on leo svirsky’s heights in depths


Leo Svirsky – Heights in Depths (2016)

Experimental music is world of ideas – a path into the unknown via thought and our ears. It is a realm of chance, where expectations are defied – yet in most cases, we know it when we hear it – its strategies, structures, and sounds often feel familiar and known. Experimental music has become an idiom – a practice, a world of well defined tropes, which at first glance, seems to place its meaning in paradox with itself.

The avant-garde’s contemporary condition lays within an undefined void – questions regarding how we progress (and understand such a thing), when the present cannot keep up with the radical breaks which defined the past. In the case of experimental music, radicalism – a break into the unknown, was long at the heart of its being – its very means to define. An experiment is not a proof. It cannot expect to know what it will find.

There is always bad art, and there are lazy imitators. But there is poor and lazy listening as well. Particularity in the cases of avant-garde and experimental music, our ears veer heavily toward the past – to field defining efforts, made decades ago. To the firsts, and a golden era of change – to objects which can be clearly understood as being what we expect them to be. Though radicalism is unquestionably necessary – it is the aggregator of progress, and gets us to places we need to go, it should be equally noted, that its energy is often crude and violent. It rarely brings the towering heights of possibility it attempts to propose. Though easily ignored in the face of great change, the wonders of art nearly always unfold in the hands of those who inherit these territories, rather than those which chart them first.

When facing the present and futures contexts of experimental music, we must change the terms of expectation – listen harder, and find new ways to define our experiments and what their outcomes may be. The velocity of radicalism is no longer sustained. We live in an age of subtle change.

The last year has taken great strides toward sculpting a new vision – an evolution which contributes to our understanding of the present and future of experimental music and the avant-garde. One after another, remarkable records have reached our ears – not ones which employed the radicalism which we often expect of these territories of sound, but ones which, through subtlety, investigation, and honesty of approach, elevate it to the profound beauty of art. The towering accomplishment of these albums, has forced me to face my expectations, and the terms we use to define. Within this wonderful body of effort, one such case was Leo Svirsky’s Heights in Depths.

Svirsky is a young American composer and improvisor, based in the Netherlands.  Heights in Depths represents a dramatic shift in his output, which until this point, has largely focused on collaborative free-improvisation. It is a record of shrill shimmering drone – of shifts and structures of the most subtle kind.

The use of drone, as a compositional practice, is one of many territories which helps us understand the changing terms of the avant-garde. It has been with us for decades, and as such, is familiar, well explored, and known. Its inevitable reductive constraint – tied to so many of its initial radical conceits, would imply that it is a realm and approach which could easily fatigue – that there is only so far you can push within its extended tones. Despite this, as the years pass, as countless artists plumb its depths, it continues to open doors, offering new gifts from the unknown – ones which fulfill the demands of subtlety and focused listening – the world this form drew us toward, rather than the radicalism which marked its early days.

The shrill pulsing drone, encountered in Heights in Depths – the album’s first work, is a fascinating hybrid – referencing the idiom’s history, to sculpt a proposition of its future. Within it, the static listener is transported into the kind of psychologically demanding sonic space, created in your skull, when rocking to and fro, in La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela’s Dream House. Heights in Depths forms the ethereal world of psycho-acoustics, into a palpable thing. It is as much about challenge, endurance, sustain and harmonic interplay, as it is about shift and change. It inverts the change our physicality might impose on a tone, into a structural marker – the work becoming the body of another (the musician) pushed into our ears. It is the physicality (and humanity) of Heights in Depths which makes it particularity striking. At first listen, its tones feel too perfectly considered – too immaculately sculpted and related, to be anything other than synthetic – the result of electronics – until we hear their breath. It is a perfect world, defined by the promotion of its flaws. The punctuation of the work – the markers of its body, are formed by the exhausted run of its generator – the accordion. Its fall, the clicks and clatters as it begins again, take us from ourselves, to the player, and back again – becoming compositional structures (and methods of intent) which indicate a redefinition of the form. All the seduction we have come to expect – the immersion and total world of tone, is denied as it stutters and begins again, forcing an evaluation of what we think we know, and how these relationships deliver effect.

The album’s second side – Depths in Heights, though equally challenging and physical, and also played on accordion, is a very different thing – falling somewhere between being a work of drone (sustained intertwined tone) and one of explicit melody. It is both startling, displacing, and as it progresses, increasingly surprising. It is a work drenched in the sense of self, humanity, and touch of its maker – stuttering, shimmering, and dragging itself from one place to the next. A world within which actualities seem to fade away – sounds which almost fade away in the face of the depth of honestly which is conveyed in their making.

In the most unexpected and unassuming ways, Heights in Depths has ushered some of the year’s most exciting sounds into the world – contributing energy, insight, and hope into our present and future. As experimental music has always been, it is the proposition of path, as much as a place. The album marks the debut of Catch Wave, already an ambitious and welcome entry into our world (I recommend checking the exciting things they have to come, while your at it). You can listen below, and pick it up directly from the label, or from a record store near you.

-Bradford Bailey












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