Catherine Lamb, Bryan Eubanks – Untitled 12 (after Agnes)May 18, 2013
I haven’t owned a television for about fifteen years now, but prior to that, I owned just two TVs in my life. The first of these I bought when really young, second hand at a car boot sale or something similar. It was a very beautiful old box from the sixties, black and white, and crucially without any pre-set channel buttons, which meant that if you wanted to switch sides you had to manually tune a channel in with a large dial, which in itself was faulty, so that if you left it untouched for a period of time it would gradually slip out of tune by itself. I was probably in my early teens when I first bought this set, and as you do at that age, I would often try and lay in bed at night watching TV when I was meant to be asleep, but drift off by accident leaving the TV switched on, with the volume down very low so as not to alert anyone else in the house. This meant that when I later woke, often in the early hours, I would be welcomed by a screen of detuned fuzz and a very quiet hum of white noise. Somehow this was very comforting back then, as the thought of it is now also. Fast forward about ten years and I was probably in my early twenties as an art student when I first became aware of the work of the painter Agnes Martin, who has ever since always been a huge favourite of mine. I didn’t ever equate those early experiences with white noise with Martin’s work, but now, spending some time with Catherine Lamb and Bryan Eubanks’ Untitled 12 (after Agnes) tribute to a Martin painting of the same name the link leaps out at me.
The duo’s first release on their own Sacred Realism label was released late last year. The album contains a single track that lasts exactly an hour. The piece is a generative work that has been realised here using a computer programme that somehow uses tuned white noise and sine tones to create what on the surface sounds like a single grey hum, and even after very careful listening doesn’t reveal a massive amount more, but what it does reveal is telling in itself. I often in these pages describe sounds as being grey in colour. I have never really clarified what I mean by this, but essentially I guess the sounds are somewhat bleak, textured but mostly featureless, and slightly industrialised in feel. Agnes Martin’s Untitled 12, painted in 1984 is a grey painting. It contains washes of overlaid grey paint that are then constrained underneath a very tight, precise horizontal grid of small, hand drawn pencil lines. At a glance, or from a distance, the painting appears monochrome, but closer attention shows a wealth of fluctuations and flaws in the grey base that are then given a strange sense of structure by the overlaid pencil frame. The music here has a similar feel. The grey blanket of soft sounds doesn’t feel completely smooth, it does feel as if minute little events are swarming around one another, but in truth, even with the volume turned up high it is impossible to trace these from moment to moment. Where there are changes however, are on a bigger scale. At three points in the recording, at precisely fifteen, thirty and forty-five minutes there is a tiny flaw in the sound, a short pop that then adjusts the greyness that follows very slightly, shifting the pitch only a fraction, but given the consistency of the sound before and after these moments the contrast is dramatic. This is a beautiful tribute to the Martin work, wherein the same phenomena seems to occur, as slight shifts in the grey tones feel like huge dramatic events if you study the painting long and hard enough. Not unlike the little flickers that would appear in that TV screen as the consistency of the white noise would occasionally falter.
Its hard to explain why I like this disc a lot. It is, essentially just a stream of low, white noise interrupted by just the slightest of intrusions three times. Similar to the solo sinewave material of Sachiko M, its not going to be for everyone, but if your appreciation of art can take in the incredibly detailed minimalism of Agnes Martin then I imagine you can attune your ears to this work. An exercise in attentive listening and the rewards that come when the details suddenly become apparent, Untitled 12 (after Agnes) is a beautifully understated, really admirable piece of work. It is also, perhaps surprisingly, a disc that I have been able to listen to many times and on each occasion enjoy the experience more than the previous time. Really very good indeed.