A Liminal Review: Keith Fullerton Whitman – Generators (February 20th, 2012)

I have to admit that for a while, I considered Keith Fullerton Whitman to be little more that a well-placed label owner. His online music website, Miramoglu, certainly included the cream of modern music, but was that enough to consider him as a truly great musician in his own right? His recent appearance at London’s CAMP soon showed me the error of my ways, as his mastery of intricate electronic sounds and technology blew me away, and left me wishing his phenomenal set has been longer. In truth, his 2010 Disingenuity/Disingenuousness album had already started to set the record straight, but Generators seems set to be a Tonight’s the Night or Berlin moment. Ok, that’s a bit of a silly claim, given this is a 35-minute long live recording of electronic experimentation, rather than a zeitgeist-defining rock opus; but somehow this feels like one of those moments when you realise that an artist has totally and completely tapped into whatever it is that makes his or her music intrinsically relevant and timeless.

Despite the above, it would be easy to lay the credit of Generators’ quality at the door of Eliane Radigue. After all, the first track, ‘Issue Generator’, is dedicated to her; and her aura has become almost impregnable in recent years, as the world re-discovers masterpieces like Triptych and Transmortem-Transmamorem. But where KFW may have wanted to send a credit out to the great French composer on ‘Issue Generator’, he quickly transcends her influence to start exploring new territories. He starts off with a low bass synth hum, in typical Radigue style, but gradually drops new and unexpected elements into the mix, from bouncing, chirpy electronic effects to hazy passages of sequenced drone rhythms. It may be busier than most of Eliane Radigue’s work, but ‘Issue Generator’ shares the great French composer’s patience, and you can almost hear the audience’s hushed breathing as they hang on every sound Whitman produces. Where my appreciation of Whitman had until now been guided by his propensity for abrasive, caustic electro-noise, on ‘Issue Generator’ he shows himself to be a master of texture, as he considerately moulds each sonic element into an elegant, cohesive whole. The whole point of influence is that it should encourage the influenced artist to take the elements of another artist he or she loves and explore them in new ways, as opposed to merely copying them. Keith Fullerton Whitman demonstrates that emphatically on ‘Issue Generator’, and it’s a truly wondrous piece of modern electronic drone.

‘High Zero Generator’, recorded on a separate night, pitches the album back into what, for me, feels like more familiar and abrasive territory. It’s ostensibly the same track, but recorded using different methods. Here, a percussive line that sounds like a basket ball bouncing on a court is captured, re-processed into Whitman’s machinery and then spat out like a pinball trapped in a gigantic arcade machine. Meanwhile, bursts of incoherent static and high-pitched noise erupt from the speakers like aggressive punctuation marks, piercing the senses and imbuing the piece with a heady, unsettling physicality. And yet, despite this, you still get the sense that Whitman is a composer (and I am not using the word lightly) with one eye on the avant-garde drone of the aforementioned Radigue and her Deep Listening peers. Some of the most intense moments on ‘High Zero Generator’ are the near-silences, when the gritty noises are pulled back and, as a listener, you are left hanging on the ensuing emptiness, unsure of the direction that Whitman is going to launch his music on. Like ‘Issue Generator’, ‘High Zero Generator’ evolves patiently and thoughtfully, with each noise or drone or pulsation expertly placed alongside the ones that preceded it. KFW approaches his music with the subtle dexterity of a molecular biologist, and in that respect he is as much of sound sculptor as, say, Florian Hecker.

So, it took me a while to realise that Keith Fullerton Whitman deserve a place amongst the true greats of electronic music. More fool me, and if you still harbour such doubts, I sincerely hope you’ll check out Generators. It may not quite be a Tonight’s the Night moment, but good heavens, it certainly comes close.

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