling “composing with an intimate noise.” Let’s dive in.
In Jennifer Wallis’ recent post on the Headpress Books page entitled In Praise of Noise: The Deafening Silence of the Pandemic, the author writes about the toll that comes from enduring the unending silence resulting from social distancing and isolation. She writes:
“I realise that it is neither the uncanniness of the silence, nor a sense of anticipation that something might happen to break it, that troubles me. Rather, it is the certain knowledge that nothing will happen. There will be no significant interruptions to the day; no one will call or text to suggest an impromptu drink in the pub; there is no need to remember your earplugs for that gig in the tiny venue with the massive PA system. The silence becomes an ever-present reminder of other absences, distances, and unmakeable plans.”
It’s a sentiment that hits all too close to home. I’m not a horribly social person to begin with, so I haven’t missed going to parties or catching up with friends in the real world for the most part. However, the absence of shows, my primary social outlet for the better part of 20 years, has created an overwhelming absence in my life like the one Wallis describes. And because those events revolve around sound (and, in particular, extremely loud sound), this absence is as much audible as it is visual or tangible.
I miss getting blasted by a PA that is way too loud for the tiny room that was graciously lent to a couple of weirdos by someone who doesn’t know what noise is yet. And I miss getting to revel in that experience with my friends afterwards.
But Wallis is also careful to recognize that pure silence doesn’t exist, stating that “Silence is never, of course, absolute.” The absence created by the lack of shows therefore doesn’t actually create a gap or a void in my life. Instead, the absence creates space for other sonic ecologies, ones far more desolate than your average noise show but still filled with all sorts of aural artifacts. The overwhelming volume may have disappeared, but there’s still a collage of noises that fill the isolating gap. It just falls on us to make sure we hear them.
So how do we listen to these quiet sound? What makes the intimate noise of the immediate space/silence legible? I don’t know if I have a definitive answer to that, so instead I’ll turn to three artists that created work from this intimate form of noise: claire rousay, Regional Headbutting Techniques, and tampertamper. All three of the albums I’ll discuss would have landed on my best of list in any year, but the current circumstances made them that much more potent precisely because they made this nearly silent moment audible.
Trying to keep up with the creative output of claire rousay this past year has been an incredibly futile gesture on my part. I don’t know exactly how many solo and collaborative albums she released in 2020, but it’s probably close to fifteen. And the equally frustrating and amazing part about it is that every single one I heard was really good.
Combining pristine recordings of delicately quiet percussion murmurs, subtly gorgeous synth drones, uncanny/haunting field recordings, and an emotionally devastating use of speech-to-text software, each album rousay released pulls the listener directly into a familiar and distinct world defined by closeness and longing. So much of rousay’s work feels like the memory of a heartbreak, the moment after waking up on a Sunday morning to realize you’re alone and the text you hoped was going to arrive never actually materialized.
It’s the kind of affect that emo kids can only dream of.
Since rousay’s calling card seems to be her ability to conjure the intimate out of thin air, you can really put on any album you want to hear the gesture I’m talking about in this post. But for my money, her most successful work in 2020 was a heavenly touch. Opening with a not-quite-locatable field recording (A subway station? Underneath a highway? Something that doesn’t involve transportation at all?), “faking it” lays the groundwork for an album that churns like the tide of a mid-sized lake. Almost imperceptibly, another recording of what sounds like a dinner party creeps into view alongside the original field recording as glitchy static pops disrupt this collage. The mood shifts as soon as a dense collection of whispers (manipulated so that the incidental sounds of tongues and throats dominate the mix) and a decidedly “non-offensive” piano line take over on “tenderly.” Almost immediately, a low-end drone drowns out this new soundscape then fades away almost as quickly, leaving a hissing silence in its wake. This push and pull between sonic environments dominates the album, never feeling overly full or dense but with enough dynamic range to constantly force the memory of what is now gone to the forefront.
While the album would work perfectly as a fully instrumental piece, the particular use of muttered text drives the album into a whole new realm. Each time I hear someone speaking, I find myself leaning closer and closer to my speakers, desperately trying to understand the whispers and murmurs and hoping to parse the individual layers from the disorganized chorus. You can always pick out just enough text to understand the context (a person trying to burn some time while waiting for someone, a memory of learning an instrument in grade school, a description of date, etc.) but never the whole story as drones and other voices bury each individual speech act.
Because of this, the disruptive ping of a text message halfway through “swipe” feels like a revelation. The ensuing clacking of the electronic keyboard presents the same scenario, the indication that communication is happening without allowing the listener to understand exactly what is being communicated. But the phone noises set this scene in a way that injects the gesture with a decidedly modern sense of loneliness. When listening to the recordings of people speaking elsewhere on the album, you could pretend that the person was speaking to you. But when it’s just a text message, you know it’s being sent to someone else. You know for a fact you’re being left out, but from what you’re not quite sure.
But those text message sounds, even they aren’t for you, also feel so familiar. When so much communication with the outside world is currently happening through digital mediation, we take what we can get. Even if it isn’t a friend texting, even if it is another text from some horrible money laundering scheme for the democratic party, you cling to that small burst of dopamine from an even smaller noise. And regardless of where you are or what you are doing, the album instantly transports you to that lonely and intimate moment, sitting on the edge of your bed, by yourself, staring at your phone.
If nothing else, a heavenly touch showcases how much control rousay has over these intimate noises and the affective power they hold. Even if we usually mistake them for silence.
While rousay’s work highlights the emotional peril that sleeps within the intimate noise, her work doesn’t represent the full spectrum that emerges from these sounds. There’s also a certain humor that can come from these quiet artifacts, an absurdity in realizing the weirdness that has gone unnoticed for so long.
No one knows this better than Justin Von Strasburg, a Buffalo based percussionist that has always injected his subtle free-improvisations with a strange sense of humor. A great example occurs on the split between his group Partly Zombish and my band Phoned Nil Trio. On the track “nuts, a snare drum, and a salad spinner,” the duo crafts a piece of music out of buzzes, rattles, creaks, crinkles, and disruptive slams that would fit right into the audio of a video recording someone forgot to turn off hours ago. At least, that’s what happens until the 4 ½ minute mark when Justin starts talking to his bandmate about the peanuts they are eating. They throw some of the peanuts onto the snare drum (all of which you can hear), then talk about how a picture of the snare drum should be the album cover as Justin tweets this picture to me, all the while explaining what he is doing and how this conversation needs to be on the recording because “Peter [read: me] loves that meta shit.”
So, yeah. It’s very goofy and silly, but the fact that it still holds together as a musical composition makes Partly Zombish and all of Strasburg’s projects that much more interesting.
On a more subdued front, Strasburg’s newest group, a duo with Brian DeJesus called Regional Headbutting Techniques, still crafts music out of subtle and bizarre manipulations of the instruments involved. On No Signal, the usual stick hits and string plucks you expect from a drum and a double bass do make an appearance or two, but more often than not Strasburg and DeJesus perform by rubbing and scraping unknown objects on their respective snares and strings. But in a lot of ways, the recording feels more like a trio than a duo. According to the liner notes, the album was recorded in two separate locations: “outside at Days Park” and “inside, with the windows open, at Justin’s apartment on the corner of Elmwood and Allen.” And the recording does nothing to hide this: people talking and cars honking fill in the spaces left by the minimal performances while the occasional wind gust completely blows out the microphone.
While the album doesn’t quite reach the outward absurdity of Strasburg’s work in Partly Zombish, the ridiculousness remains. I can’t help but imagine these recording sessions in action, as two weirdos sit in a park plucking away at their instruments in a largely incoherent fashion as onlookers go about their day without realizing their contributing to the recording and providing material for Strasburg and DeJesus to respond to. And whenever that image lets up, the strangeness of our everyday environments takes hold. A bus lowering itself to let on a passenger, for instance, makes a sonic appearance at one point and fills the recording with an overwhelming hiss. It raises questions: have buses always hissed that much? Is it something about this bus in particular? Why have I never noticed how much buses hiss? It’s one of many revelations on this album of how weird our sonic (including musical) landscape has always been.
And to finish off with some Milwaukee love, tampertamper’s continue to seems to draw from the same cloth as Regional Headbutting Techniques. Throughout this set of recordings that barely scrape past the ten minute mark, George Jackson injects every second with an indelible sense of space. The wind gusting on an afternoon walk or the crisp crackle of food being eaten (prepared?) in a kitchen holds just as much sway on these recordings as Jackson’s own vocal and guitar contributions. And even when Jackson does record herself performing, it almost always sounds like it ended up on the album by accident. continue to revels in the captured moments of a passing thought: an idea for a melody recorded as a voice memo, a brief spurt of poetic inspiration, a goofy moment shared between friends. All of this, on the surface, sounds like the kind of material that can become a song or poem or performance at some point, but only after massaging the idea into a full-blown composition. But Jackson lets us hear these ideas in their initial and unadulterated state, the initial spark of creative inspiration in its most untarnished form.
Or so it seems. Over the course of five brief tracks, Jackson slowly and almost imperceptibly introduces digital recording techniques into continue to’s fold. A layered sound here, a reversed recording there, until we finally reach the cut up collage on can i that stitches together a bouquet of intimate moments and creative whims. To this end, the album does not rely on a particular creative process to create meaning but instead reveals the mechanisms of how process produces meaning. While artworks often hide the processes that produce them, continue to unabashedly maps out the mile markers. The origin for so many works begin as that one simple or strange seed of an idea that just happened to be captured at the right moment. And then you add in more ideas and poke at the ones you already have until you land on something resembling a song. On this album, Jackson manages to reveal that highly personal journey and lay that intimate process bare. And at a time when creating new work is that much more difficult under the stress of a global pandemic, it feels comforting to be able to relive that process through this recording.
I’m with Wallis when she talks about the overwhelming loneliness and inherent sadness that comes with the silence of the pandemic. It’s hard not to feel a sense of loss when staring a blank sonic canvas in the face. But every blank canvas creates an opportunity to imagine what could be and, more pertinent to this article, explore what details already exist on the barren surface.
We’re all doing our best to get through this. And I’m thankful for artists like the ones listed here that have managed to find inspiration in those intimate and strange sounds that seem so overwhelming right now. Because making this silence audible provides an important avenue towards understanding what were actually living through, even if the current moment is inherently illegible.