Friday, December 17, 2004

Ian Nagoski

On Fevered Mind: The Slow-Burning Drones of Ian Nagoski by John Berndt
The first time I saw Ian Nagoski play live, I thought incredulously to myself "This guy is one of the best musicians I’ve ever heard in my life." What was so unbelievable about this thought was that it was directed at the activity of a young man whose output consisted of an almost unchanging, buzzing, throbbing layer-cake of electronic drones controlled by incredibly subtle adjustments to a primitive rig of
analog tape decks, CD players, and modulators spread out on the floor in front of him. The sound seemed to hang free of what Nagoski was doing, and was extraordinarily moving. The pace of change was glacial, and Nagoski’s intent manipulations were
sometimes spaced minutes apart as his processes unfolded or achieved equilibrium as if in a thick medium, a melting iceberg in electrified auditory ocean. The music also had a viscerally slowed-down and drugged quality--it dragged time backwards, cancelling the momentum from past to future. I had previously heard Nagoski’s music on CD and had enjoyed it, but this live performance was something else, an unqualified new experience. Nagoski’s sound saturated the room with considerable volume, but rather than being an opaque wall or endurance test, it had an incredible lyricism to it, an almost heartbreaking emotional presence. Far from cold or academic, the sound engulfed you in a tangled interplay of frequencies that were overripe with intention and focus. At the mid-point of the roughly forty-five minute piece, the volume sea-changed up perceptibly, and the sounds clearly began overdriving some piece of the equipment, possibly the speakers Nagoski had supplied for listening. With this move, a new lattice of veined micro-melodies shot through the sound,
interference patterns already subliminally present brought into brittle relief by the speakers "clipping." While this might have been annoying on its own, the distorted spires that launched from the already established hypnotic sound field were a
fascinating, alien musical adjustment, a new kind of orchestration. There was something also strangely desperate (relentlessly searching and uncompromising)
about that small move and it was a break with any hint of detachment or preciousness. As if the aperture on a camera had been changed to widen the depth of
field, the drones "sharpened" in all directions and complex, architectonic towers of harmonics geometrically seared and flowered through the sound, making it more melodic, more emotional, more intense. By the time Ian slowly faded down the sound to end the piece, I was in a state of timeless amnesia, barely able to reconstruct the large-scale course of the piece in my mind. It was hard to come back. … Let’s put
aside the awful term "minimalism" for a second (as it applies to academic instrumental works that has less new musical content per-square-foot than Late
Romanticism). There is music which (however complex or minimal), deals with sustained sound and immersive audio experiences. In 2001, this kind of activity has
A LOT of history accumulated there are many and varied musicians on record who work only with "sustained sound" or "drone sound environments." I now consider
Nagoski to be one of the most important in that group a highly original artist, though he is also clearly (and vitally) inspired by what has come before. Time
will separate him from the score of equally obscure young artists who work with sustained sound or sound fields. I think it is interesting to note how qualitatively different superficially parallel contributions can be within this roughly defined genre
of "slowly changing, sustained sound." La Monte Young (who was a kind of early teacher to Nagoski) may have inaugurated the genre, with "drone" pieces that are
ultimately focused on stasis, precision, and kind of scientific hygenicism of tuning. Some of Young’s sound installations (both the large smooth sine wave pieces
and singular works like "Gong for Bob Morris,") can achieve amazing, disorienting new forms of sensuality though they are perhaps largely devoid of "supplied"
emotional content. Young’s metaphysical-copyright antagonist, Tony Conrad (previously well known for his film "Flicker") has revived his own take on the early
live "Theatre of Eternal Music" work made in collaboration with Young and others in the 60s. Conrad’s "reborn" music sustains (usually two note) string drones, presented at very high volume (without electronic distortion), but a tremendous amount of
"unhygienic," churning musical content added by the rhythms of irregular bow-articulation. Sometimes the experience borders on an endurance test--on a good day, it can also be quite thrilling. There are also a great many who, like Nagoski, work with what I might call "densely massed sustained sound" or "poly-drone music."* Phil Niblock, Charlemagne Palestine, Herman Nitsch, Eliane Radigue, and Michael Schumacher all come to mind as composers who have worked with textures of densely layered, prismatically changing frequencies. Though I find things of interest in all these composers, I (and I would warrant, Nagoski) find considerably more inspiration in the as-yet-unpublished work of Catherine Christer Hennix ("The Electric Harpsichord") and Henry Flynt ("Glissando," the four-track version of "Celestial Power") a very fragile, limited body of work which has been defined by Flynt as the genre of "HESE: Hallucinegenic-Ecstatic-Sound-Environment"or "The
Illuminatory Audio Program." These three obscure pieces have drug-like effects and raise the bar through the roof for "trance" music and use sustained, tuned audio textures and highly orchestrated psychoacoustic-aesthetic effects to produce altered
states. To my mind, the "HESE" pieces are truly ecstatic works that represent a degree of seriousness, commitment, and unarguable success that more or less blows the rest of available "trance music" out of the water. One can only hope they will all achieve
publication and a wide audience. Nagoski’s work pushes in the same rich direction of delirious seriousness and precision of intent, not yet achieving the relative and isolated perfection of the "HESE" pieces, but still accomplishing a great deal. And it is work that is still very much evolving from month to month which may well throw open its own new doors of perception. The music can certainly have intense and original hypnotic and time-distorting effects which are of interest in their own right, but what is most crucial is its emotional, stripped down quality the fact that Nagoski is so consumed and focused by his unpretentious micro- and macro- choices, making very real, very strange music which has an extraordinarily intimate, subtle, and honest quality. The raw materials of the music are extremely crude, but Ian’s endless sympathetic reworking of the sounds through very carefully tuning and processing transforms them and infuses them with layers of warmth and glowing audio halos. The work also involves informality and chance-taking which is notable for the genre having seen him perform many times now, it is clear that he is a real improviser, working out his music as an uncanned, real-time process in a truly exploratory
manner, despite the unusualness of his aesthetic parameters. This means that not every concert will be a success, but those that are have a special potential to be stellar. Such unguarded integrity and emotional intensity are extraordinarily rare and fragile, and it
is particularly odd to encounter both in a style of music often associated with pseudoscientific clap-trap and urbane one-upmanship. But nothing less than this
sort of rawness is required to create something new, to move beyond the cognitive and emotional boundaries of the culture into new modes of sustainable psychedelic experience. In live concert, Ian Nagoski has probably made some of the most emotionally charged, organically crafted drone music that has been yet produced. His music is extremely qualitative deep-digging into the mind, into emotive elongations
of tiny private primate moments through what are still relatively new electronic means--an experiment with consciousness, if you will. Most recently, Ian’s output has involved a long series of fascinating sound/light concert collaborations with the light
artist, musician and inventor Dan Conrad (who is, coincidentally, brother of the afore-mentioned Tony Conrad). Conrad’s Chromaccord light machine is a performative instrument that allows him to lyrically "play" two fields of variable color, one inside the other. The resulting disorienting afterimages from this minimal (but highly flexible) display are breathtaking. In concert with Ian’s extremely focused drone work, the resulting combination is a new kind of synthetic two-part harmony… with silent afterimages of pulsing color chasing or clashing with the harmonic ripples of Nagoski’s emotional current. This is an extremely challenging situation, and very difficult for both performers, as they improvise with radically difficult and unusual materials and across sensory modalities. The resulting cultural experience is often
ecstatic, and defines a new genre of light/sound work where neither sense is allowed to be dominant, and the overall mood is driving and lyrical rather than atmospheric or assaultive. The world may not be ready for this sort of work, work which is not pretence but begins in terra incognita. The world certainly isn’t telling anyone to do it--but Ian Nagoski is doing it, and he is doing it for real.
* Not sure who originated this term, but it may have been the person called tentatively
John Berndt


Post a Comment

<< Home