Joshua Bonnetta’s “Lago” opens with a man talking quietly, in southern Californian English, as he recounts the arson attack that destroyed his family home. In the background, as he speaks, other sounds are heard — Latino voices, the wind, piano chords — that at times overpower and drown out his words. These sounds don’t contradict him, exactly, but sort of interrupt and interfere, like static on a shortwave radio, hinting at a context wider and deeper than the story could transmit on its own. The man concludes his tale with a promise to get “some good dogs, crazy ones”, to protect his property from future attacks. This is followed by a low snarling, sounding not like a dog, but like some unidentifiable insect, power tool, or who knows what other source.
What is this place? Somewhere on the border between white and Hispanic America, between a small human settlement and the desert. A place that is partly real and partly fictionalised, recounted, mythologised. There are enough clues in the arson account and in the album liner notes to trace this place to a desert community on the shores of the Salton Sea, a lake accidentally created by engineers of the California Development Company while trying to increase water flow to the area for farming. A place that has recently seen an influx of new residents, most of them poor, and not all of them welcome; a place where an arsonist roams, setting fire to houses, histories, meanings.
Voices of teenagers, and a song in Spanish. Vehicles, clatters and clangs, echoing cracks suggestive of gunshots. Dogs barking. Yet mostly what is heard across the two tracks on “Lago” is aimless wind, and strange hummings and buzzings at various pitches, reminiscent of electrical static and underwater hydrophone rumble. In this way, the landscape emerges as a protagonist, perhaps the main protagonist in a sparse and inconclusive narrative. It sounds like an empty place, like a mirage almost. Listening creates the palpable impression of an environment that seems to sink, away from the certainties and guarantees of place-making myth, into the depths of inscrutability. The more you hear and feel, the less you know, desert water pouring in to flood your ears.
Image by Ron Jude, whose photobook of the same title was created in dialogue with the album.