THE VOICE OF ENERGY VOL. 082
Greetings and salutations, my people. I'm in your inboxes once more with a fresh edition of the newsletter. Today, I'm coming to you from an adorable ADU in Seattle where I'm posted up for the weekend to see a couple of concerts. One for work; the other just for me. I don't recall if any of you live here in this fine city, but if you do, hit me up and maybe we can get coffee or hit some record shops while I'm here.
Particularly excited to share this edition with you as it features an interview with one of my favorite sound artists Retribution Body. As I've gotten older and grumpier, my interest in new music has become this stubborn pursuit for sounds that challenge me or completely upend any and all expectations. I don't mind hearing an artist's influences in their work so long as they are deconstructing them or refashioning them in surprising ways. Retribution Body's work does all that and wraps me up in a tight sonic bear hug that I want to linger in for hours.
I also have some reviews of some new music out today and a lovely movie recently released to VOD services in the U.S. and Canada. Not as many reviews as I was hoping to write but, as ever, time got away from me as I had to finish up some work projects and then do the somewhat treacherous commute to Seattle. (Spotted one nasty accident outside Tacoma and a car on fire outside Olympia. Be careful out there.)
As always, please share this with anyone you think might be interested either directly via email or through social media. And, if you would like to join the golden circle of premium subscribers, you'd be helping support a completely independent outfit and ensuring that I don't have to think about getting an office job any time soon. It's only $5 a month. Think about it.
Back at you on the other side.
One of my favorite listening experiences so far this year happened when I sent the "special low-frequency edition" of Self-Destruction, the 2018 album by sound artist Matthew Azevedo aka Retribution Body, through the Sonos speaker I have sitting on my desk. As he told me when I caught up with him on the phone recently, he recorded the three tracks in the basement of a 19th century firehouse in Boston, amplifying the drones and creaks of his synthesizers into the room and capturing the combination of the instrument and the resonant space through a series of microphones. What he came up with sounded great in his home studio, but when he tried to listen to the mixes in his car, it sounded like nothing was coming out of the speakers. "I heard a patch cord click, and then a buzzing sound and some more patch cords click," Azevedo says, "and I realized, 'Oh my God, I made an album you can't listen to without subwoofers." He remastered the material for everyday use, but kept the low-frequency version available on his Bandcamp page. And it was that version that made my Sonos, and the desk underneath it, buzz and rattle like a hundred iPhones getting an unending barrage of alerts. I fully expected the speaker to start bursting apart like a washer going through the spin cycle with a cinder block in its chamber.
Azevedo's love of such earth-shaking and bodily assaulting sounds is what led him to design the "Siege Tower," a custom-built PA capable of pumping out as massive amount of sound. It's what he has used to record much of his music, including his forthcoming album Baphomet (out next Friday through Full Spectrum Records). He set up this beast within the main room of Metheun Memorial Music Hall, a performance space located 30 miles outside of Boston that boasts an enormous pipe organ that features over 80 stops and thousands of pipes. It was all constructed at the behest of a rich widower who used it as his personal concert hall. "He had an on-call organist," Azevedo says. "He'd be at work and decide, 'I feel like listening to some music.' 20 minutes later, the organist would show up and he would sit in the balcony and listen to music for a while." Azevedo was summoned to the space for work and was so excited about the possibilities of using it for a recording that he began contriving a way to get inside for a while. The pandemic gave him his opening when all the scheduled recitals at the hall were canceled. Up went the Siege Tower and out came Baphomet, an album of enveloping compositions that move with the hulking grace of an aircraft carrier and blankets the air around whatever speakers or headphones it is pouring out of like a slow-moving shockwave. Listening to it all through my earbuds, much like speaking with Azevedo recently about his music and methodology, is an experience I won't soon forget and want to frequently return to.
The basis for Baphomet is the sound of the organ and the space at Methuen Memorial Hall. How did you come upon them both?
One of my day jobs is as a senior staff scientist at an acoustics firm called Acentech. I went there for work. They were looking at some possible changes in furnishing and a few other things in the hall, and they wanted to have a better understanding of how the acoustics in the hall were behaving. So I was in there doing testing. It’s a beautiful space. It’s got a natural four second reverberation time. It was an amazing space, and I said, “I need to figure out how I’m going to get in here.” That was in late 2019. Then in 2020 there was all kinds of free time in the hall for some reason!
It was kind of this dance of approaching the organ. I know how the thing works, but I was trying to think of how to integrate it. The first three pieces are just my synthesizer in the hall through my custom amplifier system, which is seven feet tall and 2,500 watts and goes up to about 117 decibels and 20 hz. I also dragged a Sunn half-stack and a Peavy half-stack as a backline. I kept not recording the organ but what I ended up settling on is... My compositions tend to be, in terms of pitch, very static. There’s a tonality and it sustains for almost the entirety of the piece. I tune the oscillators to the standing waves of the room. So I tuned to the resonance of the space and play into that resonance. What I ended up doing with the organ, I tore up a sheet of paper into a bunch of little wedges, and across the four manuals of the organ, I pinned down the keys that built the resonance that I wanted. Then I played the stops. This organ has 90 stops. If you listen to “Baphomet,” I start with the synthesizer, unpatched. I play a note into that resonance and then build on top of that. When I got to the peak of what the synthesizer was going to do, where it was self-modulating enough that it was going to stay interesting for a while, I walked away from the synthesizer and then sat down at the console and started pulling stops out on the organ. I just kept building the same way I would do with the modular, and then I added another tension chord. Then it was just a process of walking back and forth between the organ and the synthesizer and closing stops and pulling patch cords, and just doing that until it was taken apart.
I want to know more about this custom sound system that you’ve dubbed the “Siege Tower.” When did you decide to build this and how difficult was it to make that a reality?
I wrote the first album in my mastering studio and having true full-range monitors was a big part of what led me to working with such low frequencies. My first tour was a really let-down because none of the venue PAs could give me the frequency range I wanted, so every night I was reconfiguring what I would play based on the limitations of the house system. Shortly after that tour, I saw Sunn O))) in a big, old former Vaudeville hall and the light went on, I just needed to bring enough backline to do what I wanted.
I started with four 2x15 cabs and a 800w amp. That sounded pretty good, but I kept melting the power supply in the amp. So that amp went away, replaced by a 2000 W Crown. The speakers were rated for 500 W each, that seemed perfect. While they may have been rated for 500 W each, the Crown melted the voice coils in all eight of the drivers at once. There is a very distinctive smell to smoking that many drivers at the same time. I rebuilt those cabinets with two bass guitar drivers and four automotive subs, and that was OK but it didn't sound great; nobody was really selling speakers tailored for infrasound. This led me to decide I had to just make something purpose-built for what I needed.
As for how much work, six months, but obviously not full time. Lots of time researching drivers, running simulations to see how they would perform. Then designing the cabinets and their internal bracing. The cabinets were built by Atlas, a fantastic builder based in Colorado since I didn't have the wood shop space to do it myself. The trick with the speakers is that the two 18" subwoofer cabinets are modular, the 50 lb. drivers are on a twist-lock system so that I can pop them out of the 80 lb. cabinets and carry them into a venue separately and assemble them on stage. The whole thing is about 350 lbs including 3000 W of amplifier (though I'm only using 2500 W).
You were in the hall for about two and a half days total. How much material did you amass during that stretch?
Oh, there’s a whole bunch. There’s another half-dozen pieces. A lot of them I don’t really like. Because of the way my process works of composing into the acoustics. There was a book I was reading and some ideas I had for what I was going to do in the space. Then you get in the space and start making those sounds and then you say, “Ahhhhhhhh… I don’t like it.” Or, “This isn’t the right space,” or, “Eh, it needs something different.”
Actually, “Cadeceus Ouroboros” was one I gave up in the middle of the recording. I played for maybe four minutes and thought, “Uh, this sucks.” A few weeks later, I’m sifting through hours of recording trying to figure out what’s going to be on the album, and I heard that fragment and went, “Oh crap. This is actually good.” There was something going on in the room that I didn’t hear from where I was standing. So what I did for that piece was took the fragment that I had and reversed the audio file and stitched it on the end of the original piece. And I don’t know if it was a patch cord or I dropped something but there was a little click in the room when the audio flips. I left that in as a little fingerprint for what was going on with the track.
Once you have all this material and you’re preparing it for release, how much added processing are you doing to the music?
None. I do EQ if EQ is needed. There’s a little compression in the mastering, but it’s pretty much just EQ and a lot of editing. If I have a piece that’s 20 minutes long and there’s five minutes where I got lost… nobody wants to hear me spin my wheels. Not to give away the whole farm, but “Baphomet” was actually two takes. There were parts of that where I thought the build worked better in the first take, and I was still figuring out how the organ part was going to work. I thought the organ part worked better in the second take. But I landed about the same patch in the middle so I was able to do a clean edit.
There was also a running problem of hitting the right note or the wrong note, depending on who you want to quantify things, and all the chairs would shake. It sounded like robots applauding. There’s still some of it in there. But there were a bunch of spots where it was just obnoxious. I either need to manually de-click every single one of these and spend eight hours doing micro-spectral edits or those two minutes just need to go away.
Between your day job and your extracurricular activities, acoustics and sound are very important to you. When did that become such a vested interest?
I’m autistic, and I didn’t get a formal diagnosis until I was 40. Fundamentally, autism is a sensory disorder. If you imagine a sensory mixer with a fader for each sense, it’s like someone just went in, blindfolded, and just pushed the faders up and down, and where it lands is where you get. So I’ve always been really, really focused on sound. My mom told me that when I was a toddler, I would start bawling my eyes out if a plane flew overhead. The noise would just wreck me. I’ve always had this sensory quirk.
I went to school for audio engineering and I went to work as a mastering engineer. Then the economy went away, so I went to grad school for acoustics. But everything, literally everything I’ve done — certainly as a profession but my hobbies too — has always been sound stuff. I can remember being a high school student in a little town and there was no internet so there was very little information coming in. I was doing harsh noise guitar feedback stuff with all my pedals lined up as a 16-year-old. I had no idea it was a thing people were doing in the real world, and that it was a legitimate way to express oneself. Then I read the ideas of John Cage and then studied with Pauline Oliveros, and it gave me comfort in pursuing my natural interests without judging it.
What was that experience of studying with Pauline Oliveros like? What did you take away from that that has had the biggest impact on your work?
Two things, I think. First, composition as a listening practice. My current way of working is to put a sound into a space, listen to how it comes back, and what I hear determines the next sound. That kind of continuous listening feedback loop is a very Pauline way of approaching sound. The other thing is a willingness to take my work seriously even when I'm not confident in it. A few of Pauline's classes had a reputation at RPI as being as "easy A," so you'd get folks who weren't really invested in the class. People would present work and sometimes it would drive me nuts because people would be presenting things that were (to me) obviously bullshit. How could you bring that to someone like Pauline Oliveros? It felt disrespectful to me. But, Pauline never, ever treated anything anyone presented to her as being less than their most serious attempt at creating something meaningful. She always listened from an assumption of mutual respect, and sure, that meant sometimes she was the only one taking something some jabroni did seriously. What it also meant was that for the people who were committed, you knew that you could bring any idea you had and it would be seriously listened to and respected and she'd engage your work as a peer. To have someone like her take your work seriously was so incredibly important and validating. I've made a real effort to treat my own listening in the same way, and to make sure my first listen to anything I hear is based on my assumption that this is a serious effort by the performer to do something meaningful. And after that listen, sometimes my conclusion is: “This sucks.” But not letting myself take that out until after a serious listen has been a very positive thing for me.
As someone who takes sound and acoustics as seriously as you do, does it frustrate you in some way to know that most people are listening to music out of crappy laptop speakers or using smartphones and using other less than ideal methods?
No! There’s so much more to enjoying sound than the audiophile experience. And I like the audiophile experience. We just finished this project for some guy with a lot of money to burn and wants to listen to music. We built this barn-sized listening room. It’s 40 feet wide and 60 feet long. His home stereo is a vintage RCA Voice of the Theater PA system. Everything is giant tube amps, and he’s got Broadcast ultra-high accuracy turntables the size of a small oven. We were there doing the checkout to make sure everything’s installed properly and it’s really fun to listen to records on a million-dollar turntable in this multi-million dollar room. But it’s also really nice to just have the sound where you’re having a feeling coming out of your phone speaker.
What are you reading / watching / listening to these days?
Oh heck, let's see. I live in Providence, which is the heart of Lovecraft country, so I've been working through The Annotated Lovecraft, which has been really great. HPL was a very mixed bag as a person, both an incredible writer and supporter to his friends and the second most prolific letter-writer in history (second to Voltaire), and also a really shittily prejudiced jerk whose phobias defined the world he experienced. The Annotated Lovecraft does a great job of illuminating both sides of him. Watching has mostly been The Expanse, which I'm obviously late to, but I have a huge soft spot for very hard sci-fi. It is nice to see a space story where the reality of acceleration is unavoidable. Listening, you could check out my recent Bandcamp purchases. SPELLLING's The Turning Wheel is one of the best-produced albums I've heard in years. Nightcrawler is Kevin Richard Martin's (The Bug) take on doom jazz, following up a great string of minimal work under his own name. Field Patterns by my labelmates CC Sorensen & Gretchen Korsmo is lovely, hazy minimalism. SPECTRAL WOUND are killer black metal out of Montreal, and I grabbed the full discography of the remarkably prolific Hali Palombo.
[MUSIC] John Tejada: Sleepwalker (Palette Recordings)
Artist / producer John Tejada isn't one to let time slip idly by. With extra hours to kill during the pandemic, he turned around multiple LPs including last year's Year of the Living Dead, a collection of lens flared deep house that was a fair reflection of his own scrambled thoughts and fears, and In Medias Res, a collaboration with Dntel (aka Jimmy Tamborello aka 1/2 of The Postal Service) that found delightful consort among angular, glitchy synth patterns and downtempo beats. And as the calendar page turned from 2021 to this year, Tejada wrapped up another full-length, Sleepwalker, which is out today via his personal imprint. The mood of this album is hopeful yet tentative with tracks that offer the possibilities of dancefloor abandon while still carrying a shadow of exhaustion and worry over the fragile state of our shared world. He may have titled one of these songs "Unafraid," but beneath the shifty groove are portentous minor key drones and what sounds like an incessant alarm. Other tracks like the vogue-ready "Excursion" and the drum-and-bass leaning closer "Isolate" have the wobbly thrills of navigating the hallway of a club while blitzed out of one's mind on chemicals. Tread carefully as you listen. (Bandcamp)
[MUSIC] Hinako Omori: a journey... (Houndstooth)
The debut album by London-based sound artist Hinako Omori is meant to be a healing experience, akin to, according to the creator, the practice of "forest bathing" — spending dedicated purposeful time in the woods as a way of letting the sounds and feel of the natural environment be a balm to body and mind. To that end, Omori fills the background of each track with field recordings captured on a binaural microphone. Atop these natural sounds are appropriately floaty synth lines and the wisp of Omori's vocal performances. And it's the latter elements of a journey... that tend to break the trance that the artist is trying to instill. Omori attempts a mantra by repeating "Will you listen in?" in a song of the same name drifts from a haunting query into an niggling plea from the sidelines. Later, the bubbly synths of "Levitation" wind up falling like hailstones rather than a gentle rain. Omori's skills as an engineer and sound sculptor are remarkable — this is one of the best produced and mastered albums I've heard all year — but her insistence on being a presence within these recordings isn't the kind of thing one can simply acknowledge and then brush past. (Bandcamp)
[FILM] The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs (2020, dir. Pushpendra Singh)
The heart of Pushpendra Singh's new film is an ancient one, built from the work and life of 14th century Kashmiri poet Lalleshwari, but the story is an entirely modern one. Working from a recent fable written by Vidaydan Detha, the story follows the journey of Laila, a headstrong young woman who is married into a nomadic tribe of shepherds. As she and her new family settle in for the spring, Laila starts to have a profound effect on the libidos of the men around her. The other members of the tribe stay away but a pair of local officials insist that, before too long, they will have her. Laila toys with one of them even as she rebuffs his advances. But the outcome of their interactions start to feel uncomfortably inevitable. Singh's well-crafted script compels us to consider both the need to protect the rituals of a tribe that has likely existed in the hotly-contested Kashmir region for centuries and the misogyny that is often ingrained into systems new and old. The government officials force themselves into the humble existence of this tribe by insisting on certain permits to allow them to push their herds along and look to force themselves on to whatever women in this group that they so choose. Watching Navjot Randhawa's muscular performance as Laila holding firm against such intrusions in ways both playful and furious is what gives this tremendous film its soul. (available to rent through VOD services)
That's what it is, folks. I hope you enjoyed it. (And I hope my friend Patricia didn't hate one of my reviews...) I'll be back on Monday for the premium crowd and next Friday for all y'all. Probably going to be a new Deeper Into Movies piece. Just need to decide who to write it about. Any ideas? Hit me up. As always: Do no harm. Take no shit.
Artwork for this edition is from Dezső Szabó's exhibition Copy, which is on display at Vintage Galéria in Budapest through March 25. Photo of Retribution Body by Janice Checchio.