Categories of Music and Darkness
This playlist, by JACK Quartet cellist Kevin McFarland, emphasizes darkness—a fitting counterpoint to the group’s recent and upcoming concerts (on March 4 at San Francisco Performances) of Georg Friedrich Haas’ String Quartet No. 3, “In iij Noct.” Here is McFarland’s introduction to the compilation.
“In putting together this playlist, I struggled with the seemingly infinite choices in front of me. I decided to begin intuitively and noticed a few common factors in the tracks I chose: they all were by artists I had been obsessed with at some point, listening to everything I could get my hands on by each of them; most involved some means of electronic music production, though none were traditionally composed (at least in the contemporary classical, notation-based sense); and much of the list had a bit of a dark vibe, ranging from the melancholy to the macabre. There is much more music that I enjoy that serves many other purposes in my life, but I think all the tracks listed here are examples of different categories of music that provide me some relief from the mindset I usually inhabit in my work with the JACK Quartet. A kind of catharsis through electric darkness.”
Björk – “Bachelorette”
This collaboration between Björk and the film director Michel Gondry is one of my all-time favorite music videos. There are a few tropes here that are nothing new, involving meta-fiction and plays within plays, but I think it is exceptionally well done and Gondry manages to find an interesting way out of the recursive path the video sets up. In addition to being a singular artist with a unique instrument and mode of expression, Björk has a knack for seeking out interesting collaborations with many different artists and I think this has kept her work vital over the years.
Le1f – (live set)
I’ve been pretty obsessed with rapper Le1f’s mixtapes for a while now and was lucky enough to see him live in Brooklyn last year. (Björk was rumored to be in attendance.) Though he often downplays the importance of his being a queer rapper, I think it’s awesome how he turns the typically masculinist posturing that sometimes occurs in the hip-hop world on its head, commanding the stage with a confidence that transcends masculine vs. feminine distinctions. His rhymes are sick, his flow is prodigious, and his voice drips with sensuality, marked by his trademark vocal fry.
Autechre – “prac-f”
It’s hard for me to pick just one track from this UK-based electronic duo, so here is a cut off their last full length album “Exai” (I recommend checking out the entire disc). Their music has a deep sophistication, besides being really infectious (though the beats are often undanceable); it can be rather overstimulating at times in a way I enjoy. They came to electronic music through an autodidactic path, starting their careers as graffiti taggers in Sheffield making push button mixtapes, later moving into DJing, ambient electronica using drum machines and analog synths, and eventually DSP and MAX. Their music flows according to its own logic, seemingly free of the burdens that beset more formally trained composers.
Nine Inch Nails – “Reptile”
I remember buying “The Downward Spiral” as a teenager, popping it into my stereo, and then soon feeling like this was music I had to listen to in secret over headphones: forbidden fruit. Nowadays much of the lyrics seem, well, a bit on the nose, but back then it spoke to my teenage angst in a way that felt very direct. I still love the heavy industrial sounds and punishing drum machines, and of course Trent Reznor’s anguished vocals.
Depeche Mode – “Enjoy the Silence”
Anyone who has ever done karaoke with me knows this is my go-to staple; this song still has a lot of meaning for me. I remember first seeing the video on MTV when I was eight years old and feeling very moved by it. I also remember sneaking with my friend into his sister’s room to steal her cassette tape of “Violator” so we could listen to all the other songs. Though not nearly as heavy as Nine Inch Nails, this band and the new wave in general was really a predecessor of the heavier industrial acts that followed. Also NIN, Depeche Mode, and even Autechre were influenced by earlier bands such as Coil and Einstuerzende Neubauten, so I like tracing this chain of influence here.
Meshuggah – “New Millenium Cyanide Christ”
I do love heavy metal, but many bands are plagued by a kind of self-seriousness and a thirst for musically empty virtuosity. Not so with Meshuggah, a band whose members focus their technical wizardry into complex polymetric tapestries and an airtight musical aesthetic that has almost become its own musical language—much imitated, but rarely done as well. Tracing the rhythmic patterns is a heady game; it’s nicely paired with the visceral experience of the seven or eight-stringed guitars (tuned extra low) and the drums closely tracking all the parts. I’m not usually into scream vocals, but Tomas Haake sounds like a genuine hell demon, and his voice functions as another rhythmic layer which adds its own kind of multiphonic timbre to the mix. And from the looks of this video—it appears to have been made on a whim on their tour bus, and features some very committed air guitar, drums, and vocals—they do not take themselves too seriously.
Dr. Dooom (Kool Keith) – “Apartment 223”
Out of the many aliases of rapper Kool Keith, Dr. Dooom is one of the darkest and most absurd. The record “First Come, First Served” begins with a skit where Keith (as Dr. Dooom) kills off his very popular Dr. Octagon persona, then launches into this track, introducing his audience to his cannibalistic serial killer alter ego. Though the lyrics can be violent, I like to think of this music as a surrealistic parody of gangsta rap and the supposed authenticity its adherents lay claim to. Keith is a shapeshifter, constantly taking down what he perceives as the rap world’s phoniness, though this is perhaps ironic, as he primarily embodies fake personas himself. I love Dan the Automator’s sinister beats, and above all, Keith’s zany rhymes—they often seem to have more to do with the sounds of words than their meaning.
Éliane Radigue – “Kyema” (from “Trilogie de la Mort”)
Radigue’s electronic music, created using multiple recorded layers of analog synthesizers, unfolds slowly in time, in a way that seems to access the deep sub- or unconscious levels of mind; it bypasses analytic ways of thinking in favor of a deeper kind of experience. Her interest in Tibetan Buddhism, meditation, and the nature of consciousness plays out in this work, the first of three hour-long pieces that comprise her major opus “Trilogie de la Mort.” I’m interested in music that can induce changes in brain states and this definitely fits into that category. (Though it is very theoretically different, I find it akin to the long forms found in La Monte Young’s music, which also had a profound impact on me.) I like to put it on when I’m in the bath and just bliss out.