Here we see Navin R. Johnson sensitively appreciating the smell of the hand-sewn spine of the Taxidermy of Unicorns booklet.
I recognize this to be of gargantuan length, and hope interested parties won’t find it worthlessly long winded. I guess I was just enjoying myself as I analyzed each tape side and the project overall, so the thoughts and words kept flowing. It’s a unique item, and in my defense there was a lot of material to cover that somehow I ended up having a lot to say about. Do not shun me.
Tape 1: Side A: Birds of Passage
Thoughtful and well done pieces of comforting ambiance. Lullaby music. “1890 Story” and “Sunday Best” are brief dreamy ambient instrumental vignettes, and the last two – “The Brave Man With a Sword” and “Dead Flowers” are dreamy ambient multi-movement songs with vocals. Personally, I’m distracted a bit from my enjoyment of the last two pieces by the presence of singing and lyrics. The singing is very well done, and the lyrics are nostalgic, aching, sentimental, personal, unpretentious, just not in my realm of taste – whatever that is. Voice can be such a divisive thing. I do love a lot of music that includes vocals, but this sort of moody, ambient feeling music requires a pretty special approach (varying in unpredictably subjective ways from artist to artist) for me to fully enjoy it, and to prevent it from detracting from the rest of what’s going on with the music. Alicia Merz has a mastery over her equipment, instruments (including her spot-on voice – regardless of my non-voice preference here) creative technique, and I enjoy the emotional territory she covers. In the vocal pieces, her breathy, half-whispered voice is put before a distant warm blanket of keys, all coated in frost and fluttering softly in an early morning breeze with long shadows from a bright coming-up sun. The keys are played in a fashion vaguely similar to the way a hymnal might be played, with the reverb influencing me to perceive the acoustics of a big empty church. Other parts of the 4 pieces have a darker, lonely, isolated feeling. Keys are at times slightly delayed and fairly heavily reverbed, with a soft nostalgic analog tape overdrive to them. Warm, slightly rumbling textures, angelic murmuring voice alone in space, long shadows of late afternoon, dying plants, films of dust brightly lit by sunlight from windows, trees swaying in chilly breeze. Each piece is composed in its own unique intelligent way. Nothing feels rushed or half-baked. I would enjoy some of it a bit more without vocals, but as I said she knows what she’s doing, and this would surely go over well with many lovers of gentle and emotionally charged ambient experimental music. Delicate, gorgeous, whimsical.
Side B: Je Suis Le Petit Chevalier
Je Suis Le Petit Chevalier’s side here to me feels strangely sterile; almost in academic electronic music territory. Yet, there’s emotion and drama to it that connects my derived thought currents of scientific analysis with metaphysical curiosity and yearning. I actually tend to be fascinated by and get enjoyment from electronic music that to some others may seem sterile, overly analytical, harshly technological, robotic, impersonal, etc. I think in some of such music there’s a precision (in texture, timbre, tonal quality, rhythm, virtual acoustics…details…) humans just aren’t used to, or can’t understand, so it’s alienating to them. It’s a new language in bloom, being fueled as much by its own digital / electrical processes as it is by human activity, creativity and ingenuity.
The following exerpt is from a fascinating interview of George Dyson I read a year or so ago in an issue of Wired Magazine.
“George Dyson (born 1953) is an author and historian of technology whose publications broadly cover the evolution of technology in relation to the physical environment and the direction of society…Lecturing widely at academic institutions, corporations, and tech conferences, Dyson gives a historical context to the evolution of technology in modern society and provides thought-provoking ideas on the directions in which technology and the Internet might develop.”
“Dyson: Digital organisms, while not necessarily any more alive than a phone book, are strings of code that replicate and evolve over time. Digital codes are strings of binary digits—bits. A Pixar movie is just a very large number, sitting idle on a disc, while Microsoft Windows is an even larger number, replicated across hundreds of millions of computers and constantly in use. Google is a fantastically large number, so large it is almost beyond comprehension, distributed and replicated across all kinds of hosts. When you click on a link, you are replicating the string of code that it links to. Replication of code sequences isn’t life, any more than replication of nucleotide sequences is, but we know that it sometimes leads to life.
Dyson: What other kinds of digital organisms can we see?
Wired: Besides obvious ones like computer viruses, we have large, slow-moving megafauna like operating systems and now millions of fast-moving apps, almost like microbes. Recently we’ve seen enormous conglomerations of code creeping up on us, these giant, multicellular, metazoan-level code-organisms like Facebook or Amazon. All these species form a digital universe.”
Do read the whole interview here:
Maybe this isn’t at all the sort of thing that Felicia Atkinson thinks about in creating the sort of music that she’s contributed to this 4 way split, but the sounds she chose to utilize and the way she composed them sure makes me think of this sort of evolution of intelligence / language / life. I see thought forms not much differently than how Dyson is describing digital organisms, and I see both as entirely real in some sense. Evolution takes place in the realm of experimentation, whether intentional or accidental, and this sort of experimentation with electronic music, though not the most groundbreaking material ever recorded, is the stuff of evolution and new audio language, hybridizing human realms of thought and emotion with digital / electronic realms of computation and information structuring. Maybe this music may not be so provocative for others, but it inspired these thoughts in me. I posit that as a compliment.
On the whole, this music is more toward a creative, ambient-experimental style in the realm of some Brian Eno’s Music for Films than academic-feeling electronic music in the realm of Morton Sobotnick. It might just be some of the sounds she chooses – maybe since they sound modular and/or analog in a lot of places, and because of the use of open space in these pieces. Each is a journey with a number of sections which transform organically from one section to the next, shifting and refreshing the emotional and textural content. The subtle play of textures is stimulating and thoughtfully evoked, with plenty of space left open for the minutiae to reverberate. A good soundtrack to a long, still, quietly spent afternoon.
Tape 2: Side A: Motion Sickness of Time Travel
This is an artist I’ve seen mentioned and praised all over the place and have until now been unacquainted with. I’m aware of Hooker Vision, and enjoyed a recent batch of tapes from them. Her reputation preceding her, Rachel Evans’ input on this release does well to live up to it. “Atma”, the first, is my favorite of the four pieces on this side. A whimsically psychedelic drone item, having at first the feel of Keltic music. A synthesizer out in front plays a repeating line, sounding somewhat like a bagpipe. This is a prelude to the next segment, which goes to deeper sweeping tones and is embellished with sprinkling dots of synthesizers and blurry voice. A cosmic drifting takes place. Evans’ voice stays active in the backdrop, echoing and floating in its own obtusely oblong bubbles amidst the drifting hourglass sand of synth tones and textures. #2, “Mutable Mode”; an analog synth bass of root to fifth and back down makes the spinal column for this piece. Other synths add in their twinklings, putting detail to the soundscape. Bouncy yet drifty. I’m reminded of Kluster. #3, “Introvert Element of Existence” – A quiet dreamy piece driven by a muted low end rhythm, and mapped out by a slurred milky melody. An intimate fantasy theme, making me think of strange soft focused scenes of mythical creatures and environments from something like Ridley Scott’s Legend. #4, “Aither and Khaos”, has a sweeping synth bed with drifty ethereal voice disorientingly meandering.
Legend – Ridley Scott film from the early 80’s, done directly after Blade Runner. Deep in my psyche from childhood. When seeking this pic I realized the connection of unicorn in the title of this release to my accidentally automatic mental linkage to this movie’s feel and imagery, caused by MSOTT’s tape side.
It’s obvious Rachel Evans has a lot of control over her instruments, and abundant sense to choose and mix elements wisely. Everything here is tightly packaged with gloss. In hearing this music I get a lot of images of fantasy; Hayao Miyazaki, Paprika, The Neverending Story, The Dark Crystal, The Lord of the Rings, Niel Gaiman’s Sandman, and other fantasy or science fiction I’m not aware of that that is likely edgier. I am aware from an interview I read with her that her project name comes from a Burroughs novel, and that she was at some time not long ago reading Alan Moore’s Promethea, about which Wikipedia says: “Moore weaves in elements of magic and mysticism along with superhero mythology and action, spirituality and the afterlife (in particular the Tree of Life) and science-fiction. Promethea is also notable for wide-ranging experimentation with visual styles and art.” …So I guess that my inklings aren’t totally pulled out from thin air. Being a librarian, as mentioned in the booklet, she is likely much more well-read than I am, and I’d love to see a suggested reading list from her some time. Evans’ work is an indispensably appropriate contribution to this collection.
Side B: Aloonaluna
This side of Aloonaluna was overall too hyperactive for me upon first listen, but on subsequent listens I found the baroque day-glow psych-electrocutiory experimentation to be energizing and refreshing. This happens with any music; different days and different moments bring different perceptions. This is a cool heap of synthesizer, noise, and manipulated voice sounds collaged and arranged freely with flair. Sometimes oddly campy and poppy. I’m reminded of the Spacemen 3 album Recurring in some places, but the sounds and approach here are more wild, loose, and playful. The arrangements are very active and multifaceted. There’s always something being tweaked, and new elements being added or subtracted. I like the copious use of voice effects, making lots of wacked-out moments. The tonalities Lynn Fister chooses to operate in are interesting, and the dense manipulations cause her voice to be more like another instrumental element than a voice standing center stage. She also experiments with her vocal delivery, exploring her range and texture through the effects, which is usually interesting to hear a vocalist do. Jarboe comes to mind, though the similarities aren’t too numerous. There is also consistent utilization of various groovy electronic beats (perhaps minimally to moderately tweaked presets from software) that pep things up in portions of the music. Though there are similarities with some other current artists (as alluded to in her explanatory writing in the booklet), there doesn’t seem to be any posturing or attempt to fit in to any mold. Aloonaluna has a distinct excitement about it that is more wiley, digital, excited, smiling and sunshiney. It’s all gushing over here, explosive and happy. The different movements stream from one to the next, each having its own palette of synthesizer sounds, space aged, vivid, bubbling. “A High Calm” is psychedelic, spacey, happy; very cool. My favorite piece of all from the two tapes. Vivid, colorful, shape-shifting, uplifting. “Angela” is a dreamy free synth pop song gushing with drifting and skittering synthesizer and voice weirdness. Some of the stuff of this track stumbles over itself in the race for the idea, but the elements are all amusingly sparkly and playful. “Electricity Between Storms” is a blurbling candy storm of sugarballs being struck by lightning. “Sun-soaked Mirage” is spaced out, with plopping and twinkling electronics running steadily in all directions, being replaced slowly by new ones as the first textures are out of earshot. This piece and the next (“Hurricane Story”) both take a long form journey approach, ending up in a place far away and different from where they began, and passing through a number of amusingly different territories before arriving. Aloonaluna’s music lives and kicks. Another literary reference:
“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!” -Monsieur Keroac
This music speaks as if Lynn Fister might have some of this sort of constant surge in her veins.
This 4-way split has served as my introduction to these artists, and it’s a good one. Of the four sides here my favorite is Je Suis le Petit Chevalier, for its open space, great electronic sounds and subtleties. I also give honorable mention to Aloonaluna for exuberance and creative flair, but all of the artists’ music here is interesting and quite well done, each having its own unique vision. I’ll say that I felt that the presence of voice on some of these pieces at times was superfluous or just not to my taste, but overall didn’t distract me from what I perceived to be the aim of the music. I think the overall idea these artists may share about use of their voices, conscious or unconscious, is likely that they use the voice as just another element mixed in with the music and not so much as the focal point. To be clear, there was an equal amount of usage of voice here that I felt to be interesting and e/affective. It’s clear to me that each of these artists is aiming at something unusual, which causes them to do uncommon things that may be divisive. That’s a good thing; a sign of good art.
Navin R. Johnson is seen here enjoying the unique hand-prepared centerfold collage work by Lynn Fister.
As far as the packaging is concerned, the booklet is satisfactorily informative, well written and well designed, with the unique collage in the middle spread and hand-threaded binding. Tidy and concise. The fuzzy green yarn was a nice personal touch, tying the booklet to the double cassette encasement upon arrival. I had to scissor it off to separate the booklet from the tape case, but the kitty kats were overjoyed with the hairy yarn becoming a new play device, at least for as long as their attention span allowed.
The case itself also has a length of yarn tied around the front side of it, which is an aesthetic dollop of cream and likely a practical measure to help hold the tree leaves in with the artwork under the plastic outer film of the case. The tapes have nice color printed labels on them, with the artist and track titles included, which is sometimes pleasingly convenient.
It’s fantastic to see energy put to a spotlight on female artists of this type, though each of these artists have done well to provide themselves with their own platforms for their own and others’ work. I’ve many times since my youth lamented the lack of female creators & interesting-culture-participants in my surroundings. They’re out there. I don’t mean to talk as if this is some seriously anomalous thing, it’s just definitely not the norm around the simple-thinking mid-western parts I’ve lived. I do think that this area is not the only area of the world where females are brought up feeling stifled / uncertain / hesitant, etc. despite possessing great gifts of talent and passion. Various environments and common experiences just tend to make some people feel incapable, or lacking in ambition for different reasons. I think this is getting thinner as we move forward in time. More people are feeling empowered, male or female, to boldly step forward and create whatever they want to create, on whatever scale. It’s great Lynn Fister has started Watery Starve on her own – out of her own ambition & will, and it’s looking like she’ll be proliferating a lot of great work. I hope more females with a passion for creating will find that they of course have the ability to do the same. This is a great example to look to.