UNDER THE RADAR
What's Making What Noise
Installation artist and drone improviser Gabie Strong has been a playa in the surprisingly vigorous Los Angeles experimental music community for some time, with her radio show Crystal Morphologies as one of the anchors of pirate radio KCHUNG’s programming lineup for the last five-plus years. She has just expanded the Crystal Morphologies umbrella to include a record label, dedicated to “experimental and drone music informed by the artist’s hand” as well as “unclassifiable, composed and improvised work by women, whose contributions have often been overlooked in the context of avant-garde and improvised music.”
It’s always best to start with what you know (and own the rights to), so Crystal Morphologies’ first two vinyl/cassette releases are works by Strong herself—four side-long live recordings—two from this year (Spectress) and two from last year (Sacred Datura/Peaked Experience). True to the label’s mandate for hand-informed sonics, Strong’s work has a vintage, pre-digital feel to it and a lineage that—while touching on Japanese and continental precedents—dates back to the whole La Monte Young–Marian Zazeela–Tony Conrad–John Cale Theatre of Eternal Music outburst, up to and including Lou Reed’s notorious Metal Machine Music.
As with all the best noise music, it’s often hard to separate out what’s making what noise. Spectress’ “Sunset Circuit” may employ guitar, effects, synthesizer and vocals, but it shifts almost imperceptibly between soundscapes—evoking the propulsive force of a jet engine and the amniotic calm of the ocean depths with nary a strum or arpeggio in earshot. The flipside, “Taphthartharath,” performs a placating ritual on that mercurial spirit, morphing ominous bomber drones and clinical vintage synth sine waves and static into an ethereal virtual pastorale fading slowly to the sounds of digital crickets (which I initially mistook for the sound of my window fan malfunctioning. Respek!)
The Sacred Datura/Peaked Experience pairing uses less of an overall dynamic arc, though both works cover a wide variety of aural terrain. “Sacred Datura” combines buzzsaw feedback, pulsing chimes, vacuum cleaner phasing, and distorted vocal loops, while “Peaked Experience” forefronts old school knob-twisting oscillations and heavy reverb, served on a bed of shredded electric guitar with a side of electronic bird chirps.
Putting out vinyl and cassette releases is a way of reasserting the curatorial dimension of the small record label business, much of which has been dissolved in the miasma of cyberspace. With these two Strong releases (haha) and forthcoming cassettes from Geneva Skeen, Christopher Reid Martin, and Renee Petropoulos, Crystal Morphologies may be stepping up to carry the torch passed from LAFMS, Melon Expander, and the late Michael Sheppard’s Transparency label—among many others—as LA’s latest virtual exhibition space for experimental sound. There’s certainly enough noisy artists out there.
Fitting into a narrower and less local tradition (see Charles Amirkhanian’s 1750 Arch Records) comes Spoken Records, a foray into the even-more-obscure genre of text-sound composition, which—as its name suggests—uses spoken words as the primary material for its musical innovations—often at the expense of literary intelligibility. Such is not the case with Spoken Record’s debut release, however.
Greetings From Here: Audio Postcards In Transition by label founder Pauline Gloss consists of nine short epistolatory communiques, recorded quickly and simply on the artist’s laptop computer. While layering vocal tracks and adding tasteful concrete elements, Gloss’ texts have more in common with confessional autobiographical poetics than Hugo Ball’s “Karawane,” weaving stories of institutionalization and gender indeterminacy into quite coherent—if elliptical—narratives. It reminds me of nothing so much as the poet Anne Sexton’s amazing recording for poetry label Caedmon, with Gloss’ NPR-ready baritone even resembling Sexton’s tobacco-and-vodka cured delivery.
A solid work of art, it’s also a courageous and unpredictable flagship for a label devoted to text-sound, many of whose proponents are adamantly nonsensical. Like Crystalline Morphologies, Spoken Records is already plotting its expansion out of the vanity press division, by way of an open call for “stand-alone works of literary sound art” that will be compiled in a series of vinyl singles for distribution. Something for the jukebox in the Cabaret Voltaire!