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Felicia Atkinson
Hand In Hand Tim Wilson , May 17th, 2017 12:48

‘The universe is information’

On Hand in Hand, Felicia Atkinson is fascinated by information, in all its heterogeneity. It’s a fascination that has pervaded her recent work and, despite the range that colours this fascination, the information she brings into focus is primarily influenced by exemplary literature. On last year’s collaboration with Jefre-Cantu Ledesma, Comme Un Sel Narcisse, track names were curtailed to a single letter with the full tracklisting spelling out a quotation from Susan Sontag’s On Photography who was, in turn, quoting Charles Baudelaire. On A Readymade Ceremony the year before - the record that seems to have begun the cycle Atkinson is currently in - she blended textual offcuts from her own writings, those of Rene Char and Georges Bataille and various discoveries found in an Italian art magazine. In a way that is truly faithful to the meaning of the term, Atkinson’s work is a collage – a labyrinthine dislocation of source material drawn from what she sets out to read and what she happens to read, and one that seeks significance through contrast and serendipity.

Conceived as an expanded continuation of 2015’s A Readymade Ceremony, Hand in Hand assumes a method of linguistic deconstruction that incorporates and processes everything from house plant instruction books to Philip K. Dick novels. As with A Readymade Ceremony there’s a surgical foregrounding of language and the human voice which aligns her work with the likes of Robert Ashley, yet there’s a retained individuality in what Atkinson emphasises, manifested in a tendency to magnify whispers and sibilance as well as more clear-cut utterances.

Just as there’s a precision to her diffuse volubility there’s a methodical fidelity in the sounds that surround them. In them there is submergence and claustrophobia but a panoramic quality too. Field interference is often heard and there’s a depth to the constituent elements that reflects where part of the record was made, namely at the Elektronmusikstudion, Sweden’s preeminent facility for electroacoustic music and sound art. The rigour of those disciplines is in abundance here, but as with Atkinson’s recent solo and collaborative work, her sense of exploration isn’t inhibited by academic impenetrability. Although in keeping with the type of work which could just as well be exhibited in a gallery as heard on a turntable, ‘Hand In Hand’ favours the foundation and strength of an acousmatic dub music that transcends these boundaries; an elastic hybrid of bass music and sound art that favours neither, at least not in any outright sense. There’s a loitering, oppressive feeling of transfixion that ensures distinction and otherness, yet there’s the shadowy presence of a structure underpinning many of these works too, skeletal frameworks that will be broadly familiar to ears which have been tested by low frequencies and dispositions acclimatized to space and minimalism.

In the attentive subtlety and unpredictable juxtapositions of her work there lies a compelling dimension. Her words are recited like an encoded discourse being secretly transmitted. On ‘Valis’, her voice is multi-layered, with one passage of speech overlapping the last; like waves washing over one another. Within these passages, Atkinson divulges a philosophical treatise on the integral relationship information and processing information has to our construction of the world around us. Her voice is detached, affectless, like a replicant reciting some initiation text to someone newly introduced to a dystopian future. As soon as Hand In Hand begins, we’re in the deep end.

That intensity and remoteness only becomes more pronounced as the record goes on. The dense Fender Rhodes undulations and murky borderline-infrasound reverberations that comprise these tracks grow evermore amplified and austere, from the downcast, muggy undertow of ‘I’m Following You’ through the meandering metallic liquidity of ‘Curious In Epidavros’ and ‘Adaptation Assez Facile’ to the stark sub-bass monumentalism of ‘A House A Dance A Poem’ and ‘Hier Le Desert’. Although the tone and force varies in these cases such disquieting backdrops all add to the vivid intonation of her words and the creeping pressure of the record’s overall mood. Besides these highlights ‘Monstera Deliciosa’ offers a different appeal in sounds that reveal remarkably alien textures. The ritualistic chimes of small cymbals resound in a vacuum like some spectral and divested version of the Organic Music Society whilst alternating clacks are heard, evocative of the sound of a spinal column being played like a processed xylophone.

Whilst there are stimulating and strange peaks likes these there are potential downsides to the sense of fixation conveyed throughout. As well as stunning moments of exhaustive aural detail and prodigious, bone-rattling detonations of chasmal bass, there is a monotonal dourness and a forbidding fixity to the record that could prove dry and imposing on a cursory listen and could ideally be relieved by a greater sense of immediacy and diversity. Patience is required as the full extent of Atkinson’s sound often reveals itself incrementally and the fine-drawn differentiation between each track is discernible with repeated listens. At first these works seem pedestrian, inconsequential and invariable. But upon greater scrutiny they accrue a suspenseful, foreboding low-end mesmerism that lingers and serves as a suitably unnerving basis for a voice that vacillates between uncanny and intimate resonances. As for steadily paced development, ‘A House A Dance A Poem’ for one, transitions from an entrancing, soporific lag of stuttering, truncated percussion and plummeting bass pulses to a colossal gleam of all-encompassing drone. A major moment.

Despite these caveats – hardly damaging or insurmountable conditions - any misgivings about Atkinson’s capacity for upfront impact are abated by ‘Hier Le Desert’, undoubtedly the pinnacle of the record’s weightier final stages. An ineffable tonnage of brutishly reduced mutant dub tremors resound like the throb of some arid underworld. It has all the exacting asceticism of Mika Vainio’s final work as Ø, ‘Konstellaatio’; a similar virtue of astonishing infinitude. It exemplifies the best of what Atkinson achieves here: not only the continued application of her unusual and thought-provoking use of text but the development of a full, robust and refined sound in which to plant her articulations.

Implicit in these formations and the way that disparate sources are brought into proximity is a relevance to the profusion of information that pervades and dictates modern existence. The sacred and profane fragments that stream endlessly into ‘the feed’, the daily declarations of newsprint media, the prose and poetry we read, the adverts and miscellaneous banality we try to ignore. These days scenes of catastrophe sit absurdly and uneasily alongside viral videos, a state of play just as dissonant as Atkinson’s unconventional assemblages. Although her intention is not diagnostic you can’t help feeling that Atkinson’s textual arrangements have an incisive relevance to the contemporary moment, at least in how their form reflects how information – both the valuable and the disposable – is encountered and consumed in the current climate. Saying that, her words, and the sounds that frame them, do not offer much certainty. Instead they contribute to a perpetual unease.

After the cessation of her work as Je Suis Le Petit Chevalier, Atkinson has, for the most part, stayed true to the intricate and expansive traits of that project. Yet there have been cumulative alterations and shifts in focus. Whereas JSLPC was billed as a fantasy – the use of a pseudonym furthering the idea of an escapist compulsion – her work under her own name feels more rooted in experience, albeit an experience which is contorted and constantly investigated. Additionally, her more recent activities have only hinted at the low-end density and dark, contemplative dread of this outing, particularly the sparse spaces opened up by her and Ledesma last year and the dub-inflected work of La Nuit, her collaboration with Peter Broderick. Here the muted melancholia of ‘Comme Un Seul Narcisse’ and the cavernous proportions of ‘Desert Television’ are combined with the elusive verbiage of ‘A Readymade Ceremony’ to singular effect. In that sense, this is a culmination. In others, this record remains a captivating question mark. If the universe is information Hand In Hand presents an ambiguous dissection of that premise, an analysis suffused with light touches and untold physicality that stays tantalisingly indefinite.

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