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live in san francisco
or those with no exposure to Francisco López or his peers: print out this review, crumple it up as slowly as you can and listen. When you’re finished, listen some more. This is what you are walking into, that’s what it’s about. It’s not about anything. Now you know. And according to López, knowing will only prevent you from hearing. As to why you should devote any time at all to such by-definition ‘trivial’ sounds, I have few compelling arguments. Last night a DJ saved your life, last year (well it’s been seven, actually) an audio scribble saved mine. I guess it depends on where you were at the time. To say of the scribbles that they are not music is both as right and wrong as can be. The only thing I’ve learned from a lifetime of listening (aside from how to increase my social ineptitude) is that “music” is just shorthand for a lot of creative practices that, from end to extreme end, have very little to do with each other save the fact that they occur within a sonic medium. So don’t call this ‘music’ if it makes you feel better.
Francisco López releases generally come devoid of visual context/content. No packaging. No color. Little to no explanatory text, no logo, no instructions for listening. live in san francisco provides a slight deviation from this typical austerity by including a strip of black linen inside the jewel case. And while it is tempting to read the swatch as a tactile metaphor for López’ stark, textural minimalism, the linen actually takes the place of an implicit set of liner notes: it is a blindfold.
I don’t really intend to deeply discuss the music on this record at all. This will sound like a copout, and is only half true, but López’ music is resistant to language and does not want to be discussed. But let me say this: if you are familiar with more than a few of Lopez’ 130+ formal releases (no kidding) it is my opinion that this one, recordings of two live installations in San Francisco, is superfluous. These recordings are not extraordinary within his oeuvre and the fact of its being a live recording adds little of interest to the work (aside from the sort of contextual ‘noise’ that forces a reading, something López is passionately opposed to). The two performances on this disc remind me most of John Duncan and Max Springer’s The Crackling (processed recordings of the Stanford Accelaration Center) but are marred by a reluctant tensional arc that only partially tenses, rarely satisfies or confounds, all executed within a fairly tired and pedestrian minimalist terrain—lacking the openness and the teeth of his Trente Oiseaux releases.
But if a purpose of lowercase sound recordings is to facilitate a radically personal listening experience, free of promotional noise and image, idiom and context, then what follows should be a brief and subjective discussion for the uninitiated as to how to approach such work, who Francisco López is, what his work is ‘about,’ and why you might choose to care.
For 25 years López has produced sound works based primarily in the processing of environmental recordings. But don’t expect a naturalistic catalog of environmental field recordings. His art instead intends to embody a “forceful refusal of any visual, procedural, relational, semantic, functional or virtuosistic [sic] elements.” In short, this music attempts a flat-out rejection of what for most of us distinguishes “music,” disavowing all of the ordinary cultural relationships from which music obtains much of its meaning. But at the same time, López’ work (tending toward dense, harsh, even claustrophobic blocks of sound, stripped from their original contexts sonically, as compared to the pure icicle tones of Richard Chartier, or the spacious pillow-like constructions of Benhard Guenter) still carries the semantic resonance of its origins in environmental field recordings by way of interviews, essays, and online artistic statements. If it’s instructive to acknowledge the ego-light, content-evasive intent of the music in order to find a way to approach it, it’s also important to note that there is a well-defined community of auteurs working with the authority, virtuosity, and strength of style of any modern composer—there are conventions. But López makes music that strives to avoid the conversation entirely, predicated on the absence of such conventional baggage. Whether or not success on these ground is possible, his work is, if not anti-intellectual, certainly the opposite of “conceptual.” In an attempt to avoid the context of genre and community altogether, to engage the music at all you simply must confront the naked sounds themselves without any real frame of reference. You have only one option and that is to clear your head of thoughts and interpretations and valuations, just listen. Quality is almost completely irrelevant, nonsense. The quality of the experience of listening is out of bounds, neither the quality nor content of the structure itself, it intends to sidestep all such notions of value (though it still costs $14.99).
This micro-sound stuff has acquired the popular moniker, “lowercase sound.” It gained a groundswell of indie-music converts in the late 90s with the release of Guenter’s un peu de neige salie, Kevin Drumm’s self titled debut, and many others that took on a manifesto-like aura about them. For many, lowercase became as liberating a statement as punk, particularly for those with no particular interest in or training in the harmonic techniques, referential games, anti-hero antics, or genius-fetish of western music. This non-musical-music loosely shares a set of values and conventions, constructed of more or less harmonically neutral sounds mastered at very low volumes, generally (as with the long-duration minimalism of LaMonte Young or Tony Conrad) resisting narrative or temporal development, and often constructed from frequencies outlying the very perimeter of audibility, with the effect of hyper-attuning your attentions to the very smallest atomic pieces of sound. It is (for lack of a better word) meditative music that it is largely impossible to listen to in any passive way. More than lowercase, you could call it musically subatomic.
I am someone in love with all of the ego and pathos and complexity and history of both the idiotic superfluities and quasi-profundities of pop-music culture. So lowercase landed unexpectedly on my life like a subatomic bomb during a period of time where I was such a miserable fucking emotional and physical mess that the circumstances of my life had temporarily robbed me of my ability to hear the music I loved. The baggage temporarily got in the way. I was so self-absorbed I could no longer listen to songs without feeling emotionally mocked or acutely depressed by the emotionally reductive manipulations that are the playgrounds and building blocks of pop. I couldn’t hear about your sorrows or your parties or why you were pissed off at the man, empathy lost. It happens. It’s a sob story, I know. But the reason I’m telling you this: I wanted to offer up an alternative reading to the typical academic ‘high art’ / ‘high concept’, cold, clinical modernist context that is usually used to sell, describe, explain and defend lowercase sound (helped in no way by the monkish severity of its most vocal auteurs, López included).
For some people lowercase is a cool, detached, self-important “sonic researcher’s” posture. Minimalist-sheik. But for me, it was and is a centering, knife-sharpening, healing, an effectively severe back-to-basics (the basics of acquiring the capacity to hear in the first place) that I still consider to be more purely emotional an experience than listening to any sad singer-songwriter’s tale. In clearing away most of the baggage, this music attempts to reintroduce the world one small, bypassed sound at a time. And if this is at the heart of the way I value and love lowercase, then it is here that live in san francisco leaves me mostly un-moved.
For over 15 years López’ daytime gig was as a researcher doing biological fieldwork in the jungles of Costa Rica. In this time he became acutely attuned to the complexities of natural sound, becoming convinced of the universal weight of direct Zen-like engagement with sound. Tonight, somewhere in Peru, I’m sure there lurk “acoustic ecologists” making field recordings of Palearctic Water Frogs, creating a representational preserve of natural sound environments for tidy filing. But rather than creating relaxation soundscapes to help your dad sleep at night, López takes his inspiration from the violence and dense chaos of nature. “I use dramatically slow changes, extreme level dynamics (from the limits of hearing perception to the threshold of pain)” he explains in one interview, “all the things you find in the sonic reality of nature”.
Maybe López would disdain me for attempting to discuss any of this. He believes that musical knowledge (historical or formal) is a handicap for listening. He has a point. But I refuse to believe that it is possible to shake knowledge and culture without surgical intervention. You can offer up a blindfold as a means to deprivation-nirvana, but the blindfold as a little linen art object with an agenda and a purpose is still there winking at you in all of its referential and historical and physical glory. The fact that the music defensively positions itself within a flawed critical framework does not diminish the effect of the music or the spirit, only the integrity of its rhetoric. But there is beauty and worth to be had in the attempt to close your eyes and check your head and listen to what your gurgling radiator has to say. I live for these little inconsistencies and failures, the places where one paradigm breaks down in the face of another.
I say tomato, you say bravado, Francisco says nothing, and all I’m left with are unanswerable questions—answered partially in the failed attempts and the occasional moments of desperation where I can allow myself to say "fuck it," put on a pair of headphones and forcefully forget most of what I've just taken pains to unravel.
Reviewed by: William S. Fields
Reviewed on: 2005-01-28
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