In David Foster Wallace’s essay “E Unibus Pluram,” he recalls a “certain gray eminence” in a graduate seminar that insisted that literary stories should do away with anything that dates them, because fiction should be timeless. He argues that characters in fiction who speak postwar English, live in North America after continental drift, and drive cars all do so within a specific, recognizable time period, therefore making this goal futile while fostering a scholarly environment that values abstraction disproportionally over those details that move consumers.
Supersilent knows that eschewing temporal and cultural specificity in art is both an impossible and irresponsible task. Even for a group that is most noticeable for its minimal, unifying, unwavering visual aesthetic, what has moved listeners through each numbered release has always been Supersilent’s careful examination of diverse sound artifacts and how such things interact with their environments. Remaining committed to collective improvisation without preparation, Supersilent has excelled throughout its career at challenging essentialist notions of composition, process, and performance while leaving entry points in tact. 13 is no exception.
Opener “13.1” is a key example of Supersilent’s collective scaling of space, prompting a specific kind of extemporaneous reaction — in this case, Indonesian ritual music. Its gradual buildup from patient dialectic into collective profession demonstrates Supersilent’s hyperawareness of different kinds of dimensions (space, proximity, time, etc.), which dictate what certain actions look like or sound like as they happen, while the track’s specificity in scope exhibits a strong grasp of concept (how different musics move audiences). This delicate balance between careful experimentation and ad hoc composition is not a new development for this group; Supersilent has always viewed improvisation as a compositional tool, the group performance a means by which potential creative energy becomes kinetic and then stored again on record. It’s a process that demystifies improvisational music’s essentialist claims of abstraction, yet allows for unpremeditated musings on different environments, filtered through different modes of expression.
Many, if not all of 13’s movements play off of its audience’s preconceived notions of time and space as typically conceived of in popular music. “13.3” is a noisy glitch track that showcases Supersilent’s maintenance of control amidst chaos; while overall this track remains relatively unchartable, its parts remain distinct and its cathartic potential dependent on how its voices interact with one another in unexpected ways and at unexpected moments. Similarly, “13.4” and “13.5” both prominently feature phrases of unpatterned sounds, whereas “13.6” highlights a flute solo that, despite its elasticity, is relatively tangible. How these distinct movements flow into each other is dictated by Supersilent’s process of extemporary composition; what makes the group so consistently interesting is how this procedure of mapping out space and responding is conceptualized, put into effect, and carried out in real time. Because there are elements of both free improvisation and classical composition in effect here, both modes can be evaluated as they together form a tangible sound object.
On its (solid grayish blue) surface, there isn’t much that’s different about 13 from previous Supersilent records, but what does stand out is how its sounds are disseminated: this entire performance is projected through a PA system, placing even further importance on space than most Supersilent performances. On closer “13.9,” feedback and reverb are featured prominently, illustrating how these sounds are reacting within such a spacial setup. Additionally, taking aesthetic cues from various folk musics as well as space rock and kosmische suggests that Supersilent have either intentionally focused this release on dimensionality or their career-long meditation on space has reached a head on 13.
Ultimately, 13 is a lens buffer for viewing Supersilent’s previous interrogations of how conditioned humans process sound and space, yet it needn’t in itself be a normative work. Because Supersilent’s insistence on improvisation as composition is so strong, it can illuminate qualities of music that are neither improvisational nor compositional, traditional nor transgressive. Although David Foster Wallace’s story condemns an exclusionary kind of thinking, it also allows for many different expressions of space, time, memory, and feeling. Supersilent’s success in electroacoustic music is perhaps a reflection of how delicately they have balanced each movement, but it’s that same success that hopefully will continue illuminating other work that mocks compositional normativity; may it also guide these players through each additional digit in their catalogue.