Ben Zimmerman The Baltika Years

[Software; 2015]

Rating: 4.5/5

Styles: monochromatic computer music
Others: Oneohtrix Point Never, Jan Jalinek, Ursula Bogner

There’s something to be said for perseverance, especially when working with a medium or an instrument that’s technically unable to help realize an artist’s desires. But when an artist comes up against friction and frustration in these contexts, it can sometimes lead to the most fascinating explorations and unexpected outcomes. The Baltika Years is no exception. On this spectacularly well-curated body of work, Brooklyn-based composer and video artist Ben Zimmerman chronologically presents his experiences in composing music through three Tandy DeskMate computers over the course of a decade. Each of these 31 tracks is raw and unrelenting in its exposition of both Zimmerman’s allegiance to his instrument and the limited, yet diverse, array of styles he builds on.

Recorded between 1992 and 2002, The Baltika Years unveils an evolutionary fabric of electronic music. This isn’t just exclusive to how we listen to music or to the tools we have in order to broadcast; it also uncovers a level of promise involved in the music’s creation and the context that adjusts our appreciation of it. On these tracks, Zimmerman took refuge in the boundaries of his medium and found encouragement in the time it took to arrange each tune. He was devoted to working within the limitations of the Tandy DeskMate in order to shape the sounds he brought to the mix. Indeed, the sound palette here is rich and varied, documenting an advancement of his concepts and tastes across the length of four LP sides.

From the opening sample (a recording of Zimmerman’s mom) to stock sounds of piano, cello, and clarinet, the format of each song has an impact on the quality of the recording and the lo-fi texture of the album’s progression. The essential clicks or glitches at the end of some sequences appear in plain view, in the same way as unbalanced fades shift between left and right before submerging without warning.

According to an interview with The Wire, Zimmerman ripped all of his floppy disks in the early 2000s “for archival purposes,” which gives weight to the theory that these tracks were never really meant for public appreciation — they instead simply documented his experiments and his own curiosity as to how he might generate personal soundtracks with a rigid range of equipment. His artistic fumbling across platforms leaves no lasting impression on how exciting and memorable these songs are, but it certainly offers an interesting framework for them, highlighting the time and the effort involved in their preservation, as the hardware and software became obsolete. Their composition, therefore, resounds deeply within the artist’s relationship with his technology.

That relationship is key to understanding why some of these tracks take on their current form. The album is ordered chronologically to help portray the fruition of experimental work and the connection between artist and instrument as Zimmerman began tinkering with new methods and arrangements. Not only do those 10 years mark the amount of time spent putting these songs together, but they also detail the progress of a now-defunct piece of machinery within the context of software development and primitive bedroom composition. Even when the machine and the systems for recording remained at their most simplistic, Zimmerman used his technological restrictions to experiment with aesthetics that are difficult to digest, but that also blossom with intriguing notions about sampling.

The lengthy album opener “Phyllis” blurs its vocal samples into a granular dirge of synth keys, which flows from being haunted and awkward to sweeping and majestic, all in the span of a few seconds. Despite its age and the way it fits into Zimmerman’s back catalog, the track provides an outline for his skill at creating spellbinding sequences with simple tones and effects. The track isn’t continuous, but each of these key-induced sequences is given space to grow. In the third movement, a more refined piano piece pokes out of the monotonal drift. Cluttered and complicated toy piano sections emerge shortly afterward, which are a joy to listen to themselves. And when you take the intricate nature of their construction into account, it’s quite amazing to think about how they were programs, once again reinforcing Zimmerman’s commitment. At the same time, however, there are moments that aesthetically resemble Atari ST platform games, which acts as both a nostalgia trigger and a general reminder that creating electronic music wasn’t always as accessible as it is today.

At 21 minutes, “Phyllis” acts somewhat as a litmus test that could prevent listeners from reaching the more detailed and aesthetically diverse recordings that follow. While “Phyllis” underlines his commitment and the limitations that no other track can by virtue of its length, these later tracks emphasize the development of the sound, and indeed the software, while also refining Zimmerman’s ideas. The five-part “For Mimi” series was fashioned using samples from guitar and keyboard, and although it still incorporates a monochromatic aesthetic, the strings and percussive elements make for a distinctive break (see “For Mimi pt.5”) that complement the investigating loops and repetition (“For Mimi pt. 3”). (Perhaps it’s coincidental that the latter jam resembles “Problem Areas” or the tail end of “Americans,” but in addition to distributing The Baltika Years, Daniel Lopatin assisted with the curation of the album, and his influence is to be found all over its exceptional breadth.)

“Housed!” is the clearest, most distinguished moment on the album, where configuration and ambition align to produce one of the most incredible pieces here. Although it comes before the drum & bass-influenced “Pausebreak” series at the end of the album, the track sounds like a contemporary rendition that wouldn’t seem out of place on an Actress release. But even in that third segment, tracks such as “99th Street” pay homage to the monotonal chapters of “Phyllis,” while an apparent drone influence is also allowed to bleed into the mix. Throughout the final “Pausebreak” portion, Zimmerman is able to retain these initial compositional ideas while making instrumental changes based on the progression of his software.

In spite of the personal connection Zimmerman presents within the album, The Baltika Years is not just an exhibition of past recordings. Lopatin refers to the album as a diary. FACT calls it a music journal. But there seems to be something even deeper than a man articulating his infatuations. Each section depicts the evolution of a means for composition — it’s unique in the sense that there are no other albums composed entirely on this software, but it’s also a testament to the toil involved, a man wrestling with his ideas in an arena bound by his own personal restrictions. The preservation of these tracks is heartening in itself, but the melodies and structures that Zimmerman forges here make for a mesmerizing musical experience, regardless of the format they’ve assumed.

Links: Ben Zimmerman - Software

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