Keith Fullerton Whitman likes to adhere to the principles of risk and randomness. His limited vinyl release Disingenuity b/w Disingenuousness is the result of a musique concrète style of audio composition built from often randomly generated noises, feedback loops, and other distortions. There is order here (if one wished, one could describe the sonic narratives of these two longish pieces — one clangy and disturbing, the other more comfortingly riding on the weird trajectories of wayward arpeggios), but it is order born of disorder, a compromise between the chaos of chance-generated “noise” and tamed “music.”
The key to this side of Whitman’s output (for he is nothing if not prolific, releasing many types of music under a variety of aliases and on a range of formats) would appear to lie in objects, materiality, and what we might call the risk of things. From the production side, Whitman asserts this desire for risk, describing how his frustration with performing predictable computer music live led him toward more hands-on, responsive analog technology. But risk is present for the listener too, at least on early exposure to the music. One is aware of the audio clutter in these tracks, of the tangibility of sounds as they arise unexpectedly or shift from one channel to the other. We hear the world as an undeniably messy place that resists tidying up, reducing, and minimalizing.
If music is a reduction of the sonic world, a taming of aural space, then Whitman’s work remains alert to the weirdness of the world’s noises. He’s aware that transcribing that weirdness isn’t enough; the act of music-making has to be randomized to really “echo” the chaos of the world. Paradoxically, the artist needs to labor tirelessly to reduce the interference of the artist. The listener needs to labor too to make sense of the cacophony, especially on a track such as “Disingenuity,” which asserts its realness by a constant bombardment of the aural faculties.
Whitman introduces random elements even as he composes. Is this composition as decomposition? If so, is this what would mark Whitman apart from those artists labeled by one small corner of the critical world as “hypnagogic”? Some might argue that what those artists do is recomposition, reviving the temporarily dormant sounds of a not-too-distant past through familiar cultural memories. One recent article on Whitman attempted to set him aside from other electronic music artists by his willingness to insert risk in place of such reconstitution. Along this line of logic, hypnagogic pop is too tame, too controlling in its retrospection.
Against such an opposition, however, one only has to note the sense of danger in, say, the opening track of Oneohtrix Point Never’s otherwise lulling Returnal or, to come at it from the other side, the amniotic warmth of Whitman’s “Disingenousness,” the “mellower” B-side of this record. Indeed, Whitman seems as well-disposed to nice (i.e., risk-free) music as any of the hypnagogic crowd (“nice music” is his description for the material he puts out on Kranky). Furthermore, not only does he not distance himself from artists such as Oneohtrix and Emeralds, he positively embraces their work. Maverick he may be in some aspects, but he is also a collaborator and curator, roles that bind him to a community.
As curator, Whitman is responsible for the running of Mimaroglu Music Sales, an online store dedicated to the stocking and distribution of hard-to-find releases by experimental artists. Tangibility and materiality are the key drivers again, with much love attached to the dissemination of objects associated with music. Whitman puts it nicely on his own website when he speaks out against the tendency to “live in a matrix-like bubble of amniotic fluid with only but a few shiny white plastic possessions capable of serving up the sum of all human endeavour at merely a button’s press.”
This emphasis on things and tangibility may seem to contradict the impulse in Whitman’s work towards the chaotic and uncontrolled. The music he describes on his website utilizes “sources of uncertainty,” but things tame and hold down the uncertain. However, the point would seem to be that there has to be a moment where the frame is drawn, the button pushed, the process held down provisionally. Perhaps it is the provisional, temporary nature of this capturing that has led to so many Whitman releases. The objects call out to be collected even as they assert the impossibility of collecting this man’s work, let alone that listed in the bewildering expanse of artists and labels available through Mimaroglu.
The small labels behind these lovingly-crafted releases have rediscovered the basic truth that recorded artifacts are always more than the sum of sound, visuals, and tactility. There is something extra, something thrillingly surplus to requirements, that exists in such objects. This may not be the essential Keith Fullerton Whitman release (if such a thing exists) but, if you fancy a 140g vinyl record in a “pro-press color jacket … housed in a silk screened pvc sleeve with artwork by Bill Kouligas,” then this one displays the two sides of Whitman’s current sonic world as well as any.