It is perhaps an exercise in stating the obvious to suggest that most music strives to grab and hold on to the attention of listeners, using devices such as pounding rhythms, catchy choruses, or strong harmonies to achieve this goal. This fits in well with leading evolutionary theories of music, which propose that music evolved in order to help us communicate information, attract potential mates, or establish and confirm social hierarchies; with such goals in mind, being able to shout louder than everyone else, or have one’s message remembered hours or days later, is clearly advantageous. What then should we make of music that seems intent on avoiding attention, on remaining inscrutable to perception?
Richard Chartier and Yann Novak’s new release “Undefined” could be taken as an example of such an approach, one that aims to stay under the perceptual radar, making only the lightest and most indistinct sensory impressions. The record’s single long track is very quietly mastered, and most of the action (of which there is a lot, though much of it not apparent at first listen) takes place at the extremities of the audible frequency spectrum, where the precision of audition is perhaps at its vaguest. Deep, rumbling bass and very high-pitched, narrow hisses and whistles flesh out an amorphous and shapeless mass, something roiling and tumultuous and far from static, though careful attention and good speakers or headphones are required to follow the flux. Some sounds sit unnoticed in the mix for minutes on end, as if camouflaged, their presence only becoming perceptible once the background they had blended into falls away. It’s interesting to note that increasing the volume does little to dissipate the fog of elusiveness and quietness that hangs over the record, that perhaps is the record. It is almost as if “Undefined” doesn’t want to be heard, or at least not easily.
So what exactly might be the purpose of making this music, of presenting such audition-shy sounds as music? To my mind it would seem an act of mimesis, re-presenting common phenomena that also sit on the edges of perception: the tingle of electricity that precedes a storm, voices in the distance, or a ship disappearing over the horizon. These phenomena often seem to rub against the grain of the rest of experience, as if cut from a different sort of time, sudden droplets of intensity in which all the senses are pushed to their maximum alertness and sensitivity. “Undefined” has a similar effect, at least on me; I hold my breath and strain to hear. And this brings a rush of recognition, of a bodily state of awareness as much as of a sound. Of course, this isn’t necessarily how another listener might experience the record, or even how Chartier and Novak intended it to be experienced. But what I mean to suggest here is that its vagueness may well be motivated, rather than being ambiguous simply for ambiguity’s sake (the latter being a form of semiotic free-for-all that often serves merely to cover a general lack of substance). And it is one way of accounting for the power of a music that draws the awareness of the listener out to meet it without ever shouting “Pay attention!”.
In any event, one gets the sense that the composers too are straining to hear, and that the music develops out of this highly focused act of listening. “Undefined” offers no clear and unambiguous message to please the evolutionists, but there is still a lot to experience and to think about, and the impression it makes is all the more lasting for its subtlety.