Border Radio: The Ceiling Reposes By Lia Kohl

Twisting the dial and tapping at her cello, for composer Lia Kohl music is a daily practice, finds Vanessa Ague

Lia Kohl photo by Ash Dye

The Ceiling Reposes, by Chicago-based cellist, composer and sound artist Lia Kohl, feels like a dream. Across its thirty-four minutes, you find yourself drifting through a fuzzy array of cello plucks, dampened bells, synthesizer beeps and fragmented radio segments. On the surface, these sounds feel disparate, but ever-present static unites them, cloaking each moment in a wondrous haze. Throughout, Kohl taps into the radio’s intimacy, letting it permeate through each musical theme to illuminate the hidden power of moments that fly by nearly too fast to notice. 

Kohl, who is an avid collaborator across genres and artistic disciplines, only recently struck out solo. The COVID-19 pandemic spurred her move to making music on her own, and since, it’s proved a fruitful endeavour. 2020’s Too Small to be a Plain established her collage-like style, gently drifting between fragmented ideas, while pieces like 2022’s Untitled Radio (futile, fertile) foregrounded the unexpected, crunchy sound of the radio and droning cello tones. The Ceiling Reposes builds on these recent works but takes on a more nostalgic tone. The album’s seven tracks feel pensive and patient, giving each melody ample space to grow.

Much of Kohl’s solo work deals with ideas of time and space, searching for musical pathways to understanding both. The Ceiling Reposes blows out tiny moments into broad statements, exploding their weight; the radio serves as a marker of time and the cello animates it, adding colour to the seconds as they tick by. It’s a window into Kohl’s view of the world: Since childhood, music has been an element in every part of her life. In her household, music was ever-present, always brightening the room, something that added sparkle to everyday life; now, she creates her works bit-by-bit, sculpting them each day. “Love is in the details, not a grand gesture but a daily practice. Art is the same,” she once told 15Questions. Her solo practice expands on that idea, acting as both an accompaniment and an artefact that celebrates the power in every moment, however brief.

The Ceiling Reposes came to fruition while Kohl was in residency on Vashon Island, a small, idyllic spot in Washington. While there, Kohl grew connected to the tides and the sound of water, which underscored every moment. She was also living in solitude, taking in the island’s peaceful nature. These place-setting sounds peek out throughout the album – water appears in splashes and gurgles – painting an impression of what her life on the island felt like, as if it’s a postcard from a trip. The music she plays is improvised, made of all sorts of sounds possible on her cello – plucks, taps, lush bows, wispy extended techniques – alongside kazoo, synthesizers, wind machines, drums and bells. Of course, the radio emerges, too, popping out between each phrase or overtaking them all together. She zig-zags between stations, letting the dial hit classical music, the weather report and the news all in one go. She layers each of these elements, interweaving them into a sprawling quilt.

Although the album’s tracks use similar frameworks, they splinter off into different directions, each taking on a different mood. ‘Sit on the floor and wait for storms’ branches out from a drone, emitting a dark tone as a voice on the radio reads a weather report. It feels like a storm is approaching, embodying the time when everything turns an ominous grey green before rain finally falls. Elsewhere, ‘or things maybe dropping’ feels upbeat and peppy, building a lattice of syncopated rhythms out of water gushes and piano chords. The pitter-patter of drums and cymbals slips in the fold, forming a lowkey groove, and once it fades, a radio blasts a piece for classical violin. It’s a triumphant ending at the end of a long road. 

The record’s standout track, ‘when glass is there, and water,’ is the brightest, boldest collage on the album, expertly bridging contrasting ideas and offering surprises. It opens with a folksy song that’s chopped up and fades into static and tinny cello plucks. The cello quickly turns airy as Kohl plays shimmering harmonics and bouncy extended techniques. Gradually, a glimmering electronic melody enters, only to fade away as bird chirps and lush cello enter with poignancy, tapping into the cello’s deep resonance. Here, every sound is crammed into a tight space, but Kohl deftly dives between them and finds their common ground. And despite the track’s twists and turns, it’s never jarring. Rather, it feels like driving up a winding mountain road, eventually reaching a blissful vista at a plateau.

Since Kohl developed much of this music while contemplating time alone, The Ceiling Reposes often feels introverted, made of sounds that draw us inward rather than look out. It’s full of ideas, but it also feels immediate and simple, just a bunch of tiny motifs linked together into one long chain. Even the album’s titles – affirmations penned in lowercase (‘become daily today’) or fantasies (‘like time (pretending it has a human body)’) – feel like little thoughts you might have while sitting alone, contemplating your inner world. While listening, it’s not hard to imagine yourself flicking through the radio, letting your imagination take you to other places.

And while Kohl’s music has more moving parts than just snippets of the radio, the radio is its centripetal force. Its intimacy drives the music’s introversion; its randomness drives the music’s spontaneity. In her work, Kohl searches for the unknown, layering her sounds to try to grasp that which we can’t quite hold on our own. The radio, too, is a tool that emerges out of the ether and into our ears, sharing stories that travel through the air and into our living rooms. It’s a fitting character for Kohl to develop, a conversation partner that helps her reach out to life’s mysteries. And though we may never be able to define the unknown, or to hold it in our hands, Kohl’s music lets us live in it for a little while, transforming the invisible around us into tales to remember.

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