Jen Kutler Disembodied
Jen Kutler is a multidisciplinary artist and performer from upstate New York. She uses sounds and objects that are sexual or feminine in nature for sound sources and then modifies and transforms these sounds using outside means of electronics. For her past works she has used a modified dildo fashioned to transmit sounds while the dildo is in her body. The sounds are then amplified through an electromagnetic pickup just barely touching the skin on her abdomen. Her aims are to explore the separation between the feminine and neural, hyper-sexualization and de-sexulation. I have been fortunate enough to see her perform this live and the performance takes on the shape of ritual. You are witnessing the mystical. It is true ceremony. It’s haunting, unnerving, and once you get past the spectacle of it somehow soothing. Kutler in these performances is truly and quite literally letting the listener and viewer partake in…Jen Kutler. These performances are intimate, not in a sexual way but when she is performing you feel as though she is letting the listener in as voyeur to a rite, maybe one you shouldn’t be viewing. Kutler’s point in all of this is to open up avenues of discussion and debate. She may be daring you to view her performances and music in a sexual manner. The questions of femininity and societal gender norms are questions we should be talking about.
Disembodied her fourth proper release and second this year following The Ways We Wait is her most ambitious album/project yet. It’s her first vinyl release and the first release on the brand new imprint, Eyevee. Disembodied is an album of songs generated by the vibrations and movements captured by an electronic ring worn on the finger of a feminine spectrum body to induce orgasm. The ring transmits data to a spreadsheet. The spreadsheet is then parsed in Pure Data to create a variety of MIDI files which are given synthetic voices to generate sound. Twelve participants were asked to perform and their “performances” and data is manipulated by Kutler. Kutler creates long drones, harmonies and timbral shifts to fashion the audio or song together. What she conjures out of this data ranges from the beautiful and transcendent to alien and horrific. These are indeed impressive talking and discussion points and Kutler is using methods that are both thought provoking and ingenious. But what exactly is the outcome? What does all of this sound like?
More: Jen Kutler on Soundcloud
The album starts in a beautiful place. Sofy Yuditskaya has gorgeous drones, night time field recordings and a general sense of peace. Usually when I review an album I play it in the house and do busy things. Wash the dishes, do the laundry. Not passive listening by any means but just living my life while listening. That was the plan with this album but when I played the beginning notes, the beauty of the harmonies struck me so hard, I just had to sit on the couch and close my eyes. The world stopped and I let the waves of ethereal tones take me away. The music brought me to a transcendent, meditative mindset and for a minute I was rendered immobile. For such an impressive and beautiful opening my mind immediately gave in to the commands to pay full attention and listen.
This general sense of peace and contentment extends into the second track, Caroline Partamian. This track while employing more drones also has shimmering waves of electronics and sparse rattling percussion. Keyboard harmonies come in and out. All of the sonic elements assail the listener, floating in and out like coming out of a dream. A little more active than the previous track it is just as effective in stopping one in one’s tracks with its hypnotic, and deceptively simple harmonies.
This album moves slowly and gently like it is telling a story. The tracking and placement of the songs are impeccable. With tracks being reminiscent vaguely of the song before but ever so gently moving forward to explore new ideas as they progress, this album almost could work as one full piece cut up into 12 more digestible songs. So the album segues into Rena Anakwe and the soothing ever-present drones are there but for the first time a sense of eerie tension creeps into the music. The way the tone slowly unfolds, it recalls Eduard Artemiev’s haunting score for Solaris. There is a building presence of unrest lurking just beneath the surface and the dual ambience of the sublime and the phantasmal gives the listener a sense of beauty and foreboding.
L. Barnes has almost a playful first half which dissolves into melancholic abysses and field recordings. A sense of open spaces is prevalent in all of Kutler’s work and she utilizes that weapon here. Her immense mastery of the ideas of space in her compositions sets her apart from her noisier contemporaries as her patience to let the textures come naturally remind one of Cage and Takemitsu. For the next track, Stephanie Germaine, a sense of space is traded for a sense of place. The samples and field recordings that have supplanted and enhanced previous tracks now take center stage. The best use of field recordings paint a picture visually or tell a story. This takes me to a haunted train station and the hazy tones that surround the track offering the sense of awakening from a fevered dream. Light touches which could almost be mistaken for gently strummed guitar chords give a sweetness to the song before it descends into radio wave frequencies and soft washes of noise.
The ambience found on this album is often painfully beautiful. There is a sense of melancholy or wistfulness that binds much of the music on Disembodied. The next track Quintan Ana Wikswo is a good example of this, structured around mournful tones it seems adapted from a requiem. Field recordings of a voice bathed in echo startle the listener and give the track a strange feeling of the otherworldly.
Meg Noe which starts the second half of the album is a stark departure. Much of the album so far has been slow moving ambient tones which take their time to get where they are going. Meg Noe is a livelier take with low strings, flutes, electronics and samples over a menacing low drone. This livelier attitude extends into the next track Meagan Johnson with skittering electronics, slowed down turntables, and distorted voice samples accenting the exemplary drone work. This leads into one of my select tracks on the album Jen Kutler which sounds like it could be an outtake from 2001:A Space Odyssey, calling to mind the desolation of deep space. There is a sense of isolation and solitude inherent in the music. These darker tones and isolating feelings extend into Merche Blasco which is my favorite track on Disembodied. The harmonics unfold slowly and patiently unveiling a dark void, a chasm of emotion and regret. Slightly kiltered sheets of drones waver drunkenly, presenting a distorted sonic vision. It is both beautiful and haunting.
The album plays out almost conceptually with Kutler as sonic guide and storyteller. Much of the beauty of the first half descends into ominous foreboding for much of the second. You feel as if something is right around the corner and the anticipation of that feeling is nerve wracking. The album closes with Amelia Moon and Jenn Grossman following this narrative to its logical conclusion. The album starts innocently enough and travels through ominous soundscapes until in Grossman we are finally attacked with horror. Kutler lets some of her noise background escape if only for a brief moment, perhaps to give the listener a feel of the horror within.
There is a new vanguard of deeply experimental performers in what Kutler likes to call the “feminine spectrum.” Performers who identify as female, non-binary or trans. The avant garde world is slowly being dominated by performers like Lingua Ignota, Claire Rousay, Amirtha Kidambi, Mary Halvorson or Sarah Davachi just to name a few. These performers are some of the most exciting musicians in experimental music circles right now and with this release Jen Kutler has joined this pantheon of the avant garde. Kutler is a performer to watch, she is always looking for new ways to engage her listening audience and more importantly getting that audience to talk and philosophize. And to debate.
Disembodied is a stunning work and even though there is still a month left in the year and a lot left to listen to, this is my choice for album of the year. Everything about Disembodied is grand in scope and execution. There are moments of sublime beauty, tenderness, melancholy, discomfort, isolation and horror. Given the source material, the feminine spectrum orgasm, there are times when the orgasm can be all of those. It can be beautiful and moving. Or tender. Or uncomfortable. Sometimes it can be isolating. Sometimes it can even be harrowing or horrific. The music and ideas are greatly experimental but easy to listen to. The music is steeped in thought, debate, philosophy and science. It is an academic endeavor but the music never sounds like that. It is full of emotion and meaning. Kutler has taken one of the biggest emotional events we can experience as humans, turned that into something cold and scientific and then transformed it again into a work of feeling and art.