Styles: neo-minimalism, modern classical, drone, pan-binarism
Others: Éliane Radigue, Tape Loop Orchestra, Charlemagne Palestine, Stars of the Lid
Not Knowing may be dedicated to Éliane Radigue, the French composer responsible for the three-hour séance Trilogie de la Mort, yet there’s another less obvious name that’s equally applicable to Nicholas Szczepanik’s latest departure into enigmatic, disembodied composition. This is Russian folklorist Vladimir Propp, whose Morphology of the Folktale sought to reduce the diversity of Slavic mythology to a few irrevocably recurring “functions,” genera of actions/events structured in the same immutable sequence. The Chicago-based Szczepanik may have never read Propp’s seminal work, but it seems that, wittingly or not, he’s trying to go one better, seemingly distilling an entire composition — and by extension music itself — to a single unchanging alternation of two binary oppositions. These are tension and release, ascent and descent, irresolution and resolution, deprivation and acquisition, sound and silence, on and off, or whatever two words could be used as the name of the 1 and the 0 that reproduce itself in various transmundane guises over the 52 minutes of his debut for Desire Path. And even though this increasingly celestial running time hints toward some imminent epiphany or elevation, in the end its promise is quashed by an unbreakable digital logic.
Yet an initial audit of Not Knowing might unfold as some quasi-spiritual homage to processes of evolution, to the evolution of consciousness or complexity from primordial beginnings, or even to an evolution in the direction of theological revelation. The first five minutes are defined solely by a low-pitched electronic pulse, an oscillating throb that gradually increases in volume until being joined by a fine, sharp-edged hum as it continues its appearing-disappearing act underneath. This hum inflects the undertow with an embryonic sense of awakening, although its precise teleology remains indistinct and elusive (as implied by the album’s title), ramifying the vaguely ominous closing and opening of its downstairs neighbor. Fortunately, the neighbor’s inarticulate threat is eventually submerged after the 13-minute mark by the awakening of a rich orchestral phrase, a cycle of ethereal strings that climb in register before dissolving into their filmy substrate. Once again, their amplifying breaths insinuate a moment of deliverance or emancipation, yet the progression that succeeds them tempers its sublime roll of chords with a tone of unreality and immateriality, thereby lacing doubt into the whole semi-divine cavalcade.
This unfurling eventually alights at a sustained, unwavering note, a Delphian tinnitus that clears Not Knowing’s airwaves of extraneous clutter and confusion, and that actually seems to brandish the ascendence that had been evoked all along, even if this arrival is more eerie and less euphoric than might have been imagined. However, it’s only soon after this development that, lo and behold, the initial heartbeat reinstates itself from under the drone, eventually supplanting the beatification altogether and finally providing the entire piece with an overarching symmetry, an unbreakable cyclicality which negates the sense that we were being lifted to a new plane. Moreover, when the same burring oscillation begins peeking out of its hideaway, it generates the fatal suspicion that it had been there for the entire time, driving the visions forward and ultimately returning them to its primal, all-consuming rhythm.
And these reservations accumulate, because when the overall form of Not Knowing and the transitions from one of its movements to another are scrutinized more closely, it becomes difficult to shake the notion that what it delivers is the repetition of a single underlying structure in various increasingly transient guises, rather than a seamlessly extended accretion away from that structure. Each segment bar the spectral apex recapitulates the see-sawing of the originary pulsation, with the more “extraterrestrial” sections achieving this via looping progressions that inevitably rise and dip like a pendulum. The emotional effect of these furtive reproductions is one of fiendish intricacy, in that the ostensible aura of escape and otherworldly beauty is pervaded by a wearied defeatism, an inarticulate apprehension that what you’re experiencing is somehow illusory or mistaken, and that in the end, all that’s being achieved in Not Knowing’s captivating flights of fantasy is the dressing up of a biological, social, or universal beat that will grind us into the earth long before it will ever hoist us into the sky.
In addition, the possibility that Szczepanik’s orchestrations map a ramifying levitation is undermined by how each new motif — instead of morphing out of and forming a continuous upward stream with its predecessor — is rather superimposed on top of these forerunners, which only fade out below and are never extinguished in any decisive or final way, and which therefore call up the notion that the threads temporarily overlying them are representative of figments or hallucinations, mirages that are plucked out of thin air so as to compensate for the “sensory deprivation” that is their precursor’s lack of melodic/harmonic directionality. Furthermore, in contrast to the dryness of the respirating bass line that begins Not Knowing, the strings at the center of its symmetry are lathered in reverb and echo, imbuing them with a gaseous, incorporeal chill that calls their weight and consequentiality into question.
This is all testament to Szczepanik’s artistry, however, since it’s because of these questions rather than in spite of them that Not Knowing makes for such a deftly haunting listen. Its unique impact is manifested most palpably when, near the close of its 52 minutes, the introductory thrumming reasserts itself over the layers that had briefly cloaked it in an unfulfilled prophecy, its appearance this time causing a quiet despair that, for all its singular pathos, is soon ironed out by callous, inexorable duplications. These duplications — in their minimal two-note dialectic — are a microcosm of the composition as a whole, of its rising to a hallowed peak only to recede into brute necessity again, an encapsulation of the “Yes” and “No,” action and inaction, that all humanity is boiled down to in its pursuit of survival. And while this might make the album simultaneously too rarefied and stark for some, for me at least it gets a resounding “Yes” — that is, until my listening to the next thing gives it a “No.”
01. Not Knowing