10 LISTENS REVIEW: Philip White's Documents
(10 Listens is a music review series where Michael Durek listens to an album at least 10 times, taking notes along the way: the aim is to give a comprehensive picture of an album.
Places listened: On the NYC-Toronto Bus, walking down Winona Avenue in Toronto, on the plane to Asheville, North Carolina, NYC subway, New Jersey PATH train, studio in Jersey City, home stereo system in Colonia, New Jersey, in the car on the Garden State Parkway.)
Christmas on Jupiter. The year 3000. Philip White’s Documents album is not your average noise music. Much of today’s noise music is akin to punk music of the 1970s, bringing to mind Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols—who is said to have played with his electric bass unplugged because he had so little musical skill. Sometimes the value of noise music lies in the fact that it’s a vehicle for performance art, or counter-cultural identity; rebellion for rebellion’s sake. In a world where “the man” is more omnipotent than ever, this can be both relevant and necessary.
Some noise music might better fall under the heading of sound art. Philip White’s previous album, Control: Live Works for Mixer Feedback (2013), falls more into this category, sounding more like an amplified airport landing strip. Even earlier than that however, he released a series of fragile drone works called Early Drone Works: 2006 – 2010. The Documents release seems to bridge together those two periods, and take it a step further.
White’s sonic arena for Documents lies well outside the proverbial middle finger in the air (though it contains a bit of that). Though it does feature many harsh noises, and a wide range of the frequency spectrum, it’s bona fide evocative music. It has tension and release, transitions, and the building blocks of traditional harmony. It is then no surprise that White extracted musical information (harmonic, melodic, timbral, rhythmic, formal, etc.) from popular jazz and pop recordings as part of his process of making this album.
White used five famous recordings as the inspiration and the titles of the tracks that comprise Documents. When he was a teenager, each of these recordings worked its way into his psyche in a way that comes out every time he performs, composes, or listens to music. He used the original recordings, ran them through a complex series of oscillators, and processed them heavily. While I can scarcely recognize the originals, he succeeded in capturing different elements of musicality from them in the sea of noise.
Documents is arranged in a new, refreshing way. It is more playful than most “four-on-the-floor” dance and pop music, but also more enticing than noise music that has no clear structure. It’s the element of surprise that hits home in this album, which stays mostly in the grips of harmonic structures implied by the source material. For example, “Flamenco Sketches” features a drawn-out, crunchy perfect 5th, and then a major 10th interval, before changing to the dominant, then back to the major 10th. Based on Miles Davis’s original recording, the track intermittently employs pummeling bass frequencies, best appreciated in a car or a system with a good sub. Far from lost, I found myself eagerly awaiting the next change.
The opening track, “Rainy Night in Georgia,” also follows a loose I-IV progression throughout—a chord change that can be heard in the original by Brook Benton. Some tracks however, such as “A Night in Tunisia” and “Flashlight,” sound more directly like bit-crushed, mashed-up versions of the originals. White’s “Flashlight” keeps some of the grooves and rhythms of the original Parliament recording, but otherwise it bears little resemblance.
Another interesting twist—At the 3:42 mark in “Night in Tunisia,” (note that the version of “Night in Tunisia” that worked its way into White’s psyche as the inspiration for this track is an Art Blakey recording, rather than the iconic version by the Charlie Parker Quintet) White makes what may have been Wayne Shorter’s original tenor sax line sound very much like the opening to the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Jimi Hendrix’s version has been dethroned in this mangled smorgasbord of rapidly alternating octave lead lines, aggressive bass noise, and searing high frequency static.
In some ways these arrangements remind me of ambient music, because of the free-flowing chaotic nature of the music. One must listen with a relaxed, open mind to truly appreciate it. I should note that the busy, jazzy sections of the songs proved to be my least favorite across all 10 listens. However, in the recording as a whole, they offset the more droning noise sections, so their place seems justified.
I recommend this as a powerfully unique album to adventurous listeners. Listening to it for me was further enhanced through my knowledge of the original source tracks, but it isn’t necessary to enjoy the album.Lastly I must recommend that listeners enjoy Documents in the car, a decent stereo, or on good headphones. It does use many low and high frequency noises, and a lot of the album would be literally lost when listening on cheap earbuds or on small speakers.