side with the devil

gil sanson

However much I have frequented the mystics, deep down I have always sided with the Devil; unable to equal him in power, I have tried to be worthy of him, at least, in insolence, acrimony, arbitrariness, and caprice.
E.M. Cioran


The only successful philosophies and religions are the ones that flatter us, whether in the name of progress or of hell. Damned or not, man experiences an absolute need to be at the heart of everything
E.M. Cioran

I am increasingly aware of the increasing creep of what I might call something wicked  into some very strong music coming my way – and like the dark carnival in Bradbury’s fantasy novel and Disney film of my youth, a wickedness intended for meditation, not merely for catharsis. In the two works considered here, with their considerable titles – Gil Sanson’s Ese Maldito Yo/El Ocaso Del Pensamiento, and Robert Curgenven’s They tore the earth and, like a scar, it swallowed them –  we are invited to meditate on the horror-show of living history, specifically the violence and terror endemic to state power and colonialism. A meditation conducted, in both instances, via electronics and field recordings, music abstract enough, if you choose not to read the available texts about the specific events that catalyzed their creation, to be heard as a sort of heightened, archetypal doom.

For Sanson, who has engaged in a deeply personal and immediate way with the chaos in the streets of Caracas in 2014, the titles from that bleak sage Cioran affixed to his two pieces  – That damned I, and The Twilight of Thought –  overlap well with the bleed-through of black metal riffage and the howl of outrage against the insolence and caprice that murdered many on both sides of the state of siege gripping his home. Curgenven, whose ambitious piece comprises 12 years of location recordings gathered from countless remote areas of his native Australia, integrated with his beautiful string, dubplate and pipe organ music into an unsettling cinematic experience of Empire’s shock and awe, offers a meditation on avarice that will leave you winded and shook. Sanson and Curgenven sound out the dark stain of plunder and the preservation of plunder with widely divergent materials, but with comparably disquieting results.

This is music whose force and febrility insists we gaze perturbed at whatever is conjured; the risk is that the listener is left enervated, even more bummed out than before the encounter. The other possibility is suggested in this passage from Ligotti’s The MedusaThe sinister, the terrible never deceive: the state in which they leave us is always one of enlightenment. And only this condition of vicious insight allows us a full grasp of the world, all things considered, just as a frigid melancholy grants us full possession of ourselves. We may hide from horror only in the heart of horror. Bruno Bettelheim’s treatise on fairy tales, The Uses of Enchantment, sucked every trace of Disney from the Brothers Grimm, insisting that even very young children, allowed to process tales of death, abandonment and society’s dark forces, might be aided in grappling further on with the worlds Cioran, Ligotti, Sanson and Curgenven limn darkly, if beautifully.


Let that last be stressed – there is a terrible beauty in these works, even transient moments of sweet relief and serenity. Both Sanson and Curgenven offer passages that ventilate their claustrophobic worlds, dark ribbons to be sure, but beautiful. As dire as the picture on offer may be, it is offered by composers who, to my ears, remain uncynical, undeceived, as Ligotti has it; we aren’t bludgeoned or crushed by this music.  We are invited into the heart of horror because it is ineluctably in the heart of our world – this is what it sounds like when you side with the devil.

Gil Sanson
Ese Maldito Yo/El Ocaso Del Pensamiento
Lengua De Lava | 2014


Robert Curgenven
They tore the earth and, like a scar, it swallowed them
Recorded Fields Editions  | 2014

Photos: the streets of Caracas, Gil Sanson’s hometown, Spring 2014 // Australian colonialists inspect abducted Aboriginal children at the birth of that nation

Illustration by Harry O. Morris, in Ligotti’s The Agonizing Resurrection of Victor Frankenstein

E.M. Cioran, Anathemas and Admirations

Thomas Ligotti, The Medusa

go to the center

mandala 2

Go to the center of the sound, get it in the center, then spin out…stripping away the filigree, go to the center.
Bill Dixon

…that fragile, fluctuating center which forms never reach.
Antonin Artaud

Andrew Lafkas composed 1+1= year zero (water/moon) with eight fellow musicians in mind, players he has come to know as collaborators and friends since moving from Minneapolis to Brooklyn in 2004. Like Bill Dixon, whom Lafkas credits as one of his principal mentors in matters of composition and what Lafkas calls group intuition (collective improvisation), these specific relationships with fellow musicians are crucial to imagining and realizing a sound work. Lafkas’ intensive study with Dixon can be heard in his approach to the structure and organization of his pieces, as well as in the more intangible matter of going to the center of a work, sounding out, to reference another Dixon term for the quality of improvisation, its delicate secrecy. As many times as I have listened to this fine release (and its 2012 predecessor, Making Words, for 11 musicians, five of whom appear on 1+1), that quality, even as it reveals itself in sound, remains largely ineffable.

1+1 is devoid of filigree, beautifully distilled, rooted firmly in the loamy still-point of Lafkas’s arco drone; while rising occasionally to crescendi, for nearly an hour the ensemble sustains its proximity to the center, their melded sounds and silences an environment in which a sliver of a rising guitar figure, a closely heard raspy catgut string, or the piano clusters crashing at the piece’s midpoint, feel forcefully, improbably dramatic.

Dixon’s notion of going to the center, as I think of it, and specifically as I listen to Lafkas, evokes the idea of the mandala; referred to in contemporary terms as sacred geometry, whether applied to Platonic arithmetic or the meticulously fine construction of the sand mandala, there is a sense of a space in which myriad details and micro-events coalesce around the center, the heart of a thing. Interesting that the label Lafkas helms with partners Bryan Eubanks and Cat Lamb is called Sacred Realism; Lafkas told an interviewer in 2013, previewing 1+1‘s performance at Brooklyn’s Roulette theater, Over the last few years, when asked what type of music I play, I have found myself more frequently responding with “sacred realism”. This leads to all sorts of issues – and even problems – of its own, but I have found that it also leads to much more interesting and engaging conversations. A mandala is a precise modeling of an ineffable reality, with a very basic utility – to support the meditator’s practice. When playing and listening, Lafkas told the interviewer, I find my mind and body slowing down. I have started to recognize this as a place of music, a place to be attentive in. In fact, and I trust inadvertently, there is a section beginning at about the 50 minute mark of 1+1 bearing some affinity to the ritual horn and percussion music heard in Tibetan ritual music.

Lafkas’ group intuitions are realized by superb musicians whose collective sound is more about presence than most ensembles of comparable heft and musicianship. With each new listen you can hear the vibrancy of their individual colorations, the precise pitch of their rising and falling voices – the remarkable thing about 1+1 is that for its duration, the center holds.

lafkas 1

Andrew Lafka
1+1=year zero (water/moon)
Sacred Realism | 2014


Dixon quoted in Andrew Raffo Dewar, Searching For The Center of A Sound: Bill Dixon’s Webern, the Unaccompanied Solo, and Compositional Ontology in Post‐Songform Jazz

Photo (colored stones): Jaron Childs

Photo (Lafkas): Peter Ganushkin

Photo (Tibetan monks constructing a sand mandala): photographer unknown

the unanswered question


A little over a year ago composer Olivia Block’s Karren was released on Sedimental Records. Published simultaneously with Mike Bullock’s Figures Without Ground, these two recordings would be the last of the label’s CD releases – Sedimental proprietor Rob Forman decided to close shop after 20 years of cataloging, among a number of fine releases, Block’s inaugural work, 1999’s Pure Gaze.  Asked once in an interview to choose a release from the Sedimental catalog that he considered “quintessential”, Forman picked Pure Gaze. He has remained a champion of Block’s work, releasing half of the eight titles bearing her name since her 1999 debut. Fittingly, Sedimental’s swan song this year was a DVD of Block’s project with filmmakers Luis Recoder and Sandra Gibson entitled Aberation of Light: Dark Chamber Disclosure.

Anyone following Block’s work as long as I have has come to appreciate a striking aspect of her compositional practice: she is continually experimenting with the dualities inherent in her sound materials and structures – dualities of organic/inorganic, of coherency/chaos, of pitched sounds/noise, of inside/outside (in any number of senses), of foreground/background; and, with Karren – an orchestral/concrète work that Block released following six years of her characteristic process of meticulous assemblage and editing – the idea of front and back stages. The nomenclature of stages comes from the astonishing early work of the sociologist Erving Goffman; front and back stage are aspects of the dramaturgy of interpersonal styles the author developed in his first published work in 1959, The Presentation of Self In Everyday Life. Block references Goffman’s theories in the notes she wrote for Karren as follows – Erving Goffman’s dramaturgical metaphor described in The Presentation of Self in Every Day Life is a lens through which the entire composition, presented on vinyl, might be viewed as a metaphor for the self. 

I haven’t seen a reference to Goffman’s ideas in any other musical project I can recall; I was intrigued to read Block linking the front and back concepts, as Goffman articulated them, to music, as I first encountered his theories nearly 40 years ago while doing my clinical training at a psychiatric facility. I was, for a time, very taken with the work of the British and Scottish psychiatrists David Cooper and R.D. Laing, radical clinicians associated with the so-called anti-psychiatry movement. If you swam in those waters, you’d inevitably encounter the sociologist Erving Goffman, who published a book in 1961 entitled Asylums. Goffman’s work provided us with pith quotes for the zeitgeist, like Society is an asylum run by the inmates. He also developed rich metaphorical language to describe a duality inherent in every social relationship; the imagery of front and back stage refers, broadly, to how we navigate between our socially appropriate persona (front stage), and the self we experience when we set aside social roles and identities (back stage). Goffman used the language of the performative self and the definition of the situation (referring to how we engage in power struggles with others to establish provisional social realities). All is theater, spectacle, and we are endlessly slipping between performance and a highly protected back stage, maintaining the front, shielding the back. Of course these metaphors hardly seem radical at this stage, and given the necessarily reductive presentation of Goffman’s theater of social and interpersonal control and manipulation of borders and boundaries; I simply want to suggest, with these bare bones from Goffman’s work, that Karren can be heard as experimenting with the duality of the front and back stages in ways that, intuitively, we already hear.

Block’s approach with Karren is to sound those dualities distinctly, front and back, but also to cause the piece’s initially discrete parts at certain points to intrude, collide, impose, and enmesh with each other. This approach is heard across much of her work over the years, previously woven from electro-acoustic materials and small chamber voicings; on Karren, the composer at last had access to an orchestra (the Chicago Composer’s Orchestra) attuned to moving fluidly between scored pitches and improvised noise, location recordings and massed strings, riding woozily on waves initially serene, but increasingly pitched toward capsizing (in this last regard a little reminiscent of Block’s fantastic Heave To from 2007). Most overtly, Block uses the dual-sided medium of vinyl to present Karren‘s two movements as back stage concrète (Foramen Magnum, the A-side of processed location recordings), and the reasonably conventional front stage orchestral music (Side-B’s Opening Night, a movement that I think subtly slips into its own back stage, as I suggested above).

Within each movement, however, you might hear, as I do, the composer as syncretist, bringing the back stage footfalls, chortles, throat-clearing, and tunings into spheres of calm and control; and in the case of Opening Night, the serene, floating world of musicians entrained to an idea of order is gradually subsumed by what sounds like mulched hand-claps, a crunchy sound reminiscent of sections of Pure Gaze and Mobius Fuse. Block is always experimenting with the boundaries of Goffman’s definition of the situation, the situations of front and back, unity and difference, inside and outside – it occurred to me listening repeatedly to Karren that Block has continued exploring, without wavering, the borders and boundaries of sound first heard in Pure Gaze fifteen years ago.

Finally, The Unanswered Question – I chose this title at first as I kept thinking of Ive’s piece when listening to Opening Night. I’ve been unable to shake that link – it’s not an overt resemblance to Ive’s masterwork of concision and clarity. It’s particular tensions in the respective pieces, and the elemental tension throughout the pieces, that hook them together for me. Both are sound collages with slow, calm strings, passing tones spiked with moments of agitation, dually owning a sense of harmony and dissonance, independent tempi, a front stage intruded upon by a back stage uninterested in image management.

Block’s body of work rides, in part, on the unresolvable quality of unanswered questions; she’s drawn to sounding out these dualities with a range of materials and approaches, fixed, fluid, improvised and composed. Karren is a rigorous work, and owns a momentum that will be self-evident to anyone who listens through the composer’s work from Pure Gaze to the present. It also owns, however, a sense of unquiet and transience; in an interview with Tobias Fischer, who asked her about boundaries between music and non-music, Block said, I try to deal with this question in my work, because I don’t know the answer, but the question is important to me.  

Olivia Block
Sedimental | 2013

Note: to the best of my knowledge, the 500 print vinyl edition of Karren is sold out at the source; on December 1 an update was posted on the label site, saying “Karren is out of stock until April 2015; please contact Sedimental to get on the waiting list for availability at”