With Divisions…, Saunders has created a work that deceptively disorients, a work that highlights the possibilities for greatly altering traditional notions of perspective inherent in microtonal music. By this I mean that while I’ve always argued that microtonal music (and lowercase and certain strains of eai) are psychedelic in that they discard the basic ideas of what is large and small, what sounds and small relative to other sounds, and, of course, what sounds are large relative to others. For example, within field recordings, Russell Haswell has a record (Wild Tracks) that has a piece about a helicopter, and this piece highlights, in part, the percussive elements of the blades cutting through the air (among many other things). This is a “large” sound, one we can hear with normal hearing, one we can recognize easily. However, Haswell also has the sounds of an ant colony scurrying around. By carefully recording the sounds of this colony, and by magnifying the resulting recording, ant and helicopter are juxtaposed in a manner that discards their relative size. We either have a minute helicopter, or a colony of massive ants. If we visualize this, of course we could identify such a picture as psychedelic on the order of Alice in Wonderland.
Saunders, as any artist interested in these microscopic sounds, is interested in the beauty of the overlooked sonorities of movement and friction between sound-producing objects. In this way, the genre is like the recent articles on sand magnified 250 times. These pictures showed the inherent beauty of something we take for granted, objects seen as uniform and unworthy of closer examination. If not for those curious people who looked closer, what else would we miss? Such is true for those that listen closely, too. However, this isn’t a standard microtonal album. And, on this point, I would encourage you to listen all the way through before reading the label information on this release, because the effect is almost given away by Saunders. That is, Saunders isn’t intent on just showing you something magical under a magnifying glass - he is determined to zoom into his focal point, but in a way that retains the incorrect misconception of uniformity in the object. In other words, while much microtonal music is designed to magnify the chambers of a wind instrument, for instance, and place the listener in the role of air carefully pushed through this structure of winding, mysterious quality, this album does something different. Saunders doesn’t let on exactly what you’re moving through; Saunders doesn’t let you fully grasp where you are.
Divisions… is a record that inverts the purpose of such music. This album makes you keenly aware of your having missed something special while filling in the blanks as a listener. But instead of revealing the beauty you’ve missed by illuminating and illustrating the exact structure or mechanism, Saunders recreates this false perceived uniformity from the opposite direction. That is, while most microtonal composers want you to know that things are TOO SMALL TO DECIPHER, Saunders blows up these sounds so big that they’re TOO BIG TO DECIPHER. What terrible luck, then, when we’re faced with these discrete, unimaginable sounds, when we can sense their special nature, but can’t make them out?
Such is the brilliance of the overarching concept of this record. Saunders notes that, when played quite slowly, almost in a static manner, many sounds start to lose their distinctive traits. One sounds blends into the other. At one point, for instance, I would have sworn I was listening to valves carefully push air too and fro. In reality, I was hearing surfaces scrape against one another. The significance of this discovery is that, when adding the element of speed to the process, many very different things take on their own unique character.
Of course, this seems all well and good, but you might ask “what pulls in the listener?” That’s easy - these compositions still draw in the listener by their larger structure (small, flickering light in expansive darkness, a maze of moving parts and startling changes of direction). They also do well to make moment by moment changes that are disguised until a larger narrative is revealed. I assume this later quality has as much to do with how I listen as it does with what Saunders intended, but the simple point is that the music lends itself to be heard in this way if you so choose to listen to it the way I listen to it. Regardless, Saunders masterfully takes the listener from point A to point B without being obvious, without tipping his hand. I’m thrilled by an event later in the music that finally ties up activity I was focused on several minutes prior.
So, in concept I think Saunders is onto something intriguing here. I also think that he does a fantastic job of hewing to the genre’s conventions just enough to match pleasing developments to his concepts in a way that encourage deeper thinking about his work. Please, look into this record, as well as the entirety of Another Timbre’s latest batch.