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Keith Fullerton Whitman - Met Life : Dartmouth Street Underpass

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Artist: Keith Fullerton Whitman

Album: Met Life : Dartmouth Street Underpass

Label: Locust

Review date: Apr. 28, 2003


On one hand, there really aren’t enough albums of interesting field recordings readily available. Not many musician-types would find it sufficient, in and of itself, to release sounds that they didn’t ruin with their tape splices, computers, and unique personal visions. This brings us to the other hand, where there are far too many albums produced by like-minded Mac users. These two issues comprise Dartmouth Street Underpass, the first release on the formidable Locust record label’s Met Life series, which aims to be document selected locations with both objectivity (a field recording) and subjectivity (an artist’s manipulation of a field recording).

It makes perfect sense for Locust, a label so indebted to American cultural music and more specifically, Smithsonian Folkways, to be crusading for a new proliferation of field recording. After all, in fifty years, are we really going to want to have Turn On The Bright Lights as the only insight into the sounds of our era? The opening field recording of Dartmouth Street Underpass has a beautiful significance; the recordings of insects, bird calls, and frog warbles that embody and compliment the Roots music documented by Lomax and Co. are here replaced by the sound of a buzzing subway station in Boston. It’s perfect – those old recordings of train sounds, the canon of songs about its lonesome whistles and trips to redemption, are a distant memory to the electric hum and abrasive onslaught of the arriving transportation in Dartmouth Street Underpass.

This is not to say that the field recording is necessarily unpleasant, it’s more that the sheer objectivity of the first half of the album seems to exclude any sort of judgment in the first place. Even so, the 18 minutes are wildly colorful, including voices, distant echoes of piped-in music, and the powerful rumble when the train arrives. Needless to say, the unique resonance of the location, apparently largely glass-based, is emphasized many times over by each sound. The electrical hum is folded over itself into a remarkably harmonically-dense drone, worthy of any number of “composed” pieces by plenty of famed minimalist composers.

The second half of the album isn’t as poignant, however. Considering his awareness of music (many album descriptions on the Forced Exposure website are Whitman-penned, under his more popular pseudonym, Hrvatski), it seems almost fitting that Whitman is a better listener than he is a composer. Whitman takes the buzzing and processes it. He eschews all of the surprise detail, resulting in a more caustic permutation of ideas he explored on Playthroughs, which, for all of the praise it received, already seemed a little stale compared to Rafael Toral’s experiments almost a decade earlier.

In his favor, however, Whitman gives a perspective on the field recording. The source material becomes bleak, the ugliness of our imperfect technologies emphasized, and the burden of this alleged convenience is exposed. Yet, it’s not that Whitman’s 18-minute drone is off-putting. It’s just that the interpretation of the location comes across as little more than machine whirring, and using that to give the impression of an electronic dystopia is such a clichéd gesture at this point that it severely harms the album as a whole. There are beautiful beat frequencies, a masterful attention to timbral detail, a cloudy mess on par with some of Phill Niblock’s experiments, yet the point of the release, the reason behind the action is lacking. Whitman seems indulgent more than experimental, willingly covering ground that seems so worn, ignoring just how complicated his subject actually is.

Met Life is a promising series. A rare opportunity to engage in curious sounds of our present environment, and to see what an immense influence it has on a number of artists. I have faith that future releases by AU, Reynols, and Erdem Helvacioglu will find the inspiration that seemed just slightly out of Whitman’s grasp.

By Matt Wellins

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