Glimpsed from across the Atlantic, the current new music scene in New York looks and sounds as though more and more is happening on and off the grid there, where the paths of contemporary classical music, of experimental electronica, and of the sounds of the street have begun to crisscross with such frequency that one can’t tell anymore if these various kinds of music are coming or going or where each might be heading – even if it seems that they are tending to converge, things could yet turn out very differently.
But right now, the places to be in the musical life in New York are in those bustling intersections: it’s where one will encounter one of the most interesting of young composers and musicians, Ryan Lott, who is better known under the nom d’artiste Son Lux, which he assumed some years ago while completing an album of his own, At War with Walls and Mazes, after a period in which his professional activity had been divided between being a music producer and composing for various sorts of commissions, including for modern dance and for film. At that point, he was still living in Cleveland, Ohio – where he already had gained recognition for his work – and it’s possible that the prospect of moving to New York played a role in leading him to adopt it: as a moniker it does catch one’s attention, after all.
On that first record he also contributed the vocals, and while his voice is not likely to win any prize for beauty – he himself says as much in an interview conducted by Robin Hilton at NPR – he makes an excellent use of its tremulousness and limited volume to convey the self-chosen state of frailty and defenselessness around which the lyrics or texts frequently appear to revolve. In the beginning he was still hoping to find a proper singer to replace him in the vocalist’s role, but that aim came to naught: fortunately so, one can say in hindsight. And given the way in which he works – to begin with, there’s a lot of improvisation that takes place, the results of which he then samples, reconstitutes, rearranges (his skills as a music producer, and his employment at Butter Studios still requires them, do serve him well here) in an experimental fashion, with some trial and error – it’s probably all to the good that he has every freedom to fit the vocal performances to the music during the later stages of work on a composition.
In that interview with Hilton they explore in some detail how Son Lux works, and the composer’s readiness to divulge something of his process is not surprising, as without Hilton, last year’s album We Are Rising would not have – well, risen at all: it resulted when he accepted the challenge, issued by a music periodical and conveyed to him by Hilton, to produce an entire album during February of that year. The deadline and the corresponding need for an expeditious process were instructive, he says; and one hears that he has learned something from the effort, as, generally speaking, the tracks on the album that resulted are a bit tauter than those on his first one.
In this playlist I’ve included a couple of live performances alongside a few videos which his record label, Anticon, has had made for some of his songs. (For this artist, after all, it’s right and proper that there be son et lumière.)
Yet to provide a better idea of the music and its progression, it will be helpful to include several of the tracks that Son Lux has posted on his Bandcamp page – but first of all, here is a piece he wrote last year for the ensemble yMusic, entitled “Beautiful Mechanical.”
Now, from his first album, here is “Weapons.”
And this is that album’s “Epilogue.”
An EP released two years later recurred to “Weapons” as a starting point for numerous variations. In two of the compositions included on it Caleb Burhans contributed his skill on the violin and viola, namely “Weapons II” and “Weapons V.”
On the album released last year, there’s so much that’s good that it’s difficult to choose anything in particular. But one song, entitled “Claws,” did leap out at me on account of a musical procedure that Son Lux does not employ elsewhere, to the best of my knowledge, namely the appropriation of a potent riff from an external source.
Those who grew up amidst the pop music of the early eighties will no doubt hear throughout this number a reprise of the notes that undergird the refrain of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” which many of us probably know by heart and which, re-encountered in the form of this small Leitmotiv, brings that song’s particular sorrowful history forcibly back to mind.
The risk inherent in this kind of procedure of musical appropriation, of course, is that such a Leitmotiv will not lead one through the work but rather take possession of it and the listener’s ears entirely, and actually something of the kind nearly happens in this case – but not quite, which testifies to Son Lux’s skill as a composer.