The Unessential Hits

THIS. THIS IS. This is the beginning. The beginning. This is. The. The beginning. This. This is...

What is this? Behold: minimalist techno text! Can I have a round of applause? (Cue silence from the readership.) Not impressed? How, you wonder, can I expect you to tolerate my repetitive text loops when overexposure to the same effect in music--the endlessly recurring, cut-and-paste glitches, blurps, and tingle-bleeps of the artists I love, such as Oval and Autechre--can sometimes make me feel like I'm undergoing aural water torture? Well, it's easy: When the theories and structures behind glitch music manifest themselves like so many words on a page, I begin to appreciate the musical style as something more than an infernal dripping that will slowly erode my sanity until I am rambling about nothing at all in these columns. (Hey! Did I ever tell you about the time I went to Tennessee on a road trip and taped "Dollywood or Bust" signs to my window and...oh, never mind.)

For instance, the idea behind the avant-garde, digital-music label Mille Plateaux--named after Gilles Deleuze's poststructuralist text of the same name (read: stodgy theory that's impossible to understand but fun to name-drop)--is that digital music is sometimes "screen music," i.e., it renders sounds visible and images audible. Noises that ought to reside in the aural periphery are foregrounded. (John Cage was once reported to have been angered by a loud thumping that disturbed the silence in a sound-deprivation booth. He later discovered that it was simply his own heartbeat.) Glitches and mistakes in the hardware or software, the "music" of skipping CDs and computer malfunctions, have become the catchy riffs for today's hacker teens. As Sasha Frere-Jones recently noted in Spin, digipop stars Radiohead are making entire albums by taking the same pet phrases that highlight post-technology paranoia and repeating them again and again for no reason at all, no reason at all. To paraphrase Achim Szepanski: The unessential is emerging.

Although former Minneapolitan Sarah Peebles insists that she has little in common with fellow digital-music artists--she defines herself as an "electro-acoustic" artist--her project seems to share much of Mille Plateaux's preoccupation with cinematic form and the augmentation of minor sounds through technological imperfections. On her latest release, Insect Groove, a collection of works from 1992 to 2000, one can hear the organically symphonic noises of dripping water, distant birdcalls, and insect noises as they're funneled through Macintosh Max programming. Peebles breaks down these natural loops and restructures them until the lines between natural sounds and synthetic ones, between primal and postindustrial, are blurred: The internal suck and gurgle of a skipping CD player on "Drillbit Skiploop" is virtually indistinguishable from the crackling cicadas that, recorded in a Japanese temple on "Higurashi in Yamanashi," sigh in the same respiratory rhythm that Peebles creates with the sho--a Japanese mouth organ--on "Listen to the Sound of the Sun Sinking Into the Lake." As Matt Ffytche wrote in the Wire, each of Peebles's performances "explores a living environment, taking place somewhere between the temple, the jungle, and the Mac screen."

Peebles herself, speaking on the phone from her current home in Toronto, says that her music "deals primarily with memory. I remember that experience of childhood from when I was growing up around Excelsior: You're free to spend the summer as slowly as you like, and the sounds--the bugs, the birds--that surround you just sink in at an unusual pace and in unique combinations."

Peebles tends to denote this full sensory experience both through her music itself and in its unique execution. She recently collaborated with electric guitarist Nilan Perera for the multimedia project "Kaladar Kodex," in which Perera and Peebles each took turns playing music while the other toted a video camera around an Ontario farm, exploring some of the soundscapes sampled on Insect Groove. Peebles then manipulated the time sequence in the footage to match her fractured time-space-continuum vision of childhood in summertime. Perera and Peebles also collaborate with each other through the trio Cinnamon Sphere, in which both musicians perform while Korean visual artist Chung Gong Ha improvises calligraphic artwork before a live audience. And Peebles is also working on a spoken-word/music project with experimental writer David Toop, whose readings will accompany her sho performance in an upcoming, outdoor concert--likely filled with crickets, cicadas, and other "insect grooves"--just outside of Toronto.

When I ask Peebles what Toop's story "White Powder/The Spiders" is about, she laughs. "I guess the best I can [say to] describe it is that it's a very surreal set of vignettes about the Goddess of Light...or I could just say that it's sort of about these neon-haiku, automated, discarded mechanical creatures that scratch calligraphic messages in salt caves."

And perhaps these prolific creatures are the perfect metaphor for Peebles's sampled music: discarded creatures from a lost time, struggling to survive in a neon age, loaded with imperfect splendor, and still encrypting mysterious messages in the most veiled places. The only difference is that Peebles has pushed these marginalized sounds--the computer bugs, the natural insects--to the threshold of the foreground, creating accessible electro-acoustic music for those with hypersensitive ears.

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