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Acid Seven: Music Against the Shipwreck of the Singular

Obsessed, bewildered By the shipwreck Of the singular We have chosen the meaning Of being numerous. George Oppen, 1968 4 17 19 We all step inside when the rain comes. It is a backdrop now, a frantic pulse. Tim J Harte, modestly credited with ‘Thoughts & Feelings’ on the program, takes the stage. He introduces Seth Davis as a longtime friend and collaborator …

I am given the first indication as to how this show came together: previously untapped affinal relationships. The two share an affinity for making use of the computer as their main instrument. All the more natural, then, that the outgrowth from their friendship has taken the form of informal networks; the spirit of collaboration has been a feature of Harte’s Mother Russia Industries label since its inception. But it’s also decidedly non-traditional: “no genre music for no genre fans” … which, as one can imagine, is not a particularly large target audience. The spirit, though, recalls the now-defunct Demonstration Bootleg, which John Maus called his sort of utopia, where “the whole world is just that, us playing our tapes for each other, whatever those are.” As of late, it is populated with the in the Thomas Kinkade Style series, a gaggle of glimpses at the enigmatic (almost machinic!) musical production leading up to the performance in question. These take the form of improvised quartets and duos, and seem to reach a head in the culminating Thomas Kinkade Duos, a massive record made up of “9 sets of 9 90 second songs” -- Harte’s name again in the credits: “Thoughts & Feelings.”

… Davis approaches his station alongside Ben Tervort on the upright bass. Together they are Altered Space, a minimalist synthesis of raw timbres -- ringing phased electronics and deep bass resonance punctuated by nervous microtones. Here are two artists testing the absolute limits of their instruments, ceding from drone in one moment to traditional melodies in the next -- from atonality to something that recalls the most harmonious moments of Ambient 2. The two are keyed in: Tervort knowing when to punctuate a sputtering synth, Davis feeling his moment to interject. Tervort delineates clear lines through movements and moods by switching his playing techniques; a low frequency drone quickly shifts to a fingered staccato melody. Meanwhile, Davis’s synthetic orchestral backing slowly morphs. Even in the most tonal moments, electric stabs line the edges of the atmosphere. Delicate vertical movement ends the piece in a quiet, fading discordance. The sputtering sound of rain, there all along, reminds us of its presence in this silence.

For his part, Davis has been involved -- within and without the Mother Russia nexus -- in a number of exciting experimental projects. A staple of enticingly weird art in Kansas City, he’s involved with the groups Second Nature, Betamax, Re-Animator, and (pro)ject C4; and has released music under the various pseudonyms The Gods Hate Kansas, Mr. Sandman, BL@KWAVE, and most recently Ghost In The Machine. With Davis, and certainly with all of these artists, there seems to be a constant and insatiable urge to reformulate, renegotiate, and reterritorialize their work in new ways -- with new people and new ideas. This urge, this explosive tendency, has been active in Kansas City for a long time -- to this point mostly forming subterranean conjunctions, unlikely creative connections, within the DIY music scene. The emanations arising from these connections have been brilliant: I’m thinking specifically of the incredibly dynamic lineups offered by Awful Fest, but also the smaller moments of genre cross-pollination anywhere a divergent noise act appears alongside a more traditional band.

It would be shortsighted to say that this performance was the absolute culmination of such creative connections; it is not the beginning, nor will it be the end. On the contrary, I believe that it represents a further intensification of the undercurrents that have fueled the Kansas City music scene as a whole. Composers, punks, conservatory musicians, noise artists, jazz players, and visual artists together in service of something greater than themselves -- each in the process becoming numerous, more than just what they are. I get a strong sense of this in Harte’s show program; he explains, for instance, that it was necessary to create a new language for notating his scores. “A score notated on a staff with notes, rests, and obscure language,” he writes, “means nothing to a harpist without a conservatory education.” There arises from this a shared language, or a means by which each musician can share in an unfamiliar form of expression using the skills familiar to them.

The rain lets up long enough for a cigarette, promptly returning with a roar of thunder. 

“What can be said about Thomas Kinkade?” Harte asks, going on to a brief overview of the ‘painter of light.’ Days before during a Record Store Day set, he lectured with the same conviction about Kinkade as contrasted with Andy Warhol, positing that the former was triumphant in the mission of inventing a veritable ‘art factory;’ tonight the same confidence carries through -- the only tension arising from the inability to say everything. He’s clearly spent an extensive amount of time in consideration of how to piece together a narrative on Kinkade, eventually admitting, “I’ve been really into talking to the audience lately.” From here, the performance begins: “songs as a way to let go of saying anything at all.”

(Note: here is some documentation by Cameron Jones, who captured a good portion of the show; here is a separate one, with all of ‘Temperate Forest’)

I. It begins with ‘Temperate Forest,’ at turns somber and intricate, but at nearly every point underpinned by a diffuse, unrestful noise -- be it acoustic or electronic. These are atmospheric additions which lend the compositions a certain concerted quality of taking place within a scene, always under cover of gently rustling leaves. Conversely, with the disappearance of this sonic atmosphere, some of the most tender moments come into sharp focus. The fourth movement, EMERGENT LAYER, is emblematic of this: Addee Dancy’s violoncello work alongside Zach Latas’ drone generates an impossible-sounding duality between a subterranean bass register and its slowly descending harmonic minor counterpart. Here, it is as though two machines are whirring separately. Later, standout CONIFEROUS presents a variation on simplicity wherein the source of the harmonies are almost impossible to pin down. Here it is clear how much the musicians are playing off of their respective energies: Dancy and Christina Silvius seem to be, more than any other pair, together in service of the same vision. Immediately after, we are carried into the remarkably cold and discordant UNDERSTORY. After the first (and only) Tutti piece, Harte begins his solo SHADE TOLERANT. In a moment of perfect serendipity, in the distance a train horn rings out the tonal note. The climax of this movement is realized with the arrival of Mazzy Mann’s vocal work; complementing Robert Castillo’s descending bassline, her exacting and precise intonation soars among a peppering of cricket sounds. Lina Zee’s acute flute work juts through this wall of sound while Mann mimics instrumental shrieks, drawing attention to a strange coherence within seeming chaos. David James Witter’s percussion figures prominently, but follows atmosphere rather than dictating.

II. ... A return via loud machine noise is offset by Trevor Turla’s effortlessly textured trombone. That this section is called ‘Warm Aquatic’ takes on a certain irony, as on the whole it is louder and harsher. The three-movement run of SHORE LINE / INTERTIDAL / CLOUD STRUCTURE is an unforgettable highlight, all tied together by Silvius’ stuttering viola. The last of these three culminates in Mann’s calculated vocal stabs in triplets, calling to mind Julia Holter’s recent Chiatius. After more subdued acoustic offerings, SILT is a return to loud distorted noise. Dancy plays what sounds like misremembered American folk amid the gradually increasing fervor of Harte’s electric thunderstorm. The final movement, CHEMOSYNTHETIC, is a plucked and percussive staccato-heavy solo from Dancy, ending abruptly in a low end squelch. It is here that Emily Milner’s visuals shine through with pronounced texture.

III. Like much of the work thus far, it is clear here that the return relies heavily on incidental "missed" notes in acoustic instruments. ICE WALL is almost like a painting of those, with Shawn Hansen’s droning synth whose presence is not apparent until it is no longer there. This section, as ‘Cold Desert’ suggests, is replete with solos. TUNDRA and BRYOPHYTE feature Sean Prudden’s cacophonous upper harmonic guitar work and a delicate, trilling trumpet performance from Quin Wallace. MOSS-BED is Mann’s solo -- vocal oscillation punctuated by staccato consonants and breath, to “SH! STOP!” in the first and only mid-performance audience address. RHYOLYTE is a long-awaited synth solo which descends into chaos without resolving, led straight into SUNDOG, a Harte/Wallace duo. Here, as Wallace plays in phrygian, Tim is tapping methodically away, always most enthusiastic when least heard, or most atmospheric. A string trio piece called DIAMOND DUST follows, with Castillo, Dancy, and Silvius following each other’s lead in a minor key. The penultimate piece, STILL, is percussive and controlled chaos, with the duodectet almost in toto taking on the role of percussion, and Witter rolling through his drum set at random. ICE SHELF is a fitting ending, with Zee tenderly concluding by herself on a pentatonic scale. (Full Killus set here, courtesy of Emily Milner.)

Killus’ Darcy Higgins waits at the edge of the duodectet and blows apart the delicate scene directly following its end. Higgins’ carefully textured chaos is articulated in uncanny detail by the soundsystem; where in many cases a PA is not particularly equipped to deal with noise music, this is one of the clearest Killus performances to date. The signature gritty, aggressive edge of each electric pulse is not lost in this hi-fi treatment; instead, we are offered a set that is just as harsh, just as danceable, and twice as textured. When you’re maxing out any equipment you could possibly perform on, it’s remarkably difficult to achieve this sort of tactile detail. It is as though the beat and its shadow are together as one, and in their simultaneity they blend into a new entity. Changes are abrupt, but signaled by the strobe lights. For a moment I forget that it’s raining outside, that there is an outside at all. My attention is demanded elsewhere.
Nearly a month out, it's still hard for me to say conclusively what this was, but I think that's as sure a way as any to tell us it was important.

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Return to Shuttlecock on the seventh day of each month for a transmission from Patrick’s ongoing journey into the experimental and genreless music of Kansas City. Follow him on Twitter.

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