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So I have this test. It's called "Music for Real Life." That's right: Throw on those headphones and go for a walk, or turn music on in your car. Watch how it interacts with your surroundings. Lest you believe this is another diatribe on appreciation of incidental composition, you're mistaken--in part. I listen to Through the Ides of March, the debut from local orchestral-rock group A Whisper in the Noise. But in truth, I think it's listening to me, responding to my thoughts while I make my way through the streets. I pass by the modern conveniences of my neighborhood: a yoga center, corner café, tattoo parlor, electrical supply shop. Meanwhile cars are zooming past. Someone's on a cell phone. Okay, everyone's on a cell phone. But I'm listening to the album, the dulcet drums and piano, as vocalist and principal member West Thordson intones, "All of the fears that I seed in me/All of the most basic needs of me/All of the dreams I have that won't come true/Pale at the sight of you." Slowly inflected into the track are various discarded sound bites, newsreel footage, and haunting distorted strings. The song is called "Silence," and it's filled with crackling noises and crisp drums. "This is where I go to feel safe," Thordson sings.
Whether the safe place he's talking about is metaphorical or literal, a downtown Minneapolis café is a good substitute. A few days after my walk, the soft-spoken musician meets with me there to provide insight into his album. Its own quiet riot of live instrumentation and technical innovation succinctly expresses both anticipation and fear of the digital age. He approaches these subjects with trepidation. "The world today is getting so tense," he says, "It seems like a lot more people are pulled in different directions. You're forced into technology, you're forced to embrace it."
Describing Through the Ides of March as an "emotionally conceptual album," he unveils these technological themes softly: As he puts it, he's mostly "adding samples of radio noise and the dysfunction of frequencies that are in the air right now" to the songs. The cautious track "A Child" is preluded by news clips relaying the horrors of child labor. But the sound feeds into the cold comfort of violins.
Thordson's experience as a freelance film scorer probably contributed to such cinematic soundscapes: He recently worked with the Woodbury-based digital-media company LGI. But because he felt that a commercial job detracted from his vision, he chose to create music on a full-time basis. In the future, he hopes to incorporate film work behind Whisper's live band, which typically includes a French horn, violin, cello, and piano. He explains, "When I listen to music, I always listen for an unveiling or for a whole holistic thing to happen."
Thordson, who describes himself as a "Perfectionist" in one of his song titles, spent two years developing his "holistic thing" on Through the Ides of March before meeting prolific recording engineer Steve Albini--who has turned the knobs for groups like Low and Rachel's in his Chicago studio. Whisper spent a mere day and a half creating the rough album, which Thordson calls "more of a piece of art than a band chopping up songs." As a result, the strings might be slightly off pitch, or the drums slowed. But the album as a finished product is a poignant take on modern man vs. machine.
And listening to it can make you rather pensive. Back on the concrete, post-interview, I'm once again faced with the general hustle and bustle of everyday life. Where are they going? I wonder. And then I recall Thordson's questioning in the song "Anymore": "I wonder what we're here for," he ponders. Perhaps we're all just making whispers in the noise.