Just off the coast of Lee County, Florida lies the island of Captiva. Once inhabited by a community of Native Americans known as the Calusa, today its white sands are lined with luxury homes for the rich and successful, including the former home of artist Robert Rauschenberg. Following Rauschenberg’s passing in 2008, the foundation in charge of his estate decided to use the studio and residential facilities there to offer an artists’ residency programme in the style of Rauschenberg’s early years at Black Mountain College, and it was on the invitation to participate in this programme that musician and artist Marcus Fischer found himself arriving on the island in early 2017. A priority for his time at the Rauschenberg studios was to complete his next solo album “Loss”.
“I really thought that I would just sit down and edit and mix what I had and that would be that. What I did not expect was how that place, the environment and the people that I was there with would totally change what I set out to do,” he recounts by email following his return home to Portland, Oregon. ““Loss” started out as a kind of tribute to loss itself and the emotions that I felt around loss, but it really expanded for me and started to be an investigation into what loss really is and all these different kinds of loss. Way beyond the loss of a loved one. A huge loss was the loss of the US presidential election by Hillary Clinton which really was a loss to us all… and has led to so many other kinds of loss.”
Loss is not just an abstract concept for Fischer; it is a key component of his music-making process, which frequently involves the use of reel-to-reel tape and other analogue media. “In the analogue realm, in making a copy of a copy there is generation loss,” he explains. “In recording over something, you lose what came before it. In putting a speaker on one side of a huge room and a microphone on the other you lose something in the air between those two points in space. The thing that is interesting is to observe and highlight what happens as a result of those losses. Because in those cases something is lost but something is also gained. Dynamics change, tone changes, new elements are introduced.
“At the Rauschenberg residency I was really able to stretch out and do things that I couldn’t have done in my Portland studio. I started making enormous tape loops and layering sounds that spanned much greater lengths (therefore longer durations of time). In creating these sound on sound loops the previous recorded material would start to decay in variety of ways depending on tonal quality or how loud the new sounds were in comparison to the previous generation. There were always ghosts of these sounds popping up and intermixing with the newer recorded layers. I was also able to use the size of my Rauschenberg studio and the reverb it created to add ambience to the entire album. That space kind of became my collaborator.”
As well as the new solo album, Fischer also found time on Captiva to work on other projects — including the sound piece ‘Untitled (Words of Concern)’ (see video below), and an intriguing foray into the world of brass casting. “I made a set of more than twenty brass tuning forks which were all copies of one another. The tuning forks really brought this generation loss idea into the physical realm which was extremely satisfying. My goal for those tuning forks is to create a long format piece using them and display the actual forks themselves in a kind of installation.” A copy of a copy of a copy, with a ‘degeneration’ you can both hear and see.
“Loss” is Fischer’s first full-length album of new studio material since 2012’s “Collected Dust”, but it’s hardly as if he’s been keeping silent — and many of the seeds for the new album can be found in collaborations and other works that have appeared in the intervening time. It was the long echoing corridor leading to the rehearsal space used by his band Unrecognizable Now that first stoked Fischer’s interest in room reverberation, leading to that group’s 2013 album “Two Rooms”. And the creative potential inherent in reel-to-reel tape is a key theme of “Twine”, his second collaboration with musician and 12k label boss Taylor Deupree (though the interest in tape goes back much further). “I feel like all my different interactions with other artists and disciplines all serve to inform what I am doing with my music,” he comments. “Sometimes it’s more direct than others, but I feel like you can easily draw lines between the different projects I’m involved in.”
Despite these signs of steady evolution, however, there seems to be something qualitatively different about “Loss” that sets it apart from Fischer’s previously released work, both solo and collaborative. Specifically, there seems to be a sense of intent and purpose to the new album that makes the quiet immersion of his breakthrough release “Monocoastal” (2010) seem almost passive in comparison. The new work is still quiet, and still surges in loose waves rather than marching to a fixed beat — a tendency Fischer attributes to growing up just minutes from the ocean, and an adult life always living near a body of water. Yet this surging energy now seems more channelled and directed, a shift that is hard to pin down yet equally difficult to deny. It is the difference between simply being in a situation and seeking to change it.
Perhaps key to this shift is the new album’s approach to melody. “On “Monocoastal” the tracks tended to flow between instruments, and you sometimes couldn’t tell what was making really making the melodies and tones,” Fischer explains. “Part of what I wanted to do on “Loss” was to have the instruments that I was using stand a bit more on their own than on previous work. Most of the melodic elements on “Loss” are right up front and unadorned.” This directness brings greater conceptual and emotional clarity to the music, despite the generally lush ambient setting: listen to the pointillist piano on the title track, for example, or the driving strummed guitar of ‘While’.
It’s the final track ‘Home’, however, that packs the greatest cogency and emotional punch: its unnerving drone, vague shuffling, and whistling wind create a cloudy and lonely atmosphere. The drone gives way to faint glimmers and shifting static, a lull before another wave of tones breaks forth. Although fairly abstract and irregular in tempo, the piece nonetheless seems driven along by some unseen force — and no more so than when, after you’d thought everything had finished, the wave returns for the final three times, recalling the ending of ‘Wave Atlas’ from “Monocoastal”, but in a much darker register.
The release of “Loss” is the culmination of a project long in gestation, but work for Fischer continues apace. Projects recently completed include soundtrack album “Film Variations”, collecting material created for the short film “Youth”; the third Fischer/Deupree album “Lowlands”, appearing as an edition with photographs by Ester Vonplon from boutique project Iikki Books; and a short tour with new improvised electro-acoustic band Wild Card, also featuring Paul Dickow (Strategy) and William Selman (Warmdesk). More live dates with Deupree, Rebecca Gates, and Secret Drum Band are planned for later in the year. “I feel like this year, with the political climate as it is, it has been more important to me than ever to collaborate and make collective noise,” he says. “I can’t point to exact reasons why but it just feels right. I came into music by playing with friends and not through any traditional schooling. Creating spontaneously with a small group of friends and learning from doing has always been central to my creative process. Creating as a group is really something magical.”
Responding to the current “political climate” would seem to require a coming to terms with loss, regardless of your stance on the contentious issues of the day. Though necessary, however, this is only the first step in a process; to my ears it seems that what Fischer’s music pushes for isn’t merely acceptance, but change.
List photo by Cara Denison