Review of Occur [12k1013]

Electronic Music Reviews(.COM)

Called “minimal,” “glitch,” “click and cut,” or just plain “ambient.” However, few of these artists have been creating this style of music longer than Taylor Deupree, few of those countless labels have been releasing this music for as long as Deupree’s own 12k label, and (most importantly) few artists are as consistent and as consistently interesting as Deupree has been over the last ten years. Deupree’s first forays into this “glitch” sound occurred back in the early-to-mid-1990s under monikers like Human Mesh Dance and S.E.T.I. That early music was primarily “techno” (that is, rhythm) based, but there was a hint of a more stripped-down, minimalist sound lurking underneath all the beats. This experimental sound came out in full force after Deupree started the 12k label in 1997 as a reaction against another record company’s unwillingness to release Human Mesh Dance’s Thesecretnumbertwelve. Although this new work was, principally, centered on rhythms, there was an undercurrent of microscopic sounds that flittered around and above that rhythm, giving the songs a far more interesting (and more unusual) color than more traditional techno tracks. This work signaled a shift in Deupree’s own music toward the study of microscopic sounds.

Deupree’s solo work on the 12k label and on his .N disk (released by Ritornell) focus these microscopic sounds not around specific rhythms or melodic patterns but around concepts culled from science, architecture, and everyday life. The aforementioned .N focuses on the concept of nanotechnology, which is the science of microscopic functional structures (aka atom-sized machines capable of altering objects at their molecular level). The music on this disk is sparse, evasive, even silent, yet when sounds emerge, they emerge in disparate and unsettling patterns, rarely repeating yet continually oscillating – just like little nano machines. It’s a fascinating work, but it’s a work that took me a while to fully appreciate and enjoy because it is so fundamentally minimal that it is almost devoid of things most music has in abundance, like rhythm, song structure, melodies, and so on. Once I understood and appreciated the work for what it was, however, I couldn’t stop listening.

Deupree’s most recent solo release is Occur, which the 12k website describes as “a work of non-repetition and subdued melodic passages composed almost entirely by granular synthesis algorithms.” Say what? Well, break it down (using my handy dictionary):

– Granular: “Consisting of or resembling grains.” (Duh)

– Synthesis: “The combination of ideas into a complex whole.”

– Algorithms: “A precise rule specifying how to solve some problem.”

After putting these terms together and focusing them around music, “granular synthesis algorithms” would suggest a system whereby small, evasive sounds are combined together to form complex wholes. That’s a rather general concept, of course, but there’s more to it than that. The 12k website again: “Initially inspired by the often quiet urban sounds outside of his studio in Brooklyn, New York, the concept behind occur grew to become pieces about all things brief – glimpses, things that come and then are gone. these are singular occurrences in time, like the passing of a car or the blinking off of a street light at night. The brittle and sporadic granular tones crunch and crumble about the stereo field creating an implied urban soundscape.” So, basically, the tracks on Occur project (in sound) glimpses of time – always different, always fleeting. The granular part comes in as a way to structure these seemingly unstructured glimpses into a composite whole (synthesis).

Interesting stuff – theoretically. But what’s the end result? Well, Deupree’s a great artist, and even when they are not fully successful, great artists are usually interesting. This disk is certainly interesting, and it is generally successful. There are points where tracks get a bit tiring, and there are even points where the sounds themselves become overtly repetitive (thereby calling into question the whole “glimpse” idea, in my mind). But, in all, this is a generally fascinating application of a theoretical concept.

Above everything else, Deupree’s music comes alive when the sounds are moving, shifting, changing pace and tone, either quickly or slowly. The best moments here seem alive, in the same way that a blood vessel is alive or the a knife scraping a plate is alive. The first track, for instance, includes sounds…but how do I describe them? How do I describe a flittering (not oscillating) humming noise that floats around at times, goes away at other times, and returns? Such a sound does not seem to serve any purpose, and yet its purpose is its very existence within the track. This is true of most sounds I hear on this disk. Each sound is deliberate, and yet deliberately accidental. Sounds start and stop on no one’s cue (or so it seems). This is arrhythmic music at its absolute, well, “arrhythmicalest.” Most of these sounds are alive because they do not seem to be controlled by anyone, not even Deupree. And yet these sounds, together, generally form cohesive, complete wholes. How is this possible?

Andrei Tarkovsky, the great Russian filmmaker, describes film as the act of recording time. To him, a great filmmaker knows where to place a camera, when to start it, and when to stop it. What that camera records is the passage of time, and it is the recording of time itself – time that is carefully ordered and controlled by the camera – that distinguishes good cinema from bad cinema. I think Deupree follows the same logic when creating music. He takes the random noises of computers and everyday life, but, rather than controlling these sounds, he controls the instruments (computers, mostly) that produce these sounds. Where the sounds go, what the sounds do is less important that how they are recorded. Because he knows which sounds to focus on, when to start recording, and when to stop, the tracks on this disk are generally elegant and interesting, and not simply random noise. Where the disk faulters is when those sounds seem too controlled, too organized, as in the final track, which seems like an exercise in repetitive sound that is slowly (too slowly?) transforming from one thing to another. This track is less successful because the control here is less on the instrument level than on the sound level. We hear the sound repeating itself; we don’t actually experience the sound moving on its own accord. Track nine, in other words, sounds too mundane, too much like other “glitch” tracks by other, lesser artists.

Obviously, Deupree’s music isn’t for everyone. There are plenty of people out there who would be bored to tears after about 10 seconds of this disk. I’m not one of those people – frankly, if I were one of those people, I wouldn’t have bought the record in the first place. But those of you out there who own copies of Clicks & Cuts, who are aware of and excited by the “glitch” sounds emerging from all parts of the world, but who might be bored by the rather tired cliches that have crept into this genre, would be wise to check out this disk, for it represents a new direction in “glitch” music, a direction away from order and manipulation of sound and toward an open-ended study of the mechanisms that shape and define sound (including, of course, the human brain). I actually prefer Deupree’s .N a bit more than this disk, in part because Occur does not fully live up to the interesting concept that Deupree sets forward on the website. In all, however, Occur is a good work, a work of real creativity and rewarding ideas, but perhaps it is an even better manifesto.

Michael Heumann

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