Chess for the Blind
90 · 17 October 96
The Sombient Trilogy: The Throne of Drones, Swarm of Drones, A Storm of Drones
The stack of discs to be reviewed beside my player is starting to cast a shadow that spills all the way over the tape deck and down onto my writing table, below, and the remaining year is contracting as quickly as the pile escalates, so my plan for this week had been to gird myself against distraction and have at the backlog with whatever, for me, could best pass for efficiency. After having called in sick to work this morning, though, and slept until two, I spent the remainder of my afternoon convalescence in bed finishing Brooks Hansen's The Chess Garden, and the book, and the state finishing it leaves me in, suggest an alternate course of action.
The book is Brooks' second, or, really, his one-and-a-halfth, since Boone, the first one, he co-authored with Nick Davis. I chanced across a review of it when it came out, which was some time last year (my backlog of unread books being an even more imposing edifice than the monolith of unreviewed albums), and although the review made it sound intriguing, I admit that I only read the review because of Boone. Boone, in turn, I hadn't read, either, at the time, but had purchased (at Buck-a-Book for a dollar, sadly) because I was almost in it. A Studs-Terkel-esque (but fictional) biography of an erratic performance artist, Boone tells its title-character's story almost entirely through transcriptions of reminiscences of Boone's acquaintances, and although in the end it appears that Davis and Hansen resorted to making most of these up themselves, the original conception of Boone was not as a book so much as a sort of asynchronous drama. Having established the character set and the general chronology of events, Nick and Brooks, who were undergraduates at Harvard a year (or possibly two) ahead of me at the time, entered Boone into Common Casting, Harvard's semi-annual thespianic cattle-call, soliciting people to take on the roles of the characters and thus, in an improvisational manner, collaboratively fabricate Boone's life. I did, in fact, get a part in it, though I suspect the supply-and-demand scenario created by their rapacious need for bit-part-fillers and the project's irregularity had much more to do with my success than my rather unexceptional acting skills. And that, it turned out, was about the last I heard of the project. Either, as they began work on it, they realized that their original methodology was untenable, or possibly they just decided my character (or I) was expendable, or, perhaps more likely, both.
Boone, the book the project eventually became, came out in 1990, and I have, now, read it. Copies of it may languish, even now, in remainder piles near where you live, as well. If so, it's worth the diversion of whatever pittance they ask out of your CD fund. Boone's greatest talent, as an artist, was impressions, a ghoulishly empathic ability to burrow into a person and deactivate their shields from inside, exposing their shriveled soul to the stage lights, and Davis and Hansen's talent, in assembling the characters around him and telling his story through theirs, is similar in power, but redeemingly more humane. Boone, however, has nothing to do with the record review in which we find ourselves, except that finding it left Brooks Hansen's name fresh in my mind when I came across a review of his first solo work, which after some months of ellapsed time leads us to my just having finished reading The Chess Garden.
Though The Chess Garden itself also arises, actually, out of Boone. It was a book Boone had started to write, an epistolary novel in which a husband traveling in Europe and Africa during the Boer War sends the pieces of a beautiful chess set home to his wife and children in Dayton one at a time, with letters that are at once love letters to her and stories about the pieces' histories and adventures for them. Boone includes one of the letters, in which the writer tells of meeting a lovelorn pawn, and relates, in turn, that pawn's own story. But after the woman for whom Boone was writing the book (and upon whose great-grandparents' story it was based) dies, he abandons the project.
The book Hansen ended up writing retains the central narrative device of Boone's, but ends up being quite different from, and more much complex than, the Father Christmas Letters-y, Nick Bantockian children's book first described. The letters in Boone's book, which seemed intended to be self-contained little fables, were to revolve around a single chess set, and his novel was to include very little frame around the letters themselves. The one letter we are allowed to read seems to me to be a little too impressed with its own cleverness, and a little too generic in its expression of affection, to be the basis of a substantial novel. Hansen's letters, however, are much more carefully formed, and the dynamics of the relationship they play against are much more subtle and much more thoroughly integrated into the letters. It helps that these letters are also less episodic, forming instead a single longer, and more involved allegory, and one around an irregular chess set whose identity as a set is forged by the letters, not reflected in them. There is also actually quite a bit of first-hand narrative to set the letters' context; Gustav Uyterhoeven, the letter writer, is a Dutch physician and scientist who turns, to the dismay of his scientific colleagues, first to homeopathy and then, later, to Swedenborgian theology, and the book is as much about his crises of faith and formulations of spirituality and truth as it is about the island inhabited entirely by game pieces that the doctor pretends, in his letters, to have traveled to.
Of particular relevance to both the doctor's philosophy and the discussion of music that I will, I promise, get to before long, are three metaphysical constructions that arise in his letters from the Antipodes. The first two are the distinction he draws between game pieces, "effigy" and "totem". Effigies are pieces made to resemble something outside of the game, those Franklin Mint civil war chess sets you see advertised in the back pages of TV Guide being obvious examples. Totems are pieces that represent nothing but their game role, such as the more standard abstract chess pieces, and indeed just about all other classical game pieces, like dice, checkers, backgammon counters, marbles, jacks, etc. Both sorts lead to easy misperceptions, though, because the effigy pieces, despite giving the outward appearance of independent life, remain constrained by their game roles, and the totem pieces, despite their anonymous exteriors, on this island do really have selves and dreams and feelings just like everybody else. The third idea, which applies both to the inhabitants of the Antipodes and their devices, is that of "goods". For each sort of thing on the island there is one example of it from which the identity of the class derives. Break the clock of clocks, and you destroy the idea of "clock", and at once everyone will find that they no longer know what a clock is, or how it was ever used. Much of the doctor's experiences in his exploration of the island revolve around a plot, by some of the pieces, to collect all of the goods and, all at once, break them, which would, depending on your perspective, either plunge the island into hopeless chaos, or else free its inhabitants from the confines of their preconceptions.
In the doctor's Swedenborgian worldview (and clearly, after reading two different novels of late in which Swedenborg's work figures heavily, I'm going to have to do some supplementary primary-text research), both the pieces and the goods have obvious symbolic value. Swedenborg's central theological point, apparently, was that heaven, which he claimed to have visited and traveled in freely, is essentially the same in form as the mortal world, except that in heaven metaphor is literal, so that everyday things do not stand for qualities and emotions, they are them. This is the source of the doctor's break with science and modern pathology, since they look for truth as if searching for something hidden, while to the Swedenborgian God, with which truth is basically inextricable, is manifest in everything, and the challenge is not finding it, since it's everywhere, but recognizing it, and understanding it. Chess, then, is the doctor's perfect game, since its structure is entirely apparent, and wholly accessible to contemplation. Using the two sorts of pieces as his characters in the letters teaches the important lesson that the simple, constrained world of chess can be mapped onto the seemingly more unruly world off the board, and also vice versa. Chess teaches you to think clearly, and attaching stories to chess pieces reminds you not to think clearly about only chess. The idea of the goods is similarly evocative, as it suggests that the idealized form of something is not the one covered in gold, or interred in a museum, but the one that most clearly and straightforwardly implements its purpose. And given the Swedenborgian context, the plot to destroy the goods, and the doctor's ambivalence about it, seem to echo the doctor's own fear of death, and his internal struggle (both for his own sake and that of his wife and their long-dead son) over whether the translation into the ideal is oblivion or reward.
This all also maps very naturally, to me, into the realm of music, and my weekly travels therein. Although, as the doctor observes at one point, "Men only understand by agreeing", and so it is always well to be suspicious, when you seem to find confirmation for your ideas, about whether you have merely managed to project them onto a new canvas, to me Dr. Uyterhoeven's faith in the immanence of God is very much like mine in the relevance of scrutinizing what is usually not thought of as "serious" music. If divinity is wherever you look, then so, too, can be Art, and not only are the great themes at play as much in power-pop as in Handel, but perhaps, if the quest for truth is more one of mental orientation than physical, then the traditional isolation of "serious" music from the popular is as misguided as the doctor felt his rationalist colleagues insistence on causality to be. Or, looked at another way, perhaps it is just that classical music is like chess; it is a useful exercise in abstraction and mental discipline, but it is merely a tool for life, not an end of it, and just as the Uyterhoevens insisted that the children who came to their garden always played chess outside, so as to mitigate the game's obsessive effects, so it seems to me classical music might merit similar precautions. Of course, my own approach to classical music would be more aptly likened to taking the pieces from the chess board and using them as footsoldiers in elaborate running pantomime skirmishes through the surrounding hedges, from which one is more likely to learn clever ways of making explosion sounds with your mouth than mental discipline. But I am trying, in my own capricious way. This week, in fact, I officially inaugurated a conscious effort to find out what is happening in contemporary classical music, an exploration I began by walking into the classical room at HMV, locating the contemporary section, and buying the four CDs I found there with the coolest-looking packaging. It would have been ideal, I think, to have reviewed them here, but I haven't actually listened to them yet, and if one is determined to write ill-informed reviews, I think they ought, at least, to not also be ill-considered.
But The Chess Garden's fascination with immanence and idealization lends itself as readily to classical music as it does to ambient, music's closest approach to pure abstraction. Raw noises are, in a way, the totem pieces in music, sounds that attempt to express nothing other than themselves, and yet The Chess Garden reminds me that these pieces have lives too. And if we are to try and teach ourselves to see truth in everything, by way of teaching ourselves to hear music in every noise, there are few texts better suited, simultaneously, for the novice and the adept, than Sombient/Asphodel compiler Naut Humon's stark three-part evocation of elementalism, The Sombient Trilogy.
"Sombient", a subgenre the label seems to have invented and then fully populated, perhaps not even in that order, lies somewhere between ambient and noise, slightly more abrasive and less resolutely tonal than the former, but much quieter and easier to take than the latter. It specializes in slow modulations of timbre, dense reverberations of small noises, lots of Doppler-effect insectoid flybys, and lots and lots, as the titles of the installments suggest, of drones. Although the trilogy is sold as three separate compilations, how much of it you purchase has less to do with the character of your experience than its length. The first part, The Throne of Drones, is a single CD; the second, Swarm of Drones, is a double; and the third, A Storm of Drones, is three discs. Progressive exposure is, for this sort of music, sensible if not indeed a necessity. The set, taken together, lasts for more than seven hours, and that is probably more time than you will think, initially, that you would want to spend listening intently to the gradual evolutions of ominous noises. Humon's hope, I think, is that the first collection will help you recalibrate your expectations and your sense of temporal scale, after which several hours of this sort of thing will no longer seem any more ridiculous than one hour of three-minute pop songs.
The Throne of Drones' introductory curriculum, then, consists of a piece each by Robert Rich, Ray Guillette, Steve Roach, Iso Ambient Orchestra, Xopher Davidson, Vidna Obmana, Gregory Lenczycki, Jeff Greinke, Rhythm & Noise, Biosphere, David Darling, Maryanne Amacher and Naut Humon. Part of the style's intrinsic nature, however, is that it tends toward egolessness. These pieces all tend, whether found or created, to have something of the aura of the incidental about them, and their importance is less in who created them than what you make of them as you listen. Rich's "The Simorgh Sleeps on Velvet Tongues" combines the eerie distant concussions of suspended gongs with insistent whining noises that sound like crosses between sitars and cicadas. Guillette's "Mobius III" is more synthetic, with round analog-synth tones slowly evolving into each other. Roach's "In the Catacombs (Again)" is mostly an exploration of depth, with sounds welling up out of an unseen abyss. The Iso Ambient Orchestra excerpt, "Smudgeon", breaks into sirenic wails, white-noise crashes and a little bit of undisguised pulsing that, if it doesn't actually sound like music a rock band would make, might at least serve as the tape they walk on stage to. Davidson's "pool of mercury" retreats back into what sounds like the sighing of lonely galaxies. Obmana's "Equal Distance" uses a lot more instruments, but the effect is still more like floating above a planet watching a rain-forest wax and wane in time-lapse. "Retina Volt Stream", Lenczycki's piece, has the disc's closest approach to pure noise, though after its initial blast his electronic multiplier produces more swirling atmosphere than it does cacophonous racket. Greinke's "Low Ceiling" is, fittingly, a little more claustrophobic, its menacing noises sounding like they're coming from somewhere close by, not echoing out of a comfortably safe distance. "A Filament in Strata", by Rhythm & Noise (neither of which is much in evidence here), is closer to traditional Eno-esque ambient music. Biosphere's "En Trance" actually employs what sounds like acoustic guitar strumming, but the guitar's invariant pattern and the simmering textural background behind it keep the piece from ever really threatening to turn into a song. Likewise, the cellos and keyboards in Darling's "Etude for T.O.D." are processed quite out of recognition. Amacher's "Sound Characters" is by far the compilation's busiest ten minutes, but even here the experience is more like being taken on a slow tour through a factory of obscure purpose, where the inexorable pace of your traversal is more pertinent than how fast any of the machinery you pass is spinning. And Humon's conclusion, "Le Segue", is like the flutter of the wings of gargoyles, circling you in the darkness, shrieking inquisitively to each other for only as long as it takes them to decide that you aren't worth pausing longer over, and then moving on.
Swarm of Drones is, on the whole, perhaps a little more concrete, its sounds possessed more often of clearer edges. Michel Redolfi's "Palm Canyon" opens with some actual running water and bird noises, before the peaceful canyon in question appears to get swallowed by a passing alien freighter. dj Cheb i Sabbah's "Hamam" has some discernible chanting and more water. Janis Mattox's "Soli Deo Gloria" is scored for a vocal-bass-violin-piano-accordion quintet. Iso Ambient Orchestra's "Melisma" almost sounds like a lament sung by stone monks. Gregory Lenczycki's "Variable State Optical Amplifier" twitters with excitable circuitry. Almost all the players from The Throne of Drones are accounted for again here, but the whole thing still has the feel more of a collective than a collection, and the seamless incorporation of extra-label intrusions from Robert Fripp ("2000 II"), Lull ("Slow Fall Inward") and KK Null and James Plotkin ("Drowning in Aurora") just cements this impression more firmly. The only composer I begin to distinguish individually is Amacher, whose new set of "Sound Characters" shares with the ones from the first disc an insistent aggressiveness that isn't found in most of the other pieces.
A Storm of Drones, the three-disc finale, seems like the most impressive of the set to me, but this could easily be due more to the fact that, because it comes last, I reach it in a more receptive state of mind, than because of its particular qualities. Unlike the other two parts, this one does split up its contents by disc. The first CD, subtitled "Audio", is made up of excerpts from musique concrete and audio-manipulation performances, exhumed from the vaults of Montreal label empreintes DIGITALes. The fact that these are totally different players in fundamentally different compositional situations than the usual Sombient collective does have some impact. Because most of these pieces were designed for performance, they tend to be a little less subtle, with fewer spells of extreme quiet, but most of these pieces still make me think of a Jean Michel Jarre exhibition with the noise-reduction circuitry inverted, so the overall effect is not much altered. The second disc, "Environmental", supplies whatever restraint is lacking on the first one. The credits for its pieces stress "source material", and are careful to specify where recordings have or haven't been "processed", but given how much manipulation some of these people accomplish under the banner of "unprocessed", the distinction is largely only of theoretical interest. Disc three, "Immersion", brings the series full-circle with the return of most of its key players. Two more Amacher sound characters open and close it, Iso Ambient Orchestra contribute another piece that almost sounds composed, the always-poetic Lenczycki provides "Temporal Filter Coefficient", and Vidna Obmana, Robert Rich and Jeff Greinke all put in appearances. David Kwan's "+/- 1V", constructed from "ground hum and microphone parts" is particularly abstract, and at the other extreme Mortal Engines' "Passage IV" sounds like an orchestra deciding, while tuning up, to experiment a little.
All of this, to be perfectly frank, stretches the definition of music farther than you might wish it to go. If you could make a plastic model kit for a sound effects record, then Sombient's idea of music would be a bit like the scraps of numbered mounting left behind after all the pieces were punched out. When I play it at work, people walking past my office hesitate at the door, and assume quizzical expressions that don't go away until they're forced to evade Nerf projectiles. Either intentionally listening to strange sounds for hours on end is sensible and edifying to you, or else it's altogether insane. One could make the cases even, pertinent to The Chess Garden, that these musicians have done exactly the reduction Uyterhoeven so distrusted in the rationalists, and in peering into the underlying structure of sound have lost track of the very things that made music musical, or that my attraction to this style is like the atheist Blodget's study of apparent psychics, an unhealthy fascination with the mysterious at the expense of the manifest. I counter this by suggesting that listening to this music is like what listening to any music would be, if the song of songs were destroyed, and so if the prospect is frightening, it is at the same time liberating. The interesting thing is not that these sounds exist, but that we should examine them with the attentiveness and affection we use for music, like Dr. Uyterhoeven befriending a backgammon counter. That is to say that here too, especially where there seems to be so little mystery, there is, as everywhere, truth, and if seven hours seems to you like a long time to spend listening to drones, then, if it helps to, think instead that it's a short time in which to step closer to God.