Christopher Willits Tiger Flower Circle Sun

[Ghostly International; 2010]

Rating: 3/5

Styles: electronic experimental, hippie laptop drone, glitch
Others: Fennesz, Oval, Keith Fullerton Whitman

I’ll be honest; I hadn’t really heard of Christopher Willits before July. As it turns out, he’s been releasing an impressive variety of projects for most of the last decade, so I needed to visit a few of my favorite search engines in order to gather some background knowledge. Expecting to find the usual array of fawning reviews and out-of-the-way blog posts, I was surprised also to find several YouTube videos of Willits justifying his own art, articulating everything from his achingly positive view of the universe to minute details of his use of Max and Live for intricate real-time manipulation of his guitar playing. In spite of the extent to which he exhausts his software’s capabilities in his music, Willits’ philosophies remain thoroughly organic, leaning his aesthetic toward impressionism rather than chilly intellectualism. He looks to his tools not for their sophistication, but for their potential as co-creators in his process of bringing ideas to life. He does not command his laptop, and his laptop does not command him; he maintains a sensitive relationship with his tools, placing selective constraints on the randomness and indeterminancy built into them, allowing the results of his experiments to suggest his path. He uses a gardening analogy to describe the way he develops ideas: he considers intention, patience, and love to be necessary antecedents to cultivation, and lets results grow from these motives like plants grow from seeds: in their own time, and of their own accord.

Willits gave a short lecture at a recent independently-organized TED conference (TEDxSoMa) in which he described the layers of his art, the bridges that stretch from the vague things he says about the harmony of all things to the specific sense of order he expresses in his work. He sees art as interaction and offered his TED audience three layers of interactions: the imaginative layer, the haptic layer, and the software layer.

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I - IMAGINATION

I expect that most musicians capable of creating a record like Tiger Flower Circle Sun would come across like computer nerds instead of hippies. I would expect their work to bear the severity of the 21st-century cyber-baroque instead of the childlike wonder of impressionism. I would expect the layered, asymmetric polyrhythms on songs like “Plant Body” to advertise themselves as revelations instead of joyous accidents. But musicians as creative as Willits have a way of subverting expectations. Perhaps one of the keys to understanding Willits’ approach is to compare his music to his work in the manipulation of videos and images. During his TED performance, he accompanied his audio performance with visual elements, filtering photographs of flowers through folding, dynamic filters that are similar to the ones he uses to modulate his guitar playing. Like this video work, his audio production shares an affinity for source material marked by simple, pure beauty, and his processing serves mostly to enhance a focused and deliberate subjectivity. The randomness built into the processes is meant to reinforce the organic nature of the sources rather than obscure it, but impressionism has always been obscure; that is its nature.

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II - HAPTIC

The textures on Tiger Flower Circle Sun range from the bare distortion of “Branches into Flowers” and the white noise wash in “Sunlight is You” to heavily layered pieces of sonic luxury like “New Life” and “Green Faces.” I cite these shorter tracks as examples because even at his most formally expansive, Willits’ pieces are all conceptual minatures. He isn’t a songwriter; even when his vocals are present, his guitar and its computer-generated sonic permutations occupy center stage. Even when the detailed bubbling of percussion and guitar chords feels glitchy and artificial, it is important to remember the overarching influence of the designer that guides the evolution of these patterns. Digital bass drums and high-frequency sound effects pervade “Uplifting the Streets” even as a patient, subtle guitar melody persists throughout it like a wordless refrain. This melody is insubstantial as a message; it’s only a reminder of a basic human motive: the desire to experience life, and therefore art, on the level of sense.

The word “haptic” comes from a Greek root meaning “to touch.” According to Willits, the haptic level of interaction is the layer that brings the stratosphere to the concrete world of the senses. Although a human hand guides these refrains, the refrains do not bear the intelligibility of verbal communication. The imagination speaks, but its points of contact with the world, its sense-subjected products, remain mute.

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III - SOFTWARE

Willits intends his subtle and inventive use of software to provide the most resonant expression of the love and gratitude he feels toward the world he lives in. But in spite of the subtlety and cleverness with which he manipulates his chosen tools, and in spite of the deft manner with which he avoids the twin traps of primitivism and science fiction, the stubbornly subjective, impressionistic nature of his vision fails to bring his work to the transcendence reached by contemporaries such as Tim Hecker. Willits’s XLR8R series of explanatory videos offer a wealth of information to anyone who wants to use software to enhance their natural creativity, and the benevolence and optimism of his worldview is a breath of fresh air in a world where technology tends to choke originality and the space it requires for growth; but a pure heart and optimism have never been enough to save the day in politics, and they won’t do the job in the world of art either. Impressionism cannot reorder order. I can’t avoid a mental drift during this album’s stretches of hollow counterpoint (i.e., “The Hands Connect to the Heart”), and it’s not just because my easy access to Google and Wikipedia has crippled my attention span. Willits’ music benefits from his generous explanations because, as a culmination of the relationship between imagination and the concrete tools of expression, it doesn’t quite hold up.

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Willits’ transparency about his process and his philosophies does more to distinguish his music from the modern landscape of processed guitar ambience than the music itself does. This is not so much a direct criticism of his art as it is a critical reckoning of its relationship to his rhapsodic proclamations about the grandeur and order of the universe. You cannot express the glories of nature by trying to describe them any more than you can evoke the reciprocal response of affection in a lover by repeatedly emoting the intensity of your own feeling. A bare claim, even one that employs clear demonstration, supplies its own limit. I only hold Tiger Flower Circle Sun to this standard because in its own little parcel of land in the vast garden of art, it has the audacity to assault the heavens.

Links: Christopher Willits - Ghostly International

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