Beauty is not what beauty is; beauty is what beauty does: intention manifested through action, tested by tangles of flesh-taking and blood-letting happenstance. The five W’s of journalism—who, what, when, where and why—are foundational to man’s nature as a self-made creation; and yet, as an ironic third act to the comedy-drama that is life, every adult eventually returns to the same hydra-headed question that amuses all kids consumed by the concept of infinite regress: why. Why are we stopping at the gas station, Daddy? To fill up the car with gas, Son. Why are we filling the car with gas, Daddy? Because a car needs gas to move. But why does a car need gas to move? Because the engine is built to process gas in a way that converts it from one form to another, creating energy so that the car can then move, thus getting us to Grandmother’s house for the holidays. But why? Because I said so. Now stop talking so that Daddy can drive.
As boundless as the why may be, a timeless ontological stumbling block for the wayward soul, science—unlike metaphysics—operates from the realm of the how. Matthew Atkins‘ latest experimental sound project, Fifty Three Loops, explores the issue of how sounds are ordered before the question of why ever insinuates itself. The results bypass any conventional criteria of beauty, built from angles and ratios more at home on graphing paper than staff paper. This is music to be studied rather than savored, a goal shared in common with Conceptual artists like Sol LeWitt. And just like LeWitt, the irony-bare visionary who freed art from its excessively Romantic past—where the I reined as center of being and world—Atkins largely jettisons selfdom from Fifty Three Loops’ sonic sculptures.
Fifty Three Loops sources sounds chiefly from a decommissioned drum kit. Various percussion instruments are discreetly plucked, pounded, bowed, and scraped. Piano appears sporadically, along with occasional electronics. Sounds are lightly EQ’d to enhance their natural character, but still left appreciably raw. Atkins’ structural process involves the patient introduction of one loop after another, divergent layers laboring to co-exist, pushing and pulling against each other in subtle undulations. Similar to its liner note artwork depicting a web of crisscrossing lines, the layers within Fifty Three Loops trace contrasting paths, leaving no crumbs along the way—neither hummable melodies, nor calculated harmonies. With timbre and rhythm functioning as the sole variables between loops, the slightest fluctuation in inflection causes profound effects.
True to its title—literalism being an endearing quality for any Conceptual artist—Fifty Three Loops is an exclusively loop-generated album, the why (because I said so) is the how (via loops—again, and again). There is nothing else offered, or withheld. No CliffsNotes are necessary to grasp its inner meanings. The character roster is as modest as the premise; the loop functions both as road and vehicle: driver and passenger, alike. Yet Fifty Three Loops is far more commanding than Atkins’ previous projects, more mature in vision and expression. Perhaps partially owing to Atkins’ background as a drummer (with an ongoing role in the indie-rock bands Crumbling Ghost, and Smallgang, among others), his foregrounding of rhythm reduces sounds to a frugality of form, stripped of extraneous flotsam that usually burdens his peers.
Like anything true, Atkins is not without his paradoxes. Despite the pledge of Conceptualism permeating Fifty Three Loops, a human element still remains: quite preciously, the album is published in a micro edition which includes hand-made art in the style of Abstract Expressionism. Furthermore, Atkins’ Instagram account shows ample evidence of a restlessly creative mind able to find art almost everywhere. Atkins’ photography features contrasting subjects equally: city architecture shares the same scale as backyard butterflies; subway street photography is no more austere than studio interiors. To simply capture what one sees is simply enough.
Fifty Three Loops hardly passes for a traditional beauty; but, more than likely, its creator hardly cares. The beauty is in the compositional method—both origin and destination of creative stimulus realized and transmitted in full—as an end without further aim. Man may dictate the why, the pink meat motive from a bird’s eye view, but context dictates the how, the terra firma of all entanglements. Although Matthew Atkins’ Fifty Three Loops is certainly not without allure, it never settles for easy drone tropes, managing to avoid abrasive noise and immersive ambiance, committing itself fully to the goal stated at the outset: Just do what you are, in order to hear what you think. If only life were so simple.