Review of E.A.D.G.B.E. [12k1025]

Pitchfork (US)

Some time ago, Pitchfork writer Nitsuh Abebe planted this idea in my head that all digital art returns to the natural world for inspiration. What’s interesting about this move is that it’s the exact opposite of a “retreat to simplicity.” When computer artists incorporate nature into their work they’re actually borrowing from the most complicated and unknowable patterns in the universe. The physical world is difficult to break down to 1’s and 0’s (imagine a CGI rendering of surf crashing on the rocks next to a view of the real thing), causing these artists put aside the silicon and kneel humbly before wood and stone.

The guitar is, among other things, a physical object with electrical properties. Each guitar is a series of tiny electrical fields– strings, pickup, interior electronics– that lends it a specific character, and this makes it a natural fit with computers. In the last few years it’s become common in certain circles to use the guitar as a sound source for the creation of otherwise digital music. At least part of the reason this pairing has become popular is that it inserts the “natural” (which is, remember, complex) into an otherwise virtual world. E•A•D•G•B•E , on the always-interesting 12k label, compiles music from four artists working with these tools.

Earlier this year, Japan’s Fonica released the sleeper Ripple on Tomlab (also home to The Books, Tujiko Noriko, and Casiotone for the Painfully Alone), a record with serious warmth and a vaguely pop sensibility. The two tracks they contribute to E•A•D•G•B•E are more placid and a tad more academic. A cluster of quivering drones hover in the foreground of “4:55”, and the melody is a punctuated series of bells that pop up at regular intervals. “3:33” is an overlapping series of groans that irregularly tumble through the sound field, creating new patterns with each passing second to nice effect. In contrast with Fonica’s up-to-the-minute processing is Keith Fullerton Whitman’s “Lettera”. With its abrupt shifts in dynamics and texture and endless tweaks of simple sounds, “Lettera” sounds something like an early electronic tape piece, definitely much closer to 20th Century Classical than post-Eno ambient. Lacking the clarity and focus of Playthroughs , “Lettera” feels more like an experiment that didn’t quite gel.

E•A•D•G•B•E gets more interesting with three tracks by Sébastien Roux. With his focus on sonic detail, Roux’s aesthetic comes closest to the 12k ideal of microsound. Roux’s tiny sounds usually enter the scene painfully, with an accompanying halo of noise. His style tends to combine a shifting layer of buzzing drones with clearly articulated melodic crackles dancing in front. Tapped guitar harmonics are shaped into repeating patterns on “Utaro”, while “Toasa” focuses on single string strums that emit showers of static. These three are wonderful tracks to crawl around in.

Fonica, Whitman and Roux are a gradual build to E•A•D•G•B•E ‘s stunning centerpiece, seven related and connected tracks by San Francisco composer Christopher Willits called “Seven Machines For Summer”. Willits’ technique is to sample a number of plucked single guitar notes and then arrange them into pieces with relatively light processing. “The Baroque Machine”, for example, consists of computer-assisted guitar runs, Takemura-like clicks, and what sounds like organ but is probably processed feedback. His rapid and repetitious style owes something to classic minimalism (occasionally I’m reminded of the Reich piece Electric Counterpoint, written for Pat Metheny), but Willits’ method is more overtly melodic and pop oriented. It’s immediately catchy and emotionally engaging.

Willits occasionally has a passage in “Seven Machines for Summer” that could have been played by a live guitarist, but that would have been boring. Instead, there is a stiffness and slightly “broken” quality in his digital arrangements that inject a pang of melancholy to feelings of joy. His tracks move gradually to the climax that is the almost painfully gorgeous “The Fall In Love Machine”. This finale reprises the theme of “The Baroque Machine” but fleshes it out into a chattering musicbox symphony. Finally, after his seven-track series, Willits closes the compilation an unrelated short piece called “Champagne And Soda”, a darker piece with an almost industrial texture. Had Willits put “Seven Machines For Summer” on its own EP, it would have been one of my favorites of 2003. As it is, his work anchors this occasionally spotty but ultimately excellent compilation.

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