Swinging Modern Sounds #13: On Loops


These lines depend on your having a working knowledge of the New York City suburbs. So for those who are not from the Northeast, or who are not up on their regional suburbs, let me remind you that Westchester County is the first county beyond the edge of the Bronx, and thus Westchester begins where the city ends (you drive through the Co-Op City complex, and Pelham Bay Park, and you’re there), and it extends, really, to where the suburbs give way to something more rural. It’s the fourteenth richest country in the US, the second richest in New York State (after Manhattan). My mother and her second husband moved there in 1975, when I was already away at school, after my grandfather died. He lived in Pelham Manor, and when his house proved too large and too unaffordable, my mom found another smaller one very nearby. She and my stepfather lived there until 1987 or so, when they decamped to the South.

I hated Westchester, back then. Because I grew up in Fairfield County, Connecticut, and I guess I thought Fairfield was better somehow, which is just the sort of thing you think, right or wrong, when you are an adolescent. Fairfield County is more homogenous. More predictable. At least Westchester has some eruptions of color. But back then Pelham felt like Sopranos territory to me. There were intimations of organized crime on our block, drug dealing, easy access to all the bad habits of the city.

My brother stayed in Pelham for a while, living with my mother. And my sister, after she got expelled from boarding school, went back there to live, and my three stepbrothers lived there, too, after my stepfather sued for custody and won—their mom was not, it seemed, up to the task. My brother, after he dropped out of college, was pretty close with a guy who I’ll call Lars. Lars had really horrible dyslexia, such bad dyslexia that he was functionally illiterate. He could write down some basic stuff, like his name and his address, but when he tried to write anything more complicated it came out in a jumble. You couldn’t understand a line of his writing, really. Lars had facial masking, too, which you can look up in the DSM-IV. He just barely ever cracked a smile. Even when he was joking, it would be with a completely straight face. One thing he was good at, though, was art. He could really draw, which no one can do anymore, and he had all sorts of strange sculptures that he was always making, like a boot that had an iron (the appliance) poking out of its toe. I thought that Lars had some philosophical resistance to, I guess, Platonism. He never understood thing as things. Any object was in danger of metamorphosing into another before his eyes—he had no trust in words, and as a result he had no trust in the things named by the words.

(I remember this story my brother told. He and Lars dropped acid and wandered around on the golf course that was just over the county line. You could get under the fence down at the end of the block where the organized crime family lived. My brother and Lars were tripping on the course, middle of the night, and they actually saw crop circles, or was it Greek letters carved into all the greens and stuff. They had bent Pelham Bay Park, the city’s largest, into their own drug playground.)

Eventually, Lars got married, got divorced, had a couple of girlfriends, floundered around, unable to hold down any job for very long (since he couldn’t read well), and then he met a nice woman from Brooklyn, who clearly loved him. And somewhere in here he had a psychotic break. I have always felt like it was a little bit my fault, because there was this unbalanced woman (a woman I had never met) who was sending me a lot of mail about how she and I were destined to be, etc., and I successfully evaded her, but then Lars, by chance, ended up working at a company where this very person worked, and she found out he and I were known to each other, and then she insisted that in fact Lars and she were destined to be, etc. And because Lars is not a sturdy person, he collapsed under the pressure. He said it was because of some tranquilizer that he had been prescribed. Who can say? But whatever the cause of his psychotic episode he was picked up out in the Bronx, right near that very same golf course, wearing only his underwear, and he was talking about all the usual psychotic stuff, conspiracies and listening devices, whereupon he was carted off to the psych ward in Fordham.

I have always worried about Lars, but I also don’t know how to talk to him. He’s a mystery. Some people just are. This past spring, I finally met up with him, because his wife had a third child, just about when my wife and I had our first. It had been a long while, and so I went and met Lars and his family for dinner. Lars looked really overwhelmed, and he kept muttering in that way he does—all variations on a single sentence: “Three kids, what do you expect?” They were three of them all under five. I guess Lars was once one of those kids himself (he has two brothers, and little more than a year separates each brother from the next younger), one of the overwhelming kids. So there’s a repetition compulsion here. Going back to Pelham for your psychotic episode, having the same number of kids that that overwhelmed your mother when you were young, and so on.

Not long after, in June, I was driving out to New Haven for some business thing, and I called my mother, and we talked for an hour or so, and in passing she told me that Lars had recently been arrested in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, for driving dangerously and resisting arrest—after vanishing from his house for the night. As if he were having another episode. The whole thing unnerved me, the suggestion that Lars’s psychotic event was doomed to recur, or was recurring, and he just wasn’t telling anyone, and what about those three kids? I did whatever job I had to do that night, in New Haven, and then I got to driving back, still worrying, and it was about 11:00 o’clock and I shoved this CD into the changer in the car.

Let me back up for a second. Let me explain. One of my recent strategies for this column, this endeavor, involved buying some CDs at random—since that was a way that I bought music when I was young (LPs), and used to just riffle through the stacks picking anything that had an appealing graphic image. Often, you got bad records this way, but then sometimes you got something completely unsuspectable, something totally outside of the ruts you have grooved for yourself, the first Roxy Music album, let’s say, or Talking Heads ’77. Anyway, I decided I would try this with CDBaby, the self-releasing organization (www.cdbaby.com) that makes it possible for just about anyone to put out his or her own releases. CDBaby is close to my ideal for arts production, in that it is a separate universe in which everyone is able to produce work, at little significant cost to them. Like in “The Library of Babel,” by Jorge Luis Borges. Like in The Abortion by Brautigan. Furthermore, I have always suspected that CDBaby would be a fine repository for new and experimental music, music that otherwise has nowhere to go these days. So I recently followed around the links at the CDBaby site until I got to the experimental music section, and I ordered five albums basically at random. In the coming weeks, I intend to discuss the best of these albums, and this story concerns the first (and most extraordinary) of the batch Seas and Trees by one Vicki Brown. Now, I should say at the outset that I had some concerns about Seas and Trees, because I thought the jacket was a little too New Agey, and, as I have said before, nothing makes me as tense as the New Age direction of things. But when I shoved Seas and Trees into the CD tray that night, on the way home from New Haven, it was liberated from the back-to-the-land-ish line drawing that serves as its jacket, and in the darkened car interior, I didn’t even know what CD I was inserting anyhow. It could have been anything. I was just following the music wherever it was going to go.

This was in New Rochelle, or environs, where I-95 became a tangle of road work and closed lanes, and three lanes merged down to one, and I was bumper-to-bumper for miles and miles. At some point, inadvisedly, I determined that I was just going to get off the highway, that I was going to dead reckon across New Rochelle, or perhaps Pelham (the next town along), to get back to the Hutchinson River Parkway, and thus away from the road work and the American interstate highway system.

And so I was back in the county of my middle teens, a place I hated to be, a place I basically associated with my stepbrothers, or with my brother in his bad period, or with Lars and his problems. And this was when Seas and Trees called out from the darkened interior of my vehicle. And this siren call of Seas and Trees was deeply uncanny, almost alarmingly so–that’s what I’m trying to say. I suppose if you were going to try to make a category for this music, which you ought not, you would perhaps say that is was loop-based, which a lot of electro-acoustic music has been for many years now, and there are a wealth of software programs that make the composition of loops really easy, maybe even too easy, but loops have a function, and that physiognomic function has to do, I suppose, with respiration, and with the metronomical pulses of the human animal. And Vicki Brown’s music is based on this repetition, and, particularly, on loops played on violin, though she is not at all exclusively loop- or sample-oriented as there is often some soloing of a very melodic sort (in modes that are not at all churchy, but more Middle Eastern or Indian sounding), solos and loops in turn backed with beds of found sound and hard-to-identify keyboards. There’s a lot of reverb, sometimes there’s some echo. No vocals, unless they are found vocals, these being heavily distorted with processing and effects.

Perhaps because the CD was beginning to weave its austere mystery, I got hopelessly lost in New Rochelle. This is something that happens to me: I think I know where I’m going a lot, but it turns out that my memory and my sense of direction are more confident than accurate. Or maybe it’s just that the Westchester County of memory no longer bears any resemblance to the Westchester of the contemporary moment. I started making turns at random, after a while, figuring that eventually I would run into a major thoroughfare, whether the Boston Post Road, or the completely gummed up I-95.  Through empty suburban lanes I drove, while Vicki Brown was sawing away, in a way that was deeply unsettling to me, and I kept hitting repeat on the first few songs, looping them, “Chez Duyong,” and “Flight of El Gazali,” and “Unter’Berg,” though I didn’t know that these were the titles, and I cannot explain the titles to you, nor can I explain the note that Brown includes in the CD as a way of tying together these instrumental compositions, because I hadn’t read the note yet, and in any case I feel that tying together instrumental compositions is something one does ex post facto, after the music is made, and in the end it is the listener who assembles the record (or the book, or the exhibit of paintings, or the dancer concert) as she or he wishes to do so, with respect to her past and the repetitions thereof.

How I was understanding (and assembling) Seas and Tress was as follows: it was now past midnight, well past the time when I had told my wife I would be home, and my wife was sawing some z’s, probably with our baby at her side, having no idea that I was meandering around in the memories of thirty years ago, in a loop of memories that felt similar to like Vicki Brown’s compositions, unwilling to let go of this haphazard method of divining my route, because even though I was getting more desperate, I felt certain my technique would yield some result eventually, though what I realized instead, somewhere around “Curtis Prairie, ca. 1634,” a pizzicato number, was that I was more like Lars than I wished I were. Lars took off one night, ostensibly to do some handyman’s work, because that is the work that he does now, leaving behind wife and kids, and instead he decided to drive around for a while, he needed to drive around for a while, and while he wanted to be a part of civilization, and all that was good in civilization, he also wanted to be apart from civilization, and this is the way it goes when you are a middled-aged father, you want, in some precinct, to annhilate everything that is good and warm and true about home and hearth, and this feeling is as natural as the rock formations of Westchester; Lars wanted to escape, and he did, into a jail cell for the night, and here I was driving around, listening to the incredibly eerie and beautiful Seas and Trees, which itself speaks the melody of some natural mytheme, some inchoate and obscure natural tale, and in the process it became clear that I had no idea where I was going or how I was finally going to get back to Brooklyn, and that I have a lot in common with one of the most troubled people I know.

Which was about when I turned the corner and saw my grandfather’s house. It was right by that church on the corner of Pelhamdale Boulevard and Pelham Avenue. Christ Church, I think it’s called. My mother was married there for the second time, and my sister was married there (hers ended in divorce), and I was baptized there, at seventeen years old, after a really bad acid trip in which I had paranoid delusions for eight or ten hours. That church, though, wasn’t half as mythological, as Pelham locales go, as my grandfather’s house itself. My grandfather, it’s fair to say, was larger than life. He was cruel, he was powerful, he was very successful (he was publisher of a very large daily newspaper in the New York metro area), he suffered no fool, and every one was afraid of him or found him intimidating. His wife, my grandmother, was an alcoholic, who died after a long gruesome decline, and his son and namesake died in a plane crash not long after. In the middle of the Watergate period, not long before Nixon’s resignation my grandfather died, too, of heart disease, leaving only my mother. The house, in short, always felt haunted to me. I made the mistake, when I was ten of reading The Exorcist in that house, and then I knew it was haunted. Now the house is owned by an investment banker, I think, and he replaced the goldfish ponds with a swimming pool, and I’m sure he got rid of the velvet wallpaper, maybe even the grand spiraling staircase in the foyer, and probably many of the other period details. His house doesn’t look quite as much like a mansion now, even at night, not from the outside, not like it did when I was in my early teens. But it still seems haunted. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the house is definivitely haunted. I don’t know if the investment banker and his kids experience the haunting, because it may be that ghosts simply have very specific agendas, in terms of haunting. If I were inside there, in that interior, I would experience the haunting, as I always have.

After I looked at my grandfather’s house, after midnight, while the investment banker slumbered within, I took the river road through Pelham Bay Park, and wound up, after a detour, on the Hutch, heading south. (Anne Hutchinson, by the way, for whom the road was named, was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1637 for believing in the equality of women.)  And soon, without further incident, I was nearing the beacon of home, probably somewhere around the beatific “Neptune” on Vicki Brown’s Seas and Trees. I guess if I were to try to pin down this alluring album in a way that better explicates how it weaves its stoical spell, I would make passing reference to Another Green World by Brian Eno, a record that is, as almost anyone would agree, impossible to replicate. But like the Eno of that high water mark, Brown is as interested in timbre and texture as in melodic development. And as on Eno’s album (I’m thinking of “Little Reptiles,” e.g.), compositions both fade in and fade out, as if cut from some more continuous cloth, and the instruments that are not looped mark out a narrow band of development, a simple, and uncanny minimalism, unless, as they are in some cases, they are environmental. Another example, from the point of view of found sound, might be Pink Floyd’s underrated Atom Heart Mother.

Part of what Seas and Trees asks of us is to rethink the current vogue for loops, which are, in general, played by the machines not by the people. Brown, in her incredibly elegant playing, could certainly perform the loops herself, and it may be she blurs the lines between human repetition (of the sort that you find in minimalism, or in, e.g., the guitar compositions of Robert Fripp), and machined repetition, but in order to say something about the human heart and its appreciation of slow development and historical repetition. Loops that are too easy, of the sort, for example, that propel the more recent Animal Collective recordings, only tell us how to think about machines. But loops that are subtler and more textured tell us how things recur in the physiognomy of human beings, in human psychology, and in history. We go back over the material again and again, trying to get comfortable with it, trying to relinquish it, trying to move on so that there’s room for new information. It takes some time, this relaxing into the new. That, at any rate, is how I first experienced this album, Seas and Trees, while wandering one night in my own past. While trying to remember and forget.

Rick Moody is the author of six novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and a volume of essays, On Celestial Music. His most recent publication is Hotels of North America, a novel. With Kid Millions of Oneida, he recently released the album The Unspeakable Practices (Joyful Noise recordings). More from this author →