Sculpture’s first album, Rotary Signal Emitter, appeared on Dekorder in 2010, followed by Toad Blinker a year later on the same label. Both albums were pressed onto picture discs intended for use as present-day varieties of the phenakistoscope, a 19th-century animation device that operates according to the theory of the persistence of vision.
In order to achieve the phenakistoscope effect, the viewer-listener is instructed to video the moving discs under bright light, “shoot[ing] progressively at a higher shutter speed with a frame rate of 25fps.” The progressive shot mimics the behavior of film, building a complete (uninterrupted) picture with each exposure. The frame rate corresponds to the notion that afterimages persist on the retina for one-twenty fifth of a second, a crucial component of persistence of vision theory. The high shutter speed is necessary for cleaner transitions between frames, untangling a knot of polychromatic contours into a turbulent proliferation of non-sequitur cartoons that sync uncannily with the audio’s polyrhythmic mess.
This is impressive enough in the safety of one’s underground lair, but it’s spectacular live: animator Reuben Sutherland turns visual turntablist as he raids his custom library of pictorial dubplates, while producer Dan Hayhurst wrestles with an array of devices that he plays “like a modular instrument” (per the Ableton blog). In a contrapuntal feedback loop of sensory excess, Sutherland’s warped Lowbrow visuals call forth Hayhurst’s splatterphonic wonk, which in turn determines the rate of Sutherland’s psychedelic churn.
Insofar as this all raises the possibility of the Gesamtkunstwerk, the Wagnerian axiom that “As Man stands to Nature, so stands Art to Man” has been reiterated, in a stramash of bleeps and blinks, to more accurately describe the aesthetic intensity of the City’s audio-visual onslaught. By this token, one can easily imagine that Sculpture’s spiritual home is the subway, that “zone of transience” that, in the words of Brandon LaBelle, “teases out the fleeting, mesmerizing condition of the urban by adding an intensity of sensorial input.”
Sculpture’s performance magick relies on a simultaneity implicit in listening. Even in the absence of visuals, an attentiveness to temporality opens up a voyeuristic horizon in which “the ear isolates a detail of its auditory field and follows this point or line in time” (Chion). Hence, the Marquis de Sade’s assertion that “it is common knowledge among true libertines that the sensations channelled by the organs of hearing are the most exciting, their impressions the most vivid”1. In other words, it’s tempting to think of Sutherland’s visuals as equivalent to lyrics. Despite their sonic context, these images remain stubbornly amenable to a separate, non-musical analysis. In which case Membrane Pop, like its predecessor Slime Code, can be understood as an album of dubs and instrumentals, by definition incomplete, awaiting the picture disc re-release that would restore a sense of wholeness.
On the other hand, digital consumers and headphone commuters are entitled to wonder what, precisely, has been lost: Hayhurst’s scrambled aggregates of tone clusters and mangled kick drums retain the same demented vigor that so empowers Sutherland’s off-kilter visual vocabulary. There are no soluble toads, no dissolving skulls that could possibly make the pause button calisthenics of album opener “Materialising” any weirder. There is something already-fractal, something already-collage about tracks like “Lingual Junk” and “Multi-Faith Capsule,” their spasmodic rhythms crawling into, around, and across one another — high-speed promenades of toot and blare, all timbral gyration and granular rummage, acicular swarms of sound writhing like Claymation puke spume.
The history of graphical sound — a history that would take in Oram’s sonic alphabet, McLaren’s synchromy, Eggeling’s Diagonal-Symphonie, the Nourathar of Hallock-Greenewelt, Fischinger’s uncredited Fantasia sequence, Sholpo’s variophone, Baranov-Rossiné’s optophonic piano — is also the history of the struggle to move beyond the false simultaneity of coincidence and toward a truer simultaneity of correspondence. But what if this false simultaneity is definitive? Music has no obligation to represent anything, and its representations, such as they are, require a certain degree of cognitive effort in order to become explicable.
Borges reports how, for the Southern peoples of the planet Tlön, “the world is not an amalgam of objects in space; it is a heterogeneous series of independent acts.” The languages of Southern Tlön are entirely without nouns — they consist only of impersonal verb stems, affixed and modified by adverbs. “Membrane pop” would here be rendered Enmembraned bursting, or even, Popping, it membraned.
The Northerners of Tlön are more obscure: the primary unit of their language is the adjective, and in that, perhaps, they approximate an ethnicity of music writers. Nouns are made up of strings of adjectives, and any correspondence to a real object is a matter of luck: “the literature of the northern hemisphere is filled with ideal objects, called forth and dissolved in an instant, as the poetry requires.” “Membrane pop” becomes Loud-categorical or Attractive-breathless on uneven-conceivable. In Northern Tlön, language plays the same role as music on Earth: the simultaneity of the Event is represented in terms of its affects and moods, and objects — real or imagined — rise, buckle, and fall under the weight of lived experience.
Back on terra firma, our own languages can turn “membrane pop” into a metaphor for an explosive event that would disrupt vibration beyond recognition. Or else suggest a particular membrane popping. Or else summon the image of a failure of boundaries. All three readings can be put to some use in order to understand Membrane Pop. Perhaps most tellingly of all, however, the mere implication of Sutherland’s unreal kinetics within Hayhurst’s deviant electronics hyphenates an enterprise at the threshold, a Funk of limits, a grooved edge on a damaged coin.
1. “Il est reçu, parmi les véritables libertins, que les sensations communiquées par l’organe de l’ouïe sont celles qui flattent davantage et dont les impressions sont les plus vives.”