What It Sounds Like
417 · 23 January 03
I knew, even at the time, that Pages From the Book was going to complicate my relationship with Aube, maybe terminally. I'm convinced it's a piece of world-class conceptual art, both in its individual execution and as the punch line of a years-in-the-telling joke (which I had already enjoyed without a punch line). Great works are hard enough to follow simply due to their Greatness, and in this case Pages From the Book worked largely by cannibalizing and regenerating Aube's entire grammar, after which there wasn't a lot left. Blood-Brain Barrier and Richocetentrance seemed like they might be the beginnings of something, to me, but the next few Aube albums I found (Triad Thread, metal, 1998; Shade-Away, glass, 1999; Suppression Disorder, VCO, 1999) didn't seem like they were trying to continue a trajectory, and I found myself listening to them at a loss. Possibly this would have been the case with the earlier albums, too, if I'd known what they were leading towards, but that realization didn't help me. Pages From the Book changed the criteria by which I evaluate Aube records: now, uncooperatively, I want them to mean something.
In early 2000, the Italian label Amplexus announced what was obviously the next step. Aube would spend the year producing an epic for the new era, a massive twelve-disc monthly-installment confrontation of life beginning the morning after the old days. Copies of the component discs would be sold in the usual ways (i.e., virtually nowhere), but the first 120 people willing to couch their support for Aube in the form of $200 up front could subscribe to the whole series, along with a bonus LP and your own personal integer. Mine was 102. It was already April when the bills were called in, so the plan was to ship the first four discs in May, and then one each month thereafter. It didn't quite work that way. The first six discs were shipped in August, and then nothing for a really long time. Seven, eight and nine finally materialized in the middle of October, 2001, and ten, eleven and twelve began to seem like a lost cause. Apparently the new millennium was going to have a lot in common with the old one. To my surprise, though, one afternoon the following April the last three discs and the bonus album showed up on my doorstep after all. (Apparently the Italians haven't quite grasped the purpose of "shipping" addresses.)
The concept is almost worryingly simple for a project this expansive: There is one disc for every month, and one track for every day. The source material creates seasons out of elements, three months of water, three of fire, three of earth, three of air. The approach to sound construction is essentially the same throughout: a small number of noises (usually one or two, almost never more than three) work their way through slow processing mutations, playing against each other in timbre and periodicity and only occasionally pitch. The overall effect is that of a group of preternaturally patient monks very slowly turning one knob apiece, and although if you've ever spent any time doing audio processing you'll realize that knowing which parameter to cycle through what range is at least as tricky as most forms of conventional songwriting, in this case it's not a lot of stylistic variety to account for how much time the set occupies. All together, the twelve-CD core lasts a couple minutes past eleven hours. You might momentarily think that it would be easier and/or better to experience it over the course of a listening year parallel to its (nominal) composition year, each track on the corresponding day to which it is assigned, but the tracks are severely non-uniform, ten of them longer than ten minutes each but a few dozen shorter than ten seconds, making it rather unrewarding to pull them apart. Clearly the months are designed to be indivisible, at least, and after listening to the first couple, when the first shipment came, I decided that whether the whole year was meant to be a single unified work or not, it would probably be more interesting to treat it as if it were. So I did what I always do: I made a pile, and waited for it to reach the ceiling.
This plan, however, has a flaw. I do not often have blocks of time in my life during which I can allow myself to sit down and listen to an eleven-hour assembly of slowly-evolving noises from beginning to end. I am very capable of indulging in performance art for which my only audience is myself, but I also have laundry to do, and sleep to avoid, and other paths to intersect. So for nine months, the pile of Millennium has sat on a shelf beside my stereo amp. I no longer remember what else ever occupied that space. A day I could set aside for Aube never presented itself. Given the rate of no opportunities per nine months, it's hard to figure when this trend would have reversed itself. Would I have spent $200 on this set if I'd realized how unprepared I was to receive it? If listening to it once is this hard, is there any chance at all I'd ever play it a second time? Surely this is a music-collector's irony manifest as fable-vengeful muse: I have conjured a thing I can neither refuse nor absorb.
But my faith in various powers is at an extraordinary high, among them the often-absurd-seeming idea that inanimate devices can be instruments of humanity. I hadn't fed my iPod anything new in a few days, and it suddenly dawned on me that if I put Millennium into it, I could carry those eleven hours with me. So this week I have. At work, I have listened to nothing but Aube. I have hit Pause as I picked up the iPod off my desk at the end of the day, and Play again when I got out to my car. I drove to Gloucester and back, through air frozen like sea, under a shivery moon. I put the earphones in for record- and grocery-shopping (both isolations surreal, though in very different ways). These have been my last noises of insomnia and first of sleep, a soundtrack of preparation and fear, of anticipation and unraveling. For three days, my hours and minutes have been alternately upended and suspended. I'm not saying I thought this would be the best way to experience Millennium, just that it was the only one I could arrange. Fractured and scattered, eleven hours took a lot longer than that to elapse; they are only now starting to repeat as I write this. And if I never listen to this again after tonight, as still seems possible, my understanding of it will be forever inevitably entangled with the other things that have been woven through these same days. Maybe I am telling you the story of what it felt like to listen to Millennium, and maybe I am only telling you the reflection, in an iPod screen, of other stories into which I am wondering how to write myself parts. This might be true every week, for that matter, but with pop music I am so attuned to the subtle variation between examples that it is (or seems) easier to separate them from my context. In noise I am more lost.
But if I am lost, it is a particularly strange chaos into which I have wandered. I would have said that Aube is the exact opposite of comfort music, arguably an opposite of comfort and of music both independently and together. And yet, this endless twittering has come to sound to me like sanity and calm translated from synapse impulse into speaker signals. I am now convinced that this thing is brilliant, and brilliant along three different knotted axes, only one of which I already expected.
The axis I knew about, the brilliance that Millennium shares with the rest of the Aube albums, is a relentless abstraction. I have described these things before as biographies of objects, and while that's a vividly justified interpretation in a handful of cases, in many of the other old ones it was mostly a product of my tendency to romanticize. This time around, it's probably only possible to understand the source notations as allegory. It makes vanishingly little difference where these noises came from, they all fuse into a single idea. This is as close as sound will ever get to abstract photography, filaments of reality teased free of their original implications and set out as pure shapes. Somebody will want to know what they mean, or what they're for, and we'll have to decide whether we know them well enough to unask the question. Didn't I just ask that myself? In almost every other case, art is obsessed with identifying semantic patterning in apparent disorder, and these noises perversely twist the world inside out to show you the angle from which it's obvious that pattern and meaning are really only ever coincident.
Secondly, Millennium is long. I realize I've already mentioned this. If you made it through 69 Love Songs or Yi Yi you may feel like you can multiply those sensations and have some sense of what this one would be like. I'm telling you, you have no idea how long eleven hours can be. These are not eleven hours of Buffy episodes, or Texas highways, or INS interrogations, these are eleven hours in which individual minutes can lose contact with the usual flow of time. After about two hours of this, it transmigrates clear out of whatever you used to think "long" meant. After four or so, your background/foreground receptors flip, and this becomes simply what reality sounds like, as if physical substance has turned transparent and motivation and intent have become visible sparks. By hour ten, songs and speech and silence have been recast as anomalous and inscrutable by contrast. This is no longer a recording you're listening to, you have learned to perceive the immanent structure of your own anima, and it becomes an open and difficult-to-answer question why you'd need any other input in order to comprehend the essential nature of the universe, or why, for that matter, the essential nature of the universe isn't a feature of its surface.
And the third thing, and the one I would never have predicted or deduced, is the astonishing effect of interweaving this strange experience with the rest of my life. My normal music-listening skips from subject to subject frenetically, changing modes hourly if not every three minutes. My work and personal lives both operate similarly; I'm not unfocused, I'm multifocused. Or, put less charitably, I take turns over-focusing on everything I care about at all. But for three days, I've had this cocoon traveling around with me. By midday Monday I'd stopped thinking about whether it was going to end. Many of my non-listening hours have been variously intense, but when I hit Play again they'd temporarily cease to exist. Subjectively, I feel like this has been a profoundly calming influence on me, like it has given me a tantalizing glimpse of what it might be like to be less obsessive and less insistent on assigning meaning to every moment and detail. This is, in a way, a longer break from music than I otherwise ever take (or it would be if there hadn't been some non-Aube intermissions inserted in deference to the presence of other humans). And yet, cues from the people around me suggest that from their perspective it's not having any such effect, and might even be having the reverse one. As I would only have said at the beginning as a glib joke, it seems entirely possible that Millennium is actually (literally and technically) making me crazy. Not very crazy, and not irrecoverably crazy, but it's doing something. Or else it just happens to be around while other things are making me slightly crazy, but if I can't tell which it is, that's still bad. This is what people who claim there's value to drugs usually claim the value is: that they can jolt your mind into thought-grooves you aren't able to reach any other way. The implication is that they are "your" thought-grooves once you're in them, so the drug is only removing artificial barriers inside your self. This argument is beyond wrong, it's intrinsically logically void, since as of yet there is no way to detect when you cross out of the self, and you are thus, in the best Wittgensteinian sense, in no position to judge whether the ideas you have under a drug's influence are properly categorized as insight or delusion. I am painfully aware that there are a thousand shades of gray ghosting between LSD and chai, and I believe in "medicine" even where I can't define what makes that different, but if the things you believe in aren't petrifyingly fragile, where's the fun in it? Existentially speaking, music is subject to the same criticisms, and it's just as illogical to insist that what art does to me is valid, and what drugs could do to me is not. But it's an arbitrary distinction I've arbitrarily decided to live by, and thus the idea that this piece of art could produce a drug-like state in which I cannot accurately assess what it's doing to me is incredibly interesting, not to mention frankly terrifying. Surely I'm not suggesting that you should subject yourself to this. If they'd stuck to subscription only, that would probably have been safer. Is there any good reason for more than 120 people on the Earth to witness this? Better the hopeless than you. Better the people so far gone that they'd think eleven hours of noise still isn't quite enough.
The Millennium epilogue is a double-album on swirly clear vinyl, one side for each element and one last track for each month. I haven't figured out how to get an LP into the PowerBook's SuperDrive, so the iPod doesn't know about this part, but I'm playing it now. It's fitting that an aspect of this experience defies iPodization, as Aube's catalog is by far the most interesting physical body of released music I know. I recently had to discard the fluid pouch from Aqua Syndrome after an alert reader noticed his copy expanding; there was very definitely something growing inside of it. Set On came sandwiched between two stone slabs, and was thus scratched into unplayability by its own packaging. School children should learn about Aube in the same chapters that cover Duchamp and Cage and Christo. I confess that I can't tell whether these LP tracks are excerpts from the CDs, or extra variations on the same themes. Truthfully, the CDs could probably have gotten away with some internal repetition without me noticing, either. This thing defeats all my laboriously assembled strategies for dealing with music, even the non-music ones that I worked out for other Aube albums. I've grown complacently confident that you can't shock me with sounds, but it's not true. People, including me, are forever asking me if I like things, and it's not always a useful question. Do I like this? Well, it scares and affects me, but that's not an answer. I believe it was worthwhile to spend this time with it, and that's also not an answer. I think it matters. It think it is powerful art even if I'm not sure what it accomplishes, and stunningly successful even if I have no idea what it intends. The LP sides are shorter than they look, I'm almost done now. I'm about to be released. It would be so much easier if whether I like something was all I ever asked myself. Instead I continually complicate and jeopardize things, including my own emotional state. This album has to end soon. My latest box from Japan came today, and I haven't opened it and don't remember exactly what I ordered, but there must be salvation inside. Shouldn't some of these things be easier? I can see how close the needle is to the center, and I can hear that these are December's noises reprising. I've compressed a year into three days, of course I'm disoriented. There's a horrible high-pitched whine coming out of the record now, and as I say that it occurs to me that there have been intermittent horrible high-pitched whines scattered all through these hours, and for some reason I've cheerfully tolerated them. Do I like this? No, it has obviously deactivated my judgment, how could I like that? How could I want helplessness? What self-respecting control-freak could bear to fall in love? The whine is a little quieter now, but there are clicks and creaks and sighs, like nothing will ever hold still for even a second. If reality were really like this, we'd all be insane. Apparently the calm, even the delusional calm, is wearing off now. There can't be much more of the record. Let me check.
Oh crap. It's not playing. The turntable is nearly cool again, the record must have been over for minutes. And yet the clicks and sighs are still happening. The whine is still there in the background. I'm as calm as I ever am, and as ready. Reality is like this. No wonder, no wonder.