“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture”
– Laurie Anderson, Steve Martin, Thelonius Monk, Miles Davis, Elvis Costello, Martin Mull, et al.
This well-worn and heavily attributed apophthegm, or any of its variants (like singing about pottery, like knitting about literature, and my personal favorite: “like talking about fucking”), is often regurgitated whenever a person is either deeply fed up with art’s perceived ineffability (a rut that everyone has been in and one that seemingly grows deeper with exposure) or when telling a disarming joke about how silly this whole critical endeavor is. Of course, at day’s end, this sphinx-like platitude is humorously obvious (this kind of categorical crossover is a universally acknowledged downfall of symbolic language), sharply short-circuiting (doesn’t music mean more anyway when it’s not just experienced as a series of physiological responses, when there isn’t just one Janus-like subject speaking for themselves?), and — in this case — entirely moot, as I will contend as clearly as I can in this review (a medium clearly separate from that of these subjects’) that Norwegian songwriters and sound artists Jenny Hval and Susanna Wallumrød’s vast and resonant Meshes of Voice is multiflorous in form and in theme and in affectation, despite its fluid singularity; it therefore deserves and enkindles multiflorous responses. So, as you read, move as freely as you like. I don’t mind at all; in fact, I encourage it. Cut a rug.
In a March 2014 interview with Grayson Haver Currin for Indy Week, Jenny Hval describes her writing process: “I find a sound, and then something happens on top of it. Instead of silence, it’s like a sheet that’s very dirty instead of blank… How can you ever start from nothing? I like to start from noise.” This idea resonates with me, as instrumental opener “Droplet” condenses from its light, jangly airborne state and gradually forms a canvas of tightly refracting noise. Then, a ripple of sound occurs on its surface like a drop from a wet paintbrush, Hval’s and Susanna’s bold voices like bristles touching down and smearing those convex pockets of static sound into “Black Lake,” a mesmerizing piece grounded by a grandiose yet understated gothic piano and broad yet precise washes of static, a combination that formically resembles Greek black-figure pottery (are you tapping your feet yet?). Two distinct musical colors emerge as Hval and Susanna’s soundscape takes shape: black (that imperfectly warped canvas of liquid noise) and a varying shade of something lighter (strokes of narrative and expressive breath), creating a discreet background and a foreground with an impossible depth in between. Like a myth depicted on an amphora’s infinite circumference, there is an energy that runs sinuously throughout Meshes of Voices. Never broken by exhaustive turns, however, their exhalations carry through each emotional episode, those spaces of travel between songs marked by sonic motion lines etched into clay.
This cyclical directionality isn’t just an illusion of motion, however. Space, in musical terms, is often conceptualized and discussed dimensionally, yet as exemplified by Spanish Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí’s dynamic work, space art can be transportative as well as profoundly dynamic, and Meshes of Voice takes listeners through places deeper than skin in physically stirring ways: into a bleak sea without a body (“Black Lake”), into a fantastically sensuous yet nightmarish scape (“Milk Pleasures”), across a harrowing windswept desert (“I Have Walked This Body”). These spaces (and what they suggest of our deepest inner structures) and our movements within them are made even more vivid through Hval’s and Susanna’s subconsciously resonant words: “The black lake took and the black lake gave,” “I can see that she is laying down open/ The pleasant apple-milk from the breasts/ Luring and enticing/ A poor soul like me/ To a certain death inside her chewing mouth.”
In its abundant lyrical allusions that give these abstractions vision (Medusa, Athena, Maya Deren’s surrealist film Meshes of the Afternoon) and its plethora of connected modalities (chamber pop, musique concrète, harsh noise), Meshes of Voice is variegated and deep. Hval’s and Susanna’s resounding, nigh heroic vocal vibrations — projected over their strikingly imagined and vivified world’s elemental buzz — don’t just convey stories; they conjure realer-than-real mythic symbols, presences of refraction and reflection and of self, of desire and beauty and of the abyss. This world Jenny Hval & Susanna create through sound and voice is personal and intimate, in that its origin is seemingly within their lungs, yet it is microcosmic of our own human psyche, at a skin-on-bone level.
It is easily seen then how impossible and irresponsible it feels fitting all of its immenseness into something like a review, much less into some kind of interpretation through a bodily response like swaying at its outward beauty. But as soon as Meshes of Voice wraps itself around us, its sanguine truths become ours and we become invested at every level. Meshes of Voice is a truly engulfing piece of apodictic expression, and it should be danced, sung, knitted, and talked about, if not because it collapses these categorical distinctions itself so that its blood can run, then because keeping your head still and your voice silent is lying.