Félicia Atkinson - Hand In Hand
“Unlike the ashes that make their home with hot coals, snails prefer moist earth. Go on: they advance while gluing themselves to it with their entire bodies. They carry it, they eat it, they shit it. They go through it, it goes through them. It’s the best kind of interpenetration, as between tones, one passive and one active. The passive bathes and nourishes the active, which overturns the other while it eats. (There is more to be said about snails. First of all their immaculate clamminess. Their sangfroid. Their stretchiness.)”
– Francis Ponge
Felicia Atkinson’s Hand In Hand sounds like an exasperated case for music — and, also, a snail in moist earth. The album gathers all of the experimental tactics, to the point where their collective application is muted. Atkinson’s music presents a suspended space sought out and defended by the most obstinate composers; but, rather unlike their hard-line musical acesticism, it presents this rigor rather candidly, in open air and with deep breaths. A stretching gesture of whispers and images, Atkinson composes her works as precise stretch-breaks, as swift coffee-meditations, as mist-shots taken quickly with unknown intention other than serious health. With a beautifully rigorous intention all the same, Atkinson composes her sound-fictions with a similar aim to picking up the habit of chewing cinnamon toothpicks, except this gnawing-process, this chewing of wood, has the effect of reading a most devastating poetry. Yes, there are some remarks about deserts and cacti, some images of prancing around with animals and tripping out with seltzer water. But outside of those imagistic washes, Hand In Hand is a transformative valis(e) of music to carry around.
This album is not ASMR. It does not do the tingly thing. Rather, it has a refined palette of modular and MIDI electronics, with a courtly, bookish tone. The music conjures images of relationships to plants. But, after all, even though plants are hung out with like lifestyle associates and are seen as aesthetic affiliates and friends, they are also cooked, steamed, and erotically blanched. These plants are culinary objects and this music is a culinary adventure, appearing like an aesthetic partner and advisor. It reads and breathes; it teaches you how to a glaze frequency, how to leaven a whisper. There’s a dub-like bass throughout, some of the best bass of 2017, in fact.
This diffuse poetic atmosphere is rendered in the confident pop-stride of album opener “I’m Following You,” an introduction suggesting the erudite presentation of Julia Holter’s meandering song-craft. However, rather quickly, such coherence is made murkier, denser, thankfully clouded by wilder musical impulses. The simply gorgeous “Valis” tunes a buzzing insectoid pattern of cricket-like synth shrieks to Atkinson’s oblique ruminations and hushed field recordings. A spartan bass roots the piece, eventually plummeting the vibe into a visceral psychedelic meltdown; there is a such a brilliant intensity to this music when the frequencies emotively key in. “Curious in Epidavros” presents plunking marimba and synth-work all pointillistically rendered into measured sounds that constantly suspend and re-introduce themselves. This is the album’s primary compositional tactic. Interruptive, serious, and effortless in tone, the piece carries the weight of a skipping rock, with careful and intense impact erupting between sonic surfaces.
“Monstera Deliciosa” is the album’s bass-heavy centerpiece. Creaks, knocks, and precise fretless bass focus blurs of tone into brilliant clarity. Again, an incessant ritualistic intensity is ever-present, circling each composition rather hawkishly, teasing its potential collapse; this music could be used for emotional breakdown and study music in equal measure. “Visnaga” continues in a more hushed tone, echoing a ringing modulation with poems existing in between the spectral folds of their infra-frequencies. Still, these hushed tones’ quotidian character totally bottom out to the point where language fails, as only crisp cymbal work and alien-voicings remain on “A House A Dance A Poem.”
The affect of Atkinson’s acoustic sculptures do not, as her Duchampian Readymade Ceremonies suggested, rely upon intensive perceptual or conceptual attention. Hand In Hand exists during and before its readymade idea. It is, instead, an acoustic sculpture gliding forward as a speculative act — a technological, figurative vision. Atkinson’s work is a fictional installation inside of music, with techniques so clearly musical. This implication interferes with and destroys the music as quickly as it is created, and it’s the beauty of Atkinson’s project across the record. Her work moves to eliminate the musical analogies within sculpture and spatialization itself and concentrates cold upon the mute narrative of music’s everyday form, something between Alvin Lucier’s Verspers and Robert Ashley’s Purposeful Lady Slow Afternoon. It is a sculptural reading, not a sculpture that is read.
This is a situation where an implicitly psychedelic listening emerges. Such hallucinatory listening is exaggerated on the album’s last three tracks, as the synthwork grows to be more strident and evocative in timbre. After the cool pads of “Hier Le Désert,” “Vermillions” clears all remnant tones to expose a haunting, focused pluck that approaches the degree-zero of the album’s general affect: a mysterious evocation, a “poetry of things” in sound. As field recordings bubble up and are brushed aside, we are left with hearing the profound material empathy implicit within our relationship to objects, to technology, to food, to desire. Who makes this? Is it us? Church-bells rumble in the background, as Atkinson remarks about erotic anticipation and lethargy. Pan flutes, bowls, avian squeaks bounce around the mix as her voice delivers its last monotone remarks in a resigned voice that approaches the sound sources with such resiliency, such affinity, as if to say, “I Am You Too…”
“At the same time I am glued to the earth, always touching it, always progressing, though slowly, and always capable of pulling loose from the soil into myself. Après moi le déluge, I don’t care, the slightest kick may roll me anywhere. I can always get up again onto my single foot and reglue myself to the dirt where fate has planted me, and that’s my pantry: the earth, the most common of foods.”
– Francis Ponge