Lea Bertucci – Metal Aether (2018)
When addressing any work of art, we intuitively negotiate a complex series of evaluations. There’s the obvious – to what extent we understand and like what we see or hear, against those aspects which remain less observed – where an object sits within the larger frameworks of culture and society, what its elements are, and the nature of its operation on broader terms. In most fields of creative practice, the eye and ear tend to veer toward the familiar, beautiful, and known. We know what we like and like what we know, hoping only for subtle shifts which fulfill a desire to recognize that progress or distinction has been achieved. Experimental music, at its best, flips this orientation on its head – its very being and definitions satiating an audience’s hope to be displaced – to enter the unknown and that which not yet understood – a proximity not without observable paradox when recognizing that this music if very often identified and defined through the presence of long standing aural signifiers. Thus, when addressing a work of contemporary experimental music, one must move beyond its relation to its own context and the signifiers found within, evaluating its location and operation as its primary force. It is not what this music sounds like – its aesthetics, which defines it, but our own individual relation to it, with what it sets out to do and does.
These are questions called to mind by the NY based composer, synthesist, and reed player, Lea Bertucci’s latest LP on NNA, Metal Aether – a stunning work of extended technique for alto saxophone, threaded with field recordings and other instrumentation, built from her enduring focus on acoustic phenomena. It is her fifth solo full length release, following on the back of 2017’s widely celebrated All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, part of long arc which has slowly brought her to prominence in the world of experimental music over the last decade – something well deserved. She and her work are equal in their intellectual brilliance, ambition, curiosity, and desire to push a conversation into ever more surprising waters. If history has any justice, with contemporaries like Ashley Bellouin, Tashi Wada, Sarah Hennies, Byron Westbrook, and Sarah Davachi, she will be among those members my own generation who will contribute to the vision of the current era of American avant-garde practice in sound and music – its best and brightest.
In the critical approach to contemporary efforts within experimental music, a crucial and developmental complexity is its relation to its own definitions and terms of recognition. For roughly three quarters of a century, this music has been largely understood and addressed through an internal sense of radicalism – easily distinguished shifts in sound and approach, through which each successive generation or individual practice distinguished itself from the next. Over the course of the last two decades, this has begun to change – shifts becoming more nuanced, reflective, and subtle. The speed of radical and easily distinguished progress can only keep its pace for so long. Thus defining this music, with understanding what it does, has become more difficult, demanding the ear to seek out less easy observed aspects of its operations and intentions. With each passing year, it seems to be increasingly possible for that which is defined as experimental music to not be that thing at all – only sharing superficial aesthetics, for something which shares the aesthetics of another era to be entirely new, or something which does not sound like what we recognize to be experimental music, to be that thing.
Bertucci’s focus on acoustic phenomena, which lays the groundwork Metal Aether, has been, within an extremely varied series of approaches, been part of experimental practice for decades – the notion of a third, unpredictable actor within the spectrum of sound – the space in which sound manifests. Ros Bandt, John Butcher, Christina Kubisch, Akio Suzuki, Sarah Hennies, and numerous others have laid important groundwork in this field, which, in many ways, represents one of the great, inexhaustible challenges within experimental music – a spectrum of composition where the outcome can truly never be known (check out the Vor Der Flut LP, issued by Eigelstein Musikproduktion in 1985, to catch a glimpse of this territory’s breath). It stands beyond the realm of aesthetics, falling somewhere between practice, principle, and philosophy. Metal Aether is an iconic expression of this spirit – raw and active, full of the life and energy which can only spring from an artist stepping beyond their comfort zone – beyond the immediacy of its own sound, into something unpredictable, elemental, and undefinable.
The question of aesthetics – what a thing sounds like, versus what it is, how it operates, and what it sets out to do on conceptual terms, is an important factor when addressing Metal Aether, because, to a certain extent, when viewed superficially, it shares ground with a number of well trod paths in experimental music, particularly the efforts of 1970’s Minimalist like La Monte Young and Terry Riley, especially notable, in the case of the later, when placing works like Dorian Reeds and Poppy No-Good against the album’s first track, Patterns for Alto. While each of its four works represents a distinct effort in structural and tonal constraint, nothing about Metal Aether feels referential or a product of pastiche, but rather the outcomes of a series of inquires and practice which are entirely of this moment. There is shared ground, but the intention, operation, and outcome is profoundly different, as though to suggest a series of infinite possibilities and trajectories, linking the past to the future, which remain unexplored. It is album which is as much about what is presented, as that which is not.
In the simplest sense, Metal Aether presents the duality which makes experimental music such an incredible realm – a reminder of its life force. It is creatively brilliant, incredibly beautiful, and an emotive and challenging gut punch for the mind as much as the ear – it’s tones and structures destabilizing the presumptions of what is known and expected with a certain territory of sound, but, were it this alone, it would not be the triumph that it is. Its second component – what it indicates, rather than what it is and does on literal terms, is its greatest accomplishment. It returns the great truth of experimental music to forefront of the mind – that this music is not a sound or aesthetic territory, but rather a practice, principle, and a philosophy which sets out to indicate the possibilities of our own freedom and love for the unknown. It is an album that doubles as a way of being. Built from cycling tones, complex drones, and raw sound collages of field recordings, Metal Aether is among the best efforts in experimental practice to appear this year – as immersive as it is challenging, offering great hope for the future to come. Check it out below, and pick it up from Lea’s Bandcamp page or a record store near you.