While listening to USA, I remembered a passage from Adorno’s “Difficulties”: “[All] efforts to encourage understanding of new music, even in my own words, are somehow at odds with it, as if we were committing an offense against its own intention, as if with our explanations we were removing the fangs that are essential to it. Nevertheless, it wants to reach people. For even in its most inaccessible form, it is a social entity and is threatened with irrelevance as soon as that thread to the listener is broken off.”
Fangs, reaching out. I pry open the jaws and listen to the thing breathing on me, before it snaps.
First, a brief history: R/S is Peter Rehberg and Marcus Schmickler. Rehberg, based in Vienna, is founder of Editions Mego. He has worked individually throughout the last two decades under various aliases. He has collaborated with Jim O’Rourke, Stephen O’Malley (directly, as KTL), sunn 0))), Matmos, and Fennesz. Schmickler, based in Germany, was a student of Stockhausen’s protégé Johannes Fritsch. He has performed individually, as well, under many aliases, and with Pluramon. He has collaborated with Thomas Lehn, Keith Rowe, and John Tilbury. R and S collaborated together for the first time in 2007 (in the studio) to create One (snow mud rain), an improvisational body of electronic noise not unlike USA.
USA is an archival record, documenting two live sets from 2009. It contains three tracks, “Chicago” (1 & 2) and “New York” (3), on two sides. The place names refer to the locations of venues, and not (in any obvious way) geographical sources of inspiration. The USA seems more or less incidental. It helps, when working though an abstract piece, to have some place to stand and observe (a title or manifesto), but without a place to stand, I’m left with what I already know. But just as I try to force my own experiences of Chicago or New York City into what I’m hearing, I find they have no place there. In fact, relying, as R/S do, upon an aesthetic bound to constantly shifting (and never settling) noises, there is little room for memory at all, in general, and much less nostalgia. So perhaps a kind of ontological placelessness is inherent to what I’m hearing, and the USA is merely a source of cool cover art. I guess.
(A brief aside: Does USA oppose viscerally? [Noise as sonically overwhelming?] Does it oppose conceptually? [Noise as ideological critique?] These are the old lines that noise, as genre, has drawn and continues to draw. I know no other genre that opposes, and delineates, so absolutely.)
Nothing on USA conforms in/to a narrative. There is no apparent beginning, arch, or resolution — in any order. There may be perpetual in media res, or perpetual in extremis, but there is only presence and force, and it is apparently timeless and placeless. It is the trembling fangs of a shivering animal, lying in wait, over and over, a flickering frame. The improvisations start and stop (begin and end?) at the same point of relentless intensity. R/S stand together on stage. They unleash something, they show something, opening wide and closing, each of them, apart, and begin pulling back and pushing. And pulling — against each other, and, inevitably, the listener. “It wants to reach people.” It’s a taunt. They say to each other and to all, “come closer, and pry.” Together, they make something continuously, in real time. Today, two years and 2000 miles and two people removed, you still hear the process. Let this alone stand as testament to a recognizable talent in the midst of mostly unrecognizable music.
Still, as electronic music it utilizes certain conventions: there, a sustained series of micro-beats, and there, the contours of an arpeggio. Sounds sweep across. (I know this wave or effect. I know this process, in part, as I utilize my own hardware.) Similarly, the noises are not unfamiliar. Inorganic, though not inhuman. They are akin to abrasive sounds we hear every day: a rev, a beep, a hiss. White noise and chance-patterns of sound. (I know, as I was thinking of this album, walking along the Columbia River, I heard a plane taking off to one side and a train rumbling and screeching on the other and an almost inaudible jogger coming up from behind, yelling “behind you!” I jumped and shivered in my skin, and stepped a foot aside.) It is the noise of everyday life, compacted and, yes, organized, for lack of a better word.
USA, even as an archival work, coheres. It coheres despite/because of the absolute intensity of its parts. (This is true even for the brief, infrequent calm found in the midst of “Chicago.”) Both “Chicago” and “New York,” as improvised performances and as movements of sound, do something thoroughly and forcefully. Together, they are vicious. Together, they confront me. They leave me inarticulate, nervously stuttering and waiting. Anxiously, I continue to gaze at the fangs. USA gives rise to anxious thoughts: Why does something so vicious compel me? (Adorno would like me to go on. He would like me to speak through my experience. Now, I hope it’s enough that I’m receptive to the new music.) Now, there is the twin pull of a desire: to analyze my experience and to let be — to lie down with the beast.
In the grass, on my side, I reach out to it and it reaches forward. It opens, and shows enough. It shivers, it growls. I will continue waiting, with USA, in tension.