Lately I have become enamored with the sounds of drones, especially Kranky drones, and I was able to indulge myself when Keith Fullerton Whitman came to St. Louis last night. The venue was perfect, a modern setting right by the river with the artists set up in what looked like the garage area. The lights were dimmed, there were few windows and the floor was hard concrete. I had been trying to figure out which of the figures around we was actually Whitman before his performance, and was surprised when a stout, bald man with long stiff beard walked up to the equipment. Everyone was seated as the room went darkened and Whitman began to perform.
As he generated the music on laptop and analog synthesizer in a secluded corner of the room, a slide show that threw pictures at the audience at twelve frames per second was projected onto the wall. The pictures were mostly of commonplace activities or scenes, bridges, plants, people lounging in chairs, and a surprising amount of them of cats. Whitman began with sounds that resembled metal being stretched and broken, all put through immense amounts of reverb and delay. These sounds seamlessly morphed into an electronic approximation of rain falling and beautiful drones emerged from the silence that the percussive noises were painted on. All movement in the room stopped as the crowd was drawn into the projection and the drones.
This calm, ambient middle section, which comprised the majority of the set, was the most engaging electronic performance, ambient or otherwise, that I have ever experienced. Whitman’s music coupled with the projection reflected the best elements of the mundane, of life in general. Nothing ever happens. The performance seemed to insist otherwise, that there is so much that happens in the day-to-day life of human beings, who are seemingly unremarkable, and that happiness comes through peace with the notion of boredom. The music itself would appear as boring itself to many. The whole room was captured by these mundane sounds that were also incredibly exciting and entrancing. No other artist that these ears have heard has exemplified this contradiction so well.
To delve into autobiography a little bit, this was my last night in a town that is defined by boredom, tedium, and stagnation for some time. People perceive New York as characterized by excitement and the feeling of being in motion again: the most extraordinary thing in the world. Once the realization that there can be beauty in the commonplace is made, the desertion of that commonplace is all the harder, however extraordinary the destination is. I have found something of incredible beauty that I am leaving behind in a place even more mundane than St. Louis, and I’m sure that had influence on how I perceived this performance.
As the calming drones were penetrated by harsher synthesizer noises, the atmosphere became more tense until the synth squiggles overwhelmed the calmer drones and became a sheet of noise themselves. As this happened, I was disheartened that Whitman would take a sledgehammer to something as beautiful as anything off Playthroughs, but as I think about it more, the contrast made the middle section that more remarkable and the build at the end made the piece seem more climactic. As the reverb, both natural and electronic, faded, the entire audience sat still and silent for five seconds before clapping. I had forgotten where I was momentarily. It was an incredibly happy moment.