Zachary Paul - A Meditation on Discord

The Quietus

In 1968, Bruce Nauman tuned his violin to D-E-A-D. Fifty years later, and somewhat less portentously, Zachary Paul, appearing on stage at last year’s Desert Daze Festival in California, tuned his to G-D-G-D. The results are hardly less minimal and hypnotic but certainly more sensitively played.

The Californian composer-improviser’s first solo album under his own name, for Touch, starts by erecting a dense fog of swirling harmonics, building up long loops of heady drones in uncertain, shifting layers. It’s just one man on a stage, a single violin and some electronics, but it conjures up a whole world in short order.

Fans of Tony Conrad’s Early Minimalism project and the Theatre of Eternal Music will recognise Paul’s penchant for long tones and the swell of tightly packed resonant frequencies. This is music to swim in and to feel oneself swum through by. That first track, ‘Premonition’, improvised live at Desert Daze, lasts a cool half hour and probably contains less information , in the strict Claude Shannon sense of the term, than most three minute pop songs. That’s hardly the point, of course. ‘Premonition’ could last three minutes or it could last three days or three weeks. It is not the journey but the landscape.

Something in the timbre of the second track ‘Slow Ascent’ feels almost old time-y to these ears. Speed it up a few hundred percent and it could almost be bluegrass. As it is, it would sit comfortably flitting amongst dappled light in one of the dreamier sequences in Andrew Dominik’s (2007) film, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Final track, ‘A Person with Feelings’ actually is a film soundtrack, though not to anything so mainstream as a Brad Pitt movie. Paul himself describes it as a “modern trance” film and it’s here that the electronics take precedence over the violin, resulting in something a little gloopy for my taste. He’s generally a lot more inclined towards time-based effects like reverb and delay than his east coast forebears from the 50s and 60s, tending to smooth off his own rough edges and mellow his own twists and turns. This may disappoint the minimalist purists, but it certainly makes for a sweeter listening experience.

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Wed Mar 13 14:28:55 GMT 2019

A Closer Listen

For his debut, Zachary Paul joins a relatively long history of radical dronesters and minimalists that aim not for you to experience music differently but to alter your very perception of reality. The first two tracks are tied to a place and time (“3:30 PM Lake Perris”, for the first, and “9:30 PM Downtown”, for the second) while the third one consists of a soundtrack to a short film about an actor’s inner life: sound is a bridge extending outwards from our skin and into the world. It is, of course, not a bridge made of concrete and steel, but one that has an emotional foundation, the kind of bricks and stones that lead more than a few to see sound and hear color, a mutability that shifts with every passing second.

Both “Premonition” and “Slow Ascent” are improvised, and each depicts an emotional soundscape of a story told in vast violin harmonies. The earlier reflects a warm and bright afternoon at the back of which loomed a deafening storm, Paul’s playing an entrancing daydream able to map every moment, from the quietude of sunrays to the dissonance of the clouds that would distort them. As the storm approaches, “Premonition” grows in intensity, its tones sweeping upward, a translation in which nothing is lost – the sky rumbles, announcing the fiery paths of lightning that will roar from the ground to strike above. The meditation lays down the bridge, a communion with nature in which the mind extends into the body as it also grasps everything around it in every sweep of the violin’s bow. The rain materializes in acute, indistinguishable drones upon which fast, short, indefinite sounds ring, eventually giving way to an uncertain mass both distant and immediate. Discord flows throughout the world, but instead of ending it, discord illuminates it.

As “Slow Ascent” begins, that extension into the world snaps back towards another kind of meditation, one that traces a path within. Performed as an “inverted guided group meditation” (which I suppose means that instead of one leading the many, the many lead the one in the journey), the drones are much warmer and longer, expressing no translation of fragmented exterior phenomena but one of unity, of a peaceful inner state that is constantly in movement, constantly harmonizing every contradiction, every instinct, every rational process. The performer himself becomes a communicating vessel, allowing the objective nature of sound frequencies become the primary site of an expression beyond words and chants; the communion here is between an audience and an instrument of their own shaping. Discord seems like an event, but it instead becomes the process without which there would be no harmony at the end.

The last track, “A Person With Feelings”, points the way towards another kind of meditation: as we identify with or reject a character on-screen, we step further outside or inside ourselves, and our inner lives grow paradoxical. The drones here are less oriented by the idea of a soundscape and instead attempt to clearly push emotions and images away/into the listener, ending with a dissonant screech that will leave no one unscathed. Discord here is an event, one so punishing it will either attract or repel, leaving nothing in between.

Paul’s debut is a powerful piece of drone, worthy of those who have seen music as a field of experience. It will hopefully change and challenge your perception, but only if you listen to it at full volume, allowing you to see it completely. (David Murrieta Flores)

Mon Apr 15 00:01:03 GMT 2019