This is a review of Collapsed Arc’s “Miniature Museum” — Collapsed Arc is David Russell, who’s been pumping out noise in Cleveland for over a decade in various pseudonyms and bands. This album (cassette), also available to listen on line here, is from the label Mistake By The Lake Tapes, a discriminating, well-established purveyor of classy Great Lakes noise.
I’m writing this on the day after the Ferguson verdict. This is only a music review, it won’t be about that, but I’ve been walking around with this feeling of seeing the meat and bone just under the surface of everything. It’s just as well this isn’t about Michael Brown — or Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Akai Gurley, etc. — I wouldn’t know what to write.
Some feelings get so thick with meaning, they’re hard to identify.
After McCulloch’s pointless statement, the protestors and police I watched, on iPhone streams over the internet, moved without direction. With options for justice running out, you got the sense people were standing in the street because there was nothing else left. On that first night, in Ferguson, there weren’t enough people organized to take a bridge or stay in one place, and the cops helped keep them disorganized by keeping them moving, shooting gas canisters like mortars through the air without aiming.
Police would declare this group of people or that, protesting on a sidewalk, roads pre-closed so they couldn’t obstruct traffic, suddenly an unlawful presence. Officers spent most of their night standing, facing forward, walking in lines, formations meant to be seen, not stopping fires, not listening. Not talking. Armored vehicles rolled out not to be used but seen.
When emotion surges with a surplus of objectlessness, it spills over into excess. Anyone who can’t understand the desire to burn a Walgreens in that moment must never confront the nameless emotions in themselves, never acknowledge one.
Noise locates itself in the struggle to wrest art from artlessness.
There’s something akin to folk or rap music in noise: an artist, probably alone, from the silence of an audience makes an object. Whether sculpting raw noise, voice, or the sounds guitar strings make, there’s an inherent authenticity in that immediacy. The act of composition is present in the product.
In Miniature Museum, under the moniker Collapsed Arc, I’m not sure of every technique David Russell brings into play. (I’m not even positive where each track begins and ends, but I’ll try my best to follow their names.)
It’s clear a looper is used to repeat bite-sized chunks of noise as it happens. Russell must be using at least two—loops pair up, syncopate, paint over each other and, in some of the more emotionally resonant moments in the album, take each other or themselves apart.
For raw material, he seems to have broken keyboards, blown-out lo-fi drum machines, mewling kittens and other samples, often mangled beyond recognition. He uses some generators of “pure” noise that are hard to identify; maybe some supremely misanthropic synth, maybe some vocal register feedback loops. (There’s a saxophone somewhere, according to Miniature Museum‘s bandcamp page, where it can be heard in its entirety.)
At times, voices surface in these songs—we’ll hear an illegible sample of someone speaking, slices of vocals, what seem to be Russell’s own wordless grunts, mumbles, and gestural utterrings. Most voices, after sounding themselves out, get reconstituted into loops. Those loops get cut-up and compounded, form rhythms and textures carrying the song forward, abruptly shifting, building up one moment and toppling over the next.
The artist’s touch is most apparent here in the manipulation of loops; these songs feel so expressive and wild, there must be a high degree of improvisation (and practice, knowledge of his instruments); you get the sense Russell is listening closely to the sounds as they happen, reacting instinctively, one hand on each looping device.
Follow the loops, and you can hear the thread of each song’s composition, the thread of David Russell’s thoughts and instincts as they occur to him.
“Lender,” the first full, song-length track, constructs itself from the ground up: a looped mewling of kittens opens the piece before some mumbled beat-boxing interjects, then some bright spurts of sharp noise get mangled into loose, dance-inducing beats. The repeated slices of sound form rhythms and phrases as they shift over one another, as some sort of song takes shape.
The most redemptive, devastating or emotionally complex moods in Miniature Museum come in the movement of loops.
Something in the current cultural moment, starting around the end of last century, seems to favor repetition; like Adult Swim or “alternative comedy,” noise artists have been mapping the possibilities of repetition, developing its expressive potential over a decade or two. Taken to a logical extreme, it includes “Harsh Noise Wall” artists dedicated to expunging any movement or variation during the span of a performance, in the “conceptually pure” mode of Vanessa Place.
What David Russell does isn’t exactly like anything I’ve heard before. Where HNW artists are ascetic, perfecting a singular practice, Russell’s techniques proliferate in every conceptual direction. The amount of colors and facets mined from repetition in this album can astonish.
“Grab Loop” opens the cassette with a primordial ooze of tape fuzz and cut-up vocal gestures. There’s a real nuanced joyousness in this birthing-from-the-ooze. A couple guttural expressions syncopate in a micro-loop, in that sweet spot between intelligibility and raw material, the volume pushed to a saturation point until it distorts.
(In sound engineering, the term for distortion is “clipping” — what happens when a signal, envisioned as sine waves, has its peaks boosted until it physically can’t go any higher and then gets pushed further. When the waveform’s peak is squashed, the fingerprint of whatever gear carries the sound textures it, compressing, erasing definition, adding upper harmonics. Like a person, every gear and setup’s fingerprint will differ, so clipping leaves a physical trace of the process in the material.)
In what I think is “One Hundred Years Abroad,” a longer track that I love and could describe using adjectives like “stately” or “assured,” actual keyboard notes open the song, get looped, built up, and trip over themselves. Sounds both human and inhuman play off each other: what could be a garbled 90s up-tempo rap, what sounds like an audiograph of lava or tectonic plates sped up. By the end, a raw, inhuman tone gets dissembled (by tight, cutting loops) into a falling melody, until the sound of feedback takes over the vocal register with a repeating moan.
Where Side A is mostly wild, long-form improvisatory constructions, all but one track on Side B consists of a minute or so of one loop repeating, with subtle to no variation, like “Grab Loop” did earlier.
“Fin De Siecle Loop” sums up all the wild vivaciousness of Side A over an exhausting sixty seconds, alternating skyward and claustrophobic assemblages, terminating in a call-back to the mewling sounds that opened “Lender.”
Afterwards, “Claude Monet Paints the Rouen Cathedral Again” follows this raucousness by layering chimes and bird-calls into a textural background. A solid sense of place is manufactured, a fictitious world grounded in reality by the field recordings it uses.
Quickly though, the mechanical, mismatched nature of the chimes’ and birds’ loops becomes too apparent for comfort, and the song shifts in tone from organic to inhuman. A percussive micro-loop swells slowly to overtake it, a primitive repetition of a church-like gong and decay matched by a two-note engine rev. “Claude Monet” closes the album as that two-note, propulsive beat continues to build.
Half-way through Side B, “Paul Gauguin in French Polynesia Loop” conjures a sense of purposive movement denied actual progress. Its moody texture evokes another fictional sense of place. It’s got this very particular, frustrated gait; the timbre of its phrases reminds me of wood banging over waves, and definitely at night.
In context, walking out of the wreckage and horns of “Two Timer,” preceding the electric shouts and buzzsaw static of “Fin De Siecle Loop,” “Paul Gauguin” does feel like its title suggests, like a futile retreat from an overloaded, over-modern society.
Crafting its own wordless mood, it suggests the naive, bitter portrait of Gauguin with some real, felt accuracy. It paints an aspect of his lived reality more than a plot-centric narrative could, carrying the ugliness he tried to leave behind with him, into what, in his flawed perspective, seemed an Eden. (It feels like this painting in Gauguin’s Wikipedia entry, “Contes barbares/Exotische Sagen.”)
In retrospect, from a modern perspective, it’s hard to know what to make of the politics of Gauguin’s life: is he effectively colonizing Tahiti for his art, erasing its reality with a particular, white Euro masculine eroticism; or can he reflect some aspects of it faithfully, filtered through his own life, without annihilating the other’s. Can his paintings speak to Tahiti and Tahitians, or only to himself?
I can’t say, because I know nothing about that culture or that time; I know nothing about not being a white American male. Same reason I have nothing to offer on Ferguson, either; no words; nothing to say I haven’t heard secondhand.
I can say, out of my own experience, that noise is “speaking” to my wordless feelings. That’s the particular refuge noise music offers, its technique of enunciation: the creation of a vivid, non-specific mood or sense, an art object without objective purpose, a felt impression of meaning-making beyond the strictures of song movement or deterministic language.
The best noise, the closest analog I can think of is Paul Celan, crafts an irreducible art that won’t yield to the wider world, that speaks out of it but stands slightly apart.
Art like this can encompass the whole flawed spectrum of human endeavor, success, futility and atrocity. Not all non-representational art can pull off that much emotional accuracy; for me, formalist abstract paintings, Color Field, minimalist, Post-Painterly Abstract paintings smack of Western privilege. Noise has none of that neutered, assumed universality.
The best noise, Abstract Expressionism may be close in kind, its strength is its rawness: an improvisatory nature, a devoted attention to materials, the fact that process is manifest in the product. Miniature Museum can be understood as a record of performance, like a Pollock, a record of its own composition conducted by an impassioned, mature artist.