Reduction is impossible. This is my primary takeaway from the recent work of Emptyset. On their 2016 album Borders, the duo stripped their music back to a vital ventricular thrust. Bass frequency, throb, impact, vibration. Yet while the premise of the record was simple, the band inadvertently dug deeper into the innate complexity of sound. Without the distraction of composition, I can hear the ricochet of consequence that follows the strike of a solitary string: the harmonics that arc and slither over the root, the ripples of sub-rhythm that undermine the central clattering refrain, the choral announcement of material and texture (metal, wood, air) that responds to each attack. As Emptyset’s creative focus draws inward, the chaos of vibration billows outward.
Through this commission for Camden’s DRAF Studio, I can observe this dynamic in the physical world. I walk into the room to see two gigantic instruments, both of which resemble the mental imagery triggered by listening to Borders: one consisting of hollow metallic cylinders, the other with wires strung upon vertical wooden beams. One can hear these sculptures just by looking at them. In keeping with the duo’s recent fixation, this is material reduced to sonorous function; instruments as raw industrial material, as explicit in their utility as oak frames and pavements and brick walls. In fact, to look at these machines without hearing them is to tap into a sort of conceptual ideal, triggering thoughts of a sound as a sharp, vividly-angled, synaesthesic replication of its source object, unblemished by the chaos of environment, pure and algorithmically predictable.
As the performance begins, hypothetical simplicity gives way to the flux of realisation. The duo tap against the metal cylinders with soft mallets, Paul Purgas initially holding a steady beat while James Ginzburg wanders around the structure, experimenting with different syncopations and velocities. Every time he taps a new area of the instrument the shape of the harmonic resonance changes dramatically; high frequencies bloom toward the ceiling or recede beneath warmer hums, extending to consume the mallet attack or trailing off quicker than anticipated. At one point the tapping becomes rapid and insistent, smoothing the hum of material into a drone that hangs anxiously in the air, suspended just above the jaws of the Northern Line that rumble beneath the studio floor. Suddenly, this angular object feels somewhat fluid, shape-shifting at the behest of rhythm and intensity. The same goes for the upright stringed instrument; as each tap or pluck unveils an entirely different combination of buzz and ripple and resonance, the stark and seemingly functional sculpture becomes an exponentially more complex, indefinite entity.
A small choir join the duo for the second half, facing inward from the edges of the performance space. Their first sound is a sibilant hiss – gently awakening the teeth and the tongue – before moving to intersecting harmonies of microtonal vowel, draped and woven over the instrument surfaces like ribbons, melting into the metallic overtones. At certain points I hear body and object as one. The resonances knot together until I can no longer pull them apart. Suddenly they’re separate again, veering away to the corners of the room. They fuse and refuse. I think back to the conceptual simplicity upon which this performance was founded. Those sharp, right-angled sculptures that stand so clearly in the emptiness of the DRAF Studio. Now I’m swimming amidst multidirectional waves of song, uncertain of where metal ends and flesh begins, sinking into the soup of action and environment. So simple. Beautifully complicated.