All this trouble for nothing
There’s several points that bother me about Grisha Shakhnes’ new album “All this trouble for nothing”, things I can’t quite put my finger on. What, for example, makes Shakhnes’ work stand so far ahead of a myriad of other tape manipulators and musique concrète-layers, to the extent that such labels no longer seem quite accurate? Why does ‘Utopia’ intuitively seem the perfect title for the album’s opening track, which is neither mindlessly blissful nor wistfully nostalgic? What makes the pretty drone of ‘Hectic Light (Allemagne-Palestine)’ so compelling and confounding, rather than just pretty?
It could be something to do with technique: clearly a high degree of analogue technical wizardry went into the making of the album. And yet, Shakhnes doesn’t flaunt the tired signifiers of tape manipulation — no obvious cut-ups or speed changes here. Perhaps it’s the result of a high degree of composition control, where the position and duration of every sound is thoroughly thought out; or a sharp attention to detail in the timbres and textures chosen, in the balancing of rough with smooth, loud with quiet? Maybe, but that doesn’t seem to fully account for the presentness of Shakhnes’ music, the way in which it seems to just appear, multiple yet fully formed, as if excavated from gradually accreted layers of sediment rather than composed or constructed in the studio. As if the happening of these six object-pieces was somehow a different matter from the (considerable) work of making space for that happening.
Let’s go back to the first track, and try to unpick this problem a little more. The title can be understood as referring to a number of different things, but what I hear when I listen to ‘Utopia’ is an event built out of concrete skyscrapers and elevated walkways, social optimism and committed praxis, the rigour of theory and the discipline of rhythm. It seems to echo a particular historical moment — that of the Fifties and Sixties in the Non-Aligned world, perhaps — and yet it is happening now. Is this just my imagination running away with me? How could music perform such a fidelity to situations and occurrences outside its own performance? Would I have heard these things if the piece had been called something different, something less allusive? Maybe not; but as I said, the title can be interpreted in a number of ways, and yet it seems clear to me that some interpretations are more appropriate than others. I’m still not sure, however, how to account for such an appropriateness.
By this point the poor composer is undoubtedly wondering sadly if all his efforts were indeed for nothing, if his music ends up being this poorly understood by clueless reviewers. It’s by no means necessary, however, to get oneself tied up in interpretive puzzles of one’s own making, as I’ve done above, in order to enjoy “All this trouble for nothing”: Shakhnes’ music is substantial and absorbing and subtly spellbinding whether you over-analyse it or not. Even at its heaviest and most chaotic, there’s a quietness of thought about it that consistently draws me in, compelling me to listen. In the end, this soaking in of frequencies and textures itself becomes a kind of thought.
Image by Yael Skidelski