Gen Ken Montgomery - "Subliminal Clutter, Part 3" (Birds + Machines)
My favorite story about Gen Ken Montgomery tells of a party he gave at which there was no loud music piping from stereo speakers and no live band. Instead, Montgomery simply turned on appliances and other noisemakers around his apartment, filling the fete with an ambient, uncanny din. It’s this sort of minimalist repurposing that is Montgomery’s best-known work today. It was featured prominently on the first half of 2002’s two-disc Pondfloorsample, only one in a steady succession of releases over the last decade by the largely overlooked New Yorker.
Montgomery’s readymade compositions are exercises in the complexity that can be birthed of simplicity, taking a straightforward concept and unspooling it into a miasma of otherwise unheard (or unnoticed) sound. Birds + Machines isn’t quite as austere as tracks like “Egnekn’s Fridge” and “Laminator Model 2291,” but it’s another look at hard-to-hear work by a composer who remains rather unrecognized even in this age of endless rediscovery and internet-facilitated obtainment.
Montgomery cites the inspiration for this album as a shampoo bottle falling in the shower. It’s not quite Newton’s apple, but the sound of the bottle being pelted by water sent Montgomery on a mission to re-investigate his work from the 1980s, resulting in Birds + Machines. The disc mixes live tracks with previously released selections, a mix of environmental sounds (be they outdoor or in-) with electronic augmentation the common thread. Chiming bells and singing birds are some of the only identifiable sound sources, though there’s plenty of anonymous mechanical activity to be found at the heart of many tracks. Rather than encouraging the listener to take more care in considering their surroundings, Birds + Machines finds Montgomery creating more mysterious settings. The aptly titled trio of “Subliminal Clutter” tracks are fluid and unpredictable, meditations of a kitchen sink variety that scatter fragmented rhythms amidst the grainy buzz and swirl of the electronics. Birds fly about a ghostly factory, morse code is sent into the void, and synthesizers squeal over noisy drones that seem to fold in upon themselves. Perhaps the least expected of Birds + Machines’ inclusions are “Shoot Me Down” and “Treat the Hell Out of It,” which lays Montgomery’s distorted voice over jagged rhythms with an aggressive swagger that’s more than a little reminiscent of Suicide’s preindustrial clamor.
Montgomery’s capable of captivating cacophony (see 1999’s “The Aquarium Fishtank Symphony”), but it’s the more focused and patient of this album’s work that tends to be its best. With Cage-ian attention, Montgomery has spent decades utilizing an ear for the music in the most mundane of moments. Birds + Machines opts for more involved rearrangements of these unexpected sound sources, making for some dynamic soundplay, but often obscuring the inventiveness that is Montgomery’s strongest asset. This dark disc offers a look into a heretofore underexposed corner of Ken Montgomery’s career, but the neophyte (and there are many) would be best served exploring elsewhere first.