I’m fascinated by the problem of knowledge–the idea that we can never directly know anything. We’re only seeing light reflecting from objects, not the objects themselves; we’re not actually hearing something that makes sound, we’re hearing the air it pushes around. It means the world is always at an elusive distance, and yet I can’t shake the feeling that it’s a gap I could somehow bridge if I only tried hard enough.
I’ve tried with Jaime Fennelly’s music. I first encountered it in the mid-00’s, when I became a fan of his trio PSI (a name the group soon changed to the more phonetically-explicit Peeesseye). But when I listened to their music, I found it tough to tell exactly what Fennelly or either of his comrades–Chris Forsyth and Fritz Welch–contributed as individuals. That was part of what made their work attractive. Their sound was so unpredictable and unclassifiable that it felt as if it had been generated by a collectively-formed mega-brain rather than three separate musicians. Peeesseye had an uncanny knack for forcing me to defocus and disengage my over-analytic side– to make me listen to the whole rather than get distracted by any particular instrument.
I got a little closer to Fennelly’s individual sonic personality in 2011, when I heard The Voice Rolling, his first full-length LP under the solo moniker Mind Over Mirrors. But again the connection hasn’t exactly been direct. Fennelly’s music is so dense and enveloping that I find myself less interested in individual elements than their overwhelming effect. The thick drones wave and pulse, dip and crest, and breathe and heave as if possessing their own respiratory system. It’s like the music is made of flesh and blood, and even though I can feel distance between what I hear and the actual technical machinations that Fennelly employs, Mind Over Mirrors still heads straight for my nerves and muscles. The Voice Rolling, and Fennelly’s amazing recent follow-up LP Check Your Swing, make something inside me move. The music is a physical potion, a gut-stirrer. You might even call it body music.
So even though I didn’t know until just recently that Fennelly had collaborated with dancer Miguel Gutierrez (first as the duo Sabotage in the early 00’s, and now in a rekindled form), I certainly wasn’t surprised to find out. The sonic drapery that Mind Over Mirrors hangs is a perfect canvas for someone who uses their body to make visual art. It’s a wide-open vista on which a dancer can paint all kinds of colors. As described on the web page for Sabotage, the pair want to explore “the all-consuming corporeality of sound,” which is nearly a perfect phrase for the effect Mind Over Mirrors’ music has on me.
The idea that drone-based music could be “all-consumingly corporeal” is perhaps not a common one. A stereotypical view holds that structured, melodic music is the most “danceable”, and experimental music is something to think about, something for the brain rather than the limbs. But to me, structured music is artificial, funneling sounds through conceptual constraints like melody and meter–constraints that come from the brain more often than the gut. Drone, by contrast, gives the natural flow of sound at least an equal chance, with its creator responding just as much to his or her own intuitions and internal rhythms as thoughts or ideas. Of course, such distinctions are ultimately trivial; all kinds of music, and all kinds of art, are ripe material for both the brain and the body. But experimental sound has a unique ability to invoke visceral response.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot since I recently talked to Gabriel Saloman, one-half of the excellent noise/drone duo Yellow Swans. Saloman has recently collaborated with dancers in order to explore the physical side of his work. “A lot of folks weren’t able to go there with Yellow Swans over the years. It was music made to be physically felt, but people didn’t reciprocate with their bodies as much as I always wanted or hoped,” he told me. “So getting to see how my music works with bodies is the most exciting and inspiring thing about making music for dancers.”
From the little I’ve seen of Fennelly and Gutierrez’s work together, the pair work from similar inspiration. But I can’t speak for them. Whatever goes into and comes out of their collaboration–whether planned conceptually, expressed verbally, felt physically, or anything in between–is something only they can know. All I can know is my response. And now that I know about the Fennelly-Gutierrez partnership, I’m hearing Mind Over Mirrors freshly again. As I sit here typing these words by thinking of them first and moving my fingers next, the pulsing “Memorander” is pouring from my speakers, and I’m hallucinating bodies in motion. I’m seeing Gutierrez in response to Fennelly’s sounds tugging the air. It’s making me imagine–and that might be the most direct connection any art can make.