© t thaemlitz/comatonse recordings
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In Electronic Beats (DE), Issue 30, Summer 2012.
How to approach listening to the world's longest album, clocking in at over thirty hours of music, hundreds of pages of sleeve notes and extensive video footage all packed onto an SD card that has to be plugged in a USB stick and accompanied by a small booklet covered with the picture of a burning church? Ideally all in one sitting. If that's not possible, try seven approximately four-hour shifts. Certainly you'll need enough time to get into a contemplative listening space, for however long you're able to maintain it. As the album title indicates and the copious notes explain in great detail, Soulnessless is not an invitation to share in any kind of religious experience―even if the way its fifth Canto unfolds over twenty-nine-plus hours approximates a form of devotional music. Instead, the album is a journey into the metaphysical depths of the anti-religious experience―the destructive and superstitious nature of all forms of spirituality, approached from a variety of musical and critical perspectives. The unifying thread here is Thaemlitz's tightly wound autobiographical and artistic relationship to the disparate themes of gender transitioning, Japanese immigration law and Catholicism. This is the general framework laid out by the first four "Cantos", incorporating video films that contextualize the music both visually and discursively, with large portions of the sleeve notes displayed on screen and offering their own engaging narrative. Taken together, the first four Cantos function as a kind of deconstruction of gender and religious upbringing in the form of Thaemlitz's odyssey across Japan, the United States and the Philippines. Field recordings of Filipino nuns interviewed about their convent's electronic sound system, conversations with workers seeking a better life, legal or otherwise, in Japan, are cut-up and recombined with the sound of clicking rosary beads, vinyl crackle, digital distortion, American religious AM radio, Hank Williams and papal mass. The appropriation of resurrection classic ‘I'll Have a New Body (I'll Have a New Life)' at the end of ‘Canto I' is a particularly striking example of Thaemlitz's plunderphonic expertise: played almost in its entirety and panned hard left (and low?) in the stereo field, you have the impression of hearing the song for the first time.
But ‘Cantos I - IV' make up less than 1/30th of the album's duration, the bulk of which is the twenty-nine hour ‘Canto V - Meditation on Wage Labor and the Death of the Album'. The "meditation" is almost entirely based on a series of slow-moving chord modulations played on a grand piano, with each new chord played only after the previous one has reached the end of its sustain. Its duration alone makes it a unique listening experience. What remains of the abusive Catholic brainwashing I endured in early childhood won't let me lie that I listened to it in one sitting. It involved long stretches of contemplative listening, interspersed with "lost" periods drifting between sleeping and waking. And just in case I missed some monumental musical shift during one of those drifting moments, I returned at least four times to the last hour of ‘Canto V', and I also randomly dropped in and out for extended periods elsewhere across the length of the MP3. By now I was coming back for more because I was enjoying it ― not because I felt duty-bound to do so.
Certainly, the somber, repetitive nature and literal "hammering" away of the chords on the piano conjure up images of factory labor, and in that sense, ‘Canto V - Meditation on Wage Labor and the Death of the Album' justifies Thaemlitz's claim for it being an act of resistance to the digital world's filesharers whose belief that all music should be free has made the musician/composer's labor worth next to nothing. This brings up an interesting point about the conceptual and political implications of not only this album but also instrumental music in general. In the June 2012 issue of The Wire, Jan Jelinek claimed that the "meaning" of instrumental music should only be understood in the context in which it's heard, and any conceptual value added by titles or notes accompanying it shouldn't be conflated with the pure listening experience. Well, nobody can force listeners to take on board the thoughts or feelings shaping the work, even when text may indicate how the artist wants it to be heard. But Soulnessless is more than just music. It was conceived as a Gesamtkunstwerk―one which can only be fully experienced as a complex interplay of autobiographical and activist texts, composed and found music, and still and moving images.
In Soulnessless, like in much of Thaemlitz's work, there appears to be as much fascination as angry emotion folded and cut into the various spiritual sound sources, even if their critical deconstruction is his ultimate goal.
Chris Bohn is a longtime editor of British avant-garde music magazine The Wire. For the last issue of Electronic Beats, he recommended Oren Ambarchi and Thomas Brinkmann's The Mortimer Trap.
July 13, 2012 letter to the Editor response by Terre Thaemlitz:
In response to Chris Bohn's review of my album Soulnessless, there was one point in which he made reference to my "claim for it being an act of resistance to the digital world's filesharers whose belief that all music should be free has made the musician/composer's labor worth next to nothing." I feel compelled to correct this statement and clarify my stance on this issue, since he implies my alliance with dominant music industry rhetoric about file sharing being the demise of the music economy. That is a position with which I would never align myself.
With regard to economics and the devaluation of music, the liner notes to Soulnessless very clearly criticize music industries themselves - including the music press - in their incessant demand for freebies that go beyond the CD album (digital exclusive tracks, podcasts, DJ mixes, etc.). These demands force audio producers to generate ever increasing lengths of audio for industries paying lower and lower advances and royalties. I also have had long-documented difficulties with major online distributors who sold my projects for years without contracts or payments to me. It was a hypocritical circumstance in which the culprits were the very corporations responsible for political lobbying against file sharing out of a fear of losing royalties. This is the crux of the labor crisis identified in "Meditation on Wage Labor and the Death of the Album," and it is unquestionably about industry - not file sharers.
Meanwhile, I do have concerns with file sharing, but they are not about economics, nor authorship rights. Rather, they are about an eradication of any specificity of context and audience that occurs when information is shared through populist models of making all information available to everyone. This is particularly true with regard to minor projects developed on very specific themes, from a particularly non-populist perspective, for an audience that is likely disenfranchised on more than one level. As stated in the "about.pdf" from Soulnessless: "Unfortunately, an uploaded file's online lifespan and distribution path quickly become uncontrollable through 'spider' and 'robot' applications, as well as the actions of certain end users, that indiscriminately seek to copy and archive any and all materials found online without regard for context." Certain information, in the wrong hands, quickly lends itself to undesirable misinterpretations. These can in turn damage the very people and communities such information is intended to assist. (As an extreme example of misinterpretation, think of Salmon Rushdie being forced into hiding after fundamentalist reactions to "The Satanic Verses.")
I find something valuable about the offline exchange of information in this online era. For example, socially speaking, there is a huge difference between the direct physical act of giving a CDR copy of a CD to a friend in order to share relevant information, and uploading a CD to a file sharing site for strangers of unknown politic. It is this notion of personal responsibility in the transfer of information that I find lacking among blanket file sharers who upload anything and everything for anyone and everyone. Unfortunately, the ramifications of this irresponsibility can end up betraying the initial good intentions underlying their simple desire to share information. As an audience, how willing are we to take responsibility for the care of "underground" information's distribution and cultural movement? I realize my stance on file sharing is still not a popular one, but it is radically different from the trope about lost royalties portrayed by Bohn.