Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Ulaan Khol: I and II

Much of contemporary music is an encyclopedia of sorts, a text comprising definitions on myriad entries with a consistent voice, at least stylistically if not sometimes ideologically. Encyclopedias tend to take their sources and distill them into easily digestible bits, often with just enough garnish (maps, photographs, charts) to give it the shadow of flavor. Experimental music, however, is a very different kind of encyclopedia. Sometimes its interpretation of the entry is even more like hagiography than an objective presentation, but it has the freedom to bend the definition beyond all recognition until you find yourself having to quickly flip back pages to make sure you remember where you started. This is what makes the listening often so exhilarating.

Ulaan Khol is like A First Encyclopedia of Tlön. Vol. XI. Hlaer to Jangr, the mysterious text in Borges' story Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, which purports to describe a world that can't exist, except that since there is a encyclopedia about it, it must exist. This tension is what drives the vaguely unsettling, but wonderfully strange, theme of the story. It is also the tension that pulses below the surface of two very beautiful and challenging first releases in a planned trilogy by Steven R. Smith.

To annotate a world, you have to first create one, but some would say you can't create in a vacuum. You need raw material, maybe even a precedent of some sort. Smith is certainly working in a tradition, but there is nothing derivative. Like Tlön, some things are familiar, but they are placed in a context that makes them appear like phantoms. Smith's Ulaan Khol is haunted by something, by some possible creation that moves in and out of the periphery. This is not creation ex nihilo. It's more like the construction of a dream, where what is recognizable is made new and a little bent, a little frayed around the edges. Like static. Or feedback.

Smith has some serious pedigree, having associations with a number of underground outfits including Thuja and Hala Strana. Ulaan Khol is of a heavier sort than his previous incarnations, layers and washes of guitar and percussion. It's not burdened by noise, but rather uses noise as a palette. Because it's underground music of a particular variety there is a tendency to want to attach some esoteric meaning. I wouldn't call it magic, because there is no sense Smith is trying to conjure something, and it's not quite mysticism because there is something too active and participatory. And yet it can't be ritual because there is something a little lonely here. I would prefer to simply call it art.

Ulaan Khol II: Untitled 3

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