On Second Thought
David Daniell - Sem






for better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.

Notorious French composer/conductor Pierre Boulez, before composing Pli selon pli, pulled one of Mallarme’s poetry volumes off of the shelf, tore out the pages, and reassembled the text by choosing from the pages he found useful. Boulez later explained that the poems’ structurural attributes—meter, order, and sonority—were translated into musical terms according to advanced serial principles. This exercise allowed Boulez’s finished work to share aleatoric, and determined functions simultaneously. Despite Boulez’ fixed choice in regard to compositional matter, the performer was ultimately allowed to interpret how the “stuff” was to sound—notes’ duration, pitch, etc. Electronic musicians, David Daniell included, engage in a similar practice; they are instantly afforded the right to nudge sound into the non-linear, the indeterminate. Perhaps this is an easier enterprise when one works outside of the word: Without prose, the protagonist need not be present; without an unreceptive reader’s eyes, setting isn’t subjective; the novel’s nominative is as inessential as describing the basic qualities, attributes and substance of nothing. Yet, when sound is used in order to symbolize, to stand-for, to proffer token of that which is taken in by the senses, it’s nearly always second-rate—a snapshot of something already experienced is never even on the heels of its phenomenal equivalent; the remembrance of things past is just that, and memories become unglued over time, confused in details, fading eventually like newsprint.

While there are quite a few outlets for music that goes against the grain in such a confrontational fashion, there are relatively few that release difficult music of consistent quality. Of course, making “instrumental” music is one thing; making music that eschews all notions of palpable structure, with instrumentation that is impossibly indeterminate is entirely another. Brooklyn based label Antiopic, which continues to churn out remarkable work, has provided some staunch competition for the windy city’s haute musics hawker, Table of the Elements. Daniell and label co-founder James Elliott (AKA Ateleia) have released an absurd quality of sound in a relatively short time-span, and with bona fide jaw-droppers like Dion Workman’s Ching, and the aforementioned Ateleia’s Swimming Against the Moments Antiopic proves that electronic music doesn’t have to be stamped “Mego” to illicit reaction.

Funny enough, reaction is mostly reticent when it comes to music like Ching, Swimming Against the Moments, and Sem. These recordings aren’t physical enough to appeal to a listener on a visceral level, and their displaced sonics are often times so foreign that engaging the sounds intellectually is even a tough roe to hoe. When reception is relegated to the margins, it’s wise to plumb the depths for purpose. Yet, Daniell’s Sem is fundamentally silent in its intent: Its two tracks, “Dixon lake road, july 31, 1999, 5:45 am” and “highway 371, forty miles south of farmington, january 19, 1998, 2:25 pm,” while immediately positing place, do so in enigmatic fashion. Do these sounds seek to stand in for the musician’s experience? Are these Ivesian paeans to the pastoral? Or are these titles merely technical notes that migrated from laboratory scratch pad to product liners: Two fragments perhaps [coyly] conveying place and time?

There’s a Dixon Lake Road and a Farmington and a Highway 371, just as there’s a Tlön and an Uqbar, and Orbis Tertius. Rifle through Rand McNally; ogle an atlas; rev up the Internet search engines, it matters little. If there ever was an incorrect way to receive information about art, this is it: “Music” like this is wholly unknowable through ordinary avenues; like a koan, its purpose is electrical—to shock the mind out of the hazy paradigms of the average everyday, where thinking is constructed no differently than a Big Mac—with sloppy indifference and standards that slip with the Convential Wisdom like sand into the seas.

My Bloody Valentine founder Kevin Shields opened the box, unfolded the game board, and pointed to Start when he spoke with Arthur magazine. “When you hear something, and you don’t know where it’s beginning or ending, suddenly your imagination is fifty percent of what is happening.” Shield’s point is salient. We’ve all had our hands held and walked through music as infants in a carriage. Watching movies, soundtrackers tell us when the action is enacted; slashers are surrounded in stringy staccato stabs; sex is sheathed in syrupy sonics. The mind holds on to these connections. When one sees Alex & his fellow Droogs committing bits of the “ultra violence” in A Clockwork Orange the soundtrack isn’t sinister; it’s Singin’ in the Rain. The disconnect is decidedly delicious: our ears hear “happy” while our eyes see “horror.” Doo-be-doo, Doo-be-doo. Doo-be-doo-be-doo-be-doo.

If one has no experience of “Farmington,” “Highway 371,” or “Dixon Lake Road,” what to do? When the ears are blinded by the bristly shapelessness of sound, what is being communicated? Is Sem even trying to connect? Or is it talking to itself—an electronic dog barking until its throat is seized in soreness?

If only one could subscribe to Aristotle’s naïve functionalism: De Anima describes the eyes as wax tablet—seeing isn’t only believing; it’s becoming that which is brought before it. The cornea culls characteristics until they coalesce into mirror image. And while this notion of knowing is as dusty as the daguerreotype, its process is useful. Dainell’s Sem isn’t something that can be used as background music. Paying bills or preparing dinner to these sounds is like trying to turn horseshit into hors d’oevures. To the unsympathetic ear, Sem may sound like so much shortwave static. Yet, Sem’s sounds are the stuff of the workweek, the morning routine, and the roundtrip commute. Droning is the mini-fridge in the workplace. Gauzy crackles and pops realize themselves in the a.m. ear clean, when a Q-tip invades the auditory canal. Perhaps it’s the decontextualization of these sounds that leads to perplex? Whatever the case, Daniell’s first foray into the electronic welt is a compellingly excellent one, made more significant in considering his primary equipment as guitar. One can only hope that a follow-up is either in the works, or even in the planning stages.


By: Stewart Voegtlin
Published on: 2005-06-14
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