Welcome to Hi Bias, a monthly column highlighting recent cassette releases on Bandcamp, and exploring the ideas behind them with the artists who made them. Rather than making sweeping generalizations about the “cassette comeback,” we prefer here simply to cover releases that may escape others’ radar due to their limited, cassette-focused availability.
Lea Bertucci, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air (NNA Tapes)
How does space shape and change sound? The question has fascinated Lea Bertucci since she was young. “Where I grew up in upstate New York, there are a number of defunct cement mines,” the sound artist and composer says. “I have very distinct memories of going into these caves and making sounds, with saxophone and other instruments, and just being astonished with the way the instruments were transformed through the acoustic space.”
Acoustic spaces play huge roles in two side-long pieces on Bertucci’s latest tape, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air. For “The Cepheid Variations,” she recorded three musicians—cellist Leila Bordreuil, viola player Jeanann Dara, and herself manipulating prepared tapes—inside Brooklyn’s Issue Project Room. The resulting music feels both open and intimate. The room melts the players into one continuous stream of sound that crests in daunting waves.
Even before the performance began, Bertucci’s tapes used space as a tool. To make them, she recorded the echoes of tuning forks scraped across piano strings. “I noticed that if I manipulated these objects in a certain strange fashion, a cascade of harmonics and subtle glissandi came out,” she explains. “The sounds are designed to arise in a liminal fashion from the uneven harmonic tremolo glissandi in the cello and viola parts The instruments sort of conjure up this layered mass of sound which then takes over.”
Side two of All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, “Double Bass Crossfade,” is even more literally about space. Its score, according to Bertucci, “looks more like an architectural plan than conventional musical notation.” To present it, she enlisted bassists James Ilgenfritz and Sean Ali to improvise while walking toward each other from opposite corners of the New York warehouse space Knockdown Center.
“As they move toward the center of the room, and ultimately to each other’s original starting positions, their sounds are routed to whichever speaker is in their closest proximity,” Bertucci explains. “The effect of this leaves a trail of their own sound in their wake.” The three-dimensional aspect of “Double Bass Crossfade” is enhanced by another Bertucci instruction: the bassists began by playing the highest end of the musical scale, descended to the lowest note when meeting, then returned back up the scale as they parted. Hence, even if you didn’t see the performance, you can hear the players’ physical paths via their musical ones.
Bertucci’s own path through music began when she picked up a saxophone at age nine. She studied jazz and classical music in high school, but turned toward photography in college. Since graduating in 2006, she’s continued to pursue both mediums. As a performer, she’s most often played woodwinds—specifically bass clarinet—alongside a wide range of instruments and musical forms. “I have always had very palpable synaesthetic and emotional experiences responding to music,” she says. “It’s always been very real to me.”
Equally interested in performance and composition, Bertucci finds the latter coming to the fore on All That Is Solid Melts Into Air. It’s her first release that includes a piece she doesn’t play on. “It’s important to, at some point, step back from the work if you are heavily involved in its performance,” she insists. “It’s always a challenging and humbling experience to have that kind of perspective, because it allows us the opportunity to more objectively evaluate if the sounds are effective in expressing what we intend.”
Snake Union, The Role of Revulsion (Rat Route)
As Snake Union, Chuck Bettis and David Grant make pulsating electronic music. But even though their project is strictly instrumental, it’s informed by common experience as singers in punk bands. “Recently, we were driving to play some shows and we began discussing the sort of emotional effort involved in being a singer in a group; the way that the voice is easily latched onto as a focal point but also easily judged,” says Grant. “I think Snake Union might be both of us processing years of being behind the microphone.”
On their new album, The Role of Revulsion, Snake Union engage in a wordless conversation, as Bettis and Grant react and intertwine across lengthy sonic arcs. Strong beats spawn a constellation of textures and tangents, eventually taking the duo to places far from where they started. “Essentially, I am the wild card of the group. I get to accent and go off while Dave typically lays the foundation,” explains Bettis. “But we may switch that up on you, so don’t get comfortable!”
The primary constant on The Role of Revulsion is rhythm. “I feel like Chuck and I either overtly or tacitly agreed at some point that Snake Union would be about exploring rhythm,” says Grant. “I love working on interesting timbres of percussion that aren’t overtly drum-like or drum-machine-like.” But Snake Union knows how to roll forward without a beat too, as during the long, droning dénouement to opening track “Autodisnternment.”
The Role of Revulsion has an open-ended quality. Though each track is “about 80% composed” according to Bettis, it’s all made in real time, with little in the way of editing or overdubbing after the fact. “So far our music is like Tibetan sand painting,” says Bettis. “After solidifying a piece, its lifespan will only last the duration of a performance or tour. We occasionally will record it but have yet to repeat any of our pieces.”
That moment-to-moment approach is something in which both Bettis and Grant are well versed. “Essentially, the impetus to come together was culled from our deep admiration for experimentation,” insists Bettis. “Knowing that we both would push each other further.” Bettis played in DC punk bands as a teenager, then gravitated toward avant garde sounds with Meta-Matics and All Scars, eventually moving to New York where he played with improv stalwarts Ikue Mori and John Zorn. Grant cut his teeth in hardcore bands in Richmond like Action Patrol and The Episode, then moved to Chicago in the late ‘90s, inspired by Kevin Drumm and U.S. Maple among others..
All this experience fuels Snake Union’s layered music, which is deep enough to dive into, but primal enough to move to. It’s not all about aesthetics, either: there’s a political awareness on The Role of Revulsion that’s reflected in its title, which was suggested by Grant. “I felt it best embodied the feelings of disgust towards the current putrid political environment, one which is more blatantly vile than past administrations,” says Bettis. Grant concurs: “I was thinking about the role that repulsion plays in our political and personal lives. A lot of conversation is about positive, affirming choices in life, but I often feel like so much of subconscious inner discourse is about deep revulsion.”
Monas, Freedom (Astral Spirits)
It’s not exactly subtle to call an album of high-octane improvised music Freedom, but subtlety is unnecessary when you’re talking about Monas’ bracing sonic attack. On side one of their new tape, the trio of guitarist Colin Fisher, bassist Johnny DeBlase, and drummer Kid Millions spend a little time ramping up before launching into nearly 20 minutes of uninterrupted musical speed racing, dipping and diving around each other while periodically coalescing into pure mayhem. On side B, Fisher trades his guitar for sax, making Monas sound just slightly more contained, but still hyper and fiery in a way that fully douses ears. In other words, the kind of Freedom we all deserve.
somesurprises, Serious Dreams (Eiderdown)
If all recorded music is some combination of dry (i.e. the initial sound) and wet (i.e. the effects applied to that sound), then you could call somesurprises’ music a rainforest. Reverberation isn’t just an accent on Serious Dreams, the new tape by the duo of Natasha El-Sergany and Josh Medina—it’s an instrument itself. El-Sergany’s voice and the pair’s guitars mold reverb like a potter molds clay, creating shapes that convey moods and ideas. The main vibe is peaceful and calm, capable of sending the listener into a near-somnambulant state. But there’s also lots of thought and guts behind this music, and perhaps even some subliminal political statements (El-Sergany works as an immigration rights lawyer by day). Whatever the message, Serious Dreams firmly earns both halves of its name.
Long Distance Poison, Rheomodes (Oxtail)
The duo of Nathan Cearley and Erica Bradbury conceived of Rheomodes, their latest work as Long Distance Poison, as an audio-visual project wherein “sound controls image and image controls sound,” producing “events [that] can be described as films or as songs but are really less separate objects than different contexts of process.” Yet the sound alone is rich enough to provide a full experience itself. Elongated tones intermingle with sparse rhythms and surreal electronic accents, creating music that feels more like an environment than a composition. As enticing as the accompanying installation (running at Printed Matter in Brooklyn on March 31) looks, filling in the visuals with your own imagination is part of the fun of letting Rheomodes infiltrate your brain.