Review of Folding, And The Tea [12k1021]

Haunted Ink (US)

At first listen, Christopher Willits’ Folding, And The Tea is eerily reminiscent of Fennesz’s Endless Summer, as both are centered around fractured and fragmented guitar melodies. Granted, Fennesz’s work digitally reconfigures Beach Boys and other surfer melodies, while Willits’ work digitally reworks his own jazz guitar noodles. Hence, the resultant works do not literally sound the same. But they do share a distinctive aesthetic – the digital manipulation of the most “traditional” of traditional rock instruments. But this similarity should not be construed as a mark against Willits’ work, for this, the latest in a long line of excellent 12k releases, is too interesting in its own right to be diminished by a work that was released a year earlier.

The title, Folding, And The Tea, doesn’t make a lot of sense, but I think the “folding” part refers to the way in which the guitar melodies that form the primary musical source are digitally twisted (folded) to create new and complex patterns. The sixteen songs represented here thus start off with (generally) the same premise – a soothing guitar melody. It does not take long, however, for that melody to turn into a series of granular waves, each one different from the last. As a result, there is an amazing variety of sounds here. Some songs (like “Fold, Refold, Folding Again”) bounce and spin around like a drunken grasshopper; some songs (“Free Singing Strawberries For Children”) seem like Boards of Canada tunes that have been left out in the rain too long; some songs (“…Makes Shadow the Shape of Half-Moons”) are the musical equivalent of a panic attack.

What brings these disparate patterns of sound together is the work’s melancholic tone. Each of these tracks bleeds sadness, moaning and fretting and whimpering like a disgruntled elf. Now, the simple fact that I link a particular emotional state to an electronic work flies in the face of the generally held belief that electronic music lacks humanity. This belief is obviously bogus, but it raises an interesting question: what is the source of this album’s melancholia, the “traditional” instrument or the digital fragmentation? After listening to this album carefully for two weeks, I think I can accurately say that the emotional focus of this album stems from the “folds” themselves: those few moments in each track where the guitar sounds become granulated patterns. It is the transformation of traditional, easily identifiable sounds into strange, creepy noises that give these tracks such resonating force.

And this is, perhaps, why Christopher Willits, like Fennesz and Zammuto and Random Inc. and V/VM before him, is so interested in the idea of fusing old instruments with digital signal processing: not to create new sounds but to redefine the old sounds so that we hear them, and experience them, in ways that challenge our fundamental attitudes towards music, towards sound, and even towards life itself. Folding, And The Tea is a powerful work, as unsettling as it is inspiring.

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