Various Artists: Wild Flesh Productions Various Artists
“Silence stays everywhere, unflowing.” Heralded as a maxim by artist Cammisa Buerhaus’s label Wild Flesh Productions, the sentiment expresses the anomaly of our attempts to hear — a deaf, cosmic blockade that exists behind the spectral “telephone operation” of music puttering up in our inner-vestibules. A total, unmoving blackout that cancels the momentary excitation and vibration within us, the suggestion of an unflowing silence refreshingly essentializes the intermediacy of sound: that sound doesn’t have to be the way we experience it. That it could be different. In fact, it could be gone. A nice thought, despite the fact that, even within the unflowing vacuum of space, there exists an incessant din of howling planets, whistling plasma waves, pelting space rocks, and exploding stars — the most lit, overflowing sounds never heard. Regardless, silence serves as an important reminder of a never-ending story: the story of quitting and of not-existing. Also, it can suggest a skeptical inner-mantra — the “I have no idea what you are doing” — whenever we witness that new noise act slamming a license plate into a disc of copper and piezo wires. It can offer a conceptual way out, a silent, sandy nowhere-beach — a quiet getaway always there when we seem to be stuck with “some bullshit.”
Across the 21 tracks assembled on Wild Flesh’s “Various Artists” compilation, we receive a knowing smile from a group of artists who are aware of the sonic anxiety between the heard and the not-heard. Conceived in the independent spirit of art labels such as Berlin’s gelbe MUSIK, the compilation shows recorded works from mostly non-musician artists: painters, poets, sculptors, social workers, “your friendly neighborhood divorcees.” Therein exists a chaotic plurality that mirrors gelbe’s attempts at “a constant confrontation between between the visual and the acoustic [where] the medium record apparently fascinates the so-called folk art as well […] a showcase filled with all kinds of curiosities,” as founder Ursula Block mentions in her essay “His Master’s Noise” (recently published in Broken Music on Primary Information. Yet, where Block’s project focused on the work of visual artists created with and for the medium of the record — records, record covers, record objects, record installations — Buerhaus’s “Various Artists” emphasizes a kind of shared social experimentation happening within obscure narrative embedded into the recording itself — as a file, a unit of time existing ephemerally on human artists’ computers. Described as a “lyrically deranged oral snapshot of the NYC underground, 2019,” the compilation is acutely focused on a social orality exchanged mysteriously between these artists. The recordings contain a poetic evasiveness well-cultivated from years of dealing with the austerity of gallery culture and its associated demands for smart but self-obfuscating vernacular.
The result is a kind of “Broken Music” all its own, a shattered remnant of a community’s hubristic meltdown happening in sound despite NYC’s careening conceit standing tall out of rising waters. Instead of gelbe’s associations with staunch sound experimentalists — Nam June Paik, Joseph Beuys, Christian Marclay, John Cage among them — “Various Artists’s” insistence on curating “non-musicians” for the purpose of an LP belies the record’s focus on highly skilled aesthetes splaying out their “confessionals, paranoid fits, [and] potlucks gone potlatch” as recordings, not necessarily a musical format, but nonetheless one where music does sometimes happen. To be sure, the record features musicians (James K & Gobby, Kayla Guthrie, DeForrest Brown Jr., Eve Essex, Gabe Rubin, Stud1nt, and others), but the remaining cast of artists emphasizes both the multidisplinarity of the recording file as a format and our ambivalence toward its treatment as a “sound medium” when we aren’t ever really sure what’s happening in the first place with “Art Shit.” As such, the LP unfolds as kind of SoundCloud music for folks who’ve never used SoundCloud (although the aforementioned contributors undoubtedly have, to great heights). Meandering through avant-songcraft, ambient sculpture, off-the-cuff musings, noise, beats, melodies, phone recordings, careerisms, non-professionalisms, scraps, and plenty in between, “Various Artists” is only a snapshot of NYC’s underground in 2019, insofar as a “snapshot” can be considered a collection of personal birthday party polaroids sewn together into a prayer flag hung triumphantly (in jest) in the apartment.
James K, known for her multidisciplinary performance practice, hybrid works, and collaborations with Via App, Eve Essex, and Yves Tumor, delivers an opening piece with collaborator and TMT-favorite Gobby. They duet in a delirious exercise in unhinged persona, as a maniacal Hollywood director’s cut narrative unfolds over a slanted, tumbling synth line. From the start of the compilation, an important question is asked — “Where’s my coffee?” — over trills and deviant chuckles, “setting the stage,” so to speak. Similarly positioned is Cristina Du Garnier & Speaker Music’s “Tonnere,” a foreboding, skeletal piece that’s rendered prophetic through its use of a rising soul sample (think Burial’s “In McDonalds or Klein’s cc) after an icy premonition: “I’ll have what she’s having, for crying out loud.” Aphoristic tunes rear up throughout the LP, in evocative melodies by Martina Gordon, Whitney Claflin, Felix Bernstein & Gabe Rubin’s penultimate gregorian-gestalt “Doppleganger,” or the gem “Priscilla” by Park McArthur — a beautiful, and seemingly off-the-cuff rumination on a 2020 newsfeed encounter that exists in a half-light between cellphone lullaby and Sacred Harp singing. Enjoyable excerpts assembled by Clara Lou are staged every few tracks, ranging from ASMR rubs-and-bumps, telephone rings, clocks, or the great quote: “I’m not awake, I’m not asleep, I’m not either of those two stupid things.” Two brilliant pieces by curator Alex Fleming (known for their work at Lisa Cooley and Arika, amongst other projects) are welcome instrumental collapses scattered along the way. The tracks are mutant chamber-music breakdowns that are infectious and worth returning to often. Izzy Ocampo (Stud1nt) delivers one of the few overtly rhythmic offerings, skewed and filtered down to a subterranean percussive core that oscillates subtly — a welcome turn up that helps interrupt the flow of manic scenic deviations throughout. Album standouts “Onondaga 48198” by Candice Saint Williams and the addictive “Dick Trap” by June Junior similarly cut through in their impressively rendered beatwork. In these tracks, luminous rhythms emerge from under strange vocal performances brought to life by edited ingenuity — stitched together carefully, intelligently — slightly demanding a full LP’s worth of space to spread out.
Buerhaus herself gives a plastered guitar & voice performance on “Venus Hunters,” as a skittering back beat holds steady for wild yodeling and a tone-knob-set-at-zero whammy bar extravaganza. This performance is positioned alongside other holistic “song” offerings, such as Kayla Guthrie’s “Erotic Death,” a laser-sharp dirge that very could have found itself on Wild Flesh’s previous LP “Falling Star.” Eve Essex gives a masterclass in extended cybernetic songwriting on “A Habit,” a lurching tune where hand piano and her own voice carry on in wide, bluesy strides (think Circuit des Yeux or Josephine Foster), keeping step with the expansive wash of a haunting, full-spectrum Vangelis synth. As the LP’s final piece, “A Habit” gives a level of spatial repose needed to close the frenetic progression of the compilation’s tracklist.
Buerhaus describes the direction of the compilation as “a frame for exposing intimacy and creativity, it is a declaration of love.” She continues, “these are narratives both linear and abstract […] My own work as an artist is only intelligible to me through the conversation of other boundary dwellers and in this way it is also an act of devotion.” In this way, and in these last days of excess, we are reminded to “hold ‘em close,” with ears pressed to the chest, registering a heartbeat but failing to account for an unknown music within, a silence unflowing. We are so often unable to decipher the belligerent projects of the many, but we can still try to hold sound close, no matter how impossible — perhaps an act of devotion, like the man evoked in one of Clara Lou’s excerpts, living on the 12th floor, afraid of heights, who “keeps at it, keeps on living in that apartment, keeps on looking out that window…”