Zach Cooper The Sentence

[Styles Upon Styles; 2016]

Rating: 3.5/5

Styles: dialectical lyric
Others: Taylor Deupree, James Blake, The Books

The Sentence is somewhat of a paradox, where field recordings, conversations, and images of the past have been brought into the present by virtue of their content and their medium. Through tape manipulation, chance sampling, and contributions by the Vermont Contemporary Music Ensemble, Zach Cooper creates an atmosphere that’s both nostalgic and forward-thinking, where audio documents from his past are pitted alongside offerings from current collaborators. The interlinking of ideas and styles lends itself to that paradox, which makes for an uncompromisingly elegant combination of personal influences and sky-wide aspiration.

Cooper’s use of tape in this context is exceptional. Typically, the appeal of tape as both a means of recording and a form of instrumentation is stimulating because of the aesthetic qualities associated with it: natural degradation, harsh contours, the nostalgia that comes through associations with one of the most popular formats of the late 80s and early 90s. As tape music has been explored and pushed to its artistic limits by the likes of Howlround, Valerio Tricoli, Aki Onda, and Jason Lescalleet, The Sentence stands out as an adversary to any hauntological connotations with the aforementioned performers. The inclusion of classical arrangements and even delicately set ambient sequences contrast these overtones, therefore assuming the most difficult aspects of The Sentence.

This album is well-polished and clear-cut in its presentation, to the point that the video trailer looks like a highstreet clothing ad due to its gentle marrying of sound and image. It’s an odd juxtaposition — that vivid use of tape together with such a commercial finish — that goes against the grain of those tape music affiliations. But Cooper is able to deploy these techniques in voice recordings and samples that indicate an unexpected union. There is a deliberate harmony within this fusion of seeming opposites that Cooper bisects with a feeling of care and grace. The tape segment he presents is private; he’s reliving his own musical passage and the path that led him to his present state. These interjections punctuate the journey and allow for individual sentiments to make their mark; I’m thinking of “Our,” in particular, which breaches melodic convention through a jagged rupture of strings before a brief instructional dialogue on the proceeding track.

In spite of the experimental tendencies that Cooper hints at here, The Sentence is primarily a classical album, where rhythms and melodies are spliced with structured sequencing and lo-fi textures. Cooper optimizes this to navigate the listener through their own personal experiences while permitting room to reflect and engage. That headspace is often temporal, subsisting within a myriad of ambient planes and subtle harmonies that emphasize the sensation of dwelling on specific moments in the past as opposed to contemplating alternate potential outcomes. This complements the classical fragments here; Steve Klimowski and Bonnie Thurber-Klimowski recorded their segments in a chapel, which fashion a deep and tender swell of sound that’s often absent from more contemporary approaches to tape music by virtue of its format.

By way of this approach, Cooper creates a unification of styles and compositional techniques, which generate subtle degrees of insight — not into the single journey of one individual, but to an intertwining of styles and the importance of breaking down conventional association. The combined titles of the tracklist, “This is for us to incite stillness in our hearts and minds,” couldn’t be more fitting to the feel of this incredible debut, and while that stillness is indeed subdued and contemplative, it’s the ripple formed by his method that makes for the most vital impression.

Links: Zach Cooper - Styles Upon Styles

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