Do You Feel Me?

Holly Herndon by Bennet Perezphoto by Bennet Perez

“The question was to collect concrete sounds, wherever they came from, and to abstract the musical values they were potentially containing,” said Pierre Schaeffer, describing his development of musique concrète. From the 1940s beginnings of this early form of electronic music, Schaeffer attempted to extract the sounds of the outside world, and then abstract them from their origins to create fully-realized soundscapes, transforming the noises of train engines into unrecognizable forms that referenced nothing but themselves.

Composer, sound artist, and vocalist Holly Herndon has picked up several intriguing strands where musique concrète left off and brought them fully into our digital century on Platform—her second full-length, out now on 4AD and RVNG Intl. For “Chorus,” one of Platform’s central tracks, she draws on Schaeffer-esque “net-concrete,” an electronic patch—developed by artist and Herndon collaborator Mat Dryhurst—that samples audio content from web browsing. The result is an array of heterogeneous sounds, a sonic approximation of the relentless but unified swirl of activity that comprises how we use the Internet today. The actual chorus of “Chorus” seems to deconstruct the very concept of a refrain, mashing together differently pitched vocal samples into a single musical line; it is anthemic but composite, fractured but resolute.

Herndon balances her touring career with work toward a doctorate at Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics. She speaks frequently about how she draws equally from the twin, oft-intertwined worlds of electronic music: that of the club and the laboratory, the techno and the experimental. Developed on her 2012 debut album, Movement, these streams are more strongly felt on Platform, which frequently creates danceable beats only to discard them in favor of disconnected masses. On “Interference,” Herndon’s echoing voice snakes through a web of dance-floor rhythms—but both suddenly cut out at the song’s conclusion, ending with a striking assortment of strange noises.

Unlike Schaeffer, Herndon doesn’t want to fully sever her variegated sounds from their meanings in our world—she instead dangles them in front of the listener, infusing abstract beats with political implications. The thickly roaring “An Exit,” on which Herndon chants “There is nothing to gain / and there is nothing to lose,” is steeped in the aesthetic theory of Suhail Malik, who has proposed an exit to the ethically contaminated social structures of art. And while “Chorus” is an act of sousveillance, or self-surveillance—as Herndon remixes her own browser history—the song “Home” turns the gaze outward in a bitter indictment of the NSA. Beats at first land alongside the metered precision of Herndon’s vocals, before unspooling into skipping fragments as she sings, “I know you know me / Better than I know me.”

Across the broad purview of the album, Herndon’s compositional voice remains omnipresent. Though she often describes a desire to disappear among her collaborators, there is a recognizable Herndon stamp throughout. It’s a result not only of Herndon’s mastery of experimental practices, but also because her actual voice—airily intoning, alternately wistful and dangerous—is embedded in her music, either guiding it or gliding atop it.

That personal touch is audible on “Unequal,” which most tangibly demonstrates Herndon’s craft in writing for other voices. (For more of that, seek out 195, her MFA thesis at Mills College, which juxtaposes six live singers with electronic processes.) Colin Self’s thin, quivering singing evokes plainchant heard in a Tudor cathedral. Herndon runs this in counterpoint against what sound like hiccuping deconstructions of the same voice: an assimilation of early music style and digital technique. The effect is not unlike Nico Muhly’s Wonders, an electronic explosion of the English Renaissance. Halfway through, Herndon’s wordless vocals appear as a background chorus, a casual but powerful reminder of her commanding presence.

Holly Herndon by Stan Musilek
photo by Stan Musilek

Herdon’s most intriguing assemblage of sounds might come in “Lonely At the Top,” which functions as musical product and, for a select community of listeners, corporeal stimulant. A collage of clicks—typing, water pouring, papers rustling—the track features the soothing whisper of Claire Tolan, a prominent artist in the ASMR community. ASMR, or autonomous sensory meridian response, is a physical sensation of pleasurable tingling induced by particular audio or visuals. For Herndon, ASMR represents the closeness paradoxically fostered through anonymous online interactions, as thousands of strangers tune in to YouTube videos to experience the same intimate sensations. “Lonely At the Top” also has a satiric bent, as Tolan speaks platitudes drolly aimed at the Davos crowd (“From what you’ve told me, so many people depend on you / and it’s not just because you’re good at what you do”).

But in the context of the album as a whole, Herndon’s use of ASMR also represents a clever artistic device, a kind of Brechtian defamiliarization effect. More than any single avant-garde moment found among Herndon’s stuttering beats, the track throws the listener out of the zone, forcing us to reconsider the significance of what we’ve already heard: were those strangely juxtaposed sounds supposed to make me actually, physically feel something? Herndon has spoken in various interviews about how the laptop has become the center of our emotional lives—why, for her, the NSA revelations represented a particularly personal betrayal. “Lonely At the Top” reminds listeners of the same—that our phones, our iPods, our computers and listening devices are buzzing with things that just might, perhaps involuntarily, make us shiver with a real-world sensation. The seamless transition to the album’s next track imbues the rest of Platform with a kind of tactile effect, or at least an awareness of its possibilities.

And thus, the tapping noises that conclude “New Ways To Love,” the album’s haunting final track, register palpably as more than just sounds. Perhaps they represent Herndon’s footsteps, as she leaves the studio. Let’s hope she returns soon.

 

Soaring Through Space

The Holydrug Couple

“It’s like thinking about a whole ocean, traveling in it at 1000 miles per hour. The album could be an escape, but not an escape from something bad.”—Ives Sepúlveda

Although their name may suggest that the Chilean duo Holydrug Couple gobble mind-altering substances breakfast, noon, and night, the drug at the center of Moonlust, their third and strongest album, is travel. Over the past three years, bandmates Ives Sepúlveda and Manu Parra have toured the world, and uprooted themselves from the vibrant scene of their hometown, Santiago, in the process. While Chile is still their base, Moonlust crystalizes a deeper understanding of what it means to be unanchored in a shifting, mysterious world.

The essayist Pico Iyer said that first we travel to lose ourselves, and then we travel to find ourselves. Moonlust is the sound of the latter; if not necessarily an explicit account of the band’s travels, it captures the sense of being neither here nor there—of being in transit. “It’s like thinking about a whole ocean, traveling in it at 1000 miles per hour,” Ives says. “The album could be an escape, but not an escape from something bad. It’s more a ride through things.” While much of the group’s previous work is gloriously messy, sprawling jungles of jangling guitars, syrupy synths, and loose drums, Moonlust is bright and sharp. Each skeletal drum machine and bass line stands out in stark relief. There aren’t many flourishes here; Moonlust plays like one long track, stretching in all directions like a night sky full of stars.

The Holydrug Couple

Holydrug Couple began in 2009 when Manu bought a drum set and asked his old friend, Ives, to jam with him. Manu lived in a house below a studio called BYM in the heart of Santiago; Holydrug Couple was born into a thriving bohemian hub of parties, people coming and going, and a growing psych-rock scene. Ives used to play keyboards and guitar for Föllakzoid, who are also signed to Sacred Bones Records, and Holydrug Couple’s first show was as their opening act. Beyond Santiago, the vast and varied Chilean geography became a huge inspiration for Ives and Manu; churning, psychedelic songs like “Mountaintop” and “Long Rain” were direct references to the land they love. “In one day you can be on an enormous mountain with snow and in the afternoon you can be swimming at a beautiful beach with a forest behind,” Ives points out. The duo began touring, often with Föllakzoid, playing across North America and Europe. “My horizon got wider than ever,” Ives says. But by the end of the tour cycle, he realized that he was “tired of rock music.”

Ives turned instead to movie soundtracks. Through his love of Serge Gainsbourg, he says he “discovered a new world of records with artists making a lot of music—really mysterious, suggestive and sexy,” like Air’s Virgin Suicides soundtrack and the French composer Francis Lai. Moonlust shares that mystery. A bit removed from reality, it seems perpetually ready to float away into the ether. Recorded in the dead of winter in a rented studio down the street from Manu’s house and BYM Studios, Moonlust is full of big sounds magnified by silence, and of lights shining on snowy streets.

Ives immediately pulls us into his inner world with the arpeggiated keyboards and motoric drum machine of “Atlantic Postcard.” The shifts throughout the song are subtle, with minute curves, twinkling high notes, and melodic counterpoints that enter without fanfare. While “Atlantic Postcard” feels nuanced, almost fragile, the whole album isn’t quite so understated. For every moment of reflection, there are huge swaths of sound. On “I Don’t Feel Like It,” cymbals crash with the bombast of the Northern Lights, and the guitars in “Submarine Gold” explode like shrapnel.

Ives doesn’t sing on every song, but when he does, the effect is magical. His shimmering voice, soaked in reverb, rarely becomes a focal point; it’s simply another instrument flying through space. Ives describes Moonlust as “a good melancholy, [trying] to connect with yourself and your entire universe,” and his voice reveals both an effortlessness and a burning intensity as he makes that connection. On standout track “Baby, I’m Going Away,” Ives warps the age-old trope of leaving a lover into a peculiar, ambivalent statement that leaves you unsure of whether he’s eager to be traveling, heartbroken, or both. The background vocals float around like fireflies, set against the album’s crunching drums. The effect, like the album’s cover art, is elusive—sad and clouded, yet not without hope.

He takes the opposite approach on “If I Could Find You (Eternity),” scraping away the layers of glimmering sound and leaving himself utterly exposed. He sounds weary, at wit’s end. But such is travel. Moonlust captures the feeling of leaving your home for the unknown. Ives doesn’t have all the answers, but on this album he has found that no matter where he travels, home also lies within himself.

Taming the Beat

EMEFE by Sasha ArutyunovaPhoto by Sasha Arutyunova

“In the end, what we’re searching for is the most accurate and truest version of a song. It’s kind of a self-sacrificial process for me as a drummer.”—Miles Arntzen

In the winter of 2012, Miles Arntzen, the gangly, mussy-haired drummer and bandleader of the Afrobeat ensemble EMEFE, travelled from New York City to Ghana as part of a program called ThisWorldMusic. There, he took dance classes and learned to play the boba, a drum about the size of a conga, with his teacher Elike. Yet the biggest lesson he learned in Ghana was far less concrete than any particular rhythm or dance move: it was about speaking through music. Arntzen, who felt caught up in “a lot of insecurities that come up about how good you are,” experienced something new in Ghana. Watching his teachers play at community celebrations and funerals, he “saw musical expression in its genuine form. Can you talk like I’m talking to you through music? That’s what’s most important, but it’s crowded by all this other stuff here [in the United States].” Arntzen’s heightened appreciation of musical expression greatly informed EMEFE’s debut album, Good Future, released later that year. It sparkled and radiated crackling energy throughout; it sounded like the band had downed a case of Red Bull, bolted into the studio, recorded each song in one take, and jumped back in their van to go play a gig.

But now, with their self-titled second LP, EMEFE is shooting for something far riskier. Under Arntzen’s direction, the group has taken a step back from the pulverizing brand of Afrobeat they’ve honed in their live shows and in the studio and created an immaculate, refined, and well-pruned record. For the first time, they are incorporating elements of pop music into the mix, and digitally modifying the sound—most noticeably, Arnzten’s drums. At the heart of EMEFE is a question: can you reign in a joyride, prune it and edit it, without losing the thrill along the way?

EMEFE by Sasha ArutyunovaPhoto by Sasha Arutyunova

Since its inception in 2009, EMEFE has maintained a fight “through the static” of life. The group described their first EP as “a call to arms, a call for everybody to stand up and march against the negative,” and the word EMEFE itself is a loose acronym for “music frees all.” Yet until EMEFE, the album, Arntzen conveyed that message through horn stabs and punching bass parts; rarely through lyrics or vocal melodies. While Good Future sneaks in a few shouted choruses here and a call and response there, the vocals are percussive and rhythmic, not focal points. “Although I’ve always loved pop music, it exited my scope for a little while in those years EMEFE grew,” says Arntzen, who also drums for the Afrobeat ensemble Antibalas and Arcade Fire’s Will Butler. The turning point came when he wrote a song called “Dream Your Life Away,” with a central character who “sheds all this baggage” and finds inner peace that cuts through the malaise of modern living. Arntzen explains, “It’s the first song I wrote where I said, ‘There is a style here to be explored.’” As he wrote more songs in the same vein, he brought them to the band. “They took to it,” he says excitedly. “Now everybody in the band sings and it turns out it was a passion that all of us have.”

Moments of unabashed pop course throughout EMEFE. On “Come Back To Me,” the horn section takes a back seat to Arntzen’s vocals, and becomes more of an accompaniment than the main event. The song’s subsequent reprise reveals the original arrangement, which would have sounded right at home on Good Future. Later, the call-and-response vocals on “Same Thing” present Arntzen as an impeccable David Byrne, yelping in staccato; and the final version of “Dream Your Life Away” finds him crooning with all the earnestness of a classic Disney tune.

While the addition of singing marks EMEFE’s entrance into pop territory, the other pivotal change on EMEFE is Arntzen’s drumming. Even though, as he points out, “a drummer is heavily responsible for the arc of the song,” during the production of EMEFE he tore his drum parts to shreds, paring them down and warping them. “The drums [flood] the landscape a little bit, I went through a process of editing where we’d…literally [cut] them up in a way that created more audio space for the other instruments.” From the colossal, digitally wrangled thud that opens “The One,” more akin to the avant-garde producer Arca than Afrobeat, EMEFE immediately pulls you into a place where the lines between genres blur, and opportunities to experiment lie in every snare crack, in every riff. On “Sun Spat,” Arntzen’s isolated toms crash like sledgehammers, turning a straight-ahead groove into something sufficiently weird. On “Same Thing,” the drums fade in and out, from muffled thuds to full-on attack, adding a sense of mystery to the otherwise euphoric, party-starting track. “In the end, what we’re searching for is the most accurate and truest version of a song. It’s kind of a self-sacrificial process for me as a drummer,” Arnzen adds with a laugh.

With their new album, EMEFE hasn’t abandoned an ounce of their explosive energy; they have simply rerouted their curiosity. The result, EMEFE, does not fit in a box marked Afrobeat. It’s a gamble, an unexpected and graceful blend of styles and inspirations, and it feels all the more alive for it.

Strange, Splendorous Sounds

Roomful of Teeth

“With all of the different techniques and styles of singing that we’re encountering and attempting to assimilate, ideas seem to spring up unavoidably and point in the direction of a new compositional path.”

What happens when an experimental a cappella group suddenly finds itself at the center of the classical music universe?

In fall 2012, the vocal octet Roomful of Teeth released its first album on New Amsterdam—a well-reviewed debut that still managed to slip under the radar of many critics, myself included. Six months later, alto and ensemble member Caroline Shaw won the Pulitzer Prize in Music for her astonishing Partita, made up of four tracks that anchor the debut album. Nine months after that, Roomful of Teeth—known for its broad repertoire of new music that incorporates unusual vocal techniques from around the world—netted a Grammy for Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance.

“There’s been something of a shift in perception from ‘Hey, you guys are trying something kind of different and experimental. Fun! Let’s see if it works’ to ‘Whoa, you guys are a thing! How are you going to keep it going?’” said Brad Wells, founder of the ensemble. Since the Pulitzer, Roomful of Teeth has embarked on numerous cross-country tours and been presented by major classical institutions, from Carnegie Hall to the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Shaw has gone from a relatively unknown PhD student—many had no idea she was even a composer—to being commissioned by world-class orchestras. And the ensemble has settled into its own. Teeth soprano Estelí Gomez told me, “I feel as though we’re finally able to inhabit the concept of the group more fully now that we’re performing together so much more often.”

Roomful of Teethphoto by Steve Spinelli

That Render, Roomful of Teeth’s sophomore release on New Amsterdam, is absent any music composed by Shaw might be striking. But it shouldn’t be. After all, one of the great achievements of Shaw’s Partita is how beautifully it captured the range of sounds that Roomful of Teeth can create, from Tuvan throat singing to yodeling to belting old gospel hymns. It represented not a singular achievement from a genius composer, but instead the assembling of forces of a community of musicians. That community remains powerfully intact on Render, which highlights techniques that Teeth is known for, adds a few new ones, and—perhaps most of all—emphasizes the ensemble’s crystalline sound, placing it in a category with the ethereal timbres of early music singers like Stile Antico and the Hilliard Ensemble. (It’s no coincidence that many Teeth members perform in the acclaimed Choir of Trinity Wall Street.)

One of the strengths of Teeth’s work is that they draw on the compositional talents of their members, and this is very much on display in Render. Tenor Eric Dudley sings in his own brief but captivating Suonare, in which the ensemble intones the phrase “sounds far and near” in closely harmonized canons with eerie glissandos, as sopranos vocalize in Italian. “The inspiration for writing comes easier from being a member of Teeth,” Dudley said, “since the group is already dedicated to the exploration of a wide array of sonic resources and possibilities. With all of the different techniques and styles of singing that we’re encountering and attempting to assimilate, ideas seem to spring up unavoidably and point in the direction of a new compositional path.” The influence of the sonic splendor and wordplay of Renaissance madrigals on Suonare is palpable, and makes one wonder if the ensemble shouldn’t slip a couple pieces of conventional early music into their repertory, just to see if anyone would notice.

That hewing to the past is also audible on one of Wells’s own contributions. The album’s textless title track features a drone in the bass and soprano, which create a cavern of continuous sound around inner parts that Wells indicates should sound “like wind.” Surprisingly, no extended techniques are introduced; Wells instead simply luxuriates in the delicate, flowing counterpoint of the singers. “Render was composed when I was away from the group and was much more about landing in a particular emotional landscape,” he noted.

Wells’s visceral Otherwise is a more typical Teeth affair, combining drones, giant glissandos, belting, throat singing, and a bel canto-style operatic solo. Wells described two main goals in the work: “One, to begin to explore how radically different vocal timbres might coexist and what do they generate (musically and emotionally) when they rub against each other. And two, to feature Dashon Burton’s beautiful and powerful singing.” (Burton’s sepulchral bass-baritone and massive range is a trademark of the New York scene; last spring, I heard him practically steal the show in Arvo Pärt’s Passio.) Uncanny, quivering background gestures introduce a new technique picked up by the ensemble since their last album: Su cantu a tenòre, a method of folk singing from the island of Sardinia.

Just as the movements of Shaw’s Partita were sprinkled through its first album, Teeth has spread another large-scale work across Render: Wally Gunn and Maria Zajkowski’s The Ascendant. A colleague of Shaw at Princeton, Gunn composed the casually intense work for a 2013 ensemble university residency, with quizzical and evocative texts written by Zilkowski. “[Gunn] takes a subtler, less slashy approach to vocal timbre in The Ascendant than some other pieces from our repertoire,” Wells said. “There are delicate uses of yodel breaks, percussive vocalizations (rooted in the Inuit work we’ve done), and a lean toward more pop-based singing quality.”

With its slow-but-kinetic burn, The Ascendant is the opposite temperament of Partita’s restless joy, and is accompanied by the intriguing addition of Sō Percussion’s Jason Treuting playing tight drumkit patterns. “Surviving Death,” the final movement, opens with a mysterious hush, as vocal lines cascade upward atop an omnipresent single C. Percussion and low voices set a thick groove as altos coolly intone a vague but apocalyptic line: “Every day, surviving death, we send out our horses.” Spooky bends, throat singing, and other effects build to a climax that, for a moment, sounds like a wall of electric guitars. The music never loses its edge, concluding the album with a sneering counterpart to Wells’s Render and Dudley’s Suonare.

The release also includes strong contributions from New Amsterdam regulars Missy Mazzoli, Caleb Burhans, and William Brittelle. Where Roomful of Teeth’s first album featured a stable of musicians wildly exploring the possibilities of a new ensemble, things feel more settled on Render; the composers appear comfortable simply exploring the beauty of the octet’s voices. As Gomez put it, “There’s still plenty of hard-hitting, angular, Teethy weirdness, but significantly more smooth, chill offerings, and more songs with words.”

Roomful of Teeth

 

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