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The Lead Review

Fuzzy Logic: A Softer Focus By Claire Rousay
Robert Barry , April 8th, 2021 09:01

The second Claire Rousay release in as many months feels like a revelation, for Robert Barry

Photo: Dani Toral

A snowdrift of long, languorous organ notes. Whistling tones, like swallows arcing through the sky. A rustle of foley. There’s crackling, crinkling – it’s hard to tell exactly what is going on, but there’s a sense of activity, things happening – real things, somewhere in a real place. A flicker of light. Then the whole edifice collapses suddenly, like the air has been sucked out. There’s a breath, the music takes a beat. Then into the clearing – and I mean that literally: picture a forest clearing, or like clearing a desk, just sweep all that clutter out the way – a voice rises up. “I’m trying not to miss you.” It’s Rousay’s ‘own’ voice – but rendered alien, synthesised into virtual life with the familiar stepped trill of autotune software spinning gothic melismas from that third syllable: “not”. A cyborg, rococo refusal.

“The lyrics,” Rousay tells us in the record’s accompanying press materials, “started as an iPhone Notes entry.” And there’s a sense, in its wistful, digitised tones, that the phone itself is singing directly, calling to us plaintively. It’s a familiar feeling across Rousay’s oeuvre, in which we are apt to find love letters fed through text-to-speech synthesizers and surgically edited soundscape recordings become the occasion for fragments of other voices whispering tender intimacies, not always fully distinctly. “I’m trying not to (try to) miss it,” the voice continues. “It’s a question.” Now accompanied by – almost half-drowned in – a new surge of noises: an electrical flickering, broad brushstrokes from the cello of collaborator Lia Kohl. “Then do they feel it / Inside a gaze”.

That slight obscurity, a sense of significations just out of reach, I’d venture, is a strategy, a kind of deliberate clouding the better to render audible the vagaries of memory, its bright surges and affective pinpricks looming out of the fog of the unconscious. Memory doesn’t really work like a neatly stacked filing cabinet or linear narrative, as psychology professor Anne Wilson pointed out in a recent New York Times piece. “We reconstruct what happened in the past on the basis of little bits and pieces of memory. We’re acting like archaeologists – picking up the pieces and putting them back together.” Claire Rousay is just such an archaeologist. She digs and sifts. Different layers overlap, different substrates of meaning, emotion, and compositional complexity. Dirt gets in the way, requiring a gentle brushing aside to unveil whatever unstable nugget lies beneath.

“This entry,” Rousay continues, of that Notes entry, kernel for the lyrics here on the album’s fourth track ‘Peak Chroma’, “was a reminder to not fall into traps of nostalgia and the second-guessing that sometimes follows that. Reminiscing on something that not only is in the past but is something that is never coming back.”

In one of the more outré conceits in Woody Allen’s (1997) film Deconstructing Harry, an actor, Mel (played by Robin Williams), finds himself getting blurry, like literally blurry, on screen and off. His director pulls him aside on set. “I don’t know how to tell you this, but you’re soft.”

“I’ve gained a little weight, but –”

“No, it’s not that. You’re out of focus. Look at yourself.”

“It’s a little fuzzy,” he says, examining his hands. “But I feel fine!”

Like many of the characters in the film, Mel inhabits the narrative’s own mise-en-abyme, a fictional surrogate for the movie’s protagonist, an author named Harry Block (himself a barely disguised surrogate for Allen himself, who plays the role), a man who “can't function well in life but can in art”. As Block’s life and lusts grow increasingly out of control, the story gets more and more crowded by his creations, as he desperately seeks to assert some agency over his own story and bring clarity to his life. But Rousay’s a softer focus seems to be taking a different tack: instead of staking your authority through art, why not inhabit the blur and see the world through the same blunted focus as Mel’s body. Inhabit that softness, lean into it.

There’s a sketch-like quality to a softer focus. It could almost be a diary. Moments recall Henry Collins and Robin Foster’s sound practice dubbed ‘rummaging’, in which miscellaneous objects in a container or drawer are shuffled and manually intermixed, allowing the sounds of their scrapes and collisions “to improvise with others of their own accord.” Talking to composer Simon Fisher Turner a while back, he told me of his disdain for the term ‘field recording’, preferring instead ‘life recording’. The term feels apt here, too. On the second track, ‘Discrete (The Market)’, we accompany Rousay on a trip to her local farmer’s market. Elsewhere, we hear the putter of idling car engines, the crack and pop of distant fireworks, ice tinkling against the side of a glass.

This is a million miles from the patient staking out of habitats and species undertaken by the likes of Chris Watson or Bernie Krause. Rather, something more opportunistic, spontaneous, continuous with the process of living a life and inseparable from it. There is no attempt here to conceal the presence of the recording subject and her apparatus. Rousay remains defiantly present in her own music, without quite dominating it. The sounds live their own life, too.

Some years ago, I used to go regularly to a concert series at the 12 Bar Club on London’s Denmark Street called Baggage Reclaim. It was always an eclectic event, engagingly compèred by curator Richard Sanderson. On the back of the flyer was a manifesto of sorts. Over the years, it said (I’m paraphrasing here, from memory), experimental music has thrown out a lot of excess baggage: things like communicating with an audience, warmth, engagement, emotion, and melody. The series’ promise was to reclaim all that. I was reminded of that pledge while listening to a softer focus, a record which makes no bones about its desire to make the listener feel, about its closeness, its endearments. Rousay is a highly prolific composer and performer. Discogs lists fifteen albums since only 2019 – and that doesn’t even count the other Claire Rousay release in just the last few weeks, the beguiling ilysm on Cafe Oto’s Takuroku net label. But a softer focus feels like a breakthrough: simultaneously freer and more composed, closer and more abstract, sweeter and more caustic. Perhaps this can in part be attributed to the presence of visual artist Dani Toral, the influence on this project of whose elliptical shapes and bruised colours would be appear to be far more pervasive than anything implied than by the term 'sleeve designer'. Either way, a softer focus remains an album to cherish, a singular meditation on life and memory that never falls into the traps of nostalgia.