John Wiese—Circle Snare (First Part)
For reasons that are pretty understandable, electronic musicians tend to be a sound-obsessed lot. It’s one thing to put a G on a tenor clef and write “vln” next to it—the intended sound is a known quantity—but it’s a whole other thing to have to code patches or synthesis methods for hours to get just one sound, so that sound damn well better be good.
But this approach tends to lead to a more laissez faire take on a few other compositional elements, especially form. This isn’t to imply that computer/electronic musicians hacks, mind you. Without their innovations with regard to timbre, technology, and integration of visuals, the music of the past few decades would be way poorer. Still, when they show real chops in other areas in addition to timbral exploration, it can be pretty revelatory—Michael Chion’s Requiem and Gilles Gobeil’s Le vertige inconnu, to take two examples, pretty much nail every aspect of the music you could ever want. Also, I posit, does John Wiese’s recent piece Circle Snare.
Unlike Chion and Gobeil, Wiese is a DIY American; he has a different palette of sounds to work with and more lacerating aims with those sounds. He’s been around for a while, and is maybe best known for participating in noise freakouts with Merzbow or his grindcore band Sissy Spacek, basically the sort of things that Cirlce Snare is conceptually kind of antithetical to—so he’s got range, as far as making aggressive noises goes.
So in that context Circle Snare might be a bit more on the tame side, although it’s still experienced like a punch in ear. Listening to and engaging with this work can be like playing an intense video game for 20 minutes—you have some sort of intense fun, and then you need to go sit outside for a few minutes and chill out about killing zombies or whatever.
The piece is divided into three cohesive parts, each beginning with eerie modesty—in the first part, some spectrum shuffles and clicks kick around in the stereo field, gradually becoming more excited, while low held tones offset the agitation in a way that’s less of a balm than a presentiment of the nastiness forthcoming. The clicks and shuffles and tones begin to merge, easing on the staccatoness of the introductory material while still pouring on the gnarl. The last third of the track is a sustained assault, not allowing any sort of relief, since after all there’s two more sections of the piece left to go.
The second part elides any idea of slow or ambient movement within about two minutes. While the opening sounds are similar to those in the first part, they evolve into something a bit more percussive, like beaten metal and cacophonic cymbals. The second part doesn’t concern itself with the building apprehension that’s present in the first part either; it’s aggression, when it occurs, is more sudden and deliberate. It’s also pretty horrific for that reason; given the sounds used, listeners having had bad experiences with orthodontia might be a bit unnerved.
The third part starts off playing the same game as the first, making like it’s going to use the same slow build of elements, but speeds the process up considerably; whereas the first part comes on very gradually, a slow accretion of elements, Part 3 is on you before you know it. But this early sonic confrontation allows Wiese to do the thing you’ve been expecting for the entire piece: he lowers the faders a bit and scales everything back. Not that he does this too gently, mind you. In fact, the jarring ways that his screeches resist being faded out make for some of the most visceral moments of the piece. But he brings it back to what could be called the piece’s most elemental place, where the clinks and bongs of the drum machine from the beginning of the second part are used to a different effect, where instead of the generating material they were in that section, they now seem like the logical result of the piece, the detritus left after the assault. It’s pretty cool.
The album ends with an outlier, a four-minute live performance of the piece Mystical Finland, which is a sort of compressed, sputtering, exaggerated rehash of the materials from Circle Snare. Its inclusion would be a bit strange if not for one thing: it reminds that, for as sterile and alienating as you might feel listening on headphones at home, this stuff can rock live. If anything, the effects are even more pronounced; the audience has to give up the little control it had over the dynamics of performance, so the result is more raw. It’s even kind of masochistic. And for all that Wiese uses in the conception of these pieces, it’s that DIY American in him that shoots for this final result.