“For the foreground is bleak, but the background is fractured.”
You might not call Absent Personae “ambient music,” though ambience is one of its themes and anxious fixations. DeForrest Brown Jr., media theorist and music writer (including contributions to TMT), speaks with meandering resolution, his microphone picking up the sounds of the public spaces in which he recorded and all of the moments of sibilance where his voice rattles the recording membrane. A kind of tension resides between the calm of his voice and the layers of ambience cradling it; the non-neutrality of public space, the partial and often suffocating character of its embrace, is starkly audible in the mixture of speech and noise. The ear is taken by the overheard, the potential of being overheard, and the disjunctive, mutually threatening relationship between overheard and overhearer.
Meanwhile, sound artist Kepla acts as something like a third participant, framing, mediating, and processing the encounter between Brown and the bodies surrounding him in the co-animation of capital circulation. Sometimes, if only for a few moments, his contributions make the listener wonder what’s “real,” or unprocessed, and what’s “fabricated.” Their palette of saturation and broken rhythm blends well into the places Brown navigates, like weather, chatter, or muffled music.
“This is not information to be retained.”
Speech is a ritual of authority and freedom. It animates the body in an imperfect form of mimicry, a repetition that carries still the potential for creation. The individual body, animated in speech, is just one of innumerable parts brought into amorphous totality in the manipulative throes of speech and the appraisal of its meaning. “Lost My Head,” a collaboration with Embaci, whose hum drones, delays, and becomes inaudible, offers a familiar image of the choreographic character of speech in that of the charismatic pastor in dialogue with the congregation. Embaci’s added, ambient presence evokes Kepla and Brown’s veiled look of critical appraisal, persistent through varying forms of camouflage.
The practice of sonic arts exhibited here enters manipulatively into the squirming dance of speech with structures of power, removing units of theoretical jargon from the symbolic economy of authority by letting them become inaudible or trail off, the fragments of ideas not completely or conspicuously expressed. Absent Personae is the sound of theory becoming noise, and vice versa; we feel the texture of terms of art without registering their meaning and, if we’re listening closely enough, find the satisfaction of adequate knowledge in the midst of distortion.
“We are only material for the future.”
Technology is violence; the progress of technology through our history is measured by the mass of black bodies sacrificed, condemned, and committed to it. “The black body,” Brown repeats, “is a technology.” Technology is music, too, and the ecstasy of productive efficiency is a dance. On the one hand, Brown’s monotonous, ritualesque verbalizations give a certain and sometimes familiar voice of regard for the violence of technology. Their references and word games call to mind what others have sometimes said, and more often have written, about the relationship between hegemonic ideas of value and productivity and the material circumstances of black bodies. When my iPod shuffled to a track from Absent Personae in the car the other day, I skipped the track automatically, thoughtlessly, like a machine; something about listening to it in public seems intuitively wrong. It wants to confront and confound in fixing its gaze on something, normally unseen, that we carry like a torch in the public march of capital.
If one dance ceases with Absent Personae, though, there is another, more brilliant set of steps and movements charted across its surface. It has its own radical technologism and its own futuristic rhythm — something like the rain of sharpened projectiles warped out of the opening piano hit of “Still D.R.E.” that sets the atmospheric conditions of “Suite VIII.” Even as Kepla does what he can to denature and inject violent possibility into Brown’s recordings, the public relations they document are not violent. The repeating, forgetting, and poetic wandering-off of Brown’s monologue is like an elegy for one critical moment and like a chant in preparation for the emergence of another. The body is lost, finally, in all of this. Shed, having exceeded its use.