In 2008 I was working for Pitchfork and our office was on North Street in Chicago, in Wicker Park. We were about five doors down from Quimby’s, an amazing book store that I love, and I was very happy to pop in there at lunch or after work. Our office was above a yoga/massage/bodywork studio. One time later I saw our office building used as an establishing shot in an episode of “Mike & Molly” and I yelled at Julie “Hey!” but she didn’t find it very interesting.
Wicker Park is or was kind of the hipster neighborhood in Chicago, I guess, going back a ways. And for some reason, in this particular office, we had many people just dropping by, wanting to give us some music to listen to. My desk happened to be near the buzzer by the front door of our loft-like space, so I was often the person answering the intercom and buzzing people in.
It’s kind of hard to explain my reaction to people just swinging by to drop off music and also, often, wanting to talk about their band and what they were up to. I like helping people and I like people in general, and it’s deeply embedded in my psyche that I should be polite and try and do what I can to assist someone in need. But my days at the job were often very, very busy, me scrambling to get everything done so that I could get out of the office at a reasonable hour and live a little bit of life outside of work. So when people wanted to come upstairs to hand me a CD and chat about their band for a while, which happened fairly often, it started to feel like an imposition. It wasn’t really fair, because what did they know or care about my life, but it was very hard to convey to them, look, I’m at work, this is what I do to make a living, and you are dropping by unannounced and asking for a chunk of my time that I don’t really have to give. I started to think of them as rude.
Once in a while someone would come by who was more than someone who wanted to drop off a CD, like, there were a few people who maybe seemed a little mentally unstable. They’d be talking about their music and Pitchfork and would start walking into the space and I’d be thinking, I’m here trying to edit some reviews and features and now I’m thinking maybe i’m supposed to forcibly remove this guy from the space and I don’t really know how to do that. More anxiety.
Once during this period I went to lunch, and when I came back, there was a 7” single on my chair, and someone in the office told me that a guy had come by and dropped it off. The name on this 7” was very common, in fact it was the name of a famous person, so it was kind of “UnGoogleble,” as they say. Any search for this name would be about this famous person and not the music.
Back then I had huge old desk with a turntable and a mixer on it. When people would ask me, “How is work going?”, if it was going not great and I was stressed out, I’d answer, “Well, I have a turntable on my desk.” There is no way to think you have a bad job when you have a working turntable on your desk. So that would snap me back to reality pretty quickly.
And on this day when this 7” was dropped off, I put it on this turntable and cued it up and listened and this is the sound that came out, the one you are hearing now. And I liked it immediately. Just a simple, pretty, nicely melodic thing, sounds both “folky” and “electronic.” There’s no way for me to tell you it’s significant or important but I enjoyed it immensely. And there was a link on a piece of paper in the 7” sleeve to an mp3 that you could download so I did that and what is what you are listening to now.
Also around this time, my wife Julie, who is a dance choreographer, was making a new piece and she used the Pitchfork office as a rehearsal space on weekend. I’d go in with her and it was her and three women and one man who were in this piece. We’d move some desks and they’d have this big wood floor to work. Free rehearsals for a choreographer is a big deal. A space can be $20 an hour. So Julie and her performers would rehearse, and I’d put on my headphones and write, either a review or column or else work on my Zaireeka book. And after a little while of Julie working on this piece, she asked me if I had any ideas about sound, and I suggested this piece from this 7” and she used it, and it worked perfectly in her dance in this one section, and I’m going to bet that the couple hundred people who saw this piece live are a significant number people on earth who have heard this song, and now you are reading this and listening and there are a few more.
When I lived in Richmond I became friendly with some people in a collective called 804 Noise. It was a group of noise artists and noise enthusiasts and I first learned of them when I saw a flyer at a video store called Video Fan for a show they were putting on, and this show included an artist I recognized in the general sphere of what I might have then called “drill and bass,” I guess. I saw that flyer and thought to myself, wow, this is going on in Richmond? I’d better check this out. And so I went to a show and said hello and it turned out this was a group of nice people doing interesting things. Over time 804 Noise grew a bit and put on shows that were (relatively) bigger, and eventually they started a festival held at an art gallery in a space south of the river in Richmond. And the first two years of the festival, they let me DJ to open the festival. For the 804 Noise organizers, it was probably more or less “It’s noon, no one will want to play then, why not let this guy DJ” which was OK with me. The great thing about it was, they had a really powerful sound system/P.A. for this fest, so when I DJ’d—two CD players, two turntables, a Radio Shack mixer—the music I was playing was just incredibly loud in this large gallery space. And just controlling music that loud is a thrill. To give an illustration of the volume: my parents visited one weekend and when they were in Richmond they rented a car. After having lunch, I told them I had to do this noise DJ thing, and so they took me over to this gallery so I could play it. And as we were driving up, we were in the parking lot, some distance from the entrance, and the sound check was going and it was so loud we almost had to cover our ears while sitting in the car, and we had the windows rolled up.
So one of the two years I DJ’d this thing, I included in my set this track. So imagine this sound pumping out of something so insanely loud you can feel it in your body. And while it is playing, there is one of those moments where you can see someone walking across the space toward you, and he comes up to the table, and hunches over, and looks at the gear, and kind of nods his head at you and says “What is this?” And since the first time you heard this track you wondered the exact same thing, you feel an instant kinship.
The first time I heard this track it was invisible for me too. Sometimes at work I download vast quantities of music at once, various promo albums and things people tell me I should hear, and once in a while music will be playing on my iTunes and then it’ll jump to another album and I’ll have no idea at all what I’m hearing. And sometimes I still won’t know even after seeing the name of the project, and that was the case with this. I had to search my email to see where it might have come from and what it was. But this song, instantly, I loved, and one of the things I loved about it is that I couldn’t place it. It seemed like it could be 50 years old or maybe recorded this year. I couldn’t tell where it might be from, and whether the non-western scale was authentic to another culture or whether that non-western-ness was being appropriated for a specific purpose.
This was recorded before you were born, in a country that you’ve never visited. And yet when listening to it I’m amazed how much it sounds like something that was recorded in the last couple of years, in New York or London. It has touches that we associate with “exotic” music from somewhere else but something about the recording and the mix and the approach to percussion feels very “now”. I can imagine this being made by someone sitting in the room with me though there’s an outside chance that some of the people playing here are dead, even from old age.
You might recognize this one. The record it comes from actually sold a few copies way back when. This is an early example of me falling hard for something that sounded broken; the unstable fidelity here, the way it seems put to tape that is decaying, was something that hit for me immediately. It’s not Boards of Canada, but it has a quality that I later drew me to their music in a big way, esp. the warbly interludes. Once on a message board I mentioned how moving I found this track and somebody said that this was something that you could make with like one or two simple out-of-the-box effects. This comment never diminished my enjoyment of this track like it was supposed to but it was a lesson of some kind. Software has made some things very easy but ideally that doesn’t change how much I enjoy things that were not hard to make.
This was Richmond. We had couple friends who were much older. The man, J, was in his late 60s. The woman, F, was in her 80s. They’d been married a number of years. J was either gay or bisexual, so I was never quite sure what their arrangement was, but they seemed happy together and had a lot in common. Both were artists. They lived in a rural area in a beautiful house where everything in it was an object worthy of admiration. Just a brilliant aesthetic sense on display. J was a fantastic cook. Sometimes they had us out for a meal and we’d drink wine and talk. I felt very lucky to be in their presence. One thing about not having kids is that you start imagining all the different kinds of lives you can lead. And one idea that came to mind for me was something I thought of as the “artist life.” You live with a partner and put most of your creative energies into making things. And this act of creation becomes a focus where caring for children might be. J and F were definitely living the artist’s life. They painted, sculpted, did performance work. They had a detached building a short distance from their house that they used as a studio. It was a constant presence in their lives, to be involved in creative process.
One day when they had us out, J, had a request: he wanted me, and us, to model for him for an installation piece he was working on. It involved large pieces of sheer fabric with drawings on them. But first he wanted to do some nude studies to generate material for the final work. Now, I grew up in a conservative area in mid-Michigan. The number of situations that would merit removing all your clothes in front of another human being was exceedingly small. But you know, this was a time in my life where I mostly thought, if something frightens me, or if I think it might be embarrassing, maybe it’s worth doing for just that reason. To see what’s there. So I said OK.
J admired the work I did in writing about music, especially my interest in experimental music. He wanted to hear what people were doing with electronics. He was a huge fan of Wendy Carlos and in fact turned me on to Sonic Seasonings. Good record. And he wanted to know what was going in in current electronic music. So I would burn him some of my favorites. He had family in the Southwest, and he would drive by himself from Richmond to visit them. And he told me that when he was driving on the freeway in the middle of nowhere, he would get high and listen to the CDs I made him. It was the strangest thing, to imagine this music I was really into and turning a man in his late 60s on to it and later this guy is driving through the desert by himself, stoned, listening to something like the Aphex Twin or Fennesz and having an almost religious experience with it (this is what he told me.) Reminded me that there are many different ways to grow old.
So the day came, went went to his studio, I took off my clothes. He wanted to put on some music while he sketched and this, from a CD I’d burned him, was one of the tracks he played. I have a strong memory of moving around in the space, feeling much less self-conscious than I thought I would, trying to do interesting things with my body per his instructions. The music was quite loud. And this track in particular sounded very intense. He was sketching quickly and taking photographs. We broke for lunch, which he prepared. It was delicious. He said I was doing great.
After lunch, he wanted to make some sketches of Julie and I both. We went back to the studio. Before we started, he took us aside and told us that we should feel free to explore whatever came to mind. That nothing was off limits. And then he showed us some sketches of another couple he had used for this project. Hand to god, the series of sketches, which were these beautiful minimalist line drawings, basically showed a progression from the couple in various posed positions to them having sex. And it dawned on me that he thought we might have sex in front of him and he’d sketch it. He wasn’t saying this is what we SHOULD do, but that we should feel open to do that if we were so moved. I was like, “Sure, sounds good,” but I’m telling you, I have never been as sure of anything in my life as I was sure that this was not the way it was going to go down. And indeed, it did not. We just made shapes and so on. But it was fun, and easy, and memorable, and I was glad I did it. About a year later, I went to the installation. There was a silk panel, maybe 12 feet high, and it had a faint line drawing of me, no face, just my torso on down to my feet. I could see myself in it.
Sometimes I like to imagine what pop music might sound like in a parallel universe. Like someplace populated by human beings but where the rules about what makes something “catchy” and approachable are completely different. You could say that an element exists like this on Earth already, that different cultures have very different musical conceptions and different values. But it’s rare that I’ll hear something that’s considered everyday popular-type music in its home country that sounds truly indecipherable. But you can turn to the experimental music realm to help your imagination along. One example from long ago was the Fourth World: Possible Musics series of records by Brian Eno and John Hassell. They first imagined a culture and a potential place of origin, and then built music that seemed like it could come from there. I like to think of this track in a similar way. That it’s a ballad, a love song, beamed out on the radio to millions. And somewhere in another world someone is curled up next to a speaker and listening to it, dreaming of a slow dance with someone they haven’t met yet.
One goal of music might be that it feels like a living thing. This track breathes, throbs, pulses, seems like something that exists outside of the people making it. If I play it loudly enough, I feel like I vibrate in time and can almost feel myself drifting into it.
Never figured out if this is true for most people, but for as long as I can remember, when I lay in bed and try to fall asleep, I cycle through the same 10 or so thought-loops. They’ve never changed since I was around seven. Maybe the way I think of them changes, but the essential content has not. One of these involves me waking up to find that I am the last person on earth. This sounds bad, but it’s actually a comforting thought. Maybe I think of it when other people seem like the cause most of my problems. But I imagine walking the world as the only living person and it’s a good feeling.
This track feels like a soundtrack to this not-quite-dream. I imagine walking into a large warehouse where ice cream trucks are housed after dark. And maybe I’m the last person alive because there has been a nuclear war or something, and I walk into this hangar and it’s partially destroyed and there are ice cream trucks on their sides. The music-making devices are broken, and instead of familiar tunes they are spitting out random tones in endless loops, and they sound something like this. And once again I’m reminded of how much I’m drawn to broken music, tracks that were designed to function in an orderly fashion and then take a turn toward chaos.
I wear glasses and I tend to favor headphones with a slightly larger pad, the kind that covers most of my ear. Sometimes I hear people complain about how my preferred type of headphone looks, but that has never once entered my mind. My wife loves me no matter what my headphones look like, so my criteria is based on sound quality and comfort.
Since I wear glasses and also usually wear larger headphones, the cup of the headphone often rests partially on the arm of my eyeglasses. And some tracks, like this one, when I play them loud, will have a resonance that matches the arms of the glasses, so that my lenses will vibrate in time with the bass tones of the music. Since it’s a very small movement, it affects my vision in a very subtle way, throwing this light, twitching blur over everything for a second or two at a time. It is not an unpleasant sensation. And I like the idea that the music is not just happening in my head, but is actually doing something to my body and my vision, even if I am just sitting on the bus and looking out the window.
I’m going to say this was late 2005. I was working days as a paralegal at a law firm in Richmond, Virginia. In my off hours I was editing part-time and writing about music. Sometimes on my lunch break I liked to walk with my headphones on. Richmond is a beautiful small city, and there are a lot of off-the-beaten-path spots that are fun to explore on foot. Near the James River, there is a building that used to (maybe still does?) belong to the Reynolds Metals Company. They make Reynolds Wrap. I believe this building may at one time have been their corporate headquarters. I’m going from memory here. In any event, it’s a large industrial-looking building and it overlooks the river.
One day at lunch I went for a walk down to the river and I wound up near this Reynolds building. An interesting thing about this area is that it seems “industrial” and yet it’s also sort of in the woods, on a perch where you can see the river below. So the area smacks of both “civilization” and “nature” at the same time. I like that combo. And on this day, I was listening to my Discman, to a CD with this track on it. During that walk through the woods that surrounded this building, I probably listened to this track in particular two or three times. I had it on repeat around then, listened over and over.
This to me is like a “pop” version of noise music and I really like that idea. Play it loud and maybe you’ll see what I mean. It’s only three and a half minutes long, and there are parts that are very pretty, like those droney bits that might even be voices, and there are also these harsh abrasive blasts of distortion and static. When elements combine in this way it can really do things to me emotionally.
So on this day six years ago, I listened to this track a few times while walking on a trail near that building. And ever since, weirdly, every time I see a box of Reynolds Wrap, I think of this track. That opening blast of sound immediately enters my head. I have no idea how or why this happens. But that’s the human brain for you.
Several weeks ago, I opened a drawer in my kitchen, and my wife, who had been gone for a long time, attending graduate school in another state, had put into this drawer a small box of Reynolds Wrap. I usually buy the cheap store brand. But I saw the package and I thought of this piece of music, which still does a lot to me, and knew it had to be the next thing I posted to Invisible Music.
I am starting to notice a theme in the tracks that I select here. These are often pieces of music that have a powerful affect on me but that I don’t have an easy time arguing for critically. And I suppose that is a common thread through a lot of my writing about electronic music. The further sound gets from recognizable music structures, the harder it is to situate in a canon. With narrative film, we have a pretty strong shared idea of what makes something good—acting, photography, dialog, plot. We can say whether, in our opinion, something succeeds or fails on those terms. And so it goes for music: we internalize ideas about what makes for a good pop song when we are very young. The chords build and release tension, the melody is memorable, the words are interesting, the performance has something special. We have a language for discussing these things. But once we are talking about music that verges on “sound art,” maybe shared definitions are harder to locate.
This piece of music puts a lump in my throat, but it’s mostly just some kind of loop run backwards with a new melody laid on top (sounds like a melodica but I can’t be sure). “The backwards effect” is so basic it’s long been a cliché, but here, mixed with the subtle tune and some swirling sound effects, it does things to me. Backwards drums always sound like they are collapsing in on themselves, which feels both like “building” (because they happen regularly with every bar) and “falling apart” (because they start loud and contract into nothingness), and I certainly like that here. There’s also the way the woozy melodic pattern that repeats on every cycle makes me think of sculpture, because it just sits there in one place and allows me to admire it from different angles. I also like on the idea that something so simple can hit me so hard. Perhaps this took its maker 30 minutes to create but for years now I’ve been returning to it regularly and it never fails to stir feelings. Efficiency!
Please listen to this one loud.
This track has a quality I look for in music but don’t find often enough: it is overwhelming. It’s about six minutes long, and at about the halfway point, after the gradual accretion of drones has hit a saturation point, this gorgeous flickering vocal sample comes in. Suddenly the field of sound is filled with about four different elements any one of which, if heard in isolation, would get my excitement/pleasure neurons firing like crazy. But taken together, it’s almost a little too much, the musical equivalent of a deep tissue massage or something—that sensation where something feels so good it almost hurts and it glides along that edge between pleasure and pain.
I’m sure that sounds melodramatic, maybe even a little silly, but that’s the way this one feels when I blast it. And it’s quite possible you’ll feel nothing of the sort. Maybe this will sound like a generic electronic exploration with chopped-up vox—no big deal. Which has always been a challenge for me when it comes to writing about music like this. I’m trying to figure out why this abstract sound moves me so deeply and wondering if it’s something I can possibly explain, all the while unsure if anyone alive feels the same things I do. It’s an odd feeling and sometimes seems a little hopeless but I also enjoy the challenge.
I grew up in Mid-Michigan and a common sound in the summertime was the hum of cicadas. It wasn’t something I thought too hard about; it was more just a part of the background of suburban life, like lawnmowers and the voice of Ernie Harwell on the radio.
I’m not sure I knew the word “cicada” then, or at least I never used it. We called them “locusts,” and when I read biblical stories about swarms of insects blotting out the sky, these were the bugs I pictured. Took me a while to figure out they were just talking about grasshoppers. Which seemed far less ominous.
Maybe the plague stories added to it, but when I saw cicadas up close and didn’t just hear them in the trees, they were scary. I had been bitten by horse flies and deer flies while camping, which hurt like hell. And cicadas looked to me like horse flies on steroids. They are completely harmless, the internet tells me now, but the internet didn’t exist then. So I lived in terror of the moment when a cicada would be trapped on the porch in our back yard—flying around and banging into screens and making noise—and I’d have to figure out how to get it outside. I still have an irrational fear of bugs, especially big ones.
So this sound lodged in my brain. And now, when I hear thin, buzzy drones, I tend to think of cicadas communicating to each other across neatly trimmed suburban lawns. This sound brings with it both serenity (remembering easy summer days) and anxiety (remembering my fear of these insects). It’s an appealing mixture.
This track has that blend of qualities I really like. There are the shifting drones, and then all the scraping and rustling and twitching come together to create an atmosphere I can best describe as arboreal. I listen to it and feel like I’m exploring some small place we don’t usually go, the kind of hidden world you see when you turn over a rotten log and see creatures scurrying away.
This is one of those tracks where, if I told you exactly what year it was made, you might not believe me. But this is not the same thing as being “good”. So I wonder if this will sound as lovely to you as it does to me. I wrote a bit before about how much I like music that sounds “broken”. This is a good example of “broken music” that I like. Something about simple, pretty, possibly childlike music that has been distorted is extra appealing to me. It makes me think about continuums: Noise vs. Melody, Pretty vs. Ugly, and so on. Tension comes from these ideas pulling against each other. And the very best music usually (but not always) has some kind of tension in it.