Emptyset Signal

[Subtext; 2015]

Styles: geophonics, atmosphonics, ionophonics, astrophonics
Others: Sabisha Friedberg, Alex Cobb, Olivia Block, Dialect

The following is meant in the best possible sense: Signal is an album that has no audience. For sure, it will have listeners, unwitting individuals who press “play” in good faith and who sincerely expect some appreciable form of edification, yet these quixotic souls will be completely unprepared for the abstractly encoded information that Emptyset have prepared for them. Recorded live in February at this year’s CTM Festival in Berlin, the Bristol duo’s latest offering is the upshot of transmitting radio waves from Berlin to Nauen to Issoudun (France) and then back to Berlin, and even though we can all nominally appreciate that these waves and the audio they constituted were altered en route in various ways by physical fluctuations in the ionosphere and solar radiation, it’s nigh-on impossible to decipher what exactly the resulting atmospheric shudderings mean on a specifically human level. Yet rather than divorce the album from all resonance or gravity, it’s precisely this illegibility that makes the pair’s ionic oscillations and solar drones so affecting.

That they are affecting comes entirely from the fact that they’re entirely unaffecting. For instance, “Signal 1” comprises little more than recurrent pulses and swooshes that phase almost cyclically from one pitch to the next. On their own, they’re ethereal and meditative, like with pretty much every ambient piece of music; yet the knowledge that their fractional variations in duration, tone, and frequency derive largely from changes in the Earth’s ionosphere endows them with an enigmatic aura. The listener knows that they were sculpted by atmospheric noise and solar activity, but she doesn’t know, for example, whether such noise or activity was at a high or a low level. Consequently, she can’t determine what exactly the gusts of static she’s listening to represent, and correspondingly she can’t glimmer their full significance. Perhaps their rising peaks and descending troughs foretell a dying Sun or describe a geomagnetic storm, yet without possessing any corresponding atmospheric data and the requisite education, she can’t possibly begin to create a language around the composition and therefore can’t translate its wavering hums and foggy textures.

Hence, listening to Signal becomes something akin to an exercise in sublime humility. To hear “Signal II” and its rustling drifts of electromagnetism is to be reminded of the unbridgeable gulf that often separates human comprehension from the inhuman universe. Its rarefied spikes of feedback, intermittent breaths of electricity, and slo-mo crashes of echo all communicate something greater than ourselves, and it’s this greatness that exceeds our all-too limited faculties. They uncomfortably remind us that we can theoretically recognize the something “out there” that’s happening beyond the familiar circle of our everyday lives, but that we can’t vividly perceive and intuitively conceptualize such happenings, that we can’t assimilate them to this circle and thereby render them tractable to its needs. Moreover, that this “something” being schematically communicated by Emptyset’s astronomical hisses is as foundational and determinant of our existences as the Earth, the Solar System, and the Universe only makes our inability to read these same disturbances all the more disquieting. In the end, they underline our lack of power over the world we inhabit, transforming a work ostensibly about ultraviolet radiation into one about our limitations and frailties.

In other words, the vacillations and veerings of Signal become less indicative of the state of the cosmos and more of the listener’s imperfections and ignorance. When she hears the geological peaks of “Signal I” and the cavernous arcs of “Signal II,” she hears not the ionosphere and the Sun’s nuclear play upon it, but her own simplicity reflected back at her in the place where this sphere and this Sun should have been. Of course, geophysicists have been measuring the interactions of the two since at least the 1970s, and so in theory the album’s mysterious frequencies and sonic clouds are potentially knowable, at least insofar as they admit of quantification and measurement. Yet as far as the naked listener is concerned, they are completely meaningless, which is another way of saying that, for her, the universe is meaningless.

It’s also another way of saying that Signal is completely meaningless, although once again this is meant in the best possible sense. It may be short at a lean 17 minutes, and it may be nearly inscrutable, but its thermal radiations and electronic swells have a compelling power that derives largely from this same inscrutability. They recall us to our incapacity to conceptualize the most fundamental strata of reality in anything but the most abstract of terms, and in so doing, they cause us to remember that, when we try to speak about the vastness of the Earth and all that surrounds it, we say at least as much about the smallness of our selves.

Links: Emptyset - Subtext

Most Read