Keith Fullerton Whitman
here's so much mystique / mythmaking surrounding certain avenues of computer based music..." said Whitman in a 2004 interview, "when there should really just be fact and practice. I have no qualms about laying bare my own working methods in the same way that someone like Thurston Moore would be more than glad to run down the various tunings that he uses to concoct his teen-angst anthems."
Music released under Whitman's own name (as opposed to the more joyful and irreverent work he puts out as Hrvatksi) is, as might be supposed, something he considers to be honest, personal, direct encounters with his sonic first loves (in this case that would include the largest slice of Western electro-acoustic music, tracing back in earnest to at least Pierre Schaefer's GRM crew). Multiples arrives as the cleanest expression of that love Mr. Whitman has released to date (and not purely attributable to the fact that it has seen him fortunate enough to be able to create this music almost entirely on period electronic instruments).
After a tour-stop at the HUSEAC (Harvard University Studio for Electro-Acoustic Composition) Whitman approached the faculty with a proposal to record works using their collection of historical electronic music artifacts (namely Harvard’s prototype for the Serge Modular synthesizer) and was offered an amicable exchange: 'teach graduate computer-music workshops during, get free-time to play with our toys.' Not a raw deal for a music collector/enthusiast/historian/writer/composer for whom the invitation to expose, explain, revel in, and generally chew the fat off of computer music's muscle must have been a fair reward in and of itself.
Some instruments (the Serge Modular, Buchla Box, etc) were developed with a spirit of innovation by engineers and composers in the throes of a progressive modernist mission to move past the pitch/duration axis of compositional priority that, in the middle of the 20th century began looking like the cart before traditional notation's horse. Other instruments here sprouted from an industrial pragmatism, a spirit of practical mimicry (the Disklavier, Farfisa). As the record progresses, Whitman slowly introduces additional instruments, widening the tonal and self-referential scope successively, relaxing his fidelity to provenance and historical fidelity, and eventually invites early Hewlett-Packard's to make nice with Buchla boxes, acoustic guitars, and laptops. The final tracks (part 1 and 2), in what must have been a very self-aware choice, are an anthropomorphic digestif, resonating most familiarly with Whitman's earlier releases and serving to recapitulate and assimilate the earlier, more elemental tracks. These two tracks alone make the record worth owning.
Multiples traces the perimeters of electronic music, from the incidental to the laboratory-bound, with the cautious grace of an anthropologist. There is a kind of truth to this metaphor but it also acts as disservice to Whitman in taking it too far—Whitman is a composer and Multiples, if it may be perceived at first glance as a demonstration disc for a curated collection of electro-acoustic curios (perhaps unwittingly encouraged by clinical song titles like "Stereo Music for Serge Modular Prototype: Part One," etc.), the perception melts away as the record eases into successively more relaxed, buoyant territory. These eight tracks become progressively elastic and delicate works of historical re-imagination as the record rolls to summation, beginning by exploring the properties of a single method/sound (Stereo Music for Hi-Hat) or instrument (the Serge Modular pieces) and developing toward the combination of instruments that span decades and traditions. Each piece manages is in its own space to retain the halo of a still life, displaying focused compositional appreciation for the properties of the artifacts themselves, as well as (and this is a key differentiator) acknowledging the very specific historical context that accompanies each: both phenomena are drawn-upon in equal measure, and both with startlingly listenable success. Whitman has produced music that (particularly as a collection) neither fetishizes the scholarly pallor of early electronic music nor attempts to radically recast the tools or to play clever games with them. That the listener is transported rather than suspicious as the Serge Modular is molded to impersonate the mannerisms of LaMonte Young's Theater of Eternal Music or the Disklavier audibly pantomimes Terry Riley's early piano phase music; we are transported because the parallels drawn are teased so naturally from their sources, sounding surprisingly endemic to the instruments themselves, as if their contexts hadn't already been fossilized.
Reviewed by: William S. Fields
Reviewed on: 2005-05-18