Review: Jen Kutler – Sonified Physiological Indicators Of Empathy

Photo by Playhouse 90

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While the ultimate source of this record is the sounds of violence, the output often verges on the lush: voices, prepared piano and field recordings entangled and unfurled like clusters of wild flowers. Several stages of translation reside in between. The record was made by playing clips of violence (alternating with 10 seconds of silence) to a test subject, while measuring physiological factors such as electrodermal activity, breath and heart rate. This data was then turned into MIDI files and assigned to an array of “synthetic voices”, none of which directly evoke the jaggedness one most readily associates with the sound of violence. Instead, this violence exists as a sense of agitation – flickers of anxiety disrupting smoother movements, or dissonances emerging like smiles stretching into uncanny grimaces – but never approaches anything horrific – at least, overtly.

It is an exquisitely fraught listen. Allure and unease press into eachother. Flocks of pizzicato burst from gentle feedback tones; the quivers of audio time-stretching protrude like goosebumps upon arcs of melody; a choir of children wobbles between harmonic parallel and pulsing misalignment. It’s uncomfortable to never be exposed to the violent events at the source, and to be aware of their presence only through a discolouring of the record’s atmosphere, or the jolts of musical activity that suggest a heightened physiological response – a displacement that brings to mind the dispassionate, casual rendering of violence within everyday life through news reports or workplace conversation. Or is there something more optimistic here: an illustration of the fact that humans are wired to care, beholden to instincts that can’t help but express compassion in the face of violence? Kutler doesn’t unpack anything for me, and it feels right that I should simply be left to steep in this uncertainty.