Sound, as in the listening and taking in of sound as it is, exists in the realm of simplicity. We can face sounds as they are, and the person generating them can accept themselves not as a composer in the traditional sense, but as an instigator of sounds. The part of both listener and composer becomes one where the examination of the relationship to the sound happens. In essence: sound as sound is listened to for the sake of experiencing it and our reflection against it. Without delving too far in the metaphorical barrel, it seems safe to say that listening to sounds alone as they are is a mirrored process, one that is simultaneously a simple two-way street and the most confusing road you’ve ever been on, lacking signifiers, specifics, markers, memories, maps, and the things that constitute the formation of language.
Composition is the place where that process takes an oxymoronic turn toward both the abstract and the concrete. We form genre signifiers based on tone, instrumentation, frequencies, and song structures. In here, we listen not to sounds for what they are, but for their relationship to the other sounds they are presented with. Sound engineers are often predisposed to feeling annoyed by anything that sticks far too out of the mix; their understanding of how sound should be experienced manifests in how well they are “blended” or “mixed.” This statement is not meant to disparage those who mix sounds, since their task is admirably human, maybe even impossible thanks to the nature of frequencies. But composition, for better or for worse, is the linguistic formation of sounds. I’m definitely not the first person to note this, but I think it’s important to understand it as a nature of listening and of how we form our listening.
Composition can take on negative qualities: the forced duality of experience that categorizes compositions into “good” and “bad,” the formation of the idea of sounds suggesting things outside of themselves, the process of composition as some sort of competency test, and the use of critical phrases to suggest judgeable qualities (a prime example being the use of je ne sais quoi, a term of praise that literally says that the critic does not know what is good about them, designating an air of positive mystery). The further we go down the path of language, the further we see that that path may not be infinite. The same goes with composition: we see the possibility of not only our own mortality, but also our species’ mortality in it. Composition, then, is what makes a musician, what helps us understand them through a language they form with a large assortment of sounds to choose from, the nuances of voice and expression, and the essence of escapism that composition can provide. This is why we have historically praised those who organize sounds. Those who don’t we critique as having a “lack of ideas.”
Let this be a guide toward the possibly self-defeating act that follows below:
Someone once asked why bands and musicians these days are afraid to commit to genre. While filmmakers have long embraced genre, with those most praised lightly breaking those conventions at the occasional turn but still happily confining and living within the structured worlds in which those genres exist, musicians seem to act like refusant teenagers when they come to be pressed about sticking to their frameworks. (It’s worth noting that musical genres are easier to market than film genres, as one doesn’t often meet an individual who watches only one genre of film; it is music listeners who are generally predisposed to listen within the safety of genre circles.) Typically, and historically, this has been marked by the push and pull between musicians and the media that report on them, a tension between who wants to create boxes and who wants to break out of them. In a way, it reflects our process of understanding in the world; part of the purpose and construction of language is to break the knowable world into definable terms. It’s when literature, art, and essay step in and complicate matters; that essence is where the true friction lies and where raw, unfettered emotions are created — or, more likely, woken from their slumber.
I originally discovered Kim Myhr’s All Your Limbs Singing from a jazz blog. I wasn’t thinking, “Is this jazz?” I was thinking, “guitar?” All Your Limbs Singing is an album made solely on 12-string acoustic guitar, and although this might be a “tired” instrument in the pantheon of modern instrumentation, Myhr was able to create the types of sonic swells and reverse-swell percussive moments that I typically align more with electronic music than I do acoustic instrumentals. Although his methodology isn’t anything terribly “new” (think Charlemagne Palestine and his “Strumming Music,” a process of repetition that drives out overtones like angry neighbors until they take over the scope of focus, gradually and eventually becoming beautiful despite their annoyance to listener, performer, and themselves), it struck me at a time when I was leaning more toward the possibilities of electronic-made music, a place where I felt the limitations of acoustic and guitar-based music too constricting and focused to be possibly worth any remaining value (how naive I was).
This is why it feels fitting that Myhr has defined Bloom as his “electronic” album. Bloom shows Myhr using his large-space sound more as a compositional element, with parts of the same process of Limbs applied to electric guitar, as well as electroacoustic processing thrown into the mix as well. Oh yeah, and a zither. Either way, nothing on Bloom represents what we’ve come to understand more conventionally, even in experimental or non-conventional terms, as “electronic” music. To be sure, every genre term is loaded; telling someone you’re a fan of electronic music can put you anywhere in the spectrum from Skrillex to Mark Fell. But Myhr is attempting to expand the idea of how things fit together while also showing how an individual forms a specific sonic idea, before letting that idea fall into a larger compositional conversation.
This aspect is not necessarily new for Myhr. He’s used his large, chamber sound element in many of his collaborations, notably with Jenny Hval and the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra, as well as in his many live collaborative settings. Myhr the composer tends to return to a sound, one that he initially formed over a long period and documented quickly (as was the case with Limbs), bringing this sound into the pool when he takes on the studio, composition-from-sketch process. On Bloom, Myhr opens up to new processes and, as such, seems committed to finding how the sounds on Limbs fit into a world with other sounds and how that specific sound fits into a conversation with sounds from the electronic processing canon. If anything, it can be constructed as an individual’s romantic step into the larger world, facing the things outside themselves, discovering how their individualities blend in and stick out from a mass whose parts are both known and unknown.
We’ve historically viewed the “experimental” sound world as a map of the unknown, a wild west for the mind. However, time has passed, and it is now a world we know well. But let’s not be disparaging as we head toward the urban jungle of our genres, watching them bleed and grow into other areas, their inhabitants getting sick of their living situations and suddenly migrating. We may not grow forever, but we grow today.