“Clots” is a project by percussionist and composer Nick Hennies, designer Clay Odom, and sound artist Sean O’Neill. Appearing on Hennies’ label Weighter Recordings as a one-hour film on DVD, the release hovers between a number of different categories, such as performance documentary, artist’s film, audio-visual installation, and music video. The invisible fourth member of the band, multimedia visual artist Raphael Umscheid, shot the footage at live performances in Austin, Texas in 2013, but it takes some time for the nature of the work’s elaborate performance environment to reveal itself.
The film’s opening sequences invoke an almost ritualistic sense of altered consciousness. A repeated percussion pattern is paired with hazy, heavily manipulated images or extreme close-ups of unidentifiable glowing objects. There’s something off-kilter about these musical and visual motifs, with the repetitions not seeming quite exact, as if some beats had a habit of landing off-balance. These possible timing irregularities, and the use of visual effects such as doubling, mirroring, and reversal, play with the mechanics of perception, creating and undoing illusions in a constantly-shifting arrangement of masks.
Gradually, though, the identities of the strange, psychedelic objects filmed by Umscheid become clearer, and the layout of an intricately constructed inhabitable artwork becomes clearer. Engaging with architecture, interior and lighting design, cinema in its widest sense, and all the smoke and mirrors of the theatre, the spaces through which an occasionally-glimpsed audience move are rich in colour and atmosphere. Many of the design aspects point back to musical ones — for example, one discrete installation contains a snare drum, a microphone, a lightbulb, overhead projectors, and shadows, with the implication that the drum sounds by itself somehow (perhaps through the heat of the lightbulb hanging above it causing its skin to expand?).
The music follows Hennies’ penchant for subtle affective states arising from extended repetition, while retaining the strong sense of performing agency heard in recent releases by him for Weighter, Consumer Waste, and Quakebasket. However, O’Neill’s contributions on electronics also come through strongly, particularly in later sections. This brings a sense of multiple discrete layers to the composition, with each section comprised of a number of interlocking parts — an orchestration that fits well with the audio-visual immersion conjured by the project as a whole.
Given the impression of such an immersive environment, its reproduction in single-channel video and two-channel audio perhaps seems a little limited, especially given the impact such a work could have as a multi-channel installation. However, it has to be recognised that this is the only format in which most of those not fortunate enough to attend the original performances of “Clots” could get to experience the work; the heavily manipulated and edited footage also casts a whole new light on the project. In a world where no listener can move without hitting a wall of ‘must-hear’ albums that all follow more or less the same tried and tested format, this willingness to embrace new collaborative opportunities and experiment with new ways of making and distributing work is a welcome break from the norm. At a basic level, it could be said that sound (and, by extension, music) is spatial, in the sense that it needs a space to fill, and the arrangement and perception of that space has a direct effect on what is heard. “Clots” shows that working across artistic disciplines to intervene thoughtfully and playfully in the shape and colour of that space is an effective way to create innovative and affective new music.