Keith Fullerton Whitman’s name is synonymous with some of the most progressive, experimental and inimitable underground electronic music around. For the last 20 years, he has traversed a variety of genres—drone, ambient, experimental, noise, doom, and drill n’ bass (the last under the moniker of Hrvatski). His works have found homes on diverse labels—Planet Mu, Editions Mego, Kranky, Carpark—as well as his own ventures, such as the snappily titled Reckankreuzungsklankewerkzeuge.
However, even a cursory glance over his personal Bandcamp page — which currently comprises over 50 releases — is enough to fill one with an overwhelming uncertainty about where to start. On top of this, Whitman (who holds a Bachelor’s degree in music synthesis from Berklee College of Music) often presents his work in a highly-technical light. Many of his releases come with detailed notes explaining the recording techniques and equipment used; he doesn’t just want us to listen to the music so much as he wants us to plunge — very, very deeply— into his self-created realm.
Importantly, even as Whitman’s work invites and welcomes deep thought, study and analysis, it never comes across an exercise in virtuoso noodling, all ostentatious or superfluous set-ups: it’s more of a journey with a detailed roadmap. Whether you want to poke your head around the door and just glance into Whitman’s treasure trove of a back catalog, or you want to lose a year of your life exploring its every nook and cranny, here is a guide to his beguiling world.
This 2001 album was Whitman’s debut release under his own name. The title is both accurate and misleading.. This is technically acoustic guitar music—but after it’s been put through a pick-up and then into a effects machine and a reverb pedal, the end result feels distant from its starting point. While the tender whirring hum of the two 10-minute improvised tracks shares a certain gentleness with their acoustic foundation, they feel much closer to ambient electronic music than folk. Both unfold slowly but steadily, quietly yet thoughtfully building the atmosphere of each piece. This is a perfect gateway into Whitman’s work, as it seems to set a tone and degree of experimentation that became the blueprint for his solo career. This is something he himself affirms: “This release laid the groundwork for many years of exploration of glacially shifting synthesized sound.”
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Playthroughs is essentially a continuation of the initial processed guitar sounds that Whitman explored on 21-30 For Acoustic Guitar, extended to the length of a full album and with a much wider, yet still carefully focused, tonal scope. It remains a landmark release not only in Whitman’s oeuvre—one that stands in stark contrast to Hrvatski’s restless, itchy, and scattered sounds—but of modern ambient music (Pitchfork declared it the 23rd best ambient album of all time in 2016). Here, Whitman excels in turning minimal movements and tiny gestures into quietly powerful shifts, be it the fuzzy sheets of prickly feedback on the appropriately titled “Feedback Zwei,” or the watery crackle of “Fib01a,” which at times sounds like a needle on a record recorded up close (while simultaneously being submerged in water). The album is so far removed from traditional instrumentation — that this is technically “guitar music” easily vanishes from thought — results in a truly transformative listening experience.
“Twin Guitar Rhodes Viola Drone (For Lamonte Young),” which opens 2004’s Antithesis, is exactly what it says it is: a fitting tribute to the minimalist pioneer. This track, eight minutes of light string screeching and almost choral drones, sets the tone for a record that is much more palpable, more tactile, than some of Whitman’s previous work. Strings are not disguised and processed to resemble another synthetic beast, but are instead embraced and amplified. The use of viola, in particular, adds a warm, occasionally dissonant, aura to the compositions. It’s an early indication of Whitman’s ability to explore various practices, genres and instruments and to forge a singular sense of tone and characteristic from each new avenue explored.
The very metal-like artwork for this album may suggest something similar to Whitman’s previous album Nasturtium, which is an unashamed plunge into the world of doom-drone in the vein of Sunn O))) and Earth. Yet, as Whitman often likes to do, he wrong-foots from the opening track. “Lixus (Version Analogique)” begins with rattling and engulfing cymbal vibrations but soon gives way to a deeply melodic, finger-picked acoustic guitar that rides above the crashing waves of ambience. For a brief moment, one might wonder if this is Whitman’s foray into folk, but soon enough he shifts approach again, and on the following “Bewusstseinserweiternd Tonaufnahme (Einer Und Zweiter Teile),” electronic bleeps meet intense percussion work and drifting fogs of ambient texture for a brooding, internal piece that feels oppositional, yet connected, to its predecessor.
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Lisbon is a relatively succinct offering in Whitman’s catalog: a single 41-minute track recorded live in Lisbon in 2006. It’s a gently bubbling cauldron of electronics, gentle drones, and omnipresent atmospherics that bubbles to an eventual boiling point. Whitman is not an artist prone to easy pay-offs and obvious emotions, but Lisbon has as close to a euphoric climax as is possible in his world. Once the piece reaches the 20-minute-or-so mark, it begins to detonate with a ferocity that feels like sitting inside of a firework as it rockets into the sky. It’s powerful and forceful, but on the other side, one feels more cleansed than disoriented. This is a potent and vital release that also displays Whitman’s ability to shift form and approach in a live context.
Released in 2009 initially on four cassettes to be listened to simultaneously, Whitman has unpacked the elements that went into making this record and presents them here in digital form to be consumed in various ways. The individual ambient pieces are offered as 52 separate tracks. One can also purchase the four cassettes (offered individually), a four-plus hour mesh of the cassettes recorded together, and also a two-hour room recording of the tapes all playing simultaneously. All of this provides fascinating insights into the depth and intricacy of the thought processes behind his work and approach, allowing listeners to dive into his innermost workings if they wish or just dip their toes into the water. The result of the four cassettes playing simultaneously resembles mutated bird tweets, chirping back and forth, interacting like hissing crossed radio frequencies. Birdsong is something Whitman has played with before, and this piece reflects his aforementioned ability to take a looped piece of organic field recording and process, toy with, and manipulate it into a sonic state that resembles something distinctly inorganic.
By 2010, Whitman had begun to really explore working with modular synthesizers, and Generator is a landmark release in his catalog. After beginning to feel the restrictions of live laptop shows, he started to perform and record more with modular synths, to add an extra element of unpredictability and spontaneity. The results are stirring. The music is livelier and naturally more melodic than some of Whitman’s earlier ambient processed guitar pieces, but regurgitated 1970s Germany kosmische music this is not. The album is pleasant in its tone and deeply listenable, but it’s also a consistently challenging piece of work that’s constantly shooting off in new directions, adding tones and shifting into new passages while retaining a sonic coherence that allows the tracks to meld gracefully into one another. Also worth investigating is Whitman taking this concept to the stage with his Live Generators collection; his use of room mics, which capture the occasional chatter of the audience, adds an entirely new dimension.
A 2014 live performance from the Tokyo Festival of Modular, this release is largely based around field recordings made in and around the Shin-Ōkubo and Shinjuku neighborhoods. As you may have guessed by now, they undergo quite the transformation in Whitman’s hands. The opening “Tokyo (1)” recalls the nightmarish soundscapes of David Lynch’s Eraserhead soundtrack; an eerie sense of dread permeates the woozy whooshes and hisses. This soon erupts into a dissonant, frightening crescendo, Whitman’s synth sounding like a machine coming to life. It’s harsh yet harmonic, and the scope, intricacy, and ambition of the work remains forcefully present throughout.