Susan Balmar SIGNUM

[Beer On The Rug; 2014]

Styles: experimental glitch, noise, musique concrete
Others: Warm Thighs, 0000-A70U-0075, LEWIS CARROL & THE ACADEMY, LAMPGOD

What do you say about a work that flees all sense? What does SIGNUM signify? The title itself plays on its own emptiness, signifying the basic unit of signification itself, nothing more, referring listeners back endlessly to their own fruitless search for the work’s meaning. The word is a monolith — the sign of sign, utterly opaque even when we glimpse its meaning. Even untitled works contain something in their title’s absence, because there we see an event: the artist’s decision that the work will remain anonymous. That anonymity has a world of meaning in its conversation with all other untitled works and with the process of titling itself. But with a title like SIGNUM, we discover the emptiness of the very word, the emptiness of our search for sense, a vicious circle mocking our search for patterns, for meaning.

Perry Trollope, a.k.a. Susan Balmar (a.k.a. Warm Thighs, 0000-A70U-0075, LEWIS CARROL & THE ACADEMY, etc.), also appears to flee our every attempt to pin him down, refusing to settle even under his own banners. We do know one small piece about his musical process: he appears to have mastered the Roland SP-404 sampler. But of course, a sampler is merely a tool that arranges and manipulates sonic material, whose sources might range from homemade synth lines (VST or analog) and recordings to other artworks or even older works, etc. — the list goes on. In short, without recourse to the material, this detail communicates nothing but technical details — and even those are in short supply. Judging from the rarity of recognizable phrases in the output, that direction of inquiry would yield nothing but dead ends. SIGNUM refuses to disclose any historical significances, whether biographical or technical, in the work itself, and any links between genres and artistic families seem tenuous at best.

So, we might ask, what does SIGNUM do? When we place it in a tape player or play its files in a media player, it reverberates any speakers connected to the amplifiers. This moves air, and the air vibrates the tympanum in our ear, which creates in the connected series of nerves a coded electrical signal that our brain (in vain) attempts to unravel. Every so often, that signal decrypts to “piano.” Other places, we follow a rhythm. We search for reasons. That’s not to suggest that we want each track of SIGNUM to mean something in a discursive, linguistic sense (the titles are no help) or even that we expect a music-theoretical explanation to stand in for an linguistic one. A logic, however simple, would suffice. But in the absence of meaningful patterns, that logic remains either densely encrypted in Trollope’s private musical language or altogether absent, the music in that case a mere outgrowth of the unfolding of Trollope’s technical program.

The sounds that appear on SIGNUM are even harder to explain. Some of them have hard edges, some are repetitive, some cover the whole frequency range, some are probably ring modulated, many appear to have been synthesized (by someone, somewhere). Some sound vaguely similar to the noises emitted by the playground equipment I used as a child. There are occasional percussion, bass, and piano sounds, reversed vocals, phasers, radio static, feedback. Sometimes sounds continue, sometimes they end quickly, sometimes they appear out of nowhere, sometimes they feel expected. Many of the sounds are beautiful, especially in their juxtaposition. Many of the sounds feel pleasurable to listen to, even when they are harsh.

Perhaps music like this only contains the meaning we lend to it, signifying only so much as our pareidolia allows. This is a common aesthetic interpretation of experimental music: a source of anxiety for critics and a charge that audiences level at them. Perhaps we should give in and “just” listen. This idea (and SIGNUM as an object lesson) may provide an important critique of how we project our desires onto the meaning-transcending event of music. But we should remain skeptical of even this notion, because SIGNUM is not merely passively senseless, but actively evasive, wearing its senselessness like a mask, its title daring listeners to chase after its meaning or alternately to give in to pure sensuality, to rest from the left-brained functions of language and discursive thought. It’s there that the secret lies: in its dual suggestion to seek endlessly in vain for meaning and to relent to unrestrained enjoyment, it transmits the significances of the search and the enjoyment of both, spinning them around in succession like a yin-yang. In the one is the seed of the other: in seeking meaning, we seek to enjoy, and in enjoying, we continually interpret. But, though they cycle, they never meet, and each ends where the other begins.

Links: Susan Balmar - Beer On The Rug