Author Archives: Will Robin

Music critic, musicology graduate student, and occasional saxophonist; @seatedovation

Opera is the New Black

You Us We All, Shara Worden

Next Wednesday, Shara Worden’s You Us We All will have its American premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival. Though Worden is better known as the leader of the indie band My Brightest Diamond, You Us We All is unequivocally an opera: in collaboration with director and designer Andrew Ondrejcak, Worden has composed arias for a quintet of singers accompanied by an ensemble of seventeenth-century instruments. But supplementing the ageless pedigree of the operatic tradition here is a contemporary gesture that is quite unusual—and perhaps unprecedented—within classical music’s slow-moving recording industry. In advance of the first American performances of You Us We All, today Worden has released the album version of the opera.

Opera is much more often seen before it is heard. An opera house commissions a work, it develops in fits and starts over many years, and it is premiered on a stage. A few years later, if a composer is lucky, a recording might emerge. If a composer is very, very lucky, that recording might lead to future performances. But when You Us We All had its overseas debut in 2013, Worden said in a recent phone interview, “We had three days in Europe when we didn’t have a show, and so we really were like, ‘We’d love to have a recording of this, what should we do?’” Thus, the cast and ensemble gathered in a studio and captured Worden’s music. Releasing an album before the Brooklyn performances of You Us We All is a remarkably sensible move. Why wouldn’t you give potential audiences a hint of how the thing they’re paying for might sound? Opera is not exactly a genre rife with plot twists to potentially spoil.

For most of its four-hundred-year history, opera has existed primarily on the stage. But for the past century, it also has intersected powerfully with recorded media. The first musician of any genre to reach one million record sales was the tenor Enrico Caruso in 1904, singing an aria from Pagliacci. Even if the vast majority of opera recordings released today still feature a dead, European canon, many living composers are echoing Worden in guiding new opera into the world via recordings. Over the past few weeks, I spoke and emailed with several musicians who have released their operas as albums on Bandcamp. They described the practical necessities and artistic benefits of recording contemporary opera, while also acknowledging that to do so conceded essential aspects of their original visions.

The new opera and the newly recorded album actually have something in common in today’s fractured artistic landscape: they both represent fully conceived musical works realized over lengthy periods of development. As labels such as New Amsterdam and Bedroom Community underscore the importance of the album in contemporary classical music, it only makes sense that projects such as Emily Hall’s Folie À Deux—imagined by its composer simultaneously as an opera and a concept album—emerge.

Emily Hall, photo by Terry Magsonphoto by Terry Magson

“I wasn’t really sure what it would mean when I started,” Hall wrote to me. “I just knew it was something I wanted to attempt, an opera/concept album that would be one and the same piece of art.” Commissioned originally by the Mahogany Opera Group, Hall composed for an ensemble of singers and instrumentalists that she viewed as much a band as an operatic cast. As the team workshopped the future staged production, they also crafted a recording. Deftly mixed by Valgeir Sigurðsson and released last July on Bedroom Community, Folie À Deux embraces its identity as a recorded text; it’s easy to lose yourself in Hall’s sonic panoramas, oblivious of a broader narrative unfolding.

I wanted to, as much as possible, treat the recording as an art in and of itself,” Worden said of You Us We All. Reverb and delay effects bring out instrumental flourishes that might recede from focus in the theater; the music doesn’t stray far from the immaculate production of My Brightest Diamond. “We really pushed the recording, in that medium, as far as we thought we could take it, and still be true to what the music was,” she added.

In the early twentieth century, most of the population of the United States did not live within major metropolitan areas. Recordings, rather than opera houses, thus were the sole opportunity for many to hear an art form then perceived as vital to cultural uplift. Records quickly became a medium through which opera reached an unprecedented cross section of the American public. As the National Music Monthly wrote in 1917, “Why has this great interest and enthusiasm for opera so suddenly developed? Almost every layman will answer with two words, ‘the phonograph.’ People have heard in their own homes beautiful excerpts from the greatest operas, and have come to know their meaning in connection with the stories of the operas.”

You Us We All, Shara WordenBy 1921, the Victrola Book of the Opera declared: “The opera has at last come into its own in the United States. In former years merely the pasttime of the well-to-do in New York City and vicinity, grand opera is now enjoyed for its own sake by millions of hearers throughout the country.” (Not that Victrola, which sold thousands of opera recordings along with its own phonographs, necessarily stood as an objective source.) As scholar Robert Cannon describes, though, the rise of opera recording led to the concretization of a star system of singers who ceaselessly replicated the standard repertory. Composers, and especially living composers, were not prioritized. Legendary producer John Culshaw battled with the label Decca for years before they allowed him to record Benjamin Britten’s major opera Peter Grimes; he said, “It seemed to me that a larger issue was at stake, for if we were to abandon so relatively conservative a modern composer we should rule out contemporary music altogether.”

Today, the money has dried out of major classical labels, and the sphere of Decca and Deutsche Grammophon is left with a handful of stars, unreliable sales, and continued spiraling into irrelevance. Perhaps, then, the composer of contemporary music theatre can re-emerge. Ted Hearne’s The Source—released last week on New Amsterdam—sounds unlike any other oratorio, blending voices, instruments, and electronics into whirling collages to craft a portrait of Chelsea Manning. “So much of the work that I did in the score deals with shades, counteracting any sort of binary argument: there is no right or wrong, there is no male, there is no female, there is a spectrum,” Hearne said when we met last month in a Brooklyn lunch spot. Creating an album out of The Source heightened the radical music of the original staged production. “The ability to master the recording—in a really sophisticated, detailed way—and create that texture, it’s just much higher when you listen to a recording,” Hearne noted. “Especially on headphones, on nice speakers, there are so many things to hear that are in the score.”

Ted-Hearn-600

Records are also essential for the future life of new opera. If most Americans couldn’t see any opera circa 1915, most Americans still can’t see any new opera circa 2015. You Us We All or The Source might play for a handful of nights in one or two large cities, and then vanish from the stage. I myself have never seen any of these operas in person, but their recordings have profoundly shaped my understanding of contemporary music. Landmark postwar operas, from Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten to John Adams’s Nixon in China, have stayed in the public imagination because they were recorded. When composer Missy Mazzoli was working on her Song From the Uproar in 2011, she told me in a phone interview, “I was thinking, ‘if I let this just evaporate, then that will be so disappointing.’ I know that even in grand operas the recording insures the life of the piece, and pieces that aren’t recorded don’t get performed again and again.” Indeed, the 2012 recording on New Amsterdam provided a vital framework to secure the work’s recent, celebrated run at the L.A. Opera.

Missy Mazzoli

Back in the day, aficionados might settle into an Eames chair, turn on their hi-fi equipment, and follow an opera recording with a libretto or score. Even before the advent of radio, Marcel Proust sat in his living room and listened to the local opera house play Wagner via a telephone broadcast system. Recordings stripped away the physical limitations of the theatre, allowing the listener to fully imagine, say, the comedic world of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. As philosopher Theodor Adorno wrote in a 1969 essay, “The music of Figaro is of truly incomparable quality, but every staging of Figaro with powdered ladies and gentlemen, with the page and the white rococo salon, resembles the praline box.” Opera produced in the opera house was trite and precious, unable to properly capture the power of its music; for Adorno, the LP represented a “deus ex machina” that could save the genre by granting its listener complete immersion. Recording, he wrote, “allows for the optimal presentation of the music, enabling it to recapture some of the force and intensity that had been worn threadbare in the opera houses.”

Productions of new opera today, however, stray far from the stale powdered wigs that Adorno described. Perhaps the most unusual—and at the same time, most fitting—recent translation from stage to recording is composer Christopher Cerrone’s Invisible Cities. Based on Italo Calvino’s 1972 novel, Invisible Cities began as an hyper-sensory production: in 2012, the company The Industry mounted the opera’s premiere in Los Angeles’ Union Station, providing audience members with headphones so that they could listen to performers scattered among passersby. Still, the format of that production lent itself quite easily to subsequent recording. As Cerrone wrote to me, “It seemed like a natural extension of the live show. The opera was already being sent into your headphones. You wandered around a space. Why not take that into a larger space and allow any listener to imagine Calvino’s cities?”

Christopher Cerrone

But opera is inherently as much about visual spectacle as aural immersion. When the genre emerged in courts and public theaters in Italy four centuries ago, elaborate stagecraft along with sumptuous singing guaranteed its future. The composers I communicated with acknowledged that albums represent an unfortunate, but necessary, artistic compromise. The future of their music is secured, while the important work of their collaborators—directors, designers—evaporates. “I think there is some meaning that is lost when you’re only listening to the audio,” Worden said of You Us We All. “It’s an integrated work. I think the piece makes a lot more sense when you see it.”

Invisible Cities was envisioned by The Industry’s director, Yuval Sharon, in the kind of extravagant production that is unlikely to see rebirth; Cerrone acknowledged that in recording, “what is lost is that Yuval’s production so beautiful took to life Calvino’s imaginary world. What is gained is an ability to focus on the musical alone as an object.” (Sharon’s latest project, Hopscotch, seems beyond the realm of possibility for audio recording; it takes place in twenty-four cars that drive across L.A. as the opera unfolds.) The direct political implications of the staged version of Hearne’s The Source—in which projections display footage of faces as people watch the horrifying “Collateral Murder” video released by WikiLeaks—become more subdued and ambiguous in the oratorio’s sonic document.

Emily Hall, having conceived of Folie À Deux as a hybrid artistic work—poised between album and opera—perceived a fruitful middle path between sight and sound. In practice, each version of Folie reveals alternate paths for the listener. “I think the difference is the album can be listened to as a collection of tracks, or as a story, but watching the staged opera it is impossible to avoid the narrative even though it’s fairly open-ended,” she wrote. Even if opera is a narrative art form, the album allows unanticipated experiences to emerge: “I like the idea that a listener may not have a picture of the story and narrative immediately, but it might slowly form over time. I like that a lot.”

Ain’t No Mellow Cello

Julia Kent by PEPE fotografiaphoto by PEPE fotografia

“I have no idea where I might fit into it: I’m never really sure how to classify myself (or anyone else, really) in terms of genre. It’s fantastic that so many musicians are exploring the expressive possibilities of the cello right now, though.” — Julia Kent

In February 1967, cellist Charlotte Moorman was arrested for indecent exposure. As she was led away from a Manhattan venue by plainclothes police officers, Moorman apparently asked concert promoter Norman Seaman, “What’d I do wrong, Mr. Seaman? I just did what Mr. Paik said!” She had been in the midst of Fluxus composer Nam June Paik’s Opera Sextronique, which asks its performer to disrobe differently in each movement. As musicologist Benjamin Piekut’s illuminating study Experimentalism Otherwise reveals, in the subsequent trial, Moorman argued that the resultant nudity was an attempt to obey the will of the work’s creator; she was merely an interpreter, faithfully realizing a score.

The fact that Moorman has since been known primarily as “The Topless Cellist,” and not as a groundbreaking artist—she collaborated with Joseph Beuys, John Cage, and Karlheinz Stockhausen, among many others—or as an entrepreneurial curator—she organized seminal avant-garde festivals across New York City—might demonstrate the ongoing conservatism that has accompanied the reception of her hallowed instrument. To play the cello without delivering Bach and Brahms is to be immediately branded iconoclastic, with the actual musical results often overlooked. Even though there is a longstanding tradition of treating the cello as not only a classical voice, the mere act of not being Yo-Yo Ma is seen as a transgressive gesture. But to listen past that dichotomy is to reveal a world of cellists pushing boundaries in all directions, audible in a multitude of musicians whose recordings are available on Bandcamp.

One inheritor of Moorman’s radical legacy is cellist and composer Julia Kent, who draws on looping and electronics to fully transform her instrument. “Charlotte Moorman especially was so seminal and so empowering in terms of taking the cello into the world of the avant-garde,” Kent told me recently in an email interview. “For years, I had a copy of that photo of her being arrested on my wall.” On her fifth solo album, out today on The Leaf Label, Kent continues that journey forward; its title, Asperities, is fitting given how she inflects the mellifluous voice of her instrument with gritty severity.

Julia Kent by PEPE fotografiaphoto by PEPE fotografia

For the past year, Kent has collaborated with theater and dance companies, and the new album captures those recent sounds. “It felt as though I was just trying to document music that I’ve been living with for a while,” she said. In the live performances, Kent would improvise with her instrument, looping pedals, and electronics in response to movements or texts: “Making music in that way is so immediate: it’s like a dialogue.”

Moorman’s musical practices were informed by a critique of society—she actually upset Cage by incorporating references to menstruation, contraception, and rape into her realization of one of his major works—and Kent similarly engages with social commentary. “I do think Asperities is enormously influenced by what’s going on in the world right now: how is it possible to make art or make music—or even just live—without acknowledging it?” she asked. “We as human beings seem to have lost all sense of empathy with one another and with the planet we inhabit. I’m finding some consolation and some inspiration in working with artists who are addressing these issues, but that seems to be a thing that is more common in Europe than in America right now, unfortunately.”

Perhaps one metaphor for her engagement with the environment is the sense of a sonic space that emerges on the album. In “The Leopard,” the resonance of the cello and use of electronics provides a palpable sense of layering, in which sounds come from near and far, with lines seemingly both intertwined and disconnected.

Kent’s ability to imagine the cello as part of a vast musical landscape is something she shares with many other major figures who utilize her instrument. A brief sonic listicle, of sorts:

There is the DIY maven Zoë Keating, who earlier this year marshaled her massive online fan base to battle YouTube’s prohibitive artist contract, and who crafts engaging, taut narratives with looping techniques.

Zoe Keating by Chase Jarvisphoto by Chase Jarvis

There is the “singing cellist” Jody Redhage, responsible for New Amsterdam Records’s inaugural 2007 album, who realizes complex compositions in which playing, gasping, speaking, and electronics are all drawn together.

There is Peter Gregson, a composer and performer whose meditative music unravels twitchy little melodies into shimmering chamber work.

Peter Gregson

There is Erik Friedlander, a staple of the downtown scene, who has successfully fought for two decades to integrate his instrument into the jazz world. On his new album of cover tunes by storied bassist (and cellist!) Oscar Pettiford, Friedlander makes clear that not only does the cello belongs in a jazz combo just as much as the saxophone, but that it also adds an essential voice to any improvisation.

There is Hildur Guðnadóttir, who has so closely integrated cello, voice, and electronics that the cumulative texture is impossible to break down into its individual components.

Hildur Guðnadóttir by Rune Kongsrophoto by Rune Kongsro

And there is the late Tom Cora, an experimental legend who worked with everyone from John Zorn to The Ex, and crafted far-reaching fusions of rock, jazz, and improvisation.

Whatever approaches to the instrument that these broad-minded artists might share, though, they are really just a reminder that the cello is a tool available for the pursuit of any musical vision. “There’s a logic behind grouping ‘alternative’ cellists together, but I feel as though we all are making our own music, in the same way that, say, guitar players are,” Kent said. “If there is in fact a continuum, I have no idea where I might fit into it: I’m never really sure how to classify myself (or anyone else, really) in terms of genre. It’s fantastic that so many musicians are exploring the expressive possibilities of the cello right now, though.”

She allies herself more closely with electronic musicians who focus on looping, including William Basinski, Tim Hecker, and Juana Molina. But for Kent, looping is “a technique and not a style”; it allows for a set of practices, but doesn’t tell you how they might sound. “For me, looping is essential to my process: obviously, it’s the only way I can recreate the music live,” she wrote. “But I also find it conceptually interesting. Of course the repetition inherent to looping is a constraint, but it also can create unexpected evolutions and revolutions. And looping, for me, is also a way of approaching music in a nonlinear temporal way: through constant flashback rather than forward movement.”

On “Invitation to the Voyage,” a plucked pizzicato line moves to the background as Kent develops a brooding melody; rich harmonies transform into glassy soundscapes. It has little to do with Yo-Yo, and that’s probably for the best. “In terms of the classical tradition, I assume most of us who are making music on cello came from that background: but I definitely don’t feel as though I, or the music I make, fit into the classical world,” she noted. The boundaries between classical and nonclassical music seem to be thoroughly blurred at this point, though, and that’s probably a good thing. At the end of the day, it’s all expression.”

DIY Hustlers

Alex G, and Car Seat Headrest

“Don’t put anything out that you’re not 100% sold on. Make sure that you’re recording because you enjoy it and because you really want to. Record it because it’s a need for you…” — Alex G

Not all that long ago, Alex Giannascoli and Will Toledo were passing burned CD-Rs of their music around high schools, hoping to capture the attention of a few fellow teens. They graduated to college, and to releasing music on Bandcamp: Toledo uploaded his first album as Car Seat Headrest in 2010, Giannascoli his first song as Alex G in 2011. Fast-forward a few years and, for each musician, a dozen or so albums. In recent months, both have signed with major indie labels. Today, Alex G releases Beach Music as his recording debut on Domino Records; on October 30, Matador Records will release Teens of Style, Car Seat Headrest’s first album for the label.

These represent perhaps the dream trajectory of the indie musician: from bedroom project to prestigious record label (and, incidentally, the dream trajectory for Bandcamp, as both Matador and Domino are now on the site). Domino is the home of Animal Collective and Dirty Projectors. Matador is known for everyone from Interpol to Yo La Tengo. And in an ideal iteration of this career arc, Giannascoli and Toledo were noticed not for stunt antics or flooding the world with press releases, but for carefully honing their craft and building dedicated online fan bases. Each delves into the personal and confessional in a distinct musical style—Alex G leans toward the trippy and soft-spoken, Car Seat Headrest is distorted and visceral—but both represent DIY success stories in an ever-shifting industry.

I spoke with the musicians independently over the phone in recent weeks; both were naturally enthused about their new opportunities and in the midst of newly busy press junkets and tours. How does an artist toil away and find that kind of success? And what lessons might these unlikely cases offer for all of the other musicians in the midst of their own careers?

Alex G by Jeff Allen
Alex Giannascoli, photo by Jeff Allen

“It’s been such a slow, steady progression,” Giannascoli said. At the beginning, each new fan represented a small victory. “From the first person it felt really exciting,” he admits. Though he has been recording since age thirteen, Alex G released his first song, the hushed and darkly comic “Sandy,” four years ago as a student at Temple University in Philadelphia. “I started using Bandcamp and it just caught on. People showed it to their friends and stuff, and I guess from there it just grew.”

“I always knew that I wanted to release music,” Toledo told me. It began in childhood, when he came up with imaginary lists of songs for imaginary albums; as soon as he figured out that he could record music on a computer, he began doing so. The first Car Seat Headrest albums were uploaded song-by-song to Bandcamp, but Toledo realized that he was shortchanging fans who downloaded an album when it was only halfway done—and he decided he wanted to create a fully-polished product before he put it out into the world. Listeners trickled in slowly. “The first several albums, I could count the followers or the downloads on my hands. I’d be lucky to get a dozen,” he said. “The earliest stuff is pretty insular, so yeah, it was definitely a slow rise.” Early Car Seat feels emblematically exploratory, divided between collages of unusual sounds and the more focused energy he draws upon in Teens of Style.

Giannascoli began working with the Brooklyn-based community label Orchid Tapes for distribution of Alex G, but otherwise his process remained largely the same. The label helped attract press, though, and an audience gradually expanded. Perhaps the biggest leap to a new set of ears came when Mat Cothran, frontman of the prominent band Elvis Depressedly, discovered his page and shared it with his large fan base. Last year’s poppish DSU attracted a favorable Pitchfork review, and The Fader called Alex G “the Internet’s secret best songwriter.” Soon, labels began calling, and Domino represented the best option.

Car Seat Headrest found renewed energy when Toledo finished college in Virginia and moved to Seattle, where he found a core group of musicians who could consistently realize the project as a band. “For the past year it’s definitely grown a lot more,” he said. “One of the reasons being that I finally felt like I had enough songs in the discography that worked well live, and I had a lot of time to practice those and iron out the details. And the other thing was finding members who wanted to be in the band.” It was never entirely clear to Toledo—despite booking shows, emailing press, and seeking out new audiences as he continued to release more carefully crafted albums—how to leapfrog from a cult audience to a professional career. “It was kind of hard for me to get a foot in the door because I had no idea how to promote my material or anything, other than what I was already doing, which was just uploading and then emailing it around wherever I could. I didn’t really have any connections, but I always felt that I could get sucked into a larger network,” he said.

Car Seat Headrest by Chona KatsingerWill Toledo, photo by Chona Katsinger

But then Matador founder Chris Lombardi discovered his Bandcamp page following an intern’s tip, and reached out. “What I was hoping would happen, basically, is that enough people would be passing it around that eventually it would be heard by someone who could do something about it,” Toledo said. Maintaining a strong back catalog online helped seal the deal. “I’m very lucky that that did happen; he said that he was just really into the experience of being able to find me and then immediately started digging into the discography and listening to all the old material.”

Despite their new industry prominence, the artists are now releasing records that represent the core of their original missions. Toledo has remained a tinkering perfectionist, the kind of musician who constantly returns to update old material. (His Bandcamp page instructs media to not link to early albums “BECAUSE THEY’RE NOT VERY GOOD.”) Teens of Style is a compilation of older songs that have been re-recorded, re-worked, and occasionally epically expanded. “I kind of meant it to be a window into my music… this is about getting exposure to a whole new audience,” he said. “The best way of doing it was to do a compilation of songs that I thought were strong, and also more accessible than the most accessible stuff that I’ve got.” Songs like “Something Soon” turn exquisitely on a dime from distant, hazy vocals to anthemic post-punk. And while retaining a sweeping scope, the songwriting on Teens of Style has turned away from the more meandering experimentations of his early albums; if it sounds less probing, it also feels more mature.

I asked Giannascoli if widening his audience might change how he thinks about his work; he told me, “I’m sure it’s affecting the direction somehow, but I make a pretty active effort to just try and keep it as true to myself as much as possible, and not think about it.” The biggest musical shift for Beach Music was that Giannascoli capitulated to Domino’s offer to have the album professionally mixed—the first time he has allowed the auteurist Alex G project to leave his creative control. “The max I want to collaborate with someone is just some more mixing like that… when I’m releasing it as Alex G, it’s really hard for me to collaborate with anyone, because it doesn’t feel right if someone else is contributing stuff and it’s using my name.” The album also developed differently due to his new touring schedule, with songs recorded intermittently rather than in a single go. “Don’t take me with you, I’m happy where I am,” he coos in “Salt,” atop a quirky groove—a metaphor as well, perhaps, for his artistic journey.

And though each project has involved a significant amount of hustling, online and off, both artists felt that the key to their indie success lay in building a strong musical catalog. Giannascoli recommended that emerging musicians send their material to as many outlets as possible, even just to get a tiny listing; Elvis Depressedly discovered his music through a blog before helping it reach a wider platform. But he also strongly advised that musicians not drift from their own interests, or self-satisfaction, in pursuit of listeners. He warned, “Don’t put anything out that you’re not 100% sold on. Make sure that you’re recording because you enjoy it and because you really want to. Record it because it’s a need for you—if you want to make good music, I think it has to really be a passion thing and not a ‘I want to sound like these guys’ thing.”

Toledo similarly emphasized the importance of authenticity and quality control: “Just keep doing what you’re doing, just figure out a way to support yourself. Beyond that, focus on improving your craft and making really solid efforts. Even if people aren’t necessarily listening to it right when you release it, if you make something really high in quality, then eventually people are going to catch on and start checking it out. I think you can’t go wrong as long as you’re putting out something that’s really the best you can do.”

Solace in Sound

Safia Nolin

“When I’m really, completely sad—I guess it’s stupid—but whenever I’m sad and I want to feel better, I try to write a song.”

“This is so weird because I don’t know what happens after that,” said Safia Nolin, with a hint of anxiety in her voice. I had asked the French-Canadian singer-songwriter about her plans following the release of her debut album, Limoilou, out today on Bonsound. “I feel like it’s the end of the world right now,” she added. “I’m going to, like, die soon—I guess?” Nolin chuckled, bleakly.

It was not the reaction one might expect from an artist who has recently experienced a biopic-worthy rise to semi-stardom in the Quebecois music scene. As a teenager, Nolin dropped out of high school and decided she wanted to learn to play guitar. “I was kind of poor so my brother got me an old, fucking piece of shit that was the worst guitar ever,” she told me. Nolin started off playing covers and uploading them to YouTube, gradually began writing her own material, and then decided to enter a talent competition in Quebec. She won best song, and one of the judges worked for Bonsound, which led to a meeting that eventually birthed Limoilou. Perhaps more importantly for Nolin, the contest opened a new world. “I had no friends, I had no life,” she said with a laugh. “I went to this concert and I got a bunch of friends and a new guitar. I found what I wanted to do with my life.”

Nolin’s ambivalent response to her recording debut might be expected, though, if one has heard her music. The thirteen exquisite songs of Limoilou focus on death, isolation, and poverty—both fiscal and emotional. The French lyrics are laced with vivid and mythic metaphors for these austere sentiments, summoning strange realms. Limoilou opens with “Les excuses,” in which Nolin sings, unaccompanied, a winding and broken melody: “I mistakenly learned that people disguise themselves/They wait for death under church roofs.” Philippe Brault’s piano enters in the background, but the focus remains on the voice; following a moment of silence, an ominous, explosive wail: “When desire burns our gods/When death breaks his vows/When reason cleaves in two/Swallow your bones, apologize to fire/Swallow your water, apologize to fire.” The final lines are a homonymic play on words, between os (bones) and eaux (water). Closely miked in the studio, the production leaves air so that you can hear the crackle in Nolin’s vocals and, in later tracks, the stiff tactile sounds of fingers sliding across guitar strings.

I asked Nolin about her songwriting process, and she offered a frank response. “When I’m really, completely sad—I guess it’s stupid—but whenever I’m sad and I want to feel better, I try to write a song,” she said. “Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t—it’s mostly when I feel sad. I’m feeling really shitty…I go into my bedroom and try to write something. Really, it sucks; but sometimes, it works.”

Safia Nolin

What has emerged from those private moments feels far from cursory on Limoilou. Each song is delicately woven, with words that wrap complex emotions in powerful poetry. On “La laideur,” (“Ugliness”) Nolin builds invisibility—“I took pleasure in disappearing,” she intones—into a haunting groove.

And the studio has carefully enhanced Nolin’s songs without distracting from them. “It was really simple,” she said of the recording process. “I was sitting on a couch, without headphones, and we were all playing live…I wanted that vibe of Listen, these are my songs. I didn’t want it to be overproduced, I wanted it to be super natural.”

For Nolin, that naturalness comes with musical baggage—of both genre and nationality. Picking up a guitar and singing in a confessional style can quickly pigeonhole a young musician into the category of singer-songwriter; and even more so in Quebec, where the tradition of French chanson looms large. “You have to work really hard on your lyrics, but sometimes I wish I could just do music,” she said. “It’s more like the things that bands can do.” Nolin seeks a balance between the language of bands—what she meant by “music”—and that of French song. Much of Limoilou succeeds in finding a voice within that dynamic, as in the interlaced instrumentals of “Technicolor” or the angst-ridden rock of “Si seulement.”

A French lineage comes across in more lackadaisical songs like “Noël partout,” which, with the title “Christmas everywhere,” one might assume is festively cast. But instead, Nolin describes a desire to celebrate the holidays anywhere—on a boat, a plane, in Spain, on Saturn—but at home. “Valser à l’envers” (“Upside-Down Waltz”) best embodies and pushes through any opposition between chanson and band, building from hushed confessional to the anthemic roar of the chorus, with spindly guitar as Nolin holds together the contradictions of intimacy: “Take me by the arm/Don’t touch me.”

“I’m twenty-two but I’m pretty sure I’m thirteen,” Nolin told me. We had spoken for less than five minutes over a fuzzy phone connection, but she already seemed as ready to discuss her interior world as she is in her songs. “I don’t feel like an adult, but I guess the thing that makes the album a narrative is the sense of being lost, and confused, and sad. And poor. I know it sucks. Being poor.”

In the music video for “Igloo,” the song for which Nolin won that life-changing competition in 2012, we see the songwriter shopping at a thrift store. She trudges through the empty, snow-ravaged streets of her hometown—“I wander like an amnesiac phantom/Through the cursed streets of Limoilou,” she sings—and arrives home. She welds her purchase, a pair of speakers, to the top of a gigantic igloo constructed of discarded audio equipment. It’s a poignant image, and a fitting one for an artist for whom music was a path away from isolation, but whose songs gaze intensely upon it.

The Studio is the Instrument

K. Leimer

“I’m overwhelmed by recalling just how much work it was to do these things. Not to say it’s automatically easier today, but with tape and mics and all the rest, the effort in accomplishing the simplest things was much more complex.”

Back in his teenage years, the electronic musician Kerry Leimer recalls he heard an intriguing song by The Beatles—or perhaps another band. Actually, it wasn’t quite the song that intrigued him. It was the sound that opened the song: a brief and unusual drone produced from guitar feedback. Everything that came after that was, frankly, dull. “I immediately found the feedback interesting, but the song that followed struck me as just another song,” he said.

“That’s the split for me: a preoccupation with sound and timbral quality versus the controlled compositional approach to songs and song structures,” Leimer observed. Though mostly isolated in his pursuits in northwest Washington in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Leimer belonged to an international cadre of tinkering experimentalists, ones who took after John Cage and focused on the pursuit of sound for sound’s sake. Accident, contingency, and self-determining systems produced musical results. In San Francisco, Terry Riley and Steve Reich looped pieces of tape into elaborate compositions; in London, Gavin Bryans and Brian Eno crafted indeterminate works and ambient music. “While performing and listening to gradual musical processes, one can participate in a particular liberating and impersonal kind of ritual,” Reich wrote in a famous essay. Today, we hear Reich’s Music for Eighteen Musicians, Eno’s Music for Airports, or Bryars’s The Sinking of the Titanic as beautiful, even sentimental aesthetic journeys; but back then, a quest for pure sound superseded any quest for beauty.

K. Leimer, Savant

Two archival releases on RVNG Intl reveal Leimer’s own unsentimental approach to sound: 2014’s A Period of Review as K. Leimer, and this week’s Artificial Dance as Savant. Where K. Leimer reveals the musician as an inventive electronic composer, Savant represents an equally intriguing project. Leimer rounded up various musicians in the Seattle area in the early 1980s and recorded them playing in the studio, crafting snippets of their live performances into teeming soundscapes. Take “Shadow in Deceit,” which layers percussive loops that recall Reich’s seminal Drumming atop shimmering guitar strums:

“The music I’m principally interested in creating is pretty much the antithesis of anything with beats, of anything to do with bands,” Leimer told me. Savant had no fixed membership, and only performed live once. Musicians were mostly acting as raw material for Leimer’s transformations—he gave general instructions for improvisation, captured the resulting sessions, and reconfigured them in his Seattle studio. “Using chance, isolating the musicians one from another, randomizing the elements, using found materials, self-deterministic structures and all the other fairly usual destabilizing techniques were applied,” he said. In “Falling at Two Speeds,” murky textures are punctured with drum fills. The music feels eminently oriented toward the timbral; beats serve only to punctuate the washes of color.

“On the surface, the Savant work exhibits a degree of familiarity that makes it more approachable, easier to niche into a well­-defined and well­-worn genre, especially for those who simply hear music and don’t actually listen,” Leimer said. “The Neo-Realist”—the title track of Savant’s 1983 LP—begins a little bit like an out-there rock song, with spoken-word vocals, a funky bassline, and gunshot percussion. But the vocals intermittently disassemble into twitchy loops, and the jarring, composite timbre displaces any sense of a band at work.

That experimental edge is equally palpable in A Period of Review, which collects archival K. Leimer recordings from between 1975 and 1983. Like many of his contemporaries, Leimer was first drawn to experimentation via the art world, fascinated by Dada, Surrealism, Duchamp, and practices like automatic writing. “In theory, this process is largely interested in getting the music to participate in its own emergence,” he said. “When this does come about, for me at least, there’s an unforced sense to the result. In practice, it’s blind in many ways. Relinquishing the notion of control. Working at some remove. Reacting to the sounds, fitting different sources together, taking them apart, additive, subtractive, starting over. It often becomes quite dispassionate, emotionally neutral.” K. Leimer tracks often take the form of etudes in sound that fade away, unassuming, not long after they begin. In “Eno’s Aviary,” supersonic, birdsong-like synthetic sounds batter against a melody that’s Brian Eno-esque in its deliberately inane repetition.

K. Leimer

But there are also more developed compositions, which produce such a powerful emotional affect that it becomes difficult to take Leimer’s unsentimental philosophy entirely at face value. “Acquiescence” resembles a kind of church organ prelude, with heart-rending, repeated melodies. Gorgeous ripples of piano notes—not unlike the collaborations of Eno and Harold Budd—coalesce into rich overtones in “Facing East.”

And then there are unusual miniatures: “Commercial,” an eight-second jingle ditty, or “Afga Lupa,” consisting of 52 seconds of murky vocal oddities. One can imagine how technology in that period made even the tiniest of these tracks exhausting to create. “I’m overwhelmed by recalling just how much work it was to do these things,” Leimer said. “Not to say it’s automatically easier today, but with tape and mics and all the rest, the effort in accomplishing the simplest things was much more complex.” Leimer’s projects involved tape loops that spanned dozens of feet. For the Savant song “Heart of Stillness,” Leimer remembered, “It took three of us acting as human capstans to keep the tension reasonably stable for any duration while simultaneously trying to mix the thing.”

K. Leimer

But as a musician who has continued to exploit new technology in his work—his next project is a collaboration with the media artist Bill Seaman—Leimer isn’t particularly interested in romanticizing that era. “It’s easy to think that not long ago ideas routinely outstripped capability and that today capability can easily and vastly outstrip ideas,” he noted. “But on balance it’s a false notion. As always, a lot of capability is applied to some very uninteresting music. But what many insisted on since the advent of tape recording is now an absolute. And that is that the studio is, in fact, the instrument. Savant is a tiny example of that orientation. With applications like Ableton Live or iZotope IRIS, any demarcation between ‘instrument’ and ‘studio’ is finally and completely gone.”