A confession: I think the laziest, most uninformative thing an artist, critic, or art appreciator can say about a work is that it’s an “exploration of space.” Insofar as art is defined by its representation of the human condition, all art is an exploration of space by default, since the lives, perspectives, and experiences expressed by art all consist in a particular relation to space. To represent the world of a second-hand car salesmen from Akron, for example, is to represent the space that constitutes his world, or rather, to represent the objects and events comprising his portion of space. Therefore, to say that a piece of art is an exploration of space is simply a fancy way of saying that it’s a piece of art.
Not that this tautological means of describing music, painting, or sculpture is such a pet peeve for Sabisha Friedberg. Having studied sound and installation at the San Francisco Art Institute, the South African musician is no stranger to “exploring perceptual delineation of space through sound,” as the press release for her double album — The Hant Variance — ominously reveals.
Yet what sets the Paris-New York denizen apart from every pretender with a copy of the Bluffer’s Guide to Superficial Art-Speak is that, in her case, this “exploration of space” malarkey is literal. Her debut for Issue Project Room’s new label, Distributed Objects, was recorded in conjunction with professor/musician/artist Peter Edwards at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s EMPAC, and rather than pretending to depict “the spatial” as an (intangible) abstraction, it reveals how the distribution of sound in a particular space (e.g., EMPAC’s Studio 2) can affect not only our perception of that same sound, but also our perception of that same space.
Key to understanding how The Hant Variance’s two movements achieves this is by playing them not through a tinny pair of earphones, but through the kind of multi-speaker setup that can approximate the loudspeakers Friedberg “distributed in three-dimensional space throughout Studio .” Of course, all speakers and instruments are always already distributed in 3D space, but what makes “Movement 1 (Part 1)” more of an experiment with the physics of audio than, say, Aerosmith’s “Love in an Elevator” is that the sparse minimalism of its low, sub-sonic frequencies enables the listener to pinpoint and experience how exactly separate audio signals interact with each other and their surrounding environment.
And it’s precisely the bracing sparseness of the composition’s perpetual tones and Morse-code/sonar blinks that provide a forceful reminder of the physically embodied nature of sound and music. Rather than being located in some inaccessible ether or only in our heads, the sound waves produced by its oscillators and analogue synthesizers are low enough in pitch and loud enough in volume to be felt by our bodies, which are stimulated in various places and which thereby gain a physical, tactile sense of the particular points these frequencies emanate from in space.
Moreover, The Hant Variance and its movements emphasize how the arrangement of instruments and amps in space is, despite its neglect, an important element in the composition and performance of music. The intensified latter half of “Movement 1 (Part 1)” underscores this importance, exploiting an alignment and configuration of loudspeakers that makes it only more disquieting and intoxicating.
Yet the spatiality of sound isn’t the album’s only focus. Once again, it’s also interested in the sonics of space, as witnessed by “Movement 1 (Part 2).” With this piece, the individual channels of serrated droning and their flowing from particular directions allow us to generate a map of our vicinity, one that modifies and modulates the predominant map generated by our sight. Eventually, the number’s low-end rumbling, electrical interference, and industrial shudders induce the epiphany that our perception of space is not exclusively visual. Indeed, through their malingering collisions and subtle contouring, we remember that this perception is also constructed and distorted by our ears, often in ways escaping our attention.
The Hant Variance’s dive into the peculiarities of aural-spatial perception doesn’t stop there either. Much of Sabisha Friedberg’s utilization and manipulation of low-pitched, echo-locating music is informed by deceased researcher Vic Tandy, who pioneered work into the physiological effects of infrasound. In particular, Dr. Tandy was noted for connecting low-frequency sound with the kind of anxiety, desolation, and fear that can cause paranormal sightings. This is also the kind of anxiety, desolation, and fear the album incites during “Movement 2 (Part 1),” which throbs just below the threshold of imperceptibility and which disconcertingly implies a presence that’s never fully revealed. Whether it will cause you to hallucinate Slimer is another question entirely, yet its sustained resonances and hyper-decelerated heartbeat elicit the kind of unmediated and involuntary emotional response that just might alter your conception of your living room, bedroom, or car.
However, this comment on listening environments brings us to The Hant Variance’s central weakness as an album. As powerful and transformative as the work might be in an arts center or when played through a meaty, surround-sound hi-fi system, its devious effects are wasted on earphones and computer speakers. Without the brunt of sufficient equipment, and without such equipment being appropriately configured in space, the listener would fail to apprehend its insights into the physical, spatial nature of sound, as well as the ways in which this nature can transmogrify our knowledge of the world around us. This is a shame, because Friedberg’s work offers a salutary reminder of the fundamental materiality of music and of its brute ability to manipulate and control us on the most basic and immediate of levels. It’s a fascinating and overpowering composition, but on CD and in MP3 format, it runs the risk of being a representation of an exploration of space, rather than the exploration itself. So when you listen, make sure you do it justice, if only to save the album from falling foul of the little rant that began this review.