. issue XIII : iii .

by barathron

. artist : a_dontigny .
. album : sine fiction vol. I) we .
. year : 2000 .
. label : sine fiction .
. grade : infinity .


This soundtrack (from electronic artist Aimé Dontigny of Napalm Jazz and morceaux_de_machines) was the germinal offering in No Type’s Sine Fiction release series. Begun in 2000, this project supplements oft-overlooked science fiction novels with musical accompaniment. Sine Fiction’s main output ran through 2007, releasing 19 volumes (crafted by James Schidlowsky, Jos Smolders, Julie Rousse, Maciek Szymczuk and many more, and curated by Dontigny himself) inspired by novels by Burroughs, Ballard, Dick, Calvino, Vonnegut, Clarke, Heinlein, Asimov … and more. The label was resurrected with Dontigny’s 20th issue in 2011. Sine Fiction is one of the most engaging, worthwhile, unpretentious and promising collective endeavors in 00’s sound art. {A/N: I long to see Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun given this treatment!]

The stunning Sine Fiction volume 1, We, accompanies the banished ex-Bolshevik author Yevgeny Zamyatin’s eponymous novel. It’s a dystopia masquerading as utopian … but, patently dystopian, and then, once the protagonist is effectively lobotomized, become a utopia. (Great.) We, published in 1921, was not-too-tardy to be a forerunner in its genre, and it’s clearly a direct inspiration for many subsequent novels, including George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. In We, a prominent mathematician and engineer named D-530 is working on a spaceship project when he decides to record his thoughts in writing (with the oh-really aim of composing verses to be carried in the spaceship). Predictably, the journal becomes a crucible of reflection, and D develops “a soul” and begins aiding social insurgents (after he’s seduced by their stop-at-nothing-if-Goldman-was-played-by-Scarlett-Johansen agent provocateur I-330). Fortunately, D’s “soul” becomes curable when a neurosurgical technique for excising imagination is developed. We is a tragic Bildungsroman that at the last reclaims the ‘I’ that was D-530. Further, D’s friend and colleague R-13 has died by violence in the riots, and, in the final scene, D watches the torture of the ringleader (I-330). D “notices” I’s personal features without conscious recognition:

Her face became very white, and as her eyes were large and dark, all was very pretty. When they began pumping the air from under the Bell she threw her head back and half-closed her eyes; her lips were pressed together. This reminded me of something. She looked at me, holding the arms of the chair firmly. She continued to look until her eyes closed. (p. 218)

In a buoyant prospect of hope and for life, we learn that D’s other lover (jeesh), O-90, has fled to safety with his child. But, by-and-large, We is devastating not merely because of the society is posits, but because of the spastic, regressive, confused comport of its hero. In We, the hero is the villain to himself on behalf of the ‘we.’

I know that there should be no place for a criminal like me among these frank, open faces. What if I should rush forward and shout out everything about myself all at once! The end might follow. Let it happen! At least for a second I would feel myself clear and clean and senseless like that innocent blue sky…. (p. 131)

We, a much reputed exilic work, is tense in the psychologically backbiting tradition of Dostoyevsky, egalitarian as with the theo- and philo-sophical vision of Berdyaev (e.g. freedom and human dignity are proportional and tantamount to one another), and is surreal a la Desnos, much concerned with the spectrum of phenomenological experience but that also dissolving sensory expectations or constructs to promote inner ‘living.’

The two most cogent things about the text of We are carried over quite effectively into the soundtrack. Zamyatin’s protagonist is recklessly submerged in a concoction of colors and other sheer, vivid qualia, and the prose is blurred in insipid stream-of-consciousness (to show D literally ‘coming to his senses’ as his paragon effigy of ordered reality is wrecked). And the sounds selected by Dontigny are meticulously qualified and personalized, distinct, often tangible, from spotty square waves hiccoughing like braille for the ears, to crystalline lancing chimes, to high-time phone hangup sequences; We, the album, is more intently impactful in its aural presentation than the novel is evocatively. Secondly, while reading of D’s unfolding adventures and unrounded consciousness (he’s like a compass without a lodestone; many tics and much retracing of steps) … there is not a thing to hold on to; the reader is entirely free-floating — and that’s too free-floating. It makes sense that, by design, the reader is trapped in D’s burgeoning consciousness, that they’re not able to suss out characters’ motivations or allegiances, and that they must fall in line with D’s psychological rut because they have no basis to dispute his choices. As a result, the reader is as shaky and/or fervent as D, and this could have bee extremely productive if executed well. Unfortunately, I’m not impressed with the prose (though perhaps this is the translation), and such poorly-wrought stream-of-consciousness writing interrupts basic coherency. The sense of time, thought, action, internality and externality, cause and effect, even three-dimensional space is totally forfeit. … if the prose itself was something to hold on to — but it’s not. However, the listener lost in Dontigny’s music will be able clarify We’s pieces through the reading of the novel. The song titles are character names, and, indeed, the pieces in We personify the individual character arcs and thus make sense in relation to and when refracted by the novel. It should be said that attempting to ‘sound track’ anything besides character or basic plot would be incomprehensible, but then, We the album is so superior to the novel because music can provide a free-floating experience where words can’t.

If considered a soundtrack, We is extraordinary foley. Without the text, the listener won’t specifically conceive of what these sounds mean and what the piece is foley for — but there is development and there is a mood (often several, in a mood construction, and ambiguity between then). It’s hard, at first, to see how these can pieces be narrative, and the naïve listener will conclude that they’re merely representational. But after reading the novel, the listener will detect narrative strands in each thematic piece, one for each character: D-503, R-13, O-90 and I-330.

The characterization is so crystallized: all-considered, omniscient in a way, or perhaps statuesque. With the exception of “O-90,” each piece seems to perfectly coincide with temperament, situation, and character arc. “D-530,” initially naïve, becomes increasingly lush with poetic, entropic overgrowth, and at the ‘operation,’ is reduced to impotent bleeps … the simplest, compliant synaptic activation. “R-13” emerges from that baseline neural code, roasted and sinister, and with porous sonic vapors seems pervious to threat; in conclusion, the scintillating, percussive construction is laid waste. “O-90” begins with an innocent but-not-to-be-betrayed charm that snowballs down a steep slope of depth, moral heft, and ponderous fullness; when a second, smaller ocarina joins the first, pure wariness and a primal maternal strength resonate. “I-330” makes a strong first impression of confident mystique and heated ‘clarity’ that devolves into static intercessions and finally cools, mauled and contorted like windblown glass.

D-503 is stunningly out of touch with himself (just another compartmentalization); logical and logistical, D is apparently a relatively young (32) leader of a major government-contracted (heh) scientific endeavor — but he reads like a follower, a rote-subscriber, sworn-by-the-book; We is, in a major sense, about how seduced logicians don’t count on deceit, or, simply forget to factor in an essential or two. For all that the novel We is an encasing basket, it portrays unrelentingly how ambiguous it is to be D! Just so, “D-530” has a hard celestial shine, lustrously cutting like polished diamonds. Yet it’s also scratchy and gritty, a platter of smacks and splatters in a sort of spastic bathtub turntablism. It’s rugged and aloof, rough and refined by turns, and, similarly, progresses with a windwiper squeegee frame-by-frame that fast forwards and halts alternately in some drippy home video; its consciousness is effervescent — elysian tones pure like pearls — and a bit insecure. “D-530” begins with a bleepy, impertinent naiveté and short undersold shots that don’t go very far — D is not just light- but feather-weight — but it’s rapturous in unproductive ways, too. The sounds of ripping paper reference the incident of a note from I-330 that he tatters … and the frequent consideration that he might destroy his heretical manuscript. “D-530” crests to glass tones like a nostalgic boomerang-of-whence, a gorgeous mobile for the child he’ll never know, twinkling lambent on the horizon — perhaps referencing O-90. The abrupt reduction to simple blips at the song’s close is unsettling. Although it’s a tangible massage for the ear canal (wear earbuds), it’s intrusive, like pop rocks, stimulating, stupefying, and a bit angering — like being tickled ‘on’ your phantom limb, it’s totally unaccountable and unrelievable.

R-13 is the foil to D-503: he’s also undermined by I-330 but seems to dodge the situation with glibness and enthusiasm; later, D physically overtakes R, who is carrying I to safety, reclaiming her like a buck fighting over a doe during the rut; later still, R dies in the course of the revolution, prefiguring D’s ‘death.’ R is definitely presented as both more personable and more untoward than D; he’s slightly grotesque as he stutters and sprays out words, and in “R-13” the composition, spraying motifs (and spurts at 6 minutes) are evident. Both D and R seem under lockdown at times and totally spastic at others; in “R-13,” this at-odds is depicted by regular chiming against wild beats. The immense, earthshaking close seems to invoke the wall-crumbling riots R was killed in — though we don’t know ‘for’ what ‘side,’ or if he was simply caught in the ruination. “R-13” proceeds from the outro of “D-530” carried over. And it’s true: the place where D ends, psychologically, is the place that R and other citizens (‘numbers’) of the One State begin. After tight-mouthed anticipation, the sound builds in survey sets, passes of metallic washes that strafe, engraving, grinding slowly between the molten and the chisel. Then, sharp tings physically wound in their slung dispersion, and ring tinging, like a percussion reflex hammer on scintillating metal nuggets. Gradually, the atmosphere is submerged to dwell in a stygian water, caved yet spacey in its noxious transduction. It’s alive, though sunless, murky and overcast, all whispers, breaths and transmissions. Some funky jungle beats begin with elusive incongruity in the background; and a tornadogenic windup evokes those anti-gravity chamber ‘rides’ where, disoriented, you climb the wall; it’s an enclosed trip of malevolent possession, where even the bleeping sounds are lightly obstreperous; squirts and sputters crumble in the shock front and fallout.

O-90 is the woman who loves D-530, and the only potentially recognizable individual in We. She is in touch with herself endogenously, and through an even keel and kindness it’s easy and safe for her to encounter or posit herself — unlike for any other character, the exuberant R, the intense D, the brazen I. “O-90” is the most enjoyable composition from Dontigny, in my opinion, but it’s also the track about which there’s least to be said. It does not quite match up to O’s generous nature … instead, it’s soporific, oblique, close, spunky and skulking. Perhaps we could say that it is ‘subterranean’ like a cerulean spring, cavernous in breathing rock; that “O-90” is tapping a well at great danger and depth — which is true: she arranges to be smuggled out of the State so that she might raise her own child — but to say that “O-90” matches her depiction exactly…? The piece sounds like ‘what if Sun Ra did the Shadowgate soundtrack?’ … which is awesome, but I don’t think it’s ‘valid,’ per se. “O-90” begins with frying pan swishing; aluminum baking sheet sock hops in moon shoes on pogo sticks; a whisk on an aluminum washboard; claps resolved into gravitational collapse, a condensing explosion; then to twist it bop it, there’s a cabasa scratch, and the sinister organ begins. Echoing, a frazzled, bleeping melody, ocarina-like, entwines and trades off with the organ; then a second ocarina buds, but it’s even brighter in tone, tiny, and sharper … piquant. As a clappy wave waves, windshield wipers snap to attention and fly back, sloughing water; the twinkling of sprinkled stars; we miss a clap between 3:30 and 3:50 … it’s a nice decision to leave it out. There’s a constructive tension between the bright ocarina (positive — perhaps representing the soon-to-be truly ‘born free’ child) and the lower ocarina and organ (the mature parents, born in captivity, and downturned in a dire situation). As with Dontigny’s other compositions approaching their close, “O-90” settles down and thins out, seeming to compress in on itself until only the organ persists — and is sharply severed.

I-330 is the rebellion’s mastermind and heroine, playing others for pawns at any and all lengths. Beyond her affair with D-530, her preparations for the Integral’s launch, and his appreciation of her connections, the reader never finds out who I is or what, precisely, she does. Appropriately, “I-330” is misleading and gives no answers. It’s as emotionally opaque as the woman whose eyes are compared to shades and curtains, lashes like fences or tassels, and who lives not in the glass … menagerie … with other numbers but in a forbidden apartment staged in a ‘prehistoric’ museum.

She opened a heavy, squeaking, opaque door and we found ourselves in a somber disorderly space (they called it an “apartment”). The same strange “royal” musical instrument and a wild, unorganized, crazy loudness of colors and forms like their ancient music. A white plane above, dark blue walls, red, green, orange bindings of ancient books, yellow bronze candelabra, a statue of Buddha, furniture with lines distorted by epilepsy, impossible to reduce to any clear equation. (p. 26)

I-330 is, ironically for a seductress of powerful numbers, impenetrable (and compare O-90, who gives her heart to D in the form of a child even when she will cease to give her body). I masterfully plays him, and indeed, in “I-330” one hears entire phone banks flatlining on hold. Just as the grim, brash points and furrows of I’s mouth and brows are emphasized, “I-330” produces pointy impressions and lightly-taken creases: there is a angry, sleek, unvulnerable jangle about “I-330” that’s confident and self-contained. Also present are tactiturn, sharp bells, and that — the Bell, an asphyxiation chamber — is the precise method of I’s torture. It’s also held up at the traditional D reflects early on as a majestic component of order in the One State, and, for the newly traditional (imagination-less) D, the Bell is a terrible sort of sexual container, a new distorted viewscreen for what he’d participated in when he loved her that he doesn’t even recognize (“they brought in that woman”). “I-330” begins with pulse, systematic diastoles upwelling; it affects the listener’s ears, like the braille, but it’s big, trudging, difficult and pacing, more alive. Then a static-spawned beat (a light snare; it’s got a rattly, thin quality to it and a scatty beat, quickly tossed out) is arced over by the sparkling, scintillating diamond — but it’s flat and transduced into a dial tone to busy signal noise. Percussive beat clusters with a mood spacious, morose, skeptical. The phone calls become more elegant, in a bracing canter, like a lullaby; a jazzy triangle jingle has begun, and the beat resumes, but with blurpy, cooled embouchures; all crystalline and glass thinly resonating.

Track length seems to be proportional to emotional opaqueness and clarity of role. “D-530” (at 3:49) is simplest, in a way, nearly inert. We inhabit his brain and watch him omit all sorts of vital character judgments … not even making a gesture to assessment! Having not had ‘a soul’ (i.e. understood himself as an individual moral agent) he’s quite clueless about human psychology. It makes for tragic reading … but this is one way in which Zamyatin’s project is compelling. “O-90” (at 5:28) is not as straightforwardly presented as D — we’re not in her mind — but her behavior seems clear through the reader’s eyes, if not D’s. We’re sure we know and understand her mind, even though we’re not in it — and that it is truly hers. “R-13,” at 6:55, is pretty unaccountable — whose side is he on? What is he to D and to I (by whose ‘love’ a new triangle is formed, and one with much less clarity than the D-O-R triangle that had previously existed) — did I-330 seduce R, and why? Did she succeed or did she fail? Or did she discard him (no longer a relevant target?) Is he in her grasp at the ‘vote’ or when he’s killed? What was he doing when he was killed? Something? For who? Or was he doing nothing….passing by? “I-330,” at 7:21, is least accountable…quite opaque.

The uniting theme in Dontigny’s soundtrack is the crystalline clarity, in sound if not always in meaning. Transparency is central to Zamyatin’s We, too, and the hold of the One State exists, in large part, because of its programmatic ethical case for transparency. The numbers live in glass houses whose transparent walls are also described as “hard as diamonds” (“But how eternal, transparent, how shining the diamond!”). (p. 12-13) D-530 explains:

Normally we live surrounded by transparent walls which seem to be knitted of sparkling air; we live beneath the eyes of everyone, always bathed in light. We have nothing to conceal from one another; besides, this mode of living makes the difficult and exalted task of the guardians much easier. Without it many bad things might happen. It is possible that the strange opaque dwellings of the ancients were responsible for their pitiful cellish psychology…. My (sic!) home is my fortress! How did they manage to think such things?” (p. 19)

The openness also connotes conscience, as when D reflects that “This morning I went downstairs all purified and distilled, transparent.” (p. 48) Though D has been brainwashed to misunderstand who, exactly, should control transparency (as an end to self-evidencing), he can recognize its proper display in the symbol of MEPHI (the organization of self-actualizing rebels), which depicts “a youth with wings and a transparent body and, in the place ordinarily occupied by the heart, a blinding, red, blazing coal.” (p. 146)

Just so, Dontigny’s We was a spectacular inception for the Sine Fiction project, in large part because of its effortful earnestness. We is not only well-crafted but intently planned to greatly expand on its novel — even to clarify, … to make transparent. This album is not only one of the best I’ve ever heard in any genre, but a perspicacious lens through which to view an importantly contested story worth appreciating today.

by Brittany Tracy