Yellow Swans – Foiled
[Ed. Note: Earlier this year the celebrated Portland, Oregon, the noise duo Yellow Swans released their final record. We asked composer Jim Altieri, a one-time collaborator, for his thoughts on the band and their ultimate release.—TH]
A snapshot of my unemployed life in Portland, Oregon, late 2002: After doing the requisite Craigslist searching and cover-letter writing for the day, I go to the neighborhood park to practice some mandolin and enjoy the sun. A stranger strikes up a conversation, noting my Oberlin sweatshirt. “Isn’t that where John McEntire went?” The conversation quickly turns to electronic music. The stranger invites me over for a potluck dinner at his house later that evening. I show up bearing the requisite vegan fare and meet two of the other inhabitants of the commune-like house, Gabriel and Pete. Gabriel and Pete are in this band called Derrida Yellow Swans—no, Das Yellow Swans—well, for consistency, D Yellow Swans.
For me, it is impossible to think about DYS, the electroacoustic duo of Gabriel Mindel Saloman and Pete Swanson, without thinking of them in that house. On a hill in north Portland, snugly nestled up to the roaring I-5, Gabriel and Pete lived with the musician David Rafn (the aforementioned stranger in the park) and a couple other folks. The house was nearly always buzzing with creative play, experimental cooking, and of course, strange noise. Often, their living room would host their signature folding table full of electronics: drum machines, effects pedals, home-brewed synthesizers, a guitar or two, microphones, and bird’s nests of wires. On my first visit, after the meal was finished we all went upstairs to listen to music. I had brought along some CDs, David had just borrowed a stack of discs from the library, and we dipped into Pete’s truly prodigious and eclectic music collection. Pete had John Luther Adams and AMM CDs right next to his Jandek and Gagaku records. These were my type of listeners. Over the next year I became close friends with Gabriel and Pete, getting to know them as people and as musicians. We listened to music, went to the same potlucks, recorded an album, and played a couple of very memorable live shows together.
Here’s the thing about DYS live: they were really loud. If the PA was powerful enough, they could be nauseatingly loud. When I merely think of the DYS shows I’ve heard, my middle ear muscles flinch. When I first heard them play live, I had already gotten to know these two sweet and gentle guys pretty well, and I was surprised to hear such extreme aggression coming from the speakers. Talking with Gabriel about this later, I confessed to him that my feelings about non-violence made me extremely uncomfortable with what I perceived as violence in music. With a smile, he gently countered, “If you don’t want violence in your music, where would you prefer it?”
In that conversation, Gabriel crystallized for me something I had recently read and been mulling over in my head. In Noise: The Political Economy of Music, Jacques Attali writes, “Noise is a weapon and music, primordially, is the formation, domestication and ritualization of that weapon as a simulacrum of ritual murder.” Although the sacrificial code is usually hidden beneath many layers of abstraction, Attali argues that at its root, music is both the power to kill but also the ritual by which this power is muted. So for the record: yes, DYS is a “noise” band that can be really loud. And yes, the loudness helps the music function as catharsis for both performer and audience, fulfilling the sacrificial order described by Attali. But I think it is a mistake to dismiss the music of DYS as noise for the sake of loudness; I don’t believe that catharsis is the only intended effect, or that it is the most interesting way to talk about their music.
Portland, Oregon, can be a sort of Shangri-La for experimental musicians. The music community, at least when I lived there, was extremely friendly, open, and accepting—almost to a fault. When the prevailing mode of a musical community is acceptance rather than rejection, and inclusion rather than competition, you end up with a situation that fits John Cage’s definition of harmony: “sounds heard together.” Like Smegma, the spiritual godparents of the Portland noise music scene, DYS approaches noise not as a means to power, but as a happy consequence of inclusion, accretion, amplification, and simultaneity. Although they do use repetitive elements in their pieces—notably the drum machines and feeding-back delays—these end up functioning as a kind of sonic trolling net, allowing them to pick up the detritus that most musicians try to sift out. Using this method of radical inclusion along with the additive process of feeding-back delay, aural saturation becomes a matter of fact. I did once, however, have the lucky opportunity to hear DYS play an acoustic show. I wish I could remember all of the instruments involved, but they definitely included a paper bag, a trashcan, and some glass. During this show, I got to hear what DYS’s brand of “harmony” sounds like without the repetition of their electronics. It somehow sounded just like DYS—but how that happened, I just don’t know. It has been a lesson that I have returned to in my mind again and again.
It’s tempting to contrast DYS’s process with that of other noise artists, and try to infer the metaphorical implications. But the truth is, I’m no expert on the field of noise music, and I’m not even sure how fruitful or interesting that would be. Instead, I’d like to delve into DYS’s final album: Going Places.
Going Places is my favorite kind of DYS album. It is an album of atmospheric monoliths, ranging from four minutes (the opening track, Foiled), to thirteen minutes (the epic, howling, Opt Out). The form for each piece is similar: in the beginning they introduce a timbral palette, which feeds back into itself as more and more layers are added on, accumulating distortion over the course of the piece. All of the tracks on Going Places feature the electric guitar prominently, serving as the main source of pitch, although if you listen carefully you can hear a distorted voice through the texture now and then.
It’s not clear which epithet comes closer to the feel of the album: space or landscape. But at the core of both of these descriptors, the issue of scale is primary. The most interesting aspect of Going Places is that the listener often gets the sense that while the sound enveloping them is huge, the only obviously human elements in it are tiny. In Opt Out, a gently picked guitar motive is amplified and looped and distorted so extremely that it makes the initial gesture seem insignificant in comparison. In the build towards the climax, you might hear a man screaming his way through a melody, but his voice barely breaks through the already frothing surface. Limited Space is defined by a relentlessly pulsing, tinkling bell, reminiscent of Oval’s Dok. In contrast to their usual fare, it initially doesn’t seem loud, but is overtaken by thick blankets of guitar distortion and noise at the very end of the piece.
Perhaps the only track on the album that doesn’t lend itself to a vertiginous distortion of scale is the penultimate track New Life. New Life is a true monolith, with no real sense of growth or change during its five minutes. I don’t know the process DYS used in producing this album, but this track sounds like a short excerpt from a much longer piece. The stacked-fourths drone provides a thick atmosphere within which chunks of other sound are suspended, crackling and bouncing. It serves as a perfect palette cleanser before the grand finale.
As I mentioned above, Going Places is DYS’s final album. Gabriel and Pete announced in 2008 that they wouldn’t be playing together again, and played their final show that summer. So, knowing this, and knowing them, it’s hard not to project a bit of melancholy and nostalgia into the final, eponymous track of the album. Beginning in a primordial soup of Cracklebox squawks and other unidentifiable sweeps and drones, Going Places evolves into an undeniably symphonic climax that would make Christopher Rouse proud before its legs are cut out from under it, relying on a feeding-back delay to take care of the fade out.
Although according to Gabriel and Peter they will not be making music together in the future, DYS leaves behind an impressive discography created over the past decade. Their wikipedia page lists more than 50 CDs, CD-Rs, tapes, and records. I’ve only heard a fraction of these, but the range of styles and material reflects the inclusive nature of their listening. Bring the Neon War Home thumps with post-apocalyptic house music. My collaboration with them, titled simply Drowning Yellow Swans with Jim Altieri is what DYS sounds like filtered through a glitchy, nerdy, Max/MSP lens. Drift is three movements of pure drone—space music for those times when you just need some space music. But for a glimpse of the Yellow Swans at their best, get yourself a copy of Going Places. And turn it up loud.
Jim Altieri is a composer, violinist, and accordionist living in Brooklyn. He plays violin in the microtonal improv band Glissando bin Laden, and in the drone alt-country band Tatters & Rags. Jim also has collaborated with Pearl and the Beard, Corey Dargel, John Luther Adams, Rocky Heron, and of course, the Yellow Swans.