The haiku is, paradoxically, a poem about silence. Its very core is silence. There is probably no shorter poetic form in world literature than the classical haiku with its seventeen syllables, and yet the masters put these seventeen syllables down with a gesture of apology, which makes it clear that words merely serve the silence.
All that matters is the silence. The haiku is a scaffold of words; what is being constructed is a poem of silence; and when it is ready, the poet gives a little kick, as it were, to the scaffold. It tumbles, and silence alone stands.
~ David Steindl-Rast
I have listened and listened to three releases on the Infrequency Editions imprint these past several months, three works by the life-long painter and decade-long sound artist Lance Austin Olsen, and a musician with considerable experience in the exploration of how environments and humans interact, Jamie Drouin.
Many of the sounds in their collaborative work, considered as discrete elements, are familiar to my ears, and certain referents come to mind upon repeated listens – the multivalented, jigsaw assemblage of Absence & Forgiveness is somewhat reminiscent of the Annette Krebs/Taku Unami’s duo release, motubachii; the sustained interest in extreme pitches, heard on Savonarola and 1498, particularly those on the frequency scale that get my dog’s alert attention, invoke the Stasis Duo, as well as the invariable touchstone for this area, Sachiko M and Nakamura.
They are, however, set apart in the field not by a sui generis sound palette, but by their approach as a duo who clearly work with a heightened, joint intuition for the placement of sound and silence, and the subtlety with which the scaffolding for the ephemera created by their poor man’s arsenal of sound-generators – a suitcase analog, some scarred amplified copper plates and a toy guitar – is created, then kicked away. Drouin and Olsen no sooner have their sounds meticulously stacked, layered or threaded together, and they send them tumbling, sometimes precipitously. Every sound that is jettisoned impinges on us with the sound of its subsequent, frequently sudden, absence.
Given the length of the three releases considered here, 51, 42 and 31 minutes respectively, it is crucial, if the duo are to sustain interest in this approach, that they maintain a balance between subtle, intricate construction, sound canvases built up largely with minute sonic strokes and textures [though they can snap you to with an occasional tossed bomb of noisy grit and scree] , and the recurring collapse and disintegration of their definite and indefinite pitches.
They do so, over and over; non-linear, seldom assuaging us by allowing the ear to get comfortable within a certain area or development, yet supremely unhurried, Drouin and Olsen make music like they have spent no small amount of time reflecting on and linking their sound work to their visual work. Music, of course, makes it possible for the duo to return our attention,
again and again, to the silence at the core of their eventful, often near-silent, sound world.
1498 approximates an electrical storm – about two weeks ago, my part of the world experienced just such a hella storm, during which I happened to be listening to 1498‘s skitter, clatter and roar. This made for a near-perfect milieu of sound and weather. Olsen’s amplified copper plates, recycled from his dry point engraving works, hold a world of unstable ambient sounds, and Olsen unlocks them all.
Savonarola is the release that has the sort of guitar string scrapes and smushed Brillo-pad effects Keith Rowe developed with his restless tool accretion years ago – I mention these as they are really among the very few familiar sounds along the way, where Olsen’s toy guitar is concerned. Drouin generates great clouds of black, smokey low-end rumble and distressingly high tones that fake and feint toward a Shepard scale, making their abrupt disappearance the more startling.
There are more than a few passages of solemnity and, insuring the duo never settle into the dronesphere, alarm, tension and apprehension. This is another distinct quality of this duo, one difficult to attain, I think, in such abstract music – a sometimes powerful sense of reportage or narrative about the current state of the world. Only on Absence & Forgiveness do Drouin and Olsen allow into their materials an explicit hint of that anxious world, what is on the end of every fork – nearing the end of the piece, radio captures of a woman being interviewed about a murder and the absence of justice, her voice gradually clarified in the white hiss and other racket it is embedded in. The emergence of this report is unnerving and moving, and the fragments of words like forgiveness and justice hang for a moment in the air, before collapsing into a loud hum of bass, then silence.
I am, as often as not, drawn especially to the work of musicians in duo; the pairing of Jamie Drouin and Lance Austin Olsen bears the sort of fruit that makes the duo form so compelling – no place to hide or obfuscate, the great potential for a unilaterally-generated disaster, but equally the potential for what buddhists call the one taste – that is the state in which the boundaries between dissolve, and, as in Drouin and Olsen’s music, what is revealed is one mind. Or as Steindl-Rast has it, the form is scrapped, and we return to silence.
Pictured: Lance Austin Olsen and one of his dry point engravings
David Steindl-Rast is a brilliant Benedictine monk, holding degrees from the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts and a PhD in Experimental Psychology; he has, as well, been a post-Doctoral Fellow at Cornell and has received years of zen training from Eido Roshi and others zen masters.
what is on the end of every fork, from William Burroughs, Naked Lunch, 1959
Do yourself a favor and go to the Con-v net label site to download Drouin and Olsen’s recent collaboration with the ridiculously over-looked musician and visual artist Mathieu Ruhlmann.