Friday, October 12, 2018
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith
directors' cut, Village Voice, 2017
by Simon Reynolds
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s wondrous new album The Kid was hatched in a sound-garden attached to her home in Glendale, CA. A compact chamber that appears to be a converted garage, the studio is crammed with vintage analogue synthesizers. There’s a Prophet 5 and a Eurorack, but the pride of place goes to a Buchla, the modular synth that first sparked her passion for electronic sounds.
Alongside technology, the room teems with vegetation. Smith has often talked about how her creative process requires the presence of “a plant nearby”. Look closer, though, and the tendrils of ivy strewn everywhere turn out to be plastic. So are the plants in little hanging pots.” I’ve tried to put real plants in here,” sighs Smith. “I even tried pretending I have this ‘pet plant’ that goes everywhere with me and I’d bring it in here from outside. But plants just don’t like it in here.” Her other artistic prerequisite, natural light, is also poorly supplied by the near- windowless space. So Smith came up with ersatz solutions: fairy lights pulse through a translucent sheet tacked to the ceiling, while foot-level bulbs flicker, creating an effect like light reflecting off water.
Look in the Dictionary and the opposite of “synthetic” is “of natural origin”. All plastic and wires, synthesizers seem about as far as you can get from the organic. But Smith has a different view, preferring to see synths as just as Gaia-given as a redwood or a pond full of terrapins. Using a machine like the Buchla, she’s always felt “like I’m getting this rare opportunity to sculpt electricity”. And electricity, she points out, is a natural phenomenon, from the messages flickering through our nervous systems to the lightning sparked by the colliding of clouds. Waxing a little mystical, Smith enthuses about the way her synths run on alternating current: “With A/C, there already is that breathing feeling – you feel that there’s life in there.” She returns to this idea when specifically exalting the Buchla’s operational mode, which lets the user “set up all these environments for unpredictability and movement... It makes things have a lot of life.”
Surrounded by living things is how Smith grew up. She was raised on Orcas, one of the San Juan islands in the Puget Sound. The place sounds like an ecotopian idyll. Thanks to the rainy Pacific North West climate there’s moss everywhere and the place teems with livestock and wild critters. Every year the main village of Eastsound elects an animal as Mayor. The current officeholder is an actual orca, a killer whale called Granny. Usually it’s a dog, like a blind golden retriever who previously held the position. That all sounds a teensy bit hippie, but that word makes Smith frown slightly. She prefers to characterize the inhabitants of Orcas as “people with a deep appreciation for Nature.”
Her music as much a form of cultivation as an intervention in culture, Smith is rather like a hybrid blend of the two main professions on Orcas: agrarians and artists. “I grew up working on a farm. I also worked at a raw goat dairy. And there were always horses around. Living in LA is the first time I’ve not had that thing of there being a connection at all times to a living thing.“ As a young adult, Smith became involved in homesteading, a hardcore form of do-it-yourself in which you hand-make everything you need in life. “I was learning how to hunt and how to tan the hides. Learning how to store my food for the winter.” Smith even went as far trying to make her own pencils. “You get a stick and melt lead and pour it down – it’s so time-consuming!” Smith also abandoned money, relying instead on barter. “I would go to the doctor and say ‘I’ll give you this round of cheese I’ve made in exchange for a check-up”, she recalls. “The work/trade thing worked for a whole year. And that’s one of my happiest memories, that time – I was learning so many new things I just felt overwhelmed with joy. I was in love with that existence”.
The homesteading phase coincided precisely with the period when she was introduced by an Orcas neighbor to the Buchla. That opened up a different kind of do-it-yourself - electronic daubs and sound-molding – which bore fruit with early Bandcamp releases like Cows Will Eat The Weeds and Useful Trees. As the titles indicate, these were direct responses to her surroundings, what she could see out of her windows. Then came Tides, Euclid and last year’s EARS, by which point she was getting some serious critical acclaim. Partly picking up on the prompts of titles like “Wetlands”, “Rare Things Grow” and “Existence in the Unfurling” and partly responding to the succulent panoply of her textures, the reviews have tended to be be profuse with imagery of flora and foliage. Even if you’re unaware of her backstory, by themselves Smith’s sounds suggest real-world analogues such as bird-song, bubbling springs, undergrowth rustling with small creatures.
In interviews, Smith has talked about how she has no interest in making the kind of forbiddingly abstract electronic music that fills the mind’s eye with images of cold inhospitable regions of outer space. Her music is terrestrial; these electronics are fully Earthed. So instead of stark angularity, Smith emulates Nature’s undulating ornamentalism, its baroque splendor of curlicues and folds. “It’s what just comes out,” she says, attributing it partly to a near-synesthetic sensitivity to sound. “Music and sounds can change your whole mood, your environment, the atmosphere in your house – I feel very sensitive to that and I want to make music that makes someone else’s environment feel alive and enjoyable to be in.”
Along with the lush fecundity and spongey intricacy of natural ecosystems like marshlands, Smith’s music can also make the listener imagine a children’s play environment: an inflatable bouncy castle, or a kindergarten flooded with iridescent bubble-bath foam. These two tendencies – the enchantment of all things that flourish and that frolic - converge on The Kid. It’s a concept album that tracks an individual life across four stages from birth to death. On the vinyl version, each phase corresponds to one side of the double LP. There’s a faintly New Age aura to the project. Profuse with “I”’s, many of the titles resembles affirmations or promises-to-self (“I Am Curious, I Care” , “I Will Make Room For You”, “ I Am Learning”) while others suggest abundance-consciousness or present-mindedness (“Who I Am And Why I Am Where I Am”). Actually, says Smith, the titles are meant to be read downwards, “like a poem”. And as well as a celebration of life in general, the album is a celebration of a particular, and particularly dear, life now lost.
“Through growing up farming and being close to the life cycle,” explains Smith, an awareness of life and mortality “has always been on my mind. But when I lost this person, it was a big slap of that, and it kind of burst with this really intense urgency in me to not waste a moment. Since then there’s been a constant reorganizing and figuring out of what I want to do with my time. Every night I try and reflect on how I spent the day – how much on things I enjoy and how much on obligations and commitments.” The overall message of The Kid – communicated as much by the inventive buoyancy of the music as by the words, which are mostly indistinct on account of Smith’s love of processing her own vocals to sound like a multitude – is the importance of never losing your spirit of play, the child spark within. “The biggest thing I learned from all of this is realizing that I want to play – that’s a really big part of who I am, and it was also a real big part of the person I lost. So I really wanted to just encapsulate that playful energy and put it in other people’s environments, if they want it.”
As well as the up-close brush with mortality and transience, another influence on The Kid was reading the composer Henry Cowell’s 1930 book New Musical Resources, which tracks the history of human hearing in terms of our evolving ability to cope with dissonance. “It’s kind of mildly boring,” laughs Smith, “because it was written such a long time ago in this somewhat clinical style. But the content is fascinating and it really turned my wheels in terms of thinking about where are we at now, in terms of the evolution of our hearing. We’re totally fine now with atonality, there isn’t really a shocking interval anymore of the kind that once caused riots in audiences, like with Stravinsky.”
Thinking about what the new cutting edge might be in terms of what would be viscerally upsetting to the average listener, Smith decided it might involve simultaneity and stereophony: the audio equivalent of Bowie’s alien character in The Man Who Fell To Earth, who is so advanced he can watch a dozen TV channels at the same time. “One of my favorite things to play with when I’m in a group of people is listening to multiple conversations at once and really trying to hold onto each one. So on The Kid I’m really playing with the left and right channels. Because so many people listen to music on headphones now. I had to keep rewriting the music so many times in the beginning because it just sounded annoying!”
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith has zero interest in annoying the listener, of course, or otherwise subjecting them to an extreme and testing experience. The term “avant-garde” came from the military originally and still retains an aura of ruthlessness, envisioning artistic innovation in terms of ambushes on middlebrow sensibility and daring maneuvers that outflank bourgeois complacency. Smith’s approach could not be more different. She uses the phrase “comfort and novelty” to describe the inspiration she gleaned from her discovery of minimalist composers like Terry Riley and Steve Reich: the way their rippling patterns gently propel the listener ever forward, as opposed to the terrifying leaps into the abstract unknown proposed by other forms of experimental music.
Smith’s project in fact is all about naturalising the unfamiliar (electronic sounds) while also bending the known a little out of shape. Another fresh development with The Kid is that where she has in the past made synths sound “organic”, much of the new record involves her taking so-called natural instruments like bassoon and cello and making them sound like synths. One focus of these experiments was the trumpet, a sound she’s always found grating. Smith decided to conquer that aversion, which required making the trumpet sound unlike itself: softening its stabbing attack, muting its vaguely military, bugel-like peal. “There was a lot of blending. Sending it through the synth and breaking up the harmonics to slightly delay them, so that the trumpet sound has a softer onset.” Smith adds, “Whatever I’m frightened of or I’m bad at, I love stepping closer to that to see what’s there.”