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Keith Fullerton Whitman - Playthroughs

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Artist: Keith Fullerton Whitman

Album: Playthroughs

Label: Kranky

Review date: Oct. 23, 2002

Taken Beyond

Keith Fullerton Whitman, who plays the straight-faced, given-name alter ego to his manic / maniac Hrvatski moniker, has after a few years wait finally released the full-length album Playthroughs. The source instrument for all compositions on the album is electric guitar, but don’t expect to hear anything vaguely resembling it here (although there is a feedback section that might be close). Whitman has MAX/MXP-ed (digitally tweaked, twisted and defaced) the living daylights out of the guitar sounds. Traces of the phrasing and cadence of a strummed or finger-style guitar appear throughout, but you wouldn’t be able to discern the source unless you were told. Playthroughs takes a cosmic leap from Whitman’s first guitar-source release, 21:30 for acoustic guitar, an EP that saw the light of day some two plus years ago. The result is something much more varied, mature and perhaps brilliant than 21:30. Using a variation of Whitman’s own aesthetic of taking an idea (guitar) and processing it to create various outputs (songs) one can gain an idea of the depth and complexity of this album. The title Playthroughs might be a deliberate clue, a piece of the puzzle that along with repeated listens helps to unravel or at least encourage a greater understanding of the forces at work behind its creation. A through dismantling of the word—processing and parsing its different possible meanings—will provide help provide this understanding.

Taken at face value Playthroughs first brings to mind practice—familiarizing oneself with a piece and getting a feel for the mood and tone through repetition. Droning, cyclical sounds introduce the album on “track3a(2waynice),” a glacial phrase that penetrates the consciousness and primes the brain waves for the forthcoming hour of music. Indeed a sense of the subconscious, or unconsciousness (literally lack of conscious intention), pervades the album as its melodic progressions and tempos so effortlessly envelop the listener. The feeling seems mutual—the listener feels that they are being hypnotized, but also senses that the composer must have felt similarly during while playing these tracks. “Feedback zwei” encompasses a faster paced repeated tempo—a tonal back and forth that climbs and then deteriorates into a static haze. Similarly, “fib01a” attains repetitive familiarity through the use of most pronounced “beat” on the album: a small static blip that recurs and opens the way for a lyrical guitar line. The albums’ closer “modena” achieves a lush, heavenly perfection of the technique. Sparsely building it increases in complexity as it ascends to an ethereal realm. Think Dante’s Rose of Paradise on record. More than anything I’ve heard in a long time “Modena” might someday be hailed as a “classic” of minimalism, alongside Music for 18 Musicians and In C (it sounds bold, but it’s true). There’s no question that the songs on the album were played through countless times to gain the detail and clarity of expression that Whitman achieves.

“ACGTR SVP”, the most dense piece on the album, displays a wholly different notion of the play though. Taken as a more active process, the music was played through in that it has been played beyond, or pushed further than it had been previously. Here the aural limits are expanded and redefined. The shimmering gravity of “ACGTR SVP,” layers upon layers of complimentary tones, are possible only through continual adding and intensifying of existing sounds.

“Playthroughs” provides a glimpse into Whitman’s academic music past. Having studied composition at the Berkelee School of Music, there is a continual element of intellectual curiosity in Whitman’s music. From the genealogical study of the Amen break that influenced “Oiseaux 96-98,” to the minimalist influences of Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Philip Glass on Playthroughs, all of Whitman’s musical output has been pragmatic and astute. Here, we encounter Playthroughs in its purest state—as a lens or filter through which Whitman’s influences flow. In fact with this in mind he’s able to, perhaps more than his contemporaries in electronic music and otherwise, place himself within one or many musical lineages. Playthroughs then becomes not only part of the minimal electronic music community but an outgrowth of 20th century classical music, minimalism and perhaps others; an informed contribution to the evolving dialog of modern music.

With Playthroughs Whitman has achieved a great synthesis of acutely aware composition coupled with a beautifully orchestrated and precise performance. Working on multiple aesthetic levels while remaining a delightful listen Playthroughs is a testament to the progression and refining of Whitman’s artistic technique. It is an amazing gem of an album, certainly one of the year’s best.

By Marc Gilman

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