by Emily Kerski
Artwork by Dan McDonald
Fractal Selves, a new release from Amalgam Records, sees Bill Harris (drums, percussion, duct tape), Nathan Corder (electronics), Tom Weeks (alto saxophone), and Eli Namay (upright and electric bass) join forces, combining the quartet’s contrasting musical landscapes with sampled speech by philosopher Rick Roderick.
This record is the documentation of the quartet’s first musical meeting in April 2018, when Bay Area residents Weeks and Corder met to collaborate with the Chicago-based Namay and Harris. The eight-track album packs an explosive punch as it explores the musicians’ interests in extended notation, alternative compositional processes, and experimental/improvised textures. The sampled speech embeds their artistry with deep socio-economic introspection. The text is drawn from Roderick’s 1993 series “The Self Under Siege – Philosophy in the 20th Century,” specifically “Lecture Eight: Fatal Strategies.”
Rick Roderick was an American philosophy professor who specialized in Marxism, social and political philosophy, Nietzsche, postmodernism, and more. In the lecture featured on this album, Roderick references Jean Baudrillard, another twentieth century social and cultural theorist.
Roderick’s vocal cadences lend themselves brilliantly to this project because of their highly emotive, urgent quality – this is the captivating voice of a man with ideas seemingly before his time, framed by the music of artists whose work seems perfectly situated in their own. The musical dialogue feels incredibly current – chaotic musical gestures mixed with eerily prophetic social commentary – while incorporating shadows of earlier musical practice (suggestions of bebop, for example).
The album opens with tremendous energy from the bass and percussion on the track Why Not Be Emotional With a Machine?, soon giving way to relentless saxophone lines which seem unattached to any of the rhythms present in the group. The virtuosic saxophone playing throughout reminds me of an emotional soprano with emphatic determination to get a point across and is perhaps the most melodic voice of the quartet. This is not to say the musicians play without regard to each other’s contributions to the conversation – indeed, there is remarkable cohesion in A Rather Humorous Joke, which conveys a drone-like, refreshingly still texture before breaking out in energetic banter. Collaborations between the bass and percussion produce a gurgling effect in Suzie St. Pierre, interrupted by nostalgic electronic sounds that hearken to an earlier era. Electronic and percussive sounds reach an ethereal, flute-like quality in Lil’ Pathways, a track which makes tangible the concentrated power of silences within musical arguments.
Musical episodes are pointed and often stark, recalling ideas of seclusion and non-linear thinking, punctuated by short sentences from Roderick’s lecture. Though only a few paragraphs are drawn from the lecture, they speak to broad themes of reality, superficiality, and postmodernism. The samples have been creatively selected to further the artistic dialogue, perhaps even with a sly grin of humor as topics range from the everyday (In the Meantime I Got a Big Mac) to weighty intellectual themes.
The final track ends with elongated statements from Roderick on hyperrealism, perception, and pathways in society, concluding with: “Our culture is still dominantly modernist, rationalised, capitalist and so on. And to even make things more complex, thirdly there are residual elements in our culture, left over from earlier periods. For example patriarchy, left over from a past as ancient perhaps as the species.”
It is a thoughtful conclusion as the listener must almost strain to hear every haunting last word as Roderick’s voice fades.