Seth Cluett – Undr CDR (BOXmedia, 2004)

“I walked that driveway every day for eighteen years to the school bus, so it’s filled with memories of my perception of the world, nature, and sounds, and being immersed in it.”

I came across this unusual CDR while exploring the discography for BOXmedia, a Chicago label run by Brent Gutzeit and Bill Groot from 1997 to 2004.

BOXmedia was devoted to improvised and experimental music, including CDR, CD, and vinyl releases of work by a variety of producers, among them Pita, Kevin Drumm, and Reynols. Their extensive discography is home to a number of limited-edition treats, including a disc of field recordings taken at a rural tractor competition, as captured by Gutzeit and Groot themselves.

Seth Cluett’s Undr CDR is another interesting artifact. Its basis was a recording of Cluett and four members of the Undr Quartet walking the long driveway of Cluett’s parents’ house. That recording was then digitally processed using sine tones, only leaving faint flecks of the original source audio in the mix.

Cluett, now Assistant Director of the Computer Music Center and Sound Art Program at Columbia University, recalls the era of his life when Undr came out. He had completed an MFA in Electronic Art at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute two years prior, in 2002, and subsequently became interested in the Chicago New Music scene after performing at a series of shows for a group exhibition at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Betty Rymer Gallery. The exhibition was called Resynthesis and was curated by Philip von Zweck, its intent to situate sound art as equal to the material usually featured in art galleries. For the show, Cluett rigged up audio equipment in a stairwell, turning the environment into a “large acoustic resonator.”

From the postcard to the Resynthesis group exhibition. Source.

Participating in that Chicago event led to a number of different collaborations and solo exhibitions, and also introduced him to BOXmedia’s Brent Gutzeit. “Brent reached out and asked if I wanted to do a CDR in the next batch of BOXmedia CDRs,” Cluett explains. “It was complicated because at the time I was juggling these long form composed works and installation pieces.”

Indeed, in 2004 Cluett put two other releases, both of which came out before Undr. The Masked Verticalities mini-CDR, on Crank Satori Records, was a recording of the stairwell piece he had staged for Resynthesis. The other was his first widely-distributed, professionally-pressed CD, My Own Thousand Shatterings, which garnered reviews in publications like The Wire. That CD, which took years to produce before coming out on Sedimental Recordings,was typical of Cluett’s focused, time-intensive process.

“I had just released this 74-minute monolith of a fixed media recording,” he explains. “It took me three years to make and I was not in the same head to produce another epic, long thing… I was tempted to use it as another opportunity to release something a little more ephemeral, a little less fixed-media. So I came up with a strategy to split the difference and make a site-specific piece based on a field recording.”

Around that time, Cluett was very interested in the way sounds occupied spaces and how this affected the psychological experience of listening. He was exploring these ideas in his live performances, creating tones using sine-wave oscillators to accentuate elements of the sound environment, including the resonant frequencies of the venues’ physical space. He wondered how he could create a recording that incorporated the same processes. Undr was the result.

That name — Undr — had two meanings. It originates in a Borges story of the same the name, from his short story collection Book of Sand. “I think the Borges relation is deceptively simple,” he shares. “I feel comfortable telling you that it is about allowing worlds to exist within less. For the people in the story, their poetry consisted of a single word. I was interested in how sound creates meaning, where content lives in our sonic memory, and how small sounds contain multitudes.”

The more immediate connection was Boston’s Undr Quartet, who, along with Nmperign, were what Cluett considers the “vanguard in Boston of what got dubbed by Steve Roden the lowercase improvised scene.” The members of the Quartet accompanied Cluett for the walk that comprises Undr‘s source recording.

Image of Cluett’s parents’ driveway, the location of Undr‘s recording. (Credit: Allen Cluett)

Cluett shares the story behind that field recording. At the time, the Undr Quartet were recording with Cluett at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, since Cluett still had keys to the recording studio. For convenience, the Quartet crashed with Cluett at his parents’ house nearby. “I grew up very rurally in Upstate New York,” he explains. “My folks have a quarter-mile long driveway with about a half-mile on either end of the driveway from either neighbour. I took a binaural microphone and I walked down the driveway with the Quartet slowly, listening, and then walked back up the driveway.”

His pet Labrador, Rudy, joined as well. In relating this story, Cluett acknowledges his gratitude to the Quartet’s members in joining him for this project. At the time, Cluett was in his mid-20s, a few years younger than these established improvisers, who were mentors to him at the time.

“I walked that driveway every day for eighteen years to the school bus, so it’s filled with memories of my perception of the world, nature, and sounds, and being immersed in it.”

After creating this recording, he took it and he weaved layers of sine tones into the source audio. Indeed, it’s difficult to hear any remnant of the walk in the mix; only by playing it at very loud volume can one make out a sporadic faint tinkle of the dog’s chain or the crunch of a leaf.

The sine tones were added via a twofold process. The first step was what Cluett calls an “aural” one, with him selecting sine tones by ear. He tells me that, around the time Undr was made, he had been performing live using a set of eight Heathkit sine-wave oscillators. “They were these big tube oscillators that I carried around in my car and set up for performances. At the time, I was doing these performances in which I would listen to the room and then bring in and tune tones to what was happening. Some tones were also tuned to the architectural space of the room. I would do a sweep before the show started and look for resonant notes in the space.”

He used these oscillators as phase one of Undr‘s production process, running the field recording, and playing along live with his oscillators, matching elements of the recording to specific tones by ear. After he recorded several runs, he layered them atop one another.

A look at the Raven program. Source.

Step two of the sound processing was where the process diverged from his live rig. “At the time we had this software from the Cornell ornithology laboratory called Raven,” he recalls. Using an algorithm called fast-Fourier transform, it would generate a spectrograph of a recording, providing Cluett information about the frequency, amplitude, and phase of the audio. He had access to this program since he had used it for a collaboration with Pauline Oliveros in which they examined the acoustics of Italian cathedrals.

Running the driveway recording through Raven, he used the resulting frequency data to select tones, which he produced using digital software and added to final Undr mix. “So it was a mixture between machine listening and human listening,” he explains. “Kind of bringing it between the immediacy of the performances I was doing at that time, and a compositional thing that was painstaking and slow, like what I had done for the Sedimental release.”

Undr served as an important conceptual moment in Cluett’s career. “It’s almost the keystone for what I got obsessed with over the next ten or fifteen years, which is this use of sine tones to pick apart content,” he explains. “There’s all these instrumental pieces that came later, like Objects of Memory, which was my first record on Richard Chartier’s Line label. Those pieces are buried inside of Undr. That way of thinking, really trying very hard to make real human connections through some mediation of technology.”

The driveway in winter. (Credit: Jennifer Eberhardt)

Indeed, in looking through Cluett’s writing, this idea of using sine tones as a sound production tool has been a through line over his years. It a technique that has evolved with his perspective on exploring the interrelationship between sound perception and physical space. In a recent interview in which he discusses the early stages of his career, he recalls proposing a series of compositions designed to highlight certain psychoacoustic phenomena to one of his academic supervisors, Pauline Oliveros, only for her to point out that the concept had been done years before, for example by Alvin Lucier.

I really had to stop thinking about making work in a notebook and started to make work in a studio. I realized I shouldn’t try to merely imagine what is possible with psychoacoustic effects. Most everyone had thought of and made work out of the obvious effects in the early development of the medium.

Interview with Cluett by Barbara London, for Max Feed/Mix Feed

Eventually, he shifted from an approach to composition that was centred around the initial concept to a dynamic process in which the piece is more than the idea — compositions that instead evolve as a function of the ongoing creative process. This interactivity has manifested most obviously in his site-specific pieces, where he will carefully explore a room, searching for ways the space will interact with his audio — in many cases, using surgically-precise sine tones to draw out these physical properties. In a brief artist’s statement written in 2006, he summarizes the approach:

Much of my practice has consisted of concert pieces and installations making use of sine tones, acoustic instruments and amplified objects, and field recordings that are tuned to the spaces in which they are performed. In these pieces I have been developing the relationship between sine tone pitches and a given room’s acoustic signature.

Seth Cluett, “Toward a Post-Phenomenology of Extra-Musical Sound as Compositional Determinant”
Credit: Allen Cluett

With Undr, this idea was extended to a fixed field recording that was created in a specific space. And while Cluett describes it as being a significant turning point in his career, only fifty copies of the CDR were reportedly produced. Despite its limited pressing, however, it did garner a few positive reviews in journals at a time when Cluett’s work was picking up steam following his CD release on Sedimental.

He has since uploaded the recording to Bandcamp, where it can be purchased or listened to via streaming. That he chose to make this years old, limited-run release available online hints at his fondness for the release. “I was always a little sad it was just a CDR and didn’t get distributed much, but there are still people every once in a while who tell me, yeah that’s a great disk. I’m not so invested in whether it was great or not, but I do feel like it was important. The work got me to a place where I needed to be.”

With thanks to Seth Cluett, whose website can be found here.

Interview with Cluett conducted May 18, 2020.

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