The notion of a private art is something of a paradox. As British author Lascelles Abercrombie insists in Towards A Theory of Art (1922): “There is no such thing as a private work of art: all art is public.” Abercrombie’s logic here is irrefutable; if an artist never intends his work to be experienced by the public, “why should he be at such pains to perfect an intelligible outward expression?” And yet one easily finds many examples of work intentionally hidden from the public, and in some extreme cases, hidden even from friends and family: Cellini’s Crucifix, most of Emily Dickinson’s poems, Henry Darger’s life work. Private art is produced without commission, for the artist’s own satisfaction, and yet it is by necessity intelligible, imparted though images, forms, and syntax designed for communication and interchange.
Shifting the discussion to music results in a further paradox. Why transcribe a piece of music not intended for performance? Why record a song without an audience in mind? A private music cannot exist unless it never actualizes, remaining in the realm of a daydream. Even so, there is a long, distinctly American tradition of music that prides itself on its non-public status: ingrown, idiosyncratic, outside tradition and commercial considerations. The authenticity constructed around Old Weird American folk and blues is characterized by the high lonesome sound, the intangible atmosphere of those old recordings, populated by backwoods outliers and itinerants cultivating their art in solitude.
I’m not the first, and won’t be the last, to note that electronic music has become the new American folk music, but the observation seems more relevant now than ever. An entire generation of bedroom producers has emerged over the past few years, marked by an idiosyncratic approach to self-taught (non-)composition, a penchant for cranky vintage synths, and the contingencies of outmoded recording methods. Many of these artists have, through accident or design, maintained a semblance of the isolation and introversion implicit in the idea of a private music. The music is often improvised or produced using automatic or intuitive processes.
The associated artists are usually highly prolific, releasing a new cassette every few months, scattering their work among a raft of underground cassette labels that continue to proliferate. This lends the work a diaristic feel, journal entries or notes toward a novel, a work in progress. More often than not, that progress is a gradual refinement, a sharpening of focus and an increasingly surefooted sense of aesthetic identity. The trappings of new age music are often invoked, less as a postmodern transvaluation of kitsch, more because new age offers the only antecedent to this working method in recent cultural memory. It is no accident that one of the most successful and well-curated new age labels was named Private Music.
All of the above is true of Motion Sickness Of Time Travel, the project of Rachel Evans, who has become one of the most consistently rewarding artists working in this milieu. Evans has recorded at her home in LaGrange, Georgia for the past few years, ritualistically perfecting a process developed through instinct and repetition. As Evans confirmed in her TMT interview, each MSOTT song is produced via an intuitive vertical process by which she overdubs layers of voice and synth, improvising along with herself until she feels the piece is finished. Motion Sickness Of Time Travel presents four snapshots of the artist in the process of revealing herself to herself. In a certain sense, it’s exactly like every MSOTT release that has come before: impressionistic, enigmatic, lovely, and deeply psychedelic. In another sense, it’s hard not to see this as a definitive statement. It’s the first self-titled album, the longest yet, and arrives housed in a gorgeous, collaged double-gatefold sleeve. Musically, the album is more confident and varied, with an increased dynamic range that peels away some of the muddy layers of saturation intrinsic to the cassette medium. Happily, it’s still an MSOTT album, a series of longform meditations on love, whether love of self, love of another, or love of the universe.
In “The Dream,” Evans sings “I am the universe” repeatedly over a choir of extended synthesizer tones and gentle arpeggios, invoking that most basic insight of the mystical experience, the acknowledgment of an eternal identity and the invisible connection between all things. “The Center” is the album’s most intriguing track, an unabashed love song juxtaposing Evans’ whispy, effected vocals with a palette of noisy synth patches that constantly threatens to become aggravating. The cumulative effect is similar to the natural ambient sound of a summer night in the South, that deafening chorus of insect chirps and buzzes that transforms into a warm, comforting blanket of shifting white noise. Here, as always, Evans’ lyrics speak of a profound love in acutely personal terms: “Nothing is the same as being wrapped up in your arms/ You and I are the center of everything.” Both “Summer of the Cat’s Eye” and “One Perfect Moment” return to that austral buzz, but each ups the ante in terms of composition. The cosmic “One Perfect Moment” achieves a thrilling narrative arc, a dramatic unfolding that is more focused and decisive than the open-ended quality of previous works.
Private music is a paradox, then, but a productive one. It persists because music has the potential to reveal the musician to herself, an inner dialogue made external. A musical impulse cannot be fully grasped in the mind; it must be expressed in order to obtain sense. For music produced by improvisation, this intuitive process is doubly inscribed. The musician turns herself over to the operations of chance and contingency, to stochastic processes that exceed intention and awareness. The music tells her not only what she was thinking, but what the moment was thinking, what the universe was dreaming. This is the mysticism of the creative process. It is central to the American musical unconscious, the reason why we still tend to value the figures of the hobo, the outsider, the amateur.
It has been said more than once that America is a nation of amateurs. Fools and cranks making it up as they go along. Improvisation and idiosyncrasy are values shared by all of the quintessentially American musical forms, a holdover of those wild days before mass culture eclipsed private music. Mass culture created a professional class of musicians who increasingly served as a homogenizing force, turning all music into public music and all public music into potential revenue. One of the positive side effects of the current economic crisis and its corollary in a rapidly collapsing music industry is that private music is once again asserting itself as a dominant model, assisted by the democratizing forces of the internet. At the risk of reducing the beauty of an album such as Motion Sickness Of Time Travel to an emblem of economic conditions, perhaps it is sufficient to simply offer this work as a prime artifact of these shifting values. Evans has created a beguiling work born of an intensely solitary process, inviting sympathetic listeners to resonate with her private mystical revelations.