Editor’s Note: Austin Franklin is the associate editor for The Sybaritic Singer. In our efforts to maintain internal integrity, Austin has not been involved with any aspect of the publishing of this review.
By Philip Schuessler, Special to The Sybaritic Singer
Austin Franklin’s Four Idols is a suite of music for live instruments and controllers using an assortment of digital signal processing techniques. Rather than being a collection of individual, disparate electro-acoustic works, Four Idols is a coherent, singular statement from multiple perspectives. One might initially think otherwise, after first reading about Franklin’s sundry methods, approaches, instrumentation, and stylistic influences. The instruments used in these recordings include crystal glasses, cymbal, cajon, and disklavier, as well as various digitally created instruments. The list of musical influences includes ambient music and noise music, among others. This collection offers something for both the experienced listener and the listener unversed in this art form.
A trembling surface, always on the verge of dissolution and decay
A crucial testament to Franklin’s compositional voice is his ability to unify the diverse approaches on this collection in a way that articulates a sum greater than its parts, and he does so without undercutting or circumventing the properties of those very approaches and methods. This is certainly no easy task when a composer as nimble as Franklin has so many creative tools at their disposal. Yet from the outset, with the raspy glitch-tones and feedback in the opening minute of “Mirage”, one hears a focused musical line – a trembling surface, always on the verge of dissolution and decay, yet surging forward with improvisatory spontaneity. “Programma”, the companion piece to “Mirage” appearing several tracks later, takes on a similar character; bubbling noise is paired with shimmering high frequencies and feedback. As these layers unfold, one gets the sense that the music is in no hurry at all; the movement and variation feels internal, with erratic micro-fluctuations of dynamics and texture within the layers. This is music immersed in a mood and transfixed on continuous, subtle change upon that mood.
Echoing cascades that re-contextualize the original sounds
The key ingredient to this sort of coherence is in Franklin’s use of thematic narrative. Francis Bacon’s philosophy of the four idols of the mind categorizes fallacies in mental processing that stand in the way of human thought. The musical references are subtle and non-programmatic, yet there are enough connections offered up such that a listener may feel grounded in an otherwise abstract sonic landscape. “Reconstruct”, a two-part work that frames the album, uses the deconstruction and subsequent electronic reconstruction of struck glasses as a metaphor for Idols of Theater – blockades of thought that, according to Bacon, must be purged from and replaced within the human mind. Here, pure tones of crystal glasses are transformed into low, metallic “gongs” and high, jangling “bells”. The sounds are disassembled then spliced together and juxtaposed to create echoing cascades that re-contextualize the original sounds in striking ways. The electronic treatments of the familiar acoustic sounds feel subtle and purposeful; they do not bring unnecessary attention to themselves but instead blend into the integral, unfolding form of the work.
The only work that feels perhaps even slightly out of place is “The Witch Hunt”, a three-movement work for disklavier, a piano controlled through remote sequencing software in Max/MSP. The first movement opens with spasmodic, pointillistic gestures in the high register of the piano, vaguely reminiscent of some of the player piano Studies of Conlon Nancarrow. The subsequent movements transform the piano figures through an elastic ebb and flow between rapid, hyperactive gestures and placid intervals of stillness. The work holds such an arresting, uniform grammar, that it stands apart from the other pieces on the album which feel more of a piece.
An elegant, artistic statement
Nonetheless, all of the music on Four Idols operates on very similar principles of material, form, and gesture. In “Drip”, there is a percolating electronic surface at the beginning, stated as a kind of textural baseline. That surface gradually coalesces and disassembles freely, builds to a bustling, restless crescendo, and then slips into abrupt changes that feel oddly familiar. “Sunbeam” works on similar principles but on a grander scale. All of the works here operate in what sounds and feels like an improvisatory shell, a sort of sonic sandbox in which the material is shaped and cultivated. The gestures are loose but not haphazard and lead to forms that are both deliberate and cogent.
For both the initiated and uninitiated listener, Austin Franklin’s Four Idols provides an elegant, artistic statement that demonstrates the expressive and flexible possibilities of electronic music. The music on this album is purposeful and beguiling in the ways it weaves a narrative through line across numerous electro-acoustic environments.
Four Idols is available for streaming and download at https://austinfranklin12.bandcamp.com/album/four-idols.
Philip Schuessler is a composer of solo, chamber, and large ensemble works as well as of electro-acoustic, folk, and experimental popular music. Recently awarded the Music Teachers National Association Distinguished Composer of the Year for his saxophone quartet Sunburst Carousel, Schuessler writes music that explores the intricacies of subtle, delicate timbres and dynamics through extended acoustic resources. Many world-renowned artists and ensembles have championed his music, including Yarn/Wire, Hypercube, Mantra Percussion Ensemble, Dither Guitar Quartet, and Hub New Music. He currently teaches music theory and composition at Southeastern Louisiana University and is Assistant Director and co-founder of the New Orleans-based contemporary arts organization Versipel New Music.