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Album Review: JCϟjp — Self-titled

The name JCϟjp is an unpronounceable acronym of the group members’ names, Justin Comer and Jason Palamara. Palamara is a violinist and electronic musician currently working as a lecturer at Iowa State University. Comer is a saxophonist and electronic musician who is one of the people behind the eclectic free music salon IHearIC. That letter ‘ϟ’ is an archaic greek letter named Koppa, a precursor to Kappa, which means 90 in the ancient Greek number series. Somehow JC Koppa jp fits these guys. Their improvisatory music fits in none of the genres you see on Spotify, except perhaps the catch-all Experimental.

Their debut album, JCϟjp, covers a lot of ground: The digital sound art of “Crazy Idea” combines and layers audio manipulations done by the duo independently and then recombined. The track “boomdata” begins with a computer-synthesized voice proclaiming, “I am a techno-organic being,” which segues into recordings of live improvisations and loops. “Burden” layers a buzz-saw drone of indeterminate origin with a relentless drum loop. Sustained tones — again, source unknown — float in and out. “SwitchFlip” is dominated by what sounds like a drum machine losing its mind, rubbing up against echoed violin and saxophone.

The song “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice” is mostly live jamming on a single major chord, with Palamara’s violin echoing the harsh drones of John Cale’s viola in Velvet Underground songs. Maybe that sound relates to the Martin Luther King quote in that it seems motionless, when in fact it is imperceptibly bending. Or maybe JCϟjp just wants to remind us of that quote. Since the music itself is abstract, the title becomes a topic for meditation while they play.

“WhatMusicIsNot” marks the return of the voice synthesizer, which starts by saying, “Music is doing something/Music is doing nothing,” which uses layering, vocoding and pitch shifting to create a contrapuntal mess. At one point a computer voice says “Music is like dancing about a prank,” echoing Martin Mull’s famous quote “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” After that study in self-contradiction comes “Operation Firesign,” four minutes of sustained, piercing square waves; if it had come first on this album, no one would give it more than 30 seconds before retreating to more objectively musical sound.

This is music that has nothing to do with popular music. It abandons all conventional ideas about structure, harmony and meaning. You’re invited to appreciate its beauty, or it’s ugliness, or how those two qualities can interact. JCϟjp always bring intentionality and focus to what they’re doing, even when they’ve thrown away the map and are traveling by ear. They listen deeply to the chance processes that generate these sounds, even as they make them. That is what keeps JCϟjp compelling and human. No matter how far into the weeds the music software and instrumental explorations go, there’s always two minds at work, shaping and directing the chaos. They may try your patience, but there’s something of consequence there. Compare that to the vapid, hollow exercises you hear on pop radio, and you’ll know why JCϟjp matters.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 212.

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