Michael Theodore + Ryan Wurst: Michael Theodore + Ryan Wurst
Always Human Tapes

A challenging recording called Panauromni came our way in mid-2010 courtesy of Psychoangelo duo Glen Whitehead (trumpets, computer) and Michael Theodore (computer, guitar, small objects). The latter now returns, this time with collaborator Ryan Wurst in tow, for a thirty-seven-minute cassette release featuring two side-long pieces. Each brings a distinctive background and sensibility to the venture: Theodore is currently an Associate Professor of Music Composition and Technology at the University of Colorado, runs an art-and-technology lab with roboticist Nikolaus Correll, and partners with punk-folk artist Tim Eriksen in the electroaoustic outfit Batteries Die. Wurst, who issues VHS and audio tapes on his Always Human Tapes label, uses multiple technologies—computers, TVs, and cassettes among them—to, in his words, “explore failure, stupidity, improvisation, and the infinity that exists between zero and one.” His love for the tape format is consistent with his own belief in the importance of play, experimentation, improvisation, and serendipity, and is exemplified in his observation that tape “introduces uncontrollable elements, like noise and hiss, that give the object a life of its own.”

Given the preceding, it comes as no surprise that the material presented on the duo's cassette outing concerns atmosphere and texture as much as anything else. Yes, the opening piece is inaugurated by repeated voicings of a piano melody, but the instrument's sound is so waterlogged it sounds as if it might have been recorded underwater. In short, musical elements are present yet melody is hardly the primary concern—if anything said elements function as a means to an end, a means by which sound manipulation possibilities can be explored. As if to confirm that suspicion, the piano melody drops out by the five-minute mark, leaving in its place the industrial-sounding thrum of a piano-based drone that thereafter proceeds to mutate for the rest of the setting's twenty-two minutes. Halfway through, the material swells to a daunting pitch, becoming ever more grime-coated and blurry as it does so, but then decompresses in such a way that allows the piano to re-assert its presence. A bit of a tug of war occurs between the piano and non-piano elements, with the former audible in some episodes and obscured in others. As it turns out, the struggle makes for captivating listening as the listener constantly monitors how the material changes shape and the way its elements go in and out of focus.

The balance between acoustic and electronic elements shifts somewhat in the second piece, with the piano absent and its place taken by flickering accents, which are heard against a dense mass of seemingly synthetic design. Contrasts in pitch between the parts generate a dissonant quality that lends the piece a nightmarish effect, before subtle percussive treatments and swirling strings impose an extra level of intensity and compression to the throbbing mass. Clearly the more disturbed of the two, the second piece plays at times like the soundtrack for a particularly brutal slasher film. If side two ultimately registers as a tad less compelling than side one, they still amount to a powerful pair and an engrossing listen.

April 2014