The Unintentional Sea
I am listening to Rafael Anton Irisarri’s “The Unintentional Sea”, three days after Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines. The first track is entitled “Fear and Trembling”. Under different circumstances, I might have heard too much projected emotion, even melodrama, in the album’s dark ambient surges led by guitar and synth. I don’t hear it that way now. Though it’s difficult to judge the extent to which external events influence how music is perceived, it would be a step too far to say that “The Unintentional Sea” was ‘about’ cataclysmic oceanic events in any clear, direct sense; it is not a soundtrack to natural disaster, as if the packaging and sale of such sounds could even be contemplated. Yet there is nonetheless something uncanny about the timing of its arrival in my playlist, a coincidental catalyst for some hard thinking.
Art’s celebration of natural beauty is arguably complicit in the gradually increasing domination, beginning around the sixteenth or seventeenth century, of human knowledge and endeavour over nature. This apparent mastery, wielded by science and new technologies, allowed the natural world to transition from a wild, untamed realm of gods and monsters, where humans ventured only reluctantly, to the quaint, picturesque landscape of nostalgia and recreation that hung in the drawing rooms of the newly urbanised industrial classes, signed by names such as Constable and Lorrain; it is this landscape that we cherish as nature today. What was lost in this transition, so the narrative goes, was an awareness of the mortal threat that the environment nonetheless continues to pose; this failure of perception is at least partly to blame for our inability to muster any meaningful response to anthropogenic climate change. In other words, the problem is an aesthetic one.
Yet some artists — and this is where we come back on-topic — are beginning to experiment with forms that affirm the otherness of non-human beings and forces, their existence for-themselves rather than merely as raw resources for the exercise of human will, while retaining the sense that intimate contact with such otherness would not necessarily be the enjoyable and self-affirming experience it is often marketed as. We are not as scared of nature as we should be; the music of artists such as Irisarri works to correct this, among the many other possible goals it may accomplish. So how does it do so? The complexity, in terms of spectral character, of the timbres Irisarri uses is balanced by the relative simplicity and repetition of each track’s melodic and harmonic development — a balance that mirrors or mimics that of a hugely complex and immense ocean that nevertheless beats against the shore with a loose regularity. Yet the weight of the Seattle-based musician’s bass-heavy drones, a weight felt even in the album’s quieter moments, leaves no doubt as to the potentially destructive force of the music’s mimetic object.
It is seven days after Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines, and I am listening to Rafael Anton Irisarri’s “The Unintentional Sea”. The press release claims that the album was partially inspired by a failed attempt to irrigate California by redirecting a river; such failures serve to undermine the sense of mastery that allows us to continue belching out greenhouse gases without thought and without worry. Irisarri gives his sea a strident, confident voice, yet it is often in the quieter moments — such as penultimate track “Daybreak Comes Soon” — that the sheer uncertainty of what lies brewing in the deep, of the safety of the position from which one watches the waves crash against sand and rock, becomes palpable. This is classic dark ambient music deployed to unsettle and disturb as much as quieten, resonating with a truth we need to listen more closely to.