Saturday, May 05, 2012

Stearns: Some Visions Are Audible

It's a frustrating imprecision in English that the word "vision" speaks directly to one sense, sight, and we don't really have the equivalent for sound (or other senses, for that matter), so when we talk about a particular kind of  imaginative experience in sound, we effectively talk through language that filters the experience through the terms of sight (and even that word "imaginative" is oriented towards vision.)

Daniel Stearns's CD, Golden Town (2011 spectropol records) has been played with some intensity in my studio for a few months now.  People who know me or read this blog know that I don't take recordings lightly, sometimes taking great lengths to avoid the medium, but Golden Town is such a striking (at turns alien, challenging, then almost familiar, almost easy)  listening experience, and one made very much for the recorded media, that I've wanted to share some words about it, but it is precisely this knot of vision/sound/word problems that has kept me back.

Stearns offers plenty in the way of liner notes, but not necessarily much helpful if you're curious about how the music was put together. Instead — and now this strikes me as odd for a work tied to the composer's own dissociative occasions — the notes are associations: among them to James's Nature Mysticism, to Charles Ives (always a background presence in Stearns's music), to the visual works of Adolf Wölfli, to the natural landscape of his native Massacusetts, and, most specifically, to a series of (to be honest, disturbing) cell phone photos taken in Stearns's new home-away-from, Slovakia.  But these associations seem to be tangential, in the way dreamwork often is, and the composer's own description of the music as dissociative has to be taken seriously.

Listening to these pieces, a set of 14 to be taken both as stand-alones and as a whole (a whole which, to my ears, has all the substance that some of those big "new complexity" compositional cycles are aiming for), is premised on giving into the visionary quality of the work, made of the stuff of trance and waking dreams rather than everyday music-making, and the listener should be prepared for the absence of reason and, yes, the darkness that can often characterize dreams.  Stearns is a real independent,  a virtuoso improvising musician (fretted strings in particular) with a microtonal bent, and is anything but an academic composer (although I happen to have become aware of him and his music initially through some rigorous work he had done in the theory of intonation).  There is a cultivated and diffident roughness to this music, with plenty of distortion and artifacts. I honestly don't know how he puts this music together, how much is planned, how much is spontaneous, or how much is hand-and-ears-on audio bricolage, and I am very curious to know more about his tools and techniques, but maybe it's enough just to recognize that these are very much recording studio products, using the distortion and artifacts and transformational opportunities of the recorded medium to frame and reinforce a music with dream-like qualities.

And this: I honestly don't know what Stearns's vision in Golden Town is about, but the presence of a vision is clear. For all the associations in his notes, Stearns keeps things cryptic and elusive, and that seems to me to be a strength here, because all the private and disturbing elements that do come across suggest that I ought not be so sure that I would even want to know what it's all about. But I do know that there is a way of listening, just letting it intrude into your own waking dreams, that I find well worth the while.

1 comment:

ricardo messina said...

rarefied atmosphere that of this golden town...

thanks for pointing in its direction.

your pondering mind usually asks valuable questions...