Review: Benjamin Nelson – First

pica038I’m at the surface. First could be an unintentional sound. The hum of equipment left on by mistake, or the buzz of damaged cabling. It’s constant and tuneless. It’s a drone comprised of several equally vacant parts: a nauseating low whirr, a gush of white noise, a shrill electronic ring. It hangs in the air like a mist. I don’t hear Benjamin Nelson in this sound. There’s nothing to indicate any human instigation or compositional will. In fact, it’s the sort of sound that artists are normally driven to eradicate through noise gating and equalisation; the hum of the medium announcing itself, exposing the web of electronics that hangs between a composer and the spotless canvas of the audio track.

I sink in. I’ve been listening for a certain length of time. Three minutes? Nine minutes? I can hear movement now. The bass frequency swoops in and out, reaching an aggressive volume and then retreating again, like the intermittent throb of sickness. The band of white noise above it starts to ripple, forced into movement by the intensity of the vibration beneath. I hear other frequencies sprouting in the seams, which were potentially always been there; like a radio signal on an unheard wavelength, waiting for my listening to align with the correct broadcasting frequency.

Sinking further down. I’m halfway through perhaps. I feel naïve for initially perceiving First as an act of stasis, as everything is moving frantically all the time – drones veer gently into eachother, obfuscate eachother momentarily and surge to the fore for a moment. It’s like watching moonlight through the sway of tree branches, observing how the glow subsides in certain areas as they become eclipsed by the boughs, causing the shape to flicker and dance between various formations of illumination and shadow. I wonder whether these changes are manually orchestrated – deliberately arranged by the slight, meticulous adjustments of dials and faders – or the organic reactions of frequencies in collision, left to rebound off the walls and eachother, spawning feedback and rhythmic pulses of their own accord.

The closing stages. Everything is throbbing. Now my listening has calibrated to Nelson’s universe of delicate movements, this convulsion feels particularly erratic. It pumps like a techno track, with the bass sucking at the harmony above it. The piece almost feels tuneful – harmonically aligned at the very least – as feedback tones and serrated synths curdle in the mid-frequencies, forced into coherence by the insistent throb from beneath. This isn’t a passive sonic experience; rather, Nelson wields the tools of listening into the fabric of his creation. Stasis encourages my brain to wander away from certain frequencies and fixate upon others, revealing intricacies and rhythms that I never noticed before. We collaborate on the reshaping of his work, tugging at the contours of sound through a combination of frequency adjustment and perceptual reframing, using restraint and minor alteration as agents of tectonic change.