Zen Sounds 048: Lia Kohl
The Chicago-based composer uses analog radios as instruments; plus DJ Muggs' proper Zen life lessons
Back in the days of the vinyl LP, an album had a maximum runtime of 44 minutes. It almost doubled its potential length in the CD era, and nowadays, as artists feel no more constraints at all, some are prone to releasing three-hour albums, while others voluntarily restrict themselves to a shorter duration.
Personally I love the fact that the somewhat standard album length in contemporary experimental music has become 25 to 35 minutes. Artists that are good at this format have to be good at editing and curating their own work – which is an artform in its own right. Genius musicians who are reportedly bad at this, like Miles Davis or Madlib, always need a Teo Macero or Kieran Hebden at their side to produce a concise body of work.
A reader recently told me he likes my newsletter not just because of the content, but also because of its relative brevity. It’s true – I’m a fairly strict editor, especially with my own writing. There’s something very compelling to me about a short but interesting piece of writing that can be taken in for breakfast on a Saturday morning, similar to a good newspaper article.
Now don’t get me wrong, I do love longform compositions and thick novels, and I can spend hours ranting about our brave new world of one-and-a-half-minute pop songs, 15-second reels and headline-driven news posts.
Still I think a decrease in average album runtime is not necessarily due to shortened attention spans or the mechanics of surveillance capitalism. In many cases, 25 to 35 minutes are simply sufficient to create a space and lay out an idea, and instead of cramming too many ideas into the same body of work, an artist might rather let go and start a new one.
A lot of these experimental albums seem like personal diary entries – like, this is where my mind was at in 2011, when I was angry and depressed in that small town in Portugal and fiddled around on an upright piano, recording myself on a portable 4-track. (Grouper’s »Ruins«.) The music rarely tells that story explicitly though, but it shows in the coherence and consistency of the album.
Another one of Grouper’s albums, 2018’s stellar »Grid Of Points«, consists of seven songs and is 22 minutes long. In an interview with Pitchfork, she confirmed her label had initially raised concerns about the short runtime, but she wouldn’t add more tracks to it: »I said, ‘That’s not how this works,’ she remembers. ‘This is the complete idea. It just happens to be 22 minutes.’«
Think about it: John Coltrane’s »A Love Supreme« has a total runtime of 32 minutes and 46 seconds. David Axelrod’s »Song of Innocence«, 27 minutes and 1 second. The Beach Boys’ »Smiley Smile«, 27 minutes and 37 seconds. Sure, you will easily find examples for the opposite end of the spectrum, but that’s not my point. You mostly don’t need much more than half an hour to get your artistic point across on an album.
This past week, I have been listening to these magical 33 minutes for hours and hours.
Lia Kohl – »The Ceiling Reposes«
(American Dreams, 2023)
Chicago-based composer Lia Kohl is a classically trained cellist who discovered she doesn’t want to play other people’s music all her life and instead found she has something to say as an artist. With »The Ceiling Reposes«, she has now clearly developed her own distinct voice, somewhere between Claire Rousay’s inner-world audioplays and Félicia Atkinson’s apt musical descriptions of nature, but bearing its very own character and handwriting.
»The Ceiling Reposes« is partly where Kohl’s mind was at in the summer of 2022, on Vashon Island near Seattle, Washington, where she held an artist residency for a month. »I will remember the tides and the bird calls, the pouring rain, the moon-sets, the wonderful air, the feeling of listening for and making my own rhythm«, she is quoted on the residency’s website.
Before releasing her debut solo album »Too Small to Be a Plain« in early 2022, she was mainly known as a busy collaborator in Chicago’s improv scene, working in groups, orchestras and duo constellations, playing on records by artists as diverse as jazz drummer Makaya McCraven, singer-songwriter Steve Gunn and indie pop band Whitney. During the pandemic, she started recording solo work for the first time – seemingly more out of necessity than free will.
It looks as if Kohl has to force herself to be alone sometimes to come up with some of her best work. On Vashon Island, she had a month to come up with the basic framework for her second album, finishing it later in the year, between performances, festivals and other artistic work.
Here she interweaves samples of radio static, nature sounds, plucked and bowed cello, bells, kazoo and synthesizers to develop a dream-like sound world that I’ve returned to frequently this past week. Kohl loves working with radios, often sampling that moment when you still hear a bit of one station and a bit of the next one already, both overpowered by white noise.
An excerpt from her liner notes to her longform composition »Untitled Radio (futile, fertile)«, released in fall 2022:
»I’m drawn to the radio for its particularly physical expression of sound; these waves are all around us, all the time; broadcasting weather and emergencies and prayers and pop tunes, we only have to turn it on to hear them. These long recordings of static have a futile and fertile quality: full of possibility, transmitting nothing.«
There’s a moment towards the end on the first track »in a specific room«, when a voice on the radio utters the sentence: »We don’t know how much time we have left on this earth, so…«. Shortly before, a country love ballad had been playing on a different station. By adding her own instruments to these snippets, Kohl somehow makes sense out of the randomness. She’s pointing to a spiritual interconnectedness between things, just by adding her own musical voice.
In some of the compositions you can hear that Kohl had classical training since third grade; she’s referencing Bach and Gregorian chants, but then blending those influences with AM radio snippets of the most mundane stuff – stock market reports or adult oriented rock songs. Still, the album never feels chaotic, more like an exercise in chaos theory-based composition.
»The Ceiling Reposes« follows all but a linear narrative structure. As a subscriber to Kohl’s Substack newsletter, I know she’s recently been interested in experimental Nouvelle Vague cinema. Similar to »Fallin« by Georgian composer Ani Zakareishvili, another pretty short experimental album which I’ve reviewed here a few weeks ago, Kohl’s record almost feels like a lost soundtrack to one of these quirky French 1960’s movies.
Kohl recently recommended »Cléo de 5 à 7«, a magnificent black and white film by French director Agnès Varda from 1962, in her newsletter. It follows a young woman around Paris for an afternoon, awaiting the test results from a biopsy. I got quite an interesting result playing it on mute while listening to »The Ceiling Reposes« on repeat.
In interviews, Kohl often refers to her music-making process being mainly driven out of sheer curiosity, and this is the exact feeling I get from listening to this album – you simply never know what will happen around the next corner, but you’re always excited to find out. An effect that does not even wear off after repeated listens. Such a beauty, this album, really.
One more thing
At 55, veteran L.A. hip-hop producer DJ Muggs has been on a late career high these past five years. Having become financially independent long ago, he now spends his days making uncompromising records with artists he genuinely likes, completely circumventing the traditional music industry.
His newest project, an instrumental album produced solely out of samples from the catalogue of experimental jazz icon Sun Ra, is a far cry from feel-good wallpaper lo-fi beats, instead creating a hypnotic fusion of cosmic jazz vibes, blunted boom-bap and spoken word poetry. »Notes & Tones« shipped as a vinyl bundle with a bottle of Californian skin-contact white wine, which is sold out by now, but the digital album is available everywhere to stream and to buy on Bandcamp.
Muggs also has a new project with Queens rapper Meyhem Lauren lined up, which sounds strong as usual and seems to be co-produced with Madlib. Considering this and the upcoming Larry June x The Alchemist album, spring already has some promising leftfield hip-hop on offer.
In an insightful interview with Passion Of The Weiss from 2021, Muggs dropped some proper Zen life lessons in his very own phrasing, which I want to leave you with for today:
»Look at some of the greatest artists ever: Picasso and them, those fools were peaking in their 50s and 60s, because that’s when the creativity is at its best for man. It’s just a matter of being able to tap into that. Don’t let life beat you up, don’t get all negative and pessimistic and fucking cynical about fucking everything. Keep your mind sharp, read fucking books, meditate, keep your body sharp, stretch, work out, run, stay creative, keep learning. Always stay uncomfortable. With music, keep being a student; with your body, keep being a student; with your mind, keep being a student. Don’t think you know everything. Keep pushing it, and once you learn that, learn something else that’s going to keep you fucking uncomfortable. It’s going to keep you alive.«
© 2023 Stephan Kunze
Thanks for those 2 recommendations: Great records. I only follow Muggs career from afar and missed this release. Lia Kohl is new to me and I'm happy to have found out about her music today.
I totally get what you say about the length of records. I'm an experimental musician myself and have been guilty of releasing some 2+ hours records in the past. I'm not sure "guilty" is the right word though because it might be something one have to do before having the self-confidence and self-awareness of what we try to convey before being able to put that in a more digestible package.
Thanks a lot Stephan. Generally for Zen Sounds. And specifically for making my spectrum wider with every read, through the introduction and recommendation of outstanding, partly never-heard-before people, their music/art and a lot of great accompanying thoughts from you.
Caught me at the right time, in a crucial moment of my life...
Just read the quote of Muggs. Felt like it could become a personal dogma.