Tom Carter

Wholly Other

lop: we all know that two stones tossed simultaneously into still water yield a vertiginous rippling of concentric circles, and thus intersections known as hyperbola—curves enunciated by a central welling eye of ellipsis. Unfortunately, I don’t live near a lake, and don’t have a pool, so I can only experiment with a claw-foot tub full of lukewarm water. And it works well enough: there are conic sections and intercepts and lots of stuff going on that brings the ol’ Cartesian Coordinate System to mind; but the main reap of my Mr. Wizard-like curiosity is/was to obtain a workable metaphor for Carter’s Glyph—an extraordinary solo recording for lap steel, steel- and nylon-string’d guitars. Lucky for me, Carter’s music waxes watery; it’s damn well onomatopoeic: sometimes sounds swell up and shower in a stormy release (cf. Glyph’s 2nd track, a salty workhorse of lap steel calisthenics), other times they plip and plop over and into air as stones skipping over water and through a neighbor’s bay window (cf. Glyph’s 3rd track, a hobnail hop o’er the Niagra Falls in’a beer barrel). Accordingly, these sounds aren’t pebbles decreasing the density of an unknown liquid held captive in a carafe; they’re sounds as signs pointing to the beginning of the Begin, when aqua vitae was the lubricant bar none for all Thalesian delineation: it was the Pater Philosophia himself who consciously brought the unconscious principle all encompassing to the forefront, dragging stubborn minds through the dialectic to lead them to the wading pool. Water as the prime stuff, huh? Water as the Cause of All—as the metaphorical DNA of every single phenomenal object, the makings of matter. No thing was free of its formless form—not even Sound. Methinks this is a decidedly good thing, that is to make that which is aural corporeal—to get it out of the ear and into the eye. And no place more apropos does that action ensue than with a gaze at the recording package proper. The listener always knows what sort of gauzy materialism the sound subscribes to, but the artist conditions that reception with accompanying artwork. In this case, I operated without it for a week, looking over Internet sites for a glimpse to no avail, and finally receiving it from Carter himself. As with all overheated water symbolism, this review rushed from a central source, a main well, and it had nothing to do with any sort of ur-textual exegesis or quasi-biblical rambling: it was all Copper Green’s fault.

Vincent Gallo’s (self-proclaimed) ‘musical history’ begins with the purchase of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band. But, Gallo explains, without a turntable, all he could do was look at the cover. And it’s a beautiful cover: one of the best faux group-pictures ever. My experience with Carter’s Glyph is Gallo’s in reverse: during a mid-afternoon boozing, comrade-in-arms Copper Green—when he wasn’t icing down more Genesee—was dropping CDs in the tray, noisily moving speakers out onto the deck. When the music went from The Clash-to the-Dead Boys-to Tom Carter, my ears perked up: What is this? Who is this? Where’s the cover? Copper shrugged with a ‘dunno’, and slammed another Genny. Before I left Green’s deck, I convinced him to dub me a copy; and he did so, on a horribly cheap low-fidelity cassette whose hiss nearly conceals the music trapped in its tape. For someone who sees cover-art as part and parcel to the listening experience, I felt the music to be incomplete, and—because of its incompleteness—even more intriguing.

Nearly a week later, Carter e-mails the cover to me: it looks like one of those floppies from the ‘80s, but dotted with an undulating black-on-beige pointillism that’s festooned with a rotund porcelain lifesaver center—or oculus, if you wanna get technical. Coupled with the evocative title, Glyph, this is an odd choice. I expected a sculpture culled from a Doric frieze, or any sort of enigmatic symbol or carving. I suppose this is what I got, though. The OED cites Coleridge’s utilization of ‘glyph’ in 1825, which, I presume is an articulation on/about language. Coleridge writes: “. . .they were originally symbolical glyphs or sculptures, afterwards translated into words.” Appropriately, the music on Glyph is chatty, discursive stuff, sounding almost like the aural equivalent of translation or transliteration: taking form into phoneme—taking the form into phoneme—crafting the consonant as Marvel's Jack Kirby would've done Conan. But mystery’s not gone yet.

Listening to the cassette now, I’m struck by how deliciously imprecise this stuff is: exactly inexact. We might want to recall the words of Abe Mendelssohn here, which unwittingly woke Wittgensteinian ghosts: “Formerly I was known as the son of my father; now I’m simply known as the father of my son”. So much for the Protagorean Measure . . . Of course, precision proper is an art—a craft that comes into being by way of practice. Exactness is allowed only in the case of standard; there’s got to be a mean, a measure, something geologically sound/solid from which one may begin to build (e.g., a whole lifetime of field recordings, front porch heehaws helped/held by banjo/g’tar ‘n’ washtub bass). For the nib-and-ink lot, they often forgo precision, (sub)consciously plucking prior effort from the shelves and usurping the Past’s standard, injecting it into works-in-progress in order to anesthetize, their somnambulant prose moving peripatetically from past to future, thereby dragging the detritus of history back and forward till it’s as blurrily ambiguous as the POV of a Gaddis novel. Carter does an ecstatically wonderful job of this, using his acoustic like a rake, where steel-strings are prongs pulling up referential ground aplenty. Were we to throw on a stack of Takoma LPs, we’d only have hindsight; and Carter’s music is nearly a priori, self-evidential value and experience as nonmalleable as math, as necessarily known as all bachelors are unmarried men. Sure, this sounds strange, to make music scaled free of its sense, but, this way, a tune can culminate independent of its course.

So: hearing Glyph’s 1st track—a gloriously monisitc piece whose deft transmogrification is as trance-inducing as hearing the linking of the Mythological Whole in Ovid’s Metamrphoses read aloud by a gin soaked John Houseman—this is music without perspective; sound isn’t placed into categories artificial; it’s heard—and seen—we’re talking about primal stuff here, of the ilkless first substance qualia. Yet, the first track sounds sometimes like Japanese Biwagaku or Sokyoku: a biwa’s fisted four strings flushing over with the zither’s thirteen separate soundings. And then your point of reference shifts: it sounds like the enharmonic music used to score Euripidean Drama, compose a paean to athlete or warrior or eulogize the dead on myriad funerary stelae. This is slippery stuff; and only after falling repeatedly do you actually realize that this music is self-feeding (ah, the ouroboros ilk), introverted, composed out of itself. This music’s energy is sourced from the energy of music making alone; there’s no aspiration to artful precision as there is in a philosopher’s language or thought. The contradiction is obvious, though: like the philosopher, whose platform is the predecessor’s ruin, Carter makes music out of refutation, or abandoned exegesis; his is a brand studded with the patios of prescription—the emergence of a (much needed) new (musical) language. It sounds familiar, sure; I thought it was three separate folk, all at once: with the blindfold on, I groped with guessing. ---Is it Keiji Haino, (early) Mayo Thompson, ---a Fahey bootleg? ---No on all three. Why does it sound like one, or all three of these? I ‘dunno’, but one can always go abstract and chalk it up to Hegelian re-presentation: these sounds are well-knowns, they’re public domains, they’re re-iconizations of well-knowns, or lesser-knowns, or even-less-well knowns, etc. Of course, for Carter to represent these well- or lesser-knowns, he’s got to know something about their essences, and, it sounds like he most certainly does. For all the different voices whispering through this recording, Carter’s stands straight at the forefront: this is startlingly original music, regardless of what watery origin it rushes from. And, for all this hubbub about knowing or not-knowing, I know one thing: on the verge of a Best-of list at year’s end, Carter’s Glyph earns top honors. Highly recommended.

Reviewed by: Stewart Voegtlin

Reviewed on: 2004-09-23

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