Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Jeremiah Cymerman & Charlie Looker - A Horizon Made Of Canvas (Astral Spirits, 2021)

 By Stef Gijssels

Two deep impressions about this album. First, musically, it's again an incredibly strong listening experience, full of agony and despair. Second, conceptually, I had to struggle ethically with the incoherent extreme right rantings of the author behind the title of this album. 

"A Horizon Made of Canvas" is the title of the first chapter of a very long text by the far right blogger Mencius Moldbug (Curtis Guy Yarvin), who questions concepts such as equality, progress and democracy. Evidence and scientific knowledge are not his forte, and neither are intellectual rigour and methodological discipline. He is inherently racist in his chaotic and often deranged rantings, in which hundreds of concepts and facts are thrown together without any clear line of thought or even a coherent system proposal. What he does create through his writings is a world of dread, in which everything is wrong, everything is manipulated and values do not exist, except biological inequality, and in the illogical chaos he creates he totally confuses principles of ethics such as universal human rights and legal ones such as equality with biological and genetic diversity. 

To clarify things, Cymerman and Looker do not support his worldview. Charles Looker explains his history of dealing with Moldbug in one of his blogs, explaining his very personal situation, his vulnerability of the moment, his emotional state and the notions of the author: "My disdain for the Alt-Right is well documented, but Yarvin wasn't Alt-Right, whatever his Wikipedia entry might say. I certainly can't get behind a lot of what he says about race, to say the least. But he's been really inspiring to me in how thoroughly he deflates some of the most fundamental assumptions of the entire modern secular humanist worldview (egalitarianism, democracy, progress). There's a really scary vertigo in encountering a coherent system of thinking that's totally alien, even anathema, to the system of thought you didn't even realize you were living within." I believe Looker needs some more reading and thinking, as well as to reconsider - again - that the core principles of democratic society such as as human rights, equality are not assumptions. They do not exist, yet. They are aspirations, a reality to strive for, for the benefit of everyone. 

I can understand the philosophical questioning, the existential despair, and the emotional destabilisation by reading all this, leading to a deep-rooted angst about our presence and place in the world and the universe. 

The other titles on the album are also inspired by authors and thinkers whose worldview is inherently pessimistic: 

French novelist Jean Genet (1910-1986) (The Ecstasy of Betrayal) - "Anyone who hasn't experienced the ecstasy of betrayal knows nothing of ecstasy at all."

Another French novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848-1907) (Speaking of Dust) - “Speaking of dust, 'out of which we came and to which we shall return,’ do you know that after we are dead our corpses are devoured by different kinds of worms according as we are fat or thin? In fat corpses one species of maggot is found, the rhizophagus, while thin corpses are patronized only by the phora. The latter is evidently the aristocrat, the fastidious gourmet which turns up its nose at a heavy meal of copious breasts and juicy at bellies. Just think, there is no perfect equality, even in the manner in which we feed the worms.

And another French novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline (1894-1961), the author of very pessimistic novels of high literary value (eg. Voyage au Bout de la Nuit), which also offers a bleak view on the human condition. 

As Cymerman writes: "Each of these writers (and many more!) have opened up ways of thinking for me that require questioning the world around you and participating actively with subversion (in this case free improvised music)". 

I truly did have to get over the sick thoughts of Moldbug to get to the music, read it, try to capture what he wrote (and I have read a lot of philosophy in my life, but clearly this does not qualify as anything close to a coherent philosophical argumentation). And despite the explanations, it still bugs me and even made me hesitate to review the album. It meant reading ideas that are morally and ethically rejectable by any human standard. When you reject equality, by implication you assume some superiority (biological, ethnic, religious, ...). When you reject democratic principles, by definition you advocate for the power of the few over the many. 

Back to the music now. The duo are Jeremiah Cymerman on clarinets and Charlie Looker on guitars and piano. 

Like with the other albums by Cymerman, the sonic universe created is one of desolation and despair. The dark and moaning sounds of the clarinet are perfectly balanced with the somber and raw tones of the guitar or piano. The music is slow, carefully crafted and deeply emotional. 

"The Ecstasy of Betrayal" starts with sparse single piano tones, and absolutely haunting clarinet sounds, which slowly, gradually develop towards a crescendo, pushed forward by a deep foundation of dark electronic undertones. The inherent contradiction and conflict of the title is a sensation that pushes you to feel, and to feel deeply. 

In "Speaking Of Dust", Looker switches to guitar, in a very like-minded structure: limited guitar tones, a dark and solemn dialogue with high reverb of the clarinet. We are somewhere at the edge of infinite space, taking a step further than we are allowed. The piece is full of foreboding and dread. 

"I'll Show You What You Are", is the short centerpiece of the album, with arpeggiated chords on the guitar creating an eery atmosphere for Cymerman's clarinet. The long title track is the real 'pièce de résistance', again introduced by single piano chords and dark electronic rumblings inviting you straight to hell. It is slow, it does not really evolve, but just changes shades of darkness, like a grand panorama of severe devastation and ominous desperation. 

The last track continues in the same vein, with a repetitive chord progression on the electric guitar setting the scene for horrifying clarinet phrases. 

The music is all about the uncanny sensation that reality is not as it seems, that there is something darker and more ominous behind it, something that we are not allowed to qualify or even to name. The only thing left is this experience of existential angst expressed in the only way possible: music, this music. All the references, all the solid foundations have disappeared, as well as the frameworks that kept us together, and possibly kept us sane. It's the terrible personal experience that you, as the individual are alone in a very hostile and incomprehensible society and universe. 

You can only appreciate the quality of the music, and the deep commitment of both musicians to go very deep and very far into unpleasant territory. That's what you expect from art, to be uncompromising and radical and daring. 

As a true democrat, I will let them the opportunity to have their opinions and and worldviews, even if from what I understand it's more the questioning that attracts their attention than the actual answers provided. 

I will let the listeners judge. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp

4 comments:

  1. Musically I like this record.

    BUT, I had no idea of the origin of the title of the album and I'm glad I didnt buy it now. It's good that you have highlighted this.

    The musicians may not agree with the author, but at best it displays deep insensitivity using that title.

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  2. I think that the musical work should be valued only for its artistic and creative content.

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  3. à propos de rienMay 7, 2021 at 5:59 PM

    "The duo are Jeremiah Cymerman on clarinets and Charlie Looker on guitars and piano," would have been a great place to begin this review of their new music.

    Please disabuse us of your inferences in the future when you have direct, qualifying statements from the artists on the subjects which have so disturbed your docile mind. At least half of what you've written is a review of the malcontent Moldbug, with you at the center, appearing as a kind of virtue-signaling scold. You wrote 10 paragraphs about the texts that the titles are derived from before mentioning a single thing about the music you are reviewing. TEN!

    I can understand trying to build a kind of bridge, or context, between otherwise abstract instrumental statements and the texts from which they earn their titles, but what happened to an artist being entitled to simply stand before an audience, rather than insisting that Looker & Cymerman speak from some imagined pulpit? Both statements from the artists that you've included here regarding the use of these titles obviously shows a complex relationship to the material, certainly not an advocacy as much as a general consideration. Hell, Looker basically says reading Moldbug simply allowed him an opportunity to step outside of his bubble because it pulled away from a kind of unexamined uniformity of thought. You appear to recognize this ("As a true democrat, I will let them the opportunity to have their opinions and worldviews, even if from what I understand it's more the questioning that attracts their attention than the actual answers provided") so why keep pushing this line about your personal disgust with Moldbug, et al and the artists' more or less abstract use of excerpts of these texts as titles?

    This resistance-liberal, reactionary style of writing used in your review is tedious to read until you actually begin dealing with the music. You've probably done more to direct the readership to Moldbug's work than to the actual record you're reviewing (this is how it worked out for me, in any case, as I had never heard of Moldbug before). If simply reading Moldbug's rantings is enough to make you sick, might I suggest you get a grip? Gee whiz, how will you ever forgive yourself for encountering one of the "bad" people and his "bad" ideas? Some genuflection or self-flagellation might be in order.

    "The music is all about the uncanny sensation that reality is not as it seems, that there is something darker and more ominous behind it, something that we are not allowed to qualify or even to name." This is the much better review you've unintentionally buried beneath the proselytizing. "You can only appreciate the quality of the music, and the deep commitment of both musicians to go very deep and very far into unpleasant territory. That's what you expect from art, to be uncompromising and radical and daring." Except for some reason you set the entire first half of your review up to contradict this statement...

    Maybe I've been harsh but this piece left me feeling frustrated. I will admit it is very difficult to write meaningfully about music, but your writing is clearly capable when the focus is on the music itself. I welcome analysis of the art adorning the sleeve as well as song titles, etc. when they provide context, but perhaps the armchair musings on artistic intention are best saved for one's personal blog...

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  4. Dear "à propos de rien", thank you for your lengthy comment. It is also through this music that I came across the writings of Moldbug. As a reviewer, it is my duty to check the inspirational references the musicians use in order to frame the music better. Giving the factual information is one thing, but in the context of art, subjective appreciation is also needed. I think the music is great. So I can recommend it to everyone.

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