[album review] keith fullerton whitman: generator

December 27, 2010

Album cover for Generator by Keith Fullerton Whitman

Keith Fullerton Whitman: Generator (Root Strata/Morr Music, 2010)
£2.94 from [eMusic] (requires membership) – £4.99 from [Boomkat]

Had it been released ten (certainly 15) years ago, this excellent album would not have reached a fraction of the listeners (one hopes) it will in this age of internet distribution. As a cassette-only release limited to a run of 200 worldwide, Generator would no doubt have accrued some scarcity value but what good is that to the rest of us? Root Strata‘s decision to allow those late to the party, or without an object fetish (or with a no-object fetish) to acquire the album digitally is to be applauded.

It seems Keith Fullerton Whitman spent much of 2009 immersing himself in process or systems music: that is, music built around repeating tonal or rhythmic patterns, incrementally modifying them over time using additive, phasing, algorithmic or other iterative techniques. (Try the variations in this wonderful Whitney Music Box to get an idea.)

Modern process composition dates back to the minimalist music movement of the 1960s, exemplified by the early works of Terry Riley and Steve Reich. The latter also set out the movement’s written constitution in Music As A Gradual Process (1968).

This approach to music-making marks a shift for Massachusetts-born Whitman. Until now his diverse range of experimental output has tended to be more drone-focused, with human intervention dictating pace and direction, moving listeners on through the meditation.

On Generator, Whitman creates the conditions for the machine to direct proceedings. Meticulously patching together his bespoke rig of modular synthesisers (see this video for a demo), his principal contribution to the performance of each numbered piece is apparently pressing ‘record’. Once the performance is underway the orchestra for the most part leads its conductor, whose role becomes to infer and respond to cues generated during the automated cascade of analogue notes. Whitman may from time to time re-patch modules to tilt the timbre, octave range or other properties of the music – nudging its narrative course this way or that – but the show belongs to the machines.

It’s mesmerising. In some ways it’s not useful to dissect tracks individually, though there’s ample variation among them to warrant it. From the blissful arpeggios of 1 to the atonal space communications of 3, from the minimal techno of 7b to the white noise of 8, the constant is a purity of expression – a vacuum into which you can pour your own meaning.

The final track, 2, is worth lingering on – at over 23 minutes it accounts for nearly half the album. It is an automatic symphony: bubbling, ever-evolving note runs; Reichesque phasing; kick drum click-pulses; high-pitched alarm calls – all building, receding then building again with increasing intensity. It does something strangely wonderful to you to the extent that the silence that follows its end feels like an extension of its magic.

Whitman has reached many ‘best of the year’ lists with another release, Disingenuity/Disingenuousness (PAN). I’ve not yet had the pleasure of listening to it but it must be incredible to better this album (it reportedly is incredible). Regardless, Generator is one of the finest releases of 2010 and it would be, ahem, disingenuous not to give it the recognition it deserves.

close to 94 rating: ★★★★★★

This review is part of close to 94‘s [emusic club], which reviews one album from the eMusic catalogue every week from a selection refreshed every month.

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