John Chantler – Which Way to Leave (2016)
John Chantler is one of my dearest friends. For the better part of the decade during which our lives crossed in London, it was rare for us to not to see each other a few times a week. We drank, ate, and made music together. We went to countless gigs, provoked the other’s tendency to buy too many records, pushed each other intellectually and creatively, laughed, and weathered storms. He and his wife’s decision to decamp for Stockholm, and being faced with a much lonelier life, contributed heavily to my own departure from England. Despite the thousands of miles that currently lie between us, we still speak as regularly as we can. His thoughts and words have been central to my understanding of The Hum, and the potential it holds. None of this has anything to do with my decision to feature his newest album – Which Way to Leave. If anything, it disposes me to hold him to a higher standard than others.
John and I were already good friends when he started to assemble his first modular synth. I watched him tumble down the rabbit hole – into what has become the central axis of his musical explorations. Considering how many times I’ve seen him play, and the nature of our friendship, it’s fair to assume (where my memory fails) that I was there for his first live modular outing, and didn’t miss one for years to follow. It’s also fair to say that the cursed little box has tested my loyalty. I’ve weathered the highs and the lows.
I’m not naturally disposed to the way modular synthesis interfaces with sound, creator, and listener. Tactility, touch, and discrete personal sensibilities (where we often encounter music’s humanity and distinction) are difficult to find. Intellectual concerns crowd the foreground. It’s a strange instrument – incredibly hard to learn, yet able to produce “interesting” results with relative ease. It can promote an early false confidence in its players – a feature that few instruments afford, and regularly risking an awareness of its potential for listeners. John’s growth over the years has taught me that mastery is elusive, similar to taming a wild animal. It was my hunt for him in his own music, as well as trying to understand what he heard in the music he loved, that provoked my interest (and subsequent understanding) of the possibilities in this world.
To contend with modular synthesis, you have to restructure the way you approach sound and music, and what you look for within it. It undermines expectation. Historically, this has always been a central proposition of avant-garde electronic and electroacoustic practice – a fracture with the methods, tones, and structures of the past. That said, it helps to enter on familiar ground, while recognizing certain inherent properties of a synthesizer. Unlike other instruments, it can generate sounds, structures, and relationships without a player. Once the appropriate patch is achieved, it can go on forever, with the possibility of never repeating itself. A synthesizer’s interface with sound stands in the place normally occupied by a musician. Picture a cellist. The bow hand, which generates a tone, is replaced by an oscillator. The left hand, which modulates that tone, is replaced by one or more synthesizer modules. Beyond the unique character of the sounds it generates, and structural potential it enables, this places the musician in a strange proximity – far closer to the conductor of an orchestra, or a composer writing in real time. They are in effect choosing, controlling, and sculpting sound, rather than creating it. This is why playing a modular synth is so difficult. Imagine a single tone passing through an entire orchestra, not always made up of musicians inclined to work together, and having to control and understand how each instrument will color and alter it.
Which Way to Leave is a watershed in John’s career. Though I’ve gotten a great deal from every record he’s released over the last five years, each seemed close to the chest, familiar, and lacked the hallmarks of brilliance and ambition that I knew my friend to posses. They didn’t do what he never failed to – challenge me, and throw me into realms of disorientation or self doubt. That’s changed. The leap is striking from the album’s outset. The wild animal has been saddled and steered, without being tranquilized or sacrificing its fury, unpredictability, and potential. These are the sounds I’ve been longing for – a deeply personal and challenging music, harnessing what makes a synthesizer so unique, without bowing to its demands or temperaments. I evaluate music by what it risks, and how it represents the character of its sounds. I dislike any tendency to create structural unity through effects, or to disguise the natural properties of a note. I long for clarity and risk, and that is what Which Way to Leave delivers. Its tones are exposed and carefully sculpted, never fractured from their source, yet imbued with depth and emotion that is almost impossible to achieve through synthesis. The relationships are jarring and brilliant. Each track delivers us to realms that only a synth could enter (with subtle additions by John’s brilliant wife Carina Thorén and the cellist Okkyung Lee) while pushing the boundaries of compositional possibility and expectation. It’s a risk laden, enlightening adventure from back to front. A provocation of stark clattering tones, clusters, air, and grating ambience, joined with ambition, profound intellect, and sensitivity. Friendship be damned. I can’t recommend this one enough. Check out the video for Falling Forward below, and pick it up via John’s Bandcamp, Room40, Soundohm, Experimedia, Forced Exposure, or your local record shop, depending on your location and preference.
John Chantler – Falling Forward (from Which Way to Leave) (2016)