Primal Dirge: Jan Tumlir on Sunn O)))

By Tumlir, Jan | Artforum International, April 2006 | Go to article overview

Primal Dirge: Jan Tumlir on Sunn O)))


Tumlir, Jan, Artforum International


LISTENING TO A SUNN O))) record at normal volume is a calculatedly disappointing experience. Take, for example, their latest full-length album, Black One: Released on CD last year and recently issued as a double LP, it features an elaborate gatefold sleeve boasting a morosely hyperstylized drawing of an overgrown forest. This package seems to promise exactly the kind of overpowering, supremely lachrymose sound that the band, as the arguable apotheosis of the drone-metal subgenre, is known for. But put the record on and you may feel that you're hearing a standard set of hard-rock chord progressions making their way through the brain of an overmedicated teenager, straining through each gluey tangle of synapses, steadily losing momentum. Turn it up, though, way up, and the sublime element becomes palpable: Steve O'Malley and Greg Anderson, who formed Sunn o))) in 1998, have perfected a sustained infra-sound rumble of sub-bass--so-called brown noise--that provides just about every song in their repertoire with a sphincter-loosening undertone. One thinks of those kids who curl up in the bass bins at raves. To place oneself at the point of greatest sonic impact is an act of fetal surrender and Nietzschean bravura at once. It's all very elemental: the body, a rock, pushing against a torrent of sound or else getting swept away. Sunn o)))'s music commands you, but not through the usual exercise of masterful technique. Gaining entry from below, as it were, it rattles the cage of subjectivity that holds the reptilian nerve-center of being.

That said, even as it pitches itself straight at the viscera, Sunn o)))'s music recalls a tradition more typically associated with the cerebellum: Minimalism. In fact, Steve Reich's 1968 essay "Music as a Gradual Process," a seminal articulation of this objective principle applied to sound, could be cited with surprising aptness here. In it, Reich argues that the systematic reduction of the musical work will tend to render our experience of sound more material. Just as Robert Rauschenberg's 1951 "White Paintings," which are animated only by the play of exterior light and shadow, must be experienced as inhabiting space with the viewer, so too is sound displaced into the real world--that is, the world of the listener--in Minimalist composition. For Reich, narrowing the differential between compositional parts is key to accomplishing this transposition of the work from world unto itself to thing in the world: "Listening to extremely gradual musical process opens my ears to it." Paradoxically, the closer the music comes to being all of a piece--be it one-note or non-note, very loud like La Monte Young's early drone pieces or silent like John Cage's 4'33"--the more differentiated it becomes experientially.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

This same principle is carried over to Sunn o)))'s music, but with some crucial context-appropriate amendments. To bring these into focus, one might start by noting that amid the compulsory medievalist locutions of Sunn o)))'s discography (from The Grimmrobe Demos, recorded in 1998 and released in 2000, to last year's Candlewolf of the Golden Chalice) are two records called White 1 and White 2. One hardly expects a paean to the Fab Four from a band whose self-stated mission is to create "soundscapes ... intended to massage the listener's intestines into an act of defecation," but the allusion is suggestive nevertheless. Released in 1968, the Beatles' "White Album" foiled period expectations of conceptual unity in favor of a seemingly schizoid vacillation between state-of-the-art concrete tape splicing--the futurist model for the pop sampladelia that would ultimately rearrange notions of musicality--and staunchly regressive rock purism. In the years to come, youth culture would be divided along those very same lines into two generally hostile camps. From our present perspective, however, the "White Album" can also be seen as the source of another, intermediate route, one that begins to reconfigure the oppositional framework of that prior map of cultural relations, foregrounding, instead, negotiation and compromise. …

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