James "Twig" Harper twists todays and yesterdays into glorious new tomorrows
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When discussing the unconventionally recombinant music he creates, James "Twig" Harper drifts into New Age-y abstractions, referencing different levels of consciousness and perception the way most musicians talk about chord progressions, instruments, and themes. Like Harper's albums--which include recent HereSee Records releases Inner Alchemy/Electric Water, Possible Last Unknowns, and Music for Higher Dimensional Consciousness--his tapped-into-karmic-infinity conjecture is simultaneously disconcerting, inspiring, and refreshing.
"My solo music and the work with Nautical Almanac have more or less been about working with consciousness as an instrument," the HereSee co-proprietor explains during a late September e-mail interview. "This is approached like how most bands use guitars; it is a navigable realm with specific shapes, sounds, ideas, and cycles. And since it requires an outside observer to interact with, it had to wait until everyone and all the cultural, social, and personal elements lined up. Now, it's that everything finally clicked and I'm past a threshold, and these ideas are blazing into the next cycle. It's been an amazing ride, and this is only the beginning of a new phase."
Prior to entering recording limbo a few years back, Nautical Almanac--Harper's long-running project with HereSee partner and Tarantula Hill housemate Carly Ptak (an erstwhile City Paper contributor)--fearlessly explored and exploited noise's outer limits, stuffing lathe cuts and discs alike with helter-skelter acoustic "electricity-free" effects, heavily molested vocal samples, and other sorted sounds so resolutely unfathomable that they straddled the macabre.
Many of these recordings were generated using homemade instruments. And the albums issued under Harper's name, even years after the fact, continue to register as equally bewildering and idiosyncratic: Intuitive American Esoteric Vol. 1 and Intuitive American Esoteric Vol. 2 (issued 2004 and 2006, respectively, on HereSee), for example, crossed gratuitous vacuum-tube pucker with shortwave-y noise saturation and Carl-Stalling-goes-to-Providence mayhem.
If all that came before felt art-damaged out of control and chaotic, Harper's latest recordings--inspired, in part by recent production work for local tonewranglers such as Sejayno and Needle Gun--run a gamut from peacefully therapeutic to war-zone conflicted.
Burbling, rippling, and buzzing, Inner Alchemy/Electric Water spends 20 rejuvenating minutes agape over the elemental sounds of rushing water--in trickles, in gushes, in splashes--polluting Gwynns Falls field recordings with bass drums, stretches of deceptively liquid-y static, cascading torrents of electronic stippling, and virtuoso-frantic violin scrapes and chips that recall passages from Karlheinz Stockhausen's Helikopter-Streichquartett. If this sounds like a recipe for experimental tedium, it isn't, because Harper keeps you on your proverbial toes by modulating the mixing levels so that one minute you're hearing unhinged bow-on-string whinnies and gruel-thin distortion on equal sonic footing with Gwynns Falls, but the next minute, the first two elements are drowning in the water's furious, amps-gone-to-11 churn.
For Alchemy, "I took my portable DAT recorder over to the Gwynns Falls and set up stereo microphone lines that were further apart than any normal person's head would be," Harper recalls. "I monitored with the headphone volume turned up loud and found all the sweet spots and hidden voices. Since I am not a field recording purist in any sense, I took these tapes back to the studio and worked them over a few times, adding electronics and processing them into a sonic soup. Water is one of the greatest teachers."
Almost paradoxically, Alchemy succeeds at capturing, enhancing, and genuflecting to nature's unruly grandeur by using man-made tools, re-framing a finite, familiar resource often taken for granted as something formidable, mysterious, and eternal.
If Inner Alchemy is Harper's mash-note to Mother Earth, Music for Higher Dimensional Consciousness represents his enthusiastic embrace of the mind-expanding possibilities inherent in synthetic audio recycling, piling an industrial-sized kitchen sink full of self-samples, sonic squiggles, sheets of feedback, and more--some of it recognizable, most of it not.
Music boasts a dizzying, questing vocabulary of swipes, swoops, and swoons that calms even as it puzzles. Gray, bleary rumbles intercut with thin, wheedling scrapes and de-tuned xylophone pops dominate before giving way to hyper-adrenilized, manipulated cut-ups of other records, toys, and vocals; bursts of fizzling static proceed bouts of burped, slowed-to-molasses vocal eruptions. A hypnotizing series of circular buzz-tones glide across one speaker before languidly shifting to the other.
Losing your way in Music's anything-goes sprawl is a delightfully inevitable experience, but Harper erects personalized, hall-of-mirrors guideposts here and there--himself singing along to recordings of himself singing along with recorded children's songs and Christmas carols--to make sure listeners find their way back out. "Old MacDonald Had a Farm," for example, closes out Music's first movement.
"'[Old MacDonald' is] a deeply ingrained turn--I think most people know the jingle and have some sort of relationship to it. After listening to 18 or so minutes of sweeping sound, it hits on a very base level," Harper writes, adding that "Music for Higher Dimensional Consciousness is designed to be listened to with headphones; I am very happy with how it turned out. It works on me--I get shot straight up, to higher realms."
In marked contrast to the helium headfucks of Inner Alchemy and Music, Possible Last Unknowns is decidedly terrestrial, stuffing its 40 minutes with the auditory equivalent of an inter-dimensional game of Chutes and Ladders. On the first of five sensory attacks here, pinballing effects whiz, bang, and splat, backdrops shift from dead silence to crunchy, strained flutter to what sounds like a half-empty box of rice being shaken to filtered-to-slashed vocal scraps.
Elsewhere, sinister, automated whirs are looped and re-looped into a killer-robots-on-the-hunt vibe. Dueling, mewling vocal samples--the phrase "I am here to tell you how good it feels to feel good" is repeated again and again--face off like two halves of the same unhinged psyche having a deeply weird discussion. Treated swathes of barroom piano splash over convulsing Wolf Eyes-esque noise. The final track takes a leap off the deep end, piling on noise-demon loop effects that simulate an unspeakably horrible monster forcing its way into your RV at night.
Looking forward, plans are in the works for Hanson Records to issue another, as-yet-untitled Harper solo release, and he "will be starting new and intense recording projects and finishing the ones floating over my head that I should have [finished] years ago," he writes. And Nautical Almanac, he promises, will be rebounding in a big way, if not necessarily immediately or in the same form that fans have become accustomed to.
"[Nautical Almanac is] slowly building back up, after a long slow down to a stopping in our tracks," he writes. "Nautical is just Carly and I right now, and its been a 'band' since 1994, and we hit a wall. So we changed our lives. . . . So much of what we do in our lives is about fusing art, science, and spirituality together, so sometimes it's good to rotate the manifestation of that triangle. Nautical Almanac is quietly building up to our vision for the next level. It requires a lot more work, and more people, and may not even be Nautical Almanac when we hit the goal. We know it will happen when it's right, and it's starting to feel that way. Carly has been working on the stage setting that is a moving, amorphous sheet with levels of projections, movement, shadows, audible light triggers, and I have dreams of four-channel metabolic soundsystems."